Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Big Dig written by Hamish Steele and directed by Scott Handcock

Box Set Synopsis: When Bernice Summerfield was invited to participate in a cult archaeology broadcast on the mysterious world of Saravas, she could never have imagined the secrets she might unearth there… or the terrible Truth that would stalk her back to Legion. With friends and family by her side, Bernice quickly finds herself flung into the face of danger: either combating deranged despots at terraformed garden parties, appeasing gunslingers in the White Rabbit bar, or simply attempting to survive on a barren desert planet, all alone… The odds are stacked against her, and this is undoubtedly the end for Bernice Summerfield… but she’s determined to go out fighting!

What's it about: Bernice has been invited to appear on a very special live edition of the archaeology series Big Dig: a programme she grew up with as a girl… which now makes her feel very old. Not as old, however, as the mysterious stone robot she unwittingly uncovers during an excavation on the planet Saravas. With no other trace of civilisation, this could be the only clue to the Truth of the planet’s inhabitants. But when Ruth and Jack start acting strangely, Bernice realises there was a reason things were hidden… and secrets aren’t the only things to be buried. Welcome to the biggest Big Dig ever!

Archaeological Adventuress: Bernice has always been something of stroppy diva so you would think that reality television would be made for her. She wonders why everybody around her seems to be so young...but ponders that maybe it is because she has gotten older. She's hardly considered an A-lister, despite a rousing introductory speech by the presenter of The Big Dig. The reason that Bernice loves archaeology is because it turns you into an idiot and makes you realise you don't know the first thing about the universe. Among the accomplishments she has listed are being part of the dig that unearthed Domainia's internal moon, helping to resurrect the Five Kings of the Hobblecraft and even giving away the Blue Blood Nebulae at its wedding to the Loki meteorite! Astonishing to think that of all the adventures we have experienced with Benny, there are so many more that we haven't. Everyone has heard about Saravas, one of the great impossible digs. Nothing beats field work and it has been an age since she has had the chance. All archaeologists have an obsession of finding something that can be named after them and Bernice has finally discovered something that might qualify. That's if the idiotic reality TV presenters don't get in there first. Bernice's impressive Golonaut becomes a Rockbot in the wink of an eye. Talk about dumbing down. Bernice is not so quick to jump to the conclusion that the 'Rockbots' are an army, she's seen too much in the universe to jump to the conclusion hat every species is warlike. She refuses to flirt with her co-presenter just to bump the ratings up. She might not have much integrity but she would like to protect what little reserves she has left. Bernice takes an incredible risk waking into what appears to be blistering sunshine to prove a point but sometimes you have to bold to make your point. Shepton tries to get into Benny's head too, suggesting the only reason she knows that Jack and Ruth can't let her down is because she doesn't trust them. Big Dig is one of the reasons she got into archaeology in the first place, it is one the reasons that she is the woman that she is today.

Mysterious Girl: Rather than simply including Ruth and Jack because they are Bernice's companions of late, Hamish Steele has worked a number of very good reasons to include them. I loved the way that with a little prompting (and some hypnosis), Shepton could take their happy group and manipulate them all into turning on one another. Ruth is convinced that Benny is angry with her because she is young and pretty and resourceful. She is told that Benny is interested in Jack romantically and she is simply a spare part that hinders her goal to cosy up to him. But they are also present because at the conclusion...they're not.

Standout Performance: Watch how effectively Phillip Bird switches from tedious reality TV show host to dark puppet of the Epoch. It's such a vivid switch in character that for a moment I thought they were being played by different actors.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Now you are going to make me feel very old' 'Don't worry, you're amongst archaeologists. The older the better.'
'Try harder. Since we've started digging we've lost ten million listeners.'
'I'm sorry did I miss the meeting where everyone decided I'm now a man hungry tart?' 'We had to have a meeting?'
'Technology this advanced occurs only on planets confronted by war. It's a sad truth but peace stunts imagination.'

