Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Beginning Benny - Season 4

Right then, where are we?  Benny’s a single mother but with an ex-husband and an ex-loverofBennywhilstshewasn’tinherbody fighting over both her affections and also those of her son, the hairy scream ball Peter.  Brax looks as though he’s far more evil than anyone thought but only Jason knows it, except for the hypnotic block Brax has put in place to stop him remembering.  The universe is a pretty peaceful place though at the moment but there’s trouble ahead, to be detailed in those pesky paper based book things.  So, time to start season 4.  It’s begins with one giant green testicle and end with something approaching a load of bollocks…

“The Bellotron Incident” guest stars a rutan (so see the Doctor Who TV story “Horror of Fang Rock”) which you know means that there’s going to be all manner of shape changing larks going on through the story.  We get to reintroduce Bev Tarrant to the audio range (go listen to the Doctor Who audio story “The Genocide Machine” and then do “Dust Breeding” just for the hell of it) and Benny gets to re-enact Indiana Jones style escapades.  It’s a bit of a strange one, some people might say “where’s the fun in shape shifters in audio only” but it’s done exceptionally well here.  The opening goes on for far too long though (it could easily lose several minutes’ worth of monologue) and some of the set pieces are, I’m sorry to say, just a little bit too cliché on the daring archaeology front.  However, it’s a story with more than one or two twists to it and not all of them are immediately obvious.  There’s a rather sneaky moment towards the end where it really looks as though Benny’s been killed (but she’s the heroine) so you are left scratching your head for a moment or two before the big reveal (note:  this is how you should do it Mr Moffat!).  We’re once more in the realms of small casts (presumably saving up for the end of season spectacular) but everyone plays it at just the right level to keep it interesting. And there’s no sign of Brax being anything but charming in this one.

He’s also fairly charming at the start of “The Draconian Rage” (don’t remember the Draconians? Go re-watch the Doctor Who story “Frontier in Space”, and when you’ve woken up come back to this one).  Here he talks Benny into the archaeology opportunity of a lifetime, to inspect an artefact that the Draconians have recently unearthed.  The Draconians don’t go a bundle on humans, or females, so why they have specifically asked Brax to send them the human, female Benny is something of a mystery (one which you can get a little more of the background on in the Doctor Who audio story “The Dark Flame”).  Be warned though, the level of lisping in this story is kept to the correct side of the line but there are some very disturbing scenes of what essentially boils down to almost sadistic torture.  Think back to how the Nazis treated Benny in “Just War” and now make it worse.  Plus throw in the appropriate sound effects.  Don’t expect to be cheery by the end of it.  Also, don’t expect to be surprised when the weapon introduced near the start of the story does exactly what you expect to do near the end of the story.  The only challenge is in working out who’s going to use it and who’s going to be on the receiving end.  It’s a psychological tale of mind control vs free will and there’s a lot of talking towards the end rather than action.  Also, don’t expect there to be any real signs of it being referred back to any time in the near future (though more of this when it’s possibly referenced in a season or two’s time). Just take it as a story that’s going to make you grimace at the nasty bits, struggle through a lot of the talky bits and presumably have a lot of off air downtime for Benny after it.

So, some suitable time later, Benny has headed off to visit an old friend in “The Poison Seas”. Well, officially she’s just visiting, in reality she’s there to find out what’s going on after a tip off that things aren’t all as they seem.  Her old friend, it turns out, is a sea devil (so go see the TV story “The Sea Devils” for more information) and ummmm well this is one of those rare instances where Big Finish get it wrong.  Sea Devils were great on television, they looked superb and there was a lot of other stuff going on in the story and the devils weren’t doing too much of the talking.  On audio though, things really don’t work too well. The sea devil voices all merge into one another and, at times, I found it really difficult to actually work out what was being said by whom.  So, what I gathered about the plot, weird sentient protein driving the leader of the sea devils a bit nuts even though he was a traitor anyway, might have been a bit fuzzed by the heavy use of sea devil voices.  They just really don’t work on audio.  The plot itself isn’t actually that strong and so my willingness to really focus on the sea devil voices wandered on a regular basis.  It’s a shame, under different circumstances (and maybe with a slightly more generous treatment of the voices), this could have been a gripping mystery tale.  As it stands, what I could hear, all of it sounded pretty obvious.  Except the ending that is.  The baddies are defeated, the authorities called in and then Brax sends Benny a message.  A message so obviously a coded message that Benny has no choice but to abandon the sea devils to their off air fate and head back to the Braxiatel Collection pronto.  Well, that’s her intended destination… in reality she ends up very heavily involved in a short story collection in the book range.  And if you don’t read it then the opening of the season finale is going to be something of a jumbled mess.

