Thursday, 29 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #6 – Cat's Cradle: Warhead by Andrew Cartmel

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#6
Cat's Cradle: Warhead
By Andrew Cartmel

Difficult to know where to start with this one.  I didn't make a lot of notes or scribble much of it down, as I was pretty much in its thrall the whole time.  I thought I'd have little more to say about the way it's written than "Yep.  This is good."

Okay, I'll try a bit harder.  Warhead is an urban thriller, which is a potentially hackneyed setting for a sci-fi story and a potentially unsuitable one for Doctor Who.  Andrew Cartmel, the show's Script Editor and lead creative voice in its last years, clearly isn't interested in perpetuating what is usual for Doctor Who.  He relishes the chance to establish a grim future for humanity, taking all opportunities to enrich it and make it feel lived in, put up with.  The people feel utterly real and so does the situation, in no small part because we come to it so late.  This is a future where we're almost at the point of no return.  There are very few people trying to save it – they’re simply trying to get on.  It makes the Doctor all the more necessary.  (It is interesting that the Doctor is aiming to save it now, rather than popping back to avert the whole ugly mess.  Interestingly, I probably wouldn't think to question it if this wasn't set on Earth.)

Cartmel's prose is to-the-point and satisfying, especially after the expressionistic whims of Marc Platt.  This is thriller territory: characters think and feel and you're absolutely in there with them, while the story moves with cinematic clarity.  The writing often slips neatly between forensic detail and emotion, lending refreshing weight to so-called "villainous" characters.  For instance, when a vengeful Kurd meets his doom:

"The uncontrolled laser beam needled out slightly, barely visible in the dusty air of the summer night. It went in through the front of Massoud's eye and into his brain, through the frontal lobe and sweeping into the motor and sensory areas. Massoud saw a brilliant light. It filled his vision. It was the sun over the shoulder of his sister."

...and we're treated to a bit of back-story just as we lose him.  (It continues on for a bit but I don't want to quote too much.  That's why I refrained from writing loads down.  I'd be reproducing pages.)  There's a lot of this stuff, and it works beautifully at mixing action, or more usually death, with insight.  It's a very successful writing style; I was hooked.

It's a very grim story, which is arguably part of the New Adventures remit.  These novels have been sneaking in swearwords, sex and violence (or at any rate, more than you'd expect on telly) since Genesys, and all appear rather more graphically in Warhead, but with (I think) the greatest success so far.  (Though there are moments of eyebrow-raising gratuity, like a hallucination featuring a severed head gargling in a urinal.)  This feels like science fiction for a more mature reader.  But it's not too divorced from Doctor Who as we know it: McCoy and co. were shaking their heads at corrupt, broken-down worlds in Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol.

The approach to the characters is just as bracing as you'd expect from Andrew Cartmel, who knew the Seventh Doctor and Ace better than most.  The relatively cartoonish character traits of the first three Timewyrm books feel like ancient history for Ace, who methodically follows the Doctor's instructions and puts his plan into action.  I've seen her characterisation here referred to in unflattering terms, and I think that's a pity.  Though she does kill, her remorse is obvious and not at all trivialised.  Earlier, she outright refuses to do it.  She's no mindless killing machine.  Also, her relationship with the Doctor is as lived-in and matter-of-fact as Cartmel's horrid future.  The two barely need words any more.

Ah yes, the Doctor: grand chess player, juggling people's lives without flinching.  He's not a very nice Doctor, but I do think he's a very believable one.  This stuff suits him.  (And it's hardly gone away.  I recently heard Big Finish's LIVE 34, which followed a similar pattern of the Doctor and Ace working to save a nearly-doomed society from its corrupt elders, again from the sidelines.  I wonder if James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown read this.)  He's not in the book much, especially the first half, but his influence is there.  I was always keen to find out what he was up to, but I wasn't bored in the interim.

Even so, the pacing can be a little uneven.  You're introduced to quite a few characters near the start, mostly police-types beginning with M, and they go away for most of the novel as we get back to Ace and then the Doctor.  By the time we meet up with them again, there's a small degree of "Who's who?" (call me childish, but did he really need so many M names?), and with the action ratcheted so high for so long, there's no space reserved for an epilogue.  It's over, and hopefully things will get better. Warhead is an appropriate title: we’re here for the explosion, not for the fallout.

(Speaking of resolutions, just what the hell is Cat's Cradle all about?  The cat's briefly in it again – something to do with the TARDIS's warning systems? – but I can't see much else connecting this to Time's Crucible.  As series-plots go, it's almost comically obscure.)

Warhead was a pleasure to read, though of course, it is not a pleasant story.  Dark and violent, but more resoundingly sad, it manages to evoke various sci-fi sources (the choking cityscape of Blade Runner, the eerie deserted countryside of a zombie movie) whilst adding its own authorial stamp.  It's an intelligent way to handle an environmental message: no one likes the problem, there are no easy fixes, hard choices are necessary to make it better.  And it's a fairly bold way to tell a Doctor Who story.  It's one of those that really deserves the "New" caveat, as it pushes confidently at the show's comfort zones.  It's seriously unhappy stuff – I’d have a nice lie down on standby – but I admire it a lot.

8/10

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #5 – Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible by Marc Platt

Please excuse the poor quality Google image.
As for why I don't have the book any more,
and hence can't photograph it... um...
Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#5
Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible
By Marc Platt

There are currently three Amazon reviews for Time's Crucible, and at least two describe it as "fast-paced".  Ahem, no.  If this is fast-paced then so, surely, is The Web Planet.  (Aka The Two And Half Hour One With Space Butterflies And Villain Fungus.)  If we're prepared to stretch the definition that far, we can probably apply it to Andy Warhol's Sleep, an experimental 5-hour film in which nothing occurs but a friend of Warhol's, sleeping.

Time's Crucible is not fast-paced.

I knew little about it going in other than it was written by Marc Platt, esteemed author of some of my favourite Doctor Who stories.  The dazzling, often misunderstood Ghost Light; the mercurial "What if the Doctor never left Gallifrey?" tale that is Auld Mortality; the greatest Cyberman story ever told, Spare Parts, which finally made those semi-ridiculous Dalek knock-offs as tragic and scary as they're supposed to be.  And of course, he wrote Lungbarrow: that grand and most famous of New Adventures, full of such world-building mythos that its echoes ripple still.  (Only, like, 90 books to go...)  In short, I was optimistic.  "Marc Platt," I would have said a few weeks (months? Years?) ago before I started reading this, "now there's a writer who knows his onions."

From the outset this is the sort of book that is not going to appeal to everybody.  Doctor Who is sci-fi, sure, but it's rarely the sort of hard sci-fi you might struggle to understand or read.  Doctor Who is such a malleable format that it usually melds with something else anyway: the TARDIS can literally drop you into other genres, after all.  So if I don't like Time's Crucible, it doesn't mean nobody will.

But here we are: I hated it.  I have rarely, if ever, been as bored and irritated as I was reading this book.  Time's Crucible is 275 pages of punishing, crushing tedium the likes of which I would never have dreamed possible.  ("Dreams?" cry Statler and Waldorf in the still-recovering depths of my brain.  "Those were nightmares!")  I thought Genesys was bad, but I'd read that book again – brainless, godawful typo-ridden dreck that it was – before reappraising this festering, unholy quagmire.

What's so bad about it?  Simple: there's no story.  Not a bad story, not a dull story, just no damn story at all.

Here's what happens: the TARDIS collides with an ancient Gallifreyan time ship.  A nightmarish city is created, and the time ship's bewildered crew, as well as Ace and the Doctor (in that order) mill around trying to make sense of multiple time zones.  A gigantic monomaniacal lamprey with a mouth at both ends (or rather, an arse for a face) rules over them all, except one of their number, Vael, who may or may not have plans of his own.  The Doctor, presumed dead and maybe or maybe not amnesiac, looks on.

