By Gareth Roberts
It may seem over the top, but I've been viewing Tragedy Day as a little milestone in the New Adventures. We're finally emerging from the double-whammy of Birthright and Iceberg, the ongoing Alternate Universe Cycle, the emotional turmoil of Ace and the diversion of Decalog. Now it's back to singular New Adventures, self-contained novels. And with a track record of one unchallenging but fun book, Gareth Roberts seems like a good pick for the first slot. This should be a laugh.
To his credit, he doesn't rest on his laurels. Tragedy Day does things a little differently from The Highest Science, in that it's not another outright comedy, or not the same kind of comedy. We're in satirical territory, with cross-hairs on the mindlessness of pop culture, the rich-guilt relief of telethons and the easy brutality of people who build their homes on other people's land – and on the people themselves. Unfortunately I'm not a big fan of satire because it puts a distance between the audience and the characters. You recognise that the things they're saying are about your world, but then it's harder to invest in the characters because they're more obviously mouth-pieces. There are lots of people in Tragedy Day, a wide variety of deluded phonies, bitter failures, faceless victims, mindless robots and ridiculous villains. Most of them die, and I can't say I was all that bothered.
Roberts culls his dramatis personae like he's Eric Saward on a mission. There are gas attacks, insatiably violent killer beachballs (I've somehow confused the dubiously-named Slaags with the thing from Dark Star), brutally murderous policemen, an anti-matter disco that vaporises people (wait, what?) and at least two assassins. Also there's showbiz luvvies and a plot-relevant whiff of 20th Century pop culture (because hey, making it deliberate is one way to avoid the we've-seen-it-all-before criticisms – except we still have, e.g. Star Trek). There's a definite black comedy to the whole thing. Except it's not very funny.
Possibly out of sheer comedic desperation, one of the assassins is a man-sized spider with a cowboy hat and a bawdy northern accent, and the villain is a moody and pathetic adolescent – a plot development mocked in the final few pages as too far-fetched. I suppose none of this is really a million miles away from the Chelonians, who thought nothing of wiping out whole armies of humans just so they could get on with their flower-arranging. But somewhere along the line, that all-important charm has done a runner. What remains is a weirdly callous story full of bad stuff happening and nobody caring. Yes, ho-ho, that's the point of Tragedy Day itself and everything, and you could rightly argue that it's a good fit in '80s Doctor Who, but... I dunno. Yuck.
Think of all those displaced Vijjans, who (apart from one gung-ho lunkhead in the early chapters, and some silent spokespeople, mostly on posters) never make their case. Or the general denizens of Empire City – not the famous ones, the schlubs who queue for death because it seems like the right thing to do. Or the all-too-briefly mentioned slaves of the Friars Of Pangloss – mighty Big Bads somewhere out in space – who are so miserably subjugated that in over a thousand years they never noticed their bosses' magic powers stopped working. There aren't enough real people raging about what's happening here, just the author taking shots at the apathy of everyone else. (And those aren't especially well-aimed. The satire, for all its character-blanding silliness, never really makes its point.)
Still, if the people suffer, at least Roberts builds his world. We begin with a prelude that's a short story unto itself, which (as it involves a past Doctor and a random object) could almost have gone into Decalog. We skip through a few centuries on Olleril, getting a good feel for the history of the place even before the TARDIS turns up. But getting a feel for the place, with its repetitive pop culture and its sinister puppet-masters, is pretty much all we do for more than half the book. On Page 127, Bernice says: "All the Doctor and I have done is meet a film star and book into a hotel." Well, yeah. Meanwhile Ace is whisked off to a deadly testing ground, meets an assassin and her son, and then the Doctor and Bernice pick her up again. They all seem to be marking time while they figure out what's going on which, okay, is every Doctor Who book ever to an extent, but it's decidedly dull in this particular case. By the time the villain's (silly) plan was finally unveiled, I was just glad to be approaching the end.
I found it hard going. Despite the author's obvious interest in this world, it's still not an especially fun or interesting place to be; like the main trio, I was keen to get back in the TARDIS and go. But they are on good terms, at least. Gone (for now?) are the intense tantrums of Ace and the I-don't-belong-here worries of Bernice. They all get on famously, which I'm not taking for granted. It's still almost amusingly difficult to handle the three characters, with Ace (rather than the more usual Benny) conspicuously wandering into her very own subplot after 20 pages. I'd like to see this done better, but for now, no longer trapped in the funk of yesterbook, I am grateful. Not enough, however, to recommend this book.
Tragedy Day grabs at a sort of Andrew Cartmel or Ben Aaronovitch brand of doomy futurism, and it makes for either an altogether grim comedy, or a rather silly sci-fi parable. Take your pick. Neither seems to work.