“Death and the Daleks”, at long last, starts with a “Previously on Benny” as the story follows on from the end of the short story collection “Life During Wartime”.  However, it’s done in such a confusing manner and with little indication as to what’s actually going on then it’s almost worse than useless.  The audio release really feels like parts two and three of a story where most of the information you needed to really understand it was in part one.  Okay, there have been references to the books in the past but they kept things mostly explained in the audios.  Here there’s a whole tonne of stuff that’s happened on the printed page that just baffled me (I didn’t get the book till long after the audio was released and I’ll be damned if I can remember what actually happens in it).  Jason’s in a fat suit and still in contact with his mysterious friends, the Briaxiatel Collection has been invaded by the Fifth Axis and Brax strongly suspects there’s a lot more to the invasion than seems.  There’s a whole host of familiar faces in this one, they’ve certainly pulled out the stops on the cast front (eleven listed on the official Big Finish page for the story) but the plot really feels as though it should either have been shorter and some of the padding removed OR made a lot longer and put a lot more explanation in.  There are references back to the “Benny travelling with the Doctor” days (so time wasn’t 100% re-written in “Closure”) and finally the daleks show up in the range (don’t know who the daleks are, then what on earth are you doing listening to Benny dramas??).  Brax now openly has a TARDIS (Chronotis style, see “Shada”) and there’s a linking narration to help fill in some bits that I can’t quite work out when it takes place (it will crop up again in a couple of years though… and I still won’t be able to work it out).  It feels as though the linking material is set about ten years or more after the occupation by the axis but that doesn’t really tie in with other stories. I’m not saying it’s a bad story, it does feel very large scale and there’s a lot of things going on in it, but starting the story in the book range really felt like a mistake to me.  Yes, you could follow what was going on but there was just so much back referencing that I kept finding my mind pulled out of it to see if I knew what was happening!  The moralising about right and wrong all through the story came across as heavy handed and, at the end, I was left feeling exhausted but not in a brilliant way.  Large scale, daleks and continuity but it didn’t quite add up to the feast it thought it was.  Plus another set of clues that things are about to go wrong for the Collection that won’t be picked up for another season or two.

Beginning Benny - Season 3

So Benny’s given birth to Peter, the child she conceived whilst her body was being possessed by an ancient sorceress who promptly bone jumped Adrian, the dog-man-like handyman on the Braxiatel Collection.  The kid has a rather powerful scream (mentioned quite a lot through the season but never really explained on audio) and a few extra claws but is otherwise fairly normal.  This means that, from now on, as well as ancient weapons, insane computers, Nazis and all the other things she’s had to worry about whilst being on her adventures, Benny’s now rather pre-occupied with being a good mother as well.  As you can possibly imagine, this isn’t something that’s going to come too naturally to her. So, at the start of season three, we get to join Benny in doing something that really is her basic instinct… and it’s not archaeology.

Remember the original “tag line” of Benny stories, that science fiction had never been so much fun?  Well the first release “The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy” really lives up to the promise.  We’re back to the classic Benny set-up, ie archaeological dig gone wrong.  It’s Benny’s own fault though, she deliberately volunteered for this dig and the fact it takes place in the car park of Gigamarket, the largest shop in the galaxy, is a complete and utter coincidence.  The fact that she’s accidentally borrowed Adrian’s credit chip is mere fate and Benny would never dream of taking the opportunity to stock up on shoes. Accompanied by the robot porter Joseph (go read the books), Benny leaves the archaeology robots on auto and happens to pop into the store just as things start to go wrong with time.  This is possibly one of the best (though thoroughly inconsistent) time travel type stories I can think of in the Doctor Who universe (“Festival of Death”, to my mind, being the ultimate and practically perfect one) and, as a result, has some fantastically grotesque scenes involving cows.  The sequence never fails to make me break into a huge grin and I won’t spoil any more by going into detail.  Naturally Benny gets drawn into the whole “what’s going on” plot and it turns out there’s a rather nasty side to the store and a bloody large bomb about to go off.  Did I mention this story does time travel?  Well it also dares to include the Grandfather Paradox in a rather literal manner and fully acknowledge how ludicrous the situation is.  It’s a glorious triumph and should be added to the rather small but satisfyingly enjoyable pile of “stories that everyone should hear”.

