Monday, 20 January 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #80 – The Scales Of Injustice by Gary Russell

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Scales Of Injustice
By Gary Russell

NB: Newfangled Reprint Alert! While I have previously read Scales Of Injustice, back when it included the now expendable “The”, afterwards I sold it to make some space. It was just easier to get hold of the new one for a re-read, so if I’m missing any significant changes to this edition, please feel free to attack me with your third eye.

I’ve got a bone to pick with Gary Russell.

I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this one. I’d read it before and remembered it well – I had a whole thing planned. This, I recalled, was the absolute nadir of Doctor Who reference fests. You couldn’t move for the things! He even acknowledges it, sort of, in his new Introduction. So I’d stick tongue firmly in cheek and treat it like a non-fiction book Gary had pitched to Virgin, only they’d said “too boring, please add a bit of narrative so we can sell it”. Hey presto, there was a clerical error, the thing was mistakenly sold as a Missing Adventure and all concerned have been too embarrassed to own up ever since. It was this “novel”, which Gary never really intended to write, that I would heroically reappraise. Ho, ho.

Hilarious, I’m sure you’ll agree. But I’ve read a lot of Who books since then, and... it’s just not the worst for that. Are there references? Of course, there are oodles. Are some of them gratuitous? Well, you know Gary. But coming off of Christmas On A Rational Planet, GodEngine, Happy Endings, Who Killed Kennedy and many more, including others by Gary Russell, it just didn’t seem right to make a big song and dance about fanwank now. That ship’s sailed. (Seriously, check out the Discontinuity Guide entry on Christmas. Gary would salivate.)

None of which is to say The Scales Of Injustice is brilliant, or that it isn’t predominantly made of references. Just that, now and again, it also amounts to something.

First things first, it’s a sequel to The Silurians. We’ve already got a few of those, and they all have the same problem: what else do you do with these characters? They wake up, they want the Earth back, they can’t have it. That’s a good moral dilemma / cautionary tale, but Malcolm Hulke got the most out of it on his first go. That’s why Blood Heat was such a gem: eschewing the whole dilemma for a parallel Earth where the Silurians call the shots, the focus was on something else for a change.

No such luck here. Scales throws a few curveballs, such as adding Silurian/Sea Devil hybrids and resolving the conflict peacefully (!), but in the main, the only thing separating this from Doctor Who And The Silurians: Part Whichever is the amount they have to do in it. Scales veers towards the spy shenanigans of The Ambassadors Of Death, spinning a yarn with assassins, mysterious sources and conspiracies, making the Silurians more like a peripheral threat. It’s sort of a novel approach, although all it really does is imitate several stories instead of just one. It doesn’t particularly try to reinvent the wheel where they’re concerned.

Are there good and bad Silurians? Yes, as per tradition, and good and bad humans on the other side – mostly bad, what with all the action scenes and murders going on. Gary Russell is not one to stress about nuance, so when the villainous characters are revealed they immediately drop all pretence and switch to exposition mode, only missing a smug cigarette holder and an eye patch. And that’s just the “surprise” bad guys – the true stinkers act like that throughout. There is a rather one-note rogues’ gallery who cropped up again in later Gary Russell books (lucky us), in particular a “pale young man” who is referred as that with bizarre regularity. Yes, his name is a mystery, but any sinister quality to be found in just saying “the pale young man” doesn’t survive being trotted out four or five times per page. In the end I wondered why nobody said “Look, just what the hell do I call you, anyway?” He’s a pale young man! I got the memo!

Scales plays in the same sandbox as Who Killed Kennedy, which makes me wonder how much collaboration went on between Messrs Russell and Bishop (and, er, Stevens). It’s actually quite enjoyable continuity to further underline things like the Glasshouse, a hospital that mops up UNIT’s special brand of injuries, although it’s a bit silly that both books had sinister things happen there unbeknownst to UNIT. In general, Scales suffers from coming second. It’s heartening, for example, to use the death of a captain in a televised episode to add depth to his fiancé, but that’s ground we pretty much covered the first time. Even the schlocky spy thriller tone is more of the same. (I didn’t care for it massively in either book.)

Looking more at the Silurian side of things, this is a going-through-the-motions exercise. “Yeah, but they’re hybrids” doesn’t make a measurable difference until the end. They’re basically just another argumentative bunch who may or may not want to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth, although it is legitimately interesting (and a bit Hulke-ian) to add inter-species tensions to the mix. The Doctor spends much of the book sat in a dungeon, like last time, and again we have people driven mad and drawing cave-art. Sadly Russell isn’t great at the “race memory” stuff. It’s too longwinded and detailed – these just seem like actual, specific memories, which I think misses the point. They’re not as likely to drive a person out of their mind as make them ponder the unusual psychic experience they just had. Continuity gets the better of him at points – wouldn’t ya know it – with a tedious need to second-guess the name “Silurians”. Are they Silurians, Devilbacks, Earth Reptiles, Reptile People or Homo Reptilia? (New Who opted for the latter, with Russell’s help. Several New Adventures books went with Earth Reptiles, which sounds better.) I’ve never given a damn about getting it scientifically “wrong”, since there were never any bipedal psychic lizard people in the first place, but anyway, I laughed when he explained the Sea Devils’ net costumes as providing protection from pressure changes.

