Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #18 – Iceberg by David Banks

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By David Banks

If there is a purpose to the New Adventures, besides simply putting more Doctor Who out there, it may be to add weight to certain elements of the show.  The Doctor and Ace are both deeper and richer prospects on the page, or can be in the right hands, and there are aliens and "monsters" that could benefit from the same treatment.  If you're going to write a New Adventures novel about Cybermen, for example, it wouldn't do to trot out the things we've seen before.  You have an opportunity to explore and expand them, possibly improve on them.

Iceberg sort of does and doesn't do that.  David Banks, of playing-the-Cyber-Leader-throughout-the-'80s fame, invokes the history and the threat of the Cybermen with real flair, taking them back to their creepy roots and away from the bland "Ex-cellent" stormtroopers of the '80s.  He knows his onions, and the Cybermen are a palpable menace (for the first time in years) as a result.  But they are still essentially up to their old tricks again, so the novel as a whole isn't very impressive.

It gets off to a strong start, taking us through the events of The Invasion and The Tenth Planet (in chronological order!) from a more human perspective.  A young woman, Jacqui, is innocently preparing for her exams when the Cybermen march through London in The Invasion; her husband, Philip, is later struck down in a motorcycle accident while the First Doctor discovers Mondas in The Tenth Planet.  If you're going to revisit and revise continuity, this is an offbeat way to do it.  These events impact people's lives, albeit indirectly: Jacqui and Philip have a daughter, Ruby, whose life will be touched once more by Cybermen, and General Cutler – the military curmudgeon who once faced off against the First Doctor – has a daughter, also a general, eager to know what happened to him.  Iceberg is a sometimes thoughtful book, positing the emotional world of people against the cold logic of Cybermen.  For good measure, during their greatest hits we are also treated to a Cyber-POV: a stilted running commentary of events collapsing after the betrayal of Tobias Vaughan.  It's a neat contrast that sums up the book.

And yeah, about those Cybermen.  Banks plunges into the body horror aspect that seemed all too muted in the televised series.  With no watershed to worry about, we witness the torn-apart bodies of prospective Cybermen, watch as they are dissected and stuck back together, listen as they impassively decide who will be converted and who will be recycled.  They're a frightening force, all the better for lacking a stereotypical sense of evil.  Iceberg is a good example of their belief that they are helping anyone they convert.  That's a chilling (ahem) and canny assessment of the Cybermen, tinged with the occasional murmurings of memory and emotion that only serve to torture them and push them further away from what they were.  (This aspect perhaps should have been played up even further, but oh well, I'm glad it's there at all.)  There are also some more conventional dollops of Cyber-continuity, such as background on the Cyber-Controller and the Cybermats, which will no doubt satisfy the list-keeping contingent of Who fans.

My main issue with Iceberg is the amount of time it takes for things to happen.  Not just the Cybermen, whose slow reveal could be a nod to creepy tension-builders like The Moonbase if they weren't sign-posted from the beginning.  (And on the cover!)  I mean the plot as a whole.  The Cybermen are interfering with the FLIPback project – an Arctic research station that aims to reverse an environmental disaster.  They also have a vested interest in the SS Elysium, a cruise liner heading for the South Pole.  The Doctor, having sent Ace and Bernice on their way to the events of Birthright, uses a back-up TARDIS to go and help out.  There's not a lot going on here (including yet another attempt to invade Earth via a Base Under Siege), and the book is relentlessly padded until well over halfway.  Simple inciting incidents like FLIPback scientists going missing and the Doctor arriving take ages to occur.  Meanwhile?  Pages happen.

Specifically: General Cutler (junior) tries to whip the FLIPback team into shape; Ruby enjoys the Elysium and writes an article about the trip; and the Doctor stumbles slowly through the TARDIS.  He doesn't achieve anything or meet anyone for almost 150 pages.  We just cut back to him every so often pottering through corridors, vaguely reflecting on how he needs to get away from it all.  It's an utterly bizarre choice right after the nearly Doctor-less Birthright – indeed, it takes place simultaneously.  I often wondered if Banks knew he wasn't writing a Doctor-lite.

The main thrust of the novel seems to be Ruby investigating odd goings-on below decks, but even she spends most of her time socialising with a couple of actors, learning an ancient form of relaxation from a friend and reading Lao Tze.  (The latter in particular.  A lot.)  In fairness, she's quite an interesting character: following her parents adds a certain groundwork, her journalistic instincts are endearing and when she comes close to joining the TARDIS crew at the end, it's not entirely unwelcome.  (Although seriously, enough with the possible-companions.  The Doctor even mistakes her for Kadiatu!)  But she's not strong enough to justify a lot of narratively flaccid sitting-around-on-a-cruise-liner – which, it eventually transpires, has sod all to do with the plot.  She's also not the brightest bulb, marching into obvious danger more than once and all-too-easily believing the Doctor has sold her out.  Thanks all the same, but I'll keep Bernice.

