Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Apocalypse Element written by Stephen Cole and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about? When the planet Archetryx is threatened by a Dalek assault squad, the Doctor and Evelyn become embroiled in an ever-deepening mystery. What has become of President Romana, missing for twenty years? What lurks in the vast gravity wells of Archetryx? What is the secret of the ancient element the Daleks are synthesising - and how does Gallifrey feature in the plans?
The Doctor finds that if his oldest enemies cannot conquer the universe they will watch it go up in flames...

Softer Six: Heading the fantastic characterisation on display in this audio, the Doctor continues his run of luck from Marian and Spectre. Colin Baker has put some real thought in how to exploit this script and in the first episode he is very quiet and grave and his performance becomes steadily more dramatic as the threat escalates before blowing his top in spectacular style in episode four, one of the best moments yet from Big Finish and quoted in its entirety below. There are so many aspects to the sixth Doctor these days it is impossible to reconcile him with the bully who everybody hates from season 22. He has a spectacularly low opinion of Vansell, thinks he is self serving and avaricious and is proven right by the end of episode two. His is a terrible reputation amongst the Time Lords and is known by many colourful names. There is a quiet sigh when he wonders if he will ever be rid of the Daleks. He is extremely protective of Evelyn in a very sweet way (he even kisses her in the heat of the moment!) that we have never seen before but is more than happy to use her if the situation requires it because she is so useful. He is shocked by Romana’s lack of compassion and has to remind her several times there is an emotional stake in all this destruction. He does not think the TARDIS is quaint. There is a gorgeous scene where he gives his friends the chance to walk away because what he is proposing is insanely dangerous and he very gently thanks them all for being willing to risk their lives. His sheer horror at the destruction at the climax is palpable, as is his joy at the formation of another galaxy. This is a very trying experience for the sixth Doctor and he acquits himself very well. Great job.

Learned Lecturer: You would think with so much going on Evelyn would be overlooked but even when there are bodies flying and planets exploding she manages to get more than a few moments to shine. She has her first experience of TARDIS buffering and it leaves her quite shaken. She is subtle and discreet, pretty and functional. There is a hilarious moment when she is surrounded by aliens and is agog with pleasure with the sheer oddness of some of them. She asks the right questions and there is never any question of her not doing the right thing, putting herself in danger over and over, facing bombs and Daleks. Evelyn tidies up after the Doctor. She becomes vital to the plot in later episodes when her retina pattern is the made the master key to operating every system on Gallifrey, to her delight and the disgust of the xenophobic Time Lords. During a tense sequence Evelyn delights at being escorted by guards, thinking she was too old to give squaddies the eye. Her apology to the Doctor after his spectacular rant in episode four is heartbreaking. These two sing when they’re together.

Aristocratic Adventurer: The remarkable Lalla Ward returns to Doctor in a shower of fireworks. I thought nobody could top Baker and Stables but there are scenes she effortlessly steals with her commanding and ice cold delivery of Romana’s lines. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, Romana has left E-Space and returned to Gallifrey. The current (retiring) Lord President fought to bring her to power, despite objections. She was on Etra Prime when the Daleks stole the planet and has been their prisoner for 20 years, emaciated and atrophying. She desperately wants to travel again, to go through a door and not know what’s on the other side. Her captivity has left her out of shape; the Daleks took away everything from her except her Presidency. Reminding us of the cheeky traveller of old she thinks the Doctor will make a beastly mess if he is left on his own, tells him he is in the wrong body and during her bluff to the Daleks she admits (with more than a ring of truth) that she is too old and important to be taking orders from the Doctor. She manages to pacify the Daleks mentally, suggesting formidable telepathic powers. At the climax she questions why they are saving the universe only to expose it to Dalek subjugation, only for the Doctor to remind her once again that it is always worth saving lives.

Great ideas: Oh Christ where do I start. I have always been an ideas mean, I have to be straight with you. I like my science fiction to be big and bold as well as small and intimate and I just love it when a writer packs in loads of clever ideas and dramatises them in a way that I had never seen before. It happened in The Last Resort, probably one of the most loathed EDAs of the lot but I adored it because it took a genuinely groundbreaking idea (that each scene was taking place in an alternative universe and you were reading subtly different takes on each character from one scene to the next) and took it too a truly mind blowing conclusion (thousands of Doctors, Fitz’s, Anji’s and TARDISes encrusting on a desert plain…what a visual!). The Apocalypse Element is similarly loathed and yet the escalating threat in this story is like a dangerous swelling of drama, finally bursting in that last gloriously destructive final episode. There are so many good ideas in this story they all deserve a mention.
The planetoid Etra Prime is missing, stolen by the Daleks and strip mined for a rare element. They are piloting the planet through space and in a moment of utter cruelty they set the planet to collide with Archetryx destroying both now they have what they have raped the planetoid of what they needed, leaving no evidence of their activities.
This story is practically audio Dalek pornography with the grisly mutants shedding their casings and attacking the Doctor and Trinket in a tense sequence. They are the epitome of evil in this story, willing sacrifice anything to achieve their goal. Daleks commit suicide by detonating their shells to prevent people escaping and to get through doors on Gallifrey. They murder indiscriminately, killing everybody on both Etra Prime and Archetryx and slaughtering Gallifreyans galore to satisfy their bloodlust. In one particularly squeamish scene they burn out the eyes of a near-dead Gallifreyan (his scream is horrible) and use them to access systems. The final indignity though is their diabolical scheme to cause death on such a scale as the only alternative to their subjugation of the universe. Abominable. Even when trounced the Daleks refuse to acknowledge defeat, seeing the newly formed Serephian galaxy as a million worlds for the Daleks to conquer. Their arrogance and genocidal lust is so out of control now it is unsurprising that the Time War (of which Russell T Davies mentioned in the Doctor Who Annual 2006 that the ‘Etra Prime incident’ was one of the opening skirmishes of) took things to their natural conclusion, utter destruction for both Empires.
But wait…there’s more! We’re introduced to the Monan Host, a new temporal power who we will be seeing a lot more of in the future. There is a chilling image of 300 corpses turning up on Archetryx riddled with time distortion. The Dalek replaced the rulers of Archetryx years ago with their duplicates.
The Daleks invading Gallifrey should be the centrepiece of the story but things get much more dramatic than that. However their method, stealing a Monan Host ship and duping the Time Lords into thinking they are a Monan evacuee fleet in need of assistance. It wouldn’t work as a ploy in narrative terms if the Time Lords weren’t so greedy in wanting to get their hands on Monan technology. There is almost a feeling of justice as the Daleks pour out of the ship cutting them down. Even more brilliantly they try the same sort of ruse again…’Oh Time Lords, we cannot control the element…let us in and we can work together to contain it!’ Unbelievable underhandness.
The Apocalypse Element is a focussing device allowing the Daleks to channel their thoughts. It is woven into the very fabric of the universe and with Monan and Time Lord technology they can hold the whole of time and space at ransom. The destruction of the Serephia (four times the size of the Milky Way) is something of a minor demonstration of what they could have achieved.

Standout Performance: Lalla Ward for her devastating speech in episode two where she describes 20 years being trapped with the Daleks. Not only does she sounds as though she only left days ago she has come back better than ever, aristocratic, officious and downright sexy.

Sparkling Dialogue: Subverting my expectations after some of the unconvincing dialogue scenes in Land of the Dead, there were some blinding lines in this story, including a powerful speech by the Doctor that really drives home the severity of the situation (Colin Baker’s pitch perfect performance helps immeasurably) so see if you can spot which one it is below.
‘It looks like our phantom planetoid is back!’
‘Who would risk the wrath of so many galactic powers?’
‘If it’s any consolation there are still about 20 Daleks who missed the bus!’ – Evelyn cuts to the point with great humour.
‘Trust Time Lords to be the most clinical gossips around.’ – Trinket bitches about ‘contact’.
‘Now I’ve seen everything. A Dalek sillied me off!’
‘The Daleks are invading Gallifrey!’ – the only cliffhanger that really matters!
‘If Gallifrey falls imagine what the Daleks will set their sights on next?’ Indeed!
‘Knowledge like this can blow your filthy, twisted little minds! Romana on fine form.
‘Half the science we’ve used is nonsense!’ ‘No change there then.’ The Doctor and Romana sparring.
‘You can’t take it in, can you? Oh the blessing of a human mind. It’s a matter of perspective Evelyn. Let’s take your own galaxy, the Milky Way, an area of space so vast that if it were reduced to the size of the United States of America the Earth would be less than the smallest mote of dust barely visible through an electron microscope. Serephia is four times the size of the Milky Way and in just a few hours six hundred billion stars will be as snuffed out candles to a new sun, a ball of fire 400, 000 light years across and from there it will spread on and on and on through the 100 billion other galaxies in the universe! The death toll will be as incalculable as it will be absolute and by the end there will be nothing left! Nothing!’ The performances in this scene are perfect, proving Nick Briggs is just as good at directing actors as he is blowing stuff up; Evelyn’s digging, the Doctor’s rising anger, Vansell’s gentle warning, Evelyn’s shock and finally the Doctor’s anguished apology.
‘All those lives. So many magical worlds I’ll never know.’
‘Life from Death.’

