Clearly something very special happened when Paul Cornell created Bernice Summerfield, his greatest gift to the Doctor Who universe. Although I would argue that it was only when she fell into the hands of Gary Russell and Lisa Bowerman that she really began to fulfil her considerable potential. Big Finish have been the carers of the character for the past fifteen years and the audience has been on a roller coaster ride with her ever since. It’s a range that has managed to survive despite the fact that at its heart its ties to Doctor Who are minimal. It’s a range that has soldiered on through exchanges of creative minds, re-branding and when other spin off ranges have fallen victim to lack of interest (UNIT, Sapphire and Steel). It’s a range that has evolved its peripheral elements but at its core has trapped its central protagonist in amber for the past fifteen years, constantly reminding us why she embodies the perfect heroine.
Bernice Summerfield has been through some troubles in her time. Sent to military school as an orphan, she met the Doctor on the planet Heaven in particularly dramatic circumstances (losing his best friend) and she went on to suffer mental and physical trauma unheard of by any other companion in the series’ long history. Particularly rough was losing her lover Guy de Carnac in Sanctuary and almost losing the Doctor in Human Nature, two back to back classics in the centre of the range. For a long while she was the beating heart of the series, keeping it real whilst the Doctor was ever more alienated from his audience. She slowly came to understand the manipulating little imp better than anyone and left him to pursue marriage with the hot-tempered rogue Jason Kane. It was a hot’n’steamy short lived affair but she soon found a place for herself with the inestimable Irving Braxiatel on the planet Dellah. For a while things move along swimmingly as she fell into one scrape or another before losing her home (as Virgin discontinued her line due to lack of interest). It was at this point where Bernice was picked up by Big Finish and treated to her own range of audios and novels. This was the point where her body fell into the hands of an evil sorceress and fell pregnant by her Killoran friend Adrian and had her baby surrounded by enemies in the Glass Prison. Here the character began to flourish like never before, falling into the hands of so many incredible writers who all had their own take on the character but managed to find a unified sense of identity within her. Let’s take stroll through the many reasons why Big Finish’s Bernice Summerfield range has bolstered and continues to thrill and surprise its audience after fifteen years…
Of course I would recommend that you start from the beginning and work your way through the entire series because it is far more rewarding that way. But if I had to cherry pick my all time favourites then this would be my ten of choice. I have tried to look at the series as a whole and choose stories from across the fifteen years and expose the variety that this range has to offer…
Walking to Babylon: Back in the first series when the range needed to try and find an audience Gary Russell had a clever idea to adapt some of the more popular Virgin New Adventures into audio dramas (indiscriminately he chose titles from both Virgin ranges, when Benny was a Doctor Who companion and from her own series). With permission from the original authors and script edited and moulded into an audio drama by Jacqueline Rayner (I cannot think of anybody more suited to this job, she is the writer who I often feel has the most empathy with the character), the resulting stories were both nostalgic and something very new and special. The introductory season rather exposed the series in a microcosm; shifting genres with consummate ease (broad comedy, intense character drama, historical tragedy, horror, action adventure) and with some excellent post production work and a central performance by Lisa Bowerman it really put both the character, the series and Big Finish on the map. It may have only been appreciated by a small audience at the time but the seed was there to grow into something extraordinary. Walking to Babylon is emotional, evocative and easy on the ear, this story lives up to the promise of Oh No It Isn’t and proves that this series can emote as well as making us laugh. Kate Orman and Gary Russell creates a place of wonder in Babylon going for a real historical epic feel and aided by a fantastic musical score and some authentic sound FX. Lisa Bowerman gets her teeth into a fine romance story for Benny where she gets to be the more powerful character to John Lafayette’s weaker moral bound academic. I love their scenes together; they have a relaxed chemistry that makes their feelings toward each other very believable. Add to that the fabulous Lis Sladen being given a chance to step out of Sarah Jane Smith and play a great new character, the introduction of the priceless Joseph and another strong performance by Stephen Fewell and you have a dedicated and interesting cast bringing this story to life. A top notch slice of historical drama with much of interest to those who are seeking standalone adventures and a running character arc for Benny.
