Friday, 18 January 2013

Bad Habits written by Simon Barnard & Paul Morris and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: Meet Sister Bernice - newest initiate into the order of Saint Celestion. Such is her devotion to the faith that she has undertaken a pilgrimage to the planet Agora, birthplace of the blessed Saint himself. The pilgrims aren’t alone, however. Also on the planet is a team of archaeologists searching for the lost tomb of Celestion - a subject in which Sister Bernice seems curiously interested… In her quest to unearth an ancient relic that will point the way to Legion, Bernice will face some fearsome challenges: the dreaded Blood Beast of Thaloon, the randiest Bishop in the galaxy, and an ancient cult with some very bad habits indeed…

Archeological Adventuress: We haven’t seen Bernice quite this foot loose and fancy free for some time (probably way back in her early seasons) and its lovely to see her let hair down and get herself stuck into a really daft mystery. The first scene spells out that Bernice has practically committed every deadly sin in one form or another. Trust her to not think through her cover story with any great detail…Bunny Hare is a man! She’s quite perturbed that another professional has found fame within her dusty old field (‘archaeology is not meant to be cool!’). Trout doesn’t want her to think of him as some kind of archaeological superhero which is fine because that is the last thing that she thinks. It has been at least 15,000 days since her last confession and clearly has a very fanciable imagination. Because Synesius knows her as one alias and Trout knows her as another she has to wear a mask when in their presence with the unlikely cover story that she is an archaeologist with a dust allergy! If Bernice is told not to snoop somewhere it just makes her want to snoop there all the more! Aurelia’s mirthful reaction to Bernice’s reveal that she isn’t a really a nun (‘as if!’) had me howling. She hasn’t missed her vocation.

Mysterious Girl: Ruth takes much more of a backseat this week and lets Bernice do what she does best and sniff out the suspects. She acts far more in a supporting role here like one of the Doctor’s companions, providing Bernice with somebody to discuss the evidence with. Saying that she is exhilarated by the thought of being trapped within a real life murder mystery and cannot resist giggling as she heads off into danger to investigate with Sister Marianne (not realising she is the killer, of course).

Sparkling Dialogue: There haven’t been this many double entendres thrown into a Bernice Summerfield story since Oh No It Isn’t and I think Bad Habits might even pip that one for sheer volume! Here are some of my favourites…
‘I was just pumping my organ. I don’t get it out very often…only when I’m alone! What do you think?’ ‘Very impressive, I’m sure’ ‘Would you like to play with it?’ ‘I really wouldn’t know how!’ ‘I’m sure I could teach you sister…’
‘Is that a key in your vestments or are you just pleased to see me?’ ‘You saucy little devil! This my dear is the key to the catacombs, five hundred years of history in my undergarments! Would you like to touch it?’ ‘Oh yes please…gosh its so heavy!’
‘I’m not too sure that the Bishop has it in him.’
‘Stop kicking him up the arse whoever you are!’
‘You’ve no doubt heard of Ten Little Martians? Evil Under the Moon? Murder on the Omega Express?
‘I do hope your books aren’t that far fetched…’

Standout Performance: You might have think that you’ve seen an eclectic cast in Doctor Who stories (and its related spin offs) before but this might just take the biscuit! Drunken performances can be truly, deeply embarrassing to endure but Nigel Lambert taps into a vein of comedy that had me clutching my sides. Bishop Synesius is a delightful character, randy as hell and Lambert gives a masterful comic performance. He has spasmodic fingers which means that sisters bottoms can be involuntarily be pinched! Its quite a departure from how Doctor Who fans might be used to experiencing Lambert, as the subdued and brow beaten scientist Hardin in The Leisure Hive. I can’t have been the only person to notice that Professor Trout sounded just like Bonnie Langford during season 24, especially when he gets excitable! The fact that he turns out to be H from Steps was almost the funniest gag in the entire story. Its always a delight to be in the company of Jacqueline King and she reveals just what a glorious character actress she is, providing a role that is a world away from Sylvia Noble.