Audio Landscape: The Apocalypse Element is an audio tour de force for Nick Briggs who provides a glorieux portmanteau landscape, combining dramatic music, varied sound effects and superb performances to gripping effect. Alien crowds scenes suggest a Cantina of different races. The multitude of Dalek sounds is impressive, from the mind blowing Black Dalek voice to the squelchy and shrieking Dalek mutants and the weird farting noises they make as they fall to the floor as the gravity restores. Bombs explode and Daleks self destruct with the sound of an igniting car, all tearing metal and flames and when Romana subdues them in later episodes the Daleks gurgle with drunken pleasure. Etra Prime strikes Archetryx with maximum devastation and Time Lords scream as extermination blasts tear them to pieces. There is a wonderful airless sequence where spacesuits stick to an unventilated surface and you wince when the Daleks burn out the Time Lords eyes. There are also lots of glorious touches of continuity in this story too; the Monan Host ship sounds like Mavic Chen’s Spar, the Doctor’s TARDIS sounds throaty and gorgeous but there is also the SIDRAT noise from The War Games and the wonderful Dalek time ship materialisation from The Chase! The Deadly Assasin Gallifreyan alarm makes an appearance as does the War Games TARDIS bay hum.

  On a more hilarious note, the new super powers in town, The Monan Host, are clearly the mincers of the universe, sounding rather like a cross between Julian Clary and a Bandril.

Musical Cues: Easily Nick Briggs’ best score to date, he makes this dramatic story even punchier. The piano heartbeat that suggests the Daleks presence builds menace superbly and the electronic sting when they appear beautifully suggests the conflict of emotions you are feeling, sheer terror for the characters and pure thrill for the fan in you. There is a superb piece in episode three when the Daleks spot the TARDIS on the scanner screen, the sixth Doctor is on his way to kick their ass and the music reflects the excitement of that. The string music towards the end of episode two works a treat, an urgent we’ve-run-out-of-time feeling but gently played rather than forceful.

Isn’t that Odd: That the trailers are now at the beginning of the play. Maybe nobody was listening to them on the end (I was) but it just feels odd to start the story with a taster of the next story.
This story has a technobabble factor of about 400 trillion.
Was the whole point of Evelyn becoming the key to Gallifrey’s technology simply to explain why they needed a human eye to open the Eye of Harmony in The TV Movie? I hate it when spin off stories go out of their way to explain established continuity in contrived ways. Simply to make Evelyn our salvation was more than reason enough.

Standout Moment: Whilst I would like to choose Romana’s devastating confession in episode two the Colin Baker fan in me chooses his dramatic end-of-the-universe rant in episode four. A truly standout audio moment suggesting the spiky hero of old hasn’t gone anywhere.

Result: An unfairly maligned story, this is leagues ahead from Steve Cole’s previous effort. There is something romantic about defending a derided story but I feel there is more than enough evidence listed above to hold The Apocalypse Element in high esteem. The blockbuster script is powerful and dramatic, with a believable escalating threat and some really meaty ideas and rather than being a soulless action thriller there is some blistering characterisation that keeps this real. Cole’s dialogue has improved in leaps and bounds and the story has some highly quotable lines and the story moves at a frantic pace that never threatens to leave the audience behind. I love a story with huge ideas, science fiction can accommodate the melodrama of universal peril and Doctor Who especially so and Cole introduces a threat so absolute in this story we reach theatrical levels of drama. Colin Baker, Maggie Stables and Lalla Ward all give magnificent performances and Nick Briggs convincingly brings this space opera to life with real gravitas. You might hate it, but I enjoyed it thoroughly in two blocks of two episodes and think this is one of the few stories to sustain its threat from the first scene to the last. Justice for The Apocalypse Element!: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

Dragon’s Wrath by Justin Richards, adapted by Jac Rayner and directed by Ed Salt

What’s it about? The Gamalian Dragon ¬ a jewel-encrusted statuette captured by the warlord Gamaliel from the legendary Knights of Jeneve after the Battle of Bocaro. It is now sought by Romolo Nusek, apparently Gamaliel's descendent, to prove his right to assume his ancestor's mantle as ruler of the Sector. When Benny joins a group seeking to find the legendary statuette, she has a secret. No one can possibly find one on Stanturus because she's already carrying it ¬ left for her by a murdered colleague. The trouble is, the expedition does find one and, as a result, most of them are mysteriously slaughtered. Benny realises she and historian Nicholas Clyde must discern the traitor in their midst. Could it be Gilder, the obsequious administrator from Benny's own university? Could it be Truby Kamadrich, the famous archaeologist? Or might it be the bizarre librarian Reddick, who never leaves Nusek's vaults, protected by an inhospitable volcano?

Archaeological Adventurer: After a whole year of excellent showcases for both Bernice Summerfield and Lisa Bowerman it disappoints me to inform you that Dragon’s Teeth is the first story where Benny doesn’t really have an impact at all. And what a shame it should be the story where we leave the world of the New Adventures and Big Finish try and segue this series into an original storyline for her character. From this point on the Bernice Summerfield adventures are original adventures but after the problems of Dragon’s Wrath it doesn’t leave me with any enthusiasm for those stories. One of my audio bugbears rears its head in this story, people standing around shouting into microphones – and Bowerman’s shrill performance wrapped up in a number of echoed locations left me wincing a hell of a lot! The only thing we learn about Benny is that she considers herself a good archaeologist and is mightily pissed off when she realises that they didn’t want a good archaeologist…and they chose her!

New Theme Music: Good God why…? The original theme tune that played over the first five stories wasn’t the best I had ever heard but it served a purpose and worked to an extent but it is now replaced by a truly diabolical song that makes me ask what went wrong? ‘The thrill of a mystery is my only release…’ – choice lyrics there!

Great Ideas: This audio is adapted from a halfway decent novel, not one of Justin Richards finest but even on autopilot he creates a finely woven plot line with some choice twists. Unfortunately that is not the story that is translated by Big Finish and the finished result is a castrated, condensed and incomprehensible version of the same story. Why the story had to be squeezed onto one disc is not explained (financial reasons?) but a lot of the intelligent detail is lost. What we do have is some of the nicer concepts; the Gamalian Dragon being one of the most guarded artefacts in this region of space and yet it has still been copied, Nusek’s home built into a grumbling volcano like a crazed Bond villain and some nefarious double dealing around the revelation of which copy is the real Gamalian Dragon. But these are merely pleasant gesture to what should have been a well conceived and solid narrative. But Isn’t.

Standout Performance: Gary Russell by miles. He is the only performer who seems even remotely excited about the material and plays Gilder with far more interest than he is written with.

Sparkling Dialogue: Distinctly lacking, or if there was any it was buried under some terrible direction.

Audio Landscape: So much of this story is awkwardly put together or sounds like it is several fake sound FX put together it was really tricky to try and buy the story. Rainfall threatens to overpower the dialogue, cutlery and crockery clink with far too much gusto, the echoey volcano distorts the dialogue, weird squeaky rat creatures assault the ears and there is a general feeling of a director totally out of his depth with such a mammoth production. None of the scenes flow well into each other, they feel like chopped up pieces of actions lazily inserted together – although I blame the music as much as the director for that as the score could make those transitions a lot smoother. The attack of the dog(s) is diabolical because the snarling and barking is unconvincing and it is slapped over the actors performances first too quiet and then far too loud!

Musical Cues: An experimental (that’s a nice way of saying failed) score by S&R Cressida. I quite like the music in the first scene, it sounded amateurish but it had the mysterious edge that the story was going for.
However the rest of the story is punctuated by some really inappropriate percussion instruments that serve no dramatic purpose at all. Somebody will say some dialogue and all of a sudden a cymbal will crash or a drum will crash for no reason and when mixed with the poor script, underwhelming performances and inappropriate direction it is merely another distraction! The music at the end of the story is apoplectic, all the percussion players in the band take to the streets and bang and crash and cause general chaos!

Isn’t the Odd: That this story should be such a disaster? It’s a Justin Richards plot (usually sound), starring Lisa Bowerman (who never gives a poor performance) and directed by Ed Salt (who would go on to direct so of the finest Bernice Summerfield stories). The problems with this story stack up from scene to scene, the horrendous theme tune, the inexplicably long tracks (the longest of the four is over 20 minutes), the terrible dialogue (‘Hi, my friends call me Benny!’), the overpowering sound effects, Richard Franklin giving a hugely theatrical and unconvincing performance, the storyline losing itself in too many twists that have no impact, the underwhelming nature of the climax, the lack of closure for a whole season of adventures…

Result: I’ve been cruel enough: 0/10 Worst audio ever (so far).

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Just War written by Lance Parkin, adapted by Jac Rayner and directed by Gary Russell

Message Sent 2594 – sender Bernice Summerfield
Recipient Joe Ford – 2010
Subject –Nazis

‘I don’t know who I am anymore. I just don’t. Joe…I was tortured. I was tortured by the Nazis, starved, abused and scarred. Jason killed the man responsible but it wasn’t enough, it felt as though I was responsible for that death. I’m sick of thinking about people dying. I just want to be left alone. I wish you were here. You’d say something stupid and inappropriate and it would make me laugh. I just don’t know if I have any laughter left in me. This is depressing, I’ll write again soon in a better mood.’

