Friday, 18 August 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #50 – The Menagerie by Martin Day

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Menagerie
By Martin Day

Ah, sweet completeness.  Better late than never, the Missing Adventures have added the Second Doctor to their ranks.  If I can be a box-ticking, list-making nerdlinger for a moment (quiet, you), it’s nice to have got a book in for every Doctor just as this marathon reaches its halfway point.  That’s everyone now.  Ahhh.

Martin Day’s first novel (yes, it’s obvious) does a good job with this Doctor, which isn’t something to take for granted.  He often takes the time to inject a bit of fussiness or irreverence, both integral to Patrick Troughton’s take on the character.  At one point he is contrasted (perhaps too literally) against the First Doctor, as he lacks that immediate sense of authority, though he generally makes up for it later.  There’s a scruffy anti-establishment quality to him that’s just delightful; my favourite bit was the Doctor’s theory on convincing people that you have already paid for your drinks.  When he tries putting this into practice to convince a guard he has paid his fine (with perhaps what he imagines is the authoritative clout of a Jedi mind trick), it goes belly up instantly.  Few Doctors fail quite so charmingly as this one.

Day is also adept and thoughtful when writing Jamie.  Finding himself in a technologically primitive age, Jamie feels in his element for once.  The unnamed city is “like real life” to him, with dull-witted guards reminding him of Redcoats; conversely his wealth of experience with the Doctor allows him to think a few steps ahead.  Another perfectly apt moment is when Jamie accompanies Zoe in a hover vehicle, nodding and agreeing matter-of-factly as she explains things he can’t possibly grasp, and delighting in the responsibility of pressing a button.  That refusal to be outwitted by different technologies, even when he’s just pretending not to be, is one of the reasons the character is so popular.  Doctor Who often (unwittingly?) takes the stance that people from the past are intrinsically thicker than us; it’s something Rose is rightly derided for in The Unquiet Dead, but that’s generally the way it goes, with Jamie being a smart, inquisitive exception.  Leela is another.  (There are no Missing Adventures with Leela.  For shame!)

Zoe is the least impressive of the three, perhaps because putting her in a primitive context doesn’t create the opportunities for her that it does for Jamie.  There are just fewer ways for her to put her brain into action, although she is able to trick a dangerous alien and save a few lives.  Once the story stumbles onto some higher technology, then it’s effectively Zoe Time; her photographic memory makes a return appearance.  Overall this is the colder, more analytical side of Zoe, with her more ebullient side (perhaps best evidenced when she talks a computer to death in The Invasion) a no-show.  You would think The Menagerie could provide some emotional stuff for her, as she finds herself being sold into slavery, but she remains utterly pragmatic about it and circumstances get her out of it anyway.  Besides which, this isn’t a very emotional book.

It’s not a new thing to use sci-fi as an excuse to write a fantasy novel, and that’s effectively what The Mengerie does.  Martin Day creates an interesting setting at least, swirling his primitive (nameless) town in fog and drizzle, adding a few dashes of technology (aka a power plant) and something dangerous underneath (the menagerie of the title); I didn’t have trouble picturing it, but the underlying conflict of technology vs fear of progress never amounts to more than some people wailing doomfully about the evils of science, over and over.  You can be sure they’ll shut up or get over it by the book’s end.  Besides which, finding high technology in an otherwise primitive society is not going to win points for originality.  It’d be a turn up for the books if there wasn’t any.

The story gets off to a perfunctory start, splitting the TARDIS trio up more or less at random when a pub is raided by the “Knights of Kuabris”, technology-fearing rulers of the place.  The Doctor and Jamie both fall into an investigation of the menagerie beneath the town, but there isn’t much driving them to it besides circumstance and vague curiosity.  As for Zoe’s aforementioned slavery, dumb luck strikes again.  She ends up working in a travelling freak show (and not, praise be, as a prostitute) before an attack by a ravening monster forces the survivors back where they started, including her.  There are a few examples of business occurring just to make it all last a bit longer, like a dangerous encounter for Jamie followed by some memory loss.  Why does he forget?  So he can remember it later on, I guess.  The story rumbles on, with some action set-pieces especially near the end, but there’s little wind in its sails.

The book’s greatest strength is the regular characters, and by a considerable distance.  Nowhere else is the studied nuance of the Doctor spending a few moments fumbling through his pockets before finding something useful, or Jamie nodding thoughtfully at some technobabble.  The rest of the cast don’t have an idiosyncrasy between them.  Defrabax is an old wizard with secrets; Cosmae is his impressionable ward; Kaquaan is Cosmae’s would-be girlfriend, and local prostitute; Zaitabor is the leader of the Knights, a ranting fanatic at the centre of the trouble; Himesor, Araboam and Oiquaquil are other Knights; Diseaeda runs a travelling freakshow (and owns Zoe briefly); Reisaz and Raitak are conjoined twins that work there; there’s also a golem-esque homunculus and various Web Planet-esque races living beneath the town, all with equally weird names.  Reading tedious and difficult lines like “I want you to warn the Dugraqs and the Rocarbies about the Mecrim”, I wondered if Day comes up with names by attacking his keyboard at random.  Repeating the names all the time does nothing to breed familiarity, or add colour.  Everyone just seems very fond of reciting them.

