Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #33 – First Frontier by David A. McIntee

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
First Frontier
By David A. McIntee

Disclaimer time: it might be difficult to discuss this one without getting into spoilers.  Yes, the book’s 22 years old and if you’re reading this, you’ve probably read it too, but the big reveal two thirds of the way in (P.200) is very much treated as a “Tada!” moment, and theoretically you might not know about it and want to read the book fresh.  As it happens, I already knew about it – d'oh! – and thus spent 200 pages waiting for First Frontier to get the hell on with it.  Perhaps it’s more fun if you don’t know, so to save a lot of nudging and winking I’ll paint over the dodgy bits.  You can highlight them to end the suspense.  Hopefully this’ll still make sense even without those (few?) sentences.

I suspect that even if you do remain unspoiled (after you've been warned via the acknowledgement to Gary Russell, who presumably tipped out his big bag of continuity references on request), you will probably know what to expect.  It’s David A.  McIntee, so there will be a lot of historical detail – in Gary Russell terms, you might say history is his continuity.  He can’t get enough of it!  This was also evidenced in White Darkness, which went to great lengths to have the right “feel” and also alerted us to his gonzo depths of research in its acknowledgements.  (One hopes that by Book #3 readers will have sufficiently got the message.)

As for which historical feel, we’re talking 1950s American desert, and all the UFO paranoia that entails.  This is a canny place for a Doctor Who story, what with the main character being a card-carrying little green man and the show’s roots coming not long after this era.  McIntee puts most of his effort into the military goings on, however, and little time or effort is spent on the denizens of Holloman.  We meet a few, including (inevitably) a wide-eyed UFO nut, but they fade in and out of the story without much consequence.  McIntee is much more concerned with the plot than the people, and most of it pivots around military personnel and various aliens.  I won’t repeat any of the procedural spadework the author has put into his bases, aircraft, weapons and whatnot – suffice to say it sounds about right.  But then I’m not someone for whom this stuff matters all that much, so long as the internal logic holds together.

Some of those military personnel are interesting enough, though they don’t all stick around.  Colonel Finney is, for once, a welcome military higher up, with an old war wound to intermittently grumble about and flash back to.  Better is Marion Davison, a military journalist who finds her career advancing just by being around the Doctor.  Worst is probably Allen Dulles, head of the CIA at the time and, naturally, a friend of the Doctor who is conveniently dredged up to get him, Ace and Benny out of various jams.  (He does all of this via telephone – he's never seen.)  It’s so cheeky that, not being familiar with Dulles, I assumed he must be an established Who character I’d somehow missed!  But he's real, which doesn't really excuse him from being an egregious deus ex machina.  He seems to be used over and over as the plot requires.

It’s an okay story for the regulars.  Bernice has a good time in history, and McIntee once again seems at home writing Ace as the action hero, including some begrudged killings and a badass airplane take-off.  He also allows her a few neat character moments, pondering her future in the TARDIS: “She knew that, unless she found such a stronghold in which to lick her wounds, there would come a day when the scrapes would cease to heal properly.  Some day the wounds would remain able to cause dull aches in stormy weather or the like.  Not this time, of course.  It might be taking longer these days, but she could hardly feel the tingling that seemed to itch under her skin when her muscles started to unstrain themselves; but someday…”  It’s not an exceptional story for the Doctor.  It’ll be easier to explain why in spoiler tags, but suffice to say, he gets on with resolving the plot and otherwise isn’t too much involved.  It isn’t really anybody’s story, as previously mentioned.

Looking beyond humanity, then, McIntee has some pretty neat ideas about the alien du jour: the Tzun Confederacy.  A race broken up into different groups depending on their jobs (some are specifically space-faring, so they needn’t deal well with planetary atmospheres or gravity, hence they look different), they’re here to take over the Earth (obvs), but they don’t want to conquer anybody.  For the Tzun, each “invasion” is an exchange that benefits both parties, and it involves much laying of groundwork to appease any fears their “victims” might have.  It’s a refreshing POV for an alien menace, and the Doctor respects them.  They’re like a friendly(ish) biological Borg.

