THIS SERIES TAKES
"THE DYING DAYS", AND
PAUL CORNELL (1, 6),
JACQUELINE RAYNER (1,
3, 4, 5, 6, 7), MATT JONES (2),
KATE ORMAN (3),
NIGEL ROBINSON (4),
LANCE PARKIN (5),
& JUSTIN RICHARDS (7)
NICHOLAS BRIGGS (1, 4, 5),
GARY RUSSELL (2, 3, 6),
JASON HAIGH-ELLERY (6),
& EDWARD SALT (7)
BIG FINISH BERNICE
SUMMERFIELD CDS#1.1 -
1.6 (ISBNS 1-903654-30
-0, 1-903654-34-3, 1-
SEPTEMBER 1998 AND
SEPTEMBER 1998 - SEPTEMBER 2000
1. OH NO IT ISN'T! 2. BEYOND THE SUN
3. WALKING TO BABYLON 4. BIRTHRIGHT
5. JUST WAR 6. BURIED TREASURE 7. DRAGON'S WRATH
Oh No It Isn't!
Since her debut in the New Adventures novel Love and War, Bernice "Surprise" Summerfield has become the most recognised companion of Virgin's eight years' worth of Doctor Who books. And as the BBC reclaimed the license to publish their own Doctor Who novels, it became clear that the time was right for some Bernice-led New Adventures novels starting with Oh No It Isn't in May 1997.
In 1998, a then little-known company called Big Finish Productions began audio adaptations of the New Adventures books that were at the time featuring the Bernice Summerfield character (an exclusive license to produce original Doctor Who audio adventures was not obtained until 1999). In September of that year, Big Finish released their debut audio play based on Paul Cornell's 1997 novel Oh No It Isn't, adapted for audio by Cornell's then- girlfriend, Jacqueline Rayner.
The actress portraying Bernice in this release and hereafter would be Lisa Bowerman. The former Casualty star was no stranger to the world of Doctor Who, having appeared as the Cheetah person Karra in the series' last televised story, Survival. Her performance as Benny is all kinds of wonderful, and her voice really makes you believe that she IS Bernice Summerfield. This reviewer would be very happy if the folks at BBC Wales would bring Bowerman as Benny into the new series of Doctor Who (no substitutes, 51st century archaeologists included!)
Based on the original novel, this story begins at St Oscar's University on the planet Dellah (as the planet was first mentioned in The Dying Days). When Bernice gets the opportunity to take her tutorial group to the lost civilisation of Perfecton, an alien missile hits their ship. But instead of the afterlife, Benny wakes up in a strange world of (wait for it)... panto! Everthing from Cinderella to Puss in Boots.
"The King's Balls get bigger every year!"
Amongst the supporting cast is Nicholas Courtney (better known to everyone as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), who gives a fantastic performance as Benny's cat, Wolsey. Big Finish mainstay Nicholas Briggs, along with Jo Castleton; Jonathan Brüün; and Mark Gatiss also manage to keep the panto versions of their characters fresh, enjoyable and fun.
Overall, this story is a great beginning to the many New Adventures adaptations and later original adventures that would follow from Big Finish Productions. Highly recommended.
Beyond The Sun
Out of the six adapted New Adventures novels, Beyond the Sun is the only novel to be adapted by its original author, Matthew Jones. Much like with the original novel, here Jones examines human society through the two contrasting alien societies - the Ursulans, who obviously have no rules within their culture except making up rules of their own which gives them the freedom to define individual codes to live by; and the Sunless, who have only conformity and have invaded Ursu in a quest to recover technology stolen from their home world.
Jones also manages to incorporate Benny's habit of adding entries to her diary as the story continues. Unfortunately, this is the only Big Finish release to include this practice as the other stories that would follow do not include it. Throughout her time with the Doctor and in her own solo novels, Benny’s diary was such an integral part of her character because it provided us with insight into who she really was.
As with the previous release, Lisa Bowerman is at the top of her game as Bernice, demonstrating the depth of feelings she still has for her ex-husband despite the breakdown of their relationship (depicted in Eternity Weeps). In his first appearance as Jason Kane, Stephen Fewell succeeds in bring the roguish ex-husband to life even though Jason's role in this story is limited. As for the students, Emile Mars-Smith is portrayed well by Lewis Davis, whereas Jane Burkes' Tameka Vito comes off annoying in some scenes (except the ones including Nicholas Pegg as Scott, and Barnaby Edwards as Leon). Sophie Aldred (Ace) appears to have enjoyed her role as the over-the-top villainess Miranda, and Anneke Wills (Polly) as the Ursulan Doctor Kitzinger comes off as very believable. Indeed, both are a far cry from their recognisable roles on Doctor Who.
