Saturday, 4 April 2020

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

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#32
The Dark Path
By David A. McIntee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s an obvious appeal to a story offering The Answer about a well-known character; it’s exactly the sort of gap you’d expect the Missing Adventures to fill. But I don’t think The Dark Path answers its central question with much that you couldn’t fill in yourself – to wit, the Master was a slightly less dangerous dude with a different name, until he became a more dangerous dude called the Master. It’s sadly one of the author’s less accomplished pieces of writing, offering infrequent action (which reads like generic Star Trek, pilfering much of that show’s terminology) and great bogs of characterisation mulch to wade through. It’s one of life’s little annoyances that it’s so difficult to get hold of, which artificially raises your expectations. (Not the author's fault, but there you go.) I would advise not stressing about it on eBay, and maybe catching an online plot summary instead.
4/10


Tuesday, 28 January 2020

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

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#60
Lungbarrow
By Marc Platt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

Monday, 27 January 2020

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

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#31
A Device Of Death
By Christopher Bulis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #94 – The Room With No Doors by Kate Orman

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#59
The Room With No Doors
By Kate Orman

It’s almost the end. The moment is being prepared for.

The Doctor has regeneration on the brain. He knows it’s coming; chances are, the reader watched it happen months before this book came out. So we find the New Adventures in the bittersweet phase of winding down, knowing that the new Doctor is a concern for somebody else* but also that they have just enough time to go out on their own terms. That pregnant pause is the essence of The Room With No Doors. How does the Doctor feel about his impending change? What will he leave behind? I love character-driven stories, and Room is definitely in that vein, with one of Kate Orman’s helter-skelter plots playing second fiddle to the real, smaller material.

Things are strained between the Doctor and Chris. A combination of disasters – the loss of Roz, the recent loss of Liz**, the overall absence of Bernice – underpin the basic awkwardness of these two being alone together, which let’s face it isn’t the ideal outcome for either of them. One of my favourite observations in Bad Therapy was that they were like an estranged father making time for his kid, and that’s a real problem the books have had to work on. Eternity Weeps was more trauma for the pile. The Room With No Doors is an answer to all that. But first we find the two of them in the TARDIS, awkwardly writing goodbye letters to one another, both unable to finish. It’s a really well orchestrated bit of writing in a book that hums with them.

An unusual time trace in sixteenth-century Japan is as good a distraction as any: a mysterious pod is causing prosperous harvests and (more low-key than you’d think) the resurrection of the dead. Two already warring armies get wind of this and both want to take possession. An alien figure knows what the thing is and isn’t telling; a band of large anthropomorphic birds feels similarly. Into this arrives not just the Doctor and Chris but a Victorian time-traveller named Penelope Gate and Joel Mintz, one of the Doctor’s fanboys from Return Of The Living Dad, who has his own schemes afoot.

Busy, isn’t it? And yet, the Japanese armies don’t even know what they’re fighting to possess, lending their quest an almost going-through-the-motions quality. The alien and the giant birds are so reticent it almost becomes irrelevant what they’re actually arguing about. Underneath, ticking away, are the Doctor and Chris. The Doctor is training him more and more it seems, which isn’t helping his own feelings of helplessness about Roz and Liz. He eventually realises this might be a way for this Doctor to leave something behind. After causing his own earlier self to regenerate simply because he wasn’t able to get things done – or so he believes – he’s about to find the shoe on the other foot. I went back and forth over what would be a more cruelly ironic fate: being out-manipulated by his future self, or the master manipulator getting killed at random. We all know which one it was, and to some extent he comes to terms with that as well. Chris is manipulated by him a little, but not so much that he’s mad about it – “Chris suddenly felt terribly sorry for the old bastard” – and hey, what’s one more for the road?

Kate Orman gets a lot of mileage out of the Doctor’s dilemma, even going so far as a bit of first person writing when he finds himself buried alive and debating whether he deserves to die. He and Chris have frequent conversations about regeneration, as Chris wonders more and more about his own death and then worries about losing the Doctor. It’s fascinating to have the Doctor be so frank about all this – frankly, it’s now or never – and the concept of change and renewal dovetails so neatly with Virgin losing the Who license that it could all have been orchestrated. This change is inevitable – it literally already happened, we’re just counting down now. The Doctor has no control over it: Virgin didn’t write his demise and someone else will write the new Doctor afterwards. The only option left is to stop worrying and live until there isn’t any life left, and that’s his journey here. Rather beautifully, the Doctor of the New Adventures becomes the New Adventures. And it’s nearly time to go. By the end the Doctor and Chris are on stable terms, happy to continue together for years, aware that they probably won’t.

