Thursday, 27 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #34 – Evolution by John Peel

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
By John Peel

Oh goodie, he’s back.

With the Missing Adventures now officially underway, it was perhaps inevitable that John Peel would return.  He has said of his New Adventure, the inaugural (and disastrous) Genesys, that he’d rather have written for the Fourth Doctor.  Well, here’s your chance – and in fairness, it (arguably) works out better than Genesys.  But that isn’t saying very much: Evolution is still another bad book.

Of course it would be reductive and a bit cheeky to compare this gothic horror Fourth Doctor story to a swords-and-sandals Seventh Doctor actioner, simply because the same guy penned it.  He’s written loads of other things, some of which I quite liked (i.e.  the ones based on other people’s scripts), but I can’t help it.  Evolution makes some of the same mistakes all over again, albeit in different ways.

There’s his way of painting history with as many stock clichés as will fit on a page.  Whereas his Mesopotamians sounded like the cast of an am-dram Game Of Thrones, all it-was-a-good-battle and taste-my-sword, his Victorians speak exclusively as if they are paid by the word.  (I think my favourite was “There may be evidence or clues aboard it that will aid in the investigation of this matter.”)  That’s just the posh ones, mind: there are some commoners thrown in as well, one of whom says things like “Bloomin’ Ada!” and “Stone the crows!” (on the same page), and improbably, “Impregna-blooming-ble”.  There’s a grubby urchin whose accent wanders jauntily all over the UK: “You really are looking for the missing ‘uns, aren’t ye?”  (Later, he says “Aye.”  Why not chuck in some Welsh?)  He’s extremely poor, I suppose; he may be leaving off random letters to save on ink.

There is also once again (and this is really frustrating given those earlier comments from Peel) a slippery handle on the main characters.  The Fourth Doctor might be at home in a Hammer Horror pastiche, with a deerstalker on his head and gruesome deaths all around, but there’s more to it than just getting the costume and body-count right.  The Doctor says a few things that stuck in my craw as aggressive or odd, even for him: “’You seem to be a reasonably decent sort of chappie.’” / “'Suck-up,’ the Doctor muttered.”  / “’And you’re an impudent wretch.’”  He seems to constantly pause his investigations to go and have dinner or call it a night, both rather human foibles he normally avoids.  There’s a lengthy scene where he pretends to be working for Scotland Yard in order to peruse a suspicious building – now that's a pretence he enjoyed in The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, but only up to a point.  His considerable personality did most of the legwork, whereas he absolutely hammers it to death here.  All I could think was “Put the psychic paper away!”

But worst of all, he’s developed a penchant for very violent threats – and stressing the bit where he’s going to absolutely bloody love what he’s going to do to you.  ’He's going to have some questions to answer when I catch up with him.  And I'll take great delight in beating the replies out of him.’” / "'Let me give you fair warning, Colonel: if you attempt to eradicate a single one of those merpeople he has somehow managed to create, I shall take great delight in feeding you to his seals piece by bloody piece.’" / “'If you touch one of those children,' the Doctor vowed, 'I shall personally take great pleasure in breaking every bone in your body.’”  Ugh – just stop.

Over on the Terminus Reviews blog, Peel piped up to defend this sort of thing as a call-back to The Brain Of Morbius, where sure enough the Doctor engineered a violent death with no apparent qualms.  Much can be said (and has been) about the Doctor’s hypocrisy around violence, and all those mealy-mouthed “You didn’t need to do that”s or “There should have been another way”s that always come too late.  This, however, is not a commentary on the Doctor’s violence.  He has rarely (if ever) expressed a desire to hurt others, or enjoyment in doing so.  His morality has conveniently given way to necessity, sure, and he sometimes has a grim sense of humour about it (especially in the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe years), but actual sadism is a drunken lurch in the wrong direction.  It made me want to post the book back to its author and request he whack himself on the nose with it.  There is personal opinion and then there is getting it absolutely bloody wrong. 

Meanwhile, Sarah Jane complains and carps like she’s off to a Tegan Jovanka convention.  Her relationship with the Doctor bounces between vague awareness that he’s there, active dislike for him and a girl-power need to solve everything herself.  (The Doctor, for his part, doesn’t seem to know if he’s proud of her head-strong blundering or annoyed by it.)  Their conversations aim for playful banter, they sometimes work, and otherwise they sail past the mark thanks to clichés or random oddities: “'There's a mystery here.  I can smell it.'  'That's just doggie doo-doo you can smell,' Sarah complained.’"  Are we sure this isn't a lost Robert Holmes script?

