Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Bone of Contention is the sixth Bernice Summerfield audio drama in a row to feature a “monster,” but like The Grel Escape before it, Bone of Contention switches things up by not featuring a monster that appeared in the classic Doctor Who television series. Rather, The Bone of Contention features one of the alien races Big Finish created itself: the Galyari, who previously appeared in The Sandman with the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn. Bone of Contention is even written by Simon A. Forward, who created the Galyari for The Sandman.

Bone of Conention sees Bernice hired by the Perlorans to visit the Clutch, a convoy of ships traversing interstellar space, on their behalf to recover a precious artefact from the Galyari. Of course, the Galyari claim to not have the artefact, and Bernice soon ends up sidetracked by Griko, the deformed son of Commander Korschal of the Security Directorate. In a move that surprises no-one that has ever experienced another Bernice Summerfield story, the plight of Griko turns out to be related to the artefact, and Bernice is quickly brought into conflict with the Galyari.

The best part of The Sandman was the setting of the Clutch, and that turns out to be true of Bone of Contention as well. The Clutch is a great idea — a group of spaceships continuously slowly rearranging themselves, inhabited mostly by the Galyari but by many other races as well. I’m not convinced that either story does as much with this idea as it could, but it’s still arresting, and the society it conjures up in one’s mind sounds fascinating. The Galyari themselves are a pretty solid creation as well, not “monsters” at all, but a culture with desires and drives that can be comprehended even as they might be alien. (The Galyari, but not the Clutch, would make one last appearance in the Seventh Doctor audio Dreamtime; I’m disappointed that Big Finish didn’t try to create more of a continuous setting here.)

Bone of Contention brings back Mordecan from The Sandman, a “Star Gypsy” who calls the Clutch home. Mordecan was one of the more delightful parts of The Sandman, and Robin Bowerman does a good job here, immediately slipping into his role as a long-suffering foil to Benny. I also enjoyed the joke at the expense of his Irish accent in the previous story. And yes, fact fans, Robin is the brother of Bernice actress Lisa Bowerman, and Bone of Contention is the first time the two have appeared in a production together. (He also previously appeared as the delightfully villainous Mr Harris in Big Finish’s first season of Sarah Jane Smith audio dramas.) As for Lisa Bowerman — well, she always does a good job, but I found that Bone of Contention gave her more interesting material to work with than many stories, which was strongly appreciated.

Rounding out the cast is Tracey Childs as Director Tseshra and Steffan Rhodri as Commander Korshal, both of whom do good jobs beneath their electronically-manipulated Galyari voices. I especially like Korshal, and I can see why Big Finish would bring him back for Dreamtime. (Another tidbit for you fact fans: Korshal was mentioned but did not actually appear in The Sandman, where he was killed off.) Also, this is one of the better Bernice audios at making its four-member cast make sense; I never felt like the small group of characters had been contrived.

And I don’t know who created the vocal effects for Griko, the Galyari who attaches himself to Bernice, but they were oddly touching. Indeed, I was pretty impressed by Simon Robinson’s sound work for this story all around. Which is good, as the aural environment really matters for an immersive sci-fi story like this one.

This story reminded me of Season Three’s The Dance of the Dead in that what starts out as a reasonably light-hearted space adventure soon becomes pretty emotionally harrowing for Bernice, and as in that story, the transition works well. Like most of the Bernice audio dramas, Bone of Contention is set away from the Collection and its cast of characters, but unlike most it still manages to use the characters and backstory to wring a little bit of extra emotion and resonance out of what happens to Bernice here. The plot is relative simple, but it manages to involve for its 70-or-so minutes.

By the time of The Poison Seas, I had been growing burnt out on the Bernice “monster” stories, but Season Five’s change of tack to include aliens from other Big Finish stories has revitalised the format somewhat — as has the fact that the Galyari are arguably a more interesting creation than the Rutans or the Sea Devils. Bone of Contention is another solid instalment in the ongoing adventures of Bernice Summerfield.

Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Bone of Contention (by Simon A. Forward; starring Lisa Bowerman) was released by Big Finish Productions in August 2004.