Saturday, 29 October 2016

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

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
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.


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
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.  (Even Paul Cornell isn't immune.)  The Chapter of Saint Anthony aren’t really satirising anything besides using religion as an excuse, though (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 acolytes 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.


Thursday, 27 October 2016

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

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
By John Peel

With the Missing Adventures now officially underway, it's sort of unsurprising that John Peel would return.  He has said of his New Adventure, the inaugural 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.


Wednesday, 26 October 2016

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

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
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.




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.




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.


Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #32 – Strange England by Simon Messingham

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Strange England
By Simon Messingham

One of the things that really struck me about The Writer's Tale was what Russell T Davies said about dream sequences.  He doesn't see the point of them; he even skips them in novels.  I try not to skip things, alas, but otherwise I feel the same.  Yes, you can be creative with a dream sequence, but you're still pausing your story to take us there, setting aside any semblance of rules just so you can indulge your inner wacky-o-meter.  Dream sequences can easily reek of pretension – they're a writer's way of regurgitating their own ideas and showing off their sheer imagination.

Strange England is like a 276-page dream sequence.  It is a weird, abstract, unpleasant, doesn't-even-try-to-make-sense intermission during a narrative that never bothers to show up.  It isn't even well-written enough to reek of pretension.

There is some promise, to begin with, not including a framing device that opens and – whoops!  – never closes.  The TARDIS materialises in a lovely glade, moments after a gamekeeper gets eaten alive by the foliage, seen and heard by no one.  This feels like the start of a horrifying fantasy, an especially grim fairytale.  No reason you can't do that in Doctor Who.  And it's followed by something even nastier: a little girl is attacked by a huge, singing insect, which climbs down her throat (euw) and lodges there.  There's something...  memorable...  there?  And then our heroes separate (bye Ace, see you in the subplot), and we're introduced to the House, where the little girl is from.  It's full of strange people who don't understand emotions.  The Doctor describes them as "very dull company", which is apt, as well as a bit of an own goal.

Okay, you say to yourself: this is thoroughly unpleasant and a bit aimlessly weird, but let's play it out.  Where's it going?  So the little girl dies.  Other members of the house staff die or vanish, mostly where they aren't seen or heard by anyone.  Charlotte, the other little girl, begins ageing at an alarming rate.  The nearby forest starts burning and/or suddenly changing season.  The remaining House-folk state over and over, outwardly and inwardly, that they don't recognise emotions or know very many words.  The Doctor just sort of ponders it all; at one point, he makes breakfast.  Possibly out of boredom, Bernice and Charlotte (now 30-ish) go to investigate a mysterious man they saw.  He turns out to be The Quack, a weirdo who speaks mostly in not-actually-profound nonsense, then turns into a giant...  thing, chasing them.  Monsters turn up and interchange, usually with a bare minimum of description, lending them an unhelpfully random and, I suppose, dreamlike quality.  So, there's that.

Fun fact: Strange England is another New Adventures first novel.  As an aspiring writer, I have nothing but admiration for their policy of embracing new talent, and I doff my cap to those authors.  But it can be very obvious when it's their first rodeo.  Most of Strange England is Simon Messingham marking time.  Nothingy characters making inane observations; monsters coming and going; vaguely weird things happening to people.  That initial sense of promise is never fulfilled, and at no point does it feel like you're delving further into a cohesive story.  It's a "then this happened, then that happened" fest.  A.k.a. tedious.

And those characters are a serious problem.  It's not enough for us to find the Doctor and his companions compelling.  (It's equally not something to take for granted.)  If you're going to populate your book with new people, we need to care about them as well.  Messingham's vacuous drones are deliberately stilted, because (spoiler) most of this is really a holodeck-esque simulation, but that doesn't stop them looking and sounding exactly like a bunch of poorly written characters.  For the most part they're just names: two of the maids literally just sit in chairs facing a wall.  Sometimes they push the boat out and indulge in a cliché, like an older man saying he's "getting too old for this sort of thing," and Charlotte randomly turning into Arnold Schwazennegger for her heroic moment: "Rest in pieces."  Yes, that seems like something this Victorian woman would say.

