Friday, 8 July 2011

Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code written by Eddie Robson and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: The Doctor and Bernice Summerfield are on the planet Shanquis, where the Doctor is trying to negotiate a peace settlement between this world and the neighbouring world of Esoria. The Doctor should be in his element, in an arena where the fighting is done with words, not weapons. Yet after days of talks, the situation is getting worse. The planets are on a war footing and the Doctor cannot break the deadlock. He'd planned to join Bernice at an archaeology conference on the planet, but she ends up going on her own in an effort to distract herself from the increasingly dismal situation. Whilst there, Bernice learns of the Shanquin 'forbidden language', which it is illegal to read, speak or even think. As Bernice pursues the root of this obscure, archaic law, she finds herself obstructed and threatened - and realises that her investigations may have given her the only hope of stopping this war

Archaeological Adventurer: This audio is set during my favourite moment in the New Adventures which was a series I was less than enthralled with when I read them through. There were two classic novels back to back that saw the Doctor and Benny travelling alone where his character was flawlessly pitched by David A. McIntee and Paul Cornell and Benny was the perfect foil. The succession of Sanctuary and Human Nature is only one of two times that I have given two 10/10s back to back in the novel range (The Tomorrow Windows/The Sleep of Reason was the other) and the superb dynamic between these two has a lot to do with that.

Happily writer Eddie Robson stresses the intelligence of the character (and not just her boozy, whorish nature that some writers cling onto in desperation) and what I consider to be one of her strongest characteristics throughout her tenure – her sense of justice. Even when it comes to a language which has been buried Benny feels strongly enough about suppressing this information to do something about and she certainly doesn’t need either the Doctor’s permission or his help to get it done. When the Doctor is well and truly kidnapped Bernice is on her own to solve the planets problems and the mystery of the secret language and that’s just when she is at her improvisational best – alone and with lots of problems to juggle! Since Ace had left the Doctor and Benny had been getting used to a less combative dynamic in the TARDIS, more contemplative. Bernice believes strongly that is far more dangerous to outlaw things from study to let them be studied. When she walks around with the powers of the ancient colonists and makes their enemies float around in the air Bernice is tempted to laugh but only villains laugh at moments like that. Whilst writing up their adventure Bernice wants to merely state the facts but the Doctor encourages her to put her own spin on the history of the planet, whilst Benny decides the ending should be chosen by a local.

The Real McCoy: His dark hair was never tidy at the best of times, the light cream coloured outfit was appropriate for a peacemaker but it did make him a highly visible target. However it had been his clothes of choice since she had known him. Often he thrived on pressure but this time it seemed to be wearing him down. If Ace had been here she would have distracted him by doing something infuriating. The Doctor is mediating in a conflict and Benny wonders how long he has been waiting to get around to it – being a time traveller he can do these sorts of things at his convenience. You would think that given his distaste for weapons working with words to resolve a conflict would be his forte. In a wonderful moment the Doctor faces up to one of the war hungry factions and demands quietly that they will not go to war – this is the powerful seventh Doctor that everybody talks about but is rarely seen. Never one to think things properly (again despite his reputation for doing so) he writes down a peace accord on the back of a serviette!

Standout Performance: When she isn’t creating some of the best audio dramas Big Finish have produced Lisa Bowerman can be found acting her heart in the Bernice Summerfield series. I love the character but oddly I only really fell head over heels for her once Virgin stopped using her and Big Finish took over. I had enjoyed the New Adventures with her in them (especially her own series) but it was once she had sprung across to a new company and Big Finish thought of the clever conceit of bringing her to life both aurally and in print that I really saw the potential in the character crack open. The series took on an amazing life of its own with a vivid cast of characters and more cracking stories than you could handle. And at the heart of Bernice’s continuing adventures was Lisa Bowerman – funny, dramatic, irreverent, dazzling Lisa Bowerman making us drunk with laughter and breaking our hearts in equal measure. A superb actress who draws the audience in and lets her see all of Bernice’s strengths and flaws with unashamed bareness. I honestly wouldn’t care if Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code featured Bernice heading off to the supermarket and buying the TARDIS groceries – Lisa Bowerman would make it work. Fortunately it’s a good deal better than that and she acquits herself as brilliantly as ever.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Rrrrrrot!’ – the funniest use of McCoy’s rolling rrrrrs ever!

Great Ideas: A forbidden occult language that is illegal to even think about. Some people are from a more superstitious time and believe in the mystic powers of myth. It was an ugly, primitive, rudimentary sort of language. Like minded academics were gathering their knowledge, torn between unearthing the secrets of this forbidden language and suspicion that if any of them showed their hand they might lose it all. The forbidden language turns out to be English and Robson cleverly slipped in a clue about that earlier in the tale when Bernice was talking about the TARDIS translating languages for her. This planet was colonised by human settlers long in its distant past and they used voice-activated nanobots to make the atmosphere more conducive to the humanoid form. This one adventure when the Doctor and Bernice have the powers of Godhood where they can bring the very heavens down on the people of this planet. The human colonist had gotten lost in a wormhole – only a nine-person advance party who couldn’t find their way back. They found an uninhabited world and settled there. They all knew how to use the terraforming machine responsibly but a couple of years after they landed a disease spread and only one man lived on. Alone for 40 years, creatures sprang from the darker recesses of his mind and the machine made them real. Malevolent and fearful things, they outlived their creator and have been hiding inside other beings ever since. They plotted to destroy all other species one by one because they feared that one day a race who understood the language of the machine that created them would return and switch them off.

Audio Landscape: The flurry and bustle of the press, polite chatter in the academic circles, the cocking of rifles and helicopters streaming over the city, rust peeling and breaking from the bars, cell doors collapsing, the shields, a bolt of lightning.

Musical Cues: Love the heavy piano score when the Doctor and Bernice make their escape.

Isn’t it Odd: The cliffhanger is completely irrelevant – this is a story that would work much better as one hour long piece.

Standout Scene: Bernice using the voice activating nanoparticles to her advantage and talking in the ancient language of English sees the two plot threads come together very creatively – destroying her cell with little more than a command!

Result: How wonderful to have an adventure for the seventh Doctor and Benny without Ace getting in the way. Unlike most of the Companion Chronicles this isn’t a deeply personal adventure for Bernice (indeed set between Sanctuary and Human Nature which were her to most agonising experiences in the New Adventures this will probably come as a blessed relief for her!) but merely a lovely story, well told. I understand that this range should be seeking new avenues to explore underused characters in the series but Bernice has had so much coverage it is actually rather refreshing to enjoy a mere caper with her. There are some nice twists (especially the nature of the forbidden language) and it is so nice to see the character treated as an academic rather than a horny drunk. Keeping Eddie Robson’s sweet script together is a gorgeous reading by Lisa Bowerman whose voice I am so accustomed to now (after 11 series of her own adventures) it is like luxuriating in a long hot bath when I listen to her tell a story: 8/10

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