The fourth Bernice Summerfield box set has the pretty generic title of New Frontiers, but it might better have been called Advent, as the three stories take place during Legion’s winter holiday season, with the last story taking place on the holiday itself, Legion’s shortest day, and the first day of its new year. Given that, I was glad that I coincidentally listened to it during December and January, rather than its original release month of April!
Like Legion, Advent contains three adventures of Benny during her time on Legion, working for Irving Braxiatel. The first two stories each concern off-world adventures, the first with Benny, Ruth, and Jack, the second Benny, Peter, and Jack. These are the set’s two strongest stories, reminding me of those in Road Trip. Neither will go down in the Bernice Summerfield greats, but they’re entertaining adventures.
In A Handful of Dust by Xanna Eve Chown, Benny and company are hand-delivering documents for an eccentric space tycoon when they’re summoned by a distress call specifically asking for an archaeologist. What they find is a planet full of dust, two complete naïfs, a crystal cave, and the host of a ghost-hunting television programme. Like in her novel The Slender-Fingered Cats of Bubastis, Chown manages to jam together a number of disparate elements in an entertaining way, and she also captures the voices of the characters very well, especially Jack, who is the least-defined member of the trio. The actual story is a little flat, in that it seems like Benny and company just kind of stand around at the climax instead of contributing, but the journey to get there is entertaining.
HMS Surprise has Peter asking for his mother’s help on an investigation (repaying a favour he did her in the novel Filthy Lucre). The end up at a haunted shipyard, where the only ship is from World War II and the only living person has chained himself inside a lighthouse. It’s from the pen of Alexander Vlahos, better known as Big Finish’s Dorian Gray, and it’s spooky enough, though it depends a little too much on the characters doing unwise things because they’re under a mysterious influence. Geoffrey Breton is good as Lucas Catch, the shipyard’s fire warden. On the other hand, this story just confirms that Thomas Grant just does not have the range to convince as the intimidating tough guy Peter is now supposed to be. The end of the story underwhelms, though, because when the cause of it all is revealed, it’s a bit too space-technobabbly to be satisfying.
The last story is set on Legion, mostly in the new base Braxiatel acquired in Legion; Benny and Braxiatel are hosting an Advent celebration with Ruth, Jack, Peter, and Peter’s perhaps not actually extant boyfriend Antonio. Gary Russell’s story The Curse of Fenman wraps up a number of questions from the past three sets of Bernice Summerfield stories — but does so in a completely unsatisfying way. Why would Peter trust Braxiatel after the events of The End of the World? Why didn’t Peter end up with Adrian after Escaping the Future? But it’s weird that Benny never asked any of these questions. Both the actual answers and the way they are communicated are very unsatisfying. There are flashbacks that explain bits of Epoch… but they are inconsistent with Year Zero and Dead Man’s Switch, not to mention Epoch itself! The perpetrator of many of the recent tragedies in the lives of Benny and her friends turns out to be Avril Fenman, the villain of The Squire’s Crystal, a novel from 12 years prior, which I barely remember. Why bring her back? Who knows. Also this story explains away Braxiatel’s “evil” persona from The Mirror Effect onward in a way that I found undramatic and unsatisfying.
What’s even worse, though, is the way the story unfolds. Basically Fenman turns up, tells everyone her evil plan in a 50-minute series of expository flashbacks, and then it turns out that Braxiatel has already arranged her defeat. This is complete unsatisfying as an instalment in the Bernice Summerfield story because Benny has barely anything to do with it; she does not contribute to the defeat of the woman who’s manipulated her life for (apparently) a decade. When Braxiatel first popped up in Epoch, I was sceptical of using him again so soon after he had dominated years of Benny storytelling already; New Frontiers confirms, as far as I’m concerned, that the range really needed to rest the character. Let Benny do her own thing and see who she is without this arch, all-knowing Time Lord constantly adjusting her life, for good or for ill.
Advent, the end of The Curse of Fenman tells us, is a time for new beginnings… and that’s exactly what this series needs, which despite the “fresh start” promise of Epoch, is still too bound up in aspects of Benny’s past to be satisfying.
New Frontiers (by Xanna Eve Chown, Alexander Vlahos, Gary Russell; starring Lisa Bowerman) was released by Big Finish Productions in April 2013.