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.

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