Review: The Diary of River Song – Friend Of The Family

Review by Cavan Gilbey

River Song has had a bit of a fandom redemption I feel thanks to Big Finish, sure she had a ton of fans thanks to her TV outings (myself included) but the Classic Who fans and those who weren’t massively enamoured with Moffatt’s writing style would probably need a lot of convincing to like Doctor Song. That’s where the Diary of River Song range seems to come in, offering a fun bridging of the worlds of Classic and New Who along with plenty of original stories. I’d heard the second, fifth, and sixth volumes before coming into series 11. I had really positive experiences with the former two but was hugely disappointed by what felt like fanservice for the sake of fanservice in volume 6. But Friend of the Family offers a new avenue for the series; a distinct absence of Doctor Who elements. Previously we’d either have had a prior Doctor, companion or foe but here we have a completely original and stand-alone story which gives River the time to shine she deserves.

Following the mystery of who has vandalised her diary, River and assistant Hugo find themselves catapulted back through time. River needs to hop through the timelines of the many occupants of Hideaway House, trying to fulfil the rules set about by a prophetic note written in her handwriting. With a mystery to solve, and the lives of the Mortimers to watch over, River needs to ensure no paradoxes or tragedies. What could possibly go wrong?

Tim Foley, as I have probably mentioned in some previous reviews, has very quickly become one of my favourite Big Finish writers. Between The Gulf, Everybody Loves Reagan and Auld Lang Syne Foley has proven that he shines in telling character driven emotional dramas where the focus is never so much on the threat of alien incursion, but so on how threats and tension really effect the human psyche as they have to come to terms with worlds being bigger and more hostile than they can imagine. Friend of the Family strips away the idea of alien incursion completely, essentially preventing us with a story with no central threat outside of the social conditions of the eras Rover travels to. This is essentially River taking the role of the Time-Travellers Wife as she hops around piecing together the history of the Mortimers, and it works perfectly. There is never a point where you are unintentionally confused, the twists and turns are given to you just at the right moments and can very easily see myself blasting through this in one sitting on the reslisten thanks to extremely tight pacing.

This single four hour story allows Foley to craft something really intimate. Characters are dragged even further to the forefront and much of the first episode is spent introducing us to the different social circles River will be moving around in; we’ve got a got a couple in 2014, a brother and sister in ’62 and an unhappy husband and wife in 1936. This could seem like a lot, even for a full four hours, but Foley balances this greatly and paints a vivid portrait of each family member and their surroundings. If I had to choose a favourite of the bunch though, I found myself enjoying the ’62 story line the most. George and Mary are a wonderful pair of siblings, their dynamic is always stunted by this need for secrecy from George as he attempts to hide his identity. Pair all this with Ken Bentley’s excellent direction, which easily grabs those deeply emotional performances and gets them centre stage, and Howard Carter’s varied and often melancholic score then you have a recipe for success.

The theme of identity is explored excellently throughout, often providing some quite profound social commentary regarding how certain periods handle the idea of sexuality. The interesting thematic mirroring of Maddie, George and Harry is handled beautifully. We go from Maddie’s lesbianism causing violent outbursts in a husband who can’t and won’t try to understanding what she’s going through, seeing it as a mental sickness which drives him to do a terrible thing. George’s is perhaps the most tragic of the three in a way, he passes away due to skiing accident when he visits his lover in Switzerland. No-one really has the chance to find out who he really is, at least not on his own terms or in his own words. Finally there’s Harry, a happy ending to the history of the Mortimers as he is set to marry his boyfriend Vinay. Said marriage scene is one of the most wonderful things Foley has written into his stories, its an excellent finale to the set and really celebrates the idea of identity and expression in a way that pairs really well with Secret Diary of Rhodian Prince, which was released in the same month.

The cast are all on fine form in this one. Alex Kingston never disappoints as River, but here she really gets to flex those acting muscles as she gets the chance to really play this more affectionate part of River who is so in love with the friends she’s making. But there is also this hidden sadness as she knows saving some of the Mortimers is not an options, even though you can tell she desperately wants to. Mark Elstob does a really good job playing Hugo here, whom initially starts as a very straight laced University representative before coming out of his shell and getting the chance to forge an identity outside of being a simple hologram. The many Mortimers are all played to pitch perfection, with particular praise being given to Jemima Rooper as Mary, Lillie Flynn as the young Maddie and Matt Addis as George. These performers really sell the difficult nature of being a Mortimer, in being part of a family that has such a rocky history and how that weighs on each member in interesting and unique ways.

The Diary of River Song has hit a new height with this release. It really is a magical experience and is bound to win over many a Song cynic. If you haven’t heard this one, go buy it or borrow it from your mate who does have it, and if you have heard it then get right back in there because this is going to be one of those sets that shall be remembered for all the right reasons.


Review: The Diary of River Song – Two Rivers And A Firewall

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