Friday, 30 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #7 – Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark by Andrew Hunt

Doctor Who: The New Adentures
Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark
By Andrew Hunt

As you can tell from Peter Elson's beautiful front cover (and it's obvious from the title), Witch Mark fuses sci-fi and fantasy.  That's not a bad idea in theory, and what with Doctor Who being such a malleable format (or rather one that should be malleable), it was bound to stray into a straight-up fantasy story at some point.  The Mind Robber already dipped a toe in the genre.

I'm not massively keen on fantasy as-in-dragons-and-unicorns, however.  It tends to be treated with a certain dry seriousness, as it always has to feel like a believable historical period but-with-monsters.  (Why does "fantasy" have to mean "bargain bin Tolkein", anyway?)  Sure enough, the portions of Witch Mark spent in Tír na n-Óg, Andrew Hunt's fantasy world du jour, are deathly dull.  The creatures might have different names over there but it's the same old tropes, plus some sci-fi ephemera because hey, it's Doctor Who, and even its "fantasy" stories had better tick that box at some point.  Full of laborious questing hither and thither, bloody battles populated by nothingy characters, and dialogue that wobbles between hokey medieval-isms ("By Dagda's Wheel! ") and feeble banter, the latter stages of Witch Mark are a chore to read.

It's much better early on, where it's set in the Welsh town of Llanfer Ceiriog.  Hunt conjures a satisfying little village here, and there's an enjoyable familiarity for the Doctor as well: it's nice to see places where he feels at home, but we have yet to go.  I could picture the village in all its foggy, early-morning glory.  Even better, it's here that the novel's fantasy ideas mix with reality.  That makes for much more arresting prose: tourists discovering what might be a centaur, and a vet coming across a unicorn's horn are both more interesting than strolling through a world where centaurs and unicorns are commonplace.  (Not to mention how ruddy boring the things turn out to be.)

There's a decent mystery to start us off: a coach loaded with unidentified people crashes, its occupants all carrying suitcases full of cash.  This isn't a mystery novel, however, so Hunt doesn't expend a lot of energy on who they were or where exactly they were going.  We more or less figure it out during the soupy quest narrative, and the explanation isn't altogether uninteresting.  They're fleeing their world and coming to Earth.  Issues of migration are touched on, but naturally push never comes to shove since the Doctor is involved and they can just go somewhere else.  (Having said that, I'm pretty sure there are still some Tír na n-Óg-ians pottering around our world at the end.  There’s also a sub-plot about some feral doubles of the Doctor and Ace which is then entirely forgotten about.  This may have something to do with Andrew Hunt's apparent admission that he didn't have time to finish the book.  Citation needed, I know – but damn, if that doesn't explain a lot.)

Witch Mark never wrings a great deal of drama out of its ideas.  It can be competent and almost enjoyably written – as above, I found the village fairly atmospheric, and some of the early cutaways to Tír na n-Óg are evocative.  But the characters are what really matters, and they're bland and uninteresting.  The two tourists (who discover a centaur and thus become embroiled in the story) have nothing going for them besides being American and seeing a centaur.  (One assumes An American Werewolf In London came to mind.)  The policeman investigating their case, Stevens, is part of a one-man Paranormal Investigative Team, which basically means he's an ineffectual laughing stock.  Any genuine, passionate interest in the supernatural is lost in dry, overwritten exposition:

'My dear chap,' he said flippantly, 'it's my job to believe in things that other people wouldn't credit. Flying saucers? Of course, they exist. Yeti! Saw them in the London Underground twenty years ago. Ghosts! A headless woman in white with a black dog used to walk through my bedroom at midnight. Mermaids? Grandpa was rescued from the Marie Celeste by one. Vampires? I always wondered where my dad went at night. Telepathy? Right now you're thinking that I'm talking crap. So what can you tell me that I won't believe in?"

Someone should have red-penned about half of that, right?  But they didn't, so towards the end, his half-hearted decision to perform an exorcism makes about as much sense as anything else.  The various fantasy denizens are too trite to dwell on, although it is especially annoying that there is a girl called Bats (short for Bathsheba) and a unicorn called Bat.  As for all the Welsh words acting as fantasy words, they probably mean a great deal to a Welsh-speaker, but they just seemed like random replacement words to me.  They're applied to the same old fantasy tropes.

Hunt's writing of the Doctor and Ace isn't much better.  They're taking time out for the TARDIS to fix itself, owing to the fascinating and not-at-all pointless Cat's Cradle arc.  (We briefly reference Time's Crucible, skip Warhead altogether and then shruggingly conclude this on the final page as essentially, "the TARDIS was feeling a bit funny, it's better now".  If you were expecting an idea they felt important enough to attach to the three book titles to actually go somewhere, well, silly old you!)  The Doctor's familiarity with his surroundings lends a pleasing comfort to some passages – sorry to repeat myself there, it's the only way I can buoy this review – but later on he's got nothing to do but head for the mysterious Goibhnie and hope he can sort out this world's problems.  Cue random assorted perils between A and B, including the decision to ditch Ace as this will be "too dangerous" for her.  You what, Doc?  After what she accomplished in Warhead?  He's blandly Sylvester McCoy-like in the writing, but there's nothing remotely interesting about him.

As for Ace, she's one of Witch Mark's weakest links.  Not for the first time, characterisation lets her down, coming as it does in clumsy blobs of back-story.  We could take her Survival experiences as read and build on them, but no, we'd better recap them first: "It was a look which stirred strange feelings in her because of her experience as one of the hunters on the planet of the Cheetah people."  We could use what she learned in The Curse Of Fenric and incorporate that seamlessly into who she is now, but hey, why not remind us exactly what happened anyway: "As with the faith that has driven back the Haemovores during World War Two..."  It's a bit embarrassing when you can see the joins like that.  There is something new here, at least – a magical connection with a unicorn – but it's treated like another echo of Survival, and it makes no substantial difference to her or the story.  Shrug.