Beyond the Sun might not be the strongest of the Big Finish adaptations, but with both its enduring appeal and Benny revealing her own code to live by, it is a great testament to the appeal of her character.
Walking to Babylon
With Kate Orman's early 1998 novel Walking to Babylon adapted for audio, Big Finish had apparently decided to change direction with the Bernice Summerfield range as this story involves time travel and a throwback to Benny's days as the seventh Doctor's companion. Since most of the Benny-led New Adventures were set during the same time frame (the late twenty-sixth century), this opened up the possibility to adapt other Doctor Who novels
without using the Doctor with the historical settings still intact. And with this, the loosely
linked Time Ring Trilogy was born.
The audio adaptation remains largely faithful to the source material, though there were changes made relating to how the story starts with the involvement of the People - the very same People who first appeared in Ben Aaronovitch's New Adventures novel The Also People. It would've been interesting and amazing to hear a representation of the World-sphere as originally introduced in The Also People but instead, we have a silver path which the characters transverse to get to Babylon, created through the use of Benny and Jason’s wedding rings (Time-Rings!) which were a wedding present from the Doctor. Jacqueline Rayner, who adapted this novel for audio, uses this device to insert Jason into this story and the next two parts of the trilogy, Birthright and Just War, which are both based on Doctor Who novels of the same names.
The plot behind Walking to Babylon sees two rough People, WiRgo!xu and !Ci!ci-tel,
voiced by Nigel Fairs and Anthony Keetch respectively, enlisting Jason's help to use the Time Rings to create a path back to Babylon in the year 570BC. This causes trouble for the People as they are not allowed any form of time travel due to their peace treaty with their main rivals (presumably the Time Lords).
As for the cast, Lisa Bowerman gives a fantastic performance as Benny (especially in the scenes featuring the psi-powered Edwardian linguist John Lafayette) and Stephen Fewell really shines in the first part of the trilogy as Jason who was largely sidelined in Beyond the Sun. The special guest star of this story is Elisabeth Sladen (The Sarah Jane Adventures) who plays the Lady Ninan-ashtammu. Although this is a small role, Sladen really brings out the character's delight at hearing tales of other's exploits and expeditions in a wonderful way as she conveys her own grief that she cannot leave the Temple due to her religious beliefs.
Alterations aside, Walking To Babylon is rather a good way to begin the Time Ring Trilogy. Bring on Birthright!
Picking up from Walking to Babylon, Birthright kicks off part two of the Time Ring Trilogy with Professor Bernice Summerfield thrown off the Time Path and ending up in early twentieth-century London with only one of her Time Rings. Meanwhile Jason Kane finds himself stranded on a dead planet at the other end of time, where the queen of an insect race called the Charrl are demanding that he helps to save her dying species whatever the cost. All this, plus Springheel Jack and a Russian Detective!
Birthright is the first of two Virgin Doctor Who novels to be adapted for audio by Big Finish Productions. The story is the same as the one experienced by both Benny and Ace (while the Doctor was on board SS Elysium dealing with Cybermen in Iceberg!) and so, like Walking to Babylon before it, this adaptation involved some necessary alterations. Ace’s role is taken largely by Jason and the old hermit named Muldwych is excluded, as is Benny living with Margaret Waterfield (Victoria's aunt). Aside from that, Birthright definitely stacks up the Doctor Who-style thrills to a monumental height, surpassing the book in my view.
Lisa Bowerman is superb throughout this adventure but hell, she's certainly on well trodden ground - Victoriana and alien possession helped out so many a Who-girl! Stephen Fewell's Jason is also on top form here. Just like with Walking to Babylon, he may languish in the sub-plot on planet exposition, but there are some great lines and characteristic moments that finally give the character some definition. Guest star Colin Baker gives a wonderful performance as the Russian detective Mikhail Vladamir Popov, with Benjamin Roddy as his sidekick Charlie. Jane Shakespeare does well here too as the Charrl Queen Ch'tizz, as does Barnaby Edwards as he returns for an encore as John Lafayette.
Overall, Birthright is one hundred per cent recommended and well worth the listen.
The Time Ring Trilogy concludes with Just War, which like Birthright was adapted for audio from the Doctor Who novel of the same name.
As was the case with both Birthright and Walking to Babylon, the adaptation of Lance Parkin's debututant story, Just War, has some minor changes that set it apart from the novel. Whilst Benny's parts - including the torture scenes - remain intact, Roz Forrester’s subplot is excluded and most of the Doctor and Chris Cwej's roles are shared by Jason Kane.