Or in a slightly smaller nutshell: Ace and a bunch of bland Gallifreyan nobodies stumble around a grey wasteland for 200 pages accomplishing nothing while a big worm talks to itself.  Eventually the TARDIS stops playing silly buggers and normal service resumes.  Insert abstract imagery, flashbacks to old Gallifrey and a cat, and be prepared to smash your head against the nearest wall.

This is stifling, needlessly obtuse literature.  At the start, the "story" bounces between the Doctor and Ace suffering a Dali-esque crisis in Perivale, and ancient Gallifrey.  Talk about easing us into things!  The language struggles to convey impossible concepts, and it's just damn unreadable at times.  I kept re-reading sentences in desperation.

"The thought core of the crew, bound and woven by three years of training, virtually eliminated the necessity for a reality. "
"The molecular haze swirled around him in a chromatic maelstrom."
"The air was getting hazy again in a fresh drift of molecules."
"As she watched, [the walls] dissolved into a slow-churning ferment of dimensional dementia."

And then there's this beauty, ostensibly from Ace's POV:

"The flow of people and time on Ealing Broadway had settled into a smooth drift that was slower than was natural, but it intensified Ace's vision too. She was aware of matter shifting under the force of time's currents, little swirls of microscopic particles that eddied away from so-called solid or animate objects, much as mud slowly shifts in the flow of a river. Ace could have stopped to watch the diaphanous colours of the molecules around her for ever."

Everyone writes differently, but there are certain concepts – and yes, rules – that hold true no matter who you are.  One is that narrative tends to conform to a main character.  In other words, phrases like "so-called solid or animate objects" and "diaphanous colours of the molecules" are not going to occur to Ace, so why put those words, by implication, in her mouth?  It doesn't ring true and it's complete zarking gibbertwaddle to boot, and for god's sake, it's just too soon in the book to ask your reader to do these sorts of cartwheels to make sense of things.

Later, there's a line that typifies the approach I'm talking about.  "It was exactly the sort of thing she had wanted the Doctor to show her. Well cosmic."  See?  It's a little naff, but that's Ace.  For good measure, there are a few dollops of psychoanalysis involving Ace's mother and a couple of characters we saw in the TV run, because well, that's what you do with Ace, innit?  Only it doesn't come close to advancing her as a character and it doesn't have any impact.  It's just, oh look: it's Ace's mum / Ace talking about her mum, as you do.  Shrug.  Paul Cornell did this sort of thing with considerable flair, but if you're not careful it can just feel like items on a list.

Platt goes out of his way to describe things that are as abstract and baffling as he can make them.  It's where almost all his effort goes, while little things like characters who have goals, conflicts that can be resolved, and story fall into the abyss.  You would think that setting a novel in the twisted depths of the TARDIS would be a gift that kept on giving, but no, even that can't save Time's Crucible.  The mad world this story inhabits is as barren and dull as the average Doctor Who quarry, only there are three or four of them jumbled together.  Yippee.

Incidentally, the "it turns out they're really in the TARDIS" bit is supposed to be a twist, much like the true identity of the mysterious "guards" who assist the giant schizophrenic (but oddly harmless) worm.  (He just keeps bumbling around asking if anybody has seen the future.  No, you befuddled boob.  Please stop asking.)  Both developments are obvious from the outset, and bungled in their execution.  At every juncture the drama fizzles, but hey, at least it's weird.

By the end, I had the uncomfortable suspicion that Platt wrote this whole thing just so he could fling a few ideas about Gallifrey into the published world.  Alas, "Babies aren't born on Gallifrey" doesn't exactly fill the required word-count, so the dramatic anathema of The Process, aka the big worm, was added.  (And terrifying he is, too.)  Towards the end, themes not unlike those in Ghost Light finally reveal themselves: the great worm is resistant to change, just as Light was.  But I really don't want to compare the two stories, in case I suddenly lose my love for the other one, or worse, see it for the garbled and dull mess it may have been all along.  Some fans certainly view it that way.  Stay back, Time's Crucible! You will not take Ghost Light from me!

I like new things, and with a range like the New Adventures, I'm certainly open to change.  Isn't that the point?  I've already complained about writers churning out overly familiar stories, because we don't need any more of those.  But for me, you do need to keep at least one foot on the ground, and Time's Crucible is somewhere in the stratosphere, eyes lolling, tongue out and dribbling.

At times I felt unpleasantly like Dave Bowman in the star tunnel of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But the book obviously has its fans – it would, I suspect, be fair to call it a love-it-or-hate-it affair.  "But Time's Crucible gave us X and Y!" is a popular rejoinder, but then ideas and new bits of canon don't make a book, as far as I'm concerned.  I can only wish its fans well and salute their patience, while I regather my shattered senses and read something that won't make me want to poke my eyes out with the nearest dull implement.

2/10

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #4 – Timewyrm: Revelation by Paul Cornell

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#4
Timewyrm: Revelation
By Paul Cornell

I've just had the most peculiar dream.

Reading Paul Cornell's conclusion to the Timewyrm saga can be a disorientating experience.  Like the best and worst of dreams, it summons up bizarre and unforgettable images, then leaves you scrambling to make sense of them when you wake.  It is undoubtedly a work of great imagination, but I wonder if one read is really enough to get the full measure of it.

The prologue and first chapter are showstoppers.  In a playground in Perivale, little Dorothy McShane is dead, murdered by the school bully.  In a village church in 1992, parishioners gather for a winter's service, while the vicar chats to an omnipresent force that inhabits his church.  The Doctor and Ace arrive in the same place, desperate to pick up the trail of the Timewyrm – only this isn't really Cheldon Bonniface, or even Earth.  The townspeople fall to dust, the Doctor panics, and in moments Ace is dead again.

Not too shabby, as openings go!  After three novels telling singular stories with a hint of Timewyrm, it makes sense to go right for the jugular here.  Revelation is a grand finale – the Doctor and Ace vs. the Timewyrm, with scarcely any distractions in the plot department.

The first thing that really struck me, and probably the thing I'll take away from it the most, is the sheer, rich imagery.  We've got a sinister, diminutive astronaut; a fake town on the moon full of people who don't know they're fake; a church transported from Earth to the moon, devastating the town it left behind; a friendly, formless spirit with a church as its home, and a reverend for a best friend; and, as beautifully depicted on the cover, the Doctor literally dancing with Death, across the moon's surface to his demise – on his own terms.  Cornell's ideas mix the grand and the small – in fact, there's a line in it that seems to encapsulate this: "Between the holy grail and the cup of tea."  Cornell takes us on a complex, metaphysical journey, but there is always smallness, thoughtfulness, heart.

While Revelation is ostensibly an epic battle between the Doctor and the Timewyrm, which is what we're expecting and what needs to happen, that is not – in the tradition of the better New Who episodes – what it's really about.  This is a journey into the Doctor's soul, and Ace's as well.  It's a novel that gets to the nitty-gritty of them both, explains and justifies them, warts and all.  Ace benefits enormously: a pivotal moment in her life, when she decides to break away from the crowd and stand up for others, is brightly illuminated.

'Her name,' she shouted, wincing at the difficulty of swimming against the tide, 'is Manisha Purkayastha. And my name isn't Dorry.' She looked up at the sky above and yelled it as loudly as she'd ever yelled anything in her life.
'My name is Ace!

This also feels like a turning point in her relationship with the Doctor.  His game-playing is no side-note, as it was in Apocalypse.  The majority of Revelation concerns his manipulative side, his guilt over this, and his culpability in Ace's perils.  They're both learning to face up to that.

