Big Finish Review: Doctor Who – The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Vol 6
The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Vol 6 is the latest instalment in the long-running Bernice Summerfield range, which a few years ago was revamped to feature the titular archaeologist alongside an incarnation of the Doctor – originally the Seventh, and now an ‘unbound’ version from an alternate universe. With the subtitle of Lost in Translation, this set’s stories all play on the theme of communication.
Lost in Translation stars Lisa Bowerman as Professor Bernice Summerfield, David Warner as the Doctor, and features Seán Carlsen as the Time Lord Narvin. This release - available from Big Finish’s website – showcases the regular Big Finish producer/director teaming of James Goss and Scott Handcock, with sound design and music by Steve Foxon. It is available exclusively at Big Finish before going on general release on the 31st October. Here are the synopses...
Have I Told You Lately? by Tim Foley
Bernice and the Doctor find themselves lost in the dark with the only clue to their surroundings a mysterious voice.
The Undying Truth by JA Prentice
A mysterious mission has discovered a body, one that should never be found. Can the Undying really be dead after all?
Inertia by James Goss
A remote island on a dull world. Some boring natives, some uninteresting ruins. Can two time travellers manage to do nothing for a month?
Gallifrey by Guy Adams and AK Benedict
The Doctor has come home. But he doesn’t belong here. And Bernice thinks there’s something very wrong with Gallifrey.
Have I Told You Lately?
Tim Foley has recently developed a name for himself in crafting unique, innovative story structures for Big Finish, particularly for the Torchwood range; think Tropical Beach Sounds, Dissected or Another Man’s Shoes. Have I Told You Lately? is the latest such story, offering not only a welcome return to the world of Benny and the Doctor but also a creepy hour-long drama with something profound to say.
Tim Foley’s script is a clever three-hander between Benny and the Doctor, who find themselves separated and alone on a spaceship with no means of direct communication – apart from a third, unseen entity called the Speaker (voiced by Misha Butler) that gradually develops the function of speech. The way the Speaker begins to copy the words spoken by the two of them, throwing them back and adding in new phrases – the entire situation sends a shiver down the spine and recalls the similarly unsettling horror of the Doctor Who episode Midnight.
Foley’s dialogue cleverly links scenes taking place in two discrete locations before bringing Benny and the Doctor back together at the end. The haunting solitude and etherealness at the heart of the story are compounded by the minimalist musicscape; the episode is best heard with headphones on in a quiet environment with the volume up, to maximise the impact of the sound design and dialogue.
Words have power, and communication is key – and Have I Told You Lately? is an intimate and creepy opening episode to this set.
The Undying Truth
The second story ushers in a new name for both Bernice Summerfield and Big Finish – American writer JA Prentice. The Undying Truth is the winning entry from last year’s Big Finish writing competition and proves well-deserving of inclusion in this volume.
At the core of the story is some respectable world building and an intriguing central idea: the body of a fabled, and allegedly immortal, warrior king known as the Undying has been discovered and excavated by a group of “corporate archaeologists”.
What keeps the tone sharp and the tale absorbing is the undercurrent of anti-capitalist satire: marketing and commercial interests must be protected above all other concerns; pop-up ads that must run their course before a computer’s controls can be accessed; lines like “Any death is a tragedy, but at least this one won’t impact our insurance” and “Work’s the best treatment for grief”.
Prentice illustrates the witty repartee between Benny and the Doctor leads well, in addition to how easily they get on each other’s nerves. The four supporting characters who complete the cast, although not provided with detailed background and motivation, are vivified with gusto by Lois Chimimba, Rosie Day, Raj Ghatak and Lawry Lewin.
The Doctor – a rogue, aberrant element in this universe – has been identified by the Time Lords, who are now on his trail. In an attempt to evade capture, Benny and the Doctor settle down on a quiet, remote world and attempt to do nothing for a month – not even enter the TARDIS.
The synopsis for Inertia is very James Goss, and so is the script; it’s packed full of witty asides and dry humour. The story functions also – completely coincidentally, as recording occurred back in early March – as a science fiction-drama version of the current quarantine era: in trying to remain undetected, Benny and the Doctor attempt to entertain themselves with board games, new hobbies and countless cups of tea; there are warily-placed ground rules and bickering in close quarters; and Benny counts down the days, one by one. The Doctor even has a sourdough starter.
Inertia, very intentionally, treads water prior to the big finale. The bulk of the run time consists of Benny and the Doctor arguing about the rules of Monopoly, or trading theories about the archaeological digs they are uncovering. (Having the TARDIS, and therefore the TARDIS translation circuit, turned off is a crafty way of compelling the pair to use their wits to decipher carvings and communicate with locals – tying into the theme.) The stage is set for the final episode, which promises something of a reckoning for this version of the Doctor.
What is the collective noun for a group of Time Lords? An eternity? / A judgement.
From the outside, Gallifrey is probably the story with the most going for it. It’s the most epic-sounding, with the biggest stakes – and it certainly proves heaviest on continuity, with this Doctor’s return to his home planet, just in the wrong universe. Upon arrival, Benny and the Doctor encounter Narvin (Seán Carlsen), head of the Celestial Intervention Agency, who crosses over from Big Finish’s Gallifrey series, and a new character called the Inquisitor (Siân Phillips), whose imperiousness and sense of grandiose entitlement are classic Time Lord traits.
The episode is all about this Doctor’s complicated relationship with Gallifrey – reflecting some of the truest attributes of the ‘real’ Doctor, whose relationship with fellow Time Lords is similarly fraught – and of there being something wrong on Gallifrey – because isn’t there always?
The episode is a join writing effort from Guy Adams and AK Benedict, and although no explanation is given for this unusual fact – as the majority of Big Finish stories are commissioned for and credited to a single writer – the result is an episode that puts Benny front and centre. With the Doctor, branded “the Aberration”, is put on trial for existing in this universe, Benny is appointed as his defence. Benny is also the one who takes the lead in solving the mystery and saving the Doctor.
For all the gentle bickering and disagreements, the true and close friendship between Benny and the Doctor is what makes these stories highly entertaining and worthwhile.
Keep listening after the first three episodes for a short track of interviews tagged on at the end. The cast of The Undying Truth, in sharing their horror stories on the set of advertisement shoots and playfully boasting about who’s done what in the Doctor Who universe, take the cake for most entertaining anecdote.
David Warner’s grumpy uncle performance – in many ways evoking the First Doctor or early-era Twelfth Doctor – is charming in its grouchiness, and is balanced out by Benny’s infectious exuberance, which itself owes a lot to Lisa Bowerman’s never less than enthusiastic portrayal of a character she has been playing now for over twenty years.
Volume six of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield consists of four concentrated, detailed episodes that put Benny and the Doctor front and centre. For equal amounts of banter, exploits and drama, pick up this latest entertaining release from Big Finish.