A Handful of Dust, Alexander Vlahos, Avril Fenman, Bernice Summerfield, Big Finish, Brax, HMS Surprise, Irving Braxatiel, Jack, Lisa Bowerman, Peter, Ruth, The Curse of Fenman, third eye cinema podcast
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Bernice Summerfield line, by comparison to Big Finish’s Doctor Who…or for that matter, just about any other Big Finish series…is a far greater emphasis on humor.
The typical episode finds Benny (Lisa Bowerman, also of the 1989 Who teleseries and both costar and director of the Jago & Litefoot line) besting even the Doctor himself at the art of the snide putdown and the sarcastic aside. Practically every phrase she speaks trails off to a wry take on the situation.
I’ve encountered her a few times over the years – Shadow of the Scourge, the Dark Flame, Silver Lining, The Company of Friends and even a Companion Chronicles (Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code), but outside of her appearances alongside the Sylvester McCoy Doctor and Ace, she didn’t make a huge impression on me.
Sure, I’d gathered a few stories along the way from her own series out of curiosity, but found much of it odd and offputting by comparison to other Big Finish offerings to which I was acquainted.
I don’t know if it’s just a matter of the stories I chose to pick up, but there seemed to be a tad too much emphasis on arguments with her ex, a motherly overemphasis on a whiny son whom she dotes over, and a somewhat played out Wiccan/pagan orientation (count how many times she exclaims “oh, goddess” in the earlier tales – it practically serves as a drinking game, given the frequency thereof). Plus there were some outright oddities in the batch like The Diet of Worms (the talking insects and bookworms quoting tacky romance novels are a bit hard to take, you have to admit).
With the release earlier this year of the New Frontiers box set (or if you prefer, series 15 of her long running audio adventures), I thought it was time I sat down and made better acquaintance with the lady.
In other words, I was finally inspired enough to revisit the rather sporadic handful of stories I’d gathered over the years, with the aim of hearing them all in one long succession to try to make sense of it all (however scattered about in time or her continuity they turned out to be).
And having done so, my opinion of the character and series has changed significantly.
So it’s time for full disclosure, in case it wasn’t already apparent: while I always enjoyed her adventure alongside Mycroft Holmes (in the Adventures of the Diogenes Damsel) and certainly the aforementioned Doctor Who episodes she played a part in, I never really “got it”…at least until now.
Make no mistake, the continuity…or what of it a listener not following from day one of the series that inaugurated Big Finish back in 1999 can possibly follow…is quite convoluted.
From what I was able to pick up, she’s an archaeologist from the future. She traveled at some point or other with some incarnation of the Doctor. She was married…and separated…and had a pointedly whining son with some special abilities (don’t ask), whom she dotes on. She worked in a sort of Library of Alexandria of the future, for an apparently unscrupulous boss.
After leaving his service, she does a lot of job hunting, much of which goes quite awry (one wonders if she ever even gets paid for her efforts, considering!) And she meets the odd historical or fictional figure along the way.
Zombies, Cybermen, Time Lords, sorceresses, gods and demons… somehow you never quite got what you’d expect from any of them, with Benny. It’s part of the series charm, in a way, but takes some getting used to for a more logical, cause and effect oriented fan of the Who line(s). But yes, after all this time, I finally get it.
Admittedly, there’s always been a tremendous difference in feel and focus between the world of Benny and that of Who…or the Big Finish take on Dark Shadows…or even Dorian Gray, for that matter. This is a different animal entirely.
Hell, there’s even quite a variance between the Bernice Summerfield series and the ostensibly similar Scarifyers, whose comedic take on a stuffy, bibliophiliac occult author-professor, a Brigadier Lethbridge Stuart analogue (appropriately enough essayed by the late lamented Nick Courtney) and Aleister Crowley himself treads relatively near ground.
The world of Bernice Summerfield can be quite amusing – her apparent status as a goddess of inebriation should speak for itself, and the scripts are liberally peppered with witticisms and absurdism. That duly noted, the series has a similar tendency to play things a tad broad – this is not the more intellectual wryness of Who, or the bemused pokes at stuffiness and blinkered academia of the Scarifyers.