As is often the case with first novels, there’s little authorial voice here.  Day’s denizens sound like generic fantasy archetypes, with some unnecessary attention given to the prostitute side of things (with one of the guards giving Kaquaan’s breasts a thorough groping, and numerous others calling her “slut” and suchlike).  It adds determination to the headstrong young woman, but combined with some occasionally broad language, I wondered how much the Virgin editors were bothered that kids read these books.  Certainly this stuff wouldn’t find its way into 1960s Doctor Who.  When the time comes to let his monsters have at one another, Day then falls into the habit of turning the gore up to 11, simply because he can: limbs and viscera fly, yet again pushing the Missing Adventure remit awkwardly to one side.  It’s not as if I want books that are identical to the TV stories, or I wouldn’t bother reading them; I’ve got videos and DVDs for that.  But it stretches disbelief that all the sex and swearwords just happened to occur between episodes.  And why beat around the bush: hitting the Sex And Violence button at all where it wouldn’t ordinarily be hit is schlocky.  At least Dancing The Code made a point of it.

The Menagerie is mostly just indifferent and dull, failing to make its various alien/monster races worth the effort of distinguishing them.  Some have quirks, like one bunch that doesn’t use individual names, or another with an odd speech pattern, but it’s work to add this stuff up.  The plot progresses mostly with a lot of thankless question/answer “dialogue” no matter who’s talking.  It more or less holds together, but by the end it runs the risk of ruining one of the good things about the book: the Doctor’s plan involves murdering a (dangerous) species wholesale, just as Zoe earlier rescued some people by (inadvertently?) sacrificing a harmless animal.  A more seasoned writer might comment on this seemingly befuddled Doctor apparently having a cold heart, but this is all just random action stapled to otherwise pleasant characters.

The Menagerie is fan writing.  Yes, these books all are to an extent, but there’s a difference between recreating familiar things and creating new people, worlds and stories for them, and this book clearly doesn’t have the skill for both.


NB:  Another blog-week bites the dust.  See you again for 51-55, beginning with Andy Lane’s Original Sin...

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #49 – Human Nature by Paul Cornell

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Human Nature
By Paul Cornell

I know it’s obvious, but my favourite thing about the Seasons Cycle – Paul Cornell’s four loosely themed Doctor Who books – is the way they end, each with more or less the same sentence.  Yes, as sentences go it’s sugary sweet, but I’m a sucker for an ending that makes me smile.  I still revisit the final page of Revelation because, well, look at it:

‘I don’t know if I can reach the vicarage, I’m so tired…’
   ‘Then sleep here,’ Saul murmured.  ‘I will keep you warm.’
   Trelaw curled up in a pew, pulled over a prayer mat for a pillow, and closed his eyes.
   ‘Goodnight, Saul.’
   ‘Goodnight.  All is quiet.  Sleep with pleasant dreams…’
   And, smiling, the reverend did so.
   Long ago in an English winter.

The seasons theme was a clever and low-key way of putting these trademarked characters in different lights, testing who they are and what they want.  It worked brilliantly two out of three times; even Cornell didn’t seem sure what he was going for in No Future.  (I’d guess an anniversary piss-up.)  Well, nuts to that.  Human Nature shears away No Future’s clumsy fan-bait and tries to do something meaningful again, and along with Revelation and Love And War it’s utterly accessible as well.  The whole novel seems to occupy the same reassuring, Christmassy space as its familiar final sentence.  No wonder people loved it.

A plot summary might be redundant, since it’s such a popular book that it warranted an equally popular New Who episode.  (To date the only Doctor Who novel to make the leap, which seems incredible.)  Ah well, since we’re here: the Doctor takes a very unusual holiday in 1914, from himself as much as from the universe, and becomes a human called John Smith.  He’s a school teacher, and a very different man who remembers another (fictional) life.  Bernice watches over him, quietly appreciating the rest after recent ordeals; the Doctor’s mind and essence are in a Pod, waiting.  The aliens who made this possible turn up, as they had ulterior motives all along.  They find the Doctor becoming a little too fond of human life.

It’s often the way of New Adventures that the Doctor and co. need to recover from some awful ordeal.  (Which tells you what sort of books we’re dealing with!)  This time, much of the focus is on Bernice losing Guy de Carnac, perhaps to his death.  Sanctuary wasn’t a novel I loved but the ending worked, as did the Doctor and Bernice’s weary yet civilised reaction to it.  (He could take her back to find out if Guy made it, but then she’d know, wouldn’t she?)  This is all good fodder for Cornell, and not for the first time: if you recall, Love And War followed a similar event with Ace being torn away from her new flame, only to put her through it all again with Jan.  Yes, stacking these two next to each other created two reasons for Ace to leave, but to virtually replicate that ending straight away was unfortunate, as it made Nightshade look like a dry run.  No such awkwardness here: Bernice sincerely needs the rest and Cornell lets her have it, even when aliens are rampaging and other things remind her of what she’s lost.  Bernice often pulls the narrative into diary entries, remembering Guy, but she is always moving forward, always her irreverent self until a poignant moment when she screams that no one else will die.  I love inter-novel continuity done right.  When the Doctor (such as he is) needs to remember an unpleasant event, Cornell has plenty of other authors’ work to draw from.  (So it’s hello again, Warlock.)  In the end, he is more comfortable with who he is.

It’s here we find one of the big divergences between the book and the adaptation.  (And okay, a word on the TV adaptation – which for simplicity’s sake I’ll call The Family Of Blood, and which I reviewed here.  I wish I didn’t need to compare the two, as it’s unfair on the book.  The book was first, the book is how it goes.  But I can’t help coming to this the wrong way round, and I won’t be the only one what with the recent History Collection reprint.  The TV episode was on my mind as I read the book.  I think it’s interesting to note what was kept in and what was changed so, as discreetly as possible, I will observe the differences.)  In The Family Of Blood, the plot is serendipitous: the Doctor encounters some aliens and desperately needs to hide from them, so he uses (as a last resort) the Chameleon Arch to become human.  This says something about his effect on other people – touching their lives, unable to be close to them, leaving destruction in his wake – and the New Who Doctor’s tendency to be a force of nature.

