Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Bernice Summerfield range




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

Just War: Once the Virgin New Adventures hit their stride they procured the services of a number of extremely talented writers and making his debut with Just War was the inestimable Lance Parkin. Few writers can be said to have made as much of an impact in the literary world of Doctor Who (check out my interview with him here for more information about his contributions - 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

The Masquerade of Death: One of the greatest strengths of this range is its versatility, just like the parent series that spawned its titular character. Benny’s adventures can veer wildly (and yet perfectly reasonably) between hilarious comedy and high drama. Every now and again the series would drop a comic gem (Oh No It Isn’t, The Grel Escape, The Empire State, The Worst Thing in the World, Bad Habits) to temper the drama it excels in and prove just how funny this character is when she is given a chance. It’s the bawdy humour and sense of fun that really marked out this series at the beginning and her continuing aptitude for farce (sometimes in the blackest of situations) never ceases to amaze me. The Masquerade of Death is an unusual choice for a top ten place but it proves to be a unique audio production that brews an intoxicating taste of theatre. We haven’t had such an appetizingly inventive and hilarious script like this since the series kicked off with Oh No It Isn’t and it goes for the jugular deconstructing the series, its elements and its sense of theatre with real panache. John Ainsworth is one of the unsung Big Finish directors and he directs this story with a touch of magic, coaxing some incredibly entertaining performances from the cast and Jane Elphinstone scores the insane events to perfection. Great characterisation of Bernice too, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of her personality, taking a look at her appeal as a fictional character and showing her fight to hold onto her identity as a real person. Stewart Sheargold has written one of the best Big Finish scripts, its devilishly clever and thoughtful whilst being insanely pleasurable at the same time – only Rob Shearman could top this level of imagination and adroitness. A highly recommended touch of class from this extraordinary range.

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

The Crystal of Cantus: If you were cynical then you might see the use of popular Doctor Who monsters in the Bernice Summerfield range as nothing but an attention grabbing ploy to nab Doctor Who fans to the cause (especially when they turned up in every single release for a couple of seasons). However what Gary Russell sought to achieve was taking popular alien races such as Daleks, Cybermen, Draconians and Ice Warriors and giving them a fresh perspective in a series that is unencumbered by having to be censored for children. Those of you fearing another Torchwood Cyberwoman situation need not panic…Russell ensures that the writers remember everything that made these creatures appealing in the first place whilst giving his authors the chance to innovate. Innovation and Joe Lidster go hand in hand (almost entirely for good, but occasionally for ill) and the chance to see what he could do with the Cybermen in this series after his superb sixth Doctor tale The Reaping in the Main Range was enticing. This release came at the end of one of the poorer seasons so it made its impact even more succinctly. After one outright disaster, one tale of frippery, one nicely written but poorly executed thriller and one bland but well characterised filler adventure The Crystal of Cantus comes as a real shock to the system. The range has been cruising on autopilot for a while and this is a sudden reminder of how good it can be when firing on all cylinders. It promises massive changes to the range and delivers, it uses the Cybermen in an imaginative and chilling way and it re-integrates the Collection and all the pleasing continuity that comes with it and uses the horrors of the recent past to create some excellent twists. Joseph Lidster is exactly the sort of controversial writer to breathe some new life into the range and he takes hold of Braxiatel’s character and finally reveals him to be the villainous mastermind that we always suspected. Add in some terrific performances (Stephen Fewell has never been better) and a feeling that there is lots of drama ahead and they couldn’t have ended the season on a better note. A superb end to a duff season.

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

Timeless Passages: As the range progressed the pool of writers increased and several standout names began to emerge. One of those was Daniel O’Mahony who had a penchant for bringing the best out in the character whilst at the same time injecting a lot of intelligent detail, clever plotting and evocative ideas into his stories. Out of the incredible arsenal of talent that the range had at its disposal, O’Mahony was one of the finest writers. Of all of the stories I have chosen to highlight, Timeless Passages proves that this series is equally capable of telling fantastic standalone adventures as indulging in arc storylines. Atmospheric and intelligent, this is a blisteringly good audio for the range and raises the bar for how good a non-arc tale can be. The story is told on a tiny scale but much of the dialogue is transcendent and the discussion of knowledge and preserving culture really appealed to the bibliophile in me. However this isn’t all dry discussion; Bernice is at her desperate best, there is a psychotic android on the loose that is trying to kill everybody (he’s just vile but very funny with it) and there is the mystery of the Idolons to solve. It’s a massively evocative piece with Simon Robinson more than making up for some lacklustre productions last year and John Ainsworth giving the whole piece a very polished, stylish feel. Daniel O’Mahony brings a touch of class to the range with his faultless script and I hope it isn’t long before he returns to the series. The way he has of allowing his concepts to grow organically within the story revealing new facets all the time took my breath away. Quite my favourite story since The Masquerade of Death and it works for all the same reasons; its creative, surprising and hugely engaging. Lisa Bowerman said in my interview with her that this is one of her all time favourites and its easy to see why.

