By Neil Penswick
Ah, The Pit. Neil Penswick's novel is not what you'd call "popular". (In Doctor Who-ey, New Adventurey terms, that is. Obviously you're not likely to find it in Waterstones.) It crops up in a lot of fans' Worst Ever lists, often claiming the top (or rather, bottom) spot. I doubt it's anybody's favourite book, with the possible exception of Neil Penswick. I felt nothing other than apprehension about reading it.
And before we crack on, I'll say that there were times, during my Homeric stroll through its 276 pages, when The Pit seemed unfairly maligned. There are some decent ideas in it. The prose can be harmlessly readable. It is a largely inoffensive work.
But, alas. Much as I'd like to go against the tide and write The Proverbial Good Review For The Pit, I can't. Under any form of critical scrutiny, The Pit most definitely sucks.
First, let's discuss those ideas. A planetary system is about to go missing, and no one knows why. Bernice asks the Doctor if they can go to one of the planets and find out. Meanwhile, a team of android assassins land on the same (doomed) planet, tasked with retrieving a deadly missile. This is held by a couple of sinister shape-changers, and their band of (psychic) natives. A man and his wife are studying the planet, unbeknownst to all. Meanwhile on the planet Nicaea, capital of the doomed system, chaos is erupting – first a series of gruesome murders, then all-out civil war. A policeman investigates. Oh, and the Doctor has disappeared, trapped in another universe (and later Earth in different time-zones), in the company of William Blake. Yes, that William Blake. And all of the above has something to do with an ancient enemy of the Time Lords.
When you stack it up, The Pit seems to have enough plot for several books. That's not a compliment: the story is spread too thin, endlessly hopping between situations that have no apparent link. It's very difficult to engage when you can't figure out which strand is the "main" one, especially as barely anything happens in any of them. The androids search for the shape-changers. Bernice travels with an android, hoping he won't kill her. The Doctor and Blake quest about from place to place. The scientist man is killed by some sort of spreading evil; his wife panics. A depressed policeman investigates the murders. Civil war is civil-warlike. It plods on and on and on with no end in sight. You could cut half of it.
In the midst of such a sprawling plot, your only hope is to cling to the characters. Good luck with that: Penswick's cast are a dull bunch, repetitious and endlessly introspective. (And it's worth saying: unimaginative. There are assassins, so they're called Killers. There are monsters, so they're Monsters. Hunters = Hunters, Shape-Changers = Shape-Changers. And the law-enforcers on Nicaea? The Justice Police.)
Still, it's pretty obvious that The Pit is going for a theme of spiritual debate and its characters are the instruments, what with William Blake and his Bible references, and the book's other denizens pondering their place in the universe and reminiscing about their past, and then pondering some more and reminiscing again, no matter who they are or who they're with or whether it's relevant. Even if you can ignore the sheer repetition – and oh boy, is it annoying – none of it is interesting. Everyone in this is a half-baked philosopher.
And little of it rings true. If you're going to write androids, why make them as openly spiritual as everybody else? (You could give them a neat, androids-only spin on religion, like in Red Dwarf, but no, they worship the same "Prime Mover" and fear the same "Form Manipulator" as everyone else on Nicaea. It also couldn't hurt to show them successfully assassinating anybody. They are terrible at their job.) If you're going to write a cop investigating a murder spree, and the best you can come up with is that he's so obsessed with the horrifying aspects of the case that his wife leaves him, is it even worth sharing his thoughts? We hear reams and reams of what these guys are thinking, and so much of it is either mind-bogglingly banal or just weirdly obvious.
“She looked down at the body and felt sadness.”“Blake felt sad for the Doctor.”
“The major left the room, punching the wall. He was angry.”
“Blake was not averse to entering such places, but could think of a number of things he'd prefer to do at this time.”
You could easily fill a whole review just with quotes – it’s the sort of book that will hang itself with enough rope. To save time, here's the single most pointlessly inane bit I could find. Steel yourself:
“The travellers had been driving for six hours, and as the meter in the cab had been showing a steady sixty miles an hour, they must have covered over three hundred and fifty miles.”
So many characters state the obvious and ask the same questions and just go round in monotonous circles. But in fairness, much of that concerns the side characters. The linchpin of a Doctor Who New Adventure is its main characters... who are sadly in much the same state. Near the beginning, Bernice starts a conversation about how movies only have one ending:
"'You know, Doctor, I used to hate watching twentieth century films and seeing the words "The End". ... What happens to the people after the film's finished? Those films were so...'
'Yeah. Things can't be changed. I remember that I'd watch The Great Escape to see if other people would escape. I always got upset when Donald Pleasance was shot at the end. Why couldn't they do a version where he survives?'
'Because there's no justice. In real life good people die as well. But never give up hope.'"