'I thought – but that means –' a grin began to spread over her face.  'My God!  This is part of the game, isn't it?  You're playing a game!'
The Doctor stared at her for a moment as if surprised.  An old smile spread over his features.  'Yes, and I'm winning.  As always.'
'You really are a bastard!' Ace laughed."

But most of that concerns Ace more than the Doctor.  As for him, the battle with the Timewyrm takes place in familiar surroundings, with his guilt manifesting and things coming back, quite literally, to haunt him.  It's here we learn about him and here, if I'm honest, the book comes closest to overstretching itself.  Things get very metaphysical and grandiose as the book races to its conclusion, with Cornell dispensing universe-bending concepts in the space of a few sentences.  It's a lot to get your head around, and while the emotional journey is constant and satisfying, the plot becomes a little too intangible at times.  It's one of those stories where you're waiting until the last few pages for naggingly crucial answers, while certain other things, like the identity of the Timewyrm's host, seem bizarrely obvious from the get-go.

The Doctor's journey is still an interesting one, full of yet more rich imagery.  (Though in my opinion, little occurs that rivals those first few chapters, that wonderfully mind-boggling stuff on the moon.)  There are some seriously cool ideas along the way, like the Timewyrm's ability to control the Doctor in his sleep, and past Doctors having their own little afterlives in his mind.  (Pertwee and Tom finally meet. It is exactly how it should be.)  Cornell doesn't ignore the Doctor cameos we've already had, courtesy of Peel and Robinson.  You could even say his afterlife idea is similar to the one John Peel employed, where the Doctor can just summon up a past self to use his character traits.  Cornell's is a lot more elegant.  He ties together the continuity of these books admirably well, even taking the time to explain a continuity flub in Genesys

The Timewyrm her/him/itself is an altogether scarier concept in his hands.  Peel's movie villain megalomania is toned down, replaced by a disquieting and genuine disregard for life.  The story adopts a tone of pacifism, which is very important for Ace as well as the Doctor.  Ultimately they must kill the Timewyrm with kindness, which feels like an appropriate end to a destructive journey.

Revelation isn't the easiest book to comprehend.  I suspect reading a bunch of New Adventures in a short time hasn't helped.  Revelation has big, intriguing ideas and they need room to breathe.  Here is a book I feel I need to read again, and slower, some day.  But I feel confident in saying it occasionally gets a little too wound up in its mind-bending, at times almost summoning the dread phrase, "self-indulgent".  Fortunately Cornell's characters have a strong enough emotional core, and a satisfying enough journey, to keep the whirligig of ideas grounded in something that matters.  I wanted something new, and I got it: an ending for the Timewyrm, a bracing new start for the Doctor and Ace.  I look forward to a return visit, and a more relaxed look under its surface.

8/10

Monday, 26 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #3 – Timewyrm: Apocalypse by Nigel Robinson

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#3
Timewyrm: Apocalypse
By Nigel Robinson

Whoosh – another one done in a day.  But Apocalypse isn't something I read in a starburst of excitement, like Exodus.  The quick turnaround is mainly due to it being a really short book.

Written by Nigel Robinson, previously the editor of the Target range and so another writer well used to all this, Apocalypse tends not to show up in a lot of Favourite New Adventures lists.  Certainly it feels like a comedown after Terrance Dicks' page-turning, time-travelling thriller, and I'm not in a major hurry to read it again.  Assuming it's not on those lists because it's awful would be erroneous, however.  It's quite good in parts.  I suspect it's just a little too close to "normal" Doctor Who to set anybody's world on fire.

Tracking the Timewyrm to a planet at the end of time (more or less), the Doctor and Ace discover the Kirithons – a perfect race living in paradise.  But paradise has its sinister side.  The people are fed and protected by the elusive Panjistri, who sometimes take exceptional Kirithons into their ranks, never to be seen again and quickly forgotten by their loved ones.  A Kirithon called Raphael is starting to remember; with the Doctor and Ace's encouragement, a full-blown rebellion is inevitable.

Sound familiar?  Paradise having a seedy underbelly is the punchline to every utopia story ever written.  The old "once you ascend, you never come back" routine is Russell T Davies's bread and butter.  (His Who writing came later, but then he actually submitted The Long Game back in the '80s.)  As for the docile society that doesn't ask enough questions of its benevolent rulers, and the Doctor et al being the ones to change that, I don't even know where to begin listing the references.  (When a race of misunderstood mutants turn up on the outskirts of town, however, I muttered aloud: "Terry Nation".)  For good measure, there are a few knowing references to cliché as well: "If we're going to get locked up in the castle dungeon it might as well be now."

The story isn't bad – all things considered, it does a good job inside a very familiar framework.  Like Terrance Dicks said about clichés being things that work, this whole arena does feel convincingly like Doctor Who.  Turning pretty-but-secretly-corrupt societies on their heads is very much the Doctor, as well as very much the Seventh Doctor in particular.  I think this bit of dialogue, essentially the anti-Binro-the-Heretic-scene, sums up a Doctor Who-ey ethos rather well:

'I can tell you many things, Miríl,' he said. 'I can tell you of worlds beyond wonder and a secret older than time. I can tell you of the nature of good and evil, the power of the human heart, and the best recipe for bread and butter pudding ... but I'll tell you only two things. Those records you've shown me are a sham: there's not a word of truth in any of them. And you, the Panjistri and everyone else for that matter, could leave the planet whenever you want.
'You've been tricked, Miríl. All your people have. The Panjistri need you much more than you need them. And I intend to find out why.'

So it's good Doctor Who, but you've heard it before, and probably done with more flair.  And I mean recently: Ace finds herself the subject of a sacrifice two books running, just as the Timewyrm once again latches itself on to a human host.  That concept seemed far more integral, not to mention interestingly unstable, in Exodus; conversely you wait through all of Apocalypse just to find out the same thing is going on.  Guys, it's a Timewyrm book: it’s a fair bet she's pulling a similar trick.  I commenced a very slight eye-roll when (spoiler! Ah, who am I kidding, it's Book Three of Four) she slipped away at the end.  The poor old Doctor is beginning to sound like Dr Claw.  Next time, Timewyrm!

Okay, enough about the plot.  Are the characters well-written?  I'd say yes.  Ace gets more to do, bonding with Raphael a fair bit; there sadly isn't time to make much of this, nor of the emotionally-charged ending that inadvertently prefigures what happens to her in Love And War (coming soon), but you can feel more work being done with her character than we've had recently.  Little of it is new ground – old issues come back, including (yet again) televised plot-events – but at least it's focusing on who she is, rather than her tendency to blow stuff up.  (There is, sadly, plenty of that.)  Her dialogue still includes some of that lamentable '80s brat-speak ("Back off, bilge-breath!" said no teenager ever), but there are also some amusing and colourful insights. ("He's making fun of me, was her first thought. Compared to the rest of the women in this town I might as well look like the back of a bus.")  She's beginning to shape up.

The Doctor isn't quite as barnstorming as he was in Exodus, and he's having a slight identity crisis into the bargain.  Not for the first time, a New Adventure sneaks in a cameo from a past Doctor, a practice which is starting to stick out a bit.  Knowing they would eventually end up publishing past Doctor books sort of explains the frustration of not playing with everything in the toy-box just yet.  And at least it's not as out-of-left-field as the one in Genesys.  (Strange that the Doctor's previous-self-contact hasn't come back, as it would be really useful here.  Ditto the incredibly nifty TARDIS remote control, seen in Exodus, and I'll wager never seen again!  It would easily have saved his bacon in a climactic scene here.)  Ultimately Robinson writes an authentic Seventh Doctor, especially when he's tearing down other people's paradise, or reflecting on the timely mortality of the universe.  Shades of the Doctor: the great manipulator do appear, but we sort of rush through them.  At 201 pages, we rush through most of it.

