Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #32 – Strange England by Simon Messingham

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Strange England
By Simon Messingham

One of the things that really struck me about The Writer's Tale was what Russell T Davies said about dream sequences.  He doesn't see the point of them; he even skips them in novels.  I try not to skip things, alas, but otherwise I feel the same.  Yes, you can be creative with a dream sequence, but you're still pausing your story to take us there, setting aside any semblance of rules just so you can indulge your inner wacky-o-meter.  Dream sequences can easily reek of pretension – they're a writer's way of regurgitating their own ideas and showing off their sheer imagination.

Strange England is like a 276-page dream sequence.  It is a weird, abstract, unpleasant, doesn't-even-try-to-make-sense intermission during a narrative that never bothers to show up.  It isn't even well-written enough to reek of pretension.

There is some promise, to begin with, not including a framing device that opens and – whoops!  – never closes.  The TARDIS materialises in a lovely glade, moments after a gamekeeper gets eaten alive by the foliage, seen and heard by no one.  This feels like the start of a horrifying fantasy, an especially grim fairytale.  No reason you can't do that in Doctor Who.  And it's followed by something even nastier: a little girl is attacked by a huge, singing insect, which climbs down her throat (euw) and lodges there.  There's something...  memorable...  there?  And then our heroes separate (bye Ace, see you in the subplot), and we're introduced to the House, where the little girl is from.  It's full of strange people who don't understand emotions.  The Doctor describes them as "very dull company", which is apt, as well as a bit of an own goal.

Okay, you say to yourself: this is thoroughly unpleasant and a bit aimlessly weird, but let's play it out.  Where's it going?  So the little girl dies.  Other members of the house staff die or vanish, mostly where they aren't seen or heard by anyone.  Charlotte, the other little girl, begins ageing at an alarming rate.  The nearby forest starts burning and/or suddenly changing season.  The remaining House-folk state over and over, outwardly and inwardly, that they don't recognise emotions or know very many words.  The Doctor just sort of ponders it all; at one point, he makes breakfast.  Possibly out of boredom, Bernice and Charlotte (now 30-ish) go to investigate a mysterious man they saw.  He turns out to be The Quack, a weirdo who speaks mostly in not-actually-profound nonsense, then turns into a giant...  thing, chasing them.  Monsters turn up and interchange, usually with a bare minimum of description, lending them an unhelpfully random and, I suppose, dreamlike quality.  So, there's that.

Fun fact: Strange England is another New Adventures first novel.  As an aspiring writer, I have nothing but admiration for their policy of embracing new talent, and I doff my cap to those authors.  But it can be very obvious when it's their first rodeo.  Most of Strange England is Simon Messingham marking time.  Nothingy characters making inane observations; monsters coming and going; vaguely weird things happening to people.  That initial sense of promise is never fulfilled, and at no point does it feel like you're delving further into a cohesive story.  It's a "then this happened, then that happened" fest.  A.k.a. tedious.

And those characters are a serious problem.  It's not enough for us to find the Doctor and his companions compelling.  (It's equally not something to take for granted.)  If you're going to populate your book with new people, we need to care about them as well.  Messingham's vacuous drones are deliberately stilted, because (spoiler) most of this is really a holodeck-esque simulation, but that doesn't stop them looking and sounding exactly like a bunch of poorly written characters.  For the most part they're just names: two of the maids literally just sit in chairs facing a wall.  Sometimes they push the boat out and indulge in a cliché, like an older man saying he's "getting too old for this sort of thing," and Charlotte randomly turning into Arnold Schwazennegger for her heroic moment: "Rest in pieces."  Yes, that seems like something this Victorian woman would say.

It's not impossible to write a creepy story about curiously repetitive and "empty" people in a scary old house.  Robert Shearman did just that with the classic Chimes Of Midnight.  But that was Robert Shearman at the peak of his powers; meanwhile, in the first-draft-ish Strange England, "His expression was a mixture of despair and anger.  She could sympathise with him.  She felt sad and angry too."

Coldly denoting a character's emotions from their behaviour (otherwise known as stating the obvious) is a bad sign.  You'll be seeing a lot of it in this one.  It can have awkwardly weird and funny results, and sometimes you can tell he's trying to be funny, which in either instance provides a much-needed (if haphazard/unintentional) respite:

"She twisted about, expressing a physical revulsion at his touch."
"His head was casting about like he was blind or something."
"Approaching her was something like a huge steam locomotive.  It was doing its approaching very quickly."
"His mouth was twisted in a rictus of agony.  He did not seem to be having a very pleasant time."
"Aickland moaned, praying he was not going to be stabbed to death ...  If he was not to be stabbed then he wondered what was going to happen."

I don't know if it was the editor's day off, but this is not good prose.  And when it's not weirdly inane, it's trying too hard to be mysterious.  The Quack is a whoops-hilarious example, coming out simultaneously with gibberish and gee-whatever-could-he-mean stuff like "I feel like someone in a dream.  Somebody else's dream.  A doctor's dream.”  Doctor?  Quack?  No, sorry, can you run through it again?  (We draw attention to the Doctor/Quack parallel on several occasions.  I'm surprised there isn't a diagram.)  Hats off to Paul Campbell, who somehow manages to make visual sense of The Quack on the front cover.  After the various gobbledegookian transformations, that makes one of us.

Unfortunately, the book has other problems besides its tedious mixture of random happenings, clumsy visuals and no-note characters.  Ace's subplot takes her to a village pub where she ends up brawling with local thugs.  One of them kills her (!), but a new acquaintance, Arthur, is displaying bizarre magic powers and revives her.  Lucky her; she is then dragged off to see the thugs' boss, Doctor Rix, who continues abusing her and her friends, Arthur, and a travelling writer, Aickland.  The latter is one of the novel's few "real" people, though you'd need a spotter's guide to tell the difference.  His only distinguishing feature is that he's almost as wet and ineffectual as he is boring.  (By the way, you may notice a lot of "A" names unwisely stacked next to each other.  Guess what: one of the thugs is called Archie., too.  First Novel, baby!)

Doctor Rix is a ranting, raving, one-note lunatic who has some kind of influence over the local town (Wychborn), despite being the sort of total psychopath they would have had to lock up years ago.  He controls his lackeys with fear, even randomly executing one of them (after which the narrative tells us he has "lost his temper", as he has started kicking things.  Oh no, they're for it now, he's kicking things!), and he quite happily breaks Ace's fingers.  Reading this stuff was even harder than the aimless, boring bits.  It's violent for the sake of it.  Who's sitting down to paragraph after paragraph of Ace getting the crap kicked out of her, and random side characters getting shot in the stomach, and saying "Yeah, I liked that bit"?  Spoiler alert: while Rix does become involved in the weird stuff going on at the house, he's still a complete wild card up until then.  There is just no excusing his behaviour later on.  He's a loopy, God-mentioning psycho with thugs that fly into a murderous rage at the drop of a pint.  How fascinating.  He eventually morphs into the main antagonist, probably because the main plot failed to provide one.  (The Quack is...  sort of that, in the meantime?  The blurb certainly seems to think so, but his motivations are anything but clear.  Before long The Quack and Rix are the same thing.  Shrug.)

When an explanation finally arrives – the Doctor having grown bored with an impressive-even-for-him run of "Just Don't Tell Anyone Anything Even Though It Would Be Really Helpful" – it's Gallifreyan in origin.  Which is sort of a fun coincidence, as Strange England reminded me of Time's Crucible.  A world where there are no recognisable rules, a lack of clear story progression, an absence of compelling characters?  It's uncanny!  Messingham even has Ace point this out: "I've trudged around an inside-out TARDIS.  Believe me, it was hard work, complicated and no fun at all.”  Which is...  ahem...  accurate, but I wouldn't go throwing stones.  Strange England is every bit as frustrating and tedious, only without that Marc Platt-ian hint of big ideas being imparted underneath it all.  I tell myself that Time's Crucible was written just to get some Time Lord folklore on the page; the "plot" wasn't there because it was really more of a theme.  That's not much of an excuse for a non-story, and at best it was still the opposite of my type of thing, but at least it added something, I guess?  Whereas Messingham has a few random notions about mixing Time Lords with TARDISes, which is all just a convoluted excuse to make random horrible stuff happen in and around a Victorian house, with added random horrible stuff on the side.  There's no real reason for any of it, besides the carnivalesque challenge of producing a book that's even less readable than Time's Crucible.

