Sunday, 19 April 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #100 – The Well-Mannered War by Gareth Roberts

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Well-Mannered War
By Gareth Roberts

In all the excitement and sadness of the New Adventures ending you could almost forget that another range was going away forever. Unfortunately I feel about the Missing Adventures the way Arthur Dent did when he met prehistoric cavemen who would soon be wiped out by hairdressers. “It’s all been a bit of a waste of time for you, hasn’t it?

That’s not to say there aren’t any good MAs – only that by design, they were all over the place. They were a series of one-offs set at random times in the show’s history, so of course they had no overall direction or momentum. You were meant to enjoy them as treats, like Doctor Who’s highly erratic video releases – but the actual show wasn’t made like that, with a different production team turning up each week to frantically busk a different era. Conversely, the shared themes and ideas of the New Adventures were among the series’ key strengths. It’s no coincidence that the NAs got better and more consistent as they went along. What you got with the MAs was more like speed dating, where the only question was “What do YOU think would make a good Missing Adventure?” And well, nobody knew.

One of the few taking a bloody good stab at it anyway was Gareth Roberts. “What If TV Episode, But Book” is the most obvious route you can take with these, and The Romance Of Crime did Season 17 verbatim, but it also remembered to be massively entertaining. The English Way Of Death pushed more into Wodehouse territory than Douglas Adams – which depending on your view is much the same thing anyway – and it was subsequently more like a novel, less like a missing Target novelisation. Then The Plotters came along and showed that, with or without Tom Baker, Roberts could capture an era, structure like mad AND keep up the laughs. Conclusion: if someone has to close out this wobbly series of whatevers then Roberts has the best CV for it.

First, I should declare an interest. Although I’d never read The Well-Mannered War, I have heard the Big Finish adaptation. (I loved it, then forced myself not to listen to it again until I’d read the book; it’s been a while.) So I knew the main plot beats already, which took away much of the surprise. However, you come to a Gareth Roberts book mostly for the prose, which doesn’t translate to a script anyway, and The Well-Mannered War doesn’t disappoint there.

The setup* lends itself to the author’s favourite thing, British awkwardness. Two races are at war over a planet no one could conceivably want, except the war hasn’t officially started yet (in over 100 years) so all they’re doing is going through the motions and being terribly nice about it. Few of them actually want to start a fight (including the Chelonians, a race of bloodthirsty tortoises), but there are pathetic little displays of aggression anyway like haphazard missile launches, and a ritual where the leaders of the two camps attempt shoddily to assassinate each other, usually after a cordial lunch and before going back to their bases to give everybody presents. It’s as protracted as it is gloriously pointless. “The summit was dissolved after only four hours when it became clear that the parties could not agree on the wording of the initial clause of the discussion document.” / “‘I’m not expected to, er, well, you know...’ He mimed a shooting gesture. Even that level of violence made him feel giddy. ‘Oh hell.’” / “The atmosphere was rather like that at a party when the host goes to check the dinner leaving a room full of unacquainted guests.” / “There was an uncomfortable silence. Dolne regarded Jafrid as a friend of the kind one mixes well with in a crowd. When there was only the two of them conversation was hard. They just didn’t have enough in common. The big screen stayed blank. Both of them made disapproving noises to cover the embarrassing lapse.

(*It’s marginally similar to another MA just two books ago, A Device Of Death. I’m curious whether there were any crossed words about this at the time, but there’s certainly no fatigue in this second, stronger take on the idea.)

The two commanders, Dolne (a prissy admiral who has to mentally remind himself that he wears a uniform, not an outfit) and Jafrid (a relatively nice Chelonian) have a delightful friendship, which is worth highlighting as it’s a Gareth Roberts book and those are usually full of people who hate each other. (This can lead to lots of amusingly bitchy dialogue, but it becomes wearying after a while.) Depicting war as a silly routine is a clever way to parody the politics surrounding it, and not one I’ve seen a million times before, for which I’m very grateful.

But characters can’t be terribly nice and do nothing all the time, so things must escalate, notably during a scene with a broken down copier that at first sounds like it fell out of Roberts’ pile of sketch ideas. Much merriment is had about an error message that doesn’t make any sense, until this turns into “PREPARE TO BE ABSORBED BY DARKNESS” and that character is horribly killed and absorbed by an alien intelligence. (The automaton-spouting-a-demonic-message gag would crop up again via the Ood.) There’s a genuine sadness about this, as the character still has a vestige of himself afterwards and feels quite sad about being dead; also, the “Darkness” occasionally loosen their mental grip on him, apparently out of mercy. We’re right back to tragedy when he passes it onto another character you’ll have grown to like, who should probably have known better than to contemplate an early retirement just before answering the door.

Roberts invests his characters with enough little quirks to make their deaths really matter, like one guy’s love of dull grey uniforms and his subsequent hope not to be promoted into a nicer one. I’ve complained at length about unnecessary physical description, and Roberts indulges in it only where it expands your understanding of the character. That a man’s hair is greying tells us he’s been here for a while and is perhaps easily stressed; that a politician’s corpulence prevents him from easily getting out of a chair tells us he spends most of his time sitting comfortably, and so on. The Well-Mannered War is not a short book, but it doesn’t fill the time doing busywork with words, which separates it from a lot of MAs.

The Doctor, Romana and K9 find themselves on the dull rock Barclow due to an apparent series of coincidences. This is a theme throughout the book, which culminates in a much more satisfying explanation than Roberts’ last coincidence-themed book, The Highest Science. (That coincidentally (?) also featured an apparently dull planet being warred over by Chelonians and useless humans. Douglas Adams wrote reams about convenient things happening for no real reason, which is clearly not a coincidence.) Their misadventures certainly feel in keeping with the Adams era, with bit part characters espousing their woes such as a tea lady in no man’s land, a revolutionary running an anti-authoritarian press by himself in a cave, and Menlove Stokes, a returning nuisance from The Romance Of Crime. The vainglorious artist and imbecile perhaps works better when performed (by Michael Troughton in Big Finish’s Romance and War adaptations), as putting him on the page surrounded by people who loathe him, without the benefit of spirited inflection, just lays bare the joke that powers him and risks making him monotonous. But he’s not as bad as the revolutionary Fritchoff, who (like Spiggot, the nauseating cop in Romance) only exists to parody a certain outlook and method of speaking, here have-a-go fight-the-power nitwits who say “bourgeoisie” a lot. We get it, as does everyone he meets, over and over and over again. Folks, beware writing deliberately irritating characters because of that universal truth: Irritating Characters Are Irritating.

Fortunately we have the Doctor, Romana and K9 to anchor it all, who are all very entertaining in this, though they are in slightly sniffy moods. The English Way Of Death wobbled the Doctor-companion relationship between wanting to kiss and wanting to kill each other, and The Well-Mannered War places its bets on the latter, with nuggets like “Romana sighed. ‘Do you answer the question or do I employ physical violence?’” She spends most of her time with Stokes, so she’s irritated for almost the entire book with or without the Doctor. Still, this can work: “‘I specified to be woken [from cryosleep] only when my work was re-evaluated and properly appreciated.’ There was an unpleasant silence. ‘Stokes, we’re getting close to the very end of the universe.’

K9 is distracted by the loveable subplot about suddenly becoming a political candidate (“What do we want? A K9 administration! When do we want it? As soon as possible!”), but Roberts indulges an apparent love of the character by making it clear he still has some very human, or at least rather emotional thoughts and just expresses them like a machine. “‘Come here.’ [K9] crossed the room and [Romana] bent down and stroked his sides. ‘Misunderstanding of the functional nature of this unit,’ said K9. ‘Petting unnecessary.’ But he didn’t pull away.” K9 is instrumental to much of the plot; the Doctor not-so-coincidentally chides him for becoming too useful.

