Series three of Big Finish’s Vienna dramas, sees the eponymous assassin hero sever any last vestiges of her origins as a Doctor Who guest character, and embark on a trio of linked adventures brimming with an independent, confident spirit all of her own. This is big, ambitious, high-concept sci-fi that – while perhaps not winning many awards for subtlety – delivers inventive action set-pieces, witty dialogue and larger-than-life villains, all mixed together with some well-targeted satire on the mores of modern society and mass culture.
At the series’ core is the winning double-act of Vienna Salvatori and her new ex-policewoman colleague Jexie Reagan; whose career as freelance ‘guns for hire’ leads them into life-threatening dangers of all kinds. Chase Masterson is in her element as the assured, sassy and supremely confident assassin, possessed of a crack-shot and a caustic sarcastic streak; while Samantha Béart provides an effective foil, as the more downbeat, world-weary but fiercely loyal Jexie.
The central conceit of Vienna – a wise-cracking, galaxy-roaming, hired killer takes on impossible jobs in entertainingly improbable situations – gives writers huge opportunities to seek out ‘new worlds and new civilisations’ (as it were), with very few fetters on their creative imaginations. In this latest series, all three authors make the most of the enticing possibilities this opens up.
Opening story “Self Improvement” (by Ian Potter) sets up the linking framework for the trilogy very effectively, and introduces one of this instalment’s recurring themes: that Vienna frequently fails in her commissions. Vienna and Jexie are contracted to protect the life of chemist and inventor Doctor Ludovic Glospan, from those keen to prevent his new discovery from reaching the market. This maverick scientist has devised a breakthrough wonder-drug called ‘Good Day’, which promises to ensure health, serenity and happiness for all – in pill-form. Terry Molloy puts in a fabulous guest performance as Glospan (their meeting is a welcome audio reunion for Molloy and Masterson, last heard together to great effect in the first series of Big Finish’s Survivors).
Next up is “Big Society” (by Guy Adams), a witty parody of reality TV recruitment show The Apprentice, relocated to a bizarre bankrupt world, in which sentient buildings (with personalities that combine arrogance and flamboyance to toxic effect) clash for architectural supremacy. In the role of a painfully self-obsessed, talking building named Jonah Hall, Richard Dixon delivers a memorable (and entirely in-keeping) scenery-chewing performance. As the bricks and balustrades fly, Vienna must try to locate the late-Glospan’s priceless formula, in order to complete his life’s work.
When her efforts again end in failure, the closing story “Impossibly Glamorous” (by Steve Lyons) follows Vienna’s attempts to trick her way to the heart of the corrupt and profit-grabbing Helping Hands corporation, by going undercover as a model and product sponsor on the surreal and beauty-obsessed planet of London (a twisted reimagining of the UK’s capital city back on Earth). The company plans to reverse engineer Glospan’s pharmacology to create ‘Bad Day’: a drug that will ensure human misery and anxiety, and so fuel the profits of those selling the promise of contentment through endless consumerism. Vienna’s subterfuge brings her face-to-face with the malevolent and venal company figurehead Kensington Fox (an effortlessly winning turn from Sophie Aldred), where, through a series of clever twists (and the assistance of her mischievous ship’s computer), she is given the opportunity to make good on her promise to the drug’s inventor.
Vienna is awash with contemporary pop cultural references of all kinds (and part of the fun of listening, is trying to spot them all along the way). Inevitably, some listeners will point out that many of the series’ themes and motifs invite comparison with the imaginative worlds of Douglas Adams (sentient walkways, intelligent buildings, disaffected robots, bankrupt planets, ridiculous business practices and the like). There are other echoes too, particularly in the setting for the third episode, of Total Recall and the work of Philip K. Dick (memory implantation); of Brazil (bandaged plastic surgery survivors); and of Ben Moore’s radio drama Undone (with its concept of a bizarre parallel London). But it’s important to treat any points of commonality as respectful homage; and each of these three episodes of Vienna is equipped with a wealth of original ideas.
Throughout, Vienna treads a delicate line – offering action and adventure driven stories, rich in comedy, whimsy and tongue-in-cheek absurdity, whilst touching on some serious (and not so serious) real-world themes and ideas: cloning and identity theft, credit crunches and stock market crashes, pharmaceutical profiteering, merciless debt recovery agencies and much more. The storytelling of Vienna melds the playful and the subversive so well, that It becomes one of the series’ distinctive hallmarks.
Sound design is excellent throughout, managing to be loud, exciting and dramatic without ever feeling bombastic; and taught direction from Scott Handcock keeps things energetic and fast moving. What comes over very clearly is the impression that everyone involved is having a great time. But while Vienna is designed not to be taken too seriously, there is an obvious determination to ensure that the ‘fantastical’ ideas showcased here are not just random, but fit together inside a universe that has a logic of its own. Huge fun from beginning to end, the latest missions of this impossibly glamorous assassin are bang on target.
VIENNA SERIES 3 / AUTHOR: IAN POTTER, GUY ADAMS, STEVE LYONS / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / STARRING: CHASE MASTERSON, SAMANTHA BÉART, TERRY MOLLOY, ELIZABETH MORTON, STEPHEN FEWEL, BERNARD HOLLEY, RICHARD DIXON, SOPHIE ALDRED, DAN BOTTOMLEY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW