Monday, 4 February 2013

Vienna: The Memory Box written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Berkeley Silver, one of the richest men in the Earth empire, lies dead in the Penthouse Suite of the Galileo space-hotel. Law Enforcement Officers Detective Captain McGinnis and Detective Sergeant Mead are called in to investigate – but it seems to have been the perfect crime. Even when subjected to a memory scan, everybody in the space-hotel has an alibi for the murder.
Which means it can only have been the work of one woman. The most accomplished – and the most glamorous – bounty hunter in the galaxy. Her name is Vienna Salvatori. And she has a little rule; nobody gets to hear her name and live...
Bounty Hunter: Initially you think that this character is an overly confident, sassy, full of herself egotist who loves her work as an assassin for hire a little too much. But that would probably get tiresome very quickly (I find myself rejecting shows with strutting egotists for protagonists – The Mentalist, Castle – despite their clearly positive virtues as drama) and before the end of her first story there are already signs that there is more than meets the eye with this character. Vienna bowls onto the scene with a dreadful cod-Russian accent posing as Miracle Valentine and walking away from a murder she has committed. I really like the idea of our first meeting with Vienna being her on the run from the law. I’m sure its an occupational hazard in her chosen career but it is unusual to be introduced to a series where the central protagonist is clearly meant to be an anti-heroine. It means she’s capable of surprising because she wont behave in the way that you would expect a hero to (here she convinces her ‘companion’ to swallow what is effectively a bomb that is linked to her heart rate so if he walks out on her and lets her die his organs will be scattered across the surface of the planet…nice!). She has a personal rule that nobody who hears her name lives to tell the tale. Mostly she kills people for money but she’ll make an exception if you get on her nerves. She can spot fake diamonds a mile off. Vienna’s used to quite a black and white world of getting an assignment and murdering the mark so when Silver offers her a counter proposal and offers his life as a convincer she’s floored by the turn of events. I felt that we barely got to know Vienna in this script (which is fair enough as its setting up an entire series…how much about the Doctor did we really know in An Unearthly Child?) and because of her chosen occupation alone gives me reason to think that there is plenty to discover about her past and her psychological make up. What I enjoyed most though was that Vienna’s assuredness and cockiness could get very trying but the twists and turns in the plot show that she is just as fallible at getting the wool pulled over her eyes as anybody. She’s good, but she’s also human. That’s vital if this series is going to continue. At the climax she lets her guard down for a second, telling Norville that he hasn’t committed murder but an act of euthanasia. And it seems that she donates her fee to charitable causes…she’s a lot more interesting than first appearances might tell you, this one.

Standout Performance: I’ve heard people criticise Big Finish recently for choosing to give the spotlight to actors that they have enjoyed working with rather than because they have real potential. Give these guys a bit of credit! They’ve been at this audio adventuring lark for over fifteen years now and when they see potential in an actor/actress that walks into the studio (such as Lisa Greenwood who turned a phenomenal trio of performances as Flip in a recent Sixie trilogy and now Chase Masterson) it is because there is potential in such a series. They aren’t going to throw money at something on a whim. Masterson has already acquitted herself in several Big Finish stories (although I haven’t heard The Shadow Heart so I couldn’t possibly comment on that) and proves to be as charismatic and as full of personality in The Memory Box as she was in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (oh how I loved Rom and Leeta - check out my reviews to hear some real gushing…). Her accent takes a little getting used to (Masterson’s natural drawl is divine but her tone for Vienna is slightly exaggerated) but once I did I completely bought into the character, especially in those moments where her mask slips. Tom Price is on board (Torchwood’s PC Andy) as the down to Earth Norville Spraggot, an innocent caught up in Vienna’s machinations, a role that suits him down to the ground because he exudes likeability.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I was hoping the fact that I’m a cold blooded killer a very good reason to co-operate…’
‘It feels wrong to be assassinating the person whose employing me.’

Great Ideas: Morris ensures there is at least some connection with Doctor Who, a shoe-in for an audience to potentially walk from one series to the other, with the appearance of the Slithergees (Flip Flop). They are a race of sentient slug creatures, devious and underhanded and great fun to be around. They have evolved a passive aggressive aura so that anyone around them feels sympathetic and awkward., using their aura as a way of getting tips. If the situation is bad enough then the police can commit memory scans, all memories preceding and concurrent with the crime probed and examined. A playful mention of Kylo and Aliona places Vienna in the same time period as the recent Main Range trilogy (The Burning Prince – The Shadow Heart). Pakhars are running illegal gambling rings. Vienna has the ability to lock her memories inside a box for 24 hours and thus escaping police examination. Internal thermal heaters are pills that warm you from the inside and prevent you dying from hypothermia in extreme weather. Vienna never killed Berkley Silver, he offered her double to keep him alive. The Flaming Sword is a terrorist cabal based on the planet Vulcana and undoubtedly the ones who assigned Vienna to kill him. The Memory Box can create secure sub folders in your brain and lock away compromising memories, developed to protect confidential business information. Silver promises those fleeing the Roth Empire jobs and salvation and has them systematically slaughtered and re-animated, using them as raw materials for his business Empire. Silver didn’t fear death because his mind is stored away in a Memory Box in somebody else’s brain. Wheels within wheels… He’s had over twenty bodies and all of them have been disposable because he can simply planet himself in another one. Silver arranged his own execution to bring The Flaming Sword operative out into the open. That’s a remarkably taut plot all told that hermetically seals itself up nice and tight.

