Thursday, 30 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #54 – The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Christopher Bulis

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
By Christopher Bulis

Sci-fi and fantasy, together again.  Again.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t the first Virgin book to smush these genres together, let alone the first bit of Doctor Who.  Witch Mark did it ages ago, more recently so did The Menagerie (more or less).  As you can guess if you’ve read my reviews, it’s not something I tend to go crazy for.

I like sci-fi, obviously.  And I like fantasy well enough, but since it usually manifests as quasi-historical-with-added-dragons, or Bargain Bin Tolkien, I’m generally happier with a comedic version.  Stick the two together and you usually get something too humdrum for fantasy or too silly for sci-fi.  But you’ve got to poke the fourth wall a bit if you’re going to make the comparison, which is why comedy is a good fit, so there’s some promise.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is sort of critical of its fantasy tropes, but mostly in that way where you take a fantasy thing and just explain it with a sci-fi thing.  Well done and everything, but since it’s all flim-flam, have you really put fantasy in its place?

New Who is an absolute sod for this.  Ghosts?  Try ethereal aliens.  Werewolves?  More like alien werewolves.  As for vampires, uh… space fish?  These things don’t suddenly become more interesting when you use a different kind of made up thing to explain them.  (Or come to that, when you explain them at all.)  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice drops our heroes into an obviously fantastical world, complete with fire-breathing dragons and wizards, immediately gives all of it the sceptical stink-eye and then spends ages building up to what is, when all’s said and done, a cod science explanation just as straightforward and typical as the fantasy one.  Of course there’s some kind of mega technological thingummie at the heart of Avalon, powering the wizards and helping the dragons to fly.  All that does is make the fantasy world seem more ordinary – especially since this is Doctor Who and not The Lord Of The Rings, so you’re totally expecting it to go that way.  Besides, it’s not even as if peppering a (pseudo) historical world with technology is a novel experience, what with virtually every Doctor Who story set in history since the 1970s doing precisely that.

Part of the reason I’m so unreceptive to all this, apart from having gone through much the same song and dance in Witch Mark, is the writing.  I’ve enjoyed Christopher Bulis’ books in the past, more so than most with Shadowmind.  I thought that was well paced and quite witty with its mind-control plot; I also found State Of Change refreshing and pithy, especially in its historical back-biting.  But there’s no such wit here.  After yet another What The Hell Was All That About prologue, Bulis introduces the regulars with all the finesse of Terrance Dicks novelising at 3am.  Hope and apprehension mingled on [Barbara’s] concerned, intelligent, strong-featured face, crowned by her bouffant of dark hair.  She was wearing a simple loose jumper and slacks, with sensible flat shoes, having already learned the value of practical dress when travelling with the Doctor.  Spot the bit where that stopped being relevant?  Are there Bingo cards for us to match up all the relevant bits of her outfit?

He gets into an even greater detail-obsessed lather later on, describing the hell out of a banquet.  Hey, atmosphere’s great and all, but it can feel like there’s going to be a test afterwards.  The writing in general is of the serviceable, then-this-happened-and-then-that-happened variety.  It’s fine, in other words, but “fine” is not going to propel you enthusiastically through 300 pages.

Quite soon we meet the fantasy denizens of Avalon, including (but not limited to) an elderly wizard, a benevolent King and his dutiful Queen, an evil wizard (aka the sorcerer’s apprentice), a heroic knight, a scrappy dwarf, a supercilious elf, a mystical leprechaun and a grotty witch.  Every single one of them acts just as you’d expect, and while the book does eventually produce an excuse for this, and for the narrative following the archetypes of fantasy like seriously co-dependant tracing paper, that doesn’t transmogrify the schlocky obvious bits into shiny new ones.  We also cut back and forth to some spaceships in orbit, where the people sound equally fresh and interesting.  If you’ve seen an episode of Star Trek, you can fill in the dialogue.

