Friday, 9 March 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #65 – Lords Of The Storm by David A. McIntee

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
Lords Of The Storm
By David A. McIntee

And now for something… slightly different.

In his own words, David A. McIntee needed a change.  Sanctuary was one of his most David A. Mcintee-ey books thus far: a pure historical with lots of action sequences, it indulged his main interests of historical detail and action… detail.  It’s not exactly an upbeat book, although I think his suggestion here of a “grim ending” is a bit harsh.  It ends on a note of hope, or at the very least some Schrödinger uncertainty – besides which, nobody reading the ongoing New Adventures would expect Bernice to suddenly get a long term boyfriend, so it can hardly be a surprise when Guy de Carnac doesn’t come with.  (Let’s face it, the moment an unscheduled character says “I can’t wait to join the team!” they’re either going to change their mind or die.  Godspeed, Lynda-with-a-Y.)

Onto his brave new novel, which the author describes as “more your old-fashioned space opera with shootouts, spaceships and lots of corridors,” and “not exactly mind-expanding”, but at least “more upbeat and fun than Sanctuary.”  (Jeez, Dave.  Who’s writing this review?)  He’s fairly accurate on all counts, although his apparent ennui with historicals doesn’t prevent him dipping a toe in history.  Hindu culture figures prominently in Lords Of The Storm, sufficiently to require a glossary at the back, which isn’t such a different context from Haiti in White Darkness or the UFO craze in First Frontier.  But there is a pronounced difference between this and his other books so far.

Simply being a Missing Adventure makes Lords Of The Storm a less “heavy” book, as it doesn’t have to carry any major continuity (actually, hold that thought!) and it can come and go without frightening the horses.  Also the story he has chosen plays more to Classic Who than I’ve come to expect with the Missing Adventures; aside from some impossible-to-realise visuals and at least one swearword, you could drop it into the show’s back catalogue without creating ripples.  Whether it’s an especially brilliant Classic Who story is another matter, but either way there is a grateful audience for meat-and-potatoes Doctor Who.

We all like different things, but there are aspects of McIntee’s writing that make my teeth itch, and while they do feature in Lords Of The Storm they are largely restrained.  The Prelude and the Prologue (and now you mention it, I do find it a bit annoying when books can’t just get on with it) are, for me, like that scene in Clockwork Orange with the eye-clamps.  Establishing sentences ramble on with as much detail as possible, inviting the reader to pause the book and make a damn diagram of what’s going on and what it all looks like: “The faintly misty ribbon of stars that was draped across the infinite darkness like a fur stole slipped past to the left as Loxx switched over to the sublight drive and wheeled his ungainly gunship around in search of the source of the signal which had alerted his squadron.  Sometimes he’s like a kid in a candy store, only the candy is adjectives: “It was like looking out on a jagged sea, lit by the fiery glow of a sluggish river of molten rock…  In past novels he has favoured frequent paragraph breaks, which come in handy as he likes to spring new settings and characters on you, and the Prologue has this on all counts, jamming in the first hints of Hindu culture whilst simultaneously introducing disparate characters, often sticking to his old habit of telling us what their hair looks like, or stapling a descriptive signifier between lines of dialogue.  (“Noonian grinned through his beard.”)  It’s like eating several dinners at once.  The jury is out on whether any of it is bad writing – although I’d be willing to argue the case against those adjectives – but it is largely contained to the first twenty-odd pages, surely a conscious decision.

What follows is a surprisingly measured, almost sedately paced plot that has several things to do – what’s going on on Raghi, what are the Sontarans up to on Agni – and follows them up at an efficient clip.  Which is a monumentally boring way of saying the book moves through its plot without jumping all over the bloody place, or lingering too obsessively on the details, which I found rather refreshing.  This is its Classic Who vibe: none of it’s in a terrible hurry but it’s not exactly boring either.  After the uphill hike of the Prologue, I found it an easy read.

Equally Classic (if not, I would argue, classic) is the emphasis on plot, with characterisation as a bonus.  No one is terribly written, but there’s nothing too memorable about the people here.  Nur is a compelling new friend for the Doctor: a young woman treated like royalty who would much rather not be, her piloting skills are neatly underlined by a family tragedy, and she has a personal stake in the spread of disease on her home-world.  When it comes to confronting her father about his involvement, what should be a pretty heated change in the status quo is entirely matter of fact; the consequences wait politely for the end of the book.  The head of a local hospital, Jahangir, finds himself colluding with Sontarans and feels a palpable guilt over it, which makes him far more compelling than the average cloth-eyed collaborator.  It later transpires he was hypnotised the whole time, which is less interesting than being coerced, and his subsequent character arc of revenge and sacrifice could not be more obvious.  The climax of this goes strangely unseen, as does (or almost) the oh-yeah-I-forgot death of a programmer Turlough briefly meets.  Several moments are weirdly nipped in the bud, like Jahangir freeing his hypnotised comrades from Sontaran control, which goes from “I might do this” to “Phew, finished” in close succession.  The book just isn’t that interested in dwelling on things, which might be another conscious effort from McIntee.  Despite making a big thing of Hindu castes and their parallels with the Sontarans, which is relevant to their plan, Lords will not teach you anything major about Hindu people; it jumps through some fairly obvious hoops about karma and the wheel of life and then pretty much calls it a day.  (Still, maybe I am so used to overkill from his previous books that I inadvertently miss it here!  In which case I am impossible to please…)

The Sontarans, at least, are treated as thinking people, albeit distinctly Sontaran ones who are obsessed with war and can hardly tell humans apart.  One of my favourite observations was that countless human deaths don’t really matter, because they probably reproduce as quickly and efficiently as the Sontarans do.  (I.e., cloning.)  That utter disinterest mixed with rationalisation gives them a thoughtful and alien approach.  There are clearly differentiated ranks and castes of Sontarans, which explains why the clone race looks different every time they’re on screen.  McIntee amusingly highlights what some think of others, not shying away from their general lack of subtlety but also crediting some of them with considerable intelligence.  He is, I think, less successful in physically telling them apart: he makes an admirable effort each time but it always sounds to me like variations on “a brown potato”.  Which I suppose they are, but it’s still difficult to know which one he means.

The Rutans inevitably feature.  While this isn’t a given in Sontaran stories, although they do often talk about their gelatinous nemesis, the book makes it clear that these events form a prequel to Shakedown.  And thar be Rutans.  Or Rutan, as McIntee insists on pluralising them.  (It’s worth it for the glossary.  Rutan: the plural of Rutan.  See below.  Rutan: the singular of Rutan.  See above.”)  Just as much consideration goes into them, with a similarly chilling disinterest in their enemies and, in sequences told from their point of view, an unnervingly liquid view of time.  It’s only disappointing that they are kept back until the end of the book.  A gestalt mind – which has always been a canny parallel of the general sameness of Sontarans – the Doctor makes light of them and calls one of them “Fred”, which is then picked up into the plural “Freds”.  Best of all is a Rutan working undercover, who is so entrenched that he (they) gets his (their) tenses mixed up: “There would be time enough to resume a normal life later, if he survived.  If we survive, he reminded himself – themselves – more forcefully.

Said Rutan spy forms the main link between Shakedown and Lords Of The Storm, and I often wondered if it was even needed.  Could the villain in Terrance Dicks’s book have got by without this specific back-story?  But perhaps I’m just grouchy because our knowing the character’s name makes it a very long wait for what otherwise would have been a decent twist.  I half expected a lot of nudges towards the fact that you may have already seen or read Shakedown, but it’s written straight, and offers surprisingly little to tip the wink.  When the reveal comes it’s still pretty exciting, and it’s a very neat note to end on, give or take the corny final sentence.

