Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Story of Martha by Dan Abnett (with short stories by David Roden, Steve Lockley & Paul Lewis, Robert Shearman and Simon Jowett)

Plot: One year. Martha Jones is on the run from the psychotic despot that has murdered one tenth of the world’s population. She has a mission. This is her story…

The Story of Martha bridges the gap between The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Time Lords and thus potentially makes this the most important NSA yet. You could also throw in the reverse argument that because the entire invasion is unwound at the end of the series three this is the least important book because for everybody except Martha none of these events ever took place! Personally I think it is fascinating to see what happened to Martha during her year on the run. I have never made any secret of the fact that I think Russell T Davies is the ultimate build up storyteller, he can get you more excited than practically any other writer and I found The Sound of Drums utterly spellbinding. Alas Davies is also the absolute worst writer when it comes to concluding his stories and he very often uses narrative cheats such as the deadly Voyager reset button (as he did with the conclusion of this three parter). I am extremely grateful that The Story of Martha was written because not only were people taking the books seriously again but it gives the duff concept of the people of the Earth turning the Doctor back into his usual self with the power of hope some real weight. Given what we see here the Earth is a truly haunting place to live and the stories that Martha tells really are uplifting and heart-warming. Congratulations to Dan Abnett for taking something that was fudged in the TV series and making it work in the novels.

Mockney Dude: Considering he only appears in one paragraph in the main storyline the Doctor makes a massive impression on this book. Martha is out there telling wonderful stories of her life with the Doctor and his name is used as a badge of hope. Its one of the best examples of his impact on the Earth, the fact that the mere mention of his name means salvation, can raise a smile and suggest that things will one day get better. Telling this story through Martha’s eyes who clearly adores him far more than she should allows people to fall in love with him the way she does. The Doctor never pays attention to warnings; paying attention is for cats and he’s more the golden retriever type blundering in all happy and excited! He passes through eternity with no end in sight. The comings, goings and losses fade somehow. He hides it. Once it was a struggle to remember. He had family once but they were lost to the inferno. The Doctor always finds the cleverest way to fight and its never with guns and bombs. I love the sequence where the nameless snowy wraiths want to feed on the Doctor’s hopes and desires and where he has explored and he tells them ‘if you want a feast, you better be hungry.’ Rob Shearman really understands the Doctor and sums him up beautifully in his short story; on his planet, maps never said here there be dragons because his people had been everywhere and explored everything. When he was a child he wanted to be an explorer but there was nowhere left to discover and they told him what was the point? He’d found a point. And whenever he’d forgot it he’d close his eyes and dream again and there it would be. Fantastic stuff.

Delicious Doctor: Along with The Last Dodo this is Martha’s best book. Here we experience her resource, intelligence, skill, warmth and determination. If there was any doubt that Martha Jones could hold up a book on her own this is a bop on the nose to any doubters. Her characterisation speaks for itself. Whatever this books merits are in the literally sense it is an awesome coming of age story for Martha because although everybody else has their mind wiped of these awful events, she remembers. This is what makes the woman that would go on to command forces in UNIT, be left with the responsibility of the entire planet and face down the Daleks.

Martha had acquired an extraordinary amount of fame that really bothered her. People treated her like a saint and would willingly lay down their lives for her. Leo had been an enthusiast of Commando comic so Martha knew all about Dunkirk. This year hangs on her like a dead weight and she wishes she could cast it off. Martha considers Jack’s teleport bracelet one of the top five most painful ways to die. Martha never ran from a fight but she knew when a fight was lost. She’s proper easy on the eyes. Being on the run from armed thugs felt unpleasantly real. She almost hates the Doctor for asking so much of her. Martha is totally, strangely focussed when she is in the most danger. Weatcher tells Martha that the Doctor is ‘not the one.’ Telling the stories reminded Martha of what really mattered. Rob Shearman also aces Martha and the first two pages of The Frozen Wastes say more about her character than anything else I have read. When she was younger Leo pushed her too hard and she fell to the ground with a sharp crack. She was too excited for tears, she was visiting the hospital and it was an adventure. Martha was confused by her x-ray, her arm so strange and ghostly, she wasn’t facing the pain bravely, she was genuinely curious about this secret world underneath her skin. Her mum thought her obsession with the human body was a bit grisly but she kept studying and thinking about the Doctor she would be one day. Martha underestimated the Master’s venom and for the first time in a year she breaks down watching the islands of Japan burn to death.

