ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, volume IV – Ruler of the Universe

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things. Spoilers are tagged accordingly.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles sink into a therapist’s couch to talk about the latest entry in everyone’s favourite time-travelling archelogist’s adventures (well, maybe not if you prefer River).

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: This … This is interesting. It’s also very good, but above all, it’s interesting. We both love Bernice Summerfield and her audios, and I think it’s fair to say we both have enjoyed the New Adventures range quite a lot (volume I, especially, being one of the best Big Finish releases of all time). But they have had their problems – throwing the Doctor, be it the Seventh Incarnation, or the Unbound, David Warner-played one, wasn’t without certain problems. The focus on Benny’s own personal life, and the struggles she had to face as a single mother and the leader of a vast ragtag bunch of misfits were largely gone, replaced by strong, but much typically Doctor Who-ish narratives (down to the theme song, which has shifted to the Who theme since 2014).

SCRIBBLES: This set is a pretty finely-crafted character arc, and I really have to give a lot of kudos to the fine writing on that. And yet, and I hate to say this, it doesn’t really have all that much Benny in it. This is David Warner’s showcase, and he excels, but it’s hard not to miss the title character, all the same.

TIBERE: I’m probably a bit more positive than you on it – because yes, while it doesn’t change the problems the range has had before and still has, it at least draws attention upon them. The Doctor’s presence is relevant here in a way it wasn’t necessarily before – and the whole set felt like a very pointed, very relevant, and oh so very James Goss-esque interrogation on the relationship between Benny and the Doctor, and between the Classic and modern versions of the show.

SCRIBBLES: It definitely, at its heart, is a story of the relationship between Bernice Summerfield and a strange new Doctor. That’s what works, and that’s what every story cares about most of all.

TIBERE: More than that, I feel – it kind of contrasts the Classic Who ethos; because Bernice, for all the modern, queer, feminist sensibilities she embodies, did originate as a companion for a Classic Doctor – with the New Who version of the show. Warner kind of embodies that divide – he acts a lot like a Classic Doctor (I seem to recall he’s supposed to be an Alternate Third Doctor), but his background and the ordeals he faces seem much more linked to the New Series. Survivor of a war, having to deal with an almost metaphysical burden? It makes too much sense. And really, Bernice’s stories always have been about war – the very first one was even called “Love and War”. So it does make sense for the writers to try and link her to, well, the Time War, the greatest of them all – but they do that through metaphors and a slight dose of camp, by creating an alternate universe to play with, rather than having her to deal with the horrors of the main continuity. I guess my biggest criticism of the set is that it feels very much like a set-up for something greater: the exploration of the Doctor and Bernice’s relationship is fascinating, but we are not really seeing the resolution of that tension. Yet. Next year, after all, is the 20th anniversary of her adventures under the Big Finish umbrella, so I’m expecting big things. At the very least, this is an tantalizing tease, and an extremely rich set to analyse and ponder.

SCRIBBLES: Interesting, I feel exactly the opposite. I think the tension is entirely paid off in a very satisfying fashion. But I suppose, to get at that in more detail, we need to get into full spoilers.

TIBERE: Be waaaaarned.

 

1) “The City and the Clock”, by Guy Adams

SCRIBBLES: I have to be honest, I was not a fan of this opener. There’s a character story driving it that’s solid, but I don’t think that is addressed quite as well as it could be, while the main plot is fairly bog standard even as it sets up the vital maguffin for the set.

TIBERE: It basically exists only as a platform for character development to happen. Otherwise, it’s all very functional storytelling 101. I mean, it’s not bad. It’s very, very witty, for starters (“Who invented a starship that travels in linear time?” “Physics, Doctor. That was physics’ idea.” “I hate physics.”); and while the antagonists are, in all honesty, pretty lame, they at least are helped by some really good, and creepy sound design.

SCRIBBLES: I think my problem is, the character development isn’t paced as well as it could be. The fact that the Doctor sent Benny on a wild goose chase and couldn’t care less about what she’s doing feels a bit obvious to me from the start, and I’d have preferred for that to come out far earlier in the story and get on with the fallout and possibly reconciliation. As a result, a lot of the functional plot feels fundamentally frustrating to me, because it spends so much time waiting about to drop that punchline. And it’s a good beat when it finally does come, don’t get me wrong. But it’s frustrating that the whole story is a sort of meandering build to get to it.