Unfortunately you have actually got to write these guys, and as it happens, they’re dead boring.  Not one scene featuring the Tzun (or S’Raph – it’s a bit complicated) is particularly interesting to read, as McIntee’s preference is towards dry exposition.  Here’s a typically thrilling explanation: “The duplication process stimulated an over-production of the enzyme tryptophane hydroxlase in the prototype Earth Ph’Sor.  This enzyme produces an emotional stability that has been bred out of our people.  I have added a small genetic instruction into the new cell structure that inhibits production of this substance.”  Hands up if you thought “Phwoar, that was a good bit”?  Perhaps the good ship Exhaustive Research helped McIntee out with his alien plots as well, but if in doing so the technobabble ends up as just the same tedious gobbledegook as not putting in that time and effort, he might as well spare us the details.

For better and worse, he never does: detail and action are everything here.  This can work really well, like a one-scene-wonder Russian pilot gunning down an empty plane, only he doesn’t know it’s empty and so laments what he’s doing.  Or Bernice taking a moment to notice some neat detail about her surroundings: “The smell of the leather upholstery, after it had basked in the sun for a while, was strange to Benny, but she refrained from saying anything when neither of the others mentioned it.  It must just be one of those things the history books don’t say.”  And there’s a really good bit, fairly representative of the other good bits, when a plane is downed by a UFO, seen from the pilot’s POV.  Reading it made my head spin, in a good way:

Abruptly, the disc flared.  For the briefest of instants, Stephens thought it had exploded under the cannonfire, but the truth became obvious when an unseen hand – which Stephens’ rapidly numbing mind barely recognised as an exceptionally powerful slipstream – batted the Sabre across the sky.  Hauling on the stick while the desert floor did insane cartwheels above his head, Stephens fought both to stay conscious under the pressure that was tightening around his head, and to steady the aircraft before it went into a flat spin.

This kind of attention to detail works two ways, of course.  It’s great for evocative action, but when nothing much is happening – say an explanation needs to be made, or a character enters a room – those skills go into tedious overdrive, leading to exposition that sounds like leaden VCR instructions (see three paragraphs up), or just some pointlessly demonstrative physical attributes standing in for a personality: “Two men, in formal air force blues rather than the usual tropical uniform, stepped silently into the cluttered control room.  The first was a chiselled-featured blond man with pale eyes and wavy hair.  His set his briefcase atop the nearest radar console as the second, dark-haired man entered.  This man had a fuller face, but his thin lips formed a surprisingly charming smile as his dark eyes surveyed the assembled men.”  Maybe it’s just the sort of reader I am, but description like that is like a couple of shopping lists, instead of actual people, entering a room.

There are still some moments of evocative and clever writing, like a paragraph break/point-of-view shift that subtly suggests these “aliens“ might not be what they appear: “Somehow [Agar] felt at ease with them, unlike his fellow humans who always made him feel so small, like an insect crawling on the planet’s face … The forms of Agar and his car were no bigger than an ant as they glowed faintly within the spherical hologram viewer.”  On the other hand, you’ve got another one of those trippy preludes that’s complete gibberish the first time you read it and moderate gibberish when you go back to it after you’ve finished.  Goodness, I hate those; aren’t readers sufficiently wondering “What the hell is going on?” in a sci-fi series that changes its settings and supporting characters every week, without forcing them to enter each new story through a literary lava lamp?

So in its writing style, First Frontier is a mixed bag – and I’ve yet to even mention McIntee’s predilection for paragraph breaks.  If you’ve got time to sit down and plough through this, then great.  But constantly hopping from scene to scene does not help a sporadic reader’s attention span in the slightest.  I read most of First Frontier during an active family holiday, and I often needed a moment to remember which dreary military locale / vehicle / alien locale-or-vehicle I had been transported to.  It’s all just corridors after a while.