Where things go wrong (or right, if one is so inclined humoristically) is in the relative crassness of tone – while well written and not unfamiliar with the vagaries of history (when our futuristic archaeologist does in fact venture into the annals of genuine recorded history, rather than a more fantastic and speculative sci-fi variation thereof), Benny treads a relatively lowbrow territory marked by sex jokes (remember when she met Socrates?) and relationship humor. While a bit reductio ad absurdam, one can think of the series as a sort of feminist lens variation of a Kevin Smith film, albeit one without the comics, pop culture or fart jokes.
That said, once one becomes inclined to the rather off kilter tonality of the series by comparison with the generally more serious, darker toned (and often more highbrow and intellectually informed) Who lines, what the listener emerges with is a likeably flawed leading lady, who takes little seriously, least of all herself.
While her son Peter proves quite irritating at all stages of development and many of her changing supporting cast are somewhat less than loveable (hang on, we’ll get there), I have come to understand the lady a bit better, as less of a cipher and cliche and more of a (theoretical) person in her own right.
Having felt like I finally caught up (more or less) and made some vague sort of sense of the character and her world (and some of the major characters in it), I rejoin matters in what seems to be a very different milieu and operating dynamic. In point of fact, this is a far calmer, quite mellowed Benny, and further one content to step back out of the spotlight for the better part of the run.
No longer the centerpiece of the stories (to say ‘adventures’ in this case would probably be pushing it), we find a Benny very much the locus in absentia. Sure, she’s still here, but this is no longer narrated through her eyes, voice or diary, nor does she appear to be so directly involved or the focus of matters. Instead, rather like much of the televised Davison run or many of the lesser Who serials over the years, there has been a less than subtle shift in orientation to the minor characters that surround her.
Teleseries Who aficionados will recognize this as being quite akin to the full Tardis of the John Nathan Turner era or the endless expository episodes throughout the classic series wherein the Doctor and his companion(s) hardly make an appearance. The idea of this style of construction is to allow writers to set the scene and expository problem by focusing on the political interaction of any number of local nobodies whose dilemma the titular character has arrived to solve – at least when the serial finally lurches out of a painfully delayed first gear.
While the current season and setup of Benny runs nominally far closer to the former zeitgeist than the latter, said companions just aren’t likeable enough to merit the sort of familiarity and focus that, say, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough provided – and this marks the final result as residing more comfortably in the latter camp.
The annoying Peter (Thomas Grant) is still present, here pining over a lost boyfriend named Antonio (the amusingly monikered Sean Biggerstaff, which seen in a certain light may explain Peter’s fixation thereto) and getting rather catty with a new fellow named Jack, who is quite the complainer and appears to be interested in taking Antonio’s place in his affections (at least to go by the back and forth between the two which features in HMS Surprise).
We have two characters who joined Bernice with the first box set, Epoch – a similarly confusing series where Benny wound up back in Atlantis…which wasn’t really the Atlantis of historical legend, and where everyone was brainwashed to never remember history before a designated “year zero”.
While at least one of the stories (Private Enemy No. 1) was quite similar to the earlier Benny stories and therefore rather entertaining, the Epoch season ultimately revolved around a lot of business about alternate divergent timelines and so forth…all of which is a bit hard to relate without a process flow chart.
From this setting come the likeable Ruth (Ayesha Antoine), a (former) priestess of Poseidon and the aforementioned Jack (David Ames), a nastier bit of work in terms of personality who appears (like Peter) to be mixed or non-human species in origin.
Irving Braxatiel (Miles Richardson), who served as employer to Benny for some time and whose library provided the starting point for a whole run of adventures, is back as well. Well, sort of.
This is apparently a Brax from an alternate timeline, or other dimension or something (it’s never quite specified herein). I gather things went decidedly south in terms of employee relations, because there are several references to how much of a nasty bit of business he apparently was…but this is a new version, more seemingly heroic, who winds up saving the day (more or less) in the end.