(It's worth noting that this was not Simon Messingham's original ending, which might help explain it.  He originally envisaged "the ultimate anti-climax," with the Doctor realising these events were all his fault for showing up in the first place, finding there's nothing he can do to stop it and then buggering off in defeat.  Which, well, pee-yew, obviously.  But let that sink in: for all the feeble effort made to excuse this random horrible stuff, the original version offered no excuse whatsoever.  Thank you, Virgin, for stepping in and throwing that nonsense right out.  Where were they the rest of the time?  And how does Messingham's "It all started when the TARDIS showed up" idea even stack up when it literally started before that?)

At times, various characters liken their experiences to walking through mud, running through foam and swimming in glue.  Setting aside their typically lame descriptive powers, I couldn't agree more.  (And how intriguing that such phrases kept occurring to the author.)  Strange England is an ugly, interminable mess that I wouldn't wish on anyone.


Monday, 24 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #31 – Goth Opera by Paul Cornell

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
Goth Opera
By Paul Cornell

Here we go, then: The Missing Adventures.  Reading their parent series of New Adventures, this seemed inevitable.  There's been a growing number of references to things past, so why not spin the past off altogether?  After all, having Sylvester McCoy bumping into things that started with Jon Pertwee et al, or worse still Jon himself, isn't really in the spirit of a New series, fun as it can be.  It could be good for everybody, keeping things separate.

Peter Darvill-Evans says in his preface that these books will have the "flavour" of their era, and won't have "modern styles" such as "ultra-fast cutting".  Why you'd immediately ring up Paul Cornell for the first book, I don't know.  I'm not damning him, of course, as he's generally brilliant: a pioneer in moving Doctor Who into literature and making it feel, well, New.  Goth Opera dutifully captures the original characters, and by extension a bygone era of the show, but then it's also somewhat modern, and not something you could expect to see on screen in 1983.  Quality of the book aside, I wonder if any readers were disappointed by what is rather an about-face in terms of promise and product.

There are vampires, of course (which are as Doctor Who as any other monster, see State Of Decay), but contrary to the Stoker stereotype, many of them are young people.  We open with (relatively...  nice?) vampiric lovers, Jake and Madeleine, dancing through the skies and joking about eating a leukaemia sufferer.  Later there is a vampire baby, which is as David Lynch (rather than traditionally Doctor Who) creepy as it sounds.  Further on there is some pointed criticism of religious evangelism, enmeshed with a few references to familial sexual abuse, and yes: some fast cutting.  But at the end of the day, the first New Adventure was written by a guy who would rather have written for Tom Baker, and the New book Goth Opera directly follows is steeped in self-referential Classic Who nostalgia rather than anything "New".  It makes as much sense for the first Missing Adventure to be a wee bit progressive in return.

Don't panic, fellow anoraks: Cornell is as comfortable getting his fan-boy on as the Gary Russells and Terrances Dickses of the world.  Just look at No Future.  It's much less weird for Goth Opera to be steeped in continuity references than the former, since it's specifically set between two past adventures.  Cornell goes out of his way to show us the dust settling from Snakedance, and eyebrow-raisingly pre-empts the Black Guardian in Mawdryn Undead.  He even nudges us towards the TARDIS console re-design in The Five Doctors!  All of which is harmless and fitting enough, but I still hope that in future, the little note on the back cover telling us the two stories that bookend it will suffice.  (Still, there is something to be said for allowing just-finished adventures to come down a bit, as televised Doctor Who rarely had time for an epilogue.  But while Goth Opera does tantalisingly tease the idea of Tegan using her Mara experiences to better cope with vampirism, as the "snake in her head" prevents one from easily hypnotising her, it ultimately doesn't come to much as this is really more Nyssa's story.)

As it's a sequel to Blood Harvest, we're inevitably stuck with some of the same continuity.  The escaped vampire, Yarvin, has upgraded slightly from random vampire to progenitor of all vampires on Earth, with the lofty Dracula charm to match.  (He is still a bit of a random vampire, though.  You could totally swap him out with Dracula.).  The evil schemes are, at worst, new spins on Blood Harvest, but you won't need to have read it to understand them.  Nonetheless we're back on Gallifrey (and once again dabbling in The Thingummies Of Rassilon) for some of it, with Chapter Six bringing Romana back to continue her all-too-brief conversation with Ruathadvorophrenaltid, or "Ruath", one of the book's antagonists.  She's put to better use here.  (One could call such a mid-novel flashback a "modern technique", but one wouldn't want to make the Missing mission statement look any more fudged than it already is...)  Incidentally, this ends up as a delightful, if moderately fanwanky vignette, capturing Romana rather fabulously.  "When [Ruath's] hand reappeared, it had a staser pistol in it.  'Show me.'  'Oh, not you as well...'  Romana sipped her tea, frowning at the pistol.  'There's not much villainy left to be done over there, you know.  Everybody's had a go.'"  Before long she's distracting Drashigs in a miniscope and bumping into Sabalom Glitz.  Geeky it may be, but come to think of it...  has anybody got a time machine, so we can go back and request a full Romana novel or two?

Speaking of captured characters, it would be remiss not to look at this book's Classic crew.  The Fifth Doctor makes a canny adversary for vampires, as he embodies just the sort of scholarly puritanism you'd find Victorian authors hurling against the forces of darkness.  He's prim, polite, probably the exact opposite of vampiric debauchery.  Perhaps inevitably, he at one point appears to give in and offer himself up to the undead – but this, too, is a Fifth Doctor trait, or at least a Frontios one: the sudden, sinister lack of dependability that is secretly all part of his plan.  That's not to suggest Cornell has a rose-tinted view of this Doctor, which is good news for me since he's my least favourite.  (Sorry!)  During a dramatic moment his voice is "just a little too high to carry conviction," and through the ever-grouchy eyes of Tegan he seems like "a really dull Romper Room reject who'd rather play bloody cricket than do anything entertaining.”  And sure enough, there is cricket.  The Fifth Doctor here is a happy medium: he has his fustery, imperialist moments, when he seems a little too English and not quite enough alien, but then he's also a dashing heroic figure, a staunch moral voice against evil.  And come to think of it, that still sounds more like a wet-behind-the-ears public schoolboy let loose on the universe than a Time Lord, but then, c'est la Fifth Doctor.  At least he has that slightly blank-faced oddity during a few of Tegan's angrier outbursts, which paint him as slightly awkward and eh, a bit alien.

It's hard to tell how much Cornell is trying to capture the bolshy Australian and how much he simply may not like her.  Moments like "So, being Tegan she tried to butt in" blur the line somewhat.  She at least has a reason (the Mara) for being in a fouler-than-usual mood.  (The Doctor's reliance on her making the tea provides a rather unsung other reason.)  Goth Opera gives more attention to Nyssa, who (not a spoiler, see the cover) ends up a vampire herself.  Her "school prefect" sensibilities hold reassuringly firm, however, as the process is not complete, and as well as being believably petrified and self-loathing, she finds herself honestly wondering how this condition could be used to assist the Doctor, and possibly find (and elicit some kind of response from) the Master, about whom she is understandably still upset and just a little longing.  The great Nyssa-and-the-Master story has yet to be written, of course, but it's good of Cornell to devote some space to the issues that go all too unsaid on screen.  He's boxed in by continuity, unfortunately, which is one of the strict limits of the Missing Adventures series: you can't change who the characters are because we've seen the next episode.  But it's a good effort, and this companion, who often seems staid and dull next to a decidedly non-eccentric Doctor, really has her moments here.  Perhaps it's more obvious with the wealth of Big Finish material featuring Sarah Sutton, but there is a certain well of feeling to Nyssa underneath the frigid friendliness.

