Monday, 10 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #17 – Birthright by Nigel Robinson

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By Nigel Robinson


Nigel Robinson's second New Adventure is marginally longer than his first, but Birthright still feels like a small story.  I mean, it shouldn't.  It concerns an exodus of carnivorous aliens from a barren world to a vulnerable old Earth; a band of humans fighting against them in the future; a spate of murders in the past; a centuries-old villain hell-bent on acquiring the TARDIS; the craft itself torn into a couple of dead police boxes millennia apart; and two companions out of time, without a Doctor to protect them or offer advice.  It should be epic, and I don't know if it's the conspicuous Doctor-shaped hole or the way he casually and unaffectedly shows up at the end or just the sheer lack of pages, but it's somehow bizarrely... slight, in spite of everything.

At least there's an abundance of neat ideas.  The TARDIS is dead.  Dead!  Bernice and Ace find themselves each waking up worlds apart in a husk of a police box, light falling in through the rotting windows, nothing to signify anything other than wood, and possibly a telephone.  That's a mind-bogglingly evocative image, mana to a crusty old Doctor Who fan, and it's equally thrilling to leave the Doctor's companions so suddenly and inexplicably adrift.  What a hook.  There is nonetheless a degree of just-don't-worry-about-it on reading, in an editor’s note, that this novel is contemporaneous with David Banks's Iceberg.  What, so it'll all sort itself out and some of the answers will show up in the next book, so we might as well just enjoy the atmosphere?  Feh.  Still, there's plenty of that in London circa 1909, especially with a series of Jack-The-Ripper-esque murders tearing through the city.

Of course the shadow of the Ripper – and the recurring voices of Cockney urchins and ladies-of-the-night – makes this virtually indistinguishable from pop Victoriana.  Victoria had only been gone eight years, sure, but there must have been some differences in 1909 besides the odd motorcar?  As it is, this 1909 could effortlessly feature Jago and Litefoot.  Starring Bernice "Lisa Bowerman" Summerfield as prominently as it does, it was all I could do not to imagine their sudden arrival by hansom cab...

Ah, Bernice.  Adrift from the Doctor but not forgotten, she soon comes across one of his homes-from-home, a veritable 221B Baker Street kept by the remaining Waterfield relative.  (It's a bit like his House On Allen Road.)  Benny's soon investigating the murders with the help of a Russian, Popov, and an urchin named Charlie.  She shortly encounters nemeses in the slithery young aristocrat, Bellingham, and the mysterious Khan.  (Unrelated to the Khan in the previous book!)  There's plenty of rushing about, an exciting bit where she's framed for murder and locked up in prison, and numerous encounters with assailants and what appear to be alien insects.  After 100 nearly breathless pages, the book seems just about wrapped up.  And then we skip over to Ace's narrative.

So far, it's plenty exciting and evocative, especially the TARDIS and the murders.  Bernice is written well.  Independent and quirky, attempting a Cockney accent with varying success and using her otherwise vaguely militaristic skills to bluster through her investigation, she's a totally compelling lead character.  She strikes up a fun rapport with Popov and Charlie, although neither of them is exactly a rounded character – especially Charlie, who would blend effortlessly with any Victorian cast ever.  There's not a great deal of character-building here, or rather there isn't much time for it.  Bernice is understandably upset by her situation, and has moments of reflection and even outrage at the Doctor's apparent abandonment.  She begins to ponder how well she knows him, recalling once again the loss of the Seven Planets (and his part in it), contemplating his callous attitude to death (and his lack of attendance at funerals), and briefly suspecting him of a murder as it seemingly kept her from danger.  ("Oh no, he wouldn't have, would he?  Not even him.  Not Margaret...  But... but I don't know him like Ace does: he's an alien, after all...  What would Ace believe?")  This novel is a precursor to the new series Doctor-lite episodes; the Doctor’s influence is felt as he manipulates events from wherever he’s got to.  All of which no doubt says something about him, but again, there’s not a lot of time to say exactly what.

Nigel Robinson captures Benny’s voice, and of course that acidic sarcasm of hers well.  For the most part though, her tale is one of hurried, murder-investigating incident.  That whole winding-up-in-prison fiasco comes and goes maddeningly quick, and all the while we're side-stepping into Interludes that progress something else (shh) while Ace's section looms.  Have I mentioned the book is really short?  While there is introspection, and plenty of colour, it all feels secondary to the watch-tapping frog-march of the plot.  Said plot later collides with characterisation within the TARDIS's telepathic circuits, and the resulting mix of psycho-analytical imagery and climactic Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! is like an ice cream headache.

