Friday, 1 December 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #55 – Decalog 2: Lost Property edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

Doctor Who: Decalog 2: Lost Property
Edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

It’s that time again!  Collecting a gaggle of authors, some you’ll know from the New and Missing Adventures, others who for whatever reason only show up for the short stories, Decalog 2: Lost Property differs from its predecessor in one obvious way: there’s no linking story.  And hooray, since the first Decalog had an almighty task stringing tales together with another one on top, only to end up adding useless links between them.  This time, it’s just a theme of the Doctor’s home.  That seems like a good enough excuse to collect a bunch of short stories, and it could lead to some interesting places.  Such as…

*

Vortex Of Fear
by Gareth Roberts

As with the first Decalog, we begin with the Second Doctor.  Gareth Roberts delivers a surprisingly dark vignette about a hotel suspended in the time vortex, where you can exist just long enough to evade certain tax laws.  The TARDIS bumps into it and the Doctor and co. get out to investigate, only to find a complicated paradox playing out ad infinitum.  It doesn’t exactly dwell on the subject of home; a reference to the vortex being where the Doctor belongs is sufficiently throwaway that it could have been added later.

This works really well as a short piece, as the premise is something that is naturally going to repeat itself and so probably shouldn’t outstay its welcome.  Roberts has an immediate handle on the characters, from the Doctor’s scruffy busy-bodying to Jamie’s keenness not to be shown up.  Zoe is developed nicely, with her photographic memory and logical mind troubled by the shifting world they find themselves in.  When the Doctor determines there’s no real hope for these people as it’s a closed, deteriorating loop, he just leaves them to it.  As a commentary on this seemingly bewildered Doctor’s darker side, it’s a lot more effective than The Menagerie, where he just causes deaths through befuddlement; it’s still surprisingly callous, even if he is affronted at people mucking about with the time vortex, or by the general air of decadence pervading the hotel.  (Darker still, Zoe figures out that since this is a paradox loop a version of them will always be there.  Yikes.)  For good measure, the nefarious sniping between the guests is written with colour and bile, the characterisation of the main trio is enjoyably apt, and Roberts gets in a jolly good Pat-and-Frazer double entendre at the start.

*

The Crimson Dawn
by Tim Robins

Well you can’t fault his ambition.  This has a fight for Ice Warrior rights on Mars, a sinister agenda to undermine it, a traitor, a monstrous lab-grown figurehead whose entire life has been a delusion based on The War Of The Worlds, a huge revelation about Ice Warrior history/a plot resolution bundled onto the last page and heaps of satire on commercialism.  (Also, rather originally, barely any Ice Warriors.)  I’ll bet this was an idea for a full novel; you could certainly stagger it out a bit.  All of which happened the last time we saw Tim Robins.  Just commission the dude and be done with it.

Thanks to the time constraint, it’s all a bit frantic and farcical – sometimes deliberately, as the Doctor and K9 zoom away from armed guards, the robot dog blasting away at them as he reverses at full speed.  The action is in technicolour, and the tone (looking at you, War Of The Worlds bit) rather goofy.  For something allegedly out of Season 14 or 15, it’s a bit too silly.  I wonder if Robins was really thinking of the Douglas Adams era: “My arms!  My legs!  My everything!”  And speaking of eras, there are probably too many continuity references; big fans of Mire Beasts will give a little cheer.  All two of them.

But never mind all that: it’s only ruddy Leela!  In what is, for all I know, her only appearance in a Virgin book, she displays all the obvious violence and lack of civilisation you’d expect, but little of the questing intelligence that makes her really special.  I suspect we needed a Leela renaissance when Big Finish came along, if she was once looked down on by fandom.  That might explain her absence from these books; there’s a note of parody about her, of “Can you believe this was once the companion?!”  And K9, who showed up considerably after Leela, is referred to as the Doctor’s best friend!

The satire is a little heavy-handed, as we tour the commercialised regions of Mars including a Mars Bar (oof!), a dessert called an Achocalypse Now, and the sad revelation that Peladon has undergone a financial crisis that “forced the Pels to turn their monarchy into a toiletry franchise”.  That stuff’s not a million miles from the quirks of Transit, so there’s a precedent, but Robins still must have been in an odd mood when he wrote this.  Oh, and the Doctor’s “home” in this is a flying houseboat.  Not so much exploring a theme there as picking a noun out of a hat.  (It’s all about the Martians’ home, I suppose, but if so doesn’t that get the theme slightly wrong?)  Altogether it’s an odd, madcap jumble.

*

Where The Heart Is
by Andy Lane

Few Doctors are as concerned with their home as the Third, who would hate to admit he belonged on Earth.  Andy Lane attacks this sideways, never outright saying the Doctor belongs here but focusing on the home of the UNIT Family instead, which he helped build and which, of course, belongs to him.  It also plugs a continuity gap that has never occurred to me: how UNIT suddenly ended up with a country house for its headquarters.  But don’t worry about it disappearing into fanwank, despite the plethora of references.

Lane puts the Brigadier in a tight spot when UNIT’s funding dries up and the government threatens to hand the whole thing over to the Marines.  The Doctor and Jo have captured a flamboyant alien masquerading as a doctor (draw your own inference!), and despite its murderous crimes it may be able to help.  The writing is sublimely character-based, particularly as the Brigadier stares an uncertain future in the face and the Doctor (in a testy mood) tries to get one over on him by capturing the alien as easily as possible.  Both characters are fleshed out more convincingly in 20 pages than The Ghosts Of N-Space managed in an entire novel.  Jo’s determination and shortcomings are also brought spiritedly to life.

This is short, sweet and does a clever job with the theme.  A highlight.

*

The Trials Of Tara
by Paul Cornell

“I want to do a sequel to The Androids Of Tara,” said Paul Cornell at one time, presumably.  “In iambic pentameter.  Guest starring the Kandyman.”  Well if you’re not hooked already, what else can I say?

Mind you, I can barely tell iambic pentameter from balsamic vinegar, and I have a naturally sulky dislike for all things Shakespeare, so when I saw that The Trials Of Tara really was going to be like that for all of its fifty pages I groaned in horror.  But I soon forgot any objections as Paul Cornell indulged in Shakespeare references even I get, as well as some delightfully nerdy in-jokes about Holmesian double-acts, a jaunty plot that doesn’t just repeat the original story and – of course – Bernice Summerfield absolutely knocking it out of the park.  One moment where she realises she’s cocked up her delivery and it completely implodes in a single stanza made me hoot.  That, and the Kandyman frustratedly brushing off a bewitched lover.

It’s one of those where you could spend so long listing fun little moments, you just end up reading the thing out.  In summary, it’s easily as demented as it sounds.   Despite its poetic leanings it feels like an outlet for Paul Cornell’s love of panto – bawdy jokes and all – and that’s no bad thing if you’re in the right mood.  It zooms along, every bit as sugary as the Kandyman and just as brilliantly odd.

