Having now appeared alongside all of the surviving actors who’ve played the Doctor, Big Finish has had to come up with other headliner guest stars to join Alex Kingston as River Song.
In Volume 5, it was four different incarnations of her husband’s best friend/enemy, the Master. Volume 6 finds River appearing before, during and after various classic Doctor Who stories, with mixed results.
The best story of the set is it’s first, An Unearthly Woman by Matt Fitton, which unsurprisingly teams River with Ian, Barbara and Susan. Investigating rumours of an alien bounty hunter loose on the streets of 60’s Shoreditch, River goes undercover at Coal Hill School, becoming wildly popular with pupils and students alike.
The joy of An Unearthly Woman is in hearing River interacting with the original trio of Doctor Who companions. She flirts with Ian, sweetly encourages Barbara not to give up on her dreams of travel and is a supportive, empathetic presence for Susan. Jamie Glover, Claudia Grant and Jemma Powell have such easy chemistry with Kingston and, following three First Doctor Adventures boxed sets, are incredibly comfortable in the roles now that it’s a convincingly authentic listen.
The story itself is one of lost souls waiting to be found or set free. Barbara dreams of leaving London behind, Susan finds comfort in her and River’s unearthly similarities. Susan’s classmates Lloyd and Sheila have come to Britain in search of family but are instead forced to contend with a harsh custodian and the inferred racism of their fellow pupils and neighbours.
In this, and many other respects, An Unearthly Woman shares more in common with 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks as it does An Unearthly Child. Here is a contemporary writer looking at the ’60s with a historical distance that allows for criticism of some of the less progressive aspects of the time. The central plot of the Doctor’s future popping up on the fog-bound streets of his past is reminiscent of this too.
The sound design and direction invoke these eerie, misty November nights beautifully, lending River’s investigations heaps of atmosphere. It also contrasts with the noisy, oak-lined boozer where River meets her colleagues. You get a lovely, warming, nostalgic hit from listening to our heroes sheltering in their local pub, and combined with the prickly sense of anticipation that comes with going back to the very beginning of the Doctor’s timeline makes for a hugely enjoyable listen.
Nostalgia and anticipation can go too far, and the remaining stories in the set are found lacking in the additional depth of character and plot that An Unearthly Woman provides.
The Web of Time by John Dorney finds River attempting to retrieve a priceless artwork during the Yeti’s underground incursion, prior to the Second Doctor’s arrival. What we end up with, is a sheepish exercise in sticking to established continuity. River can’t defeat the Great Intelligence outright, as her husband will do that in a few day’s time. Similarly, she can’t save Captain Knight because it will upset the fabric of time and space. It’s a sticking point that renders the casting of Ralph Watson as Knight such a bizarre decision.
Over 50 years have passed since The Web of Fear so, with the best will in the world, he can’t sound anything like he used to. He sounds like an old man, a detail so jarring that it undermines any attempts at authenticity. Quite why River wasn’t paired with another soldier whom we didn’t meet in 1967 isn’t clear, especially as the only original character in the story with any real depth is an irritant and an obstacle to River’s goals.
Which isn’t to say that it’s completely devoid of enjoyment. There’s some very funny mistaken identity schtick between River and the Great Intelligence and a lovely speech about the importance of The Web of Fear in Doctor Who‘s ongoing story. Otherwise, this is a rather hollow and disappointing entry in the diary of River Song.
Peep Show is certainly more enjoyable, opening with a sabretooth tiger in a stationery cupboard and going hell for leather from there in a battle with Ogrons, Sontarans and Drashigs. River has found herself inside a miniscope, in an attempt to liberate its battery for sale on the open market. To do this, she’ll have to free its exhibits, including her de-facto companion, bewildered Northern security guard Dibbsworth.
It’s a lot of fun, especially in the comic back and forth between Dan Starkey and writer Guy Adams as the Sontarans and the Ogrons. The dialogue which appears to have been script edited by Gruntleigh the Ogron. River and Dibbsworth are good value too, a mismatched buddy duo brought together by exceptional circumstances in a screwball adventure story.
Unfortunately, it becomes weighed down when we discover that this is the same miniscope from Carnival of Monsters. The Doctor’s prior involvement doesn’t hamper the plot in the way that it did in The Web of Time but River’s constant references to her husband begin to grate.
There appears to be a real reticence to let River off the leash and have her own adventures. This could very easily have been a spiritual sequel to a Robert Holmes classic but instead, is a story that finds River tidying up after her husband’s sloppy workmanship, a lighthearted enough gag, but one which undermines both characters.
There’s more tidying up to do in The Talents of Greel, only this time it appears to be the writer Paul Morris doing the cleaning up of Robert Holmes’ ‘problematic’ masterpiece The Talons of Weng-Chiang. We won’t reopen that particular can of worms, but the contemporary concerns about Weng-Chiang do loom large in Morris’ script, which gives Li Hsen Chang some proper backstory and a love interest who sees beyond the hollow, gaudy Orientalism flouted as entertainment by Magnus Greel and Henry Gordon Jago.
River crosses Jago, Chang and Greel’s intersected paths in search of technology with which to fix her vortex manipulator. Interestingly, whilst she’s clearly pleased to meet the Doctor’s old friend Henry Gordon Jago, she refers to her own 51st-century knowledge of Magnus Greel rather than her husband’s diary. It’s almost as if he’s scrubbed the whole encounter from his 900-year-old diary for being too problematic like the BBC archive would an old episode of Top of the Pops.
The Talents of Greel is less Top of the Pops and more The Good Old Days, providing us a bit of River Song and Dance. The music hall rendition of River’s complicated timeline and her double act with Jago is a fun addition. Which all just begs the question of why you’d waste it on a story so hamstrung by established events.
It’s a question that hangs over much of The Diary of River Song Volume 6. The classic Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Trials and Tribbleations showed that it was possible to root around in the parent show’s mythology whilst making a dramatic virtue of being unable to change continuity. This series of River Song adventures makes no such virtue, and with the exception of An Unearthly Woman, doesn’t introduce any rogue elements for River to defeat in order to keep history on track. River is the rogue element, popping in and out of the Doctor’s timeline, raising merry hell. After six volumes of this sort of thing, and the glimpses we’ve had into what she does when the Doctor’s not around, I’m hoping that The Diary of River Song Volume 7 will finally, properly let her loose on the universe.