Friday, 3 February 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #40 – State Of Change by Christopher Bulis

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
State Of Change
By Christopher Bulis

Here we go.  I’ve owned this one since childhood and, for whatever reason, never actually read it.  Perhaps it was the historical setting (more or less) on the cover, coupled with the old hard-wired fan logic that Historicals Are Boring.  Whatever the reason – probably laziness – I didn’t have any expectations when I got around to it this week, but with the amount of time it’s been sat on my bookshelves, I certainly had my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t disappoint.  It’s written by Christopher Bulis; while I enjoyed his first book, I’m aware that he’s not a favourite among fandom.

Fortunately, fandom has been wrong before, and here we are again: the historicals are jewels of the show’s early years, and Christopher Bulis can turn in a very entertaining novel.  State Of Change is no Marco Polo, but it was good enough to make me clock-watch at work, eager to get on with the story.

It’s about an alternate timeline, and Exodus already showed that I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.  (All right, maybe Back To The Future Part II got there first.)  The Doctor and Peri visit Ancient Rome so they can mingle in history, only a TARDIS malfunction has wrought havoc, and the Romans now have modern-day technology, electricity, even (inevitably!) zeppelins.  Meanwhile there’s a power struggle between the children of Cleopatra, with no clear ruler decided between the calculating Selene, the deluded Alexander and the self-deprecating Ptolemy.  There are murderous plots aplenty.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t get too concerned with how to fix history; we’ve already done that in Exodus, so it makes a nice change for the Doctor and Peri to work more on resolving the power struggle, and helping the generally noble Ptolemy overcome his siblings.  State Of Change is not a pure historical: right from the start it’s a fusion of history and sci-fi like The Time Meddler, and later on things get even more sci-fi as it turns out “alternate timeline” was merely the obvious first impression.  Nonetheless, it romps along like a lighthearted ’60s story.

Bulis apparently loves this period of history, so it must have been a pleasure to muck about with it.  (I didn’t know it too well, but there’s sufficient explanation in the book, and a quick glance at Wikipedia didn’t hurt.)  Once you’re over the shock of history not going to plan, there’s a certain lived-in fun to this version of Rome which almost recalls Terry Pratchett’s manky cities.  The characters are the same relatable archetypes you’d find in an old historical, especially a money-grubbing dealer of magic spells and a troupe of loveably hapless thieves.  There are a number of delightful comic moments that have a certain Classic series ingenuity, like Peri frightening off grave-robbers by loudly bellowing “WHO DISTURBS THE SLEEP OF CLEOPATRA?”, and the Doctor flummoxing a gladiator by running away from him, raising a hand to stop him, tying his shoe, then carrying on.  There’s a black humour to the familial villains, and even the odd touch of empathy; the maniacal Alexander believes in himself so utterly, it’s hardly his fault he’s wrong.  (“‘I doubt if I’m actually capable of making a mistake – wouldn’t you agree?’  Vitellus gaped helplessly for a moment, then slowly bowed his head.”)  I often chuckled helplessly.

As to the story’s sci-fi trappings, and the whole mess the Doctor and Peri are in, it’s all the work of a mysterious someone who for the sake of a 23 year old surprise, I won’t name.  (I already spoiled it for myself researching these books, but there’s no sense in ruining it for anyone else.)  One of the lesser-used villains from the television series is put to, frankly, rather odd use here.  The title refers to a general instability in the “alternate” Rome (as well as the obvious zeppelin stuff), which is causing crises for the Doctor and Peri (more on that shortly), as well as for the villain.  Disguised as one of the ruling triumvirate, they are cautioned by the Doctor that they’ll get too wrapped up in their host’s squabbles, and sure enough, their grand plan morphs from getting out of here to ruling this world.  I think I enjoyed it more when they really did just want to get out of here – because not every antagonist in Doctor Who wants to blow up a planet.  Why shouldn’t they occasionally have the same basic interests and survival instincts as the Doctor?  The character reaches a point of vagueness where it’s worth wondering why they were even involved, but then apparently they were a relatively late (and not entirely voluntary) addition to the book, which would explain it.  The great story about this character has yet to be written, alas, but they’re perfectly okay in this one.  I suspect State Of Change would work without them.

And speaking of lesser-used characters, at long last we get a book for the Sixth Doctor.  I know it’s only the fifth Missing Adventure, but there seems to be a certain stigma about him in the Virgin canon.  Whenever past Doctors are invoked – and it happened a lot around the anniversary – Sixie didn’t get a look in, unless it was a grim reference to his being knocked off to make room for the next fellow.  In Decalog, the short story featuring the Sixth Doctor largely side-lined him.  The One With The Patchwork Coat wasn’t even Christopher Bulis’s first choice for this novel.  (To be fair, that’s common enough: Craig Hinton wanted to write a New Adventure, John Peel apparently envisaged Evolution as a Fifth Doctor story, and a number of New Adventures authors seemed to wish they were writing somebody else.)  State Of Change still can’t resist putting the Sixth Doctor at a distance, as if he’s the show’s redheaded stepchild.  He spends almost no time with Peri, communicating with her via video and voice link, and after the halfway point he’s quite literally not himself.

