Tuesday 7 November 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #125 – Twilight Of The Gods by Mark Clapham and Jon De Burgh Miller

The New Adventures
Twilight Of The Gods
By Mark Clapham and Jon De Burgh Miller

NB: This review contains spoilers for how the Bernice Summerfield New Adventures ended. The book's quite old, but forewarned is forearmed, eh? I’ll signpost the risky bits.

NB (2): This book has nothing to do with the Doctor Who Missing Adventure Twilight Of The Gods, it's just an unfortunate repeated title. 

It’s the end – for real this time. Virgin lost the Doctor Who license in 1997 and, after a 23-book run, they knocked the Bernice Summerfield range on the head as well. It was a good effort, telling stories about someone other than what’s-his-name and making use of new authors where possible. I think it’s apparent by now that I wasn’t bowled over by the spin-off, which retreated to the warm embrace of a murder mystery as frequently as Doctor Who did to quarries, but it’s no less an achievement that they went and did it.

Which brings us to the finale – for real this time. (Sorry, Tears Of The Oracle.) You might expect a bit of a “name” to handle this one, but Gary Russell wasn’t available (no, seriously, that was the plan) so we’re going with lesser-knowns instead. A bold choice. Enter Mark Clapham, who had co-written a couple of novels (starting with Benny’s Beige Planet Mars) and Jon de Burgh Miller, who hadn’t. Like Richards and Stone before them they had been given a ridiculous timeframe to get it done. (“Six weeks from pitch to print” according to Miller.) I wouldn’t envy anyone that, especially if they were relatively untested, but it helps to know what they were up against when reading the finished result. Because the finished result absolutely reads like someone with little experience didn’t have long to put it together.

Yeah, it’s going to be that kind of review. Twilight Of The Gods is bad. With surprisingly little competition (which is nice, really), this is comfortably the worst book of the run. And this is the one they went out on. Good lord.

Let’s start with the good. Continuity. Justin Richards thought he was writing the last Bernice book in Tears Of The Oracle – so someone clearly let him think that, great editorial oversight there guys – and to accommodate that, he put in an ending for the Dellah gods arc: a spaceship containing a force that feeds on belief crashes onto the planet of the obsessive believers. Job done. Return To The Fractured Planet ignored it, or Stone just didn’t know about it (editors?), and now it’s time to go back to Dellah. Surprisingly, Clapham and Miller don’t ignore it: they incorporate it into the plot. The crash caused “a wave of unbelief” across Dellah which has destabilised the factions of worshippers and made the “gods” compete to the death to keep what they have. At least one has set up a device to keep all this going artificially. At the end of the day it would have been neater to let Richards take it home, but using it is at least better than pretending he didn’t try.

Next, the setup. The Time Lords (unnamed as per) and the People have had enough of the gods and are sending a device to detonate Dellah, and its entire sector of space, once and for all. Bernice and co have a plan B: send Dellah back to the universe where the gods came from. But they’ve got to get it done in time to stop the bomb. Okay, it’s quite similar to Walking To Babylon in some respects, and without diving into the other wonders of this sector it’s a bit difficult to buy the appeal of sending Dellah and everyone on it to the gods’ realm instead of blowing it up – either way the locals are screwed – but hey, it’s a decent ticking clock.

Okay, so what’s wrong with it? Well, let’s pick up where we left off. Continuity. Yes, it’s nice that we’re picking up plot threads from previous books – not all of them, with Bernice’s memory loss crisis only warranting a brief mention – but the authors get a bit carried away near the end and it doesn’t end well. The magical universe that spawned the gods sounds awfully familiar, and sure enough it’s the one mentioned in Cold Fusion. In order to have someone recognise this they quickly resolve Chris’s corrupted memories from Dead Romance, which again is nice – he had been trained to hate the Doctor! Boo! – but as there’s been no mention of it since Dead Romance, or any recognition of it by other characters, or any exploration of how else it changed him, it makes no material difference to his character to undo it now. Worse, the Cold Fusion link undoes the whole Tears Of The Oracle thing they just set up. Now the gods aren’t killing each other to compete for worshippers: Tehke, the Worst One apparently (?), is doing it “knowing that they were planning to create a universe where he would be one of many rather than the ruler of many.” Motivations aren’t even kept straight during the book! (For a bonus point Clapham and Miller undo Chris’s new appearance, probably in the hope that more books will eventually happen. Fair enough. Making him short, bald and fat has been an example of what Ken Campbell used to call a jokoid: something with the shape of a joke that isn’t in any way actually funny. Ditch it by all means.)

