Friday, 26 January 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #60 – Head Games by Steve Lyons

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Head Games
By Steve Lyons

It’s a sequel to Conundrum.  Of course it’s weird.

My Conundrum-tinted spectacles have slipped a bit since reading Time Of Your Life.  While nothing technically to do with his first book, Steve Lyons’s Missing Adventure was, for me, a let-down.  An odd jumble of satire and “Do we really need to do this again”-isms involving the Sixth Doctor and video nasties, it left a bad taste; I’m sure some people liked it, but I’m not at all surprised he went back to the Land Of Fiction for Round #3.

Luckily we already know he can do imaginative sequels, as you-know-what was itself a sequel to The Mind Robber.  In the same vein, Head Games isn’t even set in the Land Of Fiction: the Land is having adverse effects on the real world.  Which is a bloody fantastic idea you could do almost anything with – you get the same bizarre freedom with the fourth wall, only it applies differently.  Jason, the previous Master of the Land Of Fiction, gains limitless powers thanks to a hole in space that leads to the Land Of Fiction / Gallifreyan incompetence in erasing his memories / magic.  (Delete where appropriate.)  He also has a travelling companion and partner in crime you may recognise, his imaginary hero, Dr Who.

The two of them travel the cosmos righting wrongs, comic book style.  Alas, Jason’s moral compass has exactly two settings and Dr Who is his id, so entire alien races get wiped out willy-nilly, planets are blown up on a whim, and he decides the Queen of England must be a tyrant because things aren’t perfect, and kills her with exploding projectiles.  Everything is black and white.  It’s a demented parody of Doctor Who, but it’s not quite as literal as that sounds: it’s a parody of how you might view the Doctor, and what the Doctor really isn’t.  The contrast between how he is viewed and what he really is lurks behind the book at every turn, making a goofy premise into something dark and character-driven.  Hey, I said it was weird.

You go into this expecting oddness and Land Of Fiction-isms, but even so it can seem all over the place.  The Doctor, Bernice, Chris and Roz are mid-adventure when we arrive, trying to shut down The Miracle: a Fiction-powered hole in space, now surrounded by crystal and providing light and heat for the nearby planet Detrios.  This has changed Detrios’s balance of power, resulting in heightened inter-species tensions.  We chop between humans and lizards trying to co-exist on the surface, their human despots trying to tip the balance, Jason and Dr Who zipping through space and Bernice, Chris and Roz trying to accomplish something they’ve forgotten, as the Fiction energies invade their minds and throw up personal nightmares.  This is the first 30 pages.  Soon things settle down, almost terminally: tensions on Detrios aren’t helped by Jason and Dr Who getting involved, but they soon leave to “right wrongs” on Earth.  The Doctor and co. follow them as they vaguely plot to overthrow the Queen because… well, because Jason’s an idiot, he doesn’t really have reasons.  A lack of direction and maturity is the whole point of Jason, but even bearing that in mind his story is a bit half-hearted and random.  There is much wandering around and trying to accomplish something or other.

The situation on Detrios and the madcap stuff on Earth just aren’t that arresting.  The Detrians are a dull bunch, despite a bit of Romeo-and-Juliet affection between species; I kept hoping they’d all turn out to be bland fictional creations.  (Or at least more so.)  We don’t meet anyone interesting on Earth, despite the chaos of the (promptly reversed) Queen’s assassination.  Reversing his own magic seems to be the main surprise in Jason’s arsenal, which is annoying when you’ve got a character marching around with bonkers make-anything-happen powers.  Decidedly less than “anything” happens here.

The fourth wall stays more or less in tact, but there are some to-be-expected (and actually pretty great?) references.  Prepare for, among other things, a literal recreation of Original Sin (may you never forget it!), gags about the bad green-screen in Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, a nicked line from Dimensions In Time, cameos from Sabalom Glitz and Brigadier Bambera (confirming that yes, she married what’s-his-name from Battlefield), more mentions of Daleks than these books usually get away with plus – cherry on the cake – future references.  The plot of Millennial Rites comes up a few times, as does (I am assuming) foreshadowing for The Also People.  Fanwank some of it may be, but Steve Lyons does it with confidence.

Besides, it’s more than just references for the sake of it.  The Doctor’s guilt is a theme, so we hear about the destruction of the Seven Planets again (from that book everyone totally loved!), and Tanith and Gabriel, creatures who exist because of the Doctor’s interference in time (from that other book that everyone etc.!).  Also the Land Of Fiction hangover is giving the Doctor bad dreams about his sixth incarnation, and the fact (introduced in Love And War) that he killed him off to hurry his own regeneration.  It’s a barmy, utterly New Adventures idea, and probably only could have happened back when people thought the Sixth Doctor was akin to a fart in a lift.  But it adds weight to this Doctor being “Time’s Champion,” as well as an unpredictable not-that-nice person to know.  It’s been a while since he felt the weight of guilt for that, and for ruining his companions’ lives, and lucky us, Head Games is as nostalgic for all of that as anything else.