Check out my full review for Timeless Passages here:
http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/timeless-passages-written-by-daniel.html
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/timeless-passages-69

The Judas Gift: The arc heavy, Braxiatel-led part of the range at its all time best. There are some that will tell you that the middle years of the Bernice Summerfield range got lost up its own ass of arc plotting and depression. Speaking as somebody who has examined these seasons in some detail I can tell you that not only is that utter rot but it also contains some of the finest developments and adventures. Its actually an extremely confident time for the series, Simon Guerrier (series 7 & 8) and Eddie Robson (series 9, 10 & 11) taking the reins from Gary Russell (at a point where the series definitely needed some fresh blood) and given the brief to get people interested in the range again. With the Draconian/Mim war causing some real fireworks, Braxiatel showing his manipulative hand in Bernice’s life, Peter’s growing independence and the family on the Collection being ripped apart the Guerrier-led seasons certainly lived up to that brief. The Judas Gift is in the heart of all this, a supreme hour of drama that highlights the terrific regular cast (in particular Bev and Adrian) that the series sported at the time. Events on the Collection have not been this enthralling since Death and the Daleks and Nick Wallace taps it’s a rich seam of characterisation that sees Bev, Adrian, Brax and Benny getting some of their best ever moments. The Draconian/Mim conflict has been building for some time and now it explodes into warfare and the Collection finds itself in the middle trying to stay in one piece. We’ll be saying goodbye to the Collection at the end of the this season and it is fitting that its best storyline was saved for last. Everything that is great about this series comes into play – the regulars are on top form (Bev’s history allows the Draconians to gain a foothold on the Collection) and treated to some scorching dialogue, there is an intriguing archaeological mystery to solve, the universe building is first class and the running storyline is given some dramatic momentum with some heart-in-mouth twists forcing developments. If you are invested in these characters and this universe, The Judas Gift is about as riveting as it comes.

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)

The End of the World: Its hard to dislike a character like Jason who screams of lost potential and always tries to do the best and yet somehow always manages to put his foot in it somehow. He and Benny met under conditions that were hardly ideal and their impromptu marriage was an emotionally explosive affair. Its hardly surprising that once they had the honeymoon period out of the way they realised they really didn’t know each other very well. So when Big Finish picked up the Bernice character they brought Jason back fairly quickly and we got to see them grow into their relationship with all their previous mistakes a warning of how not to do things a second time around. It has been a funny, sexy, convincingly difficult journey but the conclusion they both came to after Fifth Axis invasions and Cyber conversions is that they love each other. We’ve had Stephen Fewell to thank for giving that extra layer of depth in his portrayal of Jason and he and Lisa Bowerman have shared some wonderfully memorable relationship moments. Its fitting that Jason (and Fewell) should get centre stage in his final appearance (and that it should be directed by Lisa Bowerman too) and it is gripping to listen to a determined Jason, willing to risk anything to get the life back that Braxiatel stole and to expose the insane Time Lord and his manipulations. I find it astonishing that this series would take such a jaw dropping step in its continuing story but it is the exactly the shock exit that a character that has had this much impact deserves. Dave Stone is another standout writer in the Bernice Summerfield range and here he does the audience a huge service by intelligently tying up years of plotting into Jason’s investigations of Braxiatel. It is entirely appropriate that the Jason’s creator should write his final story and tie in lots of continuity that has weaved in and out of his story over the years and remind us just how far he has come. This is the point of no return for Braxiatel – he has lied, manipulated and cheated his friends but murdering Jason because he has gotten to close to the truth is one kick in the gut too far for Bernice and Brax has stepped over the line from uneasy ally to enemy. And the fireworks haven’t even begun because she doesn’t know…yet. This is a beautifully written piece and that sees Jason at his intellectual and emotional best and allows Stephen Fewell to give one last, triumphant, performance. Lisa Bowerman’s direction is sublime because she understands that this piece needs to be all about Jason and so she strips away any sound effects during Fewell’s monologues to give them maximum impact. The last scene of this play is one of the most vital moments in any Big Finish production and I was slack jawed throughout as all the answers came spilling out of Braxiatel’s mouth. Spellbinding drama and the end of a very important chapter in Benny’s life.