I wonder how much of this is just the result of mixing two genres, not to mention bunging four regular characters on top: it’s inevitably going to spread a bit thin.  Before long you’ve got the Doctor and Ian questing with Sir Bron, the Unsurprisingly Brave, and his (as Ian points out!) Lord Of The Rings tribute band; Barbara, injured and stuck in the castle with a King, Queen and wizard, researching the problem and hunting out a spy; Susan and Princess Mellisa kidnapped by the nefarious Marton Dhal, and stuck in another castle; the people up in space tightening their grip on the planet below, planning to steal its mythical technologies; various crewmen sent to Avalon for just that purpose; and at one point, a curiously intelligent cat sneaking about.  (There’s also a bunch of knights staking out Castle Dhal, hoping to rescue the princess, but we mercifully ignore them.)  Bulis is soon chopping and changing like his keyboard’s getting a bit hot, and since every main character or setting has to accommodate its own batch of smaller characters, there isn’t enough interesting stuff to go around.  The closest anybody gets to being memorable is the witch, who arrives far too late and inevitably encroaches on Pratchett territory just because he’s written the hell out of witches already.  (I didn’t particularly mind Dhal, obvious as he is, but I think that’s because I decided that’s the sort of part Philip Madoc would have played.  I had fun imagining him glowering at everybody.)

The regulars are true to themselves, and goodness knows I’m glad it’s them.  This is my favourite era of the show – I’m still convinced they should never have sacrificed the unpredictability of the TARDIS – but Verity Lambert and co. are rather more to thank for that.  Bulis at least plays up the oddness and cleverness of Susan, and gives the Doctor some imperious little victories and a nifty costume change.  (Hartnell would surely have approved.)  Barbara suffers a bit from “Go and get the useful guest character” syndrome while Ian, on a boat full of mystics and warriors, seems pretty redundant for much of it, but then none of that’s too far off the mark.  They sometimes had to make do with tiny subplots on the telly.

One thing I did like – I didn’t expect to slate it, but here we are! – was the continuity between books.  This follows on from the world of Original Sin, with Earth’s Empire in tatters and plenty of humans, particularly the avaricious ones in orbit, at a loss.  Presented with the might-as-well-be-magic technology of Avalon, they have the opportunity to rebuild what they’ve lost.  This is very neatly done: if you haven’t read Original Sin you could just take it on the chin that Earth is in a state, and if you have it’s a clever little twist to follow it up with William Hartnell and co.  Mixing up time and space like that is a very Doctor Who thing to do, and nicely illustrates just how all over the place the Doctor’s travels can be.  (It’s also a neat little Easter egg if you happen to be reading every single buggering one of them.)

Also, keeping my charitable (wizard’s) hat wedged on for a moment, much of the fantasy stuff is perfectly serviceable.  There’s an encounter with sea monsters, an attack by flying monkeys (!), obviously the scene on the cover with the dragon, flying broomsticks, and a climactic battle between wizard, witch, leprechaun, Doctor and all manner of zoomy, flashy things.  It ticks those boxes all right – with, of course, conventionally exploding sci-fi stuff on the periphery.  It just uses an excuse, however plot-relevant it might be, to never exceed your expectations with any of it.

While it’s hardly a surprise, since I read half of it years before this marathon and couldn’t be bothered to finish until now, it’s still a bit odd being on the other side of fan consensus.  Christopher Bulis is generally quite unpopular in fan circles, but to look at the reviews, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice did well.  I can’t tell anyone they’re wrong for liking it, but it didn’t work for me.  It’s never an egregiously bad read, and in a way that makes it more of a slog: when you read and read these things, the very good is intoxicating, the very bad is at least interesting, but there’s no burning desire to read anything that’s ordinary.  I’m sorry to say, a dutiful load of fantasy archetypes rubbing shoulders with stock sci-fi stuff is very much in the latter category.


Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #53 – Sky Pirates! by Dave Stone

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Sky Pirates!
By Dave Stone

Oh no, not Dave Stone.  In the modest annals of New Adventures discussion, no author is discussed with as many awkward sidelong glances or nervous fidgets as this one.  To read the reviews you’d think he was a one-man marmite factory, a purveyor of books so bizarre they’re not so much “written down” as “mashed into existence with fists dabbed haphazardly in hundreds and thousands and mud”.

