Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #37 – Falls The Shadow by Daniel O'Mahony

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Falls The Shadow
By Daniel O'Mahony

Time for one of those New Adventures I knew nothing about beforehand.  I look forward to those: no reviews on my radar, no expectations, anything could happen.  But, once again, there's a reason I never came across this one on my research rounds.

To start with, Falls The Shadow is a bit familiar.  The TARDIS lands in a weird old house filled with crazy people.  Some echoes of Ghost Light there, which is no surprise as it was originally based on "advanced rumours" about Ghost Light's plot.  And more recently, it's like Strange England.  (Uh oh.)  As occurred in that novel, reality has indigestion; the people that inhabit the house aren’t all there; there’s lashings of violence and torture, which are becoming worryingly ever-present in these books (Strange England, Evolution, St. Anthony’s Fire – maybe give it a rest, fellas?  Shake things up a bit?), along with the messed up metaphysical what-the-effery that forms the finale (and much of the rest of it).  In the blurb, Daniel O’Mahony says he has occasionally “managed to be controversial”.  Despite all the effort, he hasn’t managed it here.  Par for the course, more like.

Falls The Shadow is plenty weird, of course.  Something in the house is killing people more or less at random, and it can look like anything.  Several of the people there are having an identity crisis.  There’s a mysterious grey man who keeps trying to get involved, keeps getting killed, and keeps coming back.  And a scientist is making forays into another realm of existence, which is what started this whole mess.

And some of the book’s ideas are intriguing, though as it often the case, more so in theory.  That other realm is “interstitial time”, which is never really explained; it’s something to do with how time travel causes other realities to wink out of being, and the book is what happens when that comes back to bite you.  In practice: beings from outside time are manipulating people, who are themselves composites of might-have-beens from other timelines.  (One of them is from a timeline where we’re all giant insects!)  Needless to say, these people are varying degrees of nuts, which can become monotonous.  Still, you can visit interstitial time via a wardrobe, which is pleasantly wacky and TARDIS-esque.  The house itself can shift and grow seemingly at random, which is a neat idea and would look great in a film, though it really doesn’t achieve very much here.  We also visit a mysterious city/alt-universe called Cathedral that’s ruled by the grey guy and is linked to the house, which is pretty neat.  It’s not a very interesting place to visit, but it was a nice break from the house.  The grey guy is about as successful as South Park's Kenny for most of it, which makes him oddly comical to behold, and we never really know what he is, but there's definitely something interesting there.  I could live to regret it, but... I think I'd want to read about him again.

Alas, we’ve been down this road before: ideas are great, actually they're essential, but they’re not the whole show.  Put them to one side and Falls The Shadow doesn’t have much story to tell.  Our heroes bumble around a madhouse where troubled people come and go.  The sadistic and all-powerful villains, Gabriel and Tanith, manipulate events and make bad things happen just for the hell of it.  Realities bump into each other.  We may delve into the psyches and histories of the house’s inhabitants at intervals, but they’re all disposed of with varying degrees of shrug.  A lot of it is disposable and forgettable; there were many moments where the remaining pages seemed to expand ad infinitum, like the corridors of the house.  At 356 pages (uh oh, he’s counting), it’s morbidly long.

But the writing is mostly... sort of good, if I’m honest, particularly the characterisation.  Bernice is a pleasure, which I refuse to take for granted.  Such a relentlessly witty character could easily become nauseating.  (There’s a bit where the Doctor notes “‘We’d be worse off without your sense of humour, Benny.’  Not half.)  Ace seems fleshed-out (oo-er – actually, she remains fully clothed!), the narrative adopting her mannerisms with sweary ease.  She’s a lot more believable without the artificial “Toe-rag!”s and “Bilge-breath!”s; it’s surprising what a difference actual swearing makes, while her natural violence takes on a very human fury near the end.  I prefer that to Ace The Cold Soldier.  With Benny and Ace, Daniel O’Mahony has a natty gift for shifting into the second person for a character’s inner thoughts, something he rather oddly drops later on.  I liked it while it lasted.  It certainly helps with the occasionally cartoonish Ace.

