A Benny Audio Adventure
|Synopsis: Thrown off the Time Path, Professor Bernice Summerfield is trapped in early 20th Century London, with only one of the pair of time rings she needs to get home. At the other end of time, her ex-husband Jason Kane finds himself stranded on a dead world, where the queen of the Charrl demands his help to save her dying race. But all he wants to do is find Benny, and return to the 26th Century.|
"Bollocks! Wrong time again!" by Joe Ford 18/11/03
An intoxicating blend of the horrific and business as usual for Benny and another terrific release from the stunning first season.
Just whose idea was it to link Walking to Babylon, Birthright and Just War? Three superb historical stories that serve as strong standalones but also act as pieces of a much stronger trilogy. I smell the hand of Jac Rayner here but beautifully utilising the potential of the 'time rings' given to Bernice by a certain guest at her wedding these technological beauties allow for some ripe old adventuring to take place! This may sound a bit grandiose but I firmly believe a three part historical arc is the way to go, it worked beautifully with the EDA's (History 101, Camera Obscura and Time Zero) and it adds a lot of depth to the Benny range too.
What is it about historical settings that forces writers to push the boat out that little bit further. Steve Lyons wrote possibly his best book when he penned The Witch Hunters, Lloyd Rose struck gold with Camera Obscura and the Benny range hits three masterpieces in a row with this little experiment. Is it that the setting limits the SF possibilities therefore forcing the writers to concentrate more on capturing the setting and focussing on the characters? Maybe, but Birthright has a very SF flavour despite its penny dreadful setting.
It all begins with one of the best pre titles sequences. Under the firm direction of Nick Briggs, a skilled Big Finish director, the listener is dragged into the story. Two cockneys, a hooker and married man, wander the foggy London streets; carriages clip-clopping in the background when a stranger emerges from the shadows and brutally slaughters the hooker. The guy runs into the local pub and screams bloody murder! A local ends the sequence with the foreboding line "If Jack is back then no woman in London will be safe!" - and we all know who is about to arrive. It is tense and funny and a great starting point for the story.
One thing I have only just noticed about these early Benny stories is the very Star Treky cameos by actors from the Doctor Who audios. Nick Courtney, Sophie Aldred, Anneke Wills, Lis Sladen and now the ultimate Doctor himself, Colin Baker in the heavily accented disguise of Mikhail Vladimir Popov! The Russian accent is quite believable and Popov's character, fresh to London in search of his daughters' killer, is another believable and memorable creation. One thing I have always craved is to hear Colin and Lisa act together and this treasure of a story fulfils my wish in every way. Benny and Micha make a charming couple, his inability to understand her language is a comic goldmine. I love their introduction; she thinks he is chatting her up! Benny seems to attract to these desperate, lonely characters, probably because they are both seeking the same thing (answers, company).
Remember the film From Hell, easily one of the most atmospheric, chilling and interesting horror films I have ever seen (and script written by a friend's cousin no less!). Birthright has a very similar feel, capturing the glorious Victorian London setting perfectly right down to the bad mouthed cockneys, the New Dawn secret society, the killer shrouded in the foggy streets and horrible murders... oh I love it! A brutal setting but always a good'un for atmosphere and terror... of course things in this story aren't exactly what they seem. The murders aren't commited by Jack the Ripper but a far more formidable foe...
The very non-historical plot of the alien Charryl trying to re-colonise their people seems disturbingly out of place at first. Anyone who has read Nigel Robinson's superb book will know how it all ties up but for those of you who haven't the shock of just where they are trying colonise is a superb twist. Obvious later when you think about it but with no clues it comes as a real shock.
Benny and Jason are given equal CD time again and it is fun to watch just how differently they operate in their very different situations. Benny is all mouth and booze, firmly insulting the pub landlord, verbally accosting Micha (at first) and giving New Dawn leader Jared Khan and Inspector Prior and firm taste of the famed Summerfield lip! It is so much fun listening to Benny mingle with these (primitive compared to her time) people, who she befriends and who she loathes. "I don't actually have a home to go to but I'm going to leave anyway! Because if I have to listen to any more of this chauvinistic rubbish I might forget I'm a lady! Goodbye!" screams an extremely pissed and thoroughly pissed off Miss Summerfield.
Benny leaps into full investigative mode, determined to track down the murderer and not listening to any of the (incredibly racist) locals gossip about 'Springheel Jack!'. This leads to her swapping insults with an occult leader, getting arrested (occupational hazard for this woman!), being attacked and implanted by some insect eggs and almost ending the world as we know it. All in days work really.
Whereas smooth talker Jason has the (even more racist) Charryl to deal with. He too is an expert with his mouth (don't read too much into that) and sets about trying to find a bargaining chip to save his life. Quite wonderfully it is left to poor old Jason to save the day this time and given his misfortunes in the past two audios it is highly unlikely he will achieve it.
Stephen Fewell takes centre stage very well, managing to offer up more than his fair share of classic Jason moments. His horrified reaction to the Charryl larder (a bunch of caged up, screaming humans) is certainly memorable and his desperate pleas to Benny in the genuinely climatic finale are as much about their characters as they are about the plot. Yes the world is coming to an end, the Charryl are about to tear through into the Earth and invade and it's down to one man to get through to his ex-wife that she is making a mistake. A gripping finale to a gripping story. The fact that it is followed up with a marvellous "Oh Shit" moment (because he fails) gives the moment even more power.
Production wise this is another intimately treated release by Nick Briggs and co. Briggs writes a powerful musical score for the story but correctly saves the music for the moments that require and lets the slower, talky scenes run with just the actors and a few scene setting sounds effects. There is a melancholic piano score that pervades the Micha scenes, suggesting the sadness of a man who aches for his daughter and the Charrl attacks are horribly violent, realistic sound FX of people being mutilated (where on earth did they get those from?) and some strike-your-chest music. I love how well they conjour up the foggy London setting with no pictures, just a good script and the sound of Big Ben, carriages, footsteps on cobblestones, etc... kudos to all involved.
You would think that this would suffer being the middle story but it thrives on its position providing some rewarding links to Walking in Babylon. Benny receives a letter from John Lafeyette, who is now married and she forced to reisist seeing him. Her reading of the letter and her subsequent emotional response is touching indeed. And to show just how well this 'arc' has all been conceived, John's mention of Guernsey in Babylon, prompting Benny to visit in search of a very anachronistic piece of equipment, sets up the following story, Just War, set on the tiny island. It's this sort of clever (but not at all intrusive) plotting that makes me sad these Benny CD's will not get the larger audience they deserve. A lot of good work is being done and not enough people realise it.
But not to end this review on a sour note, Birthright manages to be a thrilling science fiction story and an atmospheric historical. It gives Benny a worthy foe to cross swords with and expands Jason's character much better than its Doctor Who counterparts are doing with their 'companions'.
Buy it. Listen to it. You won't regret it.