You may have heard of the space archaeologist River Song – but what about Bernice Summerfield, occasional companion to the Seventh Doctor? Who is she, and how does she fit into the Whoniverse?
Bernice Summerfield is certainly better known to Doctor Who fans of the early 90s. When the programme left our screens in 1989, the Seventh Doctor’s adventures were picked up by Virgin Publishing, who introduced a new range of characters to the ever-growing Doctor Who roster. And one of these was the 26th century archaeologist Bernice (or Benny) Summerfield, who was first introduced in Paul Cornell’s novel ‘Love and War.’
An avid diary-keeper (like another archaeologist you might have heard of) Benny was analytical and observant. She loved the thrill of discovery that came with her job, but sometimes felt bogged-down by the day-to-day grind of fieldwork. She could be scatty and disorganised, whilst incredibly sharp; her bedroom, for example, existed in a state of perpetual untidiness, and she wasn’t known for her time-keeping skills. At the same time, Benny wad bold and courageous, undeterred by her troubled past; when we first meet her, her mother is dead, and her father disappeared when she was seven.
And in many ways, Bernice Summerfield broke the mould of the Doctor Who companion, and she was at the forefront of the darker, more adult direction that Virgin was taking its Doctor Who stories. Arguably, Benny was the first companion to have any kind of relationship with “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll,” and was certainly known to wake up with a hangover from time to time – a problem that few of the classic series companions encountered (that we know of, any way!)
Indeed, many of these mould-breaking characteristics helped to cement Bernice Summerfield’s popularity among readers of the Virgin novels, and she continued to be a staple character throughout the books’ six year run. She did, however, disappear for a brief time after getting married in Paul Cornell’s ‘Happy Endings.’ This was something of a celebratory book to mark the range’s fiftieth publication, and saw Benny tie the knot with Jason Kane – a colleague from the Braxiatel Collection, and occasional sex worker with whom she had a somewhat fractious relationship.
After this, Bernice Summerfield’s appearances in the Virgin range became more sporadic, and indeed the range (at least in this format) didn’t continue for much longer after ‘Happy Endings.’ Benny did, however, turn up for the final book in the series – ‘The Dying Days’ by Lance Parkin – where she teamed up with the Eighth Doctor to battle the deadly Ice Warriors. And surprisingly for a Doctor Who book, Parkin’s novel finished with Bernice kissing the Doctor and pushing him onto the bed(!) implying that the pair engaged in a sexual encounter. But is it canon?
Well, maybe not – because ‘The Dying Days’ was the first of the Virgin novels not to feature the Doctor Who branding. This was because Virgin was about to lose the license to produce Doctor Who books, and the publisher decided to get ahead of the curve and remove the logo early, replacing it with a simple ‘New Adventures’ banner. Going forward, Virgin planned to continue the story range with Bernice Summerfield as the main character – making her the first companion in Doctor Who history to receive her own spin-off series (unless you count 1981’s K9 and Company starring John Leeson and Elisabeth Sladen.)
And this plan worked – for a time. Bernice Summerfield was an immensely popular character after all, and her adventures continued for another 23 books, which were published over the course of two years. The final novel in Virgin’s series arrived in 1999 and was titled ‘Twilight of the Gods,’ which – as the title implied – saw Bernice Summerfield take on a race of god-like aliens who planned to conquer the universe. “I’ve died before,” said Benny, in the book’s ominous blurb. “It never did me any harm then…”
And even though the Virgin range was destined for destruction, Bernice Summerfield’s adventures were far from being all over. In 1998, Big Finish started producing its own Bernice Summerfield series, beginning with radio adaptations of some of the Virgin novels in 1998.
Starring Lisa Bowerman (who some Doctor Who fans may know as Karra from the TV story ‘Survival’) the audios have – remarkably – been released fairly consistently over the last 20 years. Between 2000 and 2010, Benny starred in dozens of adventures spanning some 11 seasons, with Big Finish switching to a box set format in 2011. Here, individual stories were linked with an overarching title, such as ‘Epoch‘ or ‘Road Trip.’
And in 2014, the Bernice Summerfield range came full circle when Big Finish were given permission to, once again, include the Doctor in the archaeologist’s adventures. This meant that Bernice would be reunited with the Seventh Doctor and Ace in a series simply called ‘The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield,’ and the stories continue to this day; the latest anthology was called ‘Lost in Translation’ and was released in 2020.
But what is Bernice Summerfield up to these days? Well (spoiler alert) her marriage to Jason Kane wasn’t exactly plane-sailing. When the BBC withdrew their license in the late 90s, Virgin made the decision to break the pair up. Kane did, however, continue to appear in The New Adventures books, and he remarried in the 1997 novel ‘Deadfall’ before ending up trapped in an alternate dimension that some likened to Hell (as you do.) And as to whether he and Benny ever had children – well, we’re going to need a bigger Wikipedia article. The answer is yes and no, possibly. That okay?
And if you’re looking for a crash-course in all-things Bernice Summerfield, Big Finish has you covered. In 2018 – to celebrate 20 years since Benny’s first appearance – they released a special pair of box sets titled ‘The Story so Far,’ which included some of the key stories from the archaeologist’s travels. And as some of these are adaptations of the Virgin novels, you won’t have to search eBay for any pricey second-hand volumes.
What’s your favourite Bernice Summerfield adventure? And, for those people who are new to the range, where would you recommend they start? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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