22 October 2016

TV Review: Class - "For Tonight We Might Die" and "The Coach with a Dragon Tattoo"

What sort of show is Class?

It’s a spinoff from a tiny show called Doctor Who, though I expect the makers of the show are trying to cross over into a brand new audience, or maybe the old audience who have grown up a bit – certainly trying to generate a lot of hype online. So we have a full blooded TV show of a different kind: teens in a school fighting monsters, fantasy, set in 2016, with its own characters, mythology and monsters-of-the-week. The production team behind it is experienced - in Patrick Ness we trust (and Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin, Derek Ritchie, et al). And yet there’s some cake both being have, and eaten, with a guest appearance by Peter Capaldi. But we’ll come to that in a moment.

It’s both stylish and with a solid grounding, pure YA – built on characters who bounce off each other, in a world where you don’t need to question why they don’t run away from danger... and they look pretty, too. They also speak very fast. This is the British TV in the mould of Sherlock, or even Doctor Who now, where witty lines are thrown casually, and the pace carries you over the leaps in plot. An example, perhaps very important in making it work, is a skipped scene in the first episode where the characters come together and explain what is going on to each other. We’ve already seen this for ourselves, thrillingly, and we’ve already brought the gang together in our heads. Quite why these four characters are drawn together is a mystery, but they just fit together.

The young actors – all newcomers – are the biggest part of the series. The leading four are distinctive, balanced; a particularly heartless type of person might accuse it of box-ticking when it comes to the diversity question, the question is: “well, why not?” When you’re creating a series from scratch, especially one that’s meant to capture life and teenagers today, it would be far more noticeable not to be representative. It’s a delight that the casting is spot on too.

Equally delightful is Katherine Kelly as Miss Quill, the best character for me. What appears to be a teacher with attitude turns out to be a snarky alien stranded on Earth without many scruples. In other hands it could be overplayed, or detract from what the other characters are doing. But she is played – and written – with just the right level of madness.

The first two episodes, then, are very slick. This is a show that knows its genre (and makes some rather meta comments, which all the cool kids are doing nowadays), which is firmly in the YA fantasy mould of depicting young people growing up and fighting monsters. No show is truly original, of course – you wait a few years for a new teen fantasy show on TV, and Crazyhead launched just a few days ago on E4 – and inevitably they all owe a debt to Buffy (though here they call their Hellmouth the ‘bumhole of time’). This show, however, has an extra trick up its sleeve: that Doctor Who connection.

Personally, I’m still undecided, and I’ve watched it. Any TV show would kill to have Peter Capaldi in it, but isn’t it odd seeing him pop up in something that isn’t Doctor Who? (What next – Poldark? Question Time? Answers on a postcard.) It’s a double edged sword – on the one hand, it brings publicity and elevates the show, on the other, it blurs the sort of audience they’re aiming for and doesn’t let the series breathe on its own. And so it does indeed have its cake and eat it, with the very-extended cameo of the Doctor coming in to explain the set-up, ground this new mythos into the Doctor Who world, but not stop the monsters on his own. It mostly works, just about, with his appearance in the first episode launching all of the crazy alien stuff to come.

The show works, as even by BBC Wales’s standards the production values are astronomically high. I was impressed by the direction even from the opening scenes – dark corridors and monster chasing, followed by a great introduction to the characters at the school gates with some swooping cameras.  Class just looks polished, Hollywood polished. Even better the special effects, especially the CGI (not to mention the design) of the monsters, are some of the best in a fantasy show I’ve seen in years. And the music, which sets the tone of TV so much, really makes the series feel modern and alive – and includes some great musical nods to past themes when the Doctor shows up. In short it’s that maxim of if TV is aimed at a younger audience, you have to give it your all as they will notice these things.

Even so, I think the show isn’t quite giving its all just yet, it feels like there’s much more to come. In these two episodes, the first of eight, happily, it’s still turning its characters, still working out the dynamic. The second episode has more character than plot, but it’s a relief as you can’t keep going at that pace, and very welcome as it has far more space to grow. I’m very intrigued by what happens next.

The final word has to go to the shadow monster hanging over this, if you like. The show isn’t meant to be aimed at younger kids, though where the line is drawn these days I don’t know. What is unusually missing so far in levels of language or sex or drugs (like in Misfits or Glue), it makes up in fantasy violence and, well, blood. What appeared as a one-off moment in the first episode continued into the second, with some rather high levels of gore. It’s like Doctor Who after hours, when nobody is there to tone it down, which could be the most glowing recommendation there is.

19 September 2016

Audio Review: Bernice Summerfield - The Poison Seas

Continuing the trend of the fourth series of Bernice Summerfield's audio adventures, David Bailey's third outing for her, The Poison Seas, features the return of a villain that originated in 1970s televised Doctor Who. The Earth Reptiles, as they are known here appeared in The Sea Devils and Warriors of the Deep opposite the Doctor, but refreshingly here they aren't the villains at all. The two previous appearances left some shade about whether they were in the right or not, but here the stance taken by the script is that they are entirely innocent.

