Sunday, 23 April 2017

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Doctor Who
Smile
Series Ten, Episode Two


Well, if it isn’t Frank Cottrell-Boyce, back for more after his Series Eight episode that asked “What if there were trees everywhere?”, and bravely answered “That’d be nice, I like trees.  Oh they’ve gone now.”  Obviously I’m excited.

Of course I can’t resist pitting his efforts against each other, so: Smile is better than In The Forest Of The Night.  There’s a plot this time, and the Doctor actually takes part in it.  Wow on both counts.  But despite featuring numerous deaths and the fate of humanity, this is somehow another episode that dawdles along humming to itself.

There’s this bunch of human colonists escaping a doomed Earth.  We’ve seen this numerous times before – even the Doctor points that out, so okay, what’s happening to these ones?  They’ve found a nice uninhabited planet, which to be honest is usually their main hurdle, and they’ve got these amazing micro-robots that can link together and build things, so they send them on ahead to make a city to live in, with larger emoji-faced robots acting as go-betweens/butlers.  Things look pretty good for humanity (most of whom are still in cryo-sleep), so long as the robots they’ve pinned their entire future on don’t, for example, malfunction and kill everybody.

Ye-eah... Bill?
I don't think that's "algae".
(Soylent Blue?)
Oh, fiddlesticks – you’ll never guess what they’ve gone and done.

To be fair, why they malfunction is (sort of) a new one: they are designed to ensure your satisfaction and happiness, so when somebody dies and that causes grief, they perceive that unhappiness as a problem… and promptly kill everyone exhibiting it.  Apparently they’ve never encountered death before.  (Bit odd.  Aren’t these the last humans ever?  What happened to the rest?)  And apparently they respond to unhappiness by turning you into bone meal.  I’d hate to see what they do when you’re actually sick.

So it turns out this isn’t just Ye Olde Robot Uprising Plot – it’s also Ye Olde Moffatian Dumb-Technology-That-Means-Well-But-Then-It-Kills-You Plot.  You may remember it from such episodes as the one immediately preceding this.  Smile isn’t exactly boiling over with originality so far.

The emoji-bots, for instance, feel like a repeat of the Smilers, who also communicate using different faces.  (This time it’s supposed to be a satire on our reliance on emojis, but it’s such an obvious hindrance that it’s hard to believe they’d really do away with speech.)  They also come with that old Moffat trope, the “do/don’t do a thing if you want to live” gag.  A lot of effort has gone into them, but it’s the swarming micro-bots that do the actual killing – recalling the Vashta Nerada as they go – leaving their cutesy counterparts pointlessly bobbing along in the background, and then (no, really) hugging you until you die.  Adding a “skull” emoji doesn’t make them scary: so long as the Doctor and Bill can smile enough to fool their facial recognition, they can pretty much elude them indefinitely, or even just escape.  The only thing keeping them here is the Doctor’s desire to help.  There’s consequently no claustrophobia or excitement to the story.

It’s no bad thing for an episode to be just the Doctor and Bill for the most part: they’re both good actors (to say the least of Capaldi), and The Pilot was mostly just these two chewing on a bit of character development, and that worked.  But it’s what you do with them, and Smile puts them in a futuristic (Spanish) location and just has them look at stuff and talk their way through the creaky plot.  Aside from some bog-standard “Why do you do what you do?” Companion 101 from Bill, we don’t learn about either of them.  I suspect that a two-hander works better if they’ve actually got something to talk about.

Bill asks some fun questions, which seems to be her thing (more so than it’s every companion’s thing), but her point of view isn’t really needed.  There’s nothing to react to or be more than generically outraged about, since they quickly suss that the robots killed everybody and just need to stop it happening again.  The “Smile or die” thing is perhaps intended to say something about grief, but since there are so few people here to react to that, and neither the Doctor nor Bill are grieving about anything, it just comes across as a random quirk and makes no deeper satirical point.  I can’t help recalling The Happiness Patrol, which is also about a world where happiness is the law, except it was full of people with points of view, as well as politics and satire.  It was a lot more interesting than “do a thing to avoid the killer robots for 45 minutes”.

"We're filming in a really snazzy futuristic city in Spain!"
"Cool!  And the ship's engine room?"
"Washing machine on a gantry, I guess."
And speaking of doing a thing, and the Doctor’s desire to “help”: on seeing a colony where robots have turned on their masters, and figuring a colony ship must be on its way to join the slaughter, he promptly decides to blow up the city.  Bill understandably raises her eyebrows at this, as did I; surely that’s the sort of overreaction you’d expect from the robots?  Blowing things up is rarely his first resort, plus it’s odd that he didn’t first try to fix the robots, nor even check if there were any humans still alive.  Surprise!  There are!  Turns out the colony ship came at the same time as the robots.  So, uh, cancel the red alert, then; wasn’t that a thrilling twenty minutes?  (And hang on, so the robots and the “skeleton crew” (ho ho) weren’t sent on ahead?  Why is everyone else still asleep, then?  Sure, the robots are better at building things, but the things are built now.)

Eventually some other people wake up, thank goodness, and they’re not best pleased that the robots went and did that thing robots always do.  And then Smile makes a last ditch effort to become interesting: the robots aren’t just dumb, they’re an emergent life form!  The Doctor decides to negotiate peace, aka tell the humans to play nice (even though he was happy enough to blow up the robots a minute ago) and wipe the robots’ memories, which is apparently his go-to these days.  Cue a happy ending… allegedly.

As nice as it is that most of the humans are still alive, it’s hard to believe they won’t still be angry that their friends and families were murdered, and retaliate in kind.  Similarly, the robots might one day remember everything and kill them all.  If they are an emergent life-form and not just idiots after all, that puts the whole “turn you into a skeleton” thing in a more sinister light.  Maybe there was another reason for it, like not wanting to live out their existence as a bunch of walls?  Also, since they’re alive, it’s more than a bit morally dubious to wade in and delete their memories.  (Hasn’t he learned anything from not doing that to Bill last week?)  Oh well: the entire “debate” is bundled into a couple of fast-talking minutes right at the end, with a literal reset button ending that involves pointing the sonic screwdriver at a thing.  It’s an improvement on “And then all the trees went away”, but not much.

Okay, enough grumbling.  What’s good about it?  The location is an absolute boon: if you want to see a city from the future, you might as well hope for Valencia.  There’s an actually quite good bit with Nardole at the start, as he assumes the role of the Doctor’s “mum” telling him he’s got to keep an eye on the vault and not have any fun.  The series arc continues to be delightfully unobtrusive, and I’m happy to wait for the answers.  And the ending!  After promising that the TARDIS will bring them back the moment they left, so he hasn’t really broken his promise to stay put, they find themselves in snowy Victorian London.  For a moment it was like the Hartnell era had picked up again, with the TARDIS going wherever it likes.  (Is it too late to hope they’ll make it permanent?)  That’s both a lot of fun and a simple way to raise the stakes for the arc.  Not, admittedly, the work of Smile itself, but I like it a lot.  Oh, and Capaldi is brilliant, while Mackie puts in solid (if underwritten) work.  Thumbs up.

Nonetheless, its a long, boring wait for Frank Cottrell-Boyce to come up with an interesting answer to The Only Plot Involving Robots Ever, and then he goes and thinks of another one when it’s too late to do anything with it.  Smile is far too familiar, and it’s a much watered down repeat of those earlier, more interesting stories.  Sort of like replacing a complex emotion with a simple pictogram, you might say.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Trouble With Puddles

Doctor Who
The Pilot
Series Ten, Episode One


Altogether now: phew.

