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Doctor Who: The Companion Chronicles: Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code Review

by Joseph A. Morrison 3 months ago in tv
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On a world on the brink of war, the Doctor negotiates a peace deal, while Benny finds herself investigating a very unusual - and very dangerous - language...

The CD cover for "Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code", designed by Anthony Lamb.

Bernice Summerfield remains, to this day, the most enduring Doctor Who companion who has never featured in the TV show. The famous space archaeologist with a complicated history with the Doctor (no, not that one!) has remained popular with Doctor Who fans since her inception thirty years ago, and, thanks to Lisa Bowerman's portrayal with Big Finish since 1998, she has gone on to develop an even greater following. Added to that, Lisa Bowerman has gone on to become the most prolific director of the Companion Chronicles range, directing a large number of varied titles. So, it was really only a matter of time before Benny would get her own Companion Chronicle, and "Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code" was the chance to get up close and personal with our favourite archaeologist. Unlike a lot of the Virgin New Adventures that defined this era, this story is light-hearted fun, albeit with a darker edge befitting the era this belongs to.

Lisa Bowerman (Bernice Summerfield; left) and Charlie Hayes (Gatlin; right), pictured at the recording of "Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code".

The plot begins very much in-media-res, with the Doctor and Benny already established on the world of Shanquis: the Doctor is mediating in peace talks between Shanquis and its neighbouring world Esoria, while Benny is attending an archology conference. But the peace talks aren't going well, and Benny learns about a language it is forbidden to speak, write or even think. Soon, Benny's investigations and the peace talks will converge together... and the fate of the whole planet will be in Benny's hands. Despite the potentially heavy subject matter, this is a story that has a real lightness of touch regarding tone, and it makes for a nice contrast with both the era of the show this is set within, and the majority of the Companion Chronicles range. Unlike something like "Echoes of Grey" or "The Drowned World", there's no hugely profound insights into our central character, nor does the story put them through the emotional wringer. Instead, "Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code" foregrounds Benny as our leading character, with the Doctor off doing his own thing. Bernice is the character that drives the story forward, and, ultimately, is the character who resolves the whole story, using her wit and her intelligence. If you've never heard or read a story involving the character before, then this is a great opportunity to get acquainted with Benny. Writer Eddie Robson sets up the character of Benny at the beginning, and you get a real sense of her background and her approach to problems. The plot itself isn't anything too original: peace conferences, forbidden knowledge and evil emotional spirits are pretty much par for the course in Doctor Who stories. However, Robson is able to give these ideas a fresh feel by weaving the two different strands together, so that one cannot exist without the other. What also helps is seeing the story through Benny's eyes: she brings a fresh perspective that is unlike the Doctor's, and, as such, it feels, in many ways, more like a part of the Bernice Summerfield spin-off series. This may sound like a criticism, but it honestly isn't, and focusing on the companions is the whole reason the Companion Chronicles exist, after all.

A piece of artwork used on the front-cover of the Bernice Summerfield novel "In Time", designed by Mark Plastow.

As I mentioned above, this story doesn't offer any huge new insights into the character of Bernice Summerfield. However, by foregrounding Benny in the way this story does, we get the chance to see how she views her adventures, and her thoughts on the Doctor and the other characters who inhabit this world. Robson nails Benny's voice (no surprise considering that he produced some of Benny's solo adventures in the late 2000s), and that is, of course, aided by such a strong performance from Lisa Bowerman. It's hard to separate Lisa Bowerman and Benny now, to be honest, as Lisa has become so synonymous with the role. However, she never lets us forget how much work she puts into the role, with a sharp, committed performance that keeps us engaged throughout, even when she's basically narrating large sections of prose. It always fun to be in the company of Benny when Lisa is playing her, and I think this story is the ultimate expression of that philosophy. She is also able to bring the rest of the world to life well, although her Sylvester McCoy impression doesn't really match the man himself. Benny does get a sidekick in this story - Gatlin, played by Charlie Hayes, daughter of Who alumni Wendy Padbury, and she and Lisa have a sparky chemistry that makes the rather thankless role of Gatlin a pivotal part of the story. She gives Benny someone to bounce off, something which elevates these Companion Chronicles up from being merely talking books, and more like performed drama. While Lisa is normally in the director's chair for these Companion Chronicles, this time the seat is occupied by John Ainsworth, who brings an assuredness of many years of working for Big Finish. He understands the best way to get what he wants from his actors, and he makes sure they can communicate the story the best possible way. (Although, with actors as skilled as Bowerman and Hayes, I can't imagine it was much in the way of a challenge!) Finally, Big Finish stalwart Jamie Robertson is in charge of the post-production work, and, despite being more prolific on full-cast audios, brings all his cinematic sensibilities to this release. Once again, on a production front, this release is a first-class example of just what Big Finish can do, and just how talented the people are who work for them.

A promotional picture for the Bernice Summerfield range of audio adventures from Big Finish Productions.

In conclusion, then, "Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code" is a fun story that takes a popular companion from one of the most interesting periods in the show's history, and gives her the spotlight for an hour. It may not be the Companion Chronicles at their most experimental or their most introspective, but it is a chance to foreground Benny in a setting that plays to her strengths, and gives us a chance to enjoy just how good Lisa Bowerman is in the role. And, for that reason alone, "Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code" is a great listen.

You can purchase "Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code" as a digital download from the Big Finish website. Just type 'Criminal Code' into the search bar at the top of the home page.

All pictures are copyright to Big Finish Productions. Thank you very much for reading.

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About the author

Joseph A. Morrison

25. Fan of Doctor Who, Blake's 7, The Prisoner and more old-fashioned TV. Reviewer, wannabe writer and general twit.

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