River Song is a great many things – archaeologist, thief, assassin, complex temporal event, daughter, wife, the list goes on. Frustratingly, the stories of River tend to focus on the latter rather than any of the former. In previous reviews, I’ve lamented the reticence that Big Finish has displayed in allowing the good Professor to have adventures outside of her husband’s established continuity.
I wouldn’t dream of being so big-headed to suggest that they heeded the words of my last review and decided to do just that, but The Diary of River Song Series 7 is a big step in the right direction.
This latest series of adventures drops River into four distinct crime genres; Scandi-Noir, historical mystery, courtroom drama and film noir. It’s a fun conceit, the type of thing that Doctor Who has been doing for over 56 years and also gives us a sense of what things may have been like if Steven Moffat had decided to go with a more adult, sexy spin-off series in 2010, rather than Sherlock.
Opening the series is James Goss’ Colony of Strangers – a creepy, atmospheric mystery that borrows from Trapped, The Bridge and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Handling the Undead.
River is holidaying on the picturesque colony world of Bondar, and the bodies have already started to pile up. Hauled into the local police station to answer questions, she quickly, and forcefully ingratiates herself into an investigation which takes in a creepy farmhouse, hydroponic vegetables and small-town paranoia.
Bondar is one of those utterly mad ideas that you only really find in Doctor Who or ropey mid-season episodes of Star Trek in the 1990s – a planet which is inexplicably and exclusively populated by cultural stereotypes. It’s not helped by some wobbly accents – at some points, Bondar sounds less like “Space Norway” and more like “Space Holland”, but the mystery is compelling and grisly enough to keep you listening. Indeed, the mysterious murder victims that keep washing ashore are vividly described in the dialogue. Featureless bodies with internal organs clumped together in a lump – are they rejected genetic experiments? An attempted alien incursion? As much as Goss evokes the Nordic Noirs which form much of BBC4s Saturday night schedule, he also draws on that perennial paranoid sci-fi classic Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. River can’t really trust anyone, and her individuality may prove the key to solving the mystery, and to Colony of Strangers’ rather moving, emotional denouement.
From the remote Nordic colony world of Bondar to another cloistered community, Lizbeth Myles’ Abbey of Heretics finds Sister Melody investigating ghostly apparitions and a strange illness which is sweeping through a 12th Century English abbey. In this second story, we shift from BBC4 on a Saturday night to the historical mystery novels of Umberto Eco and Ellis Peters. Lizbeth Myles is a relatively new Big Finish writer and is building a reputation for richly realised historical adventures with a sci-fi twist.
In hearing River carrying on in early human history, we’re introduced a new facet of the character. For River is taking things, mostly, very seriously indeed. Which is not to say there aren’t any jokes, or that Myles makes River a doomly dullard like her husband can sometimes be. As well as the historical detail, Myles is good on the Moffatesque comic dialogue – the 12th century misunderstanding of what an archaeologist does is funny and manages to ground (no pun intended) Professor Song in the reality of the period in which she’s found herself. River can often come across as a pragmatist, someone purely out for herself, willing to put others in harm’s way to achieve her goals. Here, she abandons her quest for a rare, valuable book in favour of saving the nuns from a terrible fate. This is a story about the price of knowledge, both literal and metaphorical, and when River is confronting the antagonist (for there’s really no outright villains here) at the climax, you can tell that her words come from lived experience.
River’s criminal experience comes back to fore in the third story, James Kettle’s Barrister to the Stars which finds her accused of murder (no change there) and in need of legal representation. Where the previous two stories transposed science fiction elements onto familiar sub-genres of crime fiction, this drags the courtroom drama halfway across the galaxy and grafts it on to a space station populated with a wide variety of pleasure-seeking aliens. What follows is a hugely enjoyable reprise of the closing episodes of The Stones of Blood crossed with Rumpole of the Bailey.
Roger Hodgkiss, gamely played by David Rintoul, certainly has Rumpole’s sense of justice and fondness for the underdog but seems more refined and put-together than Leo McKern’s titular barrister. He’s also surprisingly comfortable with the vast array of alien characters he encounters along the way, noting that they appear more human than anyone he’s met through the legal profession. So it’s perhaps fitting that he and River are up against an alien facsimile of a stiff English judge played to glacial perfection by Annette Badland, increasingly frustrated and out of her depth as the colourful witnesses file into her courtroom.
Unsurprisingly, given Kettle’s career in comedy writing, Barrister to the Stars is very funny indeed. River and Roger encounter some weird and wonderful creations such as “the bowl of soup with the unpleasant disposition” or The Last of the Unnatural Children, who exists on a thirty-minute delay – an idea that wouldn’t be out of place in a Two Ronnies sketch. Although on the negative side, the same could be said for the incredibly dodgy gruff Scottish accents adopted by the cast when playing the barbarian race of the Ferrox.
And speaking of dodgy accents, it’s off to New York, Berkshire for the final story – Carnival of Angels.
It’s never entirely clear if this is taking place pre or post-The Angels Take Manhattan. References are made to the complex temporal disturbances that make time travel into New York difficult, and River clearly feels a sense of obligation to deal with the Angels that are clearly driven by something deeper. And yet, the synopsis suggests that Melody Malone has only just set up the detective agency that will bring her into contact with Julius Grayle and his angel unless of course, she sets up the detective agency because of the events written in the book by her mother. Yikes, River’s timeline is complex.
Similarly complex is the mythology of the Weeping Angels, a brilliant one-night-only monster that has been stretched far beyond breaking point. Roy Gill adds further layers to them, in a clear attempt to explain that Statue of Liberty gag at the opening of The Angels Take Manhattan. That said, the Coney Island setting does provide scope for some imaginative ways to dispatch with these “grey ladies”.
He also realises that the Angels don’t work particularly well on audio, and gives them a human interface in the form of the villainous Miss Quirke and her electrically charged sidekick Dean, the latest in a long line of antagonists who enter into misjudged deals with alien creatures. Issy Van Randwyck and Daniel Easton are also the latest in a long line of Big Finish guest actors to be called upon to do accents that are not their own. There are lots of inauthentic Noo Yoikers in this, and it can be quite distracting from a decent noirish sci-fi about guilt, manipulation and super-powered orphans.
There are some good ideas here, not least the “murder” that kicks everything off and the meta gags about Philip Marlowe style voice-overs. Gill should also be commended on his evocative period detail and commitment to including LGBTQ characters as he did in the excellent Tenth Doctor audio The Creeping Death.
The boxed set ends with a rather melancholy speech about River as she looks out to sea, considering her future. If the range of entertaining stories contained within this boxed set is indicative of where she’s headed then I hope the melancholy will be fleeting. Lonely God melancholy is more her husband’s job after all. Professor River Song is a real laugh to be around, even in the grimmest of situations so fingers crossed that Series Eight will continue to give her standalone adventures that will see her continue to demonstrate that she is a great many things; resourceful, funny, flirty, and utterly outrageous.