The Doctor Who Ratings Guide: By Fans, For Fans

Oh No It Isn't! (Audio)
Virgin Books
Oh No It Isn't!
A Benny Adventure

Author Paul Cornell Cover taken from the excellent Doctor Who books page
ISBN# 0 426 20507 3
Published 1997
Cover Jon Sullivan

Synopsis: Bernice Summerfield is settling into her new position as Professor of Archaeology at St Oscar's University on the planet Dellah. However, her first assignment takes her on a remarkably odd field trip, consisting of pantomime horses, seven dwarves and a talking cat...


A Review by Robert Smith? 26/3/98

An odd book, this. A strange choice to launch a new line, but somehow it works. There are no references to the Doctor, but that doesn't matter, because Bernice is certainly strong enough to carry her own series. The jokes are glorious, the plot well constructed and the characterisation wonderful (especially Bernice and Wolsey, who at last gets character development). And the stinger at the end is just perfect.

It'll be interesting to see how the line develops, because whatever else this book is, it isn't a typical anything, but it's heaps of fun. The only thing I'm still confused about is whether Bernice actually has time travel or not. I don't see why not, since she still has her time ring, but it seems a bit odd that no mention of this is made. Nevertheless, highly recommended for anyone who's ever seen a panto (if not, I have no idea what reaction this is going to have!).

Start as You Mean to Go On (Sort Of) by Eddie Robson 25/5/98

No matter what general reception a Paul Cornell novel receives, I always love them. People didn't seem to know what to make of Oh No It Isn't! when it kicked off the Bernice Summerfield-led New Adventures, but I though it was a fine novel.

Certainly, it's different from his previous books. Timewyrm: Revelation and Human Nature made the whole of Doctor Who pass before my eyes. However, with this novel he's not doing his usual job of deconstructing and playing around with the television show's conventions but creating new ones. This was a problem for many readers, who felt it to be to bizarre to effectively introduce a new series.

One feels, though, that this could well be the point. Cornell introduces Bernice's new situation and surroundings by the end of the first chapter, and just gets on with the plot. From then on, we get an acid trip through panto-land, with panto-style humour and satire on the same. And whilst it is self-indulgent, it's still thoroughly entertaining so who cares?

For obvious reasons, Paul writes Benny very well, and as a big, big fan of Professor Summerfield's, this can only be a plus point for me. Her dilemma over whether to go for it with Michael Doran (of whom I'm very jealous) is both witty and touching. And, by the end of the novel, Paul has set up her character well for the books to follow, Doran having encouraged her to remain young. Plus, a cunning little device is introduced to give her an excuse for further adventures.

If I have any criticism of the novel, it would be that the plot moves a little slowly, since the reader realises what is going on immediately and it takes Bernice about a hundred pages to catch up. However, there was a need for plenty of space to explore the situation, and the final explanation is satisfying. Some readers have complained that it's never properly explained why Benny isn't fully affected by the panto scenario, but the whole event appears to have been deliberately engineered anyway -- presumably Bernice was left 'normal' on purpose so she could save everybody.

In a way, this is a good start to a series because it's unrepeatable; it establishes no conventions. Thus, the other authors have the space for their own take on the series, which is exactly what it needs. If it can avoid getting stale, then the Bernice line has a long way to go.

A Review by Sean Gaffney 30/9/99

Hmm. Been a year since this came out. Almost every single online Who reviewer has already submitted an opinion. Moreover, I've read them all. I love spoilers, and so I tend to read reviews of books I haven't read with abandon. Sullivan, Smith?, Vogel, Lee...all of them. This does leave a slight problem: can I write this review without stultifyingly saying what everyone has already said?

Nope. So I'm not even gonna try. Onward.

PLOT: Yes, there actually is one. And it's rather intriguing, actually. The panto has an explanation that, if not simple, at least does not cause you to screw up your face and go 'RIGHT.'

BERNICE: I really enjoyed Benny in this book. She was a tad OTT, but that didn't really show as much, as everyone around her was so much worse. The novel might not be an ideal intro to the Bernice series (see below), but it's an excellent intro to Bernice herself.

WOLSEY: Wow! Talk about a character come to life! Not only is Wolsey incredibly witty and suave, but you really feel for his plight, and the sacrifice he makes at the end is very poignant.

