Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Private Enemy No.1 written by Tony Lee and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: The Great Leader is dead… Long live the Great Leader! Atlantis is in disarray. The Historians are hiding Bernice, Leonidas and Ruth within their safe house – but the world is changing more than they could have ever imagined. People are being erased from existence, their memories wiped clean and replaced with those of others. Entire buildings are altering, times are changing… and the Hierophants are on the move. Can Bernice and her friends save Atlantis from the end of existence? Or will they too be assimilated?

Archeological Adventuress: ‘One by one I’ve ruined you all…’ As the range starts to remind us of the universe that we left behind at Year Zero, Private Enemy No.1 does something fiendishly clever with Benny that sees her dismiss this new setting and make getting back to her time and her son her priority. The series is trying to cut its ties with the past and concentrate on original storytelling and characters thus Bernice is given the choice to literally become somebody else and build a permanent wall between her and her old life and return things to their factory settings as they were at the beginning of this box set. Its an intriguing idea but I cannot imagine a wealth of stories bleeding from the Atlantis setting and its not as if Benny would ever give up searching for her son. She was always going to reject this proposal but it’s a choice that works in terms of character and plotting, proving there is some dramatic mileage in the Atlantis arrangement. The chemistry that was apparent between Bernice and Leonidas in The Temple of Questions is given more consideration and this is the point where she actually has the conversation about whether she is ready to move on a trust her heart other men again. I actually stifled laughter when Benny stormed up to the Hierophants to give herself up and they puncture her ego with one move by telling her they don’t want to arrest her. She has the effect of making people wither deliriously happy or terrified beyond belief with little middle ground, so its an extreme emotional reaction for good or for ill. Benny’s brain is like a sieve and she is remembering events as selectively as other people (she has no recollection of ever talking to Jack before despite the fact that he appeared in the last two adventures). When she first arrived on Atlantis all she wanted was to find something familiar to guide her home but since she has hooked up with Ruth and Leo she feels as though she belongs. And that scares her. When she gets close to people it usually means pain for both parties. As chat up lines go, suggesting that they have to make every second count because they don’t when reality will alter and they’ll forget that they’ve ever met is a pretty convincing one on Leo’s part. Bernice has no more fight left in her at the climax, she’s practically suicidal as the world ends around her and she has no way of holding it back. Its strikingly done and leaves you with the rare feeling that things might not work out this time.

Priestess: With Ruth and Leo now established it feels like Bernice has good fighting team behind her now and one that has adjusted to living their lives looking over their shoulder and always having an escape route planned out. The only point where Ruth doesn’t work is when the writer tries to make her a little too cute (her ‘blah blah blah’ piss take of Benny’s technobabble for example). Being cute is fine (her delightful reaction to a voice being at the end of a phone), being self-consciously cute is just irritating. Ruth offers Benny hope as the world ceases to be, more than earning her a place in her life. They face the end together as the Nothing approaches.

Standout Performance: There are a pair of performances that don’t sit quite right in this story. Rebecca Newman is being asked to play an insidious and menacing presence but her agreeable singsong voice doesn’t really convey much of that. And Chris Johnson despite only delivering the words that have been written for him is far too chirpy as Darian, even when he is being threatened.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Tell him he can save the world next time and I’ll go shopping!’
‘Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, dump the bloke and lose the chick’ and ‘Jack to me sounds like a bit of a dick…’
‘That coffee shop just appeared out of nowhere!’ – I don’t know why but that really tickled me!

Great Ideas: Benny is on the hunt for the future in exactly the same way that she usually seeks to expose the past. What this set has done by depriving us of the time period in which we usually see its adventures through is remind us of what an exciting place to tell stories it actually is. That might sound like a backhanded compliment and I suppose it is, Epoch is an engaging story arc for the most part but you cannot completely shift the emphasis of a series without making the audience yearn for what was. This box set was never going to be good enough to make me draw a line under all those marvellous adventures we had in the first eleven and a half seasons of this season and pleasingly it looks as though we making steps back towards that direction. Poseidon is quiet now and the only people who worshipped him have defected, there are subtle hints of a society that is falling to pieces from the outset. Peoples memories/histories are being rewritten on the spot and their friends/family are quickly adjusting to the new timeline that has emerge with it. A new army of protectorates have appeared on the streets – the Hierophants – and they aren’t afraid to throw their weight around to ensure public obedience. They have barcodes tattooed on their faces. The process of communing with the Epoch (and thus having your history rewritten) feels like you are literally melting away. Bernice realises that Atlantis has been as textbook as they come with every cliché thrown in to create the desired effect (is she actually commenting on Russell’s approach there?). The chrome and glass building standing in the middle of Atlantis is a striking edifice and one that provides a alienating reminder that Benny’s universe is waiting to be re-discovered. She examines a contemporary high rise building with all the archaeological prowess that she would a trench at a dig and has to explain the purpose of everything to her two ‘students.’ The answer to why history is banned defied my expectations, its outlawed because it is uncertain and constantly shifting. Nobody can study the past because the past as a concept doesn’t exist in this malleable universe. The idea of two realities smashing together and everybody having is quickly make sense of the resulting jumble of elements is very exciting. That premise could be at the heart of a highly original and densely plotted story if you got the details right (set up two realities vividly and then literally bleed elements from one to another and vice versa). There’s something very Castrovalva about studying a map and highlighting the geographical errors in this reality.

