Friday, 14 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #21 – The Dimension Riders by Daniel Blythe

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
The Dimension Riders
By Daniel Blythe

A mysterious foe manipulating events.  A dark Time Lord presence.  A spaceship in the future.  An old English university.  Monsters.  To quote an elderly Biff Tannen, there's something very familiar about all this.

But then, it's too easy to say The Dimension Riders nicks its ideas from Shada.  Daniel Blythe more-or-less acquits himself of outright plagiarism, offering knowing nods ("I should have known there were other Time Lords lurking in those ancient colleges") as well as direct references (The Worshipful And Ancient Law Of Gallifrey appears; "that business with Skagra" is recalled).  I've even seen this referred to as a Shada sequel.

Anyway, it's not just Shada that'll trigger your spider-sense.  Ancient horrors from beyond the universe practically jostle for space in the Doctor's memoirs.  Time being fatally sped up is, if you'll pardon the expression, as old as the hills. (Time Destructor much?)  As for the army of faceless zombie things, the time paradox at the heart of events, and the metaphysical race through the TARDIS at the end... how long have you got?  Any astute Doctor Who fan and New Adventures reader would blot his Bingo card into an inky mess.  It even ends with the companion(s) doubting the Doctor and going off in a big, who-are-you huff, just like, oh what am I thinking of, ah yes, the previous novel.

Gloves back on: Blythe isn't naïve, or at least not entirely.  The prose is unshabby, even quite witty at times. "Bernice was not to know that St. Catherine's College had been founded in the 1960s, and was a glorious example of what should not be done with glass and concrete."  /  "Her voice was like unpolished silver."  /  "'This Doctor fellow – qualified, is he?'  'Suitably,' she answered, with ice and lemon."  The characters enjoy occasional blobs of backstory, like a spaceship captain's strict adherence to The Peter Principle, or the subtle twinge of romance between two doomed lovers.  ("It sounded as clear as if she were whispering close in his ear.  As clear as the time when she had, in fact.")  And there's a keen awareness of cliché, particularly when we hear from the villain of the week.  (Or the one manipulating the Big Bad Of The Week, secretly at the behest of a something under the control of another Big Bad.  Keep up!)

But when your novel is as all-round familiar and, when you get down to it, unspectacular as The Dimension Riders, cracking wise doesn't make that much of a difference.  Take the ostentatious baddie.  A weak-sauce replacement for the Master, the Rani or what have you, he's only as good as his evil scheme, and that rests on the assumption that the Big Bad will cut him a fair piece of the action, and won't – like every other bad guy's scary boss – simply chuck him in the bin.  I mean, duh, dude!  Watch a movie some time!  Then there is said Big Bad, the Garvond.  (Which sounds to me like the sort of embarrassing first name a baddie is deathly afraid his mother will yell, followed by orders to clean his room.  "Garvonnnnnd!  Where do you think you're going?!")  Not-so-metaphorically set up as an oogly-boogly from Time Lord lore, he/it proceeds to do exactly what the spooky prologue promised, with just the kind of booming voice, evil throne and army of faceless drones you'd expect.  There is talk of raiding the entire universe and then much killing of random folks on a spaceship, which is all a bit... Tuesday afternoon, Doctor Who-wise.

And there are times when Blythe's snappy style deserts him.  One crewman barks her entire horrible history at the Doctor, much to the weirded-out surprise of both of them.  There are some inevitably pretentious epigraphs, including such get-me-I've-read-a-book lah-de-dahs as Milton – but it's not a constant, so it just looks like a random quirk.  And while this is personal taste, I don't think the author has much of an ear for names.  I've already complained about Garvond ("You've not even ironed your shirt!  Wait 'til your father gets home!"), but then there's the not-exactly-evocative Time Soldiers, the not-exactly-anything Time Focus, and a gaggle of characters with pseudo-science-fictiony monikers like Vaik, Quallem and Romulus Terran.  Much of the book's forgettable middle is them, asking questions and getting bumped off. I've forgotten much of this sub-Star Trek stuff already.

