Monday, 2 January 2017

Supernanny

Doctor Who
The Return Of Doctor Mysterio
2016 Christmas Special

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 29 October 2016

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

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

Doctor Who means aliens, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

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

Friday, 28 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #35 – St. Anthony's Fire by Mark Gatiss

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#31
St. Anthony's Fire
By Mark Gatiss

The second New Adventure by Mark Gatiss quickly sets out its stall.  Set on an alien world populated with bipedal lizards, each with a prickly name like Grek or Maconsa, this is clearly some distance away from the nostalgic telly horror of Nighthshade: we’re throwing in our lot with pure science fiction this time.  (Although Chapter One is called “Planet Of Death”, which is pleasantly halcyon and Terry-ish!)  From the things I’ve seen and read by Gatiss, St. Anthony’s Fire is a step outside his comfort zone.  That's encouraging.

Perhaps compensating, he handles this with as much humanist flavour as possible.  The first time we meet Grek, a military commander who’s reaching the end of the war (not to mention his tether), he has his knees pulled up nervously under his chin.  Elsewhere Ran, a man haunted by the death of his lover, likes to spend time each day staring up at his planet’s rings.  Even Priss, whose personality never develops far beyond an eagerness to impress, feels somewhat relatable.  Memory seems like a favourite tool for Gatiss, being the whole focus of Nightshade; it’s employed again here for most of the Beltrushians.  Their nostalgia, the good and the bad, helps anchor their world.

Speaking of Beltrushia, we don’t spend so much time in the major cities as the action focusses more on vaguely First World War-ish dug-outs.  These are peppered with organic technology like “speechers”, while the soldiers fly about in balloon-powered dirigibles.  (A similarity to Silurian tech in Blood Heat is noted, which quashes it a bit.)  It’s not an outrageously alien world, and nor is it a panderingly human race.  I think it’s a good middle ground, a believable society and world at war.

The writing helps.  While I’m often among the first to roll my eyes at a Mark Gatiss Who script, I’m starting to think he’s really at home in literature.  Free from the whip-crack of a 45 minute turnaround, and the yearly constraint of delivering an original idea, he can let his ideas flower, and bathe the characters in acerbic commentary and florid idioms.  Some of the hits include: “Distantly, the constant crackling of gunfire formed a strange backbeat, as though life had been set to particularly discordant music.”  /  “He dug deep into the layers of ephemera which formed a sediment of bureaucracy within his desk.”  /  “In a pool of filthy water by his side lay his hat, floating like a sad cream jellyfish.”  /  “Above it all snaked the column of greasy black smoke, like an evil genie revelling in its freedom.”  I love a good turn of phrase, and St. Anthony’s Fire is pleasantly peppered with them.  (It also features a few less-than-graceful tics, like ending a bit of dialogue with the other character's name more often than it would actually come up in conversation, but the good outweighs the bad overall.)

There’s also some decent character writing.  Ace isn’t in it much, but she actually feels like she’s going somewhere (which, spoiler alert, I know she is); when he finds her hanging out in a particularly pleasant part of the TARDIS, the Doctor offers an arm so they can return to the console room.  She politely declines.  Lost, he notes inwardly that “it won’t be long now.”  Ace’s portion of the story begins with her disconnecting on a pastoral world while the Doctor and Bernice TARDIS about; later, she feels a waining need for her body armour and weaponry.  It’s not much, since she isn’t in the book a lot, and some of it is a little on the nose.  (“Was she changing?  … Something more profound?  The something, perhaps, which led her to seek temporary release from her travels in the TARDIS in the first place?”)  But it’s always a breath of fresh air to move Ace away from the laborious Aliens marine we’ve been stuck with since Deceit.  St. Anthony’s Fire feels like an important baby step.

The Doctor’s attention is mostly focused on the plot, and maddeningly not revealing what the hell’s going on until the last bloody second – seriously, I know it’s a trope, and I know it’s more dramatic if you wait a while, but why can’t he walk and talk?  But he reflects Ace’s journey in little ways, like the proffered (and sadly declined) arm, and a moment where he won’t talk about the hustle and bustle going on all around because, right now, he just wants know if Ace is okay.  That’s not to say he ignores Bernice, although yet again we have a clear need to favour one over the other in the plot department (because three’s a crowd), and Bernice wins.  But Bernice is quite at home using her personality to win people over and frankly, doesn’t need the Doctor very much here.  (Worth noting this is Gatiss’s first Bernice book, and he writes her very well; she’s quite at home in his occasionally witty prose.)

As for the plot, it’s quite neatly done: there’s a war on Beltrushia, meaning the Doctor and Bernice can get stuck with opposing armies.  (That’s a bit too obvious to stick with the whole way through, so they end up predominantly with one side: the Ismetch.)  The war is supposedly winding down, only some mysterious spaceships are destroying the major cities, and the planet’s rings are raining down on them.  If that wasn’t bad enough, some sort of yellow blob keeps emerging from the ground and eating people alive.  And elsewhere, somehow, Ace is having an even worse day.

