Missing Persons

Posted in Audio by - October 04, 2018
Missing Persons

Released December 2013

Following four three-story box sets that slowly established the dynamics of and slowly revealed the truths behind Bernice’s post-Epoch family of Ruth, Jack, Peter, and Braxiatel, the five-story Missing Persons sees Bernice flung into the face of danger as a terrible Truth pursues her back to Legion from an archaeological dig.

In Hamish Steele’s opening instalment ‘Big Dig,’ Bernice has been invited to appear and take part in a special live edition of the archaeological programme Big Dig that she grew up watching as a young girl. As Bernice again confronts the fact that she is not as young as she once was, the prospect of field work on the world of Saravas reminds her of why she got into this field in the first place, reveling in the opportunities it affords her to realise just how little everyone knows about the universe. This is a world famed for the frustration it causes, featuring an atmosphere that comes and goes sporadically and only one rainy season every ten years or so with no standing bodies of water. The civilisation that once inhabited this world considered it a sin to write as the legends go, but nothing of consequence has ever been found to shed light on who these people were or how they lived. Accordingly, Bernice is practical enough to realise that something seems amiss when she finds an artefact relatively quickly, even as she then has to cover it up and act like she is finding it for the first time when the cameras swing to her. She’s also one who is not above the burning desire to have the opportunity to name something, and the suit of armor she declares as a Golonaut instead quickly becomes known as a Rockbot as popular opinion dictates even as she remains less quick to jump to the conclusion that this was an instrument of war.

‘Big Dig’ is not afraid to pepper humorous moments throughout its runtime, the fallout of Jack and Ruth being asked to make coffee as well as discussions about how to boost the live ratings particular highlights, but it’s the gradual shift in tone to a much more serious affair mirrored by Shepton Rothwell’s gradual turn to darkness after trying on the armament to get a sense of what these people looked like that stands out more. The ability that he gains to manipulate others through vocally spreading what he proclaims to be the truth allows this world and the programme’s staff to be fleshed out in wonderful detail, and Philip Bird gives a fitting performance with a firm lack of emotion that makes the events that unfold all the more chilling. More shocking yet is the revelation that this planet is a construct and its denizens part of an experiment from the Epoch that acted as the gods of this world and the enforcers of necessary lies before beginning to map and remap realities and histories to fit their needs. Knowing the stories would become the truth as time continued to pass, the Epoch patiently waited for Bernice to arrive on this world, the immense threat of the vocal truth bolstered by the fact that some 150 million people are listening to the broadcast when they are told that everyone is out to get them and to trust nobody. Even with her memories of these events and of Jack and Ruth wiped as she becomes the only survivor of the devastation of Saravas, ‘Big Dig’ is an incredibly successful series opener that delivers plenty of emotion while hinting at just what the title of Missing Persons will come to mean.

In Martin Day’s ‘The Revenant’s Carnival,’ Bernice arrives on Moros Prime where Peter is heading the security team at the country estate of the world’s effective leader, Williem van der Heever. This is a world of diplomacy and warfare, one in which the native population is harvested for organs and cybernetic implants are the latest fashion craze. Although the synopsis for the story suggests that an off-kilter experience is in store for Bernice as she comes across a variety of unique individuals, the end result is a very economic use of a small cast to bring the nuances of this society to life without having to explore the vast world in general. Intriguingly, van der Heever does not refute the observation that he can be seen as a dictator, but he takes pride in the fact that at least he is a nice one, and David Warwick captures this interesting dichotomy nicely throughout as he remains ever charming while nonetheless preparing for what he believes to be an imminent attack on his life. There are suggestions throughout that his past is filled with dark secrets and that those who threaten to expose him suffer unfortunate accidents, and his personal connection to the native Kai and the lasting legacy of his wife provide a shocking injection of emotion to the terrible state of affairs here.

