(PSST! If you missed it, check out last week’s nerdy love letter to the original Human Torch!)
Welcome back to my weekly nerdy love letters, dedicated to talking about characters and stories I love and think more of you need to know about. Many of you humans love the Doctor Who franchise, featuring an alien scientist who enjoys traveling through time and space for the sake of exploration and adventure, and who occasionally “regenerates” into a new face and body. The Doctor has had many traveling companions over the years, but one has stood out for many and is the subject of this week’s nerdy love letter. I’m talking about… Professor Bernice “Benny” Summerfield!
(Note: If you already know about Benny’s origins, still be sure to scroll down to the bottom for a beginner’s guide to her books and audio dramas from Big Finish!)
The original Doctor Who program aired from 1963 to 1989. Aside from a TV-movie in 1996, the show did not return to television until 2005. Many fans have referred to that time between 1989 and 2005 as “the wilderness years.” For a time, Virgin Publishing released licensed stories that were meant to continue where the original Doctor Who program left off. While the show has often tried to be an all-ages program, the books – labeled The New Adventures – leaned a bit more towards mature themes and concepts. Whereas many of the Doctor’s traveling companions on TV were teens or young people in their twenties, the books decided to bring in a new companion who was clearly an adult and would treat the time traveling scientist as a colleague and partner rather than a mentor or older brother.
The novel Love and War by Paul Cornell was released on October 15, 1992. In it, the Doctor (still in his seventh incarnation) and his TV companion Dorothy “Ace” McShane travel to the 26th century and arrive on a cemetery planet called Heaven. They meet Professor Bernice Surprise Summerfield (the middle name was her mother’s joke regarding the unexpected pregnancy).
Bernice, or “Benny,” is a hard-drinking archeologist who keeps a diary and loves 20th century Earth history. She winds up helping the Doctor achieve victory against an alien threat, though this victory comes at the cost of his friendship with Ace (at least for a time). The Doctor realizes that he has started to go too far in what he’s willing to do to defeat evil at times, and indicates to Benny that he needs someone to help him keep true to his moral compass. As long as the Doctor agrees not to manipulate or mislead her, Benny agrees to travel with him. As an archeologist, she can’t wait to explore time and space via the Doctor’s ship, the TARDIS.
“Can’t we just cut the script of banality and just have me being my usual witty, charming self?”
– Benny, from the audio play Making Myths
And so it began, the Professor and the Doctor galavanting across reality. Benny became a fast favorite with many fans, both for her comedic reactions to the absurdity of the Doctor’s life, her razor sharp wit when dealing with others, her awkward attempts to flirt with those who caught her attention, and her strength in challenging others to be more moral, logical and altruistic. Her mother had died horribly at the hands of the vicious alien conquerors known as the Daleks, and Benny witnessed this. She saw yet more evil and tremendous horror as she traveled with the Doctor, but rather than be broken by it she instead became more determined to enjoy the simple pleasures of life such as baths, good food, conversation with friends, and fine alcohol.
Part of Benny’s inspiration was Indiana Jones, and you could easily see her adventuring alongside the classic cinema character as an equal, even one-upping him from time to time. Benny also seemed to be a precursor in some ways for the Doctor Who character Professor River Song, another diary-keeping archeologist who showed up on TV many years later.
Benny was also allowed to grow over time. Her views on the universe and morality shifted during the course of her adventures. In some ways, she became firmer in her beliefs, but also a bit more jaded. A meeting with the man Jason Kane made her realize how often she self-sabotaged her relationships and romances. She wasn’t just there to help the Doctor with exposition for the readers, she was her own character.
Regarding Benny’s character, creator Paul Cornell said in an interview with Big Finish that he initially saw her as “an idealized sort of female version of me crossed with Emma Thompson.” He added that her tone was “hopeful cynicism… a worry that things won’t turn out to be all right, but a determination to enjoy the little things as she goes along.”
“… Sometimes you just have to forget who you are and regard yourself as an instrument of history. (As Jack Ruby had said to Lee Harvey Oswald).”
– Benny, from the audio play Closure
Benny fought evil alongside Doctor for forty-one novels over three and a half years, leaving his side in the book Happy Endings by Paul Cornell, released on May 16, 1996. In the story, Benny marries Jason Kane. As a wedding gift, they are given a pair of time rings that together can be used for limited time travel or to call the Doctor for help.
Benny showed up again a few months later in the novel Return of the Living Dad by Kate Orman, where she discovered the truth about her father who had vanished when she was seven years old. In January 1997, she returned again in Eternity Weeps by Jim Mortimore. By this time, Jason was finding his life with Benny less exciting, and she was increasingly frustrated by his impulsive and reckless behavior. After Jason’s actions lead to great disaster, the two decide to divorce.