One hopes they'll tone it down as the series progresses, but so far Ace often finds herself drifting between the scant plots of Season 25 and 26, or vaguely railing against her mother and racial intolerance.  Sometimes it feels like there's nothing more to her than the plot points established on TV, which feels like a slap in the face for a format boasting "stories too broad and too deep for the small screen."  Hunt at least tries to delve into Ace's fixation with Nitro-9, only to come up with this hilariously leaden nugget: "It's great when you manage your first truly destructive chemical reaction, but the satisfying moment comes when you create an explosive that does serious damage whilst looking and sounding aesthetically pleasing."  So, the best bit about blowing things up is the blowing things up?  Oh, Ace, tell me more!

(Incidentally, the Doctor isn't free from this Genesys-esque info-dumpery.  There's some dull reminiscence about Block Transfer Computation – don't even ask – and this little doozie that made me laugh out loud: "'Get him to contact UNIT.  They'll help you.'  UNIT was an acronym for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, an international military organisation which the Doctor had once worked for as scientific advisor. MORE POWER TO THE INFO-DUMPER.)

Hunt's writing oscillates between vague competence and a weird, forced extravagance.  Take this moment when a person's face appears to change: "Suddenly the feelings changed as loving warmth shifted to the sticky coldness of death. He was warm and now he's icky!  Or this one, when a character sees his planet's sun return to its former strength and feels "the incredibly sensuous, almost sexual thrill that coursed through his old body”.  Um?  Quite often, things are going well enough – albeit never making your pulse race like Warhead, or igniting your imagination like Revelation – and then pow!, it gets weird.  Overall it's an ungainly, undistinguished piece of work, and one that runs out of steam long before it ends.  Perhaps in an attempt to keep things interesting, the action frequently chops between characters.  I was rarely thrilled to see any of them.

A small village with fantasy accoutrements is an idea after my own heart, but Witch Mark considerably fails to make the most of it.  What we get is a drab sci-fi/fantasy mash-up that you'll forget as soon as it's over.  Pretty cover, though.


Thursday, 29 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #6 – Cat's Cradle: Warhead by Andrew Cartmel

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Cat's Cradle: Warhead
By Andrew Cartmel

Difficult to know where to start with this one.  I didn't make a lot of notes or scribble much of it down, as I was pretty much in its thrall the whole time.  I thought I'd have little more to say about the way it's written than "Yep.  This is good."

Okay, I'll try a bit harder.  Warhead is an urban thriller, which is a potentially hackneyed setting for a sci-fi story and a potentially unsuitable one for Doctor Who.  Andrew Cartmel, the show's Script Editor and lead creative voice in its last years, clearly isn't interested in perpetuating what is usual for Doctor Who.  He relishes the chance to establish a grim future for humanity, taking all opportunities to enrich it and make it feel lived in, put up with.  The people feel utterly real and so does the situation, in no small part because we come to it so late.  This is a future where we're almost at the point of no return.  There are very few people trying to save it – they’re simply trying to get on.  It makes the Doctor all the more necessary.  (It is interesting that the Doctor is aiming to save it now, rather than popping back to avert the whole ugly mess.  Interestingly, I probably wouldn't think to question it if this wasn't set on Earth.)

Cartmel's prose is to-the-point and satisfying, especially after the expressionistic whims of Marc Platt.  This is thriller territory: characters think and feel and you're absolutely in there with them, while the story moves with cinematic clarity.  The writing often slips neatly between forensic detail and emotion, lending refreshing weight to so-called "villainous" characters.  For instance, when a vengeful Kurd meets his doom:

"The uncontrolled laser beam needled out slightly, barely visible in the dusty air of the summer night. It went in through the front of Massoud's eye and into his brain, through the frontal lobe and sweeping into the motor and sensory areas. Massoud saw a brilliant light. It filled his vision. It was the sun over the shoulder of his sister."

...and we're treated to a bit of back-story just as we lose him.  (It continues on for a bit but I don't want to quote too much.  That's why I refrained from writing loads down.  I'd be reproducing pages.)  There's a lot of this stuff, and it works beautifully at mixing action, or more usually death, with insight.  It's a very successful writing style; I was hooked.

It's a very grim story, which is arguably part of the New Adventures remit.  These novels have been sneaking in swearwords, sex and violence (or at any rate, more than you'd expect on telly) since Genesys, and all appear rather more graphically in Warhead, but with (I think) the greatest success so far.  (Though there are moments of eyebrow-raising gratuity, like a hallucination featuring a severed head gargling in a urinal.)  This feels like science fiction for a more mature reader.  But it's not too divorced from Doctor Who as we know it: McCoy and co. were shaking their heads at corrupt, broken-down worlds in Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol.

The approach to the characters is just as bracing as you'd expect from Andrew Cartmel, who knew the Seventh Doctor and Ace better than most.  The relatively cartoonish character traits of the first three Timewyrm books feel like ancient history for Ace, who methodically follows the Doctor's instructions and puts his plan into action.  I've seen her characterisation here referred to in unflattering terms, and I think that's a pity.  Though she does kill, her remorse is obvious and not at all trivialised.  Earlier, she outright refuses to do it.  She's no mindless killing machine.  Also, her relationship with the Doctor is as lived-in and matter-of-fact as Cartmel's horrid future.  The two barely need words any more.

Ah yes, the Doctor: grand chess player, juggling people's lives without flinching.  He's not a very nice Doctor, but I do think he's a very believable one.  This stuff suits him.  (And it's hardly gone away.  I recently heard Big Finish's LIVE 34, which followed a similar pattern of the Doctor and Ace working to save a nearly-doomed society from its corrupt elders, again from the sidelines.  I wonder if James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown read this.)  He's not in the book much, especially the first half, but his influence is there.  I was always keen to find out what he was up to, but I wasn't bored in the interim.