You can guess from the front cover that Mel is involved, but this isn’t the Sunny-D-in-human-form as pictured, whom the Doctor left in Dragonfire.  We find her years later on an all-but-abandoned entertainment complex in a lonely part of space, which all seems like an ironic form of punishment.  Despite her reputation in fandom, which is hard to forget with that front cover (a murderous McCoy looking as ready to rewatch Time And The Rani as you or I), it’s really cool to see an old companion again, even if circumstances have not been kind to her.  She’s soon whisked away by Dr Who and Jason, seeking to punish all the Doctor’s known associates, and despite that she is pleased to eventually see the Doctor again… but then the penny drops.  He’s not the spoon-playing insert-random-characterisation-here she once knew and liked.  The Cartmel Masterplan and the New Adventures have done considerable damage, and when she realises he manipulated her into leaving in the first place, only to wind up ditched by Glitz and miserable on a space rock, it’s all over for their friendship.

Her complete meltdown over the course of the book isn’t easy reading, especially when she realises that destroying the Miracle will all but doom Detrios.  She 100% blames the Doctor for this and refuses to understand why he has to do it.  Then she storms out of his life.  Her reaction here is important for the themes in the book, and it’s arguably justified, but yikes, is it monotonous: like all the most annoying Ace tantrums happening at once.  Difficult to miss her after that, and debateable whether the characterisation fits the character.  (It could be worse: BBC Books killed her off altogether, retrospectively, on a different space rock, still unrescued by the Doctor.  She truly was the Sixth Doctor of companions.)

The contrast between the halcyon (albeit bloody odd) days of Season 24 and Doctor Who circa 1995 is brutal, but it’s the heart of Head Games.  Things aren’t simple any more.  The Doctor must destroy the Miracle or the universe will blow up (etc.), and while this means taking away light and heat from Detrios, sending those that survive back underground, things only got warm and bright in the first place because of the Miracle.  The people survived before, they can do it again; it’s not his fault he has to restore order.  He can no longer blunder into situations like the Sixth Doctor, or his own caricature Dr Who.  In time, his friends accept that.  Or those that stick around, anyway.

Chris is heartbroken when an attempt to rescue a friendly Detrian fails – and fails for no particular reason, which is just more of life’s sad complexity.  He’ll come around, and Roz is grateful the Doctor let him try.  (Both of them have low-key material in Head Games, especially Roz, but there’s a distinctly human edge to it all.)  Bernice – who bounces off the page in her usual style, duh – won’t pull her punches, but understands and sticks by him.  Even (spoiler) another old friend, who I was surprisingly happy to see again, gives him a reassuring cuddle when Mel can’t accept what’s happening.  ‘Oh, come here!’ she said, embracing him affectionately.  ‘You might be a bastard, but you’re still our bastard.’

And it’s not like he’s happy about all this.  Mel’s outburst, the latest in a succession of broken friends, take a heavy toll.  Even worse, his Fiction nightmares result in an ersatz Sixth Doctor, a ferocious encounter ending off-screen when Sixie gets (presumably) bludgeoned to death, spattering his successor in gore!  (Why yes, this is a New Adventure.)  No more shying away from his nature now, as these events literally rub his face in it.  For good measure, and to underscore that maybe he isn’t a morally dubious bastard down to his DNA, we hear of his good dreams, which involve just the sort of black-and-white Good Vs. Evil scrapes that Jason and Dr Who got up to.  Deep down he’d rather have an easy decision, a holiday or maybe just a lie down, but those days are as assuredly out the door as Mel.  It certainly isn’t easy being him.

Head Games is an odd duck.  There’s tons of interesting character stuff, mostly of the “everyone is miserable” variety, some of it lending a sympathetic weight at the same time.  I haven’t even mentioned the nifty undercurrent of villains not being simple any more: Jason isn’t a bad guy, he just has a lot of power and hasn’t grown up; Dr Who’s destructive acts are clumsy attempts to make things better (and he occasionally tries to be Jason’s conscience); Enros, a crazed cult leader on Detrios, genuinely believes his death will mean the end of the universe; a bunch of fighty Detrians try to stop the Doctor and have good reason to do so; and well, look at the Doctor, and what he has to do here.  (Admittedly this fan theory wobbles when you get to the political in-fighting on Detrios, which really is just some bastards out to help themselves.)  There’s loads to chew over, and yet the story itself is often either frenzied or lackadaisical, all interesting premise and nowhere to go, hence the characterisation pit-stops.  It’s a good refresher on the New Adventures mission statement if you needed one, but it’s more here to remind us where these characters stand, rather than push them forward.  With a lot of funny, weird, not-weird-enough and slightly boring bits on too.


Coming soon: books 61–65, starting with Millennial Rites by Craig Hinton.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #59 – Managra by Stephen Marley

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
By Stephen Marley

It was at this point Sarah jumped forward and kicked the head into the orchestra pit. ‘You’re not my dad!’ she screamed.

Love it, hate it or can’t make head nor tail of it – Managra is probably the most interesting Missing Adventure yet.  Among other things.

