Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code

Posted in Audio by - March 28, 2019
Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code

Released January 2010

Debuting in the 1992 novel Love and War, Professor Bernice Surprise Summerfield quickly became a quintessential companion for the Seventh Doctor before going on to star in her own successful range of novels and ongoing audio adventures. Yet although she has proven to be such an enduring and engaging character and despite a few attempts from Big Finish to recapture the spirit of The New Adventures, Eddie Robson’s ‘Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code’ looks to further develop the famed archaeologist during her time with the Doctor as she learns of a forbidden language and an archaic law that makes it illegal to read, speak, or even think about it on the planet of Shanquis.

Given how dark and gritty The New Adventures often were with the Seventh Doctor a more ruthless and manipulative mastermind who frequently worked from the shadows outside of the main action, it’s unsurprising that Big Finish has always endeavoured to tonally create stories set in this time that are more in line with traditional Doctor Who. Thus, while the Doctor is, indeed, absent from the majority of the story, here it is because he is acting as a peaceful mediator between Shanquis and its neighbouring world Esoria. Strangely, even as the Doctor fails to make meaningful headway and the two worlds seem increasingly likely to proceed to war, this tense political backdrop ends up being somewhat superfluous to Bernice’s own plot, never far from the minds of anyone but not really guiding affairs as much as might be expected. That the first episode’s cliffhanger should then choose to focus on the Doctor’s plight instead of Bernice like so much of the action before it is all the more disjointed as a result.

Bernice has always had a profound sense of justice and is certainly prone to impulsively taking up a cause she believes in, and so although her dedication to reversing the laws suppressing information about the mysterious language she has only just heard rumours of is quite sudden, it does make sense given the character’s established history. Unfortunately, the few attempts to build drama centred around the danger of associating with the language fall somewhat flat because nobody in any capacity actually knows what they are dealing with precisely because of the laws, and uncovering the truth of the entire mystery in one brief scene once the Doctor and Bernice are reunited in prison hardly makes for the most satisfying resolution.

While discovering that the language is actually English and that the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits have prevented both from truly seeing the evidence sitting before them is itself an ingenious fact, the means of discovery sadly relies on simple dialogue just like too much of the story before it. Unfortunately, expository dialogue is almost the entire function of Gatlin who more or less disappears from the plot except when needed to provide lengthy bouts of information about the brewing war or the forbidden language, and this prevents the conclusion that suggests that Bernice and she have developed a strong friendship from truly resonating. Charlie Hayes is an immense talent, but she hardly gets to flex her acting muscles here and it’s all too clear from what the role provides that the decision to add a second actor to voice Gatlin was one made very late in the process.

‘Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code’ likely isn’t a story that will make newcomers to the character want to jump into her lengthy catalogue of stories, but it nonetheless nicely captures some of the nuance of the character, and Lisa Bowerman excels from the very start and charismatically elevates everything around her to another level. The plot is fairly cliché overall with the two storylines not melding totally successfully, but the inherent premise and striking visuals that accompany the resolution offer a suitably engaging backdrop to likewise help alleviate some of the lesser parts elsewhere.

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