Monday, 16 February 2015

DW Companions as PCs: Bernice Summerfield

The series is cancelled at the end of the twenty sixth season. Some time after, a new player joins the group. Deciding that everyone is getting a bit too old to still be playing teenage girls, she decides...

Sorry, what? You were expecting Grace Holloway, or Rose, or somebody? You're wondering who the heck I'm on about? Ah, right. Well, in that case, I suppose I'd better explain. (And if you weren't wondering anything of the sort - and many of you probably weren't - you can skip the next four paragraphs).

The classic series of Doctor Who was cancelled in December, 1989. For the first time in over a quarter of a century, there were no new DW stories coming out, and no prospect of any more soon, if ever. On television, at least. Because, of course, this left the door open to what I've been referring to in these posts as the "spin-off media", as the only venue for new material. Well, there's Dimensions in Time, too, if you're not trying to block that from your memory, but why wouldn't you?

Ignoring that, then, when it comes to licensed spin-off media, or "tie-in media", or whatever the heck we want to call it, there are basically three forms. Regardless of their importance otherwise, neither the comics nor the small number of audio plays made during this era introduced any new companions. Which leaves us, of course, with the novels.

There's a lot that could be said about the history of DW novels, but all that matters for this post is that 1991 saw the beginning of a series of original stories titled the New Adventures. The thing about these books is that they continued right where the final broadcast story, Survival, had finished off. They were, in short, a clear attempt to just keep going with the show's internal continuity. While the modern series generally ignores them, they were, at the time, the closest you could get to new stories for "the" series. (Indeed, the Tenth Doctor TV story Human Nature/The Family of Blood is an adaptation of a 1995 novel).

Anyway, being a continuation, the novels originally featured the Seventh Doctor and Ace. However, the publishers had realised that, with the decline in viewing figures over the last few seasons, most of the people invested enough in the show to want to read books based on it (and, just as importantly, the only ones with the money to buy them) were likely to be people who'd grown up with the show in the 1970s, if not earlier. So Virgin decided to aim straight at the adult reader. Rather as would later happen with Torchwood, it took a few goes to get it right, but what matters here is that, when they decided they needed a new companion to join, and eventually replace, Ace, it made sense for her to be a bit older, closer to the twenty- and thirtysomethings who were their target audience.

The result: Professor Bernice Summerfield, more commonly known simply as "Benny". Bernice is an archaeologist from the future, and, as such it's fairly easy to see why fans of the books tend to describe her as "River Song done right". Nonetheless, the two characters are quite different.

Benny was born in the year 2540 on the colony world of Beta Caprisis, the daughter of a Spacefleet admiral. Both of her parents apparently died in the Dalek Wars when she was young, and she presumably became a foster child thereafter. (The actual fate of her father is revealed in the 1996 novel Return of the Living Dad, the title of which may give you a clue). She spent some time in a military academy, and was herself conscripted into Spacefleet, before deserting almost immediately, faking her qualifications, and becoming an archaeologist. By the time she meets the Doctor, in the 1992 novel Love and War, she has just turned thirty, and has gained a number of genuine qualifications to add to the fake ones.

Given all of this, it's evident that Benny has what DWAITAS would describe as the Experienced advantage; she has already had a number of adventures before she starts travelling in the TARDIS. Her time in the military means that she has at least some combat skills, although she doesn't use them all that often. She's physically fit, and clearly intelligent, so her basic stats are likely quite good - although her STR is probably only average, and her high INT is more to do with quick-thinking than academic aptitude.

She can drive a range of vehicles, including spacecraft, and likely has reasonable science skills. Her main skill is History, with a particular focus on late twentieth century Earth, although she is also an expert on the history and culture of the Ice Warriors. A range of other knowledge skills, as well as some for Survival, are also quite likely.

According to a brief article by her creator, her preferred equipment list consists of tools for her trade, two bottles of whisky, a good book, a packet of condoms (rarely needed for their intended purpose), and a nice frock (as opposed to, say, a gun). As this list demonstrates, she is much more down-to-earth than River Song, and certainly doesn't act like some kind of daring criminal/superspy. If your game system has Alcohol Tolerance as an available advantage, she's got it, and she gets by as much on CHA as any of her other stats. Her earthy nature is also reflected in the fact that she swears quite a bit, although mostly in 26th century slang, Battlestar Galactica style.

Part of her charm is her mildly sarcastic commentary on the stories that she finds herself in. This is, to be honest, the sort of thing that one should probably play quite carefully in a game, lest it be mistaken for criticism of the GM. Having said that, a sardonic view of the universe, and an attitude that can border on the flippant are very much a part of the character concept, but without the almost overweening confidence that tends to typify River a lot of the time.

There is also the question of what she looks like. It's no secret that her original creator thought of her as looking like Emma Thompson, and the covers of the books tend to reflect that. However, when some of her stories were adapted into audio plays in 1998, the producers needed an actual actor, and Thompson was never likely to be available. Initially using images similar to those on the books, fairly soon they started using pictures of the voice actress, Lisa Bowerman, in publicity images and the like... which explains how I have managed to attach a photograph of a character who doesn't appear on television to this post. Obviously, in a game, one can pick either look, depending on preference.

Benny eventually leaves the Doctor to get married in the 1996 novel Happy Endings. The marriage doesn't last, and Benny continues having adventures, in some of which she meets the Doctor again. Her last canonical DW story is arguably the 1997 novel The Dying Days, in which the Doctor describes her as his "longest serving companion" - she had appeared in 45 novels by this point. After this, she returns to live in the late 26th century. Her escapades there are described in her own series of novels, and later a series of audio plays that continues to this day. She's clearly a habitual adventurer.

In the 1995 novel Original Sin, however, the Doctor picks up two new companions. These are Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej, members of the Guild of Adjudicators, which is essentially the police force of 30th century Earth. Although their personalities are fleshed out rather more later, their basic concept is the traditional one of world-weary veteran partnered with enthusiastic young gun. Roz therefore likely has the Experienced advantage, and Chris doesn't, but both have a fairly decent set of combat, technical, and investigative skills.

Roz dies in the 1997 novel So Vile a Sin, but Chris continues on with the Doctor for a few more stories before eventually leaving in the chronologically penultimate New Adventure Lungbarrow, when he obtains a ring that allows him to travel through time on his own. The book ends immediately prior to first scene of the TV movie...

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