TIBERE: Yeah, there’s some really weird pacing choices in this. Which sometimes happen to undercut some of the best ideas the story has – for instance, when the Clock awakens ghosts that are trying to take everything over, the Doctor ponders whether or not he “has the right” of stopping them, and thus causing their deaths, just to get interrupted by Bernice who tells him that yes, of course, he has, and just does it in his place. It’s a great, great beat, and really I’m all for some Genesis of the Daleks” saltiness – but while the rapidity of the exchange kind of improves the joke in some way, I’m left wondering while Guy Adams spent so much time in setting up the monsters or writing some fairly unimportant banter instead of diving in that kind of dynamics, full of potential, fascinating conflict.

SCRIBBLES: In some ways, it reminds me a bit of the series 2 through 4 Doom Coalition openers, which always consciously took the stakes to a smaller place to reconnect with the characters. But I think, unlike those stories, it spends a bit too much time on plot and a bit too little on character. Which, of course, is frustrating when the character content here is so much more distinct and vivid than the plot. It’s not a failure, but it does feel like it could and should be more, and Guy Adams has proven himself capable of more.

TIBERE: I’d call both “Absent Friends” and “Ship in a Bottle” some of the finest Big Finish out there, and yeah – this is not what this story is. Not even remotely. It’s not bad for what it is, and it’s certainly a functional opener, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. The Unbound arc, I think it’s fair to say, has had a bit of an opener problem – “The Library in the Body”, set III’s first episode, is one of the weakest James Goss’ scripts I’ve come across (which means it’s still pretty much above average for Big Finish and Who in general).

SCRIBBlES: That it is. Gotta say, though, while we’re on the topic of functional but disappointing, the high-quality, sparkling banter did take a sour note with the cultural appropriation joke.

TIBERE: That was just plain weird. The fact there’s a fairly similar bit of dialogue in episode 3, also by Adams (this time, a “political correctness gone mad” one) kind of makes me think it’s an intended feature?

SCRIBBLES: I suppose I see how it fits the angle of this Doctor. He’s a radical figure tempered and soured by political office, constrained into being moderate or worse at the cost of his soul. And that works. It’s an extremely interesting contrast to Time in Office,” which we just covered, taking that Doctor exploration past the breaking point and well beyond anything that could be done in the main universe. He’s already lost who he wants to be long ago, and is trying to cling to Benny and to his old lifestyle to find that again. In some ways, he’s relying on Benny to be the Doctor in his absence, deciding whether he has the right, working as his “swiss-army knife”… That’s the interesting tension of this set. He may be the Doctor, but he’s not really the Doctor anymore. This is a bog standard plot, the kind he is shown later to long for, and yet he feels out of place in it, while Benny feels too comfortable in it. I suppose that’s the core rift.

TIBERE: He’s well, an old man, an old, Classic Doctor put in a very New Who environment. There’s an uneasiness here, something deeply uncomfortable about both the character in general and the way he himself connects with his environment. And that manifests through some pretty unpleasant sides Warner shows. Of course, these become most apparent in the second story …

 

2) “Asking for a Friend”, by James Goss

SCRIBBLES: It’s easy to say this is the best New Adventures since set one and one of the best audio releases of the year, isn’t it? That’s just so self-evident. Feels beside the point to even say, so let’s get that out of the way first.

TIBERE: I think Una McCormack’s “The Very Dark Thing” from set III is pretty up there too, but yeah. God, that was impressive. It’s already a very good script, but the ending might be the single best twist James Goss has ever written – and that man has written a lot, a huge lot of good twists. It hits right in the gut.

SCRIBBLES: There’s something distinctly Capaldi to its storytelling values, I think. Every beat is underplayed in exactly the right way. It’s a furiously, intently quiet piece. It’s clear from pretty early on that things are being meddled with, building the suspense, but in the meantime, it’s a sense of quiet emotional desperation it fosters, and that’s something truly powerful.

