Friday, 3 February 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #40 – State Of Change by Christopher Bulis

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#5
State Of Change
By Christopher Bulis

Here we go.  I’ve owned this one since childhood and, for whatever reason, never actually read it.  Perhaps it was the historical setting (more or less) on the cover, coupled with the old hard-wired fan logic that Historicals Are Boring.  Whatever the reason – probably laziness – I didn’t have any expectations when I got around to it this week, but with the amount of time it’s been sat on my bookshelves, I certainly had my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t disappoint.  It’s written by Christopher Bulis; while I enjoyed his first book, I’m aware that he’s not a favourite among fandom.

Fortunately, fandom has been wrong before, and here we are again: the historicals are jewels of the show’s early years, and Christopher Bulis can turn in a very entertaining novel.  State Of Change is no Marco Polo, but it was good enough to make me clock-watch at work, eager to get on with the story.

It’s about an alternate timeline, and Exodus already showed that I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.  (All right, maybe Back To The Future Part II got there first.)  The Doctor and Peri visit Ancient Rome so they can mingle in history, only a TARDIS malfunction has wrought havoc, and the Romans now have modern-day technology, electricity, even (inevitably!) zeppelins.  Meanwhile there’s a power struggle between the children of Cleopatra, with no clear ruler decided between the calculating Selene, the deluded Alexander and the self-deprecating Ptolemy.  There are murderous plots aplenty.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t get too concerned with how to fix history; we’ve already done that in Exodus, so it makes a nice change for the Doctor and Peri to work more on resolving the power struggle, and helping the generally noble Ptolemy overcome his siblings.  State Of Change is not a pure historical: right from the start it’s a fusion of history and sci-fi like The Time Meddler, and later on things get even more sci-fi as it turns out “alternate timeline” was merely the obvious first impression.  Nonetheless, it romps along like a lighthearted ’60s story.

Bulis apparently loves this period of history, so it must have been a pleasure to muck about with it.  (I didn’t know it too well, but there’s sufficient explanation in the book, and a quick glance at Wikipedia didn’t hurt.)  Once you’re over the shock of history not going to plan, there’s a certain lived-in fun to this version of Rome which almost recalls Terry Pratchett’s manky cities.  The characters are the same relatable archetypes you’d find in an old historical, especially a money-grubbing dealer of magic spells and a troupe of loveably hapless thieves.  There are a number of delightful comic moments that have a certain Classic series ingenuity, like Peri frightening off grave-robbers by loudly bellowing “WHO DISTURBS THE SLEEP OF CLEOPATRA?”, and the Doctor flummoxing a gladiator by running away from him, raising a hand to stop him, tying his shoe, then carrying on.  There’s a black humour to the familial villains, and even the odd touch of empathy; the maniacal Alexander believes in himself so utterly, it’s hardly his fault he’s wrong.  (“‘I doubt if I’m actually capable of making a mistake – wouldn’t you agree?’  Vitellus gaped helplessly for a moment, then slowly bowed his head.”)  I often chuckled helplessly.

As to the story’s sci-fi trappings, and the whole mess the Doctor and Peri are in, it’s all the work of a mysterious someone who for the sake of a 23 year old surprise, I won’t name.  (I already spoiled it for myself researching these books, but there’s no sense in ruining it for anyone else.)  One of the lesser-used villains from the television series is put to, frankly, rather odd use here.  The title refers to a general instability in the “alternate” Rome (as well as the obvious zeppelin stuff), which is causing crises for the Doctor and Peri (more on that shortly), as well as for the villain.  Disguised as one of the ruling triumvirate, they are cautioned by the Doctor that they’ll get too wrapped up in their host’s squabbles, and sure enough, their grand plan morphs from getting out of here to ruling this world.  I think I enjoyed it more when they really did just want to get out of here – because not every antagonist in Doctor Who wants to blow up a planet.  Why shouldn’t they occasionally have the same basic interests and survival instincts as the Doctor?  The character reaches a point of vagueness where it’s worth wondering why they were even involved, but then apparently they were a relatively late (and not entirely voluntary) addition to the book, which would explain it.  The great story about this character has yet to be written, alas, but they’re perfectly okay in this one.  I suspect State Of Change would work without them.

And speaking of lesser-used characters, at long last we get a book for the Sixth Doctor.  I know it’s only the fifth Missing Adventure, but there seems to be a certain stigma about him in the Virgin canon.  Whenever past Doctors are invoked – and it happened a lot around the anniversary – Sixie didn’t get a look in, unless it was a grim reference to his being knocked off to make room for the next fellow.  In Decalog, the short story featuring the Sixth Doctor largely side-lined him.  The One With The Patchwork Coat wasn’t even Christopher Bulis’s first choice for this novel.  (To be fair, that’s common enough: Craig Hinton wanted to write a New Adventure, John Peel apparently envisaged Evolution as a Fifth Doctor story, and a number of New Adventures authors seemed to wish they were writing somebody else.)  State Of Change still can’t resist putting the Sixth Doctor at a distance, as if he’s the show’s redheaded stepchild.  He spends almost no time with Peri, communicating with her via video and voice link, and after the halfway point he’s quite literally not himself.

Broadly speaking, Christopher Bulis gets him right.  There’s the requisite sarcasm, plus he’s a stickler for elocution and verbosity.  His dialogue can often be as dry as fossilised toast, but you can hear Colin Baker delivering it.  (There’s more going on under the surface, though not so subtly: “For a moment, the tenderness that the Doctor seemed to hide beneath his superior mannerisms was revealed, and Peri sensed the true depth of his concern.  Oof!)  But then, owing to that weird instability, the Doctor “retro-regenerates” into his past selves.  Later, with a handy gadget, he channels them deliberately.  We haven’t seen this gimmick since Genesys, and funnily enough it was used to revisit the same (apparently all-purpose) Doctor: in order to survive a gladiator match, the Doctor must channel his third incarnation, fancy footwork and all.

This is great if you’re a big fan of Pertwee, but it does make it curiously pointless that this isn’t a Jon Pertwee book.  It also leaves the current Time Lord looking absolutely hopeless.  (The jibes about his weight don’t help.)  Yes, his ingenuity is generally useful, but he’s reliant on the Third Doctor for roughly half the book, and most of the climax.  It’s such a handy and reliable gimmick that there’s really no need to worry about him transforming against his will at all – and as a side-note, the characters are rarely worried about anything in this, which adds to the relaxed fun of it all, but with the obvious trade-off of tension.  Still, towards the end we do get a (cringily fannish) sequence where the Doctor morphs back through all his past lives.  Retro-regeneration is a cool idea, and you could probably do something eerie with it, but in practice it’s just an excuse to trot out catchphrases and Terrance Dicks idioms, and allow the Sixth Doctor to improbably knock people out with a nerve pinch.  We’ve got a whole range just for these old Doctors – we don’t need these references any more.

Completing the set, Peri is going through changes too.  As you can see on the cover, she’s having a relapse to her Varos days and is transforming into a bird again.  (If you haven't seen Vengeance In Varos, spoiler alert, she turns into a bird for a few scenes.)  I can’t quite figure out why this story is set so much later than Varos, when it hinges on Peri’s mental state in it, and fear of the body horror inflicted on her.  (There’s even a pretty grim addition, when it’s revealed she had an “accident” during the process.  Thanks for that.)  She goes full Bird-Woman in this, complete with flying.  In a world with mutated animals such as hydras this makes a certain sort of sense, and obviously it’s inspired by that previous story, but it still feels like a different genre altogether when Peri swoops heroically to the rescue.  She’s characterised pretty well otherwise – a little brash but empathetic, good at encouraging other people to help each other, gently tolerant of the Doctor – and Bulis does try to examine the effects of her transformation on her psyche.  The bird thing is still a bit random, and all things considered Peri accepts it rather easily.

