Bernice Summerfield: The Story So Far (Volumes 1 and 2)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 10 February 2019 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Bernice Summerfield - Story So Far.

Written by James Goss, Jacqueline Rayner, Simon Guerrier, Eddie Robson, David Llewellyn and Una McCormack
Produced by James Goss
Directed by Scott Handcock
Big Finish Productions, 2018
Stars: Lisa Bowerman, Miles Richardson,
David Warner, Michael Jayston,
Emily Laing, Stephen Fewell, Ayesha Antoine

Bernice Surprise Summerfield – archaeologist, adventurer, friend, cat lady! It was at the end of the 20th century that her audio adventures began, which makes her – as far as records tell us – the holder of the following accolades: the longest-running science fiction audio drama series; the longest-running audio drama series; the longest-running audio drama series starring a woman. What makes her so remarkable? Does she deserve all the praise that is heaped upon her?

Miles Richardson (as Irving Braxiatel), in the introduction to the Behind the Scenes discs

Even if you’re not necessarily a devoted follower of archaeologist and plucky adventurer Bernice Summerfield over the past 20 to 25 years, there’s a strong chance you’re nevertheless aware of her character – whether that be through Big Finish (via her own long-running audio series) or through the Virgin New Adventures novels (one of the few media in the “dark times” of the 1990s that continued Doctor Who as a property in the absence of a TV series).

Bernice (aka Benny) was a proto-River Song, an independent, hyper-intelligent and charming archaeologist who had a wicked sense of humour and fun and an arsenal of clever wisecracks (Benny predated Song by about 16 years). Created by veteran Doctor Who scribe Paul Cornell and modelled on actress Emma Thompson (one of Cornell’s crushes), the role of Benny has taken on a life of her own – not only thanks to a long line of dedicated writers and producers but the talent of Lisa Bowerman (whose relevance to Doctor Who before she played Benny was her role in the final classic serial Survival – as Cheetah Person Karra – in 1989).

Indeed, it is The Adventures of Bernice Summerfield audio series (which in 1998 began with adaptations of various New Adventures novels starring Bowerman and featuring actors associated with Doctor Who) that made it possible for Big Finish to ultimately capture the rights to make Doctor Who proper for audio. Despite that coup, BF never abandoned Benny – it instead provided a springboard for the character to have fresh adventures outside of the New Adventures adaptations – and the latest of those endeavours is Bernice Summerfield: The Story So Far, which celebrates 20 years of the character on audio.

The Story So Far comprises two volumes, each with three diverse tales set across different spans of Bernice’s life and career – from her youth to her role as a curator in the infamous Braxiatel collection to her strong relationship with David Warner’s “Unbound” universe Doctor.The standalone tales are also written by BF producers and contributors who have been instrumental in advancing Benny’s adventures over the past two decades – Jacqueline Rayner, Simon Guerrier, Eddie Robson, David Llewellyn, Una McCormack, current series producer and script editor James Goss and director Scott Handcock. Subsequently, in the behind the scenes extras on each volume, Goss interviews each of the contributors, alongside Bowerman, as they reflect on the directions they sought to take the character and the range while they were in charge. Cornell also discusses the character’s amazing trajectory – which he attests to being quite proud of, in spite of having minimal involvement in the range.

The highlight of Volume 1 is Goss’s peculiarly titled opener Ever After Happy which takes listeners right back to Benny’s origins as a rebellious cadet-cum-emotional guru on a military academy asteroid. Up and comer Emily Laing puts on a fantastic performance as the brash, overconfident and angst-ridden young Benny, virtually stealing the limelight from Bowerman. It’s more than likely this won’t be Ms Laing’s sole work for Big Finish – not only does she make a great Benny but she is ballsy Doctor Who companion material in her own right.  Whether BF chooses to cast Laing in another role across its output down the track or even contemplate a boxset celebrating Benny’s early adventures as an archaeologist, she is a talent they should be utilising now before she ends up with a British TV contract or a Hollywood career!

