The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume One

Posted in Audio by - April 19, 2018
The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume One

Released June 2014
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

The New Adventures will forever remain one of the most crucial endeavours of Doctor Who and its most loyal fans, a bold attempt to keep the franchise alive beyond its cancellation after 1989’s ‘Survival.’ Portraying the Seventh Doctor as a much darker and more manipulative version than ever shown on television, the novels became quite divisive by often putting the Time Lord’s ambition and desire for end results above the emotion and compassion that had always been at his core. Although Big Finish has perhaps wisely chosen not to delve too deeply into The New Adventures territory, the company has never shied away from further exploring and developing that series’s undoubted highlight, Professor Bernice Surprise Summerfield. In a callback to her origins that completely flips the script as the Doctor and Ace cross her path once more, The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield arrives to put a new spin on an old dynamic.

‘The Revolution’ by Nev Fountain opens this first volume on the planet of Arviem 2, a planet so dull and unimportant that in a one-planet race to be named Arviem it came in second. While being pursued by robots, maniacs, and miracles, Bernice finds herself also surrounded by a steadfast obsession with science on this world where faith in the indefinable is a crime, a fact that she quite cleverly subverts to escape her captors by discussing the theory of Schrodinger’s cat as a scientific fact that cannot be disproven. Unfortunately, as apparently biblical events continue to occur as Bernice continues to be met with the miracles she asks for, the story takes the very strange and offputting course of actively criticising the Seventh Doctor and, indeed, all of Doctor Who as a whole. Even with the Doctor Who credits accompanying these releases, ‘The Revolution’ is most certainly a Bernice Summerfield story, and she certainly minces no words about the Doctor’s ineffectiveness, bluntly demanding that he leave and let her carry on single-handedly. She claims that the Doctor without the TARDIS is simply an annoying man with a hat, and her proclamation that the Doctor has no place in her world of shouting and weapons disregards a tremendous majority of his adventures and most of his time spent with her specifically. The script goes out of its way to suggest that Bernice is actually being nice to the Doctor, but this scathing attack on the Doctor’s character and his world is unwarranted and a sour note to begin this new range on regardless of the charcters’ shared history in prose and audio.

Unfortunately, though, the Doctor isn’t really written in a way to refute those observations. It’s a nice moment when he has to suffer through someone telling him to wait until later for an explanation, and his suggestion that everything happening here is part of a fiendishly clever plan from his future that he has no hope of comprehending yet does poke fun at his machinations that so pervaded The New Adventures, but he’s written as little more than a babbling fool who is all over the map in terms of characterisation and energy, completely disparaging of religion, and at times much more extreme than even in his earliest adventures. ‘The Revolution’ is clearly meant to be a lighter and more comedic piece to begin with, but everyone’s deliveries of the jokes and gags are far too exaggerated with no subtlety, and the climax with exploding heads and pink dragons to back up the ultimate revelation behind this world and its miracles hardly portrays the leads in the most flattering light. Tonally and thematically, ‘The Revolution’ misses the mark, and though there are absolutely glimmers of a strong story here had there been a more serious tone and respect between lead characters, the result on display is an unfortunate beginning for Bernice’s fresh start.

Searching for Ace on the Moon of Adolin, Bernice finds and ancient labyrinth, two confused survivors, and something ancient that needs help in ‘Good Night, Sweet Ladies’ by Una McCormack. Without the Doctor present, Bernice is in a much more contemplative mood here, allowing a true sense of meaningful characterisation to take hold as the orphan who learned so early on that people do not grow old suddenly finds herself coming to terms with having reached middle age herself. She seems much more appreciative of her time in the TARDIS than in the previous story, and she’s unafraid to admit that sometimes it’s best not to ask any questions even if staying quiet goes against everything she holds dear. The cover for this volume makes it no secret that the Daleks are involved, but McCormack wisely introduces the singular Dalek here very early on and makes it a crucial part of the overall mystery rather than simply using it for generic action sequences and danger. In a cathedral where one may begin to wonder what happens to gods when nobody is left to worship them, Bernice finds that the building was constructed upon the crashed remains of a Dalek time ship that is alone and afraid and that wants to die, using images and voices to guide her to the ultimate truth that culminates with a remarkably deep look into the Bernice’s past that offers an emotional look at who her mother may have been.

Regardless of one’s opinions about the opener, ‘Good Night, Sweet Ladies’ is a remarkably tense and atmospheric character piece that delves into Bernice and her unique personality expertly. With a small cast, an evocative and isolated setting, and a remarkably subtle sound design that underscores and reinforces the more deliberate pace and eerily melancholy atmosphere expertly, this is a strong representation of everything that has made the Bernice Summerfield range so successful for so long for Big Finish, and the impossible decision facing her and the touching reunion she never expected to have make for riveting listening all the way through until the end credits play. The search for Ace has not ended yet, but the discovery of explosives assures Bernice that she’s on the right path, and the excitement and enthusiasm relating to the continuing hunt have amplified exponentially after this wonderful account.

