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.