The war is evocative, starting with that moment of Grek sitting awkwardly and later having some (admittedly well-worn) discussions about whether the war is all worth it.  The characterisation is sufficiently well done that when we lose members of the Ismetch, it really matters.  The mystery of the invading ships and the yellow… thing was enough to pique my interest.  But the cutaways to Ace, going by “the woman” as she’s obviously lost her memory, immediately set alarm bells ringing.  She’s stuck elsewhere, in some sort of self-flagellating order.  This, er, isn’t going to end well, is it?

Pretty soon you’ll find out what the title’s all about, and you’ll wish you hadn’t.  The Chapter are a bunch of travelling folks who “honour Saint Anthony, hammer of the heretics, through endless pain and suffering.”  This involves “the sacred egg” and “the sacred salt” which mix to form – uhhhrm?  – “spitirual semen”.  Practically speaking, they use a flimsy religious pretext to visit worlds and kill everybody with their sun-powered spaceships.  The ones they don’t kill, they brainwash into the fold.  They’re a horrific endgame for Earth religions, obviously co-opted by the pseudo-religious far right; their leader is an utter sadist who murders a kitten because he’s bored (!), eats children’s limbs and baby’s cheeks (!!), and has a severed eyelid in his pocket to play with (?!).  His second in command is a psychotic, perverted, endlessly mocked dwarf.  The whole thing’s bludgeoningly unambiguous but, uh, successfully disgusting I guess.  I didn’t want to read about it.  Congrats.

The thing about Evil Religious Orders in fiction is that they’re very low-hanging fruit.  It’s all too easy to drum up a bunch of cruel bastards and staple a vague religious subtext to what they’re doing, and just leave it at that.  Some folks will call it satire.  (And even Paul Cornell isn't immune.)  The Chapter of Saint Anthony aren’t really satirising anything besides using religion as an excuse (since they’re a bastardised amalgam, although Catholicism gets a namecheck), and it’s never really clear whether they take any of this seriously themselves: the two higher-ups have moments of true believer-ness, especially near the end, but elsewhere they just smirk and roll their eyes at people for doing the same.  As for their followers, they’re supposedly all brainwashed, except there are flashes of apparently genuine sadism among them as well.  You can't really have it both ways.  It's messy.

They just don’t mean anything as a malevolent force – they’re effed up people doing awful things just to get their rocks off, which is one-note and boring.  Probably trying to compensate, Gatiss goes absolutely all in with how horrible they are, which means somersaulting over the top (see, kittens), but all that does is make it harder to get through.  It doesn’t make them more believable, so what's the point?  Frankly, if I think a chapter is going to involve some sort of horrendous animal cruelty I’d rather just skip it, thanks.  If your big aim is to tell me this guy is no-fooling-around 100% evil, you might as well tattoo BAD GUY on his face.  It would be more subtle.

As for the occasional hint that this is all supposed to be some sort of black comedy, evidenced by the psychotic dwarf (dwarf, he’s a dwarf you guys, and he’s sweaty and fat and yuck, haha!), some of his boss’s villainous put-downs, the idea that he lets the Doctor wander around freely because it’s just more interesting to have some opposition, the fact that his final word before dying is an obviously comedic "Bugger," and an absolutely demented bit where he communicates with his underlings via a stuffed gorilla whose eyes light up… what the hell is all that about?  The guy eats baby bits.  He's not funny, neither are the Chapter.  I don't know if it's an attempt to make the whole sorry organisation more interesting, but it's as misjudged as the rest of it.

As for the villains themselves, we have the withering and fingernail-examining Yong and the parent-murdering chip-on-his-shoulder loon De Hooch.  I’ve had more fun staring at a bookmark than reading about these two, so when the latter chapters dissolved into a pointless escape-recapture rinse cycle mostly concerning them, and then a power struggle between the two, with even the other characters acknowledging that this is a waste of time given the real planet-destroying problem at hand, I started having vivid fantasies of reading a different book.  All in all, as ideas go, I think it would be fair to say Saint Anthony and co. are an unwisely confident punt off a cliff.

The book has other, better ideas which get rather drowned out towards the end.  The Doctor takes so long to get off his arse and tell us what’s going on that the rather bizarre history of Beltrushia (they invented a kind of gloop that decides whether or not a species has evolved and kills them accordingly, okay then) never resounds; the yellow blob monster that’s secretly the focus of the story ends up pottering around looking rather pathetic in the end.  Bernice makes a somewhat meaningful friendship out of it, which is nice, and the Doctor has those lovely moments with Ace, who despite a harrowing (and thankfully non-sexual, not for want of nudity) experience, somehow manages to keep a level (now bald) head.  But the narrative's general disregard for life among the rest of the cast can be disconcertingly cold.  Hardly any Beltrushians make it to the end, and the population of Massatoris is totally wiped out by Chaptermen.  Their one-note yuckiness means that such a loss is hard to comprehend, or take seriously.  They really do make the book worse.