It’s been a while since Doctor Who brought on a new companion.  The Doctor’s life, and seemingly the entire universe has revolved around Clara for years – frankly I’m surprised we escaped – so it’s a major relief that Steven Moffat has still got it.  With, perhaps, a little help from the Russell T Davies era.

Say hello to Bill.  She’s a nice person who serves chips at Uni.  She lives with her foster mum and she’s a bit lonely, though she doesn’t go on about it.  Oh, and she’s gay.

That latter point made the news, which seems hilarious when you see the episode.  There are a couple of references (one a bit rambling and random but ah well, they do need to actually say it; the other probably meant to show her foster mum doesn’t know about it) followed by a story about a crush, which would have worked exactly the same if it was girl-boy.  (And quite right.)  If it were any lower key it wouldn’t be there.  Are we sure this is Steven Moffat, who previously couldn’t contain his excitement about two women making a baby in Jekyll, and a woman marrying a lady lizard in Who?  (Not to mention Clara and Amy both giving themselves the eye when the opportunity arose – phwoar, obviously.)  Our little creep is growing up!  Bless.

Okay, but y'know... no touching.
I know some people really liked Clara, but watching the Doctor interact with somebody else for once is like coming up for air.  Based on this one episode – don’t panic, there’s plenty of time to balls it up later – Bill feels real in a way Clara didn’t manage in years.  There’s a moment where she looks through photos of her mum, whom she doesn’t remember, and just smiles and cries in honest amazement.  Her trips to see the Doctor, hiding out as a university lecturer, speak of her loneliness without making a fuss about it.  She doesn’t have a very eventful life but unlike Rose, doesn’t grumble; she’d just rather have a more exciting one if it comes along.  And she’s got a crush on Heather, a flighty girl with a pretty imperfection in her eye.  When she is absorbed by an alien puddle (!) and transforms into an unstoppable puddle person (!!), the episode becomes about escaping a scary thing, of course, but it always comes back to that sense of longing Bill has, and the gutting sadness that it didn’t work out.  It’s all so small and real; it’s the kind of emotional core Clara never had despite a ridiculous amount of time and effort, and consequently the show has lacked something as well.  Well, now it’s back.

The Doctor is quite refreshed by all this.  (He’s doing a thing and guarding a vault, which obviously is this year’s arc plot; you’re not allowed to avoid those, but much like Bill’s home life they don’t go on about it, so I’m actually intrigued.)  He’s reluctant to go adventuring, but he can’t help being drawn to Bill, who has a lot of curiosity and a healthy sci-fi imagination.  The scene where she gets him a Christmas present and, to pay her back, he orchestrates some photos of her mum is incredibly sweet.  It’s only a pity I misunderstood it the first time as something of greater, arc-plottier significance.  (Come on, we’re always encouraged to look for this stuff.  What do you mean, “he was just being nice”?  Mind you, it’s pretty odd that Bill doesn’t march up to the Doctor and ask a) how he knew her mum, b) why he didn’t say and c) how frigging old he is.  But maybe she’s already assuming he can time travel?)

Escaping Heather is a good enough excuse to dust off the TARDIS, and before you know it the Doctor’s explaining how it works and facing down a Dalek.  Well, that’s what he does with new friends, innit?  Peter Capaldi wonderfully sells the Doctor’s excitement at getting his Doctor on after 50 years.  (I also loved the TARDIS’s little “ahem” of encouragement at the end.  The Cloister Harrumph.)  Okay, he’s evidently had Nardole around this whole time, but that’s not the same, especially since Nardole has been retooled as the Doctor’s dogsbody.  Good; I like him better as staff.  (He’s far too silly to be a person, so it’s almost a relief to find out he’s some sort of robot.  I guess that explains how he’s still here post-decapitation?  Matt Lucas is playing him more robotty than he did at Christmas, anyway.)

This isn’t one of those New Companion episodes where she has to save his life to earn her place; it’s more that these two people could do with having each other in their lives.  But at first he’s so concerned about his vault that he’s prepared to wipe her memories altogether.  (Cue a great bit where she “knows what a mind-wipe looks like”.)  It’s fair play to call back to Clara here – so long as that’s all, mind! – and use the Doctor’s own unhappiness at what he once lost to change his mind.  Good continuity, have a biscuit.  This whole arrangement is more organic than I’m used to.

As for the “monster”, which is really a form of spaceship that just wants a pilot and subsequently a passenger, and finds them in Heather and Bill, it would be fair to draw a line to The Empty Child: it’s Moffat’s Dumb Technology That Accidentally Kills You once again.  But he’s doing something different with it this time, and it underlines that loneliness stuff for Bill, so I don’t mind.

The "repeating what you said" thing is a bit Midnight,
but hey, at least is isn't as irritating.
It is also holy hell creepy.  Puddle-Heather just stands there staring most of the time, and sometimes hovers directly over the ground, which is euuuuggggghhhhhh NOPE.  All of this is creepier than conventionally gnashing and threatening, although for some reason she does scream a few times.  It’s rare that a “monster” can be explained as something innocent and, well, a bit sweet in the end and not ruin itself completely, but I found all of this just as unnerving the second time.  There’s a tremendous sadness and horror to Bill’s would-be crush being paraded around like that.

The Pilot is, admittedly, a very small episode.  I know I’m sounding like a broken record now, but I thought that was a relief: everything has revolved around supposedly massive questions and ancient mysteries for so long, it’s nice to shear all of that away and just make some Doctor Who.  Besides, Episode 1s are supposed to be the accessible ones; you’re here to meet the new person, and here they are.  Steven Moffat has been touting Series 10 as a great jumping on point, and while that seems like a wasted effort given that it’s all going to change again when he leaves, he’s not wrong.  It’s one of those episodes that quietly gets on and does its job.

…aaaand okay, there are nitpicks.  Of course there are.  Shall we?

Bill’s chip story is funny and (uh oh) it introduces the gay thing, but it is very very irrelevant, which won’t exactly deflect the knives-out anti-gayers watching; Bill’s comment about a fat girl no longer being pretty is, uh, problematic, isn’t it?; “You know you’re my foster mum?”  There’s a good chance she does, aye.  Still, mustn’t grumble, a quick glance at forum-land indicates some people still didn’t get it; who put the Doctor’s rug down?  Unless he moved the TARDIS, put it down, and moved the TARDIS back.  Pfft!; what’s with all the flashbacks?  When Bill sees Heather sitting on a bench, we’re treated to a repeat of them meeting in a club a couple of minutes ago.  We’re not goldfish – was the episode massively running under?; Nardole works better than he used to, but he’s still just A Comedy Character, which seems especially redundant next to Bill trying to be all realistic and that.

And we’re done.  A couple of details aren’t perfect.  What else is new?  There are plenty of other little things I liked, such as the Doctor’s lecturing style, the photograph of Susan on his desk (yay!), that bunch of classic series sonic screwdrivers, the fact that it’s Bill and Heather (Hartnell?), the bloody Movellans!  Pearl Mackie makes a lovely first impression and Peter Capaldi has a wonderfully balanced Doctor to be getting on with.  It’s a nice, neat little episode, and all of a sudden the future’s bright.  I might even be sad that it’s so short.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #45 – Infinite Requiem by Daniel Blythe

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#36
Infinite Requiem
By Daniel Blythe

The New Adventures are going somewhere new again.  Ace is gone!  Properly gone this time, although for all I know there’s a cameo waiting to happen.  (Hush.)

