The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume Three: The Unbound Universe

Posted in Audio by - April 23, 2018
The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume Three: The Unbound Universe

Released August 2016
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Professor Bernice Summerfield has enjoyed adventures alongside both the Seventh and Eighth Doctors in both the written and audio mediums, and as Big Finish’s longest-serving lead character as so expertly brought to life by Lisa Bowerman, it makes a certain amount of sense that she should lead a crossover of sorts to continue and truly emphasize the word ‘new’ in the third volume of The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield. Following an engaging four-story battle against the Osiran Sutekh with the Seventh Doctor and Ace, Bernice now finds herself in the company of David Warner’s alternative Third Doctor who did not become UNIT’s scientific adviser as portrayed in Big Finish’s Unbound series of hypothetical lead actors and situations.

Trapped with this mysterious Doctor in his dying universe so ravaged by war after he used her as a part of a failed attempt to escape, Bernice finds herself at the last library at a time when knowledge is the last thing left of value in ‘The Library in the Body’ by James Goss. Attracting both the good and the bad as the likes of the Sisters of Saint Beedlix and their Mother Superior search for missing hymns to help reshape the fabric of the universe for the better and of the Kareem who believe all knowledge is evil and that the library must be destroyed, the library forms the nexus point for what is set up to be a fairly traditional tale of good and evil with others simply searching for priceless artefacts and knowledge thrown in for good measure. However, with the wonderfully nuanced supporting characters who tend to put their own desires above others’ regardless of their ultimate aim and a librarian who seems all too keen to welcome everyone into his domain and assist in their research as long as they do not remove the contents of the library, the truth behind the rare tomes and their seemingly blank pages presents a thrilling and well-paced mystery that certainly lends a degree of truth to the Kareem’s unfounded accusations.

Goss makes the most of the fact that this version of the Doctor is essentially an unknown quantity, and Bernice provides the perfect medium through which to channel this belief in goodness based on his other selves tempered with a modicum of doubt for that very same reason. Bowerman and Warner have an immense chemistry from the very start, and the hints that are dropped about this Doctor’s past within this doomed universe suggest a darker iteration that just may be capable of the murder he wrongfully stands accused of here. This is a man who has always shied away from responsibility, but despite that reticence and the scorn of others for being a cunning coward or a cautious warrior, he has become the de facto ruler of this universe, a title he is glad to see the Kareem ignore but one that also carries with it the tremendous death toll of those with whom he associates. With the suggestion of far darker events yet to come as the Doctor himself looks into a particular book, ‘The Library in the Body’ is the perfect introduction to this exciting new dynamic that presents an engaging and dangerous mystery in its own right while setting the scene for even greater events to come.

The Doctor and Bernice land on Planet X, a planet so dull that nobody bothered properly naming it, in the aptly-titled ‘Planet X’ by Guy Adams, finding that the famed dullness and mediocrity are not quite as uninteresting and straightforward as the Doctor believes. Adams manages to develop and flesh out this world in a remarkably short span of time, encompassing familiar aspects of ‘The Happiness Patrol’ but confidently blazing its own path forward. On a world where beige and grey are the accepted clothing colours, people are known only by numbers, archaeology is deemed a suitably acceptable vocation, and any emotion or nonconformity is met with lethal force, and Sophie Wu as the nicknamed Millie gives a powerful performance as a woman who has spent her life reveling in the safety of contentment who slowly finds the very foundations of her life and society called into question as the promotion of the boy she didn’t mind more than anyone else leads to a far darker truth about the paradoxical search for excellence that subtly fuels the culture.

No matter the particular history of this universe and this Doctor, the character of the Doctor is fundamentally the same, and so it comes as no surprise that the Doctor does not take his order to be processed sitting down and instead strives to fight back against those who have taken away the populace’s voice. With the knowledge that some twenty million lives have been lost under this regime hanging ominously above everything, the verbal showdown between David Warner and Julie Graham as the sinister Prime Minister 470 is another unqualified highlight of this tale, perfectly solidifying this Doctor’s moral code and the true horrors of this most subtle form of tyranny and the means by which dissent is resolved. Many of the individual elements of this story tread quite familiar ground, but the total package is confidently presented on all fronts and filled with enough surprises and genuine emotion to create another truly excellent outing for this new powerhouse leading duo, making the most of a purposefully dull environment to offer a story that is anything but.