Fortunately there is an entire novel besides the link to Shakedown, and indeed McIntee came up with this before Shakedown even appeared on video.  The plot could easily survive without a link to anything else: the Sontarans just want to lure the Rutan into a trap and then wipe a lot of them out, and the caste system on Raghi makes it easier to trick them into thinking this is a planet full of Sontarans.  (I did wonder, given how quickly Sontarans “reproduce” and how little they regard their “offspring”, including as potential target practice, whether it would have been easier just to breed a bunch of Sontarans and leave them there.  It wouldn’t be cricket, I suppose, but weighed against the number of Rutan killed?  I think they’d consider it.)  There isn’t a great deal of mystery to be had, hence the fairly patient meting out of information as opposed to a series of shocking twists and turns.  The Doctor doesn’t twig that the Sontarans are even involved until almost the halfway point, and then he just nods and gets on with it.  Similarly, the disease raging through Raghi is an obvious consequence of their plan, and it won’t be a problem for long.  The various interpersonal issues – Nur losing faith in her father, and struggling to forgive a hypnotised collaborator who is also her arranged spouse – get swept away as neatly as possible.  McIntee’s description of Lords as “not exactly mind-expanding” is certainly accurate, but I wish it hadn’t been his mission statement.

The Doctor and Turlough are in an interesting place, i.e. the only Tegan-less existence they’ve ever known, but despite a few references (and a poignantly half-hearted “Brave heart”) it’s pretty much an ordinary day out for them.  The Doctor is proactive and useful, which for Five is something of a relief.  I liked the sympathetic description of his having “that slightly saddened air of one who’s seen too much suffering, regardless of his obvious youth.  Turlough is charmingly close to amoral in this, noting that “the choice between possible hurt to others and certain hurt to himself was an easy one to make.  There’s a degree of overkill in so repeatedly telling us how dimly he views humankind and how quickly he’d leave them to rot, and he skirts a little too tenuously on the edges of the story.  But there are also enough references to his regal home life to suggest a subtle decline towards the next televised story.  A reference to Kamelion does much the same thing, whilst also eyebrow-raisingly reminding me that I tend to forget he exists.  (For the second time in the Missing Adventures, I find it odd that the book range doesn’t do more to give this technologically challenged character some fresh air.  After all, they’re his only hope.)

I often wondered if this was my Proverbial Good David A. McIntee Book, but that’s disingenuous.  I haven’t hated anything he’s written, I just tend to remember the irritating scaffolding surrounding the good bits.  And there are always good bits, though they tend to be one evocative action scene out of many: the crashing ship in White Darkness, a plane falling out of the sky in First Frontier, a surprise attack in Sanctuary.  I’m not sure I could pick a comparable highlight here, although the Prologue nearly throws its back out in the attempt.  Lords Of The Storm is a more streamlined effort, often literally, as McIntee proves he’s entirely capable of describing things wittily and concisely: “The planet was not alone in its orbit; a necklace of sparkling jewellery encircled it and its tiny moon.  /  It was as if they were flying through a universe of smoke, ready to leap at the source and fan the flames.  /  There was an uneasy silence, whose gradually increasing length started the sergeant visualizing his opponent in the duelling pit.”  Lords does not have a cast of thousands or a need to change channels all the time, so it’s an easier read than some of his other books.  I’m not sure I would call it “upbeat and fun” – a description largely based on his last book not being those things – but it’s steadily enjoyable.

All the same, the pervading sense of casualness doesn’t add up to much.  The Doctor and Turlough aren’t wiser for having had this experience, and neither am I; even it its best I couldn’t see myself reading it a second time.  It’s a personal preference, and I know it’s slightly unfair when you’re reading not just Doctor Who books but era one-shots, but I just don’t have a lot of room on my shelf for stories that are happy just to get on with it and go home.


Next up: 66–70, starting with Just War by Lance Parkin...

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #64 – Shakedown by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By Terrance Dicks

If you think the New Adventures were an odd avenue for Doctor Who, you should see the other guy.  Armed with assorted talent from the show but no license, fan videos were a (relatively) popular way to get your fix in the ’90s, provided you could stomach budgets that made… well, Doctor Who look lavish.

I was a timid young fan and couldn’t wrap my head around books with new companions, let alone unlicensed videos about some random people who may or may not look like the Doctor (or worse, no one that did), so I missed the boat.  Most of the stuff I know now is from Dylan Rees’s excellent non-fiction book, Downtime.  But I’d still heard of Shakedown: one of the more successful efforts, it was a self-contained thriller with Sontarans attacking humans on a spaceship.  They shot it on a real battleship and the cast would all be familiar to the target audience.  Terrance Dicks wrote it; you might remember him from Pretty Much All Of Doctor Who.

It was apparently Virgin’s idea to novelise it as a New Adventure, and in his introduction Dicks admits this is an odd choice.  Shakedown featured no Doctor Who characters besides Sontarans and Rutans, and it’s 55 minutes long – a quick read even by his standards.  To compensate the book begins before the video, novelises it, then carries on afterwards.  Think of it as the most lavishly expanded Target book ever written.

In case you were optimistic, Dicks’s last book was Blood Harvest.  A shoddy mix of gangster fare and unnecessary State Of Decay sequel, it felt rushed and it lacked the thrills of his earlier Exodus.  And now I’ve seen Shakedown, which pretty well achieves its aims – the monsters look good, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, I liked the music – but is, shall we say, generally one take away from its best?  Shakedown has Michael Wisher competing with a (comedy?) Sontaran for the hammiest turn, and it includes some spectacularly bad “romantic” dialogue between the two varyingly wooden leads.  As with most of the ’90s fan videos, you probably had to be there.  Even then I’ll bet it didn’t scream “This would make a really good book!”

Sure enough, the best bits are not taken from the video.  Dicks throws himself into What The New Adventures Characters Did, or as it’s actually called, Part One: Beginnings.  (Yeah, the subtitle’s not great.)  We need a reason for the Doctor and co. to get involved, a reason for them to miss about 55 minutes of the action and then a reason they’ll be needed again afterwards.  You get most of this just by splitting them up to hunt the Rutan who caused all the trouble in the video, and simultaneously find out what – besides the obvious – he’s done to annoy the Sontarans.  Dicks adds a lot of colour to these side quests.

(Before I get into that, splitting up the characters used to be an irritating excuse to juggle too many of them, but it has become de rigueur since Chris and Roz joined.  It feels right to have a police investigation with two ex-Adjudicators on staff, and it suits the Doctor’s rampant game playing to put it on several fronts.  With novels like Toy Soldiers, Head Games and this, they’re sort of reclaiming that trope.)

We know the Doctor previously met Kurt (the erstwhile Shakedown hero) thanks to some cheeky references to a mysterious “dentist”, among other misremembered monikers.  (Sue this!)  The encounter is a slightly bigger deal now: the Doctor is mid-adventure (generally how I like it) on a planet about to be invaded by Sontarans, only he’s already trying to fend off some human colonists as his sympathies lie with the natives.  Not a problem, now he just has two oppressors to get rid of.  He and Kurt, the latter fleeing a compromised smuggling deal, turn things sour for the Sontarans and Kurt vows to pay him back for saving his life.  The whole vignette fits into a pacey prologue and it makes for a memorable start, with the Doctor wholeheartedly toppling regimes just like the old days – although he seems a little too at ease teaching the natives to kill their oppressors, just as later on he has no problem at all offing Sontarans.  (His characterisation is mostly all right, apart from wholesale murders and sounding oddly like the First Doctor at times.)  The Jekkari, who only communicate by tapping, are an interesting bunch.