Virgin Publishing lost the license to Doctor Who, and so his New Adventures line ended in 1997. But then Virgin created a second New Adventures line that starred Benny instead and made no reference to the Doctor or BBC characters. So rather than fade away as so many traveling companions had after parting ways with the Doctor, she got to start in twenty-three of her own books. Sadly, these books are no longer in print.
But Benny’s story didn’t end there, humans of Earth! In 1999, Big Finish Productions got the license to make audio dramas starring Bernice Summerfield. The first several audios were direct adaptations of some of her earliest solo books. Then, Big Finish began creating its own storylines for her, through both audios and original prose. These audios continue to this very day, nearly twenty years later.
Throughout it all, these full-cast audio plays have starred Lisa Bowerman, who herself appeared in the original Doctor Who show, during the final TV story “Survival.” Bowerman also directs many audios for Big Finish, and voiced Benny for the animated webcast short Bernice Summerfield: Dead and Buried, which served as a prequel to the 11th season of her audios.
While researching for my book Doctor Who: A History (whoa, that plug came out of nowhere), I chatted with Lisa Bowerman about Bernice Summerfield’s enduring appeal. She said: “This heroic woman archeologist with a journal existed years before Lara Croft and certainly before River Song, yet she’s more grounded than both, which I find interesting. She’s completely human, and she’s not the best athlete. She’s very fallible, though she does grow from experience. I’d argue that Ace was sort of the embryonic state of Benny, but Ace was a girl, whereas we met Benny as a woman, and over time she’s been married and has even been a mother… and you almost never see that for an action hero who’s a woman… That combination of someone who’s completely in charge of her own world and just gets on with things is so refreshing. She’s not shouting every few minutes that she’s a strong woman; she lets that speak for itself. It’s obvious.”
Benny has been further developed through these wonderful audios, aging and maturing while still staying true to her core. Paul Cornell has even remarked that he felt the audios were more true to Benny than some of the novels, and that he has not been surprised that they have become accept as the official canon for Professor Summerfield’s adventures.
This is a great character you should enjoy for yourselves. You don’t need to be an expert on Doctor Who to enjoy her stuff either. Head on over to via BigFinish.com and check out her stories for yourself.
And if the sheer volume of these audio dramas intimidates you, I’ve got you covered. Listed below are some decent jumping on points!
Love and War – This is an excellent adaptation of the now out of print novel that introduced Benny, starring Lisa Bowerman alongside Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace McShane. This is followed by audio adaptations of Benny’s earliest adventures with the Doctor, including Theater of War where she meets the strange Time Lord called Braxiatel (who becomes a major figure in Benny’s life and implied in some stories to be the Doctor’s older brother), and All-Consuming Fire, where she, Ace and the Doctor join forces with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Also be sure to check out a particularly delightful Paul Cornell audio drama called The Shadow of the Scourge.
There’s also the Benny-narrated Companion Chronicle audio Bernice Summerfield and the Criminal Code. And if you’d like, enjoy a team-up between older divorced mom Benny and the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) in The Company of Friends, which also delves into the relationship between a Time Lord and his TARDIS ship.
Bernice Summerfield – The Single Releases. Starting with Oh, No It Isn’t!, this starts the first 11-season saga of Benny’s solo audio adventures. The first adventure takes place some months after Benny’s divorce from Jason Kane, as she and her cat Wolsey (a gift from the Doctor) are on an archeological dig that leads into a strange, dream-like reality that emulates a panto show. Happening concurrently with some Big Finish novels, these audios covers Benny’s time as a professor at St. Oscar’s University, and her later work at the Braxiatel Collection.
Bernice Summerfield – Box Sets. These audios started a new saga in Benny’s life. She’s been divorced, she’s now been a mom for some time, she’s recently suffered a loss, and she has been betrayed. Now she’s ready to meet new friends and challenges.
Doctor Who – The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield. After many years on her own, Benny is reunited with the Seventh Doctor. Each changed by various experiences, these two old friends have a tough time quickly adjusting to each other as partners again. (Note: This is definitely a little heavier into Doctor Who lore, so it’s great if you’re already familiar with that and just don’t know Benny very well but not a great starting point if you’re not familiar with any previous stories).
Benny Summerfield – Big Finish Books. These books happen concurrently with the Big Finish audios and fill in some gaps. Genius Loci by Ben Aaronovitch is out of print but be on the lookout for its return, as it features Benny’s first real adventure from when she was 21. Missing Adventures is a great anthology of early times in Benny’s life as well. Be sure to also read the Big Finish novel/ebook The Squire’s Crystal by Jaqueline Rayner for the strange origin of Benny’s son, Peter Summerfield.
Until next time, humans!
- Kistler’s Nerdy Love Letters: The Pilot Episode of MURPHY BROWN - December 26, 2019
- Kistler’s Nerdy Love Letters: Dazzler of Marvel Comics - December 6, 2019
- Kistler’s Nerdy Love Letters: The First People of Superman’s Native Planet Krypton - August 24, 2018