Bernice Summerfield: Oh No It Isn’t! [Big Finish]

Big Finish is best known for producing licensed Doctor Who audio productions, but before they obtained that license, they got their start by producing and releasing this feature-length audio presentation, focusing not on the Doctor but on Bernice Summerfield, a character who had been created in Virgin’s New Adventures novel range.

(Daily Doctor Who #194)

In those novels, Bernice Summerfield was an archeologist who ended up being a companion of the 7th Doctor. When Virgin lost their license to make Doctor Who novels, they started telling standalone Bernice Summerfield stories, starting with the novel version of Oh No It Isn’t by Paul Cornell (Bernice’s main creator). Nine years later, this became the first commercial audio release from Big Finish, as adapted by Jacqueline Rayner. So in a strange way, this story could be seen as the buffer in between the Doctor Who-related licenses of Virgin and Big Finish, even though there is nearly a decade between the two versions.

I’d never have bothered listening to this production except that it is not available for free on the Big Finish website, and I was hankering for something to listen to. Turns out, it’s a pretty enjoyable story.

The story picks up with Bernice on an expedition on a planet that is soon going to be destroyed by natural catastrophe, investigating an apparently long-dead civilization. She is there with a group of her students as well as the crew of the spaceship that are looking after them. Suddenly, they find themselves under attack from an alien race called the Grel, who raid vulnerable people and planets hungry for data and information. However, at the same time their ship is attacked by a missile from the supposedly dead world. As it strikes, instead of being destroyed, Bernice wakes up in a completely altered reality, one that has a shallow veneer of old England over it, but really is populated by broadly-characterized fairy tale and children’s story characters.

As it proceeds, Bernice eventually figures out that her whole world has turned into a mish-mash of 20th Century English pantomime, a theatrical artform I’m only distantly aware of (mostly because I’d read that various Doctor Who actors would find work doing it). It seems to be characterized by a variety of stock character types engaged in broad-humored family-friendly adventure stories with a healthy dose of audience interaction.

All of Bernice’s colleagues on the ship have been brought as well, co-opted into semi-familiar character roles like Prince Charming, or a variation of the seven dwarves (but with names like Cute, Laddish, and Bitchy). For some reason only Bernice is aware of what has happened, leading her to run around a bizarre blending of stories trying to figure out what is going on. This requires her to take different characters roles depending on which story she is in, and figure out ways to navigate the situations in pantomime terms (employing children’s theatre logic, or speaking in rhyming couplets, that sort of thing).

There is loads of meta-textual humor throughout the story, with pantomime and theatre tropes playing a big role. Things take an eerie turn when it turns out that there is an audience to those whole affair as well, and one that in a certain way can be interacted with. It’s all very clever–for example, when one of the standard villain characters appears, he is always accompanied by a strange hissing. One thinks it’s some sort of snake at first, but it turns out to be the hidden audience expressing their displeasure in a way they are expected to for that sort of production.

Bernice’s loyal companion in all of this chaos is Wolsey, a humanoid version of her pet cat, who is the first beside Bernice to begin to realize that there is something wrong with the world. A fair bit of pathos is drawn out of the fact that Wolsey begins to realize that when the problem is solved and they are returned to normal, he will lose his ability to articulate his thoughts and will be turned again into a thoughtless creature of instinct. It adds a bit of sadness to the tale, which is otherwise fairly light-hearted. And there is also courage, as Wolsey determines to stay committed to Bernice’s cause, regardless of the cost.

Wolsey is played by Nicholas Courtney, of all people, who is best known as the Brigadier, a much loved character from televised Doctor Who. Other cast members include Nicholas Briggs (now a Big Finish executive producer and the voice of the Daleks and other creatures on TV) and Mark Gatiss (a Doctor Who writer and the co-creator of Sherlock, who has appeared as an actor in both). Lise Bowerman is Bernice, who anchors the whole thing in a solid performance. Bowerman has continued to voice the character ever since.

On the whole, I found Oh, No It Isn’t to be quite an enjoyable tale. It’s long, but consistently engaging, and never dull. And best of all, it’s available for free on Big Finish’s website. It doesn’t really tempt me strongly to buy more of the stories in her range of dramas (I’m more likely to spend the money on actual Doctor Who episodes) but I’m glad I had the chance to enjoy this one.

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