As it happens I’ve felt like that for years: my first experience of a New Adventure (and possibly my first Doctor Who book) was a Dave Stone.  I’ve owned Death And Diplomacy for decades (plural – Jesus!), and I dimly remember the bewilderment of trying to read it.  Just what the hell is this, anyway?  Who are those people on the cover?  Where are the Daleks?  I was still working through all of David J Howe’s non-fiction books at the time and oh, dear lord, those endless lists of things from Doctor Who… bliss!  I really enjoyed learning about it all and, as you might have guessed, wasn’t so hot on going outside and doing things, so Dave Stone’s solitary New Adventure, with its somewhat adult humour and reams of weird stuff made absolutely no sense to me.  It still might not when I get to it later.  Fingers crossed.

But before all that, there’s Sky Pirates!  And oh boy.  I’m almost grateful for all the hushed, couched “Careful, now”s from kind fellow readers, as none of that prepared me for such a good book.  Stand down red alert!  Sky Pirates! is properly good and fun and written in totally comprehensible words!  Well, mostly.  But if anything, it’s better written than most of the books in the range.

Yes, it’s a bit bizarre at times, if not constantly.  There’s whimsy encrusted in its DNA.  You don’t get “Chapter One”, you get “The First Chapter”; you don’t get song lyrics at the start of each section, you get bad jokes (mostly courtesy of Bernice Summerfield); the narrator is someone transcribing it long after the fact, though they keep a merciful enough distance to be both amusing in their own right and a barely noticeable, not at all insufferable device, as they could have been; the language is florid and considered and dense, such that you sometimes need to take a few runs at a sentence, but all that extra detail is colourful and fun – so what if you begin to suspect that with all the bizarre ideas and bubbling befoulments it contains, if you dropped Sky Pirates! from a good enough height, it would splat?

Even so, I can’t help thinking people get a bit over-excited about it.  That’s not to denigrate the book – as must be obvious, it’s one that I liked – but to pinch a bit of Douglas Adams, well, it’s just this book, y’know?  Dave Stone hasn’t written anything as incomprehensible as Time’s Crucible or Strange England.  Sure, some of the words maybe don’t super duper exist, but he carries them off so well and makes it all so enjoyable that I didn’t have the nerve to question them, or any of the typos, of which there may have been one or two.  Unless that’s a gag, which it might well be.  Put simply, this one knows what he’s doing.

He’s often been compared, much to his chagrin (according to the Discontinuity Guide), with Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.  I can see what the comparisons are getting at, and also why he might roll his eyes.  There are many New (and some Missing) Adventures that wear their influences on their sleeve, because after all they’re written by lovely, well-intentioned, mostly naïve young writers.  Sky Pirates! creates worlds filled with grimy and unpleasant people a bit like how Terry Pratchett does it, and plays havoc with physics and good manners a little in the style of Douglas Adams, but he also has his own style.  There’s an anarchic quality to it, a shaggy dog quality to the story a little like (but more focussed than) Adams, and the sense of humour – intrinsic to Adams and Pratchett – never veers as close to outright satire as either of them.  Sky Pirates! is a fantastical sci-fi comedy with many funny ideas, but it isn’t half as concerned with avatars for real world things.  I love that in said (more famous) authors, but I greatly enjoyed the absence of it here.  One aspect I’ve seen gently criticised is the book’s take on religion (it’s not a major fan), which also draws it towards the parallel-evolution jibes of Pratchett, but I found it quite harmless and somewhat open minded and far less This Is Like That Thing, You Know, That One than Pratchett.  In any case, I’ve read worse takes.  (Looking at you, St. Anthony’s Fire.)