For its first stretch, St. Anthony’s Fire is an exciting and evocative wartime mystery in space.  Things get clumsy when it comes to explanations, and unfortunately that’s a crucial stage.  The book ends up further away from a recommendation than when it started and, though not exactly ruined, it leaves a less than pleasant taste in the mouth.

5/10

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #34 – Evolution by John Peel

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#2
Evolution
By John Peel

Oh goodie, he’s back.

With the Missing Adventures now officially underway, it was perhaps inevitable that John Peel would return.  He has said of his New Adventure, the inaugural (and disastrous) Genesys, that he’d rather have written for the Fourth Doctor.  Well, here’s your chance – and in fairness, it (arguably) works out better than Genesys.  But that isn’t saying very much: Evolution is still another bad book.

Of course it would be reductive and a bit cheeky to compare this gothic horror Fourth Doctor story to a swords-and-sandals Seventh Doctor actioner, simply because the same guy penned it.  He’s written loads of other things, some of which I quite liked (i.e.  the ones based on other people’s scripts), but I can’t help it.  Evolution makes some of the same mistakes all over again, albeit in different ways.

There’s his way of painting history with as many stock clichés as will fit on a page.  Whereas his Mesopotamians sounded like the cast of an am-dram Game Of Thrones, all it-was-a-good-battle and taste-my-sword, his Victorians speak exclusively as if they are paid by the word.  (I think my favourite was “There may be evidence or clues aboard it that will aid in the investigation of this matter.”)  That’s just the posh ones, mind: there are some commoners thrown in as well, one of whom says things like “Bloomin’ Ada!” and “Stone the crows!” (on the same page), and improbably, “Impregna-blooming-ble”.  There’s a grubby urchin whose accent wanders jauntily all over the UK: “You really are looking for the missing ‘uns, aren’t ye?”  (Later, he says “Aye.”  Why not chuck in some Welsh?)  He’s extremely poor, I suppose; he may be leaving off random letters to save on ink.

There is also once again (and this is really frustrating given those earlier comments from Peel) a slippery handle on the main characters.  The Fourth Doctor might be at home in a Hammer Horror pastiche, with a deerstalker on his head and gruesome deaths all around, but there’s more to it than just getting the costume and body-count right.  The Doctor says a few things that stuck in my craw as aggressive or odd, even for him: “’You seem to be a reasonably decent sort of chappie.’” / “'Suck-up,’ the Doctor muttered.”  / “’And you’re an impudent wretch.’”  He seems to constantly pause his investigations to go and have dinner or call it a night, both rather human foibles he normally avoids.  There’s a lengthy scene where he pretends to be working for Scotland Yard in order to peruse a suspicious building – now that's a pretence he enjoyed in The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, but only up to a point.  His considerable personality did most of the legwork, whereas he absolutely hammers it to death here.  All I could think was “Put the psychic paper away!”

But worst of all, he’s developed a penchant for very violent threats – and stressing the bit where he’s going to absolutely bloody love what he’s going to do to you.  ’He's going to have some questions to answer when I catch up with him.  And I'll take great delight in beating the replies out of him.’” / "'Let me give you fair warning, Colonel: if you attempt to eradicate a single one of those merpeople he has somehow managed to create, I shall take great delight in feeding you to his seals piece by bloody piece.’" / “'If you touch one of those children,' the Doctor vowed, 'I shall personally take great pleasure in breaking every bone in your body.’”  Ugh – just stop.

Over on the Terminus Reviews blog, Peel piped up to defend this sort of thing as a call-back to The Brain Of Morbius, where sure enough the Doctor engineered a violent death with no apparent qualms.  Much can be said (and has been) about the Doctor’s hypocrisy around violence, and all those mealy-mouthed “You didn’t need to do that”s or “There should have been another way”s that always come too late.  This, however, is not a commentary on the Doctor’s violence.  He has rarely (if ever) expressed a desire to hurt others, or enjoyment in doing so.  His morality has conveniently given way to necessity, sure, and he sometimes has a grim sense of humour about it (especially in the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe years), but actual sadism is a drunken lurch in the wrong direction.  It made me want to post the book back to its author and request he whack himself on the nose with it.  There is personal opinion and then there is getting it absolutely bloody wrong. 