Bernice is sent back to Chosan, the planet she visited in Bailey's second series story The Secret of Cassandra, in order to investigate intelligence received about a potential terrorist threat. This ties in nicely with my current watch-through of Spooks, which naturally regularly deals with plots of this nature. Adding the Sea Devils - sorry, Earth Reptiles - to the mix only complicates things and to compound that there are carnivorous sharks and a sentient sea to deal with. 

Needless to say then this is quite a complicated story, but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable. The various plots do overlap and contribute to each other nicely and make the seventy minutes pass much faster than some of the more sedate offerings the range has produced - even stories such as The Draconian Rage feel quite slow. Ed Salt directs here with great skill, managing to keep everything that's going on cleanly cut and approachable. There's an energy to this piece that could be said to be missing from other releases, but it's also true that several of the guest cast tip over into melodrama a bit too often for my liking. Thanks to Simon Guerrier's The Inside Story, I see this was at Salt's suggestion, and Ifan Huw Dafydd is a particularly guilty culprit.

The plot does require a few contrivances in order to work, but they're excusable really. For example, how convenient that the bomb plot unfolds just as Benny gets there - her submarine transport is even driven by the bomber! And revelations about the potential dangers of the content of the sea handily come about at just the right time too, as Principal Lurnix is overrun by the ocean. But these are just conveniences to make things fit and create a good, entertaining story, so I'll let Bailey off.

It's an... interesting decision to bring the Sea Devils - oh shut up - to audio. According to the CD liner notes, it was Gary Russell's idea and in a way I can see the thinking. The creatures kind of live on their voices on one hand, but on the other surely once you think what the voice is like you'd immediately discount them? Obviously not though. It's interesting to have them as the ones who've arrived in a culture that already exists, building a new civilisation at the bottom of the ocean. From what I can tell, they're not particularly bothering the Chosans, but that's not going to dissuade the aggressors. Indeed, it's the Sea Devils' incursion that forces the hand of both the ocean and Carver in this story - both parties want them gone.

Carver is a strange villain. She's probably quite well written, with a full backstory and motive but unfortunately I found Jenny Livsey's portrayal completely off-putting. She seems to completely mis-deliver a huge number of lines, putting the emphasis in completely the wrong place and thus taking the line entirely away from the emotion it was written with. She undermines the character, making her sulky and brattish rather than bitter and determined as the script would seem to imply. Aside from issues already mentioned, the rest of the guest cast do perfectly well, with Nicky Goldie being particularly likeable as Benny's old friend Nedda. 

David Darlington deserves some sort of award - yes, another one - for making the Sea Devils audible. Their thin hiss marks them out as being terrible for audio but listening with headphones the vast majority of the dialogue is fine. The immense amount of work Darlington must have completed to polish this release up is much appreciated by me, down to the excellent score he provides. It evokes The Sea Devils very clearly for me, with spangly synth wobblings all over the shop. But somehow it works as an actual soundtrack too, only serving to enhance the story as a whole. He really can work miracles, that man.

This isn't quite as good as The Draconian Rage, but it's very close, and I think I enjoyed it more anyway. Stories set on or under the sea are immediately intriguing to me. The isolated style of storytelling seems to hold so much potential to me plus being trapped on a collapsing sea base with hungry sharks swarming is pretty much my worst nightmare. I'm not sure what it is but open water fascinates and terrifies me. David Bailey admittedly doesn't get much of that across in his script but it's good nonetheless. I'm not sure quite why this gets such a bad rap. Sure, it ain't perfect, but it's pretty damn enjoyable.

15 September 2016

Audio Review: Bernice Summerfield - The Draconian Rage

After a brief break inspired by apathy thanks to The Bellotron Incident (or as I think of it, Dullotron) and a lack of time, I'm back with Professor Summerfield just in time for her trip to Draconia. This is a much better story but still isn't perfect in my eyes. It deals mostly with political manoeuvrings and the return of a dark cult; there's plenty to fill out the requisite seventy minutes.

It all begins when Brax tells Benny she is to visit the Draconian homeworld to help identify and comment on an artefact they have found. She does her best to refuse but soon finds herself there anyway. After initially getting off on the wrong foot, Benny befriends Lord Vasar, who has spent many years in the company of humans. Once they reach the location of the artefact she is to examine though, things take an unexpected turn as she is abducted by Lord Paranash after being shown a human skull. 

It turns out that both Paranash and Vasar are agents of the Dark Flame, who Benny previously met while travelling with the Seventh Doctor and Ace in Trevor Baxendale's The Dark Flame. The pair want to use the professor to help bring about the cult's supremacy, and as such reawaken the part of the Dark Flame that is apparently dormant in her mind. The upshot of this is basically to assassinate the Emperor, Shenn, in order that Paranash may take his place and control half the galaxy. The method used isn't particularly agreeable, especially from Benny's perspective I'd venture. The pair physically drill into her head while she's still conscious, a particularly gruesome treatment of their supposed guest.

