Audio Frequencies (DWM #517, November 2017)

Reviewed this issue:

The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume 4: Ruler of the Universe
The Third Doctor Adventures Volume 3
Blood Furnace

Psssst… wanna talk canon? Course you do, you’re a Doctor Who fan. 

It’s a slippery business, though, this question of what qualifies as ‘proper’ Who; one that’s been the subject of much debate and hair-pulling. But I’m going to take a punt and suggest the majority of us are probably happy to accept anything with a BBC logo on it as part of the ‘official’ Whoniverse (yeah, I went there) while still secretly harbouring a need to see it on actual telly before fully committing.

Professor Bernice “Benny” Summerfield is the undisputed queen of this Who-but-not-Who nexus, having starred in more than a hundred audio dramas, and almost as many novels, over a quarter of a century, without ever troubling the nation’s Saturday teatimes. (Where, of course, the Doctor found himself a different sassy space archaeologist to play with and, reader, he married her).  And now, to add to her alt.Who credentials, Benny has been dragged into an entirely different universe and paired up with a Doctor of equally fuzzy canonicity – David Warner’s not-quite-Third Doctor, as first heard in Big Finish’s 2003 parallel world adventure Sympathy for the Devil. Everyone keeping up, or should I start a spreadsheet?

As regular listeners will recall, this Doctor isn’t just a citizen of this alternative universe – he’s its President, to boot. Though his chances of serving a full term are looking distinctly shaky, as said universe is literally collapsing around his ears.

At the start of the The City and the Clock – the first of four adventures under the Ruler of the Universe umbrella – Benny is preparing to excavate the fabled Apocalypse Clock, which may just hold the key to staving off “the great collapse”. Or it may raise a marauding army of the dead; either way, it won’t be dull.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is more preoccupied with clearing his in-tray and dealing with a plumbing problem in the ambassadorial residence (turns out ruling the entire universe generates a **lot** of paperwork), forcing Benny to admit: “I don’t know who he is any more.”

That’s the tension at the heart of this zingy opener from Guy Adams – a masterclass in rat-a-tat verbal tennis from Lisa Bowerman – now in her 20th year as Benny – and Warner, whose grouchy, bear-with-a-sore-head Doctor goes the full Malcolm Tucker in ways that would make even Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord blush.

Asking for a Friend plonks our hero on the psychiatrist’s couch for what James Goss describes as “an hour inside the Doctor’s head”. As the writer acknowledges, it’s a potentially divisive idea that flips the more conventional approach of an unknowable alien viewed through the eyes of others. But who wouldn’t pay good money to hear David Warner butting heads with the terrific Annette Badland? 

The Doctor starts out pretty cocky (“Sleep is like The Beano – I like it but I could do without it”), but the therapist sees through the false bravado, pushing him to own the consequences of actions, and even challenging him over his apparent God complex. (“Little people do little jobs,” he sneers, reminding us just what an appalling snob this Lord of Time can be.)

It’s a story that probes the Doctor’s survivor guilt even more explicitly than the modern TV show (where he only gets the occasional brief window of existential angst between the monsters), in a way that some listeners may find a wee bit on the nose. But Goss does it all with a light touch, with Warner and Badland’s witty exchanges, in particular, recalling the actress’s wonderfully frisky dinner date with Christopher Eccleston in Boom Town.

In Guy Adams’ Truant, the Doctor finally sheds his presidential robes and leaps feet first back into the fray, having apparently remembered who, in another universe, he was born to be. This is the Doctor as reckless adventurer, a Lord of misrule who relishes chaos as he swaggers about the universe looking to pick fights. He’s particularly delighted to find himself locked up in an old-skool prison cell, the scene in which he and Benny dance rings around their flustered captor being one of many highlights in a lively screwball comedy that can’t help but recall another Adams who once served time on the show.

(Also, quick mention here for Things You Never Thought You’d Hear No. 549: renowned Shakespearean actor and Hollywood film legend David Warner doing an impression of Sylvester McCoy’s “There! Will! Be! No! Battle! Here!” from Battlefield. Next month: Mark Rylance gives us his “unlimited rice pudding” speech. Possibly.)

The Master once declared that “a comos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about”. But he never specified **which** cosmos, so it’s natural they should have carried their long-running enmity-stroke-bromance over into this alternative timeline. And what a delight to welcome that fruity old ham Sam Kisgart – feted for his Widow Twanky in many a provincial theatre – back to the role. As the actor explains in the bonus material, he’s only ever seen Doctor Who once, back when Ron Moody played him, but, like Bette Midler, he’s a performer who’s prepared to “give and give until he can give no more”.