Check out my full review for Walking to Babylon here: http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/walking-to-babylon-written-by-kate.html
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/walking-to-babylon-43
http://docohosreviews.blogspot.co.uk/2009/07/lance-parkin-q-part-one.html and http://docohosreviews.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/lance-parkin-q-part-two.html) and his opening gambit was an intense psychological historical that saw Benny at the hands of the Nazis and the Doctor forced into a terrifying moral quandary. It was beautifully written, atmospheric, dramatic and unputdownable. You can see why this was chosen for adaptation. Hard-hitting and dramatic, if you have any doubt that the Bernice Summerfield series could not deliver the goods than go and listen to this story now. What you have here is a polished script written with drive and bursting with great character scenes and a director who allows the story room to breathe at a relaxed pace to bring out some extraordinary performances from his cast. Bowerman and Fewell do their best work from series one here, Benny and Jason have never felt more like real people and their reunion never more touching. The stifling atmosphere never lets up and the story manages to sell the idea that the Nazi’s might win the war, one of the most hackneyed ideas ever. On audio this is a superb production, never letting you forget where we are and what it means. I’ve heard this story ten times and every time I have come away astonished at how good it is. Extremely scary in places.
Check out my full review for Walking to Babylon here: http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/just-war-written-by-lance-parkin.html
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/just-war-45
Death and the Daleks: One of the experiments of the Bernice range (I wanted to say innovations but I have heard some quite compelling arguments for why this wasn’t always a success) was to have the range continue in a multi-media format. The arc plots were told in the form of audios and novels so we could enjoy the strengths of both mediums (the ‘in the moment’ emotion, immersive production values and affecting performances of audio and the intimacy and detail of prose). If you were willing to purchase everything this was very rewarding but if you preferred one medium over another you were going to miss out on some pretty important developments (say you only wanted to listen to the audios, Benny’s pregnancy is conceived and revealed in the novels, as is the birth of Peter). The best example of the multi/media approach came in Paul Cornell’s triumphant return to the character – the anthology Life During Wartime and the audio which concluded the story, Death and the Daleks. Coming from a company that produced some stunning Doctor Who short story anthologies, Life During Wartime was something really special. Detailing the occupation of the Braxiatel Collection by the Fifth Axis, a Nazi-esque organisation with unseen masters, this collection was a peerless example of both highlighting an individual writers merits and telling a gripping arc story in prose. Then the audio kicks in after an unforgettable cliffhanger and proves to be an epic, personal, unforgettable finale bringing together four seasons worth of audios, countless novels and assembling the impressive cast of the Bernice series and giving them all great material. The idea of kicking off this story with the gripping anthology Life During Wartime is inspired, giving the situation a great deal of depth as a novel before rounding off the story with numerous surprises as an exciting audio. There are lots of wonderful kisses to the past but Paul Cornell also manages to cement the latest developments in Bernice’s life as something that is unmissable. There is a wonderful drive to the story and no easy answers and lots of intriguing character threads to picked up in later stories. Oh and its got the Daleks in it. One of the highpoints in the Bernice Summerfield range.
