Saturday, 29 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #36 – Venusian Lullaby by Paul Leonard

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
Venusian Lullaby
By Paul Leonard

Doctor Who means aliens, right?

It can mean other things as well, like history – it’d be nice if it meant that a bit more often, shake things up a bit – but most of the time, if you had to boil it down to a sentence, it’s The Doctor Vs. Aliens.  And thanks to the not-exactly-boundless budget of BBC Television, those aliens often looked like what they were: guys in costumes, be they cheap, cheerful, silly or looks-a-bit-rude ones.  (I’m never sure if Star Trek had it better or worse, since so many of their aliens made do with a beige outfit, a few spots or an extra nostril.)

Paul Leonard’s plan for Venusian Lullaby might have included many things, but I’m betting number #1 on his list was Proper Aliens.  And let’s be clear, we’re talking aliens, not monsters.  Doctor Who has plenty of asymmetrical blobby things, or shooty pepperpot things, but they’re always things.  Leonard’s Venusians – huge, mostly horizontal, five-legged, with five eyes on stalks and arms wobbling all over the place, strangling you instead of saying hello – are living, thinking people, with a culture and a history.  If you take anything away from Venusian Lullaby, it’s probably going to be the effort he put into them.

And it goes way beyond their appearance.  Most memorable is, well, the remembering.  When a Venusian dies, the others eat its brain to give the memories another place to go.  They all become closer to that person, so death doesn’t hold as much sting as it would for us.  That’s not to say death is no big deal on Venus – there is injustice and in-fighting as the supplies become scarce, some are even executed to make life a bit easier for the others, and there are different factions who react in their own way to the planet’s impending apocalypse.  There are those who accept it, and those (splintered among themselves) who endlessly think of ways to get out of it.  There’s something tragically funny about their determination to avert the inevitable, and their utter failure; take their severe allergy to base metals, which means they build rockets out of wood and then wonder why that won’t work.  Naturally, when the Doctor and co. show up to a friend’s funeral, their expertise is keenly sought.

Quick sidenote: the Doctor is able to pilot the TARDIS in this.  He just finds his funeral invite and off he goes.  Apparently, as the Venus of this story is closer to the origin of the universe, time is more “stable” and therefore he can steer through it.  He’s still not great at it, since they’re late to the funeral, and attempts later on to get from A to B in the TARDIS are rather haphazard, though still phenomenally good for this era of the show.  But… it doesn’t ring true, does it?  I don’t mind retconning with a light touch, such as the Doctor’s off-screen use of an “unknown sonic device”, since hey, who knows how long he’s had that thing?  But this is something that would definitely come up again later.  There’s “stable” time and “unstable” time?  There has got to be more to it than that.  Two people desperate to get home wouldn’t just shrug and forget about it.  Then, at the end, another method comes along for piloting the TARDIS!  By necessity we know they will all just shrug and never talk about it again afterwards.  No, no, no.  You can’t just change the fundamentals between episodes.  Not being able to rely on the TARDIS was a key ingredient of this era; for me, it’s a crazy thing to sidestep, especially for a bizarrely half-baked reason.

Back to the story: moving all the Venusians to the obvious safe haven, young Earth, is out of the question for history-preserving reasons.  Ian reacts to the idea with disdain, since his first instinct is that the Venusians must be invaders.  But for now he’s the unenlightened one.  Barbara and the Doctor get to remember (which is probably the nicest way anyone’s ever going to say “eats brains”).  It’s an incredibly canny way to help us understand the aliens, blurring the line between what is Barbara and what is Venusian as she remembers someone else's past.  Before long such ideas as multiple limbs and many mouths are commonplace; remembering seems right; having two eyes “stapled to you” seems oddly limiting.  Leonard also just writes his Venusians well, with bubbling insecurities (a leader who's quietly grateful to be told what to do), familiar aches and pains (Venusians can have bad hips, just like anybody) and familial relationships that are utterly oddball and moving, all at once.

