Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Glory Days written by Nick Wallace and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: Academic and adventurer Bernice Summerfield has always taken a dim view on grave robbers and thieves. It’s the kind of thing that makes life difficult when you’re friends with one of the galaxy’s most wanted criminals. A situation that gets even more complicated when that criminal’s other half is your fathers son. A mess of twisted relationships like that needs sorting. The ideal method would be group therapy and a nice long cup of tea. Unfortunately a raid on an impenetrable location governed by a sociopathic mastermind where one false move means death is all you’ve got time for…

Archeological Adventuress: I greeted the new ‘roaming free of the Collection’ tone of the last season following on from the death of Jason and Bernice’s near rape with mixed reviews. It did feel like the series needed to move on from the Braxiatel Collection but we had amassed such an array of likable regulars based there that you could be assured that even if the story was a bit of a letdown (not usually a problem in this range) then they would be there to give it a boost and spend time with. Once Bernice high tailed it into space with Peter suddenly the universe felt like a cold place (something that would be continued this year) and all that warmth and shared history between the regulars felt oddly wasted. Which is why I am pleased that they decided to have their cake and eat it here by re-introducing Bev and Adrian (it really is great to see them again) but setting the story away from the Collection. It feels like the new direction of the series to seek adventures elsewhere has been maintained and I get to enjoy another adventure with these characters I have come to miss. The best of both worlds.

You can tell what sort of a day Bernice Summerfield is having when she orders a tall and toxic drink rather than a nice cup of tea! She knows that anything to do with Brax is going to be devious and ridiculously complicated and she walks into this situation with her eyes open. It doesn’t do her any good (she reacts with shock horror at every surprise that Bev has failed to mention) but at least she has been warned – note to self from the end of this story…don’t believe a word of what Bernice Summerfield telling you in the early parts of this story!  I nearly died with laughter when the Bernice clone revealed herself and started spouting off the sort of dialogue you expect from a hack writer that lists all the things that Bernice should say (she likes bad music, drink and enjoys loose morals…). Even better is Benny’s appalled reaction to her namesake – what’s missing is the intelligence and the humanity to that makes our Benny so much more than just a list of character traits. She’s horrified that anybody would think of her in those terms, especially Bev who has inputted the personality into the clone. The copy of Bernice that we last met wound up being the president of Earth and this one is little more than an programmed sex toy – I’d say she falls somewhere between those two stools. Over the years she has met many versions of herself but this is the first one she’s wanted to punch on the nose! There’s a flashback to a moment shared between Benny and Brax back when they were still friends that reminded me of how much their friendship used to bring to the series. She painted a picture of him once and whilst it might not have any monetary value it is a gift that he said he would treasure always. These flashbacks are ultimately very important to the plot so pay attention. Bernice has seen one too many looted tombs to acquiesce to Bev’s lifestyle. When Braxiatel wants to turn on the charm he can be so charming and Bernice will admit that he had completely fooled her. When she first met Braxiatel Bernice genuinely thinks he was different. He could be dangerous and prickly but living on the Collection was like bathing in history and she simply tried to push her doubts aside and simply enjoy it. The death toll of the Draconian/Mim war was in the millions and it was that which alerted her finally to the scale and inhumanity involved in his plots. To wipe out a species and drive another to the brink of extinction just to serve his own purposes. Benny has a lead on Jason’s bank account and the collected erotic works he wrote have been topping the charts for months since he died. She needs to get to Venus where the account is based.