Even so, the pacing can be a little uneven.  You're introduced to quite a few characters near the start, mostly police-types beginning with M, and they go away for most of the novel as we get back to Ace and then the Doctor.  By the time we meet up with them again, there's a small degree of "Who's who?" (call me childish, but did he really need so many M names?), and with the action ratcheted so high for so long, there's no space reserved for an epilogue.  It's over, and hopefully things will get better. Warhead is an appropriate title: we’re here for the explosion, not for the fallout.

(Speaking of resolutions, just what the hell is Cat's Cradle all about?  The cat's briefly in it again – something to do with the TARDIS's warning systems? – but I can't see much else connecting this to Time's Crucible.  As series-plots go, it's almost comically obscure.)

Warhead was a pleasure to read, though of course, it is not a pleasant story.  Dark and violent, but more resoundingly sad, it manages to evoke various sci-fi sources (the choking cityscape of Blade Runner, the eerie deserted countryside of a zombie movie) whilst adding its own authorial stamp.  It's an intelligent way to handle an environmental message: no one likes the problem, there are no easy fixes, hard choices are necessary to make it better.  And it's a fairly bold way to tell a Doctor Who story.  It's one of those that really deserves the "New" caveat, as it pushes confidently at the show's comfort zones.  It's seriously unhappy stuff – I’d have a nice lie down on standby – but I admire it a lot.


Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #5 – Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible by Marc Platt

Please excuse the poor quality Google image.
As for why I don't have the book any more,
and hence can't photograph it... um...
Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible
By Marc Platt

There are currently three Amazon reviews for Time's Crucible, and at least two describe it as "fast-paced".  Ahem, no.  If this is fast-paced then so, surely, is The Web Planet.  (Aka The Two And Half Hour One With Space Butterflies And Villain Fungus.)  If we're prepared to stretch the definition that far, we can probably apply it to Andy Warhol's Sleep, an experimental 5-hour film in which nothing occurs but a friend of Warhol's, sleeping.

Time's Crucible is not fast-paced.

I knew little about it going in other than it was written by Marc Platt, esteemed author of some of my favourite Doctor Who stories.  The dazzling, often misunderstood Ghost Light; the mercurial "What if the Doctor never left Gallifrey?" tale that is Auld Mortality; the greatest Cyberman story ever told, Spare Parts, which finally made those semi-ridiculous Dalek knock-offs as tragic and scary as they're supposed to be.  And of course, he wrote Lungbarrow: that grand and most famous of New Adventures, full of such world-building mythos that its echoes ripple still.  (Only, like, 90 books to go...)  In short, I was optimistic.  "Marc Platt," I would have said a few weeks (months? Years?) ago before I started reading this, "now there's a writer who knows his onions."

From the outset this is the sort of book that is not going to appeal to everybody.  Doctor Who is sci-fi, sure, but it's rarely the sort of hard sci-fi you might struggle to understand or read.  Doctor Who is such a malleable format that it usually melds with something else anyway: the TARDIS can literally drop you into other genres, after all.  So if I don't like Time's Crucible, it doesn't mean nobody will.

But here we are: I hated it.  I have rarely, if ever, been as bored and irritated as I was reading this book.  Time's Crucible is 275 pages of punishing, crushing tedium the likes of which I would never have dreamed possible.  ("Dreams?" cry Statler and Waldorf in the still-recovering depths of my brain.  "Those were nightmares!")  I thought Genesys was bad, but I'd read that book again – brainless, godawful typo-ridden dreck that it was – before reappraising this festering, unholy quagmire.

What's so bad about it?  Simple: there's no story.  Not a bad story, not a dull story, just no damn story at all.

Here's what happens: the TARDIS collides with an ancient Gallifreyan time ship.  A nightmarish city is created, and the time ship's bewildered crew, as well as Ace and the Doctor (in that order) mill around trying to make sense of multiple time zones.  A gigantic monomaniacal lamprey with a mouth at both ends (or rather, an arse for a face) rules over them all, except one of their number, Vael, who may or may not have plans of his own.  The Doctor, presumed dead and maybe or maybe not amnesiac, looks on.

Or in a slightly smaller nutshell: Ace and a bunch of bland Gallifreyan nobodies stumble around a grey wasteland for 200 pages accomplishing nothing while a big worm talks to itself.  Eventually the TARDIS stops playing silly buggers and normal service resumes.  Insert abstract imagery, flashbacks to old Gallifrey and a cat, and be prepared to smash your head against the nearest wall.

This is stifling, needlessly obtuse literature.  At the start, the "story" bounces between the Doctor and Ace suffering a Dali-esque crisis in Perivale, and ancient Gallifrey.  Talk about easing us into things!  The language struggles to convey impossible concepts, and it's just damn unreadable at times.  I kept re-reading sentences in desperation.

"The thought core of the crew, bound and woven by three years of training, virtually eliminated the necessity for a reality. "
"The molecular haze swirled around him in a chromatic maelstrom."
"The air was getting hazy again in a fresh drift of molecules."
"As she watched, [the walls] dissolved into a slow-churning ferment of dimensional dementia."

And then there's this beauty, ostensibly from Ace's POV:

"The flow of people and time on Ealing Broadway had settled into a smooth drift that was slower than was natural, but it intensified Ace's vision too. She was aware of matter shifting under the force of time's currents, little swirls of microscopic particles that eddied away from so-called solid or animate objects, much as mud slowly shifts in the flow of a river. Ace could have stopped to watch the diaphanous colours of the molecules around her for ever."

Everyone writes differently, but there are certain concepts – and yes, rules – that hold true no matter who you are.  One is that narrative tends to conform to a main character.  In other words, phrases like "so-called solid or animate objects" and "diaphanous colours of the molecules" are not going to occur to Ace, so why put those words, by implication, in her mouth?  It doesn't ring true and it's complete zarking gibbertwaddle to boot, and for god's sake, it's just too soon in the book to ask your reader to do these sorts of cartwheels to make sense of things.