The most popular thing about it is the world Stephen Marley creates, so we’ll start there.  Some time after Original Sin (and I am loving the continuity of New and Missing Adventures in the wake of that), Earth found itself in chaos and needed remodelling. “Reprises” led the way: recreations of historical figures, cloned from fragments of the originals (including, in one unhappy case, a toenail), as well as recreations of fictional characters based on actors (e.g. the Four Musketeers led by Michael York), not to mention imaginary creatures like vampires and haunted trees, with whole regions and continents mish-mashed together with favourite bits, and a few bits of obvious future-tech like mechanical horses – although the “rules” suggest they should stick broadly between the fourteenth and nineteenth century. Oh, and behind the scenes there’s a shape-shifting bad guy somehow entwined with an ancient horror from Gallifrey, and he hates Shakespeare.

Sarah likens all this to a theme park, and she’s not wrong.  I was reminded mostly of a Red Dwarf episode, Meltdown, about a forgotten theme world full of waxwork historical figures.  Left to their own devices they went to war, and the result was a rather obvious and unenjoyable Gulf War satire.  Managra follows suit, at least as far as the historical figures descending into chaos.  Absent the excuse of being on an otherwise uninhabited planet, Managra never feels like it actually is set on Earth, and save for a few crowd scenes in bars and a theatre, there aren’t a lot of bona fide people about.  As such, despite all the imagination and colour, and the occasional nudge back to Original Sin, the stakes are decidedly wiffly.  But how much does that matter?

Stephen Marley only wrote one Who book that I know of, and we should all feel very sad about that.  He’s an absolute whirlwind at this, finding interesting idioms all the time and indulging just as much in posh verbiage as he does in hilarious dialogue.  I didn’t know a significant percentage of the words he used, but context usually took care of it; elsewhere he pokes fun at his own juggling of ye olde and modern wordplay, as the reprises never seem sure which to use.  The sheer bonkers conflagration of Europa is something to behold, though some of his best ideas are arguably underused: there aren’t that many fantasy creatures or fictional characters on the rampage (perhaps there isn’t room in the cast list), and the villain of the piece has a quill that writes on thin air, in blood, and whatever he writes will come true – which criminally only seems to come into play in the last act.  Then again, some ideas pleasantly double up, like how multiple reprises exist and occasionally meet: Byron is split into Mad, Bad and Dangerous for ease of recognition, and they don’t get on.  (I might be the only one who chuckled at “Dangerous Byron”, which sounds quite a bit like Brian Conley’s hapless stuntman character.)

While the imagination left me a little bit in awe, there is a lot of it, besides which the pile of higgledy-piggledy historical references does become a mountain; I felt woefully unprepared.  I just don’t know that much about Shakespeare, the Vatican or the half-dozen sinister figures vying to be the next Pope, and while each of Marley’s characters held my interest, even the duplicates, they are all of a kind.  Save for the Doctor and Sarah, everyone is a snarky, duplicitous sod to some degree.  Coupled with the peculiar absence of Earth’s hoi polloi, it’s hard to care what happens to them.  As with Terry Pratchett, you begin to suspect it’s just the author’s sense of humour trickling through the book.  Certainly it’s present in the prose.  And it’s enjoyable – see Pratchett – but makes it difficult to really invest in the story.

Honestly, there isn’t a lot of story anyway.  Sort of.  The Doctor and Sarah arrive, realise they’re in a planet-wide madhouse and try to get off it, losing the TARDIS (of course) and then falling in with the reprises.  They, in turn, are trying to wrest power away from the cadre of villains surrounding the job of Pope – including Cardinal Richelieu, a reprise who has murdered all his other duplicates – and they in turn are killing each other off to get the top job, while Persona / Managra, a villain / evil entity is attempting to use an old, bitterly unpopular playwright’s work to wreak havoc.  I know that sounds like a lot, but in practical terms it means the Doctor and Sarah trouping around with a bunch of famous names, only to get split up, meet up again at the Globe Theatre and fight the baddies.  The plotting isn’t half as complex as the setting, yet it’s still hard to follow, thanks to the number of slippery villain characters, double-crosses and all the outright weirdness going on.

To think, I haven’t even mentioned Miles Dashing: a naïve adventurer and friend to Byron, on a mission to pursue the Doctor (I think?) and avenge his family (who hated him anyway, not that he noticed), with the aid of his manservant Crocker, who feigns ignorance because it’s the only way to get work as a manservant.  The two of them are rich and hilarious enough for their own story, which unless I’m much mistaken is what they appear to be in.  There’s just so much stuff here.

And at the bottom of the pile, we have the Doctor and Sarah.  I’ve heard them described as out of character in Managra, and I sort of agree.  While Sarah gets generous helpings of back-story re her dead parents, which is always a bit odd in the middle of an ongoing series because it hasn’t come up much before or since, she’s also at her most irritable, sniping at the Doctor like mad.  She’s taken away and hypnotised for much of the novel, privately obsessing over her parents and considering the Doctor’s role as her surrogate uncle (while being given a new name, Shara, for some reason), but she’s so out of the story that it feels like random window-dressing; she probably should have capped it all by speaking to the Doctor afterwards, or having some kind of moment to reflect.  There’s also a… shall we say, preoccupation with her body, as she is dressed for a visit to an interstellar seaside (where of course she hasn’t arrived) so must parade around in a bikini for what seems like ages.  Meeting someone like Byron only makes it more of a thing.  When she finally puts some clothes on she rebuffs the legendary figure with: “From now on, you’ll just have to dream about my body.”  Getting kind of awkward by this point.  At least it isn’t Peri?

