For the past ten series, The Diary of River Song has coasted along with a familiar format: four stories by four writers, loosely linked by a theme or story arc. With its eleventh series, however, the range takes a step into the unknown, giving us one four-hour long story written by Tim Foley. It’s called Friend of the Family… and it’s one of the best things Big Finish have ever given us.
With four hours at his disposal, Tim Foley crafts an immense puzzle-box of a story, with more mysteries, twists and turns than you could possibly imagine. Trapped in a big old house called Hideaway, and only able to travel between the years 1936, 1962, 1988 and 2014, River must solve an inscrutable riddle written on pages from her diary in order to escape. But standing in her way is the Mortimer family, some of whom will be her allies and some of whom will oppose her.
Each member of the family is exquisitely developed and beautifully performed, having their own unique dynamic with River and a vital role in how the story unfolds. Though this is undeniably River’s story too, the Mortimers have an enormous part to play, showing us new things about our beloved heroine, and vice versa.
Director Ken Bentley assembles a top-tier cast to bring the Mortimers to life, led by the likes of Wendy Craig, Tim Bentinck and Isla Blair, all of whom are predictably brilliant in their roles. Surprisingly, though, it’s the younger cast who make the strongest impressions. Jack Holden and Ronak Patani share excellent chemistry as Harry Mortimer and his boyfriend Vinay, and a certain scene between them in the third part brought a tear to my eye. Matt Addis‘s George is similarly effective; though we learn his eventual fate early on in the story, this only adds to the success of his character, imbuing his interactions with River and Jemima Rooper‘s Mary with a subtle tragedy. Even James Camp and Vineeta Rishi as Thomas and Carla impress, despite their characters being the least developed in the set.
The standout performances, however, are from Lillie Flynn and Joseph Capp as Maddie and Henry Mortimer, a couple from 1936 going through a very rough patch in their relationship, and indeed in their own lives. Flynn’s Maddie starts off cold and cruel, but eventually becomes the emotional heart of the entire storyline, and her final scene almost had me sobbing in the street as I listened, such was the strength of her performance and the potency of Foley’s writing. Meanwhile, Capp’s Henry transforms from a charming husband into a very nasty piece of work indeed, giving us a heart-thumping scene at the end of episode three where the story is both turned on its head and comes together all at once.
Alongside the family are the characters of Hugo and Cook, both of whom come from the same sci-fi tinged world as River. Mark Elstob is a delight as the hologrammatic Hugo, a well-mannered but fussy member of the Luna University faculty who serves as River’s companion for this tale. So tightly-written is Foley’s script that even Hugo has a storyline of his own, seeing him become involved with Phyllida Nash‘s slightly bitter Cook in some rather unexpected ways.
And then, of course, there’s Alex Kingston. My goodness, what a performance she gives! I’ve seen someone say online that this is the definitive River story at Big Finish, and I’d have to agree. Both Foley’s script and Kingston’s performance capture everything about what makes River such an enduring character; sure, there’s her sass and charm and general badassery, but there’s also a beautiful emotional depth present here, recalling her initial appearance in Silence in the Library. There’s a particular scene in episode four that took my breath away but, honestly, Kingston is just perfect throughout. The definitive River Song story indeed!
Another reason this story resonated with me was Foley’s sensitive and thoughtful depiction of queerness throughout. Despite the story being set in the past at times, Foley ensures that, even though homosexuality was illegal at the time, those who were unable to disclose their sexuality or who were punished for it are not forgotten. I listened to this story at the same time as writing a paper about Oscar Wilde for my Master’s degree and, as a queer person myself, being surrounded by such a positive depiction of present-day homosexuality, as well as an exploration of what it meant to be homosexual in the past, not only made me feel incredibly seen, but served as an important reminder that my freedom to be who I am is built on the struggles and efforts of those who came before me.
A period drama, a mystery, a love story and a ghost story rolled into one, Friend of the Family is an absolute triumph and, dare I say, Tim Foley‘s magnum opus. There are no histrionics, no chases or explosions, no crammed-in returning elements: just four hours of beautiful, character-driven story led by one of the best casts Big Finish has ever assembled. Not only do I highly recommend this story, I urge you to pick it up. Flawless.
The Diary of River Song: Friend of the Family is available on CD or as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com