Just War (novel)
A Benny Audio Adventure
|Synopsis: The Nazis occupy British soil and British citizens are being deported to European concentration camps. Those who do not co-operate with the Germans are shot. This isn't a parallel universe: this is Guernsey, 1941, and it's where Bernice is stranded. With no sign of Jason, she has to endure the full horror of the situation, alone and afraid.|
Serious by Joe Ford 19/11/03
Harrowing is the best way I can describe listening to this audio. Truly in whatever format you experience it in (book or audio) it is something special.
In Big Finish Talkback: The Companions Lisa Bowerman said Just War was her favourite story and it is easy to understand why. Every actor(ess) enjoys a good challenge and to hold up a two-hour drama that lacks even basic humour and convince just with the power of their voice that they are terrified, tortured and tired is quite a challenge. Fortunately this is a challenge Ms Bowerman is more than up to and creates some of the most difficult scenes in either range.
I should imagine most of you reading this review have read Lance Parkin's Just War, given its stellar reputation. Things are tweaked slightly to slot the story into the Time Ring trilogy (Benny is on Guernsey to recover the chrono-kinetiscope, a dangerous anachronism and is trapped there under Nazi occupation rather than being brought by the Doctor) but the basic plot points are exactly the same. There have been hundreds of World War Two stories before this one but few have affected me as much, perhaps because of the uncompromising nature of the story or perhaps it is because I am so used to hearing Benny being bubbly and cheerful despite insurmountable odds and here she is just beaten down (literally).
The most powerful scenes in the entire story come just before the end of CD one, Bernice is kidnapped for the murder of a young German officer and imprisoned. Her painful, staggering admission that "To be honest with you I'm feeling queasy, my stomach's empty, I've not slept for three days and I'm scared poo-less just being here because I know what the Nazi's do to their prisoners" is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Gone is the snappy banter, the charismatic and witty personality we are used to... all Benny is under German interrogation is a helpless and terrified girl. It is horrible and brilliant at the same time and you have to admire the audacity of a series that would put its heroine through such torment.
The dialogue surrounding these scenes has clearly been considered carefully and strikes the heart in exactly the right place... Benny's desperate pleas "Not my hair! Please not my hair! Don't... please don't!" as though they will be cutting away her identity is harrowing indeed and her small, quiet scene with Nurse Kitzel ("Do you think I deserve this?" "Yes" "You're an evil little bitch!" "I am a nurse, you are a murderer, work out from that which is evil?") which climaxes on the absolutely chilling "Don't leave!", the end of CD one that leaves you desperate to listen to the next one because Bernice is so fucking frightened. Superbly done but as I say, horrible. Listening to Benny being abused is like it is being done to your best friend, extremely painful and discomforting.
The story is superbly acted but with a cast such as this it is expected, actors of the calibre of Michael Wade, Maggie Stables, Mark Gatiss and of course the outstanding regulars Lisa Bowerman and Stephen Fewell are all excellent. It is rare to find such a large cast of top-notch players but bring them together and the work speaks for itself. Once again I am appalled a larger audience will not enjoy these audios because the acting is of the highest calibre and deserves to be savoured.
Gatiss is practically invisible as the sadistic Wolff, he really is the man of a thousand voices, I have heard him in several audios and a million roles on his own League of Gentlemen and I still did not realise it was him until I read the cast list. He creates a truly chilling character, a bastard who enjoys torturing women and verbally and physically beats up the lovely Bernice. Gatiss' quiet, seductive voice helps to make him even more of a monster, his justifications and poetic speeches make you want to heave when you realise he is trying to excuse his disgusting actions. Before he snaps Marie's neck, making her think he will spare her because she can 'please' him, he gives a speech about "those poor pretty long lashed cows..." Horrifying.
Hearing Maggie Stables in a non-Evelyn role is disconcerting at first but her natural and relaxed performance as Ma Doras is just as strong as her regular role in the sister series. Let's face it, Stables would be ace in any role but given a script this strong she just runs with it, offering a few harsh words on the subject of the war. You really feel Ma's warmth towards Benny but her constant reminders for her not to resist the Nazis too much reveals just how scared the population were.
I have been to Jersey/Guernsey and had the pleasure to explore an old underground War hospital, which was converted into a museum. Brilliantly you walk through the war, each corridor leading to the next stage of the occupation of the Channel Islands. It was fascinating and (as I walked around) ripe for a good dramatic story. I am not excusing the war or suggesting it should have happened just so we get a good story but the atrocities DID happen and this diabolical period of history is there to be exploited.
And exploit they do capturing all the despair that comes with subjugation. Benny's quiet admission that "I don't want to die here! It wouldn't mean anything!" speaks volumes. Benny's diary entries make another appearance here but they are used to show just how affected she is by her imprisonment, how scared she is of being discovered. Through Benny we get to see the war at its worst. The suggestion that she might be a "Jerry Bag" because of her contact with Gerhard and her later snap decision to shoot him to protect Ma suggest just how desperate the people were to survive during wartime.
Even better by adding an element of science fiction to proceedings, Jason's throwaway mention of a radar causing the huge (and anachronistic) technological leap in German hardware there is the added element of suspense that the Nazis could actually win the War. A terrifying concept that has been explored before in Terrance Dicks' superb Timewyrm: Exodus and thus we know how bad it would be if this was the case.
Thus the last third becomes a race against time to steal the 'advanced' plane and blow it up before the Germans have a chance to use it. Brilliantly switching gears like this, suddenly gaining some terrific momentum whilst still not forgetting its characters it is clear this story refuses to run out of steam.
The best element of this story though is the feelings it drags out of regulars Benny and Jason and their constant will they/wont they is finally put to rest. As if Benny's torture wasn't bad enough we then have to experience Jason's pained reaction to it, I actually started to cry when he shoots Wolff and states "No-one makes Benny cry". The truth of the matter, that he has been swanning about flirting with other women when the love of his life, the one whose heart he broke has been waiting for him the whole time and that he doesn't realise this until she has been brutally beaten by the Nazi's is heart wrenching stuff and very rewarding for followers of the series. There is a numbing exchange between them at the climax... "We can go and forget all this" "I'm never going to be able to forget all this..."
Michael Wade has possibly the hardest job on the crew, his Steinmann basically the nicer side of the Nazi's, still arrogant and unwavering but with a certain respect that allows him to grow on you. Wade has several huge speeches on the superiority of the Nazis that should be tremendously dull but aren't, his passionate performance and the gorgeous script making you forget all about how long he has been going on. Great work.
There is a minimalist score, the gentle piano theme that runs through the course of the story and I think that is a very wise decision for director Gary Russell to make, letting the script and performances do most of the work. This is character drama first and entertaining audio second and Russell doesn't let intrusive music or sound FX get in the way of that (for a change, see look at what he's capable of!!!).
This really should have ended season one but like Earthshock in season nineteen the heart-breaking ending was not to be the climax. A shame because this could well be my new favourite for the season, just edging out Walking to Babylon thanks to its powerful acting and scorching dialogue.
The Bernice Summerfield slogan is (quite irritatingly) "Adventuring has never been so much fun"... well that is hardly the case with Just War, let's say "Adventuring has never been so gripping."
This is a story that stands up as one of the best products to spring from the name Doctor Who, if a masterpiece like this can be made thirty odd years after the airing of this first episode then let the spin offs last another thirty. It is rare to find something this affecting in either range but when it comes along you should cherish it.