The Doctor is harder to pin down.  He is technically like himself, the usual descriptors vastly improved by Marley’s thoughtful aphorisms: “...a brown fedora planted on the coppery bramble of his hair”; “His energetic tone boomed in the cavernous space as he hurled his personality in all directions”; “...exposing his habitual tomfoolery for what it was, the froth on the surface of the ocean.  But there’s a spark missing; he’s doing all his usual Fourth Doctor stuff by rote.  Sarah even calls him on this, and the answer is supposedly that he is haunted by Managra (a Gallifreyan thingummy, because of course it bloody is), as well as a tragic encounter that, unless I’ve missed it, Marley has made up.  But I think it’s more fundamental: Managra is exploding in all directions with bohemians and weirdos, and the usually bizarre and most incongruous of Doctors just isn’t that unusual in that context.  There’s a muted feeling of “Oh right, him” when we return to the Doctor, which sort of extends to Sarah and the TARDIS.  All three lead the heroic ending, or one bit of it, by which time Europa has more or less sorted out its own troubles, regardless of Managra.  I suspect this could have been quite a happy sci-fi/fantasy novel without Doctor Who, which may explain why it’s Marley’s only one.

It’s probably just the context of Doctor Who that makes this sort of book sound like it was beamed in from Mars.  Sky Pirates! was much the same, revelling in its ideas with a confidence and a deliberateness you just aren’t expecting from a tie-in novel.  Managra isn’t quite as good; for all its wit and wonder, the story is a bit of a vague slog, and the supposed main ingredients feel like (albeit in places, very well crafted) afterthoughts.  It’s still a delight to read from page to page, with no sentence or turn of phrase taken for granted.  But it seemed so caught up in its own world that it didn’t entirely grab me, too.


Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #58 – Toy Soldiers by Paul Leonard

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Toy Soldiers
By Paul Leonard

War.  Hmm.  On second thoughts, shall we give it a miss?

Books about war tend to make that point, as do poems about war, movies about war, and any dishcloths about war you might come across.  It’s a worthy point to make, but there comes a point where I just don’t feel the need to hear it again.  A glance at Toy Soldiers suggests I am yet again to be told that war is, on balance, not a gay romp through a bouncy fairground.  But it’s by Paul Leonard, whose last two books showed he was a real find for Virgin Books; he can even take a ropey setup like a Pertwee actioner and give it some class.  A War Is Bad story is just as much glittering potential in his hands.

Right from the start he’s taking familiar things and making them special.  We begin at the end of the First World War, in a dug-out where the Tommies either can’t quite process that it’s over, or what’s been happening to them at all, or – in the case of CO Charles Sutton – simply don’t want the burden of caring any more.  War stories are always in the thick of it, or in the dreadful shell-shocked years that follow; rarely do we see the moment of transition.  And then it all starts up again, with the ghostly appearance of man-sized teddy-bears.

If you’re reading these in order, you’d be forgiven for thinking back to Invasion Of The Cat-People.  But whereas Gary Russell wrote a book that featured space mercenaries that happened to look like cats, tossing in a couple of lame kitty litter gags to make something of it, Leonard fully grasps the weird incongruity of this bizarre sight.  And soon it’s apparent why he’s chosen bears: they’re here to steal children, and what animal does every child trust?  The otherworldly creepiness of a giant bear arriving on a steam-train or an airplane, chosen to appeal to the youngster they’re here to abduct, and somehow stopping time in the process, gives us a series of very striking moments early in the book.  You’ve seen alien abductions, but not like this.

And there’s an emotional element, as each child is at a time in their life when escape would be desirable.  Josef, a young Jew in post-war Germany (another unusual note) is desperate to feed his family, but also weary of the responsibility; Gabrielle has lost her father, but is a child through-and-through so just wants to escape the rigmarole of a family wedding, plus the incessant attention and grief of her mother.  Grief haunts these children and their families in different ways.  Mrs Sutton has lost her husband and her son, Charles; she has taken to consulting a medium, even though she is not convinced.  Gabrielle’s mother dotes (perhaps too much) on her daughter.  Josef’s mother can barely cope as her remaining child slips further into illness.

It’s at these critical moments when the main characters pop up, and in another refreshing move, we find them mid-investigation.  My favourite New Who episodes are generally the ones where we arrive in the midst of things, as there are only so many ways to land the TARDIS and inveigle the crew in local matters.  That’s all gone and we get right on with what’s happening to these children, where they’re going, and how to stop it.  The subject matter is obviously emotive – not just abductees, but children – leading to a very emotionally charged first third of the novel.  And Leonard absolutely shines here.