The Doctor spends most of it on his own or meeting the smaller bit-parts, and he’s in a foul mood for some of it (again because of company, such as Fritchoff who goes irritatingly back and forth over rescuing him from certain death – because he’s really annoying, you see). But he also leans into the whimsies of Season 17, such as putting a full cup of tea in his pocket and later retrieving it unspilled, or finding himself under attack by rockets and hurriedly thumbing through a booklet called So You’re Caught in a Rocket Attack. (There’s also a crafty sub-sub-subplot about his coat getting ripped and tattered, which helps explain why he switched to a different one the following year.) The writing is undoubtedly on point for Tom Baker, but there’s a certain feeling about him of being sick of it all. Maybe this ties into the Season 17 arc of evading the Black Guardian (who irritatingly doesn’t turn up to justify it), but it could also be a nod to Tom’s advancing years in the role. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it and Roberts just enjoys a snippy Doctor.

One of the reasons I’m a bit iffy about the main characters in this is also one of the book’s strengths: the plot is excellent, a sort of Rube Goldberg device full of layers. It’s very satisfying watching it all click into place. But, as the Doctor eventually realises, he doesn’t have much agency here, someone else is manipulating events. This is satisfying in terms of construction, not so much in terms of the main character(s) driving the action, which is sort of a necessity. The war is a sham (which we know from the outset), the creatures arranging it are themselves being manipulated, and the people leading them into a trap have been manipulated as well. It goes click, click, click wonderfully, but it makes the main trio slightly surplus to requirements. (Even K9’s candidacy is written off not too convincingly as “It amused [the villain] to bring out the superiority that has always bubbled beneath that servile shell.” So for a laugh, then?) It’s debateable whether this matters, and even I’m not sure it does. But it’s odd.

Still, look what it achieves. In pulling all the coincidences and manipulations together, Roberts creates the Season 17 finale we never knew we needed. Forget Shada! Wouldn’t it have been better if, after setting up the whole “run away at random to evade the Black Guardian” plot, they didn’t just get bored of it and never mention it again? Finally it’s addressed, ending infamously with the Doctor and co. flying out of the known universe, where previously he ended up in the Land of Fiction. It’s a deliberate cliff-hanger, what with these books ending and no one being able to write a direct sequel, but it’s still satisfying. This explains how they shook their pursuer and carried on having normal adventures afterwards. We only miss the bit in the middle where they were in the Land of Fiction, or whatever realm it turned out to be. In all honesty that book would have been an absolute sod to write, and you may have been better off just imagining it even if they did carry on. It’s also quite sweet to leave us wanting more, imagining the next Missing Adventure ourselves.

The real takeaway here is that once again, Virgin went out on their own terms. The Doctor and Romana press the button that takes them away from all this, not some poxy BBC Books man. For symbolic good measure there’s a reason why they must not land on Dellah, the planet where the Bernice New Adventures are set. (And it’s not just that Stokes is going there which, strewth, why didn’t you warn me?! Props to Roberts for specifying he would “most definitely, never so much as think about the Doctor and company ever again”, saving everyone else the bother of an explanation.) For a series without any overall continuity it ties up nicely, including the Guardian name-checking earlier books as proof that he’s been observing all the while. (Gifting us the Doctor’s retort, “You’re dabbling with the forces of continuity”!) The Well-Mannered War is a finale in several respects, and even if I’m still uncertain whether this represents the best sort of Missing Adventure you could get, at least we ended on one that mostly works.


Saturday, 18 April 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #99 – The Dying Days by Lance Parkin

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
The Dying Days
By Lance Parkin

I’ve said a lot about Virgin losing the Doctor Who license but, forgive me, there’s a little more in the tank. They had achieved so much with it already. Done so much with the Seventh Doctor, with Ace and with new characters created right here on the page. Then they stuck the landing as if it was always meant to end here, leading gracefully towards the TV Movie and books written by somebody else – and not before giving a blockbusting Answer to the Doctor’s Question. All that, only to get as far as the doorway and turn, Columbo-like, to say “One more thing.” And then drop the first new Eighth Doctor novel, beating BBC Books by two months.

You absolute badasses.

It would be wrong to think of The Dying Days as merely an encore, although it certainly is one, affectionately tipping its hat to what had been created since the first (sometimes wobbly) steps of the Timewyrm saga. And it doesn’t stop at the book stuff. The Eighth Doctor makes it a fannish book by default, not to mention adding the fan-favourite Ice Warriors, the Brigadier and oh go on then, Bessie as well. There’s a host of references to old Who episodes, such as a plot that revolves around Martians and spaceflight (meaning we must first rule out The Ambassadors Of Death); the UK space centre as seen in The Android Invasion; Brigadier Bambera, armed with her catchphrase “Shame!” and her off-screen husband Ancelyn; Colonel Crichton, seen in The Five Doctors and Virgin’s Downtime; and assorted alien races mentioned by the Brigadier as having invaded while the Doctor was AWOL. The air of geekdom expands even further at points, with Bernard Quatermass showing up to argue with Patrick Moore, and numerous references to The X-Files (including a cameo from Gillian Anderson, as Bernice meets an amusingly 1997 roll-call of celebs that also includes Chris Evans, Princess Diana and Mystic Meg). The plot not-so-unconsciously recalls The War Of The Worlds, especially with an astronomer named Ogilvy around.

Inevitably – justifiably – there are nods to the New Adventures as well. Page 1 has the opening salvo “Kadiatu and aM!xitsa had dropped [Bernice] off at the Doctor’s house on Allen Road” (!), and much of the action occupies that mysterious New Adventures home base. Bernice is at one point mistaken for Emma Thompson – a visual reference for her character – and she picks up a pair of hoop earrings, just like old times. The Virgin book Who Killed Kennedy was already sort of in-universe canon, but that’s fully rubber stamped here as the head of MI5 laments that book’s incendiary revelations, name-checks both authors (including the real one) and orders the publishers to be raided and closed – providing, if you want, a canon explanation for why the range ended. Later, just showing off now, Bernice’s diary says “I’m copying the next bit from a history book, a fat blue paperback with a scary eye on the cover”. So A History Of The Universe by Lance Parkin, author of, let me see… The Dying Days. If it were any more self-aware you’d turn the page to find the Eye Of Sauron bellowing I SEE YOU.

If you can do this stuff well, then bon voyage. And The Dying Days does it very well, because all of that’s really secondary to a tightly plotted book with a lot to do. There’s a gentle opening where Bernice waits for the Doctor, who is typically late and turns up while she’s in the shower, because god damn it. After a pleasant bit of fangirling when Paul McGann turns up (on Page 8, athankyo), things get briskly on track with a helicopter crash and an escaped multiple murderer. We immediately spiral into a government conspiracy, an ill-fated mission to Mars, and drumroll… a Martian invasion. Those two words are perhaps the most straightforward B-movie plot you could dream of, but Parkin keeps it interesting by staggering the pace, having the Martians arrive about 48 hours sooner than anyone (including the Doctor) realises, and then not having an all-out attack until the last act.

The Martian ship just hangs there. The drama becomes more political with a British conspiracy to aid the Martians, a coup, a plan to betray the other side (naturally planned by both sides), and the sublime ridiculousness of Ice Warriors setting up shop in the Tower Of London – and a Martian being crowned King of England, with severely ill-fitting jewellery. There’s always a little voice in the back of your head while reading this, guiltily saying alien invaders action movie. It seems like a mark of confidence to do something so brazenly obvious with such pizzazz. It’s a shame no one’s ever adapted it to audio or television, because damn it, I need that Ice Warrior coronation scene.

Still, an adaptation would lose much of the colour. It’s often very funny, particularly an observation that the Ice Warriors are helping to reduce VAT. More generally, one of the strengths of Parkin’s writing is his ability to patiently set a scene and make it relatable, which results in great tracts of memorable prose more often than zingy individual lines. There’s a brilliant bit about the sounds of London, and how they’re as ever-present and unnoticed as your heartbeat, which spirals off into the panic you suddenly feel on realising your body is mostly automatic and your ability to stop caring moments afterwards, which pulls back suddenly to the absence of sound in London.