Curator-Ex: Bev spent the best part of a year running the Collection and she has been completely snubbed by Braxiatel since his return. The newscasts are constantly mentioning the work of a skilled art thief known as the ‘White Fox’ who has been lifting jewels from all the major depositories. Although she denies it vehemently, it’s a role that looks like it would fit Bev like a glove but it ultimately turns out to be a massive con. Bev has been committing criminal acts, just not the ones you might think she has. Her outlook on life has changed since she has been left without a home and prospects. To bring these characters back you need a good reason other than ‘it doesn’t feel the same without them’ and Nick Wallace happens upon a brilliant scheme that sees Bev at her height planning a raid on one of Braxiatel’s financial facilities. This is the sort of job she is made for and its good to know that Bev has a skill to fall back now her administrative duties on the Collection have come to an end. Even this winds up being a deception. When Bev discovers the painting that Bernice did of Brax she declares it the most hideous work of art she has ever seen!

Shaggy Dog: Benny is as relieved as we are to be reunited with Adrian and knows that Peter will be delighted to see him. Its clear that he has been tortured (it turns out it was Doggles that did most of the handiwork) on Brax’s orders in order to try and lure Benny back to the Collection. Adrian and Bev are heading to Earth and promise to meet up with Benny there in the future.

Standout Performance: The gag that all the clones are copies of Braxiatel comes as a wonderful surprise (who else would this self serving egomaniac create his staff in the mould of – why go for anything but utter perfection?) and gives the ever-wonderful Miles Richardson a chance to step out of his usual enigmatic fervour and play some masterful comedy scenes. Richardson has been associated with Big Finish as far back as his impressive turn as Darwin in the sixth Doctor adventure Bloodtide and has never (and I mean never) given a below par performance in his entire output. He’s given the Bernice series its very own Doctor substitute (whilst being nothing like him and having a unique identity of his own) and sinister villain and balanced politics and temporal shenanigans with wit and verbal swordplay in the Gallifrey series. His inclusion in the upcoming box set Legion is something to be celebrated and I cannot wait to listen to the story that he has written himself (Everybody Loves Irving). After sticking with the character and giving it such a backbone it’s the least Big Finish could have done to allow him to pen his own tale. I always get excited when I see his name on a cast list. ‘Glory be, miss!’ The clone with a stutter is especially convincing and it’s worth mentioning how hard it is to pull off that kind of thing (I haven’t seen it done this well since Ronnie Barker’s Arkwright in Open All Hours).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Oh please give me some clothes! I’m notoriously shy about my sexuality! Oh but I can also be a notorious shag rabbit if the right guy comes along!’
‘You think I’m frightened of Braxiatel? I lived with Braxiatel for years; I trusted him and he betrayed me. I can’t wait to see him.’

Great Ideas: In the galactic recession automated personnel are rife, in the credit crunch people are always the first to go. A bank with a secret vault hidden underneath an already ludicrously secure vault. Benny doesn’t think all this cloak and dagger security is Braxiatel’s style but given this was the man who tried to press gang her husband into becoming a Cyberman to control and army that would protect the Collection because he got jitters after the Axis occupation I would say this is exactly his style of security. The bank is staffed by clones that are obsessed with their work and treat banking like a religion. You’ve got to love an ultra polite security system that points out that 500 laser have been directed at you since entering the building – its always nice to be told of your impending death with a cheery attitude! Bernice, Bev and Adrian prove that they are a force to be reckoned with when they feign defeat in order to be brought together in the vault where their real plan can be put into motion. The whole staging of this story as a plan of Bev’s is a con, Bernice wrote the briefing because she knows how to get into his head and think the way he does. Bev is the Matted Stoat committing the acts of petty theft in the Utility Services and manages to arrange that the Bank’s electricity turns off at a pre-arranged time. The Stoat raids dull companies and puts her money back into dull companies like the one that is responsible for servicing the Banks generators meaning the computer system can also be sabotaged at a pre-arranged time. In case of this sort of trouble the Banks records are sent by a secure uplink to an orbiting hard drive utility and rather than hack into that company’s systems Benny bought the company. They might not have any guns but they do have Adrian and his fists never run out of steam! The painting is a hard drive and Bernice’s time ring is the key to access it. If anything happens to Braxiatel his consciousness downloads from his body into one of his clones at the facility via the hard drive. Instead of storing the picture on the Collection he travelled back in time to secure it away in a box of his own creation, in a bank staffed by clones of him and run by an AI modelled on him. This is his back up in case the Collection is breached and his life is threatened. Everything that he is and is thinking about doing is stored here and Bernice (or rather her Time Ring) is the key. He needed somebody with time travel technology to paint it in order to make it work. The whole thing is a trick though; the Glory of the title is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The painting serves two purposes; not just a back up for Braxiatel but also the bait in a trap for anybody who is smart enough to challenge him. The painting is infused with energy from the Time Ring and if you touch it you are zapped back in time and become the model for the AI. You become the Glory. The closer they got to the painting the more likely it was that she would steal it, the more the glory sounded like Benny because probability dictated it was her that would be thrown back in time and become the model for the AI. If time is in flux because Bev took Bernice’s place in that role that means there is a minute or two where the history of the picture is open to revision. No temporal energy in the picture means no hard drive and with that there was never any reason for Brax to build the bank and hide it away – the entire location has been changed to a beer seller in the blink of an eye! What an absolutely madcap, insane, imaginative ending!

