Edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker
It’s that time again! Collecting a gaggle of authors, some you’ll know from the New and Missing Adventures, others who for whatever reason only show up for the short stories, Decalog 2: Lost Property differs from its predecessor in one obvious way: there’s no linking story. And hooray, since the first Decalog had an almighty task stringing tales together with another one on top, only to end up adding useless links between them. This time, it’s just a theme of the Doctor’s home. That seems like a good enough excuse to collect a bunch of short stories, and it could lead to some interesting places. Such as…
Vortex Of Fearby Gareth Roberts
As with the first Decalog, we begin with the Second Doctor. Gareth Roberts delivers a surprisingly dark vignette about a hotel suspended in the time vortex, where you can exist just long enough to evade certain tax laws. The TARDIS bumps into it and the Doctor and co. get out to investigate, only to find a complicated paradox playing out ad infinitum. It doesn’t exactly dwell on the subject of home; a reference to the vortex being where the Doctor belongs is sufficiently throwaway that it could have been added later.
This works really well as a short piece, as the premise is something that is naturally going to repeat itself and so probably shouldn’t outstay its welcome. Roberts has an immediate handle on the characters, from the Doctor’s scruffy busy-bodying to Jamie’s keenness not to be shown up. Zoe is developed nicely, with her photographic memory and logical mind troubled by the shifting world they find themselves in. When the Doctor determines there’s no real hope for these people as it’s a closed, deteriorating loop, he just leaves them to it. As a commentary on this seemingly bewildered Doctor’s darker side, it’s a lot more effective than The Menagerie, where he just causes deaths through befuddlement; it’s still surprisingly callous, even if he is affronted at people mucking about with the time vortex, or by the general air of decadence pervading the hotel. (Darker still, Zoe figures out that since this is a paradox loop a version of them will always be there. Yikes.) For good measure, the nefarious sniping between the guests is written with colour and bile, the characterisation of the main trio is enjoyably apt, and Roberts gets in a jolly good Pat-and-Frazer double entendre at the start.
The Crimson Dawnby Tim Robins
Well you can’t fault his ambition. This has a fight for Ice Warrior rights on Mars, a sinister agenda to undermine it, a traitor, a monstrous lab-grown figurehead whose entire life has been a delusion based on The War Of The Worlds, a huge revelation about Ice Warrior history/a plot resolution bundled onto the last page and heaps of satire on commercialism. (Also, rather originally, barely any Ice Warriors.) I’ll bet this was an idea for a full novel; you could certainly stagger it out a bit. All of which happened the last time we saw Tim Robins. Just commission the dude and be done with it.
Thanks to the time constraint, it’s all a bit frantic and farcical – sometimes deliberately, as the Doctor and K9 zoom away from armed guards, the robot dog blasting away at them as he reverses at full speed. The action is in technicolour, and the tone (looking at you, War Of The Worlds bit) rather goofy. For something allegedly out of Season 14 or 15, it’s a bit too silly. I wonder if Robins was really thinking of the Douglas Adams era: “My arms! My legs! My everything!” And speaking of eras, there are probably too many continuity references; big fans of Mire Beasts will give a little cheer. All two of them.
But never mind all that: it’s only ruddy Leela! In what is, for all I know, her only appearance in a Virgin book, she displays all the obvious violence and lack of civilisation you’d expect, but little of the questing intelligence that makes her really special. I suspect we needed a Leela renaissance when Big Finish came along, if she was once looked down on by fandom. That might explain her absence from these books; there’s a note of parody about her, of “Can you believe this was once the companion?!” And K9, who showed up considerably after Leela, is referred to as the Doctor’s best friend!
The satire is a little heavy-handed, as we tour the commercialised regions of Mars including a Mars Bar (oof!), a dessert called an Achocalypse Now, and the sad revelation that Peladon has undergone a financial crisis that “forced the Pels to turn their monarchy into a toiletry franchise”. That stuff’s not a million miles from the quirks of Transit, so there’s a precedent, but Robins still must have been in an odd mood when he wrote this. Oh, and the Doctor’s “home” in this is a flying houseboat. Not so much exploring a theme there as picking a noun out of a hat. (It’s all about the Martians’ home, I suppose, but if so doesn’t that get the theme slightly wrong?) Altogether it’s an odd, madcap jumble.
