Friday, 3 February 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #40 – State Of Change by Christopher Bulis

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#5
State Of Change
By Christopher Bulis

Here we go.  I’ve owned this one since childhood and, for whatever reason, never actually read it.  Perhaps it was the historical setting (more or less) on the cover, coupled with the old hard-wired fan logic that Historicals Are Boring.  Whatever the reason – probably laziness – I didn’t have any expectations when I got around to it this week, but with the amount of time it’s been sat on my bookshelves, I certainly had my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t disappoint.  It’s written by Christopher Bulis; while I enjoyed his first book, I’m aware that he’s not a favourite among fandom.

Fortunately, fandom has been wrong before, and here we are again: the historicals are jewels of the show’s early years, and Christopher Bulis can turn in a very entertaining novel.  State Of Change is no Marco Polo, but it was good enough to make me clock-watch at work, eager to get on with the story.

It’s about an alternate timeline, and Exodus already showed that I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.  (All right, maybe Back To The Future Part II got there first.)  The Doctor and Peri visit Ancient Rome so they can mingle in history, only a TARDIS malfunction has wrought havoc, and the Romans now have modern-day technology, electricity, even (inevitably!) zeppelins.  Meanwhile there’s a power struggle between the children of Cleopatra, with no clear ruler decided between the calculating Selene, the deluded Alexander and the self-deprecating Ptolemy.  There are murderous plots aplenty.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t get too concerned with how to fix history; we’ve already done that in Exodus, so it makes a nice change for the Doctor and Peri to work more on resolving the power struggle, and helping the generally noble Ptolemy overcome his siblings.  State Of Change is not a pure historical: right from the start it’s a fusion of history and sci-fi like The Time Meddler, and later on things get even more sci-fi as it turns out “alternate timeline” was merely the obvious first impression.  Nonetheless, it romps along like a lighthearted ’60s story.

Bulis apparently loves this period of history, so it must have been a pleasure to muck about with it.  (I didn’t know it too well, but there’s sufficient explanation in the book, and a quick glance at Wikipedia didn’t hurt.)  Once you’re over the shock of history not going to plan, there’s a certain lived-in fun to this version of Rome which almost recalls Terry Pratchett’s manky cities.  The characters are the same relatable archetypes you’d find in an old historical, especially a money-grubbing dealer of magic spells and a troupe of loveably hapless thieves.  There are a number of delightful comic moments that have a certain Classic series ingenuity, like Peri frightening off grave-robbers by loudly bellowing “WHO DISTURBS THE SLEEP OF CLEOPATRA?”, and the Doctor flummoxing a gladiator by running away from him, raising a hand to stop him, tying his shoe, then carrying on.  There’s a black humour to the familial villains, and even the odd touch of empathy; the maniacal Alexander believes in himself so utterly, it’s hardly his fault he’s wrong.  (“‘I doubt if I’m actually capable of making a mistake – wouldn’t you agree?’  Vitellus gaped helplessly for a moment, then slowly bowed his head.”)  I often chuckled helplessly.

As to the story’s sci-fi trappings, and the whole mess the Doctor and Peri are in, it’s all the work of a mysterious someone who for the sake of a 23 year old surprise, I won’t name.  (I already spoiled it for myself researching these books, but there’s no sense in ruining it for anyone else.)  One of the lesser-used villains from the television series is put to, frankly, rather odd use here.  The title refers to a general instability in the “alternate” Rome (as well as the obvious zeppelin stuff), which is causing crises for the Doctor and Peri (more on that shortly), as well as for the villain.  Disguised as one of the ruling triumvirate, they are cautioned by the Doctor that they’ll get too wrapped up in their host’s squabbles, and sure enough, their grand plan morphs from getting out of here to ruling this world.  I think I enjoyed it more when they really did just want to get out of here – because not every antagonist in Doctor Who wants to blow up a planet.  Why shouldn’t they occasionally have the same basic interests and survival instincts as the Doctor?  The character reaches a point of vagueness where it’s worth wondering why they were even involved, but then apparently they were a relatively late (and not entirely voluntary) addition to the book, which would explain it.  The great story about this character has yet to be written, alas, but they’re perfectly okay in this one.  I suspect State Of Change would work without them.

