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.

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