Audio Landscape: I’ll tell you how good Robertson is at this… somehow he manages to convincingly create a sound design for Vienna climbing a ladder with one hand and shooting at pursuing aliens with the other. You could shut your eyes, remove the script and just listen to the sound design and you would know exactly what she is doing in this scene. Very impressive. Police vehicles whizzing by, a back being massaged, a marketplace full of fantastic alien creatures, modulated Slithergee voices, R2D2 style bleeping robot, busy terminal, blasters, explosions, missiles firing, shockwave, spaceship landing, lightning crackling through the sky, metal on metal in a labour camp, groaning revenant creatures, bubbling lava pits.

Musical Cues: I always get excited when I see Jamie Robertson’s name listed as the musician because his scores more than any other really lift a story from something that has substance as a script to something that comes alive as an organic piece of aural storytelling. He bridges scenes superbly which provides a great deal of pace and fluidity and he uses a myriad of instruments that makes the score itself extremely catchy and stylish. I love his work. He drawls out chords on an electric guitar in The Memory Box, accentuating the sense of glamour and at points you’d be hard pressed to wonder if you weren’t listening to a softcore porn movie! The action scenes in particular benefit from Robertson’s care.

Standout Scene: Somebody was going to be in the employ of The Flaming Sword…its just a matter of trying to figure out who. Rather than it simply being about money or something equally shallow, there is actually a very good reason for this reveal which adds a touch of depth to the story. The Memory Box is utilised imaginatively and the twist is rather similar to that of DS9’s A Simply Investigation (I’m sorry but Masterson’s presence has made comparisons unavoidable) but this is tethered to a much more entertaining story.

Result: Don’t worry if you haven’t listened to The Shadow Heart…neither have I! Part Star Wars (action adventure across the galaxy), part Hustle (lots of inversions and double bluffs), part Oceans’ Eleven (stylish crime caper) and with a dash of Doctor Who thrown in for good measure, The Memory Box is a massively pleasurable opening gambit from Vienna. To say that Chase Masterson couldn’t have been in safer hands in her debut story is something of an understatement. Supremo writer Jonathan Morris (Cobwebs, Protect and Survive), prolific director Ken Bentley (A Death in the Family) and sound designer and musician extraordinaire Jamie Robertson (The Feast of Axos,  Robophobia) are all fantastic credentials that lend The Memory Box some real credibility. Vienna has a nifty theme tune (really highlighting the ‘science fiction has never been more fun’ style of Bernice Summerfield’s adventures), an atmosphere of fun’n’frolics and a debut script which wouldn’t be out of place being filmed as a Hollywood blockbuster it is so concerned with jazzy set pieces and fast paced entertainment. As the first step towards carving out their own little niche in the future you couldn’t ask for a finer opener because its extremely easy to let such a luxuriously diverting piece wash over you. It isn’t taxing or overly dramatic but I think the series has legs in that respect and could turn its hand to a more serious tone. You’ll be convinced this was a full cast production because of the sound design which simulates crowds of people in various scenes when in fact there are only four individual performances and well cast they all make their mark. Just like the Bernice Summerfield range it uses its economical cast to great effect, ensuring nobody is quite who they seem to be. This is an assured production, full of lovely ideas, a rollicking pace and plenty of space to develop this universe further. I haven’t had the best reaction to Big Finish’s new ranges of late (the debut stories of both the Destiny of the Doctor and fourth Doctor adventures hardly blew me away) but I think perhaps it is because I came to this with so few expectations that it really rather impressed me. The only thing I ask for when this goes to box sets now that I am won over is more substance: 8/10


Shaz said...

I've been on the fence about this, wondering if I really wanted to get sucked into yet another spinoff series. I think your review has just pushed me into the "buy it" camp.

Joe Ford said...

Get this if you are after an hours harmless entertainment...its not a challenging hour but it is thoroughly diverting. For a fiver, its worth trying.