The book makes no bones about its plot being “less” than you might expect. “‘This is all a bit small-scale for you, isn’t it? The Earth’s not going to blow up or anything...’ ‘Oh yes,” said the Doctor. ‘This is just an adventure. A bit of swordplay, a few jokes, nothing worth taking very seriously.’” / “The world wasn’t going to end – nothing important was happening to [Chris] or the Doctor.” The pod makes as good a contrivance as any, and it’s fair that all this chaos can come about without anyone wanting to take over all of time and space, or have any specific ambition at all. Warriors find out about a powerful thing and they want it. Joel’s nefarious scheme (it’s not that nefarious, mostly ill-considered) is just opportunism. The giant birds and the alien (they’re amusing; she’s not) have their own power struggle, though no one seems terribly interested. It’s all good, but it’s a deliberate kind of muchness to make the character stuff stand out, and stand out it adorably does. (“Whenever Chris lives through a fifth of September, he just counted it as another birthday. He’d had five in the last two years. He suspected that the Doctor tried to land in September whenever he thought Chris needed cheering up.”) Just to be boringly pragmatic though, it is a little difficult to take to all the characters buzzing around – there are a lot and it’s not that long a book. Orman’s writing, much like Paul Cornell’s when he gets near a finale, has a certain sugar rush quality where lots of undeniably really good ideas get piled on top of each other fast. You miss bits.

Still, all the business has its own positive effect: a feeling of things going on that we aren’t privy to, such as a previous encounter with a “vampire” that earned the Doctor the nickname “snowman”, Penelope’s first encounter with Joel and their adventures on the way here, and Joel meeting the Eighth Doctor during a crisis in his own time. Penelope herself is a higgledy-piggledy mirror of the Doctor, a suggestion that these conflagrations of eccentricity and brilliance do happen outside the TARDIS and result in their own time travels. (Paul Magrs would no doubt agree.) All that’s got to be deliberate what with the Doctor, and this whole series hurtling towards a close. I kind of see it like Her Majesty on Abbey Road: lost little fragments that tell you not to worry, it isnt really over, it will just carry on somewhere else.

You could easily keep digging into what this all means – for instance the Room With No Doors, which is an idea up there with Cornell’s Pertwee-decade-of-death – but Orman’s books rarely come across as serious thought pieces. For all the academic good stuff she sprinkles in there, she seems more concerned that you’re going to enjoy yourself. The writing has an almost casual brilliance that is worth going back and re-reading. Take the Doctor and Chris’s interrogation at the hands of a couple of samurai, which – just to make things interesting – happens mostly in reverse order. Or the way she gently italicises futuristic words Penelope isn’t familiar with, without ever drawing attention to that. Or simple subtlety like: “‘Call me Isha,’ said the little man. Now that Aoi was closer, he could see just how strange this ‘Doctor’ looked.” Or the terrifying image of a flock of drone “heads” observing the characters, then “drifting away like neglected balloons.” Or the nostalgic good humour of the Seventh Doctor, like “All those with psychokinesis, raise my hand”, and the way his deadly serious ultimatum to Joel crumbles under the same human foibles that made him give Bernice a surprising kiss goodbye. Or the fact that she can write him as adorable and wonderful, but then have him carry a dead child to make a point. The birds are funny, too.

It’s little, and it’s a lot. They still have some way to go, but it’s an ending. The Doctor and Chris needed this and so did we.

8/10

* Wink.

** At the risk of being a broken record... I still hate the Liz thing. Its Liz because theres audience recognition of the character and well be more sad when she dies. But shes in the book so little, and Chris knows so little about her, and the Doctor is so unaware of whats going on, that it feels token. Ah, you might well add, thats the tragedy, and therefore the point! To which I say, poo with knobs on. Its cheap, unintentionally or otherwise, and it will probably endure as one of the things I like least about the NAs. Bah!

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #93 – Burning Heart by Dave Stone

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#30
Burning Heart
By Dave Stone

A Missing Adventure by Dave Stone? This should be interesting. And it is, but mainly because Burning Heart is not so much a Missing Adventure as a New Adventure cosplaying as one.

The Habitat is a messy, barely civilised outpost in humanity’s distant future. Adjudicators rule with blunt force, but tensions are palpable between the resident humans and aliens. Into this sweeps a random, unearthly element of violence, and lurking beneath the central fabric of the Habitat itself is a sinister intelligence.

