20 May 2015

BF: The Phantom Wreck

Confounding my expectations one last time, The Worlds of Big Finish ends on another mostly-standalone instalment. Given the conclusion of The Lady from Callisto, I thought The Phantom Wreck would deal briefly with how Bernice Summerfield came to be on Mars with Vienna Salvatori, before giving us a climactic showdown with the Gomegog. I was right in places, and typically wrong in others, much to my joy.

On a desert planet, Professor Bernice Summerfield is leading an archaeological expedition, when they find a skeleton in Chuckle Aid swimming trunks. That's right, it's disappearing comedian Jack Odwards from two episodes earlier. At first glance, this appears to be quite a straightforward adventure but on closer inspection there's some tight, economic plotting at work.

Happily, we do finally encounter the Gomegog properly, but scribe David Llewellyn keeps the drama focused around the characters of his story, and given the way the rest of the boxset has played out, that's no less than I should have expected. In a way, I'm glad that this didn't descend into the eardrum assault it could well have, with all guns blazing to stop the universe-destroying monsters. But at the same time, while I admire the fact that it all comes down to one human and their noble actions, I kind of feel like the threat wasn't really tangible enough. We've been told over and over that they'll wreak havoc wherever they can, ripping apart universes and timelines alike. However, we haven't actually seen - or rather, heard - them doing much damage. We've had a few near misses across the six episodes, but we've not visited a world ravaged by them, or encountered one of our heroes actively trying to stop them because they're such an evil force. 

All of this makes the conclusion of the body of The Phantom Wreck and thus The Worlds of Big Finish just a little less meaningful. Don't get me wrong, it's still powerful drama of the quality produced across the vast majority of this boxset, but I also felt the defector was dissuaded a little too easily given their initial conviction and dedication to the cause. To be fair to Llewellyn though, it did come as a complete surprise to me when they popped up again in the Gomegog spacecraft! The plot of this episode as an individual was strong though, and although I've no idea how typical it is of the Bernice Summerfield range, I certainly enjoyed it and it made me slightly more confident in my purchases during last week's sale. Lisa Bowerman is excellent as Benny, and she really gets to show off her range here: one moment she's an authoritative Professor, the next fearing for her life, the next inspiring an enemy. Some of my favourite moments and lines come when she's paired with Vienna though. "Bit precious, never mind." was an instant favourite and sold me on the character. I can't wait to dive into the range - and next month's Scott Handcock-directed The Triumph of Sutekh - after this. It's great to finally hear Benny in action.

The guest cast impress here too. Rosanna Miles sticks out in my mind for her turn as Selina (completely different to Magenta in the last episode) and Terry Molloy does well with the part of Captain Quinn. The plot serves the guest cast well, also giving them distinct personalities, which is both important and pleasing when the three students effectively serve much the same function and should by rights be interchangeable. John Dorney once again deserves a special mention as hilarious Irishman O'Neill.

It feels like the producers of The Phantom Wreck really wanted to go all out and make it a huge finale, whilst still maintaining the integrity of the individual story. It's a tricky balance to find, but I think they pretty much succeeded. My only points would be that perhaps we should have seen some of the Gomegog's supposedly awesome power (using a weapon introduced here) to give this concluding episode a little more gravitas. It works fine as it is, but it seems a bit of a shame that to Bernice this will likely be 'just another' time she saved the universe, as it seemed all the build up was leading to something bigger. I enjoyed the cyclical nature of the story and the way it fed back into The Archive, although to be honest that wasn't unexpected. I think perhaps the book itself should be the focus of a story in the future (after all, who knows which other Big Finish characters may have encountered it in the gaps between these episodes?) as it's used mostly as a device in these tales. That's fine, and provides a neat bridge between episodes, but it feels like there's still untapped potential in the concept.

Rounding things off with some typically excellent direction is of course Scott Handcock. The pace of the piece works very well here and the energy of the performers is tangible. The music and sound design, courtesy of Steve Foxon, fits in with the overall tone of the set, whilst finding its own individuality nicely. The soundscapes of all six episodes have been radically different, to suit their parent series, but the boxset as a whole feels cohesive. Excellent stuff. There's also a five minute-long version of the Bernice Summerfield theme at the end of the story, which I guess is a bit of a treat for fans of the range.

All in all, this is a strong individual episode and works pretty well as a conclusion to the Worlds arc. It's well-scripted, directed and acted, and is one of my favourites of the six. The Phantom Wreck has a lot to do in a short period of time and it's a credit to all involved that it comes off so well. I've really enjoyed this taste of six new ranges, and think it's worked really well as a piece of storytelling. I'll do a proper round-up of the whole boxset (and the fourth disc, Round the Worlds) before too long, but suffice to say these are a truly impressive three hours of audio drama and certainly a set I'd recommend.

You can buy The Worlds of Big Finish here.

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