Less good is his Doctor.  There’s a portion of the story where it appears one of his friends has died (funny, this also happened in Strange England), and he becomes defeatist and melancholy because it’s seemingly the past repeating itself.  Fair enough, right?  Except he’s out of sorts from the moment he first appears.  The TARDIS is malfunctioning (trope!), hence its arrival in the house, and the Doctor becomes visibly weakened.  ‘Ace, I’m sorry if I’ve seemed a bit brusque,’ the Doctor said softly, close to her ear.  ‘It’s just I’m very worried about the TARDIS.’  It’s not like him to be so demonstrative, or so easily shaken.  The reader can’t be the only one to think “Here we go again” at the TARDIS breaking down, so why the doom and gloom?  Then things go from not-great to bad when, after allowing Bernice to wander off by herself (!), the Doctor and Ace decide to search an enormous and likely dangerous house from opposite ends!  Surprise, they wind up in separate baskets of trouble.  And near the end he goes a bit mad and hides in the TARDIS.  What the heck is up with him?  (Another serendipitous own goal: “Ace had gone through patches of depression in the past, but she’d been a kid and she’d grown out of it.  Watching a grown man endure the same was embarrassing.”  Yup.)

It’s hard not to suspect “We all go a little mad sometimes” is the excuse for a lot of this, and as bracing as that might be (at least the first time – which this isn't), it’s no replacement for real motivation.  Certainly it’s the best Gabriel and Tanith can come up with: pointless, proud sadists, they introduce an assassin and a pissed-off bug person into the mix just to liven things up, torturing and killing just to see what it feels like.  You can be as clever and meta as you like, and Falls The Shadow is occasionally both, but it’s hard to come up with compelling motives, and sadism is a lame replacement.  The book does eventually try to make sense of them beyond that, but said effort is not only muddled by all that universe-bothering weirdness that comes as standard now (they want to do what with the universe?), it’s also just too late to take either of them seriously as people who want something.

A first-time novelist, O’Mahony’s prose dips between careful, deliberate oddness (like much of the character introspection, and a mad character conversing with an icon around another’s neck) and sheer waffle.  There’s a tendency, especially near the start, to over-describe the hell out of things:

He was grey.  Grey coat over a grey shirt and trousers.  Grey shoes with loosely tied grey laces that never came undone.  His hat: casual, wide-brimmed, grey.  Even his skin: paper-thin, cold and bloodless, tinged grey by the cold daylight.  His hair, though, was white, but streaked with lines of pure black.  Almost grey.  So… he’s grey, then?

It was large, grey and ugly.  It squatted in the corner of the room daring anyone to come near it.  It was, simply, a wardrobe.”  How is that “simply”?  And later that paragraph: “Wardrobe was too weak a term for the sombre artefact.  It was a sarcophagus.”  So it wasn’t simply a wardrobe, then?

It can affect the dialogue, too: “‘You’re mad,’ she said simply.  There was no point in adding anything else.  Mad said it all.  Well yes, it did, two sentences ago!  And occasionally characters will ponder things in a circle.  The first line of the book is “Qxeleq would have screamed, had she a mouth,” and then, near the end of the Prologue, “Qxeleq tried to scream.  She discovered that she no longer had a mouth.”  What, again?  I know this sort of thing is picky.  Perhaps I wouldn't be stuck on it if I was swept along by the story.

O’Mahony is skilled enough elsewhere for one to suspect this is all carefully constructed.  I can imagine an editor not knowing where, or even if to start, as this guy seems to know what he’s on about even if it’s a opaque to us.  But there still must come a point where a story is either moving or it isn’t, and for great slabs of Falls The Shadow, that’s simply a negative.

