Bernice Summerfield – New Frontiers Review

Before we get to a new long string of main Doctor Who content to sprinkle across my blog I thought I’d quickly fill in two gaps in the “Spin Offs” section, namely the last two Bernice Summerfield boxes and the second and third series of River Song… so two female archaeologists in a row! Aren’t we lucky? When we last left Benny she is still getting used to her new group of allies and trying to reconnect with her dog-like son. Where did she go from there? Let’s find out!

Synopsis:

As the Advent season approaches, Bernice finds herself faced with the prospect of an old-fashioned family holiday, surrounded by her loved ones on a world they now call home… a time to forge new memories, together… and for a bitter enemy to claim what is rightfully hers.

Life is never straightforward, however. The most haunted planet in the galaxy is requesting an archaeologist, and something very peculiar is happening at the last manned shipyard in the cosmos.

But ghostly planets and waterlogged zombies are the least of Bernice’s worries. Because her friends have been hiding secrets – about who they are and where they’ve come from… and as Bernice will soon discover, the truth will out.

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

The Good:

The highlight of the set has to be Episode 2 “HMS Surprise”. Benny, Jack and Peter arrive on a derelict shipyard where ships have gone missing, and now all the people have too. Well, all apart from one. After a really good, tension-filled walk around the empty place, with more great Jack humour and Benny sarcasm, we meet the one survivor: Lucas Catch (Geoffrey Breton), whose family owns (or owned) the docks. He’s a sweet and naïve boy, but soon the meeting is cut short as a lot of zombie-like people … bubble up from the waters and begin to attack. Cue some good old-fashioned running around until they arrive at the HMS Surprise, a battleship from the 60s that was somehow placed in an old abandoned dock. Once on board they find out what’s going on: it turns out that a long-thought fictional race known only as “The Healers” do exist, and one such Healer is the cause of the problem. They inhabit people, places and things that have good souls, or good karma, and sacrifice themselves to keep them going, and this Healer accidentally attached itself of a warship that has very bad karma, and went on to kill many people, and now its “stuck” in it, the force creating the problems around the docks. Benny offers herself as a new vessel, but she’s too impure (well… yeah) so instead it’s good natured Lucas who gets the honour. It’s a really good, quite high-concept sci-fi story that is also a well written and often tense run-around. Good stuff!

Episode 1 “A Handful of Dust” is a mixed bag. Benny, Jack and Ruth head down to the planet Nemeqit after they catch a distress signal and come across three people: Lud and Bel (Peter Sheward and Charlie Hayes, respectively), two locals who have woken inside a dome on the otherwise hellish landscape of the planet, and Vonna Byzantium (Ellen Salisbury) the host of “Paranormal Planets” hoping to get a big scoop to revive her show. This is where the split happens, as the mystery surrounding Lud and Bel is genuinely interesting the whole way through, their hope that Benny can give them a religion to follow and help them was funny in actually well-written way, where as Vonna and her Most Haunted parody was really cheap and more annoying that amusing. The end is really fascinating in a weird sci-fi way as we find out that Nemeqit is alive and Lud and Bel are its children, the dome being a sort of egg that they hatch out of… which they do! The two children of Nemeqit become new planets off in space at the end, which is weird as hell, but in a really good way and again a good example of high-concept science fiction. I just wish they hadn’t thrown in the “amusing” TV presenter angle as well…

The Bad:

Ah, the old “cast members lined up in a row” cover. Simple, but effective.

Episode 3 “The Curse of Fenman” was a big misstep for me, and I believe it has everything to do with being told that Epoch would be a great “jumping on point” with the Bernice Summerfield range. Well, turns out it wasn’t because this episode was full to the brim with past continuity from both the older Benny range and the early Gallifrey audios (which I have yet to listen to, though do own thanks to a sale a year or two back…), not to mention a lot of info-dumping relating to the newer characters from Epoch onwards… all at once. The only real good bit was the boyfriend Peter kept talking to but no one else could see, Antionio, turning out to have been real but he died while the two of them were escaping the slavers with the help of Braxiatel, the image he kept talking to was a coping mechanism. That was actually interesting and I liked how it made Benny and her son grow closer. That was nice…

The rest? Basically, a villainess named Avril Fenman (Georgia Moffett) who appeared in the pre-boxset era of Benny, returns and reveals that everything in the last few sets was her plan, which leads to the backstories of both Ruth and Jack (the former was the daughter of a despot who, upon the people rising up, killed her father in the hopes it would win her favour… before getting her memory wiped, and Jack was the son of a heartless businessman who unlike his father actually had a soul, but that meant he was sent on dangerous missions because worst comes worse his father could collect on the insurance money) and generally how the whole thing with the Epoch was also created by her. It also involves Brax and a killer “Pandora virus” that dates back to the Gallifrey series and there is some sort of revelation that this Brax isn’t the one of this timeline but was infected with the same virus as his other self but no longer has it so isn’t evil? … I think? Well, either way, this Brax saves the day, albeit temporarily, as we head into the final boxset of this era of Benny. At least I can confirm the “New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield” range of boxsets is actually a fresh start you can jump on from…

The Continuity:

Obviously it goes without saying that the continuity is mostly based on character introduced in the series so far, starting with “Epoch”, and then suddenly at the end it includes heavy ties to Gallifrey episode “Pandora” and some older Bernice Summerfield plays. I’ll get round to Gallifrey one day, but I’m unlikely to listen through the Benny back catalogue due to how large it is (which is why I jumped on board the boxsets, but hey-ho…)

Overall Thoughts:

The first two episodes of this set were really enjoyable, often high-concept sci-fi with a fun central cast and were pretty much stand-alone, then the final episode goes in completely the opposite direction. A shame, but with one box left, maybe they can pull out a top class ending! Who knows? … Well, many people, including a future version of me which you’ll hear from when I review it next!

Episodes 1 “A Handful of Dust” and 2 “HMS Surprise”:

Episode 3 “The Curse of Fenman”:

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