This is quite an enjoyable play, and it demonstrates well how to use a limited cast - aside from Benny the only proper characters are Shenn, Vasar and Paranash - and create interesting dramatic situations. The Draconian politics do sometimes veer over into melodrama, but then that is entirely authentic to their appearance in Frontier in Space, which was the only other licensed and performed production to feature the species at this point. It's not only the intonation of the Draconians that is authentic but the entire way they're performed. The three actors' portrayals marry up nicely together but also hark authentically back to the 1973 story, giving this a really nice sense of continuity.

The main thing to discuss is Benny's torture, for that's what it is. Baxendale seems to understand the Draconian culture well, expanding the world believably. The procedure of drilling into the skull to remove all the unnecessary bits is said to be one long used on females, who are still believed to be far inferior to males in their culture. The same process is used on Benny but for a different purpose. Lisa Bowerman gives a particularly good performance here - not that she falters throughout - and it certainly brought back memories of Just War for me. This is a different type of torture but there's no denying the similarities. I would probably say the earlier encounter was tougher but the physical, body horror of this story (including shaving Benny's head) is greater. It's quite well written and justified given the Draconians' ruthlessness. It also adds a layer of believability to Paranash's willing to go to any lengths for the betterment of his people. He has his finger on the trigger of the gun that shoots the Emperor by proxy.

David Darlington's sound design and music is as accomplished as ever. It's so consistently good and appropriate that I'm seriously struggling to find new things to say. The Draconian Rage requires only voice-change effect, and I was disappointed Joseph was replaced by some other robot. He brightens every story he's in and I'd love for him to get a more central role in proceedings again, as at the start of the third series. Darlington clearly has such a strong sense of the series' identity that he can just bash out a play a day, which is a really remarkable achievement.

This, in conclusion, is a marked improvement in my eyes. The series has been on something of a decline in my humble opinion since The Green-Eyed Monsters and this is certainly the best story since that point. It's reinstated my faith in the series a certain amount, by not just using the Doctor Who connections (which are much more explicit than I expected) as a gimmick, and by creating a world of intelligent, interesting characters. It also has a sense of humour too - the scene in the bath is great. I hope this upward swing in quality can be maintained across the rest of series four. Lisa Bowerman, Philip Bretherton, Kraig Thornber and Johnson Willis all give very strong performances that lift Trevor Baxendale's complex script further still.

12 September 2016

Audio Review: Bernice Summerfield - The Bellotron Incident

Some stories are remarkable for being so off-the-wall they defy all expectations. Some are remarkable for for being introspective, or having a sly commentary. The Bellotron Incident, sadly, is remarkable for nothing. It's promoted as a glimpse further into the Sontaran/Rutan conflict, but honestly the little insight we do gain is so pedestrian that if you're buying this mainly for that kind of action you should save your money. 

The first thing you'll notice about this story is how slow it is. Bernice first appears somewhere around the twenty-minute mark and the Rutans only properly appear after about three-quarters of an hour. Padding out this story (pretty considerably, as you'll probably understand) is a plot about Bellotron, a planet with an elliptical orbit which apparently traverses both Sontaran and Rutan space. Must be a pretty speedy orbit too, as parts of this story happen in each sector. 

Anyway, on Bellotron - a pretty primitive world by all accounts - lies the site of a Rutan bomb. The mutagenic bomb will destroy Bellotron but also affect the Sontarans' capacity to clone, which is obviously a bit of a problem. We only meet one person from this planet, and he's taken over by a Rutan before too long. This makes it quite hard to get a feel for the world or care that its population will be decimated, particularly when the one person we do meet is a con artist who's getting a bit too friendly with his current digs' wife. All in all then, this is a pretty uninspiring aspect of my first encounter with Mike Tucker's writing.

The other major players in this story are two security staff charged with policing forty parsecs of space between the frontiers - Captain Quilby and Commander Ryan. These two aren't painted as the sharpest from the get-go; wouldn't a planet that crosses the battle lines be an obvious target for a stealthy invasion or some kind of plot of this nature? And as such, shouldn't it be more heavily-defended that just these two, a doctor we never hear from and ten robots? 

There's a number of revelations across the last half-hour, as you'd expect from a Rutan story. At first, it seemed Tucker wasn't even going to attempt to weave in a story of mistaken identity. But then the character of Bev Tarrant, who apparently appeared in McCoy's two Seventh Doctor Big Finish stories (The Genocide Machine and Dust Breeding), pops up. She's a thief, and that seems to be her defining attribute in the very short period of time we get to know her. The first revelation is that she was a Rutan, but a good one and... Oh whatever. The 'real' Bev's so uninspiring that I didn't really care. We get a brief summary of how the fake one came to be here (the real one was attacked by a Rutan ship en route) and then we're told a couple of minutes later that exactly the same happened to Benny, and both times I was indifferent. The most disappointing thing about this is that Benny was never in it, so it really doesn't matter.