What enjoyment can you derive from it?  Well, there are the ideas, but that’s almost a back-handed insult, since I feel like there must be a more compelling story to be told about worlds that never got a chance to exist, blaming the Doctor for leaving his TARDIS-shaped footprint where they could have been.  There’s the characterisation, which works very well indeed sometimes.  The supporting characters wobble in and out of the narrative, always with the clever-clever air of “Ah yes, I meant to do that,” which isn’t a substitute for giving a hoot about them, or in some cases, telling them apart.  There’s some neat-o imagery, but file that next to the ideas.  The prose is promising, but all told, it would work better if there was less of it.

I went into it with an open mind and I didn’t exactly hate it.  Unless you're hell-bent on reading absolutely every one of these things, however, it's one to skip.


Monday, 2 January 2017


Doctor Who
The Return Of Doctor Mysterio
2016 Christmas Special

Let's imagine you're Steven Moffat.  (Now stop polishing your Hugos and pay attention.)  You've been at this Doctor Who lark for seven to eight years, you've tried to write your way out of it a couple of times, and you've written six Christmas Specials for it, as well as the lion's share of episodes in general.  You are quite justifiably knackered.

There was no series in 2016, so you may actually have got some sleep for once.  But guess what: there's still a Christmas, and that means yet another Christmas episode.  You complained (you're still Steven Moffat) as far back as The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe that it was hard cranking these things out, and even then you had to look elsewhere (Sherlock) for inspiration.  Fast forward to 2016 and it's completely understandable that you were (probably) sitting in your study, knowing you had to squeeze blood from a stone again, so you looked around for something to write about and, in sheer desperation (I suspect), opted for superheroes.

"Joe's Pizza" and an American flag?
American Set Dressing Level: Expert.
Well, they haven't been done in Doctor Who, have they?  Therefore, good to go.  Merely including one – recognisable tropes and, er, nothing else – ought to be novel enough, since you can still say you wrote the only Doctor Who episode about a superhero!

Except, fanboy check, no you can't: we've had superheroes in Doctor Who, and with quite a bit of flair.  Almost 50 years ago there was the Karkus, a fictional superhero brought to life in The Land Of Fiction.  And over in the books, there's The White Knight: another fictional superhero brought to life in... uh, the same way actually, it was a sequel.  Those stories were diversions from the norm, with Conundrum in particular questioning the type of story or format you can use in Doctor Who.  Those writers knew this particular thing didn't really belong in the same medium as Doctor Who, and that you'd have to seriously bend the rules to make it fit.  They played with what is fiction and what is real.

You might expect this sort of rule-bending from Mr Moffat (you can stop being him now), after the hoops he jumped through to justify Santa Claus a few Christmases ago.  He could probably do something interesting with it.  But no, it turns out we can thank the same kind of that'll-do alien McGuffin that lets us have "ghosts", "werewolves" and "vampires" – always with a cod science explanation and usually at a comfortable distance in history, it should be noted – for the "superhero" zooming around America, for real, in the present day.  He swallowed a thing, now he's a superhero, deal with it.

Disappointingly, aside from the exceptionally small main cast, nobody deals with it.  The world hasn't really changed for having a bona fide Superman in it: nobody seems to be asking "Hang on, how is this an actual thing?  Didn't we make it up?"  Even the Lois Lane stand-in, the only one who is excited by all this, doesn't make the glaringly obvious connection with comic book lore.  You could argue they're all too jaded from the onslaught of Batman movies to even notice; said onslaught is presumably the same over there since they've got all the same comic books.  And yeah, referencing all the usual suspects as quickly as possible is certainly one way to weasel out of being "too similar": remember Michael Troughton saying "Aren't they a bit like the face-huggers in Alien?" before the audience could moan about copyright infringement?  Well duh, of course it's familiar!  It's based on them!  Genius.

Bless Matt Lucas, but... eh.
He shows up, he makes funny comments in a squeaky voice.  That's it.
Back for Series 10?  Really?
Anyway, this human race will need a very good reason to be impressed by just another flying guy in a cape.  For goodness sake, the completely batty Guardians Of The Galaxy is on its second go, we're on our sixth Batman and Hugh Jackman's been Wolverine for 18 years!  Meanwhile this guy – The Ghost – is just a budding DC fan who gets his superhero wish, so he has all the "basic" (his word) superpowers you'd expect.  Consequently he falls somewhere between a fishy knock-off and a limp spoof: surely it's aimed at someone who's never seen anything like this before.  So at a guess, cave-people.