Broadly speaking, Christopher Bulis gets him right.  There’s the requisite sarcasm, plus he’s a stickler for elocution and verbosity.  His dialogue can often be as dry as fossilised toast, but you can hear Colin Baker delivering it.  (There’s more going on under the surface, though not so subtly: “For a moment, the tenderness that the Doctor seemed to hide beneath his superior mannerisms was revealed, and Peri sensed the true depth of his concern.  Oof!)  But then, owing to that weird instability, the Doctor “retro-regenerates” into his past selves.  Later, with a handy gadget, he channels them deliberately.  We haven’t seen this gimmick since Genesys, and funnily enough it was used to revisit the same (apparently all-purpose) Doctor: in order to survive a gladiator match, the Doctor must channel his third incarnation, fancy footwork and all.

This is great if you’re a big fan of Pertwee, but it does make it curiously pointless that this isn’t a Jon Pertwee book.  It also leaves the current Time Lord looking absolutely hopeless.  (The jibes about his weight don’t help.)  Yes, his ingenuity is generally useful, but he’s reliant on the Third Doctor for roughly half the book, and most of the climax.  It’s such a handy and reliable gimmick that there’s really no need to worry about him transforming against his will at all – and as a side-note, the characters are rarely worried about anything in this, which adds to the relaxed fun of it all, but with the obvious trade-off of tension.  Still, towards the end we do get a (cringily fannish) sequence where the Doctor morphs back through all his past lives.  Retro-regeneration is a cool idea, and you could probably do something eerie with it, but in practice it’s just an excuse to trot out catchphrases and Terrance Dicks idioms, and allow the Sixth Doctor to improbably knock people out with a nerve pinch.  We’ve got a whole range just for these old Doctors – we don’t need these references any more.

Completing the set, Peri is going through changes too.  As you can see on the cover, she’s having a relapse to her Varos days and is transforming into a bird again.  (If you haven't seen Vengeance In Varos, spoiler alert, she turns into a bird for a few scenes.)  I can’t quite figure out why this story is set so much later than Varos, when it hinges on Peri’s mental state in it, and fear of the body horror inflicted on her.  (There’s even a pretty grim addition, when it’s revealed she had an “accident” during the process.  Thanks for that.)  She goes full Bird-Woman in this, complete with flying.  In a world with mutated animals such as hydras this makes a certain sort of sense, and obviously it’s inspired by that previous story, but it still feels like a different genre altogether when Peri swoops heroically to the rescue.  She’s characterised pretty well otherwise – a little brash but empathetic, good at encouraging other people to help each other, gently tolerant of the Doctor – and Bulis does try to examine the effects of her transformation on her psyche.  The bird thing is still a bit random, and all things considered Peri accepts it rather easily.

And yes, it’s worth mentioning the nude scene.  Though not nearly as troubling as the short story Fascination, which mixed Peri and sex like that was automatically what should come to mind about her, it’s still a bit frown-inducing that she is deposited naked in the control room due to a problem with the swimming pool.  We get it: Nicola Bryant looks good.  It doesn’t exactly cover fandom in glory to be so hands-in-your-pockets about it all the time.  (She gets her kit off again later, although most of her’s covered in feathers.  It’s still ick to be focussing on it.)  Peri also has a pseudo-romance with Ptolemy by the end, but to be fair this is more an old-school Doctor Who cliché than Peri-lechery; even Barbara couldn’t seem to land anywhere without tripping over a marriage proposal.

State Of Change has a jolly and exciting pace, even if it all comes a bit easily.  It pleasantly jumbles history and sci-fi, re-uses a few old ideas without reeking of repetition and much of the character writing is excellent.  Despite knowing the “big” spoiler (which isn’t that important anyway), the story kept me guessing; broadly speaking, it’s a fun novel that I’d read again.  It stumbles in is its use of the regulars, and the odd sense of obligation that apparently comes with them.  It’s as if each Missing Adventures author is assigned a Doctor and/or bad guy at random.  It’s hardly a character assassination for any of them, and it’s not enough to ruin the book, but that thematic “instability” is too vague and all-purpose to pin it on.  I’m hopeful that the range will settle down and know its characters better.  In the meantime, there are clearly some rollicking tales to tell.


NB: Hi again, hypothetical constant reader!  From here on, there'll be a slight change to these reviews: I'll continue posting them infrequently (because I haven't read them all), but 5 at a time, from Monday to Friday.  The next 5 start with Warlock by Andrew Cartmel.  I figure it's better than posting one review in a blue moon, or waiting until I've read everything with the words Doctor Who printed on it, by which time the sun may have gone out.  Happy trails!


  1. Anti-historical fans are dumb.

  2. "It's no Marco Polo" - a story we all love and we've all definitely seen because it totally exists.

    1. You've watched a recon. Any time you want to listen to the soundtrack or read the novelisation, you know where to find me. :D