The Diary of River Song: Volume Seven – Starring: Alex Kingston, Charles Armstrong, Annette Badland & Timothy Blore. Written by: James Goss, Lizbeth Myles, James Kettle & Roy Gill & Directed by Ken Bentley – CD / Download (Big Finish)
Whereas Volume Six of The Diary Of River Song had a distinctly Doctor Who sensibility, with River popping in here and there to have adventures in the gaps the Doctor left behind, Volume Seven is very much River set loose from the Doctor altogether, having particularly criminal-flavoured adventures of her own, in (for the most part, at least) her Melody Malone guise. And if you’re going to have the big-haired investigator on the case, why not take the opportunity that affords to write takes on various different kinds of crime thriller? So these are not so much The Diary Of River Song as The Casebook Of Melody Malone.
Up first, we’re in Scandi Noir territory with Colony Of Strangers, by James Goss. Most of the conventions of this comparatively new genre of crime fiction are here for the referencing on the particularly Nordic colony of Bondar – it’s damn cold, people are mostly exhausted and miserable, there are murders, or at the very least bodies (#ItsComplicated), there are cover-ups and connivings based both in the vested interest of would-be beneficiaries, and the ordinary grimness of people being people. There are frightened people too, afraid of strangers and interruptions to their established pattern of life, and afraid, sometimes, of each other, aware that something’s going on that shouldn’t be, but often uncertain exactly what it is. As such, the atmosphere is set for uncertainty, misunderstanding, mishap, murder and bloody-minded endless grimness. That said, between them James Goss and Alex Kingston wring some humour out of the set-up without ever going wildly over the top and breaking the mood. There are classical sci-fi moments too, with people walking about who are most assuredly dead, odd bodies being dumped on the beach just when River’s due to have a nice cup of tea and a stroll, a classically tight-lipped mayor (Wanda Opalinska), and a police chief (Charles Armstrong) surprisingly unskilled in the art of solving crimes, for the simple reason that there more or less aren’t any in his world. It’s all balanced on the knife edge it needs, creepy, funny, with a high stress note and, just beneath the permafrost, lashings of fairly traditional science-fiction underpinning the Scandi Noir setting. As such, what you get is River Song does The Killing (at least almost never literally), but without the sense of ennui and desire to go and sit in the fridge that the original brought with it.
Abbey Of Heretics, by Lizbeth Myles, takes us to the time and very nearly the place of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, by Ellis Peters. For those criminally in the dark, Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk during the period in British history when, notoriously, ‘Christ and his saints slept’ – the war for the English crown between Stephen of Blois and Empress Matilda. If you’re still none the wiser, think 1139-54, just over a hundred years after the Norman Conquest. Where Cadfael solves crimes that step inside his cloisters or worry the lawmakers of his local town of Shrewsbury, Sister Melody, to be fair to her, just wants to have a night in with a very good book. A very…specific very good book, to be sure, and one where, if she’s absolutely honest, she’s more interested in the pictures than the words, but you’d be amazed at the trouble a girl can get into in the 12th century for reading the wrong sort of literature. Especially if there’s a mysterious plague creeping through the abbey. And a monkish ghost popping up to scare something-absolutely-other-than-the-willies out of the inhabitants. Melody runs foul of three nuns in particular, each of them in their way possessed of extraordinary powers. Sister Ursula, played by the vocally spot-her-in-a-noisy-room distinctive Jaye Griffiths, is the librarian and illuminator, and is keenest to give the new novitiate some words of friendly advice. Sister Patrick (Aurora Burghart) is the keeper of the infirmary, and very definitely just a healer, not a miracle worker, damnit, while Sister Magdalene (the unsurpassable Janet Henfry) is a nun with a recognisably austere objection not just to the book Sister Melody’s looking for, but to all potentially salacious literature and history, a would-be whitewasher of the souls of those in her care.
Ghost monks, unusual signals, and a book that absolutely shouldn’t exist in a 12th century abbey lead Sister Melody to uncover alien plots, though they’re nothing like the traditional ‘Earth invasion’ palaver in which they Doctor invariably finds himself involved. This is smaller, more intimate dabbling, though there’s still at least one corpse too many by the end of the adventure, innocents sacrificed to an alien ambition.
Lizbeth Myles’ script is neatly full of intrigue and secrets, echoing conclaves, almost Da Vinci Code style mysteries, a dash of The Name Of The Rose style murder and a not inconsiderable body count. With mysterious plague among the sisters, ghost monks, hostile powerbrokers, savers of souls prepared to go to extreme lengths and a wholly remarkable book, there’s never an overt ticking clock in this story, which is absolutely to Myles’ credit, but there’s certainly a sense of intensifying danger as time goes by and death follows death. There’s also something more than a little glorious about River Song, who’s worn the habit before more in eyebrow-raised pastiche, actually donning it and living among the sisters as one of them, an undoubted sinner by the standards of the age, but resisting the urge to bring her greater knowledge to the fore in a mocking way – there’s very little of the exuberant ‘Oh, Sweetie, the things I’ve seen…’ about her here, and it’s refreshing to hear River in a truly immersive cover, never mocking the sisters’ faith or obedience to what is of course a patriarchal system, despite the reality of her own freewheeling universal life. In that acceptance of who they are and why they’re here, in, to use an obvious word, that sisterhood, there seems to live a River Song more real than her legend, more compassionate than her gun-toting record, and more righteously furious than the wider universe generally lets her be. In that wider, futuristic universe, River Song meets life and death, as we do even now, as inevitable elements of her ongoing story. In the cloistered environment, it’s as though the innocence of some souls is brought closer to her emotional core, and she reacts, in response to all the wider universe’s normalization of death, with a more sharply moralistic flame than we’re used to from her, to protect and to avenge those who died before they needed to. We all love River in her striding, cocky, universe-is-her-oyster style, but here, there’s a sense of what it’s like to really be River Song, to know a lot and to have to make that knowledge count for something.