Regarding the plot, which is both a continuation of Blood Harvest and a separate entity, it holds together well.  Ruath believes vampirism is the destiny of the Time Lords (cuckoo!), and she's got a cockamamie plan to make the Earth permanently habitable (and populated) by vampires.  This isn't exactly a long-term plan – I was reminded of the 1998 movie Blade, which has its vamps trying to turn everybody into a vampire, which begs the unanswered question "Then what?" – but naturally, they'll march on Gallifrey next.  There's other insidious vampiric stuff left and right, sometimes cutting a little too fast to follow comfortably (sorry, Peter!), and the book glosses over much of the death and destruction that occurs, significantly to religious folk at an arena.  The Doctor, in particular, shrugs all this off; this has been attributed to Cornell's religious views at the time (he was just possibly not a fan) but it actually fits the rather Paul Cornell-ish quirk of rushing things at the end, as if he's just super excited to finish.  Incidentally, Paul: please work on that quirk.

Cornell at least fills it with memorable imagery, like a vampire child in the sewers, that horrific baby, and Jake and Madeleine casually flying to the moon.  It's those two that really separate Goth Opera's vampirism from the Hammer schlock exercise of Blood Harvest.  (As well as Blood Harvest secretly not being a "vampire novel" at all; despite the State Of Decay love-in, they were incidental to Agonal's plan.)  These are not Bela Lugosi fans, but people with a relationship and a history.  There's a moment where the Doctor suggests vampires aren't inherently evil, and sure enough, Jake and Madeleine end the novel on a note of hope.  Cornell, the old softie, once again cannot help himself.  But then we also have the Sinister American Evangelist With A Perverted Past, another victim of Cornell's religious stink-eye.  He has nary a nuance, and just is what he is – an obvious satire and a tool for the plot.  His followers are even less interesting, sadly.  Author's personal feelings aside, religious satire is a depressingly easy go-to for bad guys.

As (arguably) befits a Missing range, there's something in-between, and maybe less than spectacular about Goth Opera.  It definitely feels like Cornell is having a good time writing it, letting his hair down and indulging continuity, and it rollicks along entertainingly.  It also tosses out some interesting and contradictory ideas about Gallifrey's past, and features the novel range's first full-blown regeneration.  (Which is all a bit New, no?  Seriously, I don't mind at all, but why did they choose Paul Cornell for this?  Okay, shutting up.)  It may take some getting used to, popping in and out of characters' lives between the long shadows of adventures we already know.  Paul Cornell has turned in a gently Paul Cornell-ish take on that, advancing the characters where he can and pushing the boundaries a bit.  It's undeniably good, but I can't say I was blown away.  It's hard to know if the range can really shoot much higher that that, but it's early days.  We'll see.


Sunday, 23 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #30 – Blood Harvest by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Blood Harvest
By Terrance Dicks

Here's the thing: I could write a full review for this.  But sometimes the immortal words of Britain's top philosophers, The Chuckle Brothers, will do nicely: "Oh dear, oh dear."

Blood Harvest is the second New Adventure from seasoned Doctor Who writer, Script Editor, noveliser and all-round staple ingredient Terrance Dicks.  His first was Exodus, a rollicking "What if the Nazis won the war" story full of rich history, time travel, action, devious Doctoring and a bit of continuity for the Gary Russells out there.  26 books and a year or so later, I'd still recommend it.  Blood Harvest?  Not so much.

Once again there's a historical setting and some continuity, but this time they're both out of whack.  Obeying the First Law of Two Companions – Thou Shalt Split Them Up – the story has two settings.  There's Prohibition Chicago (with the Doctor and Ace) and a familiar world in E-Space (with Bernice).  Chicago has an added ingredient, slipping occasionally into the first person narrative of PI Thomas Dekker.  This might not seem so out of place after All-Consuming Fire, which bounced between the diaries of Watson and Bernice, but that was a style befitting that novel.  Whereas we don't even stick with first person all the time we're in Chicago, let alone the whole novel, which just makes it look like a random gimmick.  Plus it's rather reminiscent of Decalog, which was held together by its own wiseguy American PI, also in first person, a handful of books ago.

Speaking of Decalog, or more specifically the short story Duke Of Dominoes: Chicago is very much of a certain style here.  Think am-dram Untouchables.  For starters, we're hanging around with the likes of Al Capone.  (And like Exodus's Hitler, he's softened – far more so in this case, as the Doctor was just setting Adolf on a course for his own doom.  Contrast that with Capone, whom Dicks apparently views as a cuddly, well-meaning figure, which is all just a bit WTF.)  We've also got the goons and the movie lingo to go with him.  The Doctor and Ace get thoroughly enmeshed in the wiseguy world, with the Doctor ("The Doc") officially running a speakeasy and Ace ("The Woman In Black") acting as his moll.  It's all rather frown-inducing and camp; after the thoroughly nineteenth century world of All-Consuming Fire, the New Adventures are in danger of becoming a monthly genre dress-up.

And it's all so naff.  The Adam-West-Batman-corniness, the stereotypical gangsters and Irish cops, the continued determination to interest us in the contents of Ace's pants (who is almost conscripted to a whorehouse and only escapes by Xenia-Onatopping her assailants)...  Okay, so it was probably fun to write the Doctor in charge of his own little domain, whispering in Capone's ear and letting slip "outrageously sexist behaviour" when Ace isn't around, just to fit in better.  But I wonder why he couldn't just tromp around as he did in Exodus, with little more than his considerable personality to open doors.  It seemed to work then.  And well, generally, where this Doctor is concerned.  It's very bizarre play-acting just for the sake of it.

The reason for this business in Chicago?  Somebody is stirring up trouble between the mobs, just for their own monsterrific gratification.  It doesn't get any more complicated than that: a sinister thin figure encourages bad people to behave badly, then feeds on the chaos, then he fades away.  This figure, Agonal, has been at it throughout history, which possibly explains why it felt like I read the same sequence of events a dozen times.  Meanwhile on a planet in anther universe, E-Space, the exact same thing is occurring with the survivors of another Dicks story, State Of Decay.  (There's no reason for the same thing to occur exactly where Bernice happens to be, in a whole other bleedin' universe, no less.  Dicks calls this "a useful piece of synchronicity.”  You may know it as "a coincidence"; nice try, but being cheeky about it doesn't make it less like hack-work.)

Are you a really big fan of State Of Decay?  If so, brilliant, because nearly half of Blood Harvest is spent shamelessly geeking out over it.  Bernice rummages around the climax's ruins, familiar faces pop up (Ivo!  Kalmar!) and vampires (The Three Who Rule!!!) inevitably return.  Dicks evidently loves this one; he would briefly return to it again in The Eight Doctors.  But as someone who found State Of Decay a rather dry and hoary exercise in ancient camp, I found these bits interminable.  Villagers argue with guards and lords, one group is framed for a murder of the other, vice versa, vampires, bats, etc.  (At one point Bernice introduces the concept of the House Of Commons.  Fasten your seatbelt.)

Romana is here too – I doubt Lalla Ward would thank Dicks for the adjective "horsy" – but aside from getting up to depressingly little since she and K9 left in Warriors' Gate, and re-capping State Of Decay a bunch of times, and giving Bernice someone to talk to, she doesn't add much.  Her reunion with the Doctor is certainly nothing to write home about.  K9 isn't in it, save for an end-of-Warriors'-Gate cameo.  (Would you guys hurry up and start the Missing Adventures already, so we can stop cramming Past Doctors in here?  It's always nice to see them, but there's a time and a place.)

Despite the high page-count, State Of Decay 2: The Decayening feels like the B-story here, as well as a B-movie, particularly during the breathless home stretch when a brand new character morphs from "convenient rescuer" to "possible villain" to "yep, it's the villain, fight now" over a couple of pages.  Then an incidental Big Bad wakes up just long enough to die, in the space of a few paragraphs.  Slow down, man!  But before you know it we're off to Gallifrey, with exactly zero pomp and circumstance for Bernice or Ace.  We soon meet the real villains, who bark their motivations and various continuity references and then uncover their plan.  This whips the dusty tarp from Uncle Terry's other major continuity mine, The Five Doctors.  (Which he also wrote, funnily enough.)

The closer it gets to the finish line, the more Blood Harvest sounds like it's frantically trying to beat the timer on CountdownHere's the actual text from the final, seizure-inducing battle, as Agonal fruitlessly attempts to usurp Rassilon's power:

"Suddenly the Doctor felt the power of Rassilon flowing through him.  Somehow he knew it was flowing through Romana too, and above all through Borusa – the old Borusa, with all his strength and wisdom.  Together they confronted Agonal and the power of Rassilon swept through them, mingled with their own spiritual strength and blasted Agonal into nothingness, like a candle in a hurricane."

...and then there's this and that and that happened and this as well and done!  Phew!  You can practically hear the Virgin Publishing boys' footsteps coming up the garden path, their fists smacking into open palms, as if Uncle Terry has unwisely ignored that Final Warning Letter requesting a finished draft.  In the end, when the two halves of the novel should be coming neatly together, there's just this frenzied mess of stuff.  (Plus a quick post-script burp to enable the plot of the sequel, Goth Opera – and cheerily remind us that the Doctor survived those events already, so Peter Davison will be just fine, kiddos.  You can put away your suspension of disbelief.  Phew!)

I've no idea how Dicks arrived at a problem spanning not just two settings, but these two settings, which are like two halves of a particularly random Venn diagram.  And both are unhelpfully tongue-in-cheek.  The gang war is impossible to take seriously because (among other things) the Doctor is such a prominent figure in it, Gunfighters Style.  Also it doesn't need to be Prohibition Chicago, like Exodus needed to be post-War Britain (and was vastly more compelling for it).  Then there's the vampire stuff, which isn't remotely scary because you've seen it all before, plus you won't care about any of the bland extras populating it.  Even Gallifrey doesn't stand out: it's about as miserable and colourless as ever, I suppose, though nobody's obligated to write it like that; and it's full of boring, overly reference-y people.  (One baddie is directly related to The Deadly Assassin's henchman, Goth, and he wants revenge for The Five Doctors bad guy, Borusa.)  No wonder Ace and Bernice aren't remotely excited to be on the Doctor's stomping ground.

The writing is camp, corny and unspectacular.  When you add up dreary clichés like "It's quiet.  Too quiet", and a bit where Castellan Spandrell is likened to "Gallifrey's version of a tough cop", and lazily recognisable turns of phrase like "behind the scenes" turning up on a medieval planet in another universe, and a Gallifreyan guard suggesting Bernice looks like "one of those Shabogan bitches", it often feels uncomfortably like amateur fan fiction.  The Legacy-esque obsession with continuity doesn't help, plus all those wearisomely nudge-wink references, like that "useful synchronicity", the Doctor's alias of "Doc McCoy", an incredulous conversation about the term "wheezing and groaning" to describe the TARDIS and yes, the Doctor saying "No!  Not the mind probe!"  All the references would be bad enough, but is it a spoof, too?  (You could argue that Conundrum did exactly this sort of thing right down to a McCoy reference, and I lapped it up.  Call me picky: it's how you do it, not to mention where and when.  Conundrum is a fourth-wall exercise, this is just a shit-silly thriller.)

Even a few vital plot points are shrugged off almost disdainfully.  The TARDIS hops easily back and forth to E-Space, which throws out several stories where it was plot relevant how that was almost impossible.  Nothing must stand in the way of State Of Decay's victory lap, so let's just say "K9's a genius" and have done with it, eh?  And the Doctor can easily mess up Agonal's sub-plan to grow his own Great Vampire via "basically a matter of turning everything up to maximum".  So, flick all the switches and smash everything?  Yeah, that'll do, I suppose.  We all know Terry knows these tropes backwards, but could he aim a little higher?

Blood Harvest is a book you might flat-out enjoy if you love corny crime sagas and State Of Decay.  If you don't, you won't.  I found it haphazard and tone deaf, not so much a step down from the pointed and exhilarating Exodus as a dive overboard.  Terrance Dicks can do a heck of a lot better, and by this point, so can the New Adventures.


Saturday, 22 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #29 – All-Consuming Fire by Andy Lane

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
All-Consuming Fire
By Andy Lane

Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes?  Shut up and take my money!

All-Consuming Fire is one of the more infamous New Adventures, and it's easy to see why.  Even a quick look at modern British television will tell you there's some serious cross-over between these two fan-bases, but mashing them together is still one of those things that just isn't done.  Fortunately for us, Andy Lane, Holmes enthusiast and co-writer of the thrilling Lucifer Rising, is happy to ram your favourite toys into one another.

The result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more a Sherlock Holmes novel than a Doctor Who.  It wouldn't be as special a Who book otherwise.  And it's good, authentic Holmes, though I'm no expert: I've read a fair few, seen most of the adaptations, and watched all of the Jeremy Brett episodes.  (You can put Basil Rathbone on the cover, but it's Brett in my head.  The man was Holmes.)

Andy Lane quickly establishes the world of London, itself as much a character as Holmes or Watson.  It's foul-smelling and busy, with the kind of tragically obvious social degradation that "Dickens could dine out on".  At times it's more revolting than Doyle or perhaps even Dickens would have dared, as there are thugs lopping off pilferers' hands, a particularly grim dog-fight and a lair of child prostitution.  But there is also the reassuring warmth of 221B Baker Street, the relative oases of the Diogenes Club and the Library Of St John The Beheaded.

There's much added charm and authenticity in relating it all in first person, predominantly via Watson, occasionally via Bernice.  (And once or twice, Ace.)  The characters are well captured, particularly the warmth, familiarity and gentle sniping between Holmes and Watson.  But of course, it's the mixtures that form the book's USP.  Holmes meeting the Doctor is a thing of nerdish glee; his powers of observation desert him, as he hasn't the context to deduce the Doctor.  This leaves him feeling much like Watson did when he met the Great Detective.  But this leads to something of a problem with All-Consuming Fire, which was perhaps inevitable.

If you've got the Doctor and Holmes, well, do you need both?  Like any multi-Doctor story, both these geniuses are usually equal to any task by themselves, and combining them (implying that they're not enough by themselves) lessens them both.  Holmes suffers in particular.  To introduce a problem that is too otherworldly for Holmes, and thus require the help of the Doctor, is simple enough; giving some of that workload back once the goal-posts have moved beyond Holmes's genre altogether is much harder.

There's a point in All-Consuming Fire when the action moves to another planet.  This at least feels like nineteenth century science fiction: the planet is strange and fantastic, the aliens more like animals than people, the ideas and methods more akin to Jules Verne-ish creativity than anything recognisably Who.  (Ace and Watson need a way to store oxygen, so they locate some blowfish-like aliens and use them as air bladders.)  The imperialist Watson is in his element, more or less becoming a character from Doyle's Challenger stories.  Even here it's not so far from a Sherlock Holmes tale, as those often juggled a case that needed solving with a largely separate adventurous tale by way of explanation.  (Okay, so this one's on Planet Zog.)  But as for poor Holmes, he's at sea.  There's nothing for him to deduce – although the Doctor lets him make a few observations, seemingly out of pity.  There are some character-driven elements for him near the end, but it's still something of a waste of the character.  Particularly when the narrative was trudging along with Watson and Ace, I wondered: isn't this meant to be a Sherlock Holmes thing?