The Martians themselves are rendered with colour and thoughtfulness, which is a godsend as their trajectory has been in a decline since The Curse Of Peladon suggested some of them might actually be nice – and no one has agreed since. It’s clear from The Dying Days that Mars is on the way out, and a coalition with Earth might be in their best interests. They have good reason to, for example, go to another planet and eye up their resources – whether or not that’s the right thing to do when there’s already an intelligent species using them. Although they are aggressors here, a fact further tangled by the British conspiracy to use them for their own ends, they never feel like stereotypical villains. (The morality gets further complicated – or possibly, less – when it turns out the warlord Xznaal has his own plans against Mars.) Bernice’s presence and expertise help this along greatly: her utter horror at having killed an Ice Warrior triggers immediate sobbing, and she’s able to speak to a Martian in his own language about a recent catastrophe on his own world, even after he has tied her up. Parkin also takes his time relating the different atmospheric conditions of Earth vs. Mars, and the physical toll it takes on the Martians in several scenes that sympathetically follow the enormous creatures as they exit their ship.

We often segue into treating all of this as historical fact, either directly via Bernice’s diary or just in the prose, which anchors the action nicely. There’s some lovely satire in the way the Martians are dealing directly only with the UK, a fact that at first causes great relief among the other world powers, then a twinge of jealousy that they weren’t the ones chosen to make first contact. (And then relief again when things go pear-shaped.) Life carries on in the UK, with postcards of the Martian ship appearing almost instantly in shops. The papers react in their typical way, particularly The Telegraph with “ET OUR FRIENDS, BUT THE EU ARE NOT.” (!) The sudden exodus of citizens to other nations, and the creeping suspicion that Britain is going to isolate itself from the world, feels prescient for a number of unfortunate reasons. But even getting your head out of the news, all of this is ripe for a disaster scenario; look at Day Of The Triffids, which is as full of wry observations as empty streets.

Where it really counts, The Dying Days is not an action movie or an encore. It’s a changing of the guard. This applies most obviously to the Doctor, who gets less than 300 pages under the Virgin banner – so it’s no good waiting around for Paul Cornell to define this guy. And we waste no time. The Doctor here is bright, direct and dismissive of his earlier self’s need to plan ahead, which as he notes, did not help in the end. (I think that’s a bit of a stretch, as it was the Seventh Doctor’s abandonment of planning – or checking the bloody scanner screen – that got him shot and hospitalised. But Eight is only making the same life-choice as Seven in that case, so it’s at least consistent.) We get to see his darker, angrier side which wasn’t possible in the TV Movie, as he dismisses killing the Martians, then subsequently warns one not to attack or it’ll die, kills it in self-defence, visibly regrets this and then just carries on. He gets a nicely dramatic “I AM TALKING!” moment when facing off against the Martian King at the end, and he generally displays all his important hallmarks, laced with an urgency and lack of duplicity that marks him out from his predecessor.

The whole sequence where the Martians use a targeted gas to kill him, which malfunctions and starts killing an entire village, is like the Doctor’s mission statement. He races towards it, fully intending to die so it’ll stop what it’s doing. Before he can do that he finds a cat in trouble, makes sure it’s safe, and then gladly offers death a jelly baby. It’s one of the book’s highlights. “Because when it comes down to it, doctors save lives and any life is worth saving.” See also, the gorgeous summary of the Doctor’s need for Bernice (and companions) in the first place: “He couldn’t travel the universe fighting monsters alone, he had told her; the magic dragon couldn’t be brave without the little boy.

Parkin leans into the light, fun side of McGann’s take on the character, including a few playful nods to the TV Movie such as “‘You’re an alien, are you?’ ‘Well, yes and no,’ he replied evasively.” He does odd little Doctory things, like remind us the way to the his hearts is through his pockets: “The Doctor was rummaging through his pockets and producing his usual assortment of junk: a cricket ball, an elephant feather, a bag of koala nuts, a big ball of string, a piece of the True Cross, even a dog whistle.” His rapport with Bernice is instantly different to what it was, starting with his appearance. “Doctor, your new body is very... well, I say “very” – that doesn’t mean that I personally think... I mean, compared to the way you used to look, of course, but not everything goes on looks. But when it comes to the initial, y’know...’ She blushed, realising she might be implicating herself here.” He’s “little brother or first boyfriend, not a father,” evidenced by the hilariously blunt moment when they need to wheedle computer access from an uncooperative man running an Internet café, and the Doctor’s plan amounts to: “‘Well you’re not a little girl any more...’ ‘I beg your pardon?’” (This ends up being an agreement to watch sci-fi movies with the guy.) And there are some moments that go some way to defining him as his own Doctor, in particular his rejection of forward planning, and a dizzying sequence where he must survive a great fall by using whatever is to hand; the sudden dash through his memories, and then his pockets, is reminiscent of the Doctor’s mind palace in Heaven Sent, but it also feels craftily like an opposite approach to exhaustive planning. The Doctor that follows Sylvester McCoy could scarcely be defined any better.

For a noticeable stretch of The Dying Days it appears that the Doctor has died, and most of the action is given to Bernice. As we saw in Eternity Weeps, and just generally whenever she’s around, she can carry a book. Unfailingly witty but deep of feeling, she’s able to mask her terror with delightful dialogue: “‘Hello,’ she said weakly, holding up a lit match. ‘Beware the power of my mighty weapon. Sorry, it’s the best I can do.’” Her determination to reason with the Martians matches the Doctor’s, and she just has that indefinable quality that makes her one of the most interesting things in any room she’s in – which is bloody handy, as she’ll soon become the main character. (“To the adventures of Professor Bernice Summerfield,’ the Doctor declared.” Quite.) After finding a job offer as the chair of archaeology on the planet Dellah, she finally moves her stuff out of the TARDIS and sets up shop. The Doctor gives her his old umbrella; the dodgy novelty-equivalent-of-a-torch is passed, and the new era can begin. (And yes, she snogs him because she’d “never forgive herself otherwise”, and it’s hinted that they sleep together. It’s now or never, I guess, but then it’s open-ended enough to draw your own conclusions. My two cents, I don’t think either of them would have gone through with it.)

There have been many endings for the New Adventures. The characters finished their arcs in The Room With No Doors. The Doctor said goodbye to his past in Lungbarrow. The publishers said goodbye to the Doctor with So Vile A Sin. It’s all been said – especially and at length by me, soz – and The Dying Days doesn’t need to say it again directly, because as the afterword mentions, there are still going to be New Adventures of a different kind. But there is still time for an affectionate and subtle goodbye in the form of the Brigadier, who gets possibly his best role in the books to date.

He’s well characterised, sharing a lovely rapport with Doris, particularly when sheltering a famed mass murderer: “‘You trust him?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Then I trust him. I’m going to hide our axe, though.’” His attitude to the Doctor has never been clearer, particularly when waiting behind in Bessie during a heavy bombing, even though the rest of his forces have gone, because he knows they will need the Doctor to win. (“From that moment until his retirement, Lethbridge-Stewart knew only two things for certain: the world depended on him, and he could trust the Doctor.”) His sometimes simple bravery triggers a few eye-rolls from the rest of UNIT, and even he thinks of his and his colleagues’ glory days as being able to “solve the world's problems with a mug of cocoa each and a telephone between them”. The world has moved on, and this is undoubtedly a last hoorah – although Parkin makes it clear that the events of Happy Endings are still to come for him. And he’s okay with this part of his life coming to an end because, well:

His successors were going to do sterling work, probably even better than his own. But he liked to think that he’d set a high standard for them. Hopefully, in years to come, people would say that he had lived up to his illustrious ancestry, and that by and large he’d done a good job. He knew that he’d had a good innings, and despite the old saying, he’d neither died nor faded away. Retirement wasn’t so bad, not on those terms.

And there, typically, Lance Parkin says it best.


Friday, 10 April 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #98 – Doctor Who: The Novel Of The Film by Gary Russell

Doctor Who: The Novel Of The Film
By Gary Russell

This one doesn’t count, of course. It’s about a year out of place (publication-wise) and, more to the point, it’s not a Virgin book. Even more to the point, the fact that this novelisation went to BBC Books and not to Virgin probably helped signal the end of their Doctor Who license. Reading it as part of this marathon is a bit tactless, like inviting a loved one’s murderer to their funeral.