Next, ah what the hell, the setup. Yes, it’s a reasonable ticking clock, but it has some issues. One of the group’s aims is to rescue a diplomat to solve a crisis on the planet Vremnya. A crisis we don’t see. No offence then… but who cares? I kept forgetting his importance in all of this because, against the destruction of an entire sector, which is already a little abstract, and the certain doom of this planet either way, which is philosophically more complicated than anyone writing the book appears to have noticed, an unseen problem feels all too slippery. Then, on the destruction, when they resolve it all – and we’ll get there – no biggie, but the book doesn’t actually say what happened with the bomb. Right. Okay then. Great stuff. (I am guessing it didn’t go off.)

The wider problem with that setup is one of tone. Twilight Of The Gods is all action. That’s not to say it’s constantly exciting; more that the book is, beat for beat, mostly just incident happening. This is a problem for a series of books that has largely got by on the interesting personalities of its characters. They don’t exactly come alive during spaceship entanglements that move one of them to say “They’re closing on us fast” or “Be ready with the weapons … I think we’re going to need them.” Then again, sometimes it’s action in the Terry Nation these-seven-episodes-won’t-fill-themselves sense, with Benny and Jason trekking through dreary desert and drearier caves to meet standard sci-fi filler people with great names like Gruat and Meil. It’s just pages of stuff.

When it comes to the climactic moments the authors then get very excited and try to make everyone sound cool, so everyone’s equipped with quips, such as Jason’s entirely believable response to a friend’s imminent execution of “It’s clobberin’ time!” Or Clarence, that thoughtful and unknowable character who has only recently learned some basic tenets of humanity, telling a group of unconscious people after a successful brawl: “Thanks for the workout … We must do it again sometime.” Or Clarence, again, that unfathomable being who barely understands himself, squaring off against a fighty god with – and I’m embarrassed even typing this out – “Are you a god, or just a big girl?” They don’t sound cool. They don’t, if you want to get into it, sound much like themselves at all. Because the New Adventures are not, on the whole, cheesy SF action movies. There’s an unhealthy amount of swearing sprinkled over all of the above just to make sure it all sounds mega grown up and not, absolutely not at all, like an embarrassing teenager’s early attempt at a SF fantasy epic that should perhaps have remained on their hard drive.

I think we’ve arrived at the key problem here. It’s the writing. And before we get into it, there is something accidentally reassuring about a book like this, because it makes you realise the standard you’ve been used to beforehand. Have all the Bernice NAs been brilliant? No. But the writers tended to have a good handle on the characters, a recognisable authorial voice and quite simply, an aptitude for prose. On the whole we’ve been fortunate. Twilight Of The Gods is over a cliff with all of that. We’re right back at the early New Adventures now, with youthful authors and still-learning editors putting out some hot, steaming whatever. I can’t imagine any of their fellow NA authors reading this book without having to peek through their fingers at it.

Want to know what a character is thinking and feeling? Okay, Clapham and Miller are here to list it out for you. “Benny felt sad…” “Benny found herself frustrated…” “Benny felt terrible…” Curious how one character is reacting to the dramatic actions of another? Okay, but don’t get your hopes up for any variety. “Benny had never seen anyone fight so hard.” “Benny saw a look of determination and pure anger unlike any she had ever seen on him.” “She had never seen him looking so bad.” (See also some of those half-hearted, quite repetitive quips. “‘This is all very fascinating,’ said Clarence … ‘But could you guys please choose a vehicle so we can get out of here?’” And then not long after, “‘Look, this is all very pleasant,’ [Bernice] said, ‘but we really need to hurry up and get out of this cold.’”) Want a hint about how a character feels when they’re delivering, or hearing dialogue? Here, have constant descriptions of their smiles or half-smiles or smiles-inwardly so we all know this is witty or apt, which I guess is easier than actually writing things that are witty or apt. Six weeks from pitch to print. How much of that do you reckon was allocated to somebody with a red pen?