However this play, just like the original, is set in Wartime Guernsey, where the eponymous Time Ring has deposited Bernice following the explosive events of Birthright. This release constantly barrages the listener with an arsenal of genuine historical facts, and though these are just as startling as any plot twists seen on Doctor Who, they are just the starting point for a production which really strives for dramatic realism as opposed to sensation and melo-drama.
Lisa Bowerman is very low-key here, though this was to be expected as the tale demands that she remain broken and emotionally scarred. Bowerman’s skill lies in finding shades within this emotional state; a great achievement. As for Stephen Fewell's Jason, this is the character's finest hour as he finally gets some more rewarding interplay with Bowerman. Fewell really uses the chance to articulate both Jason's strength and his vulnerability here. Maggie Stables (the future Evelyn Smythe, of sixth Doctor fame) as Ma Doras provides a warm, well-rounded performance in the early scenes that contrasts well with the horrific turn events later take. Mark Gatiss and Nicky Goldie as Wollf and Kitzel along with Michael Wade's chillingly persuasive Steinmann make for a great cliché-free ensemble, communicating the horrors of Nazism without simplifying or glamorising its nature. Their restraint and simplicity is first-rate.
Included with the release of Just War was a free disc which contains two original Bernice Summerfield stories; the very first original stories from Big Finish, in fact. The disc also includes an interview with Paul Cornell (who also contributes one of the CD’s plays) plus a musical suite (as heard in Just War) and trailer for the rest of the range.
The first of the two is a funny and enjoyable comedy written by Jacqueline Rayner, entitled Making Myths. The story starts off with Benny appearing on a live satellite radio broadcast talking about the oft-referenced Lost Mudfields of Agravan. Lisa Bowerman give another wonderful performance here; the skill with which she plays our favourite archaeologist is quite unnerving, almost as if Cornell had her in mind for the part all those years ago when he first created Bernice (although he had apparently visualised her as resembling a short-haired version of actress Emma Thompson). Sarah Mowat (who also appeared in Big Finish's first Doctor Who release The Sirens of Time) appears as the New Adventures stalwart Keri the Pakhar, hosting the radio broadcast. Both Bowerman and Mowat seem to enjoy the comic interplay, keeping the whole tale chugging along. Whether it's worth a second listen or not, this is nonetheless an enjoyable story.
The second of the two, written by Paul Cornell, is a story of Benny travelling back in time to confront the mother of a future dictator. She's given the choice of deciding whether to kill for the greater good, or stick to her morals regardless of the cost to future generations. Very different from Making Myths, this one is very much a dark and chilling tale because everything is based on fact. Once more, both Bowerman and Mowat are the only two actors involved, and their interaction here is fantastic.
Unfortunately, this freebie CD was actually a limited edition and is long since unavailable. However, this release does foreshadow many more original adventures for everyone's favourite archaeologist…
The first season of Bernice Summerfield concludes with an adaptation of the second Benny
led New Adventures novel, Dragons' Wrath by Justin Richards. Dragons’ Wrath is a fairly typical story for Benny as it involves her being drawn involuntarily into a web of intrigue surrounding a particular artefact known as the Gamelian Dragon.
With the villain of this story, Nusek, being a power-hungry individual out to consolidate his influence throughout the galaxy, this story is somewhat the archetype for many of the stories that followed its original publication until 1999 and to be honest that’s the main problem with this play - it feels a little over-familiar as it has been done too many times since. However, this release sure has its highlights, especially for some of Benny's characteristics. Just look at her devotion to the preservation of the past, even at the cost of the point she’s trying to make.
My biggest gripe regarding this story is regarding the incidental music provided by Toby Richards and Emily Baker - the infamous Adventure Is My Game theme that would be
heard for most of Season 2 and also in Season 3. Today, some die-hard Benny fans consider it as a mistake best forgotten as it completely sets the wrong tone for Benny’s adventures; especially this adventure. That said, it is funny to hear Benny singing in karaoke style!
Lisa Bowerman’s Bernice continues to delight the listeners, with her quick wit shining through well in her performance, most notably with Nigel Fairs (who plays Dr Nicholas Clyde), giving the scenes they're in together a believability and strength which helps to
further the drama. Fairs is quite adept at highlighting Clyde’s suspicious nature of others,
but convincing enough so that the listeners don’t become overly suspicious of him until later in the story. Guest star Richard Franklin (Mike Yates) also gives a good performance as Nusek, the actor helping to emphasise the character’s nature as a threat hidden behind mask of respectability. This makes him all the more menacing in the early parts of the story, and even when things go wrong, his anger isn't over the top; just a wee melodramatic.
In a nutshell, Dragons' Wrath isn't a bad story or a great one either. It’s not a brilliant way to end this first season, the adaptation not quite doing justice to the original story that it was based upon. Roll on season two!
Copyright © Kory Stephens 2009
Kory Stephens has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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