So we’ve got Doctor Who starring the Doctor and Bernice Summerfield.  Good.  Now, I wouldn’t put Daniel Blythe’s name forward as the obvious inaugural writer of The New Doctor And Bernice Adventures (it’ll catch on), but he did a good job with her in his first novel, The Dimension Riders, so why not?  It wasn’t a very accomplished book, even among these humble Who stories – it dealt too much in cliché – but there were times when it sparked.  Roughly all of those times were when Bernice had something to do.

I might as well burst that bubble up front.  The Doctor is in it, Bernice is in it, and that’s about as exciting as they get.  Blythe is far too interested in his own characters to dwell on these two, or even put the two of them together.  But hey, at least you’ve got loads of interesting new characters to focus on… and I might as well burst that one as well.  Big fat nope.  Infinite Requiem seems in a constant rush to point out how many people and things and places it covers, but it rarely provides a reason to be captivated by any of them.  This is a sprawling, thin piece of work.

Fair’s fair, as it got on the wrong side of me immediately, maybe I wasn’t very receptive.  Infinite Requiem is an eye-roller of a pretentious title, and the book begins with yet another mystifying prologue.  Just what is with all the damn prologues, anyway?  I’ve taken them for granted most of my life, and I’m only now wondering if they’re an especially Doctor Who obsession.  As if 200+ pages aren’t enough to instil a bit of mystery, many of these authors feel the need to fanny about with some metaphysical what-the-effery first.  (If it’s not a mysterious figure being sinister in the dark, then it’ll be someone or something going “Light!  Dark!  There is pain, only there isn’t!  I am one, many, nothing!  Wait, what?” usually in the first person, maybe present tense.)  I tend to re-read these things desperately trying to figure them out, but it’s always pointless.  If they have any relevance it’ll come so much later that you won’t recall them anyway.  And once you get past that you’re rewarded with yet more epigraphs, in all their “Well done me, I read a book once” glory.  And then the book is divided into four named parts, so… it’ll be more like the telly?  And the fourth part is called DARK TRINITY ASCENDANT.  There are so many earnestly snooty bells and whistles in this, and they all give off a whiff of “Take me seriously, I beg of you!”  I mean, bless, but stop it.

We then launch into a battle on Gadrell Major, which highlights another problem: lots of (not terribly deep) characters, lots of things happening, all crammed into too few pages.  Who are these people?  No time, off we go again.  And if we’re not chopping over to somebody new, the character is pausing to indulge in a flashback.  It takes some of the excitement away from, you know, a warzone when the characters we’ve just met are standing about wishing they were somewhere else, and gradually trying to figure out how they got there.  Let alone how boringly obvious it is to pause the action so the characters can join those dots for us.  I actually missed St. Anthony’s Fire reading this, even though the war-torn characters there did a lot of reminiscing as well.  Mark Gatiss just handled it with a bit more patience.  I still remember the sight of a weary general getting a moment to himself, and pulling his knees up slowly to his chin.  He had more humanity than this lot, and he was a lizard.

Speaking of the past, it might help to remember how Blythe handled different settings in The Dimension Riders.  These worked out roughly as 1) sort-of-sequel to Shada set in Oxford, 2) sort-of-Star Trek stuff on a spaceship where the bad guy is.  The Shada stuff was much more enjoyable.  Even the prose bounced off the page a little more, seeming sharper and funnier, whereas the spaceship stuff was forgettable, with stock space characters going about their duties (I’m guessing, since I had forgotten most of it by the end of that book) and a Big Bad ranting and raving like they all do.  Well, Infinite Requiem is like The Dimension Riders if you took out all the Oxford stuff.  The occasionally witty prose is AWOL.  I can only assume it was just a fleeting bit of Adams mimicry.  (In its place is an occasional random bit of wit, like a character saying they can’t wait to devour a good book, then eating one; also there’s a chapter entitled “Womb Service”.  Nobody said it was consistent.)  The characters have a few painful back stories, but none of those translate into interesting people.  One of them turned out, to my horror, to be a recurring character from Blythe’s other book.  Since I didn’t recall Darius Cheynor at all, it will come as little surprise that he made no impression on me here.  Every time we cut back to Gadrell Major, and the wooden Cheynor trying to resolve a conflict with the peculiar Phractons over a wrecked planet, it was a fight to keep ploughing through pages.

To the extent that the book comes alive, it is in the 1997 part of events, when the Doctor meets Tilusha Meswani, a pregnant woman with a psychic foetus.  (Yep.)  Her abusive love story, with her family turning their backs on her, carries pathos.  Her story also informs the battle against Shanstra (head of a psychic triumvirate, blah blah Big Bad) later on.  There’s a quite exciting moment when an ambulance crashes with her and the Doctor in it.  Tilusha is the closest Infinite Requiem gets to a real person, and (inevitably?) she isn’t in it very long.  As for her baby, mingled with another mind from the triumvirate and quickly grown into an adult, Blythe bundles him/her into the TARDIS for most of the book, where he/she can wait for the final confrontation with Shanstra.  Once it’s all over, Sanjay is left as a one-day-old adult alone in the universe.  The book doesn’t begin to ponder that, or how much he’s lost, relegating him to the usual panto walk-down of goodbyes at the end.  If it isn’t our old friend, the reasonably interesting yet unexplored idea.  (And seriously, what an absolutely appalling start he’s had!  His mother’s gone, his family pre-emptively hate him, he won’t get back there anyway, and his lifespan comes up about 20 years short.  So long, good luck etc.)

Meanwhile, we do (sort of) explore the idea of psychics, or at least provide four whole groups of them.  There are the dangerous Sensopaths; invading (but broadly not-evil) Phractons; the Pridka, who are another group of psychics in this apparently (oh wait, fins, they have fins!); and there are some telepathic humans as well.  And yet, for the word-count devoted to them, Infinite Requiem doesn’t really say anything about telepaths.  The Sensopaths, or two out of three, are miserably predictable bad guys, excusing brutal murders because they’re “beautiful” and greeting our heroes with naff lines like “‘Have you come to play?’  The Phractons are globes with psychic jelly in them, and they have a whole linked society, but it never comes to much; they’re just part of the war scenery.  The Pridka inhabit the book’s weakest and least developed setting, the Dream Centre, where the other still-not-as-bad-as-the-main-one member of the triumvirate is causing problems.  This is so without interest that it barely registered, and ditto the Pridka, a bunch of thingummies milling around there.  The psychic humans are indistinguishable from the rest, apart from occasionally pointing out that they’re psychic.  Really, I wonder why the book is so obsessed with this topic if it doesn’t have anything interesting to say about it.

If I seem a little disjointed in tackling this one, perhaps it’s because I rarely sat down and read it in one sitting.  On top of a simply unengaging story and a lot of sketchy characters, the book’s structure works against getting the reader involved.  Blythe writes almost entirely in short bursts, which means there’s never any hope of momentum building.  Now, this device can work very well at doing precisely that: if your story is reaching a critical point, keeping it short-but-sweet can create a certain excitement.  But it doesn’t work like that when it’s the entire bloody book.  Nothing in Infinite Requiem ever seems like a big deal because we’re always off somewhere else – no worlds build, no characters breathe.  Every time we return to Gadrell Major, for example, it’s just the same bloody boring slag-heap full of tanks as when we last saw it.  And that writing style backfires all over again when we reach the action-packed finale – when, of course, a staggered pace might ordinarily have helped, now it’s so par for the course that it doesn’t add anything.  Shanstra’s inevitable demise reads like the rest of it; i.e., totally underwhelming.