While I enjoyed the mildly horror-based aspects of the first two stories in the trilogy, the comparatively minor role of our erstwhile lead and a whole lot of soap operatic bits of business between the rest of the crew seemed to dominate above and beyond any ostensible concerns of plot.
In our first tale, A Handful of Dust, the mystery of the dead and legendarily “haunted” planet of Nemequit (and its sole living inhabitants, an Adam and Eve analogue who prove to have a surprising secret unknown even to themselves) takes a markedly second place to the broad satire on modern media and the plethora of “ghost hunter” style “reality” shows peppering the airwaves these days. It’s barely recognizable as playing in the same ballfield as October’s Dark Shadows offering Beyond the Grave, which was handled in a far superior fashion.
In a similar vein comes HMS Surprise (written by Dorian Gray himself, Alexander Vlahos), which sounds positively fascinating from the synopsis, involving an abandoned shipyard, a sole living man chained to the wall of a nearby lighthouse, zombies and what turns out to be a living ship.
Unfortunately, much of the resultant focus winds up falling on the love life of Peter (and much flirtation on the part of Jack). Ruth plays no part whatsoever, making one wonder what happened to her for the entire duration…was swallowing all that dust on Nemequit too much for the lady?
There’s a sense of tying up loose ends I wasn’t privy to here, particularly by the time we get to the final story, The Curse of Fenman. Beyond the return…well, retcon makeover of Braxatiel, we get a final farewell to Peter’s lost Antonio (who apparently had been carrying on conversations with Peter inside his head…oh, boy…)
In the course of this Gordian knot of a serial, we’re treated to a rather tangled bit of business explaining how Brax really wasn’t responsible (directly and intentionally, anyway) for Antonio’s death, and further how several characters were running around with a “soul sucking” lady named Avril Fenman’s crystals inside them.
Wait a minute…who?
Well, to be honest, your guess is as good as mine here, though a bit of research uncovers the fact that this was Fenman’s sole audio appearance, with the character hailing from one of the earlier fanfic print tales.
To go solely by the audio, she appears to be some sort of body-hopping spirit who utilizes crystals that get absorbed into her intended victims to take them over at any given point, and claims to be the “true” mother of Peter. No, I don’t get it either.
The story itself proves both quite chatty and rather static, and not being privy to all of this apparent backstory, I must confess to walking away a bit nonplussed by the whole affair. It certainly clears the air and sets things up for a new season (very likely with a new dynamic and Brax front and center), but wasn’t really a story in and of itself, at least not in the proper sense. Think of it as fanboy service, or a particularly involved soap opera installment.
Speaking for myself, as a listener more or less ‘new’ to Benny (given the limited number of stories I’ve heard out of her daunting 15 seasons to date), I certainly hope that the folks at Big Finish are able to work out the details to get the first 11 seasons out in box sets once again. But for now, all of the stories are available for individual download, so that will have to suffice for the time being.
When the dust settles, the fact remains that Bernice herself is a great character. More multifaceted than it may at first appear, she proves to be quite likeable and well suited to driving her own effective spinoff series.
Think about it. How many companions…much less ones that never originated from the television run, can you name that have the potential to drive their own line of solo adventures? Sure, I could make a good argument for Ace or one of the two Romanas in that respect, but they were “real” Who companions that even the casual fan of classic Who is well acquainted with – Benny originates directly from post-1989 print sources alone.
And yet, we have all this backstory and a tremendous outpouring of affection for the character and her world among the fan community, which I personally attribute directly to the savvy performance and characterization imbued by the efforts of Ms. Bowerman.
For fellow effective “newbies”, I have a bit of mixed advice. While I believe the earlier, more directly focused stories to be superior to the current ensemble feel the series appears to be leaning towards, given the sheer number of releases and the highly convoluted continuity of the line, your best bet is probably to try out one of the four box sets currently extant and see how well it flies.
Trust me, if you like what you hear, you’ll want to go backwards and play catch up as well.