We continue to exist in a strange universe, one where Vienna is a thing that exists, and I continue to be your guide in it, with the release of “Series One” of her adventures. (The Memory Box was “Series Zero” I guess?) There are three adventures for Vienna here, forming a pseudo-arc building from some references dropped in The Memory Box and developing the themes and ideas of that story as well. I feel like the best and worst thing Jonathan Morris has done in this series is reveal (in the extras for The Memory Box) that he sees Vienna as a venue for stories in the reality-questioning vein of Philip K. Dick. Best, because I understand what this series is going for, what makes it more than zippy SF adventures, but worst because I see the ways in which the stories fail to achieve that.
The box begins with Dead Drop by Mark Wright, as close to a “standard” adventure for Vienna as you could get — that is to say, with the least amount of mind- and reality-twisting possible. It actually begins with Vienna performing her hit on board the Dyarid starship Custodian pretty easily; the complication is how hard it is for Vienna to get off the ship once she’s done, which is a nice twist. Though this is a reasonably engaging story of survival in a desperate situation, it suffers from a lack of interesting characters; the crew of the Custodian is all pretty stock military types.
I was looking forward a lot to Nev Fountain’s Bad Faith, as he’s written a number of entertaining Big Finish stories at this point, but this felt weak compared to both Fountain’s own previous work (it’s no Omega or The Kingmaker) and Big Finish’s previous treatment of similar ideas in Faith Stealer. Essentially, Vienna acquires a new religious faith and thus offers her assassination skills to the leader of that faith. There are some fun ideas (I loved the “miracle lenses”, which convert ordinary happenings into their spiritual equivalents), but it’s ultimately a somewhat facile treatment of religion, examining the petty aspects of religion without any contemplation of what makes it worthwhile. Not that I should expect deep ponderings from Vienna, perhaps, but without that, it feels like old jokes reheated, and it also stops it from really having that real phildickian essence. I don’t think you ever question reality; you just hear some (good) jokes at its expense. The other highlight of this one is Frazer Hines as the leader of Vienna’s newfound religion; he plays an excellent villain.
Series creator Jonathan Morris wraps up the box set with Deathworld, which will answer your burning question of what it would be like if Vienna turned up in The Hunger Games. This one, like The Memory Box, has a lot of twists, a lot of fakeouts, a lot of moments where reality turns out to be a simulation turns out to be reality turns out to be a simulation, and I often did not follow the logic or rationale behind them. Ultimately, I think they just become unrewarding and uninteresting.
For some reason, the theme music has changed — rather than the American 1990s syndicated action show theme of The Memory Box, we have some kind of charming, twinkly thing, which just doesn’t seem right for Vienna. Otherwise, the sound design is your usual typically strong Big Finish work by Howard Carter, especially the gigantic space battle in Dead Drop.
Vienna isn’t bad, it’s just not engaging, not in the way that it aims and hopes to be. This might be doing something for other people, but I gave it two chances, and I’m afraid this is it.
Vienna Series One (by Mark Wright, Nev Fountain, Jonathan Morris; starring Chase Masterson) by Big Finish Productions in February 2014.