Meanwhile, Sarah Jane complains and carps like she’s off to a Tegan Jovanka convention.  Her relationship with the Doctor bounces between vague awareness that he’s there, active dislike for him and a girl-power need to solve everything herself.  (The Doctor, for his part, doesn’t seem to know if he’s proud of her head-strong blundering or annoyed by it.)  Their conversations aim for playful banter, they sometimes work, and otherwise they sail past the mark thanks to clichés or random oddities: “'There's a mystery here.  I can smell it.'  'That's just doggie doo-doo you can smell,' Sarah complained.’"  Are we sure this isn't a lost Robert Holmes script?

And don't worry, fans of random violent bits: Sarah gets to make a violent threat as well: “She examined her nails thoughtfully.  ‘I doubt you’d earn so much from even curious boys if you had scars down both cheeks.’"  Okay: granted, Sarah’s morality is a little less clear cut than the Doctor’s, since she was only in the show for a few years.  But couldn’t she wheedle information without threatening to claw somebody’s face off?  Isn’t her day job (journalist) sort of dependent on being good at that?  The Doctor’s apparently a psychopath at random intervals, but what’s her excuse?

Deep breaths.  The history may be as subtle as a foghorn, and this Doctor and companion (written, one presumes, with less obligation than his last two) might occasionally sound like psychotic impostors, but I've not said a word about the story yet.  And it’s difficult to know where to start, as there are a few major criticisms I could make about it and how it’s executed, all of which are intertwined.  So let’s launch into the big one.

I read Evolution unspoiled.  I hadn’t even glanced at the blurb, so I was surprised to learn the Doctor was taking Sarah Jane to meet Rudyard Kipling, about whom I know next to nothing.  This could go any which way, and it promptly does, as it turns out he’s currently a teenage boy who hangs around with a few other well-to-do delinquents.  He spends almost all of his time making advances on Sarah Jane.  I imagine a Kipling fan would regard this as an odd move; unexpected, yes, but then fashioning him into a mildly irritating teen just makes it completely random that it’s him.  Sarah happily orates about what a brilliant writer he’ll one day become during a climactic scene, but there’s nothing in the story to support that.

(Quick tangent: and that’s a bloody stupid scene.  Desperate to stop a madman from conducting his vile experiments, Sarah points out that she’s from the future, where Rudyard Kipling grew up to be a famous writer and Mad Scientist Guy is unheard of, so there’s no way he can succeed because that's not how history goes, right?  This backfires immediately – duh!  – and the Doctor has to explain to her that history can be changed, which he already did in Pyramids Of Mars just a couple of stories ago.  That's just sloppy.  Evolution happily piles on the continuity references to the preceding Brain Of Morbius, and even tips its hat to The Seeds Of Doom.  How did Peel forget one of the most famous bits of Tom Baker’s tenure from just a few episodes earlier?  Also, why is Sarah a moron?)

And then Arthur Conan Doyle turns up.  Which… yeah.  It’s hard to have a lot of faith in that going really well.

You know that old sci-fi cliché, when a time-traveller meets a historical figure and they reference a future work?  Quantum Leap did it (but kept it, and famous people in general to a merciful minimum until its later years); some of the cornier New Who episodes love doing it; we had it again recently via the Bootstrap Paradox; and Arthur Conan Doyle in Evolution doesn’t seem to do anything else.  'An unearthly hound, eh?  Sounds like the perfect idea for a story.'” SUBTLE!  “'Billy, are there any of your irregular friends you can rouse?’” REFERENCE!  “'Elementary, my dear Doyle!’” INEVITABLE!  And, paying off an otherwise pointless stream of references to the Brigadier: “'A brigadier who means well...' he mused.”  (Plus there's the Doctor's newly-acquired deerstalker, which doesn't serve much purpose at all since, IIRC, that wasn't Doyle's invention anyway.)  As a character, he’s a mostly vacuous onlooker.  He loves whaling, he’s great at doctoring and he just can’t seem to crack this writing biz.  You’ll learn nothing else about him here which, as with Kipling, begs the question “Why bother?”

Rather surprisingly, any substantial Holmes references are kept to a minimum, discounting those unbearable nudge-winks – All-Consuming Fire this isn’t, more’s the pity.  Peel sticks to that book’s conceit (that there was a real Holmes and Watson and Doyle was their biographer of sorts), at least in the afterword, so the author can’t really go around inspiring Holmes, can he?  But it’s hard to fight the suspicion that he meant to evoke Holmes canon in particular, be it the social degradation (a factory filled with child-labourers) or the hound.  And it just doesn’t work.  This is a tale of aliens, mutants and mad scientists – scarcely any deduction is involved (although the Doctor does dazzle Doyle with a little bit of it, inevitably) and the only real resemblance to Holmes fiction I could figure was the one about the mad scientist who injects himself with monkey genes.  This was easily the worst Jeremy Brett episode, although now I’m worried I dreamed it: I remember getting to the end and thinking, really?  He’s part-monkey?  That’s supposed to be a thing?  Evolution does at least confirm that somebody liked that one.

