Sunday, 23 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #30 – Blood Harvest by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#28
Blood Harvest
By Terrance Dicks

Here's the thing: I could write a full review for this.  But sometimes the immortal words of Britain's top philosophers, The Chuckle Brothers, will do nicely: "Oh dear, oh dear."

Blood Harvest is the second New Adventure from seasoned Doctor Who writer, Script Editor, noveliser and all-round staple ingredient Terrance Dicks.  His first was Exodus, a rollicking "What if the Nazis won the war" story full of rich history, time travel, action, devious Doctoring and a bit of continuity for the Gary Russells out there.  26 books and a year or so later, I'd still recommend it.  Blood Harvest?  Not so much.

Once again there's a historical setting and some continuity, but this time they're both out of whack.  Obeying the First Law of Two Companions – Thou Shalt Split Them Up – the story has two settings.  There's Prohibition Chicago (with the Doctor and Ace) and a familiar world in E-Space (with Bernice).  Chicago has an added ingredient, slipping occasionally into the first person narrative of PI Thomas Dekker.  This might not seem so out of place after All-Consuming Fire, which bounced between the diaries of Watson and Bernice, but that was a style befitting that novel.  Whereas we don't even stick with first person all the time we're in Chicago, let alone the whole novel, which just makes it look like a random gimmick.  Plus it's rather reminiscent of Decalog, which was held together by its own wiseguy American PI, also in first person, a handful of books ago.

Speaking of Decalog, or more specifically the short story Duke Of Dominoes: Chicago is very much of a certain style here.  Think am-dram Untouchables.  For starters, we're hanging around with the likes of Al Capone.  (And like Exodus's Hitler, he's softened – far more so in this case, as the Doctor was just setting Adolf on a course for his own doom.  Contrast that with Capone, whom Dicks apparently views as a cuddly, well-meaning figure, which is all just a bit WTF.)  We've also got the goons and the movie lingo to go with him.  The Doctor and Ace get thoroughly enmeshed in the wiseguy world, with the Doctor ("The Doc") officially running a speakeasy and Ace ("The Woman In Black") acting as his moll.  It's all rather frown-inducing and camp; after the thoroughly nineteenth century world of All-Consuming Fire, the New Adventures are in danger of becoming a monthly genre dress-up.

And it's all so naff.  The Adam-West-Batman-corniness, the stereotypical gangsters and Irish cops, the continued determination to interest us in the contents of Ace's pants (who is almost conscripted to a whorehouse and only escapes by Xenia-Onatopping her assailants)...  Okay, so it was probably fun to write the Doctor in charge of his own little domain, whispering in Capone's ear and letting slip "outrageously sexist behaviour" when Ace isn't around, just to fit in better.  But I wonder why he couldn't just tromp around as he did in Exodus, with little more than his considerable personality to open doors.  It seemed to work then.  And well, generally, where this Doctor is concerned.  It's very bizarre play-acting just for the sake of it.

The reason for this business in Chicago?  Somebody is stirring up trouble between the mobs, just for their own monsterrific gratification.  It doesn't get any more complicated than that: a sinister thin figure encourages bad people to behave badly, then feeds on the chaos, then he fades away.  This figure, Agonal, has been at it throughout history, which possibly explains why it felt like I read the same sequence of events a dozen times.  Meanwhile on a planet in anther universe, E-Space, the exact same thing is occurring with the survivors of another Dicks story, State Of Decay.  (There's no reason for the same thing to occur exactly where Bernice happens to be, in a whole other bleedin' universe, no less.  Dicks calls this "a useful piece of synchronicity.”  You may know it as "a coincidence"; nice try, but being cheeky about it doesn't make it less like hack-work.)

Are you a really big fan of State Of Decay?  If so, brilliant, because nearly half of Blood Harvest is spent shamelessly geeking out over it.  Bernice rummages around the climax's ruins, familiar faces pop up (Ivo!  Kalmar!) and vampires (The Three Who Rule!!!) inevitably return.  Dicks evidently loves this one; he would briefly return to it again in The Eight Doctors.  But as someone who found State Of Decay a rather dry and hoary exercise in ancient camp, I found these bits interminable.  Villagers argue with guards and lords, one group is framed for a murder of the other, vice versa, vampires, bats, etc.  (At one point Bernice introduces the concept of the House Of Commons.  Fasten your seatbelt.)

Romana is here too – I doubt Lalla Ward would thank Dicks for the adjective "horsy" – but aside from getting up to depressingly little since she and K9 left in Warriors' Gate, and re-capping State Of Decay a bunch of times, and giving Bernice someone to talk to, she doesn't add much.  Her reunion with the Doctor is certainly nothing to write home about.  K9 isn't in it, save for an end-of-Warriors'-Gate cameo.  (Would you guys hurry up and start the Missing Adventures already, so we can stop cramming Past Doctors in here?  It's always nice to see them, but there's a time and a place.)

Despite the high page-count, State Of Decay 2: The Decayening feels like the B-story here, as well as a B-movie, particularly during the breathless home stretch when a brand new character morphs from "convenient rescuer" to "possible villain" to "yep, it's the villain, fight now" over a couple of pages.  Then an incidental Big Bad wakes up just long enough to die, in the space of a few paragraphs.  Slow down, man!  But before you know it we're off to Gallifrey, with exactly zero pomp and circumstance for Bernice or Ace.  We soon meet the real villains, who bark their motivations and various continuity references and then uncover their plan.  This whips the dusty tarp from Uncle Terry's other major continuity mine, The Five Doctors.  (Which he also wrote, funnily enough.)

