Doctor Who & Big Finish review: Bernice Summerfield: Oh No It Isn’t! is both bonkers and brilliant

One year before they obtained the license for Doctor Who, Big Finish Productions released their first-ever audio with Bernice Summerfield: Oh No It Isn’t! Does it stand the test of time?

With its long-overdue release on download, I was keen to listen to the Bernice Summerfield story Oh No It isn’t! as soon as possible. Not only is it the first audio story in Benny’s own series. (A story that, as of the time of writing, is currently available completely for free.) It’s also the first story that Big Finish ever released. As such, it’s something rather special. But, 22 years later, does it still hold up as a great listen?

One thing that I was particularly keen to hear was Lisa Bowerman’s first-ever performance as Professor Bernice Summerfield. I’ve been a huge fan of the character for years, and that’s honestly more based on her more recent audios and Bowerman’s consistently brilliant performance than anything else.

So I was curious to hear how she was in this story, back when she was playing the role for the first time. While I’m sure she must have been great, I also tried to take into account that there was probably a period of finding her feet with the character.

So I was amazed to discover that Bowerman’s performance in 1998 comes across exactly as confident as it is now, 22 years later. From the very beginning, she just “gets” the role of Benny and embraces the character fully. It’s not only amazing to hear but also highlights exactly why the character has remained so successful in the audio medium for so long.

Both Lisa Bowerman and Nicholas Courtney are brilliant to listen to as Bernice and Wolsey in this story.
Image Courtesy Big Finish Productions

The world of panto

As for the story itself, the best word that I can describe Oh No It Isn’t! as is “bonkers”. It’s brilliant, but definitely bonkers. It begins as a typical sci-fi story – Bernice and her students investigating a lost civilization before finding themselves attacked by the very literal-minded species known as the Grel.

But suddenly, without explanation, she finds herself in another world entirely. A world of princes and viziers; heroes and villains; innuendos and crude jokes. Her friends are there too, but they’re also looking extremely different – especially her cat Wolsey, who’s gotten much bigger and rather more chatty in this new world…

Nicholas Courtney (best known to Doctor Who fans as the Brigadier) is fantastic as Wolsey in this story. You can clearly hear him having such fun with the part, and he helps to make this big, sentient cat come alive. As a result, he’s a great match for Bowerman as Bernice.

Strong adaptation

It’s easy to see why Oh No It Isn’t! was one of the first novels featuring Bernice to be adapted to audio. Not only was it originally written by her creator Paul Cornell, who also gave us brilliant stories like Love & War and Human Nature.

But it’s also an extremely visual story, in the best possible sense. With something like pantomime and fairy tales, the tropes are so recognizable that it becomes easy to visualize most of them, making this an extremely easy story to follow.

On top of that, Jacqueline Rayner does an excellent job of adapting this story. With some adaptations, it’s easy to see if something’s missing or rushed, even if you’ve never read the original story. Oh No It Isn’t! thankfully doesn’t have that problem. To be honest, I doubt I’d have realized this was a novel if I hadn’t read about it. The story really does translate extremely well to the audio medium, and Rayner’s adaptation is a key reason for that.

Presenting a rich world that’s both mad and brilliant, Oh No It Isn’t! is a fantastic start to Benny’s life on audio. More than that, it’s an excellent first release from Big Finish. Even at this point, in 1998, the company was great at showing off what it could do: telling well-made full-cast stories in a convincing audio landscape. Based on the success of this first release, I’m already eager to listen to the rest of Benny’s first season.

Have you listened to or read Oh No It Isn’t? What are your thoughts on the story? Do you think it worked well as the first release for Big Finish? Let us know in the comments below.