Monday, 24 February 2014

HMS Surprise written by Alexander Vlahos and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: Mortis Dock: the last manned shipyard in the cosmos… Population: six thousand and two… And now, not a soul in sight… at least, until Bernice, Peter and Jack are drawn off-course. Where have all the workers disappeared to? Why is Jack behaving oddly? And what is the secret of the HMS Surprise? Only a stranger in a lighthouse holds the key… but can he be trusted?
Archaeological Adventuress: Peter only brought Bernice along on this mission because it is more her field of expertise than his and it is nothing more than that. Although he is calling her mum again, which is a good sign. The tried and tested Summerfield method is to throw caution to the wind and see what happens. She has never taken her own advice, always big on the 'be careful and stick together' whilst wandering off in the other direction. I loved the gag of Jack getting wound up because all he can hear is furious panting on the intercoms and when she gets a moment Bernice informs him it is just her making her way up the stairs. Well, she's not as young as she was. Peter might not like it but as soon as she realises her son is in danger Bernice's maternal instincts kick in. And there is nothing a mother wouldn't do to protect her son. Bernice always thought the Healers were a fairy story that her dad told her about. She never thought she would ever meet one.

Dog Boy: Peter always put up with Jack precisely because he never showed an interest. Antonio was there for Peter on Bastion and looked out for him before Irving came along. It isn't that surprising that things developed the way they did given the hardships that they suffered. When he panics, calls Bernice 'mum' like a frightened little boy. If you are frightened enough, every man would call out for his mother.

Jumping Jack Flash: Bernice knows when Jack is lying because his lips are moving. He used think there was something relaxing about the sound of the sea but now he thinks it is all very unnerving. He doesn't normally do delicate because he doesn't know how to handle it (other than badly).

Standout Performance: It is easy not to expect a great deal from the guest performers of the spin off ranges of Big Finish. They are the hidden ranges, the ones that sell less and probably attract lesser known talent because they don't have the lure of the 'Doctor Who' banner. However I am constantly surprised by the quality of performances that these ranges manage to attract. Geoffrey Breton is a great example. A young actor just starting out in his career, he plays the one speaking guest star role in HMS Surprise and bring a huge amount of personality, pathos and interest to the role. It helps that the character is well written but this is a performance that has been considered, the lines have been studied and every nuance is wrung out of them. Colour me impressed.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We'll be out of here before you can say emergency temporal shift...'

Great Ideas: Shuttles, cruisers, passenger ships, freighters...plenty of ships have been vanishing at the Mortis Docks for a while now and it is about time somebody found out why. As far as they can see they are just vanishing into thin air. Mortis Dock was one the last manned shipyards in the cosmos. There were 600 people living here and there should still be some remnant of society about. Nothing has been recorded on the Docks for a year, no records have been made whatsoever. Lucas' family owns the Dock and he was raised in a family of Dock workers. Everything that is left belongs to him, such as it is. The Dock workers come in dripping wet, growing out of the water, adapting to fit the circumstances. Like zombies, parodies of the people they once were. An ancient all powerful being that controls everything, consciousness and thought, alive on an derelict ship from 1964 in an abandoned dock. The Healers are an ancient race whose soul purpose in life was to inhabit, protect and serve. Born to embody objects, buildings, vessels...all those derelicts that are still standing but shouldn't be there are chances that the are inhabited by one of the Healers. They inhabit good natured objects, ones which are considered worthy of salvaging an they give up their lives to allow them to survive. Archaeologists have a lot to thank them for. This Healer is trapped inside a warship, having made a mistake to inhabit and salvage an object that it finds immoral and now it can't get out again. The foghorn has been the Healer crying out, asking for help. It's only means of escape is a worthy vessel for it to transfer into. The ship (with the Healers influence) killed everybody in the Dock and the Healer inside it regrets that decision and can see only one way out. Suicide. Lucas' entire life was dedicated to saving lives, he was a fire warden. That's why the Healer has been keeping him alive, so there is the possibility that he could save one last life and provide a vessel for it to escape in.

Audio Landscape: Alarms, the hull creaking, the Iverfield falling out of space, horns, rolling waves, machine screaming and fizzing, whispering voices, squeaking ships, sonar, detonation alarm.

Musical Cues: Like Shades of Gray last year, HMS Surprise relies heavily on it's soundtrack and James Dunlop as perfectly in tune with the material and the music is especially effective as we race towards the conclusion and the violins start striking discordantly.

Standout Scene: Bernice tries to offer the Healer her body as a worthy vessel to transfer in to and...well you can imagine what comes next. Her reaction is much more subdued than you might imagine.

Result: An atmospheric and creepy listen which relies on some sinister ideas to make you squirm before flourishing in the last ten minutes as a surprisingly thoughtful SF tale. You've got a great setting (a decaying shipyard), a great 'menace' (an intelligence birthed in a derelict ship) and Scott Handcock on hand to provide some lovely frights. He's by far the best of the Bernice Summerfield directors. That's not a slight to Gary Russell, who is the only other person working on the series at the moment, because I think Handcock is the best director to have ever worked on the series. He seems to have a terrific understanding of the audio medium and how to get you to feel something about the story is being told, especially if it is a chiller. Big Finish Towers would do well to assign him to some of the other ranges as his is an untapped talent that has scarcely been exploited. HMS Surprise really reminded of one of the old school Bernice Summerfield adventures with a tight mystery, a tiny cast and a rock solid plot that is surprisingly attention-grabbing given the economy of the cast and setting. Lucas is the only guest character but he's effective enough that you don't need anybody else, he provides the details of the mystery and the solution and is engagingly played by Geoffrey Breton. If you removed Peter and Jack you could happily slip this into seasons three to six and I mean that as the highest of compliments. I wouldn't mind finding more out about the Healers, they are ripe for further investigation and I can think of a number of tales that could spring from the charming idea. A second writing/directing combination of Alexander Vlahos and Scott Handcock is a must at some point in the future: 8/10

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