Hot off the presses this month is the long awaited Big Finish adaptation of Paul Cornell's Love and War.
There is an awful lot happening on a planet called Heaven. The Seventh Doctor is looking for a mysterious book, Ace is off falling in love, there's the strange Church of the Vacuum, some adventures in cyberspace, an evil fungal menace, and finally an attack of the Zombies! All this and the first appearance of Professor Bernice Summerfield. When Paul Cornell wrote the original novel for the Virgin New Adventures line back in 1992 "Bennie" Summerfield was introduced as a new companion for the Doctor, and over the years she has gone on to be an extremely popular character. She is a template for the success that Big Finish has had with introducing other companions such as Evelyn Smythe, Charlie Pollard and Lucie Miller. Summerfield also predates Lara Croft as an adventurous female archaeologist, which leads to a little in-joke in this production when she refers to herself as a "Tomb Raider".
I am a big fan of Paul Cornell's writing, particularly his work on Captain Britain, and the episodes he has written for new Doctor Who. I haven't read the original novel so I was really looking forward to this production which has been adapted by Jacqueline Rayner and directed by Gary Russell. It comes on three CDs with the third disc featuring a couple of prelude pieces and lots of interviews with all the people involved. The story itself is split into two acts on the first two CDs. I did miss the usual four act structure with the episode ending leading straight into the musical scream of the theme tune, but that is just a minor niggle.
Instead let me start with some positives. Lisa Bowerman just inhabits the role of Bennie Summerfield. She has played the part for so long that it is difficult to imagine anyone else doing it. She also directs for Big Finish and she may even have written for them although the search function on their website makes it difficult to tell. Anyway, she has a long association with both the character and Big Finish, and she is very good here. The other actor who stands out in this story is Sophie Aldred. I confess that I have had problems with a few of her previous performances. She occasionally does that thing of hitting her lines a bit too quickly without giving her character the time to react to what has just been said. It makes the script sound more like a reading than an audio drama and it is something I have complained about before. I suspect that it is just one of those things that my ears are sensitive to. However, here she does a marvellous job as the younger version of Ace, the one from the television stories of the 1980s. She manages that actor's trick of making her voice sound young again in much the same way that Louise Jameson has been doing as Leela in her Big Finish stories. I didn't quite believe Ace's love story with Jan but that is more to do with the script than with Aldred's performance, which is very good.
And I'm afraid that is about it for the positives. I did enjoy the monster voices but apart from that this was a disappointment. Part of the problem was the weight of expectation. On top of that there was just too much going on and too many plot lines. Just when I was getting into the story of the Doctor and Bennie it switched to Ace and Jan, or into Cyberspace with a strange character called Christopher, or sitting around a camp-fire with a group of new age, Dalek killing travellers. Meanwhile the bad guys are doing whatever the bad guys do. And at the end the Seventh Doctor, the master manipulator, the Trickster God does ... well, he does something. I am not sure what it was but he wins, and everybody who is still alive gets a sort of happy ending and quite frankly I was bored.
Even the extra features were a let down. This may come across as bit of a jaded review but I am getting a little tired of hearing the actors talking about how everyone they work with is "lovely". I wanted to hear more about the story and the novel, or more about Professor Summerfield. They do sort of get to that eventually but first they have to remind us of how "lovely" it was, and how much fun they all had together, and what a splendid lunch Big Finish lays on.
It is strange that some of the Big Finish special releases that I have looked forward to hearing turn out to be a bit of a disappointment like Zagreus. And then something unexpected like The Burning Prince or Voyage to Venus can come along and really surprise me. As I said earlier it is the high hopes that may be the problem for me. Love and War gets a miserable 1 out of 5 fungal spores. My lowest mark yet. I hear good things about the new Unit: Dominion stories, maybe I should have gone for them instead?