It's not impossible to write a creepy story about curiously repetitive and "empty" people in a scary old house.  Robert Shearman did just that with the classic Chimes Of Midnight.  But that was Robert Shearman at the peak of his powers; meanwhile, in the first-draft-ish Strange England, "His expression was a mixture of despair and anger.  She could sympathise with him.  She felt sad and angry too."

Coldly denoting a character's emotions from their behaviour (otherwise known as stating the obvious) is a bad sign.  You'll be seeing a lot of it in this one.  It can have awkwardly weird and funny results, and sometimes you can tell he's trying to be funny, which in either instance provides a much-needed (if haphazard/unintentional) respite:

"She twisted about, expressing a physical revulsion at his touch."
"His head was casting about like he was blind or something."
"Approaching her was something like a huge steam locomotive.  It was doing its approaching very quickly."
"His mouth was twisted in a rictus of agony.  He did not seem to be having a very pleasant time."
"Aickland moaned, praying he was not going to be stabbed to death ...  If he was not to be stabbed then he wondered what was going to happen."

I don't know if it was the editor's day off, but this is not good prose.  And when it's not weirdly inane, it's trying too hard to be mysterious.  The Quack is a whoops-hilarious example, coming out simultaneously with gibberish and gee-whatever-could-he-mean stuff like "I feel like someone in a dream.  Somebody else's dream.  A doctor's dream.”  Doctor?  Quack?  No, sorry, can you run through it again?  (We draw attention to the Doctor/Quack parallel on several occasions.  I'm surprised there isn't a diagram.)  Hats off to Paul Campbell, who somehow manages to make visual sense of The Quack on the front cover.  After the various gobbledegookian transformations, that makes one of us.

Unfortunately, the book has other problems besides its tedious mixture of random happenings, clumsy visuals and no-note characters.  Ace's subplot takes her to a village pub where she ends up brawling with local thugs.  One of them kills her (!), but a new acquaintance, Arthur, is displaying bizarre magic powers and revives her.  Lucky her; she is then dragged off to see the thugs' boss, Doctor Rix, who continues abusing her and her friends, Arthur, and a travelling writer, Aickland.  The latter is one of the novel's few "real" people, though you'd need a spotter's guide to tell the difference.  His only distinguishing feature is that he's almost as wet and ineffectual as he is boring.  (By the way, you may notice a lot of "A" names unwisely stacked next to each other.  Guess what: one of the thugs is called Archie., too.  First Novel, baby!)

Doctor Rix is a ranting, raving, one-note lunatic who has some kind of influence over the local town (Wychborn), despite being the sort of total psychopath they would have had to lock up years ago.  He controls his lackeys with fear, even randomly executing one of them (after which the narrative tells us he has "lost his temper", as he has started kicking things.  Oh no, they're for it now, he's kicking things!), and he quite happily breaks Ace's fingers.  Reading this stuff was even harder than the aimless, boring bits.  It's violent for the sake of it.  Who's sitting down to paragraph after paragraph of Ace getting the crap kicked out of her, and random side characters getting shot in the stomach, and saying "Yeah, I liked that bit"?  Spoiler alert: while Rix does become involved in the weird stuff going on at the house, he's still a complete wild card up until then.  There is just no excusing his behaviour later on.  He's a loopy, God-mentioning psycho with thugs that fly into a murderous rage at the drop of a pint.  How fascinating.  He eventually morphs into the main antagonist, probably because the main plot failed to provide one.  (The Quack is...  sort of that, in the meantime?  The blurb certainly seems to think so, but his motivations are anything but clear.  Before long The Quack and Rix are the same thing.  Shrug.)

