Thursday, 13 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #44 – The Ghosts Of N-Space by Barry Letts

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Ghosts Of N-Space
By Barry Letts

What does the N stand for?  Nyyyyyuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhh.

Along with State Of Change, I’ve had The Ghosts Of N-Space since childhood, and judging from the state of it, a clumsier me actually tried reading it.  I have no memory of that, but it’s obvious I didn’t finish.  I wonder why.

On the face of it, this is one you’d look forward to.  The Third Doctor has long been a favourite among the New and Missing authors, with other Doctors needing his direct help in Genesys and State Of Change; Blood Heat is a spectacular sequel to one of his stories (featuring his skeleton, and substituting the “current” TARDIS for Pertwee’s on a permanent basis); Legacy is a sequel to a Pertwee tale that Gary Russell made up, including a flashback; and the man himself pops up in All-Consuming Fire.  You might assume they’d arrange something special for a Doctor they routinely make a fuss about, and sure enough it’s written by Barry Letts.  He was instrumental in that Doctor’s era, producing, directing and casting, not to mention (co)writing and novelising Pertwee’s favourite TV story, The Dæmons.  Ghosts is a novelisation of a radio play Letts wrote for Pertwee, Nick Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen, and it’s not even his first (following The Paradise Of Death), so there’s every reason to think he’s got all of this down.

Ah well, he hasn’t.  I’ve never heard the radio play (which paradoxically came out after the book), but there can be little doubt that it’s dreadful, going by the book.  Where.  To even.  Start.

Alarm bells ought to ring in the first chapter, as Letts arranges a thoroughly hackneyed meeting of mafia dons.  Expect all the usual Godfather-lite blether about respect and protection; he then tests the audience’s age-range by having them spell out their business: “‘In a word?’ he said at last.  ‘Whores.’  Then one of them is promptly murdered in very grisly fashion, which isn’t something you’d expect to see on television and so (here we go again) doesn’t really suit the Missing Adventures remit.  As a cherry on top, the scene includes an apparently one-dimensional gangster’s moll called Maggie, who’s from Brooklyn but says things like “Hark at me!” (?), and who giggles and wiggles her caboose a lot.  If that wasn’t tonally odd enough, the chapter is broken up to go and visit Sarah Jane Smith – but the action isn’t juxtaposed, we’re just hopping over there for no reason.  “Remember Sarah Jane?  Yeah, great.  Anyway, back to that mafia bloke: he got his face smashed in.”

Okay, perhaps there is some juxtaposition going on here, albeit unintentional: that scene is dreadful, and so is this book’s idea of Sarah Jane.  Right from the start she’s written as a stubborn, surly, childish journo who’s so sick of not having her stories published that she’d rather go on holiday and avoid the Doctor and UNIT altogether.  Now, I can believe it’s frustrating that she’s living through alien invasions (etc.) and can’t write about them – but what kind of imbecile would assume otherwise?  She’d come back [from Exxilon, see Death To The Daleks] only to have Clorinda spike it on the grounds of improbability.”  Well, yes, love.  You need evidence.  No paper in their right mind is going to publish a story about your visit to an alien planet where you didn’t even take pictures.  But she doesn’t learn: the final line of the book is Sarah excitedly planning to tell her editor all about what happened here, aka a rambling tale of time travel, astral projection, ghosts and monsters, for which she has zero proof and barely any understanding.  I wonder how that’ll fly?  No wonder Sarah spends most of her time with the Doctor.  She’s terrible at her day job, apparently.

Come to that, I wish she spent more time with the Doctor.  She’s on holiday without him (initially at least), and has brought her erstwhile chum Jeremy Fitzoliver instead.  Introduced in The Paradise Of Death and inexplicably back for more, Jeremy is comic relief – which is an entirely different matter to saying Jeremy is actually funny.  Constantly (and I do mean constantly) moaning about how nobody pays him any attention, or how nobody tells him anything, or how hungry he is, or how sore his bottom is, Jeremy is another example of an irritating character who inevitably irritates everyone around him, including the reader.  What’s the net gain here?

But his quest for acceptance and praise is successful anyway, not only as the Doctor and the Brigadier say things like “Well done, Jeremy” (at which he practically spasms with delight – what a drip), but because neither of them loudly tells him to shut up or throws him out of a window.  Can you really see the Brigadier making time for this guy?  By the end of the book, Jeremy completes a bizarre transformation from irritating comic relief to Mary Sue: his amazing shooting skills are the envy of everybody, and he helps save the day.  What’s Barry expecting from the reader – “Sorry we were so wrong about Jeremy”?  If you write a character as tedious and annoying, that’s what you get.  Forcing everyone else to eventually be okay with it isn’t the same thing as character development.