Not for the first time (which could be my review in a nutshell), the Timewyrm feels like a minor subplot.  Which is fine, but unfortunately the plot it's tethered to is nothing spectacular, even though it concerns the end of the universe.  (Don't get too hot and bothered, the universe takes a lot longer to die than you'd think.)  Robinson is an accomplished and colourful enough writer to make the journey and its characters worth exploring, but I can already feel it falling away from my thoughts.  It's okay.  But it's time for something new.

6/10

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #2 – Timewyrm: Exodus by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#2
Timewyrm: Exodus
By Terrance Dicks

I read it in a day.  It hasn't even sat on my bookshelf yet.  Can I start all over again?

Ahem.

I didn't have high hopes.  John Peel was a trusted hand at Doctor Who literature, and look where that got us.  I'd place more faith in Terrance Dicks, but not a whole lot more; he can knock out a novelisation like nobody else, but he's just as fond of tropes and clichés as Peel.  He's just a lot better at executing them.

And sure enough, some of Uncle Terry's shortcomings are apparent in Exodus.  He has a strange habit of describing characters by their hair and what they're wearing.  (This reaches a nadir in The Eight Doctors, where Paul McGann's entire personality seems to be the fact that his hair is brown.)  He likes his continuity references, although they're far more specialised and actually appropriate to the story.  The prose has a certain hurry to it; almost as if he's novelising a television script, the action rarely breathes.

Do I care?  Nope.  I couldn't put the thing down.  There isn't a dull page.

It opens in post-war Britain with a difference.  It's What If Hitler Won The War, a sci-fi conceit if ever you've heard one – something even the Doctor and Ace acknowledge!  I love this because it's immediately showing us the effect of (almost certainly) the Timewyrm – no grandstanding "Nothing in ze vorld can schtop me now!" rhetoric from her this time, we just get on with it.

Also good: in a strange ouroboros, the setting is highly reminiscent of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth., which was deliberately similar to the Blitz.  (There's even a body in the river!)  I just lapped this up – it’s maybe my fave story evah – and besides, it isn't a repeat of TDIOE.  The Doctor and Ace are immediately concerned about the change in history (well, the Doctor is – Ace seems oddly unconvinced), and set about finding out what set history on its wrong course so they can go sort it out.  Yep!  Dicks has written Doctor Who's Back To The Future: Part II.  Before I was very far into the book, it was already doing a bunch of things I liked.  (I know this is a bit of a double standard, as I usually hate rip-offs and tropes.  But if you're going to borrow something then as long as you're putting it to good use, bon voyage.)

And we're not at the best bit.  I had assumed, based on Peel's dismissive and mean treatment of the Seventh Doctor, that an old guard like Dicks might do something similar.  This isn't "his" era of the show – his heart is in the Pertwee years, and to an extent the Tom and Troughton years.  And yet, Exodus is to me, a brilliant Seventh Doctor story.  So much of it hinges on him insinuating himself into situations and using his personality to win people's trust.  He is so good at it, we almost never have to suffer the old "Tell me who you are!  A Time Lord?  Oh, pull the other one!" routine.  The Doctor is on appallingly good form throughout, easily winning over Nazi Generals, Gestapo higher-ups and bleedin' Hitler.  What's more, I can totally see McCoy's Doctor, as televised, pulling all of this off.  It could easily have been anti-dramatic to have him succeed so often, but instead it's crazy fun watching him cheek his way through.  (And why shouldn't he be great at it?  He's had enough practice.)

With the Doctor making nice with the Reich, the story takes an unusual, neutral-bordering-on-friendly stance on Nazis.  You're sort of glad to see Hermann Goering at one point.  Of course Ace is here to remind us that they're all bastards, not that most readers really need to hear it, but then the Doctor isn't quite so black-and-white about it.  They're history to him: Hitler is (for all his atrocities) a helpless pawn in time, or he will be without the help of the Timewyrm.  The Doctor is quite happy to rescue him in 1923 if it means setting him on a course for his death in 1945.  That's a somewhat detached, alien perspective, and it's a lot more interesting than going "Boo! Hiss! Hitler!" every time the bloke with the Chaplin 'tache sidles into view.  (For good measure, it's actually plot-relevant that Hitler is even more of a monster than the Timewyrm.  Boo, hiss, etc!)

Speaking of the shouty one: how nice that she takes a backseat to the action.  Peel originated a truly hideous and irritating character in Ishtar, and it's nice to take a break from that, even though it's "her" series.  Dicks sneakily parallels the Timewyrm with his own plot; I suspect Exodus could easily have been a novel without the arc plot, and probably was at one point, but the misdirection of not knowing if all this really is the Timewyrm is just delicious.  And it keeps the series from plunging into "This week the Timewyrm destroys X".  I feel like different writers could really do different things with it.  As for the story Dicks dreams up, I didn't guess where it was going, or who was involved.  There's a spoilery answer to that one for long-term Who fans. (I think the book loses something once the baddie is unmasked, but that may be to do with their tendency to tie up the Doctor and Ace and explain their plans.  It all goes a bit Indiana Jones in the castle scenes, and not in a great way.)

With various jumps in time, the action is constant and colourful; the Doctor's monumental personality keeps his position firmly in check wherever he is.  But Ace fares slightly worse overall.  While she does get to hurl (justified) fury at the Third Reich, not to mention her patented Nitro-9 bombs, she is dangerously close to damsel status at times.  She does an awful lot of "What are you going to do now, Doctor?"  There are very few parallels between Genesys and Exodus, but one is that neither of them really knows what to do with Ace.  Exodus, at least, reserves the torture and attempted-murder for people other than the Doctor.

It's a page-turner, to say the least.  But what I said about it not "breathing" very much doesn't mean the prose is arbitrary or trite.  Just because Dicks sees the value of a cliché ("Never despise clichés, Ace.  The only reason they became clichés is because they work."  Agree to disagree...) doesn't mean he'll always resort to them.  The dialogue is true to the characters, and almost all of it is huge fun.  I had to pause just to appreciate this line about a youthful, unimpressive Hitler: "If he'd gone on like that, he'd have been booed off the stage at a Brownies meeting."  Far from the cack-handed, barely-proofread horror of Genesys, Exodus is often funny even in technical terms; e.g. the scene where the Doctor and Ace are being bugged in a hotel room, and we cut from Ace mentioning Nitro-9 to the listener hearing "No! No! No!" from the Doctor.  In the whole book, I counted one typo ("With profound relief Ace work up"), although this being a reprint, who knows how many it started with…

Exodus is rollicking.  It's a rollicker.  There are rollicks.  I'm... slightly delirious from blustering through a book in a day, but I had such a good time.  Okay, it's not high art, and I suspect it's not representative of the New Adventures as a whole.  Take out the few (entirely appropriate) swear-words and it could be a TV script.  Leave them in and it's almost a (racy, Ian Marter-esque) Target book.  There's little really adult about it, but then not every New Adventure has to push the envelope, so long as it's actually a good book.  Exodus tells a great, fun story at a hell of a pace.  What a relief.

8/10

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #1 – Timewyrm: Genesys by John Peel

Some background: in 1989, Doctor Who was cancelled.  I know, I know.  Let it out.

But this wasn't the end.  Virgin Publishing got the rights to make Doctor Who books, so they published a lot of them, which I promptly didn't read.  Well, they starred characters I wasn't too familiar with, in some cases had never even heard of, and they sounded weird.  Even the titles weren't very Doctor Who-ey; there was no "Attack Of The Terrifying Killer Thing" or "Thing Of The Daleks".  There were adult themes, and not one single Dalek.  Was it really even Doctor Who?