The mystery is, frankly, beneath him.  Obviously Holmes could never work this stuff out because it involves aliens and they're far outside his wheelhouse, but – coming at this from a lifetime of Doctor Who stories – I was nonetheless surprised it wasn't a more complex plot.  Some books are missing from an ancient and impregnable library; Holmes is recruited by the Pope to find them; he does; the books are being used to send a British vanguard to another world; this is actually a ruse, as emissaries from the other world secretly want to come here.  Well, is that it?  Even the spontaneous human combustion of the title is just a minor, almost random element.  I can hardly blame Andy Lane for my own expectations, but I had assumed a certain level of complex conflagration would be needed just to get the Doctor and Holmes together, let alone fill a novel-length adventure.  It's all just a bit too straightforward.

Which brings me to the story's big coup.  The Doctor and Sherlock Holmes, together at last.  How can that be?  It's taken this long, so it must be a near impossibility, or so you'd think.  Following a novel where theatre comes to life, and remembering Conundrum where we visited the Land Of Fiction, I had visions of something rich and strange here.  You'd need a whopper of an idea to make it work, or someone else would have done it already.  But, no: it turns out there just was a Holmes and a Watson pottering around London doing their thing, except their names were different.  Doyle then "co-wrote" these exploits with "Watson", and it's those original adventurers we're chumming around with now, with the names changed.  I mean, I hate to sound churlish, but...  is that it?  The idea is tossed at us without fanfare, almost with a shrug.  It's rather dismissive of Doyle (suggesting he not only plagiarised the whole world of Holmes, but that he didn't even write them up unaided), not to mention a serious stretch of plausibility that Doyle could go his whole professional life banking on an utter fib and not get rumbled.  Also, while I accept this is a first person narrative so there will be conversations we're simply not privy to, it struck me as bizarre that the Doctor, Bernice and Ace never stopped to marvel at what they have discovered here.  Holmes and Watson were real people!  Doyle just changed the names and passed them off as his own!  Crivens, isn't that worth more than a cursory, mildly surprised raise of the eyebrows?  It's an enormous damp squib in theory and execution.

Fortunately for All-Consuming Fire, despite all the above it's a damn fun book.  Lane is quite at home dishing out amusing idioms and character-defining observations, Doyle-style.  I loved this bit about Watson: "I quickly realised that human suffering was largely due to humans, and the meagre amount of relief I could give was like trying to bale out the ocean with a teaspoon."  Lane follows that up with Bernice, neatly drawing a connecting line between the two: "I waved him away, feeling a sudden knife-stab of guilt.  There were tens of thousands of people in Bombay.  I couldn't help all of them."  There are enough pithy moments for me to pick favourites out of a hat – "A thin, rather diffident man who held out his hand for shaking like a man might proffer a rather dubious anchovy" – and they come convincingly via the voices of Watson and Bernice, equally witty yet distinct.  When the narrative hops between the two, it's downright sublime.

There are all sorts of jolly touches that make All-Consuming Fire feel like a labour of love.  There are references to other Doyle works (a rogue's gallery of Holmes figures feature; Lord Roxton shows up; Professor Challenger is mentioned) and as mentioned earlier, it seems to occupy different aspects of Doyle's imagination.  It touches on nineteenth century sci-fi and steampunk (that underground tube!), as well as dishing out enough Doctor Who references to feel like a treat, rather than a list.  Professor Litefoot is an off-screen presence (alas!), and there are knowing nudges towards Ace's propensity for sexual partners, and the awkwardness of the two-companion setup: "One of our problems is that there's just the three of us, cooped up in here, getting on each other's nerves.  It might do us some good to broaden the team a bit.  Bring some fresh blood in."  "This isn't Mission bloody Impossible.")  As I've said a few times, this feels like an odd fit for the New Adventures overall, but I'm probably missing the point in trying to fit them in.  They should be able to occasionally divert into Sherlock Holmes territory, so long as it still meets some sort of Doctor Who criteria.  However well it works, you've got to admire the nerve.

And of course, not something to take for granted, Lane handles the main characters well.  The Doctor is a somewhat fleeting presence, but he recovers much of his oddity through the eyes of Watson.  There's a marvellously otherworldly bit where he apparently nips around a corner to retrieve the TARDIS, but has in fact "after walking around the corner ...  made his way across America by rail and engaged passage in New York upon a ship bound for London.  Once there he had located his miraculous time-travelling cabinet, which remained exactly where he had left it at the home of Professor Litefoot, and travelled back to the moment at which he had left us."  (I'm not entirely convinced by his unceremonious dealings with his own past selves, observing his first incarnation and doffing his hat at him, bamboozling his third incarnation at word games, but it's all very McCoy.)  Bernice we're seeing via her own diaries, and very Bernice they are too, a.k.a. a joy.  Ace, well, I'm ticking off the books until she goes; she sounds about right, all smart-bombs and foul mouth, but it's still not very good.  As for bundling her away on an alien planet until the story reaches its final reel, I can't say I missed her, but then it's yet another example of "Buggered if I know" companion juggling.  You just can't win.  (Still, something similar happened in Birthright.)

It pains me to say it, but All-Consuming Fire just isn't the knock-it-out-of-the-park win I was hoping for.  Hype is a killer, especially when it's self-inflicted; I'm not sure how much the novel failed and how much it just wasn't what I personally wanted.  But it's undeniably enjoyable, and I'm glad they gave it a shot.  I'd say read it if you like Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes.  Or one or the other.  I don't know if it's possible to put both the Doctor and Holmes's talents to equal and complementary use, or to explain how they could meet without disappointing somebody out there.  Certainly you could do worse.


Friday, 21 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #28 – Theatre Of War by Justin Richards

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Theatre Of War
By Justin Richards

It's time for another First Time Novelist, but this time there's no cause for alarm.  Unlike certain other New Adventures contributors, Justin Richards shows all the signs of actually reading his material through before submitting it.

One of the first things to strike me about Theatre Of War was the patience of the prose.  There's a sequence early on when Bernice visits the Braxiatel Collective, a mind-boggling library on a customised planetoid: it's so well-stocked that virtually everything of interest is stored within, yet so relatively small that you could walk across the world in three hours.  This is a perfect day out for Bernice, of course, and Richards lets us revel in it with her, soaking up the sights and the academia.  In a weird way, this felt like just the sort of breather I needed after No Future, and didn't get.

The writing isn't necessarily slow-paced, but it's not afraid to stop and take a look around.  Exploring the sights (and inevitably, horrors) of an archaeological dig gone wrong, Richards displays just the same lingering eye for detail.  You'll have the titular theatre mapped out before long, and remember some of the grisly mishaps like your own bad dreams  There's a thrilling dread surrounding those zombie-like statues, pictured on the cover and altogether different from (and nastier than) the modern Doctor Who equivalent.  But there are also evocative, somewhat cinematic scenes of violence.  For example, this small moment:

"Svenson teased the black glove from his right hand, finger by finger, slowly pulling it free.  When his hand emerged, grimy despite its protection from the dust, he flexed it, curling his fingers into the palm.  'Then you had better find something we can take back.'  His voice was quiet, reasonable.  He understood the situation and the only way to capitalise on it.  He dusted his naked palm on the breast of his tunic, and watched the dust catch in the sunlight as it spiralled down.  Then he hit her."

Laying the book out like a play may have something to do with this.  It's all about the waiting, whether it be for the Doctor and Ace to turn up (approx.  60 pages), or for the deadly machine to go wrong again, or for the Doctor's counter-plan to be revealed (as usual, this is among the last gasps).  Some of that's actually a little annoying: Theatre maybe goes on a bit too long and I'm still not sure I grasped everything.  But I admire the feeling of a writer who's got it all worked out.  The series of fake epigraphs and "source documents" add, with arguable merit, to that professional air.

I'm not sure how relevant all the theatrical theory was, although Richards clearly knows his onions, and it adds flavour to a society (the Heletians) that bases everything on theatre.  For all the hard theory, this is actually very subtle: they're militaristic more than anything, but the language leans towards "scripts" and "lines" rather than orders; when a mission is going wrong, they look to "exit" rather than leave.  As an alien quirk it's undeniably random, but Richards beds it in so much that it feels convincingly like ancient history.