It neatly establishes Kurt’s knowledge of Sontarans, but it also creates a few hurdles.  Kurt barely remembered the Doctor in the video (which was mighty convenient, of course), and there’s no sign that he had previously met the two Sontarans who would menace him later, as he does here.  Dicks gets around such discrepancies – which to be clear, didn’t exist until the book! – but he ain’t exactly subtle.  He has Kurt deliberately fudge his facts about the Doctor, essentially because uh, reasons?  And on Commander Steg not recognising him, brace yourself: “Lucky I got rid of that beard!  Later when Steg miraculously survives his screen death to wreak some Act III revenge, we get a whole bracketed-off paragraph explaining Sontaran death comas.  Truly seamless.

Getting back to Shakedown: The Expansion Pack, Roz and Chris are following a trail of Rutan murders.  It’s an obvious avenue for them, but hey, it fits.  This leads them to Megacity (Judge Dredd lawyers on standby), a place that practically runs on corruption.  Things are so bad that the police are Ogrons.  You can immediately tell Terry is enjoying himself with hokey sentences like “In Megacity, everyone was on the make”, and it’s also a fair bet he enjoyed the lack of a TV watershed, what with spectacular gore, generous swearwords and a horny topless waitress.  It’s pulpy, moreish stuff.  (I read the entire book in a day, going to Wales and back by train.)

More pertinently, Roz and Chris are sort of well written.  “Sort of” because, while we’re not learning anything new about them – because this isn’t The Also People or anything of that sort – the salient points are covered.  Chris is characterised as a “seven foot infant”, which is just about what every other writer thinks.  (Anyone fancy building on this?)  I’m not sure I follow the odd preoccupation with his size (he’s a “giant,” apparently: “The chair, like most chairs, was too small for him”?) but his almost inane optimism rings very true, and a surprising reference to body-beppling – along with a clever reprise of the Adjudicator credo – reminds us that Terry does his research.

Roz’s short temper borders on cartoonish at times, such as nearly strangling an informant, but her long-suffering partnership with Chris is appropriately fun.  Even better is what happens when she gets arrested.  Dicks is justly proud of Garshak, the eloquent and witty Ogron police captain, but deliberately or otherwise he uses Garshak to slap Roz’s problematic prejudices right back at her, as she tries talking to him as if he were a typical Ogron.  It’s a very funny scene on a couple of levels, spoofing the reliably foolproof Ogrons (who make adorable policemen, naturally) whilst upholding a sore character beat for Roz.

Over in the other strand of the Doctor’s web, Bernice is visiting a university, which is another obvious path to take but oh well, it’s an easy win for the reader.  Looking past the comfortable academia we have an unusual insect world, where shimmering universities exist on deserts and only winged contraptions can take you anywhere.  Of course Sentarion has its dark underbelly or it wouldn’t be a place for keeping Rutan secrets: someone there wants Bernice dead, just as Roz and Chris are on Megacity’s hit list, and simply mentioning the native religion can get you instantly murdered and your death denied afterwards.  Bernice encounters treachery among the different kinds of insect people, and she is satisfyingly methodical about whom she can trust, as well as the requisite level of witty.  (“‘Hang on,’ yelled Bernice.  ‘I refuse to be murdered on a technicality.’”)  Roz/Chris and Bernice’s subplots are loads of fun and Terry measures out the action expertly, though we obviously drop them completely when we’re in video territory.

Things eventually move to Space Station Alpha as the Tiger Moth prepares for its shakedown cruise, where fans of the video know the Rutan stows away on their shakedown cruise, turning what should be a simple shakedown cruise into a full-blown shakedown cruise...  of death?  (Terry gets the title in so often, I wondered if he’d printed “We’re Going On A Shakedown Cruise!” T-shirts.)  It’s surprisingly cool to start incorporating the characters from the video as we prepare to blast off into it, especially as Terry doesn’t need to do any acrobatics to mesh this bit into his original script: the whole Space Station Alpha thing goes pretty well how it was described, for once.

And then we’re into Shakedown proper, after the space station is locked down by Sontarans and the Doctor fatefully comments that “the Rutan is on board that solar yacht – and there’s nothing, nothing I can do about it!  (Some more subtle justification for you, there.)  Despite what I said about Shakedown being a spectacularly lavish Target book taken as a whole, the actual novelisation is one of Terry’s most bare-bones efforts.  It’s 43 pages; you get considerably less than one page per minute of video.

That’s hardly surprising if you’ve seen the video.  The plot is pretty slight: the crew of a solar yacht are boarded by Sontarans looking for a Rutan, they have to survive both and ultimately get away.  Some beats don’t make a lot of sense, such as why carefree rich people are doing the day-to-day running of the yacht rather than betting on it from afar, why Captain Duranne’s scheme to help the Rutan defeat the Sontarans lasts as long as that sentence, why Zorelle is so determined to betray Kurt, and why Terry wrote a base under siege thriller about a monster that can look like anyone on board (and thus hide in plain sight) without bothering to disguise it until they already know about it.  None of these points make more sense in the book.  The characters were paper-thin to start with, and not really worth embellishing as most of them are going to die, and so they remain.  At least the performances work a little better in my imagination: Michael Wisher drops the dodgy American accent (“Space Station Alpher One”?) and Vorn is no longer played by Dame Edna.

It’s as economically written as any of Terry’s Targets, and shows off his knack for an apt description.  He describes Kurt as “medium-sized, sturdy-looking” with “a lazy pleasant smile”, which is perhaps more accurate than he intended when it comes to his performance energy.  (The description “not young, not handsome, but strong and dependable” made me laugh, given how hard Brian Croucher is trying to look dashing in that particular shot, and at most points in the video.)

It’s inevitable given the length, but Terry does tighten up the script.  A moment when the Sontarans introduce themselves by throwing a stun grenade carries an awkward pause on screen, as Kurt seems not to know a bloody obvious grenade when he’s staring at one, but he shouts “Run!” straight away in the book.  The bit where Sophie Aldred’s boyfriend dies is followed by “You killed him, you monstrous bastard, you killed him!”, which is subtly less hilarious than “You killed him, you bastard!  You bastard, you killed him!  Sadly all the laborious references to “sexual pair-bonding” are still there – a phrase you might blame on the Sontarans but is actually down to Kurt – which suggests Terry also has “Are You Sexually Pair-Bonded?” T-shirts on the go.  Overall Part Two of Shakedown dashes by like a contractual obligation, which is rather odd when it’s the main reason for the book to be here; it seems pretty clear to me that all Terry’s real energy went into Part One.

Sadly, the “sequel” part is not quite as arresting.  Which is hardly surprising, as while there might be room to set up those events, they certainly had an ending in the video.  Terry hastily adds Steg’s survival and the Rutan having reproduced in order to cobble together a third act, and the book almost audibly strains with the effort.  But we still need to find out what military secrets the Rutan knew, and those are tied to Bernice’s sojourn on Sentarion, so there’s a mad dash as the Rutan, then Steg, then the Doctor and co. (with Duranne and Kurt) go to put a stop to things.  It’s roughly the same measured pace as Blood Harvest when it neared the finish line, i.e. bleary-eyed and out of breath.  When all that’s done, the Doctor does his traditional fill-everyone-in-on-what’s-happened round up, only it’s 100% known information.  This is followed by a spirited, but almost word-for-word repeated scene from Shakedown only with the Doctor and friends in it.  The entire epilogue feels like a weird postmodern exercise.

Shakedown is rather odd, isn’t it?  A colourful and fun prequel, a lean novelisation of a by-the-numbers story and a frantic wrap up, it could be the work of three writers, or at least three distinct Terrys.  There’s a basically upbeat tone to the whole thing which just about buoys the less good bits; even when it’s rushed, or flogging a more or less dead horse, it’s still enjoyably kinetic to read.  Terry has done an okay job with the insane brief he was given.  Sometimes it holds together so tenuously it squeaks, but it’s still more of a laugh than some New Adventures written in earnest.


Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #63 – The Empire Of Glass by Andy Lane

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Empire Of Glass
By Andy Lane

I’m almost halfway through the Missing Adventures, and I still wonder what I want from them.  A story you could (in some parallel universe) have seen on television seems the obvious answer, but that’s setting the bar rather low.  The Target novelizations recreated the telly stuff verbatim, and yet many of them also tried to broaden the scope and embrace the novel format.  The Missing Adventures were bolder from the outset, getting away with stuff you’d never see in the TV show – or what’s a different medium for?

Assuming you don’t mind these non-exact replicas, there’s still a downside: the MAs can’t follow a long-running narrative like the New Adventures, what with each book diving into its own era, so there’s no build-up to anything.  In terms of character it’s a case of taking whatever you can get, and even then you’re stuck with the TV show having done all the heavy lifting beforehand.  But lucky for us, Classic Who didn’t like to dwell on things emotionally, so there’s still some gold to be found in between episodes.

With all of that in mind, the best case scenario would be a book that feels like an old episode but puts a bit more icing on top.  Let your hair down, you’ve got a whole book to yourself!  It would be great if they could meaningfully address some character points, though not in a way that affects the next story too much, and a little continuity between books would be beneficial.  Satisfying plot is a must, but it can be quite small so long as it holds together.  (The Also People, though it’s in a very different range, showed that there is more to life.)  Oh, and since it’s a one-and-done it might as well be a lot of fun.

So The Empire Of Glass, pretty much.

Andy Lane is one of those names that elicits a sigh of relief, having co-written the shimmering Lucifer Rising and solo-penned the rollicking All-Consuming Fire and the awesome Original Sin.  His fourth book doesn’t buck the trend.  It’s a historical-with-sci-fi-bits, and while it is annoying that we couldn’t have a pure historical – because dagnammit, they can be as good or bad as anything sci-fi – the historical bits have more than enough Hartnell-era flavour.

The Doctor is invited to Venice in 1609 for reasons he has forgotten.  (We’ll get to why.)  Strange things are already afoot, somehow linking the disappearance of the Roanoake colony, the attempted poisoning of Galileo and said astronomer spotting what appear to be spaceships on the moon.  Lane brings the history to life by focusing on average people, and he weaves a marvellous Venice without getting bogged down in detail, touching on the strange ways of the locals (who love to argue but will always offer directions) and the delightful oddity of a town built on wood and water.  He does a good job making recognisable people out of historical figures, in particular Galileo, the rather boozy and pompous (but basically quite amiable) genius.  He’s a little less sure in the book’s sci-fi realm, the island of Laputa; it’s mostly a plot point and he doesn’t dwell on its weirdness.  Venice is undoubtedly where it’s at, and it’s where the book indulges in something quite common to that era of the show: mistaken identity.

On arrival in Venice, the Doctor is mistaken for Cardinal Bellarmine.  When those that summoned him come to collect him, they dismiss him as the Cardinal and come for Bellarmine instead, who then must assume the Doctor’s role in an unusual peace conference – which he, bewildered, believes to be Heaven.  Steven befriends Galileo, only to be mistaken for the man himself and fall afoul of his enemies; he then befriends another man (living under a false identity) who ends up sharing the guise of Galileo with Steven.  Eventually William Shakespeare appears – leading a double life! – ostensibly to spy for King James but in all likelihood showing up because the sheer weight of disguise and misunderstanding drew him here like a moth to a Bat-signal.

There’s a lot going on, and yet Empire Of Glass has one of the smaller plots I’ve come across.  Simply, the Doctor has an alien peace conference to go to, he can’t remember why so he doesn’t go directly there, and somebody is planning to ruin it.  All of which is very neatly done, but the book’s real delight is in the details.

Steven is new to the TARDIS, and he still doesn’t have any great trust in the Doctor.  Lane doesn’t do anything as obvious as have him spend a load of time watching and learning from the Doctor – instead, his friendship with Galileo (and even more so Giovanni Chigi, a mysterious Englishman who quite obviously fancies him) gives him time to think about his past and get accustomed to his strange new life.  Vicki does something similar, at one point remembering the death of her pet Sandy.  (Just in case you’d forgiven Barbara.)  Lane draws a parallel so obvious I can’t believe I’ve never spotted it: both she and Steven were living in captivity when the Doctor showed up.  More interestingly, they didn’t feel the same way about it, with Steven raging against his captors and not officially being rescued at all (forgotten about in a blaze, he stowed away), whereas Vicki lived an idyllic life with no idea her only companion murdered her family and stranded her there.  (Mind you, the novelisation of The Rescue doesnt make it sound at all idyllic.)  Both of them have reasons to be a little dubious of the Doctor, and reasons to be thankful for him.  Following him on an errand even he doesn’t understand won’t exactly help.  Lane doesn’t tear into any of this, instead having worries and doubts bubble on the periphery.  It’s a jolly book, after all, not a brutal re-examination of why these people are friends.  I was glad to get any of it.

It’s here (in the Doctor’s unremembered errand) that the book indulges another love: continuity.  I’m always wary of this in Doctor Who, but I think Lane approaches it creatively.  The Doctor has just come back from the events of The Three Doctors, during which time he was invited to this conference with the full approval of the Time Lords.  His memory was then wiped because the Time Lords are officious idiots.  It’s a definite era no-no to show the First Doctor making nice with his own people, not to mention making this a sequel to a story made almost a decade later, but those things sort of cancel each other out and that’s so insane I quite like it.

And it means we get a piece of book continuity: Irving Braxiatel, who has not yet established his Braxiatel Collection (a.k.a. the lovely backdrop to Theatre Of War), is trying his hand at intergalactic peace.  An interesting character the last time we saw him, Braxiatel is clearly worth revisiting.  Clever and funny yet apparently quite dispassionate, at least where humans and history are concerned, he makes a few decisions that suggest typical Time Lord pomposity with a personable twist.  He hosts his conference above Venice circa 1609 because of Galileo’s accomplishments, yet he interferes with his telescope so he won’t spot spaceships coming and going, potentially scuppering history in the process; he invites the Doctor, who cannot normally pilot his own ship, directly to Venice yet somehow doesn’t check whether it is the Doctor he is picking up via flying saucer; and he blithely suggests Cardinal Bellarmine be killed to alleviate any confusion with the Doctor, later on he still not realising it was the Doctor he wanted dead.  He has no apparent love for the Doctor, which puts him in the same boat as most Time Lords, observing that many of the universe’s most dangerous foes agreed to have him host the negotiations because they hate him equally!  And yet, he always seems to have good intentions at heart, and hints are dropped – we’re talking hints with a capital Anvil – that he is related to the Doctor in some way.  By the end of the book he has more than endeared himself to the TARDIS crew, before going off to establish the Library of St. John the Beheaded, because come on, it’s an Andy Lane book.  A beautiful post-script has him visit an older Shakespeare, for reasons equally philanthropic and greedy.  I hope we see more of him.

Other dollops of continuity include some amusingly bitchy broadsides at Francis Pearson, a seriously tenuous nod to when the Fourth Doctor met Shakespeare, various monster cameos and a bit where a winged creature kidnaps someone straight out of a window.  (Because come on, it’s an Andy Lane book?  Hey, he knows what he likes!)  But it’s by no means a fanwank novel; these bits are sprinkled over a very inventive book, as the Doctor gets into various scrapes with Galileo, Braxiatel grows more exasperated at not being able to find him, and Steven spends more time with his lascivious friend.  Honestly it’s a little disappointing that the Doctor, Steven and Vicki don’t spend more time together – Vicki in particular, though well characterised, seems apart from most of the action.  But the Doctor and Steven are wonderfully written.  Having recently seen Hartnell’s Doctor badly mischaracterised by New Who, it’s a relief to see him given his due: he might misspeak on occasion, but he can also zip around “like a monkey” and just as effortlessly outthink Braxiatel as to what’s going on in his conference.  A moment near the end has him improbably sharing a stage with Shakespeare, and he coaches Vicki through an ad-libbed Macbeth, which feels like a lovely tip of the hat to the prolific actor who helped make the Doctor what he is.  (Conversely, despite a few lovely moments I’m not convinced Lane ever really justifies having Shakespeare in the book.  One of his contemporaries makes a greater impact, rendering him slightly moot.)