The closer it gets to the finish line, the more Blood Harvest sounds like it's frantically trying to beat the timer on CountdownHere's the actual text from the final, seizure-inducing battle, as Agonal fruitlessly attempts to usurp Rassilon's power:

"Suddenly the Doctor felt the power of Rassilon flowing through him.  Somehow he knew it was flowing through Romana too, and above all through Borusa – the old Borusa, with all his strength and wisdom.  Together they confronted Agonal and the power of Rassilon swept through them, mingled with their own spiritual strength and blasted Agonal into nothingness, like a candle in a hurricane."

...and then there's this and that and that happened and this as well and done!  Phew!  You can practically hear the Virgin Publishing boys' footsteps coming up the garden path, their fists smacking into open palms, as if Uncle Terry has unwisely ignored that Final Warning Letter requesting a finished draft.  In the end, when the two halves of the novel should be coming neatly together, there's just this frenzied mess of stuff.  (Plus a quick post-script burp to enable the plot of the sequel, Goth Opera – and cheerily remind us that the Doctor survived those events already, so Peter Davison will be just fine, kiddos.  You can put away your suspension of disbelief.  Phew!)

I've no idea how Dicks arrived at a problem spanning not just two settings, but these two settings, which are like two halves of a particularly random Venn diagram.  And both are unhelpfully tongue-in-cheek.  The gang war is impossible to take seriously because (among other things) the Doctor is such a prominent figure in it, Gunfighters Style.  Also it doesn't need to be Prohibition Chicago, like Exodus needed to be post-War Britain (and was vastly more compelling for it).  Then there's the vampire stuff, which isn't remotely scary because you've seen it all before, plus you won't care about any of the bland extras populating it.  Even Gallifrey doesn't stand out: it's about as miserable and colourless as ever, I suppose, though nobody's obligated to write it like that; and it's full of boring, overly reference-y people.  (One baddie is directly related to The Deadly Assassin's henchman, Goth, and he wants revenge for The Five Doctors bad guy, Borusa.)  No wonder Ace and Bernice aren't remotely excited to be on the Doctor's stomping ground.

The writing is camp, corny and unspectacular.  When you add up dreary clichés like "It's quiet.  Too quiet", and a bit where Castellan Spandrell is likened to "Gallifrey's version of a tough cop", and lazily recognisable turns of phrase like "behind the scenes" turning up on a medieval planet in another universe, and a Gallifreyan guard suggesting Bernice looks like "one of those Shabogan bitches", it often feels uncomfortably like amateur fan fiction.  The Legacy-esque obsession with continuity doesn't help, plus all those wearisomely nudge-wink references, like that "useful synchronicity", the Doctor's alias of "Doc McCoy", an incredulous conversation about the term "wheezing and groaning" to describe the TARDIS and yes, the Doctor saying "No!  Not the mind probe!"  All the references would be bad enough, but is it a spoof, too?  (You could argue that Conundrum did exactly this sort of thing right down to a McCoy reference, and I lapped it up.  Call me picky: it's how you do it, not to mention where and when.  Conundrum is a fourth-wall exercise, this is just a shit-silly thriller.)

Even a few vital plot points are shrugged off almost disdainfully.  The TARDIS hops easily back and forth to E-Space, which throws out several stories where it was plot relevant how that was almost impossible.  Nothing must stand in the way of State Of Decay's victory lap, so let's just say "K9's a genius" and have done with it, eh?  And the Doctor can easily mess up Agonal's sub-plan to grow his own Great Vampire via "basically a matter of turning everything up to maximum".  So, flick all the switches and smash everything?  Yeah, that'll do, I suppose.  We all know Terry knows these tropes backwards, but could he aim a little higher?

Blood Harvest is a book you might flat-out enjoy if you love corny crime sagas and State Of Decay.  If you don't, you won't.  I found it haphazard and tone deaf, not so much a step down from the pointed and exhilarating Exodus as a dive overboard.  Terrance Dicks can do a heck of a lot better, and by this point, so can the New Adventures.

4/10

1 comment:

  1. I read this New Adventure as a very fun bit of pulp fiction. I loved Terrance Dicks's "Timewyrm: Exodus," and once again he wrote a fun and fast-paced adventure set in an interesting historical period. 1920s Chicago comes to cinematic life, and the Doctor fits right in, even opening his own speakeasy as a cover. The other half of the book is a revisit to "State of Decay" through the fresh and witty perspective of Benny. Wonderful also to see Romanadvoratrelundar and Gallifrey again.

    It figures that it would take the author of one the earliest New Adventures to restore Ace to a likable character after all the abuse, angst and mutation she suffered in numerous subsequent books. She abandons her combat suit, cracks jokes, enjoys herself and her friends, and still gets to shoot things up. The Doctor is also less Machiavellian and more relaxed and helpful. They are joined by a stereotypical but delightful private eye.

    The ending however is rather rushed, and there is an epilogue which might do better as the prologue for "Goth Opera" to which it refers. Still as another reviewer of the television show pointed out, the expectation in Doctor Who is that the plot will be entirely solved in the last ten minutes regardless of logic or the rules of drama.

    Yet another thought, considering my enjoyment of "All Consuming Fire" and "Blood Harvest":

    I think I enjoy the historical and semi-historical Whovian tales best, because it is so much fun to constantly consult Wikipedia and other sources while reading them. A puzzling reference to a "growler" or an "antimacassar" can send me off for up to an hour on a happy little digression in the aether.

    On the other hand, there are rarely hidden depths behind things like the Time Soldiers and the Garvond (beyond perhaps some spoilers for another unread book or comic). Even references to things from the rich continuity of the Whoniverse cannot maintain their attraction beyond the first thrill of recognition, because we saw the television episode and there is no vast history or culture lurking behind the factoid.

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