And speaking of lesser-used characters, at long last we get a book for the Sixth Doctor.  I know it’s only the fifth Missing Adventure, but there seems to be a certain stigma about him in the Virgin canon.  Whenever past Doctors are invoked – and it happened a lot around the anniversary – Sixie didn’t get a look in, unless it was a grim reference to his being knocked off to make room for the next fellow.  In Decalog, the short story featuring the Sixth Doctor largely side-lined him.  The One With The Patchwork Coat wasn’t even Christopher Bulis’s first choice for this novel.  (To be fair, that’s common enough: Craig Hinton wanted to write a New Adventure, John Peel apparently envisaged Evolution as a Fifth Doctor story, and a number of New Adventures authors seemed to wish they were writing somebody else.)  State Of Change still can’t resist putting the Sixth Doctor at a distance, as if he’s the show’s redheaded stepchild.  He spends almost no time with Peri, communicating with her via video and voice link, and after the halfway point he’s quite literally not himself.

Broadly speaking, Christopher Bulis gets him right.  There’s the requisite sarcasm, plus he’s a stickler for elocution and verbosity.  His dialogue can often be as dry as fossilised toast, but you can hear Colin Baker delivering it.  (There’s more going on under the surface, though not so subtly: “For a moment, the tenderness that the Doctor seemed to hide beneath his superior mannerisms was revealed, and Peri sensed the true depth of his concern.  Oof!)  But then, owing to that weird instability, the Doctor “retro-regenerates” into his past selves.  Later, with a handy gadget, he channels them deliberately.  We haven’t seen this gimmick since Genesys, and funnily enough it was used to revisit the same (apparently all-purpose) Doctor: in order to survive a gladiator match, the Doctor must channel his third incarnation, fancy footwork and all.

This is great if you’re a big fan of Pertwee, but it does make it curiously pointless that this isn’t a Jon Pertwee book.  It also leaves the current Time Lord looking absolutely hopeless.  (The jibes about his weight don’t help.)  Yes, his ingenuity is generally useful, but he’s reliant on the Third Doctor for roughly half the book, and most of the climax.  It’s such a handy and reliable gimmick that there’s really no need to worry about him transforming against his will at all – and as a side-note, the characters are rarely worried about anything in this, which adds to the relaxed fun of it all, but with the obvious trade-off of tension.  Still, towards the end we do get a (cringily fannish) sequence where the Doctor morphs back through all his past lives.  Retro-regeneration is a cool idea, and you could probably do something eerie with it, but in practice it’s just an excuse to trot out catchphrases and Terrance Dicks idioms, and allow the Sixth Doctor to improbably knock people out with a nerve pinch.  We’ve got a whole range just for these old Doctors – we don’t need these references any more.

Completing the set, Peri is going through changes too.  As you can see on the cover, she’s having a relapse to her Varos days and is transforming into a bird again.  (If you haven't seen Vengeance In Varos, spoiler alert, she turns into a bird for a few scenes.)  I can’t quite figure out why this story is set so much later than Varos, when it hinges on Peri’s mental state in it, and fear of the body horror inflicted on her.  (There’s even a pretty grim addition, when it’s revealed she had an “accident” during the process.  Thanks for that.)  She goes full Bird-Woman in this, complete with flying.  In a world with mutated animals such as hydras this makes a certain sort of sense, and obviously it’s inspired by that previous story, but it still feels like a different genre altogether when Peri swoops heroically to the rescue.  She’s characterised pretty well otherwise – a little brash but empathetic, good at encouraging other people to help each other, gently tolerant of the Doctor – and Bulis does try to examine the effects of her transformation on her psyche.  The bird thing is still a bit random, and all things considered Peri accepts it rather easily.