TIBERE: I agree, there’s something that really recalls Moffat’s writing in this. The fact it disguises its plot twists in continuity errors, for starters: you might not notice at first the inconsistencies in the therapist’s narratives. Or the ticking of the clock. The ticking of a clock within a clock – that’s a direct nod to “The Girl in the Fireplace”, isn’t it? One thing you notice quite quickly in this set is just how much it directly borrows from the New Series in general, and Moffat’s in particular. The first episode has Bernice thinking she “doesn’t know who the Doctor is anymore”. The third has her threatening the Doctor with punching-induced regeneration, in the grand Clara tradition. Of course, there’s a justification for that – the spectre of a big War looming over the Doctor’s head. The Time War is never clearly namedropped, and indeed the circumstances of the Time Lords’ downfall seem to have been quite different in this universe, but the point is that they are gone, and that the Doctor has now to deal with the burden of being a Lonely God. The audio almost seems to suggest, in places, without ever saying it, that the Great Collapse that threatens the universe is a product of said War – which certainly makes a frightening amount of sense. I mean, who know what might have happened in the main universe, hadn’t the Moment intervened.

SCRIBBLES: There’s something gloriously unsettling in the inconsistencies of the sensory environment, absolutely. From tastes switching around as heavy quantities of food are consumed to different environments out the window to, like you mention, the clock, which was the one detail that entirely escaped my notice, despite being the one most relevant to the storytelling medium. The audio is quite clever in how it draws in the listener’s attention to those details, thus encouraging us to hear every last detail of the Doctor’s emotional crisis. The audio tells us to listen closely because everything we are hearing doesn’t add up, and even confirms that early on by mentioning the Doctor going out of order to skip through to recovery, so you have to listen so, so closely to the Doctor’s quiet desperation.

TIBERE: Hence also the in-joke about the Polar Bear and Dostoyevski. One of my favourite beats in the whole audio is Bernice, at the end of the story, telling the therapist she just has explained that little joke to the Doctor. It makes the entire chronology and progression of the events you were a witness to make no sense.

SCRIBBLES: I know you want to focus on the ending, and that’s absolutely where some of the most amazing material comes, but I really want to take a moment to appreciate the middle, too. I mentioned earlier that the tension is of the Doctor essentially having to closet being the Doctor and doing good to do right in his new role, and through the middle in particular, we hear him attempting to cope with that. I love that. And I love the way he can never really admit to himself what he wants from therapy. Does he want to skip to the end? Does he want to recover? Does he just want the therapist and Bernice to like him? It’s so, so hard to know. But god, does he try, much as his trying is all quiet, emotional lashing out.

TIBERE: I think that the answer he gives at the end is the one closest from the truth: he wants to be loved; he wants people to look at him and think he’s a good person. Except, well, he doesn’t succeed. There are just so many great moments in this, resulting from his emotional distress and confusion – and I love how they initially seem almost comedic, at the beginning of the episode, before revealing a darker side as you go on. The Doctor getting drunk, and asking for peanuts? That’s pretty damn fun. But have you ever seen the Doctor drunk, before? He’s sinking to a level of open loathing of himself we don’t see much of, with any incarnation.

SCRIBBLES: It’s a bit like Exiledone right, come to think of it, isn’t it? Both stories are, at heart, about the quiet desperation of when a dreaming, infinite character like the Doctor is confined to the many compromises and tediums of real life, and how to cope with that. Weirdly, I think, the best scenes of Exileand the best scenes of Asking for a Friendare much the same. The difference comes in that Asking for a Friendnever takes its focus off of that core, never meanders in slinging crap at the Doctor or dwelling on suffering as somehow deserved. It’s always full of sympathy for the Doctor, even while he quietly causes atrocity.

TIBERE: “Exile” took the character’s depression and misery as a joke, that was the problem. “Asking for a Friend” is funny, very funny even – but its core is incredibly dark. It doesn’t sugar-coat the realities of emotional distress, and when it goes all out, iit peaks in some truly heartbreaking moments. The ending, of course. But also that moment where he comes back to some Time Lord stronghold, maybe Gallifrey itself, and talks to the ruins and ghosts of his race, admitting to himself that, as much as he loathed them, he still misses them. And … You know what, let’s go back to the ending again, because it’s that good. Just that one line, I think, sums it all –

“Can you fix it? Can you … fix me?”

TIBERE: Like … Jesus. As someone who’s been struggling with mental health quite a bit recently, that hit hard. Way harder than I ever expected that boxset to do.

