‘The Diary of River Song’ Season 1 review: Big Finish’s new ‘Doctor Who’ spin-off

Making her debut (and exit) in 2008’s ‘Silence in the Library’ / ‘Forest of the Dead’ two-parter, it is fair to say that the character of River Song has made a dramatic impact on Doctor Who.

Her personal timeline wraps around the Eleventh Doctor’s incarnation, whom she married (sort of), and spills into the regenerations either side, apparently culminating in the show’s most recent Christmas special.

Arriving on audio in a four-part box set, Big Finish have brought River centre stage to show us a little of what occupies her when the “old fella” is not around.

With scripts from three BF regulars, the first episode comes from a newcomer. However, Jenny Colgan is far from new to Doctor Who, as she has written both short stories and a novel for BBC Books, in addition to scripting a story for the forthcoming Tenth Doctor audio boxset.

Doctor Who The Diary of River Song

‘The Boundless Sea’ finds River skulking in pre-war academia, having sworn off her time-travelling adventures. Regardless, she is soon drawn into the mystery of an ancient tomb and the tale provides plenty of entertainment, plus some moments of gruesome horror and a neat twist on a familiar technological concept.

Justin Richards’ ‘I Went to a Marvellous Party’ brings our heroine back into space for a murder mystery aboard a spaceship, location for an exclusive, invitation only gathering. As well as meeting a familiar face, River soon find herself behind the scenes and uncovering some unpleasant secrets about her hosts.

The story then morphs into a terrific two-hander for River and her “husband” (Samuel West) in ‘Signs’, as the pair grapple with her apparent memory loss and a debilitating illness, while at the same time pursuing theories regarding ancient “Sporeships” which are destroying whole planetary civilisations.

River Song Doctor Who Alex Kingston

The conclusion brings us back to the party as the Eighth Doctor arrives for Matt Fitton’s ‘The Rulers of the Universe’. Conscious of the delicate temporal rules, River has to aid him in defeating an ancient threat.

Alex Kingston brings the charm and vigour to River that she has always enjoyed and is well matched by the guest cast; Alexander Vlahos (Merlin, BF’s Dorian Gray) shines as the eager to please Bertie Potts and Samuel West utterly convinces as Mr Song.

For his part, Paul McGann is, as ever, tremendous as the principled Eighth Doctor in the early stages of the Time War.

Doctor Who Paul McGann Eighth Doctor

Despite a couple of similarities in setting between these stories and ‘The Husbands of River Song’, which was filmed after this was recorded, there is nothing that actually clashes and, in fact, they complement each other nicely. With are no specifics regarding her timeline, doubtless a subject well avoided, River does appear to be equipped with her own sonic screwdriver (trowel?) – as well as an unhealthy dose of guilt for her actions.

Granted a bombastic theme, which bears a pleasing nod in the direction of a Bond opener, these stories have only scratched the surface with the character of River Song.

Doctor Who Doom Coalition 2

Unfettered by the Doctor for the most part, she is free to run on audio and will doubtless continue to have the time of her life… starting by returning the compliment with a guest appearance in March’s Eighth Doctor set, ‘Doom Coalition 2’!

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Released on 26 December 2015 by Big Finish.

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What do you think of the box set? Let us know below…

  • Edward Delingford

    This box set is fantastic. I’m not a regular Big Finish purchaser but the double enticement of Alex Kingston and Sir John Hurt appearing in their range got me in. Both the River Diaries and the War Doctor set are first rate pieces of audio drama and stand up with the best you might expect on a Radio 4 production. Naturally Alex and Sir John are as outstanding as you would expect but I have also been impressed by the quality and thoughtfulness of the writing. Oh and for the next doctor – how about Samuel West? He is just wonderful in the River set. It goes without saying that Paul McGann’s more limited contribution is also brilliant.

    Now, where are the Matt Smith stories?

    • Ian McArdell

      Glad you’re enjoying them Edward – Big Finish put out a phenominal amount of Doctor Who but this and the War Doctor have been highlights for me too. No sign of Matt Smith as yet, might it be too soon? They’ve got a Tennant & Tate box set in the pipeline for May though.

      • Edward Delingford

        Tennant and Tate not for me – it will just be the two of them screeching at each other at top volume with no real story – the aural equivalent of mugging.
        What I loved about the River Song and War Doctor boxsets is that we not only had excellent acting but good strong storylines. The Tennant/Tate material is just going to be the two of them joking about designed to grab a few pounds.
        I am a huge fan of good radio drama and what I liked about both of these box sets is that they were obviously made with the same levels of quality and care that you get in BBC4 radio dramatisations and that the cast took this all seriously and professionally.
        Paul McGann is an excellent radio actor and certainly will be exploring his back catalogue now. Obviously getting Peter Capaldi eventually will be the big one but unlikely for some years but I am hoping we might get Matt back at some stage soon as he did a couple of really excellent audio dramas as Doctor 11 and some audio books which really were first rate in terms of voice work and production.

    • Helles

      I thought this was a mite better than the War Doctor box set but that is only saying one fantastic thing is slightly more fantastic than another fantastic thing. I think the stories on this are better than on the War Doctor set, although of course as he did in the 50th where he put David Tennant and even Matt Smith in the shade in terms of his acting, JH is sublime. Kudos to Big Finish for being able to get actors like JH and AK to do these.
      Samuel West was a standout in this box set I thought. While I have seen him on stage and TV, never heard him on radio/audio before and highly impressed. Surely after the massive critical and popular success of the Christmas special, BBC would be mad not to commission another outing with River and 12. If so, I’d strongly suggest getting SW along as well. Can you imagine – AK, SW and PC. Right there you have three of the very best actors in the UK. That would be beyond awesome.

  • Hedwiga

    Got this and love it to bits but then I adore River Song. Highly recommend to anyone who loves Who but really anyone who likes quality audio drama. 10/10.

  • Michael Brawley

    See I just rewatched the Library episodes and she says 10 is the earliest version of the Doctor she’s met but I’m gonna ignore that because this is kind of cool.

    • batGRRRl4ever

      The “out” on that is that both River and the Doctor LIE, as technically River is interacting with the 8th Doctor remotely it seems, so technically she never met him. A white lie to be sure, but it fits.

      • Michael Brawley

        I buy that.

        • Ian McArdell

          I guess at that point in the ‘Library’ story she had announced herself as River… so she has no option but to lie? Feels like she has not met 10 before though. Makes you wonder how Big Finish could potentially handle further encounters… including the upcoming one in Doom Coalition 2!