And yes, it’s worth mentioning the nude scene.  Though not nearly as troubling as the short story Fascination, which mixed Peri and sex like that was automatically what should come to mind about her, it’s still a bit frown-inducing that she is deposited naked in the control room due to a problem with the swimming pool.  We get it: Nicola Bryant looks good.  It doesn’t exactly cover fandom in glory to be so hands-in-your-pockets about it all the time.  (She gets her kit off again later, although most of her’s covered in feathers.  It’s still ick to be focussing on it.)  Peri also has a pseudo-romance with Ptolemy by the end, but to be fair this is more an old-school Doctor Who cliché than Peri-lechery; even Barbara couldn’t seem to land anywhere without tripping over a marriage proposal.

State Of Change has a jolly and exciting pace, even if it all comes a bit easily.  It pleasantly jumbles history and sci-fi, re-uses a few old ideas without reeking of repetition and much of the character writing is excellent.  Despite knowing the “big” spoiler (which isn’t that important anyway), the story kept me guessing; broadly speaking, it’s a fun novel that I’d read again.  It stumbles in is its use of the regulars, and the odd sense of obligation that apparently comes with them.  It’s as if each Missing Adventures author is assigned a Doctor and/or bad guy at random.  It’s hardly a character assassination for any of them, and it’s not enough to ruin the book, but that thematic “instability” is too vague and all-purpose to pin it on.  I’m hopeful that the range will settle down and know its characters better.  In the meantime, there are clearly some rollicking tales to tell.

7/10

NB: Hi again, hypothetical constant reader!  From here on, there'll be a slight change to these reviews: I'll continue posting them infrequently (because I haven't read them all), but 5 at a time, from Monday to Friday.  The next 5 start with Warlock by Andrew Cartmel.  I figure it's better than posting one review in a blue moon, or waiting until I've read everything with the words Doctor Who printed on it, by which time the sun may have gone out.  Happy trails!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #39 – Parasite by Jim Mortimore

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#33
Parasite
By Jim Mortimore

Odd, this one.  Perhaps even by Jim’s standards.

Parasite exhibits many of the strengths I’ve come to look forward to in Jim Mortimore’s work.  There’s a flair for cinematic action, evidenced in Blood Heat and in its Director’s Cut, and of course in my favourite bits of Lucifer Rising.  Parasite can ratchet tension with the best of them, particularly as a paragraph break or a chapter comes to a head, usually in an ohshitwhatdowedonow?! final line.  There are great ideas, again abundant in all of the above books: the Director's Cut in particular went to some interesting places, without the worry of ongoing series continuity.  And the characters are written well, especially the Doctor, distilled to an iconic essence but kept relatable and fun.  And yet, Parasite seems to be missing something.

It’s set in a mysterious “Artifact”: a vast, enclosed ecosystem where the laws of gravity (for starters) fluctuate on a whim.  There are walls made of ocean, floating continents that dip in and out of them like salmon, and various flora and fauna all about, much of it hostile, or just inexplicable.  It becomes increasingly clear that the whole world is linked and alive somehow.  I imagine it was quite a light-bulb moment when Jim thought of this place, and what it’s capable of.  It’s fascinating, and a lot of fun watching the traditional rules of alien planets get bent out of shape, right from the start as Bernice floats out of the TARDIS.

And there are also those excellent moments – “cinematic” is the word I gravitate towards, like how my stomach practically turned in Lucifer Rising during the bridge collapse.  There’s a sequence early in Parasite where a great wall of the Artifact moves of its own accord, devastating a space shuttle and everyone on board – the dread is absolutely palpable, the images striking.  Similarly there’s a bit where Ace is drawn inexorably into a wall of ocean which is just gloriously nightmarish.

Where Parasite stumbles, I suspect, is the plot.  Not trying to sound glib here, but there isn’t much of it.  There’s some political setup, as the world of Elysium is gradually torn about by different belief systems, hence expeditions to the monolith-ish Artifact that may help to shape their understanding, and their future.  One of those expeditions goes awry early on (curiously the second expedition don’t seem to know about this; I’m not sure how much time elapsed between) and another comes along with similar results.  The Doctor and co. arrive, they inevitably split up and go with different groups, and then everyone involved pretty much just tries to survive events and/or make sense of the Artifact as all hell breaks loose.  The environment becomes more dangerous, landscapes and cities are built and torn apart, there are a stupendous number of monkeys involved, characters are possessed by intelligences and poisoned by fungi, time passes in surprisingly large bursts and it just goes on until it’s done.  It’s a bit numbing by the end by which point, thanks to a bit of mind-reading, Ace delivers an enormous amount of exposition about the Artifact and how it all works.  It’s a lot to get your head around in one go, especially so late in the book, and coming from Ace it’s positively surreal.

