Friday, 28 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #35 – St. Anthony's Fire by Mark Gatiss

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
St. Anthony's Fire
By Mark Gatiss

The second New Adventure by Mark Gatiss quickly sets out its stall.  Set on an alien world populated with bipedal lizards, each with a prickly name like Grek or Maconsa, this is clearly some distance away from the nostalgic telly horror of Nighthshade: we’re throwing in our lot with pure science fiction this time.  (Although Chapter One is called “Planet Of Death”, which is pleasantly halcyon and Terry-ish!)  From the things I’ve seen and read by Gatiss, St. Anthony’s Fire is a step outside his comfort zone.  That's encouraging.

Perhaps compensating, he handles this with as much humanist flavour as possible.  The first time we meet Grek, a military commander who’s reaching the end of the war (not to mention his tether), he has his knees pulled up nervously under his chin.  Elsewhere Ran, a man haunted by the death of his lover, likes to spend time each day staring up at his planet’s rings.  Even Priss, whose personality never develops far beyond an eagerness to impress, feels somewhat relatable.  Memory seems like a favourite tool for Gatiss, being the whole focus of Nightshade; it’s employed again here for most of the Beltrushians.  Their nostalgia, the good and the bad, helps anchor their world.

Speaking of Beltrushia, we don’t spend so much time in the major cities as the action focusses more on vaguely First World War-ish dug-outs.  These are peppered with organic technology like “speechers”, while the soldiers fly about in balloon-powered dirigibles.  (A similarity to Silurian tech in Blood Heat is noted, which quashes it a bit.)  It’s not an outrageously alien world, and nor is it a panderingly human race.  I think it’s a good middle ground, a believable society and world at war.

The writing helps.  While I’m often among the first to roll my eyes at a Mark Gatiss Who script, I’m starting to think he’s really at home in literature.  Free from the whip-crack of a 45 minute turnaround, and the yearly constraint of delivering an original idea, he can let his ideas flower, and bathe the characters in acerbic commentary and florid idioms.  Some of the hits include: “Distantly, the constant crackling of gunfire formed a strange backbeat, as though life had been set to particularly discordant music.”  /  “He dug deep into the layers of ephemera which formed a sediment of bureaucracy within his desk.”  /  “In a pool of filthy water by his side lay his hat, floating like a sad cream jellyfish.”  /  “Above it all snaked the column of greasy black smoke, like an evil genie revelling in its freedom.”  I love a good turn of phrase, and St. Anthony’s Fire is pleasantly peppered with them.  (It also features a few less-than-graceful tics, like ending a bit of dialogue with the other character's name more often than it would actually come up in conversation, but the good outweighs the bad overall.)

There’s also some decent character writing.  Ace isn’t in it much, but she actually feels like she’s going somewhere (which, spoiler alert, I know she is); when he finds her hanging out in a particularly pleasant part of the TARDIS, the Doctor offers an arm so they can return to the console room.  She politely declines.  Lost, he notes inwardly that “it won’t be long now.”  Ace’s portion of the story begins with her disconnecting on a pastoral world while the Doctor and Bernice TARDIS about; later, she feels a waining need for her body armour and weaponry.  It’s not much, since she isn’t in the book a lot, and some of it is a little on the nose.  (“Was she changing?  … Something more profound?  The something, perhaps, which led her to seek temporary release from her travels in the TARDIS in the first place?”)  But it’s always a breath of fresh air to move Ace away from the laborious Aliens marine we’ve been stuck with since Deceit.  St. Anthony’s Fire feels like an important baby step.

The Doctor’s attention is mostly focused on the plot, and maddeningly not revealing what the hell’s going on until the last bloody second – seriously, I know it’s a trope, and I know it’s more dramatic if you wait a while, but why can’t he walk and talk?  But he reflects Ace’s journey in little ways, like the proffered (and sadly declined) arm, and a moment where he won’t talk about the hustle and bustle going on all around because, right now, he just wants know if Ace is okay.  That’s not to say he ignores Bernice, although yet again we have a clear need to favour one over the other in the plot department (because three’s a crowd), and Bernice wins.  But Bernice is quite at home using her personality to win people over and frankly, doesn’t need the Doctor very much here.  (Worth noting this is Gatiss’s first Bernice book, and he writes her very well; she’s quite at home in his occasionally witty prose.)

As for the plot, it’s quite neatly done: there’s a war on Beltrushia, meaning the Doctor and Bernice can get stuck with opposing armies.  (That’s a bit too obvious to stick with the whole way through, so they end up predominantly with one side: the Ismetch.)  The war is supposedly winding down, only some mysterious spaceships are destroying the major cities, and the planet’s rings are raining down on them.  If that wasn’t bad enough, some sort of yellow blob keeps emerging from the ground and eating people alive.  And elsewhere, somehow, Ace is having an even worse day.

The war is evocative, starting with that moment of Grek sitting awkwardly and later having some (admittedly well-worn) discussions about whether the war is all worth it.  The characterisation is sufficiently well done that when we lose members of the Ismetch, it really matters.  The mystery of the invading ships and the yellow… thing was enough to pique my interest.  But the cutaways to Ace, going by “the woman” as she’s obviously lost her memory, immediately set alarm bells ringing.  She’s stuck elsewhere, in some sort of self-flagellating order.  This, er, isn’t going to end well, is it?