Up next, and catching me totally by surprise, comes “The Green-Eyed Monster”. Adrian, the biological father of Peter, ends up in direct competition with Jason Kane, the ex-husband of Benny, for her affections in a plot that I remembered as being rather lacklustre when I first heard it but thoroughly enjoyed this time around.  Benny heads away from the Braxiatel collection to authenticate some artefacts to allow Lady Ashantra and her insane sons to take the reigns on a planet that, to be honest, no one really cares about. If the artefacts are genuine then the rather idiotic children will find their eyes flashing green and so be seen as the true holders of power.  However Benny doesn’t really see this as a job that she should be taking her still screaming son on and so she needs baby sitters.  The green-eyed monsters of the title refers to both the genetically altered children and the bitch fest that is the Jason/Adrian relationship that takes up half the story.  No sooner has Benny left Peter in their charge than the poor infant is captured.  The story is a brilliantly written tale which doesn’t even bother to hide the obviousness of what’s going on after about the first 25 minutes and, instead, concentrates on characters.  My only gripe about the story though is the ending.  There’s nothing wrong with it, it makes sense and you can follow what’s going on BUT there’s a huge amount of background information that I really don’t remember about Jason.  At some point in whichever time line we’re actually in these days, he’s clearly first gone missing and then turned up again.  This is definitely a “Previously on Benny” moment and I spent a long time afterwards trying to decide if I should go back to the books and get the details.  In the end I decided not to but as it’s going to crop up again in a slightly more important manner later on in the range… well I think I’ll just google it and hope for the best.  However, as I said, the story does make sense without it as they give just enough information to justify what’s going on.

No such background about Jason is needed for “Dance of the Dead”.  Instead, this time, you need background on Benny’s other adventures.  As a crossover release, Benny appeared in “The Plague Heards of Excelis”, not officially part of any Benny season but a fourth part to a trilogy of Doctor Who stories set on the planet Excelis. In it, she was joined by adventuress Iris Wildthyme, a character that I have very mixed feelings about.  At the end though, Benny and Iris head off together for a drink and it’s the aftermath that “Dance of the Dead” picks up with.  Benny has a hangover, a very bad hangover.  One so bad that she doesn’t really remember how she got to be on board a spaceship full of dignitaries heading back to their home worlds after a potentially galaxy saving peace conference.  Fortunately, Karter, a helpful steward takes pity and smuggles her into the VIP area in time to meet some ice warriors and for the ship to blow up…  Yes, it’s Benny does “The Poseidon Adventure”.  There’s a rather trippy love story in this one between Benny and an Ice Warrior to go with it, but the bulk of the actual plot is the desperate race to try and get off the ship before it blows completely (the initial explosion merely taking out part of it).  There are escapades in lift shafts, double and triple crossing, collapsing ceilings and everything else you’d expect from a disaster movie.  Where this story really wins me over (and if anyone from Big Finish is reading this, unlikely I know, but please take note) is that the Ice Warriors aren’t voiced by Nicholas Briggs.  In recent years it’s become something of a joke that any alien race that was originally in the TV version of Doctor Who is now automatically voiced by Nick Briggs in the audio dramas.  Sadly he does seem to have an exceptionally recognisable voice no matter how much distortion they put on it.  This, though, comes from the pre-Nickvoiceseverything days and, as such, we get a very distinctive sounding Grand Marshall for Benny to act against (as well as a female of the species for the Grand Marshall to play off as well).  It just makes it sound refreshingly different and the portrayal, combined with the love story being acted out, really pulled me into the tale.  The ending, however, though signalled in the middle of the story, still always strikes me as rather convenient.  Okay, it’s clear that Benny can’t die and so needs rescuing but… I can’t quite put my finger on it but I think it borders on being close to a Deus ex Machina.  Still, it’s a very good listen and a very different tone to the previous two. 

If only the season had ended there.  If only the final, letter writing scene could have been picked up on for the next release instead of “The Mirror Effect”, a story about mirrors, setting Brax up as a nasty piece of work and ummm lots of running around in corridors and mirrors.  I wouldn’t describe this story as a clunker but it’s definitely the weakest release they’d done to this point in the range. It’s a lot of tediousness involving a mirror entity who shows people their dark sides, wants to give birth and lives in a deserted mining base.  There’s a lot of snow and water involved (including Jason thinking he’s drowning in a sealed lift) and there’s a lot more of the Jason/Adrian fighting over Benny.  Sadly it’s so straight laced it’s tedious.  They really do go to great lengths to make Brax out as a baddie (but, with a throwforward for those who don’t mind slight spoilers, don’t really do much with it for a few years at least) and Jason and Adrian as insecure males who both have feelings for Benny.  I’d love to say that I really understood the nature of the mirror creature (but I don’t), I’d love to say that it’s all designed and written well enough to keep my interest (it isn’t) and I’d love to say that anything that happens in this one is completely irrelevant to the rest of the range.  Sadly, it’s the start of the BIG plot line.  I mean BIG, not just in block caps but with neon lights around it and flashing arrows saying “Remember this one because you’ll need it later”.  Listen to it, get it out of the way and then grit your teeth for a while longer as you’ve got a few more dreary releases to get through before science fiction gets fun again. 

Beginning Benny - Season 2

I’ve decided that, for the purposes of the next ten seasons of Benny’s adventures, time did get a slight rebooting at the end of the subscriber story “Closure”.  If you don’t know what I’m referring to then nip over to the Intermission article about Benny then come back here once you’re done… Ready?