As for the stuff I didn't grasp, well, there's that pesky machine.  A sort of holo-projector that brings plays (literally) to life, it doesn't do much besides run violently amok.  The statues (two of which look like Ace and the Doctor) aren't any kind of time travel quirk, as you'd first think, but murderous echoes of a play called Death's Bane.  The sudden death of dozens of archaeologists is down to a famed Heletian relic called The Good Soldiers, which has a bloodbath of an ending.  And Hamlet shows up on occasion.  But the rules are almost as in flux as reality itself: it doesn't just send plays into the real world, with working weaponry, but it can transport you within.  It doesn't just reproduce fictional characters, but it can copy real people and events.  In the first half of the book, several people are killed by their own traumatic memories; a seemingly pivotal quirk we never see again.  By the finale, the machine sticks strictly to robots from The Good Soldiers turning up and doing their Good Soldiers bit.  That's less interesting than the meta-physical memory stuff we got earlier, to say nothing of those nightmare-fodder statues.  The Doctor tromps through actual plays for a chapter or two, Land Of Fiction style, but we never really utilise the weird potential there.  Richards is a bit of a kid in a candy store at times.  The machine's going wrong in general, so it can do A, B, C...

And I wasn't too crazy about the overall plan, or the Doctor's part in it.  As the holo-projector-of-doom contains a working version of The Good Soldiers, it's catnip to the Heletians, but that's the point: they'll take it home and it'll go predictably wrong, bringing the Heletian/Ripperean war to an (almost certainly violent) end.  This is ostensibly because the Heletians are massively corrupt and evil and deserve it, which is explained in ways both subtle and...  not.  There are references to institutional cruelty in some of the soldiers we meet (Mr "Slappy" Svenson, for instance), plus death camps and the like.  Then we meet the Heletian higher-ups: a bratty teenage Exec who calls for executions on a whim, and his murderous power-behind-the-throne (whom I couldn't help picturing as Joss Ackland).  There's zero doubt about them being a dodgy bunch, but even so, it seems remarkably partisan for someone we know virtually nothing about (Braxiatel) other than he runs an amazing library, who never gives a particular account of why he's wading into war like this.  And whoever said the Rippereans were a lovely bunch and they deserve to "win"?

The Doctor takes part, moderately manipulated (for once), cheerily noting that with a few tweaks he's engineered an end to the war with just a few bruises and broken arms.  Yeah, plus those various deaths that occurred earlier, including soldiers with dodgy pasts and at least one kindly, harmless archaeologist.  And the plan was originally going to be a whole lot worse, right?  Even Ace points out that the Doctor doesn't usually stick his oar into wars, but he's just fine with it this time, presumably because he was able to "tweak" it?  But why isn't he mad at Braxiatel for what he meant to do?  I couldn't help frowning at how it all turned out.  Braxiatel is an undeniably interesting chap, but I needed more.

Theatre Of War is a bit lacking in why people do things, leaning much more towards plot and action than character.  But there's still some very good character writing here.  Bernice in particular is an absolute pleasure, especially compared to the stroppy disaster we met in Legacy.  We get eloquently irritable stuff like: "'How do you do – you must be Lannic,' Benny said quietly to her retreating back." And "I assume there's some point to this – I mean, as a way of subtly changing the subject it does lack a certain finesse."  Ahhh.  That's how you do it!

Ace has a somewhat functional role, getting into fights and (in one particularly movie-ish moment) vacating a spaceship to personally shoot down its pursuer.  Theatre does a better job of juggling the two companions than several of its predecessors, but it still feels like entirely separate missions are the only way it can be done.  Bernice spends perhaps half the book back at the Braxiatel Collective, which is admittedly very interesting, learning things that she probably could have been figured out on the fly.  (She also misses the death of a rather lovely side-character, and neither finds out about nor reacts to the news later on.  I'm not best pleased about that, just as I'm weirded out that a book largely set on an archaeological dig sends Bernice away.)

There's some solidly McCoyish Doctoring, with the honourable exception of his war oar: there's a great bit where he loudly orders the Exec to have him executed on the spot, completely flustering him into abandoning another murderous plan; and some sleight-of-hand when he undoes Ace's restraints without any apparent contact.  The whole "manipulative Doctor" thing is a little muddled here, since he's caught up in it as much as the others, and I wish he'd stop arsing about and just tell Ace what's going on.  But it's him to a tee otherwise.

There's a lot to appreciate here, from the use of a sci-fi staple (revisiting an old mission/site that went horribly awry) in an unconventional way (theatrical obsession/fiction and reality blurring) to Richards's generally witty prose ("For a split second he wondered where his disruptor had gone.  Then it hit him.").  You get clever little spins like the doppelganger statues actually not being some sort of time-paradox.  Also, in defiance of a strangely popular cliché, the play-within-a-play (The Good Soldiers, which is also a play-within-a-play!) is pretty poor.  (I mean, they usually are really, or they're at least flimsy because there isn't ever room for two plays, books or movies.  But everyone in the story tends to acknowledge they're awesome, which always feels bogus to me.  Here, nope: The Good Soldiers is plenty hyped, and it sucks.  Phew.)

It's never boring, but Theatre Of War didn't connect with me on a meaningful level.  The academia ultimately felt a little like homework, possibly because I did English Lit for five years and worked in a theatre for eight; the war commentary ends up being about as deep as The Good Soldiers, and although Richards displays a knowing wit around his own narrative's short-comings, he doesn't necessarily absolve them.  "But there were hundreds [of robots].  And the Doctor could think of only one reason to swell their ranks."  Surely a sly nod towards Theatre's own grossly over-sized team of archaeologists, who of course give the statues plenty of murder-fodder.  Deliberate or not, there are still too many of them, with scarcely a personality between them.

It's a moderately unconventional and fun book, but it's still an action movie at heart, albeit one with an eye on culture, and some very spirited prose around the gruesome bits.  It's a good indicator that Justin Richards is one to watch, although he's not quite among the classics yet.


Thursday, 20 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #27 – Legacy by Gary Russell

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By Gary Russell

At last!  That third Peladon story we've all been waiting for!  Well, some of us.  Well, Gary Russell.

There's really not a lot to say about Peladon, judging from our two previous suspiciously similar visits.  Medieval planet tries to join or get along with the progressive Federation, superstition and xenophobia get in the way, the Doctor mediates and gets sentenced to death for his troubles, just add Ice Warriors, rinse and repeat.  Legacy isn't a heck of a lot different to The Curse or The Monster Of Peladon, except that it uses Peladon more as a back-drop to Russell's own plot, which is about a world-dominating diadem and the murderous plot to possess it.  You still get all the regulation Peladon-isms: affable Royal, psycho-religious vizier, stoic guards, secret passages, loveable old Alpha Centauri, the-alien-who-looks-like-a-penis-in-a-cloak.  You even get Aggedor, despite being dead, thanks to a flashback.  Honestly, it's less of a retread than The Monster Of Peladon.  But the particular Macguffin/murder plot we're getting instead of the usual Peladon power struggle is underwhelming at best.

Set up in a flashback featuring a past Doctor, which has happened in two books running now (along with revolving the story around a small object – weirdly, both Decalog-isms!), the Diadem was found on the planet of the Pakhars, otherwise harmless hamster-people who crop up in later Russell works.  It's your standard mind-controlling Big Bad, but for all the effort that goes into finding it and transporting it to its next master on Peladon, and all the bodies left in its wake, it doesn't actually do a lot when it gets there.  Legacy ends on a Flash Gordon-esque question mark, with the Diadem ready for Round #2.  Steady on, we haven't had Round #1 yet.