Later, there's a line that typifies the approach I'm talking about.  "It was exactly the sort of thing she had wanted the Doctor to show her. Well cosmic."  See?  It's a little naff, but that's Ace.  For good measure, there are a few dollops of psychoanalysis involving Ace's mother and a couple of characters we saw in the TV run, because well, that's what you do with Ace, innit?  Only it doesn't come close to advancing her as a character and it doesn't have any impact.  It's just, oh look: it's Ace's mum / Ace talking about her mum, as you do.  Shrug.  Paul Cornell did this sort of thing with considerable flair, but if you're not careful it can just feel like items on a list.

Platt goes out of his way to describe things that are as abstract and baffling as he can make them.  It's where almost all his effort goes, while little things like characters who have goals, conflicts that can be resolved, and story fall into the abyss.  You would think that setting a novel in the twisted depths of the TARDIS would be a gift that kept on giving, but no, even that can't save Time's Crucible.  The mad world this story inhabits is as barren and dull as the average Doctor Who quarry, only there are three or four of them jumbled together.  Yippee.

Incidentally, the "it turns out they're really in the TARDIS" bit is supposed to be a twist, much like the true identity of the mysterious "guards" who assist the giant schizophrenic (but oddly harmless) worm.  (He just keeps bumbling around asking if anybody has seen the future.  No, you befuddled boob.  Please stop asking.)  Both developments are obvious from the outset, and bungled in their execution.  At every juncture the drama fizzles, but hey, at least it's weird.

By the end, I had the uncomfortable suspicion that Platt wrote this whole thing just so he could fling a few ideas about Gallifrey into the published world.  Alas, "Babies aren't born on Gallifrey" doesn't exactly fill the required word-count, so the dramatic anathema of The Process, aka the big worm, was added.  (And terrifying he is, too.)  Towards the end, themes not unlike those in Ghost Light finally reveal themselves: the great worm is resistant to change, just as Light was.  But I really don't want to compare the two stories, in case I suddenly lose my love for the other one, or worse, see it for the garbled and dull mess it may have been all along.  Some fans certainly view it that way.  Stay back, Time's Crucible! You will not take Ghost Light from me!

I like new things, and with a range like the New Adventures, I'm certainly open to change.  Isn't that the point?  I've already complained about writers churning out overly familiar stories, because we don't need any more of those.  But for me, you do need to keep at least one foot on the ground, and Time's Crucible is somewhere in the stratosphere, eyes lolling, tongue out and dribbling.

At times I felt unpleasantly like Dave Bowman in the star tunnel of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But the book obviously has its fans – it would, I suspect, be fair to call it a love-it-or-hate-it affair.  "But Time's Crucible gave us X and Y!" is a popular rejoinder, but then ideas and new bits of canon don't make a book, as far as I'm concerned.  I can only wish its fans well and salute their patience, while I regather my shattered senses and read something that won't make me want to poke my eyes out with the nearest dull implement.


Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #4 – Timewyrm: Revelation by Paul Cornell

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Timewyrm: Revelation
By Paul Cornell

I've just had the most peculiar dream.

Reading Paul Cornell's conclusion to the Timewyrm saga can be a disorientating experience.  Like the best and worst of dreams, it summons up bizarre and unforgettable images, then leaves you scrambling to make sense of them when you wake.  It is undoubtedly a work of great imagination, but I wonder if one read is really enough to get the full measure of it.

The prologue and first chapter are showstoppers.  In a playground in Perivale, little Dorothy McShane is dead, murdered by the school bully.  In a village church in 1992, parishioners gather for a winter's service, while the vicar chats to an omnipresent force that inhabits his church.  The Doctor and Ace arrive in the same place, desperate to pick up the trail of the Timewyrm – only this isn't really Cheldon Bonniface, or even Earth.  The townspeople fall to dust, the Doctor panics, and in moments Ace is dead again.

Not too shabby, as openings go!  After three novels telling singular stories with a hint of Timewyrm, it makes sense to go right for the jugular here.  Revelation is a grand finale – the Doctor and Ace vs. the Timewyrm, with scarcely any distractions in the plot department.

The first thing that really struck me, and probably the thing I'll take away from it the most, is the sheer, rich imagery.  We've got a sinister, diminutive astronaut; a fake town on the moon full of people who don't know they're fake; a church transported from Earth to the moon, devastating the town it left behind; a friendly, formless spirit with a church as its home, and a reverend for a best friend; and, as beautifully depicted on the cover, the Doctor literally dancing with Death, across the moon's surface to his demise – on his own terms.  Cornell's ideas mix the grand and the small – in fact, there's a line in it that seems to encapsulate this: "Between the holy grail and the cup of tea."  Cornell takes us on a complex, metaphysical journey, but there is always smallness, thoughtfulness, heart.

While Revelation is ostensibly an epic battle between the Doctor and the Timewyrm, which is what we're expecting and what needs to happen, that is not – in the tradition of the better New Who episodes – what it's really about.  This is a journey into the Doctor's soul, and Ace's as well.  It's a novel that gets to the nitty-gritty of them both, explains and justifies them, warts and all.  Ace benefits enormously: a pivotal moment in her life, when she decides to break away from the crowd and stand up for others, is brightly illuminated.

'Her name,' she shouted, wincing at the difficulty of swimming against the tide, 'is Manisha Purkayastha. And my name isn't Dorry.' She looked up at the sky above and yelled it as loudly as she'd ever yelled anything in her life.
'My name is Ace!

This also feels like a turning point in her relationship with the Doctor.  His game-playing is no side-note, as it was in Apocalypse.  The majority of Revelation concerns his manipulative side, his guilt over this, and his culpability in Ace's perils.  They're both learning to face up to that.