Audio Landscape: Market scenes, seagulls, Mars police helicars, smashing glass, the gravelly voices of the Epoch, phone ringing, lift arriving, knocking, the whirlwind of noise as each time shift takes place, the swirling apocalypse.

Musical Cues: As things get more dramatic and gather momentum so does the soundtrack and Benny and Ruth’s skyline getaway is accompanied by some memorably foot tapping music. I have massive respect for the score during the last scene too which brings events to a climactic finish, wrapping around the audience an unsettling theme whilst the Nothing does the same to Benny and Ruth.

Isn’t it Odd: I’m extremely surprised that with Gary Russell re-emerging in this series (co-inciding with the point where the series begins to feel a bit aimless again after many seasons of tight storytelling since his departure) that he opted for a format that denied the use of continuity (the very premise of Epoch is to give Benny a new start…or at least work towards getting back to her old life). Certainly when he returned to take up the realms of Gallifrey he indulged in continuity overdrive as though as if to sate his appetite for such things after having been away from creative control of a series for so long. Thus it’s a little disappointing to hear a vendor offering blessings at the ‘Temple of Amdo’ (The Underwater Menace) because to this point this fanwank free story arc has been all the fresher for it. Darian is a pretty irritating character, reminding me somewhat of Scrappy Doo the way he itches for approval and adventure. Because some characters can see and understand the changes that are taking place (basically anybody who isn’t Bernice, Ruth and Leo) and others can’t it makes it quite difficult to keep hold of what is real and what isn’t.

Standout Scene: As the story accelerates, so does the Epoch’s meddling and suddenly coffee houses and multiplexes are being conjured out of thin air and being dumped in the middle of an ancient Greek town. Lee shows off his graphic novel roots with this powerful, unforgettable imagery. The climax really gave me goosebumps, the end of the world occurring with a whimper rather than a bang as Bernice and Ruth sing the ‘Skyriders’ theme that has persisted throughout this set and they are consumed by Nothing. Its disturbing that Bernice should be erased from time in such a quiet way and the apocalypse is all the more haunting for being underplayed to such an extent.

Result: Just as Jac Rayner was handed the toughest assignment (the characterful time filler), Tony Lee is awarded the easiest slot of the ‘season’ (the exciting build up to the finale without the necessity of having to write a satisfying climax). There is something very clever going on within the Epoch box set and its only during this story that it starts to make itself apparent – Bernice is usually based in the future and features her unearthing the past but that cliché has been turned on its head. Now she’s been dumped in the (apparent) past and is attempting to unearth the future. The overlapping realities has been done to death in the books (Time Zero-Timeless, with particular reference to The Last Resort) and the audios (the godawful Divergents universe arc) but its an idea I find exciting and has much potential. Cleverly its as things start to shift around her that Bernice starts to put together all the mysteries that have amassed on Atlantis so far and builds a picture of what is taking place. By the end of the story she has found the future again (or rather the future has caught up with her) and Lee has dug up some character drama inherent in the premise when Benny loses her new lover to the Epoch. Its been a slow moving storyline but finally the Epoch arc is reaping its rewards, taking many of the elements from the first two stories and providing some coherence and explanations. Time has literally run out of for Benny as the Nothing sweeps across the city she has come to call home. It’s an abstract ending for a story that has excitingly taken this new setting to pieces and if there are similarities to the climactic scenes of Escaping the Future it has a very different tone to it for that. Stirring stuff, Private Enemy No.1 almost justifies the box set on its own: 9/10

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