Toy Soldiers is his first New Adventure, but he “gets” all the main characters, and shows them off one by one.  Roz and Chris are in the French town of Septangy, comforting Gabrielle’s mother and piecing together clues; they must overcome local prejudices (as Roz, she begins to realise, falls afoul of racism herself) and investigate local connections, making great use of their Adjudicator past.  (I get a geeky rush from having actual policemen in the Doctor’s police box.)  The Doctor meets Josef’s fragile mother with the intention of just gathering information, but before long he’s offering up medicine for her daughter and food for them both, as well as their first bit of hope.  He almost fights against this, knowing he has a bigger picture to address, but caves instantly.  It’s a beautiful vignette, and very him.  Bernice meets the Suttons, and the séance she attends is filled with rich, knowing silences between her and Mrs Sutton – both are sceptical, but they must indulge the others.  There’s a desperate pragmatism to those left behind which, like the Doctor and co. being mid-flow, allows the story to move briskly: when the time comes to talk about alien abductions, they won’t have to endure the usual accusations and red tape.  (Or not as much.)  Leonard still manages to pepper it with character and meaning.  The prose is thoughtful and wonderful, throwing out neat little phrases like a grieving house having a “clean white silence”, and not being remotely afraid to stick with a situation through multiple paragraph breaks.  After many books that can’t resist switching scenes, this kind of attention span is a relief.

Nonetheless, we do zoom off elsewhere, and not just between the desperate austerity of Germany and the quaint, deceptively lovely France – where tragedies take place in vineyards and toyshop owners commit atrocities for a greater good.  (Hats off to the level of richness we get in all these places.)  There is also an unnamed world where the children have gone, where war is afoot and more worryingly, the children are okay with that.

A seasoned Doctor Who fan might put up a bit of resistance here, as we’re encroaching on The War Games – another story where people are stolen from different places and put in a pointless war.  It’s hard to shake the suspicion that all of this is ultimately for nothing, as the kids are clearly placed on opposite sides of a conflict that holds no more specifics than there being another side that need wiping out, with each side defined only by a couple of colours.  It’s not the same story as The War Games, but that suspicion proves correct.  Writing war as a literally pointless endeavour is quite low hanging fruit, especially for at least the second time in Doctor Who.

I’m still not sure if Leonard’s writing really puts a twist on “pointless war brainwashing”, but what he does is grimly interesting.  The children believe utterly in what they’re doing, their past lives are forgotten and they enjoy their jobs; they’re convinced the opposition deserve what’s happening to them, and don’t give a second thought to eating their enemies afterwards.  As Charles puts it – himself one of the few older soldiers, there to help with recruitment and equally brainwashed – “war is a permanent concern”.  Concepts like peace are not just unfeasible to them, but unheard of.  There is only war, and the scary possibility that they may never go back to “normal”, even when they’re “fixed”.  When Bernice befriends and possibly begins to deprogram one of them, they offer to take Benny (her prisoner) to another camp: “‘They’ll kill me, Gabrielle.’  Gabrielle nodded.  ‘At least I won’t have to do it.’

I can’t stress enough how good most of this is.  Those early scenes of grieving families and the TARDIS team working to put it right, and even the horrors of war exacerbated by a brainwashed determination to do this forever.  Even when said brainwashing extends to the main characters, it’s just another way to highlight who they are: Bernice is changed with disturbing ease into a recruiter, but her personality blips through now and again.  (“‘Not good enough,’ she muttered.  ‘Must have a word with the costume department.’  Then she frowned, wondering why the remark seemed funny.  What was a costume department?”)  Her first sight of an atrocity on the battlefield brings the walls right down again, and another tragedy later on is even worse, as she loses a friend while unconscious, their killers no more upset than they would be about taking out the dirty laundry.  But the story must ultimately answer its war riddle, and it’s here that Toy Soldiers finally lets something give.

The “Recruiter” is a machine, of course, and is locked in a thoughtlessly destructive loop for reasons that would fit Star Trek like a glove; on top of that, targeting Earth will finally allow it to complete its mission, at the predictable cost of all life on it.  Lurching from the likes of “What’s it for?  What could possibly be worth all this?” to “oh no, not the Earth!” is somewhat clumsy, and quite uncharacteristic for a novel as adept at emotion and character as this one.  Ditto the Doctor’s (typically?) quick resolution.  Frustratingly, all of Paul Leonard’s books so far have conceded and lost something; it’s usually the plot, when you get down to it at last.  Perhaps that’s the moment where Leonard, apparently not a Doctor Who fan (although come on, what’s the difference at this point?), finally concedes that he’s not just writing a book, but a Doctor Who book.  Despite a sudden inrush of tragedy right at the end, the fight seems to go out of Toy Soldiers just when it should be bringing it home.  The (usual) point is made that you can never go home again even if you return, using a very minor character I’d all but missed earlier.  Only one of the three “main” children gets a reunion.  (I would prefer to see all the survivors reunited.  Again, the “main” ones.  So the other one as well, spoiler alert.)  Then suddenly it’s over.  I was hoping for a softer decline.

Also, as is customary at this point in the NAs, Leonard has four main characters to contend with, and that’s a little much for anybody.  He puts enough effort into Roz and Chris’s investigations that they don’t feel irrelevant, even though ultimately their contribution is of the “coincidental help at a vital moment” variety.  (I still don’t fully understand how they survived their apparent doom at the end of Chapter 15.)  Roz shines here, doing her best to conduct a thorough investigation and save lives in amongst the petty racism of the time.  (There is also an undercurrent of Roz failing to notice how this parallels her own mistrust of different species.)  Chris… is also there and is very nice.  I suspect the authors all felt the same as I do about the guy.  You surely couldn’t hate Chris Cwej, but what does he have going for him, other than being the perennial “good cop” to Roz’s no-nonsense alternative?  I don’t exactly blame Leonard for this one – Chris’s easy-going nature and quick acceptance among the locals gives Roz’s frustration a greater contrast – but I’m eager for someone at Virgin to take the leap and really justify Chris being here.