After which, we’re back on relatively familiar River territory in Barrister To The Stars by Big Finish newbie James Kettle.
We point out his newbie status because it’s the only point at which such a thing is noticeable in this script, which is really a clashing together of worlds and legends. Without ever naming names, this is River Song meets Rumpole Of The Bailey – a crime-solving lawyer on a UK TV show (and subsequently a series of hilarious novels) written by John Mortimer. Both Horace Rumpole and Roger Hodgkiss (who takes his place in this story with a neat inversion of their initials) are curmudgeonly barristers at the Old Bailey, describe themselves as ‘Old Bailey hacks,’ have formidable wives and an interest in claret, and face particular nemeses on the bench. In Rumpole’s case that nemesis is at least initially a judge nicknamed ‘The Bull.’ Hodgkiss’ arch-enemy is a judge played with formidable fire and a similar mindset by Annette Badland (familiar to most Who fans as Margaret Slitheen).
All of this is fine and dandy and in itself gloriously funny, but what, we hear you cry, has any of it to do with River Song?
Very simple. River’s been accused of murdering a warlord at an interstellar conference. She needs a defence lawyer. She zaps Roger Hodgkiss (played by the force of voice acting nature that is David Rintoul) out of his 20th century practice at the Bailey to come and both defend her, and if at all possible, to find out who really killed the Duke of Ferrox (Think Brian Blessed’s career, played with a Scottish accent by Clive Hayward). What you essentially get from this story then is River Song…meets Rumpole Of The Bailey…set in something like The Curse Of Peladon.
You know that’s going to be fun, right?
Fun is absolutely the order of the day. Hodgkiss is chosen by River to represent her in the space court (presided over by a computer with what turns out to be the personality and voice of Badland’s Earth judge character), while investigating a giant sentient puddle of acid with a protein fixation, a telepathic seductress with low self-esteem, the Duke’s faithful homicidal retainer, a being who’s dislocated in time by about half an hour, so you just have to have your half of the conversation, go and make yourself a cup of tea, come back and wait for them to give you the answers you asked for, and a workforce who share a personality and a skills base, so they’re all the same person, but yet can share the skills to do any of the work you need them to, from maids to plumbers to reception staff and more.
There’s a gorgeous amount of free-range imagination in the creations Kettle brings to this story, while still focusing on the Rumpole riff and not being afraid to give River some dubious motives of her own – not least when she, the accused, becomes Hodgkiss’ junior solicitor, investigating her own case.
After the bleak Nordic crimefest of Colony Of Strangers and the more intimate, emotionally engaged River of Abbey Of Heretics, Barrister To The Stars, (or Barrister Galactica, as Big Finish writer Matthew J Elliott suggested to me it should be called – and you’ve got to be honest, you can see his point, can’t you?) gets back to kickass semi-comic River and delivers a real pick-me-up. The smashing together of these ingredients, and doing it with this level of aplomb, makes the idea of a return engagement for James Kettle something to be contemplated with joy and impatience.
Speaking of return engagements, Roy Gill’s Carnival Of Angels brings back not only classic Melody Malone, Private Eye, but sets its story just a little way outside of Manhattan (Coney Island, to be exact), and finds something new to do with the Weeping Angels. As if that weren’t enough returns, it also brings back Timothy Blore as Luke Sullieman (If you need the shorthand: alien werepanther, and student of Professor Song’s) from his previous River story, Animal Instinct. We know of course that Angels zap you and live off your time energy. Carnival Of Angels is both a glorious and a deeply twisted use of that fact – imagine someone had found a way to give the Angels a kind of…fast food. Fast food like you find at every carnival in the world…
Stylistically, there’s fun here too, with a very Philip Marlowe vibe to the introductory narration, and a character who talks like Marlowe but lacks his investigative chops, leaving the field clear for Melody Malone to solve the mystery of the carnival, and allowing Luke a way to progress out of River’s formidable shadow.
The Diary Of River Song, Volume Seven is a collection of stories that focuses more than usual on the idea of Melody Malone, and on the adventures that focus on her involvement in solving very particular kinds of crime. While it’s by no means the only way to go with future River sets, enough is done here to establish the idea of Melody-solving-crimes as a viable way to at least add to the broad spectrum of adventures she can have. Imagine a future in which Miss Melody Marple seeks out sinners in St Mary Mead, where River does Columbo – ‘Oh, and one more thing, Professor…’, where she sings a Midsomer Melody, or where she of course goes back to visit the Great Detective of Paternoster Row…
As an idea, using River in her detective guise for the length of a whole box set might initially have raised eyebrows among some listeners. What the writers and actors who bring this set to life have done is prove the concept has legs, little grey cells and a sonic magnifying glass. The next time Melody Malone gets a box set, the same eyebrows will be raised in excitement. Tony Fyler