Stone has a reputation (see above, etc.) for writing very silly stuff, and while there’s plenty of that, it’s far from the only ingredient.  Take the Sloathes: amoral shape-shifting tentacle-ish blob-ish things, they honestly believe they’re the only really living things in the cosmos (and all other life is “pretending to move”) and exist to gluttonously collect and consume.  They look like a variety of utterly ridiculous things and some of them talk in an outlandish and silly way.  But they’re also a source of immense creativity, and as the book goes on the other characters realise they’re much more reflective than evil, and might actually be examples of absolute, malleable promise, waiting for the right encouragement.  The various crewmen of the Schirron Dream, the piratical ship that inspires the title, are a bit of a random assortment collected from the various planets of the bizarre (and therefore rather Sloathe-like) System, but the main two – nefarious Nathan Li Shao and warrior woman Leetha – develop considerably as the book goes on.  (Their story sort of goes where you’re expecting, but Stone refrains from rubbing it in, which is a relief.)  Admittedly some of the more minor ones are much more minor, sadly including the second-in-command Kiru.  The crew also seem to pick up new people between adventures, which stretches characterisation a bit.

The whole “pirate” side of the story really only gets going around halfway, which ought to be a criticism, and yet I can’t complain about the stuff that happened before.  The System, a sun surrounded by four diverse planets and assorted planetary bits, is falling apart: Planet X, home of the Sloathes, has thrown the natural decline into overdrive, devastating worlds and peoples.  The TARDIS is ensnared by an ancient horror from the Time Lords’ past (oh hi, cheeky bit of mythology) and the Doctor and Bernice are separated from Roz and Chris.  The former find themselves with Leetha on the dank space station-esque world of Sere, scarcely aware of Leetha’s quest to save the System; the latter are trapped in a Sloathe hell on Planet X.  Both situations are rife with detail and colour: Bernice observes Sere and becomes convinced the place is about to fall apart, while Roz lives through a bizarre drug-addiction and struggles to stay alive amid her terrifying, ridiculous captors.  In the middle of all this, the quest to find the Eyes – one gem per planet, which united may save the System – is suitably at the back of everybody’s mind that it sort of recalls the quest for the Ultimate Question, so I suppose that’s another Douglas Adams echo if you’re looking for one.

It’s the confident juggling of silliness, richness and thought that really made it for me.  While I needed a few goes to make absolute sense of Planet X, it was completely worth it, as their bizarre and preposterous dialogue leapt off the page.  Leetha’s world falls into chaos as she makes her way to save it, and this is unquestionably a time of tragedy, yet Stone turns a mystic ritual to “discover” Leetha (and so prove she is The Chosen One) into a heartbreakingly pathetic game of Hide And Seek.  (I was giggling for ages at that bit.)  Later, when Stone gives into the perhaps inevitable impulse to revisit the ancient horror from Time Lord history and make it the focus of the denouement, the Doctor really comes into focus, after being written brilliantly as someone who can fade into the background at will and be convincingly ridiculous or serious.  His sheer conviction when he faces “the thing inside”, the being behind it all, hefts more weight onto what could, at a glance, look like a daft jaunt around some goofy planets on a weirdo spaceship.  This is the Doctor at his most grave, struggling against the innate violence of his people and himself.  (Which neatly echoes the Doctor and Pryce’s discussion about murder in Original Sin, deliberately or otherwise.)  Bernice shows light and shade throughout, with perhaps more emphasis on shade: she’s utterly cynical about the Doctor at times, as she’s got a bee in her bonnet that he’s doing one of his “stand back and manipulate” jobs on the whole affair.  She has every reason to be suspicious: we know, as she does, that the man quaintly pottering about the kitchen in a chef’s hat is not what he seems.

There is, I suppose, a feeling that Chris and Roz are bundled into a subplot, as you might expect right after they’re introduced.  It’s hard to pinpoint if this is a “good” Roz and Chris book, as they’re in such completely alien surroundings compared with Original Sin.  However, Stone convincingly handles inter-novel continuity so it feels like he’s at least read the one before, and the story eventually takes the stance of putting them through the wringer to see if this is even something they want to do.  It’s meant to leave them a bit bleary-eyed.  It’s not a Roz-and-Chris-apalooza, especially on the Chris side, but nor is it a betrayal of either of them.  I enjoyed their story.