As for the day-to-day life of the superhero, which is usually the real story of the man or woman anyway, it's also as basic as they come.  Grant is The Ghost, but he's also a nanny (hold that thought), which means he can keep an eye on baby Jennifer, whose mother – Lucy – he has loved since high school.  This allows for some intense cutesypooh, as he zips back home because his baby monitor went off (The Dark Knight he ain't), as well as some well-worn tropes.  Specifically, Lucy is a journalist investigating (among other things) The Ghost.  And she kind of fancies him.  But she doesn't really notice Grant, even though he's a daily part of her life and he loves her.  Sound familiar?  Bloody hell, it ought to by now.

Okay, not so much the nanny thing.  And what's wrong with that, asks the episode?  Well, nothing, but since Grant manages to supplant his lack of typical masculinity by being a superhero it's never really clear what, if anything, the episode is saying about male nannies that aren't.  (Lucy also points out that dressing like a superhero is a bit gay, and at this point I just haven't got a bloody clue.)  At the end Lucy says that his being a nanny, or rather being himself is the real superpower.  But then the story doesn't come full circle with that because Grant's still got (and will plainly still use) his powers.  Ultimately it feels like another, cruder attempt at a cute, submissive male character (except this one's a superhero), who at one point asks Lucy not to hit him for telling a lie.  Because men are goofy schlubs and women are awesome and, uh, violent.

This wouldn't be the first time Moffat has taken a laddish, sitcom look at male/female relations, and unsurprisingly it's hard to take seriously.  It's also hard to believe that Moffat's ever had a job that wasn't TV screenwriter, because come on.  For Grant's (sweetly?) stalkerish lifestyle to work he must look after Lucy's baby more than most, right?  Okay: how well is she paying him?  Even if he's full time at this (and it's not like he could look after loads of babies at once – he's not a dog walker), could he ever earn enough to get by?  Don't any of his employers find it a bit odd that an adult male is living entirely on babysitting?  The whole thing reminds me of Amy, who was firstly a "kissogram" (hmmmm), then a fashion icon, then a journalist.  Jobs, right?  It's not like people actually need them.

Justin Chatwin and Charity Wakefield do their best as Cutesy Superhero and Generic Feisty Love Interest, but their interplay is beyond tired, despite the Doctor calling the relationship "complicated".  (To be fair, he appears to be the only cave-person who didn't know Clark Kent was Superman, so it probably seems that way to him.  And to be fairer, that's an excellent gag.)

Moffat surprisingly leaves the door open for him to return, with his powers in tact.  Okay, the guy says he probably won't use them again, and the Doctor says he'll "take care of anything that happens", but what happens the next time a building is on fire near him, or aliens invade when there's no Doctor about?  Yeah, right.  In which case, are we saying that after creating an immortal in Ashildr, which had major plot-arcy consequences, the Doctor's content just to let this hang?  I don't buy it.  And don't we sort of... not need the Doctor any more because of this?

It's food for thought, and obviously it's not intentional because you're supposed to be eating sweets.  Meanwhile, when you're not creaking through Superman For Dummies, the episode does actually need to do something that resembles Doctor Who a bit, and Moffat gives this arguably even less thought than the cape-wearing stuff.

There's this evil race of alien brains (they couldn't be nice alien brains, could they?), and they want to replace the brains of humanity's elite, and then replace all the other brains so that everyone on Earth is actually just one of the evil brains in a person suit.  They'll do this by making incredibly secure buildings and then crashing their spaceship into New York, so that all the world leaders will rush into their buildings and, whoops!, get a brain transplant.  Then they'll move on to another planet (after presumably finding a new spaceship and making some more brains?), until everything everywhere is... er, brains, I suppose?  It's not exactly the most complicated plan ever, despite the Doctor's earnest "What a good plan!" comments, and it's not even very original.  (The Doctor inadvertently draws a parallel with Aliens Of London by reminding us that this is an alien invasion staged by aliens who have already invaded.)  And I have questions, like why there are a bunch of brains just sat about in the first place, and how Brain #1 ever got into Victim #1.  (Asked very nicely?)

