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.