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.’

Buy it from Big Finish here:

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