❉ Unearthing Adventures with the Doctor’s favourite archaeologists, featuring contributions by some of Big Finish’s best writers.
“River may get put through the wringer physically and emotionally, but she can still manage a snappy retort and her relatively brief “screen time” with Tom Baker’s incarnation of the Doctor is enjoyable…”
Big Finish Productions recently announced a massive crossover event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their Doctor Who line in 2019. On the basis of previous crossovers, such as The Light at the End, it’s an open question whether The Legacy of Time will deliver as much on the narrative front as it does in the area fan-service. That said, one element that sounds suitably intriguing is the arguably overdue meeting between the Doctor’s favorite archaeologists, New Adventures companion Bernice Summerfield and “New Series” mainstay River Song. While that encounter is many months away, both characters are very much a part of Big Finish’s current output. Last month’s releases included the fourth series set from The Diary of River Song and a pair of boxed-sets marking the 20th anniversary of Benny’s Big Finish debut.
After two sets that were well done but bit scattered narratively, The Diary of River Song seemed to hit its stride with the third series earlier this year. That release benefitted from a more cohesive storyline and much better integration of the Doctor than its predecessors. The latest set is something of a step back in quality though certainly not for lack of effort, especially on Alex Kingston’s part.
River may get put through the wringer physically and emotionally in her struggle with the Discordia, but she can still manage a snappy retort. “I said no monologues, and I meant no monologues!” she declares in Kings of Infinite Space, as her main antagonist Melak is pushed into a volcano. Since that episode is only the second part of the overall story, Melak’s survival is as unsurprising as it is indicative of the set’s fundamental problem. Kingston’s investment in the character feels genuine and her relatively brief “screen time” with Tom Baker’s incarnation of the Doctor is enjoyable, however, too many of the elements surrounding her feel generic.
The dilemma – as opposed to “problem” – with River Song is that with very few exceptions the Professor has literally seen it all. For the most part, so have many fans. Because her onscreen adventures often had universal implications, having her face a threat on that scale isn’t particularly novel. The release format compounds that issue by squeezing the storyline into a single set with a strict four-part structure, which doesn’t allow enough time for it to develop a unique personality.
As many fans of Colin Baker’s Doctor will attest, Big Finish’s Doctor Who range generally works best when it transcends the approaches of its television counterpart. Outside of audio drama’s ability to sidestep both budgetary elements and Tom Baker’s age, relatively little in this release feels genuinely distinct from her onscreen escapades. Even the would-be narrative detour, Whodunnit?, hinges on River’s Melody Malone personality. Ultimately, the continuity restrictions inherent in her character may just make it too hard for her series to distinguish itself.
“…the scope and variety across the two volumes of Bernice Summerfield: The Story So Far is truly striking. Though these six stories feature recurring elements from Benny’s history, the sets never feel trapped by nostalgia. For all the danger and drama, there’s actually a genuine sense of fun throughout.”
On the other hand, after decades of exploits across a variety of media, Professor Bernice Summerfield – played by the First Lady of Big Finish, Lisa Bowerman – continues to distinguish herself. Bearing in mind the character’s significance in Big Finish’s history, it’s not surprising that her audio debut’s 20th anniversary merits two celebratory sets, but the scope and variety across the two volumes of Bernice Summerfield: The Story So Far is truly striking. Though these six stories feature recurring elements from Benny’s history, the sets never feel trapped by nostalgia. For all the danger and drama, there’s actually a genuine sense of fun throughout.
Anthologies tend to be hit-and-miss, but these sets benefit from contributions by some of Big Finish’s best writers, all of whom have previously written for the character. What particularly impresses is that the stories are enjoyable even for listeners without a deep familiarity with Benny’s history. It probably helps a bit to know who Jason Kane and Irving Braxiatel are, but The Grel Invasion Of Earth and Braxiatel In Love both strike the right balance of offering enough background information to avoid needing Wikipedia without slowing down the story.
Of the two releases, the second will be the most interesting for Doctor Who fans since all three of its stories have specific connections to the main program. Empress of the Drahvins continues the range’s tradition of Benny meeting the show’s alien races without the Doctor. Things get complicated for Benny and her companion Ruth Leonidas when they crash on Drahva and get caught up in the intrigue of the planet’s matriarchal society. They get extremely complicated when it’s revealed that the Drahvins need a new empress but pick Ruth rather than Benny. It’s a measure of the set’s overall quality that a story as good as Empress of the Drahvins is overshadowed by those on either side of it featuring incarnations of the Doctor.
In terms of casting and content, neither Every Dark Thought nor The Angel of History is a conventional Doctor Who story. Every Dark Thought features Michael Jayston as the Doctor’s malevolent splinter-self the Valeyard. Though Benny initially believes him to be the Doctor, she eventually sees through his pretense and is forced to stop his plan while trying to survive an attack by a race of nasty cybernetic gastropods who are chasing the Doctor/Valeyard.
Jayston and Bowerman play well off of each other throughout, but the standout scenes come after Benny learns the truth. Where Big Finish’s previous dramas featuring the Valeyard tended to get tangled up in continuity, Every Dark Thought keeps the focus on his character. When confronted by Benny about his fear of becoming more like the Doctor, the Valeyard offers an epic response.
“You’ll never know what it’s like to understand the true scale of the universe and take it all on your shoulders. The constant thoughts of all the people you didn’t save and all the people you never will. Nobody should have to live like that.”
This moment doesn’t just define the Valeyard’s character better than ever, it gets to the heart of the Doctor’s as well. David Warner’s “Unbound” incarnation of the Doctor has been doing that since 2003, most recently in a pair of New Adventures boxed-sets with Benny, which are among Big Finish’s best Doctor Who releases from the last few years. Benny and the Doctor aren’t quite themselves for much of The Angel of History, which recalls the 2004 drama The Natural History of Fear. When they finally do get to play their regular roles in the story, those few minutes generate a depth of feeling that Starkly counterpoints Tom Baker’s role in The Diary of River Song.
Though the fates of the main characters in The Story So Far are no more in doubt than those featured in The Diary of River Song, the former feels much more consequential. Both series have deep ties to Doctor Who’s continuity, but the production team for Summerfield’s adventures seem more adept at using it as a springboard. They also benefit from having a Doctor whose future is unconstrained by that continuity (and played by a national treasure). In contrast, Tom Baker’s appearance alongside River Song – like most by the Doctor in her series – felt almost perfunctory. Hopefully River’s next set, featuring multiple incarnations of the Master, will display a greater spark. In the meantime, Bernice Summerfield remains Big Finish’s best current spin-off from Doctor Who.
❉ ‘Bernice Summerfield: The Story So Far’ Volumes 1 and 2 were released in September 2018 and will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until October 31st 2018, and on general sale after this date. For more information or to order, click here.
❉ ‘The Diary of River Song: Series 4’ was released in September 2018. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until November 30th 2018, and on general sale after this date.