SCRIBBLES: It’s an interesting tweak on a fairly archetypal Moffat story like Continuity Errorsor A Christmas Carol,” or even a bit of Amy Pond’s arc, with the therapist becoming the victim rather than the implied abuser. Moffat tends to end these stories optimistically. The Doctor does change lives and break hearts, but for the best of reasons, and he makes them thankful for his efforts in the end. Even Amy, as damaged as it made her, found love and support in the end. This, on the other hand, uses the Unbound setting to go to a nihilistic place outside the usual Doctor Who aesthetics: what if, after doing everything to make someone’s life happy, they just react in horror at how he’s overridden their own agency and experiences? If all the attempts to make things right make things worse? It’s not a message I want to hear every day, but it’s fascinating to see dug at for a change. Having these efforts get in the way of his saving a world is just the icing on the cake of cruelty.

TIBERE: We are often told that the Doctor is going through absolutely insane amounts of emotional suffering – in “The Snowmen”, for instance, where he shields himself away from the world to avoid getting hurt ever again. What “Asking for a Friend” does, and that’s something no other story had done, except perhaps an obscure little piece of Who called “Heaven Sent”, is making the listener/viewer a direct witness of the sheer size and scope of that pain. It doesn’t have the power of the central metaphor of “Heaven Sent”, but some of the dialogue in this is just as hard-hitting as a sea of skulls – the Doctor talking about his mind being a series of corridors filled with the portraits of the dead, or talking about his bad days (“everyone has bad days, but mine are armageddons”). Yet, I don’t think it is an utterly hopeless and negative story. It’s very sad and very bitter, but it doesn’t verge into misery porn territory either – there are victories being won here, and I find telling that the audio ends on the Doctor finally figuring out a solution to rescue the alien race the B-plot of the episode was centered around. And somehow patching things up with Bernice. As the conclusion of the arc, it would have been very powerful but too grueling to listen – one of its biggest strengths is that it makes up the half-point of that set. The lowest point before things can start going up again.

 

3) “Truant”, by Guy Adams

TIBERE: Case on point – the next story. It’s a romp. A big, broad, glorious romp. Much like “Asking for a Friend”, it’s a very conceit-driven story; except the conceit here is a very comedic one. The Doctor tries to have an adventure in a world that can’t offer him anymore of that. No one wants to cooperate with the standards rules of the Who plot. The bad guys are way too afraid of the Doctor to even try to oppose him. The alien invasion he’s supposed to stop? Already happened like, fifty years ago, mate. Then, who’s the brave hero that embodies the last hope of humanity? A racist, elderly pensioner. Well, at least he can steal a car or something? No, he can’t, because the drivers are pleasant people that are totally up with giving him a lift and offering him some sweet, sweet cocoa.

SCRIBBLES: It’s a bit awkward, like many comedies often are, in asking the audience to buy the concept. There’s a question one can’t help but ask of “why now?” with the Doctor’s running off to go on adventures. In some ways, I wonder if it might have worked better preceeding the therapy session, as one last desperate chance to escape rather than deal emotionally with his predicament. But there’s much fun to be had, and it plays to Guy Adams’ strengths. I quite enjoyed his offering of Planet Xin the previous set, a nice little satire of a generic Doctor Who story that lightly riffed on McCoy era aesthetics in a poignant way, but this pulls it all together in a finer package, allowing Adams to cut loose on the absurdity and banter a bit more.

TIBERE: I wasn’t much of a fan of “Planet X”, to be honest. It, ironically, felt a bit generic. This, on the other hand, is a delight. It’s not the best audio ever made, but dammit, as far as romps go, it’s pretty damn good. It does lose some steam in its final stretch, but the first twenty to thirty first minutes are pure comedic genius – from the Doctor’s love of a good jail, to him and Bernice riffing together on how much their kidnappers are terrible at their job, to Bernice masquerading as a super-spy … It has a lot of really great gags, it delivers them really well, and it never, ever stops throwing them at the viewer. It kinda reminded me of Nev Fountain’s romps, stuff like “The Revolution”, or “Bad Faith” (from the Vienna range, and if you haven’t listened to it, shame on you). It’s not as good, because Nev Fountain is maybe the single best Big Finish writer, but still. It’s not a bad effort.