This is what happens when the Doctor is out of the action.  Seeking to prevent a malign intelligence from using him, he pretty much switches himself off for most of the book.  Which is fair enough, as Bernice and Ace are (exposition notwithstanding) rounded enough to shoulder the story.  Both have moments of very evocative memory (again, that filmic quality), with Ace in particular making some firm steps towards her departure from the series.  We rely on her military experience (during those books where she was absent) to inform her present, which is about as good as post-Love And War Ace gets, if I'm honest.

Ace must do some terrible things to survive here, and the Doctor can’t reverse all the damage.  I do hope this isn’t leading to another of those (seemingly standard) falling-outs, as it certainly ends on a familiarly dark note between the two.  In fact, dark much?  Ace murders someone almost by accident, everyone except the main three gets killed, the planet-killing monstrosity of the title lets one of its “eggs” go before the Doctor can stop it, and he’s just going to let that one go.  He has zero intention of wading into an Elysium civil war or saving them when their own Doomsday Machine comes alive.  He's still capable of amazing stuff, when he can be bothered: see him shrugging off a bullet wound to one of his hearts.  (This bit is rather too off-screen.  Why bother giving him an apparently mortal wound so close to the end, if it’s just a shrug-it-off thing immediately afterwards?  There's also an odd reference to a maybe-possibly-I-think regeneration taking place, apparently put in there because Virgin were toying with a new Doctor at the time.  Since that went nowhere, this bit's bloody odd.)

I wish the finale was a little more measured out, so stuff like that can be processed.  After such a slow burn of nature taking its disastrous course, and characters simply existing at its mercy, it’s a little sudden to start explaining it and assigning blame.  As an emotional climax, the reader has already seen so much horror that the Doctor's comparative bastardliness seems like an afterthought.  See also the I-suppose-you-could-call-him-that villain of the piece, Alex Bannen’s son Mark (see Lucifer Rising): there isn’t time to develop his personality flaws to the same degree as his father’s, so he just becomes a rather odd recurring figure, a tool as much as the gun he’s holding in the finale.  There’s a recurring motif of his mother’s death on Earth, but like the political situation on Elysium, this is buried quite low in the mix.

A number of the characters feel a bit sketched in, although that may be because so many of them die before we get to know them.  One of them recurs in a different form: Benjamin Green, a man on a mission, who has a fateful meeting with Bannen and becomes "Midnight", a swirling, evolving, mind-reading mass of… something?  He’s probably meant to evoke the Artifact in miniature, but I spent all of his scenes wondering why the other characters weren't gawping at him in utter bogglement.  On the one hand I think it’s a shame Parasite doesn’t come with illustrations, as it’s such a rich and evocative setting; on the other hand, good luck drawing stuff like Midnight.

If I’d reviewed Parasite at the halfway point, I’d probably come across more positive.  Before it began its downward trajectory towards utter chaos, I was able to marvel at the ideas, and enjoy the little moments.  Many of these involve the Doctor, who in (what I like to think of as) typical Mortimore style manages to mix a slight otherworldliness with ordinariness.  He is firstly iconic: “A familiar shape, backlit by the fire.  Hat.  Umbrella.  Eyes turned in wonder to the storm, drinking in the view.  But he is also able to sneak up on people without making a sound, which is just deliciously other.  The text often revels in the sheer incongruity of his appearance, such as a moment where he literally floats past, doffing his cap but able to offer no actual assistance.  All of this, plus an utterly disarming fallibility: “‘I had the situation completely–’  Only Gail saw the Doctor’s fingers crossed behind his back, and shuddered, ‘–under control.’  (Also – not quoting it in full, but it’s on page 75 – there’s an adorable bit where the Doctor gets moss on his hands, and can’t get the stuff off, much to Bernice’s amusement.)

