Saturday, 25 January 2020

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #91 – The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang by David A. McIntee

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang
By David A. McIntee

NB 1: I’m reading this one out of order. Cold Fusion was published here, but it was set before The Death Of Art and had a small impact on that book, whereas The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang – published there – is a random one-off that could go anywhere. I’m sure Mr Sin won’t mind me swapping them.

NB 2: I also reviewed this years ago, back when I wasn't reading all of these and the reviews weren't quite so exhausting.  If you'd like a shorter version from way back, here you go!

Well, you can’t fault his ambition.

The Virgin novels have kept returning baddies to a minimum, perhaps inspired by the complete unavailability of Daleks. Where we do get sequels they’re offbeat, like The Sands Of Time focusing on a time conundrum instead of on Sutekh, or Twilight Of The Gods largely ignoring the aliens from The Web Planet in favour of even more boring ones.

At several points, David A. McIntee’s latest tries to do things unexpectedly. The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang sequelises probably a Top 5 story for most Who fans, but sets it in a different century (thus ruling out Jago and Litefoot), uses a different location and keeps the titular Chinese false god absent. It’s a sequel in the sense that the earlier story set these events in motion, but the iconography of The Talons Of Weng-Chiang – Victoriana, darkly comic dialogue, Gothic horror – isn’t part of the deal. It’s certainly a clever title, highlighting and possibly begrudging the expectations set by the earlier story. “The Baggage Of Weng-Chiang” would also have worked.

By making his story so different it becomes a bit irrelevant to say, for example, that it’s not as horrifying or as funny as Talons, but nonetheless that’s the case. Shadow ditches horror for pulpy ’30s adventure, with car chases, robberies, international unrest and a vigilante literally inspired by The Shadow. (Oh god, is the title a pun?) That’s not necessarily worse, it’s just different. One of McIntee’s writerly habits is indulging in action and, if you like that, there’s plenty of it here, such as the opening raid on a theatre/museum, a violent robbery ambushed by police, a sneak attack by the villain involving Mr Sin and an air vent, and K9 dangling out of a crashing plane while tied to the Doctor’s scarf. (!)

Speaking of Peking Homunculi, Mr Sin shows up occasionally to cause stabby havoc, mostly in a school uniform. (I take it back, that might be creepier than anything in Talons.) He’s used as a garnish and, frankly, the plot doesn’t need him much. Sin is the only element directly carried over from the previous story; so much of what made it good was atmosphere, there isn’t much else you could re-use without just making more of it. He’s one of those monsters that worked incredibly well (and only appeared) once, but put him in a novel and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not exactly a gift to writers, being mute and wanting to kill people absolutely 100% of the time. (Because of his pig brain – pigs being notably homicidal?) He at least provides some irony for the villain, Hsien-Ko, who can’t have children but does have a monstrous lackey dressed as one.

She’s a major part of Shadow not quite being what you’d expect. Her link to The Talons Of Weng-Chiang is kept secret for a while, and though it’s fair to assume she’s the antagonist, McIntee keeps her allegiance and feelings towards Weng-Chiang and the Doctor ambiguous. She has nothing much against the Doctor and doesn’t want to kill him; she’d rather have his help. Confronted by his not wanting to do so (because duh), she’s happy enough to dump him on a distant island (using the teleportation of Dragon Paths, a key plot ingredient) and let him make his own way back, knowing he’d be too late by then. Even the Doctor is surprised to be up against a downright amenable bad guy: it “makes a nice change.” Elsewhere she is genuinely disappointed at having to kill someone not necessary to the plan, and a key motivator is her love affair with Kwok, a lieutenant, which in turn makes her sad because a quirk of time means she will far outlive him. Together they occasionally use the Dragon Paths to go to an unspecified tropical paradise just to have a peaceful five minutes – an entirely pragmatic use of teleportation and a humanising one for a “bad guy”. Throughout the book, I was pleasantly surprised by her.

McIntee’s choice of Doctor and companion is slightly unusual, pairing the Fourth Doctor with the first Romana during their search for the Key To Time. That’s not a sequence of stories you could easily cram something else into; he gets away with it by making Hsien-Ko and the Dragon Paths give off a signal that is a lot like the Key To Time. Hsien-Ko is surprised that his companion isn’t Leela. (Given Virgin canon’s almost complete ignorance of the noble savage, I am not. Alas.) Both characters are written fittingly as if they’re being script edited by Douglas Adams, with the Doctor having fits of whimsy and eccentricity like putting his hand up to his eyes and then “realising” that he left his telescope in the TARDIS. There’s some amusing one-upmanship with K9, who has a quiet sense of superiority that’s funny without being implausible. (Yet more subverted expectations come when K9 finally meets Mr Sin. It’s over rather quickly, but by then you’re a bit sick of the stabby git, and K9’s quiet triumph is adorable.)