*

Housewarming
by David A. McIntee

Meh.  Housewarming ought to drum up a bit of atmosphere at least, being set in an apparently haunted house over a short time.  David A. McIntee drops in as many gnarly adjectives as he can find, as ever, but he makes the odd decision to overpopulate it and frequently chop between his characters.  It’s consequently difficult to build anything up and none of the guest characters stand out.

Sarah and K9 are a welcome addition to the book world – I’m not sure I needed a sequel to K9 & Company, or K9 & Company for that matter, but you could at least improve on it.  Alas, it stars Mike Yates.  Has he ever been very interesting?   They’re all reasonably characterised, apart from a slightly too excited Pertwee-ish sword-fight that frantically tries to liven things up at the end.  It nevertheless finishes with a damp squib and makes the villain (spoilers) look a bit small potatoes, although that’s not a new experience for them.  Of ghostly terror, there is none.

The plot’s small and simple and it holds together, but while I really ought to go “Ooh!” at the surprise reveal, it’s not enough of a surprise to warrant it.

*

The Nine-Day Queen
by Matthew Jones

I only know Matthew Jones from his New Who story The Impossible Planet, but it’s an open secret that Russell T Davies wrote most of the finished product, so I guess this is a first.  Based on The Nine-Day Queen he’s got a knack for characters, and the ending is something else, but overall it falls into some familiar traps.

First, this is a bigger story than just 30 pages: an important first scene aboard the TARDIS is summarised, and months fly by like turned pages.  The pace is absolutely crazy for a Hartnell story in particular, with things like the reader’s knowledge of history being expediently assumed.  Second, following on from that, this type of story – a historical period beset by a special effects-y alien influence – is quite unlike the Hartnell era.  You’d never have got this particular kind of sci-fi/history mash up, the more roundabout Time Meddler notwithstanding.

Still, Jones makes it sound just about right.  The destructive Vrij is affecting history, which could mean Jane Grey lives longer than history allows, but will spell disaster for the future; this leads to some very traditional worrying about what all that means.  (Then again, the idea that it can happen goes against what that era said and even underlined – that it cannot happen!)  Barbara’s knowledge and concern shine through, and the Doctor’s complicated and irascible nature are ultimately betrayed by his sympathy for Jane, all of which rings true.  (See Cameca and the brooch.)  Ian imitates the Doctor in a fun scene, winning over a couple of guards with sheer confidence, though admittedly he doesn’t do a lot else.  And the unseen TARDIS bit might sound completely batty – Barbara losing her mind and strangling Ian – but it’s something we’ve more or less seen in The Edge Of Destruction.  (As for the rather odd bit where the Doctor insists CPR might do him fatal harm, uh, I guess we didn’t know one way or the other back then?)

There are numerous good bits, but the story is at its best on the final page when (spoiler) the Doctor helps Jane achieve some dignity in death.  That’s a heart and a darkness you’d expect from McCoy, which effortlessly works for Hartnell.  On the flip side, apart from another throwaway use of the theme, i.e. the Doctor owned a house once (gee, really pushing the boat out!), there’s that frenzied short-story-in-name-only approach.  This is possibly best evidenced at the start, in the by-line beneath the epigraph: Barbara Chesterton.

*

Lonely Days
by Daniel Blythe

This one at least feels like a short story, as it has a much smaller focus.   The TARDIS drops in on an asteroid/planet the Doctor owns (Daniel Blythe interchanges the two words – annoying!), where it finds a lonely worker going slightly mad, and a planet (let’s stick with that) undergoing changes.  There’s also a hint of a ghost story to do with the hologram of a woman he (Sebastian) once knew.

The writing is at its best when Sebastian is pottering about on his little world, thinking he’s seeing things.  As the plot progresses his moods and actions get weirder, all of which is somewhat nullified when it turns out there’s just been a breakdown in communication.  Still, you can believe it wouldn’t take much to push this man to randomly pull a gun on strangers.

The regulars are more problematic.   Nyssa is mostly fine, apart from an odd bit where she seems eager to mess with time in order to test the laws of gambling.  (?)  The Fifth Doctor is way off.  Somewhat irreverent, at one point apologising individually to some plants, namedropping the death of Adric just to make a trivial point and coming out with general bursts of eccentricity, this just isn’t him.  (Although I could forgive Blythe for wanting to liven him up a bit.)  The whole concept of him owning a planet is rather bizarre, but then Craig Hinton wrote a novel about him owning a restaurant, which made about as much sense.

Latterly there’s an attempt to underscore it all with Nyssa’s loneliness after her father’s death, but that seems like an afterthought.  Despite that and a melancholy ending where two lonely souls learn to co-exist, it’s a bit of a non-event.

*

People Of The Trees
by Pam Baddeley

Well look at that – Bonus Leela!  Newcomer Pam Baddeley is another one taking the “home” theme literally, as the Doctor revisits some land he once bought (in order to protect the indigenous people) which is under threat again.  The theft of ancient statues is putting the “People” in danger, but the Doctor will soon need to barter the remaining statue for Leela’s life.

The idea of a civilisation that revolves completely around acquiring and protecting land is a good one for the theme, and it adds an unusual motive to the Dascarians, who don’t give a fig about the tree-dwelling primitives they’re endangering.  The plot is the right sort of size and the writing is quietly clever, adapting equally well to the People and the Dascarians.  The Fourth Doctor is in a more pensive, respectful mood than his earlier story, and Leela... well, I’m still not convinced the writers of the time knew what to do with her other than act like an overbearing bodyguard with a pocket full of Janis thorns, but she’s less a figure of fun here, and she’s in good company with the trusting tree folk.

It’s not spectacular, but I liked it well enough.

*

Timeshare
by Vanessa Bishop

Over at Big Finish, the Sixth Doctor didn’t so much evolve as hire a drastic new PR guy.  “Old Sixie” is the cuddly uncle of Doctors, his Peri-strangling days buried beneath wistful monologues and Evelyn’s chocolate cakes.  If you’ve got used to all that, Timeshare might be a bit bracing.  This is original, unsweetened Doctor Six; about as gentle as a lorry reversing in the middle of Swan Lake.

Discovering a mysterious set of coordinates and refusing to believe Peri has read them correctly, the TARDIS arrives by a timeshare flat – only it’s a time-travelling arrangement outlawed by the Time Lords.  It begins to malfunction, in a way weirdly reminiscent of the earlier Homecoming, due to the Doctor putting too much money in the meter.  It’s a bit of a farce, which somewhat suits this Doctor’s blustery nature.

Even so, there are a few issues with this.  The Sixth Doctor giving both barrels at Peri is an acquired taste – you begin to wonder what she’s getting out of it – and the two of them can get annoying.  The comedy is a little much, particularly when another Time Lord appears with a small collection of random idiosyncrasies, just to dole out some exposition.  Despite generous amounts of effort, I never fully understood how the timeshare worked.  And the story’s a little long, especially when time “echoes” start to repeat and repeat.