As far as other criticisms go, there is a sense of cutting bits and briskly accelerating the pace after halfway, but it’s a long-ish book by New Adventures standards, so I get why the quest to find each Eye becomes truncated: one is a deliberate and hilarious anti-climax related after the fact by Bernice.  Again, what could be a problem (and maybe is) is tackled head on and then smartly juggled.  Along with other bits, like the too-numerous crew, it’s not perfect.  And yet reading Sky Pirates!, I never got over the sheer delight of a fully-realised author.  I’ve read some very good books since Genesys, and discovered some fabulous authors like Paul Cornell, Jim Mortimore and Andy Lane, but let’s face it, there’s a higher proportion of dross.  There have been times when Sky Pirates! would seem like the first two-eyed monkey swaggering into a one-eyed tribe.

To sum up: don’t panic.  Sky Pirates! is as fruitsome and odd as some of the other really good comedic sci-fi novels you’ve read, including (and perhaps especially) ones that aren’t Doctor Who.  It’s also good Doctor Who, and if it sometimes seems to go on a bit, take your time.  I’m still not certain I understood every word, and I honestly don’t mind.  Call it an excuse to come back.


Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #52 – System Shock by Justin Richards

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
System Shock
By Justin Richards

Throughout this one I couldn’t help thinking of Futurama.  Just after Fry wakes up bleary-eyed in the Year 3000, a mischievous guy at the cryogenics lab keeps the lights off and bellows at him, “Welcome… TO THE WORRRRLD OF TOMORROWWWWW!

Brace yourself, gentle reader from 1995.  Can your imagination withstand the horror that is… 1998?

It’s actually quite novel of System Shock to look so near ahead, and even more so to use the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane in the story.  Beloved and quintessentially 1970s characters, there’s fun to be had in marooning Sarah in a near, yet technologically different time.  (The Doctor, of course, fits anywhere.)  It’s not the same as her arriving in the past, or in the Year 3000, or on an unrecognisable alien world.  She’s in the same place, but just out of step enough to be completely lost.  It brings home how quickly these things change.

Indeed, by the time actual 1998 rolled around things weren’t exactly how Justin Richards envisaged.  The internet (no need for that capital I or N, bless!) had a much greater hold, and mobile phones were getting ubiquitous; far more so than the occasional cursory reference to a “cellphone” here.  This, of course, is not the author’s fault – he’s writing a novel, not mapping the future!  (And anyway, he’s too prescient about 24 hour news and online shopping.)  But you risk dating your story when you make such a fuss about modern technology, hence movies like Hackers drawing giggles from smart audiences, and System Shock’s many references to “information superhighways” getting chortles from me.

Richards (unlike Hackers) obviously knows what he’s talking about, dropping plenty of detail into the computer stuff, rolling his eyes at his own IT background in the blurb, and even opening the book with a programmer’s joke.  (The prologue is “If…”, and shows us a world going to hell because of technology; the story that follows is “Then…”)  However, revolving System Shock around the perils of computer chips and the limitless capabilities of a humble CD (!) gives us something that probably worked very well in 1995, but not so much beyond.  Besides which, Self-Aware Technology That Kills You may be as old an idea as technology itself.  It had certainly done the rounds by 1995.

System Shock opens with a series of exciting set-pieces.  After the dramatic If… prologue, a man is kidnapped in a car park; a car seemingly comes to life and crashes, killing the head of MI5; a terrorist siege comes to an end thanks to the SAS and their mysterious planning program, BattleNet; and a man on the run for his life slips a CD into the Doctor’s pocket before being murdered, thus entangling the Doctor and Sarah in this chain of events.  Despite following the heady action movie heights of The Seeds Of Doom (no, really!), the Doctor and Sarah look as out of place in all this as they do in the ’90s.  Also it’s worth noting that all of these events are in the first flurry of pages… as well as the first paragraph of the blurb.  A fast-paced action adventure it may want to be, but it isn’t for very long, as we discover the part-robot-part-lizard Voracians are posing as terrorists in order to control Hubway (a country house / information hub), and the majority of the book is a hostage situation therein.  The potential for world-changing techno-disaster is kept mostly to a few asides; Sarah gets stuck with the hostages and the Doctor tip-toes through the house outsmarting the Voracians.  For most of it, the baddies make their plans and the Doctor frowns at a few monitors, but it never has the corkscrew tension of The Man Who Knew Too Much or (more relevant for its hilariously out-of-date tech) Enemy Of The State, both of which it resembles with the fatefully pocketed CD.  The story gets into such an SAS funk in its second half that, while intermittently exciting, it’s actually rather dull.