Once again I raced through a Paul Leonard novel wanting to shout about it from the rooftops, only to find myself oddly hesitant afterwards.  Frankly, it’s spectacularly well-written: the kind of proverbial Good Stuff (like Lucifer Rising and Sky Pirates!) that you’d show to anyone even considering reading a Doctor Who novel.  But it falls short of greatness in the end, suddenly absent the patience and consideration that made its earlier highs so evocative, and saddled with a conclusion that you’ll find a little too familiar.  Heck, I’m not sure he fully explained the teddybears.  But I’m not one to turn away a gift, and a Paul Leonard book, painting moments that stay with you even if there’s something off about the machinery beneath, is something to be recommended and savoured.


Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #57 – Invasion Of The Cat-People by Gary Russell

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
Invasion Of The Cat-People
By Gary Russell

Well this one just had “Classic” written all over it.  If the goofy title and unnervingly ridiculous front cover aren’t enough to draw you in, take a look at that by-line.

Seriously, what could go right?  Just by virtue of being Gary Russell and not, for example, latter day James Goss, you know the title doesn’t signal a rich postmodern piss-take: Gary’s just going to write a load of cobblers about evil Cat-People in deadly earnest.  Still, Invasion (let’s abbreviate) has some other ideas, and some of them are quite interesting.

Of course, in order to find them you’ll have to climb over the bad stuff.  And let’s start right away with the absolutely mind-bendingly bad science.  We open on Earth, 3978 BC, when we are told the molten core of the Earth is “still cooling” (?) and the spaceship-exploding death of the dinosaurs occurred “within the last million years”.  A small group of aliens is inadvertently stranded here when their mothership explodes, and we later learn they left a series of “buoys” all over the planet to aid their rescue; these buoys have moved significantly since then much to their annoyance, due to continental drift.  To recap, that’s continental drift happening in the last 6,000 years.  Once we pass the first page, however, 6,000 years becomes 40,000 and Gary doesn’t look back.  Whoops.  At one point the Doctor offers this helpful nugget to patch it all up: “In cosmic terms, a few million years is a blink of an eye.  The core energy would still be powerful enough way back, or when the Euterpians arrived, now or in 1994.  The lessening of power would be negligible.  Satisfied?

Er, given that you can’t tell the difference between 6,000 and 40,000, and think that geologically speaking we’ve only just missed the dinosaurs… not exactly, no.

He might have got away with it (at least until the numbers mix-up) if he hadn’t felt the need to bung in nods to Earthshock and City Of Death, which put the death of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago and the start of life on Earth about 400 million years ago respectively.  And right there is the most obvious reason not to expect much from this book: Gary Russell’s serious fanwank problem.  It is novel and interesting to write a story about the Second Doctor, Ben and Polly, a period of the show’s history that lasted for little over a month.  It is the opposite of interesting to then have the Doctor blether on about his youth in the Academy and regeneration – the latter being a word the show didn’t even use until the mid-seventies, yoinking us right out of the period he’s supposedly trying to establish.  And that’s peanuts to the unbelievably wankeriffic bit where the Doctor says he’ll need to re-work the TARDIS’s interior once he reaches his Fourth incarnation.  What the hell does that have to do with anything?  Gary, I am thrilled that you’ve seen Logopolis.  I’ve seen it too.  Not strictly relevant here though, is it?

With steaming continuity dumps like the above, it’s a little surprising that the Cat-People aren’t something he found in his Doctor Who annuals.  Oh, he draws a direct line between them and the Cheetah People in Survival – of course he does! – but they’re essentially new monsters, which is a good sign.  Then again, look at the name.  That is literally what they are called throughout the book.  Nyurgh.  Did you take them seriously for a moment?  Well stop it, because they sound ridiculous, cough up hairballs, love milk and use litter trays.  They’re like cats, you guys – I’m not sure I made that clear enough.

Even when the writing isn’t making them look and sound ridiculous – two of them are called Nypp and Tuq, LOL? – it’s giving them nothing to work with.  These are dull, violent space jerks that happen to look like cats.  You could replace them with people and they would only be marginally more boring to read.  They have some back-biting politics going on between them, but since none of them are interesting or sympathetic, what’s at stake?  Oh, and they’re not here to invade.  They specifically want to destroy the Earth and use its energy.  So, the title’s kind of incorrect.  Wizard.

It’s, ah, not very well written.  Like a lot of fanboy writers Russell is adept enough at the trademark characters, as there’s so much footage and other stuff to work with; not so much everyone else.  The Doctor displays just the kind of devious “clumsiness” you’d expect, and generally has a frantic and fun energy that rings true.  The villains lean towards tired condescension, as do the barely-qualifies-as-ambiguous characters that turn out to be villains, at which point they promptly begin acting like it.  Nuanced lines such as “What I say, Godwanna, is that you are totally and utterly insane!” and “I’ll get you for this, Doctor!” rear their heads.  Meanwhile everyone else spends their time either asking what’s going on or explaining it, sometimes more than once.  His knack for dialogue hasn’t come very far since Legacy, although the characters seem less irritated at having to talk to each other this time, which is something.