The book moves at a relatively spry clip, apart from some of that drab stuff that's gone walkabouts in under 24 hours.  (I try to review these things immediately on finishing.  Clearly I should stick to that!)  The setup ping-pongs from portentous bad guys in the dark (which is all very The Five Doctors or The Deadly Assassin) to a super-efficient lady assassin who kills people with a magic briefcase (which is... wait, what?) to the cosy world of Oxford, and Bernice enjoying herself while the Doctor and Ace stick their noses in some trouble.  Pretty soon we're bouncing to the future as well, at two separate points, and things get pleasingly complex.  Still a bit dull, if I'm honest, what with one future setting being much like the other, and the Garvond and the repeated trick of ageing you to death, but you've got to admire the I-used-diagrams cleverness of it all.  (Also, the ageing gag doesn't entirely wear out its welcome.  The fate of a pregnant crewman is one of the few things I wish I had forgotten.)

The Oxford stuff is probably the highlight.  Some of that may be leftover Shada/Dirk Gently/Unseen University nostalgia.  Much of it is Bernice.  I promise I'm not trying to damn a dozen authors with faint praise here, but she seems genuinely easy to write for; her dry humour and honest curiosity practically bounce off the page.  I'm still amazed more isn't made of her.  ("Patience," said the vast array of Bernice fiction that came later.)  Meanwhile, poor old Ace fights, sulks, broods and comes back for more, ever ready with her list of Nasty Stuff What's Happened To Me Before.  She even has a pseudo-romance into the bargain.  (Yep, it's definitely Tuesday.)  The plot holds together well, but there's a hell of a lot of technobabble in the finale.  And as for the Doctor and Ace's climactic, metaphysical journey through trust issues, not to mention their trek through the tumultuous TARDIS, I just rolled my eyes.  We've done this, haven't we?  I wonder if the Doctor is getting over-familiar too.  It would explain why he's in such a foul mood throughout.

Hey, it's not a bad book.  If you're less familiar with Who canon, and crucially aren't reading all the New Adventures in a row like a damn lunatic (ahem), you'll probably find much to recommend.  It is pretty clever and there are good ideas and images.  (The TARDIS depositing a spaceship in one of its rooms is pretty natty, excepting its materialisation around an entire planet one book previously.)  But I'm stuck looking at the bigger picture: not only a story made up of very well-worn bits, but an arc that shows up at the end to shrug and point out the Doctor "was never meant to lose".  Oh.  The best case scenario there is a villain lamely protecting his pride.  The result is the same even if he is: 240 pages rendered inconsequential.  Or at least, more so.



  1. "The prose is unshabby." I like this!

    your review almost makes me want to read this (i sad 'almost'!). But from what I remember of a lot of the NAs, it was always the endings that disappointed :(

    1. This one fits the bill, sadly. I quite liked aspects of it, but the writing wobbles weirdly between "Ooh, how witty" and just... filler.

      Better is to come!

  2. Overall I found this book to be a waste of time. The Garvond is a ridiculous villain: a skeleton wearing black robes sitting on a throne which magically appears on the bridge of a starship plus his minions the Time Soldiers. Neither of them have any interesting story other than "we are hungry and want to eat all the energy of the universe." Yawn. So the Garvond is (yet another!) figment of the Doctor's febrile mind and conceived in the Matrix. Thank God the television series did not have so many Tardis-has-a-tummy-ache stories as the New Adventures (and I never did much like the Edge of Destruction, Amy's Choice and the beginning of Castrovalva). I was too bored to try to figure out what the particular mechanics of the time-paradox plot were.

    The scenes at Oxford were more entertaining at least than the dreary spaceship/space station stuff; Bernice Summerfield fit in well in the ivy halls. The minor villain at Oxford became more disappointing as the book progressed. (And in the end there were four levels of villains: an assassin robot serving a renegade Time Lord serving the Garvond serving a mysterious and unrevealed archenemy, all of which meant for me that no villain was characterized sufficiently and no scheme was sufficiently clear in the end.)

    I recall disliking "Transit" when I read it, but now I recognize its artistry: "Transit" created a tangible future culture. The reader could see a real world, a strange and fascinating and horrible world. The futuristic spaceship stuff in Dimension Riders reads like the most poorly funded imitation of Star Trek on television without a single interesting crewman or piece of equipment.