Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #11 – The Highest Science by Gareth Roberts

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
The Highest Science
By Gareth Roberts

There was no other Doctor Who alternative at the time, but it's still somehow surprising that Gareth Roberts made his authorial début with the New Adventures.  He's a pretty obvious fan of Season 17-era Who, or The Funny Douglas Adamsy Stuff, and would later emulate it in three jolly and well-received Tom Baker books.  His television scripts are (unsurprisingly) among the funniest: neatly and unthreateningly tailored to the voices of their respective showrunners, they're good, and they rarely frighten the horses.  I don't mean to damn him with faint praise – I respect and enjoy much of his writing.  (Even Closing Time.)  But he's not someone you'd expect to help put the "new" in The New Adventures.

Sure enough, that's not what The Highest Science is all about.  This isn't Season 17, but it's still a romp – the rompiest (ahem) New Adventure so far, especially coming right after Transit.  Your mileage may vary.  As for me, well...

For the first time since Time's Crucible (and for very different reasons), I re-read the early chapters before going further.  They don't feature the Doctor or Bernice – a point of contention I'll bet, having to wait 32 pages for anything TARDIS-shaped.  They focus on various groups of people and warlike, tortoise-ish Chelonians as they become inveigled in the plot, taking in a few other perspectives along the way.  These include a memorably misanthropic commuter: "The train had left Chorleywood station over ten minutes ago. So where is it now, screamed the vengeful demon that lurked behind Mr Peploe's respectable exterior."

There's a certain detached humour to the narrative voice, shown off nicely in this sinfully grim anecdote about a human-Chelonian conflict (that ended in the latter suddenly vanishing): "Several generations later, the Priest King, Jobez's great-great grandson, stood at the head of a mighty army assembled to confront another alien force that had arrived in the Wadii deserts. The people were confident of another miracle and waited for the return of the blue lights spoken of in their histories. Nothing happened, and the Chelonian assault force extinguished all parasites on the planet and settled down to some determined grazing."

It's inevitably tempting to draw comparisons with Douglas Adams, Roberts himself having done that many times since.  (Shaaaadaaaa!)  Maybe that's lazy, but then the phrase "These events should have been totally unconnected" puts me in mind of Dirk Gently's theory of random interconnectedness, or even the Infinite Improbability Drive.  There's a whiff of the lost planet Magrathea about Sakkrat, the ancient planet of untold power.  Perhaps this is all coincidental (and how apt), but the Adams-ian randomness and lightly acerbic narration just made it all the more fun to read.  That's why I re-read the intro – I was having a good time and just wanted to appreciate it.  I still read it all in a day.

The grouchy characters and, even better, the obvious difference between the Chelonians and anyone-that-isn't-a-Chelonian provided a fun contrast that kept me engaged.  Roberts celebrates his maniacal tortoises at every turn, mixing Sontaran superiority with sheer Vogon stubbornness.  And there's a little light and shade to them in spite of their warmongering: they're proud of their babies, known for their prowess at flower-arranging.  I found them delightful.  I know they crop up a few more times among the Virgin novels.  I've heard Big Finish's The Well Mannered War, and loved that.  I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for more.

As for the human characters, they're a little less endearing.  We have the 100% nefarious bad guy, Sheldakhur, and his unwilling cohorts, including a brilliant but suicidal (Marvin-esque?) monster, all tasked with finding Sakkrat; a trio of dim-wits who were innocently heading for a rock concert when the "Fortean flicker" (read: time-storm) deposited them here; and a gaggle of commuters in the same situation, who almost entirely avoid the narrative.  The Chelonians try to annihilate all of the above.  For much of the book, not a lot else happens.  You can thank Roberts's bouncy writing style for carrying it off so well, since the plot, which unfolds deliciously in the last 30-odd pages, stays resolutely in "Not Telling" mode until the home stretch.  (Perhaps, like the city of Sakkrat, it is trapped in a slow-time envelope.)

So, having ticked off plot and writing style (that's "so-so" and “yay!"”, respectively), all that's left are the main characters.  We would later find out how good he was at writing the Fourth Doctor, but Roberts also has a great handle on the Seventh.  This story is not one of his grand manipulations, but wrong-footing his enemies still comes naturally; he's essentially winging it, figuring things out not too far in advance of Bernice (or us) and constantly fibbing to stay ahead, which lends him a pleasantly vulnerable aspect.  He's taken by surprise once or twice.  Roberts accentuates the smallness and oddity of him, which can get lost in the Time's Champion-y bluster that was the focus of Season 26, and several New Adventures since.  His spoons re-appear, and there's a lovely moment where he locates a television, gets it to play something melodramatic and naff, laughs at it, then keeps watching anyway.  There's a relaxed quality to him when he's with Bernice; he's lost the burden of laying tracks in front of his companion.  He can potter about and just be quaintly fascinated.  It suits him.

It's a pity that, like Ben Aaronovitch, Roberts feels the need to get Bernice out of the way for much of the novel.  He needn't have bothered.  He writes her very well, easily recapturing that sarcastic but-not-obnoxious wit imbued by Paul Cornell.  The already-delightful prose brightens up further when she's around. "But then, she reflected, that's always the way with boring people.  Having never experienced any other reaction, they assume that being yawned at, insulted and walked away from is the norm for human social interaction."  Her archaeological knowledge, not to mention her unexplosive temperament, seem to refresh the Doctor.  "'War, disease or climactic change could account for such a throwback. Although the additional buildings would suggest population growth rather than loss, which argues against those possibilities.' The Doctor stared at her silently for a few seconds. 'Bernice, you're a pleasure to know,' he said finally."  The Highest Science is little more than a taster of the-Doctor-and-Bernice, but I know their days without Ace are numbered, so I did my best to enjoy it.  I got considerably more out of her here than in Transit.

As for why Bernice is out of action, the random (okay, "Fortean") appearance of an addictive and memory-erasing soft-drink-dispenser seems like a desperate contrivance even if you are referencing Infinite Improbability, which Roberts might not be.  She adds to the Doctor's character just by being with him, which is just what I wanted, but there's virtually nothing she can do for the three rock fans she's stuck with, who are bound to fall out with one another and then do.  Who’d miss them?  (You might expect Roberts to insert his own companion here, as Aaronovitch did, but if he did then I didn't notice.  I'd almost rather he had, as it might explain why she has comparatively little to do.)

There is no great substance to The Highest Science.  While there is a solid and satisfying answer to the plot's questions, the interim is mostly just a lot of witty waiting – not least for Bernice to get her act together.  Roberts nonetheless fills his story with colour, and has a reasonably exciting Indiana Jones-ish climax to cap it off.  It's so downright charmingly fun that there's an argument to be made that it doesn't really belong in the New Adventures.  Roberts himself has admitted that at the time of writing "nobody – least of all me – knew quite what the books were supposed to be", and that his style "stuck out like a sore thumb."  Younger readers might even like it.  But not every New Adventure has to be Love And War or Transit.  It's okay, once in a while, to sit comfortably within the envelope and tell a fun story.  And I'll bet it isn't half as easy as it looks.


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