This isn’t just set in the aftermath of the well-known NA, Original Sin – it pretty much is the setting for Original Sin. Then there’s the tone. The foulness of life in the Habitat is a lot like Transit, cheerfully highlighting violent crime and body horror in a very un-Classic Who way. If that wasn’t enough, the story ends up leaning into the theme of emergent life, which is even more like Transit. As for the language, the New Adventures’ favourite swearword (cruk) gets a resurgence, plus we bandy around another one (Sheol) that may or may not be new to the books. As well as Adjudicators there’s a supporting character called Kane who, being in a book by Dave Stone, just might be related to someone from the New Adventures.

Now there’s an argument to be made that much of this (the violence, the futurism) makes sense in the Colin Baker era, especially after the satirically violent Vengeance On Varos, so it should work as a Missing Adventure. But you’re reading this years later and potentially alongside the other books published around then, so it unavoidably rings different bells. Even the front cover, which infamously gives us Adjudicators ala Judge Dredd, sends NA signals: my housemate, who doesn’t read these books but has heard me go on about them, took one look and said “That looks like one of the other lot.

Getting back on track to what Burning Heart is rather than what it is like, the Sixth Doctor and Peri arrive on relatively rough terms. I don’t recall Varos ending on a sour note for these two, and I’d suggest that this kind of characterisation might work better coming right after she meets an unpredictable Sixie in The Twin Dilemma. She doesn’t mince words (or thoughts) here: “One again – yet again – Peri felt that edgy mix of disappointment and annoyance. Once again, on some deep emotional level, she had expected to turn and see the friendly and engaging, utterly decent and trustworthy man she had once known – only to find that it was, well, him. The Doctor. It always slightly disorientated her, kept her on the wrong foot. The fact that she had now known this version of the Time Lord longer than the original seemed to make it all the worse. Now he looked at her with that little supercilious sneer she had come to know and loathe.” / “The real Doctor must still be in there somewhere. That was the only reason why anyone would stay with him and put up with him. At least, any other reasons for staying with him were just too horrible to contemplate.” Ouch.

In the long run, Burning Heart has an excuse for Peri’s instant loathing of him, and Dave Stone comes up with another one up front: seeing Peri’s reaction to the appalling conditions of the Habitat, and acknowledging that they can't be changed, “the anger [the Doctor] had instilled in her had countered and overridden the severe culture shock that might well have threatened to tear her mind apart. Hopefully, it would protect her for a while yet.” I’m not sure culture shock is that likely after the spate of aggressive and weird aliens she’s encountered already – she’s met killer androids, megalomaniac slugs, Cybermen, a smaller and more perverted slug, she’s been turned into a bird – but it’s a nice piece of character work for the apparently thoughtless Sixth Doctor, who elsewhere is “someone who, [Peri] sometimes felt, could not honestly care less if she lived or died.

The overriding problem for me is that Peri and the Doctor spend the next 200 pages apart. They’re in something like three scenes together, so if Burning Heart is intended to be the great “Peri accepts Sixie” book, it lacks the material to qualify. Meanwhile, the Doctor runs afoul of the Adjudicators and spends most of his time meeting other alien undesirables in their holding cells, while he (all too slowly) begins to suspect that something is wrong here. Peri falls in with a violent faction called Human First, which she improbably believes is just this harmless bunch of guys, y’know? (Perhaps 2019’s depressing political atmosphere has made the red flag easier to spot.) The aforementioned excuse for Peri’s bad mood also covers her sudden interest in species-ist uprisings, but then Stone’s bets are hedged with the idea that this dangerous anger was already a part of her. Burning Heart doesn’t really go into or justify that, although her state of undress (taking a moment to examine her bruised, naked body) and her luck with outfits might go some way to explaining a burning rage within: her Human First uniform “mostly came from a supplier for the underground fetish clubs”, and “had also been carefully tailored to enhance certain bits and pieces into what a realtor would probably call a spectacular development of frontage ... She felt like a cross between a peroxide rock chick and the wet dream of a gentleman of a certain age.” I see what you did there, but... can you really be said to be commenting on a thing, if you’re just doing it anyway?