It strikes me that it would've been more interesting to have Commander Ryan turn out to be a Rutan. Given he and Benny had already established a working relationship, it would've been more impactful, rather than someone who first showed up five minutes ago and seems entirely vacuous. But yeah, that's this story all over really: dull, pointless and the plot makes less and less sense the more you think about it. Just try and work out why exactly Rutans would pretend to be each character they assume for so long, and why they'd do it for such a long period as well. It's just baffling, and the story really doesn't make me want to even try and reason it out.

The production is really good though, so David Darlington earns this a point and a half for his contribution alone. The atmospherics and music all give this a sense of being much better than it actually is, so well done on that front. On another note, I'm getting really tired of this theme now. It takes so long to get going! Anyway, a small point that he couldn't have done anything about. 

The cast all do reasonably well but it doesn't feel like anyone can really be bothered with this, and I can't say I blame them. Lisa Bowerman copes well with a disastrously mischaracterised Bernice but this is nowhere near her best performance. The guest cast are all decent enough, but like pretty much everything about this play, there's nothing that special. I fail to see how Bev Tarrant isn't just a Benny rip-off too - she's snappy with insults, likes a drink and 'refreshingly' up front. Sorry, but she bores the hell out of me, and I can't see the appeal of the character. If Tucker's so proud, why not have her show up for a decent proportion of the story, not as a character who's very much cuttable?

The more perceptive readers will probably have picked up on my general apathy towards this one. I'm really beginning to struggle with these 70 minute or more stories as well. Sixty I could just about handle, but when these are so padded and so devoid of content, it tests my patience. I was going to give this a 5/10, but We Are The Daleks (which I recently rated 10/10) is at least twice as good as this, so the final score is a little lower. Series 4 was designed to encourage sales by including monsters from Doctor Who stories, but The Bellotron Incident probably put a lot of people off. It's not about Rutans (although it turns out it is), it's not about Bernice, it's not about Peter, it's not about the Sontarans (they don't even appear, shockingly). It's not about anything. It's just there. And I kind of wish it wasn't.

10 September 2016

Big Finish Have Exciting News, And Lots Of It

In a radical departure from a rapidly developing trend, Big Finish have spent a lot of the week posting Exciting News. 

Fresh on the www as you read this is probably the excitingest of the lot, "The Lives of Captain Jack". Much like January's "The Churchill Diaries" and June's "Doctor Who - The Companion Chronicles: The Second Doctor Volume 01", this four-story set will focus on a single character at four different points in their life. The character fulfilling this role for "The Lives of Captain Jack" is Captain Jack, played once more by "Tonight's the Night" hitmaker John 'An Evening with John Barrowman: Live at the Royal Concert Hall Glasgow' Barrowman. 

This series is unbelievably exciting. It's been written by James 'What She Does Next Will Astound You' Goss and Guy 'Doctor Who: The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield - Volume 03: The Unbound Universe - Planet X' Adams and ONLY STARS JACKIE BLIMMIN TYLER (and Russell Tovey as well as lots of other people like Alex Vlahos). £25/£20 a pop, and it's out next June. First thing BF have done in a while that I'm genuinely Very Excited for. 

But what does esteemed producer Lord Goss have to say about all this? Does he love John? Was watching him in studio with Camille Coduri genuinely one of the happiest days of his life?

“We love John,” he confirms. "Watching him together in the studio with Camille was genuinely one of the happiest days of my life."

And that's not all. James has been A Busy Man indeed since there's another eleven discs' worth of stuff to talk about yet, and he's credited as Producer on all of them. 

First up there's gonna be six more of those highly-successful single disc one hour Torchwood stories. The first is David Llewellyn's (hooray!) Visiting Hours and stars Kai Owen as Rhys Williams and Nerys Hughes as his mum. The second is Juno Dawson's The Dollhouse and doesn't. I am Led To Believe this will also feature Captain Jack Harness. These are going to be released monthly from January. 

Coming in March is a triple disc series entitled Torchwood One: Before the Fall. This sees Ianto Jones (remember him?) working for Yvonne Hartman (remember her?) in Canary Wharf prior to some events we already know about, but after others that we also know about. This has been written by Joseph 'New Girl' Lidster, Jenny 'T' Colgan and Matt 'Everything' Fitton. 

Arriving in the VERY NEXT MONTH is yet more Torchwood. This is a release to celebrate that it's a decade since the first broadcast of the classic first series, Series 1, back when the show used to be on the telly. The two disc epic entitled The Torchwood Archive is an epic spread across two discs and has been written by the wonderful Goss himself. 

All in all it's a very exciting time for fans of what is certainly one of the Doctor Who spin-offs. If you add it all up, our mental maths leads us to believe that between now and June we have at least 18 discs of Torchwood and/or Captain Jack-related audio dramas to look forward to. Thank you James. No wonder you always have so many emails. 

08 September 2016

Audio Review: Bernice Summerfield - The Mirror Effect

And so the third series of Bernice Summerfield's audio adventures grinds to a close. The Mirror Effect isn't entirely representative of this series, but in some ways that makes it a completely appropriate way to end things.

I'll start by saying I didn't find all that much to like in this story. I can see what producer Gary Russell and writer Stewart Sheargold were going for - a claustrophobic, introspective hour - but it really didn't work for me anywhere near as well as the idea should on paper.