Where The Heart Isby Andy Lane
Few Doctors are as concerned with their home as the Third, who would hate to admit he belonged on Earth. Andy Lane attacks this sideways, never outright saying the Doctor belongs here but focusing on the home of the UNIT Family instead, which he helped build and which, of course, belongs to him. It also plugs a continuity gap that has never occurred to me: how UNIT suddenly ended up with a country house for its headquarters. But don’t worry about it disappearing into fanwank, despite the plethora of references.
Lane puts the Brigadier in a tight spot when UNIT’s funding dries up and the government threatens to hand the whole thing over to the Marines. The Doctor and Jo have captured a flamboyant alien masquerading as a doctor (draw your own inference!), and despite its murderous crimes it may be able to help. The writing is sublimely character-based, particularly as the Brigadier stares an uncertain future in the face and the Doctor (in a testy mood) tries to get one over on him by capturing the alien as easily as possible. Both characters are fleshed out more convincingly in 20 pages than The Ghosts Of N-Space managed in an entire novel. Jo’s determination and shortcomings are also brought spiritedly to life.
This is short, sweet and does a clever job with the theme. A highlight.
The Trials Of Taraby Paul Cornell
“I want to do a sequel to The Androids Of Tara,” said Paul Cornell at one time, presumably. “In iambic pentameter. Guest starring the Kandyman.” Well if you’re not hooked already, what else can I say?
Mind you, I can barely tell iambic pentameter from balsamic vinegar, and I have a naturally sulky dislike for all things Shakespeare, so when I saw that The Trials Of Tara really was going to be like that for all of its fifty pages I groaned in horror. But I soon forgot any objections as Paul Cornell indulged in Shakespeare references even I get, as well as some delightfully nerdy in-jokes about Holmesian double-acts, a jaunty plot that doesn’t just repeat the original story and – of course – Bernice Summerfield absolutely knocking it out of the park. One moment where she realises she’s cocked up her delivery and it completely implodes in a single stanza made me hoot. That, and the Kandyman frustratedly brushing off a bewitched lover.
It’s one of those where you could spend so long listing fun little moments, you just end up reading the thing out. In summary, it’s easily as demented as it sounds. Despite its poetic leanings it feels like an outlet for Paul Cornell’s love of panto – bawdy jokes and all – and that’s no bad thing if you’re in the right mood. It zooms along, every bit as sugary as the Kandyman and just as brilliantly odd.
Housewarmingby David A. McIntee
Meh. Housewarming ought to drum up a bit of atmosphere at least, being set in an apparently haunted house over a short time. David A. McIntee drops in as many gnarly adjectives as he can find, as ever, but he makes the odd decision to overpopulate it and frequently chop between his characters. It’s consequently difficult to build anything up and none of the guest characters stand out.
Sarah and K9 are a welcome addition to the book world – I’m not sure I needed a sequel to K9 & Company, or K9 & Company for that matter, but you could at least improve on it. Alas, it stars Mike Yates. Has he ever been very interesting? They’re all reasonably characterised, apart from a slightly too excited Pertwee-ish sword-fight that frantically tries to liven things up at the end. It nevertheless finishes with a damp squib and makes the villain (spoilers) look a bit small potatoes, although that’s not a new experience for them. Of ghostly terror, there is none.
The plot’s small and simple and it holds together, but while I really ought to go “Ooh!” at the surprise reveal, it’s not enough of a surprise to warrant it.
The Nine-Day Queenby Matthew Jones
I only know Matthew Jones from his New Who story The Impossible Planet, but it’s an open secret that Russell T Davies wrote most of the finished product, so I guess this is a first. Based on The Nine-Day Queen he’s got a knack for characters, and the ending is something else, but overall it falls into some familiar traps.
First, this is a bigger story than just 30 pages: an important first scene aboard the TARDIS is summarised, and months fly by like turned pages. The pace is absolutely crazy for a Hartnell story in particular, with things like the reader’s knowledge of history being expediently assumed. Second, following on from that, this type of story – a historical period beset by a special effects-y alien influence – is quite unlike the Hartnell era. You’d never have got this particular kind of sci-fi/history mash up, the more roundabout Time Meddler notwithstanding.