Why pages and pages of this are devoted to him is a mystery to me.  Maybe Letts once pitched a series about Jeremy and it never got picked up.  Certainly the adventures of Sarah and Jeremy deserve to go in the bin, as the two of them talk (and think) like a couple of especially wooden Enid Blyton cast-offs.  ‘Oh, phooey!’ said Sarah Jane Smith aloud.  /  She didn’t want to look yukky.”  /  Stupid, stu-u-upid! thought Sarah.”  /  ‘You’ve got to have the nose of a truffle pig if you’re going to find stories that are worth anything … There’s something strange going on, and I’m going to find out what!’  /  ‘It means we’ve found something that could be just what the Doctor ordered.’  Christ almighty, just what the Doctor ordered?  Really?!  Much of Letts’s writing is embarrassingly old-fashioned, bunging in cobwebbed phrases like “truth to tell” and “ever and anon”, and it’s difficult to pin down if that’s in-character or just him refusing to acclimatise to not writing in the ’70s any more.

Not helping, the omniscient narrator is irritatingly irreverent across the board, letting Letts indulge an obsession with rambling asides.  I’m not just talking about the many occasions when The Ghosts Of N-Space sputters to a halt so its characters can have a spot of dinner or a drink, or (and this is everyone, including the Doctor) pause to contemplate how much they love marmalade; many of Letts’s sentences are just a labyrinthine mess.  Across the harbour the little steamer which was the smallest of the boats which ran a ferry service to the islands to the north was puffing its way in, giving an occasional plaintive toot as it threaded its way through the sailing boats.  /  Darkness had descended as suddenly, it seemed, as nightfall in Africa the time she’d travelled from the Caribbean to the old Slave Coast on the Voodoo Witch-Doctor story which got her the job on the Metropolitan.”  /  As Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart trudged heavily up the path through the orange trees whipping back and forth in the rising wind – it was so narrow and convoluted that it could hardly be accounted a road, even though it was the only way up the hill from the harbour – the plurality of worries which rumbled through his mind conflated into one overwhelming undefinable emotion: a sort of gloomy frustrated desperate rage.”  /  If Wellington’s army (or was it Napoleon’s?) marched on its stomach – and Nelson’s people braved the broadsides of Trafalgar with their innards lined with a suet pudding known as spotted dog (as her sailing teacher had assured her) then a gourmet luncheon was surely a fitting prelude to a projected trip into N-Space.”  The whole book seems dead certain that parentheses, dashes and semi-colons are your free pass to dragging a sentence on forever.  If all else fails, hey, throw in another semi-colon.

Sarah, who is a professional writer, is struggling to get a novel off the ground.  She can’t bear to keep going because her story is propelled by coincidences and features long, lumbering sentences.  (“The noise of the door heralds the arrival of the person she fears most in all the world, the erstwhile drug-smuggler from Valparaiso, Garcia O’Toole, who is in Scunthorpe visiting his aunt and happens to have heard the shot as he…”)  The irony does not escape Sarah that such coincidences keep happening around her – though she is not omniscient enough to spot the similar sentences – and Letts delights in marvelling at life being as strange as fiction, even dragging the coincidence thing out into a half-baked “theme” of serendipity and ouroboros.  The trouble is, he never justifies or expands on it – he just points out that the same stupid thing is happening in both stories.  But then, he also pokes fun at how coming around from a faint and saying “Where am I?” is “the oldest cliché in the book”, and how pushing a key out of a door and dragging it underneath is a “hackneyed way of escaping”.  I wouldn’t poke fun if I’d written a book where characters routinely glean information by hiding in bushes and listening in.

Good god, the writing in this.  I mean, is it deliberate that Sarah, Jeremy and the Brigadier all find themselves ending thoughts or sentences with “for Pete’s sake”?  Is Barry trying to say something about synchronicity there?  And why does the narrative feel the need to second-guess itself constantly?  Again they were floating – no, flying.  /  …spun on his heels and bounced – yes, bounced was the only word.  /  Explode – implode? – what did the word matter, for God’s sake!  /  Crumble?  What a ridiculous word to use about light.  Yet that’s exactly what it did!  For feck’s sake, Barry, you are the writer: figure out what is going on before you write it down!

For more examples of not having a clue, look at the ghostly monsters in this: tediously all referred to as “fiends” (a term picked up and repeated by all the characters), these “N-forms” are essentially ghosts made of… people’s negativity, I think?  They can look like anything, which means he throws in one random animal signifier after another, never having to go back and stick to one.  Good monsters are hard to write, so The Ghosts Of N-Space rarely tries, flailing about randomly whenever something weird rears its head(s).  You get the impression he is simply out of his depth writing science fiction, which seems rather odd given his track record.