But the writing occasionally suggests that Peri does find her companion endearing, and his flaws – such as trying a little too hard to catch his own reflection – do ring true to the era.  It’s probably a good idea for a story, unknowingly mixing Vortex Of Fear with Homecoming, but it could maybe have been shorter and clearer.  It’s all about a fun getaway being dragged out for too long and then becoming a mess, and well, now that you mention it...

*

Question Mark Pyjamas
by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker

If you made it all the way through the last nine stories thinking “This is all well and good, but what about the House on Allen Road?”, you’re in luck.  In a surprising and canny move, that’s the “home” to round off this collection.   Back we go to another time, when it was the Doctor, Benny and Ace.  (I get a kick out of that being in the past, as ripe for a revisit as any old Doctor.)  They find the Doctor’s residence on an asteroid, in a “Heritage Centre” of stolen homes that strangely mirrors the book’s overall theme.  That’s nice work.

Quite soon the Doctor and co. are unwilling exhibits, living out a strange domestic life in “Allen Road” with Bernice and Ace as his wife and daughter.  They plot an escape and it plays out somewhat amusingly, with perhaps a few too many references sprinkled on top, not all relevant.

It’s fun to be nostalgic about the New Adventures, and sure enough Ace takes a moment to remember some of the upsetting things that have happened to her, including helpfully placing this after No Future.   (PS: did you know she has mummy issues?)   That’s pretty much all it sets out to do, but the humour is winningly strange – Russell T Davies would love the bit about “We only had the atmosphere fitted a few days ago” – and there’s a lovely observation that aboard the TARDIS, every morning feels like a lie-in

My only real gripe is almost an achievement: could Robert Perry and Mike Tucker be the first writers not to get the appeal of Bernice Summerfield?   She likes archaeology and wine, but only in a dry, tick-things-off-a-list way.  Her effervescent wit, the thing that makes her jump off the page, just isn’t happening for once.  It’s hardly a new experience for Bernice to get nothing to do, especially with Ace around, but the contrast has never been quite so black and white.

Apart from that it’s a colourful trip to the recent past, and a nice send off for Decalog 2.

*

My main gripes about Decalog were writers not knowing a short story from a novel summary, and the awkward linking theme.  Decalog 2 still has lapses on the first front; I kind of wish they’d get Tim Robins to do something full length just to see if it helps.  But these stories are mostly well suited to the quicker pace, and some – Trials in particular – really make it count.  As for the theme, while there’s nothing as unwieldy as a running plot, it’s a little uncanny how many writers took it literally or just tossed it in there as a garnish.  But I suppose it’s a hard theme to tackle, as they’re dealing with a lifelong nomad.  (Odd that nobody wrote about the TARDIS, the obvious winner.)

It’s best to remember the theme is just an excuse for ten stories.  As a collection, it’s a colourful improvement.

7/10

See you again for 56–60, beginning with Zamper by Gareth Roberts...

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #54 – The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Christopher Bulis

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#12
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
By Christopher Bulis

Sci-fi and fantasy, together again.  Again.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t the first Virgin book to smush these genres together, let alone the first bit of Doctor Who.  Witch Mark did it ages ago, more recently so did The Menagerie (more or less).  As you can guess if you’ve read my reviews, it’s not something I tend to go crazy for.

I like sci-fi, obviously.  And I like fantasy well enough, but since it usually manifests as quasi-historical-with-added-dragons, or Bargain Bin Tolkien, I’m generally happier with a comedic version.  Stick the two together and you usually get something too humdrum for fantasy or too silly for sci-fi.  But you’ve got to poke the fourth wall a bit if you’re going to make the comparison, which is why comedy is a good fit, so there’s some promise.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is sort of critical of its fantasy tropes, but mostly in that way where you take a fantasy thing and just explain it with a sci-fi thing.  Well done and everything, but since it’s all flim-flam, have you really put fantasy in its place?

New Who is an absolute sod for this.  Ghosts?  Try ethereal aliens.  Werewolves?  More like alien werewolves.  As for vampires, uh… space fish?  These things don’t suddenly become more interesting when you use a different kind of made up thing to explain them.  (Or come to that, when you explain them at all.)  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice drops our heroes into an obviously fantastical world, complete with fire-breathing dragons and wizards, immediately gives all of it the sceptical stink-eye and then spends ages building up to what is, when all’s said and done, a cod science explanation just as straightforward and typical as the fantasy one.  Of course there’s some kind of mega technological thingummie at the heart of Avalon, powering the wizards and helping the dragons to fly.  All that does is make the fantasy world seem more ordinary – especially since this is Doctor Who and not The Lord Of The Rings, so you’re totally expecting it to go that way.  Besides, it’s not even as if peppering a (pseudo) historical world with technology is a novel experience, what with virtually every Doctor Who story set in history since the 1970s doing precisely that.

Part of the reason I’m so unreceptive to all this, apart from having gone through much the same song and dance in Witch Mark, is the writing.  I’ve enjoyed Christopher Bulis’ books in the past, more so than most with Shadowmind.  I thought that was well paced and quite witty with its mind-control plot; I also found State Of Change refreshing and pithy, especially in its historical back-biting.  But there’s no such wit here.  After yet another What The Hell Was All That About prologue, Bulis introduces the regulars with all the finesse of Terrance Dicks novelising at 3am.  Hope and apprehension mingled on [Barbara’s] concerned, intelligent, strong-featured face, crowned by her bouffant of dark hair.  She was wearing a simple loose jumper and slacks, with sensible flat shoes, having already learned the value of practical dress when travelling with the Doctor.  Spot the bit where that stopped being relevant?  Are there Bingo cards for us to match up all the relevant bits of her outfit?

He gets into an even greater detail-obsessed lather later on, describing the hell out of a banquet.  Hey, atmosphere’s great and all, but it can feel like there’s going to be a test afterwards.  The writing in general is of the serviceable, then-this-happened-and-then-that-happened variety.  It’s fine, in other words, but “fine” is not going to propel you enthusiastically through 300 pages.

Quite soon we meet the fantasy denizens of Avalon, including (but not limited to) an elderly wizard, a benevolent King and his dutiful Queen, an evil wizard (aka the sorcerer’s apprentice), a heroic knight, a scrappy dwarf, a supercilious elf, a mystical leprechaun and a grotty witch.  Every single one of them acts just as you’d expect, and while the book does eventually produce an excuse for this, and for the narrative following the archetypes of fantasy like seriously co-dependant tracing paper, that doesn’t transmogrify the schlocky obvious bits into shiny new ones.  We also cut back and forth to some spaceships in orbit, where the people sound equally fresh and interesting.  If you’ve seen an episode of Star Trek, you can fill in the dialogue.

