Back in 2010, Steven Moffat chose to focus his free-time (presumably already at a premium) on revamping Sherlock Holmes for a modern mainstream audience and inadvertently found himself in charge of the two biggest dramas on British TV. It’s tempting to ponder what might have happened if he had instead pitched a more risque, sexier Doctor Who spin-off fronted by Alex Kingston as River Song. For Big Finish, such idle pondering can equal serious boxed set potential and, to date, The Diary of River Song has been the most consistent and enjoyable of their ever-expanding range of spin-offs. The guest appearances by previous Doctors have been the selling point but the real appeal of this series is that it’s essentially Doctor Who with a much greyer morality. Nowhere is this better displayed than in this month’s The Diary of River Song Vol. 4.
Opening with a health spa smackdown straight out of Thunderball, Emma Reeves and Matt Fitton’s Time in a Bottle finds River recalled to her alma mater, Luna University, to join an archaeological expedition and clear her student debt. Previous attempts to collect Professor Song’s payments have resulted in death, we hear, a reminder that we’re in the company of a much more dangerous and self-serving time traveller than the one we’re used to. That said, the scene in which she storms a lecture to dispel various theories and myths could easily be delivered by any of the actors to have played the Doctor, reminding us that this happy couple have a great deal in common.
Time in a Bottle often finds River at her most Doctorish, providing her with a ragtag team of companions, an intellectual rival (and possible villain/friend) and a compelling mystery to solve. It also introduces this boxed set’s big bad, the Discordia, a demon-like race of ancient beings with the ability to twist time to their advantage so that they never lose. They’re a high concept villain, and River’s initial confrontation with them is a hell of a way to open the series. (Pun intended) Such wanton disrespect for the laws of time makes the Discordia an ideal foe for River, a character whose complicated personal timeline is ruled by those same laws.
Less suited are her “companions”, an occasionally shrill insectoid bailiff and a fanboy cyborg for whom working with River is ‘amazeballs’, admittedly this is more imaginative than anything the series has attempted since Kamelion, but also proves how difficult it is to warm to characters with no real-world backing. The rivalry between River and Professor Jemima Still (played brilliantly by Fenella Woolgar) is the most compelling relationship in the story, at times Still is the Master to River’s Doctor and vice versa. Overall, Time in a Bottle presents us with the all too rare instance of Professor Song in full-on archaeologist mode, which is a refreshing change of pace. It’s almost a disappointment that once the bottle is open, River is forced to revert to type as a time-hopping action heroine for the second story.
Kings of Infinite Space by new Big Finish writer Donald McLeary is River Song’s very own version of 1965’s The Chase. On the run from the time travelling Discordia, River and her new companions hop across the universe to avoid capture, the villains even have a robot replica of our heroine! It’s a testament to McLeary’s script that this only occurs to you in retrospect, due in no small part to the relentless pacing and fervent imagination on display. Unsurprisingly given McLeary’s background in comedy (amongst other work, he co-created the Radio 4 sitcom Fags, Mags and Bags) there are some big concepts and equally sized laughs, which pleasingly never derail the drama or undermine the stakes. A recurring gag involving the classification of planets sends up science fiction tropes and provides hope and comfort throughout River’s gruelling journey from world to world. The most memorable of her hops involves a giant talking rat with a degree from Edinburgh University, an encounter which quickly takes a much darker and sinister turn.
In the past, the main show has referred to the vortex manipulator as ‘cheap and nasty time travel’ and it’s as much the ill-effects of overuse on River and her companions as the villainous Discordia that provides the drama in this hugely enjoyable, energetic and imaginative play. Given that McLeary’s sense of humour wouldn’t be out of place in Season 17, we can only hope he gets a chance to write for the 4th Doctor sometime soon. Kings of Infinite Space is the highlight of a set which features Tom Baker flirting with Alex Kingston, which is no small feat.
Given that Whodunnit sits in the middle of Kings and Tom’s appearance, writer Matt Fitton has his work cut out for him to keep us occupied for the hour prior to the main event. What we get is a story with only a tangential link to the overarching Discordia plot. On a dark and stormy night, the great detective Melody Malone arrives at a castle, inhabited by the author Franz Kafka where there has been a murder. What follows is a story that riffs on Christie, Kafka, Heaven Sent, Ghost Light and The Mind Robber whilst never standing on its own two feet. Fatally for a murder mystery, Kafka’s house guests aren’t compelling enough to keep you engaged in the mystery. They’re genre archetypes with faltering accents rather than the complex characters of both Kafka’s fiction and the modern murder mystery. The real mystery isn’t the murder, it’s how River has gone from dodging the Discordia to solving murders in a castle and whilst the eventual resolution goes some way towards explaining the two-dimensional portrayal of the supporting characters
There’s a sense of treading water here, as if the original plan was to have the 4th Doctor arrive earlier, teaming up with River for a two-parter rather than a single episode. There’s no evidence to support this in the behind the scenes documentary on Disc 5, with John Dorney explaining that he always knew how the Fourth Doctor and River Song were to first meet at the beginning of Someone I Once Knew.
Having changed the course of history to both achieve their goals and capture River, her marriage to the Doctor has been brought forward by a good number of incarnations. Teaming up with her husband’s fourth incarnation, River sets out to stop the Discordia once and for all by playing them at their own game.
Tom Baker is the last of the surviving classic Doctors to feature in Diary but, without giving too much away, don’t expect that we won’t hear how River gets on with his previous incarnations. On the Behind the Scenes disc, both Alex Kingston and Tom Baker talk with great fondness for each other. From Baker’s point of view, he relishes the opportunity to finally add a new dimension to a character he’s been playing for over 40 years, because, you guessed it, we get to experience the Fourth Doctor’s more romantic side and it’s as sweet and tender and slightly naughty as you would expect. This taps into one of the other appealing factors of the River Song character, she brings out another side of the Doctor. We certainly wouldn’t have had the softer, twinklier Twelfth Doctor without The Husbands of River Song nor would we have had the chance to experience the suave, charming romantic side of the bombastic Sixth Doctor without The Diary of River Song Volume 2. The story of the Doctor and River has always been a love story, and this is what we have here, the fate of the universe and reality itself may be at stake, but at the same time, love stories often dictate a happy ending.
This has been a characteristic of many of Steven Moffat’s season finales, The Big Bang is a battle to save the universe that mostly involves two couples who love each other wandering around a museum whilst Hell Bent is an ominous prophecy that comes down to a destructive and obsessive love between two friends. Dorney taps into the recurring themes of Moffat’s work as well as occasionally riffing on Star Wars to conclude a boxed set which boils down to what happens when an unstoppable force (the Discordia) meets an immovable object (love).
Now that they’ve completed their goal to have River meet all the Doctor’s in reverse order, Big Finish’s next move is to pit River against the Doctor’s best enemy in January’s “Four Masters” boxed set followed by a long overdue crossover with Professor Bernice Summerfield as part of their 20th anniversary set. Frankly, it’s about time, as firstly, it’s often more fun to find out what River’s up to whilst the Doctor isn’t around and secondly, it’ll be hard to beat the pairing of Alex Kingston and Tom Baker.