Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Winged Wonders: Bernice Summerfield - The Skymines of Karthos Review

Season 2 of the Bernice Summerfield series ends the same way that it started with another story from writer David Bailey. Thankfully though, The Skymines of Karthos is an altogether more rousing affair than his earlier effort.

Much like The Stone's Lament before it, this story takes place between the two Benny novels The Infernal Nexus by Dave Stone and The Glass Prison by Jacqueline Rayner. This means that it is the only audio adventure to deal with Benny’s pregnancy (at least in that the baby starts to kick!)

The Skymines of Karthos begins with Benny receiving a message from an old friend named Caitlin Peters concerning evidence of a ruined civilisation on the mining colony of Karthos. By the time that she arrives on Karthos, Caitlin is missing and the colony is under attack from vicious creatures that came from nowhere. It is a mystery that Benny cannot resist, especially with her friend's life on the line. Bailey's script is fast paced, leaving little time for padding, and develops well by ensuring that the hints as to what is really happening on Karthos build up at just the right moments despite it being straightforward at times.

Lisa Bowerman's performance as Benny is again one of the highlights of the audio. This time around she gets to demonstrate a more conflicted approach to the part with her need to find Caitlin battling against the pressures her condition puts her in which is effectively well-handled. Jimmy Wilson's Michael Peters is believable in the portrayal of a troubled relationship with Rebecca Jackson's Caitlin, and the revelation as to why Caitlin went missing is poignantly played. Johnson Willis brings a touch of mystery to the cast with his aloof Doctor Konstantin, who just doesn't seem to care about Caitlin's disappearance.

David Darlington creates the post-production and music, and on both counts he succeeds in creating a rich accompaniment to the drama; a big improvement on his last effort. Even the sound design is praiseworthy as Karthos comes across as a very bleak, very alien world, and the atmosphere accentuates the qualities Bailey's that script was trying to show.

The Verdict? The Skymines Of Karthos is a significant improvement on Bailey's first Benny audio as the drama is played out more vividly and convincingly, although it is let down slightly by a hurried ending. Bring on Season 3!

Mistaken Identity: Bernice Summerfield - The Extinction Event Review

The third release in Big Finish's second season of Bernice Summerfield audios is The Extinction Event by Lance Parkin, whose novel Just War provided the foundation for the most satisfying of the adaptations that were a part of the first season.

Parkin's story sends Bernice off to an auction (called ‘the Extinction Event’ as all the lots are from destroyed civilisations) in pursuit of the only remaining artefact from the planet Halstad. Also with her is her employer (and Time Lord), Irving Braxiatel, but what should prove to be a simple auction soon turns out to be dangerous as it becomes clear that there is a killer at large.

An interesting aspect of The Extinction Event is how the villains are motivated. Whilst Hulver acts only out of a desire for revenge against those who destroyed his world, he is not the only person to fall into the villainous category for this audio. The theme of destroyed home worlds allows Parkin to make some mischievous allusions to Brax's own heritage (he's referred to as "Lord Cardinal Braxiatel" early in the story) and the (then) current direction of BBC Books’ eighth Doctor adventures under the editorial reign of Brax's
creator, Justin Richards.

Lisa Bowerman benefits from Parkin's script, which allows her to demonstrate well the range of emotions that Benny goes through in this story. For the second time in the season, Bowerman gets to double up by lending her voice to another character too. Miles Richardson's brings the infamous Irving Braxiatel to life, lending a real sense of gravitas, yet at the same time imbuing Braxiatel with a degree of mystique that gives him a slightly sinister edge. Daniel Brennan gets the main action as Hulver, and he delivers a sensitive and considerate performance as the sole survivor of Halstad and Alexis Khan is superb as the slightly obsequious yet darkly motivated Auctioneer Davon. Last but not least, Mark Donovan completes the cast as the Ambassador. Though limited, the character is written in a very humorous way and Donovan shows great expletive timing.

The incidental music by Toby Richards and Emily Baker is very good too; it reflects the pace of the adventure well. The sound design is generally good also, but does have the tendency to sound a bit too theatrical at times.