Then in 1996, after 61 New Adventures (concerning the then-Doctor, Sylvester McCoy), 33 Missing Adventures (featuring the rest) and some miscellaneous, Virgin lost the rights.  (Something to do with a TV movie.)  Doctor Who went back to the BBC and Virgin carried on making other, non-Doctor books.

And twenty years later I figured, what the hell, why not see what I was missing?  New Adventures, Missing Adventures and miscellaneous.  One by one I'll read them all...



Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#1
Timewyrm: Genesys
By John Peel

Some time after the show's cancellation, someone had the bright idea to continue Doctor Who in book form.  But the New Adventures would not be the usual adventures in time and space.  As per the blurb, they were: "full-length science fiction novels; stories too broad and too deep for the small screen."  That's a bold mission statement, and one that would later ensnare the talents of some daring, out-of-the-box-writers – some of the most creative voices the show ever had.

So who do they get to write the inaugural entry?  This is the one book everyone's going to read – the one that, for some readers, may decide whether it's worth getting the rest.

Drumroll: it's John Peel.  (No, not that one.)  Official noveliser of many '60s-era Dalek stories, known for stitching together some decent (if episodic) scripts with somewhat clunky prose.  To me, that's an odd choice.  Was he known for having fresh, exciting ideas about the show?  Or being, well, goodTo paraphrase Father Ted: "What was it – collect twelve packets of crisps and write the first New Adventures novel?"  He was probably seen as a safe pair of hands, not one to frighten away uncertain readers and old fans who might balk at weird "new" Doctor Who, but there's a gulf between novelisations and actual novels, as we'll soon discover.

So: what does Genesys set out to do?  Firstly, re-introduce the world of Doctor Who to new readers, aka tell us who the Doctor and Ace are, what the TARDIS is, how this all works.  Circa 1991, the audience for these books were predominantly people who knew this stuff back to front already, but it's an admirable concession for newbies.

Unfortunately Peel is cut from the same cloth as Gary Russell (someone I'll be getting to later on) – there can never, ever be enough continuity references – and that's largely the route he takes here, dispensing reams of random information from the show's past.  Some of the not-really-asked-for stuff includes the concept of Time Lord regeneration (and what his fourth incarnation looked like); the names of all the companions who died in unfortunate circumstances (and how that happened); the plot of The Invasion Of Time; and the supporting cast of Ghost Light.  We just don't need it.  A reader unfamiliar with this stuff is likely to be mystified by its relevance.  Frankly, I know it backwards and I am, too.  Slavish adherence to continuity is a recipe for fan-fiction, and the New Adventures are (presumably, see blurb) striving to be more than that.  I've read a few of Peel's original novels, and they share this tedious addiction to references.  It's embarrassing – the kind of Doctor Who lit you wouldn't want non-fans to see.  It can be better than this.  Honest!

(The references reach a rather odd peak when the Doctor decides he can't solve a technical problem, so he mentally swaps places with another more gadgetty Doctor.  This suggests a rather awkward discomfort with the current Doctor, which is apparently accurate: Peel has said "If I'd had my choice, it would have been a Tom Baker story, but I was kind of stuck with the then-current Doctor."  Oh, the poor dear.  Anyway, don't expect to see that skill again.)

So, what else must it do?  Well, it's no secret that the Doctor of the NAs is altogether darker than he was on television, and that process might as well begin here.  The Doctor is a pretty unpleasant fellow in Genesys, in particular his casual disregard for the safety of Ace.  His thoughtlessness allows her memories to be temporarily erased, as an excuse to fill in the ephemera of Doctor Who (see: new readers, above).  Later he orders her to spend time with Gilgamesh, a brutish king with a famous lust and no impulse control.  Towards the end, ostensibly for her own good, he hits her in the stomach with his umbrella, punches her in the jaw to make her easier to carry, and slaps her awake in the TARDIS.  If this is intended to make us question how well we know the Doctor, it's too much, too soon – the Doctor, even the chess-playing manipulator of The Curse Of Fenric and Ghost Light, had more compassion than this.  If it's simply Peel's impression of the Seventh Doctor, well, it is a grotesque miscalculation.  Elsewhere he is only vaguely concerned with the safety of people, at one point wishing a devastated prostitute could be locked up in a different cell so he could think more clearly.  Where's that safe pair of hands now?  An old guard like Peel must know the Doctor isn't really like this.

Looking at Genesys more as a book than a New Adventures mission statement, it must tell its own story, despite being Book One of Four.  It concerns Mesopotamia, the "cradle of civilisation", and according to the generous foreword by Sophie Aldred, Peel relates the peoples and events in great colour.  She's being very generous.  The setting isn't poorly realised, but it falls short of any particular realism; Peel at least gives certain aspects, such as its carnage and sexual practices, his full and morbid attention.  It's all rather unpleasant.

Meanwhile, his ear for dialogue and knack for characterisation are somewhat lacking.  Certain ideas, like the Doctor and Ace's anachronistic speech being lost on the locals, don't quite work because much of their dialogue is equally, lazily modern.  Clichés abound: "I've got a bad feeling about this" and "It's quiet... too quiet" appear on the same page.  As for the villain, a computer-enhanced psychopath posing as the goddess Ishtar, Peel revels in the kind of archetypal scenery-chewing that made the Racnoss such a (hrmph) delight.  I got very, very bored of her confidence and apparent invulnerability, especially in the finale as characters variously got locked up, forced to listen to her rant, managed to free themselves, then got locked up and forced to listen again.  And goodie gum-drops, she's the Timewyrm, so there's three more books of her to come.  (Best of luck, Terrance Dicks, Nigel Robinson and Paul Cornell – you can hardly do worse.)

The writing is bog standard, the plot is a historical/sci-fi runaround, but that isn't what really irritated me about Genesys.  Was this proof-read at all?  One might reasonably expect a couple of typos in any publication – it’s just an occupational hazard, and it's not necessarily a reflection on the writer.  In Genesys, however (and while we're at it, yes, that is a silly title) the typos come thick and fast throughout the novel.  Here are a few examples...

"Who would built a ziggurat with a door like that? " p8
"She had never looked more brautiful. " p12
"She didn't think she as a prisoner." p19
"If Gilgamesh were to appear now and so much as look you at you..." p23
"You can't accuse the king of rapine." p24
"I trust you didn't tell you wife what we have planned?" p24
"Ace felt she could breath again." p84

And those are just the typos.  We also have sentences which are poorly constructed...

"These annoying little hints of wrongness were beginning to annoy him." p85

...plus a few that are simply, no-two-ways-about-it, stupid.

"'Back off, bitch!' Ace yelled, doing her best Sigourney Weaver impression." p197

As the work of an excited Doctor Who fan, offered in a fanzine or online, all of this might be acceptable enough.  Who cares?  But for a published novel people actually pay to read, not to mention the somewhat "important" first book in a new range, the lack of attention to detail is staggering.  Genesys isn't just a clumsy, pedestrian piece of work – it is also avoidably flawed.  (In fairness, this was their first book, so it's easy to imagine the editors not knowing what the hell they were doing.  Look at the first series of New Doctor Who: they were behind schedule before they even started.  But this sort of thing doesn't make the book any better, does it?)

There is more to loathe about this generally tacky and schlocky novel, such as the repetitive "humour" derived from Ace batting off the grotesque interests of Gilgamesh, but I should probably mention its strengths.  They're simple enough: when it comes to action, Genesys has a pulpy, workmanlike charm.  One can easily imagine Peel writing an entertaining (albeit brainless) B-movie, or something with swords and sandals that you'd watch on a Sunday afternoon.  There is, incredibly, a fun piece of dialogue here and there.  (Weary from typo-spotting, I didn't jot any of them down.)  And for all its faults, it has made me curious to hear the rest of the story, since it will be taken up by someone else.

