Full disclosure before we start – I’m a total Benny noob.
Well, an almost-total Benny noob. In another sense, Benny and I have…history.
Being of a generation with many of the writers who were involved in the Virgin New Adventures, and being the same sort of fan as many of them, it’s one of my life’s signature misfires that Bernice’s introduction to the range of books marked the point at which I put them down, and so I missed the idea of ever contributing to them. When my wife – a strictly New Whovian and dedicated Moffat-hater – asks me, regularly, ‘Why don’t you write for the show now? You could, you know, it’d be better than this!’ I have a tendency to darkly mutter the words ‘Bernice pigging Summerfield, that’s why…’ and stomp off in a very masculine, not-at-all-pathetic-honest huff to quietly break a teacup.
I’ve strenuously avoided what looked like a lifetime of Benny single releases, on the grounds that ‘I don’t like Bernice pigging Summerfield’ (stomp, stomp, stomp), and, when someone not my long-suffering wife gave me the Big Finish version of Love and War, (the book that originally introduced Bernice ‘Surprise’ Summerfield to the Seventh Doctor’s life) it also took me the longest time to get into. There always seemed to be something missing from the start of it, and the style takes love or bloody-minded teeth-gritting determination to adapt to.
But one thing about Love and War intrigued me. I’d heard a lot of Big Finish extras by the time I got round to Love and War, and so had heard a lot of Lisa Bowerman’s voice, because she’s hugely prolific as a director with the company. It was frankly, breathtakingly remarkable to hear her in character as Bernice, and the combination of grown-up joyful delinquency and professional problem-solving she brought to the character worked like an ocean breeze on my cynicism about the character, and helped me view Bernice in a new way – enough to spend hard cash on the first box set of New Bernice Summerfield stories. They were supposed to be an ideal jumping-on point for people with no Benny experience – people like me.
So do they work?
Well – yes and no. Do they feel like Bernice Summerfield, on her own, archaeological adventurer? No, not really, because the Seventh Doctor and Ace are there to bolster three of the four tales in the first box set with those points of connection for noobs like me. But do they re-introduce you to the character of Bernice, at least temporarily devoid of some of her complicated backstory, and allow her to take you on adventures where the tone is markedly different from regular Who stories? Yes, they do that, certainly.
The Revolution, the first story out of the box revolves around thinking in a vaguely Douglas Adamsy, Terry Pratchetty, which is rarely a bad thing. The ongoing war between scientific knowledge and religious mumbo-jumbo is rather turned on its head here, with science as a form of religion, and a resolution that is rather circular and cynical, an ouroboros of logic that leaves you grinning. Bernice here is joined by the Seventh Doctor, but for the most part, he’s just getting in her way and she treats him very much as it would have done the Seventh Doctor some on screen good to be treated – as though he is her companion, and a rather inconvenient one at that. McCoy seems to relish the chance to turn the format on its head and prick the Elder God-battling Doctor’s pomposity, reducing him down to a follower of events, rather than the sneakiest of the Grand Masters, and Bowerman powers through, kicking the box off to an exhilarating start. Oh, also – zombies. Did I mention the zombies?
The second story, Good Night, Sweet Ladies, jettisons McCoy and really feels the most Benny-flavoured of the boxed stories as a result. An allegedly abandoned planet, a demented labyrinth, two fairly irritating strangers, a pain-in-the-bum Dalek, and Benny more in control of herself – all elements for a rollicking good ride, but this becomes something more than that. Much more. Benny’s early life (as revealed in Love and War), her status as an orphan and the circumstances that led to that situation, are explored in a tight three-hander (three and a half if you count the Dalek’s plunger). Highly effecting performances, in particular from Bowerman herself, make this the inverse of the first story – where the absurdity seemed to build towards the end. This one starts out being absurd, then strips that away and leaves you with a punch of something powerful and meaningful to ponder by the time the story draws to its close.
The second ‘act’ in the box set is made up of Random Ghosts and The Lights of Skaro. There’s a cleverness in Random Ghost’s core concept that makes you wonder about personality and interaction – are the people you know really the people you know, or is your knowledge of them conditional on what your brain tells you about them when you think of them? The arc of the stories – Ace, despatched to a planet where nothing is quite who, what, where or when it seems, Benny despatched to find her and then, in true Summerfield style, Getting Involved In Things, is simple enough, but the consequences of both Ace’s and Bernice’s actions play out with a growing, and ultimately devastating, force, with the revelation at the end of Random Ghosts more than enough to hook the listener into The Lights of Skaro, which in a fairly Seventh Doctor, twisted style revels in the backstory that explains the events of Random Ghosts, and extends that backstory into a potentially terrifying future. Do you need to know Bernice’s backstory to enjoy this two-parter? No, not really. It helps significantly to know the Doctor’s history to make sense of The Lights of Skaro though.
So – one to buy?
Yes, overall – Bowerman’s powerhouse performance is the sort of thing that could see Benny challenge River Song to a drunken-archaeology contest, and probably win. The stories here are all very different: The Revolution is madcap and more than a little cynical; Good Night, Sweet Ladies – probably a personal favourite – is more focused on the emotional landscape of Benny; Random Ghosts takes a little teeth-gritting to get through stylistically but is philosophically fascinating, and The Lights of Skaro is a full-on threat-fest, with a pulse of impending disaster and the mistakes we make when we think we know best. You’ll power through this box set in less than a day, given a reasonable scarcity of Stuff To Do that stops you listening, rather than, as with some box sets (can we say Dark Eyes?), taking it in bite-sized chunks.
Big Finish has of course just announced that a second New Adventures of Benny box set is on the horizon – The Triumph of Sutekh bringing the Hell-voiced baddie from the Tom Baker classic Pyramids of Mars up against Bernice Surprise Summerfield and, very probably, her trowel of archaeological adventure. Given that it seems to be aiming for a massively different tone, you probably won’t need to have listened to the first New Adventures box set to enjoy the second.
On the other hand, why take the risk?
If you, like me, have waited till now to climb on board the Benny bus, grab the first New Adventures box set now (and, while you’re at it, Love and War, and maybe Highest Science too), and ride on out. It’s time to let a really wild archaeologist into your life.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk