Thursday, 20 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #27 – Legacy by Gary Russell

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By Gary Russell

At last!  That third Peladon story we've all been waiting for!  Well, some of us.  Well, Gary Russell.

There's really not a lot to say about Peladon, judging from our two previous suspiciously similar visits.  Medieval planet tries to join or get along with the progressive Federation, superstition and xenophobia get in the way, the Doctor mediates and gets sentenced to death for his troubles, just add Ice Warriors, rinse and repeat.  Legacy isn't a heck of a lot different to The Curse or The Monster Of Peladon, except that it uses Peladon more as a back-drop to Russell's own plot, which is about a world-dominating diadem and the murderous plot to possess it.  You still get all the regulation Peladon-isms: affable Royal, psycho-religious vizier, stoic guards, secret passages, loveable old Alpha Centauri, the-alien-who-looks-like-a-penis-in-a-cloak.  You even get Aggedor, despite being dead, thanks to a flashback.  Honestly, it's less of a retread than The Monster Of Peladon.  But the particular Macguffin/murder plot we're getting instead of the usual Peladon power struggle is underwhelming at best.

Set up in a flashback featuring a past Doctor, which has happened in two books running now (along with revolving the story around a small object – weirdly, both Decalog-isms!), the Diadem was found on the planet of the Pakhars, otherwise harmless hamster-people who crop up in later Russell works.  It's your standard mind-controlling Big Bad, but for all the effort that goes into finding it and transporting it to its next master on Peladon, and all the bodies left in its wake, it doesn't actually do a lot when it gets there.  Legacy ends on a Flash Gordon-esque question mark, with the Diadem ready for Round #2.  Steady on, we haven't had Round #1 yet.

Perhaps this is more of a story about the effect these things have on people than the things themselves...  except highlighting your inner bad guy is a fairly simplistic route for an evil bauble to take, and the guy working to possess it is 100% evil and/or mad to begin with, so that's a bit of a non-starter.  He's one of those tedious villains who attacks and kills with impunity, and whose identity nobody guesses despite a thin list of suspects.  The book takes its sweet time dropping the penny.  It's not so much a "Whodunit" as a "Just tell me already, so I can go home."

Incidentally, when you finally discover his plan you'll probably wish somebody had spared you the wait, so, kind soul that I am: he wants to implant his mind-control in all the tourists visiting Peladon, and in their little Aggedor souvenirs when they leave, so they can spread it about when they get home.  Of course he could just go out and control the universe proper, set up camp somewhere major like Earth or something, but no, it's random tourists visiting Peladon or bust for our man, and don't forget your evil stick of rock at the gift shop!  I giggled like a drain when this particular penny dropped.  That is some plan you got there!

It's hard to be enthusiastic about Legacy.  We've been to Peladon once too often already, and although Russell does show us something new – its early days, when young Sherak wrested control from the brutal Erak, and first found Aggedor – it doesn't enhance the story to know this stuff, since it's really a book about the Diadem.

Legacy is, superficially at least, another chapter in the Peladon story.  None of the current brood of Kings, Guards and Viziers make much of an impression – it's all too seen-it-all-before, like for goodness sake, has there ever been an Aggedor-worshipper who wasn't a raving nutter?  – but Russell has at least said he had the (surprising) ending in mind for years, where King Tarron finally tells the Federation "Thank you, but no thank you."  The narrative offers a cursory "It made sense" to sell this, but I'm not convinced.  Not only are the King and his peers so wrapped up in The Diadem Murder Files that it never feels like they're considering the bigger picture anyway, but so much of the previous two stories is now a complete waste of time.  With the added olive branch of "See how you feel in fifty years?", it feels even more pointless.  What will it be like for Peladon to stand on its own two feet?  Well, just a wild stab in the dark here, but it'll probably be like a bunch of people going on about ruddy Aggedor in the dark.  We've already seen what they're up against, since the plot of the last two stories was somebody help them get away from that.

(Maybe I'm just sore about the story's entirely coincidental EU Referendum timing.  Legacy is nowhere near as politically prescient as The Curse Of Peladon, which had its own roots in Britain's relationship with Europe to start with, but it still stings to hear characters talking about a greater co-operative whole and whether they're better off without it.  Think, you fools!  Alas.)

All of this might sing a bit sweeter if Legacy was better written.  It's Gary Russell's first novel, which is so obvious it might as well come with a Warning: First Novel sticker.  Aside from a generally annoying ease with cliché, with characters crying solitary tears and entering rooms "like the cat who got the cream" etc., by Page 2 we're knee-deep in embarrassingly over-eager gore.  Heads are lopped off, murderous hands plunged straight into victim's bodies, squirty blood geysers sputtering afterwards...  Throughout Legacy, it's never enough for somebody just to get bumped off.  They have to go out like it's a Saw movie, all viscera and lingering detail.  It's hard to buy the idea that the New Adventures are supposed to be "grown up" when the route taken is to add a bunch of silly murder-splat.  Such an approach is easily more juvenile than The Curse Of Peladon, to pick one totally random comparison.  It reeks of eagerness to show off the lack of a TV watershed, and that has nothing to do with maturity.  It's also damned schlocky.

And oh, rejoice, because gore and cliché aren't Legacy's only problems.  Russell doesn't seem at all comfortable with dialogue, which is a shame as there's a lot of it.  Every conversation is between people who are either quite irritating or find each other irritating: in particular Kort (a spoilt brat whom everybody hates – surprise, Irritating Character Is Irritating) and Keri (a Pakhar who for no bloody reason ends every other sentence with "Yeah" – well gosh, how could that possibly get annoying?).  An enormous number of smiles and looks busily come and go during each one, as well as noticing other tedious details about people's appearance, their clothes etc., as if the participants are all busily making notes.  My favourite was the Ice Lord Savaar saying of Bernice: "Her trousers, chinos he had heard her refer to them, were loose-fitting, a complete contrast to her top garment."  How the hell did that come up in conversation?  Hello, I'm Bernice and these are called chinos?  Why would he make a note of that?

Bernice is terrible for this.  Apparently she's "a student of human behaviour" who prides herself on "her instinctive and detailed examinations of everyone she met".  I don't recall her auditioning for The Mentalist in previous books, although on asking around this is apparently somewhat present in Love And War.  (That doesn't explain why everybody else is acting like that in Legacy.)  She goes on and on, inwardly noticing things like whether a person is smiling, yet still misses bloody obvious stuff like Whodunit because (nyurgh) she fancies him.  But then, characterisation is another of Legacy's weak points.  Russell appears to have broadly understood what makes Bernice who she is – she's articulate and funny, and sometimes gets short shrift because of Ace – and somehow translates that into a never-endingly petulant little sulktrumpet.  She refers to Ace, with whom she is on good terms, as "Attila the Hun".  When the Doctor recounts his first meeting with the Ice Warriors, which ended in them trying to kill all humans and the humans inevitably retaliating, she says: "You of course had no part in this murder."  Finding out about some famous ruins that have been excavated since her time, she flies into a rage because the Doctor didn't immediately tell her about it and drop her off to investigate.  Christ – what did she have for breakfast this morning?

Meanwhile, at the other end of the ever-imbalanced companion rota, Ace has so little to do she might as well take the week off.  Broadly speaking, I'm in favour of Bernice getting more to do, as it always seems to work the other way round.  But marooning Ace on an ultimately redundant fetch quest so Bernice can fill the Sole Companion spot is an inelegant way to go about it.  What little there is of her is also woefully, often hilariously clumsy: the Doctor discovers her battering a teddy-bear for "betraying her", then finds "Mike Smith" written on it in felt tip.  Oof!  Also in her bedroom, Ace's past and present jackets are "strategically placed, as if to underline her two very different lives."  Erk!  Discovering a dead student, she finds out his name is "Julian.  Just like her Julian."  Ouch!  Paul Cornell this ain't.  Plus there's a scene where she both gets her kit off and gets her end away, because it just wouldn't be New Ace otherwise, would it?

You'd think he could at least get the Doctor right.  You'd be wrong.  Rather significantly back in his question mark pullover, performing conjuring tricks and never for one second putting the bloody umbrella away, this is a bit like Target novel characterisation running amok, rather than anything resembling the New Adventures Doctor.  I suppose you get a pre-occupation with chess sets, which is at least a bit more Season 26.  But then you also get an apparently irrepressible xenophobia about Ice Warriors.  Sorry, no.  The Doctor embarrassed himself with this in The Curse Of Peladon, learned his lesson and moved on.  Yes, he's met dodgy Ice Warriors since then – including the sequel to Curse, and then Mission To Magnus, which is canon according to Gary – but that's no reason to tromp around assuming the worst.  You're the Doctor, for feck's sake.  Believe the best about people.  Also, apropos of nothing, I hate the bit where Bernice commends Alpha Centauri for his* diplomacy skills, and the Doctor says "Oh very smooth, Professor Summerfield.  Why not add some strawberry jam and be really sickly?"  Why not be nice to people, you all-of-a-sudden rude git?

(*Alpha Centauri is a hermaphrodite, and voiced by a woman on TV, so it's pretty weird that Gary defaults to "he" throughout.  That never sat right with me, even if he is copying Curse or Monster in that respect.  I can't be bothered to check, but do correct me...)

I don't want to bang on and on about the bad writing, but it's bad in so many ways.  There's the schlock violence, the clichés, the strained and tedious conversations.  (And the scenes that exist solely to enable them.  Why, for example, don't we go to Peladon in the TARDIS?  Instead the Doctor opts for a relatively slow voyage, where it's all she-wore-chinos-he-smiled-then-he-stopped-smiling, which is exactly the sort of redundant faffing the TARDIS is supposed to prevent.  Was Gary running under or something?)  But there are also moments that are just plain weird.  When Sherak finds the home of Aggedor...  the Aggedors...  whatever the plural of Aggedor is, he notices "the grass was short, the trees not unkempt.  Something looked after this paradise."  Keen gardeners, are they?  There's a bit where Sherak's body talks to itself: "'Give in and die,' his ribs seemed to say.  'Let the beast eat,' pleaded his arm.  'No,' Sherak's inner strength replied, 'not without a fight.'"  And there's a bit where this king of an ancient medieval world is "convinced that what happened next was in slow motion."  Watch a lot of movies, does he?

I suppose it's a sign of a first novel.  Amid all the familiar mistakes, he's at least trying things out.  Like commenting, editorially, that a character unconsciously echoed the actions of another, or if they had done a thing differently they'd have seen the killer or something, but they didn't, so never mind.  It's a million light years from Douglas Adams, but if you squint you can at least see some omniscient effort in there.  It's not enough to imagine a really good draft of Legacy, but maybe with enough red pen you could steer him right on another story.

This being Gary Russell, it would be remiss of me not to mention continuity.  Loves his continuity references, does Gary, though he has apparently said that the repeated nods in Legacy were encouraged by his editors.  I find that hard to believe, as no other New Adventures author has gone to such lengths to remind us of other Doctor Who stories, and Gary has done it in most of his other work since.  (Has Peter Darvill-Evans been whispering orders in his ear this whole time?)  As well as the obligatory The Cliff Notes Of Peladon, I spotted oblique-or-direct references to The Mind Of Evil, Colony In Space, The Trial Of A Time Lord, The Stones Of Blood, Carnival Of Monsters, The Ice Warriors, Mission To Magnus, Kinda, Revenge Of The Cybermen, City Of Death, The Robots Of Death The Dalek Master Plan, The Tomb Of The Cybermen, The Keeper Of Traken and The Creature From The Pit.  Most of this is just aliens showing up, and you could argue he's only trying to contextualise Legacy against the world of Doctor Who, and make it all seem like one thing.  We actually have non-fiction books for that, but at least it explains his apparent need to explain how Peladon got its Aggedor, and why the Time Lords occasionally go against their own non-intervention policy.  Trouble is this approach can end up being nothing more than a fan-boy grinding his axe.  Is it a better story because it shows how Peladon slots into the Dalek invasion of the galaxy, and Mavic Chen shows up?  Not really, no, but that's our Gary.

Legacy isn't a very New Adventures book.  Perhaps it would have been better off as a Missing Adventure with an earlier Doctor.  Certainly a sequel to stories from the early-to-mid-'70s seems like an odd starting point for a range that tends to look ahead, but hey, there weren't any Missing Adventures yet, and they'd only recently had an anniversary.  There was probably still confetti on the carpet.  Regardless of the pros and cons of continuity, Legacy isn't a good book.  The plot dawdles and ultimately stalls, the characters yammer and die, the regulars hardly cover themselves in glory and the whole thing needed a few more drafts.  I've had more unpleasant Doctor Who reading experiences, but this is still one that I'm glad to see the back of.  Done with Peladon; I don't mind waiting fifty years for Round Four.



  1. excellently thorough review there Neil!
    It's weird to think of a time when Gary Russell was a debut author... it feels like he's sort of always been there!

    "Set up in a flashback featuring a past Doctor, which has happened in two books running now"... that is SO early 90s fandom lol

    1. Glad you liked it. :)

      Gary sort of *has* always been with us. He's the archetypal young fan, for whom there are never enough references. I wonder if we were all Gary, once...

  2. I must say I did not look forward to reading a third adventure (after the mediocre two television tales) about Peladon and Ice Warriors, but by the end I can say that I honestly enjoyed this novel. There was some weak dialogue and some silly ideas (but silly ideas are the rule for Doctor Who), but overall there was a lot of fun and whole lot of excitement.

    The most outstanding thing about this novel was the successful mystery plot. Certainly the reader suspects the identity of the villain early on, but the motives and roles of the numerous other characters are ever in doubt right up until the end. Even the Peladonians (or Pels as they are rightly called) are interesting and some parts of their improbably culture are explained in a fashion. This novel also makes much of Martian honour and culture, which actually sets a precedent for their presentation in the Big Finish radio play "Red Dawn."

    New Ace is very much on the sidelines for most of this novel, a feature which probably earns any book a few points. Bernice on the other hand is wonderfully written. The Doctor's schemes are less Machiavellian and more understandable than in some other New Adventures. All in all, a good showing for the Tardis crew.

    Some will criticize this book for excessive references to other Whovian tales, but since the vast majority of readers of this novel will be fanatics of Doctor Who like myself, I cannot imagine that being a genuine impediment to enjoyment, but rather an occasion of many wry smiles and knowing nods. I suppose it is my point of view as an historian as well: imagine if someone wrote a biography about Abraham Lincoln but people criticized it for referencing all the parts of American history which connect to him. Likewise, Tolkien and his constant internal reference are a delight to me.

    A gripping and amusing story from start to finish.