DORAN: The first of a string of not-really love interests for Bernice. We don't really get much of a sense of him, as he spends most of the book panto'd. However, he seems like a nice enough chap, and I don't really mind Bernice spending time with him until she and Jason reunite. ^_^

STOKES: As someone remarked in another review, when Menlove Stokes is the voice of reason, you know you're in trouble. He actually manages to come across, at times in this book, as a reluctant hero. I wish the Benny NAs would do more with him - he's wonderfully eccentric.

THE GREL: Fun villains, though very difficult to take seriously. Gotta love the good fact/bad fact bits.

OTHERS: The academicians were not all that deeply drawn - but I rooted for them, so that's a good thing. And I'd like to see more of the tutor group as well.

STYLE: Broad, of course - this is a comedy when it isn't being a total farce. But there's an undercurrent of danger to keep things from totally floating around.

GRIPE: One gripe, and it's going to be jumping on the bandwagon a bit - this shouldn't have been the first in the series. Yes, in retrospect, it establishes a lot of the basic Benny NA plot - expedition gone wrong on distant planet, Benny sorts it out - but the fact that the book is such a departure from the NA form, in terms of its broad farce, means that there will be people coming into the series who will say 'Hey, I don't want to read books like this!' This would have been absolutely perfect as third or fourth - Dragon's Wrath or Beyond the Sun might have been a better starter.

OVERALL: Despite that, and despite my taking a year to finish it (blame anime), this is a tremendously fun book to read. It has more puns than Dave Stone has double entendres, and a nice little serious core. If you don't like OTT, you might want to skip this one. But...


Oh Yes It Is Again by Peter Niemeyer

I am a big fan of the Benny audio CDs done by Big Finish. I have heard all of them except for The Secret of Cassandra. I enjoyed them enough to give the books a try, so I started with this, the first in the series.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. (Thank you, Paul.) Benny was very well written. Not only did she seem like a real person, but she was a person I enjoyed rooting for. She's a good person with some realistic depth (her archeology background, her attitudes about drinking) and some problems one can relate to (her feelings about Jason, her attraction to Doran). And, her agreement to assist the People on an as-needed basis opens up the kinds of situations that she could find herself in.

Big kudos also go to the supporting characters. The Grel are one of my favorite created-in-a-novel aliens. They have just the right balance of menace and entertainment. I also enjoyed Wolsey's roll in the novel. The struggle that his panto-self had with returning to his former life were original and poignant.

The B-story concerning the professors on the planet surface was reasonably entertaining. I didn't enjoy it as much as the Benny story, but I didn't dread it either. I did enjoy the character of Menlove Stokes.

Finally, I have to address the criticism leveled at this book as being so off-center as to be inappropriate as a first book. To quote Benny in her conversation with the Genie, "I thoroughly disagree." It most certainly established the set-up of Benny as archologist who is prone to the 'dig-gone-horribly-wrong' syndrome. It introduced her feelings for Jason and her future involvement with the People. And while the story may have been off center, Benny was perfectly on center. If anything, the only flaw is that this book was so well done, it has raised the bar rather high for the rest of the series.

I have to add one more positive comment: the book was very nicely adapted for audio. The audio excised some subplot material and a few primarily visual events that couldn't have been done well in audio, and it made a few changes to accomodate these omissions. But otherwise, the audio production is amazingly true to the book, both in terms of plot, characterization, and theme. In fact, the subject matter of the story lends itself so well the dramatization that I think I like the CD just a smidge more than the book.

Was This Book Worth the Money I Spent On It: Given how much I enjoyed it, this was a bargain!

A Review by Finn Clark 13/5/02

Oh No It Isn't!'s opening chapter is delightful. Dellah is a wonderful planet, rich and fascinating in a way we never see in Doctor Who. Normally a planet's political systems are barely sufficient for four 25-minute episodes of bad acting and feature two corridors and a throne room, which is understandable for TV but a little more perplexing when the same limited thinking crops up in books and audios. Here we've got a world with three power blocs, seven intelligent species, 500+ religions... some authors wouldn't give this much detail to a galaxy. I adored it.

Unfortunately we then leave Dellah, never to return until the epilogue (length: five pages). Huh? Admittedly Oh No It Isn't! was the setup book for the post-Doctor NAs, establishing all the initial worldbuilding that would keep the range going for a further 22 books and two-and-a-half years. However chapter two (set at an archeological dig on Perfecton) can't help but seem dull in comparison.