As well as separating them, the book doesn’t seem all that interested in them. The mysterious Kane buzzes around Peri, maybe-or-maybe-not working for Human First, and generally driving the action more than she does. He has an attachment to an Adjudicator named Chong, who works with the somewhat blinkered cop Craator, who seems to impact the plot more (or at least more often) than the Doctor. His boss is the religious zealot Garon (oh good, a religious zealot), while Peri and Kane have to contend with the equally zealous Jelks. Both leaders are getting people killed for their rather vague causes, but neither develops any depth. Same goes for most of the in-between characters, many of whom don’t even get names – it’s just group descriptors like Hand Of God, White Fire and so on. Things in the Habitat get worse until they explode into violence, but unfortunately Burning Heart hasn’t installed enough rounded characters for us to invest in its decline. The Habitat is also such a hot mess to start with that it doesn’t feel at all momentous when it gets worse. It just feels like Tuesday.

Maybe some of this is just the nagging sense that Dave Stone is playing in the New Adventures sandbox, and we’ve heard all this before. I’d also raise an eyebrow at the revelation that (spoiler) people are behaving the way they are because of an outside influence which is (in its own way) benevolent, meaning the violence is incidental. I certainly suspected some mind control with Peri – and got increasingly worried as the book went on and nothing was said about it, in case Stone had simply decided that Peri Loves Terrorism this week – but as well as being yet another accidental (?) yoink from Transit, this also allows Burning Heart to completely shrug off the two-dimensional characterisation of Garon and Jelks. It’s just, well, of course they’re dull fundamentalists. That’s the point! Urgh. Really?

Some arguably interesting things are happening here, such as the pulsing alien Node that hangs monolith-like over the Habitat and causes some of the random craziness below. (Such as deadly hallucinations, psychic murders, angel-like visions that kill and just all sorts of other random yuckness.) There is also OBERON, the computer / intelligence that Garon and the Adjudicators are slave to. Both of these are revealed as emergent lifeforms quite near the end, but it’s more of an info-dump than a drip-fed mystery; the book has by this point shown so little concrete interest in the Node that I was worried he’d forgotten about it. The revelation is like the Sixth Doctor himself, dropping hints and waiting for you to get it, then saying in his most irritating tone, “Well? Give up?” (He tells Peri “Telling is for people without the wit to see”, which is a bit bloody rich.) On the way here, all you can do is wade through Burning Heart, bouncing from one group of characters whom the narrative may or may not be writing with a deliberate lack of detail to another. It felt like 250 pages going on a million.

Much of this sounds crazy, to me anyway, coming from Dave Stone. Sky Pirates! is as jolly, fun and mad as its title suggests. Death And Diplomacy is a jaunty, if somewhat patchier romantic comedy. Such sustained futurism and misery is a funny fit for him, but there is the occasional concession to what, at this point, we can probably call Dave Stone-ness. There are plenty of witty observations, like a tangent on alien religions that includes The Rite Of Exterminating Everything That Isn’t a Dalek. Stone has (inevitable) fun with the Sixth Doctor’s verbosity, leaving other characters bored or irritated in exchanges such as: “Indeed, as the Doctor had said once, if it wasn’t for all these thinking, walking lumps of organised meat, these automemes in organic machines bucking local entropy all the time, the Universe would be in a hell of a state. And Peri had said, ‘What?’” And just when you think Stone has found the ultimate vessel for his obsession with long or obscure words in Sixie, he introduces the Doctor to someone worse: an enormous centipede called Queegvogel with a malfunctioning, psychotically verbose translation box. (I’m not even typing it up, just trust me.) He peppers the book with words like “bathetic” and “geodesic” that we both know aren’t part of everyday conversations over the counter at Tesco, and I may have needed to Google afterwards. He can turn a lovely phrase, like the Doctor’s summing up of what it means to impact other people’s lives even a little, or the coda that follows it.

But here we are. Burning Heart is still a dull, derivative wander through the wrong book range. You’re right, the Habitat sucks. Get me out of here.

4/10

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #92 – Eternity Weeps by Jim Mortimore

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#58
Eternity Weeps
By Jim Mortimore

First-person Bernice? Shut up and take my money. Chopping back and forth with first-person Jason? I could be persuaded to read it, I suppose. By Jim Mortimore? Heck, he’s always great value. Let’s see, a Bernice and Jason story by Jim Mortimore... why does that strike me as an odd prospect?

Ah yes. Happy Endings, and Sir Not Appearing In This Chapter – if memory serves, because he wasn’t too keen on the Bernice and Jason relationship. Even if you didn’t know, you can probably guess where this is going.

