In celebration of this week’s release of series 4 of Big Finish Productions’ The Diary of River Song, I figured it was about time I finally listened to the first three series. Starring Alex Kingston (reprising her role as River Song from Doctor Who), The Diary of River Song features the continuing adventures of our favorite archaeologist from the new series of Doctor Who. Each series features four new stories, all tied together by an overarching plotline, with River facing another dangerous threat, often with the help of one of her husband’s many different faces.
Alex Kingston reprises her hugely popular River Song character for Big Finish, starring in a new series of adventures in the Doctor Who universe…
The Diary of River Song – Series 1
The first box set, released on December 25, 2015, features River song teaming up with the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) as she faces the Rulers of the Universe. I have mixed feelings about this set. It started off a bit weak, got a lot better in the second episode, dipped again in the third episode, and got good again in the fourth. None of the episodes in this set are bad; some are just a bit less exciting than the others. The first story (The Boundless Sea, by Jenny T. Colgan) features River truly being an archaeologist, which is pretty exciting. But that’s honestly about it in terms of excitement factor. The alien threat is kinda cool, but it never fully caught my attention. This episode does do a good job of introducing us to the recurring character of Bertie Potts (Alexander Vlahos), a character who will become ever more important as the set goes on. The second story (I Went to a Marvellous Party, by Justin Richards) takes us onboard a ship where there’s a party that’s been going on for literal years. On that ship, controlled by a mysterious group who refers to themselves as the Rulers of the Universe (and literally take control of various small, underdeveloped planets), someone is murdered. The rest of the episode plays out as a pretty enjoyable murder mystery. It properly introduces us to the antagonists for this box set, the Rulers of the Universe, and is just a lot of fun to listen to. The next story (Signs, by James Goss) is my least favorite of the set. River is kidnapped and drugged by “Mr. Song”, a man pretending to be a future incarnation of the Doctor. I understand its purpose in revealing the plans of the Rulers of the Universe to the audience, but the episode is just a bit of a drag for me. I really dislike episodes where the main character is drugged/suffering from amnesia/etc, and so this episode just falls flat for me. It does do a good job of setting up the finale, but the journey getting to that point is just tedious. The final episode (The Rulers of the Universe, by Matt Fitton) is pretty great. Having heard River and the Eighth Doctor together already during the Doom Coalition series, it’s a lot of fun for me to hear them together again here. The way they’re able to interact is really clever and just really works. The story, as a whole, also really works and does a really good job of concluding the set. It’s a pretty high note for the set to go out on. All in all, it’s not a bad first outing for River Song. The stories I disliked are never outright bad, they’re just not really the kind of stories I like. The good stories, however, definitely outweigh the bad ones. (3.5 out of 5 wands)
The Diary of River Song – Series 2
The second box set, released exactly a year later, features River teaming up with both the Sixth (Colin Baker) and Seventh (Sylvester McCoy) Doctors as she works to take down Golden Futures, a company set on destroying the earth so they can replace it with a new one. Again, I have some mixed feelings about this set. It starts off really strong but then doesn’t quite stick the landing in the finale. In the first episode (The Unknown, by Guy Adams), River Song is onboard a ship that’s experiencing some weird time anomalies. Turns out the Seventh Doctor is also on that ship. Both are trying to figure out just what’s causing all of these weird things to happen. The episode is a bit confusing in terms of its plot, but it’s also a lot of fun. Sylvester McCoy and Alex Kingston play off of each other really well and their chemistry more than makes up for any of the flaws in the actual narrative. The episode ends with a fun cliffhanger that leads right into the next episode. In that second episode (Five Twenty-Nine, by John Dorney), River goes back in time to find out why she found a destroyed Earth in the cliffhanger from the previous episode. She discovers that at 5:29 in every time zone, something moves in and destroys everything in that timezone and then moves out. The story follows River and a handful of other people as they try (and ultimately fail) to survive these events. It’s a brilliant episode, one that really builds up the tension in all the right places and crescendos in a genuinely moving climax that sets River off on a journey that leads her into the next episode. In the third episode (World Enough and Time, by James Goss), River Song finds herself working as a temp for the Good Futures company, a company who helps people have better dreams and has just had its controlling share purchased by the Sixth Doctor. During her exploration (with the Doctor), River discovers that the real purpose behind the company was to harvest all the potential futures of its clients to use as energy to build a new Earth that they could sell to a potential buyer – after prematurely destroying the current one. Naturally, River and the Doctor can’t allow this to happen, but as they try to stop it, they accidentally make things worse. This episode starts to really complicate the story to a degree that makes it just really difficult to follow unless you’re paying super close attention. I liked a lot of the concepts in this story, and the execution is pretty good, it’s just that this story is ultimately let down by the story that follows it. In the final episode (The Eye of the Storm, by Matt Fitton), River Song, the Sixth Doctor, and the Seventh Doctor all end up in 1703, the time where the timelines of the two Earths split and then everything just sort of goes off the rails. I couldn’t tell you what happened in this story if I tried. This is the kind of story that’s really hard to do in an audio-only format. So much of it could’ve benefited from the clarity that a visual medium is able to give a story, and, as a result, so much of it went over my head. I think what happened boiled down to River and the Doctors discovering that all the weird timeline stuff revolved around two people, Isaac and Sarah, and so they removed those two people so that the aliens in question couldn’t harvest their energy anymore. Or something. It was honestly a bit hard to follow. I did my best, but it just got too complicated for me and stopped really being enjoyable. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, it’s just that there was so much going on that it became a bit complicated. And that’s really how I feel about this set as a whole. It started off simple enough, even if the concept was a bit complex, but it just kept spiraling into more complex stories to the point where it became ridiculously hard to follow. It was a lot of fun having River with multiple Doctors in the final story, but that’s really the stuff that stood out to me. The plot became background noise to the utter fun that Alex Kingston, Sylvester McCoy, and Colin Baker were having with one another. That sense of joy from those three actors saves this set from being totally forgettable to me. (3.5 out of 5 wands)
The Diary of River Song – Series 3
The third box set was released on January 23, 2018. It features River Song meeting the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and going against Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber), the woman who essentially made River into who she is. I think this box set ended up being my favorite of the three because it really explored the history of River Song in ways that had been previously unexplored in any of the other stories (whether on TV, in audio, or in prose/comics) have. Plus, I always wanted to see Madame Kovarian make a return after her scene-stealing appearances in series 6. The first episode (The Lady in the Lake, by Nev Fountain) throws us headfirst into things as River Song goes to Terminus Prime, a planet where people are able to consent to be killed in whichever way they desire, to track down some clones that Madame Kovarian had made of her while she was at Demon’s Run (during the events of A Good Man Goes to War). The story introduces the clones of River, an idea that makes total sense in the context of what Kovarian’s goals were. Of course, she’d have some kind of backup in case her plans with River didn’t work out. It’s also truly heartbreaking to see River come so close to getting the family she’s always wanted, only to have it ripped away by her own flesh and blood. It’s just a really good episode with a really good premise that introduces some neat concepts to the Diary of River Song series and ends on a really fun cliffhanger. In the second episode (A Requiem for the Doctor, by Jac Rayner), River Song, the Fifth Doctor, and his companion Brooke (Joanna Horton) go back to Vienna 1791, shortly after the death of Mozart, to hear one of his compositions. Only catch: people start dying. From there, it’s a race against time as the Doctor, Brooke, and River work out what’s causing these deaths and how to stop it. River Song really works well in murder-mystery stories. This one isn’t strictly a murder mystery, but it’s pretty close, and it’s really good. There’s a lot of good stuff between the three leads in this episode, and all of it builds up the thematic arc of the series. The third episode (My Dinner With Andrew, by John Dorney) is the very definition of timey-wimey. River Song, the Fifth Doctor, Brooke, and Madame Kovarian all end up at a dinner in this swanky restaurant situated outside of time and space. Kovarian and Brooke are there to kill the Doctor and it’s up to River Song to stop them. Naturally, things go pretty crazy from there. It’s a very complicated story and it can be a little hard to follow at times, but the sheer lunacy of it, the stakes involved, and the inclusion of the delightful Maitre D’ character (played by Jonathan Coote) help elevate this story into a great one. All of the shenanigans lead to a truly stunning finale featuring a reveal that Brooke is another one of the River clones as she regenerates into a new body (this one played by Nina Toussaint-White, an actress who played an earlier incarnation of River Song in Let’s Kill Hitler). This cliffhanger leads us right into the fourth episode (The Furies, by Matt Fitton). Brooke and Kovarian have succeeded in killing the Doctor and capturing River Song, bringing them both back to their base and introducing River to her remaining “siblings”. However, all is not well for Kovarian as she begins to be haunted by visions of the Doctor and their base is attacked by a mysterious alien race claiming that there is something breaking a fixed point in time present in the base. This is my favorite of all of the final episodes of The Diary of River Song series so far. It’s the one that explores River’s character the most (her interactions with Madame Kovarian are really enlightening and both Alex Kingston and Frances Barber shine brightly when they share scenes together) and the plot of the episode really ties the whole box set together. It’s wholly satisfying and broadens our understanding of River while providing an entertaining finale to the set. It’s a very high note for this stellar box set to go out on. (5 out of 5 wands)
All in all, The Diary of River Song got off to a bit of a rough start but has gotten better with each subsequent release. The best of them, The Diary of River Song – Series 3, provides a deep, broadening look at River Song while expanding our understanding of the events behind her creation and the aftermath of it. It’s such a joy to see Kovarian back in stories and River just shines so brightly in it. But it’s also a joy to see River in the other two box sets, too. Her stories are sometimes a bit uneven, but she’s still such an enjoyable character and a great foil for nearly every incarnation of the Doctor she’s met. My personal favorites are the stories in which she meets the Eighth and Seventh Doctors, but literally, every time she meets one of the classic Doctors, it’s a good time. All in all, these box sets are worth picking up. The stories are interesting, the sound design is superb, the acting is incredible, and by the time the third set is over, you’ll have a new appreciation for the character and all that she’s gone through. I’m beyond excited to listen to more adventures with River Song (starting with this week’s The Diary of River Song – Series 4 and next January’s The Diary of River Song – Series 5).