'I thought – but that means –' a grin began to spread over her face.  'My God!  This is part of the game, isn't it?  You're playing a game!'
The Doctor stared at her for a moment as if surprised.  An old smile spread over his features.  'Yes, and I'm winning.  As always.'
'You really are a bastard!' Ace laughed."

But most of that concerns Ace more than the Doctor.  As for him, the battle with the Timewyrm takes place in familiar surroundings, with his guilt manifesting and things coming back, quite literally, to haunt him.  It's here we learn about him and here, if I'm honest, the book comes closest to overstretching itself.  Things get very metaphysical and grandiose as the book races to its conclusion, with Cornell dispensing universe-bending concepts in the space of a few sentences.  It's a lot to get your head around, and while the emotional journey is constant and satisfying, the plot becomes a little too intangible at times.  It's one of those stories where you're waiting until the last few pages for naggingly crucial answers, while certain other things, like the identity of the Timewyrm's host, seem bizarrely obvious from the get-go.

The Doctor's journey is still an interesting one, full of yet more rich imagery.  (Though in my opinion, little occurs that rivals those first few chapters, that wonderfully mind-boggling stuff on the moon.)  There are some seriously cool ideas along the way, like the Timewyrm's ability to control the Doctor in his sleep, and past Doctors having their own little afterlives in his mind.  (Pertwee and Tom finally meet. It is exactly how it should be.)  Cornell doesn't ignore the Doctor cameos we've already had, courtesy of Peel and Robinson.  You could even say his afterlife idea is similar to the one John Peel employed, where the Doctor can just summon up a past self to use his character traits.  Cornell's is a lot more elegant.  He ties together the continuity of these books admirably well, even taking the time to explain a continuity flub in Genesys

The Timewyrm her/him/itself is an altogether scarier concept in his hands.  Peel's movie villain megalomania is toned down, replaced by a disquieting and genuine disregard for life.  The story adopts a tone of pacifism, which is very important for Ace as well as the Doctor.  Ultimately they must kill the Timewyrm with kindness, which feels like an appropriate end to a destructive journey.

Revelation isn't the easiest book to comprehend.  I suspect reading a bunch of New Adventures in a short time hasn't helped.  Revelation has big, intriguing ideas and they need room to breathe.  Here is a book I feel I need to read again, and slower, some day.  But I feel confident in saying it occasionally gets a little too wound up in its mind-bending, at times almost summoning the dread phrase, "self-indulgent".  Fortunately Cornell's characters have a strong enough emotional core, and a satisfying enough journey, to keep the whirligig of ideas grounded in something that matters.  I wanted something new, and I got it: an ending for the Timewyrm, a bracing new start for the Doctor and Ace.  I look forward to a return visit, and a more relaxed look under its surface.


Monday, 26 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #3 – Timewyrm: Apocalypse by Nigel Robinson

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Timewyrm: Apocalypse
By Nigel Robinson

Whoosh – another one done in a day.  But Apocalypse isn't something I read in a starburst of excitement, like Exodus.  The quick turnaround is mainly due to it being a really short book.

Written by Nigel Robinson, previously the editor of the Target range and so another writer well used to all this, Apocalypse tends not to show up in a lot of Favourite New Adventures lists.  Certainly it feels like a comedown after Terrance Dicks' page-turning, time-travelling thriller, and I'm not in a major hurry to read it again.  Assuming it's not on those lists because it's awful would be erroneous, however.  It's quite good in parts.  I suspect it's just a little too close to "normal" Doctor Who to set anybody's world on fire.

Tracking the Timewyrm to a planet at the end of time (more or less), the Doctor and Ace discover the Kirithons – a perfect race living in paradise.  But paradise has its sinister side.  The people are fed and protected by the elusive Panjistri, who sometimes take exceptional Kirithons into their ranks, never to be seen again and quickly forgotten by their loved ones.  A Kirithon called Raphael is starting to remember; with the Doctor and Ace's encouragement, a full-blown rebellion is inevitable.

Sound familiar?  Paradise having a seedy underbelly is the punchline to every utopia story ever written.  The old "once you ascend, you never come back" routine is Russell T Davies's bread and butter.  (His Who writing came later, but then he actually submitted The Long Game back in the '80s.)  As for the docile society that doesn't ask enough questions of its benevolent rulers, and the Doctor et al being the ones to change that, I don't even know where to begin listing the references.  (When a race of misunderstood mutants turn up on the outskirts of town, however, I muttered aloud: "Terry Nation".)  For good measure, there are a few knowing references to cliché as well: "If we're going to get locked up in the castle dungeon it might as well be now."

The story isn't bad – all things considered, it does a good job inside a very familiar framework.  Like Terrance Dicks said about clichés being things that work, this whole arena does feel convincingly like Doctor Who.  Turning pretty-but-secretly-corrupt societies on their heads is very much the Doctor, as well as very much the Seventh Doctor in particular.  I think this bit of dialogue, essentially the anti-Binro-the-Heretic-scene, sums up a Doctor Who-ey ethos rather well:

'I can tell you many things, Miríl,' he said. 'I can tell you of worlds beyond wonder and a secret older than time. I can tell you of the nature of good and evil, the power of the human heart, and the best recipe for bread and butter pudding ... but I'll tell you only two things. Those records you've shown me are a sham: there's not a word of truth in any of them. And you, the Panjistri and everyone else for that matter, could leave the planet whenever you want.
'You've been tricked, Miríl. All your people have. The Panjistri need you much more than you need them. And I intend to find out why.'

So it's good Doctor Who, but you've heard it before, and probably done with more flair.  And I mean recently: Ace finds herself the subject of a sacrifice two books running, just as the Timewyrm once again latches itself on to a human host.  That concept seemed far more integral, not to mention interestingly unstable, in Exodus; conversely you wait through all of Apocalypse just to find out the same thing is going on.  Guys, it's a Timewyrm book: it’s a fair bet she's pulling a similar trick.  I commenced a very slight eye-roll when (spoiler! Ah, who am I kidding, it's Book Three of Four) she slipped away at the end.  The poor old Doctor is beginning to sound like Dr Claw.  Next time, Timewyrm!

