Doctor Who - The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield - Vol 4: Ruler of the UniverseBookmark and Share

Sunday, 16 September 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Doctor Who - The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield - Vol 4: Ruler of the Universe
Director: Scott Handcock

Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)

First Released: September 2017

Running Time: 5 hours

 “Well, you did find something! So what’s the problem?”

“You are, Mr President! You are!”

“Don’t call me that – you know I hate being called that! I’m the Doctor ...”

“No, that’s the problem, you’re not – not anymore!”

The “Unbound” Doctor and Bernice Summerfield

 

As this month marks 20 years since Professor Bernice Summerfield (Lisa Bowerman) made her audio debut with Big Finish, it seems only fitting ahead of BF’s birthday celebrations for Benny later this month to review her most recent set of adventures which occurred in a parallel, “Unbound” universe.

In Volume 3 of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, Benny found herself stranded in another universe with a completely different version of her (and our favourite) Time Lord – one of the “Unbound” Doctors (brilliantly portrayed by veteran David Warner). To compound matters, this variation on the Doctor Who universe (or Whoniverse) was on the brink of total collapse.

When Volume 4 opens, Bernice has returned to her roots and is undertaking an archaeological dig on an ancient world, hoping to uncover evidence of the Apocalypse Clock, a mythical device that could halt this universe’s imminent demise. The Doctor, meanwhile, has resumed his role as president of the universe (after initially shunning the responsibility) and is finding himself increasingly burdened in the day to day affairs of state – much to his and Summerfield’s chagrin. He is therefore happy to visit Benny to inspect her progress on the dig as a little bit of PR and to escape the trappings of office.

The City and the Clock, the opening instalment in this quadrilogy, is the straightest and most conventional of the four serials which are, for the most part, quite satirical and madcap. Unfortunately, it’s also a quite plain drama, lacking the tension and suspense that you would associate with a tale about mummified, undead creatures stalking the ruins of their ancient city at night. Indeed, if it weren’t for the introduction of the infamous clock that is a recurring theme in the box set, the story would be redundant.

It’s saying something when the memorable moments of this play are the cleverly written dialogue, exchanges and interplay between Benny and the Doctor (“What possible interpretation of the words ‘first’ and ‘class’ include having Karfel’s Next Top Model played at you? I wanted to confess five minutes in and I hadn’t done anything!”). A balloon ride over the ancient ruins also has Warner’s Doctor waxing philosophically:

The Doctor: It puts things in perspective, rather doesn’t it? Seeing it from up here – a whole ancient town, once a thriving community, people living lives, sleeping, eating, loving and dying under all those roofs and then …

Benny: The dust of ages, layer by layer, burying it from sight …

The Doctor: You’d think travelling in time, I’d get used to it – the idea that we’re all nothing more than temporary fixtures, walking bones, but I don’t! Everything we’re doing at the moment – all the plans, all the panic, all the meetings, everyone thinks it’s important because nothing’s ever more real than now. The people that lived down there thought the same thing – look where it’s got them! Nothing matters, not really. We’re all just waiting for the dust to bury us!

Benny: Well, I’m so glad you popped by – you’ve cheered me up no end!

Otherwise, aside from terrific dialogue, the plotline of The City and the Clock – and the premise behind the clock – is entirely forgettable. It’s a pity because writer Guy Adams clearly devises the story to put Benny back into her element – yet the tale, which is slow from the get-go, never builds to a dramatic crescendo, and Benny doesn’t get to employ the smarts that make her such a terrific archaeologist.

Strangely, after the “drama” of the first instalment, Asking for a Friend is a more character-based and pensive piece, as Benny and the Doctor grapple with the dilemmas of having to make compromises in a dying universe to save the hundreds of civilisations that fall outside the clock’s sphere of influence. This includes diplomacy with tyrants and zealots, and false promises to the needy. Indeed, Benny’s disappointment in the Doctor is apparently so great that at her suggestion the Time Lord ends up seeing a therapist (played by the wonderfully ebullient Annette Badland, famous for her portrayal in the first season of the modern TV series as the Slitheen Margaret Blaine). Of course, conducting therapy sessions with someone as complicated and self-absorbed as the Doctor is never going to be easy (he himself remarks it’s like “a mosquito scratching at a continent”!) – and that’s before you factor in time travel as well!

James Goss, the other writer of this boxset, provides a quite compelling tête-à-tête between Guilana the therapist and the Time Lord, as they verbally spar to pry sensitive information from the other. Attention to detail is required of the listener, as each new session between the two hints at subtle, new elements from the last scene between them (in the CD extras, Goss admits that he has “borrowed” an idea from former executive producer Steven Moffat that he used not just once but twice – notably in the TV serial A Christmas Carol, and a short story called Continuity Errors from way back in 1996!). When the consequences of these sessions finally come to a head, it is only then that you perhaps fully appreciate just how alone and isolated – and hopelessly disconnected – the Doctor must be in this – and in any other – universe.