What’s it about? The Nazis occupy British soil and British citizens are being deported to European concentration camps. Those who do not co-operate with the Germans are shot. This isn't a parallel universe: this is Guernsey, 1941, and it's where Bernice is stranded. With no sign of Jason, she has to endure the full horror of the situation, alone and afraid. And something somewhere has gone wrong. The Nazis are building a secret weapon, one that will have a decisive effect on the outcome of the war - and it's up to Benny to put history back on course...

Archaeological Adventurer: Just War was easily one of the best Bernice books of the entire New Adventures range, up there with Sanctuary and Human Nature. She is pushed to the limit in this story and all of her best qualities shine through, her humanity, humour, her fear in the face of terrible abuse. Brought to life by the impressive Lisa Bowerman, Bernice breaks your heart in this story. Her quivering, close to the edge voice makes you long to be able to step into the story and hold her. With this story seen through Bowerman’s eyes it feels more like documentary footage of genuine Nazi horrors than an audio adventure, she’s that convincing. At the beginning of this story she has been living on Guernsey during the Second World War fro 3 months with her hair dyed blond and posing as Celia Doras. A war took her real mother from her and so it is only fitting that it should give her another. There is a subtle, edgy but still very warm relationship between Bernice and Ma Doras and they feel all the closer because of the stifling atmosphere the story generates. Bernice has suddenly become aware of her own morality and she is terrified of it. One of the Nazi’s, Gerhard, fancies her and in a horrible moment of realisation she has to murder him when he realises she isn’t who she says she is. To protect Ma and herself. She disarms a German office as she has had more combat training than him. She makes jokes about being a helpless victim of Nazi terror but she is really shaken up here. She thinks she should have been shot because she doesn’t feel strong anymore. Tameka (no!) is looking after Wolsey and she misses both them and the 26th Century. She witnesses Marie having her neck snapped and confronts her killer only to be arrested, deprived of sleep, food or any comfort. Her attempts to sound brave in the face of this inhumanity, Bowerman’s broken weak speech where she admits how scared she is will break your heart. Her ‘Don’t leave!’ to Kitzsel at the end of one is utterly chilling. When Bernice finally turns the tables and manages to overpower Kitzsel it is a punch the air moment and when she shoves her in the draw that is far too small for her it can only feel like a moment of justice. She cries when she realises that the torture is over. Her reaction when Jason kills Wolff is absolute horror and she can barely string a sentence together. She admits that she still loves him but at the moment she can’t feel a thing. At the end of the story she has a new diary and wants to be alone with herself. She remembers having feelings for Jason but not what they were. She cannot feel anything anymore wondering is she is still a woman of peace. Haunting.

Lovable Loser: A fantastic showing for Jason that allows him to be far more than the lovable rogue we have seen so far in this series. Of course he bollocks this up, as the Susan Meyer of the Bernice series everything he does is bound to turn to shite but accidentally giving a Nazi genius the idea of radar and thus prompting the invention of a stealth bomber than could swing the war in their favour is probably about as stupid as it gets. Careless talk costs lives, right? Jason is not sure whether he comes from the 26th Century or the 1990’s anymore. He was kidnapped by aliens and taken to the future where he met his wife. In a horrifying moment he admits that his dad used to beat him, his sister had her fingers broken and he was forced to sell his body on the streets to make ends meet. Or perhaps he was just looking for something he wasn’t getting at home. He wonders if his Dad’s bullying behaviour was a result of Nazi cruelty. Jason’s discussions with Steinmann show him at his most intelligent and humane. His anger at Bernice’s treatment and his shooting of Wolff allows the audience to get close to him like never before, his shaking anger when the German officer boasts of hurting Bernice leaves him only one course of action.

Great Ideas: Whilst this is primarily a story of unforgettable character moments there are still a number of healthy ideas floating about. Jason accidentally mentions radar in a bar to a German officer and he adapts this technology and creates the German stealth bombers. Bernice is responsible for six villagers being shot dead because she murdered Gerhard. The very idea of torturing Benny in this fashion is a brave and discomforting notion. Steinmann discussing the glory of the Nazi’s should be clichéd and embarrassing but he actually makes a sound case in their defence by simply admiring his people so much. Stealing the Nazi stealth plane returns this series to its adventure story roots and driving it over Southampton with explosions detonating as the Germans try to bring them down is one of the best set pieces in this season. The conclusion keeps pushing the audience as Steinmann reads Bernice’s diary which talks of the end of the war. Whilst he pretends that this is a fantasy written by a deluded woman Steinmann murders Franz who has also read its contents, declaring that it is sad that his parents would have to think of him as a traitor. He is quietly disgusted by the contents, declaring that that future will not take place.

Standout Performance: Lisa Bowerman gives what is probably her best performance in her entire ten seasons in this story and considering the strength of some of her performances to come that is quite a statement. She’s heartbreakingly good at preying on our emotions and manages to become a martyr by simply caring as much as she does.
The guest cast are astonishing. Maggie Stables puts in a typically reliable performance; this is years before we see some of the more shattering moments in Evelyn’s life and so the terrified Ma Doras is something of an acting coup for her.
Mark Gatiss’ Wolff is terrifying, more so because he exudes a quiet menace. His character is aware of his power over the women of the island and he fucks with them mentally before murdering them, in a totally sadistic fashion. For an actor this must be the sort part they dream of playing.
Michael Wade impresses as the ‘acceptable side of fascism.’ He’s personable, humane but he loves the Nazi party through and through. His reaction to knowledge of the future is one of absolute horror, understandably so.

Sparkling Dialogue: So much of this story is beautifully written, unforgettably performed extended dialogue scenes I would be all day quoting them all. So here is the best of an outstanding script:
‘What is it about me and younger men? He’s probably missing his mother!’ Well I’m glad it was mentioned sooner or later!
‘You would think that someone somewhere would have invented a code that didn’t sound like a French exercise and the Two Ronnies!’
‘Bernice, it’s going to get better isn’t it? We’ll win the war…?’
‘You know Ma, I’ve faced death before. I’ve been through a lot in the past few years. I’ve been abandoned, starved, blasted, drugged, betrayed, lacerated, bruised, conscripted, battered, probed, kidnapped, knocked out, taken over by grasshoppers, blown up, shot down, kicked and chucked out…I’ve done it all but I’ve always bounced back ready for whatever they threw at me – this time its different.’ Listening to this, as Bowerman makes the dialogue faster, more dramatic is like a crescendo of pain, unrelentingly mesmerising.
‘Let me tell you something Marie. This road is called the Rue de Vache. Let me tell you why. Cows from Jersey could not be unloaded from the quay so farmers would push them into the harbour, they would be forced to swim ashore and they would be herded up this way to the abattoir. Those poor pretty long lashed cows. I do not like spies or whores Marie, even those with pretty necks.’ Utterly chilling, Wolff snaps Marie’s neck after making her think she will survive by whoring herself. It is an unspeakable cruel moment.
‘To be honest with you, I’m feeling queasy. My stomachs empty, I’ve not slept for three days and I’m scared pooless just being here because I know what the Nazi’s do to their prisoners. It’s those things you should be playing on.’ A heartbreaking admission.
‘I’m sorry but that’s just not true. This Reich doesn’t even last for 1000 weeks let alone 1000 years. Oh yes, fascism disappears as a political force in your lifetime Oskar. By the 1990s where my ex husband comes from the only people wearing the Nazi uniform comes from sad little blokes who can’t get it up any other way. A few gangs of glue sniffing thugs had the swastika tattooed to their foreheads but they never learnt what it really stood for. In other words fascism ended just where it started. Your only legacy will be their ignorance, their hatred.’
‘The sun has already set on the British Empire.’
‘Come on Jason quickly!’ ‘That brings back memories!’
‘You just killed him…’

Audio Landscape: The wartime music opening plants you straight into the story. The period is captured with radio tunings, boots marching, and boats chugging away across the sea. There are some impressive bar scenes with lots of realistic chatter in the background, lovely beach scenes (with waves crashing on the shore and a strong wind whistling by) and the UFO (?) crashes down with dramatic effect, screaming from one ear to the other. Benny escapes in an armoured car in a sequence which is a as gripping as the similar one in Beyond the Sun wasn’t. A heavy prison door swings on its screaming hinges and the underground prison has an odd echoed banging throughout. Bernice gets a delirious interrogation from Steinmann and her escape from Guernsey in Munin is another exciting set piece, explosions ripping through the air around her.

Musical Cues: Once again the piano is used to subtle but emotional effect.

Isn't that Odd: I complained in Birthright that a secondary character was clearly Stephen Fewell putting on a cockney accent so imagine my disdain when he appears in Just War as another character putting on an aristocratic accent this time! Imagine how much I laughed when we discover it actually is Jason in disguise this time!
Gary Russell as a German Officer…his accent is extraordinary! He needs his own series!
The CD sleeve tells me that Just War was originally written by Justin Richards. Really…?