I often wondered why a thriller (that happens to be dressed up like Doctor Who) should be such a slow read.  Partly it could be the subject matter – computers and programs and CDs, oh my! – which I simply don’t find fascinating.  More importantly, I suspect it’s the characters.  Excepting the regulars, almost nobody stands out.  One of the hostages, the Duchess of Glastonbury, shines a little like Amelia Rumford in Seeds Of Doom, aka a charming bit character who gleefully courts danger to help her new friends.  There are loads of other hostages / bit parts, mostly male, few with any colour.  A few of the Voracians – who as well as being lizards and robots are also masquerading as humans – have (understandable!) identity issues.  There are too many of them, however, and the point Richards is trying to make with them speaking in a kind of meaningless business-babble, i.e. humanity-not-included, doesn’t work as intended.  System Shock isn’t a particularly funny book, so having a large number of characters talk dryly all the time just looks like a lack of colour.  The prose occasionally falls into the same trap, tediously relishing the brand of car or type of gun a character is using, or getting way too carried away with the authentic techno-speak: “The first chip to trigger into operation was at Hampstead.  It had been connected to the central processor of the output control systems of the electricity substation.  With Theatre Of War and with this, Richards is good at writing what he knows, and with meting out the relevant details; it just isn’t always fascinating to read.

Where System Shock works best, outside those well-executed early bits of action, is with the regulars.  An authentic Fourth Doctor is always a delight to read, and Richards has him pegged, from the nonchalance in the face of doom to the moments of sudden gravitas.  He’s hilarious pitted against the generally emotionless Voracians, adept at getting out of trouble with a yoyo or with a reasoned diatribe, and he runs rings around their computer system of doom, Voractyll, just by talking to it for long enough.  He’s also quick to call Sarah his best friend.  Their rapport is mostly suggested, as they are predictably split up when she goes undercover, but Richards has them gently thumping each other or chiding one another in a way that brings both actors, and their lovely on-screen chemistry to life.  It’s a good story for Sarah, relying on that nose for trouble that got her into the Doctor’s life, and the undercover thing is a nice throwback to her UNIT days, even if the Voracians are irritatingly several steps ahead.  Her occasional bewilderment at 1998 also gives us a unique look at a Doctor Who companion, seldom seen by stories that always go further afield in time.

And there’s something heartening about reading a story for Harry Sullivan as an older man.  It’s not just delightful to show a companion having moved on with their life, still treasuring their memories and falling into an easy rhythm when the Doctor returns; it’s also beautiful to give Ian Marter a role he was no longer around to play.  The final moment, with the older Harry talking to the Sarah of his time, both still friends, holds a kind of sepia appeal now they’re both gone.

The Missing Adventures occupy an awkward spot.  Should they be too much like the TV adventures, they’re derivative; should they veer off to the side, they’re wrong.  System Shock is the kind of thriller you just wouldn’t get in the show circa 1975, never mind the technology involved, but Richards is savvy enough about Doctor Who to tick the right boxes, writing the regulars brilliantly and having the Doctor ultimately outwit the evil computer, bringing it more or less down to Earth.  (The penultimate scene, cutting from the explosion to the Doctor and Sarah immediately departing in the TARDIS, certainly rings true!)  But as it juggles The Man Who Knew Too Much, Spooks and Doctor Who, it’s ultimately rather an odd fit, and occasionally dry and dull for its genre, not to mention Doctor Who.