It makes a kind of sense to hand their breakup to one of their critics. And it makes sense to break them up, especially if you’re going to write a series of solo Bernice novels which were peeking over the horizon at this point. Even without those the relationship has been a hard sell, frogmarching Bernice and Jason through a romance in Death And Diplomacy to their wedding in the next book, and on to relative retirement away from scrutiny. We got a little camaraderie in Return Of The Living Dad and a (now rather apocryphal) slice of domestic normalcy in So Vile A Sin, but of substance the twosome had little. There hasn’t been time; there’s about as much evidence. The only real question is, how was this ever supposed to work?

We know Bernice back to front. We know Jason was hurt by his dad and shags about, 50% of which is just a less charming version of Chris. Mortimore giving him half a book to speak for himself is an absolute boon but, whether by accident or design, Jason still can’t escape the binary stars of his family abuse and wandering libido. So it’s not really revelatory to say his marriage is in trouble because he can’t keep his eyes off other women, or that his actions are driven by the trauma of his past, but these are the main Jason lessons I took from Eternity Weeps. That and he means well, as evidenced by a disastrous attempt to alter the past and a moment when he realises he loves his wife because she’s in mortal peril. The big, uh, softie?

Bernice naturally comes out of this better as we know her better, but she starts the book furious and upset and her mood doesn’t really improve. The funk is quite justified, what with the almost constant procession of killings that escalate into a grisly global pandemic. I remember thinking Damaged Goods was senselessly over the top with its kill count. Bless! There is a thrilling and horrifying moment here when Bernice, moments from certain death, escapes only by plunging a paintbrush through her attacker’s eye. This is followed by a reaction of, firstly, wow, and then thank goodness THAT’s over. Oh, honey.

For a while it’s quite jaunty, all things considered: it starts more or less as a travelogue with an odd fixation on warm cans of Pepsi. An expedition to Turkey in search of Noah’s Ark is manna for Benny, who is smarting from an apparently disastrous honeymoon. (I am struggling to square the dates with other books.) Jason arrives, unwelcome, and coincidentally the expedition is split in two to search different mountains. By this point the narrative has already made clear that most of the (numerous) archaeologists will not be coming back, and I think I responded to this by not getting attached. There are two psychotic military commanders, one to attack each group, believing that the Ark is actually a repository of uranium. The jumps from Bernice to Jason are like frying pan and fire.

It’s around here you start to notice the Doctor’s absence. There’s a practical purpose to this, with Eternity Weeps being a backdoor pilot for the Benny New Adventures. And it’s functionally a good one, showing that you can tell a compelling story without him, or without much of him. Bernice is certainly strong enough to shoulder a book. But bad things happen in the Doctor’s absence. Good grief, do they ever.

If I seem a little punch drunk about it, well, that’s Eternity Weeps. The pace of this thing is furious and most of the things happening very fast are horrible. Occasionally, bizarrely, they are also light-hearted. Jason’s aforementioned trip through time is to see the Cthalctose, an ancient sea-dwelling race who scratch a little of Mortimore’s world-building itch. (And are responsible for the whole mess.) While Jason is in their past, pleading with them not to doom Earth in his present, the tone becomes rather jaunty. The Astronomer Royal is a grand, pompous figure who mistakes Jason for a fan, then flies into a rage at the thought of his plagiarising the work. (Think the Maitre’d in The Crystal Bucephalus, or anyone from a Gareth Roberts book.) Jason promptly spends a thousand years incarcerated and semi-aware as the race considers methods of avoiding extinction, only to comically end up back at the Earthy-doomy one anyway. All of this quite enjoyably silly stuff happens after the many murders in Turkey and the outbreak of Agent Yellow, which causes bodily fluids to turn to acid. The whole time travelling jaunt is a bit of a side-note and it’s over quick smart. Huh? It’s one thing to be all but hurled through a story by your ankles – which believe me, is still preferable to struggling to turn the pages – but it’s another to find yourself constantly going, hang on, sorry, what?

And what better reaction to the return of Liz Shaw. How do I not spoil what happens here? Typical of the book’s whirligig pace, Liz is unexpectedly found by Bernice working on an alien installation on the moon. She’s working with Silurians, which is a nice nod to Blood Heat and also, harmlessly and neatly, The Scales Of Injustice. Only then she catches Agent Yellow. And inadvertently helps spread it on Earth. And then proceeds to die, slowly and agonisingly, after what looks like a reprieve. (Nope, she dead; afterwards the site is nuked.) Jason’s trip back is logically doomed from the outset, but there’s still something cruel about introducing a potential reset after such a horrible, random tragedy. And what does it add? She’s not in the book long enough (30 pages on the dot) for it to make an emotional difference, although in the end, her knowledge helps. Presumably it’s to signify that all bets are off, but didn’t the random executions in Turkey (and Bernice’s revenge ala paintbrush) already make that clear?

