Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Burning by Justin Richards

Plot: Things are changing in the run down town called Middletown. The clapped out mine is re-opening and a new substance is being mined. A substance which has the ability to remember its form, to transform into creatures of fire, to consume everything that gets in its path…it takes a lost, lonely man who stumbles into town with no memory of his past to stand up to its evil plans…

Top Doc: Welcome to the beginning of the eighth Doctor’s novel adventures. This is where it all begins folks; forget about that chirpy, goofy, useless shit we have been travelling with for the past 37 books. He was a momentary (yeah right) aberration, a glitch in the Doctor’s otherwise glorious personality. The Doctor has now lost his memory and past thanks to the events in The Ancestor Cell and he is a far more interesting, less predictable sort of guy. He is described as having a laugh full of life and the sort of man who lives a life full of interesting things to do and interesting people to meet. He states: “Doing nothing tires me.” He has no idea what the black cube in his pocket is (The TARDIS, recuperating from events in the last book). He manages to insinuate himself into peoples company with deceptive ease, expertly making people believe he is a friend of the next person in a crowd. He is contemplative at points and very quickly irritated at others (“Perhaps it would be best if I gave up and left you all to your fate!”). He exudes experience and confidence and can be extremely callous at times (a huge difference to the old eighth Doctor…his reaction to a man’s horrifying death in this book is, “Interesting, isn’t it?”). He likes to pour on the atmosphere (“There is evil all around us…”). When Dobbs is murdered he is shocked (nice to know he still has some feelings) but is sensible enough to put his personal shock aside and deal with the crisis at hand. He has moments of explosive anger and a lack of feeling for others emotions (“Yes you should have” he says to Stobbold when his daughter dies and he contemplates her life trapped with him, “but its too late now.”).

  Most importantly it proves the Doctor does not need a companion to work. He is pretty sinister here, but a tragic figure too. The last act he performs to really prove he is a changed man comes at the climax where he kicks Nepath into the river, effectively killing him. It is one of those fantastic moments when the Doctor really shocks you and proves this will be an interesting ride with this unpredictable character. The last scene of him leaving Middletown, in search of answers about his life, is genuinely touching.

Foreboding: The black cube transforms into a bare blue rectangular box, the TARDIS slowly taking back its old form. The answers to how the creatures in this book came about is hardly needed but for those who are willing to hang about enjoy these adventures will be rewarded with a surprise twist at the end of Justin Richard’s Time Zero, a book which, with The Burning, effectively boxes in what I consider to be one of the best runs of Doctor Who books there is.

Twists: The fissure cracks open the ground of Middletown in a wonderfully ominous opening. Paranormal investigators Dobbs and Stobbold are a great pair, an 18th Century Mulder and Scully! The triple cheat of making us think the Doctor has arrived in the book is fun, especially when he turns up at dinner without anyone noticing! Gaddis’ death isn’t that memorable, but Dobbs’ reaction certainly is. The Doctor and Dobbs’ midnight sojourn to Urton’s house is wonderfully nailbiting, they discover the burnt remains of Patience and are attacked by the tenants from the darkness with glowing eyes… Considering this is Doctor Who going back to its simple, effective roots there is a lovely parallel between Stobbold and his daughter and the first Doctor and Susan, in both cases they have become young women who stay with their relatives out of loyalty and protection. When the fire creatures emerged from the wall in the mine and murdered Dobbs I was very upset. Betty bursts into flames, the moor land erupts with lava and men of crackling fire emerge from the mine to kill the population…its all happening at the climax! The scene where Patience comes back to life is brill. I loved it when the military attempted to fight back and their guns exploded, made out of the same material as the fire creatures and the remains start to reshape into more monsters… The ending feels genuinely apocalyptic and I was awash with excitement when the Dam burst open and washed out all of the evil. The Doctor’s savage kick, killing Nepath, is a real shocker. Stobbold’s reunion with his daughter broke my heart.

Funny bits: The Doctor delights in winding Nepath up, calling his trinkets bric-a-brac and going as far as snoring through Nepath’s auction of his interesting and unusual artefacts.

Embarrassing bits: “How will we defeat this evil” says Stobbold. “We need a great load of water!” says the Doctor. “Where are we going to get that from?” says Stobbold. Oh wait, there just happens to be a handy dam nearby…

Result: Glorious, a book that looks to the future (offering us a fantastic new take on the eighth Doctor) and looks back to the past (giving us a traditional Doctor Who story with ALL the trimmings) in all the best ways. This is Justin Richards’ most surprising book, predictable as hell (which he rarely is) but containing some truly atmospheric prose (which he rarely is either!). The characterisation is fantastic and the book is packed full of memorable moments, the enemy is vivid and terrifying and there are a number of deaths that really shock you. This is exactly how the eighth Doctor books should have originally started, with a genuinely unsettling Doctor, some delicious scares and lots of intelligent detail. I really couldn’t put this down. A re-format that works on every level, and leaves you hungry for the next instalment: 9/10


  1. I just read The Burning again myself. This was a spot on review. It's a wonderful new start after the collapse of continuity in The Ancestor Cell, and thoroughly involving and atmospheric. There's a great new 8th Doctor and a fabulous little story. It's a shame about the fuzzy, clunky bits - the ease of the water solution - the gullibility of Stobbold. But still a lovely new start. Right on!

  2. For me, the water solution was just too simplistic and ruined what for me was an otherwise well-done tale. I expected more from this author. It just seemed like anyone could have said something like "Hey! What if we, you know, put out the fires?" Ultimately, what that means is that a) the characters weren't that smart and b) they really didn't need the Doctor's generally infinite cleverness....