In Human Nature, the Doctor is much more deliberate.  He wants to be human for a while.  The aliens in question (the Aubertides) are selling that technology and, in something of a lapse of judgement, the Doctor takes them up on it, but he’d go through with this whether or not they turned out to be bad guys.  (I wonder if the first version of the story, which apparently needed Kate Orman to kick it, left out the bad guys.)  After so many dark times, it’s a way to step aside from himself and see what really makes him the Doctor.  Is he a dark, manipulating force – a bully – or a good guy?  He will remember it all afterwards, because “‘What would be the point otherwise?’”  Much is revealed by Smith and how he acts, most of it good.  But then, befitting the New Adventures Doctor, this is still a form of game-playing, with John Smith as the chess piece.  He may be a part of the Doctor but he’s still being used; despite his very private tears in the TARDIS at the end, or possibly even evidenced by them, it’s worth wondering how much the Doctor has really learned from all this.

Smith himself is very different in the two versions.  In The Family Of Blood he’s a prim, sort-of-nice gentleman who’s more than happy to uphold all school traditions, such as flogging.  He resents the idea that he is the Doctor and his moment of heroism – becoming the Time Lord again – is entirely coerced by Joan Redfern, off-screen.  In Human Nature he’s so like the Doctor that I had to remind myself it isn’t supposed to be a secret.  He comes out with malapropisms, performs magic tricks, keeps his accent.  He’s an altogether sweet man, and when faced with the school tradition of punishment he circumvents it by offering a soft pink slipper instead of a shoe.  He likes to sneak into other teachers’ lessons and challenge – no, he interferes with their teaching methods.  He challenges the schoolboys’ sense of morality during a heated lecture about Boudicca, and though he at one point feeds ammunition to a boy’s Vickers gun, he is soon utterly horrified by it and seeks a more Doctorly way out.  He accepts that the Doctor is real when he’s heard enough, and wants to learn from him.  Then he chooses his fate, whether or not the Doctor really decided it for him, because it will save Joan’s life.  The Doctor and Smith both love deeply but in different ways.  Smith will save Joan, the Doctor would only worry about the world.

Smith is an intriguing spin on the Doctor, essentially the same man but always missing something.  Sometimes literally, like his “perplexed search for a non-existent hat”, or the bit where he “glared at a pair of juggling balls he’d pulled from the case, threw them up in the air, tangled his arms and missed catching them.”  At one point he sees a dangerous event unfold, squirms and says “‘I feel like I should do something.’”  Control and the will to act are missing ingredients; he loves Joan, so he’d rather spend time with her than fight the alien menace.  That’s another thing changed in The Family Of Blood, where 90 minutes is all you’re getting, so the romance is more or less curtailed by the aliens’ arrival, and the tragedy is that it never really got off the ground.  The novel has no such constraint, so it lets them get on with it, lets him have his own priorities for a while, even lets them get engaged.  On a fundamental level, this carves out a bigger difference between Smith and Doctor.

Of course I can’t blame The Family Of Blood for hurrying things up, or even for making John Smith such a comparatively weaselly proposition: I consider the Tenth Doctor the most human Time Lord even without his magic fob watch, and (TV) Smith’s utter refusal to believe in the Doctor, and his fear of disappearing, fit the then-Doctor’s zest for life.  Just look at Tennant’s finale; that was in him all along.  In book form, this whole thing began as a rest for the Doctor – Smith – and he means to enjoy it.  The character has more shades, the romance has more time.

That’s one area where the book trounces the adaptation: Joan.  We know this isn’t going to work out for the same reason the Doctor isn’t going to drop dead of a heart attack or get a permanent job in a shop somewhere, but Joan is an altogether brighter person on the page.  On TV, not so much: she’s prim and austere, she needs more thawing than we’ve time for, and the presence of Martha puts up a wall of contemporary racism which makes it a bit too easy to want this to fail.  In print, an off-colour joke leads Bernice to call her a “wrinkly racist,” and of course she dislikes her on principle because she doesn’t want her designated driver to strand her in 1914, but in time Bernice accepts that the two might be happy together, and she’s right.  Joan is ebullient, passionate and giddy to have found John, and they’re very sweet together.  It’s all the more harrowing not just that this cannot ever work, but that the Doctor – post-Smith – would simply bugger off in the TARDIS without telling her Smith was no more.  Again I wondered if he had learned so very much.  Bernice rightly puts her foot down and makes him tell her.  His matter-of-factness, somewhat patronising, does make you momentarily miss Smith.  Alas, all that’s just something he can’t have, or you wouldn’t have Doctor Who.

Despite the above, Human Nature isn’t a gloomy treatise on what the Doctor is.  All that stuff is sprinkled into the (rather concise) story with wit.  Despite the oncoming misery of war, which a few characters become sadly aware of and which adds to the theme of joining a fight when you’re needed (but y’know, it’s okay to conscientiously object), it’s actually a light and enjoyable read.  Everyone seems to be as witty as Bernice Summerfield – and that’s a dangerous line, which has blurred some Terry Pratchett novels for me so that everyone in them is such a comedian they might as well be one wizard talking to himself.  Human Nature keeps a note of sadness and horror befitting Doctor Who even when it’s fun.  The Aubertides can be cutting and witty, but they still commit horrible murders, and acts that seem normal to them but are outwardly revolting.  Conversely, even when war hangs over them all and we learn specific awful things about their future, it turns out nothing is completely pre-ordained for these characters and there’s always a bit of hope.  This is definitely one of the things I love about Cornell’s better books: they push Doctor Who to dramatic and unhappy places, but they never settle for that or wallow in it.  Like Bernice, they move forward.