I wonder how much of this is just the result of mixing two genres, not to mention bunging four regular characters on top: it’s inevitably going to spread a bit thin.  Before long you’ve got the Doctor and Ian questing with Sir Bron, the Unsurprisingly Brave, and his (as Ian points out!) Lord Of The Rings tribute band; Barbara, injured and stuck in the castle with a King, Queen and wizard, researching the problem and hunting out a spy; Susan and Princess Mellisa kidnapped by the nefarious Marton Dhal, and stuck in another castle; the people up in space tightening their grip on the planet below, planning to steal its mythical technologies; various crewmen sent to Avalon for just that purpose; and at one point, a curiously intelligent cat sneaking about.  (There’s also a bunch of knights staking out Castle Dhal, hoping to rescue the princess, but we mercifully ignore them.)  Bulis is soon chopping and changing like his keyboard’s getting a bit hot, and since every main character or setting has to accommodate its own batch of smaller characters, there isn’t enough interesting stuff to go around.  The closest anybody gets to being memorable is the witch, who arrives far too late and inevitably encroaches on Pratchett territory just because he’s written the hell out of witches already.  (I didn’t particularly mind Dhal, obvious as he is, but I think that’s because I decided that’s the sort of part Philip Madoc would have played.  I had fun imagining him glowering at everybody.)

The regulars are true to themselves, and goodness knows I’m glad it’s them.  This is my favourite era of the show – I’m still convinced they should never have sacrificed the unpredictability of the TARDIS – but Verity Lambert and co. are rather more to thank for that.  Bulis at least plays up the oddness and cleverness of Susan, and gives the Doctor some imperious little victories and a nifty costume change.  (Hartnell would surely have approved.)  Barbara suffers a bit from “Go and get the useful guest character” syndrome while Ian, on a boat full of mystics and warriors, seems pretty redundant for much of it, but then none of that’s too far off the mark.  They sometimes had to make do with tiny subplots on the telly.

One thing I did like – I didn’t expect to slate it, but here we are! – was the continuity between books.  This follows on from the world of Original Sin, with Earth’s Empire in tatters and plenty of humans, particularly the avaricious ones in orbit, at a loss.  Presented with the might-as-well-be-magic technology of Avalon, they have the opportunity to rebuild what they’ve lost.  This is very neatly done: if you haven’t read Original Sin you could just take it on the chin that Earth is in a state, and if you have it’s a clever little twist to follow it up with William Hartnell and co.  Mixing up time and space like that is a very Doctor Who thing to do, and nicely illustrates just how all over the place the Doctor’s travels can be.  (It’s also a neat little Easter egg if you happen to be reading every single buggering one of them.)

Also, keeping my charitable (wizard’s) hat wedged on for a moment, much of the fantasy stuff is perfectly serviceable.  There’s an encounter with sea monsters, an attack by flying monkeys (!), obviously the scene on the cover with the dragon, flying broomsticks, and a climactic battle between wizard, witch, leprechaun, Doctor and all manner of zoomy, flashy things.  It ticks those boxes all right – with, of course, conventionally exploding sci-fi stuff on the periphery.  It just uses an excuse, however plot-relevant it might be, to never exceed your expectations with any of it.

While it’s hardly a surprise, since I read half of it years before this marathon and couldn’t be bothered to finish until now, it’s still a bit odd being on the other side of fan consensus.  Christopher Bulis is generally quite unpopular in fan circles, but to look at the reviews, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice did well.  I can’t tell anyone they’re wrong for liking it, but it didn’t work for me.  It’s never an egregiously bad read, and in a way that makes it more of a slog: when you read and read these things, the very good is intoxicating, the very bad is at least interesting, but there’s no burning desire to read anything that’s ordinary.  I’m sorry to say, a dutiful load of fantasy archetypes rubbing shoulders with stock sci-fi stuff is very much in the latter category.

5/10

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #53 – Sky Pirates! by Dave Stone

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#40
Sky Pirates!
By Dave Stone

Oh no, not Dave Stone.  In the modest annals of New Adventures discussion, no author is discussed with as many awkward sidelong glances or nervous fidgets as this one.  To read the reviews you’d think he was a one-man marmite factory, a purveyor of books so bizarre they’re not so much “written down” as “mashed into existence with fists dabbed haphazardly in hundreds and thousands and mud”.

As it happens I’ve felt like that for years: my first experience of a New Adventure (and possibly my first Doctor Who book) was a Dave Stone.  I’ve owned Death And Diplomacy for decades (plural – Jesus!), and I dimly remember the bewilderment of trying to read it.  Just what the hell is this, anyway?  Who are those people on the cover?  Where are the Daleks?  I was still working through all of David J Howe’s non-fiction books at the time and oh, dear lord, those endless lists of things from Doctor Who… bliss!  I really enjoyed learning about it all and, as you might have guessed, wasn’t so hot on going outside and doing things, so Dave Stone’s solitary New Adventure, with its somewhat adult humour and reams of weird stuff made absolutely no sense to me.  It still might not when I get to it later.  Fingers crossed.

But before all that, there’s Sky Pirates!  And oh boy.  I’m almost grateful for all the hushed, couched “Careful, now”s from kind fellow readers, as none of that prepared me for such a good book.  Stand down red alert!  Sky Pirates! is properly good and fun and written in totally comprehensible words!  Well, mostly.  But if anything, it’s better written than most of the books in the range.

Yes, it’s a bit bizarre at times, if not constantly.  There’s whimsy encrusted in its DNA.  You don’t get “Chapter One”, you get “The First Chapter”; you don’t get song lyrics at the start of each section, you get bad jokes (mostly courtesy of Bernice Summerfield); the narrator is someone transcribing it long after the fact, though they keep a merciful enough distance to be both amusing in their own right and a barely noticeable, not at all insufferable device, as they could have been; the language is florid and considered and dense, such that you sometimes need to take a few runs at a sentence, but all that extra detail is colourful and fun – so what if you begin to suspect that with all the bizarre ideas and bubbling befoulments it contains, if you dropped Sky Pirates! from a good enough height, it would splat?

Even so, I can’t help thinking people get a bit over-excited about it.  That’s not to denigrate the book – as must be obvious, it’s one that I liked – but to pinch a bit of Douglas Adams, well, it’s just this book, y’know?  Dave Stone hasn’t written anything as incomprehensible as Time’s Crucible or Strange England.  Sure, some of the words maybe don’t super duper exist, but he carries them off so well and makes it all so enjoyable that I didn’t have the nerve to question them, or any of the typos, of which there may have been one or two.  Unless that’s a gag, which it might well be.  Put simply, this one knows what he’s doing.

He’s often been compared, much to his chagrin (according to the Discontinuity Guide), with Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.  I can see what the comparisons are getting at, and also why he might roll his eyes.  There are many New (and some Missing) Adventures that wear their influences on their sleeve, because after all they’re written by lovely, well-intentioned, mostly naïve young writers.  Sky Pirates! creates worlds filled with grimy and unpleasant people a bit like how Terry Pratchett does it, and plays havoc with physics and good manners a little in the style of Douglas Adams, but he also has his own style.  There’s an anarchic quality to it, a shaggy dog quality to the story a little like (but more focussed than) Adams, and the sense of humour – intrinsic to Adams and Pratchett – never veers as close to outright satire as either of them.  Sky Pirates! is a fantastical sci-fi comedy with many funny ideas, but it isn’t half as concerned with avatars for real world things.  I love that in said (more famous) authors, but I greatly enjoyed the absence of it here.  One aspect I’ve seen gently criticised is the book’s take on religion (it’s not a major fan), which also draws it towards the parallel-evolution jibes of Pratchett, but I found it quite harmless and somewhat open minded and far less This Is Like That Thing, You Know, That One than Pratchett.  In any case, I’ve read worse takes.  (Looking at you, St. Anthony’s Fire.)