Towards the end though, Parasite becomes a somewhat incidental exercise in getting all these events and disasters on the page, with the characters nearly as passive and helpless as we are.  Just as there isn’t time to marvel at what the heck Midnight even is, we never really tackle the ludicrousness of the vast society of monkeys, who occasionally need to commit mass suicide, some of whom can talk, but only in a flat and pedantic manner.  It should probably be hilariously odd; instead it’s just a very peculiar idea among many, like some vast galloping monsters and an enormous grey wall of death.

Parasite is commendably ambitious, bringing to mind Venusian Lullaby.  At first this you could call this a pretty lazy parallel: Paul Leonard took a similar approach to his alien life as Parasite does to its world, aka as "out there" as possible.  But it’s a literal comparison too, as Bernice recalls the Venusian process of “remembering”, a method of keeping the memories of the dead by eating their brains.  (Yum!)  It makes sense to draw a line between these books, as both err on the side of ideas rather than plot, and heck, I do appreciate that it’s hard to strike a balance.  The weirder your ideas, the more a conventional plot structure might seem like you’re conceding something.  But I do wish Parasite had some more individual motivations to go with its great, turning wheel of life, and personified its aliens a little more than giving one of the monkeys a name, and letting a character like Midnight ponder on the periphery.

It’s possibly the strangest New Adventure since Transit, and I suspect it has its ardent fans, as well as their baffled opposites.  It probably comes down to what you want in a book.  If you want a new world, you got it.

6/10

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #38 – The Crystal Bucephalus by Craig Hinton

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
#4
The Crystal Bucephalus
By Craig Hinton

Say it with me: The Crystal Bucephalus.  The Cordon Bleu Syphillis.  The Captain Blue Sympathies.  The Crusty Bucket.  The Diamond Dobbin.  The Emerald Equine.  Join in, everybody!  Craig Hinton’s first Doctor Who novel has a great deal of fun at the expense of its own name, and at long-winded verbiage in general.  Set in an exclusive time-travelling restaurant, there’s an air of snobbery and absurdity about it.  For a fair stretch, it’s quite determined to be a comedy.

And not just any comedy.  The premise is the most obvious yoink from Douglas Adams since Gareth Roberts came to town.  The gleefully impossible setting, the pompous personnel, the menagerie of alien oddities, even the belated second coming of a futuristic deity all feel like a nod, a wink, or a deliberate hacking cough towards The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe.  But it’s more affectionate than plagiaristic, and to be fair to Adams, his Milliways was more a one-scene gag than a story in itself.  For all its faults, The Crystal Bucephalus does not tire of its namesake.

At first, it feels like Craig Hinton is going to keep it in the same vein as Hitchhiker’s Guide.  The Doctor, Tegan and Turlough are accused of murder – well that’s a hoary old trope, but it really lends itself more to farce than drama, since we always know they didn’t do it.  And while we are dealing with the Fifth Doctor (not a comedian by any stretch of the imagination), Tegan and Turlough are both known for their eye-rolling snipes.  All three are in fancy (and therefore, slightly silly) costumes, having been dragged away from historical France; the mental image alone is oddly amusing.  And to play off his innate stuffiness, the Doctor is soon butting heads with the absurd Maitre D’, with whom Hinton has buckets of fun: wherever the man goes, amusing turns of phrase will follow.  He expanded like a preening baboon.  /  His fingers splayed out on the surface like fat spiders.  /  His jowls wobbled with pride.  /  He sailed away like a galleon in full sail.

Hinton even pushes the character of the Doctor itself towards comedy in a way that’s either bold or bloody silly, depending on your disposition.  Having a long-standing bank account that occasionally gets “embarrassingly large” due to compound interest, the Doctor occasionally offloads some dosh onto ludicrous business ventures, such as the Bucephalus.  (And apparently, the British film industry.)  As such, he owns the place, which leads to a couple of embarrassed eyebrow-raises later on when he realises the ensuing chaos is his fault.  Hmm.

