Review by Jacob Licklider
The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield is one of those Big Finish ranges which slips under the radar of quite a lot of people. Bernice Summerfield is one of those characters who has a big role in the greater Doctor Who universe, as the companion most associated with the Virgin New Adventures range of novels and the character which gave Big Finish Productions their start. Benny’s own range has been running since 1998 through eleven series of single releases and five box sets before being rebranded in a box set series of ‘New Adventures’; fitting considering where the character came from. The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield has been releasing one box set each year since 2014, with a small hiatus in 2018 to celebrate 20 years of Big Finish by reviving the classic range. 2016’s The Unbound Universe took Benny out of her universe while 2017’s Ruler of the Universe brought the character and the David Warner Doctor, right back into our universe. Now, two volumes later, Big Finish are finally dealing with the fallout in Lost in Translation, as Benny and the Doctor spend a set on the run from the Time Lords who have deemed the Doctor an aberration, unfit to exist.
Have I Told You Lately? opens the set from writer Tim Foley, and if you have been following any of my reviews, you can probably guess some of the things that I’m going to say. Tim Foley once again provides a script which is heavy on character focus and drama. The title is actually really important to the story, which is all about communication and miscommunication. The premise gives us a standard start with Benny and the Doctor on an alien planet where they’re trapped and separated in a series of corridors. There is a creature which allows the two characters to communicate, however, this communication device is slowly learning about language and how to actually function. It is a remnant of a previous civilisation; giving Benny something to uncover, and initially can only mimic the things our characters have said. Foley’s script is one all about communication and how important it is for interpersonal relationships; highlighting the relationship between Benny and the Warner Doctor.
David Warner’s incarnation of the Doctor has a manipulative streak of his own, much like the incarnation Benny travelled with for the majority of her travels. Both characters are more acidic to one another as they’re not really travelling together because they particularly like each other, but because this is the situation they’ve found themselves in. Misha Butler plays “the Speaker,” the communication device and the script and performance work hand in hand really to show just how much this entity is growing as over the course of the hour long script it learns to battle with abstract concepts and the relationship it has been presented. Lisa Bowerman and David Warner start the set off strong with their performances being responsible for making this script work; as it’s one that has a good idea, but needs solid performers to truly bring it to life, and Bowerman and Warner are definitely up to the job. Their characters pour themselves unintentionally into the speaker as it takes on some of their traits. The story itself also ends with some haunting closing lines that stay with the listener. 9/10.
Contest winner J.A. Prentice provides the second story of the set with The Undying Truth, which is a story packed full of plenty of ideas and social commentary present, but in places feels overstuffed for the hour running time. The plot involves the Doctor and Benny arriving on a planet where a group of archeologists are searching for the undying, a mythical immortal being which is said to be able to grant powers. The archeological team is funded by a corporation who wishes to use the powers of the undying essentially to sell pop with a soft launch of the product once it is taken back to their base. From there the story kind of becomes a murder mystery on a spaceship as the identity of the undying is obscured in mystery, and each of the characters find themselves infected with some sort of disease which causes insanity. Prentice’s work going against corporations and the advertisement commentary of the story is really where a lot of his social commentary works, mainly because it is given the focus for much of the story.
The idea here is that everything builds upon intrusive advertisements, creating technology which revolves entirely around selling you things. There’s a scene where Benny is stuck in an airlock and to start the process of opening the airlock involves skipping one of those advertisements, so you get this tense scene where Benny is in danger, but it’s punctuated with bits of comedy as there is an ad that starts the process of ejecting her from the airlock, to what should be her death. Where Prentice’s story does kind of fall apart is in adding a message about cultural appropriation through two characters, Euphemia and Arn. Euphemia is meant to be an annoying and culturally insensitive character while Arn is native to the planet of the undying. It isn’t the fact that Prentice uses cultural appropriation as an idea, but that he really doesn’t do anything with it. It overstuffs a story which is already full of ideas and commentary so it feels unnecessary, especially as very little is done to connect it to the overall critique of advertisements and the like. Overall, it is an impressive debut for J.A. Prentice and is one of those stories which makes you think, even if there are quite a few flaws. 8/10.
Inertia by James Goss is the point in the set where the Doctor and Benny are on the run from the Time Lords, hiding out on a dull planet with a primitive civilisation. The TARDIS is shut off and to ensure the Time Lords don’t find them, neither of them is allowed to enter the ship for fear of the Time Lords homing in on their position. This results in the pair spending their time interacting with the locals, making a sourdough starter, and playing several board games. So you know how in The Power of Three there was that montage of the Eleventh Doctor played for laughs of getting things done because he couldn’t sit still? Imagine that for the David Warner Doctor and then triple it. That’s what Inertia does so well as instead of a quick paced montage done for a visual gag, this story really explores the lengths the Doctor is willing to go to entertain himself. He constantly derides Benny for wanting to go back into the TARDIS just to get things like sweaters, and books, while he makes up the rules and goes back inside for his own trivial things, like good food. A lot is made about rules in this story: the Doctor is constantly changing the rules of the board games like Monopoly and Snakes and Ladders so he can have an advantage over Benny, he keeps going back into the TARDIS to get trivial things because hey as long as I, the time sensitive, is doing it I’ll know how to stop the Time Lords from finding us. Meanwhile, Benny is essentially trying to find the rules of this primitive society based on their ability to communicate in a series of numbers (the telepathic circuits are off so they aren’t translated) and the archeological evidence of their ancestors illustrating some of the rules of the society. The title is also interesting as it refers to the snowball effect which occurs as more information is given to the Doctor and Benny. The spiral culminates in a great reveal about why this society which should have advanced in time, yet hasn’t, and a climax which leaves the Doctor and Benny captured by the Time Lords. Warner’s Doctor has such a plan here where once the Time Lords show up to capture them where everything that this story has done has been revealed to be part of the plan. It makes for a brilliant setup for the final story and leaves Inertia as the best story from the set. 10/10.
If there was one complaint about Lost in Translation that has plagued the first three stories, it’s that Benny doesn’t get as much time to shine here. Gallifrey by Guy Adams and A.K. Benedict is a story that homages the end of The War Games and The Trial of a Time Lord with the Doctor, called an aberration due to being from another universe, on trial where he must prove that he doesn’t exist if he wishes not to be dispersed. Benny is placed in the role of his defendant giving Lisa Bowerman the real chance to shine as she explores Gallifreyan politics in an attempt to do the impossible: prove the Doctor doesn’t exist. Bowerman plays the role with the appropriate levels of sass for a Benny on Gallifrey, in a Time Lord collar, attempting to do something that really only she can do. Benny does the unorthodox and goes to the prosecution for help, and in the end appeals to the better nature of the Time Lords, invoking correlation not being equal to causation in her defense. For a story that’s essentially people standing in rooms talking, it plays around with a lot of different ideas. The prosecution is represented by CIA Coordinator Narvin, played to perfection by Sean Carlsen, as the man becomes completely unhinged by the unchanging nature of Gallifrey, and an Inquisitor played by Sian Phillips. The entire story can be described as going around in circles, and if you’ve listened to that, you know exactly what I mean. Adams and Benedict also put a contrast on how the Warner Doctor differs from the Doctor from the main universe. This is one of those stories where a lot of things are going on, and there is a definite sequel hook for the eventual Volume 7, but it helps if you go in not really knowing what’s going on. There is a lot of double meanings and really solid performances ending the box set on a high note. 9/10.
Overall, The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield: Lost in Translation is a great step up from Buried Memories, following up on the final cliffhanger and giving the listener something to really sink their teeth into. It really explores the character dynamics and just who the Doctor and Benny are as people. 9/10.