But this is window-dressing.  Genesys sucks.  With any luck, I won't see its like again.

3/10

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Above-Water Menace

Doctor Who
The Vampires Of Venice
Series Five, Episode Six


What with current events being, well, typical of 2016, I thought it'd be nice to dip back into Doctor Who.  Series Five was a jolly time, with Matt Smith and Karen and Arthur (oh my!), and Vampires Of Venice – though unpopular among much of Who fandom – is one I've got plenty of time for.

Well, 47 minutes, anyway.  It's definitely one of those that's enjoyable, but too frivolous to really hold up.  I'll gladly put it on during a wet afternoon.

After the regrettable incident of the inappropriate kissing, the Doctor recruits Rory to the TARDIS team, figuring (not unwisely) that if he and Amy both see the wonders of the universe then they won't drift apart.  It's a lovely idea and it gives us one of the fun-est opening teasers in Doctor Who.  Matt Smith bursting awkwardly out of a cake may be rather schtick-y, but leading us into the credits from an awkward pause, as opposed to anything remotely scary, is a downright brilliant change.

Moustache Guy likes what he sees.
For good measure we get a "scary" bit beforehand, as a young girl is recruited to a special school in ye olde Venice.  The sinister Rosanna Calvierri and her son Francesco (Helen McRory and Alex Price) set their stalls out immediately: between the predatory body language and (slightly comical) fangs, we've got our monsters of the week.  They've also got bags of otherworldliness and mother-son chemistry.  One of the things I really like about Vampires Of Venice is, well, the vampires.  These two, at least.  There's a creepy ease to their performances.

On arrival in Venice (after some more solid banter, the Doctor pouting at Rory's nonchalant response to the TARDIS), things get a bit more conventional.  It's a bit disappointing to see the TARDIS (which looks even bluer and more like a toy these days) land in a busy street in broad daylight and no one bat an eyelid.  Similarly the three of them are wearing completely anachronistic clothes.  There's a certain psychic-paperish familiarity to these sort of scenes, and goodness knows it'd get boring to have people constantly questioning Amy's skirt.  And okay, one bloke does jump out and demand to see their (psychic) papers, but that's it.

Despite the lovely location filming (not in Venice, mind), there aren't many "real" people about, or hardly any with speaking parts.  Our heroes wander around in a giggling daze, spouting regulation glib dialogue ("I'm from Ofsted!") and quite happily taking photos on a mobile phone, all of which makes it feel like one of those "historical" episodes that might as well take place on the holodeck.  It's a feeling not helped by Venice's plotty isolation from the rest of the world.  Okay, only a fool would watch Doctor Who for a history lesson – sorry, Sydney Newman – but apart from Venice being wet and Venetians being able to swim, this story hasn't got much to do with the place.  They don't even bother to drum up one of those historical curios now-with-spurious-Doctor-Who-explanation, like Love's Labours Won or the Koh-I-Noor.  It's just aliens invading, and predictably failing, circa Venice 1580.

Still, I said I enjoyed it, so back on track: that creepy vampire school is in full swing, and a man has lost his daughter to them, so the Doctor and co. must stick their oar in.  Cue more excellent guest acting: Lucian Msamati enlivens Guido the gondolier, making him a fun and, thank heavens, human presence among the usual three.  As for investigating the vampires, this elicits predictable excitement from the Doctor and Amy, and terror from Rory.  It's good to have a spectrum like that, although (as with viewing Rose and Captain Jack through the eyes of Mickey) all the bouncing up and down does make them seem even less like they're in a real place having a real adventure.  Still, you expect this kind of detachment from the Doctor, and the exact reason Rory is here is so that he and Amy won't see things differently after a while.  Plus Rory makes a big thing of how people desensitise themselves to danger when they're around the Doctor, so while it is all a bit frivolous, it's character development, so hush.  I still miss the (long dead) days of historical adventures just about people leading interesting, dangerous lives throughout history, and the TARDIS turning up, but... hey ho!

I love the direction in this,
but I'm not sure about Doctor Who: Electric Boogaloo.
Needing an "inside man" in the school, Amy volunteers herself.  Cue more sparkling dialogue, with the Doctor hilariously offering to pose as her dad (despite looking "nine years old" – it's wonderful to be reminded that he doesn't see himself that way).  Rory takes his place, fumbling adorably through a monologue so painful, it ends up being a sort of show-stopper.  "Both our parents are dead from getting the plague.  I'm a gondola... driver."  My favourite bit is when you can actually hear him thinking: "We've got the same face... which is because she's my sister!"

And I'll pause here to say one of the main reasons I like Vampires Of Venice, and Toby Whithouse scripts in general, is that it's really funny.  There are great gags like the awkward cake scene, Rory's gondola driver and the Doctor's "Stop talking, brain thinking, hush" routine.  Plus even the villains get funny lines, but in a way that actually works and doesn't just make everybody in the episode a forced comedian.  A lot of novels do that, but Francesco's sarcastic "We'd never interrupt mummy when she's hydrating" fits completely with his character.  Bravo!  It's easy to give everybody funny lines whether or not they're funny people; Joss Whedon sometimes does it, then moans when the actors supposedly cock it up.  Francesco has a certain wicked glibness from the get-go.  See also, "Or they die.  That can happen."

Operation: Rescue Isabella doesn't go as planned (although they do rescue Amy, who gets bitten but-she'll-be-fine-because-sonic-screwdriver-moving-on), so there's nothing else for it: Doctor Vs. Villain Showdown!  Well, it's a Toby Whithouse script, it'd be rude not to.  And just like School Reunion, it's one of the best bits.  Matt Smith gets to show off his Doctorly authoritah, and unlike the more straightforward "Stop it!" of Tennant Vs. Anthony Head, Helen McRory adds extra flirting.  Together with her deliberately fish-like movement, swishing left and right towards him, it's rather like a dance between the two.  I often think of it when I'm remembering really good Doctor scenes: they even sell a couple of not-great lines, such as "I'm a Time Lord and you're a big fish.  Think of the children."  (Hey, I never said the script was perfect.  See also: "Fish from space have never been so... buxom."  Yeesh.  Not your best.)

It's around the Villain Showdown that the minutes start ticking down and a bit more chop-chop is needed, so the plot kicks up a notch.  And it all gets a bit wobbly.  If you've seen School Reunion, you may already suspect that while this is hilarious and the characters develop a bit and there's a couple of really good scenes, the plot won't work.  And, well, surprise!  Vampires Of Venice looks gorgeous and the dialogue's mostly spiffing, but there ain't much going on upstairs.

First off, those darn vampires.  Fish people.  Whatever.  That's another thing actually: the Doctor says "Makes you wonder what could be so bad it doesn't mind us thinking it's a vampire", which is a Doctor Who trope.  You can have a supernatural thingummie so long as you come up with a cod science fiction explanation for it.  But all that does is give you exactly the same thing, minus the horror and plus techno-babble.  It's generally less interesting when you explain a mystery, and these fish people, with their wishy-washy aversion to daylight, and insatiable need for water but-we'll-drink-blood-too-sure-why-not, and random one-scene-only ability to fly, make irritatingly tenuous "vampires".  Also, give over, Doc: aliens aren't "worse" than vampires.  They're just aliens, a.k.a. those things you meet every week.