Stone has a reputation (see above, etc.) for writing very silly stuff, and while there’s plenty of that, it’s far from the only ingredient.  Take the Sloathes: amoral shape-shifting tentacle-ish blob-ish things, they honestly believe they’re the only really living things in the cosmos (and all other life is “pretending to move”) and exist to gluttonously collect and consume.  They look like a variety of utterly ridiculous things and some of them talk in an outlandish and silly way.  But they’re also a source of immense creativity, and as the book goes on the other characters realise they’re much more reflective than evil, and might actually be examples of absolute, malleable promise, waiting for the right encouragement.  The various crewmen of the Schirron Dream, the piratical ship that inspires the title, are a bit of a random assortment collected from the various planets of the bizarre (and therefore rather Sloathe-like) System, but the main two – nefarious Nathan Li Shao and warrior woman Leetha – develop considerably as the book goes on.  (Their story sort of goes where you’re expecting, but Stone refrains from rubbing it in, which is a relief.)  Admittedly some of the more minor ones are much more minor, sadly including the second-in-command Kiru.  The crew also seem to pick up new people between adventures, which stretches characterisation a bit.

The whole “pirate” side of the story really only gets going around halfway, which ought to be a criticism, and yet I can’t complain about the stuff that happened before.  The System, a sun surrounded by four diverse planets and assorted planetary bits, is falling apart: Planet X, home of the Sloathes, has thrown the natural decline into overdrive, devastating worlds and peoples.  The TARDIS is ensnared by an ancient horror from the Time Lords’ past (oh hi, cheeky bit of mythology) and the Doctor and Bernice are separated from Roz and Chris.  The former find themselves with Leetha on the dank space station-esque world of Sere, scarcely aware of Leetha’s quest to save the System; the latter are trapped in a Sloathe hell on Planet X.  Both situations are rife with detail and colour: Bernice observes Sere and becomes convinced the place is about to fall apart, while Roz lives through a bizarre drug-addiction and struggles to stay alive amid her terrifying, ridiculous captors.  In the middle of all this, the quest to find the Eyes – one gem per planet, which united may save the System – is suitably at the back of everybody’s mind that it sort of recalls the quest for the Ultimate Question, so I suppose that’s another Douglas Adams echo if you’re looking for one.

It’s the confident juggling of silliness, richness and thought that really made it for me.  While I needed a few goes to make absolute sense of Planet X, it was completely worth it, as their bizarre and preposterous dialogue leapt off the page.  Leetha’s world falls into chaos as she makes her way to save it, and this is unquestionably a time of tragedy, yet Stone turns a mystic ritual to “discover” Leetha (and so prove she is The Chosen One) into a heartbreakingly pathetic game of Hide And Seek.  (I was giggling for ages at that bit.)  Later, when Stone gives into the perhaps inevitable impulse to revisit the ancient horror from Time Lord history and make it the focus of the denouement, the Doctor really comes into focus, after being written brilliantly as someone who can fade into the background at will and be convincingly ridiculous or serious.  His sheer conviction when he faces “the thing inside”, the being behind it all, hefts more weight onto what could, at a glance, look like a daft jaunt around some goofy planets on a weirdo spaceship.  This is the Doctor at his most grave, struggling against the innate violence of his people and himself.  (Which neatly echoes the Doctor and Pryce’s discussion about murder in Original Sin, deliberately or otherwise.)  Bernice shows light and shade throughout, with perhaps more emphasis on shade: she’s utterly cynical about the Doctor at times, as she’s got a bee in her bonnet that he’s doing one of his “stand back and manipulate” jobs on the whole affair.  She has every reason to be suspicious: we know, as she does, that the man quaintly pottering about the kitchen in a chef’s hat is not what he seems.

There is, I suppose, a feeling that Chris and Roz are bundled into a subplot, as you might expect right after they’re introduced.  It’s hard to pinpoint if this is a “good” Roz and Chris book, as they’re in such completely alien surroundings compared with Original Sin.  However, Stone convincingly handles inter-novel continuity so it feels like he’s at least read the one before, and the story eventually takes the stance of putting them through the wringer to see if this is even something they want to do.  It’s meant to leave them a bit bleary-eyed.  It’s not a Roz-and-Chris-apalooza, especially on the Chris side, but nor is it a betrayal of either of them.  I enjoyed their story.

As far as other criticisms go, there is a sense of cutting bits and briskly accelerating the pace after halfway, but it’s a long-ish book by New Adventures standards, so I get why the quest to find each Eye becomes truncated: one is a deliberate and hilarious anti-climax related after the fact by Bernice.  Again, what could be a problem (and maybe is) is tackled head on and then smartly juggled.  Along with other bits, like the too-numerous crew, it’s not perfect.  And yet reading Sky Pirates!, I never got over the sheer delight of a fully-realised author.  I’ve read some very good books since Genesys, and discovered some fabulous authors like Paul Cornell, Jim Mortimore and Andy Lane, but let’s face it, there’s a higher proportion of dross.  There have been times when Sky Pirates! would seem like the first two-eyed monkey swaggering into a one-eyed tribe.

To sum up: don’t panic.  Sky Pirates! is as fruitsome and odd as some of the other really good comedic sci-fi novels you’ve read, including (and perhaps especially) ones that aren’t Doctor Who.  It’s also good Doctor Who, and if it sometimes seems to go on a bit, take your time.  I’m still not certain I understood every word, and I honestly don’t mind.  Call it an excuse to come back.

9/10

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #52 – System Shock by Justin Richards

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#11
System Shock
By Justin Richards

Throughout this one I couldn’t help thinking of Futurama.  Just after Fry wakes up bleary-eyed in the Year 3000, a mischievous guy at the cryogenics lab keeps the lights off and bellows at him, “Welcome… TO THE WORRRRLD OF TOMORROWWWWW!

Brace yourself, gentle reader from 1995.  Can your imagination withstand the horror that is… 1998?

It’s actually quite novel of System Shock to look so near ahead, and even more so to use the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane in the story.  Beloved and quintessentially 1970s characters, there’s fun to be had in marooning Sarah in a near, yet technologically different time.  (The Doctor, of course, fits anywhere.)  It’s not the same as her arriving in the past, or in the Year 3000, or on an unrecognisable alien world.  She’s in the same place, but just out of step enough to be completely lost.  It brings home how quickly these things change.