So this is Bernice Surprise Summerfield’s “first” full blown series of original audio adventures.  No reworking of old stories, everything is new.  However, it’s also the first time that Big Finish decided that Benny should be a “cross product” range.  In their infinite wisdom they decided that you should have to get both the book series AND the audio series to get the full story and, in going back to the start of Benny it’s left me scrabbling for the internet to get a memory jog of things that don’t take place on CD.  Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to piece together what you’ve missed if you’re only interested in the audio format but a “Previously on Benny” might have been a little useful towards the end of the range.

“The Secret of Cassandra” stands out a little in this second season as being the only non “archaeology as a starting point” story.  Instead we find Benny having slight issues whilst on holiday.  Even though she’s no longer travelling with a certain Time Lord she hasn’t lost the knack of ending up in trouble and, in this particular case, she’s ended up holidaying in the middle of a war zone.  Not the safest thing to do and Benny’s essentially left adrift without a paddle.  Fortunately there’s a ship to pick her up, Captained by Big Finish stalwart Lennox Greaves.  He’ll eventually crop up in all kinds of Big Finish Doctor Who stories, most obviously in “The Chimes of Midnight”, but here he’s keeping one or two secrets from his new ship mate.  Also on the ship is General Brennan, a representative of one of the sides in the war, her prisoner, Sheen and a computer called Cassandra.  Not the largest cast in the world but they manage to keep the story going at a pretty reasonable rate, with enough plot developments to keep your mind working though the story.  The ending is a little bit gender bending (but nothing compared to what wouldn’t be happening soon in the CDs) and they manage to play out the emotional part of the story without it becoming too heavy handed.  Oh and there’s nothing in it that you need the books for, it’s a stand alone adventure and takes place before the novel “The Squire’s Crystal”.  And if you’ve never read that then the next set of stories are going to be a little bit weird.

“The Stone’s Lament” picks up where Squire left off.  Benny’s dog-man non-lover Adrian (look, I said things would get weird) is accompanying Benny on a chance to visit a rather unique archaeological dig at which several of his colleagues have already gone missing.  Sadly, Bratheen Traloor, the owner of the lump of rock she’s there to look at is one of those “lived away from the rest of society for numerous decades” people and, as such, doesn’t have the greatest social skills when dealing with people.  It doesn’t help that his only companion in his home is the house computer, a rather jealous and possessive device that fancies its owner.  Sadly, the owner fancies Benny, as does Adrian (even though Benny makes it very clear she’s not interested) and this just pushes the computer a little too far.  Aided by the fact that the house is made up of haunted stones, the computer sets out to deal with the love problems and get rid of Benny.  There’s poltergeist activity, voice mimicry and all kinds of other shenanigans  to deal with but by the end of the release I did start to feel that the story was dragging on just that little too long.  The computer had thrown its voice just once too often, there were a few too many things being thrown around and at the characters and slightly too much computer/human rivalry to keep things moving at a fast pace.  Having said that though, it’s by no means a bad story but, coming straight after Cassandra, it’s a little weird to have two “computer has issues” stories right next to each other.

And so onto “The Extinction Event”.  I need to go back and find my CD of this one (I’ve been doing these on my iPod at the gym) as it sounded as though it had rather weird sound design which meant that the character of Brax sounded as though he was speaking from another room.  Brax, by the way, is Benny’s boss and, in this story, he’s getting Benny to check out the authenticity of a Halsted harp that’s come up for auction at “The Extinction Event”.  The event’s so named as all of the pieces involved have come from civilisations that have been wiped out at some point and so are seen as highly prized.  Brax, who runs the Braxiatel Collection (his own private museum sort of thing), doesn’t want to spend money unless the harp’s genuine.  Things get complicated when the harp’s “owner” nearly dies at the hands of the last surviving member of the Halstead race and, as it just so happens to transpire, the harp’s real owner.  I hadn’t re-listened to this one too much since it came out on CD but I remembered the plot developments for pretty much every stage as I was going through it this time which has to be a good thing.  That’s not to say it’s a perfect release, on top of the potential sound issues there were some bits that I really didn’t think worked (the joke about expletive at the end wasn’t particularly funny the first time they used it and they then used it repeatedly for several minutes), the voice at the start is too obviously Lisa Bowerman (meaning it’s very easy to guess where several bits of the story are going to go) and it does seem a little obvious what the baddies are doing. Plus, listening so soon after Stones it means that there’s another love issue going on involving Bennybutnotbenny.