Monday, 27 November 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #51 – Original Sin by Andy Lane

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Original Sin
By Andy Lane

Well that was a stone cold belter, wasn’t it?

Forgive the haste.  Sometimes I like to build up to that – since it’s a rare-ish occurrence, maybe it’s worth a bit of ceremony – but it can be such a relief to sit back and enjoy reading that I just want to get on with it.  So: yep.  Original Sin is One Of The Good Ones.  Thanks for reading!

Perhaps it’s not surprising, as Andy Lane is hardly new to all this.  There’s a confident spring in his step that no doubt comes with experience.  Yes, there’s a Prologue – it’s the law! – but you can forget any wiffly metaphysical guff.  Lane begins breathlessly with the tail-end of another adventure, one that leads directly into Original Sin.  I love stories that forgo the obvious “Arrive, ask questions, investigate” rigmarole, and this is a great way to circumvent it.

The prologue also displays some of the book’s overall strengths, things it generally shares with Lucifer Rising (co-written by Lane): world building and plot, working together.  Writers often get bogged down in one or the other, and both create their own challenges all by themselves.  The Menagerie came up with an interesting setting filled with lots of different life forms, but it couldn’t quite carve them out from each other or make them live.  Original Sin introduces us right away to the Hith, a lizard-like species with unusually poetic names like Homeless Forsaken Betrayed And Alone, a permanent reminder to other species of what happened to them.  This one has been shot, and whispers (Hitchcock-style) a gloomy pronouncement to Bernice about the fate of Earth.  Right away we’ve got an unusual species (whom we’ll see a lot more of) and something pressing to attend to on Earth.  Both these things get progressively more interesting.

The Earth Empire is prospering, but that really depends what species you are.  Lane takes a pessimistic (though perhaps not Transit pessimistic) view of our future, where humans have “offered assistance” to countless planets including Hithis, so in other words taken over, turfed them out and stolen their technology.  A current of xenophobia runs through humanity, even among the “nice” ones, as they regard displaced aliens (e.g. the Hith) as lowly or disgusting.  A Hith named Powerless Friendless allows us to explore this idea further, particularly as he lives in the Undertown.  Earth is divided into the prosperous and everyone else, which in itself isn’t a very original concept, but it mixes with Lane’s climate of speciesism to make something new.  The humans, ever self-loathing, have taken to “body beppling”: a means of transforming into anything they can think of, which is all the cosmetic rage.  This adds yet another dimension to the strange, sad cloud of conflict that surrounds this story, all of which explodes because of the plot, which involves a series of random and unprovoked murders that snowball into riots.  There it is again: a rich seam of world-building which you could almost take for granted, since it’s colourful and interesting, only the plot then finds a use for all of it.

Admittedly it’s a simple-ish plot, but there’s nothing wrong with that so long as it’s well executed.  A good murder mystery can be as satisfyingly simple or complicated as you make it, and the trail of death is not just unpleasantly memorable (as Lane must find new ways for people to dispose of each other) but also poignant, as the deaths have consequences, both personal and on a larger scale.  We do not, admittedly, see the full effect of the Earth Empire tearing itself to pieces – though there are newscasts that give a flavour of it at the start of each chapter – but this is ultimately one story that impacts on those wider issues, and it makes sense to keep our focus there.  Focus is another of those things that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Speaking of personal consequences, then: Powerless Friendless is as cheery as his name suggests, but we have no difficulty in getting inside his slug-like skin, or feeling the scorn of almost everyone around him.  Perhaps more familiar to passing readers are a couple of law-enforcing Adjudicators named Chris and Roz (or in the latter case, Forrester) who are not only investigating the murders, but growing more aware of deception in their peers.  Forrester (I don’t really feel right calling her Roz – mind you, I’m still sticking with “Bernice” over “Benny”, as I don’t like the automatic masculinisation of companion names) is fighting her own personal battles as she copes with a new partner, having lost her previous one and mentor in unhappy circumstances.  Again, this is not brand new territory – you can see Lane’s keenness for pop culture in his references, which go beyond Doctor Who into adamantium and planets named Riggs and Murtaugh! – but it’s executed cleverly, drip-feeding us information over the course of the book.  Forrester runs the risk of being a tough, no-nonsense cliché, but there’s enough self-loathing (to do with her privileged upbringing) and begrudging humour to make her more.  Her long-suffering dialogue with the enthusiastic and adorable Chris is worth the price of admission.  “Hey!” said Cwej suddenly.  Bernice turned back to face him and Forrester.  “I've got an idea!”  “Treat it gently,” Forrester murmured, “it's in a strange place.”  She’ll fit right in with Bernice.  I’ll wait and see with Chris: he’s sweet and funny, but he’s got “write as a moron” written all over him.  The joke about his surname, which looks like Cwej but should be pronounced Shvey but he sticks with Cwej because it’s easier for everyone, takes so long to explain that it isn’t particularly funny.

