Sunday, 4 April 2010

Bernice Summerfield: Death and the Daleks

The appearance of Daleks in Death and the Daleks (formerly known as the ‘Axis of Evil’ before it started turning up on people’s doorsteps) may or not have come as a complete surprise after all. Thematically it sits roughly alongside the rest of the ‘monster’s audio series which have insisted on using traditional monsters for the last three plays. It’s a big, bold sequel to ‘Life During Wartime’, which means that if you haven’t read the collection you’re immediately at a disadvantage. Despite the brief ‘previously on Bernice Summerfield segment’ there’s no chance to get to know newbies Moskoff and Anson as intimately as you should. It’s also the first full Bernice story penned by Paul Cornell since BF got the license, so straight off the bat you expect something special…

All the regulars are back here, and a few more besides. I never realised Mr Crofton was actually Nick Briggs (I suppose it makes sense to have him doubling up, seeing as they’d dragged him in to provide the Daleks, but he just doesn’t seem… old enough), on the other hand Beverly Cressman makes an excellent Ms Jones, bringing out a very sympathetic side to a character we’d only ever ‘read’ bad things about before.

Paul Cornell’s forte is always playing with human emotions and he makes good use with his first scene here, showing a tearful reunion between Bernice and her dad, played with an easy confidence by the late Ian Collier. Collier’s a good fit for the character, bringing out a militaristic knowledge and confidence without ever sounding like he fits in, he’s got the same rebellious streak and wit as his daughter. Lines later on in the play such as; “I have the biggest gun here so I win the argument,” he clearly enjoys.

After the first few scenes the majority of the first disk involves Bernice and Jason rushing off the Collection to rescue her father from ‘unknown’ captors on the Planet Heaven. I was a bit dubious about exactly why events were being set on Heaven, but that’s a minor detail only thrown in for fans. Paul gives fairly convincing dialog between Bernice and Jason, something I’ve noticed writers other than Dave Stone often struggle to manage, and soon they’re both prisoners of the Daleks.

Although Nick Briggs provides the iconic voice he apparently didn’t do the sound design or post production, and although they did sound a ‘little’ different to normal I can’t say that I noticed a specific problem. I think the real problem is that Paul Cornell struggles himself to write good Dalek dialogue. Although they plot and scheme intelligently they very rarely actually say anything that shows how smart they are. Although doing rather than saying is an admirable trait in a villain, it’s a shame you never actually really get to hear the Daleks rant with the exception of their final betrayal of the fifth axis to Anson.

Meanwhile the rest of the play shows tension building on the collection, with Adrian finally taking a proactive move and staring a full slave rebellion. The rest of the cast see this as a trigger to engage the axis, with the exception of Ms Jones who begins plotting an escape route for her and Moskoff. Why haven’t we heard Ms Jones on audio before? She’s brilliant.

When action returns to Benny and Jason I’m still not entirely sold on the behaviour of the Daleks, as they manage to escape and rescue her father fairly easily (all they had to do was get Jason naked) and scoot off the planet, accidentally leaving some innocent Axis students behind… For some reason they thought the Daleks wouldn’t kill Axis civilians. Very wrong.

The war on the collection changes leaders a lot. At first it’s led by Bev and Adrian, the slave insurgent and the resistance leader, but the moment Jason returns control is seeded automatically to him. Then after a few minutes of fighting, with the Axis pinned down in one building, Brax steps in and suddenly he’s in charge. Then, when Benny’s father shows his face, he becomes the de facto General of the collection, albeit one who defers to Brax for the larger decisions. Although all of this suits Brax’s character, the focus on exactly ‘who’ is leading the war means we get to see precious little of the war itself. Considering most of that is frantic shouting and distant explosions though, perhaps that’s no bad thing.

Moskoff’s story ends badly with him insisting on fighting to the end. Judging by this play alone he seems to have been a fairly standard, normal soldier shown just to showcase the other side of the war. On the other hand, as ‘Life During Wartime’ showed, he is no normal axis grunt and he really ‘could’ have taken that shuttle with Ms Jones. Assuming you read the preceding novel there’s great emotional payoff here but Paul Cornell barely makes use of this at all.

I’m not entirely sold on Marshall Anson’s voice, in the book he was a civilised, intelligent military ruler but although Michael Shallard doesn’t detract from any of that he sounds just a little too evil for the role. Additionally, with the Collection collapsing around him, he doesn’t get much to do besides bark at soldiers and call for backup. Then, when a Dalek arrives and reveals the truth about the Fifth Axis, the confrontation is a little… standard. Nothing is revealed that the audience won’t have already gathered and the conversation is played out entirely for Anson’s benefit. Apart from that it’s up to Brax to explain exactly what’s going on.

Eventually it’s all revealed the Daleks ‘let’ Bernice and Jason escape with their father, just to get the old man inside Brax’s Tardis. The revelation that his Tardis ‘is’ his office is a fairly good one, and it leads in nicely to the concept of the collection and the subplot of the previous book; the Axis had been stepping in and out of his Tardis the whole time.

The betrayal plot showcases Paul Cornell’s strengths, tying everything together with a small human act of compassion. Benny loves her father, of course she’s going to get him. And we see Braxiatel momentarily loose it and start to attack Isaac, telling of the months of frustration in the previous novel.

In the end though the Axis soldiers take on the Daleks, Isaac then somehow makes the entire Axis fleet ‘magically disappear’ (he’s their commander in chief see) and life slowly returns to normal on the collection. Not bad for a long days work.

So, any complaints? I have a few. The battle scenes aren’t very exciting, with the focus being on who’s in command as opposed to what’s actually happening. Also after a brilliant single chapter in Life During Wartime I’d hoped to here a little more of Peter than some toddler sobbing sounds. The Daleks show their malevolent scheming side but in truth none of them actually act as anything more than drones.

As for the deaths? Mr Crofton had his finest hour in the preceding book so it may have been time for him to go. In a way it’s actually crueller to let Mrs Jones live than die, now that Moskoff is dead and everyone knows that she’s a traitor. I hope we hear more from her.

This story was bundled with Closure, from the special release years ago. Closure is a good fit, although I kind of wish the main story itself could have packed a little more in. A few more Dalek expositions, a few more scenes with Moskoff actually showing he’s more than just a stooge, and a few more with Ms Jones.

All in all though, Paul Cornell delivers on his promise. The large cast pays dividends, giving an epic climax to a story that shakes the collection to the ground. However at the end, strangely though, you don’t feel like much has changed because the buildings can be rebuilt and life goes on for 90% of the cast. Paul Cornell plays to his strengths though and makes it a big, emotionally charged story about real human interests, rather than a common one about monsters and armies. I just wish they’d ‘say’ what they’re up to as well as do it.
9 / 10

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