Standout Moment: Hard to choose but my favourite (and thus most discomforting) moments came when Bernice was in the clutches of Wolff. Chilling does not begin to describe the atmosphere at these moments.

Result: Hard-hitting and dramatic, if you have any doubt that the Bernice Summerfield series could not deliver the goods than go and listen to this story now. What you have here is a polished script written with drive and bursting with great character scenes and a director who allows the story room to breathe at a relaxed pace to bring out some extraordinary performances from his cast. Bowerman and Fewell do their best work from series one here, Benny and Jason have never felt more like real people and their reunion never more touching. The stifling atmosphere never lets up and the story manages to sell the idea that the Nazi’s might win the war, one of the most hackneyed ideas ever. On audio this is a superb production, never letting you forget where we are and what it means. I’ve heard this story ten times and every time I have come away astonished at how good it is. Extremely scary in places: 10/10

Re – Nazis
Message Sent 2010 – sender Joe Ford
Recipient Bernice Summerfield 2594

‘I just don’t know what to say. I love you. Things will get better. I hope.’

Buy it from Big Finish here:

Monday, 22 February 2010

Birthright written by Nigel Robinson and adapted by Jac Rayner. Directed by Nicholas Briggs.

Message Sent 2594 – sender Bernice Summerfield
Recipient Joe Ford – 2010
Subject – Details…

‘You don’t miss a trick do you? Okay so I buggered up a bit and had to hunt down the chronokinetiscope but don’t worry it was found and I have prevented your imaginatively conceived extra appendages from sprouting (ha!). Those blasted time rings have been nothing but trouble (well, he gave them to me after all…) as this time I ended up in Victorian London (hey you can’t say my life isn’t diverse) infected with bloody insect eggs trying to prevent a race of conceited bugs from migrating to the Earth (which means I guess I have stopped your timeline from changing twice…you owe me!). I don’t mind so much though as I got to put my feelings for John to rest and met a magnificent father figure in Micha Popov, a rather wonderful Russian detective who somehow always turned up at the right times. You got any bug spray?’

What’s it about? Thrown off the Time Path, Professor Bernice Summerfield is trapped in early 20th Century London, with only one of the pair of time rings she needs to get home. At the other end of time, her ex-husband Jason Kane finds himself stranded on a dead world, where the queen of the Charrl demands his help to save her dying race. But all he wants to do is find Benny, and return to the 26th Century. In the East End a series of grisly murders has been committed - is this the work of the legendary Springheel Jack or, as Benny suspects, something even more sinister? Allied with a Russian detective, she determines to find out. But the master of a grand order of sorcerers has other plans for her...

Archaeological Adventurer: Building an audio around an established character has proven to be a total success as Bernice has so much backstory to capitalise on and yet all of these stories feels as if they are adding brand new facets to her character. Lisa Bowerman gets some wonderful opportunities in this script and she really grabs them by the horns and gives another memorable performance; hilariously drunk in the opening scenes (‘And lastly I don’t actually have a home to go but I’m gonna leave anyway because if I have to hear any more of this chauvinistic rubbish I might forget that I’m a lady! Goodbye!’), subdued and emotive when she reads John’s letter and terrifyingly psychotic when she becomes infected by the Charrl eggs. She is eager to see John again but admits that Jason is the only man who has any right to call her his love. Her father-daughter relationship with Popov is rather lovely; he is a gentle and helpful man and exactly the sort she is not used to meeting. She doesn’t batter an eyelid at a bloody assault victim and rather running scared like Popov is intrigued by the Charrl’s sudden appearance on Earth. She cannot understand the cultural divide that sees the lower classes wishing homicidal harm on the gentry and does a passable cockney accent (‘Dun ‘er ‘in! Leave off mate!’). In a grab the tissues scene Bernice discovers that John has just gotten married in this time period and wrote a letter upon his return to his time period calling her a true heroine, courageous, strong and pure of heart. She is charged with attempted murder but she considers this a waste of her time rather than something to be worried about. She has met a few insects in her time, mostly in bars at closing time when they have had too much to drink and think they are Gods gift to women. She struggles to hold onto her mind as the Charrl infection takes hold but Jason helps her through it.

Lovable Loser: Jason reminds me so strongly of Susan Meyer in Desperate Housewives, a character who we are supposed to be feel sorry for and whose intentions are always right but no matter what they do they somehow always manage to make a complete a total hash of whatever situation they are in. They are the tragic heroes of this world, farcically unable to function as human beings because they try for the best but end up ruining peoples lives. As soon as Jason started talking about helping to save the Charrl race I knew this was all going to end in tears. Nobody wants him for himself just for his time ring and soon he is going to start taking it personally! He almost tried to pull of the same trick with Benny as he did in Walking to Babylon but this time his conscience steps in and stops him. Whoever knew he had one? Bernice describes him as an ‘apocalyptic scruffy human.’

Great Ideas: They have chosen a great book to adapt her, one that is full of tried and tested and yet still inventively used concepts. The Charrl planet is one of flower forests and honey pools but it was devastated by solar flares. They no longer have the minerals to run their gravity ships and there is no planet within 10,000 parsecs that can support them. The race would not survive another migration but the chronomancers have discovered and formed a link with another world. They want to invade the Earth, to use the time rings to stabilise the ‘great divide’ and use humans as incubators for Charrl eggs, they will tear free of the human body and feed on the sustenance from the fresh corpse. There is a really terrific Planet of the Apes moment where Jason realises the Charrl adopted home world will be Earth.
John’s letter to Bernice provides a necessary link between the three time ring stories, following on from their romance in Walking to Babylon and providing a reason to go to Guernsey in Just War, to recover the chronokinetiscope.
Infecting Benny gives the second disc a real boost.

Standout Performance: Is there anything Colin Baker can’t do on audio? He provides a charming and irresistibly sweet Popov, so different to his tone and accent as the Doctor and yet just as convincing. It is a shame that he is confined to this one story because he would have made an excellent substitute father figure for Benny. His plot, following the murder of his daughter and the other girls to England, is very well done.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I shall never wash that cheek again!’ – Benny kisses Popov.
‘Have you never seen a pair of bloomers before? Come on, give a lady a bunk up!’

Audio landscape: Miles better than Beyond the Sun but not as good as Walking to Babylon. You’ve got dogs barking, horses clopping, bottles clinking, yokels coughing, a ticking grandfather clock and chittering Charrl mandibles. Bernice being spat out of the time fissure is impressive, an ear piercing scream as she lands in a pile of rubbish! The Charrl voices are great, an almost Sil-like tongue waggling purr and their truly alien sounding background chanting gives a real sense of unease. Also the contact scenes between Khan and the Queen leave you quite disoriented, echoing from ear to ear.

Musical Cues: Nicholas Briggs provides some dramatic and scene setting music in this story, using a gentle piano underscore to suggest dangers approaching and a terrific use of wind pipes to give the more violent scenes a real punch.

Isn’t that Odd: Khan’s lackey in his first scene is so obviously Stephen Fewell putting on a really poor cockney accent I actually thought Jason was already there in a not very good disguise!
Given the events of the first disc it ends on a really unclimatic note and I did not feel compelled to put the second disc on for three days afterwards. On a similar note the first disc pretty much reveals the entire plot which leaves disc two buying time (admittedly with great performances and some fine dialogue) until the conclusion.

Standout Moment: The beginning and the end. There is a gorgeous prologue to the story that doesn’t feature Bernice at all, playing out like some penny dreadful with a lady of the night being ripped apart and her client rushing into the nearest pub and screaming ‘It weren’t human!’ The climax too is very memorable with lightning splitting the sky as the migration to Earth begins, Bernice infected and bloodshed as the police arrive and start shooting everything. Definitely a loud and action packed ending.

Result: An atmospheric tale, Birthright translates onto audio with some panache. It is this story that I can see the most revision made to to fit into the Bernice audio world but none of the changes do any harm at all and swapping Ace for Jason adds a whole new element of danger to the off world plot. Lisa Bowerman proves once again why she was perfect for the part and enjoys a wonderfully relaxed chemistry with Colin Baker, a world apart from their friction in Whispers of Terror. The second half of the story is far more sluggish than the terrific first half but things definitely pick up for the conclusion. A nice story to listen to on a cold foggy night: 7/10

Re – Details…
Message Sent 2010 – sender Joe Ford
Recipient Bernice Summerfield 2594

‘Bug spray…check! You think you’ve got it bad! I spent Christmas looking like some blond psychopath in a hoodie! I’m not sure where we’re at with the Doctor, chronologically speaking but his adventures on Earth just seem to be getting madder and madder! The whole bloody world turned into Harry Saxon, I knew we hadn’t seen the last of him! So…Victorian London, big bugs and father figures…things never slow down for you, do they? Don’t you ever fancy a rest?’

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Thursday, 18 February 2010

Walking to Babylon written by Kate Orman and adapted to audio by Jac Rayner. Directed by Gary Russell

Message Sent 2594 – sender Bernice Summerfield
Recipient Joe Ford – 2010
Subject – Hanging gardens of Babylon!

