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.’

Buy it from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/12-Bernice-Summerfield-Beyond-The-Sun
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