Seriously guys: use pockets.
Also, uh... doesn't the brain go there?
Between the superhero stuff and the alien stuff this is tired and half-arsed even for a Christmas Special.  (Evil brains, really?)  But at least you've got Peter Capaldi in the thick of it.  (Ahem.)  Or, uh, sort of sitting around the edges of it.

He creates a superhero by mistake, then flits adorably through young Grant's life to check up on him.  (This would be even more adorable if we hadn't already seen him do it with Reinette, Amy, Kazran and Clara.)  He oscillates charmingly between silly and brusque, and gets some funny lines, but the plot offers him very little to work with, so his character just becomes less interesting and in the end, rather irrelevant.  And yes, there are more bloody tropes along the way.

I hope you're not bored of his pompous grandstanding: "Mercy?  It's not a request, it's an offer!"  Huh.  "There have been many attempts to conquer the Earth, I've lost count.  Not one of them has succeeded, not a single one.  They all lost, burned and ran.  That's who I am."  Are we sure this is new dialogue?  "[The humans] have the same plan they always have.  Me!"  Oh, get you.  It's a wonder he even bothers to turn up any more; he might as well Tweet his demo reel at them.

But when the time comes to actually do something, he's yawnsomely just making it up as he goes, which pretty obviously the writer is as well.  "There's only one thing I can do, the unexpected!"  Uh huh.  "The only thing about being in a room full of buttons and switches is... I love buttons and switches!"  So, hit all the buttons, then?  Golly: I'd never have thought of that.  And is there a back-up plan?  "I have no idea, but it's going to be a very big relief when I think of it."  I've no doubt that it will, Steven.

It's one thing to write your hero as a boastful genius.  (And perhaps you shouldn't, as it's rather unlikeable and, like anything, it gets boring the more you do it.)  But it's another to actually earn the genius label.  "Hit all the switches" – though a time-honoured tradition going back to Troughton – just doesn't cut it any more.  The Doctor repeatedly rolls his eyes at the bad guys here, lazily boasts about how he'll win because he always does (which is just irritatingly meta at this point, he always wins because it's an ongoing TV show), and then he barely has to try to do so.  It's all well and good for him to say "I'm back!", like everyone else can now put their feet up, but all his heroism is just serendipity, shouting and knowing the right people.  This ain't a genius at work.: we're better off with The Ghost.

Before long the episode races to a close, and up to now it's been about as substantial as an IOU for some candyfloss, so we try desperately to cram some meaning into it before the credits roll.  Normally a Christmas episode would do this by progressing the last year's story, only whoops!  We've skipped a year, so we have to use River Song.  Again.  Asking an audience of half-comatose adults to remember a mostly disposable Christmas episode from a year ago, just to lend this other bit of fluff an emotional edge, is a bit desperate to say the least.  Asking the kids in the audience is absolutely mental.  Remember, River's been "dead" in some form since 2008, the Doctor said goodbye to her hologram in 2013, waved her off to her death in 2015, and we've all had a year off since then.  We're done.  It's a little late for us to get our grieve on.

I like superhero stories.  I've seen a lot of them, and I'm not even the show's bread and butter audience, who've probably seem them all.  But for exactly the same reason they're popular enough to reproduce here, none of us needs to see a version that isn't doing something new – and stapling on a load of other bumf that isn't doing anything new won't do.  The Return Of Doctor Mysterio is unluckily the only Doctor Who episode this year, and it's not much of an ambassador, but then isn't it always the case that you've just got to make do with whatever flimsiness comes along?  Hey, at least they're still making it – occasionally.  This show is so often like that reliably hopeless present your gran always gets you, where perhaps it's unfair to expect any different, so you grin and say thank you.