Check out my full review for Death and the Daleks here: http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/death-and-daleks-written-by-paul.html
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/death-and-the-daleks-58
Check out my full review for The Masquerade of Death here: http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/masquerade-of-death-written-by-stewart.html
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-masquerade-of-death-62
Check out my full review for The Crystal of Cantus here: http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/crystal-of-cantus-written-by-joseph.html
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-crystal-of-cantus-67
Check out my full review for Timeless Passages here:
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/timeless-passages-69
Check out my full review for The Judas Gift here: http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/judas-gift-written-by-nick-wallace-and.html
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-judas-gift-79
(THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THE NEXT REVIEW…APPROACH WITH DISCRETION)
Check out my full review of The End of the World here: http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/jason-kane-end-of-world-written-by-dave.html
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-end-of-the-world-81
Resurrecting the Past is exciting, epic and brings so much of the last ten years of adventures up to date and relevant again. It had a massive amount to achieve and it succeeds in pretty much all of its goals. You might think that this would wind up being a box ticking exercise but this is anything but. We’re planet hopping, privy to Braxiatel’s machinations, dodging BPM’s, reunited with this ranges brilliant cast and introduced to a spanking new menace. It has that wonderfully dizzying Army of Ghosts/The Stolen Earth/The Pandorica Opens feel of pulling together many narrative threads into a cohesive and fulfilling opening act of a finale without any of the messy business of having to tie it all up at the end. The pace is relentless and its such a joy to be in the midst of adventure with Adrian, Bev, Hass, Joseph and all the others. I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t missed them all. Robson very cleverly manuveres everybody into a position so the plot can finally be spelt out but via three different speakers so Brax, Doggles and Robyn it feels less like exposition and more like an exquisite masterplan that is reaching fruition. The story is also injected with real wit and creativity and the cliffhanger promises exciting things to come. On every level this is the Bernice Summerfield range firing on all cylinders, aiming high and shooting off into the stratosphere. I was foaming at the mouth for the conclusion.
Check out my full review for Ressurecting the Past here: http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/resurrecting-past-written-by-eddie.html
and Escaping the Future here: http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/escaping-future-written-by-eddie-robson.html
Check out my full review of Year Zero here:
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/year-zero-101
Honourable mentions - Oh No It Isn't (hilarious and thought provoking), The Draconian Rage (an economic drama told through three characters that manages to surprise far more than it has any right to), The Worst Thing in the World (Dave Stone satire at its finest with a killer tune), The Empire State (Joe Lidster parodies just about everything in this comic masterpiece), The Adventure of the Diogenes Damsel (evocative literate drama), The Wake (stripping Benny of everything in the most shattering of ways, Simon Guerrier departs in torturous style), Glory Days (a hugely entertaining heist story), Absence (Another Daniel O’Mahony masterpiece and Peter has never been better), Private Enemy No.1 (all the build with none of the hassle of the conclusion, the Epoch box set scores a massive win with this abstract puzzle), Paradise Frost (a damn near perfect Bernice tale in the new formula with all the ingredients that make the range a joy) and Shades of Gray (Scott Handcock emerges as the strongest current writer for the series).
Ten more reasons to enjoy Bernice Summerfield…
‘Hello Puss in Boots!’ ‘I’ve warned you about your language!’
‘Parathon! Aloo Saag! Peshwari Naan!’ ‘Are you summoning a demon?’ ‘No you fool I’m ordering a curry.’
‘Its always something mad isn’t it? You have the firepower to just wade in a have a go at the rest of the universe but no…you twat about! You make duplicates of people, you come up with plans to pit one galactic Empire against another, you get into centuries long war with races whose idea of camouflage would only be successful if the universe was a gigantic disco! How did the Movellans outthink you? They haven’t figured out that it might not be an idea to build warrior robots, which die when you yank their power pack of their belt! I’m talking to the bloody Daleks who couldn’t exterminate their way out of a tomato!’
‘The condemned can only be executed once. Unfortunately she only has one head!’ ‘Yet she is clearly two faced!’
‘If all else fails we simply let the camera crews wander around and put out the footage as a fly on the wall docu-soap!’
‘Sherlock Holmes was at your wedding Benny, it was hardly an exclusive event!’
Kicking off Big Finish and still going strong - We have an awful lot to thank the Benny range for considering this where Big Finish began all those years ago before their catalogue of adventures did not rival the classic TV series for the sheer volume of episodes. Its what convinced the BBC that they could successfully take on Doctor Who and turn it into a flourishing audio franchise.