The Doctor is so lite that he never reacts to her loss. After two books (one post-written) poignantly facing the Doctor’s grief, to completely hopscotch over the brutal and surprising death of a friend seems bizarre. The Doctor is just his usual cheerful, busy self on the periphery, at best so distracted by the scale of danger that he hasn’t time to notice. (To be fair, a tenth of Earth’s population does die as well. A gay old time, is this one.) And it’s wrong. Sorry. I’m not normally one to argue with author intent or label things canon and not canon, and obviously this is just my experience and you’re welcome to your own. But, up with this I will not put. Liz didn’t deserve this abrupt, busy death or the Doctor’s lack of a reaction to it. Not canon, get in the bin.

(Seriously, what is with the Virgin books and old companions? First Dodo and now this? Plus Mel hating the Doctor in Head Games, and Peri venting at him in Bad Therapy. What next? Is Leela going to make a surprise novel appearance and commit seppuku?)

The book’s horrors might not seem so arbitrary if the pace wasn’t such a flighty rampage. I don’t know why it’s written that way. It’s tempting to think the removal of the license was an incentive, but that doesn’t explain the odd, almost Russell T Davies-esque juxtaposition of brutality and whimsy here. Perhaps making it first person(s) naturally gave it an anecdotal air. I’m not saying I’d rather Eternity Weeps was even more miseryfying – both narrators are already pissed off for most of it – but when millions of people get killed more or less off-screen, and Bernice and Jason’s divorce gets quickly summarised in the epilogue with only one of their input, it starts to feel like there should simply be more book to cover it all.

In world building terms, the end of the relationship is more important than the appalling body count – which is so high, you’d think the Doctor would know about it from history books. But the break up still seems a little... easy. They’re already fighting and separated when we get here. They spend swathes of the book apart, not talking. Bernice’s thoughts on Jason are constantly, wearyingly negative (“Why the hell had I married this cretin anyway?”) and Jason spends most of his time trying to justify other women being objectively more attractive and interesting to him than Bernice ("Sex with Bernice was boring"), until he just flips the other way. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel to show no apparent evidence of attraction or love, then treat the divorce as inevitable. Based on the evidence, of course it is, but presumably there was more to them or they wouldn’t have got married? I don’t pretend to understand or even like the relationship as it’s been handled so far, and god knows what I’d do if it were me, but the approach here smacks of unfairness. That said, Jason’s been in several books and the prospect of not seeing him again is fine by me. So mission accomplished, I guess.

The Doctor is deliberately kept in the background, but – apart from being so busy he can’t grieve, which don’t even get me started DAMN IT I’M MAD AGAIN – he’s delightful. There’s his memorable introduction, when he stares danger down in a helicopter; there’s his strange knack for pottering in and out of rooms without disturbing things that speaks to the odd intangibility of the Doctor that often crops up in Mortimore’s books; and there’s the whimsical rescue attempt where he enlarges the TARDIS to fit a crashing helicopter inside. Out of context, he’s great – it’s just the violently odd tone mix I don’t care for. (I’m negotiable when he gets lines as good as “‘But paradoxes are impossible.’ ‘I prefer to use the word embarrassing.’”) Chris seems to have relapsed a little on the closure he got in Bad Therapy, which may be down to authors not comparing notes: multiple times he calls people Roz, almost to the point of annoying everyone else. But good prose clings to Bernice like a lovely hug, and as per, her gallows humour is tinged with humanity. See the bit where she deliberately doesn’t get on the Doctor’s helicopter because a young man has been left behind. He’s dead, she quickly realises, but there’s no apparent regret in going back for him. That said, the marital moaning gets a little much even for her.

It sounds like I spent most of Eternity Weeps absolutely raging, but that’s not right. It’s a compelling and fast read, which simply isn’t the case when you hate a book. As ever with Mortimore, it’s colourfully and occasionally beautifully written, and stuffed with ideas. It’s just that, whether he meant to go that way or whether it was mandated, there isn’t time to justify their impact, so it all feels a little disposable. Then again, sometimes life is just one damn thing after another, and you could argue this one is true to that.

6/10

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #91 – The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang by David A. McIntee

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#25
The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang
By David A. McIntee

NB 1: I’m reading this one out of order. Cold Fusion was published here, but it was set before The Death Of Art and had a small impact on that book, whereas The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang – published there – is a random one-off that could go anywhere. I’m sure Mr Sin won’t mind me swapping them.