Indeed, by the time actual 1998 rolled around things weren’t exactly how Justin Richards envisaged.  The internet (no need for that capital I or N, bless!) had a much greater hold, and mobile phones were getting ubiquitous; far more so than the occasional cursory reference to a “cellphone” here.  This, of course, is not the author’s fault – he’s writing a novel, not mapping the future!  (And anyway, he’s too prescient about 24 hour news and online shopping.)  But you risk dating your story when you make such a fuss about modern technology, hence movies like Hackers drawing giggles from smart audiences, and System Shock’s many references to “information superhighways” getting chortles from me.

Richards (unlike Hackers) obviously knows what he’s talking about, dropping plenty of detail into the computer stuff, rolling his eyes at his own IT background in the blurb, and even opening the book with a programmer’s joke.  (The prologue is “If…”, and shows us a world going to hell because of technology; the story that follows is “Then…”)  However, revolving System Shock around the perils of computer chips and the limitless capabilities of a humble CD (!) gives us something that probably worked very well in 1995, but not so much beyond.  Besides which, Self-Aware Technology That Kills You may be as old an idea as technology itself.  It had certainly done the rounds by 1995.

System Shock opens with a series of exciting set-pieces.  After the dramatic If… prologue, a man is kidnapped in a car park; a car seemingly comes to life and crashes, killing the head of MI5; a terrorist siege comes to an end thanks to the SAS and their mysterious planning program, BattleNet; and a man on the run for his life slips a CD into the Doctor’s pocket before being murdered, thus entangling the Doctor and Sarah in this chain of events.  Despite following the heady action movie heights of The Seeds Of Doom (no, really!), the Doctor and Sarah look as out of place in all this as they do in the ’90s.  Also it’s worth noting that all of these events are in the first flurry of pages… as well as the first paragraph of the blurb.  A fast-paced action adventure it may want to be, but it isn’t for very long, as we discover the part-robot-part-lizard Voracians are posing as terrorists in order to control Hubway (a country house / information hub), and the majority of the book is a hostage situation therein.  The potential for world-changing techno-disaster is kept mostly to a few asides; Sarah gets stuck with the hostages and the Doctor tip-toes through the house outsmarting the Voracians.  For most of it, the baddies make their plans and the Doctor frowns at a few monitors, but it never has the corkscrew tension of The Man Who Knew Too Much or (more relevant for its hilariously out-of-date tech) Enemy Of The State, both of which it resembles with the fatefully pocketed CD.  The story gets into such an SAS funk in its second half that, while intermittently exciting, it’s actually rather dull.

I often wondered why a thriller (that happens to be dressed up like Doctor Who) should be such a slow read.  Partly it could be the subject matter – computers and programs and CDs, oh my! – which I simply don’t find fascinating.  More importantly, I suspect it’s the characters.  Excepting the regulars, almost nobody stands out.  One of the hostages, the Duchess of Glastonbury, shines a little like Amelia Rumford in Seeds Of Doom, aka a charming bit character who gleefully courts danger to help her new friends.  There are loads of other hostages / bit parts, mostly male, few with any colour.  A few of the Voracians – who as well as being lizards and robots are also masquerading as humans – have (understandable!) identity issues.  There are too many of them, however, and the point Richards is trying to make with them speaking in a kind of meaningless business-babble, i.e. humanity-not-included, doesn’t work as intended.  System Shock isn’t a particularly funny book, so having a large number of characters talk dryly all the time just looks like a lack of colour.  The prose occasionally falls into the same trap, tediously relishing the brand of car or type of gun a character is using, or getting way too carried away with the authentic techno-speak: “The first chip to trigger into operation was at Hampstead.  It had been connected to the central processor of the output control systems of the electricity substation.  With Theatre Of War and with this, Richards is good at writing what he knows, and with meting out the relevant details; it just isn’t always fascinating to read.

Where System Shock works best, outside those well-executed early bits of action, is with the regulars.  An authentic Fourth Doctor is always a delight to read, and Richards has him pegged, from the nonchalance in the face of doom to the moments of sudden gravitas.  He’s hilarious pitted against the generally emotionless Voracians, adept at getting out of trouble with a yoyo or with a reasoned diatribe, and he runs rings around their computer system of doom, Voractyll, just by talking to it for long enough.  He’s also quick to call Sarah his best friend.  Their rapport is mostly suggested, as they are predictably split up when she goes undercover, but Richards has them gently thumping each other or chiding one another in a way that brings both actors, and their lovely on-screen chemistry to life.  It’s a good story for Sarah, relying on that nose for trouble that got her into the Doctor’s life, and the undercover thing is a nice throwback to her UNIT days, even if the Voracians are irritatingly several steps ahead.  Her occasional bewilderment at 1998 also gives us a unique look at a Doctor Who companion, seldom seen by stories that always go further afield in time.

And there’s something heartening about reading a story for Harry Sullivan as an older man.  It’s not just delightful to show a companion having moved on with their life, still treasuring their memories and falling into an easy rhythm when the Doctor returns; it’s also beautiful to give Ian Marter a role he was no longer around to play.  The final moment, with the older Harry talking to the Sarah of his time, both still friends, holds a kind of sepia appeal now they’re both gone.

The Missing Adventures occupy an awkward spot.  Should they be too much like the TV adventures, they’re derivative; should they veer off to the side, they’re wrong.  System Shock is the kind of thriller you just wouldn’t get in the show circa 1975, never mind the technology involved, but Richards is savvy enough about Doctor Who to tick the right boxes, writing the regulars brilliantly and having the Doctor ultimately outwit the evil computer, bringing it more or less down to Earth.  (The penultimate scene, cutting from the explosion to the Doctor and Sarah immediately departing in the TARDIS, certainly rings true!)  But as it juggles The Man Who Knew Too Much, Spooks and Doctor Who, it’s ultimately rather an odd fit, and occasionally dry and dull for its genre, not to mention Doctor Who.

6/10

Monday, 27 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #51 – Original Sin by Andy Lane

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#39
Original Sin
By Andy Lane

Well that was a stone cold belter, wasn’t it?

Forgive the haste.  Sometimes I like to build up to that – since it’s a rare-ish occurrence, maybe it’s worth a bit of ceremony – but it can be such a relief to sit back and enjoy reading that I just want to get on with it.  So: yep.  Original Sin is One Of The Good Ones.  Thanks for reading!

Perhaps it’s not surprising, as Andy Lane is hardly new to all this.  There’s a confident spring in his step that no doubt comes with experience.  Yes, there’s a Prologue – it’s the law! – but you can forget any wiffly metaphysical guff.  Lane begins breathlessly with the tail-end of another adventure, one that leads directly into Original Sin.  I love stories that forgo the obvious “Arrive, ask questions, investigate” rigmarole, and this is a great way to circumvent it.

The prologue also displays some of the book’s overall strengths, things it generally shares with Lucifer Rising (co-written by Lane): world building and plot, working together.  Writers often get bogged down in one or the other, and both create their own challenges all by themselves.  The Menagerie came up with an interesting setting filled with lots of different life forms, but it couldn’t quite carve them out from each other or make them live.  Original Sin introduces us right away to the Hith, a lizard-like species with unusually poetic names like Homeless Forsaken Betrayed And Alone, a permanent reminder to other species of what happened to them.  This one has been shot, and whispers (Hitchcock-style) a gloomy pronouncement to Bernice about the fate of Earth.  Right away we’ve got an unusual species (whom we’ll see a lot more of) and something pressing to attend to on Earth.  Both these things get progressively more interesting.

