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Think Peri with less of a sense of sardonic humor, or Benny without the fussiness and underlying heart, and you’ll have a fair approximation of what Chase Masterson brings to Vienna Salvatori.

Taking the Gamora-patented title of “most lethal woman in the universe”, Vienna is an intergalactic bounty hunter, selling her services to any buyer willing to meet her price.  Call it a flipped-gender Jonah Hex, only without the wild west setting and prominent facial blemishes.

All of which isn’t to say that the erstwhile Ms. Salvatori is without humor, likeability or merit, mind.  But you have to keep in mind that we’re dealing with a character motivated by the almighty dollar, who earns her living by dint of her skills at ending life…”cool” in a comic book sense, but hardly a standup role model for the real world.

In Dead Drop, author Mark Wright cuts Deep Space 9 veteran Masterson a break by putting her in rather familiar territory.  Effectively an episode of Star Trek, this adventure features the lady infiltrating the starship Custodian and caught in a battle for survival between the humanoid Dyarid and insectoid Chtzin.

Infiltrated by the Chitzn and damaged beyond repair, the Custodian finds itself trapped mid-warp and hurtling inevitably towards the heart of a blazing sun.  Can she complete her mission and get off ship in time?  And who the hell is this Creevo Phinn she keeps chasing after throughout the course of the season?

Alison Thea-Skot is Jamela K’Lynn, the crazy refugee psychic, former monk and mass murderer who in short order winds up elevated to a position of power with the Dyarid.  In a surprise worthy of Hitchcock, what you think will be the thrust of the adventure is in fact taken off the table right at the start…then the real story begins.

Unfortunately, what this means in practice is that with Vienna fulfilling her mission almost immediately, the bulk of the proceedings are left to some relatively minor haute tension ephemeralia.

Sure, there’s a whole lot of fast paced nonsense about hive minds, crews with suppressed secrets forgotten even to themselves, psychic bombs and sleeper cell agents, plus insectoid aliens and dire mechanical failures without a Scotty to put them right.  But it never feels like anything more than a particularly tense and extended epilogue in the end…

While I appreciate the cleverness of upending standard story structure in this manner and there’s plenty of atmosphere (and desperate excitement, if you’re a rollercoaster fan), the surprise proves less engaging (in terms of drawing the listener into the subsequent proceedings emotionally) than more of an upending of the apple cart, leaving the audience off balance for the remainder of the overly busy running time.

If you’re a fan of nonstop action, this should very much serve as your cup of tea – those who prefer a more nuanced character piece may see the burning hand writing on the wall.  Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.

Another thing that becomes immediately apparent is that Masterson is tried and true, red white and blue.  If ever a persona were American to the core, Masterson’s Vienna is the one, with all the positive and negative aspects that intrinsically implies.  In simplest terms, she’s upbeat…to a fault.

While certainly a likeable and sunny persona (I can only imagine her being a blast to hang out with at the studio), where this all becomes a bit odd is when you start to notice that she’s quite glib and cheery in all circumstances, not only inclusive of, but particularly when it comes to murder…

“Remember, you’re not just any assassin.  You are on a mission…from God.”

Next up, we have Bad Faith, where we discover that drugs and one’s integrity and body aren’t the only illicitly monetized forms of commodity people are sinking their accumulated bitcoin into (seriously, what the hell is that all about, if not to score dope?  A valueless “secret money”?  Please.)   This time, the forces of greed are digging even deeper, to the point where they’re stealing away people’s faith and selling their ill gotten gains to the rich and ‘famous’.

Now, at first glance, that seems awful silly.  But think about it.  What is faith if not the assurance that things will work out, despite how grim things may appear at the moment?  That there’s something higher than us out there, a higher purpose, a guiding intellect, a grand design and plan for the universe and those who inhabit it?  Without that, no matter how “well off” we may see ourselves, we have nothing.  In the long run, cannot survive without some manner of faith.

Jamie McCrimmon himself, the good humored Frazer Hines, gives a somewhat uncharacteristically “serious” turn as one Bax Spendlove, leader of “the Church of New Wonderment”.  He’s fighting for shelf space (and convert dollars) with the Church of Old Wonderment, to the point where the two sects are murdering each other.  When he realizes who his new convert actually is, Spendlove calls on Vienna to take out his rival Parsival (Mike Grady).

But his wife Kendra may have a few surprises to reveal along the way, leading to a very different conclusion to this particular “Holy War” than Spendlove intends…

At this point in history, exposing the crass materialism and very human folly behind the ostensible representatives of God institutionalized religion all too often has to offer has become something of a tired subject if not positively old hat.

Despite that, author Nev Fountain manages to skip the usual venom and self-righteousness of the areligious and atheistic in favor of a knowing wit, delivered with a crackling dry sense of humor that elicits laughs by playing things surprisingly straight.  No crass mugging and less of the standard ‘provocative’ overtures to ‘blasphemy’ means Bad Faith emerges with a sense of class that the more obvious likes of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I fail so miserably at attaining.

While what Huysmans snidely termed “the pious” * will certainly emerge with their stiff noses turned distinctly out of joint, the rest of us can share a knowing snicker or two over what emerges as the standout story of the debut season of Vienna.

* see also Rachilde

Finally, we come to Jonathan Morris’ Deathworld, a confusing bit of business involving memory swapping, brainwashing and more than a few touches of a Gibsonian cyberpunk aesthetic.

So let’s be direct.  Someone clearly got a little too into the Hunger Games.  After what feels like an endless retread of the first book and film we shift gears into a more existentially Matrix-as-metaphor milieu (it’s all veil of Maya in the end), and Vienna makes a disturbing discovery about herself, when she finally gets the skinny on her tormentor Creevo Phin…or does she?

Chase Masterson, veteran of longstanding daytime soap General Hospital who further bears the impeccable geek cred of having been a longstanding Deep Space 9 regular, plays Salvatori with a tonality quite close to Nicola Bryant’s aforementioned Perpigullian Brown, at times nearly fooling this listener into believing there was a bait and switch going on.

That said, Masterson’s take is more given to a glib if not flippant mercuriality, with any trace of emotion or humor turning on the drop of a dime to something else – not necessarily grim determination, but something perhaps a tad darker.

Of course, this interpretation takes a bit of reading into to arrive at – it could be a more endemic postmodern lack of depth that the States as a whole seems to be unfortunately prone to.  After all, if one is less than invested in whatever they may be doing, it’s quite difficult to inject layers of nuance thereto.  Which of these readings of Masterson’s performance is actually the case is open to interpretation at this point, and certainly requires further experience of the adventures of Vienna to accurately determine.

Regardless, Masterson’s take on the role does create somewhat of a stretch for listeners in the sense that we are supposed to believe a person quite so casual and tongue in cheek is actually a cold blooded, ruthlessly efficient nigh-“black ops” killing machine.

Hell, even the comics’ Deadpool and Bullseye are believably crazy, which is something else entirely – and neither is this the dry wit of, say, the Bond films’ Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Blofeld, but the more insecure, heart on the sleeve humor of the modern American (so well approximated by Bryant’s Peri).

Is she likeable?  Yes.  Entertaining?  Definitely, and I certainly look forward to hearing more of the lady in the future.

But a hard nosed bounty killer?  Hmm…

 

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/series-one-box-set-932

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