Sunday, 31 January 2010

Bernice Summerfield: Beyond the Sun

The second Bernice Summerfield audio play is a distinctly more sombre affair than the bells, whistles and pants down ballsiness of ‘Oh No It Isn’t!’ Like its predecessor it starts out with Professor Bernice, out on a dig with students, discussing the ‘business’ of archaeology when something interesting turns up. Previously it was a world of pantomime and exploding suns, now it’s her ex husband Jason Kane.

The series casting so far has been fantastic, particularly the roles given out to regulars. Stephen Fewell delights as a man walking on just the right shade of a deviant, a self depreciating, self loathing liar trapped by his own failings. His interplay with Lisa Bowerman is nearly spot on, despite the story hardly giving him enough to do. Bernice’s initial appraisal of him however seems almost forced, and within five minutes (the only time we have to get to know him properly) he’s gone, whisked away by the plot. When he returns he’s given almost nothing to do apart from vainly protest that he’s got the bigger picture at heart. Although Fewell gives a spirited performance, the character just doesn’t have enough impact here and comes out rather weak. So not the best of introductions…

Far more attention is paid to his ‘accomplice’ in his suspected arms smuggling business, a devious young woman called Miranda, played with admirable gusto by Doctor Who stalwart Sophie Aldred. I’ll come back to her later though…

This time Bernice is accompanied nearly at all times by two students, Tameka and Emile, two bickering young characters supposed to give the story some emotional heart. Unfortunately Emile just comes off as whiney, and Tameka is in places downright annoying. I can’t work out whether this is due to the script, the actors, or their direction, as all of them are good in places and dire in others. In fact the exact positioning of the whole thing seems slightly off, treading a fine line between adult science fiction, a sexual emotional rollercoaster and snarky comedy. Most of the comedy seems to be sarcasm, and most of the science fiction is so basic it toes a slightly awkward middle ground with no clear tone of its own.

Annoyingly the tracks tend to be fairly long, averaging around twelve minutes a piece. There seems very little reason to only have four tracks a CD and it makes navigating around the story a pain. Also annoying is the reappearance of Bernice’s constant scribbling in her diary. It has a reason, later on in the story where everything suddenly becomes about personal morals and ethics, but at the start it makes an awkward framing device.

The other actors are almost all spot on, with Barnaby Edwards, Nicholas Pegg and Anneke Wills filling out a well rounded and intriguing cast of native Ursulans. Once the drama settles in their settlement it quickly becomes clear the true heart of the play is in the struggles of ordinary people. Sadly, as good as the moral codes and key principals which become so important to the story are, the actual enemies are strangely lacking in description.

The alien ‘Sunless’ are hardly shown at all, and only have Miranda to voice their evil plans. This problem is compounded by the fact Miranda has almost no character to her, aside from back-story attributed to her by other people, and a simple and obvious lust for power. In fact strangely she seems to shift halfway through from ‘collaborator’ with the alien invaders to their de facto leader. This is clearly about life under tyranny, not the tyrants themselves.

Beyond the Sun ticks a lot of boxes, and shows clear ambition in the range of topics it tackles, but doesn’t really ever excel. The play has its strengths, and none of the performances are bad. Its lowest point is probably the car chase, which just comes across as crass on audio. At its best it discusses the important values key to each individual, and Emille’s high point in particular is a discussion with Scott where he amusingly tries to steal the man’s principals, only to be offered sex in return.

It tries hard, and passes through all the right hurdles, but the story doesn’t seem to have quite found its feet yet. It’s good, certainly, but not great. And I don’t, quite, know what it is that’s missing. That’s the worst thing. All the key ingredients are there and very nearly gelling. It’s a competent adventure, with deep complex characters that evolves into a deep discussion about individuality. For certain it’s definitely far more traditional than its predecessor, and a clear middle ground between them with the firsts ingenuity and this ones heart seems to be the way forwards.

6 / 10

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