Still, Jones makes it sound just about right. The destructive Vrij is affecting history, which could mean Jane Grey lives longer than history allows, but will spell disaster for the future; this leads to some very traditional worrying about what all that means. (Then again, the idea that it can happen goes against what that era said and even underlined – that it cannot happen!) Barbara’s knowledge and concern shine through, and the Doctor’s complicated and irascible nature are ultimately betrayed by his sympathy for Jane, all of which rings true. (See Cameca and the brooch.) Ian imitates the Doctor in a fun scene, winning over a couple of guards with sheer confidence, though admittedly he doesn’t do a lot else. And the unseen TARDIS bit might sound completely batty – Barbara losing her mind and strangling Ian – but it’s something we’ve more or less seen in The Edge Of Destruction. (As for the rather odd bit where the Doctor insists CPR might do him fatal harm, uh, I guess we didn’t know one way or the other back then?)
There are numerous good bits, but the story is at its best on the final page when (spoiler) the Doctor helps Jane achieve some dignity in death. That’s a heart and a darkness you’d expect from McCoy, which effortlessly works for Hartnell. On the flip side, apart from another throwaway use of the theme, i.e. the Doctor owned a house once (gee, really pushing the boat out!), there’s that frenzied short-story-in-name-only approach. This is possibly best evidenced at the start, in the by-line beneath the epigraph: Barbara Chesterton.
Lonely Daysby Daniel Blythe
This one at least feels like a short story, as it has a much smaller focus. The TARDIS drops in on an asteroid/planet the Doctor owns (Daniel Blythe interchanges the two words – annoying!), where it finds a lonely worker going slightly mad, and a planet (let’s stick with that) undergoing changes. There’s also a hint of a ghost story to do with the hologram of a woman he (Sebastian) once knew.
The writing is at its best when Sebastian is pottering about on his little world, thinking he’s seeing things. As the plot progresses his moods and actions get weirder, all of which is somewhat nullified when it turns out there’s just been a breakdown in communication. Still, you can believe it wouldn’t take much to push this man to randomly pull a gun on strangers.
The regulars are more problematic. Nyssa is mostly fine, apart from an odd bit where she seems eager to mess with time in order to test the laws of gambling. (?) The Fifth Doctor is way off. Somewhat irreverent, at one point apologising individually to some plants, namedropping the death of Adric just to make a trivial point and coming out with general bursts of eccentricity, this just isn’t him. (Although I could forgive Blythe for wanting to liven him up a bit.) The whole concept of him owning a planet is rather bizarre, but then Craig Hinton wrote a novel about him owning a restaurant, which made about as much sense.
Latterly there’s an attempt to underscore it all with Nyssa’s loneliness after her father’s death, but that seems like an afterthought. Despite that and a melancholy ending where two lonely souls learn to co-exist, it’s a bit of a non-event.
People Of The Treesby Pam Baddeley
Well look at that – Bonus Leela! Newcomer Pam Baddeley is another one taking the “home” theme literally, as the Doctor revisits some land he once bought (in order to protect the indigenous people) which is under threat again. The theft of ancient statues is putting the “People” in danger, but the Doctor will soon need to barter the remaining statue for Leela’s life.
The idea of a civilisation that revolves completely around acquiring and protecting land is a good one for the theme, and it adds an unusual motive to the Dascarians, who don’t give a fig about the tree-dwelling primitives they’re endangering. The plot is the right sort of size and the writing is quietly clever, adapting equally well to the People and the Dascarians. The Fourth Doctor is in a more pensive, respectful mood than his earlier story, and Leela... well, I’m still not convinced the writers of the time knew what to do with her other than act like an overbearing bodyguard with a pocket full of Janis thorns, but she’s less a figure of fun here, and she’s in good company with the trusting tree folk.
It’s not spectacular, but I liked it well enough.