The season ends with “The Sky Mines of Karthos” which isn’t exactly an earth shattering story.  A now rather heavily pregnant Benny (you REALLY need to read The Squire’s Crystal) gets a message from Caitlin, an old acquaintance, saying that she’s discovered something rather unusual and would Benny come and help her investigate.  When Benny arrives though, she’s gone and, Michael, her less than wonderful partner is left to have to deal with a slightly less than tactful Benny.  Unlike the previous three releases, I didn’t remember too much of this one at all.  I remembered the idea of radioactive elements being harvested from the sky, I just about remembered the cave systems and I just about remembered the flying creatures.  What the significance of it all was though came as a “surprise” at the end though so I’m guessing it either made no impact on me when I listened to it first time around or I didn’t make it to the end conscious (I’ve been known to fall asleep to the less enthralling releases from time to time and don’t always remember to redo the endings).

There’s one other thing to mention about the season.  It’s rather a large thing as they redid the theme music.  Season one had a rather punchy brassy and bold theme which really suited the range well.  Sadly they decided to replace it with an actual theme song. I’m not entirely sure why they decided to make the change, I’m not entirely sure who decided that this would be the one they used but, whoever it was, really needs their heads examined.  The most complimentary thing I can say about it is that it’s awful, I mean really truly and utterly awful. As soon as you hear it start on any release, fast forward about 70 seconds and your ears will be forever grateful.

For the first of the “new” sounding Benny stories, this season is pretty successful.  There aren’t any really bad stories, everything is at least a vaguely enjoyable listen and once you get over the fact that there’s a lot going on between the stories most things are just about filled in.  So I suggest you now go and read up on “The Glass Prison” or season three is going to be just a little confusing…

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Beginning Benny - Intermission

Before there was the annual “Subscriber Bonus” story from Big Finish’s Doctor Who range…. Well actually before there was a Big Finish Doctor Who range at all…. There was a bonus CD.  If you demonstrated that you had faith in the fledgling company and were willing to pre-order the Time Ring Trilogy that formed half of the first season then you got an extra CD called “Buried Treasures”.  At this stage it offered people something that there hadn’t been before in the form of original audio material for Benny that wasn’t adapted from a book. Admittedly it was two short stories (and a collection of music and interviews) but still, brand new Benny material that showcased the extreme ends of the Benny range, fun science fiction comedy and heart wrenching drama.  Plus, and whether this was the intention or not I have no idea, it also offered a get out clause that essentially allowed them to reboot the range and move on…

Comedy first and a story called “Making Myths” which takes the form of a “live” broadcast where Benny and a Pakhar called Keri take us back through one of Benny’s most important archaeological finds.  Only Benny doesn’t really remember the full details.  Or know if they’re actually in the right spot.  Or on the right planet… This is very much “science fiction has never been so much fun” territory.  Lisa Bowerman playfully skips her way through the banter between Benny and a giant hamster (lifted from the Virgin novels but works oh so well in audio) and there’s bitching about Jason Kane (which feels very real, not that I’ve ever had ex’s to bitch about of course) and a lot of mud.  The mud actually plays a surprisingly large part in the story and the ending is so daft that it’s brilliant.  It has the same atmosphere as “Oh No It Isn’t” and it just rattled by leaving me with a massive smile on my face.

“Closure”, on the other hand, is the short story equivalent of “Just War”.  Emotional, difficult to listen to at times (at one point the description of torture sailed very close to the line) and giving Benny some very difficult decisions to make, the story sees Benny setting out to change time.  Yes, Benny has both the time rings again, and has gone back to the start of a huge war to try and put things right… It’s hard to say how I feel about this one as the central story and the performances are outstanding but the concept just feels very strange.  It’s written by Paul “Creator of Benny” Cornell, so therefore you can’t really say that it’s out of character for her but having listened to everything else since, it’s something of a weird one.  Is Benny really the sort of person who’d nip back to try and completely change a war?  She didn’t go back and stop WWII (surely that must have been tempting) or any number of other wars so why this one?  What really pushed Benny to do it?  It’s superbly acted, very well written but it’s an uncomfortable one to think about.  Though it does allow something rather cunning.

We don’t know if Benny succeeded at the end of “Closure”, the ending hangs ambiguously and you could interpret her success or failure in any number of ways.  However, taken in the bigger picture, “Closure” does serve a potentially useful role.  Two of the season one stories weren’t really Benny stories, they were Doctor Who ones that Big Finish made “slight” modifications to so that they could be released (removing the Doctor, Ace and other companions for starters) which means that Benny couldn’t, up to to this point, have one coherent timeline.  She’d remember being tortured by the Nazis and spot that ancient London had already been menaced by alien killers before.  So “Closure”, as an ending to season one, could be seen as an “Okay, let’s reboot things now before they get too difficult” statement.  Suppose Benny does succeed.  Suppose that time has now been changed and Benny’s time with the Doctor somehow bypassed that trip to Germany.  It means that the Benny universe is free to start things again with their own rules and their own take on things.  It’s been great hearing some of the early books again but it’s time to move on and season two is probably the start of what we now see as Benny.  She’s got her own audio life ahead of her, with a few books thrown in to bugger things up, and a chance to set sail into new waters…

The Cartoon Museum Doctor Who Exhibition

Pretty much every Tom, Dick and Harry Sullivan has been writing reviews of the Doctor Who Experience at Earl’s Court.  What not quite so many people have been talking about, which is a great shame, is a much smaller (and less interactive) Doctor Who exhibit at London’s Cartoon Museum (www.cartoonmuseum.com).  Admittedly it’s probably mostly of interest to slightly more dedicated Doctor Who fans (though they have tried to put various things out for younger fans to draw on) but it’s certainly a half hour or so that you really should try and see before the end of the month (when it closes).

