“Fortean flickers…have you ever come across a word somewhere or heard a place name for the first time, and then seen it everywhere?
Maybe you’ve punched the wrong code into the communicator and become connected to an old friend you lost touch with. It’s those chaotic forces of coincidence that snowball, breaking the link in the chain of causality. It moves things and people out of place, out of the natural order.”
The Doctor and his current companion, archaeological professor Bernice Surprise Summerfield trace some temporal anomalies and confluences of convergent coincidence to the legendary planet of Sakhrat, infamously chronicled in the Lovecraftian manner by noted crackpot Gustav Unst. Unfortunately, so are a trio of galactic mass murderers, and a genetic experiment evolving beyond the control of its creators…
Just to complicate matters, the since renamed planet is not uninhabited…and its residents are under siege by a race of imperialist tortoiselike cyborgs whose mission is to rid the universe of humanoid “parasites”…
With The Doctor maneuvering his way between the warlike Chelonians, the humanoid natives and the sinister Sheldukher and Rosheen, Benny finds herself hitchhiking with a hippie who finds a life changing deeper meaning in his favorite concept album. But with the lyrical details correlating so closely with current happenstance, could there be more truth to his wild rock n’ roll dreams than at first seems apparent?
What is the reality warping secret of Sakhrat? What is the highest science? And can The Doctor, Benny and stoner “Wizard King” Rodo save the day?
“It’s actually quite easy to fox logical minds. Illogical minds are another matter entirely.”
Despite being a strong leading lady in her own right, somehow whenever Bernice Summerfield teams up with The Doctor (with or without Ace in tow), matters inevitably shift firmly into the realm of the latter. As delightful as it would be to imagine some injection of Doctorial presence into the playing field established throughout Benny’s own, more particularly character-driven and often wryly comic series, things always seem to run straight to an especially Whovian template (albeit with a far sassier and more amusing companion than usual on hand).
As such, I always approach these (all too rare) collaborations between the Sylvester McCoy Doctor and Lisa Bowerman’s Bernice Summerfield with a strong sense of anticipation – after all, the few recorded instances we have are made up of such Big Finish Who series high points as Shadow of the Scourge, The Dark Flame and New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield’s Revolution.
But despite the generally high quality of such adventures, they do play more directly to the Who standard rather than the quirky, sarcastically hilarious faux-“family” established over in Benny’s own recorded travels. And for all its own merits, The Highest Science is no exception to this pattern.
“I once had to convince a deranged dishwasher that it didn’t really want to take over the universe.”
“Did you succeed?”
“Of course. A lot of plates got cracked along the way, admittedly…still, as Ace used to say, nobody’s perfect, Professor!”
Apparently a transliterated adaptation (by Jacqueline Rayner) of the first fanfic novel to feature Bernice Summerfield as companion to the Seventh Doctor (by Gareth Roberts, the man responsible for hilarious Big Finish Who favorites The One Doctor and Bang-Bang-A-Boom!), The Highest Science retains much of the trademark Summerfield sarcasm and bite and a dash of wit in the whole business of some stoned-out hippie type finding unintended meaning in a banal rock album (all too familiar a happenstance for those who survived the 70’s and 80’s) while otherwise keeping matters uncharacteristically po-faced.*
* well, you can also argue the pomposity, spin doctoring and central compensation for a basic vulnerability in the militarist Chelonians, but that’s too grimly close to contemporary sociopolitical headlines to elicit any serious laughs…
As the central MacGuffin here involves a long-buried weapon on a forgotten planet, at least Benny’s archaeological orientation comes into play. But mechanics of the situation aside, what is there to truly separate The Highest Science from, say, Pyramids of Mars, or Last of the Colophon? She’s both necessary and extraneous to the Who template.
That being said, Lisa Bowerman is a delight as always, bringing her most famed and beloved character to a familiar and vivid life to the extent the script allows her the room to so do (with almost the entirety of her audial ‘screentime’ occurring in the first and final episodes).
Similarly, Sylvester McCoy continues to shine, particularly in conjunction with a strong companion. Despite his stated desire a few years back to do more solo adventures, his best work has always been with Sophie Aldred’s Ace, Beth Chalmers’ Raine Creevey, Bonnie Langford’s Mel and of course, Lisa Bowerman’s Bernice Summerfield. And despite the wholly extraneous subplot relating to the Chelonians and their cleansing directive, this is really no exception to that rule.
The Highest Science does certainly have its failings, as addressed herein, primarily in not leaving enough time for the two actors to really strut their stuff. But admittedly, some (particuarly bigger harder faster more!-addicted Newvians) may find a two (wo)man character piece a bit offputting. So instead, we get a lot of overplotting, false leads and multiple plot strands that really aren’t all that necessary to the story per se.
And coming from the pen of the man responsible for Bang-Bang-A-Boom! and The One Doctor, I’d certainly have expected a far more tongue in cheek, cleverly amusing affair than the comparatively straightfaced effort we have here. It’s still entertaining, but more in the sense of “a cracking Who adventure” than the sort of comedically oriented business Roberts cut his teeth on.
But with two actors and characters as entertaining both individually and collectively as Bowerman and McCoy, it would be hard to imagine any truly pertinent reasons not to encourage prospective listeners to take a dip into these particular waters.