Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Winning Side written by James Goss and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: Bernice is lost in the ruins of an alien world. Long ago, something arrived there. Something arrived and found an idyllic civilisation: a city of wonders full of artists and scientists and poets… Something came to this world and destroyed it. Wandering the ruins, Bernice tries to solve the mystery. What came to this planet? What wiped out its people? Was it a plague? An alien invasion? Bernice Summerfield explores all that remains of paradise. And she discovers the name of the creature that came and wiped it out...

Archaeological Adventuress: Trapped on a world with no supplies and barely any water, close to exhaustion and de-hydration, Bernice stumbles across the ruins of an ancient city. It is the sort of thing that under any other circumstances she would be incredibly excited. Unfortunately she cannot remember any of the events depicted in the carvings, it is almost as if it happened to somebody else. She cannot remember being the woman who destroyed the world. They called Bernice the Sky Witch because she literally fell from the heavens into their laps. It has been a while since Bernice has fallen head over heels in love with somebody on their looks alone - her role as a mother has changed her in that respect - and Theon's stunning beauty turns her head and tickles her fancy. He seems to have sent out a whole flotilla of stone masons out to depict their athletic activities - how humiliating. Theon declares Benny the most amazing woman he has ever met...and he offers her his hand in marriage. The relationship between Benny and Theon is very believably written and played, the pair of them in love but joking about her supernatural ability to crush him and destroy his city. Benny thinks she is doing the right by using the ship and it's weapons as a deterrent but forgetting that these are desperate people who will go to any lengths to destroy their enemies. She is appalled that he killed all of the retreating Garren, not even giving them a chance to surrender. Indirectly she is responsible and she knows that. In the most dramatic way you can imagine, Bernice gets to experience the Rapunzel life. Stuck at the top of a tower to 'celebrate her achievements', she is forgotten and has a birds eye view of the city going to wrack and ruin as the people of this world misuse the technology she brought with her.

Standout Performance: It has become too easy to take Lisa Bowerman for granted these past fifteen but the truth of the matter is she has not given a poor performance in all those years which is extraordinary given the prolific number of releases. Of there are stories which give her more opportunities than others where she shines bright like a diamond - Just War, Death and the Daleks, The Masquerade of Death, Timeless Passages, Absence, Year Zero - and although she has still been on cracking form since Gary Russell and Scott Handcock took over the range it is true to say that the series has become more of an ensemble piece. The Missing Persons box set is their gift to Lisa Bowerman, a chance for her to truly claim back ownership of her series by fronting five very diverse releases and The Winning Side is the crown jewel in that respect. Bowerman is extraordinarily good in this story, offering two very different versions of Benny. An older, desperate, bitter one and another version more akin to the adventurous and mystery solving archaeologist that we are used to travelling with...albeit one who loses all hope before the story is out. Sometimes Bowerman is pushed to deliver something extremely memorable and the emotion that she expresses by the end of this story gave me goose bumps. Bravo, that woman. It is really nice to hear Geoffrey Beevers play a character that isn't the Master too and he proves to be wildly sinister and believable as the court advisor Meriol. It is a guest performance that stands out because he genuinely gave me chills at points.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Here I am now dying of thirst first, dying of hunger with sunburn coming a poor third and I'm reading fruity postcard from a holiday romance that I can't even remember!'
'Oh drop dead!' - not the best of retorts when you are accused of being a supernatural being capable of cursing the populace.
'Take me to your bleeder!'
'The truth is there are no heroes or villains. We're all on the grubby side of in between. And sometimes our behaviour tips us one way or the other because we're striving to be better or just because we're afraid.'
'You have helped bring us to a golden age...'
'You are the only unhappy person in this world!' 'That's because you slaughtered all the unhappy people!'

