Friday, 9 March 2018

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #65 – Lords Of The Storm by David A. McIntee

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
Lords Of The Storm
By David A. McIntee

And now for something… slightly different.

In his own words, David A. McIntee needed a change.  Sanctuary was one of his most David A. Mcintee-ey books thus far: a pure historical with lots of action sequences, it indulged his main interests of historical detail and action… detail.  It’s not exactly an upbeat book, although I think his suggestion here of a “grim ending” is a bit harsh.  It ends on a note of hope, or at the very least some Schrödinger uncertainty – besides which, nobody reading the ongoing New Adventures would expect Bernice to suddenly get a long term boyfriend, so it can hardly be a surprise when Guy de Carnac doesn’t come with.  (Let’s face it, the moment an unscheduled character says “I can’t wait to join the team!” they’re either going to change their mind or die.  Godspeed, Lynda-with-a-Y.)

Onto his brave new novel, which the author describes as “more your old-fashioned space opera with shootouts, spaceships and lots of corridors,” and “not exactly mind-expanding”, but at least “more upbeat and fun than Sanctuary.”  (Jeez, Dave.  Who’s writing this review?)  He’s fairly accurate on all counts, although his apparent ennui with historicals doesn’t prevent him dipping a toe in history.  Hindu culture figures prominently in Lords Of The Storm, sufficiently to require a glossary at the back, which isn’t such a different context from Haiti in White Darkness or the UFO craze in First Frontier.  But there is a pronounced difference between this and his other books so far.

Simply being a Missing Adventure makes Lords Of The Storm a less “heavy” book, as it doesn’t have to carry any major continuity (actually, hold that thought!) and it can come and go without frightening the horses.  Also the story he has chosen plays more to Classic Who than I’ve come to expect with the Missing Adventures; aside from some impossible-to-realise visuals and at least one swearword, you could drop it into the show’s back catalogue without creating ripples.  Whether it’s an especially brilliant Classic Who story is another matter, but either way there is a grateful audience for meat-and-potatoes Doctor Who.

We all like different things, but there are aspects of McIntee’s writing that make my teeth itch, and while they do feature in Lords Of The Storm they are largely restrained.  The Prelude and the Prologue (and now you mention it, I do find it a bit annoying when books can’t just get on with it) are, for me, like that scene in Clockwork Orange with the eye-clamps.  Establishing sentences ramble on with as much detail as possible, inviting the reader to pause the book and make a damn diagram of what’s going on and what it all looks like: “The faintly misty ribbon of stars that was draped across the infinite darkness like a fur stole slipped past to the left as Loxx switched over to the sublight drive and wheeled his ungainly gunship around in search of the source of the signal which had alerted his squadron.  Sometimes he’s like a kid in a candy store, only the candy is adjectives: “It was like looking out on a jagged sea, lit by the fiery glow of a sluggish river of molten rock…  In past novels he has favoured frequent paragraph breaks, which come in handy as he likes to spring new settings and characters on you, and the Prologue has this on all counts, jamming in the first hints of Hindu culture whilst simultaneously introducing disparate characters, often sticking to his old habit of telling us what their hair looks like, or stapling a descriptive signifier between lines of dialogue.  (“Noonian grinned through his beard.”)  It’s like eating several dinners at once.  The jury is out on whether any of it is bad writing – although I’d be willing to argue the case against those adjectives – but it is largely contained to the first twenty-odd pages, surely a conscious decision.

What follows is a surprisingly measured, almost sedately paced plot that has several things to do – what’s going on on Raghi, what are the Sontarans up to on Agni – and follows them up at an efficient clip.  Which is a monumentally boring way of saying the book moves through its plot without jumping all over the bloody place, or lingering too obsessively on the details, which I found rather refreshing.  This is its Classic Who vibe: none of it’s in a terrible hurry but it’s not exactly boring either.  After the uphill hike of the Prologue, I found it an easy read.