Great Ideas: Keep your wits about you in the early scenes because the writers show that they have learnt a great deal from Agatha Christie and slip in a lot of important information and deceptions. We aren’t being allowed to forget that this is another stepping stone on the way to Legion which gives the set real focus, there is an actual reason why these particular adventures are taking place. Professor Trout is a sentient mole and why not? We’ve had pretty much every other creature personified across the various Doctor Who spin offs! I really enjoyed the Chimes of Midnight style black humour when Mother Aurelia kept trying to pass the grisly murders off as accidents just so she could prevent them from being publicised for her own purposes. The scene where Ruth discovers what appears to be evidence of a well planned out murder spree in what is a very clever deception especially when it is revealed that Aurelia is a world famous crime writer on the quiet. Its not evidence of a conspiracy, it’s the blatant thieving of inspiration for her latest detective novel. The very idea of a murder mystery writer with a sideline in detective work is a not very subtle riff on Murder She Wrote, especially how murders seem to follow Aurelia around like a bad smell. I bet more than a few myths have been fabricated just as they are here to keep people away from places they aren’t wanted. What’s clever is how the myth actually comes true in the end with Marianne falling into suspended animation which is eternal life by any other name. After revealing the commercialisation of the galaxy and complete devotion to a plastic culture in Brand Management it comes as no surprise that Bishop Synesius is planning on exploiting the myth of the Talashanti Monastery and turning the search for it into a ‘pay for pleasure’ experience. It would appear that Trout has stumbled across his discoveries more by accident than skill and has simply become famous because he has made such a song and dance about it and whipped the media into a frenzy. After all, everyone loves a talking mole! The fact that Aurelia can walk was the one twist that didn’t come as a great surprise because it has been done several times before (The Unicorn & the Wasp and a particularly gorgeous episode of One Foot In the Grave) but for Bernice’s reaction alone its still very funny. I love the fact that everybody suspects everybody (even Bernice and Ruth) but nobody suspects the only person who turns out to be the guilty party! That should give you a massive clue when listening as to who the killer is! Sister Marianne turns out to be an operative of the Council of Ten. Celestion wasn’t a celestial figure, he didn’t have supernatural powers, he was an astronaut. The sphere of Serenity is in fact a star map that will lead Bernice in the right direction towards Legion.

Audio Landscape: Muzak, coughing nuns, fabulous church acoustics, squeaky wheelchair (there’s a scene where Aurelia’s wheelchair can suddenly be heard squeaking that really made me jump!), panting, growling gore hounds, Bernice brushing her teeth and gurgling, a high pitch whine, falling rocks, heart monitor, a myriad of holograms creating a chorus of confusion.

Musical Cues: The music for the Bernice series has always been strong but somewhat minimalist in the past. Ever since the series was rebooted the music has been reaching for something far more cinematic and succeeding. The music throughout this adventure is exceptional and it’s a score that has been though through very well, highlighting the religious and comical angle that the story is taking whilst still being extremely atmospheric and catchy. Score one for Steve Foxon.

Standout Scene: It’s a murder mystery so Bad Habits was always going to cruise into orbit or crash and burn depending on its revealing climax. Fortunately this tale shoots straight up into the stars.

Result: With two fresh writers on the payroll the resulting script is clever, funny and rather perfectly formed. It doesn’t take you long to figure that this is a comic variety on an Agatha Christie adventure with all of the staples you would expect (plenty of suspects, lots of deceptive detail, an overcomplicated wrap up that explains everything with crystal clarity) but also injects a large dose of Carry On bawdy humour into the mix which makes it doubly delightful. Nobody is what they appear to be and the fun is ripping away everyone’s masks and finding who they really are. It’s a great mystery but also capitalises on the Lara Croft aspect of Benny’s adventures of uncovering myths and tombs making it one of the most fulsomely written of Benny adventures for some time. You’ve got a bawdy Bishop, a Mother Superior cum crime writer, psychotic nuns and a talpidae archaeologist. You could easily say that the range isn’t taking itself seriously by putting out something quite as daft as this but its precisely this sort of fun adventuring that put this range on the map in the first place. Bad Habits is intelligently written and superbly performed…it just happens to have a wealth of great gags too: 9/10

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