More worryingly, this whole debacle rather mucks up continuity. We know the Doctor will encounter another bunch of territorial reptiles not long after, and wouldn’t a colony of friendly-ish Silurian/Sea Devil hybrids smooth tensions? Or at least be worth a mention. (The inter-race tensions are probably the get out clause. But still.) Similarly, he seems determined to downgrade the end of that first TV appearance, reiterating many times that the Silurians were not killed, but sealed into their caves. For a massive fan of Season Seven, I’m surprised at Gary’s timidity here. Taking away that tragedy is a significant knock to what the story meant, and what UNIT are prepared to do. And the softer ending begs the question of why nobody later on said “Hang on, what about those lizard people in Derbyshire?” The Doctor, for instance.  If they're all fine, go and get a shovel.

Unthinkably, continuity is one of the reasons I don’t think the book is all bad. There’s a legitimate gap / grievance here in Liz Shaw – the only companion denied an exit story. (Although Dodo came pretty close.) Eye Of The Giant gave us a very enjoyable slice of the Third Doctor and Liz era, focusing on them in a way we never seemed to on screen, and Scales acknowledges the earlier book (I can’t be too mad at book continuity), and then inevitably takes the plunge and writes her out. Not before observing, quite correctly, that the Doctor seems happy enough pottering along on his own. There’s a sad sense of estrangement between these two, which the series couldn’t help underlining by never bothering to say goodbye. Liz observes that they never had the opportunity to be proper friends, and earlier the Doctor feels a zest to get to know her better. This is somewhat tender stuff, culminating in Liz walking away in what is probably hoped to be a reverse Green Death ending. It works very nicely. It’s perhaps a little too pre-packaged to have Liz specifically going to work with the Silurian hybrids – I wanted it to be a more general move away, just to get her own life back – but the book makes it clear that this is already on her mind when the opportunity arrives. It’s a bit of a flag-waver for Liz in general, even though she isn’t in it enough. (The book lacks a protagonist, wobbling between Silurian horrors and spy schlock.) Scales reiterates that it was mostly Liz who solved the Silurian plague; love Blood Heat as I do, I’ve got to admit it had a pretty big plot-hole there.

The Doctor is well written, though he’s in it even less. Liz observes the paradox of his being an anti-establishment figure who’s perfectly at home in a gentleman’s club, which is a core contradiction of the Third Doctor and something Liz would be smart enough to pick up on. He observes, of someone following him, that “it wouldn’t be the first time that he had been followed by someone overcome with sartorial curiosity and awe”, which is pretty accurate for his POV if nothing else! He has some very tender moments mixed with his more traditional grandstanding, which tend to work despite Russell’s workmanlike, sometimes ill-considered prose. (I don’t think the Silurians will be won over by “Believe me, mankind has weapons far dirtier than you.”) There is good prose to be had in fits and starts, such as the description of General Scobie’s “cheekbones upon which you could rest teacups”, and Mike Yates’ sad observation that “the debate had been so far beyond [his] sixteen-plus in General Science that he’d had no idea whether he’d intruded on the start, middle or end of the conversation.” And while it’s not serving an omission I suspect you’d notice on screen, the treatment of the Brigadier during a difficult time is some of the most thoughtful stuff I’ve read. As his marriage falls apart, pushing him towards the estranged father-daughter relationship in Downtime, he’s powerless to intervene due to the current crisis. There’s a tremendous melancholy to these passages, again underlining that Who Killed Kennedy theme of real life consequences to all these adventures. The Brigadier’s quiet resolve and compartmentalising of his own identity – Alasdair for his family, the Brigadier for the rest – is skilful. His utter inability to talk about this with the Doctor at the end, except to offer a clipped thank you for his asking about it, fits the man brilliantly. It’s times like this when the author’s card-carrying fandom is a plus, offering real insight into how these characters work. These scenes don’t try to dominate the book or anything; they just quietly get on with adding a sad chapter to this character.

As ever with Gary Russell, the good bits keep some bad company. He continues to insert names into every other line of dialogue, in a corny trying-too-hard bid to make the cast list clear. (Just write the characters better.) With the unfortunate choice of Silurian name “Chukk”, he inadvertently makes a whole species sound a bit Northern. (“We have thrilling news, Chukk...” Well gerra brew on, then!) He still occasionally fails to distinguish between scene-setting flavour and tedious, unnecessary detail, like describing people’s hair and clothes as if it’s their name and serial number, to say nothing of “pale young man”. And quite how it enhances the narrative to know that, for example, someone “had gone to London Bridge station and caught a train to Tunbridge Wells, where she had changed for the local service via Hastings to Smallmarshes”, I don’t know. Is anyone following along with a road-map?

The book is borne out of his usual urge to sequelise things that didn’t need it, and of course join dots, such as explaining how Mike Yates went from not-being-a-captain to being-a-captain. (The answer will astound you!) But his sights are a little more focussed this time, with no opportunity to randomly tell us, for example, how this all fits into the Dalek Masterplan. Liz benefits from the experience, so does the Brigadier, and even the Doctor is put in a place of slight regret and missed opportunity that perhaps explains his total affection for Jo soon after. That’s good work. It’s pulpy, readable stuff, and though I can’t call most of it good, so help me it’s almost worth reading for the good bits.


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