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….

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