Archaeological Adventuress: There are several reasons why Bernice has remained such a popular character for so many years (I cannot believe we are about to celebrate her 15th anniversary! Way to make me feel old!). For one thing the people responsible for the various stages of life have ensured that the storytelling has been top of the range and there has always been a great deal of fun to be had with Benny. Secondly her character has evolved and reshaped as she has entered each new phase of her life taking us through bacheloresshood, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, motherhood and surviving all kinds of dangers in between. Thirdly you have Lisa Bowerman who has proven to be an incredible performer and a perfect fit for Benny and taking us through the highs and lows of her life in a very intimate and likable way. The Adventure of the Diagnoses Damsel sees Benny at one of the crisis points in her life, stripped of her home, alienated from her friends, on the run from her mentor and without even the company of her son for comfort. With all these pressures weighing on her and trapped in the wrong time, Benny still manages to shine as she inveigles her way into high society and involves herself in a chilling Victorian mystery. If you need an example of why the Big Finish Bernice range is about to enter its 15th season (with the box sets I find it hard to work out how they work as seasons so I will just assume a season is a years worth of releases) then check out this one release which characterises her with all the magnetism, humour and astuteness we have come to expect from her and then some.
Her life isn’t playing out in the right order at the moment so Benny doesn’t see why we should get off that easily! The only real certainties she has in her life now are a fountain pen and a moleskin notebook. There is a real feeling that Bernice is living her life on the run these days…not from anything in particular but that she has no solid base of operations and she is just falling into one scrape after another without any purpose. Its extremely jarring after the time she had on the Collection building up a family and friends but I’m rather enjoying the ride at the moment because the series feels so different and unpredictable. She is the very image of a modern Victorian woman wearing as she does men’s clothes and with her hair cut short. Time travel used to be easy for her but these days it’s a bit trickier without a chaperone. She describes herself as a part time associate of Sherlock Holmes and once she knew where she was she made her way to Baker Street where she discovered that Sherlock was dead (this informs us rather neatly where in Sherlock Holmes continuity this story would fit). Thank goodness Benny wasn’t a canonical character in the Sherlock Holmes universe because she goes and spoils the end of The Final Problem and makes clear Mycroft’s involvement in his fake death! There’s a glorious moment where Mycroft examines Benny and draws conclusions about her identity that are highly improbable but fit the facts (Benny mentioned the name Menaxus which is only mentioned elsewhere in John Watson’s hand written manuscript All Consuming Fire). Her vocabulary is strange as is her stance which marks her out as somebody who is not of this Earth and she possesses knowledge that is so secret that she must be from the future. She once said that Earth in the 19th Century was the most alien place she had ever been but its currently worryingly like home. Given recent events living in the lap of luxury at Pall Mall is something she could easily get used to if she wasn’t so worried about Peter. The thought of never being able to see Peter again makes her feel hollow. Its only when they introduce a clone of Chris Cwej that you realise how long it has been and how far Bernice has come since she last saw him. Straxus is stuck in the era Victorian era, his TARDIS can travel anywhere in space but it is trapped like a fly in amber in this time period. Bernice is complimented on her interrogation techniques…by the interrogator (‘you’re rocketing into my top ten wankers with alarming speed!’).
Standout Performance: ‘The most remarkable brain of this age and a woman who wont be born for centuries…’ David Warner could turn up in every Big Finish story as far as I am concerned because his talent is without limit and his voice drips with class and intelligence. To match him up with the role of Mycroft Holmes is a stroke of genius and to then highlight his formidable intelligence against Bernice’s sarcasm makes for a fantastic double act. Add in another Doctor Who stalwart – Peter Miles – and you have an economic but very impressive cast.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You find the death of my brother principally a matter for your own inconvenience?’
‘There are civil servants of history who monitor and observe the shape of time…’ – Benny trying to describe the Time Lords to Mycroft Holmes.
‘Tied to a chair by a top hatted tosser with a title!’
‘We are clones! Wouldn’t it be more surprising if there was just one of us?’
‘I intend to ask my future self some pretty searching questions in the near future!’