The comic strip has always been something that I’ve always been exceptionally fond of and it’s the first part of Doctor Who Magazine that I turn to.  So the chance to see a wide selection of original artwork is something that I really didn’t want to miss.  I collect the original artwork myself but I’ve only got a selection from rather a “narrow” era (mostly sixth and seventh Doctor strips) so, for me, this was a chance to expand my horizons and see far more.  And there’s a lot more to see than I was expecting.  Apart from the staggeringly good Lee Sullivan artwork that forms the first wall of the display (a Usual Style line up of twelve Doctors, including Peter Cushing) there’s something from every Doctor and a lot more than just comic strips.  The first Doctor has, for me, one of the highlights of the exhibition.  Coming from the first annual, there’s a black and white piece of artwork of William Hartnell standing on an alien world.  If you’ve got the annual then you should know the piece but you will only have seen the colour version that they printed.  The exhibition has the original black and white version and it’s so much more detailed than the rather vibrantly over coloured version you’ll be used to.  Admittedly the sixties isn’t represented hugely (which is hardly surprising, I’m surprised they have any originals at all) but there is also a panel from Road to Conflict, one of the dalek only strips of the era.

The seventies is really where the exhibition picks up the story, there’s a cover panel from the third Doctor story “Steel Fist”, artwork from the Doctor Who Omnibus (including the rather striking Genesis of the Daleks piece) and also examples of the Radio Times illustrations that accompanied the stories.  I really wasn’t expecting to see these as I’d been expecting pure comic strip material so the chance to see Radio Times material I’d not seen (such as The Daemons) was an unexpected bonus.  There are a few Tom Baker pieces from the pre-Marvel days along with some of the comic strip material from the annuals (oh the days of the “can you guess who it’s meant to be” artwork, how I miss them).  Reaching the end of the seventies and you get to the Dave Gibbons days of Doctor Who Weekly.  City of the Damned, The Time Witch, Dragon’s Claw… the glory days of four or five page instalments are there on the wall for all to see.  Moving along to the eighties and you get a selection from the Davison years with Tides of Time being the highlight (it would have been very difficult to do comic strips without something from this magnificent tale).  I have to admit that as the 80s and early 90s are where most of my own collection comes from I moved through that section quite quickly but it’s an era that lots of fans are very fond of.

It’s not just Marvel in the 90s.  Presented as part of the exhibition are frames from the Radio Times comic strip sitting alongside eighth Doctor material from The Flood, The Autonomy Bug and also some double page spreads from The Glorious Dead (amongst others).  Also appearing at this end of the exhibit are pieces of artwork that were used to publicise Big Finish audio releases along with the “Past Doctor” strips that Marvel ran once they stopped using the seventh Doctor.  What you also get to see are comparisons of the black and white artwork along with the colourised versions that got published.  This is even more interesting when you get to the “modern” Doctors (nine onwards) where the strips were published in colour and the black and white artwork will have been unseen by pretty much everyone.  There’s also artwork that accompanied stories from the annuals of the new millennium and a cover from the Vworp Vworp fanzine.

Okay, space wise, the exhibition doesn’t take up masses of floor space but there’s a hundred or so works on display from the very start of Who to the most up to date eleventh Doctor stories.  There are well written captions for all the works and then there’s also the reset of the museum, a room of political satire and an upper storey (with a kids’ room) of generalised comic strip artwork from Dan Dare to Dennis the Menace.  It’s a small museum but it deserves a visit, if enough people go then they might get to do another one in time to introduce Doctor number twelve, whenever that might be.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Beginning Benny - Season 1

A friend and I occasionally try and get together on MSN and watch DVDs together.  Hey, he's in Manchester and I'm in Norfolk so it's the only way we can do things together without taking out another mortgage to buy a train ticket.  So a while back, something in the order of months, he suggested that we start listening to the audio adventures of Bernice Surprise Summerfield from the start.  And finally, it's begun...

It’s really hard to believe that Benny is twenty years old.  Okay, say that to her face and she’d be exceptionally flattered as she’s usually portrayed as somewhere in mid thirties, but as a character she first appeared on the page in 1991. So this seems as good a time as any to go back to the start of the range and revisit her audio life.  Note the word “audio” in there, I’m not sure how I’ll deal with the bits that you need to read to understand the ongoing story, I’ll work that out when I get there an probably bitch about it when I do. However, as the very first release is not just my favourite Benny but also one of my favourite audio dramas, I’ll save most of the claws for later on. Meanwhile, it’s panto time!

