Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Dance of the Dead written by Stephen Cole and directed by Ed Salt

What’s it about: Illegally smuggled aboard a spaceship, hung over to the nth degree, all Benny Summerfield wants is to curl up in a ball and die. And it looks like she's going to get her chance. When disaster strikes the ship - human error, or deliberate sabotage? - Benny barely survives. Banding together with a party of Ice Warriors and a laconic steward, a hazardous, arduous race is on to find a way out of the wreck before it breaks up all together. But are her fellow escapees all they seem? Benny finds that's hard to tell when your own mind's being hijacked by the memories and emotions of a dead alien - while a Martian Grand Marshall becomes your better half...

Archaeological Adventuress: Lisa Bowerman gives a beautiful, personal performance here with the sort of intense material that she aced in season one. Bernice is suffering from the hangover from hell as this story opens, so obviously her attempts to cut down on alcohol have failed dismally! Naturally it is all Iris Wildthyme’s fault (the final Excelis adventure slotting in between The Green Eyed Monsters and Dance of the Dead). Should really try and send the Collection message to say she’s okay. Good in a crisis as the ship rocks to destruction; trying to calm people down and assure them she can find some help. Wonders why she had to sober up at all! Why does time always fly when you’re having fun and crawl like a two-legged beetle when you’re scared as a bastard! She helped excavate the Martian tombs over a year and wound up in debt for three years as a result. She found it a breathtaking, beautiful world. Thinks the Grand Marshal calling her Professor is cute. Adrian points out to Benny frequently that it is usually the young, good looking men that she makes friends with that turn out to be the bad guys. Bernice tells Peter that she is coming home. Refuses to shag her way out of this situation, she has some dignity! I love Benny’s fake Musjana impression to get close to Karter to kick him in the nuts, clever cow! After this adventure Bernice wants to see the Sstac again because she feels something is missing now Musjana is gone and wants to know if he feels the same. She is going to visit Culgar and find their next of kin and talk with them. I love it when these stories have emotional consequences for the characters.

Standout Performance: Matthew Brenher once again plays a Grand Martial (his other performance in the role was Red Dawn) and he sounds authentically like Alan Bennion in the role. It’s a thoughtful performance; Sstac is a person rather than just another alien. Bowerman and Brenher manage to prevent a convincing relationship twice over, both as Benny and the Grand Martial and as Musjana and Asnabi.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Rest In Peace…you poor old sod!’
Where else would you get to hear an Ice Warrior scream ‘you ungrateful whore! Prostitute!’
‘When you parade me in public my smile is your shield…’
‘Asnabi and Musjana got to say goodbye but I’d like to say hello…to you.’

Great Ideas: Peace has few virtues for a trained soldier. The jewellery is a part of the Calgarian’s, a repository for their emotions and memories. They swell, grow fuller with the passing years and then fall away when they day to passed on to the eldest of the clan. The dead are remembered forever. Priceless to the family, worthless to anybody else. The jewels were shattered and a poisonous gas seeped out. The hull is breached and many of the passengers were sucked into space. Musjana cheated on Asnabi, fell pregnant and lost the child. The Calgarian past emotions are stirred by reactions to different stimuli, fear, anger… Karter was never helping the Calgarian’s, he was thieving from them. His partner set the explosives and was only supposed to knocked one level, minimum mess, minimum fuss. So much for a self-respecting thief – Karter has stripped the corpses down to their underwear to steal everything they have.

Audio Landscape: The port, squeaky voiced aliens, ship muzak, shipboard announcement, the ship buffering, panic and screaming, systems exploding, air sucking into space, fire crackling, the grumbling, creaking ship, the ceiling collapsing, water dripping, the drunken lift shaft, bullet, pen scratching.

Musical Cues: Subtle, creepy, quiet…very nice.

Standout Scene: There’s a moment when Sstac is gripped by the Calgarian memories in the lift shift and tries to murder Benny, Lisa Bowerman is overwhelmed by the memories and gives the performance of the year as the spiteful and vicious Musjanna. Asnabi’s death scene is very poignant.

Notes: I really love how the series is telling a serial storyline now with Bernice having to cope with Jason and Adrian’s overwhelming affections in The Green Eyed Monsters, discussing the situation with Iris in The Plague Herds of Excelis and telling the story of her return from Excelis to the Collection in Dance of the Dead. At the same time Iris comments she is off to a bar she knows which leads into The Wormery featuring the sixth Doctor. The Ice Warriors talk of a new battle against the forces of the Queen, which ties in with the events of Plague Herds, the same Queen that caused terrible trouble for the world of Excelis. They have really got the track lengths right this season – 13 tracks from between three and nine minutes long. The old, emotional memories of a destructive relationship taking hold of characters we know reminded me of I Was Made to Love You from the second season of Buffy.

Isn’t it Odd: Is that an Ice Warrior with boobs on the cover?

Result: Quietly intense and intoxicating, The Dance of the Dead flirts with a dramatic premise that allows a big budget story to take place with a small cast. The direction is superb, allowing the performances to come to the fore but still creating a dangerous atmosphere in the damaged ship. The story starts with a big explosion but everything slows down as the story progresses so we can focus on the frightening relationship between Musjana and Asnabi and Stephen Cole even manages to toss in a few good surprises from the small guest characters. This is precisely the sort of story we should have been enjoying last season; simple, emotional, atmospheric and hugely entertaining. Benny’s audio range is right back on track: 8/10

Buy this from Big Finish here:

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