Great Ideas: Sand is the archaeologists best friend because you can wrap anything in it from a child's body to an entire city and it will still be there thousands of years later patiently waiting to be discovered. But it is only of use if you're dead. The hopeless, scorching pre-titles sequences sets the tone for the rest of the release. Bernice discovering a statue of herself inscribed as the woman who killed the world is an excellent, dramatic starting point for the story. The sort of thing they used to do on Star Trek in the pre-credits and build a plot up around who this happened. Piecing the story together through a range of hieroglyphs that have been drawn to depict the downfall of the world is another ingenious notion, the story flitting between the older Bernice trying to make sense of the pictures and the audience actually experiencing what happened. It is fascinating to see the effect that Bernice has on a society that isn't ready for the knowledge and technology she brings. Theon is entranced by her and Meriol fears her. Just like the gutter press, it is amazing how the carvings depict events from a very biased point of view. As Bernice says, history is written by the victors but in this case...who are the victors? The way Bernice starts putting together the answer to the cause of the epidemic is gripping, the clues all leading her back to where she arrived on the planet. The engine of the ship that she landed in is cracked and leaking lethal radiation into the atmosphere. Dalien radiation is handy for powering a space/time craft but very delicate. A nearby five dimensional event ruptured the engine and caused the ship to crash. Even on low power the radiation causes sickness, mild organ failure and finally total cellular collapse. I love the way that Bernice predicts how the story should end now with her discovery as the catalyst for the happy ending, the sickness being prevented and the Sky Witch declared a heroine of the people. That's how it would end in an ideal world but that doesn't take into account human stupidity and greed. With powerful technology for the taking and conflicts brewing it was only a matter of time before somebody tried to exploit it and biting off far more than they can chew. Meriol uses very manipulative language to push Theon and Bernice apart, suggesting there must be a reason that Benny is the only one who is allowed in the ship and that there mist be weapons on board that she is stockpiling. During the battle sequence featuring the Garren the story falls into narration which gives the attack a genuinely epic feel (the stirring music and dramatic soundscape help too). As soon as they realise that the ship can be used for defensive (or rather offensive) purposes, they start abusing the technology, raping the ship of every resource. Playing God with a technology they do not understand. She watches the city sprawl out into the desert, stone buildings supplanted by metal towers and statues erected to honour the people that made these recent developments possible. The story turns from a triumphant one where the spoils of war destroy their enemies to a sickening nightmare as those spoils turn on them, start poisoning the people and in desperation they all start to turn on each other. When it comes to survival, people will go to any lengths and trample anybody. The relationship between Meriol and Theon transforms from that of good friends to bitter rivals, both stockpiling medicine so they can whether this crisis. Bernice notes that the carvings get less detailed as the radiation tore through the city, it is hard to be an artist of integrity when your internal organs are melting. The idea of Theon using a replicator he doesn't understand and duplicating his mind is terrifying, a horrific representation of using technology you are not ready for. The imagery of Bernice and Theon walking through the dead city, lit up by the column of radiation is devastating. This is the world they created because of their union and their poor choices. The twist of Benny finally being rescued by the Epoch after thinking she is going to die is terrific. She's so grateful to be rescued until she realises who has come for her...

Audio Landscape: Screaming wind, chatter on the streets, Bernice falling from the sky screaming, chants of 'Burn her!', birds singing, coughing, crickets humming at night, screaming, flames raging, stabbing, growls, firing the weapons on the ship, laser pistols, flames crackling, the radiation burning bright, screams of 'Free the Sky Witch!', screaming, the Epoch ship descending.

Standout Scene: Lisa Bowerman's final, powerful monologue. Unforgettable.

Result: 'You have to know how to use these things...and no-one asked me!' Stunningly good, the Russell/Handcock period of the Bernice Summerfield range delivers its strongest story as the penultimate adventure. The Winning Side is a staggeringly powerful story, beautifully written and performed and strong enough to stand up there with the other greats of this series. Bernice is trapped and alone on a world that initially appears to be like any other in this series (complete with a King to shag her and a Courtier to distrust her) which slowly and dangerously turns into a nightmare as they greedily rape the transport she arrived in of technology they are not ready for. Lisa Bowerman delivers her strongest performance for many a season (and she is always excellent) and she is backed up by a pair of awesome guest turns from Geoffrey Beevers and Hugh Skinner. Like The Big Dig, Scott Handcock proves why he is the best in the business in the directors chair, giving the story an incredible pace but allow us to take the time to savour the nuances in the script and performances. I've been singing James Goss' praises for some time now (ever since his stunning pair of companion chronicles The Scorchies and The Last Post) but this is his finest achievement to date, a script that genuinely innovates this series - not an easy thing to accomplish given it's longevity. The dialogue is sharp, the story continually surprises and it affords the actors some incredible opportunities. It is a very generous script. What else is there to say? Even if you're not sure about Bernice Summerfield and her whacky world you need to check this story out. Like Just War, Absence and Year Zero, they deserve to be ripped out of the range they are a part of and made available to a wider audience. Sublime: 10/10

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