Carving out a corner of the universe of their own - Another delight that I find with Bernice’s story that stretches right back to the days of the Virgin New Adventures is that the production team at the time and all of the ones since have managed to carve out a corner of the universe in which she belongs that has remained entirely consistent. Planets are mentioned time and again (Heaven, Draconia, Dellah, the Collection, the Mim Sphere), people can come and go and there are lots of details (the Time Rings, Wolsey, the Collection) that help to make this one unified, absorbing setting in the future. You’d do well to visit and enjoy the sights.
Perfecting the audio format - running time in particular. The Bernice Summerfield adventures are a perfect 60 minutes long which is just long enough to introduce all of your core ingredients, explore them in some depth, afford the characters some development and wrap things up satisfactorily. Some might tell you that the four part Big Finish audios are the perfect length but there are very, very few of them stretching at almost two hours that don’t have some padding stuffed in there. At 60 minutes (aside from a few blockbusting exceptions) this is a range full remarkably tight, beautifully constructed stories that rarely give you pause to look at your watch.
The Bernice Summerfield range is spearheaded by some of Big Finish’s best. They have taken a little time out of their schedules to explain why they think Bernice has enjoyed an enduring success…
Nick Briggs (voice of the Daleks and executive producer of Big Finish): ‘Bernice Summerfield is such a fresh, energetic character. She was Big Finish's first love and we will love her forever. Brilliantly portrayed by Lisa Bowerman, supported by a great cast including the inestimable Miles Richardson, Benny continues her interplanetary adventures with an unending zest for life. Whether she's unearthing ancient mysteries, dodging alien menaces or dealing with emotional fall-out, her adventures are always exciting and compelling. The most recent box sets have been a new, exciting development and there are more, truly thrilling times ahead for Benny.’
Simon Guerrier (the creative drive behind seasons 7 & 8) ‘Benny is a smart, capable and funny heroine, who worries about her actions and the world around her. That helps drive a story and provides an involving perspective on the events as well as lots of jokes. I think she can be a bit high-maintenance and neurotic, too, but that makes her more credible. We really get under her skin in a way that wasn’t – and still isn’t – common in Doctor Who assistants. I’m not the only person to write Benny who felt proprietarial about her, because I feel I really know what she’d think of anything I came up with.’
Scott Handcock (current co-creator of the range): ‘This woman can do anything! From panto-spoofs to horror stories, murder mysteries to fairytale legends, and everything in between. She’s been there, done that, bought the t-shirt... then bought a pint or two... and probably picked a fight. Bernice Summerfield has everything that Doctor Who has going for it - only she has even more freedom to tell stories that wouldn’t sit well with a family audience, and do things that you couldn’t dream of realising on television! She has so many friends, and so many lives... she regenerates just as much as the series that spawned her. And if you want just one reason to try out Bernice Summerfield - or want a taste of all the things that she can offer - than I have three simple words for you, just three: Many. Happy. Returns. A charity special that celebrates every aspect of our heroine, raises money for a good cause, and is a jolly romp in its own right. If you really don’t know where to begin, it’s the perfect starting point - and hey, you’re doing your bit for a brilliant cause into the bargain!’
Justin Richards (writer or several Virgin New Adventures to feature Benny): ‘She might be from the future, but Benny is very much a character rooted in the here and now - down to earth in every sense. She is a witty, intelligent, clever and charismatic guide to the alien future that every listener and reader can relate to.’
Daniel O’Mahony (writer of Timeless Passages and Absence): ‘For me, the great thing about Bernice Summerfield is that she knows nothing. This is what sets her adventures apart from Doctor Who. The Doctor is an annoyingly well-travelled quasi-immortal alien and there's little that surprises him. Benny is an altogether different beast. She's the representative of a badly-behaved species with a tentative grip on an unknown and maybe unknowable universe. Unlike the Doctor's she's fantastically ill-equipped to understand - let alone face - what's out there. Sometimes her universe is terrifying, sometimes melancholy and ancient, sometimes plain absurd. In my stories she manages to cling onto it – just about!’
