After eight years, Big Finish Productions’ The Diary of River Song comes to a close. And what a finale The Orphan Quartet is. Featuring four standalone stories, all exploring ideas of grief and loss, The Orphan Quartet delivers quite a punch. For River, this box set is all about coming to grips with losing her family. Who is she now that she’s lost her parents? How does she deal with all of that fury, guilt, and regret? Each story answers that question beautifully, offering a real exploration of River’s many sides. It’s not the best entry in the Diary of River Song series. But as a final installment, it offers an emotionally satisfying conclusion and a collection of great River Song stories. And perhaps that’s enough.
The Excise Men by Lou Morgan
River Song (Alex Kingston) arrives at an 18th-century Cornish smugglers’ inn in search of a mysterious time anomaly. But instead, she finds a community under attack. Once upon a time, this small Cornish community made a devil’s bargain with the mysterious Excise Men. They’d keep the Excise Men’s treasure safe, and the Excise Men would keep them safe in return. But, as anyone can tell you, never, ever make a deal with the devil. River quickly gets entangled in a race against time as the Excise Men slowly erase the townsfolk from time one after another. The Excise Men is your classic base-under-siege story. River’s trapped in the inn with the rest of the townsfolk, desperately trying to unravel the mystery of the Excise Men before it’s too late.
As a standalone story, it’s a pretty solid one. But as the beginning of a box set, it’s a bit of a weird choice. It’s not that The Excise Men is bad; far from it. It’s just that it’s often very meandering. There’s a lot of wheel-turning, with River explaining the plot of the story to Wenna (Jade Matthew), one of the inn’s workers. The mystery itself is quite thrilling, especially in the final third of the story. But that overly repetitive middle chunk robs the narrative of a lot of its tension. Kingston does a wonderful job, though, perfectly balancing River’s softer and harsher qualities. The Excise Men takes place sometime after series seven’s The Angels Take Manhattan, and River feels a lot edgier than she’s felt in ages. There’s a real undercurrent of danger, and it’s always nice when Kingston gets to play with that.
Overall, The Excise Men offers an enjoyable start to this box set. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s a solid mystery filled with engaging villains and a deliciously atmospheric soundscape. 7/10
Harvest of the Krotons by James Goss
In Harvest of the Krotons, River and Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri) infiltrate a celebrity spa in search of alien interference. But what they uncover proves far more horrific than they’d imagined. For underneath Harmony Dubois’ (Alex Fletcher) enigmatic health spa rests the Krotons (Nicholas Briggs). But what do robots from outer space want with a bunch of washed-up, D-list celebrities? And what, exactly, is going on inside this resort? It’s up to River and Jackie to get to the bottom of things before it’s too late. James Goss’ script combines the best of 1960s Doctor Who cheese with the best of 2005 Doctor Who‘s social satire. The Krotons remain as silly as ever, and they’re used to great effect here as a conduit for character exploration.
At its heart, Harvest of the Krotons is more about Jackie than it is about River. Here, Jackie finds herself at a bit of a crossroads. Rose is off traveling with the Doctor, leaving Jackie all alone at home. But who is she without her daughter? What does she want? What is her purpose? Goss explores all of these questions beautifully here, using Jackie and River to dig into ideas of regret, trauma, and loss. Coduri is at her best, relishing Jackie’s absurd excesses while delving into Jackie’s heartbreak. Her rapport with Kingston is dynamic too. The two play off of each other brilliantly, as electrically witty as they are bitingly honest.
