I am really enjoying these Diary of River Song box sets from Big Finish Production. River Song is one of my favorite characters that Steven Moffat created for Doctor Who. I love how her story ended up in the show and I love getting to see (or hear) more from her via these box sets. It’s a lot of fun hearing her interact with Doctors from the classic era, and her interactions with the Fourth Doctor in The Diary of River Song – Series 4 is no exception. But before we get to hear her meet the Fourth Doctor, she must first travel through time and space to escape the Discordia – a race of time traveling aliens who look like the common image of the Devil and are bent on ruling all of time and space. So, basically another Tuesday for River Song.
When River Song (Alex Kingston) visits a place where time has vanished, a genie escapes its bottle… the Discordia are freed – nihilistic time pirates, in devilish form, altering the past to make sure they never lose.
This time, River may have met her match. And involving the Doctor (Tom Baker) can only make things worse…
Time in a Bottle by Emma Reeves and Matt Fitton
These box sets often have a really strong opening, and Time in a Bottle is no exception to that pattern. It can be hard to juggle the introduction of a new villain for the box set, the introduction of new supporting characters, and the reintroduction of River Song, but Emma Reeves and Matt Fitton handle it perfectly. From Big Finish Productions: River is recruited by a rival to explore a star system where time no longer exists. Professor Jemima Still has picked up a signal from an impossible source and takes an expert team to investigate. But their mission is about to unleash hell upon the universe…
As the opening story to this box set, Time in a Bottle is a really strong one. It does a perfect job at introducing us to the Discordia, Aliens that literally look like our common image of the devil and are hell-bent on taking over the universe. This story also introduces Professor Jemima Still (Fenella Woolgar), a professor at Luna University and an old classmate of River’s. I always like it when these box sets explore various elements of River’s past and the introduction and inclusion of Professor Still is a great one. Jemima is a great foil to River in this first story and is integral to the twist that happens at the climax. By the end of the story, you almost feel sympathy for Jemima – but then, a part of you still feels like she reaped what she sewed. All in all, Time in a Bottle is my favorite opening story to one of these River Song box sets. It utilizes River (and her strengths and weaknesses as a character) really well, explores elements of her backstory that have been previously unexplored, and perfectly sets up the main plot line for the rest of the box set. (4.5 out of 5 wands)
Kings of Infinite Space by Donald McLeary
I sometimes have mixed feelings about the second stories of these River Song box sets, but I’m happy to report that Donald McLeary’s Kings of Infinite Space bucks that trend. It’s just as strong as the first story, furthering the overall plotline of the box set while also offering a really inventive and fun adventure all on its own. From Big Finish Productions: With the Discordia on their tail, River and her friends run for their lives across time and space. But when your opponent can twist cause and effect to ensure victory at every turn, then escape may well be impossible.
There’s a lot about this story that I really like. It literally takes River and her “companions”, Spod (a cyborg from Luna University, introduced in the previous story; played by Josh Bolt) and Gammarae (an alien ant-like creature also introduced in the previous story; played by Adele Lynch), all across the universe as they try to escape Discordian sub-general Melak (George Asprey). The various planets they visit include a planet that’s merely a water park, a planet where the humans had to bioengineer themselves to be rats, and a few others. As if that wasn’t enough, Melak has to deal with an android made to impersonate River (as a distraction so she and her friends could destroy part of the Discordian fleet). A lot of good comedy comes from the interactions between the severed head of the River-bot and Melak and those interactions are, honestly, the best parts of the episode. This episode is still really good. It keeps the pace moving at a really swift speed and helps move the overarching story of the set along in a way that feels natural and not dragged out. It’s a lot of fun and, possibly, the River Song story with the biggest scope. (4.5 out of 5 wands)
Whodunnit? by Matt Fitton
This story was the one I was most looking forward to hearing when this box set came out. I love the Melody Malone alter ego of River and I’ve always wanted Big Finish to do something with that part of her character, so I was super excited to see how this story would play out. From Big Finish Productions: Melody Malone finds herself in a castle, with an assortment of strange companions. But guests are being murdered, one by one. Time is running out for a mystery to be solved. And Franz Kafka is hiding something in the attic
On the whole, I mostly adore this story. It plays out like your standard “several people are stuck in a house and are being killed off one by one” kind of murder mystery, with a Doctor Who twist, of course. I wish that the episode was structured more like a hard-boiled detective novel (like the Melody Malone novella released back in 2012), complete with narration from Melody Malone as she investigates the case. But, alas, that’s not how this story plays out. It’s not a bad thing or anything; the story is very, very good. As I’ve said before, River Song, as a character, works superbly well when used in stories that involve a murder mystery. As Melody Malone, she makes an even better detective than River Song usually does. Like any good murder-mystery, this story features a lovely climax where everything is revealed and the way the “mystery” is solved perfectly ties this story into the broader storyline of the box set. It was a brilliant story that used the strengths of the Melody Malone persons perfectly. And it features a cliffhanger that’s utterly perfect. This story is a real highlight out of all the River Song stories made by Big Finish. (5 out of 5 wands)
Someone I Once Knew by John Dorney
This is the big one. The finale of the set. The one where River Song meets the Fourth Doctor. So, naturally, you’d expect it to be cheeky and funny and climactic. But you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be super emotionally moving, too. Well, that’s exactly what this story is. From Big Finish Productions: River has tried in vain to keep the Discordia away from the Doctor. Now, as devils run riot through universal spacetime, her own past with her husband is being rewritten. There is one last hope for the universe. A love story – but one that must find an ending…
It’s often really hard to properly stick the landing in these sets from Big Finish. The overarching storyline is always built up really well, but the resolutions often don’t quite work. That’s not the case here. Dorney manages to escalate the stakes to an even higher point than they’ve already been throughout this box set while also tying up all the loose ends and resolving everything in a way that actually feels both narratively and emotionally satisfying. I don’t want to go too in-depth into the plot, other than to say that it’s a story about a boy, a girl, and how their love saved the universe. To say anything more would be… well, spoilers… What I will say is that Tom Baker and Alex Kingston play off of each other superbly well. Yes, Alex Kingston seems to have great chemistry with literally every actor who’s played the Doctor (that she’s shared scenes with), but wow do her and Tom have some really good chemistry. You totally buy the Doctor and River’s love for each other within this story and it just works. They’re both super cheeky but also super serious when needed. It’s a great performance from both of them and it, believe it or not, really grounds this pretty intense story. (5 out of 5 wands)
All in all, The Diary of River Song – Series 4 is my favorite River Song box set yet. Every story has a flaw or two, but not enough to really ruin anything. It’s just a really good collection of interconnected stories involving one of our favorite space archaeologists from the Doctor Who universe. Alex Kingston is on top form in this box set, bringing a lot of pathos to River’s character, even after all of these years. It seems that she finds new layers to River every time she plays her and it’s honestly a joy to keep hearing new adventures featuring River and starring Alex Kingston. Tom Baker is a joy to hear in this set as well and he works well both on his own and with Kingston. The rest of the cast also do superb jobs as does the director of this set, Ken Bentley. It sounds good, the writing is good, the acting is good, and it all comes together into a box set that just works. This is River Song and Doctor Who at their best.
(5 out of 5 wands)