The Earth Empire is prospering, but that really depends what species you are.  Lane takes a pessimistic (though perhaps not Transit pessimistic) view of our future, where humans have “offered assistance” to countless planets including Hithis, so in other words taken over, turfed them out and stolen their technology.  A current of xenophobia runs through humanity, even among the “nice” ones, as they regard displaced aliens (e.g. the Hith) as lowly or disgusting.  A Hith named Powerless Friendless allows us to explore this idea further, particularly as he lives in the Undertown.  Earth is divided into the prosperous and everyone else, which in itself isn’t a very original concept, but it mixes with Lane’s climate of speciesism to make something new.  The humans, ever self-loathing, have taken to “body beppling”: a means of transforming into anything they can think of, which is all the cosmetic rage.  This adds yet another dimension to the strange, sad cloud of conflict that surrounds this story, all of which explodes because of the plot, which involves a series of random and unprovoked murders that snowball into riots.  There it is again: a rich seam of world-building which you could almost take for granted, since it’s colourful and interesting, only the plot then finds a use for all of it.

Admittedly it’s a simple-ish plot, but there’s nothing wrong with that so long as it’s well executed.  A good murder mystery can be as satisfyingly simple or complicated as you make it, and the trail of death is not just unpleasantly memorable (as Lane must find new ways for people to dispose of each other) but also poignant, as the deaths have consequences, both personal and on a larger scale.  We do not, admittedly, see the full effect of the Earth Empire tearing itself to pieces – though there are newscasts that give a flavour of it at the start of each chapter – but this is ultimately one story that impacts on those wider issues, and it makes sense to keep our focus there.  Focus is another of those things that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Speaking of personal consequences, then: Powerless Friendless is as cheery as his name suggests, but we have no difficulty in getting inside his slug-like skin, or feeling the scorn of almost everyone around him.  Perhaps more familiar to passing readers are a couple of law-enforcing Adjudicators named Chris and Roz (or in the latter case, Forrester) who are not only investigating the murders, but growing more aware of deception in their peers.  Forrester (I don’t really feel right calling her Roz – mind you, I’m still sticking with “Bernice” over “Benny”, as I don’t like the automatic masculinisation of companion names) is fighting her own personal battles as she copes with a new partner, having lost her previous one and mentor in unhappy circumstances.  Again, this is not brand new territory – you can see Lane’s keenness for pop culture in his references, which go beyond Doctor Who into adamantium and planets named Riggs and Murtaugh! – but it’s executed cleverly, drip-feeding us information over the course of the book.  Forrester runs the risk of being a tough, no-nonsense cliché, but there’s enough self-loathing (to do with her privileged upbringing) and begrudging humour to make her more.  Her long-suffering dialogue with the enthusiastic and adorable Chris is worth the price of admission.  “Hey!” said Cwej suddenly.  Bernice turned back to face him and Forrester.  “I've got an idea!”  “Treat it gently,” Forrester murmured, “it's in a strange place.”  She’ll fit right in with Bernice.  I’ll wait and see with Chris: he’s sweet and funny, but he’s got “write as a moron” written all over him.  The joke about his surname, which looks like Cwej but should be pronounced Shvey but he sticks with Cwej because it’s easier for everyone, takes so long to explain that it isn’t particularly funny.

Surprisingly, for a story gagging to show off world-shaking ideas and grisly murders, it’s also got character development for the regulars.  Bernice, mostly in terms of sympathy.  There are some clever reflections on her life with the Doctor, and how she constantly wants to A) get back in the TARDIS and B) get out of the damn thing, which make us aware that for a box that’s bigger on the inside, it’s still a box.  In the main though, she’s mostly there to field the plight of Homeless Forsaken (whose death starts it all) and Powerless Friendless, to whom she obviously feels an obligation.  There’s still plenty of delightful Bernice stuff, and her scenes with the Doctor (until, inevitably, they take separate paths) only make me more confident that these two belong together, and any writer not revelling in that is on the wrong bus.

Much more thoughtful, and perhaps more disturbing, is what this says about the Doctor.  You might not expect another book to delve into his thoughts straight after Human Nature, which was surely the definitive book on the subject.  But Original Sin shows there’s still plenty to needle at.  The Doctor, for all his whimsy and heroism, is quick to scoop out the brain of a dead man to examine the cause of his insanity.  In his fearful moments, which the plot provides in abundance and without cheating, he thinks darkly of the Valeyard and when he’s close to death, his eighth incarnation “waiting to take over”.  It’s his conversations with a psychopath, Professor Pryce, that provide the most sobering look: Pryce believes there is no truly solid argument against murder other than we do not want to be murdered, and realising that people can easily condemn and rationalise murder in the same breath, the Doctor sees sense in that.  He must prevent it simply because it’s what he believes is right.  He applies the same logic to time travel nearer the end, when another villain holds a mirror up to him; he is Time’s Champion for no particular reason, it’s just his lot.  It can be cool to mythologise the Doctor, but it’s refreshing to peel it back and show a guy just doing what he can, and must.

If you don’t know who the villain is lurking in Original Sin, well done; I wasn’t able to avoid it.  Fortunately, knowing does not take much away from the book, although it’s surely more fun not to know.  There is simply reams of other stuff to enjoy, and plenty of story to follow, leaving the late reveal of [redacted] more a treat than a vital ingredient.  The handling of said character (oh, all right, it’s wee Jimmy Krankie) is relished and doesn’t trample on the previous stuff, although a good deal of retcon is involved, turning them into a shadowy menace behind numerous other stories as well.  If you are a fan of their earlier appearance(s), I doubt you’ll be disappointed.  If you do know it’s them, be aware it’s not the all-singing, all-dancing Wee Jimmy Krankie Show as the reveal is a last-act thing.

On top of all the other spectacular (and yet focused, plot-driven) stuff going on, this is of course an introduction for new companions.  The Doctor pats the TARDIS and says it’ll be just like old times.  I have no idea how this will affect the dynamic, but they’re interesting and fun, and it doesn’t appear they’ll get in Bernice’s way, so I’m all for it.  Original Sin doesn’t read like a typical introductory story, with the twosome barely meeting the Doctor throughout, but there’s a lot to be said for doing things differently.  Whether or not they were always intended to depart in the TARDIS, they arrive in a rich story you’re likely to read compulsively.  It’s not as dazzlingly unusual as something like Human Nature, but what it does, it does in relentless style.

8/10

Friday, 18 August 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #50 – The Menagerie by Martin Day

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#10
The Menagerie
By Martin Day

Ah, sweet completeness.  Better late than never, the Missing Adventures have added the Second Doctor to their ranks.  If I can be a box-ticking, list-making nerdlinger for a moment (quiet, you), it’s nice to have got a book in for every Doctor just as this marathon reaches its halfway point.  That’s everyone now.  Ahhh.

