Monday, 17 February 2014

Vesuvius Falling written by Tony Lee and directed by Gary Russell

What's it about: Things aren't going great for Bernice Summerfield. Her one time comrade-cum-adversary, Irving Braxiatel, isn't the man she knew; her long-lost teenage son, Peter, isn’t exactly pleased to see her; and she’s woken up with one hell of a hangover… But when an ancient and dormant spacecraft threatens the safety of Legion City, Bernice and Peter have to put their differences aside in order to investigate an inexplicable mystery involving time-travelling scientists, corporate espionage and simple, cold-blooded murder… Can Benny discover the true killer before a warp core breach destroys them all? Can a five thousand-year-old body solve a murder yet to happen? And will the Vesuvius fall to the planet below…?

Archaeological Adventuress: Benny feels old when she is with Ruth, especially when her youthful companion can have an all night bender and not feel any of the after effects. I love the idea that Peter has his own life and responsibilities now and he can be responsible for sending Bernice off on missions. How far their relationship has come from when he was clutching at her apron strings. One of my pleasures in life is listening to Bernice Summerfield picking apart a mystery and showing just how smart she is which she gets to do in Vesuvius Falling during some very smartly scripted sequences. She always has a plan.

Mysterious Girl: At this stage Ruth is acting as Bernice's surrogate companion and given the obvious chemistry between Lisa Bowerman and Ayesha Antoine it is a relationship that works extremely well. Ruth isn't sure how much of Benny and Peter's squabbling she can put up with to the point where death seems like the preferable option. She is the only one who knows what Peter's domestic situation is at the end of this story. Given there is a wormhole that leads to the past right on their doorstep, Ruth doesn't understand why they can't simply send a message through a stop any of this from happening in the first place. They could prevent the murder of an innocent man. Bernice has been at this game for too long now, she learnt the hard way from her travels with the Doctor that you cannot interfere with events that have already happened. That would cause kinds of temporal problems, possibly undoing everything they have done.

Dog Boy: Working as the Security Chief of Legion and prolonged separation from Bernice has changed Peter...and not for the better. He's had to toughen up and has developed a real resentment of his mother that is not going to vanish overnight despite how many times she says she's sorry and that she loves him. What's odd is despite the fact that Peter is so horrible to Bernice and despite how much I wanted them to reconcile their differences and for things to go back to how they were, I couldn't dislike him for his strength of feeling against her because it is precisely how anybody would feel had they been (or at least appear to have been) abandoned by their mother at a young age. Not only that but it stops things from getting too cosy which makes for a superior drama, the fact that Bernice can't trust the characters on board the Vesuvius and is facing suspicion from her supposed allies as well generates a tense, dramatic atmosphere. Four years he looked for his mother. Four years he has been trapped on this planet building a reputation that has saved their lives on countless occasions. He is a bully, he's had to become one to stay alive. The news that Peter is gay and is living with a partner called Antonio is dropped very subtly into the story without any fuss. It is about time there was a regular character in Big Finish who was gay. Peter kicked started the trend before it was taken to the next level with Dorian Gray. I'm looking forward to seeing where this leads because it is new territory for the company. Peter is willing to sacrifice his life and the lives of his mother and Ruth in order to mount an insane plan to save the people he has vowed to protect on Legion. Given that they work together so successfully in this tale you could be forgiven for thinking it might be happy families at the conclusion but as far as Peter is concerned it was just business. Bernice has no stake in his life and she can't just swan in and out of it when she feels like it. There is great deal of repair work still to be done here.

Super Villain: Brax is extremely cagey about how he came to be on Legion and Bernice is extremely suspicious of him given their previous history. He doesn't seem to remember any of the things that Bernice hates him for and Ruth wonders if Bernice shouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt. It's easy enough to say but given what she (and we) have experienced over the countless seasons of this range and the depths that Brax has previously plummeted to it is not easy to let bygones be bygones. From a creative point of view I do like the idea of giving Brax a fresh start though, attempting to clear the decks and allowing him to stand as a character that aids Bernice on her adventures again, just like he did (or appeared to) in the first couple of seasons before things got complicated. Miles Richardson is too unique a performer to waste. Bernice is sure that even if he is a younger, more innocent Brax now, one day he will become the devious sod she knows and despises. As of the last four years Brax has been the closest thing to family that Peter has had, which is probably the most painful thing that Bernice could hear.

Standout Performance: A great cast featuring Torchwood's Kai Owen and Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel's Andrew Hayden-Smith as a pair of apparently innocent victims. These are complex characters with a lot to hide and Owen and Smith are more than up to the task of playing innocent before stripping away the layers and emerging as two industrial spies with blood on their hands.