That’s not to say that it’s completely immersive, or that all of it works.  Some of the names are so long my brain switched channels after three syllables – oh look, here comes Nosgentarawhatever!  – and the tendency to italicise Venusian words was like whispering “Don’t worry about this bit, it’s not even a real word.”  There are still a few Venusian thingummies like the ghifgoni, which I don’t get; they could just as easily be birds or wind-up toys.  (They’re probably both.)  And while there’s a sense of practicality to the Venusian art of seeing the future – which works poetically because their world is doomed, and practically for things like the weather (!) – the idea that some of them are just flat-out magic as well is all but tossed away.  Did I read that right?  On top of everything else, some of them can move things with their minds?

I can easily understand an outpouring of imagination here, as Leonard really grasps the opportunity of a properly alien culture, and maybe goes a tad overboard.  At its best, though, it has the odd backfiring effect of wondering why everybody else in the universe is so gosh-darn normal.  But this is nitpicking: Doctor Who doesn’t make this kind of effort very often, you should appreciate it, and for the most part it’s incredible.  (Looking back on St. Anthony's Fire and its race of anthropomorphic lizard people, so impressive at the time...  it all seems rather quaint now.  Not to say it wasn't good; the Beltrushians were great, my favourite thing about that book.)

Before I gush too much about the brilliant aliens, bear in mind the Sou(hou)shi.  (Good lord, he’s doing things with brackets now?)  They're a race of benevolent aliens who want to take the Venusians to a better place.  (Hint.)  They give the narrative its second wind, putting the main characters in an uncomfortable position of acknowledging that they’re not doing much to help.  On the one hand, though much less outwardly bizarre than the Venusians, they’re rocking some decent alien quirks.  They’re numerous, but like a gestalt: it’s never clear which of them is speaking.  They might do awful things to you, but they need your permission to do them.  They’re referred to as “not evil” at one point, which is interesting, although it’s not really supported by anything and they promptly murder the person who said it.  On the other hand, they’re one of those metaphysical, shape-changing aliens who allow the author to get carried away visually.  I was never sure what the heck they were.  On the third hand (hey, it’s Venus), their motives are decidedly fishy to begin with, and then completely spilled halfway through the book, which doesn’t leave a lot of surprises in the bag.  Dramatically, there’s not much to them beyond “Come with us, we’re nice,” “No you’re not, you’re evil,” “Can’t argue with that,” *NOM*.  On the fourth hand, isn’t this all a bit… Axos?

But what the Sou(hou)shi (I mean, is the middle bit silent?  Is everybody saying Sushi?) are really about is death, specifically yours, and dealing with it.  Will you accept the too-good-to-be-true option, or stay behind and face the inevitable?  That’s an intriguing basis for a "baddie", but it’s more exciting as a concept than in execution.  They’re basically a marauding force for most of it, the Venusians don’t twig until someone shouts the truth at them, and then the baddies go away.  The relative simplicity of them even engenders an old trope: the Doctor on trial for something he didn't do.  Ian can't help observing that this sort of thing always seems to happen to them, and you’ll probably be right there with him.

Though the novel is often beautiful and evocative, some of its ideas don’t come into focus like they could.  Accepting the end of Venus is how things inevitably turn out – the book's tone makes that pretty clear throughout.  They’ve won some borrowed time rather than the assured destruction of the Sou(hou)shi, all the better to live a little, for a while.  But it’s still coming to an end.  And the Doctor and co. don’t dwell on this.  Maybe I'm imposing conventional ideas on a decidedly odd book; at various intervals, all three time travellers appreciate and remember Venus, bringing it home for the reader.  There probably isn’t much that needs saying about what it’ll mean to lose all this that isn’t obvious.

Then again, there’s that odd suddenly-we-can-pilot-the-TARDIS stuff, which suggests maybe Venusian Lullaby just doesn’t mind throwing the occasional one-ball-too-many in the air.  The book ends (before a Venusian epilogue and an inevitable “Next time, Gadget!” from the Sou(hou)shi) with the Doctor and co. discussing a round trip to 1965, using a bit of tech they’ll inevitably never speak of again.  This trip includes Susan’s wedding, which is oddly misleading, since we’re almost certainly not going to see that.  (And because of the suddenly steerable TARDIS...)