‘That got your attention! I’m sorry about my last message, who wants somebody leaking a bleeding heart all over an email. Bad metaphor, sorry. You and Simon are so cute; don’t let me ever hear you comparing yourselves to me and Jason again. And that’s an order. Jason had the bloody nerve to walk into my rooms at the University with a People (apparently that’s grammatically correct) and steal my wedding ring! Two People were hatching the lamest scheme this side of Dad’s plan to cause war on Earth to benefit mankind but I did get to step through time again and visit Babylon. Babylon! I wish I could put down in words the splendour and the atmosphere of the place. A little part of me wishes I was still travelling with the Doctor (especially that dishy Byronesque one!) so I could see sights like that more often. I kind of got swept away by the romance of the place and ended up in bed with a dishy academic from 1901. It felt so good to get that close to somebody else, even if just for a short period. It cleared my head and left me thinking perhaps Jason and I do have a future. Somehow it felt like cheating, in all the best ways.’

What’s it about? The People are one of the most technologically advanced races in the Universe - except in the area of time travel. Professor Bernice Summerfield has a time ring. So does her ex-husband Jason Kane. Trouble is, they're their wedding rings, and they won't work unless they're together. Benny is surprised when Jason turns up to visit her at St Oscar's, especially when she discovers that he has brought one of the People with him. She should have guessed that her good-for-nothing ex wasn't just interested in her company... Using the time rings, two People create a Time Path and travel back to ancient Babylon, taking an unwilling Jason with them. Benny has just 48 hours to find them and rescue her errant husband, before the People back in the 26th century send a singularity bomb to destroy the Path - and Babylon. But someone else has discovered the Path and walked to Babylon - Edwardian time-sensitive John Lafayette. And Benny discovers her mission has a complication that she never dreamed of - romance.

Archaeological Adventurer: A superb showcase for Bernice written by one female writer who captures her voice beautifully and adapted by another female writer who wrote possibly the greatest novel she appeared in (The Glass Prison). After she is visited by Jason (and before he realises he has tricked her again) she ruminates on why she snaps at him so much and how difficult it is to relax around him and she categorically states that he left her. She enjoys meeting fans. Hilariously Benny refused to buy water from a desert trader because he put an apostrophe in drinks! You can understand why the Doctor had the faith in her to entrust her with the time rings, she understands the laws of time and still obeys them – to the point of risking her life to prevent established history from being catastrophically shattered. Her romance with John Lafayette is one of the loveliest things in the first season and it is great to see a relationship between an enlightened 26th Century girl (‘Tell whoever you like, publish it in the Times!’) and a moral bound 19th Century prude. John thinks she is too young to have earned her position and offers her marriage after they have slept together! He doesn’t think that she is ruined but brave and resourceful and wants to protect her even if she thinks she doesn’t need it. There is a beautiful moment where she attempts to comfort him on his death bed which really highlights the strength of her feeling for him. She makes things happen and spends a lot of her time reacting. She admits she longs to explore more planets and that she has already seen more than she can remember. In a quiet but powerful moment she admits that if she can’t save Babylon she isn’t going to leave because she is scared of letting everyone down. Her story of being trapped on an alien planet, disabled, surviving, drinking dew and eating bugs and crawling back to camp day by day taught her to always be prepared to be cut off and helpless. Things always turn out okay when she is around.

  Lovable Loser: He is up to know good again, of course and is understandably described as an untrustworthy individual. He is a 20th Century guy who can charm Benny with ease and order her to her bedroom! He has terrific rapport with Joseph and I can’t wait to hear more from these two. I love how overtly theatrical he is when he tries to escape (‘Oh Benny! I love you! Woe is me!’) and if he had never admitted that he had slept with men as well I would start to wonder! The thought of Benny getting her rocks off with John makes him recoil with shock – perhaps he thought she would be pining after him forever. And yet he still flirts with Ninan’s slave regardless. He proves to be quite thoughtful in the latter half of this play, questioning Ninan’s idea of slavery and encouraging her to break tradition and forge her own path in the world. He admits it was worthwhile making the effort with Benny.

Great Ideas: The starting point for this novel/audio is really neat. The People and their rivals (The Time Lords) once had a terrible war (the Time Lords are making a habit of this!) and after the conflict they made a pact to not approach each others territory so two revolutionary People creating ruddy great time fissures and popping back into established history and mucking about threatens that treaty. Which gives Benny 48hrs to head back into ancient Babylon, find Jason, sort the People and get back. If not the (understandably frightened) People will toss a bomb down it to destroy it destroying a pivotal moment of history with it.

Standout Performance: One of the few men who hasn't let Benny down, John is portrayed sensitively by Barnaby Edwards. John is one of the few men who Bernice has had a dalliance with that is anywhere near worthy of her and that is all down to Edwards' performance. Elisabeth Sladen’s Ninan is a delight, one of those characters that comes along every now and again and manages to surprise you be being genuinely nice but not too twee. Her enthusiasm and lust of stories and adventures makes her very appealing and I love it when she locks horns with Jason and decides to leave the temple and help save Benny despite everything she has been taught to believe in. It is a scene that makes you want to punch the air with delight…in fact I think Benny does!
No matter how good Lis Sladen is the standout performer in this tale is Stephen Wickham as Joseph. I love Joseph with every fibre of my being, a friendly porter with an attitude problem! He has the cutest voice in the world, and that’s genuinely cute and not pass me the sick bucket cute and his observations and sarcasm just add to the charm (‘You can’t fool smart rope you know!’). I love the scene where he heals John, it is really sweet (‘B-b-be gentle with him…’) and you can see why they made him a regular later on. He just adds to the fun and uniqueness of the series.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What would the Dean say if he knew I was entertaining two men in my private rooms?’ ‘Most probably gosh, she’s having a quiet weekend!’
‘Oh ha ha. Back in the 20th Century we believed sarcasm was the lowest form of wit. You obviously don’t subscribe to that in the 26th.’ ‘Oh no we believe that too so we reserve it for the lowest form of humanity.’
‘I touched Ms Summerfield and there was no explosion!’ ‘I won’t make the obvious joke.’

Audio Landscape: Babylon is brought to life with gusto to great effect; I cannot believe the confidence of this story when compared to the awkward execution of Beyond the Sun. There is a lovely burbling time fissure and when Benny leaps into it you can hear it curling around her as her voice distorts and echoes. When John emerges into Babylon there is a real sense of live action taking place around him with children laughing, horses trotting, chickens, whispering and a flowing river. Very nice. The party scenes really help generate an atmosphere with lots of laughter and merriment, drinking and great music. The market scenes suggest lots of movement, animals and aggressive daily activity. At the end of the story I felt as if I had taken a trip back to ancient Babylon and it was a magical as I ever imagined.

Musical Cues: The standout score from series one and that is some praise considering the efforts in Oh No It Isn’t and Birthright. There is an urgent piano melody that plays over Bernice’s initial trip back in the past and once again when John and Ninan plot to save Benny. Go and listen to the music where Benny and John find the snake…it really plants you into the scene! Then there is the wistful string work in the hanging gardens of Babylon that expresses the lustre and the beauty of the scene and the terrific party atmosphere on track 6 which plays continuously for about 6 minutes and got my bopping around the house! The end of disc one features some of the most filmic and storytelling music yet from Big Finish, very nice work indeed. John’s deathbed scene is transformed from something sweet and sickly to a moving character scene because of the haunting piano underscoring the moment. Finally the music the plays over Benny’s cliff falling story is tense and gripping. It is a fantastic score and Harvey Summers and his cohorts should be proud of creating such a feeling of wonder and emotion, it aids the play immeasurably.

Isn’t it Odd: That Kate Orman uses the same bloody ridiculous plot from Return of the Living Dad and taken it to another level of stupid. I just don’t buy that any character can be as daft or illogical as the People in this. In Living Dad we had Issac Summerfield attempting to cause a devastating war on Earth to up our defences and be ready for the Dalek Invasion that is eminent. Rather than, say, speaking with the authorities and warning them and suggesting ways of helping. Here we have two ridiculously naïve People who are opening time fissures so the Time Lords get cheesed off and attack their People again. And why? Because they want them to have a little humility! Because the People did not lose the last war they have become arrogant and to bring them down a peg or two they want another devastating war that they will lose to help them grow as People. Give me strength. Where does Orman get these ideas from? Whatever next? A group of extremists who want to show how vile the Nazi’s were so they form their own Nazi party and wipe out half the globe and say…see I told you so.
This tale is clearly character first and plotting second (which is Orman working to her strengths) so I’m not certain why it is framed within a race against time to save the world. We keep cutting back to one of the People at the other end of the fissure with his bomb ready to chuck down and blown them all to smithereens saying ‘No time left for you Bernice Summerfield’ and about 20 variations on that theme. Its no good having lots of lovely character moments on the one hand and this fella telling us to hurry along on the other…one cancels the other out!