And yes, it’s worth mentioning the nude scene.  Though not nearly as troubling as the short story Fascination, which mixed Peri and sex like that was automatically what should come to mind about her, it’s still a bit frown-inducing that she is deposited naked in the control room due to a problem with the swimming pool.  We get it: Nicola Bryant looks good.  It doesn’t exactly cover fandom in glory to be so hands-in-your-pockets about it all the time.  (She gets her kit off again later, although most of her’s covered in feathers.  It’s still ick to be focussing on it.)  Peri also has a pseudo-romance with Ptolemy by the end, but to be fair this is more an old-school Doctor Who cliché than Peri-lechery; even Barbara couldn’t seem to land anywhere without tripping over a marriage proposal.

State Of Change has a jolly and exciting pace, even if it all comes a bit easily.  It pleasantly jumbles history and sci-fi, re-uses a few old ideas without reeking of repetition and much of the character writing is excellent.  Despite knowing the “big” spoiler (which isn’t that important anyway), the story kept me guessing; broadly speaking, it’s a fun novel that I’d read again.  It stumbles in is its use of the regulars, and the odd sense of obligation that apparently comes with them.  It’s as if each Missing Adventures author is assigned a Doctor and/or bad guy at random.  It’s hardly a character assassination for any of them, and it’s not enough to ruin the book, but that thematic “instability” is too vague and all-purpose to pin it on.  I’m hopeful that the range will settle down and know its characters better.  In the meantime, there are clearly some rollicking tales to tell.

7/10

NB: Hi again, hypothetical constant reader!  From here on, there'll be a slight change to these reviews: I'll continue posting them infrequently (because I haven't read them all), but 5 at a time, from Monday to Friday.  The next 5 start with Warlock by Andrew Cartmel.  I figure it's better than posting one review in a blue moon, or waiting until I've read everything with the words Doctor Who printed on it, by which time the sun may have gone out.  Happy trails!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #39 – Parasite by Jim Mortimore

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#33
Parasite
By Jim Mortimore

Odd, this one.  Perhaps even by Jim’s standards.

Parasite exhibits many of the strengths I’ve come to look forward to in Jim Mortimore’s work.  There’s a flair for cinematic action, evidenced in Blood Heat and in its Director’s Cut, and of course in my favourite bits of Lucifer Rising.  Parasite can ratchet tension with the best of them, particularly as a paragraph break or a chapter comes to a head, usually in an ohshitwhatdowedonow?! final line.  There are great ideas, again abundant in all of the above books: the Director's Cut in particular went to some interesting places, without the worry of ongoing series continuity.  And the characters are written well, especially the Doctor, distilled to an iconic essence but kept relatable and fun.  And yet, Parasite seems to be missing something.

It’s set in a mysterious “Artifact”: a vast, enclosed ecosystem where the laws of gravity (for starters) fluctuate on a whim.  There are walls made of ocean, floating continents that dip in and out of them like salmon, and various flora and fauna all about, much of it hostile, or just inexplicable.  It becomes increasingly clear that the whole world is linked and alive somehow.  I imagine it was quite a light-bulb moment when Jim thought of this place, and what it’s capable of.  It’s fascinating, and a lot of fun watching the traditional rules of alien planets get bent out of shape, right from the start as Bernice floats out of the TARDIS.

And there are also those excellent moments – “cinematic” is the word I gravitate towards, like how my stomach practically turned in Lucifer Rising during the bridge collapse.  There’s a sequence early in Parasite where a great wall of the Artifact moves of its own accord, devastating a space shuttle and everyone on board – the dread is absolutely palpable, the images striking.  Similarly there’s a bit where Ace is drawn inexorably into a wall of ocean which is just gloriously nightmarish.

Where Parasite stumbles, I suspect, is the plot.  Not trying to sound glib here, but there isn’t much of it.  There’s some political setup, as the world of Elysium is gradually torn about by different belief systems, hence expeditions to the monolith-ish Artifact that may help to shape their understanding, and their future.  One of those expeditions goes awry early on (curiously the second expedition don’t seem to know about this; I’m not sure how much time elapsed between) and another comes along with similar results.  The Doctor and co. arrive, they inevitably split up and go with different groups, and then everyone involved pretty much just tries to survive events and/or make sense of the Artifact as all hell breaks loose.  The environment becomes more dangerous, landscapes and cities are built and torn apart, there are a stupendous number of monkeys involved, characters are possessed by intelligences and poisoned by fungi, time passes in surprisingly large bursts and it just goes on until it’s done.  It’s a bit numbing by the end by which point, thanks to a bit of mind-reading, Ace delivers an enormous amount of exposition about the Artifact and how it all works.  It’s a lot to get your head around in one go, especially so late in the book, and coming from Ace it’s positively surreal.

This is what happens when the Doctor is out of the action.  Seeking to prevent a malign intelligence from using him, he pretty much switches himself off for most of the book.  Which is fair enough, as Bernice and Ace are (exposition notwithstanding) rounded enough to shoulder the story.  Both have moments of very evocative memory (again, that filmic quality), with Ace in particular making some firm steps towards her departure from the series.  We rely on her military experience (during those books where she was absent) to inform her present, which is about as good as post-Love And War Ace gets, if I'm honest.

Ace must do some terrible things to survive here, and the Doctor can’t reverse all the damage.  I do hope this isn’t leading to another of those (seemingly standard) falling-outs, as it certainly ends on a familiarly dark note between the two.  In fact, dark much?  Ace murders someone almost by accident, everyone except the main three gets killed, the planet-killing monstrosity of the title lets one of its “eggs” go before the Doctor can stop it, and he’s just going to let that one go.  He has zero intention of wading into an Elysium civil war or saving them when their own Doomsday Machine comes alive.  He's still capable of amazing stuff, when he can be bothered: see him shrugging off a bullet wound to one of his hearts.  (This bit is rather too off-screen.  Why bother giving him an apparently mortal wound so close to the end, if it’s just a shrug-it-off thing immediately afterwards?  There's also an odd reference to a maybe-possibly-I-think regeneration taking place, apparently put in there because Virgin were toying with a new Doctor at the time.  Since that went nowhere, this bit's bloody odd.)

I wish the finale was a little more measured out, so stuff like that can be processed.  After such a slow burn of nature taking its disastrous course, and characters simply existing at its mercy, it’s a little sudden to start explaining it and assigning blame.  As an emotional climax, the reader has already seen so much horror that the Doctor's comparative bastardliness seems like an afterthought.  See also the I-suppose-you-could-call-him-that villain of the piece, Alex Bannen’s son Mark (see Lucifer Rising): there isn’t time to develop his personality flaws to the same degree as his father’s, so he just becomes a rather odd recurring figure, a tool as much as the gun he’s holding in the finale.  There’s a recurring motif of his mother’s death on Earth, but like the political situation on Elysium, this is buried quite low in the mix.