Still, this could just as easily be an old man in denial.  There’s a moving moment earlier when he wonders how Susan’s getting on in her new life, how soon she’ll tell David that they can’t have children, or that she will be there to bury him and won’t have aged a day.  I like to ascribe a certain fustery denial to the First Doctor; when he has to part ways with Ian and Barbara, he assures them their ride will mean suicide, when it’s perfectly obvious it’ll get them home safe.  I tell myself he’ll just miss them too much.  Barbara does similar things here: “He hunched over the controls and flicked a few switches.  Barbara was almost sure that the switches didn’t do anything.”

Despite rich bits of sweetness this is a by no means rosy story for the trio.  Ian is openly losing patience with his long journey home, at one point asking for TARDIS lessons just in case the Doctor is out of action, or… well, you can join the dots.  Barbara speaks her mind often, whether in hints (“‘It’s not the Venusians I don’t have faith in, it’s–’”) or full-blown rebukes.

‘My dear Susan–’ began the Doctor.
I am not Susan!’ bawled Barbara.  ‘Nor am I a piece of Susan, whatever you’ve told the Venusians.  Neither is Ian.  We’re people – people who are travelling with you and through no choice of our own.  You have a responsibility to us.  If you can’t get us home, very well.  But at least you can look after us in the meantime.  Or if you won’t – if you’re too busy with your “mysteries”–’ she waved upwards at the omnipresent darkness of the Sou(hou)shi ship ‘–then we’ll just have to look after ourselves. 

The three of them are separate for most of Venusian Lullaby, which was often the way with their stories.  It gives ones like Marco Polo, The Romans and The Dalek Invasion Of Earth (which this directly follows) an epic feel to send them on their own journeys.  Coming after one such emotionally draining epic, and just before the Doctor finds solace in a new friend, it makes sense to have him act a little distant, probably (mostly off-screen) wondering how long it’ll be before these two up and leave him.  I’m still not certain the book makes the most of these themes, with so much else to set its mind on, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.  And a good example of a Missing Adventure, filling an emotional gap as well as the one on your DVD shelf.  On top of all that, Leonard captures all three of them marvellously.

The world's the thing here, and there is much for Paul Leonard to be proud of.  Venusian Lullaby has a good, though not very complex story, and rich, albeit not exhaustively explored themes.  (Speaking of the unsaid, sort of, I managed to miss the reference to an actual Venusian lullaby, which is a thing from the Pertwee era.  There’s definitely no Venusian aikido.  Hai!)  The characters, including the blobby ones, mostly resonate.  It's a high concept book, as these things go, and one to try out if you like Doctor Who and stories about aliens, but rather like its closest equivalent, The Web Planet, it'll inevitably turn some people off.  (Then again, The Web Planet consisted mostly of people in odd costumes bumping into each other.  Perhaps another of Leonard's aims was to write “The Web Planet: Good Version.”)

As you can probably tell, it’s a hard one to rate.  But I'm definitely glad someone gave this a try.


NB: A note for any constant readers.  I've been reading and reviewing these books since 2015, and am over a third of the way through.  I've recently been posting one review per day, but now we're all caught up.  My next read is Daniel O'Mahony's Falls The Shadow.  Just a heads up: the reviews won't be one a day any more, or not unless I let them build up again.  But rest assured, they'll be along eventually, every so often.  Be seeing you!

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the best Doctor Who novels I have read yet. It is the first one I have ever read to truly try to achieve one of the key goals of science fiction, the thorough portrayal of an alien civilization. It reminds me a little of Brian Aldiss and other writers such like. Different biology, technology, culture, even mathematics. And every single Venusian has its own individual personality as well as its alien weirdness. The funereal cannibalism was an excellent way of pulling Ian and Barbara fully into the society and goings-on of the Venusians.

    At the same time, it perfectly captures the first Doctor Who, Ian and Barbara as they get involved in the puzzles and problems of ancient Venus. I was slightly uncomfortable with the author's way of working around the traditional early Tardis crankiness.

    My only gripe was in the last quarter of the book, that the traditional action plot started to interfere with the beautiful portrait of the Venusians, but I recognize the constraints of the genre.