Saturday, 1 August 2015

Bernice Summerfield and the Triumph of Sutekh: The Pyramid of Sutekh written by Guy Adams and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: Professor Bernice Summerfield, archaeologist and adventurer, has discovered a Pyramid on Mars. Inside she finds her old friend the Doctor is fighting a battle with the Osiran God Sutekh. One he is losing.

Archaeological Adventurer: I do wonder if in this case it might not be wise to drop Benny's glib nature and have her act in a genuinely scared manner for once. This time she is facing the God of Death animating the Doctor, who is attempting to kill her. I know listeners who find Bernice unbearable because of her 'laugh in the face of danger' attitude (hey Tim) and usually it works wonders but  sometimes, sometimes it would be nice if she could drop the sarcasm and just be very, very afraid (think Just War or The Draconian Rage). By the end of the story she reaches that point and even sheds a few tears but anybody who was expecting Bernice Summerfield Takes the Piss out of Sutekh might have all their fears met in the first half an hour. There was a moment when Benny mentioned Jason and remembered the vast, sprawling range that spawned these box sets. I do miss those days when Bernice existed in her own world, regardless of whether a Doctor Who influence increases sales of her appearances or not. Lisa Bowerman really goes for it during the scene where she is trying to convince the Doctor that he is a good man, it took me back to that wonderfully powerful moment in Shadow of the Scourge where the two characters dwell on the best things about being alive. Bowerman has that same kind of manic energy. Bernice is absolutely selfless in her desire to destroy the pyramid and Sutekh within it, even at the cost of her life and the Doctor's She understands the consequences to the universe if she fails. The Doctor would understand, it's just the sort of theatrical, self sacrificing tosh he loves.

The Real McCoy: Remember that funny scene in Crime of the Century when the Doctor dashes out of a party and opens a safe only to discover Raine inside? This story subverts that amusingly but this time it is Bernice opening up a sarcophagus on Mars and discovering the Doctor inside. 'I bring Sutekh's death to all humanity' coming from the Doctor should be rather frightening, but McCoy does rather mumble the line. McCoy often (as in always) struggles with bringing hysterical lines to pass and so I fail to understand why anybody with even a passing knowledge of his Big Finish performances would offer him up such lines as 'SUTEKH WANTS ME TO KIIIIILLLLLYOOOOOOOU!' It beggars belief. Sutekh belittles everything about the Doctor, his lifestyle, his home, his companions, the very universe he lives in. McCoy can be quite frightening on audio, go an listen to Master again or A Thousand Tiny Wings. Sometimes he makes it sound effortless. And sometimes he adopts a bizarre sing-song voice that makes it sound as if he cocking his head from side to side as he says the dialogue. Like he is taking the piss. It's a weird delivery, oddly off kilter and distracting. Not scary, just off-putting. Take the Doctor out of the story and replace him with a plaything of Sutekh and it leaves you with a Bernice Summerfield story with a gurning Sylvester McCoy villain. Make of that what you will.

Oh Wicked: One and half lines only. Bliss. It's as though Handcock is as bored of the character as I am.

Standout Performance: Gabriel Woolf. Unmistakably Sutekh; silky, charming and deadly.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Doctor, I think this is beyond me. A pyramid of dead Gods...'
'The best entertainment conjure horror as well as awe.'

Great Ideas: For once we have two established elements that go together like fish and chips - Bernice's archaeology credentials are beyond repute and Sutekh hanging out in a tomb in Mars is his raison d'etre. What's odd is how it has taken this long to bring these two plot elements together, not that it has been done in the first place. Bernice is trapped in the most powerful tomb in the universe with dead Osirans - a potent image which is hauntingly portrayed by Lisa Bowerman.  Death nourishes Sutekh and so near to warfare he can gain strength with every life that is taken. He's one of the most grandiose villains the Doctor has ever faced and if big, melodramatic lines didn't form on his lips it would be terribly disappointing. Anybody that can remember how terrifying the Servicer robots were in Pyramids of Mars will shudder at the thought of an entire army of the buggers coming to life. The Doctor thought he had killed Sutekh long ago but he had only destroyed his physical body, his consciousness survived and with the activation of the pyramid the flesh looms can spin him a new body to free him and bring forth carnage. At his height he can snuff out a world with one breath.

Audio Landscape: Force walls, the power coming on, booby traps, gunfire, marching Servicer robots, mummies sparking and fizzing, the TARDIS cloister bell, firing on the pyramid, the time/space tunnel, emerging from water.

Musical Cues: More magic from Steve Foxon, who has been on Big Finish's payroll for many years now and is still providing very exciting scores. What The Pyramid of Sutekh needs is a crushing, oppressive, menacing score that enhances the feeling of the walls closing in on Bernice and Foxon achieves that admirably. I especially liked the cue when the mummies come to life. Very chilling. It's a minimalist score but I don't mind those when it adds to the disquiet.