The plot is probably meant to echo The Island Of Dr.  Moreau in an old-timey sci-fi way, but it’s really more like South Park’s Dr. Mephesto in execution: splicing random animals together because reasons.  Our mad scientist du jour once happened upon some restorative (magic) alien goo that conveniently doubles as a perfect gene-splicer – airtight, right?  – so he naturally wants to create an army of dolphin-people who can lay telegraph wires on the sea bed, because it’s more cost-effective than using boats.  He’s creating a race of super-people, and nothing can schtop him now, etc.!  And he’s got a business associate (the guy who wants those wires laid, because progress, etc.)  who has a total sociopathic disdain for, uh, everybody in the world I suppose.

I mean, what else can you say about all this, other than it’s a load of trite, thunderingly silly codswallop?  To shake things up, there are moments of fairly graphic violence (including a man getting his face bitten off, and that Baskervillian monster hound getting autopsied), plus some (kinda?) social commentary that they’re using kids off the street to do all this, but none of it quite justifies the loopy premise of man-animal hybrids, or Doyle and Kipling being here.  And any influence from the theory of evolution, let alone Darwin, is tenuous at best.  The title’s a stretch.

The last major issue, once you’ve knocked off the dodgy main duo, the smack-your-head-against-a-wall Famous Historical People and the B-movie plotting, is the way it’s written.  Remember Genesys, a book beset by typographical errors like I could hardly believe: they were everywhere.  The fact that it was the range’s first novel both rules out and totally explains why the editing would be a complete disaster (“It’s got to be perfect!” vs “Dear god, how do we actually do this?!”), but the finished book is what it is – a damned ugly mess.  Fast forward to Evolution and we’re mostly spared the typos (hey, even I can’t be bothered to make note of them any more), but the actual writing takes all sorts of wince-inducing turns, some of which should have been eliminated before reaching the printers.

In an early chapter, which follows the point of view of an unhappy hound-boy hybrid, certain phrases are repeated over and over.  He had been human once” is practically a mantra, and he makes the same point about not wanting to kill actual people a bunch of times.  It’s an artistic device though, right?  Repetition because he’s going mad?  Nope: everybody thinks or speaks like that, stating things (usually the bleedin’ obvious) over and over: “It was impossible not to like the young woman … Sarah couldn’t help liking the young woman.”  / "'I'm a guard, not a messenger,' the man replied haughtily.  'I guard.  I don't carry messages.'" / "'We'd better lay low until this evening.' ...  'Until this evening, we'd better lay low.'" / "She had no energy left to fight it off … Sarah didn't have the strength to fight it off.”  / "Sarah didn't need any further encouragement … Sarah didn't waste time or breath arguing … The Doctor wasted no time or words, but simply kicked open the factory doors.”  / "He had called that creature of his a burglar!  It was obvious to her that Ross was here to steal something from the house.”  / “She felt angry.”  / “'I’m sorry,’ she apologised.”  / "Billy does,' Sarah said, stressing the youngster's name.”  (Gee, thanks for explaining italics!)  If somebody okayed all of this, they must have been caught napping.

If the relentless broken-clock-dumbness of people doesn’t bother you, there’s also their weird fixation with (tedious) running commentary.  They do this seemingly to pass the time, and literally at one point when Sarah just feels like recounting the plot.  It’s like everybody has a ‘50s era trailer voice in their head, and they just need to reaffirm that they don’t know what’s going to happen next, dammit!  "What kind of a hold did the suave Colonel Ross have over Roger?  Friendship?  Money?  Blackmail?  She didn't know.”  / "She felt dreadful about searching [Ross's room], but what else could she do?  Perhaps something would be revealed that would resolve her quandary.”  / "Was she getting through to him at all?  … It would not be an easy matter for him to trust her, but had she made him realise that he had no other genuine option?” / "To pass the time, Sarah tried making sense of what they had discovered so far...

Just to soapbox about writing for a second (who, me?), if a character doesn’t have anything interesting to say, maybe shut them up until they do.  And if they don’t know what’s going to happen next, firstly join the club, and secondly maybe that’s not actually an interesting thing to point out, so why bother?  “Would he enjoy the sandwich?  He simply didn’t know.  He picked up the sandwich and bit into it.  As it turned out, he did enjoy the sandwich.”

(Bonus bit of redundant guff: We occasionally cut to the plight of the mer-children, one of whom (Lucy) regales the others with her life story.  This includes violence and near-sexual abuse (someone get Peter Darvill-Evans’s Missing Adventures brief, we’re going wrong again!) and, totally pointlessly, the bit where she gets captured and turned into a mer-person.  Just like all of them did.  Why the hell do they need to hear that all over again?  Because we do.  Smoo-ooth.  As for why they’d want to hear about her getting brought up by an abusive psycho… god knows.  Lucy, they're kids.  Make something up.)