The writing that comprises these short sections is not exactly distinguished.  Blythe seems as obsessed with similes as he is with cutting away.  Like any device they’re perfectly fine in moderation, but he sprinkles the damn things everywhere, from the banal (“landing neatly on all fours like a cat”) to the awkwardly odd (“‘Rain,’ the Doctor said softly, watching it lash like angry monsters against the ambulance”).  There’s also an inconsistent habit of using characters’ full names, as if we might run into more than one Darius, Phil or Tilusha ’round these parts.  And while I can understand this might seem like no big deal, there’s a pretty embarrassing collection of Doctor Who references on display.

These came somewhat naturally to The Dimension Riders, since it was more or less a sequel, but what reason is there now for the Doctor to bring up the Key To Time, point out that characters remind him of the Brigadier and Sarah Jane (they wish), admit that his fourth incarnation was a hoot at parties but his sixth was “stranger” (shots fired – or more likely, another reference), or quote a Venusian lullaby?  And it’s not just him: in a tediously typical display of forced “character development”, Sanjay (whilst inhabited by a psychic force) starts picking apart his character arc for him, including the early juggling-and-spoon-playing era, his later tendency to behave like a “chess player”, and various events that have happened during the New Adventures.  I like continuity when it informs the characters or the story – it worked for Set Piece – but this is just a back-slapping display of “I know stuff about Doctor Who.”  To the extent that it is saying anything, it’s obvious.  And with all due respect, more than 30 books into the series and after a whole sub-set of past Doctor books has begun, the average reader and fan is unlikely to be impressed by a cameo from the Monoids.

But there is a flicker of usefulness to continuity.  In the early chapters, Bernice and the Doctor are still reeling from Ace’s departure.  Bernice is wondering what it’ll be like when it’s just the two of them (you and me both…), while the Doctor – naturally wondering if Bernice will bugger off too when he isn’t looking – is still so exhausted from Set Piece, he catches himself longing to regenerate.  It’s difficult for me to get too excited about character development derived from Ace, since I’m desperate for these books to forge a life away from her, but it’s an interesting place to find our characters.  Aaaand then there’s a story that doesn’t do very much with either of them.  Bernice gets bundled off with a holographic Doctor, who seems to exist to provide a distraction in two crucial scenes where a handful of glitter might have done, and the Doctor (in a not atypical dark mood) manipulates people.  The book ends on a sour note as two characters are consigned to tragic deaths in history.  The Doctor’s, and ultimately Bernice’s acceptance of this really ought to give bittersweet pause, but this bit of climax is just as rushed as the rest of it.  (And the characters in question are of such miniscule fascination that it is, at best, mildly surprising that they’ve died.)  Two books to go, just-the-Doctor-and-Bernice.  Step it ruddy well up.

I usually enjoy eviscerating really bad books, but Infinite Requiem doesn’t even have the gusto to stink.  It’s not as diabolical as something like The Ghosts Of N-Space, which makes reviewing it a bit harder.  There’s a dull, but basically serviceable story in here, and a variety of stock ideas, which some people will like.  But it’s an utter chore to wade through, testing your patience by hitting Pause every half-a-page, pouring misery into its characters’ lives but never really bringing them to life, and juggling a solid variety of stuff with a frustratingly docile imagination.  I think I’m past giving these books the benefit of the doubt, certainly on an author’s second go.  I’m too fed up after all that: following it was a misery, remembering it isn’t terribly easy.  Still though, every cloud.

3/10

NB: And that’s the end of this Blog Week.  Stay tuned for reviews 46–50, starting with Steve Lyons’s Time Of Your Life.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #44 – The Ghosts Of N-Space by Barry Letts

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#7
The Ghosts Of N-Space
By Barry Letts

What does the N stand for?  Nyyyyyuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhh.

Along with State Of Change, I’ve had The Ghosts Of N-Space since childhood, and judging from the state of it, a clumsier me actually tried reading it.  I have no memory of that, but it’s obvious I didn’t finish.  I wonder why.

On the face of it, this is one you’d look forward to.  The Third Doctor has long been a favourite among the New and Missing authors, with other Doctors needing his direct help in Genesys and State Of Change; Blood Heat is a spectacular sequel to one of his stories (featuring his skeleton, and substituting the “current” TARDIS for Pertwee’s on a permanent basis); Legacy is a sequel to a Pertwee tale that Gary Russell made up, including a flashback; and the man himself pops up in All-Consuming Fire.  You might assume they’d arrange something special for a Doctor they routinely make a fuss about, and sure enough it’s written by Barry Letts.  He was instrumental in that Doctor’s era, producing, directing and casting, not to mention (co)writing and novelising Pertwee’s favourite TV story, The Dæmons.  Ghosts is a novelisation of a radio play Letts wrote for Pertwee, Nick Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen, and it’s not even his first (following The Paradise Of Death), so there’s every reason to think he’s got all of this down.

Ah well, he hasn’t.  I’ve never heard the radio play (which paradoxically came out after the book), but there can be little doubt that it’s dreadful, going by the book.  Where.  To even.  Start.

Alarm bells ought to ring in the first chapter, as Letts arranges a thoroughly hackneyed meeting of mafia dons.  Expect all the usual Godfather-lite blether about respect and protection; he then tests the audience’s age-range by having them spell out their business: “‘In a word?’ he said at last.  ‘Whores.’  (Which is so incongruous for one of these books that it’s hilarious.)  Then one of them is promptly murdered in very grisly fashion, which isn’t something you’d expect to see on television and so (here we go again) doesn’t really suit the Missing Adventures remit.  As a cherry on top, the scene includes an apparently one-dimensional gangster’s moll called Maggie, who’s from Brooklyn but says things like “Hark at me!” (?), and who giggles and wiggles her caboose a lot.  If that wasn’t tonally odd enough, the chapter is broken up to go and visit Sarah Jane Smith – but the action isn’t juxtaposed, we’re just hopping over there for no reason.  “Remember Sarah Jane?  Yeah, great.  Anyway, back to that mafia bloke: he got his face smashed in.”

Okay, perhaps there is some juxtaposition going on here, albeit unintentional: that scene is dreadful, and so is this book’s idea of Sarah Jane.  Right from the start she’s written as a stubborn, surly, childish journo who’s so sick of not having her stories published that she’d rather go on holiday and avoid the Doctor and UNIT altogether.  Now, I can believe it’s frustrating that she’s living through alien invasions (etc.) and can’t write about them – but what kind of imbecile would assume otherwise?  She’d come back [from Exxilon, see Death To The Daleks] only to have Clorinda spike it on the grounds of improbability.”  Well, yes, love.  You need evidence.  No paper in their right mind is going to publish a story about your visit to an alien planet where you didn’t even take pictures.  But she doesn’t learn: the final line of the book is Sarah excitedly planning to tell her editor all about what happened here, aka a rambling tale of time travel, astral projection, ghosts and monsters, for which she has zero proof and barely any understanding.  I wonder how that’ll fly?  No wonder Sarah spends most of her time with the Doctor.  She’s terrible at her day job, apparently.

Come to that, I wish she spent more time with the Doctor.  She’s on holiday without him (initially at least), and has brought her erstwhile chum Jeremy Fitzoliver instead.  Introduced in The Paradise Of Death and inexplicably back for more, Jeremy is comic relief – which is an entirely different matter to saying Jeremy is actually funny.  Constantly (and I do mean constantly) moaning about how nobody pays him any attention, or how nobody tells him anything, or how hungry he is, or how sore his bottom is, Jeremy is another example of an irritating character who inevitably irritates everyone around him, including the reader.  What’s the net gain here?