With a solid plot filled with surprises, it’s in the final scenes when ‘The Revenant’s Carnival’ truly springs to life momentously as all pretenses are dropped like the disguises at the ball. While the future is beginning to look increasingly bleak and lonely for Bernice following her time on Moros Prime as there remains no record of anyone named Peter there, the further development of the fractured but healing relationship between Bernice and her son provides a solid foundation upon which the narrative can unfold. Both are intelligent, strong, and resourceful here, and they’ve reached the point where they can once more converse openly and even joke with each other as they try to uncover the truth behind the mystery at hand. Lisa Bowerman and Thomas Grant have an immense chemistry together that strongly supports everything their characters have been through both together and apart, and the end result is an emotional tale of intrigue that becomes wholly distinct from the world and tone that the synopsis suggests.

David Llewellyn brings Braxiatel to the forefront in ‘The Brimstone Kid’ as Bernice and he expect another quiet night at the White Rabbit saloon with the only customers being veteran prospector Toothless Bob and hopeful teacher and newcomer to the city Miss Hannigan. From the start, Legion City has been described as one of the most dangerous locales in the universe, and so exploring it in the vein of a classic western seems to be a natural fit even if the reliance on exaggerated American vocal stereotypes might be somewhat superfluous. This is a world so depraved that the prospect of someone coming to teach the children is a source of great amusement, and homages to the western genre are peppered liberally throughout as the wanted outlaw known as the Brimstone Kid enters the bar and offers the regulars riches in return for safe harbour from the pursuing bounty hunter Cazador. This version of Braxiatel, like his namesake with whom Bernice is all too familiar, is willing to do practically anything if the price is high enough, and he shows just how determined and ingenious he can be even as a seemingly mild-mannered barkeep who truly is wholly distinct from the man with such a long list of crimes to his name.

Given the small cast and brief running time, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise that some identities are not truly as initially presented, and Bernice hinting at the truth in a moment of jest halfway through the story is a bold decision that highlights just how confident this story is. Still, although this isn’t an individual plot designed to shatter expectations, its engaging atmosphere and quick pacing create an engrossing experience that feeds into the overlying storyline perfectly. With Braxiatel vanished and Bernice not remembering that any of her companions ever existed after three stories, it appears that Bernice’s time on Legion City has finally reached its end, itself a surprising fact given how long it took her to get here, how much time was developed to setting it up as a new base of operations, and how few stories actually took place within its confines since she arrived. Nonetheless, Bernice is on her own now, and the personal stakes have rarely been higher with just two stories left in this set.

Wandering the ruins of an idyllic alien civilisation while on the verge of dehydration and exhaustion, Bernice tries to determine just what it was that came to this world and wiped out its people, finding only the name Bernice Summerfield through her investigations in ‘The Winning Side’ by James Goss. Unfortunately, Bernice cannot remember any of the events depicted, and the story unfolding both with an older Bernice trying to piece together what happened from the inscribed record and with a younger Bernice directly taking part in events is an inspired concept that wonderfully develops the story of the sky witch who literally fell into this civilisation. What transpires is an emotional allegory for the ambition and recklessness of humankind, culminating with Bernice being trapped in a tower to celebrate her so-called successes as the knowledge and technological advances she brings with her completely and rapidly transform this society into something completely unrecognizable. Of course, Bernice is smart enough to realise that history is written by the winning side, but she can’t imagine who actually won here as she comes to understand that radiation leaking from the engine of the ship she arrived in is directly to blame for the plague that ravaged these people.

Unfortunately, Bernice discovers that this is not a story with a happy ending in which the problem was identified and reversed, and the initial tale that unfolds as Bernice and Theon grow closer together while Meriol deviously tries to tear them apart dovetails nicely with these people realising that they can use the ship to aid in their war against the Garren which then spurs their rapid progression upon principles they do not understand as well as with the devolution of the relationship between Theon and Meriol. With the carvings becoming less detailed as the radiation tore through the civilisation and medicinal stockpiles dried up, the dual tale telling of the downfall that occurred here is a powerful and moving one that expertly draws upon the extreme range and power of Lisa Bowerman to bring every aspect to life vividly and believably. Also featuring immense guest performances from Geoffrey Beevers and Hugh Skinner and strong direction, ‘The Winning Side’ is a triumphant script that innovates while also celebrating everything that has rightfully been celebrated within this range for so long, and the stunning twist that Bernice has been rescued from death by none other than the Epoch boldly sets the scene for the finale.

