Vienna: The Memory Box Review
Launching into her own spin-off series, the glamourous bounty hunter is accused of murdering one of the richest men in the galaxy...
It's incredible to think that Vienna has now been around for nearly 10 years. Since her introduction in the Doctor Who story "The Shadow Heart", she has gone on to have a life of her own in a self-titled spin-off, as well as starring alongside Lisa Bowerman in "The Worlds of Big Finish" and Eric Roberts in "Master!". Her first solo story, "The Memory Box" remains a perfect introduction to the glamourous space assassin, and, with a story that twists and turns with plot and counter-plot, it is a perfect template for the series that would follow. It gives us a chance to see Vienna away from the Doctor, in a fast-paced flick that not only works as a pilot for a spin-off, but works well as a one-off drama in its own right.
The plot of "The Memory Box" sees two investigators being called out to the scene of a murder in a space hotel, where Berkeley Silver (one of the richest business men in the galaxy) has been shot. Vienna soon become the prime candidate... but is there something else going on? And what does this all have to do with a device called a Memory Box? As you can tell from the description, there is a lot going on in "The Memory Box", and it is imperative upon the listener to pay attention to what is going on. When it initially starts out, you think you know what direction it is going to go in, but it really lulls you into a false sense of security, and then, halfway through, really pulls the rug out from underneath you. It then becomes a game of cat-and-mouse between Vienna and her antagonist (and I shan't reveal who this is for fear of spoilers...), and there's no guarantee who's going to come out on top. Now, this could become tiresome in the hands of a lesser writer, but "Memory Box" scribe (and Vienna creator) Jonathan Morris is far too clever a writer to let it feel derivative or ill-thought-out. He has a skill with narratives like this, and it ends up feeling like this was planned all along. In the extras, Morris cites Philip K Dick as an inspiration for this story, and I can see a lot of this in the finished product. This is very much science fiction, as opposed to the almost-science fantasy of Doctor Who, and it feels like a 'real' world (in that it feels like the writer has taken the time to build up the structure of this world), with everyone being a shade of grey, rather than a goodie or a baddie. It draws an immediate contrast with the rather pulpy plot and storyline, and it makes for a fantastic combination, as, rather than clash with each other, the two styles sit comfortably together, making a very interesting story that works on multiple levels.
Like the plot, the characters are also not quite what they initially appear to be. During the course of the story, they are all pretending to be something they're not, sometimes more than once, and it reinforces the idea that no one is on a 'side': they're just out for themselves. It fits with the character of Vienna perfectly, and it adds a level of danger to this series that makes it stand out from Doctor Who. The cast may be small, but they are wonderful: John Banks and Gemma Whelan make a great double act as the investigators sent to track down Vienna, and they form a believable unit, despite not having much time to gel due to the frantic nature of the story. Tom Price also excels as the likable but dim Norvelle Spraggot (apparently a tribute to Big Finish Producer's Assistant Paul Spragg), a role not too dissimilar to Andy Davidson, the role he plays in Torchwood, but who is perhaps played a bit more for comedy. He is the fish-out-of-water character in this situation, and paring him with Vienna makes for a great combination. However, the standout star is, as you would expect, Chase Masterson. She leads the show from the very beginning, and is perfect casting for the glamourous space assassin. I'm surprised, actually, that Chase isn't a leading lady in some huge Hollywood show, but that just means she gets the chance to play a part with the complexity of Vienna. She's less of an outright villain here than she was in "The Shadow Heart", but she is in no way a hero to be celebrated. That's what makes this episode, and the Vienna series more widely, stand out: this idea that our ostensible 'hero' isn't really anything of the sort. It works really well, and I think that this story sets up something really exciting to come. Moving to the production, this remains as assured as any Big Finish story. Ken Bentley's direction is as confident as ever, which is no mean feat considering he only has four actors to play with. This is coupled with some fantastic post-production work from Jamie Robertson, who turns this audio into a movie-sized production, with cinematic effects and music. His theme for Vienna is sweeping and vast, and it sets the tone of the series right from the beginning. It all adds together to bring the story to life, and it remains incredibly impressive that Big Finish can consistently produce work of this quality.
"The Memory Box" is, without question, a fantastic pilot episode for the Vienna series. Full of pulp action and big science fiction ideas, this sets the tone for the series to come with a fast-paced romp with heart and soul. It works both as a standalone drama, and a way to follow up the character of Vienna from "The Shadow Heart", which is no mean feat. Simply a delightful story from start to finish, it remains a confident introduction for a series that, honestly, could have gone either way. But, rather than feeling like just a cash-grab, Vienna carves out its own identity with this introductory episode, and sets up the template for what was to come. This is simply a first-class start.
You can purchase "The Memory Box" as a digital download here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/vienna-the-memory-box-843
All pictures copyright to Big Finish Productions. Thank you very much for reading.