Friday, 27 March 2015

The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield: The Lights of Skaro written by James Goss and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: Bernice Summerfield is on Skaro, and she's very much on her own. The Doctor can't get to her, not this time. All Benny can do is stay alive for as long as possible. And, in a city full of Daleks, that's not going to be very long.

Archaeological Adventuress: When Benny realises they are on Skaro her first extinct is to run, which seems like a perfectly sensible reaction to me. You haven't seen her panic and cry this much in a long, long time. Probably since Just War and Death and the Daleks. If you are looking for an impossibly gorgeous blond hunk of a boyfriend then Skaro is the place to go...Benny berates herself for not realising that he was a Thal. To admit that she needs the Doctor is a big deal for her after all these years of independence. Because the Daleks sprung from their loins, Bernice assumed that the Kaleds were all evil. She certainly never envisaged falling in love with one of them. The universe isn't ready for Bernice to admit that she was in love with a man that became a Dalek.

The Real McCoy: The Doctor hoped that Benny would prevent Ace from reaching Skaro. Because he is something of an insubstantial ghost that is handing out advice Bernice declares him the worst Yoda ever. The Doctor thinks it was him who caused all the Dalek tragedies. In his darker hours he wonders if the Daleks were his fault. Benny has her own life and a family and plans to get back to both. Bernice being furious with him reminds him of old times. He hoped that perhaps Ace would succeed but the Daleks never end.

Oh Wicked: Overly apologetic, she thinks that everything that is happening on Skaro is her fault and is willing to sacrifice herself so Bernice can escape. the Doctor sent Ace to Gallifrey to the Academy to learn Time Lord stuff (very ambiguous) and whilst she was there the universe was getting on. Time passes on Gallifrey but not in the same way. She was even given a pet planet by the Time Lords to look after. It was wiped out by the Daleks and Ace figured it was time to do something about them. She accepted that was her responsibility, to help the Doctor and the universe by riding them of their scourge.

Standout Performance: Do you know how many stories I have spent praising Lisa Bowerman's performances? Go back and look across the breadth of Bernice Summerfield tales and see how often I pick her out as the highlight of each story. Throughout The Lights of Skaro Bowerman is practically narrating the adventure and she does an awesome job of it, showing the many shades of the character that put her name on the map. Whilst I always enjoy it when Benny is facetious in the face of great danger, it is when she is truly frightened and desperate that Bowerman does her best work and there are plenty of opportunities for her to strut her stuff here. Still on top after all these years.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Once more the lights of Skaro blaze out across the universe!'
'I'm going to walk out of here and live. That's the worst insult you can give a Dalek.'
'I could have been the Dalek who killed your mother!'
'Daleks don't leave behind a history, just a scar upon the universe.'

Great Ideas: Daleks are single minded, determined and ruthless. They were created purely to survive and that is why they always do. A city that grew up from the ruins of the Kaled bunker and turned into a giant silver cancer that spread of the jungle of Skaro. Time is still out of whack on Skaro and so it is an ideal opportunity to place Bernice in the unique position of seeing the planet at various stages of its development and to walk through the events of several Doctor Who stories set on the planet. It is a unique idea and one that is exploited to the full with director Scott Handcock having a masterful control over the sound effects so a seasoned Doctor Who fan knows precisely where and when each period is. What a strange thing the Daleks are; one eye, one sucker and a little stubby gun. They look a little silly and yet they are the most terrifying and ruthless creatures in the universe. Bernice visits the period of the first Dalek story, Skaro's early days when there was testing with radiation drugs that drove some of them insane. We also visit the time of Evil of the Daleks where the Dalek Emperor lies dead like the spider in the middle of a web after the civil war. The Emperor: the most evil member of the most evil race that the universe ever came up with. He's the only Dalek who is allowed to think, making the others stupid nasty children playing with guns. The time lock dragged the ghosts from Skaro's history, plucked them out for a brief second of life and death. Including Klinus. He was a Kaled, not a Thal and he was one of the first Daleks. To get this close to one of the innocents that was mutated and turned into a Dalek is a rare scare in Doctor Who. It reminds me of the family who lost a member to the first Cybermen in Spare Parts. Daleks don't have heroes, just a long list of battles fought. All they feel is fear and pain, that's why they don't talk, only scream. I love all the discussion about how the Daleks came to be and the argument for and against creating such a despicable weapon. If you have a race that you despise and you want to wipe them off the face of the planet then you could justify the most heinous of weapons to rid yourself of them. And Goss goes some way to getting into that mindset. The secret of turning metal into gold? Hints of Evil of the Daleks. Ace brought with her an Omega device to Skaro and planned to wipe out the Daleks for good and winding up causing this mess in the first place. Breaking the time lock and causing the time jumps, all her fault because she tried to play Time Lord and she didn't have the skills. Bernice acknowledges that the Daleks were once people but something huge infected their lives and changed their destiny for good: war.

Audio Landscape: Dalek heartbeat, movement and extermination blasts, city doors, a lift, a sucky Dalek mutant squelching across the floor, the struggling Dalek city,

Isn't it Odd: The use of Davros is so sparingly in this adventure that a cynical person might be inclined to think that he was used purely to be able to put his voice in the trailer for the box set and entice more people to buy it. Cynical people, mind, not me. Sophie Aldred is dreadfully melodramatic at times, as per usual. Sylvester McCoy seems to have sorted his shit out since The Revolution.

Result: It is a shame that the plot doesn't hang together better because there are certain sections of dialogue in The Lights of Skaro that might just be the single best examinations of the Daleks in the entirety of Big Finish. If nothing else this is definitely not simply a Dalek cash in like so many other audios. It's very existence is to explore Dalek history, to examine them psychologically and to come to some pretty dark conclusions about their blight on the universe. It is a tough story to listen to because it is unrelentingly serious but as a drama that encapsulates their menace and evil, it is practically faultless. Lisa Bowerman triumphs, she's absolutely riveting throughout playing a character whose life has been fundamentally changed by these creatures and is trying to understand them. The biggest downfall is the structure of the narrative, which does allow us an intriguing waltz through Dalek mythology but apes the construction of the previous story and makes the latter half of this box set feel a little repetitive. That and the cynical use of Davros in the trailers when he barely features in the story. Ultimately this box set of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield isn't at all what I thought it was going to be. I feared in the first story that Doctor Who would make an unwelcome intrusion to the universe of Bernice Summerfield which has enjoyed autonomous creativity for so many years. However the Doctor and Ace have barely made an impact and they are without a doubt the weakest aspects of the set. What this quartet of stories has achieved is to take hold of one of the most abused aspects of Doctor Who, the Daleks, and put a fascinating new spin on the creatures. It has made Skaro a terrifying, mysterious world again and has gone some way to encapsulating what made the creatures so successfully evil and addictive in the first place. The fact that the final three stories have handed Bernice Summerfield some riveting material and afforded Lisa Bowerman some striking performance opportunities feels like it is merely a bonus. The Lights of Skaro isn't perfect but it is exploring new avenues and I will always champion that: 8/10


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