Perhaps this is more of a story about the effect these things have on people than the things themselves...  except highlighting your inner bad guy is a fairly simplistic route for an evil bauble to take, and the guy working to possess it is 100% evil and/or mad to begin with, so that's a bit of a non-starter.  He's one of those tedious villains who attacks and kills with impunity, and whose identity nobody guesses despite a thin list of suspects.  The book takes its sweet time dropping the penny.  It's not so much a "Whodunit" as a "Just tell me already, so I can go home."

Incidentally, when you finally discover his plan you'll probably wish somebody had spared you the wait, so, kind soul that I am: he wants to implant his mind-control in all the tourists visiting Peladon, and in their little Aggedor souvenirs when they leave, so they can spread it about when they get home.  Of course he could just go out and control the universe proper, set up camp somewhere major like Earth or something, but no, it's random tourists visiting Peladon or bust for our man, and don't forget your evil stick of rock at the gift shop!  I giggled like a drain when this particular penny dropped.  That is some plan you got there!

It's hard to be enthusiastic about Legacy.  We've been to Peladon once too often already, and although Russell does show us something new – its early days, when young Sherak wrested control from the brutal Erak, and first found Aggedor – it doesn't enhance the story to know this stuff, since it's really a book about the Diadem.

Legacy is, superficially at least, another chapter in the Peladon story.  None of the current brood of Kings, Guards and Viziers make much of an impression – it's all too seen-it-all-before, like for goodness sake, has there ever been an Aggedor-worshipper who wasn't a raving nutter?  – but Russell has at least said he had the (surprising) ending in mind for years, where King Tarron finally tells the Federation "Thank you, but no thank you."  The narrative offers a cursory "It made sense" to sell this, but I'm not convinced.  Not only are the King and his peers so wrapped up in The Diadem Murder Files that it never feels like they're considering the bigger picture anyway, but so much of the previous two stories is now a complete waste of time.  With the added olive branch of "See how you feel in fifty years?", it feels even more pointless.  What will it be like for Peladon to stand on its own two feet?  Well, just a wild stab in the dark here, but it'll probably be like a bunch of people going on about ruddy Aggedor in the dark.  We've already seen what they're up against, since the plot of the last two stories was somebody help them get away from that.

(Maybe I'm just sore about the story's entirely coincidental EU Referendum timing.  Legacy is nowhere near as politically prescient as The Curse Of Peladon, which had roots in Britain's relationship with Europe to start with, but it still stings to hear characters talking about a greater co-operative whole and whether they're better off without it.  Think, you fools!  Alas.)

All of this might sing a bit sweeter if Legacy was better written.  It's Gary Russell's first novel, which is so obvious it might as well come with a Warning: First Novel sticker.  Aside from a generally annoying ease with cliché, with characters crying solitary tears and entering rooms "like the cat who got the cream" etc., by Page 2 we're knee-deep in embarrassingly over-eager gore.  Heads are lopped off, murderous hands plunged straight into victim's bodies, squirty blood geysers sputtering afterwards... Throughout Legacy, it's never enough for somebody just to get bumped off.  They have to go out like it's a Saw movie, all viscera and lingering detail.  It's hard to buy the idea that the New Adventures are supposed to be "grown up" when the route taken is to add a bunch of silly murder-splat.  Such an approach is easily more juvenile than The Curse Of Peladon, to pick one totally random comparison.  It reeks of eagerness to show off the lack of a TV watershed, and that has nothing to do with maturity.  It's also damned schlocky.

And oh, rejoice, because gore and cliché aren't Legacy's only problems.  Russell doesn't seem at all comfortable with dialogue, which is a shame as there's a lot of it.  Every conversation is between people who are either quite irritating or find each other irritating: in particular Kort (a spoilt brat whom everybody hates – surprise, Irritating Character Is Irritating) and Keri (a Pakhar who for no bloody reason ends every other sentence with "Yeah" – well gosh, how could that possibly get annoying?).  An enormous number of smiles and looks busily come and go during each one, as well as noticing other tedious details about people's appearance, their clothes etc., as if the participants are all busily making notes.  My favourite was the Ice Lord Savaar saying of Bernice: "Her trousers, chinos he had heard her refer to them, were loose-fitting, a complete contrast to her top garment." How the hell did that come up in conversation?  Hello, I'm Bernice and these are called chinos?  Why would he make a note of that?

Bernice is terrible for this.  Apparently she's "a student of human behaviour" who prides herself on "her instinctive and detailed examinations of everyone she met".  I don't recall her auditioning for The Mentalist in previous books, although on asking around this is apparently somewhat present in Love And War.  Here, she goes on and on inwardly noticing things like whether a person is smiling, yet still misses bloody obvious stuff like Whodunit because (nyurgh) she fancies him.  But then, characterisation is another of Legacy's weak points.  Russell appears to have broadly understood what makes Bernice who she is – she's articulate and funny, and sometimes gets short shrift because of Ace – and somehow translates that into a never-endingly petulant little sulktrumpet.  She refers to Ace, with whom she is on good terms, as "Attila the Hun".  When the Doctor recounts his first meeting with the Ice Warriors, which ended in them trying to kill all humans and the humans inevitably retaliating, she says: "You of course had no part in this murder."  Finding out about some famous ruins that have been excavated since her time, she flies into a rage because the Doctor didn't immediately tell her about it and drop her off to investigate.  Christ – what did she have for breakfast this morning?

Meanwhile, at the other end of the ever-imbalanced companion rota, Ace has so little to do she might as well take the week off.  Broadly speaking, I'm in favour of Bernice getting more to do, as it always seems to work the other way round.  But marooning Ace on an ultimately redundant fetch quest so Bernice can fill the Sole Companion spot is an inelegant way to go about it.  What little there is of her is also woefully, often hilariously clumsy: the Doctor discovers her battering a teddy-bear for "betraying her", then finds "Mike Smith" written on it in felt tip.  Oof!  Also in her bedroom, Ace's past and present jackets are "strategically placed, as if to underline her two very different lives."  Erk!  Discovering a dead student, she finds out his name is "Julian.  Just like her Julian."  Ouch!  Paul Cornell this ain't.  Plus there's a scene where she both gets her kit off and gets her end away, because it just wouldn't be New Ace otherwise, would it?

You'd think he could at least get the Doctor right.  You'd be wrong.  Rather significantly back in his question mark pullover, performing conjuring tricks and never for one second putting the bloody umbrella away, this is a bit like Target novel characterisation running amok, rather than anything resembling the New Adventures Doctor.  I suppose you get a pre-occupation with chess sets, which is at least a bit more Season 26.  But then you also get an apparently irrepressible xenophobia about Ice Warriors.  Sorry, no.  The Doctor embarrassed himself with this in The Curse Of Peladon, learned his lesson and moved on.  Yes, he's met dodgy Ice Warriors since then – including the sequel to Curse, and then Mission To Magnus, which is canon according to Gary – but that's no reason to tromp around assuming the worst.  You're the Doctor, for feck's sake.  Believe the best about people.  Also, apropos of nothing, I hate the bit where Bernice commends Alpha Centauri for his* diplomacy skills, and the Doctor says "Oh very smooth, Professor Summerfield.  Why not add some strawberry jam and be really sickly?"  Why not be nice to people, you all-of-a-sudden rude git?

(*Alpha Centauri is a hermaphrodite, and voiced by a woman on TV, so it's pretty weird that Gary defaults to "he" throughout.  That never sat right with me, even if he is copying Curse or Monster in that respect.  I can't be bothered to check, but do correct me...)