And don't worry, fans of random violent bits: Sarah gets to make a violent threat as well: “She examined her nails thoughtfully.  ‘I doubt you’d earn so much from even curious boys if you had scars down both cheeks.’"  Okay: granted, Sarah’s morality is a little less clear cut than the Doctor’s, since she was only in the show for a few years.  But couldn’t she wheedle information without threatening to claw somebody’s face off?  Isn’t her day job (journalist) sort of dependent on being good at that?  The Doctor’s apparently a psychopath at random intervals, but what’s her excuse?

Deep breaths.  The history may be as subtle as a foghorn, and this Doctor and companion (written, one presumes, with less obligation than his last two) might occasionally sound like psychotic impostors, but I've not said a word about the story yet.  And it’s difficult to know where to start, as there are a few major criticisms I could make about it and how it’s executed, all of which are intertwined.  So let’s launch into the big one.

I read Evolution unspoiled.  I hadn’t even glanced at the blurb, so I was surprised to learn the Doctor was taking Sarah Jane to meet Rudyard Kipling, about whom I know next to nothing.  This could go any which way, and it promptly does, as it turns out he’s currently a teenage boy who hangs around with a few other well-to-do delinquents.  He spends almost all of his time making advances on Sarah Jane.  I imagine a Kipling fan would regard this as an odd move; unexpected, yes, but then fashioning him into a mildly irritating teen just makes it completely random that it’s him.  Sarah happily orates about what a brilliant writer he’ll one day become during a climactic scene, but there’s nothing in the story to support that.

(Quick tangent: and that’s a bloody stupid scene.  Desperate to stop a madman from conducting his vile experiments, Sarah points out that she’s from the future, where Rudyard Kipling grew up to be a famous writer and Mad Scientist Guy is unheard of, so there’s no way he can succeed because that's not how history goes, right?  This backfires immediately – duh!  – and the Doctor has to explain to her that history can be changed, which he already did in Pyramids Of Mars just a couple of stories ago.  That's just sloppy.  Evolution happily piles on the continuity references to the preceding Brain Of Morbius, and even tips its hat to The Seeds Of Doom.  How did Peel forget one of the most famous bits of Tom Baker’s tenure from just a few episodes earlier?  Also, why is Sarah a moron?)

And then Arthur Conan Doyle turns up.  Which… yeah.  It’s hard to have a lot of faith in that going really well.

You know that old sci-fi cliché, when a time-traveller meets a historical figure and they reference a future work?  Quantum Leap did it (but kept it, and famous people in general to a merciful minimum until its later years); some of the cornier New Who episodes love doing it; we had it again recently via the Bootstrap Paradox; and Arthur Conan Doyle in Evolution doesn’t seem to do anything else.  'An unearthly hound, eh?  Sounds like the perfect idea for a story.'” SUBTLE!  “'Billy, are there any of your irregular friends you can rouse?’” REFERENCE!  “'Elementary, my dear Doyle!’” INEVITABLE!  And, paying off an otherwise pointless stream of references to the Brigadier: “'A brigadier who means well...' he mused.”  (Plus there's the Doctor's newly-acquired deerstalker, which doesn't serve much purpose at all since, IIRC, that wasn't Doyle's invention anyway.)  As a character, he’s a mostly vacuous onlooker.  He loves whaling, he’s great at doctoring and he just can’t seem to crack this writing biz.  You’ll learn nothing else about him here which, as with Kipling, begs the question “Why bother?”

Rather surprisingly, any substantial Holmes references are kept to a minimum, discounting those unbearable nudge-winks – All-Consuming Fire this isn’t, more’s the pity.  Peel sticks to that book’s conceit (that there was a real Holmes and Watson and Doyle was their biographer of sorts), at least in the afterword, so the author can’t really go around inspiring Holmes, can he?  But it’s hard to fight the suspicion that he meant to evoke Holmes canon in particular, be it the social degradation (a factory filled with child-labourers) or the hound.  And it just doesn’t work.  This is a tale of aliens, mutants and mad scientists – scarcely any deduction is involved (although the Doctor does dazzle Doyle with a little bit of it, inevitably) and the only real resemblance to Holmes fiction I could figure was the one about the mad scientist who injects himself with monkey genes.  This was easily the worst Jeremy Brett episode, although now I’m worried I dreamed it: I remember getting to the end and thinking, really?  He’s part-monkey?  That’s supposed to be a thing?  Evolution does at least confirm that somebody liked that one.

