Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #38 – The Crystal Bucephalus by Craig Hinton

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#4
The Crystal Bucephalus
By Craig Hinton

Say it with me: The Crystal Bucephalus.  The Cordon Bleu Syphillis.  The Captain Blue Sympathies.  The Crusty Bucket.  The Diamond Dobbin.  The Emerald Equine.  Join in, everybody!  Anyway, Craig Hinton’s first Doctor Who novel has a great deal of fun at the expense of its own name, and at long-winded verbiage in general.  Set in an exclusive time-travelling restaurant, there’s an air of snobbery and absurdity about it.  For a fair stretch, it’s quite determined to be a comedy.

And not just any comedy.  The premise is the most obvious yoink from Douglas Adams since Gareth Roberts came to town.  The gleefully impossible setting, the pompous personnel, the menagerie of alien oddities, even the belated second coming of a futuristic deity all feel like a nod, a wink, or a deliberate hacking cough towards The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe.  But it’s more affectionate than plagiaristic, and to be fair to Adams, his Milliways was more a one-scene gag than a story in itself.  For all its faults, The Crystal Bucephalus does not tire of its namesake.

At first, it feels like Craig Hinton is going to keep it in the same vein as Hitchhiker’s Guide.  The Doctor, Tegan and Turlough are accused of murder – well that’s a hoary old trope, but it really lends itself more to farce than drama, since we always know they didn’t do it.  And while we are dealing with the Fifth Doctor (not a comedian by any stretch of the imagination), Tegan and Turlough are both known for their eye-rolling snipes.  All three are in fancy (and therefore, slightly silly) costumes, having been dragged away from historical France; the mental image alone is oddly amusing.  And to play off his innate stuffiness, the Doctor is soon butting heads with the absurd Maitre D’, with whom Hinton has buckets of fun: wherever the man goes, amusing turns of phrase will follow.  He expanded like a preening baboon.  /  His fingers splayed out on the surface like fat spiders.  /  His jowls wobbled with pride.  /  He sailed away like a galleon in full sail.

Hinton even pushes the character of the Doctor itself towards comedy in a way that’s either bold or bloody silly, depending on your disposition.  Having a long-standing bank account that occasionally gets “embarrassingly large” due to compound interest, the Doctor occasionally offloads some dosh onto ludicrous business ventures, such as the Bucephalus.  (And apparently, the British film industry.)  As such, he owns the place, which leads to a couple of embarrassed eyebrow-raises later on when he realises the ensuing chaos is his fault.  Hmm.

Other whimsies includes a one-note maniacal torturer who (unless I miscounted) appears in one scene; Chelonians, who have yet to put in a “serious” appearance and don’t buck the trend here; some Alpha Centaurians in all their hysterical glory; an effete Cyberman, plus a Cyber-toilet (!); a religion that parallels the now totally forgotten Christianity, right down to Lazarus and “the Final Dinner”; and a much-deserved wah-wah-wahhh! ending for the villain of the piece.  But most of the above is really just silly window-dressing, or more appropriately for Craig Hinton, fanwank.  The Crystal Bucephalus spends most of its time on science fiction, not comedy.  More’s the pity.

And that’s not to say all the comedy works.  Let’s address the elephant (oh, all right, the giant crystal horse) in the room: yes, I think the Doctor’s ongoing battle of attrition with his bank account is bloody silly.  Why would he even have one?  Doesn’t that suggest a certain stability in the Doctor’s life that plainly isn’t there on the screen?  (Or thus far, in the books?)  As for sinking his extra pennies into random “ludicrous ventures” and never checking up on them, what did he think would happen?  If he’s got so much money to spare, why not use it during the many occasions when money would have been pretty handy?  Such as everywhere he’s ever visited?

There might be something to this as a Seventh Doctor story, as was originally intended.  (Hinton swapped the Doctors so this could get published quicker.)  McCoy can be Machiavellian to say the least, and disastrous consequences are his fortè.  But Davison?  As Doctors go, he seems like he’d be uncomfortable paying too much for a pot of jam.  As for making all of this his fault, besides a surface level of irony and the occasional character saying “It’s all your fault, Doctor!”, it doesn’t add significantly to the story.  As non sequiturs go, it’s not quite Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head, but it’s not far off.  (However, Zaphod was an actual joke.)