‘The Very Dark Thing’ by Una McCormack takes a diametrically different approach, presenting the unique and visual world of Tramatz where rivers hum to themselves and unicorns prance through the emerald forests. With tranquility pervading everyday life and even the Doctor seemingly enjoying a respite, Bernice implores everyone to listen to the warning voice in the sky that only she can apparently hear. In orbit above, Fleet Admiral Effenish threatens lethal action against the population below in retribution for past events should she not receive a response, fearing that she is being steadfastly ignored but unaware that her requests are going completely unnoticed. With the truth of Tramatz shrouded in mystery, it’s this multi-faceted approach through distinctly different viewpoints that makes this story such a resounding success, and Deirdre Mullins does well as the instigating force that leads to the reveal of a cataclysmic event that destroyed reality itself in a manner similar to what the Time War would come to do in Bernice’s own universe.

The counterpoint to Mullins’s Effenish is Kerry Gooderson’s Megatz, a young woman who lost her parents five years ago and who has come to question the very fabric of this world and just why her surroundings are so strange. With Benny as an unexpected voice of reason for her, Meg looks to the corner of her eye where the very dark thing that everyone can see but nobody pays attention to resides, working through the planet’s pleasant façades of reality to uncover the dark truth stemming from its past and still guiding its present. The resolution may be just a bit too easy given the very personal investment of both Megatz and Effenish’s fleet, but the incredible imagination on display to bring together the fantasy setting and the true emotions encompassing the overall despondency is incredible and represents an altogether different type of story that reveals new sides to the leads and again hints at a far darker truth for this universe that may still play a bigger role as the finale approaches.

‘The Emporium at the End’ by Emma Reeves concludes this third volume during the final days of the universe as everyone flees to the gateway to escape at the Emporium in the midst of its closing down sale. Reeves does a magnificent job in capturing the unique combination of helplessness and perpetual hope of the many individuals trapped with their final moments fast approaching, and having the prospect of survival tied to a lottery with tickets that must be purchased or traded for paints a remarkably grim picture about the current state of affairs. Indeed, the lengths to which individuals are willing to go to procure even a single chance perfectly epitomises the desperation that would so naturally manifest when all other hope has been lost. In charge of the gateway is the famed Manager played by the cleverly-anagrammed Sam Kisgart (the special features are remarkably in-depth for this unique individual and his storied past), a man who has defied the odds to save some thirty thousand individuals from the finality of the universe’s impending end. Neither the script nor the cast list go out of their way to hide the fact that this is the Master of this universe, and though Benny never previously encountering the Master along with the Doctor’s lacking memory here mean that neither lead truly recognises this foe, it’s clear from the start that this benevolent act is not quite as innocent and kind as it seems, a duplicitous facet that Kisgart plays to remarkably suave effect.

Without any prolonged conversations between the Doctor and the Manager, ‘The Emporium at the End’ does well to distinguish these two characters by emphasising both how alike and how completely different they are while touching on their shared past. This has always been an immensely intriguing narrative thread for the two Time Lords, and here it hints at just what these two have been through and reaffirms just how familiar this most unfamiliar of Doctors is as he would rather run away from violence than emerge victorious regardless of the cost. With the returning Sisters of Saint Beedlix and a rather harsh ending that makes the most of the Doctor’s many sacrifices, there’s a strong sense of continuity and effect here that leaves a resounding impact even after such a short time with these two friends-turned-foes together, and the familiarity pervading this most grandiose and desperate setting makes for an experience perfectly at home within any era, medium, or universe of Doctor Who.

In total, The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume Three: The Unbound Universe just may be the strongest four-story set Big Finish has yet released in any of its many ranges. Funny, serious, insightful, and impactful, this collection makes the most of the familiar aspects of David Warner’s curmudgeonly but kind alternative Doctor alongside the vivaciousness of Bernice Summerfield’s trademark wit and desire to do good that Lisa Bowerman again delivers so effortlessly to offer a thrilling experience from beginning to end. With immense guest performances, direction, and sound design to bring this unique universe more fully to life while only hinting at the past atrocities it has witnessed, the unbound universe has become the definitive universe for this range, and the scene is gloriously set for many continuing adventures within this context.

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