But his quest for acceptance and praise is successful anyway, not only as the Doctor and the Brigadier say things like “Well done, Jeremy” (at which he practically spasms with delight – what a drip), but because neither of them loudly tells him to shut up or throws him out of a window.  Can you really see the Brigadier making time for this guy?  By the end of the book, Jeremy completes a bizarre transformation from irritating comic relief to Mary Sue: his amazing shooting skills are the envy of everybody, and he helps save the day.  What’s Barry expecting from the reader – “Sorry we were so wrong about Jeremy”?  If you write a character as tedious and annoying, that’s what you get.  Forcing everyone else to eventually be okay with it isn’t the same thing as character development.

Why pages and pages of this are devoted to him is a mystery to me.  Maybe Letts once pitched a series about Jeremy and it never got picked up.  Certainly the adventures of Sarah and Jeremy deserve to go in the bin, as the two of them talk (and think) like a couple of especially wooden Enid Blyton cast-offs.  ‘Oh, phooey!’ said Sarah Jane Smith aloud.  /  She didn’t want to look yukky.”  /  Stupid, stu-u-upid! thought Sarah.”  /  ‘You’ve got to have the nose of a truffle pig if you’re going to find stories that are worth anything … There’s something strange going on, and I’m going to find out what!’  /  ‘It means we’ve found something that could be just what the Doctor ordered.’  Christ almighty, just what the Doctor ordered?  Really?!  Much of Letts’s writing is embarrassingly old-fashioned, bunging in cobwebbed phrases like “truth to tell” and “ever and anon”, and it’s difficult to pin down if that’s in-character or just him refusing to acclimatise to not writing in the ’70s any more.

Not helping, the omniscient narrator is irritatingly irreverent across the board, letting Letts indulge an obsession with rambling asides.  I’m not just talking about the many occasions when The Ghosts Of N-Space sputters to a halt so its characters can have a spot of dinner or a drink, or (and this is everyone, including the Doctor) pause to contemplate how much they love marmalade; many of Letts’s sentences are just a labyrinthine mess.  Across the harbour the little steamer which was the smallest of the boats which ran a ferry service to the islands to the north was puffing its way in, giving an occasional plaintive toot as it threaded its way through the sailing boats.  /  Darkness had descended as suddenly, it seemed, as nightfall in Africa the time she’d travelled from the Caribbean to the old Slave Coast on the Voodoo Witch-Doctor story which got her the job on the Metropolitan.”  /  As Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart trudged heavily up the path through the orange trees whipping back and forth in the rising wind – it was so narrow and convoluted that it could hardly be accounted a road, even though it was the only way up the hill from the harbour – the plurality of worries which rumbled through his mind conflated into one overwhelming undefinable emotion: a sort of gloomy frustrated desperate rage.”  /  If Wellington’s army (or was it Napoleon’s?) marched on its stomach – and Nelson’s people braved the broadsides of Trafalgar with their innards lined with a suet pudding known as spotted dog (as her sailing teacher had assured her) then a gourmet luncheon was surely a fitting prelude to a projected trip into N-Space.”  The whole book seems dead certain that parentheses, dashes and semi-colons are your free pass to dragging a sentence on forever.  If all else fails, hey, throw in another semi-colon.

Sarah, who is a professional writer, is struggling to get a novel off the ground.  She can’t bear to keep going because her story is propelled by coincidences and features long, lumbering sentences.  (“The noise of the door heralds the arrival of the person she fears most in all the world, the erstwhile drug-smuggler from Valparaiso, Garcia O’Toole, who is in Scunthorpe visiting his aunt and happens to have heard the shot as he…”)  The irony does not escape Sarah that such coincidences keep happening around her – though she is not omniscient enough to spot the similar sentences – and Letts delights in marvelling at life being as strange as fiction, even dragging the coincidence thing out into a half-baked “theme” of serendipity and ouroboros.  The trouble is, he never justifies or expands on it – he just points out that the same stupid thing is happening in both stories.  But then, he also pokes fun at how coming around from a faint and saying “Where am I?” is “the oldest cliché in the book”, and how pushing a key out of a door and dragging it underneath is a “hackneyed way of escaping”.  I wouldn’t poke fun if I’d written a book where characters routinely glean information by hiding in bushes and listening in.

Good god, the writing in this.  I mean, is it deliberate that Sarah, Jeremy and the Brigadier all find themselves ending thoughts or sentences with “for Pete’s sake”?  Is Barry trying to say something about synchronicity there?  And why does the narrative feel the need to second-guess itself constantly?  Again they were floating – no, flying.  /  …spun on his heels and bounced – yes, bounced was the only word.  /  Explode – implode? – what did the word matter, for God’s sake!  /  Crumble?  What a ridiculous word to use about light.  Yet that’s exactly what it did!  For feck’s sake, Barry, you are the writer: figure out what is going on before you write it down.  For more examples of not having a clue, look at the ghostly monsters in this: tediously all referred to as “fiends” (a term picked up and repeated by all the characters), these “N-forms” are essentially ghosts made of… people’s negativity, I think?  They can look like anything, which means he throws in one random animal signifier after another, never having to go back and stick to one.  Good monsters are hard to write, so The Ghosts Of N-Space rarely tries, flailing about randomly whenever something weird rears its head(s).  You get the impression he is simply out of his depth writing science fiction, which seems rather odd given his track record.

But then, is it?  The Dæmons was mostly concerned with the friction between magic and science.  It was co-written with Robert Sloman, so perhaps Letts was the one leaning towards the magic side of things.  Certainly in The Ghosts Of N-Space, co-author-less, the Doctor happily explains how ghosts are a real thing (but they’re actually just your “N-Body” entering “N-Space” after you die, which is completely different), and how hell (N-Space) is just people’s N-Bodies flagellating themselves because that’s what they think they deserve…?  Isn’t this just repeating the same thing spiritualism is suggesting, but adding “N” at the start?  It all sounds absolutely ridiculous coming from the Doctor, who later offers a torturous “explanation” for how there’s really no such thing as changing history because time is all to play for and then, so justified, urges Sarah to change the past so the villain won’t be around to muck up the present!  It’s a slap in the face for a character who’s usually pretty staunch on these issues.  But then I’m still not sure if I hate this more than the tsunami of bollocks he spouts about N-Space.  The Doctor in this sounds like he understands the technical aspects about as well as Jon Pertwee used to, i.e. reading his trickier lines off of bits of set.

After all the aforementioned fuss about the Third Doctor, it’s a shame he’s such a mess here.  (Although hey, at least Barry gives him a sword-fight.  Tick?)  He comes out with some pretty odd anachronisms, like saying he “nicked” something, or asking Sarah “‘What’s up?’”, or awkwardly calling her “‘My good journalist’”, or saying something was a great as “‘having a cold beer.’  (Wine, surely?)  And no, he doesn’t have a good rapport with Sarah Jane, although the two of them do take a couple of trips through history – at first through astral projection, or “N-Space Projection” or whatever, but then they remember they have a TARDIS so they go that way instead.  There’s something almost fun about popping back through history to the same place to gather information, but it ultimately feels like rather dull padding, traipsing around the same spot over and over again and going on and on about Ann Radcliffe and cheesy Gothic romances.  (It doesn’t help that it’s all so wrapped up in lazy coincidence, and tainted by the Doctor shoving history into a wall when he doesn’t like it.)  The overriding impression is of someone who doesn’t know much about Doctor Who writing a time-travel story that’ll save on actors and sets, neither of which he really has to worry about in book form, or even really radio.  Of course, all this would help drag a radio serial out by another episode or two.  Handy, that.

