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.

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