SCRIBBLES: Interestingly, the final stretch for me sung the most. It’s a common dilemma that the descendants of the invaders face: how do you come to terms with atrocities committed by your ancestors?

TIBERE: I mean, it’s not bad, and I do like the way it weaves some pretty interesting moral dilemmas within its structure. But I do feel the interactions between said dilemmas and the flow of jokes can be a little awkward. That elderly lady is not the best concept Adams has came up with, that’s all I’ll say.

SCRIBBLES: I mean, as an American, even descended from people who only in recent years came to this country, this story asks a question I have to ask a lot. Because the history of America is basically the history depicted here, a bunch of aliens coming in, wiping out, and replacing the natives, aside from a tiny few patches left over. Though, I think it’s safe to say, the indigenous peoples of America are not best described as racist old silverware-hurling crones. But it’s a great dilemma, because it’s so true to modern day social tensions. We have to be aware of the guilt of our forefathers and strive to be better than them, but equally, we can’t change the past. It’s a hard place, and a fascinating one to throw the Doctor into. Of course he can’t see an easy solution there. Nobody can.

TIBERE: On one hand, I feel like it could be tied more to the central plot of the boxset. But still, I agree, there’s some really interesting tensions in this – the Doctor wants a simpler narrative, wants an adventure, but ends up in a really complicated place full of historical and racial tensions. He misses the good ol’ days where things were so much simpler. In a way, he’s trying to get into a Classic Who serial and ends up in a Sarah Dollard story.

SCRIBBLES: I would say, even, that ends up in real life. And the Doctor’s a great inspirational figure, but like this story tells us, he’s not cut out for real life and real compromises and struggles.

TIBERE: Which is a very Capaldi-era theme, when you think about it. That’s what makes ‘Death in Heaven” such a good episode: the Doctor refuses to be a soldier, a president, a man who has to deal with the worst of reality. He preserves his innocence by accepting his own fictionality, his status as a fantastical idiot, far from real-worlds struggles he can’t fight without moral compromission.

SCRIBBLES: That’s Bernice’s job, a character ever stubbornly fixated on the mundane and real, to the point of practically fetishizing tea and shoes. This is what she’s good at, and she finds a glorious, human solution to generational guilt and political tragedy: by getting the guilty party to use their guilt to be better than their parents were. This story really vindicates what the Doctor claims in therapy, in one of her finest moments in the set: Bernice Summerfield is able to show the way forward.

 

4) “The True Saviour of the Universe”, by James Goss

SCRIBBLES: I have a very strong positive opinion about how this piece resolves the tension of the set, so I’ll let you address your criticisms first.

TIBERE: Well, uh, I relistened to it and I actually really loved it that time, after being initially left a bit cold.. So … But, uh, yes. Flaws. Flaws flaws flaws. Let’s find some. I guess I do have a few issues with the pacing – the Bernice/Master team-up of the first half is utterly delightful, but it does make the ending feel a tiny bit rushed, with giant monsters and twists on all sides. And while I now think it’s a pretty damn good resolution, I still feel like the very end is a bit of an open door – bordering on too much. There’s a lot of directions they could go with from that premise, the Doctor joining Bernice in our own universe – and being let on what almost feels like a cliffhanger can be a bit frustrating. Outside of that, it’s a pretty great piece.

SCRIBBLES: For me, it’s a great vindication of who the Doctor is, breaking free of these limitations and, more importantly, proving himself to Bernice. The plot is a common one in structure, really, like The Lostor “End of Days.” It’s all a debate over a binary choice, this time a vote instead of pressing a button. There’s a great early scene where the robot asks Bernice why she trusts the Doctor, why she would bother to be the moral holdout when even the good old singing nuns are turning on the Doctor, and that’s really the question this whole story is asking. But, in the end, the Doctor proves himself like her Doctor. Rather than the Abbaddon-equivalent breaking out and creating havoc as a sign that he’s lost all control (and God, making them Lovecraftian Great Old Ones is a delightful one-upping of that Torchwood, though a Cthulhu name-drop would have made it even better), it’s a product of him abandoning the mantle of the real and the mundane and the presidential and becoming the Doctor again. I mean, this is all his scheme. It’s not like what we’ve seen of this Doctor so far. It’s like Bernice’s Doctor, the Seventh Doctor, the one the New Adventures began with, the one she was introduced with, and the one who always set out the complex traps for his enemies to fall into. That, to me, is how the tension is resolved. By tying Bernice back to the era she comes from, and vindicating that era as why it’s worth believing in the Doctor. Without the Seventh Doctor ever turning up, it’s the ultimate love letter to why his character is so magical.