Great Ideas: Probably my favourite cover, both the Doctor and Martha look edible and the Toclafane (great design) hang over the Earth setting it alight. There is some great world building that really sells the apocalypse; it’s the one book where they can take things as far as they like. The islands of Japan are set on fire, New York is in ruins, the Caspian is poisoned, the Nile frozen and what was once Russia is now Shipyard One. Six billion cybernetic globes were singing childish songs of murder and malice. Planet Earth was dying, one tenth of the population exterminated. The human race are being turned into slaves. The United Containment Forces are the Master’s executors of martial law. Griffin shoots six people dead just to make an impression. He is the man in charge of bring down Martha Jones. He pets a dog and shoots it dead. 20 people are shot down in a flash market in a sports centre. Effigies of the Master dominated the world; he had even carved himself into Mount Rushmore. Packs of feral, hungry dos roam the streets. Abnett manages to trick Griffin into thinking he will catch Martha and trick the reader into thinking we will see the Brigadier! The Master treats the human race with violence and oppression and expects them to react in a similar way. Martha plans to use the Archangel network against him, it was how he got his grip on the planet and it would also be the thing that would punch him away. The Aka labour camp consists of thousands of men and women packed into a caged city, bloody and scarred and overworked, tiny bunks to sleep on, sore and scabbed, nothing but a number. You are shot down if you make a wrong move. Griffin turning up in the workhouse is highly suspicious. The Seague is an artificially produced tear in the fabric of space-time, like a bolt of lightning moving in slow motion. The Drast Speculation Initiative Fourteen were conducting a clandestine assessment of the Earth, charged to initiate economic takeover when the Master’s invasion taskforce arrived. It’s a long complex operation that leads to their running of an entire world without anyone noticing. When the Master took control we were already being invaded – that is a genius idea! The Earth’s suffering will be over soon when the Drast open the Seague and disintegrate the planet! As soon as the Master learns that the Drast are at work in Japan he orders in the Toclafane to deliver laser death. The islands burn a horrible death. Griffin is sliced apart by the Toclafane.

Agaleos is a forgotten, majestic, empty city swept into a corner gathering snow. Shimmering aurora borealis in the sky, shooting stars, ion cascades and delicate colours painting the heavens. One of the furthest outposts of the Second and Great Bountiful Human Empire. The lighthouse beacon was set up to warn people from coming. The wormhole has irradiated the people, infected them with thousands of types of DNA and evolved them into feral creatures. Weatcher chooses to change and be with his people. A hot air balloon over the snowy wastes of the Artic, what a magical idea. White above, white blow, white everywhere. It distorts time, running the same seconds back over and over and over. Literally frozen in them, the perfect larder, the meat stays fresh and never runs out. Hundreds of balloons, a whole flotilla of the same balloon blotting out the sky. Pierre repeating his attempt to conquer the Artic, the being feeding from human ambition. Sometimes the destination isn’t half as interesting as to ambition to get there. The Breed are vat-grown clones for ship wide maintenance but the mass produced drones have become individuals and given themselves names. Artificials are forbidden to fall in love with colonists; the Steering Council believe genetic purity must be preserved. When the cryosystem failed, the shock killed most of the colonists outright, The Pilot System downloaded the colonists personality prints into Artificials.

The Wasting has a lovely mournful tone and an uplifting ending even if it is slightly predictable. Breathing Space is the weakest of the four, little more than an archetypal Doctor Who alien takeover run-around with no time for any thoughtful characterisation but I really like the ending – the aliens didn’t completely clear the atmosphere but they have given the human race some breathing space so use it. The Frozen Wastes is gorgeously written; elegant, thoughtful and smartly characterised. Star Crossed has more than a hint of The Doctor’s Daughter about it with two factions in conflict, the Doctor with one side and Martha with the other and both trying to find a device that will bring it all to an end. It’s a lot more fun and brief than TDD and manages to tell its pleasant story very economically.

Embarrassing Bits: My one complaint (aside from Breathing Space) would be that the ending is really rushed and the destruction of Japan, Martha’s escape and Griffin’s death is skipped over in a few paragraphs when I would have liked to have seen all three explored in a lot more detail considering the build up. It really does feel like Abnett was so excited with the story he was telling…and ran out of space.

Result: Very nice. The Story of Martha is not what a lot of people thought it was but I thought it filled its gap between two unforgettable television episodes with some confidence and gusto. Its unremittedly grim and violent, relieved only by Martha’s tales of her travels with the Doctor. I really like the world of horror that Dan Abnett creates, he doesn’t skimp on detail and really drives home the idea that Martha is on the run for her life. Ms Jones gets some awesome characterisation and is really pushed to the limit, exhausted, pursued, battered, beaten and worked to death, she really shows what she made of here. The short stories were a neat touch and the hit rate is good, from my point of view there’s one excellent tale, two good ones and only one which lets the side down (unfortunately its right in the middle of the book, not ideally placed). This book was billed as something a bit special and I’m not sure if it is out of the ordinary enough to really grab peoples attention but as a slice of apocalyptic drama with some pleasing moments of levity I rushed through this little delight in two days: 8/10

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