Most of this I could just about level at the book’s editors.  Repetition is irritating, by definition you don’t need it, so cut it out.  Inane observations are just that, we’re not idiots, so someone should have been all over them with a red pen.  But there are bits – like the Doctor’s ill-advised lust for violence, and the odd undercurrent of female weakness, from Alice the dippy fiancé to Jen the unscrupulous prostitute to Sarah’s bullish thoughtlessness – that simply point to bad ideas, and a bizarre overconfidence in said ideas, and (incredibly) a belief that any of this is being done in clever jest.

The mad scientist tells of his brilliant, miraculous discoveries (oh look, a UFO, cheers for the multi-purpose goo) in a rambling “Why not, I’m about to kill you anyway” monologue, just before the other unbearably hackneyed bad guy does exactly the same thing all over again!  Back on Terminus, Peel has said this is intended as a spoof; the trouble is, Evolution is neither clever nor (intentionally) funny enough to get away with that, and it’s stuffed with so much other hoary schlock that the “spoof” stuff looks suspiciously the same.  (Not to mention the same as Ishtar, his last by-the-numbers baddie.)  Some clever-clever mirth is had at the coincidence of Ross finding that UFO goo, which...  yeah, underlines how coincidental that is.  The Doctor chuckles heartily when a character comes to an obviously wrong deduction just to facilitate more plot, which...  yeah, makes that sort of worse, actually.  Lines like "'Can we drop the corny literary allusions?'" and "'You think they'd be more bleeding inventive, wouldn't you?'" are pretty much own goals in such bad company.  And as I read on, my patience withering, this dazzling exchange pretty much shaved a point off my final rating all at once: “'You scoundrel!’ exclaimed Doyle.  ‘Do you expect us to sympathise with you?’ ‘No, Doctor,’ Breckinridge answered.  ‘I expect you to die.’

I just… he… really?!

And of course there's the general embarrassment that can come with writers inserting characters into history and “inspiring” other works: the quality of the story will dictate the degree of insult to the original artist.  For Evolution to go around saying this stuff could have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle, not to mention The Jungle Book (!), is downright cuckoo.

Probably the best thing I can say is that it’s undemanding.  The prose, aside from its iceberg-ish flaws, bobs along quickly; the book’s surprises tend to be revealed in massive info-dumps, so you don’t have to think much along the way; and like Genesys, the bar is pretty low to start with in terms of genre writing, so if you’re after a brain-set-to-OFF-position gothic horror with barmy sci-fi bits, you might well enjoy yourself.  But I’ve really got to squint to find the good in here.

The return of a Doctor and companion who don’t sound right.  A silly story that shrugs away its setting and personages.  Attempts to be witty that succeed about as well as Riverdancing in Wellingtons.  Oh aye: it's a worthy successor to Genesys.

3/10

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #33 – First Frontier by David A. McIntee

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#30
First Frontier
By David A. McIntee

Disclaimer time: it might be difficult to discuss this one without getting into spoilers.  Yes, the book’s 22 years old and if you’re reading this, you’ve probably read it too, but the big reveal two thirds of the way in (P.200) is very much treated as a “Tada!” moment, and theoretically you might not know about it and want to read the book fresh.  As it happens, I already knew about it – d'oh! – and thus spent 200 pages waiting for First Frontier to get the hell on with it.  Perhaps it’s more fun if you don’t know, so to save a lot of nudging and winking I’ll paint over the dodgy bits.  You can highlight them to end the suspense.  Hopefully this’ll still make sense even without those (few?) sentences.

I suspect that even if you do remain unspoiled (after you've been warned via the acknowledgement to Gary Russell, who presumably tipped out his big bag of continuity references on request), you will probably know what to expect.  It’s David A.  McIntee, so there will be a lot of historical detail – in Gary Russell terms, you might say history is his continuity.  He can’t get enough of it!  This was also evidenced in White Darkness, which went to great lengths to have the right “feel” and also alerted us to his gonzo depths of research in its acknowledgements.  (One hopes that by Book #3 readers will have sufficiently got the message.)

As for which historical feel, we’re talking 1950s American desert, and all the UFO paranoia that entails.  This is a canny place for a Doctor Who story, what with the main character being a card-carrying little green man and the show’s roots coming not long after this era.  McIntee puts most of his effort into the military goings on, however, and little time or effort is spent on the denizens of Holloman.  We meet a few, including (inevitably) a wide-eyed UFO nut, but they fade in and out of the story without much consequence.  McIntee is much more concerned with the plot than the people, and most of it pivots around military personnel and various aliens.  I won’t repeat any of the procedural spadework the author has put into his bases, aircraft, weapons and whatnot – suffice to say it sounds about right.  But then I’m not someone for whom this stuff matters all that much, so long as the internal logic holds together.

