Tuesday 10 November 2015

Positive Things: How to be a spin-off with Professor Bernice Surprise Summerfield

(Spoilers for Bernice Summerfield 5.1: The Grel Escape)

Funny thing about the Bernice Summerfield range: for a Doctor Who spin-off it is terrible at being part of the Doctor Who universe. There was this period about the third and fourth seasons of the Benny audios when Big Finish did a lot of stories with her meeting classic Doctor Who monsters: the Ice Warriors, the Rutans, Draconians, Sea Devils, the Daleks...

(As an aside, no attempt to “do it again, but better” has ever been more pleasing to me than giving Benny a second shot at the Daleks in The Lights Of Skaro after blowing it in Death And The Daleks.)

It put me off, I don't mind admitting. I basically dropped the range until the Epoch box set promised me (not entirely honestly) a fresh jumping on point.

Now, this isn't me saying Benny doesn't work in the context of Doctor Who. That's flat out absurd: a Doctor Who companion doesn't get eighteen years and counting of solo adventures if they didn't work in Doctor Who to start with. She even continues to work in Doctor Who with the novel adaptations and The New Adventures Of Bernice Summerfield box sets returning to her old role as companion.

But in her own range it never seemed to work. Certainly the sales exercise aspect of it was part of what put me off but, ultimately, I think that Benny is a strong enough character that cutting and pasting her into a Doctor Who plot will never be as fun as seeing her in a Bernice Summerfield plot. She's just too distinct an individual.

Which brings us to Jacqueline Rayner's The Grel Escape, Benny's fifth season opener, a story that has a very different approach to Benny's status as a Doctor Who spin-off.

The Grel Escape is, top to bottom, a parody of the Doctor Who story The Chase. It features the fact-obsessed Grel, Benny's first solo adventure villains from way back in Oh No It Isn't, who have invented a time machine and are trying to abduct her infant son Peter. They might not be her definitive enemies like the Daleks are to the Doctor but they are her first so that works.

Rayner also pilfers and twists several of The Chase's set pieces: the time travelling group (Benny, ex-husband Jason, Peter and Peter's Grel godmother) interrupt a football match, they end up on top of the Eiffel Tower and the ending is very familiar but in a way that just serves to highlight how different Benny and Jason's fractious relationship is to Ian and Barbara's.

Part of this just continues themes from the days of Benny's creation. The Grel Escape is both funnier and more serious than The Chase, which was one of Terry Nation's lazier scripts. Themes of motherhood, both in Benny and another character who'll go unnamed, crop up and are dealt with seriously. Benny, by her nature, is just a little bit smarter than Doctor Who. She always has been, in many ways that's what she was created to be: a new sort of companion (or, alternatively, a very old sort of companion updated) who could act as a protagonist in her own right and stand up to the Doctor.

So, yes, I picked up the fifth and sixth seasons cheap at a charity shop and I'm glad to see they got smarter after I gave them up (and that I didn't waste £20 here). It also proves something everybody should have learned about the time Frasier became a hit: spin-offs are better using the unique traits of what people are demanding being spun-off rather than just trying to give them a second series of the original show. It worked for Frasier, which is very different from Cheers and outlived the original show by years.

At this point I have to, sadly, admit that the solo Benny series is dead but at least now I have seven seasons worth catching up on. 

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