Huh? This is presumably here to foreshadow the ending – spoiler alert, those planets are toast – but it does it oh-so-clumsily. Why is Bernice confused? Why does she seem to think it's only films that work like that – you know, with narrative structure? Hasn't she ever read a book? The whole thing seems to come out of nowhere. And it's followed by this gem:
"'Doctor, are you never afraid of the monsters?'
'What monsters?' he replied, pulling out a felt hat from his jacket pocket.
'The monsters you meet on your travels: Cybermen, Daleks, you know.'
'They aren't monsters. They're alien races with their own agendas, plots and dreams.' His voice slowed. 'But there are monsters out there, very real monsters. Monsters which shadow us; that are part of our imagination.'"
Now, I'm aware that Paul Cornell's fellow New Adventures writers were unused to Bernice Summerfield, but come on. In three books, she has never been the sort of person to offer up childish misunderstandings or infantile My First Doctor Who Companion questions. Thinking charitably, perhaps childishness is a theme: later, when she's separated from the Doctor and stuck with an android, she reminisces (over and over) about her childhood. But there's no apparent reason for that in the text. It just seems like Penswick hasn't got a clue what she sounds like (apart from cursory, overwritten references to sarcasm) and shruggingly opted for "doe-eyed". Her subplot with Spike-the-malfunctioning-android consists entirely of travel and (you guessed it) lame philosophical pondering. You could easily cut her from the book, if it wasn't for her original suggestion setting the plot in motion.
And what of the Doctor? All that "monsters of the imagination" stuff seems to come a little too easily to him, but that's him all over in The Pit: the famously mysterious Seventh Doctor simply cannot shut up about his mysteries and secrets. He spends much of the book with no clear idea what's going on, and passes the time mystifying William Blake with tales of Gallifrey, different dimensions and sonic screwdrivers. He's strangely redundant in the end, not least because he cannot act against history – a concept the book never comes close to dealing with – but also because all the major players work independently of him.
I've no idea what we're supposed to get out of William Blake, incidentally; no doubt Penswick finds him interesting, but he fails to translate that to the character who asks a lot of dull questions and is permanently confused and never does anything of use whatsoever. You could cut him and just have the Doctor and Bernice together, considering she's in a fair portion of the book anyway. But alas, we're right back to the Kadiatu dilemma: multiple authors submitted a possible companion, and Neil Penswick seemingly chose William Blake, which means A) Bernice gets short shrift again because she was added at a late stage, and B) the Doctor is stuck with William bloody Blake. I mean, ye gods, how the hell was that ever going to work?
Now, getting back to the man in the question mark pullover, there was at least one moment of Doctorliness that worked. It's probably my favourite part of the novel. I feel honour-bound to reproduce it. Don't blink:
"The stranger pulled out a clothes brush and dusted his clothes. 'Nothing a needle and thread couldn't fix.' He pulled out a needle and piece of cotton from another pocket and started to sew his jacket."
Fun, huh? For balance, despite showing that momentary grasp of the oddity that is the Doctor (who is otherwise bumbling around, useless and bewildered), Penswick later delivers arguably the most jarring summation I've encountered in this entire range. Behold, Bernice describes her friend:
"The funny man who had found her on a distant planet and had treated her as a human being. He hadn't tried to get her drunk or rape her."
Well thank goodness for that, eh?
To the vague extent that Penswick musters an authorial voice – and I am sorely nostalgic for the likes of Roberts, Aaronovitch, Cornell, even Gatiss – it’s dictated by vague and obscure thoughtfulness, unambitiously short sentences (which have a knack of draining your excitement), clumsy she-felt-sad dictation and weird, technical detachment. He likes to describe people in metres. Who's narrating this? The Terminator?
Oy. There is clearly a lot to dislike, and maybe even hate about The Pit. But I said it showed signs of being unfairly maligned, so...? Well, it might be sprawling and pointless, but it's easy to follow from page-to-page. I was able to dip in and out of its simple images and ideas harmlessly enough, although the eye-rolls mounted up towards the end. There's a feeling that Penswick has got a theme that really interests him – it’s just any meaningful conclusion that eludes him. The civil war stuff on Nicaea is sort of interesting, though it's far from the best example of urban futurism the range has produced (see Warhead, Transit); it's viewed through such dull characters and bland, peripheral observations that I didn't feel any of it. (And come to think of it, you could cut almost all of that as the planet will go up in smoke by page 276 anyway, murders and civil war be damned.) There are some fleeting moments of creativity: the psi-operatives, particularly the way they have to distract themselves all the time, are interesting. Overall, if it weren't for numerous examples of unequivocally bad writing, this would be a bland, overstuffed, yet passable effort.
It's not the first time I've had to seriously rummage around for something nice to say. Ultimately, I can't find anything that counter-balances the sprawling plot, uninsightful insights, random stupidities, considerable bloat and overall obscurity of what The Pit is trying to achieve. I'm not certain it's the worst New Adventure I've read, and that's about as close as it's getting to a positive appraisal.
Oh, and there's no pit in it.