Blooper or deleted scene?
When the fish-vamps attack at the window, this one comes in the door.
Then everybody looks at the window ones before running away.
Through the door.
Damn it, Fish Girl!  You had one job!
But gods, that daylight thing.  So they can wander around in it fine, but then if you shine a pocket mirror at them, suddenly it's kaboom?  (Although hey, look at the Krillitanes, with their natural oil that also conveniently makes them explode so obviously they carry it everywhere with them.)  Plus they wear "perception filters" so they can look human, and Francesco has no problem recognising his mummy, but then his 10,000 brothers hiding underwater can't, so they eat her?  How thick are they?  If her "clothes" are part of her perception filter, how does Rosanna take them off?  Why doesn't the Doctor do anything about the 10,000 fish people that are still there at the end?  And if Rosanna's whole brood, including babies, would fit inside one measly city, why not go and live in the sea instead?  There's a lot of sea!  They could still be there now and remain undetected!  I mean, Venice is very nice and everything, but this is all just playing silly buggers.

As for the specifics of their plan (come on, you knew this bit would be trouble!), using a giant rain machine to sink Venice (the sea, you fools, it's right there!) isn't terrible in theory, but how they go about foiling it falls squarely under that heading.  Rosanna's throne is conveniently her control hub – we've seen the Doctor sitting on it so he could easily figure that out.  So, commanding that Amy and Rory pull out all the wires (sure, that'll do it I guess), he dashes over to the secondary control hub in the bell tower... which he hasn't seen or thought about at all up to now, so how the hell did he figure that out?  His dash to the top of the tower might look impressive – and while I think most of the CGI in this episode looks exemplary, contrary to popular criticism, this bit of green-screen does look a bit shit – but it's just a load of random jiggery-pokery until the rain stops.  In action terms, it has the considered finesse of a screenwriter mashing the keyboard with his feet.  Make... problem... stop!

Then, after another really beautifully acted bit with Helen McRory (the clothes aren't real, how does that work goddamnit) and the Doctor pleading with a second person not to get killed (don't you start that nonsense, Mr Eleven!), the plot politely obeys and shuts up so our can heroes go home or whatever, pausing to make a clodhopping reference to The Silence which, in hindsight, rather suggests nobody told Toby Whithouse what it was.  (All Rory can hear is silence?  In a crowded marketplace, next to the sea?)

Vampires Of Venice is pretty much par for the Whithouse-y course: nice character moments, shame about the brains.  But the character moments aren't all that fantastic either, with Rory and the Doctor's unintentional competition over Amy at one point crystallised in a mine's-bigger gag, and some of Rory's pratfalls are, well, pratfalls.  He's not Mr Bean.  And yet, it's a really good time.  The production's lovely and the direction is eye-catching.  (Like that bit where Francesco jumps into the water and we cut away just before he hits.  But less so the sudden jump from night to day during the rescue scene.  But shh, this is the good list!)  Even Murray Gold's music seems appropriately extravagant.  Also there's another really great guest cast to add to the pile.

And lest we forget the main trio being on good form, most noticeably Matt Smith, who (if you're a Matt Smith Doctor fan like me) ticks all the Doctor's boxes.  And incidentally, how nice to make it a trio.  It avoids the I Wuv You pitfalls of a twosome, and makes a point of doing it because characterisation is always a good thing, but just generally it's good to shake things up.  Can they get a pet?

It's still style in another winning-over-substance shocker, but Doctor Who has had far less entertaining holidays.  I'd go again.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Filmflam: Batman V Superman – Dawn Of Justice