It’s funny that fanwank is such a buzzword where Hinton is concerned – he coined the term, of course, but I don’t think he’s that bad for it here.  It makes sense for different alien races to mix and meet in the Bucephalus.  Since the place is famous for history going on in its rooms, it’s a legitimate way to world-build.  (I wonder if I’m more forgiving of it because this is a Missing Adventure.  Legacy attempted the same sort of thing, only it felt like the narrative was grinding to a halt to reference these things, and it seemed fundamentally at odds with the New Adventures remit.  I still think Gary Russell should have gone the whole hog and made it a past Doctor story, since it was a sequel to stories both televised and made up, but hey ho.)  What The Crystal Bucephalus does enjoy in abundance is technobabble.  Heaps and reams and oodles and great steaming quagmires of the stuff.  Oh, lordy, it’s a bit much.

It quickly becomes apparent that the Bucephalus needs a bit of explaining.  How people time travel, how “real” people are when they get there (and hence whether they can change history), how one can interfere with its workings, how one can stop that, what state of affairs the universe is currently in, what would need to go wrong to mess it all up – and like Legacy, Bucephalus occasionally grinds to a halt to explain this stuff.  And it’s tedious.

Even worse: the main thrust of the narrative is not the opening Whodunit, which turns out to be a red herring, but instead somebody interfering with the workings of the restaurant (well, the time-travelling bit – we’re spared any subplots about gone-off food), and the attempts of the place’s architect (Lassiter) to fix everything, and back and forth, ad infinitum.  This stuff is about as exciting as watching a film about hacking – with two people staring at screens and yelling technobabble – but without the aid of dramatic music.  Hinton does try to up the drama here and there, such as cliff-hangers where Turlough and Tegan both seem to fatally disappear.  This not only doesn’t work when you do it twice, it doesn’t carry any weight once: the atmosphere is already too frivolous and complicated, not to mention it’s a daft stretch of disbelief that we’d kill anyone “main” in between two TV stories they’re both in, but the Doctor still trots out a quick monologue about all the dead companions he’s failed, which feels out of place and subsequently rather comical.  When some characters do eventually get (rather unnecessarily) killed, there’s an air of utter disbelief about it.  Dramatic irony, perhaps, finally landing us with some consequences after so much jargon and nonsense, but it still feels bloody cruel.

Besides wading through phrases like “A Legion’s navigation ganglions are right next to its matriculation net”, and chopping and changing characters and settings so often that momentum never really builds (at worst, I counted six changes on a page), there’s a bit of religious satire going on with the whole “Lazarus” thing.  And, don’t panic!  It isn’t anything like St. Anthony’s Fire.  While it does seem like a crude piss-take at first, it eventually builds to a somewhat heartening point about how religion is what you make of it, and if you decide to build something about helping each other, it doesn’t really matter what started it.  Which is good, since (spoiler alert?) what started it is not the wonderful, harmonious guy everyone was expecting.  Not all the ideas of the Lazarus Intent come off – there’s a priest who’s distractingly good at kicking arse, and there’s a racist undercurrent against reptiles that only feels like it’s going somewhere – but for making a point about religion and not making me roll my eyes, points are given.

There’s also a genuinely amusing twist on the gag about the Doctor’s bank balance.  On his way to fetch the TARDIS, he’s re-directed to a random ice planet, and the only way to get back into the Bucephalus network is to have a restaurant worthy of inclusion.  So, he starts one, taking five years in the process and apparently building a few meaningful relationships along the way.  It’s utterly throwaway, or arguably thrown away (we’re talking two or three pages), but considering the Doctor must inveigle his way into the restaurant biz, it makes a lot more sense than the book’s earlier conceit.  (As well as making more sense than Blood Harvest, where the Seventh Doctor ran a speakeasy.)

It's worth wondering if the book makes much sense of its characters, particularly as Hinton swapped them out when Bucephalus was only a few chapters old.  It’s not exactly a character study anyway, so he mostly gets away with it.  The Doctor doesn't always seem right – there's a bit where he hypnotises someone, which seems like entirely the wrong Time Lord – but Turlough and Tegan are analogous enough to Bernice and Ace to make the switch, and more pointedly, all three TARDIS folk spend their time palling about with somebody else.  This is much more a story about Lassiter (Doctor), Tolqvist (Turlough) and Diva (Tegan) than it is about the main three, which often runs the risk of leaving the regulars flapping pointlessly in the background.  Especially Tegan, whose subplot initially leads her to a “leisurely browse” and some “meandering” in London circa 1985, plus later on – brace yourself – swimming.

