The relationship between Bernice Summerfield and the 7th Doctor (and Ace) is a difficult one; not just between the characters themselves, but also in the “real” world. Benny was created for Virgin’s New Adventures line of original Doctor Who stories, and travelled with the Doctor and Ace for a time before leaving to marry Jason Kane. She made occasional returns then became the focus of her own book series (minus all references to the Time Lord) which ran for a number of years after Virgin lost the Doctor Who licence. Things got more complicated when Benny arrived on audio, and had adventures based on stories some of which originally featured her and the Doctor, and then spun off into her own series of books and audios. Audio encounters between the pair have been “side steps”, in the Virgin continuity rather than the Big Finish one. Until now.
It’s tempting to regard this series as another sidestep – not because of any lack of quality which that might imply, but because the 7th Doctor’s timeline is complicated enough with adventures featuring Ace, Hex, and Raine before starting to try to fit this into continuity. I’m not even certain that – despite Lisa Bowerman’s comments in the extras – this follows on from the stories we’ve heard recently. The Benny at the start of the box set seems far more like the Bernice of earlier days in terms of behaviour; there are references to a young family (and Peter certainly wouldn’t be described as young in that context normally). There don’t appear to be any call backs to Benny’s last encounter with the Daleks in the Big Finish line… all of which makes me believe that, ironically, far from being New Adventures, these are Missing Adventures of Bernice Summerfield!
All of which is also magnificently irrelevant in many ways – this is the version of Benny Big Finish are currently highlighting, and for the Doctor and Ace, this comes some time after the events of The Lost Stories’ Season 27 tales. Nev Fountain’s The Revolution kicks off the set with what initially appears to be a zany madcap comedy; we start with Benny getting pissed in a bar (which seems to be a real step back from the character we’ve spent time with recently) and the story is very much based around her archaeological calling. There’s a very good reason McCoy’s Doctor is behaving more like his Season 24 self, and as ever with Fountain’s work, there’s a core of steel beneath the apparent frothiness (as well as a wonderfully bonkers cameo for Nicola Bryant). The theme of meddling with history – and who can and can’t do so (let alone who should) – starts to become clear.
Think of that story as the light relief before the darkness begins to fall. Una McCormack’s Good Night, Sweet Ladies focuses firmly on Benny, and in many ways is a love letter to the character. Sent on the trail of Ace, Benny encounters beings who are strangely familiar – and at least one whose behaviour is as bizarre as that of the Doctor in the previous story. Those of us who followed Benny’s adventures faithfully over the (original) New Adventures will probably be quite a few steps ahead of those who only know the Big Finish incarnation but all becomes clear – and this story very much evokes the spirit of those Virgin books, putting the lead character through the wringer.
That leads neatly into Guy Adams’ Random Ghosts. I strongly advise you to listen to this in one go; given the way it’s been put together, it would be incredibly easy to lose the thread otherwise. Big Finish have tried similar ideas before (Creatures of Beauty, and The Jigsaw War) and as with those releases, you do need to persevere and not become frustrated. Saying more about this would spoil many of the surprises (and you’ll also want to listen to it again after you’ve heard the whole set) but Adams uses the audio conceit to good effect.
The final revelation of this story takes us into James Goss’ The Lights of Skaro. Goss has a gift for getting beneath the skin of the characters he writes about – whether it’s on Doctor Who, Torchwood or Blake’s 7 – and here he turns that focus on the Daleks themselves. Scenes from across the Daleks’ history on the classic show are recreated and their consequences examined, and I would love to chair a debate between Nick Briggs and Goss regarding Dalek history, and what makes the metal misfits behave in the way they do. There are some intriguing hints as to how the Skarosians can have survived the end of Remembrance of the Daleks but while this is a story that is mired in Doctor Who continuity, it’s the emotional elements that you’ll remember.
It’s the sort of box set that must be a nightmare for the director, not just scheduling the actors, many of whom cross between stories, but also ensuring that everyone knows what they’re recording and why (that comment will make more sense once you’ve heard Adams and Goss’s stories). Scott Handcock allows the tones of the pieces to come through – from an initial lightness to an ever-increasing darkness the nearer that Benny comes to Skaro – and he’s brought together a strong cast to back up a very strong performance from Lisa Bowerman as well as guest stars McCoy, Sophie Aldred (whose Ace here is an odd mix of the Perivale teenager, the DK hunter of the New Adventures, and the student of Death Comes to Time, of all things), Nick Briggs (given some nice opportunities) and Terry Molloy.
I’ll be intrigued to see where Big Finish take Benny and co. next and I do hope that this doesn’t mean the end of Benny stories without the TARDIS crew.
Verdict: A gripping blend of humour and menace with a darkening tone that warrants the use of the “New Adventures” title. 8/10