Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #42 – The Romance Of Crime by Gareth Roberts

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Romance Of Crime
By Gareth Roberts

At last!

I wouldn’t say that the Missing Adventures have been bad so far, but The Romance Of Crime is the first one you could slot where it’s supposed to go.  The characters, the setting and the style really go together.  No longer is there the feeling of a Doctor getting juggled at the last minute, or a baddie being dropped in by the editors, or another era peeking through the pages.  This is what the range was made for: it’s teatime, circa 1979.

And this isn’t my first visit.  Big Finish’s adaptation is sublime, and it came out before I decided to read the whole range, so I’ve already heard it two or three times.  The downside is that I already know the story, but after the initial déjà vu it was easy enough to imagine this was just a generously wordy Target novel.  The Romance Of Crime isn’t the first Doctor Who story I’ve rediscovered as a book, and it’s a lot of fun this way.

Right from the opening page, this feels like a lost TV story.  We begin on a miserable, bubbling world that could only be realised as a model shot; you can almost hear Dudley Simpson’s orchestra snoring sinisterly beneath.  After the startling discovery of a great many corpses, the action moves to the Rock Of Judgement, a travelling asteroid housing a prison – with, it must be said, not many inmates remaining.  Justice moves swiftly here, always in the general direction of a particle reversal chamber.  Their attitude to all this is summed up pretty well when a judge sentences a man to death and thinks inwardly, “It had been a long Thursday.  Romance quickly fits into the sofa groove of 1979, with Douglas Adams as script editor and jolly comic dialogue under every rock.

Par for Gareth Roberts, you might say.  The Highest Science was full of blatant Hitchhiker’s and Dirk Gently devices, and Tragedy Day was just as interested in comedy (with, for my money, messier results).  The Romance Of Crime resists the temptation to indulge in a tissue of references, though I did clock an amusingly PG-rated spin on a famous K9-themed outtake.  After The Crystal Bucephalus, another book full of arch Adams nudge-winkery might have sent the range disappearing up its own orifice.  Instead we get on with a solid story, that happens to involve funny people and witty prose.

If you’re going to write a funny Doctor Who, you’ll probably be wanting Tom Baker.  One of the reasons this one feels so era-appropriate is that the wit comes organically from his character: his boggle-eyed irreverence is all there, as he bounces between amusingly blunt put-downs, bizarre observations and delightfully inane chatter.  Favourites include: “‘Well, that was interesting … in a tedious and incomprehensible sort of way.’”  /  “‘These belong to the usual occupant of this room, some judge person.  Probably away hanging people, somewhere.’”  /  “‘About to die?’ the Doctor said, indignant.  ‘I should hope not.  There are a number of interesting things I haven’t quite got round to yet.’”  After Evolution’s badly miscalculated psychopath, it’s good to have a recognisable Fourth Doctor.  Romance captures him so well, you’d think the notorious ad-libber himself had tinkered with it.  (And he would do so in the end.  For Big Finish, to pick one example, when he orders two glasses of water he specifies: “‘Neat!’”)

Romana is on glorious form as well, all haughty intelligence and withering tolerance of the Doctor.  “The Doctor fixed him with a manic stare.  ‘What, fade into the background, keep a low profile, listen out for vital clues, that sort of thing? … We do that sort of thing very well, don’t we, Romana?’  ‘Yes, I do, Doctor,’ she said and led the way out.  Probably one of the reasons Season 17 was (at its best) funny is that these two in particular are so untouchable, nearly everything else might as well be farce to them.  You wouldn’t want Doctor Who to be like that all the time, but it makes a wonderful diversion.

Best of the rest is Menlove Stokes, the conceited, run-of-the-mill artist in residence, whose buffoonery is made delightful by his ridiculous verbiage.  “‘For no charge, I offer you, as I offer every wretched soul that finds his way to this, the darkest of all destinations, the opportunity to endure forever in my work … Your essence will endure long after your physical envelope has been snuffed from our miserable sphere.’”  /  “‘I have it, you’re from the arts committee, another of their wretched inspections.  Oddstock, isn’t it?  No, no, he’s dead, isn’t he, although how anybody could tell I don’t know.  You’re not that fool Mellenger, and you’re certainly not Sybilla Strang, as she’s a woman, just about…’”  /  “‘Ludicrous!  It’s my duty to warn you, I suppose.  Your talent stretches no further than your deluded imagination!’”

And the prose obligingly morphs to offer chuckles around him: “The fellow was frantically smoothing at his bald head with one hand, attending to hair that had disappeared long ago.”  /  The butt of a standard issue blaster came down across the back of Stokes’s head.  All sixteen flabby stone of him slid heavily to the marble floor in much the same fashion as a badly designed building slips off a cliff.  A few other characters raise a smile as well, particularly a condemned prisoner who responds to her imminent death with “‘Typical of you young people nowadays, it’s rush, rush, rush.’”  It all has that Season 17 air, with a whiff of Robert Holmes in its black humour.  A good vintage, despite The Horns Of Nimon.