At least Ruby's story has an ending, frustratingly doomed TARDIS trip notwithstanding.  General Cutler's "closure" comes via a madly rushed and largely off-the-page conversation where the Doctor instantly convinces her he's telling the truth re Cybermen, regenerations, etc.  We don't hear much from her afterwards, apart from some base-wide Cyber-hypnosis.  What a joy to know all the time we spent with her and the FLIPback team butting heads and bonding was, er, well actually I don't know why Banks bothered, to be honest.  It goes nowhere.  The Doctor doesn't fare much better, apparently seeking some sort of renewal (hence the Tenth Planet echoes) but going through the motions like it's any old Doctor Who episode.  Admittedly he's quite jolly and sporting for the duration, but he's utterly unfazed when Ruby fails to get aboard the TARDIS.  The image of him returning at the end of Birthright, nonchalantly brushing snow from his shoulders, pretty much sums up his emotional investment in Iceberg.

David Banks is a generally good writer, especially when he has a handle on the characters.  Those early twists on continuity and the latter unashamed grisliness of the Cybermen make obvious highlights.  But so much of Iceberg is just stuff.  Ruby ponders and reflects, either on the state of the environment or Lao Tze or (obsessively!) The Wizard Of Oz, and there comes a point where she (as well as the narrative) is just inwardly rambling.  (The "mistreat the environment" theme had more room to breathe, and worked a lot better, in Warhead.  Also: please tell me the whole Wizard Of Oz thing wasn't just because Tin Man = Cyberman.)  Some of the organic-vs.-mechanic stuff is insightful, but some is just a bit odd, like this introspective moment over a ship's engine: "It felt no compunction dismembering a Cyberman.  It owed no allegiance to the Cyber race.  It had one job to do.  To power the ship.  To drive forward.  That was its goal.  Implacable.  If anything got in its way, man or machine, it was a struggle for supremacy.  Might was right, as the Cyberman knew well.  The strongest always won." (...said the ship's engine.  WTF?)

Perhaps it's the simplistic nature of the plot – once it finally hauls ass and gets going – but the more action-oriented bits can be repetitive and dull.  They usually involve a Cyberman chasing somebody or somebody shooting a Cyberman, and sometimes they just go on and on.  Conversely, thanks to the pacing problem, the ending is a rushed, explosion-themed anti-climax.  The writing includes the occasional drab cliché like "and not a moment too soon", and a smattering of quite annoying typos.  (I think we're past jotting them down.)  It's not a predominantly clumsy or amateur book – these are nitpicks, it's reasonably well-written overall – but combined with the utterly slack pace, I'm left feeling that Iceberg needed at least another draft or two, and a more critical editor's eye.

To my knowledge, this is the only New Adventures novel to feature Cybermen.  (Come to that, there aren't many featuring TV monsters.)  David Banks gets a lot out of them, which is a relief: all too often they've seemed like drab, bipedal Daleks, lacking the uniqueness of their pepperpot betters and easily supplanted by the Borg.  As Spare Parts showed a decade later, they are more compelling when their roots are showing.  But there is more to a story than scary monsters.  Well, look at Spare Parts.  Iceberg lacks the momentum, progressive plot and character development needed for a really good book.  While never exactly tedious, I still needed weeks to pick away at it, as if it were an especially large and unappetising dinner.  It was a relief to finish, and then not especially filling


1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this novel very much when i first read it (although I cannot really see any pressing need to ever reread it). Revisiting all the great myths of the Cybermen. The setting in Antarctica. The numerous realistic and interesting characters on the cruise ship and at the military base (even though the soldiers basically disappeared as protagonists for the second half of the story: but that is a hallmark of Classic Doctor Who in the 1960s and 1970s: stories like Stones of Blood, Mawdryn Undead, Logopolis, The Chase, Master Plan of the Daleks, etc.)

    There were numerous funny moments and instances of witty dialogue. The Doctor was far more personable and pleasant than in many of the New Adventures which I have read. Ruby Duvall is a fantastic and well-rounded new companion.

    The only bit that really dragged was when the girl had to flee throughout the ship’s underbelly pursued by Cybermen. Chase scenes in corridors and ventilation shafts are boring on television: they work no better in print.