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/Escaping the Future: By this stage in the game the series had started to pick up something of an X-Files vibe. It had so many characters and arc elements hanging that it was starting to feel a little unwieldy. For the best possible reasons Eddie Robson tried to ignore all of that in season 9 and tell a complete standalone season with Benny and Peter travelling alone and friendless in a cold, uncompromising universe. It received a mixed response – two of the stories were extremely good (Absence, The Adolescence of Time) but there was a general feeling of the series attempting to move one without any significant closure. It felt as though all those dangling threads were quivering in the background, waiting to be brought up again and its hard to focus on the now when the then is trying to attract your attention. Before the range to could move on there was much to be done. So in a triumphant about turn Robson took on the task of pulling together every single remaining arc thread and dovetailing them into a blockbuster two part finale for the entire series (or at least it would be if Gary Russell wasn’t waiting in the wings to give it a new lease of life again). Everybody is involved (Peter, Brax, Bev, Adrian, Doggles, Joseph…) and the story was marketed as such (with the superb animated short Dead and Buried proving an tantalising lead in) and it felt as if by bringing the range to a conclusion in such a vivid manner it had suddenly gained the rights to hope forward and do something completely different.

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.

Then Escaping the Future came along and managed to be unpredictable and seeded with great ideas, the conclusion to this two hour blockbuster wasn’t at all what I was expecting and was all the better for it. What’s great about Escaping the Future is that it doesn’t go down the obvious path of telling a war story (the anthology Present Danger has already filled a lot of the messy, violent blanks during the Deindum invasion plus we have already explored a war setting on the Collection in the Life During Wartime/Death and the Daleks double bill and it was hardly going to better that) but instead uses its time to spoil us with long overdue confrontations, the joy of seeing enemies turn into allies and experience this team working together to create a plan of monumental importance to defeat the Deindum. What I thought was going to be a depressingly shallow combat tale instead becomes a hugely imaginative and triumphant piece about these characters we have come to know and love triumphing against all the odds even at the cost of their lives. There’s exciting moments (missile alert!), performance pieces (the riveting Bernice/Braxiatel confrontation which sees Bowerman and Richardson at their best) and a real atmosphere of doom as the entire population of the Collection try and provoke a conflict between two evolutionary stages of the same race and manipulate the timelines. They are literally playing God. It’s a story where Bernice gets to scrub an entire war out of history (it might be one that could have been avoided but that is a moot point now since it has happened) and even as she puts her plan in motion she understands (as do we) that it will mean consequences. Consequences for her and consequences for the range. This two parter has been triumph in both re-igniting interest in the series and polishing off over ten seasons worth of storytelling. It has managed to be epic and intimate, exciting and involving, clever and creative. Its all the things I have come to expect from this range at its best with the added excitement of knocking down the house of cards once and for all. Who knows what the future will hold but at least we had the chance to play with all these wonderful toys one last time. The last scene is brilliantly climactic and unforgettable.

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

Year Zero: Suddenly everything that we know about this series is abandoned. Benny is alone and friendless in a universe she no longer recognises. It is perhaps the biggest shock to the system since the range began because we no longer have any idea what to expect. As a result it is more important than ever that the range should make its mark and produce something spectacular. Thanks to the efforts of Eddie Robson, John Ainsworth and in particular writer Jonathan Clements (his second script in the top ten) they managed just that. Its extremely refreshing to have Bernice so dislocated from everything she recognises, a real fish out of water in a universe that she doesn’t understand. Its precisely what they tried to achieve in the past two seasons with moderate success writ large. Jonathan Clements approaches the near impossible situation of having to reboot the entire Bernice Summerfield universe by having the character and the audience unravel the mystery at the same time. It’s an interrogative story, mostly constructed out of two hander scenes and flashbacks to Benny committing the crime that she is accused of. What I particularly enjoyed about this release is that it isn’t your standard Big Finish release that is buoyed up by a persistent musical score and wealth of soundscapes. Everything is cut right back to the bone and a lush production is replaced by intelligent dialogue and the discussion of some formidable ideas. Thus it might not be to everyone’s taste because you can’t just let it wash over you, you really have to concentrate to get the most from the accomplished examination of ideas. There’s a whopping great mystery at the heart of the story (Year Zero itself) and it’s a clever conceit to allow for some imaginative restructuring of the universe as we understand it. And the way that Bernice reveals her ability through something as innocuous as a can of drink is inspired, by the end of the story she has deconstructed this society through what little exposure she has had to it. Absolutely beguiling if you give it the attention it deserves. Eddie Robson has swung from producing the one of the most unbalanced Bernice seasons to the best yet.