Some of those military personnel are interesting enough, though they don’t all stick around.  Colonel Finney is, for once, a welcome military higher up, with an old war wound to intermittently grumble about and flash back to.  Better is Marion Davison, a military journalist who finds her career advancing just by being around the Doctor.  Worst is probably Allen Dulles, head of the CIA at the time and, naturally, a friend of the Doctor who is conveniently dredged up to get him, Ace and Benny out of various jams.  (He does all of this via telephone – he's never seen.)  It’s so cheeky that, not being familiar with Dulles, I assumed he must be an established Who character I’d somehow missed!  But he's real, which doesn't really excuse him from being an egregious deus ex machina.  He seems to be used over and over as the plot requires.

It’s an okay story for the regulars.  Bernice has a good time in history, and McIntee once again seems at home writing Ace as the action hero, including some begrudged killings and a badass airplane take-off.  He also allows her a few neat character moments, pondering her future in the TARDIS: “She knew that, unless she found such a stronghold in which to lick her wounds, there would come a day when the scrapes would cease to heal properly.  Some day the wounds would remain able to cause dull aches in stormy weather or the like.  Not this time, of course.  It might be taking longer these days, but she could hardly feel the tingling that seemed to itch under her skin when her muscles started to unstrain themselves; but someday…”  It’s not an exceptional story for the Doctor.  It’ll be easier to explain why in spoiler tags, but suffice to say, he gets on with resolving the plot and otherwise isn’t too much involved.  It isn’t really anybody’s story, as previously mentioned.

Looking beyond humanity, then, McIntee has some pretty neat ideas about the alien du jour: the Tzun Confederacy.  A race broken up into different groups depending on their jobs (some are specifically space-faring, so they needn’t deal well with planetary atmospheres or gravity, hence they look different), they’re here to take over the Earth (obvs), but they don’t want to conquer anybody.  For the Tzun, each “invasion” is an exchange that benefits both parties, and it involves much laying of groundwork to appease any fears their “victims” might have.  It’s a refreshing POV for an alien menace, and the Doctor respects them.  They’re like a friendly(ish) biological Borg.

Unfortunately you have actually got to write these guys, and as it happens, they’re dead boring.  Not one scene featuring the Tzun (or S’Raph – it’s a bit complicated) is particularly interesting to read, as McIntee’s preference is towards dry exposition.  Here’s a typically thrilling explanation: “The duplication process stimulated an over-production of the enzyme tryptophane hydroxlase in the prototype Earth Ph’Sor.  This enzyme produces an emotional stability that has been bred out of our people.  I have added a small genetic instruction into the new cell structure that inhibits production of this substance.”  Hands up if you thought “Phwoar, that was a good bit”?  Perhaps the good ship Exhaustive Research helped McIntee out with his alien plots as well, but if in doing so the technobabble ends up as just the same tedious gobbledegook as not putting in that time and effort, he might as well spare us the details.

For better and worse, he never does: detail and action are everything here.  This can work really well, like a one-scene-wonder Russian pilot gunning down an empty plane, only he doesn’t know it’s empty and so laments what he’s doing.  Or Bernice taking a moment to notice some neat detail about her surroundings: “The smell of the leather upholstery, after it had basked in the sun for a while, was strange to Benny, but she refrained from saying anything when neither of the others mentioned it.  It must just be one of those things the history books don’t say.”  And there’s a really good bit, fairly representative of the other good bits, when a plane is downed by a UFO, seen from the pilot’s POV.  Reading it made my head spin, in a good way:

Abruptly, the disc flared.  For the briefest of instants, Stephens thought it had exploded under the cannonfire, but the truth became obvious when an unseen hand – which Stephens’ rapidly numbing mind barely recognised as an exceptionally powerful slipstream – batted the Sabre across the sky.  Hauling on the stick while the desert floor did insane cartwheels above his head, Stephens fought both to stay conscious under the pressure that was tightening around his head, and to steady the aircraft before it went into a flat spin.

This kind of attention to detail works two ways, of course.  It’s great for evocative action, but when nothing much is happening – say an explanation needs to be made, or a character enters a room – those skills go into tedious overdrive, leading to exposition that sounds like leaden VCR instructions (see three paragraphs up), or just some pointlessly demonstrative physical attributes standing in for a personality: “Two men, in formal air force blues rather than the usual tropical uniform, stepped silently into the cluttered control room.  The first was a chiselled-featured blond man with pale eyes and wavy hair.  His set his briefcase atop the nearest radar console as the second, dark-haired man entered.  This man had a fuller face, but his thin lips formed a surprisingly charming smile as his dark eyes surveyed the assembled men.”  Maybe it’s just the sort of reader I am, but description like that is like a couple of shopping lists, instead of actual people, entering a room.

