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Audio Drama Review
The second Bernice box set isn’t as chunky as the previous one. Whereas Epoch boasted four CDs and one DVD, Road Trip contains just three discs, which is a bit of a pity as the products don’t match when you line them up on the shelf. This may seem like a trivial matter, but not when you consider the efforts Big Finish has made to rebrand and relaunch the character, as was explained in the documentary on the Epoch DVD. Perhaps that extra disc should have been reserved to bulk out this box set instead. The documentary’s subject matter is, after all, similar to that of the first story in Road Trip: Brand Management...
“You’re listening to Live Audio Stream G371, the only official source of government approved easy listening entertainment, as sponsored by the Dominicci Corporation. It’s the thirteenth day of the thirteenth month, and that means just one thing, people - it’s time to PARTAYYY...!” As she embarks upon her intergalactic road trip through the cosmos, Professor Bernice Summerfield needs a job. Professor Harry Burtenshaw thinks she’s just the ticket. But with the people of Lyndyaz celebrating their most important festival, and the ruling Dominicci Corporation maintaining control with draconian glee, has Bernice turned up in the wrong place at the wrong time...?
Writer Christopher Cooper has fun with the concept of rebranding Bernice Summerfield, as the professor (Lisa Bowerman) discovers, in a neat reversal, that she is the subject of archaeological investigation. Cooper also writes Ruth (Ayesha Antoine) back into Benny’s life, though not in the way that I had been led to expect by the conclusion of Epoch. There’s also some stuff about a powerful family controlling a society via populist, pseudo-religious means, though this isn’t explored as thoroughly or as clearly as it might have been.
The concepts that lie at the heart of Brand Management have some unfortunate similarities with another story in this collection. Nevertheless, these three narratives make a nice change from what has gone before in this series, in which first Braxiatel, then the Deindum and then the Epoch all interfered with the nature of reality in one way or another. In contrast with the Atlantis-set adventures of the Epoch box set, each CD in Road Trip takes us (as you might have guessed from the title) to a different planet. The next stop is Agora...
Meet Sister Bernice, newest initiate into the order of Saint Celestion. Such is her devotion to the faith that she and her young companion, Sister Ruth, have undertaken a pilgrimage to the planet Agora, birthplace of the blessed saint himself. The pilgrims aren’t alone, however. Also on the planet is a team of archaeologists searching for the lost tomb of Celestion - a subject in which Sister Bernice seems curiously interested... In their quest to unearth an ancient relic that will point the way to Legion, Bernice and Ruth will face some fearsome challenges: the dreaded Blood Beast of Thaloon, the randiest bishop in the galaxy, and an ancient cult with some very bad habits indeed...
Bad Habits is a far more comedic affair than Brand Management, even when one takes into account that tale’s talent-show spoofing and fake boobs. Scarifyers writers Simon Barnard and Paul Morris give us ecclesiastical disguises, a horny bishop (Look Around You’s Nigel Lambert), innuendo about said bishop’s organ, gender confusion, comedy swearing and a mole-like archaeologist (Ian H Watkins).
One advantage of these box sets is that you don’t risk losing track of the overall plot arc during month-long gaps between releases. However, one disadvantage of listening to several stories in brief succession is that it can highlight inconsistencies. For example, in Brand Management Bernice claims that she cannot sing and is terrified of doing so on stage, whereas here she attempts to teach Ruth to sing. Perhaps Benny is simply modest about her vocal abilities - or she is a good singer only in comparison to Ruth! In the next adventure, Paradise Frost, Bernice is surprised to encounter password protection (“Who still uses a password?” she asks) even though she hacks into records using a priest’s password in Bad Habits. Maybe she accepts such antiquated security in a monastery but expected something more sophisticated in the hi-tech Xanadu Tower.
Even so, the stories in this collection just keep getting better...
Kaff Zarnak was once the holiday destination of choice for the rich and famous. At least, it was until the planet spun off its axis, and a deadly virus wiped out its population. Now it’s absolutely the last place anyone wants to visit: a barren, ice-encrusted wasteland. So when Bernice, Ruth and their loud-mouthed driver Ray are drawn off course, it’s fair to say they’ve all had better days. Taking refuge inside the Xanadu Tower resort, the trio encounter Kaff Zarnak’s only survivors... and maybe the only remaining clue to what took place there. But supplies are low, Sandroaches are attacking on every side, and the only hope of survival seems to be locked at the top of the Tower...
The mood becomes more serious in Paradise Frost, in which Bernice and Ruth encounter giant killer bugs and hard-edged survivors on a desolate world. Killoran Yukon 9’s (Scott Arthur) habit of reciting poetry at times of stress makes for some unnerving scenes. There are still lighter moments, though, especially those involving motor-mouth shuttle pilot Ray (Alan Ruscoe). I guessed one of the story’s twists, but otherwise writer David Llewellyn keeps you on your toes.
A notable aspect of this box set is the number of guest stars from the world of Doctor Who. Brand Management features Anjli Mohindra (Rani Chandra from The Sarah Jane Adventures) as Gabriella Dominicci. Bad Habits guest stars Jacqueline King (who played Donna Noble’s mum Sylvia) as Mother Aurelia. Paradise Frost tops the lot, though, by featuring not just one but two Who companions. India Fisher (alias Charley Pollard from the audio adventures of the Sixth and Eighth Doctors) plays the icy Dr Carol Bauer, while Arthur Darvill (Rory in the new television series) portrays the enigmatic founder of the Kaff Zarnak resort, Dr Jared Jones. Fisher plays the larger role, though - Darvill’s is almost a bit part.
I’m not sure the adventure needed to end with such a long (ten minutes) lead-in to the next box set, but overall Road Trip is an enjoyable journey. If I had to sum it up in just one word, I would say: variety.