When an explanation finally arrives – the Doctor having grown bored with an impressive-even-for-him run of "Just Don't Tell Anyone Anything Even Though It Would Be Really Helpful" – it's Gallifreyan in origin.  Which is sort of a fun coincidence, as Strange England reminded me of Time's Crucible.  A world where there are no recognisable rules, a lack of clear story progression, an absence of compelling characters?  It's uncanny!  Messingham even has Ace point this out: "I've trudged around an inside-out TARDIS.  Believe me, it was hard work, complicated and no fun at all.”  Which is...  ahem...  accurate, but I wouldn't go throwing stones.  Strange England is every bit as frustrating and tedious, only without that Marc Platt-ian hint of big ideas being imparted underneath it all.  I tell myself that Time's Crucible was written just to get some Time Lord folklore on the page; the "plot" wasn't there because it was really more of a theme.  That's not much of an excuse for a non-story, and at best it was still the opposite of my type of thing, but at least it added something, I guess?  Whereas Messingham has a few random notions about mixing Time Lords with TARDISes, which is all just a convoluted excuse to make random horrible stuff happen in and around a Victorian house, with added random horrible stuff on the side.  There's no real reason for any of it, besides the carnivalesque challenge of producing a book that's even less readable than Time's Crucible.

(It's worth noting that this was not Simon Messingham's original ending, which might help explain it.  He originally envisaged "the ultimate anti-climax," with the Doctor realising these events were all his fault for showing up in the first place, finding there's nothing he can do to stop it and then buggering off in defeat.  Which, well, pee-yew, obviously.  But let that sink in: for all the feeble effort made to excuse this random horrible stuff, the original version offered no excuse whatsoever.  Thank you, Virgin, for stepping in and throwing that nonsense right out.  Where were they the rest of the time?  And how does Messingham's "It all started when the TARDIS showed up" idea even stack up when it literally started before that?)

At times various characters liken their experiences to walking through mud, running through foam and swimming in glue.  Setting aside their typically lame descriptive powers, I couldn't agree more.


Monday, 24 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #31 – Goth Opera by Paul Cornell

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
Goth Opera
By Paul Cornell

Here we go, then: The Missing Adventures.  Reading their parent series of New Adventures, this seemed inevitable.  There's been a growing number of references to things past, so why not spin the past off altogether?  After all, having Sylvester McCoy bumping into things that started with Jon Pertwee et al, or worse still Jon himself, isn't really in the spirit of a New series, fun as it can be.  It could be good for everybody, keeping things separate.

Peter Darvill-Evans says in his preface that these books will have the "flavour" of their era, and won't have "modern styles" such as "ultra-fast cutting".  Why you'd immediately ring up Paul Cornell for the first book, I don't know.  I'm not damning him, of course, as he's generally brilliant: a pioneer in moving Doctor Who into literature and making it feel, well, New.  Goth Opera dutifully captures the original characters, and by extension a bygone era of the show, but then it's also somewhat modern, and not something you could expect to see on screen in 1983.  Quality of the book aside, I wonder if any readers were disappointed by what is rather an about-face in terms of promise and product.

There are vampires, of course (which are as Doctor Who as any other monster, see State Of Decay), but contrary to the Stoker stereotype, many of them are young people.  We open with (relatively...  nice?) vampiric lovers, Jake and Madeleine, dancing through the skies and joking about eating a leukaemia sufferer.  Later there is a vampire baby, which is as David Lynch (rather than traditionally Doctor Who) creepy as it sounds.  Further on there is some pointed criticism of religious evangelism, enmeshed with a few references to familial sexual abuse, and yes: some fast cutting.  But at the end of the day, the first New Adventure was written by a guy who would rather have written for Tom Baker, and the New book Goth Opera directly follows is steeped in self-referential Classic Who nostalgia rather than anything "New".  It makes as much sense for the first Missing Adventure to be a wee bit progressive in return.

