REVIEW: The Science Fiction Experience

Self-confessed geek and nerd Peter Ranscombe wants to hear more from The Science Fiction Experience.

SOMETIMES when you hear an idea for a show, you know that the producer is on to a winner. The Science Fiction Experience is one of those shows.

Created by Dundee-based science writer David Darling, the concept brings together classic tracks and original songs to form a rock concert, accompanied by images and animations projected onto a giant screen. The experience made its debut at Dundee’s Gardyne Theatre on 14 and 15 April, ahead of what Darling hopes will become a UK tour.

The show combines Darling’s own songs with a selection of familiar hits, stretching from Sir Elton John’s crowd-pleasing Rocket Man all the way through to Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s classic 1971 fantasy track The Sage, expertly brought to life on the night by rhythm guitarist Steven Gibbons.

His prowess was matched by the rest of the sensational five-piece band, assembled by musical director Miroslaw Hodun, who also played keyboards. Along with drummer Scott Burrell, lead guitarist Steve Murphy, and bass guitarist Kornel Popławski, the band combined the best of many worlds, sitting somewhere between seventies prog rock and nineties grunge.

The arrival of the Dudhope Community Centre’s Indian dance group to the stage created a contrasting interlude, which could have been interpreted as a dream sequence or a nod towards the crossover between science fiction and fantasy. Indeed, exploring inner worlds as well as outer space was billed as part of the experience.

Coming back for more

And that mix of songs and styles almost works… almost. The second act held together better than the first because there was more narrative to link the tracks, including Darling’s tune dedicated to Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s time in Dundee.

Having more narrative helped the second act to flow and made it easier for the audience to follow the science fiction theme running through the concert. More scripting for the links between the songs in the first act would also have helped singer Don Nicolson, whose vocals were absolutely faultless all night, but whose patter with the audience came across as more “Friday night at the pub” than “science fiction rock spectacular”.

While the lighting at the Gardyne was of the highest quality – with Gibbons appearing to practically jump from the stage during his solo performance of The Sage ­– the constant use of spotlights sadly outshone the images being projected onto the screen behind the band. Text to accompany the Frankenstein portion of the show was also lost behind the band members who were playing on the step at the rear of the stage.

Yet… there’s still something about The Science Fiction Experience that would make me go back for more. The high-quality combination of the band, Nicolson, and his backing singers – Julie Cleave and Rebecca Connelly – alone demands a second look if it goes on tour.

Give ’em what they want

At the moment, the show feels like it’s mining a very narrow seam of science fiction and, in order to shift up a gear, I feel it needs to go full-on nerd. Its track choices at present feel like they’re stuck somewhere in the late sixties or early seventies, missing out on the full palette of rock that’s been embraced by films such as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy or even Stan Bush’s classic eighties anthems Dare and The Touch from 1986’s Transformers: The Movie.

Giving the audience some better-known rock anthems and dialling back on Darling’s own songs – rather than using them as the spine of the experience – would make his compositions stand out and become even more special. Aside from Diane Warren’s Faith of the Heart, which was used as the theme for Enterprise, the experience felt like a science fiction world untouched by either Star Wars or Star Trek, let alone the wider magical back catalogue of John Williams.

And the band can definitely handle classical tracks played in a rock style, as it demonstrated at the beginning of the second act with its rendition of Mars from Gustav Holst’s The Planets suite… even if it had been proceeded by a voiceover sharing the opening lines from HG Wells’ classic novel The War of the Worlds, which had left me feeling sure we were about to launch into Jeff Wayne’s The Eve of the War.

Lighting and song selection aside, The Science Fiction Experience held its own against similar shows, such as Edoardo Romussi’s Epic Film Music Concert at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. With a bit more polish and by tapping into a broader range of science fiction geekery, it could hit the heights of DJ Andy Joyce and musical director Steve Etherington’s popular Symphonic Ibiza touring show.

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Read more news and reviews on Scottish Field’s culture pages.

Plus, don’t miss author Alexander McCall Smith’s column in the May issue of Scottish Field magazine.