Equally Classic (if not, I would argue, classic) is the emphasis on plot, with characterisation as a bonus.  No one is terribly written, but there’s nothing too memorable about the people here.  Nur is a compelling new friend for the Doctor: a young woman treated like royalty who would much rather not be, her piloting skills are neatly underlined by a family tragedy, and she has a personal stake in the spread of disease on her home-world.  When it comes to confronting her father about his involvement, what should be a pretty heated change in the status quo is entirely matter of fact; the consequences wait politely for the end of the book.  The head of a local hospital, Jahangir, finds himself colluding with Sontarans and feels a palpable guilt over it, which makes him far more compelling than the average cloth-eyed collaborator.  It later transpires he was hypnotised the whole time, which is less interesting than being coerced, and his subsequent character arc of revenge and sacrifice could not be more obvious.  The climax of this goes strangely unseen, as does (or almost) the oh-yeah-I-forgot death of a programmer Turlough briefly meets.  Several moments are weirdly nipped in the bud, like Jahangir freeing his hypnotised comrades from Sontaran control, which goes from “I might do this” to “Phew, finished” in close succession.  The book just isn’t that interested in dwelling on things, which might be another conscious effort from McIntee.  Despite making a big thing of Hindu castes and their parallels with the Sontarans, which is relevant to their plan, Lords will not teach you anything major about Hindu people; it jumps through some fairly obvious hoops about karma and the wheel of life and then pretty much calls it a day.  (Still, maybe I am so used to overkill from his previous books that I inadvertently miss it here!  In which case I am impossible to please…)

The Sontarans, at least, are treated as thinking people, albeit distinctly Sontaran ones who are obsessed with war and can hardly tell humans apart.  One of my favourite observations was that countless human deaths don’t really matter, because they probably reproduce as quickly and efficiently as the Sontarans do.  (I.e., cloning.)  That utter disinterest mixed with rationalisation gives them a thoughtful and alien approach.  There are clearly differentiated ranks and castes of Sontarans, which explains why the clone race looks different every time they’re on screen.  McIntee amusingly highlights what some think of others, not shying away from their general lack of subtlety but also crediting some of them with considerable intelligence.  He is, I think, less successful in physically telling them apart: he makes an admirable effort each time but it always sounds to me like variations on “a brown potato”.  Which I suppose they are, but it’s still difficult to know which one he means.

The Rutans inevitably feature.  While this isn’t a given in Sontaran stories, although they do often talk about their gelatinous nemesis, the book makes it clear that these events form a prequel to Shakedown.  And thar be Rutans.  Or Rutan, as McIntee insists on pluralising them.  (It’s worth it for the glossary.  Rutan: the plural of Rutan.  See below.  Rutan: the singular of Rutan.  See above.”)  Just as much consideration goes into them, with a similarly chilling disinterest in their enemies and, in sequences told from their point of view, an unnervingly liquid view of time.  It’s only disappointing that they are kept back until the end of the book.  A gestalt mind – which has always been a canny parallel of the general sameness of Sontarans – the Doctor makes light of them and calls one of them “Fred”, which is then picked up into the plural “Freds”.  Best of all is a Rutan working undercover, who is so entrenched that he (they) gets his (their) tenses mixed up: “There would be time enough to resume a normal life later, if he survived.  If we survive, he reminded himself – themselves – more forcefully.

Said Rutan spy forms the main link between Shakedown and Lords Of The Storm, and I often wondered if it was even needed.  Could the villain in Terrance Dicks’s book have got by without this specific back-story?  But perhaps I’m just grouchy because our knowing the character’s name makes it a very long wait for what otherwise would have been a decent twist.  I half expected a lot of nudges towards the fact that you may have already seen or read Shakedown, but it’s written straight, and offers surprisingly little to tip the wink.  When the reveal comes it’s still pretty exciting, and it’s a very neat note to end on, give or take the corny final sentence.

