, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


After finding myself somewhat lost (and admittedly a tad let down) by last season’s decidedly insider oriented New Frontiers, I have some good news for Bernice Summerfield fans.

They got it right this time.

A series of interlocking, if unrelated on a surface level stories, this season brings Benny back to both a more respectable length (after several somewhat skimpy three parters, this box delivers a whopping five stories for your delectation) and more in line with the sassy woman we’ve come to know and love over the years.

With a considerable stretch more airtime devoted to the lady herself and a respectable percentage of both time and focus offered to each of her sidekicks and recently extended family post-Epoch, Missing Persons manages to offer the most well rounded, enjoyable, cohesive and overall well written season we’ve seen from the team in some time.  While it has both high points and lesser lights contained therein, there’s very little to bemoan, beyond the necessity to wait for the next season’s box set to arrive.

Speaking generally and trying to be circumspect on the particulars to some degree, Missing Persons is set up as a portmanteau of sorts, wherein each member of Benny’s extended “family” gets their moment in the sun, before vanishing in turn.  At the end, there’s a wild wrapup that provides some longstanding closure without necessarily pointing to a major change or “new beginning”.

In fact, the same cast and crew remains present and accounted for at the wrap, with most of them acquitting themselves well enough along the way to allow even those characters I’d held some reservations about to shine through and display just what makes them worthwhile.  If you prefer, where last season left me scratching my head in some measure of bewilderment and offputtishness, this one leaves me wanting to give the entire crew a big hug and a heartfelt round of applause – bring on the next round!

Big Dig

“Jack…you do know we’re VIPs, don’t you?  Benny’s entourage?  If anything, Shackton Rothwell should be serving us coffee!”
– Ruth to new tea boy “Jeremy”

“snort…are you making coffee for Shackton Rothwell?  What did he call you?  Rachel?  Rashida?  Rumplestilskin?”
– Jack to replacement tea girl “Charlotte”, about 10 minutes later

An experiment to determine the manipulative propagandized power of words on primitive peoples has resulted in a world where the pen is literally mightier than the sword, and where speech is literally a deadly weapon.

So why is Benny a low level celebrity appearing on a tacky reality TV show?  What happened to both Ruth and Jack?  And why have they been demoted to tea runners?

These are the pressing questions that drive this unique cross between satire and mystery, which kicks off a highly entertaining 5 part saga in the adventures of Bernice Summerfield.

One of the linchpins of the set (alongside centerpiece The Brimstone Kid and closing number In Living Memory), my only complaint with first timer Hamish Steele’s script is that both Ayesha Antoine’s already likeable Ruth and David Ames Jack (who shows a decidedly more lighthearted side of himself here and therefore has grown on this listener immesurably over earlier turns in both the Epoch and New Frontiers sets) wind up quite sidelined in their ostensible showpiece serial.

While Thomas Grant’s Peter, Miles Richardson’s Brax and Lisa herself get due attention in subsequent installments, perhaps due to the sheer busyness of the tale they inhabit, the end result is that both Ruth and Jack are barely present…and then they vanish until the denouement.  A bit unfair, but the story itself remains one of the high points of the series nonetheless.

The Revenant’s Carnival

“Mom…don’t get sloshed.”

Benny finds herself invited to a posh garden party thrown by a certain Willem Van der Heever.  She’s there in connection with her son Peter who is working his new security supervisor role on Moros Prime, a world one step shy of fascist dictatorship.

With a body modification oriented, callow and manipulative ruling elite exploiting the larger Kai underclass in a disturbingly direct fashion while dancing a careful political tightrope to keep dissenters in line, parallels with the present day socioeconomic situation are both blatant and quite disturbing in implication.

A few surprises along the way find the baddies ticking off the right wing politico’s trademark boxes of secret miscegenation, utilizing opposition-driven direct action and the presence and position of a certain pair of foreign offworlders to their own advantage in cementing an unopposed totalitarian rule and the seemingly inevitable victory of evil over good mark this as both the most relevant and grim of the stories contained herein.

Scripter Martin Day appears to have only delivered one prior Big Finish audio, the similarly bleak McCoy/Ace/Hex WWI adventure No Man’s Land and from recollections thereof, this does represent something of an improvement (which is somewhat akin to describing Leonard Cohen on a regimen of Prozac).

Either way, while an apt take on where things seem to be heading politicosocially of late, Revenant’s Carnival is certainly not going to cheer up listeners with depressive tendencies and bears a strong likelihood of sussing such proclivities out of borderline cases, particularly those savvy enough to wet a finger to the sky and divine which way the wind is blowing.

The Brimstone Kid

“Let’s see.  One count of petty larceny, four counts of theft, one of vandalizing a religious icon.  Three counts of assault, sixteen counts of fraud, two counts of corrupting a member of the clergy…five counts of arson, and twenty-five counts of criminal damage…you’re one of the most wanted men in the galaxy.”

Benny joins the newly kinder, gentler Irving Braxatiel, who is running a bar under the sly undercover name of Irving McCarthy in Wild West frontier of Legion City.  Alongside grizzled old prospector and town drunk ‘Toothless Bob’ and Jehovah’s Witnessesque missionary Mary Hannigan, they encounter both the titular outlaw and the grim cyborg bounty hunter Cazador in hot pursuit thereof.  As the Kid has coerced the gang into hiding him in the basement, things get pretty uncomfortable… and then there’s a surprise twist or two at the end to boot.