Okay, enough about the plot.  Are the characters well-written?  I'd say yes.  Ace gets more to do, bonding with Raphael a fair bit; there sadly isn't time to make much of this, nor of the emotionally-charged ending that inadvertently prefigures what happens to her in Love And War (coming soon), but you can feel more work being done with her character than we've had recently.  Little of it is new ground – old issues come back, including (yet again) televised plot-events – but at least it's focusing on who she is, rather than her tendency to blow stuff up.  (There is, sadly, plenty of that.)  Her dialogue still includes some of that lamentable '80s brat-speak ("Back off, bilge-breath!" said no teenager ever), but there are also some amusing and colourful insights. ("He's making fun of me, was her first thought. Compared to the rest of the women in this town I might as well look like the back of a bus.")  She's beginning to shape up.

The Doctor isn't quite as barnstorming as he was in Exodus, and he's having a slight identity crisis into the bargain.  Not for the first time, a New Adventure sneaks in a cameo from a past Doctor, a practice which is starting to stick out a bit.  Knowing they would eventually end up publishing past Doctor books sort of explains the frustration of not playing with everything in the toy-box just yet.  And at least it's not as out-of-left-field as the one in Genesys.  (Strange that the Doctor's previous-self-contact hasn't come back, as it would be really useful here.  Ditto the incredibly nifty TARDIS remote control, seen in Exodus, and I'll wager never seen again!  It would easily have saved his bacon in a climactic scene here.)  Ultimately Robinson writes an authentic Seventh Doctor, especially when he's tearing down other people's paradise, or reflecting on the timely mortality of the universe.  Shades of the Doctor: the great manipulator do appear, but we sort of rush through them.  At 201 pages, we rush through most of it.

Not for the first time (which could be my review in a nutshell), the Timewyrm feels like a minor subplot.  Which is fine, but unfortunately the plot it's tethered to is nothing spectacular, even though it concerns the end of the universe.  (Don't get too hot and bothered, the universe takes a lot longer to die than you'd think.)  Robinson is an accomplished and colourful enough writer to make the journey and its characters worth exploring, but I can already feel it falling away from my thoughts.  It's okay.  But it's time for something new.


Sunday, 25 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #2 – Timewyrm: Exodus by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Timewyrm: Exodus
By Terrance Dicks

I read it in a day.  It hasn't even sat on my bookshelf yet.  Can I start all over again?


I didn't have high hopes.  John Peel was a trusted hand at Doctor Who literature, and look where that got us.  I'd place more faith in Terrance Dicks, but not a whole lot more; he can knock out a novelisation like nobody else, but he's just as fond of tropes and clichés as Peel.  He's just a lot better at executing them.

And sure enough, some of Uncle Terry's shortcomings are apparent in Exodus.  He has a strange habit of describing characters by their hair and what they're wearing.  (This reaches a nadir in The Eight Doctors, where Paul McGann's entire personality seems to be the fact that his hair is brown.)  He likes his continuity references, although they're far more specialised and actually appropriate to the story.  The prose has a certain hurry to it; almost as if he's novelising a television script, the action rarely breathes.

Do I care?  Nope.  I couldn't put the thing down.  There isn't a dull page.

It opens in post-war Britain with a difference.  It's What If Hitler Won The War, a sci-fi conceit if ever you've heard one – something even the Doctor and Ace acknowledge!  I love this because it's immediately showing us the effect of (almost certainly) the Timewyrm – no grandstanding "Nothing in ze vorld can schtop me now!" rhetoric from her this time, we just get on with it.

Also good: in a strange ouroboros, the setting is highly reminiscent of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth., which was deliberately similar to the Blitz.  (There's even a body in the river!)  I just lapped this up – it’s maybe my fave story evah – and besides, it isn't a repeat of TDIOE.  The Doctor and Ace are immediately concerned about the change in history (well, the Doctor is – Ace seems oddly unconvinced), and set about finding out what set history on its wrong course so they can go sort it out.  Yep!  Dicks has written Doctor Who's Back To The Future: Part II.  Before I was very far into the book, it was already doing a bunch of things I liked.  (I know this is a bit of a double standard, as I usually hate rip-offs and tropes.  But if you're going to borrow something then as long as you're putting it to good use, bon voyage.)

And we're not at the best bit.  I had assumed, based on Peel's dismissive and mean treatment of the Seventh Doctor, that an old guard like Dicks might do something similar.  This isn't "his" era of the show – his heart is in the Pertwee years, and to an extent the Tom and Troughton years.  And yet, Exodus is to me, a brilliant Seventh Doctor story.  So much of it hinges on him insinuating himself into situations and using his personality to win people's trust.  He is so good at it, we almost never have to suffer the old "Tell me who you are!  A Time Lord?  Oh, pull the other one!" routine.  The Doctor is on appallingly good form throughout, easily winning over Nazi Generals, Gestapo higher-ups and bleedin' Hitler.  What's more, I can totally see McCoy's Doctor, as televised, pulling all of this off.  It could easily have been anti-dramatic to have him succeed so often, but instead it's crazy fun watching him cheek his way through.  (And why shouldn't he be great at it?  He's had enough practice.)

With the Doctor making nice with the Reich, the story takes an unusual, neutral-bordering-on-friendly stance on Nazis.  You're sort of glad to see Hermann Goering at one point.  Of course Ace is here to remind us that they're all bastards, not that most readers really need to hear it, but then the Doctor isn't quite so black-and-white about it.  They're history to him: Hitler is (for all his atrocities) a helpless pawn in time, or he will be without the help of the Timewyrm.  The Doctor is quite happy to rescue him in 1923 if it means setting him on a course for his death in 1945.  That's a somewhat detached, alien perspective, and it's a lot more interesting than going "Boo! Hiss! Hitler!" every time the bloke with the Chaplin 'tache sidles into view.  (For good measure, it's actually plot-relevant that Hitler is even more of a monster than the Timewyrm.  Boo, hiss, etc!)