TIBERE: Using Lovecraftian Elder Gods is a really clever move, too, considering Bernice originates from the era of the show that precisely saw the emergence of those within the Who narrative. She’s a Seven companion, and thus belongs to the same diegesis as Fenric and its later Big Finish counterparts like the Mi’en Kalarash, Volund or the creatures from “Lurkers at Sunlight’s Edge”. And of course, you’re right, that scheme is delightfully Seven. But there’s another reference I’m surprised you didn’t bring up – it’s a story placed under the sign of “Hell Bent” (not unlike “Time in Office”, which you mentioned earlier). The Doctor escapes a place where he can’t be the Doctor by “stealing a TARDIS and running away” (and I do think that sentence is used in the script of the episode, verbatim), by reclaiming his identity as an exile, far from all power structures. The fact said TARDIS is way too small and doesn’t work properly adds a delightfully camp, very Bernice touch to it, though.

SCRIBBLES: It’s a real sense of coming full circle for the New Adventures range, isn’t it? Weirdly, it feels like a finale not just to the Unbound universe arc but this era of Benny as a whole, coming full circle to the Seventh Doctor aesthetics and to the heart of Doctor Who. But there’s also a sense of wanting to move forward here, particularly with Bernice referencing her family. It feels like Bernice Summerfield is about to reboot herself again, and while I’ve enjoyed this New Adventures period, it really does feel like time.

TIBERE: I mean, it does make sense. Twentieth anniversary and all. If that’s really what they are going for

SCRIBBLES: And while we’re talking new directions and coming full circle, I think it’s fascinating that this is the second Master redemption arc we’ve gotten this year, via a polar opposite direction. Just as with earlier this year, though perhaps not quite as perfect because few things are, it works wonderfully.

TIBERE: Really, the entire first half of the episode feels like a remake of “The Witch’s Familiar”, with the uneasy team-up of Bernice and the Master. Which, and I can’t emphasize enough, is pure, unadulterated comedy gold. “I’m usually at the other end of the killer robot! How exciting!” might be one of my new favourite lines in all of Who.

SCRIBBLES: “Kisgart” and Bernice Summerfield just have a sparkling chemistry, and, like with Clara and Missy, it’s not without a few flirty touches that make it all the more fun.

TIBERE: “Flirty touches” is the euphemism of the year. These two want to bone, and the episode makes it, I think, kind of abundantly clear. I’m not complaining. Not even remotely.

SCRIBBLES: Are you suggesting Clara and Missy didn’t want to?

TIBERE: I think it was more hate-filled sexual tension; Benny/Kisgart is more like, a surprisingly wholesome, if still tense and a bit murdery pairing.

SCRIBBLES: I love Bernice admitting that, oddly enough, she is going to miss him. He’s slimy and annoying and kinda creepy, but damn, they have fun together. I love how he’s always topping the champagne they had last set with alcohol forged in the heart of pulsars and such. It’s archly camp and strangely appealing.

TIBERE: And of course, the Master ends up trapped in another universe (not the first time that happened …), and finding himself the de facto leader of the humanity he betrayed. He’s given the opportunity to rule the world, as he always had wanted, but in a democratic regime, under the control of others. It’s an interesting beat, that, that I think builds really well both from the Saxon arc and the President of the World stuff in “Death in Heaven” (“You know how, all these years, you wanted to rule the world? … Piece of cake.”)

SCRIBBLES: I think it’s delicious. The Master has the know-how to be wonderful, he just constantly chooses not to. In this case, it’s one of his most outrageous plans yet, which just feels all the more delicious. Of course Cthulhu isn’t gonna frigging team up with you, Master!

TIBERE: Kind of reminiscent of “The Daemons”, too, isn’t it? Invoking an ancient creature that is OF COURSE going to turn against you. Makes sense, too, considering Warner is supposed to be an alternate version of Three.