Check out my full review of Year Zero here:
http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/year-zero-written-by-jonathan-clements.html
You can pick it up from Big Finish here: http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/year-zero-101

At this point it is worth mentioning that the series has been completely re-branded into box sets, dumping the Adrian Salmon covers and moving into the more glossy, full cast audios of the Doctor Who ranges that Big Finish produce. The results have been successful, especially since they have come after the reboot of the series in Year Zero. The box sets released so far have been Epoch (where Benny has found herself on a planet that resembles Atlantis and has to try and figure out the mystery at its heart to get back to the future), Road Trip (where Benny and her new friend Ruth are travelling across the system to reach the planet Legion to reunite Benny with her son) and Legion (which proves that they make it, obviously and sees Braxiatel, Peter and Jack making a big impression on the range again).

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).

Dead and Buried: Walking across medias again with confidence strides Bernice makes her first appearance in a visual medium in the awesome ten minute CGI sequence Dead and Buried that serves as a prelude for this blockbusting two part wrap up of so many of the series’ storylines. If the idea was to create a massive buzz around the Bernice Summerfield range at the time then Eddie Robson certainly triumphed. The visuals are glossy and gorgeous and with the ever wonderful Lisa Bowerman voicing the piece it feels like an authentic little story in its own right. The fact that I can actually see Bernice in action is enough to get me in something of a tizzy but this is much more than just some throwaway cartoon. I showed my husband (who has heard me rave on and off about Bernice Summerfield over the years but hasn’t seen anything of hers because there is nothing to see) and he saw the run time of nearly ten minutes and sighed loudly (most YouTube clips I show him are only a few minutes long). Two minutes in he was on his knees, close to the screen, completely enraptured. Eyebrow cocked he walk away and said ‘very impressive, very Lara Croft’ and ‘I’d definitely watch more of those.’ You’ll get to see Benny kick over the surface of a dead world in a buggy, burst her way into a long lost tomb and tackle a truly menacing defensive drone that keeps on coming. It survives a cave-in, a blast from a military sonic weapon and an explosion. The shots of the mechanoid glowing with molten metal are truly stunning. Hearing Miles Richardson’s plummy tones at the end of the piece made my day, Braxiatel is such a suave and devious villain and if anybody deserved to be behind this attempt to kidnap Bernice it had to be him. What’s clever about this is that Eddie Robson doesn’t try and fill you in on ten seasons worth of development (that sort of thing has been tried and failed before in the TV Movie) but instead gives you enough information to build up a picture of the situation and then uses the opportunity to tell an entirely visual piece of storytelling. It’s the one time he has the opportunity to do this before we switch back to audio and at that point he can indulge in as much exposition as he likes! It’s a phenomenal action sequence that has clearly been made with real care by the best in the field and served its purpose absolutely by getting the existing audience excited for the new season and drawing in new punter to the range. How wonderful that Big Finish continue to exploit their best people for the range that made them what they are today. Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwbWpBxosvo

Ten more reasons to enjoy Bernice Summerfield…


Lisa Bowerman - Every good series needs a lead that we can buy into and this range is luckier than most to have somebody with the talent and the commitment of Lisa Bowerman to spearhead it. I never tire of listening to her Lisa in the part of Bernice because she brings so much of herself to the role, she really allows you to get under the skin of the character and see what makes her tick. In Bowerman’s hands Bernice is funny, adventurous, intelligent, flawed, irritable, whimsical, naughty and delightful. It’s a powerhouse performance that never stops giving even after fifteen years.

Irving Braxiatel - The silky voiced, erudite, terrifyingly clever and morally ambiguous figure at the heart of Benny’s life who is responsible for much of the joy and the pain in her life. He’s not your usual moustache twirling villain (in fact I would question whether he is a villain at all, his diabolical actions are usually performed for the most logical of reasons) and it has been suggested that he has a family link to the Doctor. Played by the unbeatable Miles Richardson who manages to sound smooth and menacing with every word, Braxiatel is a constant delight and it doesn’t surprise me one jot that even after the entire series has been rebooted the production simply could not do without him. I don’t know if we’ll ever come close to understanding him completely (there’s more chance of that over at Gallifrey where he is amongst his own people) but it sure is fun trying and the way he veers so spectacularly between charming host to out and out monster reveals the versatility of this astonishing character.

