Thursday, June 5, 2014

Review: A Life of Surprises

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, March 14, 2003.)

Now that Bernice Summerfield has been around, as a character, for a decade (a quite respectable length of time for a fictional character), it's time for a celebration of her exploits -- an anthology that selects moments from her long and storied career and presents them to us for our enjoyment!

Except for her time with the Doctor, because we don't have the rights. And most of her time on Dellah, because we don't have the rights. And we've just decided to ignore those five years on Vremnya. So, here it is, a celebration of the last year of the ten years of Bernice Summerfield!

Actually, that's a bit harsh. Several of the stories do at least make veiled references to the Doctor, even if they can't mention him directly (except for Terrance Dicks, who gets away with it because he's Terrance Dicks.) And there's even one story that mentions Dellah. Still, the whole thing is weighted a bit heavily towards the Big Finish era of Benny books and audios, which, while it isn't a bad thing, does get away from the "anniversary" aspect of the anthology.

Don't get me wrong, though -- I loved A Life of Surprises. This is, overall, one of the top anthologies produced for Doctor Who and spin-offs, and possibly the best ever. Lots of great authors, lots of strong stories, and very little dross.

The Shape of the Hole, by Paul Cornell, is one of the ones that makes veiled reference to the Doctor, and has a nice message. Kind of hard to say more about it, because it's two pages long.

Kill the Mouse!, by Daniel O'Mahoney, is another example of why I think this writer should do another Who novel -- while this is a beautiful bit of prose and a fascinating story, it still feels way too short. It's as though he wrote an excerpt from a novel (my complaint about the last O'Mahoney story I read, Heart of Glass, as well.) Still, it's got vivid imagery and creepy scenes.

Solar Max and the Seven-Handed Snake Mother, by Kate Orman, is the result of what I can only assume was some sort of bet to see if she could write a story based on that title. It is a good story, if a bit strange, but the whole thing seems ever so slightly, well... like it was written to justify that title.

A Mutual Friend, by Terrance Dicks, is utter shameless pandering to the fans by making an utterly contrived meeting between Sarah Jane Smith and Bernice Summerfield. That said, I loved it because I'm one of the fans being shamelessly pandered to. That, and I loved the line about "alco-pops saying 'pop' but thinking 'alco'."

Alien Planets and You, by Dave Stone, is one of the highlights of the collection for me... then again, I'm a Dave Stone fan. It's a hilarious how-to-be-Benny guide, complete with footnotes on how the hints are used in practice. My one complaint (which also pops up later) is that the footnotes are placed at the end of the story instead of the bottom of the page, which breaks the rhythm of the story a bit.

Something Broken, by Paul Ebbs, is another funny one -- Benny lends herself to humor better than the Doctor, I think, and the short story lends itself better to humor than to any other genre, so the two together help a lot.

The Collection, by Peter Anghelides, might have worked better as a novel -- it's a time travel story, with several twists and turns, but crammed into such a small space that it's like watching Greg Louganis try to do a triple-somersault half-pike into the shallow end of the pool. It also doesn't help that it has the same footnote problem that Alien Planets and You did.

Setting Stone, by Mark Stevens, is another story that makes reference to the Doctor... and to the morally ambiguous nature of some of the Seventh Doctor's adventures. Here, the archaeologist Benny comes across the remains of a civilization she helped bring down, lo those many centuries ago. Bittersweet, but pretty good.

Time's Team, by David McIntee, ranks as one of his better works -- I've always liked McIntee's ideas, but felt he had somewhat undifferentiated prose, so it's nice to see him put some work into making this one... well, still not sparkle, perhaps, but at least glint. It's another humorous story, too.

Beedlemania, by Nev Fountain, is possibly the strangest story in the collection, needing to be read to be believed. It's also quite, quite funny, although it doesn't do wonders for Ace's reputation. So mind-bogglingly strange as to beggar the imagination.

The All-Seeing Eye, by Justin Richards, is haunting, beautiful, and strange... and creepy, too. Richards is usually noted for his plotting, not his characterization, but this one is almost all character -- and does a lot of development in a very short span. Seen as a companion piece to Virgin Lands from the Short Trips: Zodiac collection, it's very interesting indeed.

And Then Again, by Rob Shearman, is yet another one of those bloody alternate universe stories... and one that has the (unnamed) Doctor in it to boot. That said, it's still quite good, being a glimpse of the one person who you'd expect to be most like Bernice, and yet is pretty much her exact opposite.

Cuckoo, by Stephen Fewell, is actually a bit of a plodder... after all is said and done, not much actually happens in this story, unless of course you count the chicken attack. The message seems kind of vague, too. Probably the weakest story of the anthology, but still not actually bad.

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, by David Bailey, has the world's biggest plot hole, but dances around it interestingly. (The story involves Benny having stored some of her memories in a 'menmosine store book', which locks up the memory so she doesn't remember it, but the book will. The bad guy tricks her into reading the book out loud so he can find out what she knows... but she's stored so much stuff in it that help arrives before he gets to the relevant information. The plot hole? If she's stored all this stuff in it, she doesn't remember it, which basically means that Benny is a total amnesiac.) Also notable for another hidden Doctor appearance, in which he restores all of Benny's lost diaries to her.

Squadborronfell, by Nick Walters, is a nice enough mood piece, a sad little reflection on war and hatred that rises above the 'Star Trek'-esque plot it's given. Still, not that memorable -- although again, not bad.

Taken By the Muses, by Steve Lyons, is an absolutely hilarious story of Benny having to argue for her life entirely in rhyme before the Supreme Muse. Steve Lyons every once in a while gets a weird rhyming obssession which can turn out quite funny, and this is another recurrence of it. I loved it.

The Spartacus Syndrome, by Jonathan Morris, could well be the best story of the collection and cements Morris' skyrocketing reputation after two fantastic novels. I won't go into detail, except to say that first, this is a story worth picking up a collection for (although I hope I've made it clear that the collection as a whole is good), and second, he fits the 'Life of Brian' joke in there.

Might, by Neil Corry, brings back Keith from Return of the Living Dad... well, maybe it does. Maybe it doesn't. Hard to say, which is one of the strong points of the story. It's got some interesting stuff in it -- not on the high end of the anthology, but that's only because it's a very good anthology.

Paydirt, by Lance Parkin, takes the same level of myth-building that we see all the time for the Doctor and points out that, by now, this can actually apply to Bernice as well, which is an astonishing thing when you think about it. Probably more "ground-breaking" than "good", but still both, which is always welcome.

Dear Friend, by Jim Sangster, is Benny's open letter to the Doctor... and does anyone else find it odd that the Doctor apparently never visits her, even "off-screen", and she never mentions his name, even when talking about him? It's like the characters are aware of the licencing agreements. *shrug* A nice enough capper to the collection, except for...

Afterword, by Lloyd Rose, which isn't a story at all, but the actual afterword -- an essay on the evolution of Bernice which really makes you just want to stand up and cheer for the character.

That's basically what this anthology is -- a big cheer for Bernice. And as one of her big fans, I invite everyone to join right in.

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