Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Tartarus Gate written by Stewart Sheargold and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: Benny is missing, having not returned from a dig. Kidnapped expertly. Removed from time and space completely. Jason, of course, uses every means at his disposal to find her. But resources are limited: the Braxiatel Collection has its own far more urgent problems. Then he receives information on her possible whereabouts, from a benevolent religious order known as the CroSSScape.
Why is Benny on the planet Cerebus Iera, a planet on the cliff-edge of the universe? A planet that is known to be violent, dangerous, and uninhabitable. A planet rumoured to have links to the Tartarus Gate, the mythical gateway to hell.

Archeological Adventuress: Bernice is delighted that her latest mission has gone so well she is being sent home with ten bottles of the good stuff – champers! She has a specially recorded message in case anybody finds her diary (include an extra special one for Jason who is warned that if he reads any further he wont get any naughties for a very long time…). Kidnapped by the CroSScape, Benny is forced to live out one perfect day after another in a perfect beach environment but she isn’t allowed to interact with it, just observe. Usually when she enjoys herself that frustrates the villain into some sort of action. Considering she has previously had a Goddess inside her head (The Squire’s Crystal) it makes perfect sense that the CroSScape would want to use Bernice as the vessel for their God once it has been released from hell. They really needed somebody like Bernice in Star Trek The Next Generation as she unleashes all the lashings of her tongue on the jurisdiction blinded 137 (‘Bloody bollocking authoritarian crap!’).

Jason (bloody) Kane: Jason is needed on the Collection now as a minder for Peter since Bernice has gone missing. Bev has put him in charge of the errant weather control systems. Because he is a man of this universe he has come to distrust kindness for its own rewards but it does exist. It is her natural reaction to resist idiocies that has allowed her to complicate the conversion of her mind to the higher dimensions. Jason has spent some time in another universe so his bio chemistry has been adapted…if it doesn’t work pouring God into Bernice’s head they will turn to him as the vessel instead. After stepping through a broiling mass of ickiness Jason proclaims it to be the most disgusting thing he has ever done but then remembers certain sex acts he has performed in his time. Jason has the choice to have his memories back that he chooses but he opts for them all, even the sadism inflicted on him by his father and his manipulation by Braxiatel. He wouldn’t be lovable old cynic Jason Kane without them. He realises that Brax made him kill – during the incident with the mirror and the Pupura Pawn.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why would they want to open it? Surely no ones that stupid!’ – I’m really glad somebody asked that question about opening the gates to hell!
‘We’re sorry Professor Summerfield but we must have our God back and to achieve that you must be sent through the Gate…to Hell.’
‘Who knows what happens when you fiddle with Hell!’

Great Ideas: Joseph is back and cuter than ever! He’s like a counselling device and a chief negotiator all rolled into one (when their latest lead on Benny agrees to help on principle and not profit he notes ‘how charming!’). When Joseph’s systems ping it is never a good sign. The CroSScape religious order have stripped the mind from the body and live in their datascape, a realm of pure mind, like a gestalt. Unfortunately they still need their bodies to facilitate communication with other races. They own a factory that has temporal properties and they offer its services to civilisations that face extinction events because it can regress them to a time before the catastrophe and allows for life to continue. Whilst they were regressing the fortunes of Cerebus Iera they came across and anomaly which turned out to be Bernice’s diary. It is a particular function of their datascape that they can transfer from one point to another instantaneously if there is a CroSScape member at the other end to act as a conduit. Cerebus Iera is next to an inexplicability and ships that try to pass the planet cannot as though there is a barrier there – some state that it is at the edge of the universe. 137 is from Control, the Government agency that controls this region of Federation space – they have been suspicious of the CroSScape for some time because nobody saves planets out of the goodness of their hearts. They think they have found the infamous Tartarus Gate which nobody ever believed was real. On Earth the Tartarus myth was wrapped up in Greek mythology as the lowest region of the world, a dank pit of horrors. It existed in the Underworld as a punishment for sinners and later stories claimed it was a prison for defeated Gods. A year ago a box appeared in the datascape and they couldn’t open it, someone in the gestalt suggested it might be a message from their God and he could open it for them. Somehow they deduced that he was imprisoned in hell and they’ve been using the factory to search out the hidden gate to free him. Occasionally some good does come from dating an archaeologist – Cerebus sounds like Cerebus the three headed dog that guarded the gate to hell (‘as usual follow the mythological clues!’). The box has been draining energy from the datascape and the CroSScape have been using some of the discarded energy during planetary regression to replace the lost power. Ingenious and illegal, stealing a planets energy for themselves. When all their efforts to open the box failed it was the factory that suggested they look for the Gate, it is sentient and the datascape regulates but at the same time it feeds the datascape with information. It is their eyes and ears sucking in the outside world and pouring it into their realm. They are trying regress Cerebus Iera to a point where the Gate was last open just long enough for their God to escape through. There is trade when their God inhabits Bernice and that is her mind which will be freed and exist within the datascape. The factory has been downloading parts of herself into La’Heyne for years as a mouthpiece but she is much more than that now…she can free herself from the constraints of that hypocritical order and when she control of the God she will be in charge. Jason is in the uncomfortable position of fluctuating between different universes – ouch! There are suggestions that Brax isn’t himself but a darker version – I wonder if this will lead anywhere.

Audio Landscape: Intercom system informing Bernice she is late for her shuttle, birdsong, transferring into the datascape, lightning cracking through the sky, gently lapping waves, the robotic overlapping of voices inside the CroSScape, Bernice literally sounds as though she is being torn in two as she is broken into the datascape, the nightmarish landscape for hell full of insane echoing laughter and creatures 9they sound a little like the fireflies from an earlier season), falling rubble, the bubbling mess that Jason goes through, the screaming winds as the planet is sucked through the gate, La’Hayne being eaten by one of the creatures, seagulls, 137 crashing his ship into the CroSScape factory is extremely destructive, the time shifts are represented in a number of ways including slowly down the actors voices which is very effective, the unleashing of the God and the destruction of the CroSScape is genuinely epic to listen to, Bernice being reconstructing through her dialogue from this story makes for an incredible set piece.

Musical Cues: With David Darlington back in the driving seat you can expect a swishy musical score and a fulsome audio soundscape and that is exactly what you get. Aside from The Crystal of Cantus the productions last year felt a little amateurish in their construction but this rectified here. Bernice Summerfield once again sounds like it should, at the top of its audio game. I love the oddly discordant vocals as the CroSScape try and convert Benny into their way of life.

Notes: Its completely irrelevant to the story itself but I love the new packaging for the series – the covers look far more sophisticated with the new worlds design and the inside information on the residents of the Collection fills me with hope that we will be seeing more of them. Adrian Salmon is still designing the covers of course and his gloriously unique artwork is still at the top of its game.

Result: A confident and cleverly written opening story for season seven, The Tartarus Gate is oddly one of the first Bernice Summerfield stories that feels less like an adventure tale and more like hard science fiction and its surprising how well it makes the transition. I remember the first time I listened to this story I was appalled that it was so different from how I expect this series to be but that turns out to be a real strength after last year saw the range flagging in its previous state. There a wealth of strong ideas in play and the strong dialogue and characterisation keeps them manageable, the ideas keep growing until there are two factions looking for the same God with Benny and Jason at either side of the conflict as their respective mouthpieces. There are moments of humour dotted about and the production is far more assured than anything last year (technically this is faultless) but what I enjoyed most was the evolving script bristling with intelligent imagination. If this is an indication of what the series is going to be like in new hands sign me up: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

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