As you can tell from glancing at the cover (and if you’ve somehow missed it, a chapter heading spoils them in advance), there are Ogrons as well.  What a treat – and just why didn’t the series make more of them, anyway?  Aggressive but loyal, dogged but utterly stupid, they tap into the same delightful vein of Aliens That Are A Pain But Aren’t Actually Evil that Douglas Adams would made his own.  Probably the best thing about Malcolm Hulke’s Frontier In Space novelisation was the stuff about their society, like how they worship monsters and pray for nothing more than them not eating Ogrons.  The Doctor’s attempt here to trick one into swapping a jelly baby for a rifle is a hoot; there’s a bit where one Ogron asks another, earnestly amid all this violence, if he had a nice journey down to a planet; and there’s this gem: “‘I will buy necklace for wife,’ said his mate.  ‘And a big stone.’  The first Ogron grunted his encouragement.  ‘Yes, it is good to have a big stone.’”  They might be mercenaries and they might not be good guys, but they’re people.  I love ’em.

Completing the main list of Comedy Stuff is Spiggot, who’s a bit like the flipside of Stokes.  Here is a 100% comedy character who, sadly, just doesn’t work.  Or he works too well, depending on your point of view.  A self-aggrandising, cliché-spewing caricature of a cop, always going on about how he plays by his own rules and gets results and “Angie and the kids” left him because of it, the text leaves us in zero doubt about whether we should be impressed.  To emphasise his point, Spiggot attempted to click his fingers but failed.  Undaunted he continued.”  /  Spiggot crushed another plastic cup.  Unfortunately, he had forgotten to drink all of the coffee that had been inside it and the scalding liquid splashed over his sweater.”  Naturally enough, everybody else hates Spiggot, either because he’s haphazardly interfering with their plans or just because he’s a bore.  Even K9 switches off his audio sensors.

And, well, I get it, but nevertheless Spiggot falls into that inevitable trap: irritating characters are irritating.  At least Stokes’s fustery demeanour leads to some amusing reactions, like his cringing infatuation with Romana, or his combustible hatred of his more talented protégé.  Spiggot is just one joke walking endlessly into a wall.  We get it, nobody likes you.  So sod off.  (Apparently he’s based on a TV character called Spender, played by Jimmy Nail.  I wouldn’t even have caught the reference at the time, let alone now, so I can’t comment on how good a spoof this is.  But as a creature in his own right, as many readers would view him, Spiggot’s just naff.)

The villains are a mixed bunch.  Xais is a disembodied human-hating mutant who can kill people with a glance (but is also, rather needlessly, super-strong).  She has an affecting back-story, largely missing from the Big Finish version, but even so she’s not the most complex of characters.  Kill all humans, huh?  So what else do you want to – oh right, that’s it.  And her accomplices, the Nisbett Brothers, are about as successful as Spiggot.  A very straightforward East End crime duo (in space), all their well-spoken thuggery and references to dear old mum feel completely old hat.  They’re a weak beer spoof of a spoof of the Kray Brothers.  Sure enough, Spiggot and the Nisbetts are rather flat in the audio version as well, as the actors flail inside these broad and boring caricatures.  Xais at least lends herself to a bit of scenery-chewing.  On the whole, you’ll be very grateful for the Ogrons.

If you’ve seen the Season 17 Rosetta Stone that is City Of Death, which obviously Gareth Roberts has (I’m guessing a few dozen times), you’ll know not everything can be hilarious: you need a straight man and some things at stake.  The Romance Of Crime has plenty of time for a solid plot involving a murderous psychopath, a shadowy crime-lord, two unstable criminal brothers and… actually almost everyone in this is some kind of appalling criminal, regardless of the Rock Of Judgement’s inmate population.  As the story wears on it’s mostly a series of double-crosses between shady characters.  It’s satisfyingly action-packed and it ticks along, but it’s rather apparent that there are no innocent people at stake, or not for very long.  Margo, a troubled prison guard, ends up being a host for Xais, and while that’s very sad the story ultimately leaves her behind without much fuss.  Meanwhile the criminal mastermind working with Xais – oh why not, I’ll keep it a secret – is the requisite straight man, but he’s so surrounded by villains that he doesn’t have much impact.  They’re all diminished (especially Xais) for having the share the limelight.

There’s hardly an epilogue when the show’s over, besides a cursory “this is how it all turned out” courtesy of the history books and a return to the Doctor and Romana’s Monopoly game.  A good time is had, but it’s not a particularly thoughtful experience.  And that’s… fine, I guess.  This is meant to recreate an era, and I could well believe this story, with its delightful comedic moments and its occasionally duff ones, could have been made in 1979.  I can see why some have dismissed it as bringing nothing new to the series.  I’d contend that it’s nice to at least try to get the series right once in a while.


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