Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #25 – Decalog edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

Doctor Who: Decalog
Edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

With the Virgin Doctor Who range a success, and its editors casting their eyes at writing past Doctor books as well, it seems – if this was indeed its purpose – a neat way to test the waters, giving them a bunch of short stories first.  Or maybe they just fancied seeing old Doctors again because the anniversary had arrived, and short stories were quicker to produce. 

Whatever the reason, we have Decalog: a bundle of ten stories with a linking theme (sort of), courtesy of some of the voices of the New Adventures, not to mention of the wider Virgin book world as well.  (Messrs Howe, Stammers and Walker all contribute; they basically taught me everything I know about Classic Who via the Doctors’ Handbooks.  Great reads, if you’ve somehow missed them.)  So, Decalog being all about the short stories, let’s get to ’em.


Fallen Angel
by Andy Lane
This is a jolly romp.  The Second Doctor joins forces with a witty, somewhat conscientious art thief to battle some robots.  It’s straight out of a comic strip.  The Doctor is very much his scruffy, apparently clumsy self, at one point strapped helplessly to the top of a biplane (and screaming for help), at another delivering an ominous back-story in deadly seriousness.  His art thief pal (the titular Angel, according to his calling card) is an amusing, if improbable figure.  The robots are just a thing that needs sorting out.  I imagined the Krikkit robots from Hitchhiker’s.

There’s very little plot here – there isn’t time.  But Andy Lane stuffs it full of action, and finds room for a cheeky bit of Time Lord mythologizing without spoiling The War Games.  It’s fun, but it makes me rather dubious about this format.  Can you get very much done in thirty pages?  Then again, maybe that’s why it’s the first story.  It eases you in with a bit of thin, madcap fluff.


The Duke Of Dominoes
by Marc Platt
Meanwhile in Prohibition Chicago, the Master is trying to gain control of an ancient weapon, and having about as much success as usual.  There’s something inevitably sympathetic about him when you upgrade him to a main character.  Marc Platt writes a very Roger Delgado Master: a sharp-suited man of influence with, just underneath, a petulant need to be followed and admired.  There’s a bit when he’s down on his luck and starts working in a mission, and scorns any form of gratitude from the hungry tramps; he could just as well resent our own sudden interest in him.  He has an apparently doe-eyed “companion” whom he just can’t seem to hypnotise, and there’s a moment when a malevolent force controls him.  Things never seem to come up trumps for the Master.  Despite yourself, you want him to do better.

We get more insight into the mischievous bearded one than we’re used to here, including his personal view of the difference between himself and the Doctor.  The Master plans and works at his goals, whereas the Doctor just turns up and causes chaos.  (True to form, the Doctor shows up and helps put the world to rights without even noticing!)  The story’s gangland atmosphere errs on the corny side – with a Guys & Dolls moll and some rather suspect dialect – but this is still a well-paced look at how the other half lives, boasting bonkers imagery (such as a rampaging statue of Abe Lincoln) and a few well-judged little moments.  It’s memorable, and worth your time.


The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back
by Vanessa Bishop
Taking place shortly after The Silurians, this one finds the Third Doctor and the Brigadier at loggerheads.  The Doctor is doing his best to resolve a potentially dangerous alien situation as quietly as possible; naturally he’s concerned that the Brigadier will intervene and blow it up.  The Brigadier, conversely, has no idea if he can trust the Doctor any more.  Liz Shaw tries to build a bridge between them, but neither of them is co-operating fully.  Picking up towards the end of an adventure, rather than blustering through or neatly summarising it as with the previous two tales, this gives us a succinct snapshot of the Doctor’s emotional state.  It’s a poignant little piece of UNIT Family tension, and it’s not especially interested in happy endings.  It made me suddenly aware of just how often that seemed to happen in the Pertwee years: he often seemed so disappointed.

It builds to a compelling moment and cuts off there.  For better or worse, it left me wanting more.


Scarab Of Death
by Mark Stammers
Throwing the lever the other way, this is a rollicking adventure that could probably fill a book, or at least four episodes on the telly, if all the filler material hadn’t been marched out of sight at gunpoint.  It’s a breathless pseudo-sequel to Pyramids Of Mars, jammed with murder, villainy, espionage and potential inter-galactic conquest.  It’s spectacular and fun, boasting some difficult-to-achieve-on-screen special effects as well as a pleasantly corny moment where the Doctor escapes a gangster’s lair inside a dinner trolley.  (The washer-woman’s outfit was presumably being cleaned.)

There’s not a lot to say about it from a character point of view, although Tom and Lis are convincingly brought to life.  It’s the best indication yet that we could be reading full-length Past Doctor books as well as New Adventures (what might have been, eh?), and while it’s probably not a very interesting story so much as an exciting one, Scarab Of Death is still just what a lot of fans are looking for.  I enjoyed it.