Other whimsies include a one-note maniacal torturer who (unless I miscounted) appears in one scene; Chelonians, who have yet to put in a “serious” appearance and don’t buck the trend here; some Alpha Centaurians in all their hysterical glory; an effete Cyberman, plus a Cyber-toilet (!); a religion that parallels the now totally forgotten Christianity, right down to Lazarus and “the Final Dinner”; and a much-deserved wah-wah-wahhh! ending for the villain of the piece.  But most of the above is really just silly window-dressing, or more appropriately for Craig Hinton, fanwank.  The Crystal Bucephalus spends most of its time on science fiction, not comedy.  More’s the pity.

And that’s not to say all the comedy works.  Let’s address the elephant (oh, all right, the giant crystal horse) in the room: yes, I think the Doctor’s ongoing battle of attrition with his bank account is bloody silly.  Why would he even have one?  Doesn’t that suggest a certain stability in the Doctor’s life that plainly isn’t there on the screen?  (Or thus far, in the books?)  As for sinking his extra pennies into random “ludicrous ventures” and never checking up on them, what did he think would happen?  If he’s got so much money to spare, why not use it during the many occasions when money would have been pretty handy?  Such as everywhere he’s ever visited?

There might be something to this as a Seventh Doctor story, as was originally intended.  (Hinton swapped the Doctors so this could get published quicker.)  McCoy can be Machiavellian to say the least, and disastrous consequences are his fortè.  But Davison?  As Doctors go, he seems like he’d be uncomfortable paying too much for a pot of jam.  As for making all of this his fault, besides a surface level of irony and the occasional character saying “It’s all your fault, Doctor!”, it doesn’t add significantly to the story.  As non sequiturs go, it’s not quite Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head, but it’s not far off.  (However, Zaphod was an actual joke.)

It’s funny that fanwank is such a buzzword where Hinton is concerned – he coined the term, of course, but I don’t think he’s that bad for it here.  It makes sense for different alien races to mix and meet in the Bucephalus.  Since the place is famous for history going on in its rooms, it’s a legitimate way to world-build.  (I wonder if I’m more forgiving of it because this is a Missing Adventure.  Legacy attempted the same sort of thing, only it felt like the narrative was grinding to a halt to reference these things, and it seemed fundamentally at odds with the New Adventures remit.  I still think Gary Russell should have gone the whole hog and made it a past Doctor story, since it was a sequel to stories both televised and made up, but hey ho.)  What The Crystal Bucephalus does enjoy in abundance is technobabble.  Heaps and reams and oodles and great steaming quagmires of the stuff.  Oh, lordy, it’s a bit much.

It quickly becomes apparent that the Bucephalus needs a bit of explaining.  How people time travel, how “real” people are when they get there (and hence whether they can change history), how one can interfere with its workings, how one can stop that, what state of affairs the universe is currently in, what would need to go wrong to mess it all up – and like Legacy, Bucephalus occasionally grinds to a halt to explain this stuff.  And it’s tedious.

Even worse: the main thrust of the narrative is not the opening Whodunit, which turns out to be a red herring, but instead somebody interfering with the workings of the restaurant (well, the time-travelling bit – we’re spared any subplots about gone-off food), and the attempts of the place’s architect (Lassiter) to fix everything, and back and forth, ad infinitum.  This stuff is about as exciting as watching a film about hacking – with two people staring at screens and yelling technobabble – but without the aid of dramatic music.  Hinton does try to up the drama here and there, such as cliff-hangers where Turlough and Tegan both seem to fatally disappear.  This not only doesn’t work when you do it twice, it doesn’t carry any weight once: the atmosphere is already too frivolous and complicated, not to mention it’s a daft stretch of disbelief that we’d kill anyone “main” in between two TV stories they’re both in, but the Doctor still trots out a quick monologue about all the dead companions he’s failed, which feels out of place and subsequently rather comical.  When some characters do eventually get (rather unnecessarily) killed, there’s an air of utter disbelief about it.  Dramatic irony, perhaps, finally landing us with some consequences after so much jargon and nonsense, but it still feels bloody cruel.

