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...

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