And oh, Bernice.  Now, hand on my heart, I do think she’s a little too unflappable in this, although that “No one else dies!” moment does redress it a bit, as does her gradual weakening to the idea of Smith and Joan.  I’m still waiting for the effervescent front to fall away completely just once, but this will do for now.  She’s wonderful, heroic, acid-witty, and if you’re worried that the setup keeps her and the Doctor apart, forget it: she’s Smith’s “niece” and they meet for lunch every day.  I don’t think they’ve ever spent this much time together, and he’s not even him!  So obviously I love this.  From the Doctor’s consideration at the end of Sanctuary, to his utter reliance on her here, we seem to be building proper bridges between them at last.  (Let’s face it, if you can’t count on her creator for that, who can you count on?)

The rest of the cast are pleasantly colourful: bullyish headmaster Rocastle becomes a hero, lunk-headed school captain Hutchinson doesn’t, a polyamorous teacher named Alexander begins as a bit of a wag and ends up having some of the most emotional scenes in the book, and Tim, the-boy-who-steals-the-Doctor’s-brain, gets to live out some Doctorly traits as he discovers his own personality.  This makes more sense than it did on TV, where Thomas Sangster nicked the fob watch because “the time wasn’t right”, except there was no real reason for it and people just kept dying until he returned it.  Here the Doctor intends to experience his holiday, so he can wait.  Tim’s journey, “regenerating” after a cruel prank kills him and also becoming precognitive, leads him to realise he’s like the Doctor in a different way; when the war comes, he joins the Red Cross.  It’s another interesting spin on who the Doctor is.

One area that I do feel The Family Of Blood improved on, or at least came up with another interesting spin on, is the Aubertides.  A family of shape-changers from an otherwise peaceful species, they have dreams of conquest which a Time Lord system will grant them.  And this is perfectly fine for what it is, but on television – where the march of minutes meant they had to trim away everything non-essential – they’re a lot simpler.  There’s only four of them (to the novel’s six), and they mirror a family unit with more creepy exactness.  They also have no specific plan to rule the universe, just a desire to live.  Even in the novel it’s said that they do not live long, but it’s not the sole basis for what they do.  There’s something very beautiful about making that their mission.  They want the Doctor because he lives so long and they don’t, and John Smith – the let’s face it, wimpy version – in a roundabout way wants the same thing.  It’s a wonderfully succinct bit of theme, and it adds a sadness to an otherwise horrifying bunch of bad guys.  But hey, The Family Of Blood also has that dappy bit about the Doctor being like fire, ice, lollipops and jam sandwiches, so y’know, swings and roundabouts.

The books haven’t done anything very interesting for a while now, and things have been getting grim.  It’s a relief to take stock, just as the Doctor does, with a relatively bite-sized plot (with fannish touches like a heat-shield!) and a story that says something.  Once again we’re at a turning point, excitedly looking ahead.  Certainly I am; this is the most (relatively) famous book for a while now, and I’m looking forward to lifting the weight of expectation next time.  I’m still not certain how I rate Human Nature because my head’s buzzing with another version of it and with its own reputation, but it’s obviously something special, and it deserves to be so thought about afterwards.


Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #48 – Dancing The Code by Paul Leonard

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
Dancing The Code
By Paul Leonard

Oh cool, Paul Leonard’s back.  His first Missing Adventure gave us a fully rounded alien civilisation; it was about the end of their world and, rather poetically, about death in general.  Venusian Lullaby wasn’t perfect, but it made a hell of an impression.  I’d be lying if I said I had any idea what to expect from him next.

I definitely wouldn’t have guessed “Pertwee-era action movie”, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Then again, the author has said (over on Terminus Reviews) that he isn’t really a Doctor Who fan, but that he did watch the Pertwee years.  I can well believe it.  (At least the bit about Pertwee.  Writing more than one Doctor Who ought to make you a fan by default.)  Dancing The Code is authentic, even to the point of nostalgia for that particular era.

By now, the Doctor had got his TARDIS working and was losing interest in threats to home and hearth.  UNIT were old and increasingly distant friends, showing little of the militaristic grit we saw in Season Seven; the Brigadier in particular seemed permanently bemused, sadly living up to the Doctor’s complaints about his intelligence.  Jo had been to outer space several months in a row, so naturally she was about to leave the show forever.

There’s an opportunity for growth here, and Leonard doesn’t miss it.  Rather like Venusian Lullaby, which looked at the emotional void left by Susan and how it affected her friends and grandfather, Dancing The Code adds substance to Jo’s impending departure.  It also gives the “UNIT family” a last hoorah, ditching that cuddly befuddlement and making them, or at least their job, considerably more dangerous.  The Brigadier at one point observes that he knows the number for the morgue off by heart.

Kebiria is a (made-up) nation torn apart by civil war, and if that’s not bad enough there are aliens in their midst.  A British journalist sees a horrific, bloated copy of a UNIT soldier as it dies, and summons Mike Yates and co. to investigate.  The aliens fit the legend of Al Harwaz, mysterious beings who will give you what you ask for, which obviously turns out doomier than expected.  Meanwhile, the Doctor has mocked up a prognosticating device that shows (with complete accuracy) the Brigadier shooting him and Jo dead.  He sees only one way out of this: stay the heck away from Jo and the Brigadier.  He zips off in the TARDIS until he’s needed, and Jo goes to Kebiria.

She’s immediately arrested for no particular reason.  No problem for Jo, whose escapology skills exist for just such an occasion.  Her enthusiasm for tricking her captors and bopping them over the head looks positively insane to Catriona, her fellow captive (the journalist), but moments later when things have escalated and people are dead, those antics look unbelievable and childlike.  Companions rarely see such a brutal shift in their perspective; it’s almost cruel.