And somewhere, in all that historical research and dry exposition, a well-known Doctor Who villain makes their first appearance since the TV days.  The way it’s handled, with a full 200 pages elapsing before anybody even says “the Master”, and 244 pages before the Doctor lamely twigs, left me wanting more.  If you’re going to bring back an iconic villain, famed for sparring with the Doctor, is there really any point keeping it low-key for most of the story?  He’s conveniently and uncharacteristically subtle until the penny drops, with (if I’m not mistaken) an uncharacteristic lack of description for his facial hair just to keep the mystery alive.  (Cheat!)  Still, once the kitling is out of the bag there’s an exciting bit where Ace shoots him and he regenerates (ooh, milestone!  Well okay, Goth Opera got there first.  Anyway, And I think we just pre-empted Russell T Davies by 13 years!), but then he’s quite happily back to I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I-ing the Doctor, shrinking random bystanders, setting traps that inevitably fail and laughing his little head off.  I’m really not sure if it’s a very good Master story, especially when it goes to such lengths to hide the fact.  (Contrast it with Survival, which keeps him a secret throughout a moody and mysterious Part One, then utilises him for the remainder.)

There are a couple of seriously damp squibs in here, including the Doctor picking up on the Master’s involvement purely because somebody else namedropped him towards the end, but most of all there’s the lingering suspicion that the whole thing was engineered just so we could move the Master along from where he was in Survival, and while we’re at it, out of Anthony Ainley’s shoes.  Invoking the dreaded Gary Russell might be a bad idea, since this sort of meaningless dot-joining is exactly his sort of thing.  (Fair’s fair: I wanted to know what the new Master looked like.  Apparently the author has confirmed it's essentially Basil Rathbone in The Adventures Of Robin Hood.)

You do get a sense of the Master’s callous deviousness, as he is willing to sacrifice an entire race just to get rid of his leopard stripes and get off Earth.  I’m not sure any of that’s actually news, but at least it’s there.  There’s also a great bit where he rehearses catching and murdering the Doctor and Ace, which is a delightful feint to start things off – and executed well enough, including a reprise, that you may not mind having read almost exactly the same wheeze in No Future!  (Paging the editor.)  But I definitely felt a sense of “Is that it?”, especially knowing that I may not be seeing his royal beardiness again until the latter Missing Adventures.  (If you know something I don’t, please: shh.)  This encounter doesn’t move him or the Doctor much, not to mention barely getting them on the same page together, which seems a pity given the emotional peak they’d already reached in Survival.  Since these are the supposedly broader, deeper, super-duperer New Adventures, a thorough exploration of who he is, beyond the one-bullet-in-the-chamber surprise value of his showing up at all, seems peculiar in its absence.




Paradoxically, I suspect it’s the big spoiler that draws people to this particular book.  As to whether it delivers on that, debateable, I’d say.  And I’m rather at a loss as to what else is there to keep a reader engaged.  Admittedly there are enough good bits and neat ideas to drag it up from the range’s doldrums, and it’s never terrible, but the characters aren’t fully grown and there’s not as much to the plot as the book seems to think.  It all moves at a fair clip, but with a finite number of surprises to spring on you; the choppy-changey pace and sometimes impersonal narrative can become boring.  Ultimately, for all the author’s efforts, UFO-mad Americana just isn’t as much fun as it ought to be.


1 comment:

  1. This book had an interesting plot, especially in its surprising revelation of the main villain. The Master recently escaped from the Cheetah planet! Who then undergoes a regeneration after being shot by Ace!

    The setting is obviously a good choice for Doctor Who (hence Dreamland with David Tennant, which I also enjoyed though not as much). Unfortunately the most interesting minor characters (the amateur radio enthusiast, the nerdy alien abductee) are given the shortest shrift in favour of several boring military types (both human and alien). Ace is generally more personable in this novel, willing to work alongside Benny and the Doctor and crack jokes.

    There is an overabundance of actual technical description and pseudoscientific technobabble, although the disarming of the bomb in Washington was well-written in my opinion. The aliens and their ship are well realized and complex (although it sometimes takes work to digest the complicated descriptions): I look forward to reading the other novels written about them. Their rationale and modus operandi are detailed and have a certain logic (although I remain unconvinced by some of their sudden decisions), which is very nice change from aliens who want to feed off of human fear or conquer the universe.