A number of the characters feel a bit sketched in, although that may be because so many of them die before we get to know them.  One of them recurs in a different form: Benjamin Green, a man on a mission, who has a fateful meeting with Bannen and becomes "Midnight", a swirling, evolving, mind-reading mass of… something?  He’s probably meant to evoke the Artifact in miniature, but I spent all of his scenes wondering why the other characters weren't gawping at him in utter bogglement.  On the one hand I think it’s a shame Parasite doesn’t come with illustrations, as it’s such a rich and evocative setting; on the other hand, good luck drawing stuff like Midnight.

If I’d reviewed Parasite at the halfway point, I’d probably come across more positive.  Before it began its downward trajectory towards utter chaos, I was able to marvel at the ideas, and enjoy the little moments.  Many of these involve the Doctor, who in (what I like to think of as) typical Mortimore style manages to mix a slight otherworldliness with ordinariness.  He is firstly iconic: “A familiar shape, backlit by the fire.  Hat.  Umbrella.  Eyes turned in wonder to the storm, drinking in the view.  But he is also able to sneak up on people without making a sound, which is just deliciously other.  The text often revels in the sheer incongruity of his appearance, such as a moment where he literally floats past, doffing his cap but able to offer no actual assistance.  All of this, plus an utterly disarming fallibility: “‘I had the situation completely–’  Only Gail saw the Doctor’s fingers crossed behind his back, and shuddered, ‘–under control.’  (Also – not quoting it in full, but it’s on page 75 – there’s an adorable bit where the Doctor gets moss on his hands, and can’t get the stuff off, much to Bernice’s amusement.)

Towards the end though, Parasite becomes a somewhat incidental exercise in getting all these events and disasters on the page, with the characters nearly as passive and helpless as we are.  Just as there isn’t time to marvel at what the heck Midnight even is, we never really tackle the ludicrousness of the vast society of monkeys, who occasionally need to commit mass suicide, some of whom can talk, but only in a flat and pedantic manner.  It should probably be hilariously odd; instead it’s just a very peculiar idea among many, like some vast galloping monsters and an enormous grey wall of death.

Parasite is commendably ambitious, bringing to mind Venusian Lullaby.  At first this you could call this a pretty lazy parallel: Paul Leonard took a similar approach to his alien life as Parasite does to its world, aka as "out there" as possible.  But it’s a literal comparison too, as Bernice recalls the Venusian process of “remembering”, a method of keeping the memories of the dead by eating their brains.  (Yum!)  It makes sense to draw a line between these books, as both err on the side of ideas rather than plot, and heck, I do appreciate that it’s hard to strike a balance.  The weirder your ideas, the more a conventional plot structure might seem like you’re conceding something.  But I do wish Parasite had some more individual motivations to go with its great, turning wheel of life, and personified its aliens a little more than giving one of the monkeys a name, and letting a character like Midnight ponder on the periphery.

It’s possibly the strangest New Adventure since Transit, and I suspect it has its ardent fans, as well as their baffled opposites.  It probably comes down to what you want in a book.  If you want a new world, you got it.

6/10

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #38 – The Crystal Bucephalus by Craig Hinton

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#4
The Crystal Bucephalus
By Craig Hinton

Say it with me: The Crystal Bucephalus.  The Cordon Bleu Syphillis.  The Captain Blue Sympathies.  The Crusty Bucket.  The Diamond Dobbin.  The Emerald Equine.  Join in, everybody!  Anyway, Craig Hinton’s first Doctor Who novel has a great deal of fun at the expense of its own name, and at long-winded verbiage in general.  Set in an exclusive time-travelling restaurant, there’s an air of snobbery and absurdity about it.  For a fair stretch, it’s quite determined to be a comedy.

And not just any comedy.  The premise is the most obvious yoink from Douglas Adams since Gareth Roberts came to town.  The gleefully impossible setting, the pompous personnel, the menagerie of alien oddities, even the belated second coming of a futuristic deity all feel like a nod, a wink, or a deliberate hacking cough towards The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe.  But it’s more affectionate than plagiaristic, and to be fair to Adams, his Milliways was more a one-scene gag than a story in itself.  For all its faults, The Crystal Bucephalus does not tire of its namesake.

At first, it feels like Craig Hinton is going to keep it in the same vein as Hitchhiker’s Guide.  The Doctor, Tegan and Turlough are accused of murder – well that’s a hoary old trope, but it really lends itself more to farce than drama, since we always know they didn’t do it.  And while we are dealing with the Fifth Doctor (not a comedian by any stretch of the imagination), Tegan and Turlough are both known for their eye-rolling snipes.  All three are in fancy (and therefore, slightly silly) costumes, having been dragged away from historical France; the mental image alone is oddly amusing.  And to play off his innate stuffiness, the Doctor is soon butting heads with the absurd Maitre D’, with whom Hinton has buckets of fun: wherever the man goes, amusing turns of phrase will follow.  He expanded like a preening baboon.  /  His fingers splayed out on the surface like fat spiders.  /  His jowls wobbled with pride.  /  He sailed away like a galleon in full sail.

Hinton even pushes the character of the Doctor itself towards comedy in a way that’s either bold or bloody silly, depending on your disposition.  Having a long-standing bank account that occasionally gets “embarrassingly large” due to compound interest, the Doctor occasionally offloads some dosh onto ludicrous business ventures, such as the Bucephalus.  (And apparently, the British film industry.)  As such, he owns the place, which leads to a couple of embarrassed eyebrow-raises later on when he realises the ensuing chaos is his fault.  Hmm.

Other whimsies includes a one-note maniacal torturer who (unless I miscounted) appears in one scene; Chelonians, who have yet to put in a “serious” appearance and don’t buck the trend here; some Alpha Centaurians in all their hysterical glory; an effete Cyberman, plus a Cyber-toilet (!); a religion that parallels the now totally forgotten Christianity, right down to Lazarus and “the Final Dinner”; and a much-deserved wah-wah-wahhh! ending for the villain of the piece.  But most of the above is really just silly window-dressing, or more appropriately for Craig Hinton, fanwank.  The Crystal Bucephalus spends most of its time on science fiction, not comedy.  More’s the pity.

And that’s not to say all the comedy works.  Let’s address the elephant (oh, all right, the giant crystal horse) in the room: yes, I think the Doctor’s ongoing battle of attrition with his bank account is bloody silly.  Why would he even have one?  Doesn’t that suggest a certain stability in the Doctor’s life that plainly isn’t there on the screen?  (Or thus far, in the books?)  As for sinking his extra pennies into random “ludicrous ventures” and never checking up on them, what did he think would happen?  If he’s got so much money to spare, why not use it during the many occasions when money would have been pretty handy?  Such as everywhere he’s ever visited?

There might be something to this as a Seventh Doctor story, as was originally intended.  (Hinton swapped the Doctors so this could get published quicker.)  McCoy can be Machiavellian to say the least, and disastrous consequences are his fortè.  But Davison?  As Doctors go, he seems like he’d be uncomfortable paying too much for a pot of jam.  As for making all of this his fault, besides a surface level of irony and the occasional character saying “It’s all your fault, Doctor!”, it doesn’t add significantly to the story.  As non sequiturs go, it’s not quite Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head, but it’s not far off.  (However, Zaphod was an actual joke.)

It’s funny that fanwank is such a buzzword where Hinton is concerned – he coined the term, of course, but I don’t think he’s that bad for it here.  It makes sense for different alien races to mix and meet in the Bucephalus.  Since the place is famous for history going on in its rooms, it’s a legitimate way to world-build.  (I wonder if I’m more forgiving of it because this is a Missing Adventure.  Legacy attempted the same sort of thing, only it felt like the narrative was grinding to a halt to reference these things, and it seemed fundamentally at odds with the New Adventures remit.  I still think Gary Russell should have gone the whole hog and made it a past Doctor story, since it was a sequel to stories both televised and made up, but hey ho.)  What The Crystal Bucephalus does enjoy in abundance is technobabble.  Heaps and reams and oodles and great steaming quagmires of the stuff.  Oh, lordy, it’s a bit much.