Rayner’s The Grel Invasion of Earth is the most satirical entry in these six celebratory stories. Not only does her script feature the long overdue return of comical Ood-like villains the Grel (who Cornell invented for the first Benny-centric New Adventure Oh No It Isn’t …) but the story is an unashamed parody of the classic Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth in terms of its structure, give or take some liberties.In fact, as it was Rayner who originally adapted some of the New Adventures novels for the Benny range, it’s clear that her brief was to adapt a traditional Doctor Who tale in a similar manner. The Grel Invasion of Earth is very much a playful and fun homage to those early Benny adaptations, as well as the original Doctor Who/Dalek serial it cheekily apes. Fact: Any Whovians who are offended by this imitation really ought to have a bex and a good lie down!

Bowerman is ably supported by Stephen Fewell, reprising his role as the hapless Jason Kane, Benny’s ex-husband. Fewell has some great comedic moments as Jason, as well as a few touching ones. His dialogue about Benny in one scene is vividly poetic and romantic until it is undercut by his own misunderstanding of the original question that prompted it!

Guerrier’s Braxiatel in Love takes the listener forward in time to Benny’s work as a curator at the Braxiatel Collection post-the Fifth Axis/Dalek invasion. What’s particularly interesting about this tale is that it seems to be narrated by the antagonist, the seemingly unassuming Veronica Bland (Gabrielle Glaister) who has inveigled herself into the Collection community and (much to Bernice’s astonishment and suspicion) become engaged to Irving Braxiatel (Miles Richardson).

Glaister gives a stand-out performance as Veronica and coupled with Guerrier’s characterisation, you cannot help but be charmed by her seductive, silky voice and feel some empathy for her character (although, as it transpires in the tale, these are all attributes of her magnetism). The manner in which the protagonists break out of her thrall is quite ironic, to say the least.

Volume 2 of The Story So Far is more specifically referential of Doctor Who, the “parent” concept that spawned Bernice, than Volume 1, which was deliberately vague, subtle and quite unsubtle in equal measure (eg in Ever After Happy, you presume the Daleks are the vaguely referenced “enemy” that attacks the military academy; it’s already been noted that The Grel Invasion of Earth is a none too subtle parody of The Dalek Invasion of Earth; and in Braxiatel in Love, references are made by Benny to Braxiatel’s brother without specifically referring to him as “the Doctor”). This is no doubt deliberate to keep Volume 1 true to the era in which it is purportedly set (even though the Bernice range actually more comfortably embraced its Doctor Who heritage pre-the Fifth Axis invasion) but Volume 2 exhibits no such limitations.

On one hand, the middle tale of Volume 2 – The Empress of Drahva – references the ruthless female Drahvins first encountered in the Hartnell tale Galaxy Four, thereby utilising one of Doctor Who’s lesser iconic villains as early “seasons” of the Benny range did in 2002-04 (when it used the Ice Warriors, the Rutans, the Draconians and the Sea Devils as antagonists). The Doctor’s murky dark side counterpart the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) in Eddie Robson’s Every Dark Thought (glimpsed on the boxset cover, so it’s only a mild spoiler on this writer’s behalf!) could also technically count as one of these “one-off” antagonists. Nevertheless, he seems a strange choice for an adversary in what is also a peculiar choice of tale for a boxset that is celebrating two decades of Bernice’s exploits.

While Bernice’s character is most commonly associated with the Seventh Doctor, she has met other incarnations of the Time Lord in the audios and books (eg the Eighth Doctor, the Twelfth Doctor, and more recently the “Unbound” Doctor in Volumes 3 and 4 of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield). Therefore, Robson’s intention is to clearly show how Benny will shape up against an incarnation that lacks the Doctor’s moral fibre.