Not for the first time, we have a Doctor Who book that uses violence in ways you’d never see on television.  Here, though, that escalation is part of the story.  Jo is well used to marauding aliens, blobby things with tentacles and ray guns.  She’s seen people die, but there was always something unreal about it.  (Well, it’s Doctor Who!)  In Dancing The Code Jo sees people murdering people, the horrible consequences of war, and she begins to feel that she could do more to help.  That by no means is a clear transition to The Green Death, where an interest in the environment and a romantic development will push her away for good, but it adds to that process.  It’s a relief to provide an actual reason for gratuitous violence in a family show, besides the obvious lack of a watershed and novel-writing fandom’s itchy trigger finger.

And the violence isn’t celebrated – there’s a theme of guilt about it.  Jo witnesses violence and horror, she feels complicit, even ignorant for having to be woken up like this.  By the end of the book, when it’s possible she might be an alien copy, she’s quick to suggest Mike Yates should put her out of her misery.  Catriona is the one who shoots a guard (or guards?) dead, and things only get worse for her until – trapped in the alien ship and mutated almost beyond recognition – she decides it is “time to pay”, and gives her life to save Jo.  Benari, Prime Minister of Kebiria, has committed atrocities not limited to the deaths of children, and used the aliens for his own ends, so he suffers a pretty brutal execution.  His executioner, Vincent, enjoys it a little too much, so he dies too later on.  Meanwhile the Brigadier is haunted by the idea that he will kill his friends; in some wonderful character writing, Leonard has him lock his gun away and bin the key, hoping it will at least delay him long enough to come to his senses.  (Of course the Brigadier is innocent, so no comeuppance is needed.)

As for the aliens, the improbably-named Xarax, they’re surprisingly innocent.  More like “tools” than living things, they can imitate anything and follow instructions, only they can’t work out pernickety things like which humans they should kill and which they shouldn’t.  Humans, this book seems to say, are the real problem here.

Where is the Doctor in all this?  Well, even apart from his mysterious TARDIS jaunt (which could be a novel in itself), he’s a little on the side-lines.  He’s still very Pertwee in this, with a love of gadgets, technobabble and vehicles; the Brigadier has to endure the passenger seat not just on the road with him, but in a loop-de-looping jet-plane!  The Doctor argues for a non-military solution to the Xarax, and naturally fails because humans are the worst.  He’s integral to the plot, stumbling on the solution in the closing chapters (as always), and yet he doesn’t seem to be in it very much.  This serendipitously fits with what Jo is going through.  (In The Green Death her interests are already diverging from the Doctor’s, as if they’ve been spending time apart.)  It’s a well-written Doctor, though I’m not 100% sure about his plan to avoid his and Jo’s deaths by simply avoiding the future.  Part of me thinks he’d be morally and intellectually outraged by that; another part thinks “get away in the TARDIS” is about as Pertwee as it gets.

Despite all the above, Dancing The Code isn’t exactly a character study.  The focus is on action, especially towards the end as Kebiria is torn apart by Xarax and doubles of Jo and the Doctor kill almost comical numbers of UNIT soldiers at home.  It’s hardly a chore to read, with Leonard commanding a decent pace and keeping the chapters nice and short.  (I know I complain about short sections, but that’s different.  These chapter breaks give a lovely sense of progress, rather than a frequent disorientating change of scenery.)  A lot of the novel rests on the Xarax, however, and in a surprising twist Leonard doesn’t develop them in great detail.

Apart from their general insectoid nuttiness, they’re more like the Sou(ou)shi than the Venusians, i.e. a strangely blank force that feeds on your worst impulses.  Also like the Sou(ou)shi, they’re hard to picture*, interchangeable and just a bit dull.  (*Yes, there’s a “helicopter” one on the front cover, looking so much like a giant scorpion and with such nearly-invisible propellers that I kept wondering why people kept mistaking them for helicopters.  But they’re not wholly representative, if I understood correctly; the rest seem mostly to be blobby, and have lots of mandibles?)  They also raised a couple of questions which I didn’t spot the answers to: I never got how they are able to copy people they’ve never met (such as the long-suffering Sergeant Osgood); I never figured out what “dancing the code” was actually in aid of; and I wasn’t sure what happened to Jo at the end.  One minute she seemed pretty sure she was a copy of herself, bleeding what appears to be Xarax material and not human blood, but presumably she isn’t?  Apart from the nitpicks (which I’m sure are just me missing a bit – do let me know!), there is something a little too familiar and Pertwee era-ish about alien copies taking over; once it’s apparent that’s where the plot is going, my enthusiasm sunk a bit.

The writing is reassuringly thoughtful, though it becomes mostly a catalogue of action as it goes along.  There’s a neat use of inner monologues, bursting into the prose Stephen-King-style at first just for Catriona, and eventually for others including Jo.  It ends on a bravely incomplete yet satisfying note, with the Doctor suggesting they leave the Kebirians to sort out their own mess, and Jo saying “We’ve got to do something.”  Jo is growing up; not coincidentally, this puts a fork in the road between her and the Doctor.

Reading this back, I’ve talked myself around a bit.  I didn’t really love Dancing The Code as I read it; there was much to enjoy about it, but the plot isn’t deep or original.  It’s mostly there to prop up some interesting themes, and the end result looks at the Pertwee era in ways both typical and strangely offbeat.  It’s honestly a struggle to remember some of the story beats now it’s over, but despite everything it leaves a meaningful impression.  That’s fast becoming Paul Leonard’s trademark.


Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #47 – Sanctuary by David A. McIntee

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By David A. McIntee

Happy David A. McIntee History Day, everybody!  As ever we’re celebrating with a novel set in a historical period, reliably groaning with terminology most of us won’t know from Adam.  (Ha ha, you ignoramus!)  This is of course preceded by the customary You Won’t Believe How Much Research I’ve Done foreword, because there’s a terrifying possibility that we won’t notice otherwise.  And the cherry on top: Sanctuary doesn’t contain any zombies, aliens or megalomaniacs from space.  This is 100% historical.  My god, he must have been over the ruddy moon.

