Graceless IV

Posted in Audio by - March 16, 2018
Graceless IV

Released January 2017
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

The third series of Graceless provided a logical ending point for Abby and Zara, stripped of their extraordinary powers and left to live out their lives as ordinary mortals under the new names of Amy and Joy, respectively. After a multi-year hiatus, the Big Finish sisters return older and just possibly wiser and realise once again that anything is possible as long as they’re together.

‘The Bomb’ opens with a man named Pool coming to visit a town as catastrophe looms, searching for the fabled sisters Abby and Zara but coming across two elderly women who clearly know more than they suggest. The cover of this set makes it no secret that Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington will inevitably feature and reprise their roles as younger versions of the sisters, and though that inexorable fact does end up creating only one path that this linear story can take as a fusion reactor radiation leak threatens to destroy the entire planet, it in no way takes away from the incredible performances that Annie Firbank as Amy and Sian Phillips as Joy give. The two have an innate chemistry that recaptures the younger characters’ essences encapsulating all that they have been through, and each is able to imbue an incredible amount of compassion and determination so that the sisters’ desire to shed their low profile to once more do good while remaining wary of possible consequences like before is stirring and palpable.

Planetary disasters or problems of similar epic scope are mandated given the sisters’ one-time connection to the Grace, and the means by which they continue to look to their past actions while coming to terms with the limited powers of their current forms that remain stronger when the two are together are quite satisfying, especially when Abby’s deteriorating condition is revealed. On their well-intentioned quest to see if they can somehow stem the leakage before disaster occurs, Hugh Ross’s Dodyk joins as a military voice that puts the affair into a contrastingly objective frame and creates a unique dynamic with the sisters as he tries to understand them through past military reports and their current actions and pleas. As stated, however, ‘The Bomb’ heads toward one inevitable resolution even if the sisters themselves do not know if they will survive the energy surge, but the seeming rejuvenation of the two into their younger selves armed with the knowledge of experience is an intriguing reset button of sorts for the franchise to take, and the subtle reveal that Pool is not quite what he seems creates many exciting avenues for future stories to take.

With their youth and powers restored, Abby and Zara proactively try to avert further tragedy in a war that has just claimed its billionth casualty in ‘The Room,’ remaining ever cognizant of the trouble and hurt that their previous attempts across the cosmos have caused. In a high-security room far underground, General Onora Cormorant directs the Gloit forces in their war efforts ravaging the entire planet, but the sisters soon learn that simply gaining access to that room does not guarantee success. What follows is an immensely intriguing story in which the two take different approaches to achieve their aim, not resulting in a flurry of alternative timelines as in series three but instead speaking to the more stubborn flow of time and the inevitability of war that forcing negotiation, crafting a common enemy, and imposing mutual hardship cannot change.

The cast of ‘The Room’ is entirely female, and such a brutal tale about war and the lengths that those in command will go to protect their ideals and beliefs is all the stronger for it by subverting typical wartime tropes and gender assumptions. Nichola McAuliffe and Carol Starks are superb as opposing generals Cormorant and Slink, and the characters’ unwillingness to accept the fact that there may be any common ground between them even as they face and overcome captors and guards when sentenced to manual labour on the neutral moon whose denizens so steadfastly refuse to join the war. To this effect, Jennie Goossens give a determined edge to the ruthless Judge Engin, and the pairings of Cormorant with Abby and Slink with Zara allow each to shine in turn. The many failed attempts rightfully bring about pertinent questions regarding if Abby and Zara are right to try knowing that others will get hurt and if they should set themselves up as gods, and the open-ended conclusion in which the sisters try to make it seem as though justice has been served is a fitting combination of everything that is both right and wrong about their new far-sighted approach to correcting injustices.

The Space Dock hospital facility has had an exemplary health and safety record over the past decade in ‘The Ward,’ partially due to the acts of the two sisters now working there who can bring the dead back to life. The tone of this story is much subtler and more nuanced than the preceding two, and what initially seems like a traditional hospital drama complete with relationships blossoming and faltering soon becomes something much more unique as the sisters work to achieve an unstated goal. Not overtly stating the calamity they are trying to avert does mean that it’s a bit more difficult to fully support some of the decisions at face value, writer Simon Guerrier relying on the audience’s trust in his heroines’ good intentions, but the more mature means by which they nudge people to be who and where they are meant to be in the future while also admitting that some people are more important than others is satisfying both narratively and emotionally.

The slowly-developing plot of ‘The Ward’ is anchored by great performances to support the ever-charismatic leads who are much less freewheeling and short-sighted than usual. Carolyn Pickles masterfully combines an irritable determination with a soft-hearted compassion as Gutierrez and Dan Starkey gives an excellent performance as the well-meaning Nurse Chaff who forms the basis of the intriguingly distinct dynamic at the heart of the focal relationship that is so crucial to the ultimate plan. Having only the dialogue to drive the narrative forward without an ultimate endgame established, ‘The Ward’ features some of the most poignant and memorable scenes of this entire range and wonderfully shows just how much these sisters have developed given their centuries of accumulated knowledge with the corresponding love and loss. With short-term pain measured against long-term gains once again, this is a nuanced but powerful installment that ends on a high as Pool once more appears and suggests that the sisters’ time with the Grace is not completely at an end.

Consequences and ramifications- intended or not- have been hallmark thematic staples of Graceless, and the logical culmination of the sisters’ journey is to circle back to their roots as is portrayed in ‘The Dance.’ With Pool’s true nature revealed, Abby and Zara are reminded not only that their power comes from the Grace but that their continual use of said power to alter time takes away from the elemental life force that sustains those pan-dimensional beings. Accordingly, Pool takes on the role of unbiased judge as he interviews the millions of beings throughout the universe that Amy have Zara have affected directly or indirectly to simply ask if their actions are worth it when weighing the costs incurred on so many levels relative to the changes made. This premise expertly brings several familiar voices from across the range back into the fold, and though these small vignettes are both heartily engaging and insightful, they also- by necessity- do feel a bit disjointed from the metaphysical trial that essentially puts the entire range on tril with a clever dynamic shift.

Graceless has been a series where Abby and Zara have more or less done what they have pleased to this point, and so it’s exciting to note how they act when they are helpless to do anything of note, the consequences of their past actions literally speaking for themselves as the mysterious shadow looms in the distance. Yet the strongest component of this temporal memory lane heading into the future is the hint of the conflict yet to come, one spearheaded by the Doctor’s sorrow about what they have become. ‘The Dance’ is something of a surprise, a finale that is fairly light on plot while revisiting some of the stronger ideas and circumstances of earlier stories, but it’s incredible performances, confidence, atmosphere, and intimations of what is yet to come make it an effective story nonetheless.

Graceless III seemed to provide a fitting ending point for the story being told, but this fourth series after a lengthy hiatus proves that a variation on the theme with Abby and Zara more knowledgeable and mature has incredible potential in its own right. While the two have perhaps not changed quite as much as the stories seem to suggest as they come up against grandiose threats and show no signs of stopping their attempts to help those in need, the contrasting intimate and grand ideas on display mesh well to maintain a very personal element to each decision and consequence in this surreal and emotion-laden saga that has plenty of life in it yet.

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