‘Random Ghosts’ by Guy Adams takes Bernice to a forbidden world, a planet where time is broken and those trapped upon on its surface must live through the same day over and over again as they form alliances, lie to each other, and try to escape. With only camera recordings to play back what has happened previously to help people try to piece together their situation as the cycle of time begins anew, it becomes quite clear that someone has gone through a great amount of effort to remove this world from existence, and there’s quite a fascinating discussion about the corrupting influence of power and how the nicest people are usually those with the least of it. In the aftermath of a time bomb explosion, it’s fitting that the one place that seems to have all of the answers would be the one place people are afraid to go to, but it’s the bold and rarely-used storytelling format of revealing events out of sequence that makes ‘Random Ghosts’ so incredibly successful. Director Scott Handcock deserves full credit for seamlessly delivering these interlinked vignettes without the benefit of a direct flow of continuity in a fashion that is wholly cohesive and sensible, and a story that would be strong regardless benefits all that much more from a fractured delivery to mirror the characters’ confusion and from key information being withheld longer than otherwise possible without sacrificing any of the tension and mystery. Again, the heavy featuring of the Daleks on the cover art of the set and the title of the next story give away the identity of the planet, but taken as an isolated tale this is an absolute storytelling masterpiece.

All the more satisfyingly, the performances more than match the intense drama, and Lisa Bowerman deserves particular credit for so emotionally delivering this expert exploration of who her character is at this time with no option but to live in the moment. The notion of anyone- but especially Bernice- having a significant other he or she can’t remember is a powerful narrative device, and the discussion about the fairy tale theme of love at first sight versus the actual time that goes into developing a relationship is fittingly resonant and profound. Of course, this is the story where Bernice finds Ace, and though the Ace here isn’t quite as petulant and prone to violence as in The New Adventures, she still is less than thrilled that Bernice has followed her and thus shown a lack of trust in her abilities, hinting quite bluntly at the resentment she still harbours for the woman who enmeshed herself into her established and tight-knit relationship with the Doctor. Sophie Aldred does quite well with these emotional moments and helps reinforce just where these two characters are in relation to each other as the finale of this first volume approaches with plenty of danger in tow.

‘The Lights of Skaro’ by James Goss closes out this first volume with Bernice on Skaro on her own, trying to survive for as long as possible while the Doctor tries to reach her. With time still fractured and disjointed on its surface, Bernice is afforded the chance to see this dreaded world at various points through its development, and director Scott Handcock proves remarkably adept at evoking the different Dalek and Doctor Who eras on display through subtle shifts in tone and sound design. The time lock has somehow pulled out ghosts of Skaro’s past in a moment between life and death, and among flashes back to the Emperor falling victim to the Dalek civil war and to the initial testing of radiation drugs, a very personal connection to Bernice is found when the man she may have loved, Klinus, is revealed to be one of the original Daleks, one of the innocent people who was mutated against his will into what would become one of the universe’s most fearsome killers. This is a remarkably poignant look at the beginning of the Daleks that is rarely afforded any villainous presence, and the suggestions that the Daleks seek to kill others because they cannot stand themselves in their current form and that the Daleks took to the universe at large only once the Doctor taunted them and gloated about how much is out there when he first arrived on Skaro add a subtle nuance that works incredibly well in the context of the story and of the franchise as a whole.

This is Lisa Bowerman’s strongest performance in quite some time, amplifying her natural charisma and charm and showing off her incredible range by allowing her to showcase the true desperation and fear that Bernice so rarely experiences. She’s unafraid to admit that she still needs the Doctor after all of this time, and her remarkable journey that proves the danger of the Daleks while delving into their past and showing a very different side of Kaled culture than she ever expected to see is utterly engrossing from beginning to end. With Ace the cause of the time anomaly as she tried to channel her inner Time Lord with an Omega weapon and the Doctor consumed with guilt over his role in the Dalek scourge after simultaneously hoping that Bernice would have been able to stop Ace from deploying the device and that Ace would have succeeded where others have failed, ‘The Lights of Skaro’ is a noteworthy story that makes the most of incredible performances and tension, its only shortcoming being a slightly less effective variation of the non-linear narrative structure of the previous tale.

Considering that the first story of this set subjectively but spitefully aped everything that makes Doctor Who and Bernice Summerfield so beloved in a wholly jarring and unsatisfactory comedy of errors, the remaining three stories are remarkably effective and manage to spotlight both Lisa Bowerman and the Daleks themselves in refreshingly new and effective ways. While it still doesn’t make sense that the Doctor Who theme should accompany these releases and that the Dalek and Skaro threat should be so blatantly spoiled up front, ‘Good Night, Sweet Ladies,’ ‘Random Ghosts,’ and ‘The Lights of Skaro’ point to a long and successful future for this reinvented range that is both so unique and so familiar.

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