Of course the tricky thing about historical stories, apart from potentially losing your sci-fi-addicted audience, is that they may not know this particular bit of history.  And in this case, I don’t.  I’ve seen (more or less) The Crusade, the First Doctor story set about 50 years before this one and in a different country.  But I had no idea about the Roc, or exactly which religions were disagreeing with one another here.  Some of the antagonists in Sanctuary are only religious when it suits them, which adds a satisfying moral greyness but also makes it more confusing to the layman.

Probably the nastiest of them is Guzman, a slithery creature who falls between evangelical monster, congratulating himself on giving his heretical uncle “the correct sort of help” (a.k.a. cleansing flames), and power-hungry despot keen to off his competition, Louis De Citreaux.  Their power games bring the book to an early peak, a grisly yet satisfying attack on some Church troops made to look like the other side did it.  When there’s action in Sanctuary, it is all like that: limbs lopped off, bowels spilling, blood geysers and crunchy splats.  The New Adventures don’t have the same (supposed) constraints as the Missing ones, but even so, bloody hell, he lays it on a bit thick.

Given that it’s a historical story set entirely around a real event (presumably?), the author can’t interject much plot, so the action comes in handy to shake it up.  Guzman and co. are trying to invade the Roc, a sanctuary for supposed heretics with a hidden entrance.  There’s a spy on the inside feeding them info; Guy de Carnac, an ex-crusader with no particular allegiance, falls in with the heretics (after an unsurprisingly violent escape from Guzman), and the Doctor and Bernice soon show up as well, having suffered a random TARDIS malfunction that means they must stay out of the ship for a while.  (Is that necessary?  They’re rarely determined to get back in the ship until the story’s finished anyway, and the TARDIS seemingly malfunctions in every ruddy book.  This particular malfunction is nearly identical to the one in Blood Heat.  It’s probably just an excuse for McIntee to use the “jade pagoda”, a.k.a. the TARDIS’s disappointingly TARDIS-like escape pod from Iceberg.)  Anyway, Bernice winds up with the heretics, the Doctor goes unwittingly undercover with Guzman et al.  They reunite so easily later on, causing much irritation for the Doctor whose investigations weren’t finished yet, that it feels like we’ve just been marking time.  As often happens, I’ve forgotten much of the middle of the book, from de Carnac’s ludicrously slicey-and-dicey escape to the Doctor’s rescue.

If I was ever worried that it was just me, I need only look at the blurb, which (understandably) pushes the limits of accuracy to sell the thing.  Take the Doctor’s brutal line to Bernice: “‘The wench’s mind is addled,’ he said.  ‘Arrest her before she spreads her ungodly heresy.’”  That’s not the oh-my-god twist it appears to be, it’s just him making a scene so she can escape.  As for the Doctor beginning “a murder investigation in a besieged castle”, you must be kidding – the first murder is on page 188, two thirds in!  By then it’s a little late to shift the focus onto an ancient relic people will kill for (which, I presume, also has a real place in history), but what the hell, it’s that or everyone in the Roc just patiently waits for death.

Regarding the historical tragedy at the book’s core, surprisingly little time is spent debating whether it can be averted.  We’ve heard that song and dance before, I suppose; the Doctor’s certainly over it, and it doesn’t seem much on the mind of Bernice.  (Incidentally, if you’re ignorant of a particular bit of history, it’s surprisingly unhelpful to stroll around it with a Time Lord and an archaeologist, who if anything won’t need to explain it to one another!)  A truce is pretty soon called between the two sides, although it seems an open secret that it won’t hold; the heretics are more or less resigned to their fate, almost as if they read to the end, and the other lot just sit and wait.  It’s all strangely civilised, when it isn’t raining limbs, lacking the impending horror of The Massacre or the grand tragedy of The Aztecs.  The characters are numerous, but rather colourless; I often thought about The Crusade, which I know best from its absolutely incredible William Russell-read audiobook, with its rich story and much more memorable rabble.

Probably the most rounded person here is de Carnac, largely because of his romance with Bernice.  McIntee writes a Bernice love story without the book falling down around his ears, and this builds to an evocative and thrilling finale: they can’t be together, we know this, so a wounded Guy spends his last scene chopping de Citreaux’s men to bits to give Bernice time to escape.  The Doctor offers her the chance to check the area later on for any sign he escaped, or otherwise his remains, but she’d rather live on in hope, clinging to the possibility he escaped.  It’s not as affecting as the First Doctor clutching Cameca’s brooch in a last, desperate bid to remember her, and then piloting the TARDIS alone and in silence, but it’s a damn good try.  (Said brooch is in all of McIntee’s books so far, doubtless not a coincidence.)

Of course the trouble with the romance is that it’s with Guy de Carnac, who – high point of the cast or not – is still a fantasy archetype.  McIntee apparently envisaged him as Gabriel Byrne, but a medieval Liam Neeson may have been more appropriate, or Aragorn on steroids, or Lancelot from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail.  He has a troubled past, and inevitably flashbacks, but of dimensions he has few.  Bernice’s keenness to add him to the TARDIS roster left me frowning, not so much at what she was thinking as what McIntee was.  Then again, we’ve lost Ace; things aren’t going to blow themselves up, are they?

