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.



  1. Ew! We can't even. Thanks for reading this one so we don't have to. Although "she had never looked more brautiful" has instantly entered our collective vocabulary.

    1. It has all been worth it! He said in his best Sigourney Weaver impression.

  2. I have been regularly checking on your blog, hoping to hear more of your eloquent insight in Doctor Who. It pleases me very much to see you tackling the beloved New Adventures. I actually enjoyed Timewyrm: Genesys, accepting as a light piece of pulp fiction. I was soon glad however to see all the innovative writing which graced not a few of the subsequent New Adventures.

    1. First off, thanks! Lots more coming up soon. I've got the marathon worked out at 100 books, of which I've read and reviewed 34 so far, already branching into the Missing Adventures. I'll try not to spam the interweb in too short a time, but they'll all be on here soon. (I've been posting them on Gallifrey Base, and will continue to do so.)

      Genesys just struck a sour note with me. As you can tell, I strongly dislike continuity for continuity's sake. And Peel seems to have this weird antipathy towards the Seventh Doctor. There's a certain nastiness to this one (and, IMO, to his next entry in the Virgin canon – coming soon) that misses the "maturity" it's probably aiming for.

      To use a New Who example: I don't think the first two series of Torchwood are mature, although they involve a lot of swearing, violence and sex. Those things don't make you an adult. Then along came Children Of Earth, with people making terrible decisions like, well, grown-ups.

      I do agree that it's light pulp fiction, mind. There were times when I followed it harmlessly enough, and of the first half-dozen New Adventures, it's not the one I enjoyed the least...