The Orphan Quartet is the final chapter in the popular Big Finish series, The Diary of River Song. It’s a series that started with pairing River Song (Alex Kingston) with some of the classic Doctors. Now in its twelfth volume, these drawcard characters have turned into Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri) and the return of the Krotons. While this doesn’t excite me as much as Series 3 did with the return of the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), there’s still a part of me that was really excited.
Not only was I going to listen anyway, the last entry in the series Friend of the Family was among Big Finish’s best output ever, but the impact of the out-there random factor shouldn’t be understated. Yes it can be laughable at first, but I’ve never come across a pairing on audio that didn’t justify itself. This entry is also the finale, a potential farewell to the character having a big starring role at Big Finish. Let’s hope it goes out with a bang as we see what the Diary of River Song has to offer in its final hours.
The Excise Men
This set opener from writer Lou Morgan finds Professor Song in an 18th Century Smuggler’s Inn. As the intro to the final set of the series, especially considering where the series has been previously, this isn’t one of the greatest episodes I’ve heard. It was more than serviceable though. As an old-timey horror tale, it worked surprisingly well on audio. The sound design of Big Finish’s audio ranges is always top notch, and this really is no exception.
There was a guest spot from Jade Matthew as a young barmaid. She’s really the heart of the story, every scene she shared with River was as amazing as it was gutwrenching. Both Matthew and Kingston turn in absolute powerhouse performances. There’s an aura of sadness and grief throughout the whole piece. That being said, it’s never quite as poignant as perhaps it should have been. Grounding the story’s heart in the youth, trying to undo the mistakes of the past, could have been a whole lot more.
These stories are linked together by grief, both having a presence in each of the four stories, and also being set shortly after River lost her own parents. It’s a powerful presence and setting, one which the story should’ve leaned into harder. The Excise Men are terrifying, but it could have been a lot more. It was a little disappointing as an opener, but definitely set the stage for the stories to come.
Harvest of the Krotons
This second story comes to us from longtime Big Finish contributor James Goss. It’s about Krotons in a health spa. Such a funny and outlandish premise for a story means that River can only team up with one person, Jackie Tyler. After a small tease in Once & Future, it only makes sense. This is a story clearly hellbent on not taking itself too seriously. Big on comedy, big on heart, and it revels in having the strangest setup I’ve ever seen for a story.
Like other stories in the set, it only runs for about an hour. I had the biggest grin on my face the entire time. Coduri and Kingston are amazing together, each of their characters unhinged in their own respects. The combination of the two, particularly as leads in the story, spells both danger for the Krotons and hilarity for the audience. It relies on character and story tropes experienced listeners would be all too familiar with, but turns itself into an almost self-aware comedy.
The Krotons are among the strangest choices for villain. I feel choosing them exemplifies the silliness I was talking about earlier, but of all people to be running a cult-like health spa, it makes sense. After all, the Krotons are at heart, crystal people focused on education and turning people into batteries. It cannot be stressed enough what a delight this was to listen to though. It’s as fast paced as the leads are fast talking, and it doesn’t let the listener go until the credits roll. Sometimes we all need a new direction point, and yours should be listening to this story.
Dead Man Talking
This third story comes from writer Tim Foley. Foley previously contributed the amazing and very emotional Friend of the Family. Going in, this was definitely the story I was most excited to listen to. I know he’s written shorter form stories in the past, but I was very interested to see what he would do after such long form experimentation. The answer is perhaps the best, most grief stricken story on the set.
Delving into the specifics of the Earth’s wreckage and what the lady’s relic is would be a disservice to anyone wanting to enjoy the story. It creates one of the most emotional stories in the history of the range, with a very memorable guest star in Carol Royle as Mrs Prendergast. For a character who exists entirely within the hour long episode, she becomes very three dimensional.
It’s one of those guest spots that totally elevates the story. Her character takes what could’ve been an average story and turns it into something truly special. Some of her scenes, particularly toward the end, stuck in my head actual days after I’d listened to it. A listening experience that needs to be heard to be believed, the best story of the set. If you’re only going to listen to one episode, make it this one.
The Wife of River Song
The series finale for The Diary of River Song was written by Lizzie Hopley. I remember back when it was first announced that my head flooded with ideas of a particular Doctor making a surprise audio debut. Then I read the synopsis and figured it would be more akin to “The Vanquishers”, but with multiple Rivers instead. What we got wasn’t any of those, but it wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination either.
Instead this is the story for the return of Brooke (Nina Toussaint-White) in a tale full of twists, time travel, and fakeouts. Brooke’s a character that new listeners probably aren’t familiar with, making this a finale that’s a lot more of a treat for longtime listeners of the range. It’s fitting for a finale, and her return and reunion with River is simultaneously emotional and necessary.
For a set that was all about grief, and River’s journey in accepting loss, it’s the perfect place to end the set. Her reunion with Brooke is also perfect as a followup to the aftershock of River losing her parents. Kingston’s as electrifying as always, but there’s something special here. Within an hour we’re taken on multiple adventures, and she gets to sink her teeth into some really dramatic material. While it’s not quite the finale we were expecting, it’s a more than fitting finale to the set and the series.
We don’t know what the future holds for River Song at Big Finish. This was marketed as the end of the series, and even now, no further guest appearances or spinoffs have been announced. The series is still going very strong, with the middle two episodes in particular being fantastic. There’s still life in the range, as well as Kingston’s ability to capture the character. I really hope this isn’t the last we hear of her.
You can pick up your own copy of The Diary of River Song: The Orphan Quartet from Big Finish Productions. It’s available both physically and digitally at the link here. For coverage, news, reviews, talking lore, and more discussions about all things Doctor Who, be sure to follow Tardis Central!
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