The Dead Men Diaries

ed. Paul Cornell

Big Finish Productions, 2000
This was not how to start a new series. The bulk of The Dead Men Diaries consists of generic and forgettable short SF. I read this book over three days: writing this review the next day, I could not even remember what had happened in a number of the stories. Most of it is readable, but there are plenty of better—and cheaper—sources for short SF. There is little here that makes this book different, that plays on the character of Benny, that explores the sort of rich themes we had come to expect in the better New Adventures.

The stories are largely generic SF with Benny in them, or a vague facsimile thereof. Worse still, they are mostly mediocre generic SF. Only three rise above: Moffat's wonderful (but practically Benny free) "The Least Important Man"; Robson's "The Light that Never Dies" for the best characterisation; and Michalowski's "Digging Up the Past" for the best ideas. The other stories aren't bad as such—with the exception of Symcox's opener—but they are too often insubstantial and shallow.

It seems an odd way to start Big Finish's Benny line. There is little consistency in characterising Benny—a problem Virgin had, but it's harder to gloss over in an anthology—or her new surrounds. Only Robson shows Brax as more than a plot device. I feel the line needed something to cement the new setting, not this muddle with each story creating a new set of friends for Benny de novo. Big Finish have not acquired the rights to the New Adventures, only to certain characters therefrom, notably Benny of course. I'm afraid I did miss many of the elements around Benny from the New Adventures: there's no Cwej, People, Emile... (For continuity purists, there are also glitches for how Jason and Joseph fit in with "Twilight of the Gods" and "Tears of the Oracle" respectively.)

A new ensemble is introduced in the linking material and on the accompanying website—seemingly Gary Russell and Jac Rayner's creation—but they do not appear very promising, certainly less so than Cornell's prior Benny launch with "Oh No It Isn't!" or that we see at the ending of "Twilight of the Gods". On the other hand, we do not exactly get much to judge them on! The new set-up is largely ignored: only "Christmas Spirit" makes use of it. The lack of coherence makes one wonder why Big Finish chose to launch their line with a short story anthology.

Most of the book is OK. Most of the new writers show promise. But it's "Decalog 4" all over, in that there's little here for the New Adventure fan.


Linking material by Paul Cornell 3/10
"A Question of Identity" by Caroline Symcox 2/10
        Amateurish plot, amateurish ideas, amateurish prose. And even worse to have it at the beginning of the anthology!
"Steal from the World" by Kate Orman 5/10
        Insubstantial and doubly disappointing given her fabulous Benny work and non-Who-related short stories of late.
"The Light that Never Dies" by Eddie Robson 8/10
        Robson is one of the few authors to spend much time on the character of Brax and it's a rich characterisation of Brax and Benny that makes this story shine, an unoriginal plot notwithstanding.
"Heart of Glass" by Daniel O'Mahony 6/10
        Worth reading twice, but it never thrilled me.
"The Monster and the Archaeologists" by Kathryn Sullivan 6/10
        Sullivan has a pleasant prose style: the story reads well, but ultimately nothing actually happens.
"Step Back in Time" by Matt Jones 6/10
        As with Orman, another writer whose work I admire enormously, Jones turns in a disappointing story. Both contributions are OK, but neither stands out and both veer towards self-parody. I don't think SF is Jones' strongest area: the plot seems to detract from the story more than it adds.
"Christmas Spirit" by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright 6/10
        OK, but forgettable.
"The Door Into Bedlam" by Dave Stone 7/10
        Stone's is the only to use Jason and is typical Stone, but at least an on-form Stone compared to some of his recent Who work.
"The Least Important Man" by Steven Moffat 9/10
        Moffat turns in a wonderful short piece, but it is indicative of the book's problems that his story effectively has nothing to do with Benny.
"Digging Up the Past" by Mark Michalowski 8/10
        My third favourite story, Michalowski's, could well have been the highlight of the anthology. As it is, it's a nice little story—and one that's actually about a recognisable Benny—but I feel there was so much more potential here. [SPOILERS: highlight to read] I don't want to appear critical of what there was, but I would have liked to have seen more made of the parallels between Benny and Lara Croft, of the metafictional parallels between Benny's contract and the tribulations of Benny in fiction: with Who under Virgin, a standalone series, this re-launch with Big Finish. (And it's slightly embarrassing to pick Emma Thompson as Benny's synthespian replacement in the light of the use of Lisa Bowerman.) It's a shame Michalowski seems to have been constrained by the word count: he deserved extra space more than most of the stories!

Henry Potts, 21 Nov 00, revised 3 Jan 01

I originally posted this review to the Jade Pagoda (Dr Who books) e-mail list as the book had received little attention there and I felt it was a significant publication. The review failed to provoke much discussion at the time, but several weeks later, it was referenced on the DownAmongTheDeadMen (Benny) e-mail list (of which I am not a member) and caused something of a brouhaha. One post in the subsequent discussion was from Kathy Sullivan, author of one of the stories, which I reproduce with permission here:

I don't want to dissect the whole review.  But phrases such as "There is little consistency in characterising Benny -- a problem Virgin had, but it's harder to gloss over in an anthology -- or her new surrounds." suggests to me that he missed the point of the collection--that the 'little consistency' is due to Benny putting together stories about her from *other people*'s points of view (and I don't mean the actual writers), none of whom would see Benny the same way.  Gavin Scott doesn't look at Benny the same way Tihad does.  I thought it a neat idea for the collection when I first heard of it and still think it an interesting approach.

'the new set-up is largely ignored', that's because all the stories aren't based on the Collection, but on the various aspects of *Benny*--as archaeologist, teacher, etc.--so stories will be set elsewhere as well.  And some of the comments on the individual stories sounded to me as if the highlighted side of Benny was missed.  Oh well, just my opinion of his review.  For whatever that's worth.

Originally posted to Jade Pagoda eGroups list.

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