Like a raging tributary between three mighty rivers, Big Finish’s 20th anniversary celebration of fan-favourite spin-off star Bernice Summerfield is set to drive those particular canon fascists who can’t enjoy something on its own terms purple with rage.
A full-cast Doctor Who audio drama based on the Virgin New Adventure novel of the same name by SciFiNow favourite Paul Cornell, Love And War not only introduced Benny, but drove an emotionally jagged wedge between the Doctor and Ace – one that would lead both characters into some fascinating places as the series evolved. It was one of the big keynote moments in the Seventh Doctor’s journey following the cancellation of the TV show, and one that Sylvester McCoy observes in the bonus interviews (which are well worth sticking around for), has happened more recently to much critical acclaim in the Big Finish audios.
Of course cross-pollination between the audio dramas, the novels and even the reborn TV show is well documented, but while many were subtly altered to wedge them into canon Love And War is a relatively straight adaptation of the book with all the glorious production thunder of Big Finish. Sophie Aldred effortlessly channels that iconic mix of lip-curled bluster and youthful vulnerability of the 1988/9 Ace, Sylvester McCoy returns as the darker, brooding Doctor who saw off Fenris and nearly cracked the Master’s skull open, and the established Big Finish Benny, Lisa Bowerman, regresses the character by a decade to play the forthright future archaeologist as she was originally encountered.
Ably adapted by talented Big Finish regular Jacqueline Rayner – more than qualified as both an audio scriptwriter and a Doctor Who tie-in novelist – and directed by Gary Russell who has a similar pedigree, Love And War uses the dynamic of Doctor Who‘s closing series – the Doctor largely leaves Ace to her own devices for much of the plot, withholding information and engineering people’s reactions and choices in suitably inscrutable fashion – but drives straight through the stop sign that would have greeted such bold a televised story at the time.
Love And War sees the Doctor and Ace arrive on Heaven, a seemingly idyllic planet – although they usually are, and true to form this is anything but with an ancient evil simmering beneath the surface among the planets endless tombs and buried secrets behind a mysterious silver arch. While the Doctor fusses around trying to find some old book, ‘Papers Of Felsecar’, Ace – still burdened by the recent funeral of her childhood friend Julian, falls in love with a charismatic traveller, Jan, and the threads binding her to the Doctor are pulled and pulled until they begin to catastrophically unravel.
The cringingly titled ‘Puterspace’ (oh, 1992 what are we going to do with you?) – used by the travellers on glorified dream quests – certainly hasn’t aged well, but the Virtual Reality set up is a good excuse for some painfully literal symbolism and for Ace to confront both her neglectful mother, and the death of Julian. Sophie Aldred, taking in fresh territory for the character, puts in a compelling performance, running from love to grief to rage and betrayal – the removal of some sub-plots placing even more emphasis on her, and her eventual rejection of the Doctor and his wheels within wheels.
Obviously anyone who read the book on its first print is in for a giddy thrill hearing the synth-heavy Eighties Who theme kick in and McCoy trill his Rrrrrs around Paul Cornell’s storyline, but those aforementioned continuity lawyers are going to lose regenerations trying to squeeze it into the disparate continuities of both Bernice Summerfield’s solo adventures and those of McCoy and Aldred’s own Big Finish stories.
If you can enjoy an emotionally fraught spin on classic Who without worryingly about the long term implications, you’re in for a treat with added history – this is where all the values we associate with ‘new Who’ were really born, after all.