Benny confidently holds her own against this version and there are instances when even this personification is not immune from the Doctor’s proclivity for “mansplaining” and arrogantly dismissing the advice and counsel of his/her companions. However, stylistically the whole tale would probably be more fitting and interesting if it were part of The Diary of River Song saga than a Benny adventure. There would have been considerably more gravitas pitting the Doctor’s archaeologist wife against his darker alter ego. (Perhaps it’s still not too late for BF to consider such a pairing in the future but I digress …)

The Empress of Drahva, by comparison, is more traditional fare from David Llewellyn, as well as being a comedy adventure. Benny and her erstwhile assistant Ruth (Ayesha Antoine) crash-land on the torus-shaped world of Drahva, whose inhabitants are still to become the spacefaring conquerors the First Doctor encountered. By a quirk of fate, the black-skinned Ruth is mistaken for and worshipped by the blonde-haired, pale-skinned Drahvins as the reincarnation of an ancient empress.

The story has many parallels with another Hartnell era tale The Aztecs (eg false deities, human offerings and sacrifices, an engagement, efforts to break into a tomb to steal a space vessel), although the similarities do not make this tale the wholesale parody that The Grel Invasion of Earth definitely is. By contrast with The Aztecs, it’s a fun romp, with the luckless, naive Ruth thinking she’s hit the jackpot with chocolate for breakfast, foot massages, gold-layered four-poster beds and a suitor that to her smells of “sexy almonds” and whose name Bernice equates with a character from Lord of the Rings!

Indeed, Antoine almost literally upstages Bowerman in the humour and sarcasm stakes. It’s enough to make this novice eagerly seek out Professor Summerfield’s adventures earlier this decade when Ruth was a staple cast member!

The final instalment of the second volume – and of both celebratory volumes – is the bleak Angel of History which completely eschews much of the tongue in cheek atmosphere of Benny’s adventures. Given Volume 2 of The Story So Far preceded Season 11 of Doctor Who by a matter of weeks (it was released in September 2018), this serial could be described as perhaps this set’s answer to the recent TV episode Rosa. Una McCormack’s script enables Lisa Bowerman to stretch her acting range as Bernice literally steps into the shoes of another archaeologist, Annis, who is persecuted for her indigenous/ethnic heritage and for her theories about her people’s true history.

While there are some superficial parallels from McCormack’s serial that could be drawn with Rosa (eg the treatment at first of Annis’s people is akin to the discrimination of the African-Americans of the US deep south or European Jews prior to the Second World War), the tale becomes more sinister as it moves from prejudice to abhorrence to genocide. The old South African apartheid regime is also evoked as various authoritarian policemen are portrayed with intimidating Afrikaner-style accents and brutally break up and assault peaceful demonstrators.

Interestingly, while the fascistic nature of the governing regime is strongly implied, McCormack never reveals what it is about Annis and her people that makes them stand out from their world’s other inhabitants and justifies discrimination and persecution. Is it their appearance (eg skin colour)? Is it because they were the original, indigenous inhabitants? Is it because they outnumber the descendants of the original colonists? It’s never really explained even after the Doctor (David Warner) steps in to break Bernice out of an induced dream-like state.

Nevertheless, The Angel of History is a powerful tale about a courageous woman – not unlike Rosa Parkes – who stays true to herself and her convictions and defies a despotic regime that would prefer that she is meek and silent. Annis is a more introverted character than Bernice, but Bowerman’s performance is exceptional, as she dials back much of Benny’s outspokenness and expresses the vulnerability of Annis’s character.

The Story So Far is a fitting double set to celebrate Bernice Summerfield’s journey at Big Finish. While some of the stories are a strange fit for a celebratory set (Every Dark Thought, The Angel of History), they nevertheless demonstrate the versatility and imagination of the Benny range which – much like Doctor Who itself – has endured for as long as it has because the various writers, producers and directors have been prepared to take risks, be daring and (much like Benny herself) have fun.

The set is particularly a good primer for fans who are interested in learning more about Bernice but don’t necessarily know where in her range to start. There are enough “breadcrumbs”, so to speak, for casual listeners to have a taste of the fun to be had – especially at a time in Doctor Who’s life when the most recent TV series has been accused by some fans of being too “politically correct” and “preachy”, too character-focused at the expense of drama, and “devoid” of credible monsters and antagonists.  If you’re one of those fans, then Bernice is a welcome reprieve from those more “earnest” aspects of the program’s escapism – and as long as BF continues, long may Bernice continue to be a long-standing fixture!