As well as the sprawling and unengaging plot, there are no strong characters in The Ghosts Of N-Space.  The Doctor and Sarah are retrograde versions of themselves.  Jeremy is an unwelcome limpet.  The Brigadier is here solely in the context of his Italian family, which never seemed to come up on screen, and sans UNIT he seems even more bewildered and useless than usual.  His uncle Mario is an appalling Italian stereotype, hopping excitedly around and speaking only in clumsy cod Italian-English.  (“‘I tell him you acoming, yes?’”)  At one point the Brig recruits help from the local populace, ending up with Roberto, a local Elvis fan who sings a different Elvis song every time he’s mentioned.  Maggie, the aforementioned gangster’s moll, seems too stereotypical to be true, and she does at least switch sides, but – possibly owing to how she giggled quite contentedly at a bunch of gang murders, so doesn’t convince anybody with her apparently genuine “I didn’t know what was going on” story – gets killed in due course.  (There is a complete lack of sympathy from anybody, despite the tragic life of violence the author details for us.)  As for the villain, Max is a boringly invulnerable alchemist who has secured eternal life.  Quite what’s so important for him to do now, as he’s already outliving the hell out of everybody without much bother, is too confusing for me to even paraphrase.  None of it is ever very exciting, as the author goes out of his way to de-fang any exciting moments by, for instance, not showing them at all (“Oh hey, the Doctor turned up, he’s in the other room”), or by explaining them to death.  See the bit where Jeremy is inspired by a Greek myth to bump off some villains by tricking them into shooting each other; then the Brigadier tells Jeremy exactly what happened, blow-by-blow; then Jeremy explains the original story that inspired him.

If The Ghosts Of N-Space had not come from a Doctor Who old guard, not to mention already been written as a soon-to-be-broadcast radio play, it’s difficult to believe the publishers would have accepted it.  The narrator tries to be as jaunty and silly as Gareth Roberts on a good day, but just sounds like a wittering imbecile; the plot tries to mingle science-fiction and myth, and just talks a lot of half-baked crap.  Anyone in their right mind would spot that this is tedious, half-witted and appallingly written, and rightly toss it out.  Pity those publishers, flicking through the manuscript with a rictus grin, forcing a chuckle at the little Italian bloke and mouthing “Sorry” to the imagined reader.

2/10

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #43 – Set Piece by Kate Orman

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#35
Set Piece
By Kate Orman

Heck, why beat around the bush with spoilers?  Ace leaves, for real this time.  To discuss Set Piece without mentioning it would sort of miss the point.

Besides, even if you didn’t know you’d probably pick up on the signs.  The New Adventures have been foreshadowing this for a while now, with the Doctor noting that there’s “not long now” in St. Anthony’s Fire, and Ace quite methodically pondering her departure in Parasite and Warlock.  Set Piece adds a few more logs to the fire before the denouement.  The question becomes not so much “Will she leave?” as “How does it happen?”

Kate Orman knows that, so she tackles the whole issue askew.  Rather than gradually explode the relationship by having too much closeness – again – she separates the TARDIS crew for most of the book (they meet again on page 175), sending both companions away on a dark note.  The Doctor appears dead, and even if he isn’t, he may not be coming to their rescue.  Rather thoughtfully for a story all about leaving, it’s mostly about wanting to be together again.  Suddenly, the TARDIS did not materialise.”  /  Suddenly the Doctor did not walk up and say hello.”  /  Suddenly one of the tourists did not turn out to be the Doctor.”  /  She wanted to show it to the Doctor, hear him say clever things about weather and butterflies and grains of sand.  She kept thinking of things she wanted to tell him.  Even with the foreshadowing in previous books, leaving isn’t her first instinct.

And even when she makes a decision (“‘I’m not from Perivale,’ she whispered.  ‘I’m an Egyptian.’”), it’s not the end of the process.  She becomes a palace guard (the best, naturally), falls in with a cult, and in an even darker moment she reflects on whether she can have a place anywhere.  ‘There are little boxes which an Egyptian man can fit into.  He gets one from his father, right, a little box with a label saying SCRIBE or PEASANT or PRIEST or SCULPTOR.  For women there are only two boxes.  Right?  They’re labelled WIFE and WHORE.’  She floats about and considers her path, and whether there’s hope ahead.

What all this does is get Ace (and covertly, us) used to the idea of a life without the Doctor, even if it’s not a certain or a happy one.  When we finally reach the fork in the road, it’s simultaneously as if she’s leaving on a whim and the satisfying end of a process.  Ace wants to belong somewhere and make a difference, even if it means accepting that you can’t change history.  She won’t try to avert any catastrophes or stop wars, but she’ll help those in the thick of it, because lives matter.  It’s not very different from what the Doctor does – she can even time travel! – and the way she lives by his example is very sweet.  They can even still see each other, via a low-key time travel quirk that pre-dates River Song by 20-odd years.

And it’s such a mighty relief to send her away on good terms.  Not that there’s a problem with making things darker, but well, we’ve done that.  In many ways, Set Piece is a celebration of the Doctor and Ace.  It’s certainly not above referencing their past, particularly their accomplishments in literature.  Ancient Egypt reminds Ace of Gilgamesh, and her first trip away from telly Who; life and death make her think of Jan and Alan; she proudly notes that she survived Peladon, Belial, Antykhon; time travel makes her remember the not-that-fascinating Time Soldiers; given a chance to time travel, she looks in on Christián, and inevitably Manisha.  She even shares her older adventures to pass the time, noting that “Sometimes she didn’t care for the weight of history at her back, going over it again and again. Heck, that’s New Adventures nostalgia in itself – time was, a book didn’t go by without a nod to Remembrance Of The Daleks!  Even the other characters get in on the action, with Bernice remembering the catharsis of Lucifer Rising, the Doctor remembering people he met in Transit and Iceberg, and even referencing the subplot of Witch Mark.  (“‘The cat tried to warn us.’  Nah, still not convinced.)

I normally hate references, but they serve a purpose here, wrapping up Ace’s New Adventures journey.  Reading the books in sequence, it packs a real punch.  There’s a moving and exciting scene when Ace’s memories jumble up as she prepares to do something unthinkable, which would work brilliantly on TV; topping that, there’s a bit where a feverish Ace dreams of her dying father, finally admitting the place the Doctor has in her life, as he finally takes his place, says he’s there and holds her hand.  Every time the book shows us the relationship at work, Orman doesn’t shy away.  When the Doctor or Ace is mortally wounded (or thereabouts), it’s them that shows concern for the other.  Even though the Doctor knows, because he knows everything, that Ace will leave, he still tries to take her away and keep her safe against all reason.  It’s utterly beautiful.  And then Sophie Aldred goes and mirrors the first New Adventure by writing the afterword.  My god – she’s really going, isn’t she?

I’ve often complained about Ace sticking around long past her sell-by date.  I stand by that: for most of these books, the writers didn’t know what to do with her besides writing Futuristic Bitch Leela, and her presence usually meant shoving a brilliant new companion unfairly into the wings.  (Damage they may not be able to undo.)  But Ace is still a strong, layered character, and Set Piece shows off her best qualities, and what she brings out in the Doctor.  Despite a lot of caricature and a whole awkward three’s-a-crowd era, I’ll miss her.