Surprisingly, for a story gagging to show off world-shaking ideas and grisly murders, it’s also got character development for the regulars.  Bernice, mostly in terms of sympathy.  There are some clever reflections on her life with the Doctor, and how she constantly wants to A) get back in the TARDIS and B) get out of the damn thing, which make us aware that for a box that’s bigger on the inside, it’s still a box.  In the main though, she’s mostly there to field the plight of Homeless Forsaken (whose death starts it all) and Powerless Friendless, to whom she obviously feels an obligation.  There’s still plenty of delightful Bernice stuff, and her scenes with the Doctor (until, inevitably, they take separate paths) only make me more confident that these two belong together, and any writer not revelling in that is on the wrong bus.

Much more thoughtful, and perhaps more disturbing, is what this says about the Doctor.  You might not expect another book to delve into his thoughts straight after Human Nature, which was surely the definitive book on the subject.  But Original Sin shows there’s still plenty to needle at.  The Doctor, for all his whimsy and heroism, is quick to scoop out the brain of a dead man to examine the cause of his insanity.  In his fearful moments, which the plot provides in abundance and without cheating, he thinks darkly of the Valeyard and when he’s close to death, his eighth incarnation “waiting to take over”.  It’s his conversations with a psychopath, Professor Pryce, that provide the most sobering look: Pryce believes there is no truly solid argument against murder other than we do not want to be murdered, and realising that people can easily condemn and rationalise murder in the same breath, the Doctor sees sense in that.  He must prevent it simply because it’s what he believes is right.  He applies the same logic to time travel nearer the end, when another villain holds a mirror up to him; he is Time’s Champion for no particular reason, it’s just his lot.  It can be cool to mythologise the Doctor, but it’s refreshing to peel it back and show a guy just doing what he can, and must.

If you don’t know who the villain is lurking in Original Sin, well done; I wasn’t able to avoid it.  Fortunately, knowing does not take much away from the book, although it’s surely more fun not to know.  There is simply reams of other stuff to enjoy, and plenty of story to follow, leaving the late reveal of [redacted] more a treat than a vital ingredient.  The handling of said character (oh, all right, it’s wee Jimmy Krankie) is relished and doesn’t trample on the previous stuff, although a good deal of retcon is involved, turning them into a shadowy menace behind numerous other stories as well.  If you are a fan of their earlier appearance(s), I doubt you’ll be disappointed.  If you do know it’s them, be aware it’s not the all-singing, all-dancing Wee Jimmy Krankie Show as the reveal is a last-act thing.

On top of all the other spectacular (and yet focused, plot-driven) stuff going on, this is of course an introduction for new companions.  The Doctor pats the TARDIS and says it’ll be just like old times.  I have no idea how this will affect the dynamic, but they’re interesting and fun, and it doesn’t appear they’ll get in Bernice’s way, so I’m all for it.  Original Sin doesn’t read like a typical introductory story, with the twosome barely meeting the Doctor throughout, but there’s a lot to be said for doing things differently.  Whether or not they were always intended to depart in the TARDIS, they arrive in a rich story you’re likely to read compulsively.  It’s not as dazzlingly unusual as something like Human Nature, but what it does, it does in relentless style.