We begin right in the midst of the action as Benny and Jason arrive by unknown means in some kind of icy cavern. Before too long, they're acquainted with Dr Carnivel and have been made aware of some kind of disaster that took place in the mining station, for that is where they are. At the same time, Adrian Wall and Irving Braxiatel have materialised a few miles above them in the main base. Across the hour, we see the foursome attempt to meet up again, despite the best efforts of a malevolent mirror.

It's through the mirror that Benny, Adrian, Jason and Brax came to be on Grid 4. But it's no ordinary mirror, as it begins to get inside the minds of our heroes and animates their worst nightmares into being, in the form of the others' thoughts. It turns out that this is what killed Carnivel's colleagues, this plague of the mirror. Indeed, it very nearly succeeds in killing Jason when he believes himself to be drowning, locked in a lift. It's only thanks to Brax that he survives this, confirming he's not quite the villain the producer (who scripted segments of his part) or the mirror would like you to believe.

Benny is of course afforded the lionness' share of the action, allowing Lisa Bowerman to face off against various versions of both her fellow cast but also herself. Soon, she's utterly confused about what's real and what isn't as she plunges further and further into the mirrors, and I wasn't far behind. She is once more highly enjoyable, reinforcing Gareth Roberts' theory that it's impossible to write Benny badly, but other highlights include Harry Myers' Adrian Wall. His snarling, Cockney dog-man has been a hit for me since his first appearance in The Green-Eyed Monsters, and I enjoyed his part in proceedings just as much here.

The Mirror Effect is notable for me for being my first encounter with Brax, and it's interesting to finally hear him in action. I know a fair amount about Brax (he's a Time Lord, the Doctor's brother, owns the Braxiatel Collection etc.) but I didn't really have a feel for what the character was like, or what he was about. I think I picked the right story to get some answers of that ilk. Brax is very high-handed and domineering. Like most Time Lords, he always presumes he knows best and doesn't suffer fools gladly. He seems to stand only for himself and the betterment of his Collection. Miles Richardson gives Brax an upper class tone that was initially a little grating on these ears, but that just adds to the overall impression it seems I am supposed to get of Brax. He tolerates Benny and the gang just as much as they tolerate him.

The post-production is pretty impressive, even astonishing when you factor in that David Darlington had to compose it all in a single day. He should be commended for his efforts as he adds much-needed atmosphere to what I found to be quite a flat, dry tale. Echoes are occasionally overdone but you can't have everything when working at that kind of time scale, and even so I'm pretty sure I only noticed it because I listen out for things to include in my reviews.

Director Russell gets some nice alternative performances from four of the cast - interesting to note Carnivel is played by Richardson's then-wife Beverly Cressman - and while it is interesting that Brax is apparently such a dark character that he has no evil reflection it's a shame we didn't get to hear Richardson take on another side of him as Brax is relatively single-note as it turns out. By now Stephen Fewell has Jason very clearly defined, allowing him to play quite an irregular character when called upon. His and Adrian's rivalry doesn't look set to end any time soon, and I'm not overly disappointed about that.

In Simon Guerrier's mind-bogglingly comprehensive Bernice Summerfield: The Inside Story, Sheargold notes a number of developments in the life of The Mirror Effect. For one thing, I think Bernice Summerfield Through the Looking Glass would've been a much better title, but going further back than that I'm actually interested in what the story set on the oil rig may have turned out like. In any case, I just couldn't find anything to grab my attention here. I did try, but this is very long and I struggled. The confusing nature of it only repelled me further and I'm sorry to say this is probably my least favourite of the series so far. The only bits I thought to myself I really enjoyed were those with Joseph right at the end, commenting on babysitting. I like experimental stories very much, but so far in this range I'm enjoying the more outrageous, light-hearted episodes far more than the 'serious' ones.

So all in all this is a competent play, but little more. I found little to latch onto and although all the character bits and bobs should've been captivating, I found them interesting at best. This was a bit of an experiment, and for me it's not worked, but that's OK. Better to try and fail than fall into a rut. What has worked for me is this series. I've taken quite the gamble in hoovering up a substantial number of the older titles and I'm so glad it's paid dividends. Although it may have had its lacklustre moments, I'm still really looking forward to diving into Series 4. Benny and Lisa Bowerman can carry a duff story quite easily it would seem, giving me great confidence. The parts of the other leads, particularly Brax are mildly interesting but all the best drama lies with Benny. I'm still not entirely sure about what happened and how Carnivel seemed to know Benny and Jason but I really want to move on from this now. In a word, The Mirror Effect is decent.

05 September 2016

Audio Review: Bernice Summerfield - Dance of the Dead

This is quite a strange story. The cover would lead you to believe this was a straightforward 'Benny vs the Ice Warriors in space' fare. But it really isn't.

After being deposited on the luxury liner Empress taking diplomats from two dozen world's home from the biggest peace conference in history by drinking partner in crime Iris Wildthyme after the events of The Plague Herds of Excelis, Benny awakes with quite the hangover. Before long, the Empress is of course on collision course for the nearest world after a bomb explodes on the vessel.