It doesn't help that we have too many characters for comfort. There's seven students, all individually characterised, and about as many squabbling academics. I thanked heaven that two of the latter were Menlove Stokes and Professor Arthur Candy, thus saving a few cells of my poor overstretched brain. Admittedly there's a plot reason for there being seven students, but I was still struggling to keep them all in my head. Things become easier when they turn into the seven dwarves (Lazy, Moody, Laddish, Gushy, Bitchy, Liberal and Cute) and their names become memory crutches in themselves.

The panto stuff and the world's counter-intuitive rules are reminiscent of Grimm Reality, though de-emphasised in favour of working out how this state of affairs came to be and how Benny can get back to reality. It makes sense, I eventually decided, but boy does this book go around the houses in its explanations. Thooo has a problem coming to the point, doesn't he? There's also complicated stuff with green vases, time travel, Benny at age eight, a ring I still haven't quite understood, a lost alien race and cyberspace that isn't. Whassat? Ungh.

But there's lots of good stuff here too. The Grel are fun and the panto aspect is intriguing. What's more, the book's genuinely funny, with some great gags (and lots more that aren't and thus fit perfectly with a book about pantomime). Anything that makes me laugh can't be all bad. What's more, Wolsey's simply terrific and the second-best thing in the book after Dellah. If someone had told me that the Doctor's cat could be the best character in a novel, I wouldn't have believed them.

This isn't one of Paul's meaty novels. It's deliberately silly, with lots of really bad jokes and dodgy innuendoes - and I don't think that's a bad thing to be. It's not flawless, but it's lighthearted, witty and entertaining. That's a good thing in Who-related fiction.

A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 26/7/02

I finished Oh No It Isn't! a few days ago, but I'm still not quite sure what to make of it. It's a fun romp that spends the first hundred pages being absolutely not a romp. It's a fantastical, farcical fantasy that tacks on a bizarrely scientific ending. It's concerned with establishing a foundation to the (then) new series of Benny Adventures while also attempting to maintain a standalone tale. In short, it's doing quite a lot of different things almost at once. I found it to be enjoyable, but the further into the story I delved, the more restless I became.

The only major problem I found with Oh No It Isn't! is that it drags, quite heavily in parts. It's trying to be light and frothy, but it never seemed to be quite as light as it wants to be. A secondary (and mostly serious) subplot keeps pulling the action out of fluffville and grounding the entire book so that it never goes quite as far as it could have. Frivolity is quite a difficult concept to successfully pull off, and I don't think that Paul Cornell totally succeeded. Certainly there are some remarkably fun pieces, and I was entertained throughout much of the book. But too much lightheartedness can become tedious, and I found the secondary plot to be mostly distracting. There are times when the story is neither one thing nor the other. Had Paul Magrs written this same story he probably would have left out most of the real world portions (including the shaky ending) and moved the plot along faster. And I probably would have enjoyed that version more than this one.

Now, I'm quite willing to concede the possibility that I had less than ideal reading conditions here. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to read the story in the larger chunks that it was probably best suited for. Breaking it down into smaller pieces and reading only short sections a day can only have hurt this overall experience. While initially I had been very enthusiastic about the story, pulling the book out for the third day of Benny still locked in panto-land with no clue as to how to escape began to require more and more effort on my part. The longer the panto scenes went on, the less desire I felt to pick up the book again. Nothing seemed to be happening other than pop culture references and word plays. Obviously, that's the nature of the medium here, but while an actual panto performance doesn't go on for a terribly long amount of time, the same thing in a book requires a greater investment of time from the audience. The jokes and the puns do manage to liven those sections, but there were many moments where it felt like an uphill battle.

Oh No It Isn't! can be quite a lot of fun, if you're in the mood for an odd sort of romp through panto-land. Many of the jokes are devastatingly funny, and there are numerous pop culture references to keep one amused, from the Marx Brothers to Pulp. As a light and frothy adventurous frolic, it mostly works. Had the plot moved a bit faster, I probably wouldn't have ended up being as bored by the middle section, but perhaps looking for a quick storyline in a panto is a fruitless task. On the other hand, it's quite possible that panto is just one of those genres that doesn't translate well to the novel format.