But that's for later.  On to Ace. The Charrl are dying; they regret trying to colonise the grim dustball that is Antýkhon.  The indigenous humans feel the same since they are the Charrl's only source of food, and Ace becomes their leader by default – have gun, will lead.  She organises an attack on the creatures' hive, but eventually agrees to help the Charrl evacuate to/get help from Earth, even when it transpires that Antýkhon is – spoiler! – Earth of the distant future.  I kind of guessed that.  I also guessed just how well the Charrl would stick to their side of the bargain, which is to say they rhapsodise about the value of all life, and still eat people.  Do Not Trust.  Duh!

There's less plot in this (shorter) section, and Ace is less well-written than Benny.  "Toe-rag" and "bog-breath" are here again; there's even a "Wicked!", and a moment where she thinks "there's nothing more satisfying than a bloody good bang!"  (Ahem.)  All that feels just a little regressive.  Robinson examines the tension between Ace and Bernice, which is fair game in a situation where all the main characters are apart, only I think it's a bit redundant right after their improving relationship in Shadowmind.  You might say Ace's regard for Benny will naturally ebb and flow, especially when they're torn apart like this, or when it looks like the Doctor is giving her preferential treatment (e.g. a TARDIS key), and you might be right.  But it felt like awkward timing to me.  Meanwhile, Ace is also mad at the Doctor – a degree of jealousy re Doctor/Benny, but also just plain mistrust.  Again, this feels like old ground to me, though I can just about understand the argument for going over it again here.

Before long it's back to 1909 for the grand villain unmasking.  An ancient man who wants the TARDIS in order to prolong his life, he makes an interesting foe, his journey spanning all those interludes (which made more sense when I went back and re-read them afterwards).  I wondered if he could have been dropped into an earlier novel or two, to really build up his importance.  Oh well; as it is, you guessed it, it’s a teensy bit rushed.

The climax arrives and he triggers a telepathy-themed finale that didn't really do it for me.  I like TARDIS-centric stories, or the idea of them.  Whereas rummaging through the Doctor's psyche, with literal representations of guilt swimming through oceans of blood (on-his-hands), is not my kind of characterisation.  Bit on the nose, innit?  I don't have much truck with abstract imagery; see Transit, Time's Crucible, even some parts of Timewyrm: Revelation.  The latter book is particularly applicable here, as Birthright is full of intriguing ideas but is in some bizarre hurry to get through them.

I've not even touched on the mystery of Muldwych, a probable Time Lord stranded on Antýkhon who knows the Doctor somehow.  Is he a Doctor from the future, or someone else entirely?  Why is he exiled?  Is he living those years on a loop?  (It's implied he'll start the whole sequence over again at the end.)  Is it just a coincidence that his story seems to echo the villain's – Me Really Old, Me Want TARDIS?  No time, the book's over.  And it doesn't look as if Nigel Robinson wrote another New Adventure after this, so... never mind?

I've seemingly done nothing but complain about this one, so I'd better redress the balance.  I enjoyed Birthright.  It's astutely and creatively written, with ideas that reward the long-time Who fan as well as any frequent New Adventures reader.  I just rarely had the opportunity to savour them.  Robinson's plot is sufficiently interesting and in certain TARDIS-y places, downright cool.  The characterisation is hit and only ever-so-slightly miss; the Charrl would be a lot more interesting if they didn't keep killing people, and few of the people Benny and (especially) Ace meet have more than a couple of notes.  The book ties its settings and interludes together with some finesse, but much of it is undermined by the constant cloister bell of The Book's Nearly Over.  Now that it is, a worrying amount of it seems to have dropped away, and there wasn’t a lot to begin with.  It's one I'll surely read again, chewing its chapters one at a time, though not all of them call for it.


1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your incisive analysis of this novel. Overall I liked this novel.

    This was a very entertaining adventure in Edwardian London with a detour to an alien bug planet. The two companions are in their respective elements, Benny charming, drinking, jesting and exploring in the foggy streets of London, Ace hunting bugs on a parched future Earth. (The 1909 scenes are the more fun, particularly since there are some Dickensian characters to liven things.) The Doctor is absent for most of the book, but his presence is felt in his machinations which have prepared the scene and the problem’s solution as well.

    The story was easy and fun to read with some interesting additional characters, for example a Russian searching for his daughter’s murderer, an exiled mystery man (Time Lord?), a crazed human mastermind and an alien hive-queen. The Tardis tricks were interesting but (fortunately) far less complicated than in the Timewyrm series.

    There were some strange missteps in the writing. For example, one of the cultists is a rich, spoiled degenerate whom the cult leader confesses was only recruited for his money: but at another point we discover that the young man is embezzling petty funds from the cult.