Result: Emotional, evocative and easy on the ear, Walking to Babylon lives up to the promise of Oh No It Isn’t and proves that this series can emote as well as making us laugh. Gary Russell creates a place of wonder in Babylon going for a real historical epic feel and aided by a fantastic musical score and some authentic sound FX. Lisa Bowerman gets her teeth into a fine romance story for Benny where she gets to be the more powerful character to John’s weaker moral bound academic. I love their scenes together; they have a relaxed chemistry that makes their feelings toward each other very believable. Add to that the fabulous Lis Sladen being given a chance to step out of Sarah Jane Smith and play a great new character, the introduction of the priceless Joseph and another strong performance by Stephen Fewell and you have a dedicated and interesting cast bringing this story to life. If only Kate Orman could get this odd sense of martyrdom out of her head this could have been flawless but because of the idiotic behaviour of her villains Walking to Babylon is award a: 9/10

Re - Hanging gardens of Babylon!
Message Sent 2010 – sender Joe Ford
Recipient Bernice Summerfield 2594

‘Are you having a laugh with me? The hanging gardens of Babylon? And a handsome fuddy-duddy academic as well! Some girls get all the luck. I’m really happy to hear that things have picked up for you; your last email left me feeling quite anxious. The sights you must have seen, you make a normal guys life sound positively dull. I only have one question though…what happened to the chronokinetiscope? I don’t want my timeline radically altered so I grow several horns (I’m not the only one with a filthy mind!) and the ability to look at somebody and see how they die! Can’t wait for the next instalment.’

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Monday, 15 February 2010

Beyond the Sun written by Matt Jones and adapted by Jac Rayner. Directed by Gary Russell

Message Sent 2593 – sender Bernice Summerfield
Recipient Joe Ford – 2010
Subject – Ursu

‘Hi Joe, not sure what to say about recent events as I’m still trying to get my head around it. What is it about buggering men (ha ha) that makes them think they can walk back into your life and pick things up as though nothing has happened despite having ripping your heart out and stamping on it the last time you saw them! Yes that’s right, Jason’s back. And I slept with him. It was impulsive but I’ve always been an impulsive kinda girl! And stupid. I want to put to bed the living joke that was our marriage but something about that man compels sympathy and affection, no matter how bloody idiotic he is. He has been sleeping with part of a super weapon, but a very attractive (and bitchy) one. It was business as usual with horny adolescents, hippy yokels and the end of the universe as we know it. But all I kept wondering was…was she as good as me? Does he still love me?’

What’s it about? Bernice Summerfield has drawn the short straw. Not for her the pleasures of intergalactic conferences and highbrow lecture tours. Oh no. She's forced to take two overlooked freshers on their very first dig. And just when it seems things can't get any worse, her no-good ex-husband Jason turns up, claiming that he is in deadly danger. Benny finally begins to believe his wild claims, but unfortunately only after he has been kidnapped from his hotel room. Feeling guilty, she sets out to rescue him. Well, let's face it, no one else is going to. Her only clue is a dusty artefact that Jason claimed was part of an ancient and powerful weapon. But Professor Bernice Summerfield PhD knows that's just silly nonsense. She's been an archaeologist long enough to know that lost alien civilisations do not leave their most powerful weapons lying around for any nutter to find. Do they? Once again Benny is all that stands between Jason and his own mistakes, as she tries to prevent the wrong people acquiring this terrible and somewhat unlikely weapon - a weapon rumoured to have powers beyond the sun. Now you’ve read about it there’s no need to listen to the thing!

Archaeological Adventurer: The characterisation of Bernice is probably the best thing about this story, the only good thing about this story and Lisa Bowerman delivers another accomplished performance. Geez, she could make anything worth listening to. Deeply suspicious of Jason (with good reason) and she is the only person in the universe who harbours enough goodwill towards him to do her a favour. She is the only person who stands up to the Dean at St Oscars when he wants to the cut the budget again which is why she keeps getting sent on these tedious exercises off campus and off world. She dropped the Kane bit years ago. Her diary entries feel very real in the story and I wouldn’t mind a whole story written from this point of view later, it makes for a surprisingly good narrative tool and is rather wonderfully built into the character. She is surprisingly maternal towards Emile and Tameka, the former bringing out her protective side and the latter making her exasperated at her tempestuousness! The most profound revelation in this story is that despite everything she is still deeply in love with Jason and will sacrifice her life for the bastard. Her ‘code’ is: ‘Bernice Summerfield is a human being, and as such she is all too capable of being cruel and cowardly and yet while she is caught up in violent events she endeavours to remain a woman of peace.’

Lovable Loser: Jason makes his audio debut played by the unforgettably sexy Stephen Fewell. As I have commented before Fewell doesn’t exactly exude charm but there is something about the way he plays the character, cheeky but often sound hurt (you can imagine some real puppy dog eyes), that convinces you that Benny would still want to be with him. He manages to make a grubby planet grubbier, he has been smuggling artefacts and sleeping with Miranda, a collaborator on the planet Ursu. He never says what he means.

Lines That Should Never Be Said: I lost track of the amount of lines that made me cringe in this story or whether it was the nature of the lines or the irritating way the performers said them. As Russell T Davies said in The Writers Tale swearing never sounds that convincing in science fiction and this story is full of awkward moments where swearing destabilises the reality of the story. Not only that but the two kids, Emile and Tameka, are characterised so horrifically most of their dialogue sunk quicker than a sumo wrestler in quicksand.
‘You, like, would not catch me doing that!’ – this one is definitely line delivery and Tameka, obviously.
‘Oh God Primitives! I hate Primitives! Please let there be some technology here? Tell me you know what curling tongs are?’ I think this is meant to funny.
‘You’re just digging yourself into deeper shit!’
‘Don’t be an arsehole all your life Leon. Shit happens.’
‘I’m so new, I’m shrink-wrapped!’
‘I thought you might want to have sex with me.’
‘He wouldn’t ask if he knew, dick for brains!’
‘tI was just sex, I get it.’ ‘Don’t get me wrong it was good sex.’
‘See ya see ya wouldn’t wanna be ya!’
I wish I hadn’t written those lines down – they remind me of the New Adventures at their worst, self centred, angst ridden and teeth clenchingly awful.

Audio Landscape: This story is appallingly directed, not to put too finer point on it. It was (I think) Gary Russell’s first attempt and I guess we all have to go through a learning curve but it is a shame that this story has to suffer as a result. Some lame scripts can be saved by a decent production but Beyond the Sun suffers the reverse syndrome, it capitalises on the scripts deficiencies because of its poor production. To be fair to Gary he soon found his feet as both Walking to Babylon and Just War are two of the best audios ever so I’m willing to sacrifice this one to make sure he got those right. But down to specifics…
The diary entries, whilst being some of the best scenes in the play, are inserted into the action awkwardly, sometimes jarring the action just to move from one part of the story to the next. In later stories Gary would trust to the actors and the sound FX to tell the story of a scene change but here you have Benny chatting with Scott and suddenly the diary music starts off and she says ‘And then I was talking to Jason’ to get us to the next scene.
A lot of the action in this story is really unpersuasive and worse it took me out of the story because of its execution. The attack on the ship is seriously underwhelming, there is an alarm that threatens to drown out the dialogue, a comical dogfight with some naff torpedo sounds and an explosion that reminded me of really bad sex, ending with a total whimper. It is the worst set piece yet. The escape pod plopping into the river on Ursu sounds like a fart in the bath! They can’t even get a chicken cockadoodledoing right – it sounds like a really cheap kid’s toy (maybe that’s what alien cockerels sound like)! Even worse than the spaceship being assaulted is the car attack on Disc 2 – the music is awful, Emile and Tameka are at their most annoying and that awful torpedo sound plays again! The explosion is more of a phut and the even the car screeching off the road sounds like a cat on heat. What’s worse is that I have been so used to lots of intermingling sounds generating an atmosphere on the Doctor Who range it seems very bare to have so many extended dialogue scenes featuring just dialogue and nothing to generate an atmosphere! Even the opening scenes lack conviction, there is an archaeological dig that sounds like workmen putting up a building site, all metal hammering and coughing. In the restaurant Benny and Jason eat in there is a distracting jingle playing and later on Ursu a scene is punctuated by a discordant hippy singer! My favourite sound effects were The Sunless, modulated, Darth Vader type breathing and the rain hitting the mud in the early scenes.

Musical cues: The effective string music on the diary extracts is reminiscent of the Marco Polo travel logs. The awful nonsense that is played during the car attack sequence. Not sure which side I land on with the music, lets say I’m ambivalent.