The plot is probably meant to echo The Island Of Dr.  Moreau in an old-timey sci-fi way, but it’s really more like South Park’s Dr. Mephesto in execution: splicing random animals together because reasons.  Our mad scientist du jour once happened upon some restorative (magic) alien goo that conveniently doubles as a perfect gene-splicer – airtight, right?  – so he naturally wants to create an army of dolphin-people who can lay telegraph wires on the sea bed, because it’s more cost-effective than using boats.  He’s creating a race of super-people, and nothing can schtop him now, etc.!  And he’s got a business associate (the guy who wants those wires laid, because progress, etc.)  who has a total sociopathic disdain for, uh, everybody in the world I suppose.

I mean, what else can you say about all this, other than it’s a load of trite, thunderingly silly codswallop?  To shake things up, there are moments of fairly graphic violence (including a man getting his face bitten off, and that Baskervillian monster hound getting autopsied), plus some (kinda?) social commentary that they’re using kids off the street to do all this, but none of it quite justifies the loopy premise of man-animal hybrids, or Doyle and Kipling being here.  And any influence from the theory of evolution, let alone Darwin, is tenuous at best.  The title’s a stretch.

The last major issue, once you’ve knocked off the dodgy main duo, the smack-your-head-against-a-wall Famous Historical People and the B-movie plotting, is the way it’s written.  Remember Genesys, a book beset by typographical errors like I could hardly believe: they were everywhere.  The fact that it was the range’s first novel both rules out and totally explains why the editing would be a complete disaster (“It’s got to be perfect!” vs “Dear god, how do we actually do this?!”), but the finished book is what it is – a damned ugly mess.  Fast forward to Evolution and we’re mostly spared the typos (hey, even I can’t be bothered to make note of them any more), but the actual writing takes all sorts of wince-inducing turns, some of which should have been eliminated before reaching the printers.

In an early chapter, which follows the point of view of an unhappy hound-boy hybrid, certain phrases are repeated over and over.  He had been human once” is practically a mantra, and he makes the same point about not wanting to kill actual people a bunch of times.  It’s an artistic device though, right?  Repetition because he’s going mad?  Nope: everybody thinks or speaks like that, stating things (usually the bleedin’ obvious) over and over: “It was impossible not to like the young woman … Sarah couldn’t help liking the young woman.”  / "'I'm a guard, not a messenger,' the man replied haughtily.  'I guard.  I don't carry messages.'" / "'We'd better lay low until this evening.' ...  'Until this evening, we'd better lay low.'" / "She had no energy left to fight it off … Sarah didn't have the strength to fight it off.”  / "Sarah didn't need any further encouragement … Sarah didn't waste time or breath arguing … The Doctor wasted no time or words, but simply kicked open the factory doors.”  / "He had called that creature of his a burglar!  It was obvious to her that Ross was here to steal something from the house.”  / “She felt angry.”  / “'I’m sorry,’ she apologised.”  / "Billy does,' Sarah said, stressing the youngster's name.”  (Gee, thanks for explaining italics!)  If somebody okayed all of this, they must have been caught napping.

If the relentless broken-clock-dumbness of people doesn’t bother you, there’s also their weird fixation with (tedious) running commentary.  They do this seemingly to pass the time, and literally at one point when Sarah just feels like recounting the plot.  It’s like everybody has a ‘50s era trailer voice in their head, and they just need to reaffirm that they don’t know what’s going to happen next, dammit!  "What kind of a hold did the suave Colonel Ross have over Roger?  Friendship?  Money?  Blackmail?  She didn't know.”  / "She felt dreadful about searching [Ross's room], but what else could she do?  Perhaps something would be revealed that would resolve her quandary.”  / "Was she getting through to him at all?  … It would not be an easy matter for him to trust her, but had she made him realise that he had no other genuine option?” / "To pass the time, Sarah tried making sense of what they had discovered so far...

Just to soapbox about writing for a second (who, me?), if a character doesn’t have anything interesting to say, maybe shut them up until they do.  And if they don’t know what’s going to happen next, firstly join the club, and secondly maybe that’s not actually an interesting thing to point out, so why bother?  “Would he enjoy the sandwich?  He simply didn’t know.  He picked up the sandwich and bit into it.  As it turned out, he did enjoy the sandwich.”