A Review by Jamie Beckwith 10/2/14

I became a fan of Doctor Who in 1988, so my timing pretty much sucked when it came to the TV show. Luckily for me though, the good Doctor's adventures continued in prose form and it was how I met one of my favorite companions: Bernice Summerfield. However, once Virgin books lost the licence to produce original Doctor Who fiction and the BBC took over in 1997, I simply couldn't afford to keep up with both the Eighth Doctor and with Bernice's solo range of New Adventures. As it turned out, in the end, I didn't much like the Eighth Doctor's novels and gave up on them pretty quickly but by then Bernice's adventures were already out of print and impossible to find.

Bernice Summerfield turned 20 last year (well, the character has now been around for 20 years, she obviously wasn't travelling with the Doctor as an embryo!) and so thanks to eBay I've managed to get hold of a few of her novels. I started off with Down by Lawrence Miles and Beige Planet Mars by Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham. Having enjoyed those two, it made sense to try from the beginning. Of course, most people would have started there but everything I've heard about Oh No It Isn't! is that it's either 1) not terribly good or 2) it's fine but not the story to launch a new range with.

For those who don't know, aside from setting up the premise of the new New Adventures range, which is that Bernice Summerfield takes up a position as professor of archaeology at the University of St Oscar on the planet Dellah, this story deals with Benny's travels to the planet Perfecton where she becomes caught up in a surreal world where everything is based on the world of pantomime.

Pantomime is an English theatrical art form, which most likely derives its roots from the Italian commedia dell'arte and we're often told is baffling to anyone who isn't from the British Isles. A recent issue of DWM did a very interesting piece on pantomime and its relation with Doctor Who (though ironically did not mention this book once), which I recommend as a good read. I've actually only ever been to a pantomime once in my life, on a school trip, as it wasn't really something my family did. My familiarity therefore with pantomime's devices stems more from studying commedia dell'arte for my Performing Arts A-Level in college. Explaining pantomime would take too long here, but it essentially involves clear-cut stories, where morality is in very black-and-white terms and a plucky hero (usually a boy played by a woman) overcomes obstacles to defeat a villain whom the audience is actively encouraged to boo. Help is often rendered by an old woman (played by a man) and/or a talking animal. Another staple of pantomime is the risque joke or innuendo; finely pitched so that the adults in the audience will laugh at the smut but the children (the core audience) will take what has been said at face value. A good example is the pullquote joke on the back cover of Oh No It Isn't! where, upon arriving at a masque in the castle, Wosley (Benny's cat who in this pantomime world has acquired the ability to speak and sword fight) declares "The King's Balls get bigger every year!"

Given the very unique ethos of pantomime, which even one well immersed in its conceits might be hard pressed to explain quite why the older woman is always played by a man (and in such a manner that it is obviously a man), it is interesting that Paul Cornell chose to open the New Adventures series with this story. The story assumes familiarity with pantomime and it's not until we're a good two thirds of the way in that Bernice realises what is going on and offers an explanation and I wonder how many readers had actually made it that far. This is not to say this is a bad story, far from it, but, as an introduction to a brand-new series, it is an extremely baffling way of beginning things by forcing Bernice and her compatriots (some of whom I assume will go on the be regular guest characters) to act completely out of normal character. This is a remarkable leap of faith in the investment the audience might have with Bernice Summerfield. In that sense, one cannot quibble as nearly 17 years later she is still going strong with her own series, but at the time it must've been one heck of a gamble.

The best thing about this novel is the introduction of the alien Grel who are data pirates. They greedily acquire knowledge more for the sake of the acquisition rather than to further their own knowledge (the antithesis of our resident archaeologist turned reluctant university professor), despite the outward pretence in their fun catchphrase "New Fact! Good Fact!" I'm led to believe the Grel come back to menace Bernice in further adventures and I look forward to reading more from them.

Overall, this is a hard book to recommend because it does rely on a good working knowledge of pantomime and requires you to already have enough of a vested interest in Bernice Summerfield to want to read an adventure in which she is not really herself. The numerous camp innuendos that would be okay when experienced on stage also become somewhat laborious in prose. As most of the Virgin New Adventures are out of print, her subsequent adventures produced by Big Finish (both prose and audio) are slightly easier to get hold of so, if you're interested in giving the good professor a try for the first time, maybe start with the short story collection The Dead Men Diaries. (It includes a story written by one Steven Moffat, who I hear went on to bigger things in the Whoniverse.)