There’s a charm and a zest to The Empire Of Glass, and despite (or maybe because of) its economical plot the thing zooms excitedly along.  And there is depth to be found.  Vicki and particularly Steven have a lot to think about, the latter seeming genuinely changed by his experience.  (I’m not sure if he returned his new friend’s feelings or if I’m reading too much into that, but then again Steven is far from sure what it all meant.)  Lane stops short of taking a doubting Steven and making him entirely happy to be here, but rightly so as that wouldn’t be true to Steven.  The character work is pretty much what the Missing Adventures ordered: small but significant.  (Like Jo’s growing determination in Dancing The Code, or the emotional fallout over Susan in Venusian Lullaby.)

If this was the only Doctor Who novel I ever read, I’d consider it a complete success.  As one of a series I’m little more reticent, as there’s still a nagging feeling that there could be more characterisation, but perhaps that’s just the Missing Adventures for you, having to cut and run after every book.  I had a great time reading it, which ought to be enough.


Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #62 – The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
The Also People
By Ben Aaronovitch

Blast.  It’s one of those books.

I almost prefer reading stuff that everyone hates.  The worst that can happen is you find positives other people have ignored, and then you can disagree with popular consensus in a nice way for once.  Failing that you get to join in and have a jolly good moan, and who doesn’t love that?

But then you get books like The Also People, which are beloved by most Doctor Who fans that have ever picked up a book on the subject.  It’s like watching a famous movie: you’re objectively wrong if you don’t like it.  But what if it’s rubbish?  What if, therefore, I don’t really appreciate good things when they come along?  What if I don’t even get it?  Okay, we’re discussing a Doctor Who book and not the Sistine Chapel, but come on, some of them are a bit obscure.

Ben Aaronovitch wrote the seminal kick-up-the-posterior Seventh Doctor story in Remembrance Of The Daleks, and its stellar novelisation.  But he also wrote Transit.  A weird, grungy cyberpunk story that takes ages to introduce the Doctor, throws away Bernice Summerfield and gives people names like Ming The Merciless and Credit Card, Transit had very good prose and clearly knew what it was doing, but it never let me in on the plan.  Now we have his follow-up novel, which opens with “Notes on the Pronunciation of Proper Nouns”, a concerning guide to saying names like “aM!xitsa.”  I can’t tell if that’s worse than having to memorise a map, but it’s definitely up there.

I suppose I was gearing up for a fight.  This was going to be me shaking my fist at a famous thing (well y’know, relatively famous) and saying “Oh yeah?!”  But it was for nought.  I got nothin’.  The Also People is exactly, tediously, as absolutely bloody wonderful as everyone says it is.


Trying to explain why made me realise something absurd about it, which is that technically there’s not much to it.  Fresh from the physical and psychological traumas of Head Games (aren’t they always recovering from the last book?), the TARDIS crew go on holiday.  Yes I know, that old chestnut, but for real this time.  Not for a bit early on, like in Shadowmind, or just saying they’re going to have a nice time and it never really coming to pass, like in every other Doctor Who story: the Doctor takes his friends to a peaceful place full of interesting people, some of whom are spaceships, and they really, properly relax.  It’s lovely.  Okay, there’s a murder that needs investigating and the Doctor is up to some deviousness, which is why he picked this place to put their feet up.  But all that feels complementary.  The Also People is the fabled Mostly Character-Driven Book.  It finally happened!  And it worked!

You couldn’t get away with putting your plot on the back-burner if you didn’t have something special to replace it, and in his Dyson Sphere – to pick just one aspect of the book – Aaronovitch has prepared nicely.  The idea’s a fairly old chestnut in the sci-fi community (although I only found out about it recently from the TNG episode where Scotty shows up): an artificial atmosphere built around a sun, it’s theoretically cool, but it’s only as interesting as what you fill it with.  The Also People goes nuts, creating an inside-out planet too vast to see a horizon, with its own planets hovering above.  I honestly don’t know if I pictured it correctly, and I don’t mind if I’m wrong.  I like the imagery the book made me come up with, which extends to the accommodation, a madcap hotel possibly designed by children; inside is a floating 360 degree bath, force-fields that tidy up after you and a bedroom that zooms through the sky while you sleep.  My mind boggled delightedly at the idea of looking up and seeing more land.  Without a doubt, The Also People joins the ranks of Lucifer Rising, Parasite and Sky Pirates! as one of the great world-building Doctor Who stories.  It’s not just a great addition to the series, but a seriously unshabby work of science fiction.

And whoa, back up, what was that about people who are spaceships?  This is where the title comes in.  “People” refers to anything with intelligence and feelings, which totally extends to household items, mobile drones and spaceships of unlimited size.  There’s people, and those things over there… also people.  Such non-biological folks can move their intelligence around if they like, extending their lives and developing a rather philosophical perspective.  There’s a jolly parachute with a lot on its mind, an adorable bit where several spaceships attend a fancy dress party, and a hilarious paragraph where aM!xitsa (ammkzitza?) swims entire oceans of thought, writes and discards entire theses, all while Roz replies to a simple question.  I love anthropomorphic machines.  I’m.  In.  Heaven.

(It’s worth mentioning that along with the Dyson Sphere, the “People” concept had already done the rounds.  Fans are quick to point to Iain M. Banks as a source of “inspiration”, while Aaronovitch says cheekily in his Acknowledgements that New Adventures writers get ideas off the back of a lorry, no questions asked.”  I haven’t read Banks but it definitely sounds like Aaronovitch has, and at the risk of triggering a Double Standard Alert, I’m fine with that.  The Also People isn’t a cash grab – it’s absolutely a Doctor Who story, and any Banks-ian ideas are put to good use enhancing the Who-ian characters.  Sometimes it’s not whether you made up the source material yourself, it’s what you do with it.  Anyway, in Bernice Summerfield: The Inside Story, Aaronovitch says that Banks knows about all this and is flattered.  So there.)

Much like the names and some of the locations, it’s possible I’m not seeing this stuff exactly as Aaronovitch intended – no amount of fun anthropomorphism is going to make me learn a new sub-language just to enjoy a book, I’ll just wing it with the names, thank you very much – but duh, it’s more important what they’re like, and who they are than what precisely each spaceship looks like.  I felt like Aaronovitch left a good amount of the physical detail up to the reader’s imagination, while still filling in loads of other cool stuff like the crazy hotel and the market that sells figurines of Chris and Roz.  The book is character-based after all, and the whole point of it (if I can be pompous enough to assume I get it) is that there’s more to people.

Roz shines for that reason.  It’s still relatively early days for her and Chris, and unlike his first New Adventure finding a sudden unwanted companion on its plate, Aaronovitch takes his time to chip away at Roslyn Forrester: he never shies away from her unpleasantness and prejudices, if anything magnifying them, but (through the cheeky device of a drink called flashback) has her recall her past and try to reconcile it.  She begins a relationship with a man, and ultimately comes to terms with her life as a law enforcer, and how much that means to her.  She also goes for a nice swim occasionally.