“Why do they call you Toothless Bob?”
“Cause my name’s Bob, an’ I ain’t got no teeth.”

An amusing if occasionally over the top (cue Toothless Bob) celebration of the American B-western with perhaps a dash of the moral ambiguity and complexity of the Italianate “spaghetti” western for spice, The Brimstone Kid cements an impression that had been building for a bit, which is that Irving “Brax” Braxatiel has most decidedly taken the lead as most welcome and entertaining of the Summerfield entourage and companions.

With a hilariously wry sense of humor offset by a crackling dry wit and self-mocking posh demeanor, Miles Richardson’s Brax could potentially carry a spinoff of his own – certainly his two person show with Lisa Bowerman’s Benny here delivered more than a fair share of laughs and likeability.

“I’m a missionary.”
“An interesting position!”

While far from the most well rounded script in the season, it certainly is the most light hearted and entertaining.  Packed with mildly (but not overbearingly) tongue in cheek if not camped up performances by all comers and more zingers than the other four stories combined (if not squared), David Llewellyn takes the brass ring for most likeable and in a certain historical respect, most Bernice Summerfield of recent offerings in the line – SF with a strong emphasis on the absurd and droll, and with the personalities of the lead or leads firmly placed at the fore.

The Winning Side

“The thing about history is that it is written by the winning side.  You’ve always got to look at how it might be skewed…especially if you have a starring role in it.”

The least of the tales herein is a Benny solo story, which is delivered as a sort of storybook fairytale complete with narration bridging its comparatively rare fully dramatized scenes.

A dying, thirst-parched Ms. Summerfield distracts herself from her imminent peril of demise by relating “the witch who fell from the sky”, a tale told in statuary and hieroglyph by the long lost inhabitants of the dead planet she finds herself alone thereon.

Equal parts Renaissance Faire offering and parable about never giving too much information or power to those too unenlightened to handle it, James Goss’ script strives to the darkness of Day’s Revenant’s Carnival but is hampered by the intrinsic Princess Brideness of the whole affair.

Like Scheherezade trying to cover the sort of political intrigue of, say, a Robert Ludlum, while it can and does touch on some basic truisms about human nature, it can’t help but fall short of the mark by dint of its very stylistic construction.

In Living Memory

“Do you really think we’re coming with you after what you did to Gary?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake…what’s that, Toby?  Lunch?”
– cue mass excursion

And so it all comes together – not merely bringing closure to this season, but tying up some loose ends from the Epoch season a few years back.

Easily the most entertaining of the bunch, this is where it gets all Buddhist, or Matrix if you prefer, chock full with metatextual bits and breaking of fourth walls that open into endlessly mirrored self reflexive corridors.  Like Epoch, this season and final tale tap into alternate realities and timelines and multiple selves, while still managing to make perfect sense in the end – no easy feat in and of itself.

And wait till you hear who the true villains of the piece are…

Well, OK, it gets a bit more complicated than that would imply (nudge and wink to those in the know), but suffice to say there are levels of metatextual commentary being played with here that elicited a few good laughs along the way.

There’s a cheesy Jane Austen by way of Emmerdale Farm sequence interweaved with some more typically futuristic science fiction business and once again we encounter the alternate reality Bernice Summerfields, all three of them (ahem). There is at least one section about halfway through the proceedings that would lead the unwary listener to believe they’d skipped up to the behind the scenes extras, and the listener is kept decidedly off balance throughout.

And yet…it all ties up quite nicely.

The disappearance of Benny’s surrogate “family” one by one through the course of the four preceding episodes is explained, as are some bits of business outstanding since 2011’s similarly interweaved quartet of stories comprising the Epoch box set – a definite plus for this author, as that (and April’s New Frontiers, whose continuity heavy fanservice left me quite lost) was the last time (in terms of chronological release date) that I delved into the world of Bernice Surprise Summerfield.

This time around, I got all the obscure bits of business being referenced, and in all objectivity, believe even a listener who hadn’t partaken in the earlier related audios or previously encountered either the Epoch or Dr. Bernard Springmoor could make clear sense of a fair majority of what’s going on here.

Seasoned throughout with an engaging admixture of patented Summerfield sarcasm, dry humor and even more than a touch of slapstick, even the most grim of proceedings herein are modulated by a warm levity that marks this as one of the most overall entertaining seasons of Bernice Summerfield in recent memory.

Cowritten by the four gentlemen aforementioned in conjunction with its fellow authors (and moreover directors) Bill Baggs-era veteran, former Big Finish producer, director and bigwig as well as current script editor on the Stephen Moffatt take on televised Who Gary Russell and recent Bernice Summerfield directorial vet Scott Handcock, In Living Memory, like the Missing Persons box as a whole, transcends its origins as something of a six man jam session and bears the mark of two men who clearly know the source material inside and out…and furthermore love it dearly.

In the immortal words of the great John Cooper Clarke, what can you do but be impressed?

After this one, it’s hard to picture the listener who isn’t rubbing their hands gleefully, urging Ms. Bowerman and company, not to mention the evil heirophants at Big Finish, to bring on the next installment post haste.

Quite recommended.