NB 2: I also reviewed this years ago, back when I wasn't reading all of these and the reviews weren't quite so exhausting.  If you'd like a shorter version from way back, here you go!

Well, you can’t fault his ambition.

The Virgin novels have kept returning baddies to a minimum, perhaps inspired by the complete unavailability of Daleks. Where we do get sequels they’re offbeat, like The Sands Of Time focusing on a time conundrum instead of on Sutekh, or Twilight Of The Gods largely ignoring the aliens from The Web Planet in favour of even more boring ones.

At several points, David A. McIntee’s latest tries to do things unexpectedly. The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang sequelises probably a Top 5 story for most Who fans, but sets it in a different century (thus ruling out Jago and Litefoot), uses a different location and keeps the titular Chinese false god absent. It’s a sequel in the sense that the earlier story set these events in motion, but the iconography of The Talons Of Weng-Chiang – Victoriana, darkly comic dialogue, Gothic horror – isn’t part of the deal. It’s certainly a clever title, highlighting and possibly begrudging the expectations set by the earlier story. “The Baggage Of Weng-Chiang” would also have worked.

By making his story so different it becomes a bit irrelevant to say, for example, that it’s not as horrifying or as funny as Talons, but nonetheless that’s the case. Shadow ditches horror for pulpy ’30s adventure, with car chases, robberies, international unrest and a vigilante literally inspired by The Shadow. (Oh god, is the title a pun?) That’s not necessarily worse, it’s just different. One of McIntee’s writerly habits is indulging in action and, if you like that, there’s plenty of it here, such as the opening raid on a theatre/museum, a violent robbery ambushed by police, a sneak attack by the villain involving Mr Sin and an air vent, and K9 dangling out of a crashing plane while tied to the Doctor’s scarf. (!)

Speaking of Peking Homunculi, Mr Sin shows up occasionally to cause stabby havoc, mostly in a school uniform. (I take it back, that might be creepier than anything in Talons.) He’s used as a garnish and, frankly, the plot doesn’t need him much. Sin is the only element directly carried over from the previous story; so much of what made it good was atmosphere, there isn’t much else you could re-use without just making more of it. He’s one of those monsters that worked incredibly well (and only appeared) once, but put him in a novel and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not exactly a gift to writers, being mute and wanting to kill people absolutely 100% of the time. (Because of his pig brain – pigs being notably homicidal?) He at least provides some irony for the villain, Hsien-Ko, who can’t have children but does have a monstrous lackey dressed as one.

She’s a major part of Shadow not quite being what you’d expect. Her link to The Talons Of Weng-Chiang is kept secret for a while, and though it’s fair to assume she’s the antagonist, McIntee keeps her allegiance and feelings towards Weng-Chiang and the Doctor ambiguous. She has nothing much against the Doctor and doesn’t want to kill him; she’d rather have his help. Confronted by his not wanting to do so (because duh), she’s happy enough to dump him on a distant island (using the teleportation of Dragon Paths, a key plot ingredient) and let him make his own way back, knowing he’d be too late by then. Even the Doctor is surprised to be up against a downright amenable bad guy: it “makes a nice change.” Elsewhere she is genuinely disappointed at having to kill someone not necessary to the plan, and a key motivator is her love affair with Kwok, a lieutenant, which in turn makes her sad because a quirk of time means she will far outlive him. Together they occasionally use the Dragon Paths to go to an unspecified tropical paradise just to have a peaceful five minutes – an entirely pragmatic use of teleportation and a humanising one for a “bad guy”. Throughout the book, I was pleasantly surprised by her.

McIntee’s choice of Doctor and companion is slightly unusual, pairing the Fourth Doctor with the first Romana during their search for the Key To Time. That’s not a sequence of stories you could easily cram something else into; he gets away with it by making Hsien-Ko and the Dragon Paths give off a signal that is a lot like the Key To Time. Hsien-Ko is surprised that his companion isn’t Leela. (Given Virgin canon’s almost complete ignorance of the noble savage, I am not. Alas.) Both characters are written fittingly as if they’re being script edited by Douglas Adams, with the Doctor having fits of whimsy and eccentricity like putting his hand up to his eyes and then “realising” that he left his telescope in the TARDIS. There’s some amusing one-upmanship with K9, who has a quiet sense of superiority that’s funny without being implausible. (Yet more subverted expectations come when K9 finally meets Mr Sin. It’s over rather quickly, but by then you’re a bit sick of the stabby git, and K9’s quiet triumph is adorable.)