Besides wading through phrases like “A Legion’s navigation ganglions are right next to its matriculation net”, and chopping and changing characters and settings so often that momentum never really builds (at worst, I counted six changes on a page), there’s a bit of religious satire going on with the whole “Lazarus” thing.  And, don’t panic!  It isn’t anything like St. Anthony’s Fire.  While it does seem like a crude piss-take at first, it eventually builds to a somewhat heartening point about how religion is what you make of it, and if you decide to build something about helping each other, it doesn’t really matter what started it.  Which is good, since (spoiler alert?) what started it is not the wonderful, harmonious guy everyone was expecting.  Not all the ideas of the Lazarus Intent come off – there’s a priest who’s distractingly good at kicking arse, and there’s a racist undercurrent against reptiles that only feels like it’s going somewhere – but for making a point about religion and not making me roll my eyes, points are given.

There’s also a genuinely amusing twist on the gag about the Doctor’s bank balance.  On his way to fetch the TARDIS, he’s re-directed to a random ice planet, and the only way to get back into the Bucephalus network is to have a restaurant worthy of inclusion.  So, he starts one, taking five years in the process and apparently building a few meaningful relationships along the way.  It’s utterly throwaway, or arguably thrown away (we’re talking two or three pages), but considering the Doctor must inveigle his way into the restaurant biz, it makes a lot more sense than the book’s earlier conceit.  (As well as making more sense than Blood Harvest, where the Seventh Doctor ran a speakeasy.)

It's worth wondering if the book makes much sense of its characters, particularly as Hinton swapped them out when Bucephalus was only a few chapters old.  It’s not exactly a character study anyway, so he mostly gets away with it.  The Doctor doesn't always seem right – there's a bit where he hypnotises someone, which seems like entirely the wrong Time Lord – but Turlough and Tegan are analogous enough to Bernice and Ace to make the switch, and more pointedly, all three TARDIS folk spend their time palling about with somebody else.  This is much more a story about Lassiter (Doctor), Tolqvist (Turlough) and Diva (Tegan) than it is about the main three, which often runs the risk of leaving the regulars flapping pointlessly in the background.  Especially Tegan, whose subplot initially leads her to a “leisurely browse” and some “meandering” in London circa 1985, plus later on – brace yourself – swimming.

Despite the work that obviously went into the balancing act of technobabble and guest character melodrama, however, the stuff between Lassiter and his personal life / the villain Arrestis and his acolytes all gets a bit tedious as the thing wears on.  I was too exhausted from the technological disasters going on relentlessly everywhere at once to be bothered about who was in love with whom, and yes, as often happens, I was page-counting by the end.  The Crystal Bucephalus wears out its funny bone and just becomes an exercise in wondering what any of it means, in between losing your thread because it just jumped to a different character again.

And if you're hoping that Craig Hinton has at least written the proverbial Story Where Kamelion Gets Something To Do, because he's on the cover, keep hoping: of the three companions, he's in this the least.  He's here pretty much to justify his continued non-appearance on screen.  Yeah, we are creaking into fanwank territory here.  (Ditto when Hinton devotes most of his finale to explaining why the Doctor was dusting off a new TARDIS console in The Five Doctors.)

Kamelion thinks he can help, which he surely could, but he doesn't make it two steps out of the TARDIS before he's under a psychopath's thrall, and then he quite happily blows somebody's head off.  Shame-faced (or whatever the equivalent would be), he retires to the TARDIS's recesses to think about what he's done, and that's why you don't see him.  Which... fine, does explain it.  (Really though, it's hard to dislodge the obvious explanation: he's a robot, their budget was an average child's pocket money, what on Earth were they thinking?)  But unlike certain other well-intentioned, even quite spirited bits of fanwank – like a reference to that bit of darkness just outside the TARDIS doors when you're inside it, a cameo from a later companion, and some jolly nods to Star Trek including latinum, Earl Grey and Qo'onos – this just reinforces something that already didn't work as being fundamentally redundant.  Why yes, Kamelion was a powerful, largely amoral stooge.  We already thought so, thanks.  If that's the best you can think to do with him, why bother dredging him up?  So much for finally existing in a format where he can get from one room to another.

As I might have guessed from the overcomplicated and whimsical premise, this isn't really about anything.  At best, it's more of a dessert than a meal: it can be rich, clever and fun, but these are highlights, not main ingredients.

5/10