(Bonus bit of redundant guff: We occasionally cut to the plight of the mer-children, one of whom (Lucy) regales the others with her life story.  This includes violence and near-sexual abuse (someone get Peter Darvill-Evans’s Missing Adventures brief, we’re going wrong again!) and, totally pointlessly, the bit where she gets captured and turned into a mer-person.  Just like all of them did.  Why the hell do they need to hear that all over again?  Because we do.  Smoo-ooth.  As for why they’d want to hear about her getting brought up by an abusive psycho… god knows.  Lucy, they're kids.  Make something up.)

Most of this I could just about level at the book’s editors.  Repetition is irritating, by definition you don’t need it, so cut it out.  Inane observations are just that, we’re not idiots, so someone should have been all over them with a red pen.  But there are bits – like the Doctor’s ill-advised lust for violence, and the odd undercurrent of female weakness, from Alice the dippy fiancé to Jen the unscrupulous prostitute to Sarah’s bullish thoughtlessness – that simply point to bad ideas, and a bizarre overconfidence in said ideas, and (incredibly) a belief that any of this is being done in clever jest.

The mad scientist tells of his brilliant, miraculous discoveries (oh look, a UFO, cheers for the multi-purpose goo) in a rambling “Why not, I’m about to kill you anyway” monologue, just before the other unbearably hackneyed bad guy does exactly the same thing all over again!  Back on Terminus, Peel has said this is intended as a spoof; the trouble is, Evolution is neither clever nor (intentionally) funny enough to get away with that, and it’s stuffed with so much other hoary schlock that the “spoof” stuff looks suspiciously the same.  (Not to mention the same as Ishtar, his last by-the-numbers baddie.)  Some clever-clever mirth is had at the coincidence of Ross finding that UFO goo, which...  yeah, underlines how coincidental that is.  The Doctor chuckles heartily when a character comes to an obviously wrong deduction just to facilitate more plot, which...  yeah, makes that sort of worse, actually.  Lines like "'Can we drop the corny literary allusions?'" and "'You think they'd be more bleeding inventive, wouldn't you?'" are pretty much own goals in such bad company.  And as I read on, my patience withering, this dazzling exchange pretty much shaved a point off my final rating all at once: “'You scoundrel!’ exclaimed Doyle.  ‘Do you expect us to sympathise with you?’ ‘No, Doctor,’ Breckinridge answered.  ‘I expect you to die.’

I just… he… really?!

And of course there's the general embarrassment that can come with writers inserting characters into history and “inspiring” other works: the quality of the story will dictate the degree of insult to the original artist.  For Evolution to go around saying this stuff could have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle, not to mention The Jungle Book (!), is downright cuckoo.

Probably the best thing I can say is that it’s undemanding.  The prose, aside from its iceberg-ish flaws, bobs along quickly; the book’s surprises tend to be revealed in massive info-dumps, so you don’t have to think much along the way; and like Genesys, the bar is pretty low to start with in terms of genre writing, so if you’re after a brain-set-to-OFF-position gothic horror with barmy sci-fi bits, you might well enjoy yourself.  But I’ve really got to squint to find the good in here.

The return of a Doctor and companion who don’t sound right.  A silly story that shrugs away its setting and personages.  Attempts to be witty that succeed about as well as Riverdancing in Wellingtons.  Oh aye: it's a worthy successor to Genesys.


1 comment:

  1. Back when I read it, I found this book to be a thoroughly enjoyable story, and the Victorian seaside community very well portrayed in all its details. The mystery unfolds in part through the Doctor's insights and energetic doings; but also in part through Sarah Jane's gradual journalistic methods. Furthermore, the secondary characters are fun and as realistic as their roles allow them. (Rudyard Kipling is cast not as his wiser older self, but as the callow youth which inspired his later tales of Stalky and Company. Arthur Conan Doyle is a ship's surgeon for a whaler.)

    However, the characterizations of the Doctor and Sarah Jane are occasionally ridiculous. They frequently threaten violence against people, and Sarah uses her toe to break a man's hand. Perhaps John Peel prefers to write for action heroes and imported these predilections into a Doctor Who novel. If you can ignore those bits (which is hard to do, I admit), the rest of the novel is fantastic.