Isn’t it Odd: How much I loathe Emile and Tameka considering how far the script goes towards making them real people who develop throughout the story. Tameka is the worst offender, a self centre, vain, arrogant super model who always thinks she knows better. I think I preferred her in the earlier scenes when she is full of herself because she takes on a whole new level of bad when she starts protecting Emile, discussing her sex life and actually reacting to things. Anybody would have trouble saying the lines she is given but Jane Burke has put on the most astonishingly irritating voice that makes you want to claw Tameka’s eyes out every time she sucks in oxygen to allow her to speak. I don’t like scripts where you can see how the writer is trying to chart a characters progress, to deliberately force them to grow up…I would rather it was a natural, invisible process that when you are on the other side and you see how much they changed you are in awe of the writers ability to effortlessly evolve his cast. Here Tameka is so obviously supposed to experience things, to come out of this story a new person. Trouble is the person she becomes I hate even more than the person she was. Go figure. Emile fares better but only because on the odd occasion Lewis Davis does manage to provoke your sympathy but his characterisation as the rather effete and charmless gay boy also got on my nerves. As a (and I can’t tell you how much I hate these labels) straight acting gay man myself I really hate it when homosexual characters are portrayed this ineffectually, simply because I have never known an Emile. He’s a sniffly, unbearably cute stooge who is there primarily to remind us of his sexuality which should be the least important thing about a gay character. Davis rather oddly sounds like he has a really heavy cold and sounds really awkward in the scenes where he is propositioned by Scott. As a coming of age story it fails dismally simply because rather than wanting him to prosper in a relationship with Scott I really wanted him to suffer some awful tragedy. God, I’m harsh. Jason Kane is far more effective bi guy – it is barely mentioned but when it is it is certainly not dwelled upon and it makes him all the sexier for it!
And what is all this peculiar stuff about humping about anyway? On this planet of the hippies Scott seems to delight in shagging about regardless of age or maturity. It feels like a sledgehammer is descending on me screaming ‘we’re adult!’ in the worst Torchwoodian ways! Emile sounds about 10 so once it seems like paedophilia is being recommended and Tameka’s feigning hurt after Scott gives her one and then admits he’d rather get off with Emile is just painful. These are really uncomfortable scenes to listen to.
Adding insult to injury the Ursulans are easily the least interesting and most unbearably self centred and achingly dull race we have encountered for an age. There is something smug about their ‘Any rule is tyranny’ that makes me want to form the next Nazi party and enforce martial law. I’m not sure if it is the way they are performed or because they are written to think they are always right and are hugely critical of other points of view. The thought of a group of hippies breaking away from the evil of the rest of the universe is so blindly critical about everything except their own cosy little viewpoint I’m sure the universe did not miss them at all!
Why are the tracks 15 minutes long? I literally had to force myself to listen to the whole of disc on because I was too scared I would have to fast forward for a year to find my place again. It really is a bad idea to deny your audience the ability to navigate through the story easily. Perhaps that was the idea, to trap you within the story with no escape!
The diary extracts, just about the best damn thing in the story, suggest a story and characterisation far more thoughtful that we actually get. Perhaps this would have worked better as a companion chronicle with Lisa Bowerman telling the whole story, I think I would have bought into it a lot easier and come out with more respect that way.
The theme music, part Indiana Jones, part Star Trek the Next Generation, is played Four times throughout the story – are these cliffhangers? The music is shoved into the action with no explanation and it is really jarring.
How Sophie Aldred manages to be even more as Miranda than she is as Ace these days. I don’t want to keep banging on about Aldred because I feel as if I am condemning a performer who I thought worked wonders with her character in the television series but there is something terribly forced about her audio work that just does not sound natural. Her ‘I know you can hear me’ in the conclusion sounds so reminiscent of Kane in Dragonfire it feels as though we have come full circle, with Aldred as a the villain!

Standout Performance: The performer who stood out most for me is Jane Burke. Let’s pray that Tameka never, ever returns to this series or if she does make sure it is as a tent pole for one of Benny’s expeditions.

Standout Moment: Reuniting Benny and Jason on audio. I’m glad they did this early on as it gave the characters a chance to grow and get closer again and makes late developments all the more shocking.

Result: A depressing and melancholic story that is badly paced and poorly executed. Beyond the Sun made for a self involved New Adventure, full of its own unusual and not terribly interesting ideas and focussing far too much on the Mary Sue characters of Emile and Tameka who sprang off the page as ciphers with false depth who were there to grow as characters. This all translates into the audio but is handled so ineptly by a freshman director the finished result is irritating, irredeemably twee or unconvincingly played depending on where you are in the play. Poor Bernice is saddled with these two awful kids and a plot which is so linear it could have been told in half an hour. There are no blinding revelations (aside from the fact that Benny still loves Jason but we all knew that), no moments that made me sit up and pay attention, it’s a story set on an uninteresting planet with uninteresting characters talking about uninteresting things and told in a really uninteresting way. Ouch: 1/10

Reply to – Ursu
Message Sent 2010 – sender Joe Ford
Recipient Bernice Summerfield – 2593

‘You never did explain what Ursu meant…I guess it was too boring to mention. Oh Benny love is a funny old thing. Not everything that you love is good for you…but that doesn’t stop you craving it anyway. Can Jason be redeemed or is he destined to mess you around for the rest of your life? I don’t know, but it could be a lot of fun finding out. The first three years with Simon was a rollercoaster of emotions and recriminations but now I am glad I stuck it out – there is gold at the end of the rainbow. Perhaps the fact that it’s not easy is what makes it worthwhile.’

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Saturday, 13 February 2010

Oh No It Isn’t! written by Paul Cornell and adapted for audio by Jac Rayner, Directed by Nicholas Briggs

Message Sent 2593 – sender Bernice Summerfield
Recipient Joe Ford – 2010
Subject – Hanging around Balls!

‘Hi Joe, How’s 20th Century life? Remind me to pop back at some point, I’m almost completely out of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk from my last visit…and it would be nice to catch up with you and Simon as well. Sorry I haven’t been in touch for a while but life here has been pretty mad, I haven’t heard from my idiot husband for ages so he’s probably got his head stuck inside the jaws of a Sloathe. Or something. Serves him right. My life’s has been pretty unstable since the destruction of St Oscar’s and all that buggering devastation with the Gods (don’t ask). I have taken a few freelance jobs, working with my trowel, defiling ancient civilisations, that sort of thing and surprisingly I’ve quite enjoyed working with children. It must be my age. Which shall remain indeterminate, thank you very much. Just recently I had what could only be described as a mind altering experience on the planet Perfecton. Can you imagine a world made entirely of panto? Buxom Dames, handsome Princes, a King with far too much obsession about his Balls (you have such a dirty mind!) and seven Dwarves who are far too concerned with politics. And Wolsey, gorgeous, loyal Wolsey suddenly had the ability to walk, talk and tap dance. I know it all sounds unlikely but given my life so far, it was practically mundane! Love to you and yours, Benny. PS, I didn’t sleep with him alright, he was only sixteen!’

What is this series about? Does any Doctor Who fan that was worth their salt in the Grand Canyon sized gap on television in the nineties not know who Bernice Summerfield is? She was the prevalent companion during the New Adventures, often serving as the seventh Doctor’s moral conscience during some of his darkest days and finally married off when he has a new pair of layabouts to look after (Chris and Roz). Bernice’s marriage was short lived, more based on lust than mutual respect (always tricky) and she was lucky enough to have her own series of books once the New Adventures lost their licence to tell Doctor Who stories. To be fair she was the obvious choice. She was established in the heart of the NA universe and she was ridiculously entertaining and heartbreakingly real. Even the dissolution of the NA books could not stop Benny; there were still fans that wanted to see her adventures continue. Gary Russell took on the mantle of responsibility of her character and we finally heard her brought to life by the astonishing Lisa Bowerman who played the character how we had always imagined her. And here we are, at the beginning of those adventures with ten seasons (that’s right I said ten) of adventures for Bernice ahead plus 18 more books. Her life has become an unstoppable engine of storytelling and it is a superb alternative to the Doctor Who line that has to remain within certain censorious conventions but Bernice’s adventures are often riotous, bawdy, rude, insane and outrageously entertaining. I rarely lost interest in the 10 years Big Finish have handled her.

Archaeological Adventurer: Bernice is flirting outrageously with her students…perhaps still on the rebound from her marriage with Jason (even she seems quite embarrassed by how young Doran is). She admits she gained her Professorship on the run. When she wakes up in what she thinks is heaven after the Perfecton missile has struck she thanks the Goddess of having her after her sinful existence and now claims she believes in her! Bernice foolishly tries to convince that she is the sort of person who does the washing during the dinner party…hmmm, nice try Summerfield but I’m not buying it. Described as one sequin short of a ball gown, which sounds far more likely! She has lots of metaphysical comparing the world she is in to heaven and hell but wonders why either should be this confusing. She likes a puzzle but gets frustrated with one that keeps changing the rules like this. In a moment that secures her the important place of lead protagonist she wonders if she is just an incidental character. As If. She enjoys swearing and gets frustrated when she is constantly censored in pantoland. She wants her epitaph to be back in a mo. She loves and cares for Wolsey as best as she can. Beautiful, brave and brilliant which about sums it up.