I don't want to bang on and on about the bad writing, but it's bad in so many ways.  There's the schlock violence, the clichés, the strained and tedious conversations.  (And the scenes that exist solely to enable them.  Why, for example, don't we go to Peladon in the TARDIS?  Instead the Doctor opts for a relatively slow voyage, where it's all she-wore-chinos-he-smiled-then-he-stopped-smiling, which is exactly the sort of redundant faffing the TARDIS is supposed to prevent.  Was Gary running under or something?)  But there are also moments that are just plain weird.  When Sherak finds the home of Aggedor...  the Aggedors...  whatever the plural of Aggedor is, he notices "the grass was short, the trees not unkempt.  Something looked after this paradise."  Keen gardeners, are they?  There's a bit where Sherak's body talks to itself: "'Give in and die,' his ribs seemed to say.  'Let the beast eat,' pleaded his arm.  'No,' Sherak's inner strength replied, 'not without a fight.'"  And there's a bit where this king of an ancient medieval world is "convinced that what happened next was in slow motion."  Watch a lot of movies, does he?

I suppose it's a sign of a first novel.  Amid all the familiar mistakes, he's at least trying things out.  Like commenting, editorially, that a character unconsciously echoed the actions of another, or if they had done a thing differently they'd have seen the killer or something, but they didn't, so never mind.  It's a million light years from Douglas Adams, but if you squint you can at least see some omniscient effort in there.  It's not enough to imagine a really good draft of Legacy, but maybe with enough red pen you could steer him right on another story.

This being Gary Russell, it would be remiss of me not to mention continuity.  Loves his continuity references, does Gary, though he has apparently said that the repeated nods in Legacy were encouraged by his editors.  I find that hard to believe, as no other New Adventures author has gone to such lengths to remind us of other Doctor Who stories, and Gary has done it in most of his other work since.  (Has Peter Darvill-Evans been whispering orders in his ear this whole time?)  As well as the obligatory The Cliff Notes Of Peladon, I spotted oblique-or-direct references to The Mind Of Evil, Colony In Space, The Trial Of A Time Lord, The Stones Of Blood, Carnival Of Monsters, The Ice Warriors, Mission To Magnus, Kinda, Revenge Of The Cybermen, City Of Death, The Robots Of Death The Dalek Master Plan, The Tomb Of The Cybermen, The Keeper Of Traken and The Creature From The Pit.  Most of this is just aliens showing up, and you could argue he's only trying to contextualise Legacy against the world of Doctor Who, and make it all seem like one thing.  We actually have non-fiction books for that, but at least it explains his apparent need to explain how Peladon got its Aggedor, and why the Time Lords occasionally go against their own non-intervention policy.  Trouble is this approach can end up being nothing more than a fan-boy grinding his axe.  Is it a better story because it shows how Peladon slots into the Dalek invasion of the galaxy, and Mavic Chen shows up?  Not really, no, but that's our Gary.

Legacy isn't a very New Adventures book.  Perhaps it would have been better off as a Missing Adventure with an earlier Doctor.  Certainly a sequel to stories from the early-to-mid-'70s seems like an odd starting point for a range that tends to look ahead, but hey, there weren't any Missing Adventures yet, and they'd only recently had an anniversary.  There was probably still confetti on the carpet.  Regardless of the pros and cons of continuity, Legacy isn't a good book.  The plot dawdles and ultimately stalls, the characters yammer and die, the regulars hardly cover themselves in glory and the whole thing needed a few more drafts.  I've had more unpleasant Doctor Who reading experiences, but this is still one that I'm glad to see the back of.  Done with Peladon; I don't mind waiting fifty years for Round Four.


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #26 – Tragedy Day by Gareth Roberts

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Tragedy Day
By Gareth Roberts

It may seem over the top, but I've been viewing Tragedy Day as a little milestone in the New Adventures.  We're finally emerging from the double-whammy of Birthright and Iceberg, the ongoing Alternate Universe Cycle, the emotional turmoil of Ace and the diversion of Decalog.  Now it's back to singular New Adventures, self-contained novels.  And with a track record of one unchallenging but fun book, Gareth Roberts seems like a good pick for the first slot.  This should be a laugh.

To his credit, he doesn't rest on his laurels.  Tragedy Day does things a little differently from The Highest Science, in that it's not another outright comedy, or not the same kind of comedy.  We're in satirical territory, with cross-hairs on the mindlessness of pop culture, the rich-guilt relief of telethons and the easy brutality of people who build their homes on other people's land – and on the people themselves.  Unfortunately I'm not a big fan of satire because it puts a distance between the audience and the characters.  You recognise that the things they're saying are about your world, but then it's harder to invest in the characters because they're more obviously mouth-pieces.  There are lots of people in Tragedy Day, a wide variety of deluded phonies, bitter failures, faceless victims, mindless robots and ridiculous villains.  Most of them die, and I can't say I was all that bothered.

Roberts culls his dramatis personae like he's Eric Saward on a mission.  There are gas attacks, insatiably violent killer beachballs (I've somehow confused the dubiously-named Slaags with the thing from Dark Star), brutally murderous policemen, an anti-matter disco that vaporises people (wait, what?) and at least two assassins.  Also there's showbiz luvvies and a plot-relevant whiff of 20th Century pop culture (because hey, making it deliberate is one way to avoid the we've-seen-it-all-before criticisms – except we still have, e.g. Star Trek).  There's a definite black comedy to the whole thing.  Except it's not very funny.

Possibly out of sheer comedic desperation, one of the assassins is a man-sized spider with a cowboy hat and a bawdy northern accent, and the villain is a moody and pathetic adolescent – a plot development mocked in the final few pages as too far-fetched.  I suppose none of this is really a million miles away from the Chelonians, who thought nothing of wiping out whole armies of humans just so they could get on with their flower-arranging.  But somewhere along the line, that all-important charm has done a runner.  What remains is a weirdly callous story full of bad stuff happening and nobody caring.  Yes, ho-ho, that's the point of Tragedy Day itself and everything, and you could rightly argue that it's a good fit in '80s Doctor Who, but...  I dunno.  Yuck.

Think of all those displaced Vijjans, who (apart from one gung-ho lunkhead in the early chapters, and some silent spokespeople, mostly on posters) never make their case.  Or the general denizens of Empire City – not the famous ones, the schlubs who queue for death because it seems like the right thing to do.  Or the all-too-briefly mentioned slaves of the Friars Of Pangloss – mighty Big Bads somewhere out in space – who are so miserably subjugated that in over a thousand years they never noticed their bosses' magic powers stopped working.  There aren't enough real people raging about what's happening here, just the author taking shots at the apathy of everyone else.  (And those aren't especially well-aimed.  The satire, for all its character-blanding silliness, never really makes its point.)

Still, if the people suffer, at least Roberts builds his world.  We begin with a prelude that's a short story unto itself, which (as it involves a past Doctor and a random object) could almost have gone into Decalog.  We skip through a few centuries on Olleril, getting a good feel for the history of the place even before the TARDIS turns up.  But getting a feel for the place, with its repetitive pop culture and its sinister puppet-masters, is pretty much all we do for more than half the book.  On Page 127, Bernice says: "All the Doctor and I have done is meet a film star and book into a hotel." Well, yeah.  Meanwhile Ace is whisked off to a deadly testing ground, meets an assassin and her son, and then the Doctor and Bernice pick her up again.  They all seem to be marking time while they figure out what's going on which, okay, is every Doctor Who book ever to an extent, but it's decidedly dull in this particular case.  By the time the villain's (silly) plan was finally unveiled, I was just glad to be approaching the end.

I found it hard going.  Despite the author's obvious interest in this world, it's still not an especially fun or interesting place to be; like the main trio, I was keen to get back in the TARDIS and go.  But they are on good terms, at least.  Gone (for now?) are the intense tantrums of Ace and the I-don't-belong-here worries of Bernice.  They all get on famously, which I'm not taking for granted.  It's still almost amusingly difficult to handle the three characters, with Ace (rather than the more usual Benny) conspicuously wandering into her very own subplot after 20 pages.  I'd like to see this done better, but for now, no longer trapped in the funk of yesterbook, I am grateful.  Not enough, however, to recommend this book.

Tragedy Day grabs at a sort of Andrew Cartmel or Ben Aaronovitch brand of doomy futurism, and it makes for either an altogether grim comedy, or a rather silly sci-fi parable.  Take your pick.  Neither seems to work.