Okay, so it’s Mark Gatiss, of course it is. But there’s a fine tradition of the Master’s appearances being scrambled behind anagrams of varying credibility (a wheeze which peaked with Anthony Ainley’s billing as walking Countdown conundrum ‘Leon Ny Taiy’) and Gatiss has been enjoying this one since first locking horns with Warner’s Doctor in 2003.

While you wouldn’t be human – and certainly not a Doctor Who fan – if you didn’t feel a twinge of envy towards Gatiss, who’s made a very good career rummaging about in the toybox of his boyhood passions, you’d need a heart of stone not to be charmed by his performance in The True Ruler of the Universe. That green room cabaret turn is worth the admission price alone but, when it comes to the Master himself, he’s actually a model of restraint – a silky, purring, unctuous schemer in the grand tradition of previous Gatiss villains from Mycroft Holmes to Peter Mandelson.

James’ Goss’s set-closer is a political thriller – albeit the sort of political thriller that has robot assassins, which is surely the best sort – that pits the Doctor against a parliament of fools itching to impeach him, while being seduced by the rhetoric of a crowd-pleasing populist (it’s really very hard to avoid being topical these days). And so it is that the Master finally achieves his long-held ambition of becoming lord of all creation – only to find that “victory has a strange after-taste of almonds”.

With two big name actors giving us their Doctor and Master, it would be easy to forget that it’s Bernice Summerfield’s name above the title of this witty and inventive box set, energetically directed by Scott Handcock. But Benny’s been giving as good as she gets for 25 years now, and Lisa Bowerman matches her co-stars blow for blow, smart for smart. After all, there have been plenty of Doctors and plenty of Masters, but there’s only ever been one Professor Bernice Summerfield – in this or any other universe.

You wait ages for an alternative Third Doctor, and then two come along at once. Though perhaps alternative isn’t really the right word to describe The Third Doctor Adventures Volume 3 – an unashamedly retro double-bill that’s made of pure 1973.

The Conquest of Far is particularly trad, being Nick Briggs’ heartfelt love letter to the works of Terry Nation. (As Briggs cheerfully admits, Nation was never shy about giving us his greatest hits, so why should he be?). It opens with Tim Treloar and Katy Manning reprising the final scene of Planet of the Daleks, before plunging into a faithful recreation of… well, Planet of the Daleks, actually, complete with Jo misplacing the Doctor and hooking up with a resistance fighter. Called Del. A definite case of out of the frying pan and into another, very similar frying pan.

It’s a big, colourful, explosive space opera, full of lines like “Fire robotising weapon now!”, on which Briggs also serves as director and exec producer, as well as voicing the Daleks and a rebel commander. He probably ran the hoover around the studio afterwards, too.

Andrew Smith’s Storm of the Horofax takes a similar ‘best of’ approach, this time to the UNIT years, with the Doctor and Jo fighting an alien invasion of the Home Counties on land, sea and air.

As Jo, Katy Manning – still sounding as full of youthful vim and vigour as she did 40 years ago – is very much the beating heart of these stories, though Treloar continues to give a good account of himself. His Third Doctor isn’t note perfect, but it’s good enough to ensure Jon Pertwee’s old-young face is the one you’ll see in your head, helped by writers with an instinctive feel for the character. (The Pertweeist Pertwee line?  “Well that’s torn it, don’t you think?”)

Just time for one more sidestep into parallel world this month – in so much as Blood Furnace is a Seventh Doctor tale set in 1991, and thus invites us to imagine what might have happened if the sun hadn’t set on the show two years earlier.

Eddie Robson’s story is essentially Stargate meets Boys from the Blackstuff – a uniquely Doctor Who elevator pitch, if ever I heard one. Set on a Liverpool dockside ravaged by unemployment and social decay, it aspires to some of the grit of Virgin’s New Adventures range, albeit in a more SFW, occasionally downright CBBC way. With Bonnie Langford having lately rejoined Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred aboard the TARDIS, Robson is also able to dig a little into Mel’s past, even introducing her ex from uni. (It can’t be just me who struggles to imagine Mel as a student, sipping carrot juice instead of snakebites at the union bar.)

Despite the slightly uneven tone, it’s a pacey, action-packed tale that few of us would have felt short-changed to get after Bergerac on a Wednesday night in 1991. Meanwhile, in the real world of the early 90s, the Seventh Doctor was about to wave goodbye to Ace and say hello to Professor Bernice Summerfield. Assuming that’s the version of the real world you choose to believe, of course. Like I say: tricky business, canon.

Published in Doctor Who Magazine issue #517, November 2017 © Panini UK Ltd

All titles available from Big Finish