Scott Handcock and Gary Russell conclude Missing Persons and this extended saga of Bernice Summerfield’s complicated life with ‘In Living Memory’ as Bernice finally learns the truth behind her friends’ disappearances and the Epoch’s greater scheme. Because the Epoch have not directly featured since the conclusion of the Epoch set, however, events quickly become complicated even before a distinctly meta twist that puts The Dark Tower saga to shame is taken into account. With the tale detailing the three Bernices introduced in ‘Judgment Day’ and explaining that the Victorian version also survived to have her own adventures, the Epoch again insist that Bernice is a threat to their very existence as she seemingly exists at all points throughout time and has thus far been able to handle each and every threat they have sent her way. By rewriting portions of her life through their taking of her friends in succession at first to eliminate the temporal instabilities that surrounded her, the Epoch now hope to make her more amenable to a total remapping as they hope to write into existence a timeline in which she never exists.

The Epoch unquestionably represent the greatest threat that Bernice has ever faced, and the eventual revelation that Bernard Springwell is himself a version of Bernice Summerfield who has been remapped so many times he does not remember his true identity is a staggering twist that exemplifies the Epoch’s power and that in retrospect is exceedingly obvious. Unfortunately, this momentous revelation is handled more or less as a throwaway fact rather than as the crux of the story as the prospect of Bernice being the villain behind the entire Epoch saga rightfully should be, and though the ideas of a paradoxical Bernice as well as the universe being reset and the scheme being made redundant by Bernice jumping into the vortex and thus existing in millions of fragments throughout time are certainly intriguing, there isn’t quite enough time for them to fully resonate as the script eventually comes to rely quite heavily on technobabble-laden speeches. Whether the Epoch were originally intended to come back after their eponymous box set or not, it simply seems like far too many disparate fragments and ideas are being included to give a tidy sense of closure to the many lingering plot threads from that set and since such as why the Epoch extracted Bernice from Zordin in the first place, but doing so in the space of just one story takes away from some of the impact they may have had over a greater span of time.

Perhaps the most divisive aspect of ‘In Living Memory’ is the incredibly meta notion of the Epoch creating a false world within a false world wherein Bernice and her companions believe themselves to be actors for an audio series centred about Bernice Summerfield with Handcock and Russell themselves featuring as Hierophants within the narrative acting as the writers who are unafraid to poke fun at their own script. With some portions of this presented as a riff on the special features and outtakes that feature on Big Finish releases, there’s undeniably a unique feel to these events, and the many jokes such as Lisa Bowerman seemingly featuring in every Big Finish spin-off, the actors asking the writers to explain the script, and even the actors’ inability to resist a free meal all work wonderfully to sell the surreal plot device in play. Still, the decision to focus on this false reality so heavily is nonetheless a strange one for a series finale that wants to draw upon so much continuity. Were this significant portion of the plot the foundation for a story anywhere else in this set or in any of the previous ones, this strong sendup of the acting process could have resonated all that more fully while not contrasting quite so sharply with the harrowing stakes that are ultimately revealed.

Missing Persons as a whole is an interesting end to an era, and the idea of each of Bernice’s companions featuring in a story before being taken and out of Bernice’s memory completely is a strong central conceit that ties into the Epoch’s abilities expertly. However, none of those companions truly gets a chance to show off his or her true strength and nuances in these stories, Peter perhaps being served best but each still deserving of more development given that this set very well could be their last time together. Still, the individual stories themselves are immensely engaging throughout and again highlight the extreme versatility of this range as well as of Lisa Bowerman, and though the finale’s strange reliance on both long-standing continuity as well as false realities creates a somewhat uneven endpoint as a sort of predestination paradox unfolds, it also boldly shows just how brave and ambitious the series remains even after all of these years.

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