The humour – This is a really funny series at times and may reduce you to a fit of giggles at the most inappropriate of moments. Trust me, I’ve been there. Some of my favourite gags…
‘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!’

Adrian Salmon's covers - His gloriously colourful, bold, spiky artwork was a mainstay of the range through its many years. Come rain or shine you could always count on something memorable from Adrian as peek into the story you are about to experience. I miss his covers if I’m honest, whilst its nice to actually see the actors involved on the sleeves I feel that the series has lost some of its unique identity by taking the same photoshopped approach as the Doctor Who series. Come back Ade, all is forgiven. Check out his covers for Greatest Shop in the Galaxy, Green Eyed Monsters, Masquerade of Death, The Crystal of Cantus, The Wake and Dead Man’s Switch to see what I’m talking about. Seriously check out this video I made… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZ3sim09n80

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.

Clever use and further exploration of Doctor Who continuity - If you are a fan of Doctor Who (and I can hardly imagine you are not if you are reading this) then you would do well to check out this range because Benny’s met (and conquered) all the best monsters in her time. Ice Warriors. Rutans. Draconians. Sea Devils. Daleks. The Clutch. Cybermen. The Eternals. Even the Giant Robot, Iris Wildthyme and the Monoids too! One of the continual delights of this range is how various Doctor Who alien races can crop up because they are established in the future and become a part of this wonderful portmanteau universe inhabited by Benny.

The novels/anthologies – I have already mentioned Life During Wartime which was an exceptional anthology but there have been oodles of other books written to accompany this range. I would particularly recommend The Glass Prison (a phenomenal first person narrative told entirely from Bernice’s POV as she gives birth to Peter in prison), A Life Worth Living (a high quality anthology that exposes the pre-Year Zero regulars at their best), The Two Jasons (written by Dave Stone, the novel which accompanies The End of the World and adds much depth to events) and Present Danger (the anthology that catalogued the fight against the Deindum between Resurrecting the Past and Escaping the Future). There are some experienced Doctor Who authors thrown in the mix along with some fresh, new writers making the Bernice novel range a real mixture of the recognisable and the pioneering.

The outstanding regular cast times two - What impresses me most about this cast when they are all brought together is just how well oiled they are when you consider how they were cohered. This was never a Star Trek style casting process where the regular characters were scrutinised over months (probably years if I know Paramount) to see who would work out with who. Each new character that has been added to the ensemble was a serendipitous accident. Benny, Brax and Jason were created during the New Adventures period. Joseph was added to the mix in the first season when the range was re-creating some of the more popular NAs (Walking to Babylon). Adrian joined in series two, supposedly a one off performance in a lacklustre Mike Tucker script (The Stone’s Lament). Bev turned up in series four in another (slightly better) Mike Tucker script (The Bellotron Incident). Hass was the replacement gardener after Mr Crofton was killed in tragic circumstances in the outstanding collection Life During Wartime and underwent a transformation from a Martian to something altogether more alien in the reality shifting Something Changed. Doggles was the result of an appearance in the short story anthology Something Changed and just seem to stick when the next audio came out. Peter was a result of the events in the two books The Squire’s Crystal and The Glass Prison but only really made his presence felt amongst the cast in series eight when he killed Jason and headed off into the universe with his mother. What astounds me is how this cast has been nutted and bolted together over the years and yet at this stage feel as though this was how it was always intended. The efforts of Bowerman, Richardson, Myers, Faulkner, Wickham, Wolfe, Stevens, Grant and Berlyn should be applauded because together they make the most engaging of ensemble casts that Big Finish has to offer. Since the series has been rebooted a new regular cast has been developed including Ruth, Jack, Brax and Peter. Smaller, obviously, but much easier to handle and with some strong personalities ensuring the stories are practically self-perpetuating. Ayesha Antoine who plays Ruth in the current series and has quickly developed a sparkling rapport with Bowerman and its their continuing interaction that provides much of the joy of the current series’.

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:

http://docohobigfinish.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/bernice-summerfield-adventures-so-far.html

Most of all…enjoy!

And this is what Bernice got up to before had her own series...





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Πανδώρα Άγαδακις said...

I have all the novels, audios, reconstructed missing stories and broadcast media, so I've drawn the line at spin-off media or I would never get anything done! Having said that, I recently discovered, "Oh, No it's Not!", in the Benny range. What a great set piece! Very well produced and anything I haven't heard with Nicholas Courtney is a real treat. But...well, I won't add the spoiler but if you're a classic Whovian that hasn't had the time to hear Benny's own stuff, Rebel Dog sez, "Check it out!"