Romana is the only part that falls down, not because she’s poorly written or because Mary Tamm didn’t play the character well, but because in one year that version of the character didn’t develop much beyond haughty and smart, and McIntee sticks loyally to that characterisation. Tom and Mary didn’t have much of a rapport at the time – certainly nothing that compares to the Pygmalion quality with Louise Jameson – and the strange absence of something is noticeable here. The Doctor and Romana seem to exist quite independently, as they haven’t got the firey chemistry that came with Lalla Ward; as they’re both superior Time Lords at the peak of their confidence, there’s never any feeling that they’re in peril. When they’re with Hsien-Ko, she’s so accommodating that there isn’t a lot of tension. When they’re taken into police custody, McIntee writes “It was as if [Romana] were going along purely as a favour,” which pretty much describes their entire journey through the novel.

Taken on its own, an indomitable Doctor and/or companion can be a thrilling change of pace. Terrance Dicks wrote the Seventh Doctor that way in Exodus, and it was a tonic. Similarly, writing a villain with technically positive ambitions who really quite likes the Doctor, and will go to some lengths to keep him safe, is a twist on the good guy/bad guy dynamic that is so often easy and stale. I’m all for both of these things, but the combination doesn’t quite work. Shadow has the odd feeling of a bunch of people who can come and go as they like, harmlessly moving from place to place until their plans finally become impassable. Despite McIntee’s signature action, it becomes a chore.

Sadly there are other McIntee habits on display, not all of them good. It wouldn’t be one of his books without a historical setting and attendant rubbing-your-nose-in-it. Writing a story in a historical period? Good, those are fascinating. Providing lots of detail so it sounds authentic? Great. But you can get distracted by that, and he does, often describing locales and objects in nearly tedious detail, pausing the flow of the story to make really super-duper-mega sure you know he knows what he’s talking about. I get it – you do. “The Doctor’s police box stood just inside the gate, on a wide promenade that looked out eastwards over on the vibrant green depressions between the three main peaks and their attendant promontories, all of which had temples or inns built upon them.” Uh huh. Sometimes his embedded enthusiasm sounds like that of a tourism board. “The pine-scented fresh breeze that blew through the gardens would undoubtedly be as refreshing to anyone in the pavilions as would the shade provided by the pointed golden roofs.” Oooh! And sometimes it seems to have little to do with history and more to do with presumably drawing things out first and then wanting to prove it. “The parking area was in front of a large three-storey French-style mansion. The front of the house was graced with a wide patio from which two staircases descended to the gravel.” Fascinating.

It’s becoming clearer with each book that this writer loves detail and information – which isn’t a bad thing, but is perhaps more suited to scriptwriting than prose. There are scenes where characters list different makes and models of weaponry, or recount the complicated political situation of Shanghai at that time, and numerous scenes with an aircraft that refer to it as “the CNAC Stinson Trimotor.” Ohh, that aircraft! Thanks for clarifying!

Even the character writing falls into the too-much-information trap. We learn vital (and to be fair, often interesting) back story about Hsien-Ko, her lover Kwok, the Shadow-inspired Woo who also runs a night club, and cop-with-an-agenda Li by the slightly cumbersome method of them pausing what they’re doing to have a bloody good remember. Sometimes when they’re under attack. There’s a moment when, aptly enough, Romana is observing a landscape and we get this: “Romana had nothing against admiring beautiful scenery, but there was a time for everything.” Too bloody right there is.

Some of the difficulty I had in getting through this one may be that I’ve read it before, as you don’t necessarily have that urge to find out what happens next the second time. Mostly though, I think it’s the writing style. Now, there are some genuinely creative choices made with the characters, the style of “villainy” they’re up against, and the resistance to more obvious call-backs where it’s a sequel. (We still get continuity, some of it quite unexpected and arguably welcome, as its from the books: Hsien-Ko’s plan ties into Invasion Of The Cat-People, and there’s a significant cameo by a character from the first Decalog collection, of all things.) There are some random beats include the Doctor comparing somebody to Chow Yun Fat, suggesting he watches a lot of Chinese action movies from the ’90s, and a bizarre conversion with Romana about political correctness, as well as all those odd travel brochure bits where we marvel at the sights. But the book’s problem is more endemic, being so aloof with its heroes and villains and so excited about period detail (and detail in general) that it’s difficult to invest. Once we’re into the climax it just goes on endlessly in an actiony, detaily haze.

I can see why you’d admire The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang, and I like what it tried to do. If you are going to read it, though, I suggest one-and-done.


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