It quickly becomes apparent that the Bucephalus needs a bit of explaining.  How people time travel, how “real” people are when they get there (and hence whether they can change history), how one can interfere with its workings, how one can stop that, what state of affairs the universe is currently in, what would need to go wrong to mess it all up – and like Legacy, Bucephalus occasionally grinds to a halt to explain this stuff.  And it’s tedious.

Even worse: the main thrust of the narrative is not the opening Whodunit, which turns out to be a red herring, but instead somebody interfering with the workings of the restaurant (well, the time-travelling bit – we’re spared any subplots about gone-off food), and the attempts of the place’s architect (Lassiter) to fix everything, and back and forth, ad infinitum.  This stuff is about as exciting as watching a film about hacking – with two people staring at screens and yelling technobabble – but without the aid of dramatic music.  Hinton does try to up the drama here and there, such as cliff-hangers where Turlough and Tegan both seem to fatally disappear.  This not only doesn’t work when you do it twice, it doesn’t carry any weight once: the atmosphere is already too frivolous and complicated, not to mention it’s a daft stretch of disbelief that we’d kill anyone “main” in between two TV stories they’re both in, but the Doctor still trots out a quick monologue about all the dead companions he’s failed, which feels out of place and subsequently rather comical.  When some characters do eventually get (rather unnecessarily) killed, there’s an air of utter disbelief about it.  Dramatic irony, perhaps, finally landing us with some consequences after so much jargon and nonsense, but it still feels bloody cruel.

Besides wading through phrases like “A Legion’s navigation ganglions are right next to its matriculation net”, and chopping and changing characters and settings so often that momentum never really builds (at worst, I counted six changes on a page), there’s a bit of religious satire going on with the whole “Lazarus” thing.  And, don’t panic!  It isn’t anything like St. Anthony’s Fire.  While it does seem like a crude piss-take at first, it eventually builds to a somewhat heartening point about how religion is what you make of it, and if you decide to build something about helping each other, it doesn’t really matter what started it.  Which is good, since (spoiler alert?) what started it is not the wonderful, harmonious guy everyone was expecting.  Not all the ideas of the Lazarus Intent come off – there’s a priest who’s distractingly good at kicking arse, and there’s a racist undercurrent against reptiles that only feels like it’s going somewhere – but for making a point about religion and not making me roll my eyes, points are given.

There’s also a genuinely amusing twist on the gag about the Doctor’s bank balance.  On his way to fetch the TARDIS, he’s re-directed to a random ice planet, and the only way to get back into the Bucephalus network is to have a restaurant worthy of inclusion.  So, he starts one, taking five years in the process and apparently building a few meaningful relationships along the way.  It’s utterly throwaway, or arguably thrown away (we’re talking two or three pages), but considering the Doctor must inveigle his way into the restaurant biz, it makes a lot more sense than the book’s earlier conceit.  (As well as making more sense than Blood Harvest, where the Seventh Doctor ran a speakeasy.)

It's worth wondering if the book makes much sense of its characters, particularly as Hinton swapped them out when Bucephalus was only a few chapters old.  It’s not exactly a character study anyway, so he mostly gets away with it.  The Doctor doesn't always seem right – there's a bit where he hypnotises someone, which seems like entirely the wrong Time Lord – but Turlough and Tegan are analogous enough to Bernice and Ace to make the switch, and more pointedly, all three TARDIS folk spend their time palling about with somebody else.  This is much more a story about Lassiter (Doctor), Tolqvist (Turlough) and Diva (Tegan) than it is about the main three, which often runs the risk of leaving the regulars flapping pointlessly in the background.  Especially Tegan, whose subplot initially leads her to a “leisurely browse” and some “meandering” in London circa 1985, plus later on – brace yourself – swimming.

Despite the work that obviously went into the balancing act of technobabble and guest character melodrama, however, the stuff between Lassiter and his personal life / the villain Arrestis and his acolytes all gets a bit tedious as the thing wears on.  I was too exhausted from the technological disasters going on relentlessly everywhere at once to be bothered about who was in love with whom, and yes, as often happens, I was page-counting by the end.  The Crystal Bucephalus wears out its funny bone and just becomes an exercise in wondering what any of it means, in between losing your thread because it just jumped to a different character again.

And if you're hoping that Craig Hinton has at least written the proverbial Story Where Kamelion Gets Something To Do, because he's on the cover, keep hoping: of the three companions, he's in this the least.  He's here pretty much to justify his continued non-appearance on screen.  Yeah, we are creaking into fanwank territory here.  (Ditto when Hinton devotes most of his finale to explaining why the Doctor was dusting off a new TARDIS console in The Five Doctors.)

Kamelion thinks he can help, which he surely could, but he doesn't make it two steps out of the TARDIS before he's under a psychopath's thrall, and then he quite happily blows somebody's head off.  Shame-faced (or whatever the equivalent would be), he retires to the TARDIS's recesses to think about what he's done, and that's why you don't see him.  Which... fine, does explain it.  (Really though, it's hard to dislodge the obvious explanation: he's a robot, their budget was an average child's pocket money, what on Earth were they thinking?)  But unlike certain other well-intentioned, even quite spirited bits of fanwank – like a reference to that bit of darkness just outside the TARDIS doors when you're inside it, a cameo from a later companion, and some jolly nods to Star Trek including latinum, Earl Grey and Qo'onos – this just reinforces something that already didn't work as being fundamentally redundant.  Why yes, Kamelion was a powerful, largely amoral stooge.  We already thought so, thanks.  If that's the best you can think to do with him, why bother dredging him up?  So much for finally existing in a format where he can get from one room to another.

As I might have guessed from the overcomplicated and whimsical premise, this isn't really about anything.  At best, it's more of a dessert than a meal: it can be rich, clever and fun, but these are highlights, not main ingredients.

5/10

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #37 – Falls The Shadow by Daniel O'Mahony

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#32
Falls The Shadow
By Daniel O'Mahony

Time for one of those New Adventures I knew nothing about beforehand.  I look forward to those: no reviews on my radar, no expectations, anything could happen.  But, once again, there's a reason I never came across this one on my research rounds.

To start with, Falls The Shadow is a bit familiar.  The TARDIS lands in a weird old house filled with crazy people.  Some echoes of Ghost Light there, which is no surprise as it was originally based on "advanced rumours" about Ghost Light's plot.  And more recently, it's like Strange England.  (Uh oh.)  As occurred in that novel, reality has indigestion; the people that inhabit the house aren’t all there; there’s lashings of violence and torture, which are becoming worryingly ever-present in these books (Strange England, Evolution, St. Anthony’s Fire – maybe give it a rest, fellas?  Shake things up a bit?), along with the messed up metaphysical what-the-effery that forms the finale (and much of the rest of it).  In the blurb, Daniel O’Mahony says he has occasionally “managed to be controversial”.  Despite all the effort, he hasn’t managed it here.  Par for the course, more like.

Falls The Shadow is plenty weird, of course.  Something in the house is killing people more or less at random, and it can look like anything.  Several of the people there are having an identity crisis.  There’s a mysterious grey man who keeps trying to get involved, keeps getting killed, and keeps coming back.  And a scientist is making forays into another realm of existence, which is what started this whole mess.