Don't panic, fellow anoraks: Cornell is as comfortable getting his fan-boy on as the Gary Russells and Terrances Dickses of the world.  Just look at No Future.  It's much less weird for Goth Opera to be steeped in continuity references than the former, since it's specifically set between two past adventures.  Cornell goes out of his way to show us the dust settling from Snakedance, and eyebrow-raisingly pre-empts the Black Guardian in Mawdryn Undead.  He even nudges us towards the TARDIS console re-design in The Five Doctors!  All of which is harmless and fitting enough, but I still hope that in future, the little note on the back cover telling us the two stories that bookend it will suffice.  (Still, there is something to be said for allowing just-finished adventures to come down a bit, as televised Doctor Who rarely had time for an epilogue.  But while Goth Opera does tantalisingly tease the idea of Tegan using her Mara experiences to better cope with vampirism, as the "snake in her head" prevents one from easily hypnotising her, it ultimately doesn't come to much as this is really more Nyssa's story.)

As it's a sequel to Blood Harvest, we're inevitably stuck with some of the same continuity.  The escaped vampire, Yarvin, has upgraded slightly from random vampire to progenitor of all vampires on Earth, with the lofty Dracula charm to match.  (He is still a bit of a random vampire, though.  You could totally swap him out with Dracula.).  The evil schemes are, at worst, new spins on Blood Harvest, but you won't need to have read it to understand them.  Nonetheless we're back on Gallifrey (and once again dabbling in The Thingummies Of Rassilon) for some of it, with Chapter Six bringing Romana back to continue her all-too-brief conversation with Ruathadvorophrenaltid, or "Ruath", one of the book's antagonists.  She's put to better use here.  (One could call such a mid-novel flashback a "modern technique", but one wouldn't want to make the Missing mission statement look any more fudged than it already is...)  Incidentally, this ends up as a delightful, if moderately fanwanky vignette, capturing Romana rather fabulously.  "When [Ruath's] hand reappeared, it had a staser pistol in it.  'Show me.'  'Oh, not you as well...'  Romana sipped her tea, frowning at the pistol.  'There's not much villainy left to be done over there, you know.  Everybody's had a go.'"  Before long she's distracting Drashigs in a miniscope and bumping into Sabalom Glitz.  Geeky it may be, but come to think of it...  has anybody got a time machine, so we can go back and request a full Romana novel or two?

Speaking of captured characters, it would be remiss not to look at this book's Classic crew.  The Fifth Doctor makes a canny adversary for vampires, as he embodies just the sort of scholarly puritanism you'd find Victorian authors hurling against the forces of darkness.  He's prim, polite, probably the exact opposite of vampiric debauchery.  Perhaps inevitably, he at one point appears to give in and offer himself up to the undead – but this, too, is a Fifth Doctor trait, or at least a Frontios one: the sudden, sinister lack of dependability that is secretly all part of his plan.  That's not to suggest Cornell has a rose-tinted view of this Doctor, which is good news for me since he's my least favourite.  (Sorry!)  During a dramatic moment his voice is "just a little too high to carry conviction," and through the ever-grouchy eyes of Tegan he seems like "a really dull Romper Room reject who'd rather play bloody cricket than do anything entertaining.”  And sure enough, there is cricket.  The Fifth Doctor here is a happy medium: he has his fustery, imperialist moments, when he seems a little too English and not quite enough alien, but then he's also a dashing heroic figure, a staunch moral voice against evil.  And come to think of it, that still sounds more like a wet-behind-the-ears public schoolboy let loose on the universe than a Time Lord, but then, c'est la Fifth Doctor.  At least he has that slightly blank-faced oddity during a few of Tegan's angrier outbursts, which paint him as slightly awkward and eh, a bit alien.

