Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Kingdom of the Blind written by Jacqueline Rayner and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: Jason Kane thought things had been going so well with ex-wife Bernice Summerfield, until she went sleepwalking, stole Brax's shuttle (causing Jason grievous bodily harm in the process), and then abandoned her on-off lover to the mercy of a horde of mute and unfriendly aliens. Although Benny - waking to find herself marooned on a strange planet dressed only in her nighty, with strange voices in her head and a bunch of one-eyed monsters threatening to cut out her tongue - would probably argue that her day was even worse, thank you very much. But Benny does seem to have stumbled across the last resting place of a legendary civilisation, so it's not all bad. Well, assuming she and Jason can survive - intact - long enough to tell anyone about it…

Archaeological Adventuress: Benny is savvy enough to recognise that she has to pretend to be deaf and she plays up to this role to superb comic effect. ‘I can see your lips are moving but I can’t hear anything!’ she cries just like my Granddad used thinking everybody was as deaf as he is. There is a menacing undertone to all this because if she is discovered to have functioning ears they could very well be removed! I’m not sure how she manages it as they make loud noises in her face and she has to make herself not react to them. I had forgotten what a superb comic actress Lisa Bowerman is and her ‘peeling spuds’ song that gets louder and louder as the Monoid stamps his feet to try and make her shut up is really funny. Benny has a pleasant chat with 26 about her relationship with Jason trying to explain that they were married but are no longer together. She admits she didn’t treat him very well but he didn’t treat her very well either but when it comes down to it she misses him when he isn’t around. Bernice is disappointed to learn that the creatures were called Monoids anyway because she thought she came up with it!

Benny’s Gang: What at first sounds sweetly like Jason Kane reading a bedtime story to Peter becomes a rather grisly tale of him killing Adrian and saving Bernice! When Jason wakes up with a banging headache it is for one of two reasons, cuddling up with a bottle the night before or an ‘ex wife incident.’ Jason insults, patronises and cajoles his fellow prisoners and accuses them all of not having a sense of humour to which he gets the tired response ‘have sense of humour, joke not funny.’

Standout Performance: I understand that Nick Briggs wanted to clean the decks and make his own stamp on the main range when he took over from Gary Russell. It does make sense. However there is a difference between starting afresh and pushing out one of your greatest assets just because you want to try some new stuff. Caroline Morris is a superb performer – she dazzled as Erimem and she is just as strong as 26 in Kingdom of the Blind. She has a way of cutting straight to the drama of the piece without it feeling melodramatic or corny. In the hands of a lesser actor the fractured speech and hysterical panic of the character would suck (imagine Sophie Aldred playing it – ugh!) but Morris manages to make the role sympathetic and likable. If Erimem was to go I would very much welcome seeing her in another role in a spin off series because she is too good a performer to let go to waste.

Great Ideas: Has Benny been brainwashed into leaving the Collection? The slaves have two eyes and a tongue but they are all mute but if someone does manage to speak out loud their tongues are cut out. You can see, hear or speak but you are aren’t allowed all and you have to choose which is to be removed – as Benny says that is truly barbaric! Legend has it that the Hallervens knew that they planet was dying, it would be overwhelmed by natural disasters and not even their mental powers could stop it. They put their resources into a ship and filled it with the brightest and the best and sent it off to find a new home. Galactic Trust has slapped a preservation on their planet which wound being an idyllic paradise. People want to colonise and they are getting clever, suggesting that they are descendents of the Hallervens and that they have every right to return to the planet. Bernice has been drafted in by Brax to investigate their claims. She fells sleep wearing the Hallerven necklace and it connected her with 26 in her sleep. 44 can speak because he sacrificed his eyes and he shows Jason his sightless sockets in a very shocking moment. What happens when the ill-treated slaves become the masters? Would they treat them as badly as they themselves were? Turns out the Hallerven world was destroyed because they did it themselves by misusing their powers.

Audio Landscape: Opening on a blood curdling scream makes this more attention grabbing than The Heart’s Desire managed in its entirety. Shuttle blasting off and landing on the planet, the Monoid voices are utterly authentic and great fun to listen to, the wonderful Monoid trucks, trickling water, rumbling planet.

Musical Cues: A fabulous score courtesy of Simon Robinson which heightens the b movie feel of this piece with some lovely creepy screeching noises for the scenes with the Monoids.

Standout Scene: As soon as Benny mentions a missing spaceship it is pretty obvious that it would be discovered on the surface of the planet but that doesn’t stop it being a powerful moment all the same.

Notes: The Monoids are back! Before you head off into the shadows to have a chuckle you might be surprised to hear that they used surprisingly well and actually come across as quite a menacing force on audio. The very idea that they are burning out peoples eyes or slicing out their tongues because they are deficient in senses is quite horrible.

Result: Jacqueline Rayner is a very clever writer and she always manages to find a new way to explore writing for audio. In The Marian Conspiracy she focussed solely on the characters to superb dramatic effect, the Pirates is told as a story by the Doctor and Evelyn with all the comic exaggerations that come with it, The Suffering is a tale told in two halves by two difference narrators…and with The Kingdom of the Blind she is focusing on the senses (sight and sound) and exploits both the both comic and dramatic potential of such an approach. She takes what could have been a potentially ropey premise (Bernice Summerfield and the Monoid Menace) and turns out an interesting science fiction tale that utilises both Benny and Jason well and has some very entertaining moments. If the ending is wrapped up a little too quickly this is still a solid Bernice adventure that is well acted and directed with a firm hand which is exactly what the series needs after the last adventure: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

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