And some of the book’s ideas are intriguing, though as it often the case, more so in theory.  That other realm is “interstitial time”, which is never really explained; it’s something to do with how time travel causes other realities to wink out of being, and the book is what happens when that comes back to bite you.  In practice: beings from outside time are manipulating people, who are themselves composites of might-have-beens from other timelines.  (One of them is from a timeline where we’re all giant insects!)  Needless to say, these people are varying degrees of nuts, which can become monotonous.  Still, you can visit interstitial time via a wardrobe, which is pleasantly wacky and TARDIS-esque.  The house itself can shift and grow seemingly at random, which is a neat idea and would look great in a film, though it really doesn’t achieve very much here.  We also visit a mysterious city/alt-universe called Cathedral that’s ruled by the grey guy and is linked to the house, which is pretty neat.  It’s not a very interesting place to visit, but it was a nice break from the house.  The grey guy is about as successful as South Park's Kenny for most of it, which makes him oddly comical to behold, and we never really know what he is, but there's definitely something interesting there.  I could live to regret it, but... I think I'd want to read about him again.

Alas, we’ve been down this road before: ideas are great, actually they're essential, but they’re not the whole show.  Put them to one side and Falls The Shadow doesn’t have much story to tell.  Our heroes bumble around a madhouse where troubled people come and go.  The sadistic and all-powerful villains, Gabriel and Tanith, manipulate events and make bad things happen just for the hell of it.  Realities bump into each other.  We may delve into the psyches and histories of the house’s inhabitants at intervals, but they’re all disposed of with varying degrees of shrug.  A lot of it is disposable and forgettable; there were many moments where the remaining pages seemed to expand ad infinitum, like the corridors of the house.  At 356 pages (uh oh, he’s counting), it’s morbidly long.

But the writing is mostly... sort of good, if I’m honest, particularly the characterisation.  Bernice is a pleasure, which I refuse to take for granted.  Such a relentlessly witty character could easily become nauseating.  (There’s a bit where the Doctor notes “‘We’d be worse off without your sense of humour, Benny.’  Not half.)  Ace seems fleshed-out (oo-er – actually, she remains fully clothed!), the narrative adopting her mannerisms with sweary ease.  She’s a lot more believable without the artificial “Toe-rag!”s and “Bilge-breath!”s; it’s surprising what a difference actual swearing makes, while her natural violence takes on a very human fury near the end.  I prefer that to Ace The Cold Soldier.  With Benny and Ace, Daniel O’Mahony has a natty gift for shifting into the second person for a character’s inner thoughts, something he rather oddly drops later on.  I liked it while it lasted.  It certainly helps with the occasionally cartoonish Ace.

Less good is his Doctor.  There’s a portion of the story where it appears one of his friends has died (funny, this also happened in Strange England), and he becomes defeatist and melancholy because it’s seemingly the past repeating itself.  Fair enough, right?  Except he’s out of sorts from the moment he first appears.  The TARDIS is malfunctioning (trope!), hence its arrival in the house, and the Doctor becomes visibly weakened.  ‘Ace, I’m sorry if I’ve seemed a bit brusque,’ the Doctor said softly, close to her ear.  ‘It’s just I’m very worried about the TARDIS.’  It’s not like him to be so demonstrative, or so easily shaken.  The reader can’t be the only one to think “Here we go again” at the TARDIS breaking down, so why the doom and gloom?  Then things go from not-great to bad when, after allowing Bernice to wander off by herself (!), the Doctor and Ace decide to search an enormous and likely dangerous house from opposite ends!  Surprise, they wind up in separate baskets of trouble.  And near the end he goes a bit mad and hides in the TARDIS.  What the heck is up with him?  (Another serendipitous own goal: “Ace had gone through patches of depression in the past, but she’d been a kid and she’d grown out of it.  Watching a grown man endure the same was embarrassing.”  Yup.)

It’s hard not to suspect “We all go a little mad sometimes” is the excuse for a lot of this, and as bracing as that might be (at least the first time – which this isn't), it’s no replacement for real motivation.  Certainly it’s the best Gabriel and Tanith can come up with: pointless, proud sadists, they introduce an assassin and a pissed-off bug person into the mix just to liven things up, torturing and killing just to see what it feels like.  You can be as clever and meta as you like, and Falls The Shadow is occasionally both, but it’s hard to come up with compelling motives, and sadism is a lame replacement.  The book does eventually try to make sense of them beyond that, but said effort is not only muddled by all that universe-bothering weirdness that comes as standard now (they want to do what with the universe?), it’s also just too late to take either of them seriously as people who want something.

A first-time novelist, O’Mahony’s prose dips between careful, deliberate oddness (like much of the character introspection, and a mad character conversing with an icon around another’s neck) and sheer waffle.  There’s a tendency, especially near the start, to over-describe the hell out of things:

He was grey.  Grey coat over a grey shirt and trousers.  Grey shoes with loosely tied grey laces that never came undone.  His hat: casual, wide-brimmed, grey.  Even his skin: paper-thin, cold and bloodless, tinged grey by the cold daylight.  His hair, though, was white, but streaked with lines of pure black.  Almost grey.  So… he’s grey, then?

It was large, grey and ugly.  It squatted in the corner of the room daring anyone to come near it.  It was, simply, a wardrobe.”  How is that “simply”?  And later that paragraph: “Wardrobe was too weak a term for the sombre artefact.  It was a sarcophagus.”  So it wasn’t simply a wardrobe, then?

It can affect the dialogue, too: “‘You’re mad,’ she said simply.  There was no point in adding anything else.  Mad said it all.  Well yes, it did, two sentences ago!  And occasionally characters will ponder things in a circle.  The first line of the book is “Qxeleq would have screamed, had she a mouth,” and then, near the end of the Prologue, “Qxeleq tried to scream.  She discovered that she no longer had a mouth.”  What, again?  I know this sort of thing is picky.  Perhaps I wouldn't be stuck on it if I was swept along by the story.

O’Mahony is skilled enough elsewhere for one to suspect this is all carefully constructed.  I can imagine an editor not knowing where, or even if to start, as this guy seems to know what he’s on about even if it’s a opaque to us.  But there still must come a point where a story is either moving or it isn’t, and for great slabs of Falls The Shadow, that’s simply a negative.

What enjoyment can you derive from it?  Well, there are the ideas, but that’s almost a back-handed insult, since I feel like there must be a more compelling story to be told about worlds that never got a chance to exist, blaming the Doctor for leaving his TARDIS-shaped footprint where they could have been.  There’s the characterisation, which works very well indeed sometimes.  The supporting characters wobble in and out of the narrative, always with the clever-clever air of “Ah yes, I meant to do that,” which isn’t a substitute for giving a hoot about them, or in some cases, telling them apart.  There’s some neat-o imagery, but file that next to the ideas.  The prose is promising, but all told, it would work better if there was less of it.

I went into it with an open mind and I didn’t exactly hate it.  Unless you're hell-bent on reading absolutely every one of these things, however, it's one to skip.

4/10

Monday, 2 January 2017

Supernanny

Doctor Who
The Return Of Doctor Mysterio
2016 Christmas Special

Let's imagine you're Steven Moffat.  (Now stop polishing your Hugos and pay attention.)  You've been at this Doctor Who lark for seven to eight years, you've tried to write your way out of it a couple of times, and you've written six Christmas Specials for it, as well as the lion's share of episodes in general.  You are quite justifiably knackered.