Great ideas: The whole story is one really clever idea but the story does not reveal its hand until its closing moments, cleverly making both Bernice and the audience work it out for themselves with an abundance of clues. The Perfectons had a perfect (ho ho), God like existence and decided rather than travelling they would create the ideal world. However an aggressive sun was belching destructive matter nearby and the Perfectons prepared for their inevitable extinction the best way they could think of, by preserving their entire civilisation in a computer matrix. That missile was launched at the Winton as Bernice and her archaeology crew visited with the purpose of re-actualising the culture within the beings it strikes. Instead of achieving this it pierced the computer mainframe where Benny was reading a discourse on English pantomime and created a world around it for the surviving Perfectons to live in. That’s the basics but its how we get there that is so impressive:

You can get hurt in panto world but it doesn’t like it, you are healed shortly after (after all there are children watching!). Richard Whittington, the Seven Dwarves, Prince Charming and Puss in Boots all appear. There are anomalies – if it really is the time of Dick Whittington (1490) tea doesn’t exist yet! Bernice figures out that the world tries to integrate her unpredictable suggestions and make them logical – Prince Charming is her brother and when the King suggests he marry her she points out the obvious incestuous flaws but he hasn’t told her that they are not siblings by blood! Like a panto the narrative tries to find a conclusion to the narrative but she screws things up by giving it too many endings. She realises her hands have hardly strayed from her thighs since she arrived. There is an abundance of cross dressing and gender confusion. She can’t swear! Every time she tries a softer expletive pops out! She realises the fairy god mother is addressing somebody all the time and is suddenly revealed…the audience. Once she has figured out the building blocks of this world are made from panto Bernice goes on to make some terrific observations, that they are a satire on the era they are made with audience interaction traditions and phrases that have significance through repetition. There are some astonishing innovations made such as the PNN – Pantomime News Network (‘This genie is not here to grant us three wishes!’) and the audience are described as the fabled land beyond the sky where the big light shines. There has been a lot of thought put in to how to make this insane idea intelligent and convincing – in particular I loved the idea of the A Bon Bon – the characters of panto land have created ‘the most terrifying sugared confection ever developed by mankind’ to take on their harshest enemy – the children in the audience! Bernice adapts to the worlds way of thinking to escape, she starts making up crazy stories to ingratiate herself into the world and get what she needs, she talks in rhyme and uses the oldest panto trick in the book… ‘I bet you can’t get back into your lamp genie!’ ‘Oh yes I can!’ ‘Oh no you can’t.’ Finally the very idea of a cat being given sentience and self awareness only to have it snatched away is utterly absurd and deeply moving at the same time. The oddball backdrop only serves to make Wolsey’s journey in this adventure all the more touching, for such a riotous comedy his stunning realisation that he is propelled by instinct and base desires leaves a lingering sadness to the story.

Standout Performance: Lisa Bowerman, obviously but I’ll save her until last. Nicholas Courtney is an acting coup and the perfect choice for Wolsey, one of his best ever performances in anything Doctor Who related. Wolsey oozes charisma, is fiercely protective of Bernice, a horny little git and full of British charm (‘Why they’ll always be an England…’). He brings some real pathos to the play as Wolsey discovers his real purpose in life. And I can hear him in the ‘Row row row your boat’ scene which makes this whole story worthwhile.
Mark Gatiss also deserves a pat on the back for making me continually spit out my coffee every time he opens his mouth! He’s the hissy, slimy, creepy King’s Visier who manages to make every line sound like a filthy innuendo whether it is or not!
Dame Candy should have her own audio series – s/he is such a fantastic character: ‘Scarper!’ James Campbell had me rolling around on the floor (oo-er) with giggles.
As you can see it is hard to pick one standout performer in this ensemble party piece, everybody gets in to the spirit of the thing and makes it such a joy to listen to.

Sparkling (naughty) Dialogue: Was ever a Doctor Who related spin off ever more like an episode of Are You Being Served? This story is loaded with tons of panto themed naughtiness that kept me chuckling throughout!
‘There’s a bloody great missile approaching from the planet!’
‘Ooh my giddy kippers! I haven’t seen a sight like that since I popped round the back of the fishmonger’s trolley and had a look at his buttered plaice!’
‘Oooh you sinister squid!’ – I remember thinking that on more than one occasion when flies have been unzipped!
‘Hold on to me, Dick!’ – Ahem
‘I always say the more people I have around my balls, the better!’ No longer commenting!
‘The King’s Balls get bigger every year!’
Hello Puss in Boots!’ ‘I’ve warned you about your language!’
‘At least I can safely say I don’t owe it all to my pussy!’
‘I’ll have you know I’ve just returned from the Enchanted Land.’ ‘Is that yet another dimension?’ ‘It’s a nightclub in Camden.’
‘Parathon! Aloo Saag! Peshwari Naan!’ ‘Are you summoning a demon?’ ‘No you fool I’m ordering a curry.’
‘I’ve never had an animated Arab boy in my life! Unfortunately…’
‘When I do it its archaeology. When you do it its shoplifting.’

Audio Landscape: Considering this was the first thing Big Finish ever produced it is remarkably professional and assured with an imaginative script to really show off their talents. The opening scene sees a perpetually chilly and wind driven Perfecton. The Grel – gittish data pirates – have the most astonishing gurgling alien cockney voices! Bernice splashes about in the bath, Wolsey purrs contentedly and there is a hyper camp Nick Briggs computer voice. When Bernice wakes up in panto land she is greeted by fluting birdsong in a forest glade, a hilarious fight of grunts and clinking metal (‘Whose for calamari?’), and some impressive ball scenes with sweeping music, crowds, laughter and trumpets. Wolsey tap dances, claws on marble, horses whiney, the Vizier’s cauldron bubbles menacingly and arrows thump and boing into an embarrassed Bernice! The Fairy Godmother sequence is extraordinarily realistic with an orchestra practicing in the wings, the audience coughing and joining in with the singing and general air of mystery and anticipation. The genie Perfecton has the most arse clenchingly scary voice ever!

Musical Cues: Step forward Alistair Lock! What a story to introduce his talents on, one where he is let of the leash from the word go and given free reign to make us feel as good as possible. The music is pure Disney, upbeat, melodious and it often makes you feel as glorious as the script. One of my favourite ever sequences on audio is where the harmonising bluebirds and singing mice clean up Bernice’s house, it is impossible to not get swept by the madness of it all. It’s Enchanted 10 ten years earlier! The ball scenes have a sweeping and irresistible score, perfectly capturing the romance of the moment.

Isn’t that Odd: Doran sounds like he is about 12. Is paedophilia encouraged in the future?
Adapting popular New Adventures is an interesting idea but wouldn’t have it made more sense to introduce a new series with original stories? Actually no, given the standard of the first series of original stories I am glad they introduced us to Bernice with some her finest stories. They have been adapted to both audio and television now which is a real endorsement of their quality (for the most part).
The theme tune plays again after the missile has struck. Am I missing something?
What is really odd was that I didn’t find that Oh No it Isn’t was a very successful opener to the NA books minus the Doctor. I felt it gave out the wrong message to the punters, that this series was always going to be this ridiculous. Yet I had the complete opposite feeling with the audios, it kick starts them with bags of confidence and feel good style, exactly the sort of thing we have signed up for with this series. Performed, this story really comes alive.
That Big Finish misquoted SFX on the back when the actual review stated they weren’t sure if this was a strong start to the range. SFX rather cruelly pointed this out in the next edition, but hey the series is still going strong ten years down the line so I guess it must have drawn some people in!

Standout Moment: The whole thing pretty much but for the sheer thrill of it the harmonising bluebirds still makes me die every time I hear it! ‘Oh you’re washing them up for me!’

Result: A delightful introduction to the world of Bernice Summerfield on audio. This is still one of my most listened to audios (along with The One Doctor, surprisingly…what do those two have in common?) because it cheers me up every time I listen to it. You have a fantastic cast who are clearly having the time of their lives with the witty, imaginative script and that enjoyment extends to the audience in waves. Paul Cornell has written a surprisingly thoughtful discourse on the nature of pantomime, looking at its conventions and (lack of) imaginative limitations whilst making us laugh until our sides hurt at the same time. Jac Rayner has cleverly taken all the best bits of the book and cut away all the flabby padding. The best fiction is clever, thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining and Oh No It Isn’t! scores on all three. At the heart of this play is Lisa Bowerman playing Bernice as we always imagined her to sound, funny and sweet, commanding and flawed, entertaining and easy on the ear. She has that Tom Baker ability of making any dialogue sound utterly convincing. Very few Doctor Who stories have given me as much pleasure as this one: 10/10

Reply to – Hanging around Balls!
Message Sent 2010 – sender Joe Ford
Recipient Bernice Summerfield – 2593
‘You make me crack up Benny! Pantoland! What next, a prison made out of seasons? It is really good to hear from you, I was getting a bit worried as I hadn’t heard from you in such a long time. Jason’s such a tosser, forget about him. You need people around you who will look after you. Thanks for popping by at the wedding…although next time can you please tell the Doctor to try and mingle a bit! Everyone wondered who this Scots dwarf was hanging around clacking spoons together! Thank God everybody was drunk when he sang ‘As Time Goes By!’ Simon’s fine, he asks if Desperate Housewives is still being made in 2593 – you know life extending drugs and Botox could hardly make Teri Hatcher look worse! Better go, fancy some coffee. Speak soon – and don’t leave it so long next time – your adventures really cheer me up!’

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