Chris gets relatively short shrift, jumping into a relationship with a girl called Dep (although gender and age are somewhat fluid), as entranced by her physical beauty as he is by her interests in building flying machines.  (Okay, maybe it’s 60/40.)  Their relationship is quietly observed and tolerated by everyone, ultimately building to consequences he’s completely unaware of.  Aaronovitch seems just as happy to write Chris as a loveable, handsome goof as his contemporaries, but he encourages the idea that his innocence can’t last forever.  It’s quite dark to let him leave oblivious at the end.  We have a pretty good idea how Dep’s life will go from now on, but she makes her choice regardless.  She’s a more rounded character for having, and keeping secrets.  The penny will drop for Chris some day.

The Doctor and Bernice circle each other, she suspecting he’s up to no good, which is of course accurate, and he knowing she’s onto him, and thus frantically steering everyone holidaywards.  In an unexpected (though obviously planned!) turn the Doctor tells Bernice about his life-or-death mission on the Dyson Sphere and leaves the choice in her hands.  Head Games also dealt with the idea that the Doctor doesn’t relish these responsibilities, brutally so when it came to his parting from Mel, but The Also People is considerably more deft.  It often observes that he’d rather be a daft little juggler than Time’s Champion; it lingers on the dread that his lies might push his friends away forever, counter-weighting it by having him yearn to make them happy, or interrupt Roz just to tell her he appreciates her.  Despite being open about what he’s really like, it’s clear that his mission isn’t as heartless as it appears.  He wants to believe the best in people, he just has rather devious methods for getting it out of them.  Before they go, he encourages one of his friends to see someone they’re about to leave behind, and just be with them for a while, even though they’re guilty of murder.  You only live once, some more literally than others.  (And as he admits to himself, he’s guilty too.)  That moment of perspective seems gloriously par for the course here, as colossal intellects are reduced to petty smallness, and parachutes can be profound.

Bernice comes to understand the Doctor a little better, and Roz too.  The Also People achieves this organically, along with loads of beguiling moments that juggle the Doctor’s Machiavellian nature with, well, juggling, thanks to its unique pace and how it handles its priorities.  Much like the heavy emphasis on character, which also feels like A Thing You Mustn’t Do, there is a true positivity to The Also People.  While bad things still happen and lives are lost, the overall triumph of good feels spectacular after so many gloomy analyses of the Doctor and his friends, as does the generally friendly tone of the prose.  (When the Doctor are Bernice are attacked by something decidedly nasty on page 231, take a moment to wonder how often anyone has been in mortal peril so far, and whether that makes a blind bit of difference to your enjoyment of the book.)  When it’s time to go the characters race into the TARDIS in a great mood, rested and optimistic, and they have absolutely earned it.  I guess it says something about the New Adventures that this feels so original.

The Also People, in essence, nails it.  Which given the scarcity of these books and the unlikelihood of a reprint is sort of annoying, really!  But nope, I can’t turn this into a moan.  It’s a beautiful piece of work and I don’t know how it could have gone any better.


Monday, 5 March 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #61 – Millennial Rites by Craig Hinton

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
Millennial Rites
By Craig Hinton

What’s this?  Something I have read… before?  But such decadence is impossible!  The Before Times were only a myth.  There was, and only ever shall be The Marathon, praise be to Virgin Books.

Okay, if I squint hard enough through the mists of time, maybe I did read Millennial Rites once, before I had any intention of ploughing through sixty more of the buggers (and then the rest).  Picking a random Missing Adventure is actually a good litmus test for them as there’s no continuity between books, or so you’d think, and Millennial Rites worked pretty well that way.  Fast forward to now and the things I liked most about it have stood up to a second reading.  Fair warning, there’s some other stuff that maybe isn’t so good, which I either didn’t notice or gave a free pass the first time; if you read it once and liked it well enough, maybe stick to one-and-done?

Millennial Rites concerns the Millennium (surprise?), and it’s fairly tech-heavy, with computer hacking quite prominent.  Going overboard with modern tech can unhelpfully date a story, like the slightly-too-enamoured-with-CD-Roms System Shock, but Craig Hinton keeps the details vague enough and sprinkles on enough fantasy touches that it doesn’t sound embarrassing 20 years later.  It is another of those dreaded sci-fi-meets-arcane-wizardry books, although it has a dash of originality that keeps the genre mash-up from being too groan-worthy.  And there’s quite a bit of continuity, but most of it’s done with flair, so it isn’t only rehashing stuff for geek points.  I think it’s fair to say that Millennial Rites does a few things well.  Most noticeably the Doctor.

One of the things I loved about it the first time was the distinctly less brusque Colin Baker-shaped Time Lord.  Hinton mentions “redeeming” Sixie in a BBC interview and name-checks Big Finish, where he’s a cuddly old uncle in space.  The first time we see him in Millennial Rites, he’s well on his way there.  Suavely dressed and dropping by to see an older Anne Travers on her birthday, he’s keen to see how she is.  He’s caring and considerate, a good listener – if anything too good, as an invitation for her to kip in the TARDIS is taken to mean considerably more!  Hinton isn’t just mashing the Random Characterisation Button here: Baker always intended to mellow his Doctor.  Following his self-exile in Time Of Your Life, he’s keen to avoid becoming the Valeyard.  This means accentuating the positive.  (Which is an achievement, considering he was not able to avoid Mel Bush indefinitely.)

It’s pretty good timing that all of this follows Head Games, which concerns the Doctor’s struggle against his own dark side, as seen from the other side of his regeneration.  There’s a sad irony to this warmer, happier Sixth Doctor, knowing his life will be cut short and a kind of darkness will win out after all.  But all the same, I’m not certain Hinton hits the issue squarely on the head.  And there’s a curious deficit of Doctor in this.  When the muck hits the fan at the halfway point, it’s the work of Anne Travers, Mel and the villain of the piece; when things go back to normal at the end, the same applies.  The Doctor sort of floats through the story.  But… nicely, I guess?

Tobias Vaughn’s protégé (and therefore obvious rotter) Ashley Chapel is planning some kind of technological horror at the turn of the Millennium.  Anne Travers is very concerned, not to mention still obsessed with the Great Intelligence, and she is convinced the two are linked.  The Doctor has missed the Intelligence’s third coming in Downtime.  (Which in an odd piece of timing was not yet novelised.  But you don’t need to have seen or read it, since I haven’t.)  Here is some of that not-too-shabby continuity I mentioned earlier: The Great Intelligence disappeared from Doctor Who (rights issues?) with no particular plotty reason not to come back, so it feels only natural to revisit it.  Millennial Rites tends more towards the idea of those earlier stories than literally sequelising them, which is refreshing.  But the continuity has its ups and downs, with the Doctor info-dumping all about the Intelligence’s real name (Yog-Sothoth) and where it came from.  (When did he find all that out, then?)  It’s also rather disappointing how Hinton writes Anne Travers, piling on reference after reference to her bitterness, sterility and generally wasted life.  And incidentally, you’d better get used to monotonous character beats.

Mel, who “looks for the best in people” while also being rude to everyone she meets, finds herself investigating Chapel’s “Millennium Codex”, a computer programme of mysterious import.  She is soon hacking into it (at the behest of Chapel’s second-in-command, who wants to stop him but never really clarifies his plan beyond Power Grab); before long, she’s debugging it for free.  Which is good news for Chapel, who in a pretty definite lift from The Invasion (the bit where Vaughn gleefully watches Zoe talk his computer to death) lets her get on with it.  I wondered why he was so confident about his plan if the Codex was in such a terrible state the day it goes live, but that’s mad villains for you.  Chapel isn’t the most interesting bad guy, effectively copying Vaughn’s modus operandi with the mystical Saraquazel replacing the Cybermen, armed with one lackey (not including monsters) and, apart from a mental link with Saraquazel, not much motivation to take over the world.  His dialogue is humdrum.  If this was made for TV, the actor playing him would have his work cut out.