Timeshareby Vanessa Bishop
Over at Big Finish, the Sixth Doctor didn’t so much evolve as hire a drastic new PR guy. “Old Sixie” is the cuddly uncle of Doctors, his Peri-strangling days buried beneath wistful monologues and Evelyn’s chocolate cakes. If you’ve got used to all that, Timeshare might be a bit bracing. This is original, unsweetened Doctor Six; about as gentle as a lorry reversing in the middle of Swan Lake.
Discovering a mysterious set of coordinates and refusing to believe Peri has read them correctly, the TARDIS arrives by a timeshare flat – only it’s a time-travelling arrangement outlawed by the Time Lords. It begins to malfunction, in a way weirdly reminiscent of the earlier Homecoming, due to the Doctor putting too much money in the meter. It’s a bit of a farce, which somewhat suits this Doctor’s blustery nature.
Even so, there are a few issues with this. The Sixth Doctor giving both barrels at Peri is an acquired taste – you begin to wonder what she’s getting out of it – and the two of them can get annoying. The comedy is a little much, particularly when another Time Lord appears with a small collection of random idiosyncrasies, just to dole out some exposition. Despite generous amounts of effort, I never fully understood how the timeshare worked. And the story’s a little long, especially when time “echoes” start to repeat and repeat.
But the writing occasionally suggests that Peri does find her companion endearing, and his flaws – such as trying a little too hard to catch his own reflection – do ring true to the era. It’s probably a good idea for a story, unknowingly mixing Vortex Of Fear with Homecoming, but it could maybe have been shorter and clearer. It’s all about a fun getaway being dragged out for too long and then becoming a mess, and well, now that you mention it...
Question Mark Pyjamasby Robert Perry and Mike Tucker
If you made it all the way through the last nine stories thinking “This is all well and good, but what about the House on Allen Road?”, you’re in luck. In a surprising and canny move, that’s the “home” to round off this collection. Back we go to another time, when it was the Doctor, Benny and Ace. (I get a kick out of that being in the past, as ripe for a revisit as any old Doctor.) They find the Doctor’s residence on an asteroid, in a “Heritage Centre” of stolen homes that strangely mirrors the book’s overall theme. That’s nice work.
Quite soon the Doctor and co. are unwilling exhibits, living out a strange domestic life in “Allen Road” with Bernice and Ace as his wife and daughter. They plot an escape and it plays out somewhat amusingly, with perhaps a few too many references sprinkled on top, not all relevant.
It’s fun to be nostalgic about the New Adventures, and sure enough Ace takes a moment to remember some of the upsetting things that have happened to her, including helpfully placing this after No Future. (PS: did you know she has mummy issues?) That’s pretty much all it sets out to do, but the humour is winningly strange – Russell T Davies would love the bit about “We only had the atmosphere fitted a few days ago” – and there’s a lovely observation that aboard the TARDIS, every morning feels like a lie-in
My only real gripe is almost an achievement: could Robert Perry and Mike Tucker be the first writers not to get the appeal of Bernice Summerfield? She likes archaeology and wine, but only in a dry, tick-things-off-a-list way. Her effervescent wit, the thing that makes her jump off the page, just isn’t happening for once. It’s hardly a new experience for Bernice to get nothing to do, especially with Ace around, but the contrast has never been quite so black and white.
Apart from that it’s a colourful trip to the recent past, and a nice send off for Decalog 2.
My main gripes about Decalog were writers not knowing a short story from a novel summary, and the awkward linking theme. Decalog 2 still has lapses on the first front; I kind of wish they’d get Tim Robins to do something full length just to see if it helps. But these stories are mostly well suited to the quicker pace, and some – Trials in particular – really make it count. As for the theme, while there’s nothing as unwieldy as a running plot, it’s a little uncanny how many writers took it literally or just tossed it in there as a garnish. But I suppose it’s a hard theme to tackle, as they’re dealing with a lifelong nomad. (Odd that nobody wrote about the TARDIS, the obvious winner.)
It’s best to remember the theme is just an excuse for ten stories. As a collection, it’s a colourful improvement.
See you again for 56–60, beginning with Zamper by Gareth Roberts...
See you again for 56–60, beginning with Zamper by Gareth Roberts...