Ah yes, Ace.  Do you miss her?  I get the impression McIntee does, referring to her quite often and even giving the Doctor the facetious line, “‘Come back Ace, all is forgiven.’”  I’ve made my feelings pretty clear on this in past reviews – I like Ace, but we’re done there – and anything standing in the way of Doctor-Bernice chumship gets on my nerves.  Sure enough, McIntee writes Bernice with all the snark you’d want, and the Doctor in perhaps a more resigned and grave mood than usual, even contemplating history-stabilising murder on occasion, though still with the odd reassuringly McCoyish moment.  (He makes a man appear dead and gets his cell unlocked so he can escape; later, there’s an amusingly slapstick recreation of a murder scene.)  But they don’t bond much.  The Doctor seems oddly aloof to Bernice’s wit, and though he recognises her heartbreak at the end, and even makes that rather touching offer to stick around and look for de Carnac, his hearts aren’t in it as they would be with you-know-who.  He also says the TARDIS seems “‘a little empty these days’”, which annoys me for obvious reasons.  (It’s not empty.  SHE’S RIGHT THERE.)

In many of the reviews I’ve seen, Sanctuary is spoken of as a character-builder for Bernice.  Certainly we spend time with her, and spend time in general, mercifully dispensing with the hideously frantic pacing of the last few books.  (Mind you, there isn’t much plot to fill the vacuum.  Here, have some historical words I’ve found…)  Although she gets an experience comparable to Ace’s in Nightshade, where she had her ill-fated romance with Robin – so it’s an experience much more convincing than the one in Nightshade, then – it doesn’t tell us a great deal about her that we don’t already know.  McIntee gleefully recalls Bernice’s past, including some vivid flashbacks and surprisingly blatant Dalek mentions.  (I’m never sure what they can get away with!)  It’s difficult to separate the author’s interest in back-story from a distinctly growing Gary Russellness, however.  There are references-a-go-go, with the Doctor and Bernice improbably recalling the last two McIntee books in particular (!), as well as other books (The Crystal Bucephalus), barely related TV stories (The King’s Demons), and even a smattering of very conspicuous Star Trek nods, such as M-class planets and hyposprays.  He’s clearly a writer in love with details and ephemera, or he wouldn’t dare you to go and look up “colon” and “machicolation”, but he’s too keen to sprinkle them everywhere, and often lets his flowery, adjective-obsessed sentences outstay their welcome.  (Though never, thank god, to a Barry Letts extent.)  Even the action is a mixed blessing, as I often lost count of the soldiers gleefully piling into the Guy de Carnac murder blender.

Sanctuary has a fairly straightforward job to do with its they’re-all-doomed history lesson, but I never felt like the points were very clearly made; meanwhile the action helps resuscitate an ultimately thin story.  But it’s often evocative, and it gives its two regulars plenty of natty moments.  Once again David A McIntee shows a lot of flair sometimes, but there’s still that nagging empty sensation that left me picking away at the book for weeks rather than haring through it.  I’d still welcome more pure historicals, though with some degree of laziness I might hope for a period of history I recognise.


Monday, 14 August 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #46 – Time Of Your Life by Steve Lyons

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
Time Of Your Life
By Steve Lyons

Hooray!  One of the writers I’ve been going on about since I read their first book has returned!  The prodigal Conundrum-er himself, Steve Lyons, who somehow wrote a book within a book that poked holes in the fourth wall and was actually fun to read, is here to rescue me from my the-books-aren’t-all-that-great-at-the-moment doldrums!  Steve, it’s been too long!

Uh, Steve?  Steve, old buddy?  You seem to still be walking past and yep, he left me here.  Time Of Your Life is, heavy sigh, not that great.  And that is, heavier sigh, putting it nicely.

I didn’t make a great many notes reading this one, so let’s just wing it: we find the Sixth Doctor alone on Torrok, a dusty and miserable world in the totalitarian grip of television.  He’s a hermit, deliberately ignoring the subtle orders of his people and refusing to do anything that might lead him to the future he saw in The Trial Of A Timelord, aka his malevolent future self, The Valeyard.  His memories are hazy, but he knows he’ll meet a chirpy computer programmer called Mel, and that’s the first step on that path, so everyone he meets gets the third degree about that.  You’re not called Mel, are you?  (Heck, forget the Valeyard, knowing you’re going to meet Mel is enough to maroon you in a yurt.)  His earnest attempt to avoid his own future is rather affecting, albeit brief, and it’s the kind of unseen extra dimension the Missing Adventures ought to specialise in.  It works especially well when you know what an ignoble end he’s got to look forward to regardless, and there’s a dollop of irony in the fact that this world, with its sinister regime begging to be toppled and its quirkily-named gangs of murderous youths, feels very much like an adventure for his next incarnation.

But adventure has a way of finding him, and soon the Doctor is dodging murderous robots with Angela, a slightly troubled young woman who’s only just seen the world outside her living room.  Giving up the ghost, almost as if he’s tired of the author glaring at him to get on with it, the Doctor takes Angela to investigate the Network, a space station where all the troublesome telly comes from.  He leaves Angela on her own for a bit in an adjacent spaceship, quietly trying to keep her out of the firing line (but spoiler alert, dropping her in it), and then he’s strolling around the Network, bumping into actors and whatnot.

And it’s around here, much less than 100 pages in, that Time Of Your Life pretty much lost me.  Now past the (familiar) promise of an oppressed world the Doctor can turn upside down, we’re off on a series of events, most of them so randomly interconnected they’d make Douglas Adams blush.  You’ve got robots from an obvious Doctor Who stand-in (Timeriders) politely running amok; computers not working in various ways; a stressed actor being replaced by a hologram and promptly murdering his partner’s lover; a loathed TV personality feeling out of his depth; various TV shows, including the virtual-reality-ish Death Hunt 3000, running quite well or disastrously, not that you’d spot the difference; the titular Time Of Your Life show which is probably very important but, in all honesty, I never differentiated from Death Hunt 3000; a kind of bigger-on-the-inside technology that is perhaps some sort of echo of the Miniscope in Carnival Of Monsters, I don’t know, but it’s the thing that’s got the Time Lords riled; various larger-than-life characters, some of which are obvious stand-ins for people Doctor Who fans would recognise instantly; and an enormous number of names yomping around that can only dream of being actual, fully-fledged characters.  Oh, and there’s some sort of intelligent computer programme out to kill everybody (probably should have mentioned that earlier), and killer cyborgs, and a psychic gun.  And somewhere in that lot is the Doctor.  Presumably.