Martin Day’s first novel (yes, it’s obvious) does a good job with this Doctor, which isn’t something to take for granted.  He often takes the time to inject a bit of fussiness or irreverence, both integral to Patrick Troughton’s take on the character.  At one point he is contrasted (perhaps too literally) against the First Doctor, as he lacks that immediate sense of authority, though he generally makes up for it later.  There’s a scruffy anti-establishment quality to him that’s just delightful; my favourite bit was the Doctor’s theory on convincing people that you have already paid for your drinks.  When he tries putting this into practice to convince a guard he has paid his fine (with perhaps what he imagines is the authoritative clout of a Jedi mind trick), it goes belly up instantly.  Few Doctors fail quite so charmingly as this one.

Day is also adept and thoughtful when writing Jamie.  Finding himself in a technologically primitive age, Jamie feels in his element for once.  The unnamed city is “like real life” to him, with dull-witted guards reminding him of Redcoats; conversely his wealth of experience with the Doctor allows him to think a few steps ahead.  Another perfectly apt moment is when Jamie accompanies Zoe in a hover vehicle, nodding and agreeing matter-of-factly as she explains things he can’t possibly grasp, and delighting in the responsibility of pressing a button.  That refusal to be outwitted by different technologies, even when he’s just pretending not to be, is one of the reasons the character is so popular.  Doctor Who often (unwittingly?) takes the stance that people from the past are intrinsically thicker than us; it’s something Rose is rightly derided for in The Unquiet Dead, but that’s generally the way it goes, with Jamie being a smart, inquisitive exception.  Leela is another.  (There are no Missing Adventures with Leela.  For shame!)

Zoe is the least impressive of the three, perhaps because putting her in a primitive context doesn’t create the opportunities for her that it does for Jamie.  There are just fewer ways for her to put her brain into action, although she is able to trick a dangerous alien and save a few lives.  Once the story stumbles onto some higher technology, then it’s effectively Zoe Time; her photographic memory makes a return appearance.  Overall this is the colder, more analytical side of Zoe, with her more ebullient side (perhaps best evidenced when she talks a computer to death in The Invasion) a no-show.  You would think The Menagerie could provide some emotional stuff for her, as she finds herself being sold into slavery, but she remains utterly pragmatic about it and circumstances get her out of it anyway.  Besides which, this isn’t a very emotional book.

It’s not a new thing to use sci-fi as an excuse to write a fantasy novel, and that’s effectively what The Mengerie does.  Martin Day creates an interesting setting at least, swirling his primitive (nameless) town in fog and drizzle, adding a few dashes of technology (aka a power plant) and something dangerous underneath (the menagerie of the title); I didn’t have trouble picturing it, but the underlying conflict of technology vs fear of progress never amounts to more than some people wailing doomfully about the evils of science, over and over.  You can be sure they’ll shut up or get over it by the book’s end.  Besides which, finding high technology in an otherwise primitive society is not going to win points for originality.  It’d be a turn up for the books if there wasn’t any.

The story gets off to a perfunctory start, splitting the TARDIS trio up more or less at random when a pub is raided by the “Knights of Kuabris”, technology-fearing rulers of the place.  The Doctor and Jamie both fall into an investigation of the menagerie beneath the town, but there isn’t much driving them to it besides circumstance and vague curiosity.  As for Zoe’s aforementioned slavery, dumb luck strikes again.  She ends up working in a travelling freak show (and not, praise be, as a prostitute) before an attack by a ravening monster forces the survivors back where they started, including her.  There are a few examples of business occurring just to make it all last a bit longer, like a dangerous encounter for Jamie followed by some memory loss.  Why does he forget?  So he can remember it later on, I guess.  The story rumbles on, with some action set-pieces especially near the end, but there’s little wind in its sails.

The book’s greatest strength is the regular characters, and by a considerable distance.  Nowhere else is the studied nuance of the Doctor spending a few moments fumbling through his pockets before finding something useful, or Jamie nodding thoughtfully at some technobabble.  The rest of the cast don’t have an idiosyncrasy between them.  Defrabax is an old wizard with secrets; Cosmae is his impressionable ward; Kaquaan is Cosmae’s would-be girlfriend, and local prostitute; Zaitabor is the leader of the Knights, a ranting fanatic at the centre of the trouble; Himesor, Araboam and Oiquaquil are other Knights; Diseaeda runs a travelling freakshow (and owns Zoe briefly); Reisaz and Raitak are conjoined twins that work there; there’s also a golem-esque homunculus and various Web Planet-esque races living beneath the town, all with equally weird names.  Reading tedious and difficult lines like “I want you to warn the Dugraqs and the Rocarbies about the Mecrim”, I wondered if Day comes up with names by attacking his keyboard at random.  Repeating the names all the time does nothing to breed familiarity, or add colour.  Everyone just seems very fond of reciting them.

As is often the case with first novels, there’s little authorial voice here.  Day’s denizens sound like generic fantasy archetypes, with some unnecessary attention given to the prostitute side of things (with one of the guards giving Kaquaan’s breasts a thorough groping, and numerous others calling her “slut” and suchlike).  It adds determination to the headstrong young woman, but combined with some occasionally broad language, I wondered how much the Virgin editors were bothered that kids read these books.  Certainly this stuff wouldn’t find its way into 1960s Doctor Who.  When the time comes to let his monsters have at one another, Day then falls into the habit of turning the gore up to 11, simply because he can: limbs and viscera fly, yet again pushing the Missing Adventure remit awkwardly to one side.  It’s not as if I want books that are identical to the TV stories, or I wouldn’t bother reading them; I’ve got videos and DVDs for that.  But it stretches disbelief that all the sex and swearwords just happened to occur between episodes.  And why beat around the bush: hitting the Sex And Violence button at all where it wouldn’t ordinarily be hit is schlocky.  At least Dancing The Code made a point of it.

The Menagerie is mostly just indifferent and dull, failing to make its various alien/monster races worth the effort of distinguishing them.  Some have quirks, like one bunch that doesn’t use individual names, or another with an odd speech pattern, but it’s work to add this stuff up.  The plot progresses mostly with a lot of thankless question/answer “dialogue” no matter who’s talking.  It more or less holds together, but by the end it runs the risk of ruining one of the good things about the book: the Doctor’s plan involves murdering a (dangerous) species wholesale, just as Zoe earlier rescued some people by (inadvertently?) sacrificing a harmless animal.  A more seasoned writer might comment on this seemingly befuddled Doctor apparently having a cold heart, but this is all just random action stapled to otherwise pleasant characters.

The Menagerie is fan writing.  Yes, these books all are to an extent, but there’s a difference between recreating familiar things and creating new people, worlds and stories for them, and this book clearly doesn’t have the skill for both.

5/10

NB:  Another blog-week bites the dust.  See you again for 51-55, beginning with Andy Lane’s Original Sin...