Still, I’ve owned this book since it came out and never read it cover to cover. Also, Marc Platt kindly cued it up at the end of Lungbarrow. And like it or not, this is the end of the Seventh Doctor’s journey – print edition. So I’m reading it now, for the sheer hell of it if for nothing else.

Relaunching Doctor Who is something writers have to cope with every few years now (how about that?), and everyone approaches it differently, but they’re always juggling the same stuff: who is the Doctor, who is this Doctor in particular, who is the companion, who are the baddies, what is the TARDIS. Here is an example only speculatively linked to an ongoing series, so we couldn’t keep the companion and we didn’t have the money for monsters. Boo. The sci-fi elements are therefore pretty much what the Doctor had on him at the time, which was himself, the TARDIS and the Master’s remains. That’s probably enough to be getting on with – just look at The Eleventh Hour, which Steven Moffat admits is mostly improv after a character-building first act. But Matthew Jacobs’ script struggles to weave a coherent story out of its ingredients. After all these years and after reading the book, I can still barely follow it.

Crash cut to Gary Russell and an earlier version of the script, with a chance to flesh it all out. And it’s here that the novel takes on a strange life of its own. This is going to be different to what you saw on screen. How much of that is because it’s based on an earlier script, and how much of it was the author? Genuinely, I’ve no idea. The Script book (which obviously I own as well – 1996 was a bad year for my pocket money) veers much closer to the finished product, so that’s no help. But it doesn’t really matter. Spotting the differences and wondering where they came from is part of the fun.

Amazingly, The Novel Of The Film (or whatever you want to call it – but please, not just Doctor Who!) is a lot of fun. Maybe that’s due to context, and the trouble I recently had slogging through the world-building of The Dark Path, and plenty of other books like it. While I may not love the actual plot, there’s something very refreshing about a Doctor Who that rocks up, tells its own bizarre and self-contained story and then swans off again, barely pausing for breath. The pace is an absolute whirligig, with seemingly random chapter lengths and a plot that is dead set on exploding within 24 hours for… some reason. Some of that is probably because Gary Russell wanted to get past the plotty roadbumps without dwelling on them, and who could blame him.

So all right, fine, about the plot. The Master is put on trial by the Daleks (a whimsical idea to start with: “GUILTY!” “NOT GUILTY!” “ADJUDICATE!”) and the Doctor is summoned to collect his remains. Charmingly we get to see the Doctor receive the message and decide to go and get him. (Unfortunately we still can’t afford actual Daleks so we skip the rescue.) Cue the Master gloopily escaping from his little casket, and… something-something-TARDIS-timing malfunction-crash-San Francisco. The Seventh Doctor nips outside (surprisingly calm, all things considered) and is gunned down by rival gangs. A life-saving operation goes wrong and he dies – but not for long.

While he’s regenerating (in a juxtaposition not unlike Spider-Man and the Green Goblin – take the credit, guys!), the Master’s snotty harbinger sneaks into the body of an ambulance driver. And soon the two of them are racing against time to, let me see… get a beryllium chip because that’s the only thing that will fix the TARDIS, even though the TARDIS is completely alien, and conveniently there’s a beryllium chip nearby, plus the Doctor will meet someone who’s on a board of trustees that can get near it… huh… by which time the Master has opened the Eye Of Harmony in the TARDIS, which will only open for a human which, okay, and that will pull the Earth inside out because of all the… energy and stuff… but first it makes some windows go wibbly, but only for one scene, and now the beryllium chip can help with all of that as well by moving the TARDIS back in time to before the Eye opened… only isn’t that like reversing your car to undo a stain on the back seat? In amongst all this there’s a car chase so the Master can get to the beryllium chip first, but then since all roads lead to the TARDIS he might as well have just waited there. Shrug; you want a car chase or not?

The Master wants the Doctor’s remaining lives, which certainly tracks. He has a willing helper, Chang Lee, without going to the bother of hypnotising him – but there are precedents for that, such as Trenchard, the gullible prison warden in The Sea Devils. He offers Lee billions of dollars to help him and Lee is living in squalor, so why not? I think the reason I always struggled with this is that Lee seems to like the Master as well, even trust him. I could believe Lee being utterly mercenary about it, particularly with the added backstory of his parents’ deaths, but why he believes the Master’s hilariously half-arsed stories about bodysnatchers and Genghis Khan, I’ve no idea. (Perhaps we should just be grateful for less hypnotism as, in this version, the Master does it by spitting on people.)

This is particularly galling when the Master is so obviously sinister around him (saying at one point, “You get to live” – aw, BFFs!), and he’s literally a walking corpse. That was another idea that never quite landed for me on screen, as there’s not a huge amount of evidence for it; the bit with the ripped-off fingernail is horrifying, but arguably a bit random. Here, Gary bars no holds: “The skin had taken on an almost translucent look, with blotches of discoloured skin showing through the cheeks and around the eyes. The lips were split and one sore by his right ear was actually cracked and weeping slightly.” Yum!

Dashing through the plot is the new Doctor, and if there’s one thing to convince you the TV Movie works, it’s Paul McGann. But Gary Russell hasn’t quite found the Terrance Dicks idiom for him, defaulting mostly to his hair, his apparent facial similarity to Sylvester McCoy (?), and the possibility that he is a Sasquatch: “[He was] a slightly younger, longer faced man. However, the beaky nose was back and the shape of the eyes and mouth were similar. He had lots of back hair, sticking up and out.” Reading this book made me appreciate all the little inflections and moments that made his performance pop. Russell at least captures his irreverence and excitement. Without the distraction of visuals, however, the book makes it even more obvious that his “amnesia” is just there to pad things out. The Doctor doesn’t know who he is, then he waits a bit, then he does. (Admittedly the Eye Of Harmony helps this along, but oy, let’s just not think about that, shall we?)

Another thing that never worked for me was the Doctor’s ability to glimpse the future. This broadly works in the context of Doctor Who, since he’s been to the future and he knows stuff, but since he’s able to know things about a random bouncer and about Grace as well, it just comes across like clairvoyance. (See also his magic intuition that she wants to defeat death, backed up in the novel with the knowledge that Grace’s mum died of cancer, and that made her want to become a doctor. It’s a curiously random point on screen.) There are many odd little ideas in here that feel like chucking anything at the wall to see what sticks, which makes some sense for a pilot episode. The biggest casualty of this is the Doctor’s half human lineage which, well, what else can you say about that? The handling of it is hilariously throwaway, especially after the careful tiptoeing revelations of Lungbarrow. (Which, timey-wimey, might have been like that because of the TV Movie?) It only seems to be here to explain why the Doctor can’t open the Eye Of Harmony. But since he can’t, and there are other people here who can, couldn’t he have just… er… not been human, then?

Hey ho, a lot of it’s total bollocks. What else? The added material for Grace is nice, although her decision not to go with the Doctor at the end is quicker here, and less emotional. A few peripheral characters get meatier roles including Gareth The Bouncer, who has a romance with Professor Wagg’s daughter – who exists in this version, at least. We see the paramedics collecting Bruce’s deceased wife, and reeling from the thought of their friend being a murderer. There’s Bruce’s partner, another Master victim. And Grace’s next door neighbour, a kind old lady who comments on the Doctor’s borrowed shoes, and sees in the new year with her cat. It’s probably fair to assume these bits are mostly off-script, as Russell makes amusingly little effort to Americanise the dialogue: there’s a reference to people “getting off” with each other, and the (now American) Master says “rubbish” a few times.

Since I can’t help myself, here are a few other bits which I suspect had more than a little Gary in them. The TARDIS’s much-loathed “cloaking device” is now back to a chameleon circuit, and quite right too. The beams of light around the Eye Of Harmony are made of artron energy, don'tcha know. There’s a scene of the Master explaining who Rassilon is. (You can hear those uninitiated viewers sitting bolt upright!) When he’s stealing the Doctor’s lives, there’s a moment where the Master seemingly turns into the Watcher. There’s an adorable reference to Cheldon Bonniface – the book’s sole reference to the New Adventures, or the only one I noticed anyway. There’s a running thing where the Doctor carries around his predecessor’s hat. And the much-talked-about kiss comes with a possibly fan-appeasing caveat: “He hugged Grace tightly, kissing her full on the lips, passionately. Then he pulled back, embarrassment on his face. ‘I’m sorry, I got carried away!’