Meanwhile a couple of Chapel’s employees have been laid off, only to find themselves embroiled in the countdown to disaster.  A stolen computer programme literally transforms Barry’s computer, then summons a co-worker-turned-winged-monster: enter this book’s monsters, “cybrids”.  This literal fusion of technology and fantasy is an arresting one, and very visual.  And that’s not the half of it, but before we get to the book’s trump card, a few words on Barry and Louise, the couple (or are they just friends?) on the periphery of the action.  Hinton based some of Millennial Rites on his own job experiences, not unlike Justin Richards in System Shock, and it shows.  A lot of their gripes rings true of people who hate their day job, but that doesn’t make them interesting characters.  Their dialogue, including endless references to going to the pub, getting drunk and having a ciggie, sounds like soap opera filler, and it’s even worse when they get emotional.  (Even then, Barry caps a tearful speech with “As soon as this is over, I’m going to take you to the White Lion and we’re both going to get totally plastered”!)  We’re meant to have our hearts in our throats when Barry dices with death, but the relationship with Louise is all talk and no substance, most of it due to her improbable decision to have his baby, never tell him it’s his and then stay close friends.  Much is said about Louise’s baby and her disability, but it’s mostly a convenient sore point for her and Barry, and then an unbelievably hackneyed addition to the plot later on when a sacrifice is needed.

Speaking of which, the Millennium happens, and this is where the book shines: you go into it expecting a gradual slow burn of technology and fantasy having at one another, the plot unfolding as these things do, only to find the whole story transforming at the halfway point.  Chapel’s plan works more or less, and we’re suddenly in a parallel version of London.  Some of the landmarks look the same, but dangerous magic rules over them, cybrids have the run of the place, and the people are not what they were.  Anne Travers is now the powerful Hierophant, lurking in the Library of St. John The Beheaded (where she attempted to abort the disaster, wrongly thinking it was all to do with the Great Intelligence); Mel is the Technomancer, brilliant and in charge, but utterly lacking Mel’s positivity; Ashley Chapel is the Archimage, ruling from the Millennium Hall (ooh, so close!) and consulting with his gods.  The Doctor is the only one who can see that everything is wrong, and a change is overcoming him as well, albeit slowly.

When I first read Millennial Rites, this was the bit I took away from it: a story neatly and excitingly bisected, which could work really well if it was made for modern Doctor Who.  There’s something uncannily prescient about the whole thing, what with the slightly Big Finish-ish Sixth Doctor as well, and the pseudo-London is evocatively weird.  But on closer inspection, Hinton’s party trick mostly just works on the surface.  There are about half a dozen humans in the post-Millennial world, a lot of indistinguishable cybrids and other monsters besides.  Comparing these people to their original counterparts, personalities have mostly just dulled.  Fragments of their past lives come back to them later, but we’ve only got half a book to get on with it, so this happens in sudden clumsy spurts.  The writing itself seems to get worse in the second half, with hokey fantasy dialogue like “Walk with me awhile, stranger.  Tell me of whence you came”, and that trope of making a character sound genuine by having them stutter a bit, mid-sentence.  The information we need is, is...  /  Doctor?  What’s wrong?  Why are you being so, so horrid?  I wonder if a fast-approaching deadline made things decidedly woollier in the second half.  I’ll take any explanation I can get for the line “Anastasia watched the display of emotions with conflicting reactions.

In “Part Two”, the Doctor comes into the story more – but then, does he really?  Flitting between other characters, he more or less inspires them to take action, all the while suffering his own transformation into you-know-who.  But Hinton achieves this by the most simplistic means possible.  His costume literally gets darker as the book progresses, until a random mood swing signals that he is no longer himself.  It becomes apparent that any use of his magic powers (which he didn’t know he had) will bring forth the Valeyard, who promptly throws his lot in with Chapel and offers to sacrifice Louise’s baby (!) to make the transformation apply to the whole world.  But the Doctor is able to overcome this almost immediately (cue brighter clothes, phew), until he has to use his powers again (uh oh, black robes).  The Valeyard comes and goes at the drop of a hat, which trivialises him, and worse, Hinton has created a Catch-22.  Writing the Doctor so he is nicer than usual means there’s no deeper reason for him to become like his darker self, but that’s the journey of his character in this novel, as well as his reason for being nicer!

And what of the Valeyard?  He wanted to kill the Doctor, his past self, to sustain his own existence.  The Seventh Doctor did essentially the same by bringing forward his own regeneration, although he did it for different (supposedly good) reasons.  It’s a valid comparison, nicely fleshed out in Head Games, but I don’t think we know enough about the Valeyard to draw a much deeper comparison than that.  Millennial Rites makes broad references to game-playing and putting his companions in jeopardy, all of which sounds like Seven, but less so the sinister bloke in the black garb, don’t you think?  Did he ever really care about the Doctor’s companions, even as pawns?  We know from Head Games that the Seventh Doctor doesn’t play with people’s lives entirely guilt-free.

The book makes certain grand gestures, redeeming its unpopular hero and handling its novel-length genre mash with unexpected wit, but there’s an absence of depth.  It’s debateable whether you should even look for that here: certainly there’s enough atmosphere and action-adventure to turn the pages, and plenty of references to please the die-hards.  The book is, overall, enjoyable.  But Millennial Rites has ambitions beyond that, trying to ask meaningful questions about the Doctor and the Valeyard, anchor them in an emotional story closer to home and offer up another, sideways chapter in the Great Intelligence story.  The prose, more fannish and pedestrian as it progresses, isn’t up to anything fancy.

Clearly it worked for me once, and the best I can suggest to replicate that is to lower your expectations.  Millennial Rites is enjoyable as a random, unexpected treat; much less so as an answer to the Valeyard question, or anything especially deep.


Friday, 26 January 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #60 – Head Games by Steve Lyons

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Head Games
By Steve Lyons

It’s a sequel to Conundrum.  Of course it’s weird.

My Conundrum-tinted spectacles have slipped a bit since reading Time Of Your Life.  While nothing technically to do with his first book, Steve Lyons’s Missing Adventure was, for me, a let-down.  An odd jumble of satire and “Do we really need to do this again”-isms involving the Sixth Doctor and video nasties, it left a bad taste; I’m sure some people liked it, but I’m not at all surprised he went back to the Land Of Fiction for Round #3.

Luckily we already know he can do imaginative sequels, as you-know-what was itself a sequel to The Mind Robber.  In the same vein, Head Games isn’t even set in the Land Of Fiction: the Land is having adverse effects on the real world.  Which is a bloody fantastic idea you could do almost anything with – you get the same bizarre freedom with the fourth wall, only it applies differently.  Jason, the previous Master of the Land Of Fiction, gains limitless powers thanks to a hole in space that leads to the Land Of Fiction / Gallifreyan incompetence in erasing his memories / magic.  (Delete where appropriate.)  He also has a travelling companion and partner in crime you may recognise, his imaginary hero, Dr Who.

The two of them travel the cosmos righting wrongs, comic book style.  Alas, Jason’s moral compass has exactly two settings and Dr Who is his id, so entire alien races get wiped out willy-nilly, planets are blown up on a whim, and he decides the Queen of England must be a tyrant because things aren’t perfect, and kills her with exploding projectiles.  Everything is black and white.  It’s a demented parody of Doctor Who, but it’s not quite as literal as that sounds: it’s a parody of how you might view the Doctor, and what the Doctor really isn’t.  The contrast between how he is viewed and what he really is lurks behind the book at every turn, making a goofy premise into something dark and character-driven.  Hey, I said it was weird.