Lisa Bowerman (who plays Benny herself): ‘Aliens! Monsters! Nuns! There's nothing Bernice Summerfield can't handle. She really is an archeologist for all seasons. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll scoff in the face of danger. Most of all, you'll recognise her; she's on your side, just enjoy the ride... and don't forget the hip flask. She is her own woman, knows the difference between good and bad and always makes sure she has a trowel on her. I've said it many times before - but Benny only really works when she isn't over written. Yes - she banters, but only when her back's against the wall. The real pleasure in the series is that you can turn comedy into tragedy on the turn of a sixpence without losing the seriousness of the situation. I do have my favourites. Just War of course, but also The Dance of The Dead, Death and the Daleks, Timeless Passages (which I love) - but there are moments I love in a great many more.’
Joe Lidster (writer of The Crystal of Cantus, The Final Amendment and contributor to several anthologies): ‘I was 15 when Bernice Summerfield's first adventure, Love and War, was released. We're so used these days to new companions appearing in the spin-off material that it's odd to remember just what a big a deal it was back then. But it worked. It worked because Paul Cornell created such a fantastic character. She's not perfect (in fact she's a bit of a bitch at times) but she's clever and funny and she always has her heart in the right place. What I love most about the various books and audios that Benny's appeared in is that we're getting her ongoing life story. As I've grown up over the last twenty years, so has she. We've read and heard her fall in love, get married, get divorced, fall in love again, have a son, settle down, lose the love of her life, lose her son, find her son again... In fact, we're now at the stage where Peter, her son, is a teenager! I remember him being born! I played him as a toddler! So, while it's been this amazing series of adventures – with wars and battles and alien invasions, written by so many writers and produced by so many producers - it's never forgotten that at the heart of it is the very human character of Benny (played so brilliantly by the gorgeous Lisa Bowerman). I'm 34 now. That's older than Benny was in Love and War. But she's still going strong. A very human character on a fantastic journey...’
Steve Cole: 'One reason why people should try the Benny range? Lisa Bowerman! She's such a talented person - a great actor always willing to throw herself into any situation, a great director, and an all round lovely person. Without the Bennys there would be no Doctor Who audios - OK, so gratitude alone's not a reason in itself to try them. But the thing to remember is that Benny wasn't abandoned when the Who licence came in. It's always been a mainstay because everyone has always believed in the girl, her world, and the throwing in of a Who monster or three just adds spice to that!'
Steve Foxon: "The thing I love about the Bernice Summerfield audio's, is of course Benny! Or to be more precise, Lisa Bowerman. She is an absolute delight to listen to, and you never tire of her voice and delivery. Take Year Zero for example - it is not the most action packed of stories, in the main a two-hander for a lot of it with a lot of talking, yet you never get bored! Lisa draws you in and doesn't let you go - utterly superb. As a sound designer, editing is always a pleasure. Of course, you have to have good writers and producers and directors, and over the years Big Finish has never failed in that department - particularly the writing which is consistently brilliant and takes you through all the emotions not to mention a massive range of locations and situations. And they all seem to find her humour which Lisa delivers perfectly. All of this supported by top cast regulars and guests, and many sound designers and musicians - and I challenge anyone that has worked on Benny audio's to say they didn't enjoy it and get a lot out of it. So, I urge anyone who hasn't taken the plunge to do so and take a listen, you won't regret it!"
I hope I have been able to give you an idea of how much this audio range has meant to me over the years and just some of the treasures that lie within. It’s a consistently excellent drama series that has had a lot of love and talent thrown at it. Its been with me for many, many years now and rarely let me down, constantly striving to make me laugh and cry and feel for its characters. I would be devastated if this range was ever put to rest because it has the potential to run and run. If you are interested in strong audio drama that plays by its own rules then check out Bernice Summerfield.
You can read a mini review from every story here if you were looking to pick and choose:
Most of all…enjoy!
And this is what Bernice got up to before had her own series...