It's hard to tell how much Cornell is trying to capture the bolshy Australian and how much he simply may not like her.  Moments like "So, being Tegan she tried to butt in" blur the line somewhat.  She at least has a reason (the Mara) for being in a fouler-than-usual mood.  (The Doctor's reliance on her making the tea provides a rather unsung other reason.)  Goth Opera gives more attention to Nyssa, who (not a spoiler, see the cover) ends up a vampire herself.  Her "school prefect" sensibilities hold reassuringly firm, however, as the process is not complete, and as well as being believably petrified and self-loathing, she finds herself honestly wondering how this condition could be used to assist the Doctor, and possibly find (and elicit some kind of response from) the Master, about whom she is understandably still upset and just a little longing.  The great Nyssa-and-the-Master story has yet to be written, of course, but it's good of Cornell to devote some space to the issues that go all too unsaid on screen.  He's boxed in by continuity, unfortunately, which is one of the strict limits of the Missing Adventures series: you can't change who the characters are because we've seen the next episode.  But it's a good effort, and this companion, who often seems staid and dull next to a decidedly non-eccentric Doctor, really has her moments here.  Perhaps it's more obvious with the wealth of Big Finish material featuring Sarah Sutton, but there is a certain well of feeling to Nyssa underneath the frigid friendliness.

Regarding the plot, which is both a continuation of Blood Harvest and a separate entity, it holds together well.  Ruath believes vampirism is the destiny of the Time Lords (cuckoo!), and she's got a cockamamie plan to make the Earth permanently habitable (and populated) by vampires.  This isn't exactly a long-term plan – I was reminded of the 1998 movie Blade, which has its vamps trying to turn everybody into a vampire, which begs the unanswered question "Then what?" – but naturally, they'll march on Gallifrey next.  There's other insidious vampiric stuff left and right, sometimes cutting a little too fast to follow comfortably (sorry, Peter!), and the book glosses over much of the death and destruction that occurs, significantly to religious folk at an arena.  The Doctor, in particular, shrugs all this off; this has been attributed to Cornell's religious views at the time (he was just possibly not a fan) but it actually fits the rather Paul Cornell-ish quirk of rushing things at the end, as if he's just super excited to finish.  Incidentally, Paul: please work on that quirk.

Cornell at least fills it with memorable imagery, like a vampire child in the sewers, that horrific baby, and Jake and Madeleine casually flying to the moon.  It's those two that really separate Goth Opera's vampirism from the Hammer schlock exercise of Blood Harvest.  (As well as Blood Harvest secretly not being a "vampire novel" at all; despite the State Of Decay love-in, they were incidental to Agonal's plan.)  These are not Bela Lugosi fans, but people with a relationship and a history.  There's a moment where the Doctor suggests vampires aren't inherently evil, and sure enough, Jake and Madeleine end the novel on a note of hope.  Cornell, the old softie, once again cannot help himself.  But then we also have the Sinister American Evangelist With A Perverted Past, another victim of Cornell's religious stink-eye.  He has nary a nuance, and just is what he is – an obvious satire and a tool for the plot.  His followers are even less interesting, sadly.  Author's personal feelings aside, religious satire is a depressingly easy go-to for bad guys.

As (arguably) befits a Missing range, there's something in-between, and maybe less than spectacular about Goth Opera.  It definitely feels like Cornell is having a good time writing it, letting his hair down and indulging continuity, and it rollicks along entertainingly.  It also tosses out some interesting and contradictory ideas about Gallifrey's past, and features the novel range's first full-blown regeneration.  (Which is all a bit New, no?  Seriously, I don't mind at all, but why did they choose Paul Cornell for this?  Okay, shutting up.)  It may take some getting used to, popping in and out of characters' lives between the long shadows of adventures we already know.  Paul Cornell has turned in a gently Paul Cornell-ish take on that, advancing the characters where he can and pushing the boundaries a bit.  It's undeniably good, but I can't say I was blown away.  It's hard to know if the range can really shoot much higher that that, but it's early days.  We'll see.