You go into this expecting oddness and Land Of Fiction-isms, but even so it can seem all over the place.  The Doctor, Bernice, Chris and Roz are mid-adventure when we arrive, trying to shut down The Miracle: a Fiction-powered hole in space, now surrounded by crystal and providing light and heat for the nearby planet Detrios.  This has changed Detrios’s balance of power, resulting in heightened inter-species tensions.  We chop between humans and lizards trying to co-exist on the surface, their human despots trying to tip the balance, Jason and Dr Who zipping through space and Bernice, Chris and Roz trying to accomplish something they’ve forgotten, as the Fiction energies invade their minds and throw up personal nightmares.  This is the first 30 pages.  Soon things settle down, almost terminally: tensions on Detrios aren’t helped by Jason and Dr Who getting involved, but they soon leave to “right wrongs” on Earth.  The Doctor and co. follow them as they vaguely plot to overthrow the Queen because… well, because Jason’s an idiot, he doesn’t really have reasons.  A lack of direction and maturity is the whole point of Jason, but even bearing that in mind his story is a bit half-hearted and random.  There is much wandering around and trying to accomplish something or other.

The situation on Detrios and the madcap stuff on Earth just aren’t that arresting.  The Detrians are a dull bunch, despite a bit of Romeo-and-Juliet affection between species; I kept hoping they’d all turn out to be bland fictional creations.  (Or at least more so.)  We don’t meet anyone interesting on Earth, despite the chaos of the (promptly reversed) Queen’s assassination.  Reversing his own magic seems to be the main surprise in Jason’s arsenal, which is annoying when you’ve got a character marching around with bonkers make-anything-happen powers.  Decidedly less than “anything” happens here.

The fourth wall stays more or less in tact, but there are some to-be-expected (and actually pretty great?) references.  Prepare for, among other things, a literal recreation of Original Sin (may you never forget it!), gags about the bad green-screen in Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, a nicked line from Dimensions In Time, cameos from Sabalom Glitz and Brigadier Bambera (confirming that yes, she married what’s-his-name from Battlefield), more mentions of Daleks than these books usually get away with plus – cherry on the cake – future references.  The plot of Millennial Rites comes up a few times, as does (I am assuming) foreshadowing for The Also People.  Fanwank some of it may be, but Steve Lyons does it with confidence.

Besides, it’s more than just references for the sake of it.  The Doctor’s guilt is a theme, so we hear about the destruction of the Seven Planets again (from that book everyone totally loved!), and Tanith and Gabriel, creatures who exist because of the Doctor’s interference in time (from that other book that everyone etc.!).  Also the Land Of Fiction hangover is giving the Doctor bad dreams about his sixth incarnation, and the fact (introduced in Love And War) that he killed him off to hurry his own regeneration.  It’s a barmy, utterly New Adventures idea, and probably only could have happened back when people thought the Sixth Doctor was akin to a fart in a lift.  But it adds weight to this Doctor being “Time’s Champion,” as well as an unpredictable not-that-nice person to know.  It’s been a while since he felt the weight of guilt for that, and for ruining his companions’ lives, and lucky us, Head Games is as nostalgic for all of that as anything else.

You can guess from the front cover that Mel is involved, but this isn’t the Sunny-D-in-human-form as pictured, whom the Doctor left in Dragonfire.  We find her years later on an all-but-abandoned entertainment complex in a lonely part of space, which all seems like an ironic form of punishment.  Despite her reputation in fandom, which is hard to forget with that front cover (a murderous McCoy looking as ready to rewatch Time And The Rani as you or I), it’s really cool to see an old companion again, even if circumstances have not been kind to her.  She’s soon whisked away by Dr Who and Jason, seeking to punish all the Doctor’s known associates, and despite that she is pleased to eventually see the Doctor again… but then the penny drops.  He’s not the spoon-playing insert-random-characterisation-here she once knew and liked.  The Cartmel Masterplan and the New Adventures have done considerable damage, and when she realises he manipulated her into leaving in the first place, only to wind up ditched by Glitz and miserable on a space rock, it’s all over for their friendship.

Her complete meltdown over the course of the book isn’t easy reading, especially when she realises that destroying the Miracle will all but doom Detrios.  She 100% blames the Doctor for this and refuses to understand why he has to do it.  Then she storms out of his life.  Her reaction here is important for the themes in the book, and it’s arguably justified, but yikes, is it monotonous: like all the most annoying Ace tantrums happening at once.  Difficult to miss her after that, and debateable whether the characterisation fits the character.  (It could be worse: BBC Books killed her off altogether, retrospectively, on a different space rock, still unrescued by the Doctor.  She truly was the Sixth Doctor of companions.)

The contrast between the halcyon (albeit bloody odd) days of Season 24 and Doctor Who circa 1995 is brutal, but it’s the heart of Head Games.  Things aren’t simple any more.  The Doctor must destroy the Miracle or the universe will blow up (etc.), and while this means taking away light and heat from Detrios, sending those that survive back underground, things only got warm and bright in the first place because of the Miracle.  The people survived before, they can do it again; it’s not his fault he has to restore order.  He can no longer blunder into situations like the Sixth Doctor, or his own caricature Dr Who.  In time, his friends accept that.  Or those that stick around, anyway.

Chris is heartbroken when an attempt to rescue a friendly Detrian fails – and fails for no particular reason, which is just more of life’s sad complexity.  He’ll come around, and Roz is grateful the Doctor let him try.  (Both of them have low-key material in Head Games, especially Roz, but there’s a distinctly human edge to it all.)  Bernice – who bounces off the page in her usual style, duh – won’t pull her punches, but understands and sticks by him.  Even (spoiler) another old friend, who I was surprisingly happy to see again, gives him a reassuring cuddle when Mel can’t accept what’s happening.  ‘Oh, come here!’ she said, embracing him affectionately.  ‘You might be a bastard, but you’re still our bastard.’

And it’s not like he’s happy about all this.  Mel’s outburst, the latest in a succession of broken friends, take a heavy toll.  Even worse, his Fiction nightmares result in an ersatz Sixth Doctor, a ferocious encounter ending off-screen when Sixie gets (presumably) bludgeoned to death, spattering his successor in gore!  (Why yes, this is a New Adventure.)  No more shying away from his nature now, as these events literally rub his face in it.  For good measure, and to underscore that maybe he isn’t a morally dubious bastard down to his DNA, we hear of his good dreams, which involve just the sort of black-and-white Good Vs. Evil scrapes that Jason and Dr Who got up to.  Deep down he’d rather have an easy decision, a holiday or maybe just a lie down, but those days are as assuredly out the door as Mel.  It certainly isn’t easy being him.

Head Games is an odd duck.  There’s tons of interesting character stuff, mostly of the “everyone is miserable” variety, some of it lending a sympathetic weight at the same time.  I haven’t even mentioned the nifty undercurrent of villains not being simple any more: Jason isn’t a bad guy, he just has a lot of power and hasn’t grown up; Dr Who’s destructive acts are clumsy attempts to make things better (and he occasionally tries to be Jason’s conscience); Enros, a crazed cult leader on Detrios, genuinely believes his death will mean the end of the universe; a bunch of fighty Detrians try to stop the Doctor and have good reason to do so; and well, look at the Doctor, and what he has to do here.  (Admittedly this fan theory wobbles when you get to the political in-fighting on Detrios, which really is just some bastards out to help themselves.)  There’s loads to chew over, and yet the story itself is often either frenzied or lackadaisical, all interesting premise and nowhere to go, hence the characterisation pit-stops.  It’s a good refresher on the New Adventures mission statement if you needed one, but it’s more here to remind us where these characters stand, rather than push them forward.  With a lot of funny, weird, not-weird-enough and slightly boring bits on too.


Coming soon: books 61–65, starting with Millennial Rites by Craig Hinton.