If that was the author then fair enough. I think it’s charming that the book takes on its own existence away from the TV Movie, and especially with so many Doctor Who books by this point, it would be weird not to nod to old times. Nevertheless, certain sequences just reminded me how much tighter and more effective they would become on screen. The reveal of the new Doctor is more violent and clumsy here: “The gurney shot out, propelling the dead body forward and across the room, where it thudded into the opposite wall.” Ouch. The Doctor’s sleight of hand with a cop’s gun takes a lot longer here, and is revealed before he threatens to shoot himself, instead of right at that moment, which was much neater. A scene where the Doctor fills Grace in on Time Lord physiognomy and the Master – let’s face it, not the kind of stuff that picks up pilot episodes – is just Grace asking random questions for no real reason, as opposed to deliberately making conversation about anything because people are looking at them. Also, Lee and Grace both die in the finished product, only to be revived by the TARDIS – which is bollocks, but awfully sweet anyway. Here Lee is paralysed by Master spit and Grace has a slight tumble, which, eh? “It might be painful, but she could still move around.” Gee, don’t raise those stakes too high. (This is after he back-pedals another kiss: “[The Master] seemed at first to be kissing [Grace], but Chang Lee realised he was actually sucking the poison back out of her.” EXTERMINATE KISSING.)

Somewhere under all of that, the Seventh Doctor dies with as little fanfare as possible. Hey ho: it’s not about him and the New Adventures did right by him already. (What a shame it still doesn’t match up with Lungbarrow! It’s not a mission he’s been sent on, it’s something that happens while he’s jaunting about the universe as usual. Ah well.) The Eighth Doctor makes a decent first impression, although some of that is just the magic dust Paul McGann sprinkled everywhere. Curiously, reading this has made me fonder of the TV Movie, and more aware of when it worked. So what if it was bollocks even by Doctor Who standards. Gary Russell’s book is a brisk, often lovably awkward rendition that belts along and has its own charms. It can’t help being buried under its status as a curio.


Saturday, 4 April 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #97 – The Dark Path by David A. McIntee

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Dark Path
By David A. McIntee

Time for another entry in the “horrifyingly expensive Doctor Who book” line. To find out why it’s so pricey, besides the license expiring when it arrived and there not being any time for reprints, you only need to glance at the cover, which promises the earliest adventure featuring the Master. Will it explain why he’s such a little rascal? Talk about fan-bait; of course it sold out! (As to the question, TL;DR, yes and no.)

David A. McIntee’s sixth Doctor Who book opens with his customary introduction, promising something “more introspective” and less “action-based”. Naturally, we open on a space battle. Hmm. We soon find out the complicated political situation that led to this: settlers from the Earth Empire (the Roz and Chris era) have for centuries been living in isolation on the planet Darkheart, unaware that humanity has since joined the Galactic Federation (the Curse Of Peladon era). They do not take kindly to aliens or strangers (see space battle) and they’re not thrilled about a Federation ship coming to extend the olive branch. Needless to say, there’s a secret on Darkheart. The Veltrochni – a non-humanoid species, several of whose ships were wiped out by paranoid Empire scouts – are coming to investigate and take revenge. The Second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria turn up in the thick of it, as well as another Time Lord and his assistant Ailla. The Time Lord’s name is Koschei, but he will soon be referred to as something else.

Even in summary this is a busy and densely populated story. Not the sort of thing that leaves a lot of room for introspection, you might think, and you’d be right. Especially as The Dark Path engages right away in one of my all-time book pet hates: absolutely no prizes for guessing, short sections. Not short chapters necessarily, which often give a nice bite-sized sense of progress and speed you through a book (or do for me, anyway) – but constant interruptions so we can go off and see what another group of people are doing. If this doesn’t bother you, great, tuck in. But for me it’s the absolute death of reader investment. The Dark Path is cut, cut, cut right from the word go, a million little pauses to remind you of other things you might want to go and do instead. There are other reasons this book wasn’t for me but honestly, it never stood a chance with this kind of pacing.

I’ve yet to really love a David A. McIntee novel, but that’s not to say there’s never anything to like. He’s great at writing focussed bursts of action, such as a boat crash in White Darkness, a plane crash in First Frontier, a brutal attack in Sanctuary; he’s occasionally brilliant at capturing a character’s voice, particularly Turlough in Lords Of The Storm, or the Fourth Doctor and Romana in The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang. He’s even – bearing in mind the introduction to The Dark Path – quite adept at introspection, such as Bernice’s gut-wrenching acceptance of Guy’s death in Sanctuary, K9’s snippy little thoughts in The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang, and pretty much everything about the villain Hsien-Ko in that novel. (See the sequence where she uses teleportation simply to steal a few peaceful moments with her lover, also the deft creepiness of a barren woman whose monstrous henchman dresses like a child.) He can do it, but it’s always cluttered with… other stuff.

There’s usually a level of historical research that borders on the obsessed, and doesn’t necessarily add to the story so much as (ala Lucius Fox in Batman Begins) tell you how hard it was. The Dark Path eschews this because it’s pure sci-fi – not that this is really stopping him, as Lords Of The Storm was a space opera that still incorporated Indian culture. Whatever the reason, The Dark Path has (almost) no obvious links to Earth history or culture. But it still manages another McIntee bugaboo, the unnecessary attention to detail, telling us (tediously) what buildings look like and how they link to each other, what items are in a room, that a character is “of medium build”, pausing after “Hathaway gave a polite nod” to observe “They were both in cream and gold dress uniform”, noting that a man “with short blond hair – dark at the roots – [had] high cheekbones, with a wide and expressive mouth”, and stating when the Doctor stands behind another character that “there wasn’t much difference in height between them.” This is just information, it’s not automatically interesting. And check out this absolute monster: “Pack Huthakh was one of the younger Packs. Made up of family members from three other Packs, including Pack Zanchyth, they had only recently been granted true independent Pack status within the overarching House that contained those three Packs.” This is seriously Get Out Your Red Pen stuff. I wonder if a certain amount of leeway was given due to the license time constraints. (Which would explain the rather odd paragraph on P279 that begins “psbw”, followed by an indent and some dialogue.)

Nevertheless, the book does try to be introspective. Without going back to check old McIntee novels I can’t tell if it’s worse than usual, but this is not good introspection. We are privy to everyone’s thought processes, but they’re not thinking anything interesting; it’s reminiscent of The Ghosts Of N-Space and Evolution, where everybody thinks in rhetorical questions or blandly internally states how they feel about things. For example: “Locked alone in the cabin, Salamanca felt lost. How long had he been serving aboard this ship? Perhaps that was a question that he should take more literally, and the concept felt saddening.” The concept felt saddening?! And hey, two paragraphs later he “felt guilty” as well. I could weep. We are literally told that characters felt sad, felt guilty, felt angry – sometimes several at once, “In short, she felt lost, alone, and frightened” – and we get their internal responses to other characters’ actions in real time, which is generally redundant as they then respond to them either with dialogue or an action. Virtually no one in the large cast becomes more interesting over the course of the novel. The only thing really going on here is the plot, and every character’s reaction to it (internal or otherwise) is simple and direct. The prose doesn’t really have a life of its own. Reading it was like endlessly eating grey paste.

At this point you’d usually turn to the main characters, who automatically have more definition and shape and so should give the author more to work with. And this is entirely my personal preference, but did it have to be the Second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria again? Stuffing another book (after Twlight Of The Gods) in between The Web Of Fear and Fury From The Deep means building to Victoria’s decision to leave… again. But Christopher Bulis already made the point that she was thinking of moving on, and frankly Fury From The Deep made the point clearly and subtly enough on screen. This is the dilemma of the Missing Adventures: outside their own stories, they can’t create and build character development as they’re one-shots, so (unless they follow on) they have to mine whatever was said or unsaid on the screen. They always have to use as reference stuff we’ve already seen, which blurs the line between character writing and continuity reference.

