I wrap up my recent catching up on Bernice Summerfield by jumping ahead — or backwards, depending on how you look at it. Treasury is a special audiobook for Benny’s twentieth anniversary at Big Finish (the character made her audio debut in 1998’s Oh No It Isn’t!), made up of readings of eight stories from the many prose anthologies Big Finish have released over the years. The unifying theme mostly seems to be stories by people who are famous for their association with Doctor Who on television; hence there are stories by Ben Aaronovitch (Remembrance of the Daleks, Battlefield), Paul Cornell (Father’s Day, Human Nature), Steven Moffat (The Empty Child, Blink, and many more), Andrew Cartmel (script editor, 1987-89), and Terrance Dicks (The War Games, Robot, and many more). The only exception to this is Kate Orman, who was one of the most influential contributors to the Virgin New Adventures novels that gave birth to Bernice. Most of the stories are read by Benny herself, Lisa Boweman.
It might not surprise you that Moffat’s The Least Important Man is one of the best stories in the set, but it actually did surprise me. My memory of reading the story in Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Dead Man Diaries was that it wasn’t up to much, that it was Moffat on autopilot: geeky awkward man trying to get sex, complicated temporal shenanigans. But on listening to it read by Lisa Bowerman, I was struck by how thunderingly good it was. Funny in all the right places (the bit where the protagonist asks a girl what music she listens to is perfect), but also a bit tragic, and when the main character makes his resolution at the story’s end, genuinely moving. Obviously this is all there in Moffat’s writing, but Bowerman’s expert reading brings it all out, too. Even though the story’s mostly written in the first-person perspective of a young man from Nottingham, Bowerman does a great job reading it, and you quickly forget that you’re not hearing the words of the man himself.
If you’ve read my reviews for a while, it also might not surprise you that Andrew Cartmel’s Bernice Summerfield and the Library of Books is one of the set’s worst. Though I loved his period as script editor on Doctor Who, most of his contributions to Big Finish have ranged from poor to dreadful. The Library of Books is no exception, a tedious, generic story of an expedition Benny went on to Italy early in her career. The story opens poorly: everyone on the expedition is unpleasant and unlikeable, including Benny herself, who spends all her time thinking about how much she dislikes everyone else. The beginning of the story covers a lot of what turns out to be irrelevant in tedious detail, while the second half covers the meat of the story with the skimpy detail of a synopsis. The prose is clunky (at one point the redundant phrase “beautiful illustrations of yearning carnal beauty” is used), the conceit is banal, and even the title is awful. The story is only weakened by its performer; this is the only story not read by Bowerman, but by Cartmel himself, who is passable at best. It’s an inexplicably poor inclusion, and alas, it’s also the longest story in the set, clocking in at a full 54 minutes.
Most of the rest of the stories here are solid highlights, ranging across Benny’s life. The Evacuation of Bernice Summerfield Considered as a Short Film by Terry Gilliam tackles Benny as a young girl, in the days after she was orphaned in the Dalek War, and though when I read the anthology it originates in (Missing Adventures) I called it “inexplicable,” I really enjoyed it here, partially because I knew what was coming, partially because one of the benefits of a good audiobook is it calls your attention to every word — and Aaronovitch knows how to craft his words. I still don’t exactly know what “really” happened, but I understand the emotional truth of the young Benny. Aaronovitch is the only contributor with two stories; his other contribution, Walking Backwards for Christmas, is framed during the Braxiatel Collection era (specifically, Something Changed), but mostly a flashback to young Benny as well, primarily to her time as a cadet at a military academy, which he mines for some good tragedy.
Robert Shearman’s And Then Again takes us into Benny’s travels with the Doctor, though in a sort of off-kilter way that’s probably half copyright-dodging, half Shearman’s usual inclination to do something different. I don’t have much of a memory of this one (from A Life of Surprises), but Bowerman’s reading brings to life a dark exploration of some of Shearman’s favourite themes of being trapped in an ordinary life.
Most of the stories come from the Collection era, including Misplaced Spring by Paul Cornell, which is a story I really like, and I loved hearing Bowerman read these tender emotional moments aloud, but one wonders how much you’ll get out of it if you haven’t read A Life Worth Living or Life During Wartime. The weakest non-Cartmel contribution is probably Kate Orman’s Solar Max and the Seven-Handed Snake-Mother. Orman gets the character of Benny better than most, but it’s a pretty humdrum adventure; I’d’ve gone for her story of young Benny, Steal from the World from The Dead Men Diaries, in its stead, personally. A Mutual Friend by Terrance Dicks is very slight, but a great coda to the set.
Actually, it’s worth pointing out that the sequencing here is really good. I suspect the 80-minute runtime limit of a CD is what primarily forced it (the set follows neither publication nor chronological order), but I enjoyed it; it begins with child Benny in Evacuation, but from there, it moves back and forth in her life, contrasting different takes on her character. Like a good album, just the experience of listening to it in order is enjoyable. (That said, since I worked it out for myself, I’ve included the internal chronological order below.)
For me, one of the best aspects of Bernice Summerfield at Big Finish has long been the short stories, which have added depth and complexity to both Benny and her friends. Treasury highlights that strength, while making it even stronger through Bowerman’s readings. This set is well worth picking up for any fan of the character, whether they’ve already read the included stories or not.
Treasury (by Ben Aaronovitch, Robert Shearman, Paul Cornell, Kate Orman, Steven Moffat, Andrew Cartmel, Terrance Dicks; read by Lisa Bowerman, Andrew Cartmel) was released by Big Finish Productions in August 2018.