Batman V Superman – Dawn Of Justice
Directed by Zack Snyder
2016


Admit it.  You wonder how they'd kiss.
Curse you, morbid curiosity.  As if getting 29% on RottenTomatoes wasn’t proof enough, I had to go and check.  Now I’m forced to conclude, like Michael Bluth opening a bag that says DEAD DOVE – DO NOT EAT: I don’t know what I expected...
Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice – and take a moment to marvel at that title, so brazenly artless that it might as well say “Who even cares what it’s called?  You got Batman, you got Superman.  Roll up.”  Anyway: it is as bad as everyone’s saying.  It’s a long, boring, mopey, disjointed, don’t-worry-we’ll-fix-it-in-the-sequels-(yeah-right) cluster bomb.  But before the inevitable autopsy, it does have its bright spots.
An early scene revisits Man Of Steel’s mind-numbing finale from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, heroically rescuing a few employees from a doomed building.  It’s the kind of non-fighty heroism you rarely get in superhero films, which on the whole tend towards Goodie Vs. Baddie battles (because they’re predictably spectacular) rather than anything pro-active.  It’s one of the reasons Heroes was so disappointing (forget all that prophecy nonsense – go and rescue somebody!), and it’s why a random scene of Perry White trying to save a co-worker was my favourite bit in Man Of Steel.  I’m not going to credit Man Of Steel with foresight here, knowing that Superman’s casually destructive attitude wouldn’t sit right with audiences and then fully intending to respond.  There are simply too many insistent references to EMPTY and UNPOPULATED and DEFINITELY NO PEOPLE IN THEM battle-zones not to suspect this movie is a touchy reaction to those audiences and critics.  But I’m glad they addressed it at all.
As for other examples of heroism, we see flashes of Superman doing good things, like saving a girl from a fire or rescuing the crew of a rocket.  It’s crammed into a montage and people talk over it, but hey, at least they remembered he occasionally helps people and stuff – it’s not all Goodies Vs. Baddies.  Then again, this is a movie so determined that this is the point of superhero stories that there is a “V” in the frigging title.  Also, the public perception of Superman as a hero is not one the movie seems at all comfortable with.  Strangers touch him when he’s near, or reach out to him in desperation when he’s above.  It’s all very pointedly (and clunkily) messianic, and not at all the “Hooray, here comes Superman!” world conjured by the mighty John Williams theme.  Which, good god, do I miss.  Those movies were far from perfect, but at least you were glad to see Superman.
"If I wanted it, you'd be dead already!"
But I’m drifting – bright spots!  Ben Affleck’s very good.  Playing a more seasoned and misanthropic Bruce Wayne than we’re used to, he brings a weary history to the part, and manages – unlike several of his predecessors – to be a commanding and interesting presence even, or perhaps especially when he’s out of the Bat-suit.  It’s difficult to comment on him as Batman for reasons I’ll get to (autopsy incoming), but the fight scenes recall some of the more tactile and exciting bits in the Arkham games.  They certainly look good.  Oh, and his Bat-voice is electronically disguised, which is much less silly than just growling all the time.
Let’s see, other good bits… there are some very good actors in it.  They don’t necessarily have much to do, and little of it makes any sense, but they’re… in the film, I guess?  The score has its moments; for better or worse, I’m still humming Wonder Woman’s shrieky electronic theme.  She’s an interesting presence, although all the information we need for her character has been reserved for a different film, leaving her a shiny and conspicuous add-on in a movie that more and more resembles a shopping list – never more so than in an astonishing scene where, on her way to the climactic battle, for no reason at all, Wonder Woman pauses to watch video-clips of other soon-to-be Justice Leaguers.  I mean, wow.  Was that really the best way to introduce those characters?  It’s so badly shoehorned that, despite the movie’s obviously JUSTICE-themed title (and reason for being), it manages to smack of a reshoot.  And you know what, screw it: autopsy time.
This whole film revolves, or should revolve around the conflicting ideologies of two characters.  As anyone sitting down to watch this will know, they need a damn good reason to fight one another.  In The Dark Knight Returns, the seminal and nihilistic book Zack Snyder so clearly admires, they got one: the two heroes did things differently for years, and Superman’s complicity with authority led to him being muscle-for-hire for a corrupt President.  Batman, raging against everything in his old age, needed to remind him where he stood, by almost killing him if necessary.  In this?  Not so much.
Batman just has this certainty that Superman will eventually snap and kill everybody.  To be fair, a lot of people died when Superman didn’t take the fight away from Metropolis.  To be fair-er, Bruce is easily egged on by the machinations of Lex Luthor (so much for the World’s Greatest Detective), as well as… dream sequences?  What kind of half-arsed movie advances its plot with dream sequences?  Anyway, it doesn’t feel like enough.  It’s contrived.  At no point does Bruce consider that Superman is actually out saving people most of the time, which you’d think would be obvious.  “If there’s even a 1% chance, then we have to treat it as an absolute certainty”, says he.  And what happens when the next Zod shows up?  Sure, this is exactly the lesson our winged chum needs to get into his thick skull by the end of the movie, but you’ve got to wonder why he doesn’t consider things from more than one angle to begin with.  Or talk to Superman, for god’s sake.  (For his part, Superman doesn’t like Batman’s methods, but I suspect he’d still be content to slap him on the wrist if he wasn’t lamely manipulated at the last minute by his mum being kidnapped, and Batman’s murder being the only way to save her.  Is this really the best we could do?)
With the script desperately hopping from a Batman movie to a Superman sequel to a Justice League prequel, there’s barely time to remember this all started with Clark Kent, leaving Mr Red And Blue strangely the least interesting selling point.  All Henry Cavill can do is fill a codpiece and glower while he does it.  But is this news?  The biggest failing of Man Of Steel was its treatment of Clark Kent, making him moody and angsty and relegating his day-to-day dual life to lip service.  He shows up at the Daily Planet, newly bespectacled and ready to start his life as a reporter, in the final scene; it’s like someone ran into the cutting room weeks before the premiere and shouted “Guys, we forgot the glasses thing!”  BVS picks up where that floundering mess of a character left off: Lois Lane already knows he’s Superman, they’re already a couple and nobody else seems to know him as “Clark” at all.  He’s got little interest in being a reporter, or in… anything at all, actually.  There is really only Superman, with or without glasses, glowering and moody and dropping by at intervals so the plot can lazily happen around him.  What does he think about all this?  What is his everyday life like?  Is it a big deal that Lex Luthor knows his identity?  What, other than their shared secret, does Clark like about Lois Lane?
Her?
She’s even worse: nothing more than a ditzy thing Superman must drop everything to go and rescue, at the expense of everybody else.  It doesn’t matter if others get shot or killed, oh no, only when Lois is imperilled does he show up.  This is an actual plot point, by the way.  You’d think she’d be under house arrest by now just to give Superman a bit of free time and to make everybody else less doomed, but she’s such a determined Dorothy Dipstick that she can manage it all by herself.  During a climactic three-vs.-one battle she’s not directly involved in, Superman must drop everything because she’s lost her way underwater and is seconds away from drowning.  For fuck’s sake, Lois!
Not for the first time, I’m left pining for Lois & Clark.  Yes it’s campy, no it hasn’t aged perfectly, but what it did do was give Lois Lane a boat-load of personality and chutzpah (imagine a kickass Liz Lemon), and come up with a Clark Kent who made emotional sense.  Raised by humans and driven by their values, “Clark is who I am.  Superman is what I can do.”  Durn tootin’!  He is also able to take off and land without smashing the shit out of the pavement, and defeat people without snapping their necks, not to mention he has a winning sense of humour and respect for the law, and they didn’t even need to kill off his dad for a heroism excuse, but this is a Batman V Superman review, not a Lois & Clark.  Don’t even get me started on John Shea’s immeasurably superior Lex Luthor.  (Oh, all right, in a minute.)
The plot, which is dumb, generally advances because characters don’t talk to each other enough.  (It also doesn’t bother to explain things, like what a “Kryptonian abomination” is other than a convenient third act monster.)  There are speeches – poor Alfred seems to exist just for this purpose – but when it counts, the right words don’t come.  Such as “Bruce, we’re being set up by Lex Luthor, let’s work together.”  Or “Bruce, I’m sorry about all the devastation in Metropolis but I wasn’t the only Kryptonian there, didn’t you see the other guy?”  Or “Clark, why haven’t you learned anything from Metropolis when it comes to controlling your powers?”  Or “Bruce, how can you be mad at me for killing people by accident, when you’re doing it on purpose?”
Oh yes – not content with fudging Superman’s no-killing rule, for the hilariously tortured reason of “He needs to learn not to kill people”, because after all that’s how the rest of us figure it out, Snyder also manages to fuck up Batman’s fairly well-documented philosophy.  Whether he’s branding criminals (branding them!), a move the film acknowledges is a prison death sentence, or blowing up cars with people in them, or tossing back armed grenades, this Batman is The Punisher with better gadgets.  Which completely throws away the bit about not killing people being harder to do, ergo a greater act of heroism, ergo one of the main reasons we like these bloody characters in the first place.  In a recent mealy-mouthed interview, Snyder blamed this on previous Bat-filmmakers tacitly doing the same thing.  Stuff like “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”, or Tim Burton’s surprisingly deathly Batman Returns.  He’d have a point if he said Batman wasn’t as criminal-friendly as he likes to believe, but what kind of reason is that to go all out baddie-killer in his movie?  Mind you, Snyder also cited The Dark Knight Returns, a relatively famous story in which Batman so pointedly cannot commit murder that the Joker commits suicide to get the last laugh.  So god knows what’s going through Snyder’s mind.  Explosions and pectorals, one presumes.
All better!
Alfred at least acknowledges that Batman is “crueller” now, but there’s little in the way of an explanation.  Similarly, we get a half-arsed (like everything else) reason for Lex Luthor’s hatred of Superman: his dad used to hit him, so there’s no God, so boo Superman?  Jesse Eisenberg is yet another actor lost up a creek, spouting a lot of portentous speeches and resorting to a bundle of twitches and mannerisms to build a “character” that is ultimately just the most annoying person in every room.  Devoid of charisma, he gives off great big “I’m a bad guy!” signals in exactly the way Lex Luthor shouldn’t.  For reference, as promised, John Shea: the best Lex, he was rich, powerful, brilliant and caring (outwardly, at least), and as such, convincingly unsuspected by almost everybody.  He was actually likeable, his major failing being a fascination with Lois which humanised and, even he knew, “doomed” him.  See also NetFlix’s Wilson Fisk: apparently mild-mannered and as such sympathetic, genuinely driven by a desire to help his community (or so he believes), again you can see how this guy commanded an empire.  (It also helps that he’s a very good actor.)  Next to these guys, Eisenberg is a lazily-written shit-stirring irritant.  But this is a plot that turns only when it walks straight into a wall.  Not content with their contrived reason for starting a fight, Batty and Soupy have an even more contrived reason to stop fighting.  Your mom’s called Martha?  So’s mine!  Well, I guess I’ve misjudged you.  Sorry about planning your death for the last year.  Hug?
Yes, that bit’s a necessary reminder that Superman is a person too, which shakes Batman out of his now-that-you-mention-it contrived fury and maybe rids him of some of that cruelty he’s had of late, but delivering this revelation by way of a convenient family hostage, not to mention underlining a cringe-worthy piece of comic book coincidence, just isn’t the same as showing Superman to be a person Batman can relate to.  You know – character development?  Still, dumb logic brought them here.  Why should good logic save them?
In all likelihood, rush-reverse-engineering DC’s version of The Avengers was never going to work.  You’d inevitably end up with a confused and unready Justice League movie.  This one also functions as an unsatisfying Batman film and a barely together Man Of Steel sequel, barely keeping its attention on one thing for ten minutes.  Is there hope for the franchise, with even more plates spinning in the next movie?  Not with Zack Snyder, who seems almost completely oblivious to who these characters are and why they do things, and how stories work.  Bringing Batman and Superman here and smashing them together was his goal and, apparently, that’ll do; if your expectations go no higher than that, you might enjoy it.  (Then again you might not, as the much-ballyhooed-fight is barely longer than what you saw in the trailer.)  But then, who even cares what it’s about?  Roll up.