Sending a “main show” character away for good, and doing it well ought to be achievement enough, but Set Piece does need a plot as well, even if it is plainly a secondary concern.  And I wasn’t bowled over by the glue holding Ace’s farewell together.  The mechanical ants you can see on the cover are a wacky, yet somehow faceless and dull foe.  They serve an organic time-ship that poses a horrendous threat to the universe, sure, but it’s still just pootling along and serving a mindless mechanical urge.  It prefigures The Empty Child, gives off a slight whiff of Cybermen or Borg, only it’s not as scary as any of the above.  Various characters come and go, some of whom are (willing?) cogs in the ant plans; their moral duplicity isn’t developed very far, since some of them are machines anyway.  The Doctor’s plan, when it eventually checks its watch and shows up, is of the hurry-hurry-book’s-nearly-over variety.  The Doctor must keep mum for plot reasons (there’s a surprise) which helps pad out the pace.  (There’s another surprise.)

And yeah, I’m not sure how I feel about that.  I love character stuff, I almost always wish there was more of it, but there comes a point when even Ace wonders if the Doctor is doing a little too good a job of keeping his intentions secret, since nothing is happening.  (Of course this is also a hint that he might be dead.  Eh; we know he’s not, as ever.)  Meanwhile Bernice is in historical France trying to find the other two, and being terribly witty about it of course.  The Doctor is recovering from some traumatic injuries in… historical France as well, actually, but a bit earlier.  No one’s moving anywhere fast.

Kate Orman is no stranger to chopped-up time travel, and Set Piece juggles time-zones along with our place in the narrative, which at least gives it the appearance of a frantic pace.  I had to re-read the first 50 pages just to get it straight in my head, no thanks to certain characters remembering things in the wrong order, but I’m not convinced it’s all as clever as it seems, so much as complicated.  There’s a motif of dreams on top of everything else, and I hate those in books; what a relief, so does Bernice.  ‘I hate this Jungian stuff.’  Hmm, though; a bit like Ace’s “why isn’t anything happening?” moment, that sails a bit close to underlining the book’s indulgences and/or flaws.  Speaking of which, good god, ditch those epigraphs!  You can be witty with them – she often is – but they’re just too much like homework.  I have to concentrate on not skipping them.  And sure enough, Orman lampoons those as well: “I hate quotations.  (Ralph Waldo Emerson, May 1849.)  Heh?  Why do them, then?

There’s a lot of slow recovering in this – after some brutal treatment by the ants and their slaves, there’s plenty of reason for it.  There’s also a theme of characters slowly waking up and acclimatising, which is a canny way into a chapter (and often a big help), but it does sound familiar after the third or fourth time.  Ditto the strange habit of dipping and repeating in the middle of a sentence: “‘Someone’s using that, that fracture.’  /  They were short, shorter than her in some cases.  /  His arms and legs were melting, melting into the sweet heat.  Repetition is something to be wary of and use sparingly, and it kept flagging up here.  Of the two Kate Orman books I’ve read, Set Piece definitely has the less impressive prose.  (As well as an obsession with making “Cruk” happen that borders on irritating.)

But then, maybe it could have been revised.  After all, Set Piece has an absolute litany of proofreading howlers that should have been cleared up.  There are speech marks missing or appearing in different fonts, too many indentations or too few, typos; probably worst is a single misplaced word during Ace and Bernice’s last ever conversation, god damn it, since it raises the horrifying possibility of missing dialogue at a crucial moment.  Set Piece just wasn’t ready for the publishers.  (I suppose that, too, offers a bit of symmetry with Ace’s first novel.  Albeit unintentional!)

Unsurprisingly, this works best during the character moments.  All the Doctor and Ace stuff is gold, but don’t forget the Ace and Benny stuff.  Those two get on really well nowadays – phew – and Bernice is just as horrified at the thought of losing the Doctor, reverently lugging his hat around as it’s “all she has left”.  She’s over the moon at finding a note from Ace, just as Ace wishes she could pick her literary buddy’s brain about the wonders of Egypt.  Set Piece occasionally made me wonder about Bernice and about the future; of course that’s part of Ace leaving, looking ahead.  Added to that, we’ve got a returning character from another novel, one of those awkward would-be companions from just after Love And War, plus a reference to another one.  It’s nice to see her, and offer the promise of more adventures and more development to come.  Thematically it all adds to the change in the air, but good god – could we look at Bernice once in a while?

As ever, she’s dazzling and funny, carrying the story when she’s on her own, hiding her nuances and miseries under a protective shell; she’s effervescent enough to win people over, smart enough to pretend she’s terrified just so she can (literally!) pull the rug out from under you.  She’s brilliant, and for the novel to spend a significant amount of time going “Hey, remember her?” about somebody else seems like lunacy to me.  But it’s par for the bloody course, innit?  I’m looking forward to the brief stint of Doctor-and-Bernice novels, but let’s face it, when she eventually leaves there won’t be a lot of emotions flying about.  Or not at this rate.  I just hope these authors figure out what they’ve got right under their noses; maybe they can get as excited about the present as they are with the past and future.

Set Piece sets out to do something, and does that brilliantly.  As a novel, and as a Doctor Who story apart from its emotional mission statement, I’m not sure it’s all it could be.  Next time I read it, I might figure out if that really matters.

7/10

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #42 – The Romance Of Crime by Gareth Roberts

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#6
The Romance Of Crime
By Gareth Roberts

At last!

I wouldn’t say that the Missing Adventures have been bad so far, but The Romance Of Crime is the first one you could slot where it’s supposed to go.  The characters, the setting and the style really go together.  No longer is there the feeling of a Doctor getting juggled at the last minute, or a baddie being dropped in by the editors, or another era peeking through the pages.  This is what the range was made for: it’s teatime, circa 1979.

And this isn’t my first visit.  Big Finish’s adaptation is sublime, and it came out before I decided to read the whole range, so I’ve already heard it two or three times.  The downside is that I already know the story, but after the initial déjà vu it was easy enough to imagine this was just a generously wordy Target novel.  The Romance Of Crime isn’t the first Doctor Who story I’ve rediscovered as a book, and it’s a lot of fun this way.

Right from the opening page, this feels like a lost TV story.  We begin on a miserable, bubbling world that could only be realised as a model shot; you can almost hear Dudley Simpson’s orchestra snoring sinisterly beneath.  After the startling discovery of a great many corpses, the action moves to the Rock Of Judgement, a travelling asteroid housing a prison – with, it must be said, not many inmates remaining.  Justice moves swiftly here, always in the general direction of a particle reversal chamber.  Their attitude to all this is summed up pretty well when a judge sentences a man to death and thinks inwardly, “It had been a long Thursday.  Romance quickly fits into the sofa groove of 1979, with Douglas Adams as script editor and jolly comic dialogue under every rock.

Par for Gareth Roberts, you might say.  The Highest Science was full of blatant Hitchhiker’s and Dirk Gently devices, and Tragedy Day was just as interested in comedy (with, for my money, messier results).  The Romance Of Crime resists the temptation to indulge in a tissue of references, though I did clock an amusingly PG-rated spin on a famous K9-themed outtake.  After The Crystal Bucephalus, another book full of arch Adams nudge-winkery might have sent the range disappearing up its own orifice.  Instead we get on with a solid story, that happens to involve funny people and witty prose.