But then, is it?  The Dæmons was mostly concerned with the friction between magic and science.  It was co-written with Robert Sloman, so perhaps Letts was the one leaning towards the magic side of things.  Certainly in The Ghosts Of N-Space, co-author-less, the Doctor happily explains how ghosts are a real thing (but they’re actually just your “N-Body” entering “N-Space” after you die, which is completely different), and how hell (N-Space) is just people’s N-Bodies flagellating themselves because that’s what they think they deserve…?  Isn’t this just repeating the same thing spiritualism is suggesting, but adding “N” at the start?  It all sounds absolutely ridiculous coming from the Doctor, who later offers a torturous “explanation” for how there’s really no such thing as changing history because time is all to play for and then, so justified, urges Sarah to change the past so the villain won’t be around to muck up the present!  That’s a slap in the face for a character who’s usually pretty staunch on these issues.  But I’m not sure if I hate this more than the tsunami of bollocks he spouts about N-Space.  The Doctor in this sounds like he understands the technical aspects about as well as Jon Pertwee used to, i.e. reading his trickier lines off of bits of set.

After all the aforementioned fuss about the Third Doctor, it’s a shame he’s such a mess here.  (Although hey, at least Barry gives him a sword-fight.  Tick?)  He comes out with some pretty odd anachronisms, like saying he “nicked” something, or asking Sarah “‘What’s up?’”, or awkwardly calling her “‘My good journalist’”, or saying something was a great as “‘having a cold beer.’  (Wine, surely?)  And no, he doesn’t have a good rapport with Sarah Jane, although the two of them do take a couple of trips through history – at first through astral projection, or “N-Space Projection” or whatever, but then they remember they have a TARDIS so they go that way instead.  There’s something almost fun about popping back through history to the same place to gather information, but it ultimately feels like rather dull padding, traipsing around the same spot over and over again and going on and on about Ann Radcliffe and cheesy Gothic romances.  (It doesn’t help that it’s all so wrapped up in lazy coincidence, and tainted by the Doctor shoving history into a wall when he doesn’t like it.)  The overriding impression is of someone who doesn’t know much about Doctor Who writing a time-travel story that’ll save on actors and sets, neither of which he really has to worry about in book form, or even really radio.  Of course, all this would help drag a radio serial out by another episode or two.  Handy, that.

As well as the sprawling and unengaging plot, there are no strong characters in The Ghosts Of N-Space.  The Doctor and Sarah are retrograde versions of themselves.  Jeremy is an unwelcome limpet.  The Brigadier is here solely in the context of his Italian family, which never seemed to come up on screen, and sans UNIT he seems even more bewildered and useless than usual.  His uncle Mario is an appalling Italian stereotype, hopping excitedly around and speaking only in clumsy cod Italian-English.  (“‘I tell him you acoming, yes?’”)  At one point the Brig recruits help from the local populace, ending up with Roberto, a local Elvis fan who sings a different Elvis song every time he’s mentioned.  Maggie, the aforementioned gangster’s moll, seems too stereotypical to be true, and she does at least switch sides, but – possibly owing to how she giggled quite contentedly at a bunch of gang murders, so doesn’t convince anybody with her apparently genuine “I didn’t know what was going on” story – gets killed in due course.  (There is a complete lack of sympathy from anybody, despite the tragic life of violence the author details for us.)  As for the villain, Max is a boringly invulnerable alchemist who has secured eternal life.  Quite what’s so important for him to do now, as he’s already outliving the hell out of everybody without much bother, is too confusing for me to even paraphrase.  None of it is ever very exciting, as the author goes out of his way to de-fang any exciting moments by, for instance, not showing them at all (“Oh hey, the Doctor turned up, he’s in the other room”), or by explaining them to death.  See the bit where Jeremy is inspired by a Greek myth to bump off some villains by tricking them into shooting each other; then the Brigadier tells Jeremy exactly what happened, blow-by-blow; then Jeremy explains the original story that inspired him!

If The Ghosts Of N-Space had not come from a Doctor Who old guard, not to mention already been written as a soon-to-be-broadcast radio play, it’s difficult to believe the publishers would have accepted it.  The narrator tries to be as jaunty and silly as Gareth Roberts on a good day, but just sounds like a wittering imbecile; the plot tries to mingle science-fiction and myth, and just talks a lot of half-baked crap.  Anyone in their right mind would spot that this is tedious, half-witted and appallingly written, and rightly toss it out.  Pity those publishers, flicking through the manuscript with a rictus grin, forcing a chuckle at the little Italian bloke and mouthing “Sorry” to the imagined reader.


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