In all, The Extinction Event is a thoughtful and entertaining drama, alebit somewhat straight-forward. Nevertheless, it's generally considered to be one of the best original Benny audios to date and I certainly wouldn't argue with such sentiments.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Of House And Kiloran: Bernice Summerfield - The Stone's Lament Review

After an average start to the season, Mike Tucker's tale The Stone's Lament brings Professor Bernice Summerfield to the planet Rhinvil, where reclusive billionaire Bratheen Traloor has invited her to examine a recently discovered artefact along with Killoran construction worker Adrian Wall (who first appeared in The Doomsday Manuscript).

Here's where things get confusing regarding this season. For those that never read Jacqueline Rayner's novel The Squire's Crystal, Benny's mind and body were taken over by an alien sorceress named Avril Fenmen and she (Avril, not Benny) slept with Adrian, who mentions this event in this story. If you aren’t familiar with The Squire's Crystal, you could easily get lost (The tie-ins novels, novellas and short story collections will be covered in a future date)

Lisa Bowerman's performance as Bernice is excellent here; she gets the balance between Benny's more sarcastic and determined sides perfectly but also shows how uneasy Benny is around Adrian, with there being a definite undercurrent to their scenes that plays off the events that have transpired between the characters previously. Bowerman also voices the renegade computer. James Lailey is very convincing too as the eccentric Traloor, with his voice possessing a refined quality that you'd expect from a reclusive, depressed billionaire who'd fall in love with, of all things, the house. Now that's what I call a bizarre love triangle!

Harry Myers does well as Adrian Wall in the character's first audio appearance, his rough and aggressive voice being ideal for the character, although it's still difficult to imagine him as a "seven foot tall cross between an ape and an upright wolf with fangs, snout and claws" due to the fact he still sounds slightly human. It's noteworthy that this character's race would appear again a few years after this release in two sixth Doctor audio plays, Arrangements for War and Thicker Than Water.

As it is, The Stone's Lament is very enjoyable thanks to the combination of the good performances and the focused plot. However, despite the nature of the surprise ending, this is a story that could have benefited from having a little more to it, such as additional subplots and perhaps even an extra character or two. Furthermore, you might have to get hold of a copy of The Doomsday Manuscript and The Squire's Crystal especially to be able to follow what went down prior to this story!

We'll Need a Bigger Boat: Bernice Summerfield - The Secret of Cassandra Review

After the success of the first season, Big Finish Productions decided to develop some ongoing character arcs that had alternated between their audio plays and original novels. Three months before this release, Big Finish had begun publishing original Bernice Summerfield novels and short story collections, beginning with The Dead Men Diaries anthology and The Doomsday Manuscript. Unfortunately, the rights to some elements of the New Adventures' universe (i.e. Emile, Clarence, Dellah, etc) were not obtained, but that did not stop Big Finish from developing a new background and character ensemble which they introduced in The Dead Men Diaries and developed over the initial run of paperbacks.

David Bailey's Secret of Cassandra begins with Benny's plans for a restful vacation being upset by a minor planetary war, her yacht being shot down and leaving her shipwrecked. She's rescued by a passing ship called The Cassandra, but the paying passenger doesn't like having a stranger in the middle of her mission. The captain of the ship treats Benny like a spy which leads her to actually do some snooping around the ship, however she doesn't know who to trust, and she can no longer be sure if anyone is who they claim to be...

Lisa Bowerman is on top form as Bernice throughout the story, happily insulting the General and chatting with the computer, and other times a little slow on the uptake. Lennox Greaves' Captain Colley initially appears strangely ambivalent to the implications of his actions. His daughter, a researcher, was killed in a Calabraxian attack upon the Pevenan scientific research station (prompting him to name his ship after her), following which his wife faded away emotionally and eventually physically, leaving him bitter and tired of warfare and loss; the exact opposite of Sally Faulkner's General Brennan. Helen Goldwyn voices the ship's computer, and while it's rather a redundant role she performs it adequately, matching her voice to Greaves' northern tones very well whilst still giving it a flat, emotionless quality that is of course appropriate for a machine. Robert Curbishley's Sheen also delivers some much needed dramatic impact during the climax to the story.