Teamed with Ice Warriors Grand Marshal Sstac and General Azzar and steward Karter, Bernice must make her way up to the bridge. Which is easier said than done - especially when she and Sstac are being possessed by the spirits of two dead Calgarians they were sharing the lounge with. This is a pretty neat idea but the way it's executed leaves a little to be desired. After the initial 10 minutes, there is relatively little in the way of action for the remainder of Dance of the Dead's 65 minutes. The storyline with Musjana and Asnabi is at least interesting as we learn more about them and their world but the fact that it completely overshadows the 'main' plot of the episode feels like an odd decision, especially when the possession subplot comes to absolutely nothing and has almost no bearing on anyone outside of it.

It was really nice to have the Ice Warriors back, and I think Cole writes really well for them, particularly Azzar, affording her the kind of depth characters of her significance didn't get in classic Doctor Who stories. Her motives are at least reconcilable with her character and if Cole ever finishes with the James Bond books, I'd love to see him have a go at a full-on Ice Warrior story. The remainder of the story is well written but I just couldn't get a handle on it. I understand Lisa Bowerman was asking for more serious stories around this time, and Dance of the Dead was the result. While I agree that the series needs balance, I'd actually have to say this wasn't as strong as the two, lighter-hearted stories that preceded it.

On the subject of the cast, I was once again impressed by this story's performers. Matthew Brenher and Vivian Parry (with a little help from David Darlington) make fantastic Ice Warriors, especially on audio. Francis Magee as Karter, the thief whose friend accidentally blew up the whole ship rather than just one floor, does well. He gives the character a great depth and plays both sides very well. And Bowerman herself is of course superb, tackling everything asked of her with impressive skill. There way she flicks from nervous to controlling to snide at the drop of a shot glass reassures listeners with any doubt she is the right woman for the job, wherever such thoughts may have sprung from.

Ed Salt directs well, and I think making Azzar female was an inspired decision of his. He gets the best from the performers and turns what's quite a talky script into something pacy that holds your attention. Darlington, as already mentioned, elevates the story with some lovely sound design, and I loved his score too, with all its bassy rhythms. I certainly hope he does lots more of these as he's obviously a very talented technician in these areas.

So all in all this is quite an enjoyable story, and definitely more sombre in tone than the preceding two episodes of Series 3 (though nowhere near as dark as Just War). However, it is very long and feels like it's running two b-plots. Some impressive casting and production go some way to repairing the damage but overall I can't help but be a little disappointed after the strength of the range so far.

01 September 2016

Audio Review: Bernice Summerfield - The Green-Eyed Monsters

The Green-Eyed Monsters continues the third series of the adventures of Bernice Summerfield in admirable style. Mixing two seemingly unrelated plots into one impressive whole, Dave Stone balances levity and drama expertly to create another enormously enjoyable story.

The episode begins with Benny completely fed up with motherhood. The constant attention demanded by little Peter is taking its toll - she's exhausted. It's a blessing then when a little relief seems to come her way in the form of a simple job of validating some trinkets' authenticity. Jetting off to the Goronos system, Benny leaves Peter in the care of his father Adrian Wall, and her ex-husband Jason Kane, apparently the only two men she would trust to the end of the universe.

When she arrives on Goronos Four, Benny is soon acquainted with Lady Ashantra, her employer, and the planet's two princes, Boris and Ronald. There's immediately more to this lady than meets the ear, as evidenced in her hushed machinations behind the scenes. The background to this part of the story is that a myth has recently done the rounds in the warring system that the rightful rulers will be twins, have strange birthmarks and the like - and that their eyes glow green in the presence of certain strange artefacts. That's quite a lot of specific conditions, and as Benny points out, not necessarily the qualities you look for in leaders, but the way Stone makes this part of the story does it complete justice.

Luckily, the twins under Lady Ashantra's care meet all of these conditons except the last. Just as luckily, some artefacts have recently been discovered that match those in the legends. Benny has been brought in in order to confirm Boris and Ronald's claim to rule over the whole Goronos system. In order to try and match the stipulations of the myth, the Royal Houses have been striving desperately for twins, going so far as gene pool manipulation. This has the unfortunate side effect of giving the twins phenomenally low intelligence. Perfect rules then.

Before long though, we learn the truth about Lady Ashantra. When Benny and Joseph investigate the artefacts, they discover they're worthless nick-nacks bought for a couple of credits at the futuristic equivalent of Poundland. It turns out all Ashantra wanted was Benny's word, not her opinion. To this end, she has Peter kidnapped to ensure her co-operation.

And it's at this point that the other half of the action shifts up a gear. This is just as much a play about Adrian and Jason as it as about Benny and Ashantra. After several moments of sparring between the pair as they attempt to familiarise themselves with looking after a newborn, the Braxiatel Collection is invaded and Peter snatched - and so begins stronger part of their story. Forced to work together, they go on the hunt for the missing child. The scene where they confront Sloaty is a particular highlight, showing them both as comedic gold, and as a team to be reckoned with. I certainly hope future stories force them together as they make a winning double-act.