There are still some moments of evocative and clever writing, like a paragraph break/point-of-view shift that subtly suggests these “aliens“ might not be what they appear: “Somehow [Agar] felt at ease with them, unlike his fellow humans who always made him feel so small, like an insect crawling on the planet’s face … The forms of Agar and his car were no bigger than an ant as they glowed faintly within the spherical hologram viewer.”  On the other hand, you’ve got another one of those trippy preludes that’s complete gibberish the first time you read it and moderate gibberish when you go back to it after you’ve finished.  Goodness, I hate those; aren’t readers sufficiently wondering “What the hell is going on?” in a sci-fi series that changes its settings and supporting characters every week, without forcing them to enter each new story through a literary lava lamp?

So in its writing style, First Frontier is a mixed bag – and I’ve yet to even mention McIntee’s predilection for paragraph breaks.  If you’ve got time to sit down and plough through this, then great.  But constantly hopping from scene to scene does not help a sporadic reader’s attention span in the slightest.  I read most of First Frontier during an active family holiday, and I often needed a moment to remember which dreary military locale / vehicle / alien locale-or-vehicle I had been transported to.  It’s all just corridors after a while.


NOW THEN – SPOILERS!

HERE BE SPOILERS!

THIS NEXT BIT IS ESSENTIALLY QUITE SPOILERISH!

And somewhere, in all that historical research and dry exposition, a well-known Doctor Who villain makes their first appearance since the TV days.  The way it’s handled, with a full 200 pages elapsing before anybody even says “the Master”, and 244 pages before the Doctor lamely twigs, left me wanting more.  If you’re going to bring back an iconic villain, famed for sparring with the Doctor, is there really any point keeping it low-key for most of the story?  He’s conveniently and uncharacteristically subtle until the penny drops, with (if I’m not mistaken) an uncharacteristic lack of description for his facial hair just to keep the mystery alive.  (Cheat!)  Still, once the kitling is out of the bag there’s an exciting bit where Ace shoots him and he regenerates (ooh, milestone!  Well okay, Goth Opera got there first.  Anyway, And I think we just pre-empted Russell T Davies by 13 years!), but then he’s quite happily back to I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I-ing the Doctor, shrinking random bystanders, setting traps that inevitably fail and laughing his little head off.  I’m really not sure if it’s a very good Master story, especially when it goes to such lengths to hide the fact.  (Contrast it with Survival, which keeps him a secret throughout a moody and mysterious Part One, then utilises him for the remainder.)

There are a couple of seriously damp squibs in here, including the Doctor picking up on the Master’s involvement purely because somebody else namedropped him towards the end, but most of all there’s the lingering suspicion that the whole thing was engineered just so we could move the Master along from where he was in Survival, and while we’re at it, out of Anthony Ainley’s shoes.  Invoking the dreaded Gary Russell might be a bad idea, since this sort of meaningless dot-joining is exactly his sort of thing.  (Fair’s fair: I wanted to know what the new Master looked like.  Apparently the author has confirmed it's essentially Basil Rathbone in The Adventures Of Robin Hood.)

You do get a sense of the Master’s callous deviousness, as he is willing to sacrifice an entire race just to get rid of his leopard stripes and get off Earth.  I’m not sure any of that’s actually news, but at least it’s there.  There’s also a great bit where he rehearses catching and murdering the Doctor and Ace, which is a delightful feint to start things off – and executed well enough, including a reprise, that you may not mind having read almost exactly the same wheeze in No Future!  (Paging the editor.)  But I definitely felt a sense of “Is that it?”, especially knowing that I may not be seeing his royal beardiness again until the latter Missing Adventures.  (If you know something I don’t, please: shh.)  This encounter doesn’t move him or the Doctor much, not to mention barely getting them on the same page together, which seems a pity given the emotional peak they’d already reached in Survival.  Since these are the supposedly broader, deeper, super-duperer New Adventures, a thorough exploration of who he is, beyond the one-bullet-in-the-chamber surprise value of his showing up at all, seems peculiar in its absence.

END OF SPOILERS!

WE ARE FREE OF SPOILERS NOW!

YOU MAY RETURN!

Paradoxically, I suspect it’s the big spoiler that draws people to this particular book.  As to whether it delivers on that, debateable, I’d say.  And I’m rather at a loss as to what else is there to keep a reader engaged.  Admittedly there are enough good bits and neat ideas to drag it up from the range’s doldrums, and it’s never terrible, but the characters aren’t fully grown and there’s not as much to the plot as the book seems to think.  It all moves at a fair clip, but with a finite number of surprises to spring on you; the choppy-changey pace and sometimes impersonal narrative can become boring.  Ultimately, for all the author’s efforts, UFO-mad Americana just isn’t as much fun as it ought to be.

6/10