Bernice Summerfield
Old Friends

Authors: Jonathan Clements, Marc Platt and Pete Kempshall
Big Finish
RRP: 14.99
ISBN-13: 978 1 84435 242 5
ISBN-10: 1 84435 242 0
Available 04 December 2006

Late 2607: Bernice Summerfield is... well, she looks nearly 40, but it's difficult to tell with all the time travel. She's on her way to a funeral, and to meet up with people she's not seen since her 20s. She's run through all of time and space to avoid this reunion, but the best-selling author of
Down Among the Dead Men must finally uncover her own past...

Though presented as a collection of three novellas, in fact this volume reads more like a single novel. The first and last stories, Jonathan Clements's Cheating the Reaper and Pete Kempshall's The Soul's Prism, take place in the same location and point in time (between the events of the audio dramas Summer of Love and The Oracle of Delphi), with Marc Platt's flashback tale The Ship of Painted Shadows stuck somewhat arbitrarily in the middle. The two "bookends" cannot be read in isolation. Cheating the Reaper sets up situations that are not resolved until The Soul's Prism. As such, it doesn't reach a proper climax or conclusion of its own.

However, Clements does give us plenty of effective character moments. These range from the sorrowful to the humorous. Benny is not merely sad because she is grieving for a fallen comrade but experiences guilt because she doesn't feel that she got to know the deceased well enough and so, paradoxically, becomes angry with herself for being heartless. In common with The Soul's Prism, the first novella contains plenty of lighter moments revolving around Benny and Jason bickering and the latter flirting with members of the opposite sex.

Cheating the Reaper is well written, but it's definitely more of a scene-setter than a novella in its own right.

Late 2562: Bernice Summerfield is 22 and en route to the ruin of Earth, where she hopes to get back in touch with her roots. She's young, she's single, and she's just got an MA in archaeology. There's a life of adventure in front of her. And then she meets the half-human, half-lemur spaceliner waiter Ivo, whose life she'll completely knock sideways...

Have you noticed how Big Finish keep selecting authors from the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who to write about the younger Benny's adventures? Genius Loci was written by Ben Aaronovitch, while The Ship of Painted Shadows (a rather Babylon 5 title if I may say so) is penned by Marc Platt, a fellow writer of Seventh Doctor stories both on television and in prose. The next "young Benny" volume, the short-story anthology Missing Adventures, will be edited by Rebecca Levene, who used to edit the New Adventures novels. Perhaps the idea is to emphasise a pre-Love and War (the New Adventure in which Bernice made her debut) artistic flavour.

In common with Aaronovitch, Platt plays with the notion that much everyday knowledge from the 21st century has been lost by the 26th (as a result of the Dalek invasion of Earth in the 22nd century ). For instance, one St Indiana is revered by Benny as the patron saint of archaeologists, while an all-female choir sings amusingly incorrect lyrics to the "Hokey-Cokey".

The writer also expands upon the origins of the part-human, part-primate demi-lemurs introduced in Cheating the Reaper. Their ascent from a simpler Earth species to the status of sentient humanoids might seem to be inspired by the Forest of Cheem in the Who episode The End of the World, but in fact the notion fits very well into the world of Bernice Summerfield. Both this and the derelict status of Earth echo Jim Mortimore's Bernice New Adventure, The Sword of Forever, which featured a group of biologically enhanced talking pigs.

Evoking the style of Japanese Kabuki theatre, The Ship of Painted Shadows is a rather weird affair, but an undeniably imaginative one.

Benny's ex-husband/current beau Jason is keen to accompany her to the funeral. She never talks about that period of her life: what she did to keep out of the war, where she travelled, how she survived, or who it was that broke her heart. But Jason's flirtations with other women and several unpleasant blasts from the past do nothing to improve Benny's mood...

Pete Kempshall's The Soul's Prism (a very Babylon 5 title) picks up where Cheating the Reaper left off.

As I said earlier, this volume reads more like a single novel than as separate novellas. A more effective structure might, therefore, have been to intersperse the chapters of The Ship of Painted Shadows with those of Cheating the Reaper and the first few chapters of The Soul's Prism. Kempshall's narrative hints at the potential of this approach by including a post-Ship flashback in his own fourth chapter and a pre-Ship flashback during his sixth one.

Benny suffers a real guilt trip in this story, as she comes to realise just how much her past actions have had a tragic impact on the lives of Ivo and those around him, and how she has misjudged certain individuals.

Unlike Cheating the Reaper, this final novella benefits from having a proper ending. A very exciting ending it is too, albeit one that is clearly inspired by the Terminator movies. One of the more dramatic moments was slightly marred for me by the fact that I already know which characters survive to appear in The Oracle of Delphi, but otherwise Kempshall provides an effective conclusion to both his own story and the entire volume.

Richard McGinlay

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