River Song (Alex Kington) was married to the Doctor in Doctor Who, making her last appearance opposite Peter Capaldi. This spin-off series continues her adventures.
One thing that was established in the TV series was that River Song was a detective, operating in New York under the name Melody Malone. For the Seventh Series of her spin-off, Big Finished did an anthology release featuring River encountering mysteries in a series of different genres from Scandinavian Noir to Legal Dramas.
“Colony of Strangers” finds River Song in a Nordic Noir story on an Earth Colony world that just happens to feature a Fjord and a perpetually frozen landscape. Bodies of creatures begin washing up on the shore where River Song is renting her house and the local police begin to suspect her.
The mystery, its solution, and the sci-fi element are all well thought out, but ultimately what makes this story so compelling is how it goes all in on its concept. This is River Song doing Nordic Noir and they hold to that pattern, unlike the 2018 Doctor Who audio story Hunting Grounds which borrowed some elements but was essentially a Doctor Who story. It maintains clipped stylized dialogue, sparse soundscape, and a downbeat feel. This could easily come off as pretentious, but it’s done well and the result is something that’s very different from any other River Song story we’ve heard.
In “Abbey of Heretic,” River arrives at a 12th Century convent disguised as a nun. When she arrives she discovers a strange disease spreading with the blame being cast throughout the nunnery.
“Abbey of Heretics” is inspired by the Brother Caedfel Mysteries and the TV adaptions starring Derek Jacobi which are set during the same time period. This is a fairly good story, though it felt longer than it needs to be. There’s a great sense of atmosphere and each of the characters is well-drawn. I also thought it showed a sufficient amount of respect for faith.
In “Barrister to the Stars”, River’s accused of murder at a bizarre space station. River appoints an English attorney from the 20th Century as her barrister. This is a remarkable story, particularly for the writer’s first Big Finish. While the writer cited a number of sources in the extras, Rumpole of the Bailey’s influences are clear from the barrister’s asides during Counsel/judge statements, and he refers to himself as an old Bailey hack. This is nearly a perfect Rumpole pastiche but set…in space. David Rintoul is fantastic as the barrister.
There’s quite a bit of imagination and world building that goes into creating this situation and the weird and amazing creatures that inhabit it. It’s a wonderful, hilarious, and practically flawless mix of genres.
“Carnival of Angels” is the only story in the set that doesn’t standalone. It’s a prequel to the Doctor Who TV episode, “The Angels Take Manhattan” and also sees the return of what seemed to be a one-off assistant character from the fifth River Song box set, though its not required to have listened to that story as its explained with some blatantly expositional dialogue.
The story finds River Song operating as a private detective in New York City as Melody Malone when a hard-boiled musician comes into her office to report he saw someone murdered…himself.
Like all the stories, this one aims for a sense of atmosphere…this time the feeling of 1930s and 40s Film Noir. It hits somewhat, but at times it tries too hard and at others gaps in knowledge show up. For example, the writer has American characters use British idioms like, “What are you playing at…”
Still, there are are some spooky moments as well as a great hook for the start of the episode. Despite the flaws, most American production companies couldn’t have done better in creating the feel of film noir. So this story was still a worthwhile hour of listening.
Overall, if you liked River Song on Doctor Who, or if you just like mysteries with a Science Fiction twist, this is a pretty good box set with Barrister of the Stars easily the highlight of the set.
Rating: 4.25 out of 5