Toby Richards and Emily Baker's post production work and incidental music is generally good, yet the infamous Adventure is My Game theme is used here and would remain until the next season (including both acoustic closing and instrumental versions).

As Big Finish’s first full-length original Benny story, The Secret of Cassandra is a very good way to start off the second season of audio adventures. The next release might have you confused, though…

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

All Roar and No Fire: Bernice Summerfield - Dragon's Wrath Review

The first season of Bernice Summerfield concludes with an adaptation of the second Benny-led New Adventures novel, Dragons' Wrath by Justin Richards. Dragons’ Wrath is a fairly typical story for Benny as it involves her being drawn involuntarily into a web of intrigue surrounding a particular artefact known as the Gamelian Dragon.

With the villain of this story, Nusek, being a power-hungry individual out to consolidate his influence throughout the galaxy, this story is somewhat the archetype for many of the stories that followed its original publication until 1999 and to be honest that’s the main problem with this play - it feels a little over-familiar as it has been done too many times since. However, this release sure has its highlights, especially for some of Benny's characteristics. Just look at her devotion to the preservation of the past, even at the cost of the point she’s trying to make.

My biggest gripe regarding this story is regarding the incidental music provided by Toby Richards and Emily Baker - the infamous Adventure Is My Game theme that would be heard for most of Season 2 and also in Season 3 (plus as an amusing easter egg in one of the recent box sets). Today, some die-hard Benny fans consider it as a mistake best forgotten as it completely sets the wrong tone for Benny’s adventures; especially this adventure. That said, it is funny to hear Benny singing in karaoke style!

Lisa Bowerman’s Bernice continues to delight the listeners, with her quick wit shining through well in her performance, most notably with Nigel Fairs (who plays Dr Nicholas Clyde), giving the scenes they're in together a believability and strength which helps to further the drama. Fairs is quite adept at highlighting Clyde’s suspicious nature of others, but convincing enough so that the listeners don’t become overly suspicious of him until later in the story. Guest star Richard Franklin (Mike Yates) also gives a good performance as Nusek, the actor helping to emphasise the character’s nature as a threat hidden behind mask of respectability. This makes him all the more menacing in the early parts of the story, and even when things go wrong, his anger isn't over the top; just a wee melodramatic.

In a nutshell, Dragons' Wrath isn't a bad story or a great one either. It’s not a brilliant way to end this first season, the adaptation not quite doing justice to the original story that it was based upon.

Here There Be Stories!: Bernice Summerfield - Buried Treasures Review

Included with the release of Just War was a free disc which contains two original Bernice Summerfield stories; the very first original stories from Big Finish, in fact. The disc also includes an interview with Paul Cornell (who also contributes one of the CD’s plays) plus a musical suite (as heard in Just War) and trailer for the rest of the range.

The first of the two is a funny and enjoyable comedy written by Jacqueline Rayner, entitled Making Myths. The story starts off with Benny appearing on a live satellite radio broadcast talking about the oft-referenced Lost Mudfields of Agravan. Lisa Bowerman give another wonderful performance here; the skill with which she plays our favourite archaeologist is quite unnerving, almost as if Cornell had her in mind for the part all those years ago when he first created Bernice (although he had apparently visualised her as resembling a short-haired version of actress Emma Thompson). Sarah Mowat (who also appeared in Big Finish's first Doctor Who release The Sirens of Time) appears as the New Adventures stalwart Keri the Pakhar, hosting the radio broadcast. Both Bowerman and Mowat seem to enjoy the comic interplay, keeping the whole tale chugging along. Whether it's worth a second listen or not, this is nonetheless an enjoyable story.

The second of the two, written by Paul Cornell, is a story of Benny travelling back in time to confront the mother of a future dictator. She's given the choice of deciding whether to kill for the greater good, or stick to her morals regardless of the cost to future generations. Very different from Making Myths, this one is very much a dark and chilling tale because everything is based on fact. Once more, both Bowerman and Mowat are the only two actors involved, and their interaction here is fantastic.

Unfortunately, this freebie CD was actually a limited edition and is long since unavailable. However, this release does foreshadow many more original adventures for everyone's favourite archaeologist…