Fortunately there is an entire novel besides the link to Shakedown, and indeed McIntee came up with this before Shakedown even appeared on video.  The plot could easily survive without a link to anything else: the Sontarans just want to lure the Rutan into a trap and then wipe a lot of them out, and the caste system on Raghi makes it easier to trick them into thinking this is a planet full of Sontarans.  (I did wonder, given how quickly Sontarans “reproduce” and how little they regard their “offspring”, including as potential target practice, whether it would have been easier just to breed a bunch of Sontarans and leave them there.  It wouldn’t be cricket, I suppose, but weighed against the number of Rutan killed?  I think they’d consider it.)  There isn’t a great deal of mystery to be had, hence the fairly patient meting out of information as opposed to a series of shocking twists and turns.  The Doctor doesn’t twig that the Sontarans are even involved until almost the halfway point, and then he just nods and gets on with it.  Similarly, the disease raging through Raghi is an obvious consequence of their plan, and it won’t be a problem for long.  The various interpersonal issues – Nur losing faith in her father, and struggling to forgive a hypnotised collaborator who is also her arranged spouse – get swept away as neatly as possible.  McIntee’s description of Lords as “not exactly mind-expanding” is certainly accurate, but I wish it hadn’t been his mission statement.

The Doctor and Turlough are in an interesting place, i.e. the only Tegan-less existence they’ve ever known, but despite a few references (and a poignantly half-hearted “Brave heart”) it’s pretty much an ordinary day out for them.  The Doctor is proactive and useful, which for Five is something of a relief.  I liked the sympathetic description of his having “that slightly saddened air of one who’s seen too much suffering, regardless of his obvious youth.  Turlough is charmingly close to amoral in this, noting that “the choice between possible hurt to others and certain hurt to himself was an easy one to make.  There’s a degree of overkill in so repeatedly telling us how dimly he views humankind and how quickly he’d leave them to rot, and he skirts a little too tenuously on the edges of the story.  But there are also enough references to his regal home life to suggest a subtle decline towards the next televised story.  A reference to Kamelion does much the same thing, whilst also eyebrow-raisingly reminding me that I tend to forget he exists.  (For the second time in the Missing Adventures, I find it odd that the book range doesn’t do more to give this technologically challenged character some fresh air.  After all, they’re his only hope.)

I often wondered if this was my Proverbial Good David A. McIntee Book, but that’s disingenuous.  I haven’t hated anything he’s written, I just tend to remember the irritating scaffolding surrounding the good bits.  And there are always good bits, though they tend to be one evocative action scene out of many: the crashing ship in White Darkness, a plane falling out of the sky in First Frontier, a surprise attack in Sanctuary.  I’m not sure I could pick a comparable highlight here, although the Prologue nearly throws its back out in the attempt.  Lords Of The Storm is a more streamlined effort, often literally, as McIntee proves he’s entirely capable of describing things wittily and concisely: “The planet was not alone in its orbit; a necklace of sparkling jewellery encircled it and its tiny moon.  /  It was as if they were flying through a universe of smoke, ready to leap at the source and fan the flames.  /  There was an uneasy silence, whose gradually increasing length started the sergeant visualizing his opponent in the duelling pit.”  Lords does not have a cast of thousands or a need to change channels all the time, so it’s an easier read than some of his other books.  I’m not sure I would call it “upbeat and fun” – a description largely based on his last book not being those things – but it’s steadily enjoyable.

All the same, the pervading sense of casualness doesn’t add up to much.  The Doctor and Turlough aren’t wiser for having had this experience, and neither am I; even it its best I couldn’t see myself reading it a second time.  It’s a personal preference, and I know it’s slightly unfair when you’re reading not just Doctor Who books but era one-shots, but I just don’t have a lot of room on my shelf for stories that are happy just to get on with it and go home.


Next up: 66–70, starting with Just War by Lance Parkin...

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