Review by Jacob Licklider
Celebrating Christmas, and any other winter holiday, in 2020 is going to be one of those weirder experiences to avoid the further spread of an already taxing pandemic. So leave it to Big Finish Productions to come along and bring Lisa Bowerman in to record a Bernice Summerfield anthology celebrating the season with the ‘First Lady’ of Big Finish. New listeners should know going in that this is an anthology showcasing Benny throughout her life (after her travels with the Seventh Doctor), and is written without heavily relying on the continuity of the adventures and can be enjoyed separately. This is something that I am grateful for, especially as until very recently the single releases of the Bernice Summerfield range have only been available on CD (and Series 7-11 still are as of writing this review). It means that you can just listen to this rather affordable audiobook and enjoy 10 very different stories of the season from 10 very different authors.
The first author featured is Doctor Who and Bernice Summerfield novel veteran Mark Clapham, who begins the section of the anthology taking place during the Benny novels published by Virgin Publishing. This opening story puts Benny on an archeological dig framed as a scary ghost story being told at Christmas to some of her students a la A Christmas Carol. It’s a story that really doesn’t sell this anthology well, mainly because it is formatted like an audio drama rather than prose, but still has a single narrator. Bowerman is great as she is in the rest of the anthology, but because of this format (and a very abrupt ending) it’s just not that great of a starter. 4/10.
‘Null Zeit’ by Scott Harrison fares better by presenting itself as a nice little Christmas mystery where Benny is attempting to find a missing friend during Christmas on a planet that is at war. This is a story which has Benny playing detective; and honestly it’s just a really fun little mystery with a darker tone to really make this feel like something different for the holidays. 7/10.
This part of the anthology is then wrapped up by Matthew Griffith’s ‘Glory to the Reborn King’ which is our first short story that is an out and out comedy, toying with the idea of all of the Christmas traditions we know and love having been warped throughout history. It’s one that was kind of featured in Voyage of the Damned, but here it is played completely straight, with the humour coming from the fact that every character totally believes this to be what Christmas was about and who Jesus Christ was. This is all through a far future and alien lens which is a fascinating idea and the whole blending of traditions with an alien midwinter’s festival tradition continues to build the quality of this anthology with each story. 8/10.
The second part of the anthology focuses on Benny’s time at the Braxiatel Collection, where the Big Finish books and audio dramas began. ‘Signifiers of the Verphidiae’ is one of the highlights of the anthology; coming from Tim Gambrell, also being the first in the sequence of stories where the anthology really picks up steam and gives the listener one hit after another. This is a story of mistaken identity and alien invaders coming all the while Benny is trying to throw a Christmas party. Signifiers of the Verphidiae is one of those stories which plays out like it could have been released as a single release, and if you converted the prose to a script it would easily fit somewhere around Series 4 to 6 of the single releases. Gambrell clearly enjoys playing around with the characters and Bowerman reads this story with relish. It puts you right in the Christmas mood and honestly plays around with hypnosis and things like that which works at an ending, reminding the listener of simpler times. 9/10.
Renowned Doctor Who artist Sophie Iles provides ‘The Frosted Deer‘ which is one where there is a little twist at the end, starting with a simple premise. Benny is trying to find an artefact known as the frosted deer, something shrouded in mystery and really only was sent on because Irving Braxiatel was interested in it. Doing a story with Irving Braxiatel is always interesting as he’s a character with so much weight behind him. Braxiatel, if given an alignment, could only be described as true neutral and Iles’ story is one that absolutely understands what that means. Brax wants this artefact for his own reason and refuses to give Benny any real indication of why she needs to find it. Miscommunication because of Brax becomes a theme and when it is finally revealed what the deer actually is, the denouement is excellent. 10/10.
Eddie Robson then follows this up with a story exploring Benny and Brax’s relationship; with ‘Collector’s Item’ placing Brax in a situation where he doesn’t know what is going on. Brax weaselled his way into being a mentor figure for Benny, even though the listener is implied to know some of the harm he’s caused her (if you don’t, don’t look it up, it’s something that should be kept unspoiled). It works really well after The Frosted Deer and this pair just makes the anthology worth it. 10/10.
This part of the anthology ends with ‘Santa Benny at the Bottom of the Sea’ which is another comedic Christmas tale, with Benny going to the bottom of the sea to stop three alien creatures who could cause great destruction to stop that because it’s Christmas. This story is a bit cynical, but in a very Christmasy way as the Christmas stuff is Benny telepathically imprinting on these creatures which is a lot of fun, and honestly makes a lot of the story work as a reflection on what Benny thinks of her family. Simon Guerrier excels at character work and these three creatures are great along with the dry wit of Benny being forced to spend Christmas away from her own son. 9/10.
The box set era is represented by two stories featuring the Legion setting of those five Bernice Summerfield box sets. ‘Bernice Summerfield and the Christmas Adventure’ is the first one from editor Xanna Eve Chown putting Benny into the seat of a beta tester for a Christmas themed virtual reality game, set on 20th century Earth. Because of her credentials as an archeologist, being a tester for this game is excellent, but all is not well as the reflection of 20th century Earth is far from accurate with a space warlord character coded in and danger around every corner, and the icing on the cake becomes the equipment being faulty making it a race against the clock for Benny to beat the game before dying a horrible death. This is essentially a one-hander for the majority, though like Taps kind of suffers from not being an audio drama, to a lesser extent. This is one where Chown’s story saves it from that fate continuing the hot streak of stories in this anthology (plus the rug gets pulled right at the end which is excellent). 8/10.
The second and final story in this part is also one that deals with Benny reviewing a piece of media. White Christmas’ by Victoria Simpson takes its name from the classic Christmas song and deals with a theatrical production, however, unlike Bernice Summerfield and the Christmas Adventure this one takes its tone in a darker direction. This sadly means that the previous story overshadows this one. Simpson’s contribution is still good, however, it is nothing to compare coming right after a story that does much better. 7/10.
The final story, ‘Wise Women’ by Q, represents The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield and takes place in the Unbound Universe, with Benny on her own with Gilly. Gilly was introduced in Hue and Cry as a student of Benny’s while she is in the other Universe, coming from a race of reptiles. This is the story that has the most tenuous links to Christmas, which feels like an afterthought in the collection. This is fine, however, as Q is an author who makes the most of her time and gives Benny and Gilly a fun story wrapped around an alien holiday instead of the traditional holiday spirit with some great characters, something to be expected by an author who has worked with Kate Orman in the past on stories. 8/10.
Overall, whilst ‘Bernice Summerfield: The Christmas Collection‘ may only be a theme around a holiday and feel kind of like an excuse to celebrate, it really is a success with only one subpar story (which already had the potential to be great) for new and old listeners alike. 8/10.
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