Some of it’s embarrassing even on a technical level. “He used the back of his hand to slap aside a woman with an axe, then kicked a man with a gun in the gut.” (A man with a what? Doesn’t he have enough problems without you hitting him?) “‘I completely understand, Jason,’ Benny told him.” (What is the point of inserting names into dialogue all the time if you’re going to say who is saying what and in which direction afterwards? Never mind how laughable that line is for Bernice.) And loads of it is just dry and lifeless. We get reams of inward character reactions to things that are just acknowledgements. “She couldn’t help feeling slightly disappointed at his reaction.” What is that sentence achieving? Everyone, even Benny, has a running commentary instead of an inner life.

So much of it is just unpolished, unambitious chaff. And in amongst it all are the characters we’ve been following through the series. They haven’t a hope. Chris, whom the authors refer to either as that or Cwej seemingly at random, is in a particularly foul mood throughout. Or he’s just a really crass guy now. It’s hard to tell. (It‘s even harder to picture him as a former actually-good policeman when he’s battering people or encouraging Clarence to do so or reflecting on how much he’s disgusted by people.) Clarence, all with the quips here, now has all the intriguing mystery of a joke on a Penguin wrapper. He forms a bond with a young abused woman, Palma, who at one point murders a fellow almost-identically-spunky female character to rid her of a possessive god, which it turns out would have been removed in the next scene anyway had she not shot her. (No comment from Clarence or anyone else.) Jason, at the best of times a little too much like Chris only with rougher edges, is much the same as him here, when he’s not asking Bernice dippy questions or dropping non sequitur pop culture references about The Simpsons or Star Wars or The Fantastic Four in lieu of characterisation. He does at least get to rail against all the quasi-religious forces in one scene, in which the authors soapbox so hard they’re liable to fall off and break something, and they pat him on the back for his incredible logic even though he’s talking to a brainwashed victim and not a rational bad guy.

As for the tenuous do-they-don’t-they Jason/Benny relationship that was continued by proxy in The Joy Device, forget it, as Clapham and Miller are here to bluntly force “I love you”s out of Jason and Bernice, making the former sound uncharacteristically needy and the latter uncharacteristically naïve in the process. At this point, we know it’s not as simple as Just Get Back Together. It rings utterly false to go, “Oh Yes It Is.”

They don’t, of course, but only because of the plot and what it does with Bernice. She is facing up against gods – not even the ones we started with, who are of course reduced to lame colloquial quips along with everyone else here (my favourite was “Sorry, girlfriend!” Seriously WTF) but the “Time Lords” of that Cold Fusion universe who wobble between benevolence and muahaha evil on a random, cheesy whim. Benny must choose between fighting to save Jason and getting back to her universe. She has faced similar choices throughout the book, and in all but one example she went with the greater good. So what does she do here? (SPOILER TIME.) Greater good, again. Which isn’t terribly dramatic as she’s already let bunches of people die several times, but in this case it means leaving Jason alone on a ruined planet in a dying universe before buggering off to a cushy new university job, and all after suddenly professing her undying love for him. That’s how we leave these two. Meanwhile, Chris has been de-aged into a (blonde) child and Clarence is dead, which weighs on Bernice’s mind for two entire paragraphs. (END OF SPOILER.) The last chapter is supposed to be a gentle reset after all that, a fond (and not subtle) farewell to the New Adventures. I did not feel fond reading it.

I can’t quite believe any of this. All this time and we end on an absolute hash of a piece of writing that trundles along like they’ll fill in the character stuff later, which ends by setting up a new status quo built on (MORE SPOILERthe death or doom of two main characters, and it’s supposed to be hopeful. In what way is any of this better than just crashing the damn spaceship in Tears Of The Oracle? Bernice, needless to say, has few opportunities to shine – I know, why break the habit of a lifetime, but any attempt at a final statement on who she is and what these adventures have meant to her is lost in all that dreck.

As for the series, it had its ups and not too many downs. I’d trade a lot of Doctor Who books for Walking To Babylon or Dead Romance, and there have been very few serious misses here. Bernice was certainly worth the gamble, because in almost anyone’s hands, she sings. I wish she’d had more adventures in print. (She had some at Big Finish, albeit more as novelties between audio plays.) She’s a truly great creation, and her literary life deserves a better remembrance than Twilight Of The Gods. Luckily there’s plenty to choose from.


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