Back on Goronos Four, Benny's exposed Ashantra's plan and the baby is recovered just in time for her not to have to falsely endorse the Lady's junk. It turns out she bribed officials on the system's other worlds to spread the myth she had conceived, and deliberately dumbed down Ronald and Boris in order that she may rule in secret. All that stood in her way was authentication from a reputable source. Maria Darling seems to relish playing such a batty old mare, giving it everything she's got. It's a great performance, and really does wonders for the story. With Darling's zany take on the role, you can believe she really would come up with such a crazy, convoluted plan to take over the system.

All of the cast are really strong though. Lisa Bowerman of course gives a memorable central performance, nailing every line, and Harry Myers and Stephen Fewell are just as good as Adrian and Jason. Myers does seem to underplay a couple of lines but I can excuse that as his throat must have been pretty sore by the end of the day. His and Fewell's chemistry is brilliant and without question the funniest line in this is when Adrian calls Jason a "complete prat". They bounce off each other marvellously and prove they can more than support their own strand of the story. Steven Wickham is once again great as Joseph, supporting the action with just the right amount of cheek. Director Gary Russell takes up the reigns as Ronald and Boris and plays them really quite strangely. It's an odd turn from him.

Dave Stone is clearly a writer for me to watch then. This is my first encounter with his work, though he is of course no newcomer to the worlds of Doctor Who or Bernice Summerfield, having been the one to create Jason Kane. I'm delighted to see he has another couple of plays later in the series, as this was a hugely enjoyable script. This is a decidely different Jason to the one I met in Just War, with far more oomph and one-liners, but that's to be expected given he's no longer living through one of the most depressing periods of history. In the conflict with Adrian, you can't help but feel Stone favours his own creation over the KILLLLOOOREENAN but at the same time the scenes feel completely natural. This is very well paced and tells an excellent story, so more from Stone will be most welcome.

Overall then The Green-Eyed Monsters is a story to be proud of. The title perfectly encapsulates the episode as a whole and rounds of what's a thrilling instalment in the Summerfield series. David Darlington and Alistair Lock do wonders with the post-production as always and the very beginning, which was actually my first time of hearing the 'Adventure is My Game' song, is hilarious. The end credits are very well done too, with superb ad libbing from the cast. The music throughout is accessibly sophisticated and differentiates this from other series. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and sincerely hope Benny's third series can live up to this strong start as I move into the second half.

29 August 2016

Audio Review: Bernice Summerfield - The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy

Now this is more what I was expecting. On the surface, The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy is quite a light, frothy adventure story. Look a little deeper though and you'll find it's been planned meticulously.

Arriving at the Gigamarket, the largest department store in all the Galaxy, under the pretence of excavating latrines in the car park, Benny's after a little retail therapy. It's no wonder given everything that's going on in her life at the moment. Most notable if course is that Professor Summerfield now has a son, Peter. What she craves at the moment though is a little - make that a lot - of shoe shopping to make her feel herself again.

And this plays out rather amusingly and entertainingly for a short while, after Benny meets over-familiar manager Keelor. But of course her day is soon interrupted, and not just by the fact that Adrian's credit chip, which she "borrowed", bounces. The Borvali, a race once at war with the Gigamarket's owners and now confined to their own section of the planet have begun reappearing, along with soldiers a hundred years out of time. This really is quite a clever plot, playing with time to get writer Paul Ebbs' message across.

This is a really fun play from the outset. It's populated with lots of larger-than-life characters, such as Joggon and Keelor, who complete the overall feel of the piece. The revelations that come in the second half might not add up completely (if Keelor is such a fan of Benny why did he invite her for the time when he'd rigged the shopping centre to explode?) but there's a lot to enjoy. Most amiable of all is the moment where Benny amusingly saves the day by giving the bomb a good old thump.

If this is the kind of thing I can expect from the Benny range, then I certainly look forward to more. The universe she inhabits is deliriously enjoyable and the characters around her equally so. Personal assistant and porter Joseph is a particular highlight, and I hope he appears in future stories. The main character's attitudes to people we haven't yet met, such as Irving Braxiatel and father of her child (it's complicated) Adrian Wall, also make me hope it isn't too long until we meet them in person.

What a great cast director Alistair Lock has assembled. Toby Longworth is simply fantastic as Joggon, ensuring every line is hilarious. Keelor, as voiced by David Benson, is a delight too. His adopted slightly old-fashioned, authoritative manner suits the part as written very well. Steven Allen as Keelor's grandfather Tarband contributes a subtler comedy to the story, delivering the straight attitude of a hardened soldier but with undertones of the character's irony neatly sewn into the performance. And of course Lisa Bowerman and Steven Wickham, as Benny and Joseph, were excellent. Bowerman is a flawless Summerfield, and inhabits her entirely believably. Nearly every "boing" from Wickham got a laugh from me too. Every scene in The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy is thoroughly enjoyable thanks in part to the commitment, energy and creativity of this small cast.