Pretty soon you’ll find out what the title’s all about, and you’ll wish you hadn’t.  The Chapter are a bunch of travelling folks who “honour Saint Anthony, hammer of the heretics, through endless pain and suffering.”  This involves “the sacred egg” and “the sacred salt” which mix to form – uhhhrm?  – “spitirual semen”.  Practically speaking, they use a flimsy religious pretext to visit worlds and kill everybody with their sun-powered spaceships.  The ones they don’t kill, they brainwash into the fold.  They’re a horrific endgame for Earth religions, obviously co-opted by the pseudo-religious far right; their leader is an utter sadist who murders a kitten because he’s bored (!), eats children’s limbs and baby’s cheeks (!!), and has a severed eyelid in his pocket to play with (?!).  His second in command is a psychotic, perverted, endlessly mocked dwarf.  The whole thing’s bludgeoningly unambiguous but, uh, successfully disgusting I guess.  I didn’t want to read about it.  Congrats.

The thing about Evil Religious Orders in fiction is that they’re very low-hanging fruit.  It’s all too easy to drum up a bunch of cruel bastards and staple a vague religious subtext to what they’re doing, and just leave it at that.  Some folks will call it satire.  (Even Paul Cornell isn't immune.)  The Chapter of Saint Anthony aren’t really satirising anything besides using religion as an excuse, though (since they’re a bastardised amalgam, although Catholicism gets a namecheck), and it’s never really clear whether they take any of this seriously themselves: the two higher-ups have moments of true believer-ness, especially near the end, but elsewhere they just smirk and roll their eyes at acolytes doing the same.  As for their followers, they’re supposedly all brainwashed, except there are flashes of apparently genuine sadism among them as well.  You can’t really have it both ways.  It’s messy.

They just don’t mean anything as a malevolent force – they’re effed up people doing awful things just to get their rocks off, which is one-note and boring.  Probably trying to compensate, Gatiss goes absolutely all in with how horrible they are, which means somersaulting over the top (see, kittens), but all that does is make it harder to get through.  It doesn’t make them more believable, so what's the point?  Frankly, if I think a chapter is going to involve some sort of horrendous animal cruelty I’d rather just skip it, thanks.  If your big aim is to tell me this guy is no-fooling-around 100% evil, you might as well tattoo BAD GUY on his face.  It would be more subtle.

As for the occasional hint that this is all supposed to be some sort of black comedy, evidenced by the psychotic dwarf (dwarf, he’s a dwarf you guys, and he’s sweaty and fat and yuck, haha!), some of his boss’s villainous put-downs, the idea that he lets the Doctor wander around freely because it’s just more interesting to have some opposition, the fact that his final word before dying is an obviously comedic “Bugger,” and an absolutely demented bit where he communicates with his underlings via a stuffed gorilla whose eyes light up… what the hell is all that about?  The guy eats baby bits.  He’s not funny, neither are the Chapter.  I don’t know if it’s an attempt to make the whole sorry organisation more interesting, but it’s as misjudged as the rest of it.

As for the villains themselves, we have the withering and fingernail-examining Yong and the parent-murdering chip-on-his-shoulder loon De Hooch.  I’ve had more fun staring at a bookmark than reading about these two, so when the latter chapters dissolved into a pointless escape-recapture rinse cycle mostly concerning them, and then a power struggle between the two, with even the other characters acknowledging that this is a waste of time given the real planet-destroying problem at hand, I started having vivid fantasies of reading a different book.  All in all, as ideas go, I think it would be fair to say Saint Anthony and co. are an unwisely confident punt off a cliff.

The book has other, better ideas which get rather drowned out towards the end.  The Doctor takes so long to get off his arse and tell us what’s going on that the rather bizarre history of Beltrushia (they invented a kind of gloop that decides whether or not a species has evolved and kills them accordingly, okay then) never resounds; the yellow blob monster that’s secretly the focus of the story ends up pottering around looking rather pathetic in the end.  Bernice makes a somewhat meaningful friendship out of it, which is nice, and the Doctor has those lovely moments with Ace, who despite a harrowing (and thankfully non-sexual, not for want of nudity) experience, somehow manages to keep a level (now bald) head.  But the narrative's general disregard for life among the rest of the cast can be disconcertingly cold.  Hardly any Beltrushians make it to the end, and the population of Massatoris is totally wiped out by Chaptermen.  Their one-note yuckiness means that such a loss is hard to comprehend, or take seriously.  They really do make the book worse.

For its first stretch, St. Anthony’s Fire is an exciting and evocative wartime mystery in space.  Things get clumsy when it comes to explanations, and unfortunately that’s a crucial stage.  The book ends up further away from a recommendation than when it started and, though not exactly ruined, it leaves a less than pleasant taste in the mouth.


1 comment:

  1. This is a strange novel because it starts out with an interesting and realistic depiction of civil war and then redirects into an obscene description of a false religion and its hypocritical leaders. On top of these two plots there is the typically Whovian hugely powerful monster threatening to destroy the galaxy.

    I am thankful to my fellow poster Dewi Evans for pointing out the literary precedent for this over-the-top description of evil religion, which is "The Monk" by Matthew Lewis from 1796. Nowadays unfortunately we have the very tangible examples of the Lord's Resistance Army in eastern Africa or the twentieth century Canadian residential schools for Indian children. Clearly the countless incidents of black humour and silliness shew that Gatiss wrote satire, but I was chilled at times by the parallels to certain modern realities. (As a religious man, I am not actually bothered by any attack on a particular religion, since I believe in the existence of false religions.)

    The seventh Doctor, Bernice and Ace are all enjoyable characters in this book. I see absolutely no indications that Gatiss wrote for Tom Baker instead of Sylvester McCoy: the seventh Doctor could have fun and adventure without scheming and wibbly-wobbliness. Nor can I see that Gatiss tried to hide Ace's identity during her captivity: but her name was not used because of her brainwashed and degraded state.

    I enjoyed the weary and experienced characterization of Grek the reptilian general, and he made a natural ally for the Doctor, but I was initially bothered by how easily converted were two of the other soldiers, who explicitly hated and despised all outsiders.

    Despite the constant shifting of tone I experienced while reading it, I enjoyed many parts of this.