SCRIBBLES: I was just about to say that. The Master teaming up with literal Satan was the classic series leaning hard into his idiotic, absurd evil plans for entertainment value. This just looks at that as a challenge to top, and I have to admire that. But god, that fate of his is delicious.

TIBERE: Speaking of Classics call-backs – I love how the Doctor’s plan entirely revolves creating an android copy of the Master. That already happened.

SCRIBBLES: I love how absurd it all is. The Doctor and the Master’s plays against each other have always been fundamentally ridiculous, and it’s nice how Goss is freed to use the Unbound angle to make an endpoint out of it.

TIBERE: There’s something pretty interesting about that android duplicate, though – the fact he says he serves the “True Saviour of the Universe”. We do learn, in the end that said Saviour (oh, the biblical symbolism, so very Davies) is the Doctor himself – that kind of leads to a division of the Doctor into two halves. The President, weakened and betrayed; and the real Doctor that manifests himself through over-complicated schemes and the return of typical Who silliness, giant squid monsters included.

SCRIBBLES: Which sets up an interesting direction for the series to go forward. Because now, whether Bernice likes it or not, she’s stuck with him. Now he’s the outcast in a strange and unfamiliar universe. And he’s reclaimed the McCoy-esque traditions of himself, but he has so much open-ended and uncertain now. Should make for an exciting new companion as she seeks out her family.

TIBERE: In a way, it ends up how it should always have ended. Bernice is now the Doctor, and the Doctor her companion. What a good endpoint, seriously.

SCRIBBLES: It feels back to basics for Benny’s range in the way Road Tripdid as a box set, with the Doctor replacing Ruth. She’s on a quest to find her family with a strange new outsider friend and a whole universe ahead of her. Sounds to me like it’s time for another exciting road trip home.

TIBERE: Before we wrap up, I feel like there’s a last point we need to touch on – the political satire that runs through this story. I don’t know if it’s just me reading too much into things, but damn, that felt like a Trump satire if ever there was one. A politician that obviously is evil, that kind of announced openly and directly that he is evil, but that still gets elected.

SCRIBBLES: I mean, one common view I’ve seen is that Trump never seriously wanted to be President. Not sure it’s one I believe, but the pained screams of the Master when trapped in office do rather feel like a satire of that.

TIBERE: There’s also this great scene where the presidential aide tries desperately to spin the events into something resembling a coherent narrative in front of the press, and ending up spouting out a bunch of nonsensical answers that stop one step away from the “alternative facts” zone. The story, ultimately, isn’t really about the politics, but those were some nice little touches.

SCRIBBLES: Her character in general was the most delightfully political edge of the set. At times, the Doctor felt as much like the target of the satire as the Master, his own absurd actions being justified through increasingly false narratives that deteriorate over the course of Truant.”

TIBERE: See, in that episode, the “He’s just looking for more facts!” “He hasn’t run away, hasn’t he?” “Of course not!” “… He has run away, hasn’t he?” exchange. And I think that’s a good place to end that conversation – quoting a bit more of the delicious banter that set throws at the listener non-stop. Honestly, I loved it. It’s not perfect, but it has a thematic tightness and an edge that really sets him apart of most of his predecessors – it’s the strongest the range has been since 2014 and that absolutely spectacular first set, in my opinion. And I’m now left very, very, very eager to see how Bernice, and her adventures, are going to evolve next. Is she going to reunite with her family? Are we going to end up with the Unbound and Seventh Doctor facing each other?

SCRIBBLES: Will we see Peter? Jason? Bev? Adrian? Ruth? Jack? Irving?

TIBERE: Is Benny going to team up with Leela and her lawnmower to hunt down Daleks? We all know that one is true, of course.

SCRIBBLES: Of course. It’s gonna be a wild ride.

2 thoughts on “ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield, volume IV – Ruler of the Universe

  1. “Asking for a Friend” is the best BF story from the last decade (or at least the best one not written by John Dorney). What makes me incredibly sad is that Goss never got to write for the War Doctor, because this is exactly the sort of examination that character needed, and shows that it is entirely possible to write a compelling story for a broken, not-quite-what-we-expect Doctor.

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