Speaking of the shouty one: how nice that she takes a backseat to the action.  Peel originated a truly hideous and irritating character in Ishtar, and it's nice to take a break from that, even though it's "her" series.  Dicks sneakily parallels the Timewyrm with his own plot; I suspect Exodus could easily have been a novel without the arc plot, and probably was at one point, but the misdirection of not knowing if all this really is the Timewyrm is just delicious.  And it keeps the series from plunging into "This week the Timewyrm destroys X".  I feel like different writers could really do different things with it.  As for the story Dicks dreams up, I didn't guess where it was going, or who was involved.  There's a spoilery answer to that one for long-term Who fans. (I think the book loses something once the baddie is unmasked, but that may be to do with their tendency to tie up the Doctor and Ace and explain their plans.  It all goes a bit Indiana Jones in the castle scenes, and not in a great way.)

With various jumps in time, the action is constant and colourful; the Doctor's monumental personality keeps his position firmly in check wherever he is.  But Ace fares slightly worse overall.  While she does get to hurl (justified) fury at the Third Reich, not to mention her patented Nitro-9 bombs, she is dangerously close to damsel status at times.  She does an awful lot of "What are you going to do now, Doctor?"  There are very few parallels between Genesys and Exodus, but one is that neither of them really knows what to do with Ace.  Exodus, at least, reserves the torture and attempted-murder for people other than the Doctor.

It's a page-turner, to say the least.  But what I said about it not "breathing" very much doesn't mean the prose is arbitrary or trite.  Just because Dicks sees the value of a cliché ("Never despise clichés, Ace.  The only reason they became clichés is because they work."  Agree to disagree...) doesn't mean he'll always resort to them.  The dialogue is true to the characters, and almost all of it is huge fun.  I had to pause just to appreciate this line about a youthful, unimpressive Hitler: "If he'd gone on like that, he'd have been booed off the stage at a Brownies meeting."  Far from the cack-handed, barely-proofread horror of Genesys, Exodus is often funny even in technical terms; e.g. the scene where the Doctor and Ace are being bugged in a hotel room, and we cut from Ace mentioning Nitro-9 to the listener hearing "No! No! No!" from the Doctor.  In the whole book, I counted one typo ("With profound relief Ace work up"), although this being a reprint, who knows how many it started with…

Exodus is rollicking.  It's a rollicker.  There are rollicks.  I'm... slightly delirious from blustering through a book in a day, but I had such a good time.  Okay, it's not high art, and I suspect it's not representative of the New Adventures as a whole.  Take out the few (entirely appropriate) swear-words and it could be a TV script.  Leave them in and it's almost a (racy, Ian Marter-esque) Target book.  There's little really adult about it, but then not every New Adventure has to push the envelope, so long as it's actually a good book.  Exodus tells a great, fun story at a hell of a pace.  What a relief.


Saturday, 24 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #1 – Timewyrm: Genesys by John Peel

Some background: in 1989, Doctor Who was cancelled.  I know, I know.  Let it out.

But this wasn't the end.  Virgin Publishing got the rights to make Doctor Who books, so they published a lot of them, which I promptly didn't read.  Well, they starred characters I wasn't too familiar with, in some cases had never even heard of, and they sounded weird.  Even the titles weren't very Doctor Who-ey; there was no "Attack Of The Terrifying Killer Thing" or "Thing Of The Daleks".  There were adult themes, and not one single Dalek.  Was it really even Doctor Who?

Then in 1996, after 61 New Adventures (concerning the then-Doctor, Sylvester McCoy), 33 Missing Adventures (featuring the rest) and some miscellaneous, Virgin lost the rights.  (Something to do with a TV movie.)  Doctor Who went back to the BBC and Virgin carried on making other, non-Doctor books.

And twenty years later I figured, what the hell, why not see what I was missing?  New Adventures, Missing Adventures and miscellaneous.  One by one I'll read them all...

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Timewyrm: Genesys
By John Peel

Some time after the show's cancellation, someone had the bright idea to continue Doctor Who in book form.  But the New Adventures would not be the usual adventures in time and space.  As per the blurb, they were: "full-length science fiction novels; stories too broad and too deep for the small screen."  That's a bold mission statement, and one that would later ensnare the talents of some daring, out-of-the-box-writers – some of the most creative voices the show ever had.

So who do they get to write the inaugural entry?  This is the one book everyone's going to read – the one that, for some readers, may decide whether it's worth getting the rest.

Drumroll: it's John Peel.  (No, not that one.)  Official noveliser of many '60s-era Dalek stories, known for stitching together some decent (if episodic) scripts with somewhat clunky prose.  To me, that's an odd choice.  Was he known for having fresh, exciting ideas about the show?  Or being, well, goodTo paraphrase Father Ted: "What was it – collect twelve packets of crisps and write the first New Adventures novel?"  He was probably seen as a safe pair of hands, not one to frighten away uncertain readers and old fans who might balk at weird "new" Doctor Who, but there's a gulf between novelisations and actual novels, as we'll soon discover.

So: what does Genesys set out to do?  Firstly, re-introduce the world of Doctor Who to new readers, aka tell us who the Doctor and Ace are, what the TARDIS is, how this all works.  Circa 1991, the audience for these books were predominantly people who knew this stuff back to front already, but it's an admirable concession for newbies.