“Oh No It Isn’t!” takes the idea of making fun science fiction and goes for it at full tilt.  Take Benny, a bunch of squid-faced aliens, a few of Benny’s students and put them in a world controlled by panto.  Yup, panto… dames and all.  Now, I’ll make it clear that whereas it’s my favourite Benny it’s by no means perfect.  If you want the full blown experience and, I’m afraid to say, the full blown plot then you’ll need to track down a copy of the book on which it’s based.  The audio leaves quite a few questions unanswered, such as why Benny is the only person who doesn’t end up panto-ised and what happens to a lot of other characters but I guess if they put absolutely everything in then you’d have a drama that lasted for four or five CDs rather than just two.  With that out of my system I’ll return to the glowing praise that this first release definitely deserves.  Lisa Bowerman gets Benny spot on first time (doubly impressive given that a lot of the time the character’s fighting to actually stay as Benny and not turn male… oh just go listen to it!) and whereas a few of the other characters sound a little amateurish this sees the performance of a lifetime from the late and much missed Nicholas Courtney as Wolsey, Benny’s pet cat.  He purrs his way through the dick jokes and innuendos (with many of the entendres not quite making it to double).  It’s a delivery that can’t be faulted and, though not the role he’s famous for, it’s one that I really wish he could have repeated.  Most importantly, having re-listened, I have the strong desire to get the book out again and get the full blown Perfecton experience.

“Beyond the Sun”, unfortunately, is a much lower key release.  It’s based on the third novel in the solo-Benny range and it’s not a novel I really remember too much about.  I know I’ve heard this release a few times in the past but it’s never stuck in my mind enough to remember the details.  So the vast majority of the release was fairly fresh and new.  Mind you, there’s a reason I don’t remember the previous listenings too well.  It’s not the most engaging story.  Jason (another superb piece of casting) turns up, gives Benny an ancient artefact (supposedly part of a world destroying weapon) and then gets himself kidnapped.  Benny spends about an hour wandering around, then the “weapon” gets used and it turns out it’s not a weapon after all.  Then it ends.  I suppose I should re-read the novel to see what they cut out to get it on two CDs but there’s a part of me that didn’t actually get drawn into the release enough to care.  On the guest star front there’s Anneke Wills AND Sophie Aldred and the start of Big Finish’s long standing tradition of playing “distortion chicken”, ie how much distortion can they put on the aliens’ voices before they can’t be understood.  Thankfully, in this one, they mostly get it right. Emile, one of Benny’s students, isn’t quite played as well as it could be but the other bit parts aren’t too bad.  It’s just… a bit nothingy.  It’s background listening but it doesn’t drag you in.

The audio range then takes a huge jump, skipping seven novels and taking us to ancient Babylon.  “Walking to Babylon” is the start of the “time ring trilogy”.  Jason turns up, pinches an ancient artefact from Benny (this time it’s her wedding ring and the audio tends to skip over how she came to have it is it would have meant talking about the Doctor) and then gets kidnapped.  Benny goes after him, spends an hour or so wandering around ancient Babylon and then talks the bad guys out of blowing ancient Earth up.  As you can tell, there’s a certain plot overlap with the previous release but this time it’s ancient Babylon she’s wandering around rather than an alien planet.  Benny gets to sleep around a little, she gets to increase her feelings for Jason and there’s the introduction of “The People”.  Here things get very “book based”.  One of the things cut from the audio of “Oh No It Isn’t!” is a subplot involving God and The People, first introduced in the Doctor Who Virgin New Adventures and they are a regular part of the books that just feature Benny.  However, the back-story isn’t really fully detailed in the audio and there’s a lot of skirting around mentioning the Time Lords.  Keeping up the guest star trend is Elizabeth Sladen and she does lift the scenes she’s in above the rather bland level of the rest.  The story ends on a cliff-hanger as their escape from Babylon doesn’t quite go to plan and we head towards a rather difficult story to fit into any kind of continuity…