The Book Of Shadows
by Jim Mortimore
At a stately fifty pages, Jim Mortimore’s addition to Decalog has the most room to work.  But don’t expect a leisurely stroll: The Book Of Shadows is as jam-packed with story as anything else here.  An ambitious pseudo-historical set around the Library of Alexandria, giving (inevitably) an account of its demise, it’s foremost an emotional story for Barbara, beginning as a sort of echo of her interference in The Aztecs but… no spoilers… taking that idea in a new and exciting direction.  She goes through a lot – and although this stuff’s twenty years old, I really don’t want to spoil it.  Also, I can’t help it: this is one of my favourite eras of Doctor Who, so I was having a good time right away.  The Doctor is fabulously crotchety, and has a whale of a time observing famous scholars bickering.  Ian ends up in a fight.  It all fits the characters and settings we know, despite pushing everything in a more sci-fi direction than this era went on screen.

It shows neat restraint in its use of the characters (no Susan, scarcely a word out of Ian) and darts skilfully between time-periods to tell its story, but it’s really Barbara’s tale, and literature suits her.  Altogether the sort of thing you could adapt into a thrilling Companion Chronicle – indeed, there’s already a Big Finish play about the Library at Alexandria, which is also excellent.  My only complaint here is there isn’t more of it.  Easily the highlight so far.


by David J.  Howe
Yikes.  This one is on shaky ground with me from the start, as it involves the Fifth Doctor and Peri – not a pairing with a lot of mileage and my least favourite Doctor to boot.  It sends the twosome to a hot medieval village.  There are magical spells everywhere (there’s even a pentagram under the Doctor’s bedroom carpet), all barked about with little to no explanation in order to advance the plot.  That’s not the real problem, however: the gist of Fascination is one guy using his magic powers to woo Peri.  And he’s completely successful at it, reducing her to his simpering and yes, bedded girlfriend in no time.  Ick.

The short story format is particularly brutal in Fascination, frogmarching Peri into what should be emotional turmoil but is presented like a crass faux pas.  A guy uses magic to rape her a couple of times, and his punishment (besides an inevitable slap) is a few flimsy “Expelliarmus!”-isms from the Doctor and Peri, and a promise of fewer magic powers from his elders in future.  Justice is served?  At the end, as the Doctor and Peri stride towards the TARDIS, his ditzy young companion contemplates how if he were a bit younger, she might fancy the Doctor.  Teeny bit too soon, maybe?

It’s far too reliant on magic gubbins that we know little about, but the added horror of well-of-course-it’s-all-about-sex-I-mean-come-on-it’s-Peri pushes this into hideously creepy fan territory.  Flimsy and regrettable; bin it at once.


The Golden Door
by David Auger
Multi-Doctor alert!  Sort of.  The Golden Door juggles the First Doctor, Steven and Dodo, the Sixth Doctor and a duplicate Steven and Dodo, as well as a shape-shifting murderer and a bunch of obsessively bureaucratic aliens.  It sounds like it should be loadsa fun, but it’s not quite got the wherewithal.  It’s often unclear and it’s too long, which isn’t surprising as the prose is so florid at times.  Then again, this almost suits the Sixth Doctor, the Vogons-if-they-were-bloody-boring Bukolians, and even the waspish First Doctor.  Chucking in exclamations marks doesn’t magically liven it up, however, and at the end of the day we’re still dealing with the slightly toxic combo of Steven-and-Dodo-and-Sixie, hence a lot of pointless loquaciousness and bickering.  The First Doctor seems oddly moot for much of it; no, it doesn’t make use of having two Doctors.  David Auger writes Hartnell quite pleasantly when he’s got something to do.

It’s ultimately a rather worthy tale about ethnic cleansing, with another token dollop of Time Lord mythology added at the finish.  Looking back, all the mistaken identities and bureaucratic processes were just an inefficient way to kill forty pages.


Prisoners Of The Sun
by Tim Robins
Here’s another short story that badly wants to be a book.  And come to think of it, one book in particular: showing us the Third Doctor’s world gone all to hell, and a Doctor out of time trying to save it, you’ve got to wonder if Decalog’s editors sent back the first draft with “Blood Heat 2?” jotted on it.

