Professor Bernice Summerfield is kickass

(This post originally appeared at Geekachicas.com. It has been updated. I should also mention that my thinking on female Doctors has evolved somewhat since I originally wrote this: while I still think that more attention could be paid to the female-led spinoffs, I’m beginning to agree with Courtney that even many wonderful supporting characters do not equal a lead character.)

She’s a little bit River Song, a little bit Lara Croft, but predates either.  She’s worshiped on some planets as a minor goddess of inebriation.  She’s interstellar archaeologist Bernice Summerfield, one of the Whoniverse’s most successful spinoffs, whose audio adventures with Big Finish are on season 13.

Check her out on YouTube in her first animated adventure, a prequel for season 11, with this link: Bernice Summerfield: Dead And Buried

Several months back, I wrote a piece on femme Doctors.  It subsequently got linked to from a couple of places (including here, in French!); where, oddly enough, one throwaway detail got picked up on: that I, personally, don’t particularly want to see a female Doctor.  People seemed to think that that implied I didn’t see women seeing themselves in the lead roles; in fact, I’d stated that it was because I thought the Whoniverse has plenty of kickass female characters already.*

Front and center of these is Professor Bernice Summerfield, interstellar archaeologist and action heroine.  Why Benny Is Awesome is a long and complex topic, and better writers than me have had a go.  But let’s say that any random Doctor Who companion discovered that the Doctor had lied to them, by omission or not, and/or tinkered with their destinies.

  • Probable Rose reaction: None, too busy making googly eyes at Doctor.
  • Probable Martha reaction: Expression on face indicates that she’s hurt and disappointed.
  • Actual Benny reaction: “Git! Git! Git!

 

For everyone who’s complained that the Doctor’s companions are wide-eyed teenyboppers with supermodel bodies, Benny is the tonic.  She’s over 30, ex-military, smart and focused, with a career and a backstory and (you may wish to sit down for this) regular-sized boobs.  And that was just when she was introduced, in 1992, by feminist Who writer and all ’round mensch Paul Cornell.  Since then, she’s acquired an ex-husband, a half-human son (long story), an implacable nemesis or two, a best-selling book or three, and has died at least twice.  Think Martha kicked ass in “Human Nature / The Family of Blood“?  She did–but the original companion for that story (in the Virgin New Adventures novel “Human Nature”) was Benny.

 

Find out more about Benny at the TARDIS Wiki, or check out the Big Finish page.  You can start from the beginning with the audios; or, if you’re into books, I suggest you start with The Dead Men Diaries, a collection of short stories that picks up Benny’s life as she starts work at the Braxiatel Collection.

Or, if you can wait a few months, there will be the perfect intro to the Benny stories: Bernice’s first story, Love And War, adapted by Jacqueline Rayner (who REALLY needs to write for the TV show, am I right, Big Finish fans?) from Paul Cornell’s novel, is coming to audio this fall.

 

* In fact, of the many spinoffs, no fewer than seven nine have or have had female leads (The Sarah Jane Adventures, K9 & Company, the Sarah Jane Smith audios, Virgin New Adventures, Bernice Summerfield, Gallifrey, Graceless, Counter-Measures) and one has three have two female co-leads (Gallifrey, Graceless, Counter-Measures). (Thanks to Kieran for reminding me of Graceless and Counter-Measures!)

4 comments

  1. Kmasca says:

    Interesting, I’d not seen the animation before. She crops up in a few of the early 90s comics as well.

    I find arguments for casting a woman as the Doctor persuasive when they focus on the potential for regeneration to queer gender, or on the dramatic interest of changing the dynamic. But like you I don’t feel there is a existing shortage of interesting female characters. I do feel slightly wistful when people who want to see a woman as the Doctor aren’t also championing existing female led spin offs.

  2. Great post, thanks for that. You’re so right about Jacqueline Rayner, I love her adaptations of novels which formed the first season of Benny, and much of her other work. I’ve been slowly listening through the Bernice Summerfield series and am about halfway through 7 – there’s so much, but I love it to bit, and there is so much interesting material in it – Benny is unapologetic for her faults, confident, witty, a writer and a working Mum who regularly has to juggle her domestic responsibilities and her beloved career.

    She’s the opposite to the Doctor in many ways as a lead character, but that’s part of what makes her so great, and you never feel she’s a substitute – she’s telling her own stories in the same universe.

    Big Finish do some amazing feminist-friendly work considering what a large percentage of their writers, producers & directors are all male. Even the Classic companions are given far more to work with in the scripts than ever before.

    Gallifrey is wonderful too, not only because the co-leads are Romana and Leela, but because every man in the story serves THEIR plot and not the other way around. Political drama with a focus on the women at the top! How often do we see that?

    Hanging out now for the Charley Pollard spin off we have been promised for ages, but was put on hold thanks to Tom Baker signing on to do new original work with them – so sigh, no more Charley for now, but we do get new crunchy stories with 70′s style Leela and Romana I. I’ll settle for that, for now.

  3. Kieran Cowan says:

    As someone who followed the New Adventures from the start, it’s always been really heartening to see just how enduring Benny is, demonstrably the same character 20 years later. I suspect nobody is more amazed by this than Paul Cornell. Big Finish wouldn’t be Big Finish without her, too. She doesn’t have to be your favorite of their output for her to be impressive as a success story. There is a dimension to her that even the new series companions have always sadly lacked.

    (Oh, and on the spin-offs with female leads, you either missed Graceless, or meant it to be one of the Gallifreys in your list, I think.)

    • Nightsky says:

      Exactly! What always amazes me about Benny is how much she’s her own woman, no matter who’s writing her.

      Actually, I’d forgotten about “Graceless” (*shame*). And, now that I think about it, the new series “Counter-Measures” also has a female co-lead. I’ll update the list.

      Thanks!

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