Review by Jacob Licklider
As a spin-off series, The Diary of River Song is one which has perhaps relied the most on it’s connections to Doctor Who as a parent show. The first four series were promoted by prominently featuring the Fourth through Eighth Doctors, Series Five featured four distinct incarnations of the Master, and Series Six heavily featured the eras of the first four Doctors revisiting classic stories in prequels, mid-quels, or sequels.
Series Seven is the first to really detach itself from Doctor Who; only having one story to feature the Weeping Angels as this sets connections, which means that this is really the series first chance to strike out on its own and do something completely new. Note that this is seven box sets into a series and potentially the last one, so living in Doctor Who’s shadow is something that the series has had as a constant through its run. Series Seven takes a different approach, promoting the fact that the Weeping Angels featured, but working more as a series of four mysteries for River to solve in the role of detective. This aspect helps give the set four distinct stories held nicely together by a central style; even when the tone of each story is vastly different.
The first story is the exceptionally bleak ‘Colony of Strangers’ from James Goss where River is taking a vacation on the remote colony of Bondar where bodies are washing up on the shore. What we have here is an excellent setup for a mystery with several suspects, but the prime suspect is of course River Song. What really makes this story work is just how Goss’s script and the sound design from Howard Carter really makes the isolation feel real. Isolation is a major theme for this story, with houses separated from one another in an incredibly rural area and the townsfolk are already an incredibly strange bunch. They’ve got this air of paranoia about them that the changes in their behaviour throw the listener for a loop; are they in the clutches of the alien behind the murders, or are they just acting oddly because of all the death. Alex Kingston as River works in an interesting way here as she’s almost a side character here which isn’t a problem for the story; the rest of the characters are interesting and the time spent with her off-screen works well to flesh out the setting as this is a story where the setting is what makes the story. The climax involving River unravelling the mystery and confronting the aliens is also a real treat as the performances of the cast of four in this story do an excellent job of making things uncomfortable and building the tension of the final few scenes. ‘Colony of Strangers’ is one of those stories where the atmosphere really elevates a decent mystery to something truly great. 8/10.
Lizbeth Myles’s ‘Abbey of Heretics‘ is the second story of the set and is less of a murder mystery, and more of an archeological mystery in a different setting. ‘Abbey of Heretics’ takes place in the 12th century with River posing as a nun to find the lost Book of Stars, but the nunnery she finds herself in is plagued with a mysterious illness that is slowly killing the sisters. The Mother Superior has died and Sister Magdalene is attempting to take her place the best that she can. Sister Magdalene is played by Janet Henfrey, known to fans as Miss Hardaker the spinster in The Curse of Fenric, and the role she plays here is similar. Sister Magdalene is the type of nun who is all for the burning of books if she deems them heretical and adheres to the most conservative of religious vows. She is responsible for the burning of several texts and the other nuns hate her, effectively making her an antagonist for this story. Alex Kingston is clearly having a delight as River runs circles around this nun. However, ‘Abbey of Heretics‘ has one major plotting issue: it’s a pretty indistinct story among the rest of the set. Coming directly off ‘Colony of Strangers’ there is no sense of setting with this story. Myles never really establishes the setting as the 12th century until halfway through when describing the medical applications to the ill sisters, and the setting really doesn’t influence the story. There is this sense of disconnect as this abbey could be in any place and essentially at any time. It makes a lot of the story feel confused as what it wants to be: is comes across mostly as chastising the conservative religious practices at such isolated abbeys, but that really doesn’t come across as well as it could. It’s still a decent story, just needing a bit more of clarity as to what it wants to be. 6/10.
The best story from this set comes from new writer James Kettle. ‘Barrister to the Stars’ is a pretty tongue in cheek whodunnit style story exploring the English legal system with River on trial for the murder of the Duke of Ferrox and taking a barrister from 20th Century England as her solicitor. River chooses 20th Century English Law as her form of trial because it would take the longest, giving her enough time to figure out just who the actual murderer is before it is too late for her. The highlight of this story are the interactions between River and her solicitor, Roger Hodgkiss, as they have an incredible dynamic, setting up River as the underdog in the case and Hodgkiss as her solicitor creates this comedic repartee which really brings the story together. David Rintoul as Hodgkiss plays the role as this incredibly upper class, established lawyer who genuinely cares for the people he defends. He is set up as always the defendant, and never the prosecutor with perhaps not the absolute best home life, and this story almost teaches him some real satisfaction in his career. There is this mask Hodgkiss puts on as he is genuinely terrified of being plucked out of his familiar life and into an alien space station, to interact with aliens and defend River. Sure the conclusion ends up becoming a bit too predictable for my tastes, and there is a slightly muddled message in there with characters attempting to overcome their past mistakes, but still facing the consequences of their own actions, but overall it’s a great story and really makes the box set. 9/10.
Roy Gill’s ‘Carnival of Angels‘ finishes the box set and sets itself up as a pastiche on the film noir genre, complete with River in her Melody Malone persona, late 1930s New York as a setting, and narration by the man who hires River to investigate the strange case of his own death. Yeah, there is no secret that this is the release with the Weeping Angels and attempts to feed into The Angels Take Manhattan, establishing the idea of major and minor arcana in the angels and perhaps a better explanation for the Statue of Liberty looking Angel. The actual noir mystery pastiche really only lasts through the first half of the story, as the second half shifts to investigating the mysterious Miss Quirke on Coney Island and her henchman who has electrokinetic powers. This two half structure makes “Carnival of Angels” feel incredibly disjointed with the first half setting up a time loop, but giving some genuinely nice mystery work from River and her assistant Luke (From Series 5’s ‘Animal Instinct’), and the second as a bit of a meandering expose of a carnival. That isn’t to say the story isn’t enjoyable, the cast is great and the Weeping Angels are used effectively, especially in the creative ways they are defeated, it’s just one where either there needs to be two episodes to help facilitate the differences in tone and story structure. As it stands “Carnival of Angels” is good, just not great. 7/10.
Overall, Series Seven of The Diary of River Song is a good set tied together by the types of stories it tells, but ranges in quality a bit not really making it a consistent set. 7.5/10.