Isn't it Odd: A familiar bugbear of mine to anybody who frequents this blog regularly is how Big Finish shamelessly plunders Doctor Who history for old villains to re-emerge for a second attempt to conquer the universe/bring down the Doctor/revel in mass murder (delete as applicable) in a desire to drive sales and appease fans who fell in love with the show through the classic series. It's a fair enough marketing strategy but I would probably gauge the success of bringing back these nostalgic elements as partial because there are as many stories that do something unique and innovative with those elements as there are those that drop old monsters into a story for the hell of it just to promote the ringing of cash registers. Let's see how Sutekh fares, a villain so memorable that nobody has had the nuts to bring him back for a second outing before. Benny facing the twin guardians of Sutekh did make me groan (lifting entire scenes from classic Who is another sin this company can be guilty of from time to time). Both this set and the previous one open with Benny having a apoplectic reaction to finding the Doctor in an unusual place - surely they aren't all going to start like that? Wasn't the point of the Doctor, Benny and Ace going off together at the end of the last set established so this sort of set up wasn't necessary again? Whilst Woolf aces the lines, there is only so much tension you can gather when Sutekh is gabbling away to himself whilst the Doctor hides in the shadows to elude him. Surely a psychological battle of wills would have been more effective rather than the Doctor's stony silence? It's about the only way they could get away with bringing Sutekh back, to suggest that he never died in he first place. Does it gut Pyramids of it's ending where the Doctor defeats a living God? Possibly, but what else could they do? What is especially odd about this script is that you have three very strong characters in the Doctor, Benny and Sutekh and they barely spend any of the story interacting. Instead huge swathes of the story are spent with them talking to themselves. Is there some kind of universal law that states that three such powerful personalities cannot appear in the same scene? It makes this less of a drama (because there is little exchange of conflict) and more of a series of speeches that mesh together into 60 minutes of Bernice, the Alan Bennett Monologues. It's an unusual technique and not really as effective as strong contact between the characters because there is no chance to build relationships. Sutekh sure brags a lot but and I can't be the only person who wanted to see a little less talking the talk and little more walking the walk.

Standout Scene: The very idea of Sutekh manifesting himself a body to tread dust and darkness in the worlds of the universe is terrifying and Scott Handcock directs this scene with absolute precision, stressing it's importance.

Result: 'You will not be without me for long. Just look up towards the stars and you will see me as I pluck them out one by one...' Something very strange occurred to me about a third of the way into The Pyramid of Sutekh. I had come in at the end of the story. Not the end of this story but rather the climax to the box set. That is, this is the first story of the Bernice Summerfield and the Triumph of Sutekh box set but in all respects it is the conclusion of the story within it. The plot is already in full swing with the Doctor hanging out in Sutekh's pyramid under his influence and ready to hunt down and kill Bernice. How did he get there? How did she find the pyramid of Mars? I guess those all important questions are going to be answered throughout the rest of the set. It's an arresting way of setting things up but I just hope it isn't going to leave us without a conclusion in the fourth instalment because surely it doesn't get more climactic than the Doctor trying to kill one of his friends? On the plus side this story does manage to generate a certain claustrophobic atmosphere within the most powerful tomb in the universe, Gabriel Woolf excels at bringing that silken menace to the party and Ace barely features (oh miaow). On the other hand this is essentially a re-run of Pyramids of Mars episode four, which was the weakest instalment of that story by some margin complete with puzzles, death threats, robot mummies a possessed Doctor and a self assured companion. If you are going to bring back an old foe and play about in the classic Who toy box then this is a reasonably engaging way to do it...but I do question why it is necessary to so slavishly mimic the inspiration for this set when there is probably a more remarkable story to be told about Sutekh's backstory. Here he is the ranting (well no, purring) villain that he was in Pyramids...a Davros (the story, not the character) style introspective might have been a more fascinating place to start. He's all mouth at the moment, I can't wait to see him actually inflict his gift of death on a grand scale. Not without it flaws but perfectly entertaining for what it is. Certainly a vast improvement on the opening to the previous 'Worlds of Bernice Summerfield' set: 6/10


Adam Graham said...

I actually like the parallel to the final Episode of Pyramid of Mars. Too many one of the odd things about Pyramid of Mars was that most of the time was spent around an English Country house and they really rushed through it. Here, Bernice as a quality adventure in the Pyramid and I found it exciting and fun.

Anonymous said...

"nobody has had the nuts to bring him back for a second outing before"

Lawrence Miles used Sutekh in the Faction Paradox audios, and *did* give him somewhat of a backstory and a very different type of story to be in (he's in a court of Gods trying to gain power, rather than it just being a Pyramids of Mars rewrite), if you're interested in seeking those out