Despite the work that obviously went into the balancing act of technobabble and guest character melodrama, however, the stuff between Lassiter and his personal life / the villain Arrestis and his acolytes all gets a bit tedious as the thing wears on.  I was too exhausted from the technological disasters going on relentlessly everywhere at once to be bothered about who was in love with whom, and yes, as often happens, I was page-counting by the end.  The Crystal Bucephalus wears out its funny bone and just becomes an exercise in wondering what any of it means, in between losing your thread because it just jumped to a different character again.

And if you're hoping that Craig Hinton has at least written the proverbial Story Where Kamelion Gets Something To Do, because he's on the cover, keep hoping: of the three companions, he's in this the least.  He's here pretty much to justify his continued non-appearance on screen.  Yeah, we are creaking into fanwank territory here.  (Ditto when Hinton devotes most of his finale to explaining why the Doctor was dusting off a new TARDIS console in The Five Doctors.)

Kamelion thinks he can help, which he surely could, but he doesn't make it two steps out of the TARDIS before he's under a psychopath's thrall, and then he quite happily blows somebody's head off.  Shame-faced (or whatever the equivalent would be), he retires to the TARDIS's recesses to think about what he's done, and that's why you don't see him.  Which... fine, does explain it.  (Really though, it's hard to dislodge the obvious explanation: he's a robot, their budget was an average child's pocket money, what on Earth were they thinking?)  But unlike certain other well-intentioned, even quite spirited bits of fanwank – like a reference to that bit of darkness just outside the TARDIS doors when you're inside it, a cameo from a later companion, and some jolly nods to Star Trek including latinum, Earl Grey and Qo'onos – this just reinforces something that already didn't work as being fundamentally redundant.  Why yes, Kamelion was a powerful, largely amoral stooge.  We already thought so, thanks.  If that's the best you can think to do with him, why bother dredging him up?  So much for finally existing in a format where he can get from one room to another.

As I might have guessed from the overcomplicated and whimsical premise, this isn't really about anything.  At best, it's more of a dessert than a meal: it can be rich, clever and fun, but these are highlights, not main ingredients.

5/10

2 comments:

  1. There were some good moments in this book, but all in all I found it a great chore to read, and at times even a displeasure.

    The biggest problem with this novel is the overwhelming torrent of technobabble. It is like watching one of the worse episodes of Star Trek: Next Generation. Parts of this read like a science fair competition between Wesley Crusher, Geordie La Forge and Barclay (there are three angry scientists in a love triangle who also are competing over the discovery of time travel).
    Then there is the surreal story about a galaxy spanning religion based on the scheming of a megalomanical and sadistic geneticist. It is as if Scientology dreamed up by an evil twin of Hubbard (well, more evil) somehow managed to become the preponderant religion on our world. In the hands of a writer from a much earlier generation, the prelate character would have discovered that the religious texts and truths were based on Christianity and have revived that religion while discrediting the exposed false saviour.
    Neither did I like the story about the Doctor owning a time-traveling restaurant famous throughout the galaxy. I never in a zillion years imagined that the Doctor accumulated wealth like a rentier or a pirate. This is not the mad man in a box which I love.
    As far as characterization, the Fifth Doctor and Tegan were more convincingly and enchantingly written in Goth Opera. Turlough is as useless as on television but not as mischievous. Kamelion is written as well as could be given the lack of precedence.

    3/10 Bad, but has some good in it.

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    1. Pretty much. I like Craig Hinton because I've read Millennial Rites (and will do so again in due course), and this one at least gives the impression that he's a smart and witty writer. But he's hitched it all to a rather silly premise, which massively missells the Doctor himself. A very odd starting point for an at times rather dull book.

      And yes, if you're going to write a book with Kamelion in it, give the poor bastard something to do. Even using his airtime to justify him hiding in the TARDIS during Season 21 doesn't mean he has to show up for two scenes at the end.

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