Reading New Adventures and Missing Adventures next to each other, it’s tempting to draw parallels and see patterns (that aren’t there, yes, thank you, inner Paul McGann), such as the handling of alien life in St. Anthony’s Fire followed by the same thing in Venusian Lullaby.  A less flattering parallel occurs here, as Time Of Your Life commits the same really annoying error of judgement as Infinite Requiem: nothing but short sequences, one after another, never building to anything.  I think they’re my new pet hate.  Forget pretentious prologues – at least those are over in a couple of pages.  With this kind of caffeinated stoppy-starty channel-hopping, you’re never able to get a feel for anything.

(NB: During one of my regular book chats with my housemate – where she says things like “Oh please god tell me you’re reading something else” and “Wait, you’ve read how many?!” – she pointed out that this is just how television is sometimes edited.  If you’re feeling very kind, this is pretty much how the show looked in the mid-’80s under Eric Saward, with huge supporting casts dying horribly in quick cuts.  So maybe Time Of Your Life is a very specific, What If Colin And Eric Never Left homage?  Hmm.  I want it to be doing a thing on that level, and yet Infinite Requiem did relentless quick-cutting beforehand, and that wasn’t the first book to do it.  So more likely this is just a misunderstanding about how to write Doctor Who when it isn’t on the telly.  Alas.)

The characters are the main casualties in Lyons’s Attack Of The Paragraph Breaks.  There’s an entire band of Timeriders fans coming and going in this, and every single time they appeared their names were new to me.  Oh, Roderick said something?  Well who’s he when he’s at home?  Not that the “A” characters have a lot more going for them.  Raymond Day is the rather pitiable focus for some of it: a past-it soap actor with the aforementioned spousal difficulties, he spends much of his time fretting about a body under his bed.  He’s full of himself and the body thing is mildly amusing, but so what?  Miriam Walker is a wince-inducingly obvious Mary Whitehouse proxy, dividing her time between trying to get all of television cancelled and hitting people with an umbrella.  Giselle is the Michael-Grade-paraphrasing TV controller, who is ostensibly the “real” controller’s assistant in a wheeze that never really goes anywhere, and she poses some sort of villainy from her control centre.  Anjor is a Death Hunt 3000 champion, so adept at killing people that it only takes seconds, and he has zero interest in his winnings.  And so on.  I could list characters all day and I still wouldn’t know what most of them were for.  There’s Grant Markham, I suppose: a likeably anonymous tech guy who is scooped into a TV show (I think) involving a giant monster fighting a robot (well, it’s something for the front cover), and he ends up wheedling his way into the TARDIS.  He’s very good at computer stuff, and at one point he is literally tasked with making the tea.  He’s definitely more inoffensive than Mel, but the Doctor could just as easily have left him behind.

There is a good-ish idea buried under all the muchness, about a kind of technological life that only wants to grow but ends up taking lives in the process.  Ben Aaronivitch already had a go at this in Transit, a visceral yet flawed book that didn’t care if you could tune into its imagination.  It also, saints be praised, built a bit of tension along the way: the wait for and horrifying execution of that subway disaster is still stuck in my head.  There’s nothing like that in Time Of Your Life, where the violence is as random as it is endless.

Okay, but Steve Lyons is parodying television violence, right?  I mean, it seems obvious – but that’s too obvious for a Doctor whose most popular story is the one satirising video nasties, isn’t it?  Then again, having Mary Whitehouse marching around the set screeching about what is acceptable for young viewers, before unleashing her inner Steven Segal during a melee (?!?) must add… something to set it apart?  I don’t know.  There’s a puncturing air of silliness about all of it, though some of that is possibly just me looking for more of it after Conundrum, but it’s set to such a confused pace that it never lands on anything genuinely funny or meaningful.  It’s rushed and it’s a mess.

The malfunctioning space station is too random and silly to worry you, the stuff about putting the Doctor in Death Hunt 3000 (and Time Of Your Life?) is an obvious idea that occurs surprisingly late, and the actual plot about the “datavore” feels like it’s butting in from another book, but it’s at least rather interesting when the book finally gives it some attention.  Then when all that gets wrapped up we carry on killing people en masse in the epilogue, with some characters pausing (unwisely) to remark that these deaths are even more pointless.  Is this the reason for all those superfluous characters?  Cannon fodder?  It he making a point?  Either way, it’s disappointing and absolutely bloody wearying to just keep offing people when the major threat is over.

I felt much like this reading Infinite Requiem, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just me.  (Or if I’m still residually annoyed from the last one.)  It’s been a long time (24 books!) since I awarded more than 7/10 to something – go on, guess which book it was – and it’s entirely possible I’m getting harder to impress.  I ought to cut the author some slack since I know I can like his work, and there are lots of interesting things to chew on here: the Doctor’s unease about his future, the artificial life thing, the (ahem) TV satire.  It’s hard to tell if the book’s irritating rhythm is all that’s throwing it off.  Somehow, I doubt it.  We occasionally return to the Doctor’s future fear, for example, with as much pomp and circumstance as bunging it in an advert break.  It’s not a theme, it’s a bit.

It seems foolish to hate Time Of Your Life since there’s a chance I just missed the bit that made it work.  But it was yet another chore to get through, however I or that dang-blasted pace chop it up.  Into innumerable bloody bits, deliberately or otherwise.