There was no series in 2016, so you may actually have got some sleep for once.  But guess what: there's still a Christmas, and that means yet another Christmas episode.  You complained (you're still Steven Moffat) as far back as The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe that it was hard cranking these things out, and even then you had to look elsewhere (Sherlock) for inspiration.  Fast forward to 2016 and it's completely understandable that you were (probably) sitting in your study, knowing you had to squeeze blood from a stone again, so you looked around for something to write about and, in sheer desperation (I suspect), opted for superheroes.

"Joe's Pizza" and an American flag?
American Set Dressing Level: Expert.
Well, they haven't been done in Doctor Who, have they?  Therefore, good to go.  Merely including one – recognisable tropes and, er, nothing else – ought to be novel enough, since you can still say you wrote the only Doctor Who episode about a superhero!

Except, fanboy check, no you can't: we've had superheroes in Doctor Who, and with quite a bit of flair.  Almost 50 years ago there was the Karkus, a fictional superhero brought to life in The Land Of Fiction.  And over in the books, there's The White Knight: another fictional superhero brought to life in... uh, the same way actually, it was a sequel.  Those stories were diversions from the norm, with Conundrum in particular questioning the type of story or format you can use in Doctor Who.  Those writers knew this particular thing didn't really belong in the same medium as Doctor Who, and that you'd have to seriously bend the rules to make it fit.  They played with what is fiction and what is real.

You might expect this sort of rule-bending from Mr Moffat (you can stop being him now), after the hoops he jumped through to justify Santa Claus a few Christmases ago.  He could probably do something interesting with it.  But no, it turns out we can thank the same kind of that'll-do alien McGuffin that lets us have "ghosts", "werewolves" and "vampires" – always with a cod science explanation and usually at a comfortable distance in history, it should be noted – for the "superhero" zooming around America, for real, in the present day.  He swallowed a thing, now he's a superhero, deal with it.

Disappointingly, aside from the exceptionally small main cast, nobody deals with it.  The world hasn't really changed for having a bona fide Superman in it: nobody seems to be asking "Hang on, how is this an actual thing?  Didn't we make it up?"  Even the Lois Lane stand-in, the only one who is excited by all this, doesn't make the glaringly obvious connection with comic book lore.  You could argue they're all too jaded from the onslaught of Batman movies to even notice; said onslaught is presumably the same over there since they've got all the same comic books.  And yeah, referencing all the usual suspects as quickly as possible is certainly one way to weasel out of being "too similar": remember Michael Troughton saying "Aren't they a bit like the face-huggers in Alien?" before the audience could moan about copyright infringement?  Well duh, of course it's familiar!  It's based on them!  Genius.

Bless Matt Lucas, but... eh.
He shows up, he makes funny comments in a squeaky voice.  That's it.
Back for Series 10?  Really?
Anyway, this human race will need a very good reason to be impressed by just another flying guy in a cape.  For goodness sake, the completely batty Guardians Of The Galaxy is on its second go, we're on our sixth Batman and Hugh Jackman's been Wolverine for 18 years!  Meanwhile this guy – The Ghost – is just a budding DC fan who gets his superhero wish, so he has all the "basic" (his word) superpowers you'd expect.  Consequently he falls somewhere between a fishy knock-off and a limp spoof: surely it's aimed at someone who's never seen anything like this before.  So at a guess, cave-people.

As for the day-to-day life of the superhero, which is usually the real story of the man or woman anyway, it's also as basic as they come.  Grant is The Ghost, but he's also a nanny (hold that thought), which means he can keep an eye on baby Jennifer, whose mother – Lucy – he has loved since high school.  This allows for some intense cutesypooh, as he zips back home because his baby monitor went off (The Dark Knight he ain't), as well as some well-worn tropes.  Specifically, Lucy is a journalist investigating (among other things) The Ghost.  And she kind of fancies him.  But she doesn't really notice Grant, even though he's a daily part of her life and he loves her.  Sound familiar?  Bloody hell, it ought to by now.

Okay, not so much the nanny thing.  And what's wrong with that, asks the episode?  Well, nothing, but since Grant manages to supplant his lack of typical masculinity by being a superhero it's never really clear what, if anything, the episode is saying about male nannies that aren't.  (Lucy also points out that dressing like a superhero is a bit gay, and at this point I just haven't got a bloody clue.)  At the end Lucy says that his being a nanny, or rather being himself is the real superpower.  But then the story doesn't come full circle with that because Grant's still got (and will plainly still use) his powers.  Ultimately it feels like another, cruder attempt at a cute, submissive male character (except this one's a superhero), who at one point asks Lucy not to hit him for telling a lie.  Because men are goofy schlubs and women are awesome and, uh, violent.

This wouldn't be the first time Moffat has taken a laddish, sitcom look at male/female relations, and unsurprisingly it's hard to take seriously.  It's also hard to believe that Moffat's ever had a job that wasn't TV screenwriter, because come on.  For Grant's (sweetly?) stalkerish lifestyle to work he must look after Lucy's baby more than most, right?  Okay: how well is she paying him?  Even if he's full time at this (and it's not like he could look after loads of babies at once – he's not a dog walker), could he ever earn enough to get by?  Don't any of his employers find it a bit odd that an adult male is living entirely on babysitting?  The whole thing reminds me of Amy, who was firstly a "kissogram" (hmmmm), then a fashion icon, then a journalist.  Jobs, right?  It's not like people actually need them.

Justin Chatwin and Charity Wakefield do their best as Cutesy Superhero and Generic Feisty Love Interest, but their interplay is beyond tired, despite the Doctor calling the relationship "complicated".  (To be fair, he appears to be the only cave-person who didn't know Clark Kent was Superman, so it probably seems that way to him.  And to be fairer, that's an excellent gag.)

Moffat surprisingly leaves the door open for him to return, with his powers in tact.  Okay, the guy says he probably won't use them again, and the Doctor says he'll "take care of anything that happens", but what happens the next time a building is on fire near him, or aliens invade when there's no Doctor about?  Yeah, right.  In which case, are we saying that after creating an immortal in Ashildr, which had major plot-arcy consequences, the Doctor's content just to let this hang?  I don't buy it.  And don't we sort of... not need the Doctor any more because of this?

It's food for thought, and obviously it's not intentional because you're supposed to be eating sweets.  Meanwhile, when you're not creaking through Superman For Dummies, the episode does actually need to do something that resembles Doctor Who a bit, and Moffat gives this arguably even less thought than the cape-wearing stuff.

There's this evil race of alien brains (they couldn't be nice alien brains, could they?), and they want to replace the brains of humanity's elite, and then replace all the other brains so that everyone on Earth is actually just one of the evil brains in a person suit.  They'll do this by making incredibly secure buildings and then crashing their spaceship into New York, so that all the world leaders will rush into their buildings and, whoops!, get a brain transplant.  Then they'll move on to another planet (after presumably finding a new spaceship and making some more brains?), until everything everywhere is... er, brains, I suppose?  It's not exactly the most complicated plan ever, despite the Doctor's earnest "What a good plan!" comments, and it's not even very original.  (The Doctor inadvertently draws a parallel with Aliens Of London by reminding us that this is an alien invasion staged by aliens who have already invaded.)  And I have questions, like why there are a bunch of brains just sat about in the first place, and how Brain #1 ever got into Victim #1.  (Asked very nicely?)