Lock and Steve Johnson have done a wonderful job with the post production too. Even though this was only released thirteen years ago, technology has come on leaps and bounds since then, allowing more than just two tracks for editing, and a microphone for each performer, rather than a total of two. The way the pair negotiate the sound design and music duties, particularly under such limited and strenuous is impressive, given how well it turned out. The theme is great, and the stings between scenes help punctuate the story perfectly.

All in all then this is a great story and I'm really glad I started Bernice's original Big Finish adventures here. It's not quite a romp, as there's a serious heart to this, with a commentary on consumerism, but it never feels heavy handed or overbearing. This is probably one of the most singly-enjoyable productions from Big Finish, with one liner after one liner, but it never trips over into farce. With a great contribution from all - but most notably Paul Ebbs, Lisa Bowerman and Toby Longworth - Greatest Shop is a delight, and far better than its account in Bernice Summerfield: The Inside Story might suggest.

25 August 2016

Audio Review: Bernice Summerfield - Just War

And so my Bernice Summerfield marathon begins in earnest with what I believe is widely regarded as the gem of the first series. Adapted from an earlier New Adventure, as all of the initial run were, this transfers wonderfully to audio. It's quite a harrowing story, and in my mind it's an excellent one. 

This was my first experience of a 'proper' Bernice Summerfield adventure and this seems a good place to start. Lance Parkin's adventure is set for the most part on Guernsey in 1941, and essentially tells the tale of Benny and Jason Kane, her ex-husband, trying to find their way back together. However, the pair came to be in this time period - I'm guessing it's something to do with the Time Ring they use to get home, but it's not made explicit - Jason seems to have drawn the short straw as he arrived in 1936 where as Bernice only materialised at the tale end of 1940. 

Far from the 'romp' of a series I'd come to expect from its reputation in Big Finish circles, Just War is a straight, serious historical. It involves the leads and the listener in the period through the evocative supporting characters, British and German, and they way history conspires. Benny and Jason's attitude to time travel is quite refreshing when compared against the usual Doctor Who attitude of not being able interfere. Several times through Just War, both question whether history should be left uninterrupted or whether it's their meddling that causes the events they know to happen. It's been covered before but feels like more damage could be done here as the Second World War is such an infamous period of modern history, its effects are still highly visible today. Even though this story is over fifteen years old, Jason still represents contemporary views and as such his perspective on the Nazis is the more interesting for the majority of the story.

But there's no doubting Benny is the star of the show. Setting the story in a relatively unknown bit of World War Two is a shrewd move on Parkin's part as it allows for greater dramatic tension. Some listeners may not know the extent of German control over the Channel Islands; I for one certainly didn't have much of a clue what sort of thing went on there. The Nazis that populate Just War aren't all one-dimensionally evil and it's quite interesting to explore the mentality of the 1941 German officer, in various different guises.

At one point - in fact, for most of the story - Bernice and Jason are captured and held prisoner. This is where some truly dark material comes out. Lisa Bowerman is excellent throughout, but the scenes after two days' food and sleep deprivation see her at the height of her powers. Even though this was only her fifth time playing the twenty-sixth century archaeologist, she already has the part down to a tee. She's not just great by herself, as Benny gets quite a lot of monologues across Just War's two discs - she has excellent chemistry with anyone she's paired with. She seems a great actress, and perfectly cast in the role whose eighteenth season was released only this month. 

All of the cast work fantastically with Jacqueline Rayner's excellent adaptation though. Stephen Fewell gives Jason real heart and his many longings for Benny ring true when they come from him. He plays discontent excellently and you can easily believe the trouble past we're told of. Given how prominent he's set to be across the series as a whole, I'm really encouraged by Fewell's performance. There's a few Who alumni amongst the rest of the cast too - most notably Maggie Stables and Mark Gatiss. Both are great in their roles, and in fact I didn't even recognise the latter as Standardtenfuhrer Wolff which either means I was being extremely dense or Gatiss was especially unrecognisable (or both of course) since Wolff occupies such a large portion of the running time.

The sound design and soundtrack are understandably less present than in Big Finish's current releases. That's not to say they're lacking - quite the opposite. All the post-production work here is perfectly adequate, it's just less than the contemporary customer would be used to. The music feels a little bit out of places in certain scenes, with tinkling pianos accompanying some pretty upbeat or dramatic action. Overall though I was really impressed by Harvey Summers' work and I think it's a shame he only worked on four Bernice Summerfield stories for Big Finish (this was the last).

This is an amazing release. It tells a really intense story, using a very strong cast of characters and actors. It's astonishing that Big Finish were capable of material this good this early on. This is proper drama, with no science fiction elements. A lot of the time, I actually prefer that kind of storytelling. The one point I would make would be that it doesn't make any use of Bernice's archaeological tendencies, apart from in passing, but if that's sacrificed to get a story this good then I don't mind. Every scene is gripping and electric; Gary Russell directs with tight style. This is an extremely promising start for Benny's own range and certainly has me looking forward to more.