The Diary Of River Song: Series Three – Starring Alex Kingston, Peter Davison, Frances Barber, Juia Hills, Ian Connigham, David Seddon, Leighton Pugh, Sophia Carr-Gomm, Joanna Horton, Issy Van Randwyck, Rosanna Miles, Teddy Kempner, Jonathan Coote, Nina Toussaint-White, Francesca Zoutewelle & Pippa Bennet-Warner. Written by Nev Fountain, Jac Rayner, John Dorney and Matt Fitton. Directed by Ken Bentley – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
River Song was a character born in complexity: the child of two Tardis companions, imbued with the regenerative properties of Time Lords, she was stolen from her parents at an early age, and trained to be a Doctor-killing psychopath, who eventually fell in love with her prey, gave up her remaining regenerations to cure him, and went on to marry him, serve time for his murder and eventually die to save his life in the Library.
Series three of The Diary of River Song from Big Finish deals more directly than ever before with her relationship with the woman who stole her away from her parents, Madam Kovarian, and how her existence and her use for the fulfilment of a psychotic goal impacted the universe.
As draws for an audio series of River Song stories go, this is pretty high up there, giving River more in-depth character context than she’s often allowed.
Nev Fountain gets the ball rolling with The Lady in the Lake, a story which mixes some good if familiar comedy with some real envelope-pushing in terms of River and Kovarian. It poses the question of why you’d settle for one proto-Time Lord assassin when, in an age where cloning technology is available, you could have a whole stable full, and what, if they’d never taken the time to watch any Doctor Who, such socially-dislocated proto-Time Lords might think about their ability to apparently cheat death.
In a festival of death, regeneration, amnesia and confusion, Fountain pulls the threads of his central story tight in both the first and final reels, to deliver a sizeable body-blow of emotion, and you end up feeling like The Lady in The Lake has deepened the reality of the world of River and Kovarian far beyond anything that appeared on TV, while delivering the awkward, heart-breaking potential of a universe full of River-alikes, who never found their way past the psychopathic religious zealotry of their wicked foster mother.
A Requiem for the Doctor, by Jac Rayner, is more of a traditional Doctor Who story, with a few River bends along the way. River joins up with the Fifth Doctor and his companion Brook for a while, to investigate whether Mozart finished his Requiem (the source of much controversy among artistic types), and whether in fact he died of natural causes or was poisoned. The story quickly moves on to uncover a market in special poisons that help battered or abused wives to deal with their repugnant husbands, and there’s at first a seeming murder mystery which evolves into something rather deeper and more meaningful. There’s punch to the very end of the Requiem though, in a thread which runs on from the first episode, and then evolves through the second half of the box set. If you’ve failed to kill your mortal enemy in one body, and you can’t kill him beyond that, the only option is to cut him off before he reaches that point, meaning trouble for the Fifth Doctor.
Peter Davison’s Doctor and River Song feel like an odd pairing, with nothing like the chemistry of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor and River in the second box set. As he himself says in Rayner’s episode, ‘River doesn’t need me. And I quite like to be needed.’ He’s the young Doctor with the grandfatherly soul, more comfortable acting as a guide to the universe for younger ingénues (like Nyssa, Peri and Brook), than he is dealing with the ballsier type of women who occasionally plague him (like Tegan and River). It’s an awkwardness that is thrown into sharp relief in My Dinner with Andrew by John Dorney, as Davison plays a number of roles in what is essentially The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, only with more attempted assassination. It’s a comedy romp with a funny French waiter, numerous versions of several people all in the same place at the same time, only hiding in different rooms, and for most of its length it plays distinctly as trans-temporal farce, only occasionally slipping into pathos as innocents are increasingly drawn into the dance of Kovarian and River that decides whether the Doctor lives or dies.
Oh and as an extra-special bonus for Hitch-Hiker’s fans, it has Peter Davison eschewing meat and ordering a green salad.
The lightest episode in terms of tone, it’s by no means a straightforward one, and the phrase timey-wimey might have been invented to describe it, but in terms of episodes to re-listen to, My Dinner with Andrew is probably your go-to on this box set because of the speed at which the farce is played.
Matt Fitton’s capstone to the set, The Furies, is a curious story that brings River home to her bedroom during her first incarnation, complete with disembowelled teddies and throwing stars. It shows an aspect of her character frequently forgotten or thrown away – the training she received as a child in the art and mentality of psychotic killing, so she’d be able to destroy the Doctor at any opportune moment. The chance to meet up with the ‘next generation’ of River-alikes, including H1, H2 and O (yes, really) shows us the different ways in which elements of her essential personality, before it was broadened by experience of the Doctor and his universe, were foregrounded. It also shows us Frances Barber’s Kovarian in fuller flight than at any point in the box set so far, as she experiences not only the likelihood of destruction by the main branch of her own church, but rebellion in her ranks, the possibility of a poltergeist and the personal hell that is bad dreams. There’s lots to enjoy in The Furies – including the apparent breakdown of Kovarian’s always edgy personality, taut as it is on the very edge of religious terror every second of the day. That taut determination is tipped over into madness in The Furies and it feels like the right complement to everything we know about River and Kovarian from their on-screen adventures.
Series three of The Diary of River Song is a slick production that sees Alex Kingston increasingly at home in the audio medium, and takes River back if not all the way to her roots, then to the place where her early psychology was formed. It gives her origin an expanded reality that you realise it needed once you’ve heard it. More than either of the previous box sets, it feels like part of the TV chronology of her story, just a part we never got to see on screen, and for that it’s more than satisfying. For that, it feels like an essential listen. Tony Fyler