Once again there is a tendency towards firing random details into the prose, as if that adds colour and doesn’t just make it more like work having to remember it all: “Barely held together by rust and flaking paint, the vehicle was being driven at a vaguely insane speed by a sullen-looking man with a streak of pure white through the centre of his jet black hair.”  /  “Peter, the other student, a second generation Trinidadian from Wood Green, tugged at his seatbelt which was creasing his precious Ice T T-shirt.”  /  “He straightened the bow-tie attached to the collar of his sky-blue shirt with a safety pin and grasped Bridgeman by the hand.”  He tries to use the colour of the Doctor’s eyes as a sort of theme, as nobody’s sure what they’re looking at cos-he’s-all-mysterious-innit, but it mostly ends up as an irritating repetition.  Elsewhere his dull obsession with what people are wearing leads to them sounding strangely disembodied: “A scruffy black ankle boot poked through, stopping the movement. … Following the ankle-boot was a leg in oversized checked trousers and then the body of a middle-aged dark-haired man in a long black frock-coat.  He carried himself as if the words brush, comb and ironing board were alien gibberish and smiled benignly at Kerbe and Bridgeman, seemingly unaware of the Mauser.”

It’s strangely infuriating when sentences get it right, like at the end of that last one, suggesting he has some glimmer of understanding that it’s more evocative to focus on what people are doing and why.  Nonetheless you have to wade through all the other irrelevant chaff first.  But at least you get the odd accidental laugh out of the Separate Body Parts Effect: “Thorsuun’s right hand slapped him across the face.”  How is it relevant which hand it was?  What was the left one up to?

Hey, I said it wasn’t all bad.  What was all that about?  Well, there are times in Invasion Of The Cat-People (nope, still hate the title, did he want people to back away from the book in embarrassment?) when you can see something interesting going on.  The Euterpians, stranded aliens whom the book is secretly all about, have the power to sing matter into being.  That’s a pleasantly weird idea with a lot of (violent) potential, which Russell then ties into Aboriginal culture.  He also tosses in a bit about ley lines, which gets a bit muddled when you try to make sense of the continental drift dating, but contributes to a pretty cohesive spiritualist theme.  Out of body experiences come into play, along with Tarot readings and strange existences between one world and the next.  I mean, in real life I think that’s all bollocks, but it’s an interesting back-drop for a story.  It is pretty ridiculous to suggest that all humans (such as Polly) have latent magic powers, however, since we know it will never come up again.

There are moments, sadly quite fleeting, when he digs into the emotion of his characters.  Bridgeman is a stuttering university professor with a genuinely tragic back-story, and a none-too-happy experience in this story: there’s no magic reset button, or not completely (they earn the one they use), but he does come to terms with things.  Similarly a couple of Euterpians have been enduring life on Earth (probably best if you don’t try working out how long!) and they carve out quite an affecting love story.  There’s an arguable theme of living with disability linking them with Bridgeman, but frankly I’m not sure what Russell was getting at there.

There’s a villainous character (who never develops much, despite his best efforts) who gets to live part of her life all over again.  This is a little confusing until you realise He’s Doing A Thing and hasn’t just forgotten which order the scenes should go.  (It wouldn’t surprise me.)  The whole thing is a bit of a non sequitur, but still, it’s pretty cool.  You also get the impression Russell’s having fun with a scene in (let’s just say “Ancient”) Baghdad, which is seen through the eyes of a young man who can barely articulate what he’s looking at; again, it’s a more or less random burst of creativity, and he can’t quite keep it in check as he uses anachronistic words like “cash”, but it’s a welcome addition.

And hey, check out Ben and Polly.  This isn’t a defining book for either of them, but it’s rather moving when they wander around town trying to make sense of the “modern day”, wondering if they still have a place in the world.  This snowballs into a bit of a theme, especially for Polly.  Her story with Atimkos, a maybe-good-but-probably-not Euterpian who keeps her around for some reason, isn’t as effective as her occasional private horror that she doesn’t belong here.  For all the banging on about magic powers, she doesn’t do much with them, but she does seem to get something out of the story.  I’m not convinced Anneke Wills read the book before writing a Foreword, but she’d probably have liked the Polly stuff.

As with Legacy, the good stuff comes along in random splodges.  Ditto the bad stuff.  I liked Bridgeman’s back story; I didn’t like having a sudden four-page flashback about it because he saw a wheelchair.  Russell is coming along as a writer, but slowly, tentatively adding his own ideas to the litany of trivia he’s memorised.  A tedious need for details might explain the bizarre post-script, when he lists his ideal cast for an Invasion Of The Cat-People Virgin Film, featuring Jude Law!  Hey, if you can be bothered to dig through the book, there are things to like.  But this probably isn’t the sort of result that will have Jude Law kicking Gary’s door down.


