It’s hard to summarise Vienna. Obviously, there are some indisputable facts that can’t be repeated – it’s set in the future; its lead protagonist is a gun for hire and the stories are all linked – but the series’ tone is not so easily definable.
Vienna Salvatori, played by Chase Masterson, first appeared of course in the 2012 Doctor Who story The Shadow Heart, written by Jonathan Morris. Following a pilot, she soon received her own annual trilogy of stories. But while Vienna may literally exist in the same universe as our TARDIS-travelling hero, it’s often been said that her stories take place in a different literary universe. This third set of adventures doesn’t do much to persuade me that’s the case though.
Perhaps describing this as an adventure series is an adequate label. Ian Potter’s opening script, Self Improvement, sets out its stall immediately and in many ways sets the scene for the whole box set; it’s the assignment undertaken here that leads to the events of the following three hours, not that the listener knows this at the time. The title is to be taken at its word and sums up this episode’s plot very neatly as Vienna and accomplice Jexie (Samantha Béart) are tasked with protecting a professor who has invented a wonder drug.
Big Society, the set’s second tale, feels very much like a thematic continuation. Guy Adams’ story is wittier than Potter’s, but the two are equally enjoyable. The episode gives the leads plenty to do, and a nice variety of more action-orientated scenes and situations where we learn more about Jexie and Vienna’s softer sides or they are forced to use their intellect to progress or escape. As with all the stories in this set, there’s a level of social commentary present in Big Society, but thanks to its subtlety, or lack thereof, it hardly needs deciphering.
It’s hard to say without having heard previous series, but of the three episodes in this set, Big Society would seem to be the most typical. That’s no bad thing as it’s refreshingly different to Big Finish’s usual output. With this and the return of Graceless in September, it’s certainly a good time for audio series with all-female regular casts.
The series concludes on what is far and away its strongest installment. If Vienna has to be about something as a series, Impossibly Glamorous suggests on the surface that it is all about the eponymous assassin, through her initial absence from the action. Steve Lyons has kept a low profile at Big Finish over the last few years and it’s a shame that his first Doctor Who-related story since 2013 will inevitably have such a limited reach as it really is excellent. The concept of memories, which I understand has featured heavily in previous series, is tied neatly into the ongoing arc of this set. Impossibly Glamorous picks up threads from both of the two preceding stories and builds on them marvellously. I can understand this title being picked, having heard the full story, it’s just a shame that it sounds so much like a rejected Girls Aloud b-side (“Take a step closer boy, let’s get amorous”/”Cos we both know that I’m impossibly glamorous”).
Digging a little deeper into this inventive and gripping third episode goes the furthest of the three tales presented to offering an explanation for this series. By splitting up our regulars, Lyons crystallises what makes this series tick as we hear each managing to get by without the other but once reunited, this pairing seems greater than the sum of its parts. The story is also helped by having the most interesting opening and inciting incident of the series, but scores highly on all fronts. It’s commendable that this episode also finds time to be so fun amongst everything else. The only thing to be justifiably criticised is a portion of the sound design: there is an alarm that sounds for a long period of time and it really drove me up the wall. That aside, production on Impossibly Glamorous, and indeed Self Improvement and Big Society, is of a uniformly high standard.
The cast are all great too – although I’m having real trouble pinning down Jexie’s accent – and even as a seasoned Big Finish listener I didn’t clock Terry Molloy, Jason Fewell or Sophie Aldred’s star turns across the episodes. Hats off too to Scott Handcock for pulling together such a polished collection.
At times, the stories in this series reminded me strongly of where the Bernice Summerfield range was at a decade (or more) ago, but the emphasis is slightly different here. Coming back to my initial question of what Vienna is, throughout this box set, the series sometimes suggests it’s about Vienna, sometimes about both Vienna and Jexie, and sometimes about the ultimately light-hearted, slightly madcap, series of events they seem to stumble into (often intentionally). But although all of this may be true, to this listener the series proves it can successfully be about anything it pleases, and that’s why I’m hoping (and expect that) the announcement of a fourth series isn’t too far away.
BLOGTOR RATING: 7/10
You can buy this release from Big Finish here. Don’t miss out on the special pre-order pricing too – available until 29 February 2016.
Chase Masterson (Vienna Salvatori), Samantha Béart (Jexie Reagan) Terry Molloy (Glospan), Elizabeth Morton (Constanza), Stephen Fewell (Tom McQueen), Bernard Holley (Chairman Sweet), Richard Dixon (Jonah Hall), Sophie Aldred (Kensington Fox), Dan Bottomley (Drew Mulligan)
Written by Ian Potter, Guy Adams and Steve Lyons
Directed by Scott Handcock
Sound Design by Martin Montague
Music by Jamie Robertson
Cover Art by Grant Kempster
Number of Discs: 3
Produced by Cavan Scott