Seriously guys: use pockets.
Also, uh... doesn't the brain go there?
Between the superhero stuff and the alien stuff this is tired and half-arsed even for a Christmas Special.  (Evil brains, really?)  But at least you've got Peter Capaldi in the thick of it.  (Ahem.)  Or, uh, sort of sitting around the edges of it.

He creates a superhero by mistake, then flits adorably through young Grant's life to check up on him.  (This would be even more adorable if we hadn't already seen him do it with Reinette, Amy, Kazran and Clara.)  He oscillates charmingly between silly and brusque, and gets some funny lines, but the plot offers him very little to work with, so his character just becomes less interesting and in the end, rather irrelevant.  And yes, there are more bloody tropes along the way.

I hope you're not bored of his pompous grandstanding: "Mercy?  It's not a request, it's an offer!"  Huh.  "There have been many attempts to conquer the Earth, I've lost count.  Not one of them has succeeded, not a single one.  They all lost, burned and ran.  That's who I am."  Are we sure this is new dialogue?  "[The humans] have the same plan they always have.  Me!"  Oh, get you.  It's a wonder he even bothers to turn up any more; he might as well Tweet his demo reel at them.

But when the time comes to actually do something, he's yawnsomely just making it up as he goes, which pretty obviously the writer is as well.  "There's only one thing I can do, the unexpected!"  Uh huh.  "The only thing about being in a room full of buttons and switches is... I love buttons and switches!"  So, hit all the buttons, then?  Golly: I'd never have thought of that.  And is there a back-up plan?  "I have no idea, but it's going to be a very big relief when I think of it."  I've no doubt that it will, Steven.

It's one thing to write your hero as a boastful genius.  (And perhaps you shouldn't, as it's rather unlikeable and, like anything, it gets boring the more you do it.)  But it's another to actually earn the genius label.  "Hit all the switches" – though a time-honoured tradition going back to Troughton – just doesn't cut it any more.  The Doctor repeatedly rolls his eyes at the bad guys here, lazily boasts about how he'll win because he always does (which is just irritatingly meta at this point, he always wins because it's an ongoing TV show), and then he barely has to try to do so.  It's all well and good for him to say "I'm back!", like everyone else can now put their feet up, but all his heroism is just serendipity, shouting and knowing the right people.  This ain't a genius at work.: we're better off with The Ghost.

Before long the episode races to a close, and up to now it's been about as substantial as an IOU for some candyfloss, so we try desperately to cram some meaning into it before the credits roll.  Normally a Christmas episode would do this by progressing the last year's story, only whoops!  We've skipped a year, so we have to use River Song.  Again.  Asking an audience of half-comatose adults to remember a mostly disposable Christmas episode from a year ago, just to lend this bit of fluff an emotional edge, is a bit desperate.  Asking the kids in the audience is absolutely mental.  Remember, River's been "dead" in some form since 2008, the Doctor said goodbye to her hologram (?) in 2013, waved her off to her death in 2015, and we've all had a year off since then.  We're done.  It's a little late for us to get our grieve on.

I like superhero stories.  I've seen a lot of them, and I'm not even the show's bread and butter audience, who've probably seem them all.  But for exactly the same reason they're popular enough to reproduce here, none of us needs to see a version that isn't doing something new – and stapling on a load of other bumf that isn't doing anything new won't do.  The Return Of Doctor Mysterio is unluckily the only Doctor Who episode this year, and it's not much of an ambassador, but then isn't it always the case that you've just got to make do with whatever flimsiness comes along?  Hey, at least they're still making it – occasionally.  This show is so often like that reliably hopeless present your gran always gets you, where perhaps it's unfair to expect any different, so you grin and say thank you.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #36 – Venusian Lullaby by Paul Leonard

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#3
Venusian Lullaby
By Paul Leonard

Doctor Who means aliens, right?

It can mean other things as well, like history – it’d be nice if it meant that a bit more often, shake things up a bit – but most of the time, if you had to boil it down to a sentence, it’s The Doctor Vs. Aliens.  And thanks to the not-exactly-boundless budget of BBC Television, those aliens often looked like what they were: guys in costumes, be they cheap, cheerful, silly or looks-a-bit-rude ones.  (I’m never sure if Star Trek had it better or worse, since so many of their aliens made do with a beige outfit, a few spots or an extra nostril.)

Paul Leonard’s plan for Venusian Lullaby might have included many things, but I’m betting number #1 on his list was Proper Aliens.  And let’s be clear, we’re talking aliens, not monsters.  Doctor Who has plenty of asymmetrical blobby things, or shooty pepperpot things, but they’re always things.  Leonard’s Venusians – huge, mostly horizontal, five-legged, with five eyes on stalks and arms wobbling all over the place, strangling you instead of saying hello – are living, thinking people, with a culture and a history.  If you take anything away from Venusian Lullaby, it’s probably going to be the effort he put into them.

And it goes way beyond their appearance.  Most memorable is, well, the remembering.  When a Venusian dies, the others eat its brain to give the memories another place to go.  They all become closer to that person, so death doesn’t hold as much sting as it would for us.  That’s not to say death is no big deal on Venus – there is injustice and in-fighting as the supplies become scarce, some are even executed to make life a bit easier for the others, and there are different factions who react in their own way to the planet’s impending apocalypse.  There are those who accept it, and those (splintered among themselves) who endlessly think of ways to get out of it.  There’s something tragically funny about their determination to avert the inevitable, and their utter failure; take their severe allergy to base metals, which means they build rockets out of wood and then wonder why that won’t work.  Naturally, when the Doctor and co. show up to a friend’s funeral, their expertise is keenly sought.

Quick sidenote: the Doctor is able to pilot the TARDIS in this.  He just finds his funeral invite and off he goes.  Apparently, as the Venus of this story is closer to the origin of the universe, time is more “stable” and therefore he can steer through it.  He’s still not great at it, since they’re late to the funeral, and attempts later on to get from A to B in the TARDIS are rather haphazard, though still phenomenally good for this era of the show.  But… it doesn’t ring true, does it?  I don’t mind retconning with a light touch, such as the Doctor’s off-screen use of an “unknown sonic device”, since hey, who knows how long he’s had that thing?  But this is something that would definitely come up again later.  There’s “stable” time and “unstable” time?  There has got to be more to it than that.  Two people desperate to get home wouldn’t just shrug and forget about it.  Then, at the end, another method comes along for piloting the TARDIS!  By necessity we know they will all just shrug and never talk about it again afterwards.  No, no, no.  You can’t just change the fundamentals between episodes.  Not being able to rely on the TARDIS was a key ingredient of this era; for me, it’s a crazy thing to sidestep, especially for a bizarrely half-baked reason.

Back to the story: moving all the Venusians to the obvious safe haven, young Earth, is out of the question for history-preserving reasons.  Ian reacts to the idea with disdain, since his first instinct is that the Venusians must be invaders.  But for now he’s the unenlightened one.  Barbara and the Doctor get to remember (which is probably the nicest way anyone’s ever going to say “eats brains”).  It’s an incredibly canny way to help us understand the aliens, blurring the line between what is Barbara and what is Venusian as she remembers someone else's past.  Before long such ideas as multiple limbs and many mouths are commonplace; remembering seems right; having two eyes “stapled to you” seems oddly limiting.  Leonard also just writes his Venusians well, with bubbling insecurities (a leader who's quietly grateful to be told what to do), familiar aches and pains (Venusians can have bad hips, just like anybody) and familial relationships that are utterly oddball and moving, all at once.