It’s at this point I should point out that I can be a little picky on the continuity front.  I do like things to fit together, must be the scientist in me.  I can happily accept the previous three releases as simple cut down re-tellings of the novels but “Birthright” goes back a long way in the New Adventures range and into the time of the Doctor… only the Doctor doesn’t appear.  This, in itself isn’t a problem.  The original novel was paired with one called “Iceberg”.  In modern terms, “Iceberg” was a companion-lite story and “Birthright” was a Doctor-lite one.  So far no concerns.  However, “Birthright” (the original novel) had Benny and Ace as the companions and, of course, they couldn’t use Ace in the audios.  So “Birthright” sees Jason taking on the Ace role, Benny being Benny and Colin Baker having the Russian accent from varying parts of Russia.  Which means that Benny has now experienced this adventure twice but with different friends?  Jason is trapped on a future earth (no TARDIS shell either) and Benny’s in the 1900s.  Once she’s arrived she wanders around a little and then talks a lot to the aliens, persuades them not to take over and then tries to leave.  Listened to in quick succession, the first Benny season does get a little repetitive at this stage.  However, the acting’s of a better quality and things are a little more fun.  It’s very easy to visualise what’s going on and, as it’s a civilization much closer to our own, I found it much easier to get attached to the characters.  It also helps that there’s a lot of continuity linking the two stories together and there’s a lot of throwing forward to the next one.  It’s tempting to try and find time to re-read the original novel, but not as tempting as it is to get the paper version of the next one.

“Just War”.  Don’t listen if you’re feeling in any way depressed.  Do listen if you want a master class in nasty Nazis, serious emotional blows and characters on both sides of the war being forced to question everything that they believe in.  It’s sublime, Lisa Bowerman gives a stunning performance, Stephen Fewell is never better as Jason and there’s not a single dull moment, not a wasted line of dialogue and everything comes together in a way that puts even more recent releases to shame.  It’s the end of the trilogy and a major step in the Jason/Benny relationship.  No big name guests in this, but there’s a pre-big name appearance from Maggie Stables, later to play Evelyn in the Doctor Who range and she steals every scene she’s in. It’s my second favourite ever Benny and only fails to beat “Oh No It Isn’t!” because it doesn’t have the humour and, well, I want my science fiction to be fun.

This brings us to “Dragon’s Wrath”.  I like my science fiction to be fun, not a horrendous cut down mess of a story.  It’s the first single CD release and tries to compress an entire novel into little over 70 minutes.  This means that Lisa Bowerman is forced to do large amounts of narration to deal with large chunks of plot that aren’t recorded, there are some very bad edits between scenes (and, seemingly, between lines in some cases) and there are a few particularly awful sounding performances (I couldn’t possibly name names, though it’s not Benny and surprisingly it’s not Richard Franklin either).  As a final release in the season it’s something of a let down.  No, it’s a big let down because it’s also the first appearance of the new Benny theme “music”.  I don’t think there are suitable/repeatable words to describe how dire it is, and it’s going to be around for a while as yet.

As first seasons go it’s actually not bad.  One duff release, a handful of below par performances and a good way to experience some of the Virgin Novels which, these days, aren’t too easy to get hold of.  What would have been great if season two could then revisit a few more of these, maybe a relaxed Jason and Benny starring in “The Also People” or a trip to the Land of Fiction in “Conundrum”… instead Benny is about to go completely original.  No remakes but there’ll be quite a few familiar monsters.  After a subscriber freebie….

The Impossible Countdown - The Lodger

Look, I've been ill.  Very ill.  And busy, something about working... anyway, ummmm, season 6 ends in a few hours so it's about time I try to finish season five.  I've got three lousy episodes ahead but first "The Lodger"

The Lodger.  A great comic strip but, unexpectedly, an even better episode!  I really wasn’t looking forward to this one when it was broadcast.  Swapping Tennant for Smith???  (Well, it’s not like they hadn’t done that already in a load of the early season five episodes)?  Swapping Mickey for James Corden?  Give me a break.

I forgot that Gareth Roberts really should be trusted more.

It’s one of Smith’s best performances of the season and, more importantly, it’s a very solid Doctor Who story.  It would work with pretty much any Doctor, the 7th Doctor being mysterious but friendly, the 4th Doctor coming in and just dominating things. “The Lodger” is a return to the proper days of Doctor Who with modern elements thrown in without them seeming too obvious.  Well, maybe a couple of scenes.  The headbutting, as glorious as it is with the flashback clips, is too over the top.  Far, far too over the top.  Ah well, at least it wasn’t kissing J

The design of the ship is stunning, someone’s given a serious amount of thought to how a TARDISthatisn’taTARDIS might look. There are roundels and a console like thing in the middle with the supports from the McGann movie.  There’s a creepy old man/young girl in homage to a Sapphire and Steel type atmosphere, there’s a Doctorsneakingoff moment that doesn’t work for the Doctor and a surprisingly low key use of time travel that seems to suit the low key nature of the episode (shame that a certain person will end up blowing it in a few episode’s time).  And there’s an ending to the plot that doesn’t quite work.  Why would there seemingly be a random one storey house in the middle of a long line of terraced houses?  The whole look of those final shots doesn’t do it for me.  It looks too obviously photoshopped as a bungalow.  Oh well…

“The Lodger” is one of the redeeming features of season 5. I’m very happy to have seen it… Shame it’s about to not just fall back down to the level of the previous episodes but plummet to new depths of incompetent writing…