James reviews the first story in the tenth season of Big Finish’s Bernice Summerfield range.
Written By: Nick Wallace
Directed By: John Ainsworth
Starring: Lisa Bowerman, Thomas Grant, Miles Richardson, Louise Faulkner, Harry Myers
Running Time: 61:09
Released: June 2009
Amazing as it is to contemplate, Professor Bernice Summerfield is rapidly coming up to her twentieth anniversary. It’s enough to make those of us who read her debut in Paul Cornell’s Love and War when it was first published in 1992 feel very old enough (something she would no doubt have great sympathy with) although perhaps the biggest shock is not that we’re still following her but that after all she’s been through she’s still alive and (relatively speaking) in one piece. Created by Cornell she started life in Virgin’s New Adventures as the Seventh Doctor’s main travelling companion, quickly becoming that range’s most interesting character, so much so that as many novels concentrated on her and her personal hardships as they did the Doctor. During the nearly fifty novels in which she appeared she gained then lost a soul mate, got married, became guardian for the Doctor’s memories, eventually tracked down her missing father and even possibly, maybe, perhaps, slept with the Eighth Doctor. When Virgin lost their license to publish original Who fiction following the McGann movie in 1996 they continued the NA imprint with Benny as the main star, and while sales inevitably dropped off it was more to do with the fact Doctor Who fans have only a limited amount of money to splash around than any deterioration in the quality of the novels. At roughly the same time a then little known company called Big Finish inquired into the possibility of adapting some of the novels into audio dramas, a series successful enough to persuade the BBC that perhaps there was some merit in the idea of original Doctor Who audios…
Not for the last time, Benny had escaped oblivion by the skin of her teeth. Just as her audio adventures kicked off Virgin pulled the plug on the NAs, so that if it wasn’t for BF’s Jason Haigh-Ellery and Gary Russell she would now be little more than a fond memory for a generation of readers. However, just as important to her survival, and the single most important reason why she is now just as popular as ever, was the actress cast to play her. At the time Lisa Bowerman was best known to fandom as having played Karra the Cheetah in Sylvester McCoy’s last story Survival. Four audios later, Karra was all but forgotten, the actress having managed to do the near impossible in bringing to life a long-standing literary character to the satisfaction of nearly all who listened to her. Right from her first scene in Oh No It Isn’t! she simply was Benny, and from that moment on the character became defined as much by her performance as the nearly fifty novels which preceded that first audio.
Since that time there have been nine seasons of Benny audios, as well as, briefly, a further collection of books. If Doctor Who is BF’s star striker then Benny is their mascot, constantly there, year after year, always engendering huge enthusiasm from her followers and surviving when many more high profile ranges have gone the way of Adric. Over time the audios have built on the background of the NA novels to present an ever-more involved arc, at the heart of which is Benny’s relationship with Irving Braxiatel (played by Miles Richardson), her increasingly Machiavellian mentor whose amoral scheming has propelled many of the range’s most memorable stories. After coming to something of a crescendo in Season Eight, at the end of which Benny went on the run from Brax with her son Peter, last year’s ninth adopted a more back-to-basics approach with a series of standalone adventures that needed little to no knowledge of what had gone before. From the very start of Glory Days it’s clear, however, that Season Ten is going to plunge her head first back in the maelstrom, with a play that serves as much as a prologue to a forthcoming showdown with Brax as it does a story in its own right. Reuniting Benny with her former cohorts Bev Tarrant and Adrian Wall (Louise Faulkner and Harry Myers), both of whom were last heard from protecting her back in the latter plays of Season Eight, Nick Wallace’s play is not one for newcomers to the range, relying on its listeners having not only a great deal of knowledge of past plays but also a deep understanding of the nature of the relationships between Benny, Adrian, Bev and Brax. It’s in an examination of that involved web, and the clues pointing to what might be lying ahead for all of them, that the main interest of the play lies.
The actual story, in which the three team up to break into, Mission: Impossible-style, one of the most secure bank vaults in the universe, is fine but offers no new twists to that well-worn theme. There are ventilation ducts to be clambered through, disguises to be adopted, alarms to be tripped and, when all seems lost, a last minute twist revealing our heroes were way ahead of even the listeners, all very Ocean’s Eleven but with few surprises. The bank, run by a gaggle of Brax clones (a Collection of Braxes?), is admittedly quite amusing; the clones, controlled by an AI known as the “Glory” (another Brax lookalike) are played with a light-hearted officiousness by Richardson, while the Benny clone, grown by Adrian to substitute for the real Benny as she scrambles through the bank’s ducts, plays up to the hard-drinking, hard-shagging Benny cliches, much to the real Benny’s annoyance. But despite the deft little touches the actual mechanics of what the three are doing are not especially interesting resulting in a middle portion of the play which drags a little.
But, just as the three late on reveal that their initial plan was nothing more than a smokescreen to distract the guards, so too is the narrative little more than something on which to hang the real meat of the play, the interactions between the four main characters. Aside from a series of flashbacks Brax himself isn’t in the play but he hangs over proceedings like an ominous storm cloud, casting lengthy shadows over all three main protagonists. The opening scenes has Benny coming face-to-face with the violence inflicted on her friends by her nemesis in his quest to get at her, while later on she has a lengthy monologue in which she muses on how he has changed over the course of their adventures, slowly slipping from the seemingly decent man she first knew into the scheming adversary at the end of Season Eight. Thanks to him she has nearly lost everything, including her friends – at the play’s outset it appears as though the three are still fairly distant from each other, but as the closing music begins to play it’s clear that they’ve been working together on the raid for far longer than we realised, and are far more united than we were led to believe. Ultimately, Glory Days is saying, Brax hasn’t divided them, but instead made their bond stronger, together and all having unfinished business with him. “We’ve beaten him before, and we can do it again,” we are told very firmly, and we believe them. Half way through the play I was wondering quite where it was going – by the end it was very clear.
Glory Days is thus a curtain raiser to the rest of the season, a prologue rather than a complete play in its own right. It reminds us of what has gone before, re-introducing both some key characters and raising the stakes for what it implies is to come, resolving the dangling threads of Season Eight in preparation for an impending showdown. After last year’s enjoyable but lightweight plays it makes for a welcome change of tone, and as a teaser is perfectly judged, guaranteed to whet the appetite for the upcoming main attraction. “Even now I’m not sure what his endgame really is,” muses Benny at one point and, although his name is noticeably missing from the rest of the season’s cast list, it’s impossible now to believe we’re not going to get closer to the answer to that by the end of the season. A fairly standard play on its own, but a highly promising opener, Glory Day suggests that Benny is going to have a tenth anniversary to remember.
Glory Days is priced at £10.99 and can be bought directly from Big Finish’s website here.
Next Month: When Benny and Peter are left stranded on a world’s made entirely from space junk she is forced to leave her son and join an expedition into the heart of the planet to pay for their passage off the planet. But what dangers lie ahead of her and will Peter be any safer left on the surface? Absence will be released at the end of July and reviewed here.
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