22 June 2015

BF: Love and War

Here we are then, right at the start of the adventures of Bernice Surprise Summerfield. Love and War is widely acknowledged as the first of Big Finish's novel adaptations, but that of course isn't true. Back in 1998, the company's very first release was an adaptation of Paul Cornell's Oh No It Isn't!. This story was released to commemorate twenty years since Benny's first appearance, and as such sports a bumper cast and three discs. I'm sorry to say though that I'm not entirely sure it warrants the 'special' status.

Deciding they should have the day off after Ace attends the funeral of her best friend Jules, the Doctor takes the TARDIS to the planet Heaven in search of a book. Before long though, they have of course managed to get themselves entangled in a plot to take over the universe. The way Paul Cornell, author of the 1992 novel, manages to tie together the archaeological, traveller and religious elements is quite impressive. He notes on the extras disc, the third of the set, that the original draft was half the required length and so he added subplots to bulk it out. I can have a fairly good guess at what was added, but I think they strengthen the overall impression of the story.

This is a great introduction for Bernice. We see the world she lives in and thanks to both the Doctor and Ace seemingly having faces that people can't help talking to, we're told of a lot of her history. As written, I'm not sure she's a particularly likeable individual to begin with but Lisa Bowerman completely owns the part and goes some way to reversing that. It's no wonder that with Bowerman in the role Benny is still going strong after fifteen years of original adventures. Her scenes with Sylvester McCoy are a particular delight; the pair are clearly on the same wavelength and they make each exchange, whether their characters are in agreement or otherwise, fully engaging.

However, Love and War is probably just as well known for featuring the departure of Ace - at least for now - as for the origination of Benny. The two companions barely cross paths here, and as such Ace spends much of the story away from the Doctor. Instead she occupies herself with new love Jan. Their relationship, especially the speed of it (they're engaged before the second half is out) isn't one I find particularly convincing. It's good that the Doctor voices what most listeners will be thinking, in that he doesn't really seem like her 'type', but this doesn't deter Ace. Despite his relative remoteness, he still manipulates Ace and events around her, as was the cliché of the New Adventures Doctor.

If Ace was going to leave the Doctor, anger at the death of a love at his hands is a solid choice of motive. However, her relationship with Jan never rings as true as it ought to if it's to form the backbone of this story. To compound this, Love and War feels much more like an introduction for Benny than a swansong for Ace due to the time distribution, at least as adapted. The jaunt into space towards the end feels like needless spectacle when a more understated conclusion may have been more powerful, particularly given Jan's death. The other part of this story that didn't do that much for me was the background of the Hoothi. I've heard stories of how every NA had some universe-conquering, Time Lord-battling foe at its heart and it seems that's also true here. Their history with Gallifrey seems to me to add nothing, aside from the fact the Doctor is handily able to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to exposition. He never seems daunted by the Hoothi and so the threat never seems that immense. 

From a production perspective, this is quite a solid release. The direction could be a little tighter in places and the points where cuts had been made during adaptation sometimes seem noticeable. The music and sound design, courtesy of Steve Foxon, are pretty good but are often overshadowed by all the shenanigans of the main part of the story. From a casting perspective, most of the assembled actors seem to suit their parts well, especially Aysha Kala as Roisa McIlnery, one of the travellers. However, the standouts are clearly Lisa Bowerman and Sylvester McCoy. In one of Ace's exit stories, Sophie Aldred performs well but can't help sounding less youthful than she once did. 

All in all, this is quite an impressive story. What struck me most about it is how similar to Season 26 it feels, in particular Survival. The gang of rogues, the eccentric guest star and the galaxy-shattering villains are familiar in a good way, and it's a story populated by and build around (mostly) great concepts. Where this adaptation falls down for me is how it splits its running time. Ace's departure feels too hasty and half-baked for my liking, but perhaps that's entirely appropriate. The two things that I enjoyed most about this were the Seventh Doctor and Benny, which bodes well given I'm about to embark on a marathon of her Big Finish exploits. Lisa Bowerman clearly knows the part inside out after thirteen years in the role, and the character herself is given an intriguing start. She's not desperate for escape like a lot of the Doctor's companions, but she does yearn for knowledge, which makes her a good match for this particular incarnation. And of course there's the hope of seeing her father again which drives her on. Whether that will ever occur remains to be seen.

In a Nutshell: A strong start for Bernice, but much of the rest of the execution of the story feels a little lacking. 

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