‘The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield – Volume 4’ reviewed

❉ Ruler of the Universe is Big Finish Productions’ best Doctor Who release this year!

It’s a simple enough observation to say that Ruler of the Universe, the fourth set from The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, is Big Finish Productions’ best Doctor Who release this year. The tricky part (or fun, if one enjoys such an exercise) is articulating why that’s the case. A laundry list of positives offers some hints – among other things, it’s well-written and another great showcase for David Warner’s “Unbound” incarnation of the Doctor – but still paints only a partial picture. What makes this set so satisfying is that it goes to the heart of what makes the Doctor who he is.

To some extent this has been true of all the stories featuring David Warner as this alternate Doctor. “What we do makes what we are,” observes a character in Warner’s first appearance in the role, 2003’s Sympathy for the Devil, a line that defines the entire Unbound series. At their best, these stories were interesting as both “what if…?” style explorations of the Doctor Who universe and examinations of the program’s core values revealed through the choices characters made, or sometimes should have made. Consequently, Sympathy for the Devil’s pairing of Warner with Nicholas Courtney as a retired and somewhat embittered Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart didn’t just offer a clever spin on the Pertwee/UNIT-era that we knew. It was a concrete manifestation of the idea that the Doctor makes those around him better.

Towards the end of Sympathy for the Devil, the Master chides the Doctor for his tendency to only help “the little people”. The Doctor almost reflexively retorts that this is, “Because we’re all little people!” For all his reluctance to suffer fools gladly, he’s equally reluctant to set himself apart from the universe around him. It’s not simply that he hates to see things go wrong, though, he clearly does. He believes he can make things better and for the most part has the acumen to do so.

Those traits have held true over the course of this Doctor’s subsequent appearances, including the previous set in the series where he brought long-running New Adventures companion Bernice Summerfield into the Unbound universe. Those installments saw both Benny and the inhabitants of this other universe uncertain whether to trust this particular incarnation. By the end of that storyline, the Time Lord had redeemed himself in the eyes of many, setting the stage for one of the greatest challenges any incarnation of the Doctor has ever faced – becoming the actual ruler of the universe.

Not surprisingly, the Doctor is quite miserable to be in this situation as the set opens. Despite the good intentions of all involved, it’s simply the wrong position for him. Therein lies the beauty of these stories. Forcing the Doctor to embrace some of the things he likes the least in the universe – especially bureaucracy and paperwork – is the perfect means to focus him on what he cares about the most. The disconnect between the compromises his office requires and the decisiveness that’s expected of him provides the dramatic space for characters and audience alike to rediscover his true nature.

None of that would matter, though, if these stories weren’t so well done. What’s really striking is how well the boxed-set format is used here. Asking for a Friend, which features televised Doctor Who veteran Annette Badland as the Doctor’s therapist, could hardly be more different than Truant, where the Doctor’s quest for non-Presidential adventure proves to be far more complicated than expected. Neither of those installments is similar in approach to the opening and closing segments, The City and the Clock and The True Saviour of the Universe, but every part of the story fits perfectly while still being perfectly unique.

That’s all the more remarkable within a storyline that balances a truly universal threat with a genuine sense of fun. The dialogue is key to this, consistently making the case for Guy Adams and James Goss as two of the best Doctor Who writers around. Whether it’s a brief quip to lighten the mood or a crucial reflective moment, their scripts give all involved – especially David Warner – fantastic raw material.

“I wanted to confess five minutes in, and I hadn’t done anything.”

“Everyone has bad days, everyone.  But mine are armageddons.”

Those are just two of the character-defining lines the Doctor gets in this set, and further examples are plentiful throughout. David Warner has become almost ubiquitous across Big Finish’s audio ranges, and while an actor of his caliber is always welcome, this version of the Doctor remains his greatest contribution to their body of work.

Though not quite as ubiquitous within the worlds of Big Finish, Lisa Bowerman is also in great form as Bernice Summerfield. As another character observes, Benny serves as the Doctor’s conscience throughout the story. Even when she’s exceptionally angry with him, there’s no question that she cares, and by the end of the set that affection is returned in a very meaningful way.

Benny also holds her own against this universe’s incarnation of the Master, played once again by Sam Kisgart. The Master, of course, has a plan, which turns out both better and worse than listeners might expect. Even when the twists on narrative expectations resemble a pretzel, this set is still very much Doctor Who. If anything, those twists are cause to look forward to another outing with this superb TARDIS team.

The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield:  Volume 4 – The Ruler of The Universe, is available now exclusively from Big Finish Productions on CD at £23 or download at £20.

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