Big Finish Productions released the latest “season” or “box set” of Doctor Who spinoff The Diary of River Song this week. Alex Kingston‘s River Song is a character so limitless in potential that the writers are just giddy with where they can take her. She’s a character who literally can go anywhere and do anything, appear in any genre without missing a beat. A time-traveling con woman, thief, mercenary, adventuress, archeologist who’s mostly Chaotic Good is like every writer’s perfect Swiss Army Knife character.
This sixth series dives even deeper into fan fiction territory. River has an adventure that takes place before a major story in the first four Doctors’ eras.
“An Unearthly Woman” by Matt Fitton
River goes back to 1963 before “An Unearthly Child” took place and goes undercover as a teacher at Coal Hill School. She surprises Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright with her progressive feminist attitude and how she seems to know everything. River is there to make sure Susan and her grandfather are safe from a rumour she heard about an alien danger to them both.
This episode sets the tone for the rest of the set. A fan fiction side story that takes place before the Doctor’s story begins and the show gets on its way. River is there to make sure the Doctor’s future happens so that she actually comes to exist. And yes, David Bradley has a brief cameo as the First Doctor.
“The Web of Time” by John Dorney
This takes place before the Second Doctor story “The Web of Fear”. River goes to 1968 London where the city has been evacuated and the British Army are fighting android Yetis. She’s there to steal a priceless painting for a client from the future. Nothing ever goes according to plan. River ends up having to do the right thing before the Doctor shows up.
“Peepshow” by Guy Adams
This takes place after the third Doctor story “Carnival of Monsters”. In that story, the Doctor and Jo Grant get trapped in a miniscope, a miniturised zoo of aliens. Well, River gets trapped in one that she was trying steal from a 20th Century office building. She and a nervous Earth security guard have to deal with an angry Sontaran army, pissed-off Orgon mercenaries and rampaging Drashig. Dan Starkey gets to play another surly Sontaran here because they’re all clones, after all.
River gets to meet the Third Doctor. After all, what fan fiction would be complete without a cameo from the Third Doctor?
“The Talents of Greel” by Paul Morris
This takes place before the Fourth Doctor and Leela adventure “The Talons of Weng Chiang.” River Song shows up in Victorian London and talks theatre impresario Henry Gordon Jago into hiring her for his act. She uses the job as cover to search for alien technology and investigate the disappearance of women from the streets. The baddies are of course the ones who end up in the show. River has finish her mission before the Fourth Doctor shows up and save the day for everyone else. Before that, she has to contend with Victorian era sexism and sing a bawdy song on stage.
The meta reference come thickest in this final story in this series. Jago will meet Professor George Litefoot in “The Talons of Weng Chiang” and the two have their own Big Finish spinoff series.
Kingston is clearly having a ball with the The Diary of River Song series. She gets to do all kinds of things that most actors don’t. There’s a very thin line between River Song and a writer’s wish-fulfillment fantasy because River, like the fan, already knows all the spoilers. That’s the whole drive behind the character. The entire point of Big Finish audio dramas is pretty much fan fiction as comfort food, and they’ve perfected that. There’s nothing wrong with fan fiction. The best writers use it to explore themes beyond just fan service, and Big Finish stories are often better than most shows on TV.
And you could say it’s not “fan fiction” if it’s officially licensed…
“The Diary of River Song: Series Six” is available digitally or on disc from Big Finish.