Unfortunately Peel is cut from the same cloth as Gary Russell (someone I'll be getting to later on) – there can never, ever be enough continuity references – and that's largely the route he takes here, dispensing reams of random information from the show's past.  Some of the not-really-asked-for stuff includes the concept of Time Lord regeneration (and what his fourth incarnation looked like); the names of all the companions who died in unfortunate circumstances (and how that happened); the plot of The Invasion Of Time; and the supporting cast of Ghost Light.  We just don't need it.  A reader unfamiliar with this stuff is likely to be mystified by its relevance.  Frankly, I know it backwards and I am, too.  Slavish adherence to continuity is a recipe for fan-fiction, and the New Adventures are (presumably, see blurb) striving to be more than that.  I've read a few of Peel's original novels, and they share this tedious addiction to references.  It's embarrassing – the kind of Doctor Who lit you wouldn't want non-fans to see.  It can be better than this.  Honest!

(The references reach a rather odd peak when the Doctor decides he can't solve a technical problem, so he mentally swaps places with another more gadgetty Doctor.  This suggests a rather awkward discomfort with the current Doctor, which is apparently accurate: Peel has said "If I'd had my choice, it would have been a Tom Baker story, but I was kind of stuck with the then-current Doctor."  Oh, the poor dear.  Anyway, don't expect to see that skill again.)

So, what else must it do?  Well, it's no secret that the Doctor of the NAs is altogether darker than he was on television, and that process might as well begin here.  The Doctor is a pretty unpleasant fellow in Genesys, in particular his casual disregard for the safety of Ace.  His thoughtlessness allows her memories to be temporarily erased, as an excuse to fill in the ephemera of Doctor Who (see: new readers, above).  Later he orders her to spend time with Gilgamesh, a brutish king with a famous lust and no impulse control.  Towards the end, ostensibly for her own good, he hits her in the stomach with his umbrella, punches her in the jaw to make her easier to carry, and slaps her awake in the TARDIS.  If this is intended to make us question how well we know the Doctor, it's too much, too soon – the Doctor, even the chess-playing manipulator of The Curse Of Fenric and Ghost Light, had more compassion than this.  If it's simply Peel's impression of the Seventh Doctor, well, it is a grotesque miscalculation.  Elsewhere he is only vaguely concerned with the safety of people, at one point wishing a devastated prostitute could be locked up in a different cell so he could think more clearly.  Where's that safe pair of hands now?  An old guard like Peel must know the Doctor isn't really like this.

Looking at Genesys more as a book than a New Adventures mission statement, it must tell its own story, despite being Book One of Four.  It concerns Mesopotamia, the "cradle of civilisation", and according to the generous foreword by Sophie Aldred, Peel relates the peoples and events in great colour.  She's being very generous.  The setting isn't poorly realised, but it falls short of any particular realism; Peel at least gives certain aspects, such as its carnage and sexual practices, his full and morbid attention.  It's all rather unpleasant.

Meanwhile, his ear for dialogue and knack for characterisation are somewhat lacking.  Certain ideas, like the Doctor and Ace's anachronistic speech being lost on the locals, don't quite work because much of their dialogue is equally, lazily modern.  Clichés abound: "I've got a bad feeling about this" and "It's quiet... too quiet" appear on the same page.  As for the villain, a computer-enhanced psychopath posing as the goddess Ishtar, Peel revels in the kind of archetypal scenery-chewing that made the Racnoss such a (hrmph) delight.  I got very, very bored of her confidence and apparent invulnerability, especially in the finale as characters variously got locked up, forced to listen to her rant, managed to free themselves, then got locked up and forced to listen again.  And goodie gum-drops, she's the Timewyrm, so there's three more books of her to come.  (Best of luck, Terrance Dicks, Nigel Robinson and Paul Cornell – you can hardly do worse.)

The writing is bog standard, the plot is a historical/sci-fi runaround, but that isn't what really irritated me about Genesys.  Was this proof-read at all?  One might reasonably expect a couple of typos in any publication – it’s just an occupational hazard, and it's not necessarily a reflection on the writer.  In Genesys, however (and while we're at it, yes, that is a silly title) the typos come thick and fast throughout the novel.  Here are a few examples...

"Who would built a ziggurat with a door like that? " p8
"She had never looked more brautiful. " p12
"She didn't think she as a prisoner." p19
"If Gilgamesh were to appear now and so much as look you at you..." p23
"You can't accuse the king of rapine." p24
"I trust you didn't tell you wife what we have planned?" p24
"Ace felt she could breath again." p84

And those are just the typos.  We also have sentences which are poorly constructed...

"These annoying little hints of wrongness were beginning to annoy him." p85 a few that are simply, no-two-ways-about-it, stupid.

"'Back off, bitch!' Ace yelled, doing her best Sigourney Weaver impression." p197

As the work of an excited Doctor Who fan, offered in a fanzine or online, all of this might be acceptable enough.  Who cares?  But for a published novel people actually pay to read, not to mention the somewhat "important" first book in a new range, the lack of attention to detail is staggering.  Genesys isn't just a clumsy, pedestrian piece of work – it is also avoidably flawed.  (In fairness, this was their first book, so it's easy to imagine the editors not knowing what the hell they were doing.  Look at the first series of New Doctor Who: they were behind schedule before they even started.  But this sort of thing doesn't make the book any better, does it?)

There is more to loathe about this generally tacky and schlocky novel, such as the repetitive "humour" derived from Ace batting off the grotesque interests of Gilgamesh, but I should probably mention its strengths.  They're simple enough: when it comes to action, Genesys has a pulpy, workmanlike charm.  One can easily imagine Peel writing an entertaining (albeit brainless) B-movie, or something with swords and sandals that you'd watch on a Sunday afternoon.  There is, incredibly, a fun piece of dialogue here and there.  (Weary from typo-spotting, I didn't jot any of them down.)  And for all its faults, it has made me curious to hear the rest of the story, since it will be taken up by someone else.

But this is window-dressing.  Genesys sucks.  With any luck, I won't see its like again.