If you’re going to write a funny Doctor Who, you’ll probably be wanting Tom Baker.  One of the reasons this one feels so era-appropriate is that the wit comes organically from his character: his boggle-eyed irreverence is all there, as he bounces between amusingly blunt put-downs, bizarre observations and delightfully inane chatter.  Favourites include: “‘Well, that was interesting … in a tedious and incomprehensible sort of way.’”  /  “‘These belong to the usual occupant of this room, some judge person.  Probably away hanging people, somewhere.’”  /  “‘About to die?’ the Doctor said, indignant.  ‘I should hope not.  There are a number of interesting things I haven’t quite got round to yet.’”  After Evolution’s badly miscalculated psychopath, it’s good to have a recognisable Fourth Doctor.  Romance captures him so well, you’d think the notorious ad-libber himself had tinkered with it.  (And he would do so in the end.  For Big Finish, to pick one example, when he orders two glasses of water he specifies: “‘Neat!’”)

Romana is on glorious form as well, all haughty intelligence and withering tolerance of the Doctor.  “The Doctor fixed him with a manic stare.  ‘What, fade into the background, keep a low profile, listen out for vital clues, that sort of thing? … We do that sort of thing very well, don’t we, Romana?’  ‘Yes, I do, Doctor,’ she said and led the way out.  Probably one of the reasons Season 17 was (at its best) funny is that these two in particular are so untouchable, nearly everything else might as well be farce to them.  You wouldn’t want Doctor Who to be like that all the time, but it makes a wonderful diversion.

Best of the rest is Menlove Stokes, the conceited, run-of-the-mill artist in residence, whose buffoonery is made delightful by his ridiculous verbiage.  “‘For no charge, I offer you, as I offer every wretched soul that finds his way to this, the darkest of all destinations, the opportunity to endure forever in my work … Your essence will endure long after your physical envelope has been snuffed from our miserable sphere.’”  /  “‘I have it, you’re from the arts committee, another of their wretched inspections.  Oddstock, isn’t it?  No, no, he’s dead, isn’t he, although how anybody could tell I don’t know.  You’re not that fool Mellenger, and you’re certainly not Sybilla Strang, as she’s a woman, just about…’”  /  “‘Ludicrous!  It’s my duty to warn you, I suppose.  Your talent stretches no further than your deluded imagination!’”

And the prose obligingly morphs to offer chuckles around him: “The fellow was frantically smoothing at his bald head with one hand, attending to hair that had disappeared long ago.”  /  The butt of a standard issue blaster came down across the back of Stokes’s head.  All sixteen flabby stone of him slid heavily to the marble floor in much the same fashion as a badly designed building slips off a cliff.  A few other characters raise a smile as well, particularly a condemned prisoner who responds to her imminent death with “‘Typical of you young people nowadays, it’s rush, rush, rush.’”  It all has that Season 17 air, with a whiff of Robert Holmes in its black humour.  A good vintage, despite The Horns Of Nimon.

As you can tell from glancing at the cover (and if you’ve somehow missed it, a chapter heading spoils them in advance), there are Ogrons as well.  What a treat – and just why didn’t the series make more of them, anyway?  Aggressive but loyal, dogged but utterly stupid, they tap into the same delightful vein of Aliens That Are A Pain But Aren’t Actually Evil that Douglas Adams would made his own.  Probably the best thing about Malcolm Hulke’s Frontier In Space novelisation was the stuff about their society, like how they worship monsters and pray for nothing more than them not eating Ogrons.  The Doctor’s attempt here to trick one into swapping a jelly baby for a rifle is a hoot; there’s a bit where one Ogron asks another, earnestly amid all this violence, if he had a nice journey down to a planet; and there’s this gem: “‘I will buy necklace for wife,’ said his mate.  ‘And a big stone.’  The first Ogron grunted his encouragement.  ‘Yes, it is good to have a big stone.’”  They might be mercenaries and they might not be good guys, but they’re people.  I love ’em.

Completing the main list of Comedy Stuff is Spiggot, who’s a bit like the flipside of Stokes.  Here is a 100% comedy character who, sadly, just doesn’t work.  Or he works too well, depending on your point of view.  A self-aggrandising, cliché-spewing caricature of a cop, always going on about how he plays by his own rules and gets results and “Angie and the kids” left him because of it, the text leaves us in zero doubt about whether we should be impressed.  To emphasise his point, Spiggot attempted to click his fingers but failed.  Undaunted he continued.”  /  Spiggot crushed another plastic cup.  Unfortunately, he had forgotten to drink all of the coffee that had been inside it and the scalding liquid splashed over his sweater.”  Naturally enough, everybody else hates Spiggot, either because he’s haphazardly interfering with their plans or just because he’s a bore.  Even K9 switches off his audio sensors.

And, well, I get it, but nevertheless Spiggot falls into that inevitable trap: irritating characters are irritating.  At least Stokes’s fustery demeanour leads to some amusing reactions, like his cringing infatuation with Romana, or his combustible hatred of his more talented protégé.  Spiggot is just one joke walking endlessly into a wall.  We get it, nobody likes you.  So sod off.  (Apparently he’s based on a TV character called Spender, played by Jimmy Nail.  I wouldn’t even have caught the reference at the time, let alone now, so I can’t comment on how good a spoof this is.  But as a creature in his own right, as many readers would view him, Spiggot’s just naff.)

The villains are a mixed bunch.  Xais is a disembodied human-hating mutant who can kill people with a glance (but is also, rather needlessly, super-strong).  She has an affecting back-story, largely missing from the Big Finish version, but even so she’s not the most complex of characters.  Kill all humans, huh?  So what else do you want to – oh right, that’s it.  And her accomplices, the Nisbett Brothers, are about as successful as Spiggot.  A very straightforward East End crime duo (in space), all their well-spoken thuggery and references to dear old mum feel completely old hat.  They’re a weak beer spoof of a spoof of the Kray Brothers.  Sure enough, Spiggot and the Nisbetts are rather flat in the audio version as well, as the actors flail inside these broad and boring caricatures.  Xais at least lends herself to a bit of scenery-chewing.  On the whole, you’ll be very grateful for the Ogrons.

If you’ve seen the Season 17 Rosetta Stone that is City Of Death, which obviously Gareth Roberts has (I’m guessing a few dozen times), you’ll know not everything can be hilarious: you need a straight man and some things at stake.  The Romance Of Crime has plenty of time for a solid plot involving a murderous psychopath, a shadowy crime-lord, two unstable criminal brothers and… actually almost everyone in this is some kind of appalling criminal, regardless of the Rock Of Judgement’s inmate population.  As the story wears on it’s mostly a series of double-crosses between shady characters.  It’s satisfyingly action-packed and it ticks along, but it’s rather apparent that there are no innocent people at stake, or not for very long.  Margo, a troubled prison guard, ends up being a host for Xais, and while that’s very sad the story ultimately leaves her behind without much fuss.  Meanwhile the criminal mastermind working with Xais – oh why not, I’ll keep it a secret – is the requisite straight man, but he’s so surrounded by villains that he doesn’t have much impact.  They’re all diminished (especially Xais) for having the share the limelight.

There’s hardly an epilogue when the show’s over, besides a cursory “this is how it all turned out” courtesy of the history books and a return to the Doctor and Romana’s Monopoly game.  A good time is had, but it’s not a particularly thoughtful experience.  And that’s… fine, I guess.  This is meant to recreate an era, and I could well believe this story, with its delightful comedic moments and its occasionally duff ones, could have been made in 1979.  I can see why some have dismissed it as bringing nothing new to the series.  I’d contend that it’s nice to at least try to get the series right once in a while.

7/10