Audio Landscape: Shuttle descending, busy spaceport, pouring a drink, a robot waiter, busy space lanes, birdsong, Bernice climbing a shaft, pursued by a robot spider with lasers, footsteps.

Musical Cues: Martin Johnson provides a lively, pacy score that sets the tone for the story perfectly. In order for this sort of heist story to work it has to have a stylish touch and that’s something that Johnson’s work could be said to have in general. There’s a marvellously ominous and climactic piece as Bernice dishes out her revenge on the painting.

Isn’t it Odd: The Bernice Summerfield range is usually funny without having to go down the road of Gimme Gimme Gimme style humour and while Nick Wallace’s script is very witty on the whole Bev’s alias of ‘Connie Lingus’ made me sigh more than smile. The last time the series was this obvious with its humour – Simon Guerrier’s The Summer of Love – the story flopped. Fortunately this is just one minor tarnish to an otherwise sunny story.

Standout Scene: The whole climax that sees the Bank turn into a pub has to be heard to be believed!

Notes: Wallace reveals his love of Bernice when he mentions her love of tennis and Menlove Stokes and other long forgotten touches of continuity.

Foreboding: ‘He has a unique insight into time and he’s been using that shape events to his purposes…’ – much discussion of Braxiatel’s purpose which has yet to be revealed but the wait is almost over. ‘Even now I’m not sure what his end game really is…’

Result: What a fantastic idea it was to start the new season with a frivolously enjoyable heist story. The treats in Glory Days are manifold ranging from the much sought (and in no way a stunt) return of Adrian and Bev, the witty script that pokes fun at Bernice in rapturous style, a complex multi-performance from Miles Richardson, a plot that surprises by being so accessible and yet surprisingly complex and a fluid pace and frothy atmosphere. It feels more like the Bernice series of old before we got bogged down in all the domestic drama and could be used as a template for future stories. The story plays out like a cross between an episode of The Avengers (colourful characters and crazy ideas) and Hustle (don’t believe a single word of what you being told - this tale is constructed out of smoke and mirrors and will dazzle you with its numerous cons) and proves to be as addictive as that combination would suggest. The climax is practically impenetrable until you give it some hardcore dissection (I had to listen to it three times to get my head around it) but once you follow the insane line of logic it is highly imaginative and completely fruitloop. It’s as close to Braxiatel’s plans for the future as we have ever been able to get and its almost X-Files-esque in how it takes you within arms reach of the truth and then snatches it away. If she can find somebody with exceptional hard drive recovery skills that Braxiatel’s schemes are waiting to be exposed. That’s two for two with as far as Wallace scripts are concerned (The Judas Gift was similarly excellent) and with nothing listed in schedules for him over the next four seasons I hope it isn’t the last time that he and Bernice are teamed up. More like this please: 9/10

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