Still, you could rightly argue that it’s what you do with an idea that’s important, and Prisoners Of The Sun is crammed with quite interesting stuff about the (exiled) Doctor’s impact on Earth, the Time Lords’ double standards regarding interference, and the untapped potential of Liz Shaw.  There’s a ruined London quite unlike Jim Mortimore’s, but there isn’t time for the horror to set in.  Ditto most of its big ideas: brought up far too quickly, and discarded just the same is another piece of Time Lord mythos that feels significant, but is just a necessary pit-stop of explanation, and then it’s gone.  (I think there are also too many continuity references, but then some people love that sort of thing.)  The same happens to Liz Shaw’s leaving scene: a genuinely important piece of Doctor Who footage-not-found, it’s bundled away in the story’s last gasp, and takes the rather odd form of a telling off from the Doctor.  It’s a shame they didn’t save the idea for a Missing Adventure.  (Okay, they did that as well.  Let’s wait and see how Gary Russell handles it.  Hold your breath, everyone!)

As for Liz, her ambitions don’t have time to take on three dimensions, but it's nice that both Third Doctor stories decided to spend time with her, as opposed to the two-brain-cells-to-rub-together Jo, or the really-Tom's-companion Sarah.  The Doctor is himself enough, apart from an odd moment where he abruptly analyses his personality and costume, suggesting the uncomfortable idea that each newly regenerated Doctor has to have a little think about what kind of Doctor he’ll be.

It’s entertaining, but simultaneously too big and too small.  Another awkward baby-step for the Doctor Who short story.


Lackaday Express
by Paul Cornell
Chopping between the first-person adventures of somebody lost in time, and the Fifth Doctor’s attempts to figure out what’s going on and rescue her, Lackaday Express is a nicely focussed little piece.  It’s got a decent theme about the importance of the past weighed against the future, and it’s very evocative and human.  Also complicated.  There are elements here that must have appealed to Steven Moffat: being complicated, tumbling through a person’s time-stream, love being the pivotal event in a person’s life, and the Doctor being seen as an imaginary friend.  It also features old cricket-features using a machine gun, which is probably the oddest image in this book.

Once again in Decalog, I felt like this could have been a bit longer and perhaps landed more firmly.  Everyone involved moves on a smidge too fast, particularly the Doctor and Tegan who return in an instant to a recurring conversation about the fate of Adric.  (It’s less poignant than it is eye-rolling, although it does fit the story’s theme.)  So it’s not quite the perfectly-formed gem it could have been, but it’s clever and sweet, and suits the format better than most.


by Stephen James Walker
Okay, so this is technically the first story of the bunch, but then it’s also all of the middle bits and, more importantly, the end of Decalog itself, so I’m doing it last.

A first-person tale of a private detective meeting a strange amnesiac man with capacious pockets (guess who), this is little more than a framing device for those other stories.  And okay, it’s not a bad framing device.  It reads just like a first-person private eye story ought to: the guy’s a healthily suspicious American wiseass, and the Doctor is an apparently unsolvable mystery.  Not knowing where else to start, he takes the Doctor to a psychometrist and has him “read” the objects in his pocket.  Each object has a story to tell, and presto, Decalog.  Two major points to pick on here, I suppose:

1) Walker’s portion of the story has a few arresting scenes, in particular an eerily out-of-character moment where the Doctor goes to bludgeon a man with a rock.  There’s a certain atmosphere to the psychometrist’s home.  And putting all the Playback bits in bold type is a neat way to tell the stories apart.  But it’s filler, no getting away from that, with all those in-between bits being especially flimsy.  They’re the narrative equivalent of getting up to change discs.  In the end, when it turns out one of those bits heralded a clue, I went back and read it again to make sure I hadn’t missed it.  Turns out it was pretty low-key after all, but even so, it’s difficult to engage with one-and-a-bit pages stuffed between obviously unconnected stories.

2) They are unconnected.  I’m guessing each writer had a brief of “Write a story with an object in it,” but that’s as far as the link goes, with the object often being the most forgettable aspect.  So when the ending rolls around, and it does reprise some ideas from earlier – spoiler alert, none of my favourites – it still doesn’t pay off the rigmarole of telling a bunch of stories about the Doctor.  Only one of stories was relevant, and goodie, it was the ethnic cleansing one.  (Spoiler – oh, dang it.  But I guess I don’t mind spoiling bad bits.  “The Holocaust Was Aliens” is an embarrassingly silly kind of revisionism, especially when you rush it like this.)

Playback is fine for what it is: the somewhat thankless job of getting us from A to B.  As for Decalog, it’s an experiment, and it’s neither entirely successful nor a failure.  The stories are mostly enjoyable (with the notable exception of Fascination – too late to send it back?), although they tend to struggle with the format.  It must be hard to go from writing full-length novels to cramming this stuff into a fraction of one, and it would perhaps be unfair to expect them all to land on their feet first time.  I’d still recommend Duke Of Dominoes, Scarab Of Death, Book Of Shadows and Lackaday Express to varying degrees, and I’ll approach the next batch with optimism.  This could work.


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