And The Dark Path is a gallumping great continuity fest even before you get to the TARDIS crew, populating the Federation with familiar species (Tereleptils! Draconians! Alpha Centuarians!), using previous adventures for context (The Highlanders! The Chase! Twilight Of The Gods! The Sorcerer’s Apprentice! Dancing The Code!) and sometimes just dropping references because god damn it that’s how I roll, bruh (Vraxoin! Mentiads! Usurians!). McIntee at least uses as a crucial plot point the fact that Victoria’s father was killed by the Daleks, but in amongst the Russell/Hinton-esque wank backdrop, it ends up looking like familiar plot points are the only things rolling around in the characters’ heads. Particularly Victoria, who only ever seems to be prim or miserable on TV or off. (The only interesting thing that ever happened to her was being a Victorian person living in the modern day, and the novelisation of Downtime is the only place it’s been explored, in expanded material not seen on TV.)

Jamie fares pretty well, and almost certainly represents McIntee’s penchant for research for this book, as he’s forever dropping Scottishisms that either need to be explained by a secondary character (usually the Doctor) or just sit there. There’s certainly an argument for doing this, as Jamie is Scottish and McIntee is a Scot, and perhaps he felt that Jamie could do with more definition in that area. But it jars a little against Frazer Hines’s somewhat generalised nationality that for this book only, he’s forever saying “ye” instead of “you”, “heid” instead of “head” and referring to a “ceilidh”, his “skean dhu” and things being “braw” and “sleekit”. Yes, I’m complaining about a Scottish character being arguably too Scottish – I’ll get me coat.

This leaves the Doctor and the Master, and the book’s main selling point. I should state that while the Doctor’s past is both a tantalising mystery and a matter to handle with care (achieved admirably well in Lungbarrow), the Master is less intriguing to me. From the outset he’s been a 100% villainous foil for the Doctor, whose motivations never amounted to much more than wanting power and wanting to outlive his natural lifespan. (So he can get more power, presumably.) The main thing that’s interesting about him is his relationship with the Doctor and how that went wrong, and The Dark Path sort of phones that bit in.

Koschei is semantically different from the Master: he has an assistant and is cordial to her, and he does not seem (at first) to be working towards ultimate power, so much as just expressing a general curiosity about the universe similar to the Doctor’s. (His companion Ailla has more deliberate reasons for being on Darkheart, which he is unaware of.) In time, he learns the secret of Darkheart and what the Darkheart (confusingly the source of power of the planet Darkheart!) can do. Tantalised, he yearns for ultimate control over the universe, supposedly to undo things he doesn’t like (such as a friend’s apparent death) and, er, to just generally be in control, Master-style, I guess. We don’t know enough about him to track his journey to this point, although it’s worth noting that he had no qualms about murdering a man in the first hundred pages so he can adopt his image as a disguise. His feelings for Ailla, who at one point is killed, and later turns out to have had ulterior motives, seem to be the reason for his transformation into someone more like the Master. But I never really bought it. There’s a flutter of seemingly romantic feeling here, but… seriously? That plays a part in later conspiring with Nestenes, Daemons and suchlike?

As for the Doctor – written in a perfectly sound Patrick Troughton manner, but with few truly memorable moments – he seems keen enough on the fellow, not perturbed to have another Time Lord around, and not particularly involved in the disagreement that creates “the Master”. This doesn’t ring entirely true to me, what with the panic he feels in The War Games about his people catching up with him, and it seems odd that (for admittedly obvious reasons) no one ever mentions Ailla and Koschei again where the Master is concerned. It’s all a bit of a damp squib; those hoping for some sort of precursor to the Holmes and Moriarty relationship shared by Pertwee and Delgado will be disappointed.

Despite McIntee’s stated aim, it’s just not that kind of story: character is a distant second to plot. And the plot’s not my favourite. The Darkheart – a strange choice, not using that as the title? – is an all-purpose sci-fi thingummy that does whatever the writer fancies. It keeps the planet’s population alive but makes them sterile, it can replace entire species with humans, it can blow up spaceships and planets or do the same thing further back in time. Any more for any more? Koschei and the Doctor spend so much time wittering on about how this stuff works that it’s difficult not to feel like Jamie and just nod along with the gobbledegook.

Frustratingly The Dark Path doesn’t make much of its conceit. It should be fascinating that a planet full of people have unnaturally long life (and consequently cannot have children), but they take it in their stride. The Master should, based on what we already know about him, find the whole eternal life thing rather interesting, but it just strikes him as a total side effect of the more interesting things that the Darkheart can do. Even the political divide between the Empire and the Federation is something the book can’t really make us feel anything about, because it takes so much explaining. If we were talking about two civilisations that were vastly and clearly different, maybe, but these are both futuristic groups whose only major difference is the number of species on the call sheet. (While we’re at it, I don’t remember the Empire being as all-around speciesist as this – they weren’t all like Roz, surely?) Even a subplot about an unseen, shape-shifting “demon” stalking the planet is variously ignored and laughed off as rumour by the Adjudicators dying as a result of it. I kept forgetting it was a thing.

There’s an obvious appeal to a story offering The Answer about a well-known character; it’s exactly the sort of gap you’d expect the Missing Adventures to fill. But I don’t think The Dark Path answers its central question with much that you couldn’t fill in yourself – to wit, the Master was a slightly less dangerous dude with a different name, until he became a more dangerous dude called the Master. It’s sadly one of the author’s less accomplished pieces of writing, offering infrequent action (which reads like generic Star Trek, pilfering much of that show’s terminology) and great bogs of characterisation mulch to wade through. It’s one of life’s little annoyances that it’s so difficult to get hold of, which artificially raises your expectations. (Not the author's fault, but there you go.) I would advise not stressing about it on eBay, and maybe catching an online plot summary instead.


Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #96 – Lungbarrow by Marc Platt

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By Marc Platt

I mean, where do you start. It’s fecking Lungbarrow.

If you like Doctor Who and read books, this one’s kind of a big deal. The sixtieth and penultimate New Adventure, the last full book (or story of any kind) for the Seventh Doctor, the fabled Origin Of The Doctor himself. The answers, at last! It promptly sold out for obvious reasons and there were no reprints for license reasons. Consequently it became very difficult to get hold of and so acquired pretty much the same mystique as the Doctor’s origins, which lends the whole thing a funny meta quality. It’s as if all the characters hectoring the Doctor about his past are really just curious about what’s in the book.

There’s some (slightly more deliberate) self-awareness in the fact that, deep down, you don’t want all the answers, and Marc Platt refrains from handing them all over. Look at Gallifrey: the more we saw, the less interesting it became. Gone were the all-powerful Time Lords, replaced by dodgy furniture and meetings. Enter Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt with some tantalising puzzle pieces. The Hand of Omega, myths of the Other, the ancient tragedy of the Pythia and the Looms. That idea wasn’t picked up outside of these books, and that’s a pity; it gave the Time Lords depth and made them alien again. They’re reborn into adulthood every time they regenerate, so it makes reasonable sense for them to be born that way. It’s sufficiently alien to remove the Doctor from the kind of background normality that makes him seem human and approachable – there should be differences between Time Lords and us. There’s also a real sadness about a species without childhood, highlighted here by the absurd fairytale image of Gallifreyan Houses with giant furniture, so the newly Loomed can feel like they were little once. (But also, less sweetly, so they can make each other feel small forever.) Time Lords were monumental, and then they were just staid and dull. Throughout the series there’s been a certain frigid quality to them, which Marc Platt has done wonders now to justify. They’re just a bit broken, really.