Great Ideas: When Legion was named it was with that aim to live up to its name of an army of like minded people fighting for just one cause...but no longer. To arrive on Legion is to be fed up with life given that life is rated lower than a single malt Whiskey and organs are traded for a short term hypodermic release. It sits there hanging in space, the light side barely clinging onto life while the dark side stares out at the universe, daring it to approach. On the dark side of Legion the solar winds would strip your flesh clean off in less than a minute and the radiation would burn you to a cinder even faster. The inhabitants of Legion stay safe beneath its protective dome. That's quite a vivid picture being painted of this backwater hellhole, I hope can live up to it. The Vesuvius is in an approaching orbit around Legion, a ship that has floated dead in space for thousands of years (oh goodie...those are my favourite kind). Peter wants Bernice to take a look on board and report whether it is safe to blow it from the sky. If the ship does suffer a core breach then it could shatter the protective dome and kill everybody on Legion. A dramatic scenario and a race against time, talk about opening with a bang. Add finding Shyra dead in a stasis pod in what looks like murder and you can add a mystery too to this engaging scenario. The ship was supposed to be exploring the Mutaran Nebulae but a spatial phenomena pulled the through and the crew were convinced that they had time travelled because the stars were wrong but they were in the same place. They had been thrown back several thousand years from their time. The relationships between Rickard, Shyra and Mortand are far more complex than they initially appear, especially when it becomes clear that not everybody is who they appear to be. You have to keep your wits about you as you start hearing conflicting stories about the last night before everybody went into cryo-sleep and try and figure who was sleeping with whom and who might have a motive for murder. A single draft journal entry could be enough to bring the traitor down if it can be picked apart for clues. Despite her body being found in a decayed state, Shyra wasn't murdered at all. Mortand and Shyra both worked for Ecosigh before it was taken over by SynoCorp and they both stayed on after the buy out. Almost within a week of each other they both quite and moved over to the rival company, CoreTech. Industrial spies having an affair. The body they found isn't Shyra, it isn't even female. It has been altered with DNA growth spores. Shyra deliberately sabotaged the ship and sent it through time after her secrets had been exposed. Over the next eight months she kills Rickard and converts herself into him with Mortand's help. The idea was to be rescued by somebody and show them the body before the spaceship blew up and took all the evidence with it.

Audio Landscape: Convincing crowd scenes in Legion's dome, the bar atmosphere at the White Rabbit, hydraulic doors, the cortex voice of Vesuvius, spacesuit footsteps, chambers hissing back to life, computers, alarms, incoming missile, explosion.

Musical Cues: Daniel Brett provides some stunning music for this release. Since the Bernice Summerfield has converted to box sets I have noticed a massive leap in the quality of the music. It's not that it was poor before (often the range was scored by David Darlington and he always displays competence) but it could be quite minimalist at times. Now we are enjoying immersive, emotive, cinematic scores that really drag you into the action.

Isn't it Odd: Thomas Grant has grown as an actor during his time with this series and makes a terrific return appearance in Vesuvius Rising. However he is being asked to play a very different Peter to one we left behind and whilst he is generally very good there were a few moments when he was asked to play the hard nut that his cultured tones just did not suit. Rambo he aint.

Standout Scene: I am an avid fan of Poirot, both Agatha Christie's novels and the television adaptations and my favourite moment of the stories is the dénouement when he gathers all the suspects together and reveals what everybody has to hide. Bernice gets a fantastic wrap up scene in Vesuvius Falling and one which is not only borne from observation but some pretty thorough detective work that we have been privy to throughout the tale. It is very satisfying not only because the writer has work a great twist into the tale (about the identity of the victim and the killer) but also because he has given us enough information so that when the answers spill we can nod our heads in agreement with the reveal.

Result: I would hold up Vesuvius Falling as an example to other writers of how to model the ideal Bernice Summerfield adventure. It has everything that I want from this range; a memorable setting, a dramatic scenario, a race against time gathering of momentum, an intriguing mystery, terrific characters from the regulars to the guest cast, strong dialogue, punchy direction, twists and turns and a highly satisfying conclusion that wraps everything up very neatly. It is an arresting, constantly surprising and exciting tale. The set up on Legion shakes up the relationships between the regular characters in a very interesting way with Brax now acting as Benny's ally and Peter as an adversary. I'm looking forward to some tales being told in this new, seedy location now as the series tries to establish itself a new central setting. You should go into this story blind with no foreknowledge beyond the synopsis on the CD because much of the joy of it comes from the mystery and the twists in the plot. At this point it really feels as though the new Handcock/Russell branding of the Bernice range has taken hold and is delivering consistently excellent work: 9/10

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