Great Ideas: Saravas is a world which is renowned for being frustrating in almost every way. Only one rainy season per decade, no seas and an atmosphere that essentially comes and goes as it pleases, Saravas has remained unpopulated for 5000 years. What happened to its inhabitants all those years ago? They left almost nothing behind to clue up modern day archaeologists. That sounds like that sounds like a job for Professor Bernice Summerfield. I love the way this story starts off like your bog standard Bernice Summerfield adventure, another dig on another dusty old planet and how it lures you into thinking (for the first 20 minutes at least) that this is going to played out along very similar lines. The people of Saravas didn't write - it was the greatest of sins to record anything in writing. Proving that some archaeology is just guess work most of the time the arches are initially coined as temperature gauges, when the sun is visible through all three arches the planet gets roasted. Or at least that is the best guess. I understand Hamish Steele to be something of a Doctor Who fan and so I am certain he must be aware of the humiliating tale of Paul Jerricho who played the Castellan in Arc of Infinity mistaking Colin Baker for a general dogsbody and asking him to head off and fetch him some coffee. That is deliciously spoofed here with both Jack and Ruth being mistaken for members of the crew and being hopeless at whipping up a round of drinks. Don't let the idea for Celebrity Shark Jump leaked out, ITV would be all over it. Mind you I can think of  a few celebrities I would like to see have a go. Showing just how blustery and overblown these reality TV shows are, The Big Dig opens with an incredible fanfare before falling into awkward silence as the scraping and brushing begins (with painful commentary). Another great gag is Bernice discovering the artefact and having to cover it over and relive the moment all over again because the microphones weren't on when she discovered it. Shepton's slow descent into villainy was very nicely handled, starting with a few offhand comments on air before he was hidden behind the scenes where he could start manipulating everybody one at a time. Benny figures that if you can control the suns, you can control the people. The 'this is the truth' sequences took the risk of becoming repetitive and predictable but the way Steele uses Shepton's manipulation of the Big Dig crew to tell us more about them was inspired. The real Saravas is a network of ancient, colossal tunnels. With the mikes still rolling, we get to experience everything first hand from Benny once the illusory Saravas is stripped away. Shepton forcing Ronnie to believe that her boyfriend is having an affair whilst she is away is horribly cruel, she is crushed by the revelation, choking up bile but forced to accept that it is the truth. The brains of Saravas are the archives of all knowledge on the planet, maintaining the truth of what has happened. An entire planet hidden away from the rest of the universe. Saravas is not a planet but a construct, a facility. One that was set up to determine the impact of truth on primitive minds. The  natives of Saravas were part of an experiment, one that sought to create new types of worlds. Worlds that might be indestructible. Saravas was constructed through deceit and the Rockbots, the Epoch were the enforcers of these lies. The Epoch were the Gods of this world and then they constructed other worlds, other planets throughout the cosmos. Once they mastered other worlds they started to map out new realities, mapping and re-mapping history, time and again. All the legends of Saravas were formed by the Epoch but it was the people that believed them. The stories became the truth and it eventually reached Bernice Summerfield when she was a young girl. They knew that she would come one day so they invented the legends when she was a girl. The 150 million people listening to The Big Dig are going to start killing each other, escalating the threat even further. '150 million lives are nothing to the Epoch' - absolutely chilling. I can remember in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS that I was appalled that the knowledge that the knowledge the Doctor shared with Clara about her 'impossible girl' status was wiped. The Big Dig pulls off a similar trick by having Benny forget about all the developments she has learnt in this story. But there is a massive difference - the events in this story did take place and they do have massive ramifications for the range at large and Bernice in particular. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS pressed a big reset button and made all the events of the story that have played out absolutely pointless. A bit like The Curse of Fenman. At the end of this story Bernice has lost her too closest friends. And she doesn't even remember. Given the title of this box set, I'm sensing a theme... Bernice was the only survivor on Saravas.

Audio Landscape: Wind blowing, awnings flapping in the week, digging and scraping, cutting to an advert break, screams, Rockbots bursting through the walls, stomping through the tunnels, heart monitor.

Isn't it Odd: As soon as there was a mention of giant metal men I immediately thought of the Epoch but that didn't make the escalation of their threat any less gripping. It is about damn time somebody started to connecting all the threads that began in the Epoch box set but it has been such a long stretch of stories since then you could be forgiven for having forgotten most of the information mentioned here.

Standout Scene: The gripping moment when Bernice realises that the suns are aligning sooner than anybody expected and everybody is about to get roasted alive. Live on air. Not only is this a startlingly dramatic moment but the upshot of this development is what pushes Bernice towards the truth of the function of the arches, dispelling all previous theories. The last twenty minutes are absolutely superb, the reality of the situation spilling out in the most dramatic fashion and the story transforming from one thin to something very different.

Result: Fulfilling the same remit as The Curse of Fenman by bringing the audience up to date with elements of the plot from the past, The Big Dig gets about as much right as finale of the New Frontiers set got it wrong. For a start this is a extremely strong story in its own right and one which builds up to its revelations through a plot that adds layers and layers until the bombshells are appropriate to drop and demolish the lot. The Big Dig kicks off like a standard Bernice Summerfield adventure but slowly gets darker and more twisted as it goes until the fantastic final twenty minutes when I was kept on the edge of my seat with the gripping developments. I might be in the minority but I thoroughly enjoyed the Epoch set that kicked off this period of Bernice's life and have been longing for some kind of follow up for the central menace of that story. The Big Dig re-introduces the Epoch very effectively, giving those who weren't on board four box sets ago a chance to keep up with the developments. The characters are well served as well with the regulars and guest cast coming alive vividly and all of them being manipulated in directions out of their control. Their true colours come to light when the pressure is on, allowing us to experience who they really are whilst the cameras roll on. Not only are the Epoch built up as a genuinely fearful adversary but there is a shift in Bernice's reality at the end of this story and two very important people are stolen from her life. This looks ready to be the most gripping of story arcs the range has ever attempted, as long as they can keep this momentum going. The way the whole story plays out on air and all the terrifying developments are broadcast to 150 million viewers back home is just the icing on the cake, reminding me brilliantly of Ghostwatch. Full marks, I haven't quite been this glued to my headphones by a Bernice Summerfield adventure in a long time: 10/10

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