Romana is the only part that falls down, not because she’s poorly written or because Mary Tamm didn’t play the character well, but because in one year that version of the character didn’t develop much beyond haughty and smart, and McIntee sticks loyally to that characterisation. Tom and Mary didn’t have much of a rapport at the time – certainly nothing that compares to the Pygmalion quality with Louise Jameson – and the strange absence of something is noticeable here. The Doctor and Romana seem to exist quite independently, as they haven’t got the firey chemistry that came with Lalla Ward; as they’re both superior Time Lords at the peak of their confidence, there’s never any feeling that they’re in peril. When they’re with Hsien-Ko, she’s so accommodating that there isn’t a lot of tension. When they’re taken into police custody, McIntee writes “It was as if [Romana] were going along purely as a favour,” which pretty much describes their entire journey through the novel.

Taken on its own, an indomitable Doctor and/or companion can be a thrilling change of pace. Terrance Dicks wrote the Seventh Doctor that way in Exodus, and it was a tonic. Similarly, writing a villain with technically positive ambitions who really quite likes the Doctor, and will go to some lengths to keep him safe, is a twist on the good guy/bad guy dynamic that is so often easy and stale. I’m all for both of these things, but the combination doesn’t quite work. Shadow has the odd feeling of a bunch of people who can come and go as they like, harmlessly moving from place to place until their plans finally become impassable. Despite McIntee’s signature action, it becomes a chore.

Sadly there are other McIntee habits on display, not all of them good. It wouldn’t be one of his books without a historical setting and attendant rubbing-your-nose-in-it. Writing a story in a historical period? Good, those are fascinating. Providing lots of detail so it sounds authentic? Great. But you can get distracted by that, and he does, often describing locales and objects in nearly tedious detail, pausing the flow of the story to make really super-duper-mega sure you know he knows what he’s talking about. I get it – you do. “The Doctor’s police box stood just inside the gate, on a wide promenade that looked out eastwards over on the vibrant green depressions between the three main peaks and their attendant promontories, all of which had temples or inns built upon them.” Uh huh. Sometimes his embedded enthusiasm sounds like that of a tourism board. “The pine-scented fresh breeze that blew through the gardens would undoubtedly be as refreshing to anyone in the pavilions as would the shade provided by the pointed golden roofs.” Oooh! And sometimes it seems to have little to do with history and more to do with presumably drawing things out first and then wanting to prove it. “The parking area was in front of a large three-storey French-style mansion. The front of the house was graced with a wide patio from which two staircases descended to the gravel.” Fascinating.

It’s becoming clearer with each book that this writer loves detail and information – which isn’t a bad thing, but is perhaps more suited to scriptwriting than prose. There are scenes where characters list different makes and models of weaponry, or recount the complicated political situation of Shanghai at that time, and numerous scenes with an aircraft that refer to it as “the CNAC Stinson Trimotor.” Ohh, that aircraft! Thanks for clarifying!

Even the character writing falls into the too-much-information trap. We learn vital (and to be fair, often interesting) back story about Hsien-Ko, her lover Kwok, the Shadow-inspired Woo who also runs a night club, and cop-with-an-agenda Li by the slightly cumbersome method of them pausing what they’re doing to have a bloody good remember. Sometimes when they’re under attack. There’s a moment when, aptly enough, Romana is observing a landscape and we get this: “Romana had nothing against admiring beautiful scenery, but there was a time for everything.” Too bloody right there is.

Some of the difficulty I had in getting through this one may be that I’ve read it before, as you don’t necessarily have that urge to find out what happens next the second time. Mostly though, I think it’s the writing style. Now, there are some genuinely creative choices made with the characters, the style of “villainy” they’re up against, and the resistance to more obvious call-backs where it’s a sequel. (We still get continuity, some of it quite unexpected and arguably welcome, as its from the books: Hsien-Ko’s plan ties into Invasion Of The Cat-People, and there’s a significant cameo by a character from the first Decalog collection, of all things.) There are some random beats include the Doctor comparing somebody to Chow Yun Fat, suggesting he watches a lot of Chinese action movies from the ’90s, and a bizarre conversion with Romana about political correctness, as well as all those odd travel brochure bits where we marvel at the sights. But the book’s problem is more endemic, being so aloof with its heroes and villains and so excited about period detail (and detail in general) that it’s difficult to invest. Once we’re into the climax it just goes on endlessly in an actiony, detaily haze.

I can see why you’d admire The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang, and I like what it tried to do. If you are going to read it, though, I suggest one-and-done.

6/10