Saturday, 22 February 2014

A Handful of Dust written by Xanna Eve Chown and directed by Gary Russell

What's it about: “S.O.S. Emergency. Please send… an archaeologist?” On a routine postal mission for a deranged millionaire, Bernice, Ruth and Jack intercept a distress signal from the most haunted planet in the galaxy: Nemeqit.Taking their newly-christened shuttle – The Irverfield – down to investigate, the trio soon find themselves confronted with a pair of childlike extra-terrestrials; Vonna Byzantium, presenter of Paranormal Planets and part-time diva… and an awful lot of dust. But something else is going on beneath the surface of Nemeqit, something none of them ever imagined. And this time, Bernice really can’t save everyone…

Archaeological Adventuress: Bernice is keen to meet Antonio, Peter's much discussed but never seen (in more ways than one) boyfriend. What has Bernice's life come to when it has resorted to her working as nothing more than a glorified delivery girl? No wonder she seeks out her own mystery to solve on the way back. She can't resist a distress signal. Having been a deity herself she can tell you it is not all it is cracked up to be. The responsibility of having to pull a religion out of her bag for Bel and Lud is one that requires a great deal of consideration - does anybody have the right to hand somebody something as identifying as a belied system. Ruth makes a good point though. If they don't do it and somebody else with no scruples is put in the same situation they could well take advantage of it an turn themselves into a deity. If she was told that she was going to die then the only thing she would want would be to hold her son and tell hi she loves him. Sometimes, just sometimes the universe is a stranger place than even Bernice can imagine.

Jumping Jack Flash: Still something of a mystery, I have to admit that he has almost unnoticeably become one of the regulars that I rely upon to provide a good time these days. I can't wait until we get to learn Jack's back story because I am sure there is a great deal of worth to be learnt but for the time being he forms a part of the hugely entertaining trio of Benny/Ruth/Jack that seems to be the heart of the series now.

Standout Performance: Bowerman, Antoine and Ames are like a well oiled machine now. Bowerman in particular makes Bernice's investigations seem fresh as a daisy despite the fact that she has been doing this for the past fifteen years. Peter Sheward and Charlie Hayes deserve a round of applause for bringing to life what could have been very annoying characters with a great deal of innocence and charm. I wasn't keen on Ellen Salisbury's Vonna Byzantium though, far too many 'my lovely's' and not enough passion that would make this ambitious character come alive. There's a similar character in The Big Dig that shows precisely how this should have been done.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'You have to help us remember God.'
'They're asking me to go out there in the dust, do some digging and make up a religion for a day!'

Great Ideas: Christmas is called Advent on Legion and seems to involve an awful lot of drinking. The ancient people who once flourished on are now lost to the myths of legends. As their technology advanced they turned from their old beliefs angering the spurned deity who paid them back with devastation. Fires raged until nothing was left on the plant but dust. At least Bernice comments that legends like this are tenapenny...because it is exactly what I was thinking! Once they landed and were assaulted by dust I couldn't help but wonder if this was going to play about with similar ideas to the Blakes' 7 episode Sand. Lud and Bel are an intriguing mystery, a pair of perfect humanoids living in Eden who woke up after the Dome cracked to find a world that was perfectly suited to their survival. The whole notion of Paranormal Planets, a reality TV show that hops from world to world, Most Haunted style, and catering for the thrill seekers that believe in the great beyond is terrifying (that such self delusion should stretch far into the future). The public are crying out for a new series after their cancellation (thanks to a fake ectoplasm incident which we don't learn any more details about) and Vonna Byzantium (the name alone deserves a health hazard) is on the lookout for fresh, exciting material. I doubt they will find it on Nemeqit. The seven characteristics of life are movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, excretion, nutrition and another 'r' word which eludes Benny for the time being. Nemeqit is dying, a 2000 year old death and it is using its last breath to keep Bel and Lud alive. Nemeqit was their mother, the dome acting as the egg with two baby planets gestating inside until it cracked open and let them out. Their skin was cracking because they weren't big enough to hold them. They were planets, after all.

Audio Landscape: Screams, the surface of an alien world, footsteps, wind, knocking.

Isn't it Odd: Maybe I'm becoming a bit of a curmudgeon in my old age (does 33 constitute old age?) but I didn't find the gag about Brax naming the ship the 'Iverfield' at all amusing. It felt like it was trying to be cute. The baby planets and reality TV ideas feel like they belong in completely different stories and fail to gel when they are brought together in the second half of A Handful of Dust, one failing to have any impact on the other. It feels like the writer was under running and added the Paranormal Planets nonsense to pad the story out a bit. It jars horribly with the highbrow tone of the rest of the piece.

Standout Scene: The reveal of what Bel and Lud are is actually rather lovely, living planets. It's the long, unmemorable trek to get there that is the problem. I certainly never guessed what they were, that's for sure.

Result: I'm not sure what to make of A Handful of Dust. The keyword that seemed to leap out at me was 'adequate' and it was a story that I failed to feel any great passion towards. The trouble with the Bernice Summerfield range is that there have been so many stories now that unless you are creating something massively original it is difficult not to compare the adventures to similar ones in the past. There have been plenty of mysteries on alien planets and this isn't one of the more intriguing ones. I couldn't work out what was missing, the story seemed to be angling for something cerebral with its themes of religion and mythology but there didn't seem to be any great stakes involved in solving the riddle of Bel and Lud beyond not leaving any loose ends. None of the characters seemed personally involved with what was going on. The Paranormal Planets angle is amusing for a minute or two but I didn't find the character of Vonna Byzantium especially funny and the whole reality TV angle would be utilised with far more skill in the first story of the Missing Persons box set. Even the realisation wasn't as gripping as I have come to expect from this range. The direction was sufficient but I felt it could have been spookier given the ideas (a haunted/dead planet) and an injection of pace would really have helped move things along. Ruth and Jack are present but for all we learn about them they are not essential to the story, this would have played out just as efficiently with Bernice travelling to Nemeqit alone. Balancing all of these negatives (or adequacies) was a strong cast who make the most of the material they are given (my pal Peter Sheward is really sweet as Lud). I want to be kinder to a story that is trying to make you think but it is a piece that seems torn between offering something intellectual and something amusing and falls a little short in both areas. Year Zero proved that this range can jettison the humour and really make you think but A Handful of Dust doesn't have anywhere near the same focus or shrewdness. Not one of my favourites: 5/10


Anonymous said...


I'm a Dr Who fan and I'm thinking in giving a try to Blake 7 series, I've seen you have been reviewing it too, does it worth a try?

Joe Ford said...

It's creaky, dated ad frequently embarrassing. It is also dark, twisted and full of great characters. The dialogue is frequently astonishing and there are plenty of surprises on the way. If you can forgive it for the way TV was made at the time then it is a very rewarding experience.