Into all that fits the Doctor, going home at last, because these books are ending and why the hell not. But you’ve got to be careful what you reveal about such a mysterious character, and again, Platt knows this. I don’t know what Lungbarrow was like as a TV script, supposedly rejected because it told the audience too much about the Doctor, but there’s a definite effort here to keep things, if not vague, at least arguable. So: the Doctor definitely grew up in the House of Lungbarrow. He definitely had 44 Cousins, just like all Time Lords. They definitely didn’t like him – with the exception of Innocet, who has a soft spot for his nonsense, and the patriarchal Kithriarch Quences, who had plans for him that went unfulfilled. (Platt gave a different answer for those plans in the audio drama Auld Mortality, a What If where Geoffrey Bayldon’s First Doctor never left Gallifrey. It’s amazing.) He was ostracised by the family, and somewhere before or after this his whole House (and everyone in it) went missing. Almost no one has heard of it now, not least because he never mentions it. And partly because of all this, his real name is strictly verboten. (No, it’s not “Strictly Verboten” – nor is it revealed, because nothing could possibly match the hype of not mentioning it for decades and then he wouldn’t use it anyway. Take note, New Who.)

The Doctor’s resistance to all this keeps it from really changing him. No two people seem to agree on anything in his past. For everything it reveals, which is still a pretty sizeable amount, Lungbarrow makes it clear that the Doctor is simply the Doctor, and you already know what matters about him. After 26 seasons and 60 books, you’d bloody well hope so. (Take note again, New Who.) Lungbarrow even goes to some pains not to overdo the Doctor as a presence in the novel; he’s not in it all that much, so you won’t get sick of hearing about him.

Oh but come on, what else is there. Well, we see certain important moments in his life. Since we’ve been good, we get to watch him discover the TARDIS for the first time. (It’s probably everything you hoped for.) He’s spurred on by the Hand of Omega, which buzzes around him like an eager puppy and helps the old ship to live again. We get some clues about how the Doctor can have a granddaughter during the Pythia’s blight, and who Susan really is. And of course we get some vital information about the Other, who may or may not be the Doctor. Shall we say, it’s leaning pretty heavily towards “may”? There’s some effort here to make it ambiguous by politely skipping certain beats, and then there’s the pretty major ingredient of the Doctor having no idea if he is or isn’t the Other. He’s almost as aloof to his origins as we are, which I think is the right call since these things haven’t noticeably mattered to him over the years. (Why would he make a fuss about it now? He’d rather not know, just as he’d rather not go home again. This is a perfectly sensible reaction to something that, for practical “no one wrote a script about it” reasons, has never been discussed.) All the same though, the narrative Platt weaves linking the Other and the Doctor is pretty conclusive. Why not? Clearly you can make the Doctor a figure of mythic importance and keep him as the relatively humble adventurer we love simply by the measurement of how much it matters to him. It’s a really good have-your-cake-and-eat-it.

Of course this also has to be a book that is about something, which so far it doesn’t sound anything like. Is now a good time to mention that, for such an infamous book, I’d never heard a plot synopsis for Lungbarrow? To hear it whispered about, you’d think it consisted entirely of the Doctor pulling up a chair and relating his life story directly to Marc Platt. It’s not like that, partly because the Doctor is almost visibly uncomfortable about any revelations, but even so I would be hard-pressed to describe it as plot-driven. The TARDIS is drawn off-course and lands smack-bang in the Doctor’s old digs, which has (almost) fallen out of Gallifreyan record. The House slowly comes to life, including the Cousins and, surprisingly, the furniture, while Chris is assaulted by psychic jetsam from the minds around him. (Including the Doctor’s.) Soon it becomes apparent that – all together now! – there’s been a murder. Possibly two if you include Quences, the head of the household who has been asleep this whole time, waiting for the Doctor to come back so he can read his will. (Or possibly he’s just dead. Also, his murderer may have looked like William Hartnell.)

Now is probably a good time to remind you that Lungbarrow was repurposed into Ghost Light on television, and many of Platt’s ideas appear in both stories. The sleeping figure, the grotesque madhouse, the lunatics slowly returning to life and hatching their plans, the lost policeman, the inherent trauma a place holds for one of the main characters. Rather than feel like a repeat, there’s something pleasingly symmetrical about the Doctor enduring a similar crisis to Ace. And quite frankly, both stories are so rich in atmosphere that I’d gladly show up for round three. Ghost Light drips with gothic menace and so does Lungbarrow, which has a much bigger budget as it’s only on paper: the House is enormous and it wobbles between walls and woodland, the chairs and tables can get angry, there are enormous wooden “Drudges” that stomp around doing the housekeeper’s bidding. There’s an ancient well and a river hidden somewhere, mirrors you can pass through, the TARDIS stuck high up in a cobweb and psychic visions pulsing through the lot. The Cousins have their own distinct, vivid personalities, and all along we’re picking up scraps about the Doctor’s past. For so many reasons it’s fascinating just to sit here and take it all in, which is good because the plot isn’t moving at a conventional speed. There’s plenty of information, but the drive to investigate the murder(s) and locate the missing Gallifreyan policeman is not really front and centre. Then again, who’s here for that?

Ticking alongside this is a subplot on Gallifrey – the more recognisable, Big Collars And Arguments Gallifrey. President Romana is struggling to quell an uprising while she’s off-planet, firstly via hologram, secondly via Leela and Dorothée. All of this serves a purpose (several in fact), but it’s very much second fiddle to the House stuff. It’s enough to say that it feels right for the Seventh Doctor to see Dorothée again, and it’s handled wonderfully when they finally meet up. They talk to each other with an ease that took them years to earn, and there are little moments like “He dabbed her nose in a way she had missed desperately” that take us gorgeously right back to the early days. In a story about how far the Doctor has come from his roots, especially one that serendipitously feels like Ghost Light, it’s lovely to check in with her again and bask in how she’s grown. (This is underlined by a surprisingly beside-the-point sequence where the Celestial Intervention Agency interrogates her using a younger Ace.) She also gets to see some other companions and unknowingly marvel at how they were changed by their time with him: “If they’d both travelled with the Doctor, then they’d both seen hell too. So how come they were so superior about it? So nice.

Speaking of other companions – it’s only ruddy Leela! Better late than never, we find out a little of what life was like for her on Gallifrey after she settled down with Andred. (It’ll always be a bit random that she did that, but her genuine concern and passion for him resonate here.) Their relationship has lasting consequences for the Time Lords, which of course Doctor Who never got to explore, but it’s nicely bittersweet that the idea is seeded anyway. It’s more important that we’re spending time with Leela, who effortlessly (with maybe some help from Marc Platt) proves how great she is and how insane everybody else has been for not writing Leela novels. “She managed to invest the most banal events with an inherent wonder all of her own” sums her up rather well; see also, “She sat awkwardly, the correct way one sits in company”, and the way she handles the ongoing question of the Doctor’s past: “‘But what about the Doctor? Who is he really?’ ... She understood the Doctor’s secret. He could not and must never be tied down, pinpointed or categorised. ‘He is a mystery,’ she said with the utmost reverence.” It’s lovely that she can recognise a different Doctor without difficulty. There’s just something true and intelligent about Leela that I wish we had explored more in these books. Or at all. But Platt does her justice here.

Perhaps a visit from Leela was a deliberately tied up loose end, and if so, cheers – but it’s not the only one. Lungbarrow is well aware that the end is nigh, and little is left unresolved. Chris is still reeling from his various traumas; I think that’s over-egging it a bit as The Room With No Doors was all about closure, but then I suspect there wasn’t time to compare notes with Kate Orman, as it feels so distinctly odd for Chris to receive a bunch of the Doctor’s thoughts and not comment on that happening only the other day. (It was the reason for the title!) He essentially gets a blow-out of the Doctor’s mind in this, and that’s enough for them to amicably part ways. It’s a shame they reach this decision “off-screen”, right after Romana says not to be too hasty, but then again Orman already spent a novel doing the legwork and it’s the Doctor’s book, so it’s fine. Chris flies off to meet up with Bernice; I couldn’t be happier with that pairing unless, well, the Doctor showed up too. C’est la vie. (You also get to see the two K9s in this, which I couldn’t work into the review anywhere else but is, I assure you, adorable.)