Great Ideas: ‘I know what you’re thinking…you feel like you’ve missed an episode!’ Leave it to Bernice to turn up and put our minds at rest as we seem to have wandered into Jago & Litefoot territory (ooh…Benny and Ellie?) but considering this is such an evocative period I didn’t mind the slight delay in the explanations! Its funny that Bernice should mention that she always thinks of the London Underground as a 20th Century thing because it’s the same reaction that I have every time I hear it mentioned in Victorian set dramas. Naturally to greet Bernice on her return to Victorian London there is a crime spate and this time some nutter is committing crimes that are all linked to the number seven. Something has gone wrong with her time ring but lets be honest nothing ever goes right when the time rings are involved…and we can blame the seventh Doctor for that! It’s a lovely idea to pair up Bernice with Sherlock Holmes’ brother because it plants us straight into a world of criminal gangs and Parliamentary plots and it avoids having to hash up the past that a reassociation with Sherlock would have (Benny having previously teamed up with him and Dr Watson in the innovative New Adventure All Consuming Fire). Mycroft’s housekeeper is called Mrs Grose and we’ll assume to appease our inner fanboy that that is the same plump and jolly woman who served Kedgeree to Ace in Ghost Light. I laughed my head off when Bernice suggested making a mark on history so that the Time Lords notice her anachronistic presence and pick her up and take her home! She scoffs at the idea of doing something as dramatic as assassinating a President which was Roz Forrester’s exact plan in Christmas on a Rational Planet! Benny is certain that Mycroft’s firm still exists in some form in the 27th Century so if she is trapped here for the rest of her life she will write a letter for them to give to Peter in the future at the right point after she is kicked back to the past. Its head spinning enough to be a Steven Moffatt twist! I remember way back in season one there was a memorably graphic and atmospheric death scene in the audio adaptation of Birthright where a Charryl murders Lancashire Lily…well stone me if they don’t top that here with a similarly grotesque and memorable sequence where the killer shoots a police constable seven times (his modus operandi). There’s a mention of a Transuranic which is a not very guarded reference to Sapphire and Steel – I really love how this story feels as though it is part of a much larger mythology. The appearance of Straxus too ties the Bernice Summerfield range to the adventures of the eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller. Chris Cwej is a cloned soldier that the Time Lords have grown in order to assist them with practical and military matters. The Cwejans (not sure about that name) can feel the pain when one of their clones dies. Straxus was placing ancient historical treasures in a market place where they were never meant to be in order to reshape human history and inform his people in which time period he was ensnared. A noticeable but non destructive way of waving a red flag from history! The Cwejans have been introducing the number seven into their sequence of crimes to draw the attention of the dark figure that lurks in their minds otherwise known as Mister Seven (I was certain this was going to be an incarnation of the Doctor with a certain Scottish purr…). London will be devoured in an all consuming fire and Mister Seven will descend and take the Cwejans to safety. A regeneration in Victorian London – could this story get any better? Straxus pulls Bernice out of the time stream at the point the bomb was about to explode. Bernice questions his ability to do this since he has no access to temporal technology but he informs her that his insane scheme to attract the attention of a Time Lord succeeded – it was himself! He’s an earlier version of Straxus, saving his own life before he has even gotten into trouble! I’m going boss eyed! Mister Seven is simply the Cwejans trying to seek affirmation for their existence and actions from mythology, not an actual person. As usual with these things it is the Time Lord’s heavy handed approach to things and their lack of feeling towards their inferiors (Straxus calls the clones ‘instruments’) that has caused all this bother!
Audio Landscape: A steam train puffing, polite applause and guffaws, scribbles, birdsong, gunshots, biting wind, door knocking, seaside gulls screaming, a bomb exploding in water. I giggled when I heard the bubble bursting Time Lord appearance sound from Terror of the Autons!
Standout Scene: I loved the audio landscape of the swirling nuttiness of time in which Straxus explains the plot to Bernice. Its deliriously surreal.
Result: The Adventure of the Diogenes Damsel is a special one off Bernice Summerfield story that ties together so many strands of Doctor Who and literature it is worth listening to just to pick up on and bask in the references to other works. The eighth Doctor range (Straxus), Sapphire and Steel (Transuranic agents), the New Adventures (All Consuming Fire, Chris Cwej), Doctor Who mythology (with references to Ghost Light, The Time Lords, Vampires), Bernice’s own mythology (the Time Rings), the eighth Doctor novel range (Faction Paradox) and the Jago & Litefoot series (the foggy Victorian setting) are all alluded to and the way the writer juggles these elements whilst still telling a riveting story is worthy of some praise. Jim Smith is not a name I recognise but given the quality of this script I am left wondering why not. He has a great ear of memorable dialogue and juggles Bernice’s continuing story with an eclectic mystery of his own (I love how this starts out as a typical Holmesian mystery and evolves into a typical Doctor Who adventure). With Lisa Bowerman as erudite as ever and David Warner and Peter Miles to support her, Diagnoses Damsel is beautifully cast too and allows for some delicious face offs during the stories second half. It’s a story that has an evocative atmosphere because of its setting and some attractive literary detail but also flaunts some clever science fiction ideas and climaxes on some very satisfying twists. I really wasn’t sure to expect from this season but after a dicey start with Zombie Titanic (otherwise known as Beyond the Sea) we have had a standout Lawrence Miles adventure followed up a standout literary piece. If they keep this standard up I might just fall in love with Bernice’s new aimless adventuring as much as I did with her time at the Collection! An exceptional standalone story with lots for long term fans and new ones to enjoy: 9/10