In turn, put a solitary character like the Doctor in charge of executive government, and it’s little wonder that in the next serial Truant, he returns to his adventuring of old. The pre-titles sequence to this third instalment is highly amusing, as the Doctor’s attempts at heroics against amateurish evildoers and ne’er-do-wells are thwarted by their cowardice and his own reputation for being a champion (“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Is there nobody with a backbone in this stupid universe?” he moans at one point).

Even when the Doctor eventually encounters a conspiracy he can get his teeth into, much to his frustration he realises he has arrived too late to overturn the appalling wrong that has been inflicted. Nevertheless, Truant is one of the highlights of the set, mixing the right levels of drama and humour, as the Doctor and Benny evade unprofessional and sloppy villains in the Silvans, who are as much incidental victims of the conspiracy historically as their purported victims. Only in Doctor Who could the titular hero convincingly pull off a getaway by stealing not only a vehicle but its effusive driver as well – or “interrogate” the chief villain over coffee and chocolate biscuits! Guy Adams’ script is probably still a little too wacky for TV, but it suits the BF audio format perfectly.

The boxset closes with The True Saviour of the Universe, as the Doctor upon his return to parliament is arrested and thrust into impeachment proceedings. Much to Benny’s suspicion, the arrest coincides with the sudden arrival of this universe’s incarnation of the Master (Sam Kisgart, aka Mark Gatiss) and the emergence of a hooded figure which has been offering parliamentarians incentives to oust the Doctor from office since the events of The City and the Clock. Are they connected? Does the Master have designs on the presidency, so he can hijack the Apocalypse Clock? James Goss’s clever script challenges and upturns all the listener’s expectations while poking fun at all of Doctor Who’s conventions.

Goss jokes that The True Saviour of the Universe is “a remake of Logopolis involving Cthulu and singing nuns” – which, despite sounding far-fetched, is an apt description. The Sisterhood of Beedlix, like the Logopolitans, can influence the fabric of the universe through songs and prayer that recite the power of numbers. The appearance of the “old ones” at the gateway to another universe at the climax is an old riff on the nineties New Adventures novels, which regularly pitted the Doctor and his companions, including Benny, against “ancient evils from the dawn of time” – to the point of overkill.

Further, Goss has fun challenging the many clichés that fans have come to associate with the Doctor and the Master over many decades. For example, when Benny asks the Master how he survived his execution at the Emporium in the closing chapter of the Vol 3 boxset, his response is simple yet curt - “Don’t be boring!” – a subtle nod to eighties Doctor Who, in which no explanation was ever given for the Master cheating death or escaping from tight scrapes. Other quotations and dialogue subtly homage Logopolis and The Daemons, as the Master seeks to harness the power of the “old ones” to seize control of the universe. Of course, the joke is very much on the Master – and in the most unexpected way …

The production qualities of this boxset, like next to all of BF’s input, is first class – as are the performances of the first tier and supporting casts. Warner and Bowerman are a fantastic Doctor/companion combo and Kisgart/Gatiss is charming, urbane and oily as the Master (although Gatiss has far too much fun as his Kisgart persona in the CD extras for my taste). The flirtatiousness of the Benny/Master combo also puts an unusual spin on the usual antagonism between Master and companion.

As mentioned above, Badland is outstanding as the Doctor’s therapist, while Catrin Stewart (Jenny Flint of the Paternoster Gang) puts in an understated appearance as the aide-de-camp to the wimpy Silvan leader (Jonathan Bailey). Most notably, Hattie Hayridge (better known as the female Holly in Red Dwarf) delivers a terrific performance as the Doctor’s press secretary, deftly diverting and deflecting the tough questions about her President’s leadership in exchanges with Guy Adams’ hard-hitting journalist.

Volume 4 of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield is an entertaining boxset which isn’t afraid to be tongue-in-cheek about Doctor Who’s conventions and show a strong sense of humour and fun. It isn’t constrained by the continuity of the regular series, so it can afford to be more audacious and satirical. This means it won’t necessarily be for every fan who prefers the more no-nonsense style of the TV series adventures, or even some of BF’s regular Doctor Who output – but if you’re a long-term fan of Benny (who as a character herself isn’t above taking the piss), then you’re in for a treat.

Indeed, the set ends on an upbeat note and with a paradox to boot. I won’t say what that paradox is (spoilers!) but if BF isn’t already sorely tempted to exploit the potential for a run-in with Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in the future, then clearly the company’s heart isn’t in the right place! We’ll perhaps have a better idea of how this oxymoron may be addressed later this month in Volumes 1 and 2 of the next Benny series The Story So Far.

