16 June 2015

BF: The Shadows of Serenity

In the sixth of this year's Short Trips, Nigel Robinson takes the Season 22 team to the supposedly-warmongering planet of Malgar, only to find a race of complete pacifists. This is a relatively straightforward tale but also a very pleasing one, written with a consummate ease that makes it very listenable.

One of the most enjoyable things about The Shadows of Serenity is the way the Doctor and Peri are written. Their snide banter, obscuring a deeper mutual affection, is evoked brilliantly by Robinson and I can imagine this story heralding from 1985 without any difficulty. The main plot feels a little bit like a sixties setup redressed for the eighties, which appropriately enough is what Saward and co. seemed to be aiming for by the Sixth Doctor's era. The supporting characters are well-conceived, somehow simultaneously being both three-dimensional and faithful to the era this story is supposed to herald from.

The idea of spooky nuns affecting things from an old abbey is, I understand, also explored in this month's Fourth Doctor adventure The Cloisters of Terror, by Jonny Morris. I can't speak for the latter title, but I certainly enjoyed the idea as executed here. The sisters of Serenity (as was the original, and - in my humble opinion - better, title) are well-sketched; with just a few details revealed about them, twinned with a winning performance from Nicola Bryant, they are already interesting villains. And given their fate at the end of the story, perhaps it would be interesting to hear a follow-up, though not just for the sake of doing a sequel as the Main Range appears to be tending more and more towards of late. Robinson has created a truly eighties set of villains, so it would be nice to see them turn up in another Sixth, Seventh or Eighth Doctor story. Admittedly, it would probably be best to limit the length of this sequel to one episode.

Nigel Robinson usually deals in the black and white era of the programme, so it was something of a surprise to see his name attached to a Colin Baker audio. It seems something of a shame that this is his first foray into the shiny era of John Nathan Turner though, as he nails the tone right from the off. The whole execution of the story feels nothing less than authentic and his supporting characters are strong enough to hang their own portions of the story on without ever feeling like they're dominating the action. The central notion of the emotion-auras is a clever one, and links well to the actions of the sisters. I can't help thinking more could be achieved with the idea via television rather than audio, but given this in the Short Trip format, it works.

It's not entirely clear for the duration of this story whether Robinson is attempting to tell a disarmament parable or not. Some stories put out by Big Finish do have an overt agenda, whether that be pro-feminism, eco-friendly or anything else. Here though, the central message seems to tell us to do what we have to survive and no more - in terms of violence. It's an odd one and that's why I'm tempted to think Robinson isn't trying to ram his own beliefs down our throats - it's quite refreshing in this day and age to just get a straightforward romp with no intended 'message'.

Nicola Bryant is an excellent reader. She brings all the characters to life wonderfully, but clearly has the most able grip on the Sixth Doctor and Peri, something that's probably unsurprising given how long she's been working with both of them. Her interpretation of one of the sisters in particular was so strong you wouldn't know another actress wasn't in the studio with her. If there was any doubt left after all this time as to her capabilities - somehow - then let The Shadows of Serenity dispel it. 

The 1980s-ness of this story is ramped up a few extra notches by Toby Hrycek-Robinson's impressive sound design. The twanging soundtrack is spot-on and feels like it could have been lifted directly from one of the unmade stories of the mid-eighties. This balanced nostalgia and quality deftly and added to my enjoyment of the main article greatly - and the same could be said of the accompanying sound design. I'm reminded once again of why Hrycek-Robinson gets so much work from Big Finish - and I don't just mean the infamous lunches.

Producer Michael Stevens comes up trumps again with the sixth of the series. It's a little surprising to me that the eighties-set stories are emerging as the strongest so far, though I'm really glad that is the case. I certainly hope the trend continues with next month's Dark Convoy. Lisa Bowerman has a typically sharp grasp on proceedings and gets a great performance out of Bryant for the forty minutes plus length. If you're not yet subscribed to this series, I do already feel like you're missing out.

In a Nutshell: This is uncomplicated but thoroughly enjoyable - an easy recommendation from me.

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