Vienna: Retribution – Starring Chase Masterson, Samantha Beart, Annette Badland, Samuel Harris, Colin McFarlane, Edward Harrison, Emma Cunniffe, Adam Redmore & Alex Jordan. Written by Guy Adams & Directed by Scott Handcock – 3xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Early last year, the BBC released the first Doctor Who spinoff show since Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures both finished their runs back in 2011. The new series, Class, took place at Coal Hill School and involved a number of students (as well as two aliens who were masquerading as humans – one as a teacher and one as a student) who had previously come into contact with the Doctor, and now helped to deal with some of the strange and unusual phenomena that always seems to be occurring around Coal Hill.
What made Class different from any other Doctor Who spinoff was its spurious connection to its “mother” programme. While both Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures grew out of characters and situations created in Doctor Who proper, Class featured a pilot episode that guest starred Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. However, the events of this episode were never referenced on Doctor Who at all. Realistically, Class could have been any sci-fi show that featured a band of teenagers fighting off alien threats; although its cast occasionally made reference to the Doctor, they were never likewise referenced on Doctor Who the way that both Torchwood and Sarah Jane were considered part of Doctor Who’s mythology.
It was a strange dynamic, and one that didn’t bode well for Class; the show only survived one season (despite bringing in the Weeping Angels for an end-of-season cliffhanger) and has been generally maligned by most fans of Doctor Who. Unfortunately, the show was also just not very good; it seemed to be more concerned with preaching political messages rather than telling good stories. This factor, combined with the fact that the situations in Class were literally never discussed on Doctor Who, conspired to give Class a rather underwhelming response, and it quickly faded into obscurity.
In many ways, the Big Finish Doctor Who spinoff series Vienna shares a lot in common with Class. Whereas series such as, say, Graceless or Charlotte Pollard grew out of characters and events that appeared over a period of time in Big Finish’s Main Range, Vienna was announced as a spinoff long before the character ever appeared in a Doctor Who audio. In fact, it seemed that the only reason the character was introduced in the Main Range audio The Shadow Heart was to eventually give her her own series. This wasn’t quite the same as what happened with Class (whose characters never even appeared in Doctor Who – not once!), but it was close. Obviously Big Finish had a bit of a different agenda; well-known sci-fi actress Chase Masterson was ready and willing to front her own series, and the company jumped on the idea.
But probably the biggest difference between the failed experiment that was Class and the Vienna series is that Vienna is hugely enjoyable to listen to. Far from being your run-of-the-mill shoot-em-up bounty hunter series, Vienna deals with changing perceptions of reality and memory, much in the way that the Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster Total Recall did many years ago. Overall, its stories have generally been quite clever. It’s been a fun romp.
All that changes significantly with last month’s Series Four release, Vienna: Retribution. Rather than being just a continuation of one of Big Finish’s “fun” series, Retribution is explosive. It’s a much more raw, visceral experience than in previous seasons; it ups the ante – not just for Vienna herself, but for the entire world she inhabits. It’s interesting; many would argue that the character of Vienna has become more neutered in recent years – she began as an assassin, so feared by the public that to simply know her name was to be given a death sentence (as she only ever told people her name right before she executed them). However, very quickly, the higher ups at Big Finish probably realized that there was only so “anti-“ they could go with their new anti-hero. Vienna quickly moved from the assassination game to the role of private detective, and although she’s still just as dangerous as before, she’s become at least partially respectable.
But in many ways, Retribution is a throwback to that earlier, more tumultuous character. It begins with a murder so shocking that the listener may have to rewind that MP3 a couple of times just to be sure that it really happened. And despite all the possible alternative scenarios, it’s all-too-obvious that Vienna herself is the only possible perp. One would normally think that such a scenario would turn into a couple of episodes of The Fugitive, with Vienna racing here and there to clear her name. But in this case, she simply doesn’t have a name to clear – it’s so obvious that she’s guilty, that there’s only one direction in which the story can go. And so, we arrive at the Splinter, the most high-security prison for the absolute dregs of future society.
Even the setup of the Splinter is brutal; modelled after none other than Dante’s Inferno, it is an ancient piece of space rock, hollowed out in descending levels, each one hotter than the next, with the rules and punishments all the more brutal as one moves towards the centre. Prisoners can only ever move down; if a prisoner is sent from an higher level to one further down, he or she may never go back up. In addition, prisoners only ever have rights and privileges on the level on which they were initially allocated; unauthorized movement down through the levels traps a prisoner with no cell, no bed, no food and no escape or defence against the drones that run the prison.
And then there is the Heart. The reason the prison levels get progressively hotter as one moves down, is because all the engines that power the prison lie right at the bottom, just above the Heart, the lowest level any prisoner may descend to (usually as punishment for a very serious offence). On the Heart, life is absolutely unbearable; the heat is so intense that few prisoners last more than a few days.
Such is Vienna’s new world, a monotonous, desperate life that is only punctuated by the various lowlifes in residence. But even amongst the dregs of humanity Vienna finds some glimmer of civility in the form of her two newest comrades-in-arms: Mama Val and Ratz, played to perfection by Annette Badland and Samuel Harris. For one reason or another, these rather sordid individuals take a liking to Vienna, and become her one saving grace in a world that hates her. Like its sibling spinoffs, Graceless and Counter-Measures, Vienna has never been a world of absolutes. Individuals exist as shades of grey, and Vienna quickly finds that even in this hell there is good to be found. Mama and Ratz act as both confidants and companions, and despite the brutal nature of life in the Splinter, Vienna finds that she has at least some kind of backup as she begins to search for answers.
But as is the case in many Vienna stories, all is not as it seems in Retribution. To begin with, there’s the murder that sent our incredibly glamorous bounty hunter to prison in the first place. The question of whether or not Vienna committed the crime is not in question – why she did it, and what it means for her incarceration is a far more pertinent question. And then there is the fact that other, similar crimes – consisting of people snapping, often with no motive – seem to be on the rise everywhere. The mysterious Rex Needle (a delightfully evil Colin McFarlane) was the first of these, and shares Vienna’s fate, having been sentenced to a cell much closer to the Heart. But who is he really? And does he have a larger role to play in Vienna’s struggle?
One of the biggest differences between Retribution and previous Vienna box sets is the story structure: whereas previous releases consisted of three somewhat related, but definitely independent stories, Retribution is an epic three-part adventure. In many ways, the extended story structure suits Vienna well – both characters and situations are well-fleshed-out, and the storyline seems to develop more organically; think Torchwood’s progression from Season Two to Children of Earth. It is written by Guy Adams, who is probably better known for The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield and some of Big Finish’s Torchwood episodes. However, he did contribute the episode “Big Society” to Season Three of Vienna, and definitely knows his way around her universe. All three episodes are deftly directed by Scott Handcock, who directed the previous season as well as The Worlds of Big Finish, which also featured Vienna. Samantha Béart returns as Jexie Reagan and, as in her previous appearances, comes very close to stealing the show.
It’s been a while since her last appearance, but it’s nice to know that all is well in the world of Vienna Salvatori. And a final word: if this is a series you’ve avoided because you see it as one of Big Finish’s “lightweight” originals, it’s definitely time to change that viewpoint. Vienna: Retribution is not simply an absolute blast; it’s a sharp, smart story that deals with very pertinent issues, such as the nature of justice and the reform of our penal systems. And it’s the lack of absolutes in this story that make it so riveting: when you’re only dealing with shades of grey, you never know which way things are going to flip-flop next. This is one you definitely don’t want to miss. Peter McAlpine