❉ Doctor Who fan favourite returns alongside David Warner’s Unbound Doctor.
“Bernice Summerfield is one of the richest and most interesting characters in Doctor Who history” is basically a factual, undisputable statement. To the point, really, where she effectively seceded from Doctor Who proper as the Virgin Publishing lost their license, spending a solid twenty years having solo adventures, that, as a matter of fact, are ridiculously good and easily some of the best content ever put out more-or-less-under the Who brand.
But, in 2014, she was brought back in the fold of the Who IP proper as Big Finish launched the James Goss-produced New Adventures range, pairing her first with the Seventh Doctor, then with David Warner’s alternate universe incarnation first introduced in the Unbound audio Sympathy for the Devil (2003). This relaunch certainly proved successful in that it created some of the highest-rated Big Finish stories of the whole 2010s: The Lights of Skaro (2014) or Asking for a Friend (2017) truly are modern classics, well-deserving of their reputation. But, a whole six boxsets in this reboot (notwithstanding a couple of anniversary homage sets), is the Benny-Doctor pairing running out of steam, despite the introduction of a new generation of diverse writers?
The answer, going from the first half of this new entry, Lost in Translation (continuing the very solid gimmick of having all the standalone stories in a release unified by a strong theme), is a resolute no. The first story, Have I Told You Lately?, also happens to prove something else – that Tim Foley might just be the best writer to do regular work for Big Finish at the moment. Taking a look at his 2020 output, there’s nothing but really bold attempts at pushing what the audio media can accomplish, really stretching Big Finish’s usual storytelling modes into experimental territory that feels much more in accord with the modern podcasting landscape. Here, what we have is functionally a three-hander where the Doctor and Benny are separated, in the dark, and can only survive and communicate with each other through a broken voice interface that mangles and misinterprets their words. Not only is the concept really funny, it opens the door to the script and the direction (Scott Handcock doing some career-best work, up there with Tell Me You Love Me and torchwood_cascade.CDRIP.tor) to go wild and offer a massive showcase of technical mastery. And it is impressive to listen to, truly – the editing from one “track” to the next is flawless, and keeps topping itself with intriguing thematic connections or just really funny jokes.
The issue the story has – although it is ultimately quite a minor one, that doesn’t detract it from being a very strong tale – is that while it is rooted in powerful themes of miscommunication and language, it feels like it lacks a strong emotional angle onto those perspectives. While the continuity reboot of the range was no doubt necessary, this feels like a story that would be improved by the presence of someone Bernice has a more personal relationship with than the Doctor – their issues with communication are fun and interesting, but the story soars less high than it could have, refusing to get into the raw, complex history of its own characters.
This is not a problem the second story, The Undying Truth, has. Its writer, JA Prentice, was selected through a competition, and you can definitely feel this in the finished product: more than anything else before, this feels like a story specifically tailored to Benny and this Doctor, one that wouldn’t work with anyone else. Which is, in itself, quite an accomplishment: the mistrust and tension and paranoia that grows between the two is handled with a great deal of care and nuance, and feels like something extremely personal and detailed. But, beyond that, it’s just an extraordinarily fun piece of writing, carried by powerful and sharp politics (the satire of PR through cyberpunk megacorporations is inspired, as is the treatment of natives by the high-minded company people) and a spot-on sense of rising tension. It feels like the bastard child of The Mummy, The Happiness Patrol and Alien, and if that sentence doesn’t sell you on it, I don’t know what will. It’s absolutely one of the standout stories of 2020.
Unfortunately, it’s about that point in the set that the structural issues that had been bubbling under the skin of the range for a while become very hard to ignore. The back half of the set forms a small arc involving the Time Lords from the main continuity of Doctor Who hunting down the Warner incarnation, who comes from another universe. If you’re wondering what this has to do with Bernice, well, I couldn’t answer that either. The laser-focus on some earlier entries in the range on the Warner Doctor made sense in that they had to introduce the character, but also felt like they looked at him from a very specific angle: Asking for a Friend was all about taking the over-the-top nature of the Doctor and putting that into the altogether more grounded universe of Bernice Summerfield. But here, what we have is just more Doctor Who, with Benny largely relegated to the role of companion, and emotional support archaeologist. She is a character who could sustain twenty years of storytelling: it’s a bit of a shame that, just as Big Finish is trying harder than ever to push for more diverse and more inclusive storytelling, she finds herself relegated to a sidekick in her own adventures.
On top of that, neither of those closing chapters knocks it out of the park when it comes to the script, especially compared to the excellent first two stories. James Goss’ Inertia is structurally engaging, and stranding the leads on a planet where nothing ever happens is certainly a lockdown mood, as the kids say – but despite some interesting ideas about language and culture, that build off Foley’s episode in a nice way, it feels aimless. It is tremendously witty and snarky, but, after a while, those things start feeling more like a mark against it: between the fact there’s not much being said about the characters, and that the antagonists are a bunch of thinly-drawn primitive natives (a trope that should probably die screaming in the year of our Lord 2020), the story kind of only justifies itself through layers of ironic banter. It’s not badly-made ironic banter, and one can definitely see people enjoying it (there are some good jokes in there too – the sourdough starter stuff got a smile out of me), but it feels slight.
As for the closer, Gallifrey, co-written by AK Benedict and her husband Guy Adams, it’s essentially just a remix of Trial of the Time Lord, with Benny as the lawyer to a condemned Doctor. There is some good pathos in there, with Bowerman and Warner on top form acting-wise, and the way the script wiggles itself out of the legal shenanigans is actually inspired, but the lack of concern of the range towards Benny herself reaches its zenith here, and it’s hard to feel inspired by that. Narvin, the standout character of the Gallifrey range, makes an appearance here, but it’s set early on in his timeline (in a really confusing way – the appearance of a Time Lord-apprentice Ace in the first two volumes of the New Adventures sets really throws the continuity in a spiral), in a way that feels really disconnected from the character’s actual appeal. His role could have been easily filled by any random Time Lord antagonist – unlike in, for instance, Gary Russell’s Erasure, which told a relatively similar story for him but felt deeply rooted in his point of view and specificity as a character. Similarly, you could replace Benny as she is written here by a bunch of different companions. The narrative only really fits the Warner Doctor, and even then, it’s hard to see what the specificity of it all, the hook, is. It’s not an unpleasant time –the sheer talent of the cast (Sian Phillips!), including the incredible Sian Philips in a guest role, makes the eventuality of an actually bad story unlikely – but one can’t help wondering who it is aimed at.
Lost in Translation therefore is a tale of two halves, and a good summary of the state of the Bernice Summerfield range in 2020: it is, as it has ever been, a springboard for some of the most creative and most structurally daring Who stories you’re liable to find out here; but it also is losing something by not centring what is unquestionably its biggest asset – Bernice Summerfield, an uniquely compelling character, and Lisa Bowerman, one of the finest actresses in the history of Doctor Who.
❉ ‘Doctor Who: The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume 6’ out now, available now on collector’s edition CD or digital download from just £19.99. CLICK HERE!
❉ Sam Maleski (they/he) writes about genre fiction and Doctor Who – including one Black Archive for Obverse Books and the Sheffield Steel essay collection series. They can be found tweeting at @LookingForTelos and blogging at @MediaDoWntime.