That’s not to say that it’s completely immersive, or that all of it works.  Some of the names are so long my brain switched channels after three syllables – oh look, here comes Nosgentarawhatever!  – and the tendency to italicise Venusian words was like whispering “Don’t worry about this bit, it’s not even a real word.”  There are still a few Venusian thingummies like the ghifgoni, which I don’t get; they could just as easily be birds or wind-up toys.  (They’re probably both.)  And while there’s a sense of practicality to the Venusian art of seeing the future – which works poetically because their world is doomed, and practically for things like the weather (!) – the idea that some of them are just flat-out magic as well is all but tossed away.  Did I read that right?  On top of everything else, some of them can move things with their minds?

I can easily understand an outpouring of imagination here, as Leonard really grasps the opportunity of a properly alien culture, and maybe goes a tad overboard.  At its best, though, it has the odd backfiring effect of wondering why everybody else in the universe is so gosh-darn normal.  But this is nitpicking: Doctor Who doesn’t make this kind of effort very often, you should appreciate it, and for the most part it’s incredible.  (Looking back on St. Anthony's Fire and its race of anthropomorphic lizard people, so impressive at the time...  it all seems rather quaint now.  Not to say it wasn't good; the Beltrushians were great, my favourite thing about that book.)

Before I gush too much about the brilliant aliens, bear in mind the Sou(hou)shi.  (Good lord, he’s doing things with brackets now?)  They're a race of benevolent aliens who want to take the Venusians to a better place.  (Hint.)  They give the narrative its second wind, putting the main characters in an uncomfortable position of acknowledging that they’re not doing much to help.  On the one hand, though much less outwardly bizarre than the Venusians, they’re rocking some decent alien quirks.  They’re numerous, but like a gestalt: it’s never clear which of them is speaking.  They might do awful things to you, but they need your permission to do them.  They’re referred to as “not evil” at one point, which is interesting, although it’s not really supported by anything and they promptly murder the person who said it.  On the other hand, they’re one of those metaphysical, shape-changing aliens who allow the author to get carried away visually.  I was never sure what the heck they were.  On the third hand (hey, it’s Venus), their motives are decidedly fishy to begin with, and then completely spilled halfway through the book, which doesn’t leave a lot of surprises in the bag.  Dramatically, there’s not much to them beyond “Come with us, we’re nice,” “No you’re not, you’re evil,” “Can’t argue with that,” *NOM*.  On the fourth hand, isn’t this all a bit… Axos?

But what the Sou(hou)shi (I mean, is the middle bit silent?  Is everybody saying Sushi?) are really about is death, specifically yours, and dealing with it.  Will you accept the too-good-to-be-true option, or stay behind and face the inevitable?  That’s an intriguing basis for a "baddie", but it’s more exciting as a concept than in execution.  They’re basically a marauding force for most of it, the Venusians don’t twig until someone shouts the truth at them, and then the baddies go away.  The relative simplicity of them even engenders an old trope: the Doctor on trial for something he didn't do.  Ian can't help observing that this sort of thing always seems to happen to them, and you’ll probably be right there with him.

Though the novel is often beautiful and evocative, some of its ideas don’t come into focus like they could.  Accepting the end of Venus is how things inevitably turn out – the book's tone makes that pretty clear throughout.  They’ve won some borrowed time rather than the assured destruction of the Sou(hou)shi, all the better to live a little, for a while.  But it’s still coming to an end.  And the Doctor and co. don’t dwell on this.  Maybe I'm imposing conventional ideas on a decidedly odd book; at various intervals, all three time travellers appreciate and remember Venus, bringing it home for the reader.  There probably isn’t much that needs saying about what it’ll mean to lose all this that isn’t obvious.

Then again, there’s that odd suddenly-we-can-pilot-the-TARDIS stuff, which suggests maybe Venusian Lullaby just doesn’t mind throwing the occasional one-ball-too-many in the air.  The book ends (before a Venusian epilogue and an inevitable “Next time, Gadget!” from the Sou(hou)shi) with the Doctor and co. discussing a round trip to 1965, using a bit of tech they’ll inevitably never speak of again.  This trip includes Susan’s wedding, which is oddly misleading, since we’re almost certainly not going to see that.  (And because of the suddenly steerable TARDIS...)

Still, this could just as easily be an old man in denial.  There’s a moving moment earlier when he wonders how Susan’s getting on in her new life, how soon she’ll tell David that they can’t have children, or that she will be there to bury him and won’t have aged a day.  I like to ascribe a certain fustery denial to the First Doctor; when he has to part ways with Ian and Barbara, he assures them their ride will mean suicide, when it’s perfectly obvious it’ll get them home safe.  I tell myself he’ll just miss them too much.  Barbara does similar things here: “He hunched over the controls and flicked a few switches.  Barbara was almost sure that the switches didn’t do anything.”

Despite rich bits of sweetness this is a by no means rosy story for the trio.  Ian is openly losing patience with his long journey home, at one point asking for TARDIS lessons just in case the Doctor is out of action, or… well, you can join the dots.  Barbara speaks her mind often, whether in hints (“‘It’s not the Venusians I don’t have faith in, it’s–’”) or full-blown rebukes.

‘My dear Susan–’ began the Doctor.
I am not Susan!’ bawled Barbara.  ‘Nor am I a piece of Susan, whatever you’ve told the Venusians.  Neither is Ian.  We’re people – people who are travelling with you and through no choice of our own.  You have a responsibility to us.  If you can’t get us home, very well.  But at least you can look after us in the meantime.  Or if you won’t – if you’re too busy with your “mysteries”–’ she waved upwards at the omnipresent darkness of the Sou(hou)shi ship ‘–then we’ll just have to look after ourselves. 

The three of them are separate for most of Venusian Lullaby, which was often the way with their stories.  It gives ones like Marco Polo, The Romans and The Dalek Invasion Of Earth (which this directly follows) an epic feel to send them on their own journeys.  Coming after one such emotionally draining epic, and just before the Doctor finds solace in a new friend, it makes sense to have him act a little distant, probably (mostly off-screen) wondering how long it’ll be before these two up and leave him.  I’m still not certain the book makes the most of these themes, with so much else to set its mind on, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.  And a good example of a Missing Adventure, filling an emotional gap as well as the one on your DVD shelf.  On top of all that, Leonard captures all three of them marvellously.

The world's the thing here, and there is much for Paul Leonard to be proud of.  Venusian Lullaby has a good, though not very complex story, and rich, albeit not exhaustively explored themes.  (Speaking of the unsaid, sort of, I managed to miss the reference to an actual Venusian lullaby, which is a thing from the Pertwee era.  There’s definitely no Venusian aikido.  Hai!)  The characters, including the blobby ones, mostly resonate.  It's a high concept book, as these things go, and one to try out if you like Doctor Who and stories about aliens, but rather like its closest equivalent, The Web Planet, it'll inevitably turn some people off.  (Then again, The Web Planet consisted mostly of people in odd costumes bumping into each other.  Perhaps another of Leonard's aims was to write “The Web Planet: Good Version.”)

As you can probably tell, it’s a hard one to rate.  But I'm definitely glad someone gave this a try.

7/10

NB: A note for any constant readers.  I've been reading and reviewing these books since 2015, and am over a third of the way through.  I've recently been posting one review per day, but now we're all caught up.  My next read is Daniel O'Mahony's Falls The Shadow.  Just a heads up: the reviews won't be one a day any more, or not unless I let them build up again.  But rest assured, they'll be along eventually, every so often.  Be seeing you!