 






The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume 3: The Unbound Universe (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 9 September 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Bernice Summerfield: Volume Three - The Unbound Universe (Credit: Big Finish)Written by James Goss, Guy Adams, Una McCormack, Emma Reeves
Directed by Scott Handcock

Cast: Lisa Bowerman (Professor Bernice Summerfield), David Warner (The Doctor), Zeb Soanes (The Librarian), Guy Adams (The Sage of Sardner), Tom Webster (Acolyte Farnsworth), Rowena Cooper (Mother Superior), Alex Jordan (Mandeville/Kareem Chief/Acolyte), Sophie Wu (Millie), Julie Graham (Prime Minister 470), Damian Lynch (Ego), Kerry Gooderson (Megatz), Deirdre Mullins (Fleet Admiral Effenish), George Blagden (Colonel Neave), Richard Earl (Gallario), Aaron Neil (Aramatz), Laura Doddington (Idratz), Lizzie Hopley (Sister Christie), Shvorne Marls (Ampz), Gus Brown (Forz), Scott Handcock (Elevator) and Sam Kisgart as the Master

Big Finish Productions – Released August 2016 

The concept of teaming up Big Finish’s longest serving lead character Bernice Summerfield withDavid Warner’s alternative Third Doctor (first introduced the 2003 Unbound story Sympathy for the Devil and last heard in the 2008 sequel MastersofWar) sounds like the sort of idea that the Big Finish execs might have come up with out of desperation to think of something “new” to do with Benny. However, with the news that Warner’s Doctor would be coming out of retirement alongside the infamous ‘Sam Kisgart’* reprising his rather unique take on The Master, this box set has become one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of the year, even with the ongoing excitement of Big Finish’s new series tie-ins. This reviewer is therefore pleased to say that for the most part, this box set does not disappoint. Teaming upLisa Bowerman’s universe-weary Bernice with David Warner's Doctor and a different universe where she’s completely cut off from everything familiar proves to be just the innovation this range needed and definitely an improvement over the previous two volumes of “New Adventures”.

 

The box set opens with Bernice being totally unsurprised by the TARDIS’ appearance and commenting that the Doctor’s frequent reappearances in her life are like a “lazy Suzy” before realising that she’s facing an unfamiliar Doctor who has used her as part of a failed attempt to escape from his own dying universe. There is an instant chemistry between the two leads with Warner's Doctor showing a twinkle in his grumpiness that occasionally reminds of CapaldiJames Goss’ opening story The Library In The Body takes a concept from the early 1970s and puts a wholly unique twist on it, although the constantly singing nuns are a bit irritating. There are however nice turns from Radio 4 announcer Zeb Soanes as the Librarian and Rowena Cooper as the Mother Superior.

Planet X by Guy Adams sees the Doctor and Bernice arrive on a planet supposedly so boring that no one could be bothered to name it properly. What they instead discover is a totalitarian society ruled over by none other than Julie Graham in wonderfully sinister form as Prime Minister 470. As the Doctor takes it upon himself to bring the Prime Minister’s regime to an end, Bernice is teamed up with ‘Millie’, an ordinary citizen who learns to experience genuine emotions for the first time, very believably played by Sophie Wu.

Una McCormack’s The Very Dark Thing picks up the story sometime later with the Doctor apparently sat by a river doing nothing on the idyllic world of Tramatz which is apparently being terrorised by unicorns. At the heart of this story is the revelation that the unbound universe is suffering from the aftermath of a cataclysmic event not entirely dissimilar to the Time War, except this time there are no Daleks involved.

This box set concludes with Emma ReevesThe Emporium At The End, in which Bernice and the Doctor find themselves apparently facing the very end of existence as everyone attempts to escape with the apparent help of a sinister individual known only as “the manager”. Rather frustratingly, the Doctor never quite manages to fully recognise his old enemy and as Bernice has never encountered the Master before she is unable to provide enlightenment. However, it is to be hoped that we’ve not heard the last of Sam Kisgart’s memorable incarnation. Bernice shares some great scenes with the manager and the Mother Superior returning from the first story in this set.

This is a very enjoyable box set with excellent music composed by Jamie Robertson. Particular kudos should also go to Blair Mowat for his unique arrangement of the Doctor Who theme tune which genuinely sounds as if it might have been composed in an alternative version of the 1970s. Lisa Bowerman and David Warner make a fun team and it is rather pleasing that the door has been left open for them to have more adventures in the unbound universe before Bernice returns home. Yet another reason to look forward with eager anticipation to Big Finish’s output for 2017.

 

*The behind the scenes disc includes a lengthy discussion on Kisgart's career, for listeners who haven't tired of the joke by this stage an extended version of the interview with Kisgart was featured in a recent Big Finish podcast.