Harvest of the Krotons is a cracking good time from start to finish. It’s full of witty banter, silly robots, and surprisingly emotional moments. A real showcase for Camille Coduri and Alex Kingston. (8/10)
Dead Man Talking by Tim Foley
River arrives on a post-apocalyptic Earth in search of a dangerous alien relic and quickly finds herself in the middle of a séance. But as the psychic, Stanley Kim (Irvine Iqbal), tries to bridge the gap between Mrs. Prendergast (Carol Royle) and her long-dead son (Sam Stafford), River discovers the relic she’s looking for is at the center of this dangerous séance. And it’s only a matter of time before that relic fully comes alive, unleashing its deadly plan. Dead Man Talking is a haunting cross between a gothic ghost story and a gripping exploration of trauma and survivor’s guilt. It’s a bit slow-paced, particularly in the middle, but the emotions bring it home. As a whole, The Orphan Quartet‘s been exploring ideas of lost families, and that very much comes to a head here.
River finds herself in the home of a grieving mother, desperately searching for any way to reconnect with her son. Mrs. Pendergast doesn’t care about the costs. She doesn’t care about the illegality of the mysterious relic in her possession. She’s wholly unconcerned with the politics of this post-apocalyptic world. All she wants is the chance to talk to her son again. And the way Foley explores this idea through a very Doctor Who lens proves quite moving. River’s a great character to use in a story like this; a character almost wholly defined by her losses and trauma. Kingston and Royle carry the story’s emotional weight brilliantly, with both women digging deep into their characters’ grief. It’s fascinating seeing River used this way – as less of a bombastic hero and more of a quiet, caring figure, just trying to do some good.
While Dead Man Talking loses steam in its middle bits, it all comes together in an engrossing, emotional way. It’s a haunting, moving, quite creepy listen – but one that’s sure to stick with you. 8/10
The Wife of River Song by Lizzie Hopley
While on an expedition investigating a planet known only as the Hive, River picks up a distress call from her sister, Brooke (Nina Toussaint-White). But when she arrives, she discovers a mystery of mind-bending proportions. For River Song is already on this planet, on her honeymoon, alongside her wife (Sarah-Jane Potts). But how does Brooke factor into things? And just what, exactly, caused the plague that wiped out all of the Hive’s population? It’s a race against time as River and Brooke fight to stop the timeline from collapsing on itself. Lizzie Hopley’s The Wife of River Song is as enticing as it is confusing. Timey-wimey in every sense of the word, it loses focus on the boxset’s overarching theme a bit. But when it works, it really works.
By far the best aspect of the story is Alex Kingston’s performance. To go into any real specifics here risks ruining one of the story’s bigger surprises. But needless to say, she gives one of her best performances in this story; all at once heartbreaking and breathlessly captivating. Nina Toussaint-White and Sarah-Jane Potts both give quite emotionally stunning performances too, but it’s definitely Kingston’s show. As for the story itself, it’s just a bit hard to follow. Intentionally so, to be fair. And Hopley does eventually pull all of the disparate elements into some kind of a cohesive and coherent conclusion. But as the finale of the entire Diary of River Song series, it’s a bit strange and occasionally loses focus on the boxset’s bigger explorations of lost families.
Overall, The Wife of River Song is a solid, though slightly disappointing conclusion. A bit too mind-bending for its own good, but with an emotional core that hits home. 7/10
While it stumbles a bit right at the end, The Diary of River Song: The Orphan Quartet delivers an emotionally satisfying conclusion to Big Finish’s ongoing Diary of River Song series. Led by a breathtaking performance from Alex Kingston and a collection of haunting, energetic stories all about grief, it’s a great listen for fans of River Song – new and old alike. Hopefully, this isn’t the last we’ll see of River in Big Finish audios. But if it is, it’s a pretty good note to go out on. A great representation of how varied the range could be, but wholly enjoyable from start to finish. High-concept science-fiction laced with a healthy dose of emotional truth. And in that respect, what more could you ask for?
The Diary of River Song: The Orphan Quartet is available now on the Big Finish Productions website.
"The Diary of River Song: The Orphan Quartet" brings Big Finish Productions' ongoing River Song series to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Featuring a collection of haunting stories all focused on grief and lost families, "The Orphan Quartet" is a great listen for fans of River Song and Doctor Who, new and old alike.
Part-time writer, part-time theatre nerd, full-time dork.