Of course the Doctor is the biggest loose end. Not that there is a great deal left to resolve – there’s been a whole series of books about him! But the good folks at Virgin decided to be the bigger people and tie this in with the TV Movie, and never mind how silly it was that the Daleks put the Master on trial, and let the Doctor come and collect his remains without shooting him first. (Wait, are there Dalek lawyers? I want to read that book now.) Romana’s hush-hush mission ends well for Gallifrey, but the attempted coup draws the Doctor towards his fateful mission. The final moments are bittersweet by definition, but there’s an absurdly jolly air as they plug the gaps before he goes away forever. The screwdriver, which he never replaced? It’s Romana’s. The fancy new TARDIS interior? It happened a few chapters earlier, and Chris is impressed. The Bernice Summerfield New Adventures? Nicely hinted at, thank you. It’s box-ticking, but of a well-intentioned kind. That’s sort of Lungbarrow in a nutshell: not as substantial as an ending, but a lovely epilogue.

The Doctor has no reason to be terrified of a 4% chance of survival after coming to terms with things in the last book, and if that miserable House taught him anything, it’s that change is for the best. The Doctor’s last line here – the last thing he says in Virgin canon – is a continuity reference only Dorothée gets. As well as making me burst out laughing, it’s a sweet reminder that his fate isn’t sealed. (And that mortality is never far from his thoughts.) After being surrounded by his House and its ersatz childhood, it feels bizarrely like he’s off on his first day of school, bright eyed and with a packed lunch.

And so we leave him, unburdened, slightly richer for the knowledge we’ve picked up but still reassuringly himself. What can you say about the Seventh Doctor at this point? The New Adventures have given him more depth and colour than he had on screen, certainly, but as of 1997 it’s more than any Doctor. He got to play out the Cartmel Masterplan, tragically breaking Ace until she rebuilt herself. (There’s a wonderful reference to Season 27 and the mooted plan to send her to Gallifrey; she quite rightly thinks about it and says “No thanks”, which he’s fine with.) He met Bernice, Chris and Roz, people unencumbered by Ace’s neuroses who could speak to him more on his terms. He lost friends and found others, fell apart and was almost human underneath. (But not.) He could be as whimsical as the Doctor has ever been, and the more books we got, the more he seemed to need that. He could be terrifying, a quasi-magical figure that defies analysis when you look at it. He had strange little ways of not getting dirt on his shoes or appearing without a sound. He had horrible schemes, or maybe he just thought he did. He was other, whether or not he was Other. He was the Doctor to the nth degree, evolving and maturing but always the Doctor. It is difficult to imagine all fifty-odd years of the character embodied more accurately than he was in these books. They can have the license back. The mission was already accomplished.


Monday, 27 January 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #95 – A Device Of Death by Christopher Bulis

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
A Device Of Death
By Christopher Bulis

Okay, so you’re about to lose the Doctor Who license. What do you do? Looking at the books published around this time (such as Cold Fusion, Lungbarrow, The Dark Path) I can’t help imagining a frantic race to green-light the wildest, most fan-maddening things they could think of. And why not, since they were getting evicted? But that theory sort of wobbles when you look at A Device Of Death, published right near the end and about as likely to frighten the horses as a Doctor Who episode guide. What was the pitch? “Hey Chris, we’re a book short”? “Which Doctor was your mum’s favourite”? Of course there’s no real obligation to do something crazy or fannish here, nor any guarantee that doing that = a good book, but the sheer ordinariness of this is a bit stifling so late on. When you can count your license time in minutes, it seems like folly just to churn ’em out.

That’s not to say A Device Of Death feels cynical or knocked together, as Christopher Bulis has a decent idea here and he clearly likes all his characters. But it could have been published at any point in the run, and whether or not that matters, it feels a bit disposable now.

Fresh from changing history a bit in Genesis Of The Daleks, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry are heading back to Nerva Beacon via the Time Ring – or so they think, until the Time Lords decide there’s something else that requires their attention first. Something goes wrong and the travellers are split up. The Doctor lands in Deepcity, their real destination: an underground weapons facility that is part of a massive space system war. He soon becomes a valued guest helping with the war effort. Harry arrives in a war-zone where his medical skills quickly endear him to the military. Sarah, ever the lucky one, winds up working in an enemy camp, and later befriends one of the humanoid battle droids that litter both sides of the conflict. All three have amnesia to some degree, but the Doctor will be affected by it for most of the book, not being sure what he was up to in the last story, where his home planet is or what blueish box-type thing he happens to be obsessed with. Mostly the memory loss serves just to delay the plot, as a Doctor playing with a full deck (and knowledge of TARDISes) makes short work of the problem later. Harry and Sarah get their marbles back soon enough, and having this happen one after another begins to feel redundant – Sarah must be interrogated first, so she can remember the return of her memories!

From the outset, something clearly isn’t right about this war. This is particularly apparent when 1984-ish “daily hates” come along to stir wartime spirit (in, improbably enough, Harry). There’s also the peculiar absence of enemy soldiers – Sarah comes closest to seeing any, and then it’s mostly synthetic prison guards. Bulis clearly has a plan in action, but dramatically it’s a bit inert as the main factors are all too obvious early on. (One side is clearly perpetuating the war, so it just becomes a question of Why.) Meanwhile the Doctor and Harry have quite a pleasant time of it (Sarah, admittedly, less so!), and the narrative – though switching adroitly from one character to another with each chapter – moves very slowly, with a lot of information dispensed in heavy exposition dumps. (There’s something uncannily odd about the image of Tom Baker sitting patiently while another actor talks at length.) There are interesting moments when Harry wins the trust of aliens on a battlefield, not to mention plies his trade as a field medic for once, and Sarah’s experiences in a work camp are suitably harrowing, including witnessing a failed escape. It’s genuinely satisfying when they come together at the end, and it becomes apparent that (spoiler?) the planet Harry and Sarah are heading towards is the secret one that houses the Doctor. But the journey to that point is mostly spent going “Yessss?” with increasing impatience.

There’s something novel (or perhaps desperate) about cramming a story into this gap – which went from the Doctor, Sarah and Harry spinning through space at the end of Genesis to, er, the same thing at the start of the next story, presumably! – and there’s something awkwardly redundant about the wartime bunker stuff that fills the plot. This is in no literal way a repeat of the previous story, but it still couldn’t have been made in Season 12 for the sensible reason that you don’t want to see two things in a row that look or feel alike. There’s more or less a deliberate reason for this, but it arrives on the second to last page of the book, so it’s not really enough to offset the creeping suspicion that Bulis simply loved Genesis and wanted to repurpose some of the sets. (Mind you this was Season 12, when they were so thrifty they set two stories in the same place. But like, eight weeks apart, which was something.)

Bubbling along beneath the “What’s really going on?” action is a subplot with Sarah and the robot, which she christens Max. This has a wider significance to the story which becomes apparent in the last stretch, then clicks fully into place on the last page. (!) This is worth noting because, if you didn’t know it was going somewhere, these scenes add nothing you haven’t seen before. Even Sarah notes the parallel with befriending Kettlewell’s robot in Tom’s first story, and the teaching-a-robot-to-appreciate-human-foibles act is as old as, well, robots. Max is garden variety “nice robot” in every way, and I say that as someone who absolutely loves anything with robots in it. A Device Of Death could, in another draft, have been all about emergent robot life, and may have been more interesting, but there doesn’t seem to be room to dwell on that theme as we drily move from one plot scene to another until someone finally owns up about the purpose of the war. There’s a cast of dozens, only some of whom (like the guilty scientist Tarron or the pompous actor Malf) feel at all lived in. It definitely feels like Bulis is invested in everybody here, but the story doesn’t have room to flesh them all out. It has themes, too, about the dangers of jingoism and ignorance of suffering, but they seem to happen in spite of the chugging prose rather than because of it.

Is it worth the wait to find out what’s going on? Not massively. I won’t say exactly what’s going on here because, beyond spoilers and what would just be the obvious reason for perpetuating a war beyond its sell-by date, I’m not sure I entirely followed it. A Device Of Death reaches count-the-pages territory by the end, not unlike some of Bulis’s other sloggy novels like Twilight Of The Gods. It’s never actually bad (although you may sprain something rolling your eyes at the Me Robot, You Friend stuff) but it lacks a great sense of danger and, being all about war, much in the way of fun.