Friday, 5 February 2010

Bernice Summerfield: Birthright

Stumbling straight out of the thrilling conclusion to ‘Walking to Babylon’, Bernice and Jason each arrive in two separate, terrifying worlds. The first scene stumbles between horror and melodrama, with the almost clichéd ‘terror stalking the streets of Victorian London’ once again with horrendously overplayed accents. Jason then finds himself in a bleak post-apocalypse world with some very unhappy insects. And for reasons that initially seem incredibly clear but later become rather confusing both parties need to recover the Time Ring still held by ‘John Lafayette’ of the previous novel.

Fortunately Bernice is joined for much of the adventure by an intelligent Russian detective played by the incredible Colin Baker. He lends the voice of Mikhail Vladamir Popov such reserved authenticity the listener can’t help but fall as deeply in love with him the way Bernice does. He literally saves this play from mediocrity.

Also of note is John Wadmore as Jared Khan and Jonathan Reason as Chief. Insp. Prior, one fanatically reserved and the other overstuffed and blustery to the point of annoyance. Whilst one evil mastermind clicks out each word with timed precision the other struggles through the simplest of sentences. Unfortunately, as Bernice is happy to inform them, neither of these villainous archetypes are anything she hasn’t seen before.

Once again Stephen Fewell gets to share the majority of his scenes with the villains; the incredibly ‘noble’ Charrl. The alien world has very little of interest to offer the listener, not due to the grating sound effects of the insects but because of the lack of audible characters. I counted three; the Queen, her daughter and her aid, all spouting the same repeatable dialogue about the ‘nobility’ of the Charrl and their need to survive. My main problem is that the more often I hear that something is ‘noble’ and ‘worthy’, the more I expect to see evidence of it. Of course it’s a deliberate lie, but from start to finish I found myself getting more and more annoyed at its constant repetition.

Scenes that should be full of visceral horror struggle to come across on audio, its slightly difficult to present the visual sight of a larder full of humans when you don’t see or even interact with any of ‘foodstock’. And once again Jason is pleading for his life and negotiating to get his way through difficult circumstances… He does this very well but for the third time running?

It looks like this may or may not be the fault of the novel’s transition to audio. I haven’t read the original Birthright but from a bit of scouting it appears that the scenes set on the Charrl homeworld are laid out very differently to those played by the New Adventures ‘sexy warrior’ Ace. The fact Jason has replaced such an aggressive woman explains why he very uncharacteristically knocks Bernice unconscious when they meet up, something he would never do but Ace quite possibly would have.

Bernice’s half of the novel definitely fairs better, and though loosing the machinations of the Doctor in the background removes a layer of complexity from the plot it doesn’t significantly alter the story. Bernice still investigates the grisly murders and despite being sidetracked by her search for John Lafayette, events play out on course.

To be honest Birthright suffers from being a middle play. When it’s earnest it over dramatises, and when I want the story to advance it instead delves into a sub plot concerning John Lafayette’s future life. Whilst it’s good to know he lived happily ever after, the only dramatic point of this section is to direct Bernice to Guernsey for the next instalment. Coming after Walking to Babylon, and before Just War, it is definitely a case of the middle instalment loosing out to the heavyweights on either side.

Tellingly this stories best scene comes when an insect is ‘about’ to appear. We get genuine fear and terror as a man unfamiliar with this fantastic world looses it and makes a run for the door, only to come back later with his tail between his legs. At that point the Charrl look mysterious, dangerous and elusive, and according to Bernice very confused.

It’s not bad, and it has some wonderful performances. Colin Baker delights as a character worthy of his own series, but neither the Charrl or Jared Khan really cut it as villains. Too much talk of nobility and worthiness, interplayed with gory action, with no meaningful middle ground. I can’t work out if it needs more flesh, or reigning in significantly. One or the other certainly.

6 / 10

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