Monday, 22 January 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #56 – Zamper by Gareth Roberts

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By Gareth Roberts

And we’re back to normality.  We’ve had an unusually good run with Human Nature, Original Sin and Sky Pirates!, and to be fair to Zamper, somebody had to buck the trend.

I’ve been picking away at it for over a week.  Zamper isn’t ghastly, and it has most of the hallmarks of a Gareth Roberts book: comedic tone, whiff of satire, whimsical prose, Chelonians.  But all of that’s saddled to a story that takes more than half its page-count to get going.

The Doctor and co. experience a TARDIS malfunction (imagine that!) and arrive on Zamper, a difficult-to-reach planet that manufactures out-of-this-world spaceships.  (Given Roberts’ influences, let’s just say “Magrathea, again?” and leave it at that.)  Zamper is a bit odd, though even that feels like a stretch: half a dozen people live there, and all the work is done underground by the mysterious, telekinetic “Zamps”.  They can literally create spaceships using thoughts, which has the Doctor intrigued.  All of this is overseen by The Management, a strangely anthropomorphic computer system experiencing unexplained power failures.  The few people working there, mostly against their will, either long to get away or have agendas not related to their jobs.  A couple of Chelonians are there to purchase a ship that will revive their ailing war effort – seems a bit optimistic, but it’s a really good ship I suppose – and must tolerate working with “parasites” rather than enthusiastically murdering them.  A quiet level of intrigue is had all around.

And… so?  That’s a collection of mildly diverting things happening in a dull place, but it’s not much of a plot.  And Zamper is dull: the “complex” includes a gaming facility where you can play Bingo, some offices and bedrooms, but if this were on TV we’d just be seeing the same corridor from a few different angles.  As for the underground bit, imagine a cave, any cave, and you’re there.  Never mind the staff, I nearly got cabin fever.

Zamper might have an unusual secret, but aside from vague curiosity about it there’s no particular need for the Doctor to investigate right now.  Yes, it’s the sort of thing that would catch his eye, and yes it ultimately turns out something alarming is going on, but there’s no driving sense of mystery behind it.  The Zamps are odd; okay.  But that’s not sufficient to still be asking “How does all this work, then?” after 100 pages.  I really didn’t care that much.

Meanwhile The Management keeps going awry.  Who’s that going to inconvenience besides half a dozen typically Roberts-esque jerks?  I can’t be the only one noticing a pattern among his characters: his need for satire lends them a certain misanthropic edge, leading to unsympathetic people you won’t miss when something horrible (inevitably) happens to them.  While it’s probably deliberate, because comedy, it’s nonetheless odd that the Chelonians – war-obsessed tortoises who would literally kill you as soon as look at you – engender more sympathy and interest than their victims.  The elderly Hezzka spends a portion of the book with Bernice, and consequently softens his attitude towards “parasites”; their scenes are easily the high points.

There’s literally not much else to write home about.  The Doctor potters through caves with a zoologist named Smith (bit unfortunate so soon after Human Nature, but oh well), raising questions about Zamps and then in due course, answering them.  Bernice doesn’t find her feet until she stumbles across Hezzka, wounded by a devious Zamper worker.  Roz and Chris fall squarely into “that other one” territory, especially Chris – seen comically in his pants, or resembling an enthusiastic dog, or a small boy, the sum total of him is a quite affable hat-stand that moves.  Roz displays the hard-nosed unsociability of a Dragnet cop and little of the wit.  There’s something rather sad about her, as this capable and no-nonsense woman struggles to find her place within the TARDIS team.  Some of which is deliberate and all of which I know we’re going to have to like or lump in these post-Original Sin books, as the authors try to find a use for them.  Let’s just be grateful Chris and Roz aren’t competing for the job.

All this pottering about and vaguely wondering why the lights keep flicking on and off does culminate in A Bad Thing That Must Be Stopped, thank goodness, i.e. the evolution of the Zamps into something malevolent – but there’s a note of just shrugging and doing what’s expected here, as it turns out the Doctor was wrong to look for the best in this emergent species, and the villainous “loops” (difficult not to picture a lot of snarling lassoes) talk in the time-honoured manner of a really insufferable “hilarious” bad guy.  (It’s all “nincompoop” this and “toodle-oo” that, combined with bloody rampaging, because unexplored-realms-of-space-and-time.)  A moment where the Doctor appears ready to sacrifice himself and an entire Chelonian fleet is almost dramatic, until it’s undercut by the strange observation that “in the universal scheme of things he was important, and owed it to others as well as to himself to stay alive”.  (That’s how the reader and, I suppose, Doctor Who feels on the subject, but him?)  It doesn’t feel so much like nodding towards the Doctor’s Machiavellian schemes as saying “that Doctor guy sure is a weasel, apparently!”

Once again I sound more miffed now than I was when I read it.  I almost longed to be really, properly annoyed – anything to get those pages turning faster.  I don’t know what’s more of an issue: the way Zamper can’t rouse a care for anyone it’s about, suggesting the cold and overpopulated nadir of the Eric Saward era, or the dandelion-picking pace.  They make an unfortunate combination, holding Zamper back from the jolly romp its short-and-silly name suggests, and making me grateful that Roberts is sticking to Missing Adventures from here on.