Saturday, 26 December 2009

Festival of Death by Jonathon Morris

Plot: Oh my word what an incredible plot. Frankly I would not even know where to begin to explain the intricacies of this book. Needless to say the Doctor dies, Romana meets herself and K.9 turns very, very bad…what more do you need to know?

Teeth and Curls: Just one of the great things about Festival of Death is its perfectly captured regulars. Who said only Gareth Roberts can get this irresistible trio right? Frankly it is a testament to the skill of Johnny Morris that he manages to focus so intensely on his plot and yet still get the regulars pitch perfect. The Doctor’s lack of academic achievements are secret something of an embarrassment for him, no matter how much he protests to the contrary. Typically he tries to bluster his way out of arguments. His reaction to arriving after he has already saved the day is one of totally joy! Described as a cosmic beatnik. However upon realises that he sacrifices his own life in order to save the G-Lock he cracks under the strain of his impending death (in a top dramatic moment he throws Romana and K.9 out of the console room: “Just leave me alone. Leave me alone, both of you.”) He is a toothy guardian angel whose eyes can grow as large as saucers. In one of several brilliantly clever sequences the Doctor manages to rescue himself (after already telling Romana that he will resist the temptation to converse with the greatest intellect on the G-Lock) and seeing himself he is quite disconcerted as to how much he rubs his chin and ruffles his hair but eventually comes to the decision that he is a handsome devil. There is a lovely conversation with him and K.9: “You’re still my best friend you know.” “Query. Is mistress Romana not your best friend?” “Well. She’s my best friend too. But in a different way.”

Intelligent Aristocrat: Romana is the Doctor’s wife in all respect except them actually getting married. She calms him down, she corrects his errors, she watches his back and she admires him greatly. She is utterly perfect for him in every way. I love how she continually corrects his mistake with the first law of time and when he finally gets it right she goes to correct him again, just because she always does! She is devilishly clever, predicting that if they are to come back to the G-Lock again they can arrange to have somebody rescue them! And she is aware enough to make sure it happens at the end of the book! Chatting with Evadne: “What is it you do then?” “Save planets mostly.” “But what do you do when you’re not saving planets?” “To be honest we don’t usually get time for anything else.” Romana also thinks she is the greatest intellect on the G-Lock. She has a habit of running into danger and sorting it all out, the Doctor thinks she is a charming girl. When meeting herself she cannot believe how conceited she is!
The Doctor and Romana sum up their adventures together:
“We get involved.”
“As usual.”
“Get accused of things we haven’t done.”
“As usual.”
“And then save everyone from certain death.”
“As usual.”

Twists: ‘For the rest of his life he would remember it as the day he died’ – a brilliant first line and even more brilliant when you have finished the book and understand what it means. The G-Lock is a great idea, a graveyard of ships encrusted around a pleasure cruiser in hyperspace. The Doctor and Romana arriving after they have saved the day is such a great idea, why has nobody ever thought of it before??? – (“You don’t remember? You saved it from certain and terrible destruction?” “How marvellous. That’s just the sort of thing I would do!”). Preja vu is a term coined for Time Lords, a sensation that one is going to have been somewhere again. Gallura’s death and birth are counter pointed beautifully on page 51, clever in itself but inspired when you realise (later on) that one moment follows the other. Page 72 is excellent; the reader gets to experience the afterlife. When you realise that the Doctor and Romana once again have already been here and that they will have to go back AGAIN things start getting brilliantly loopy! After the Beautiful Death the tourists start getting out of their coffins…still dead! Romana meets the Doctor from the future. The Necroport is generating vast amounts of power, enough to send shockwaves unfurling backwards and forwards in time, bringing 3012 and 2815 together and the survivors to the present day. The victims of the Beautiful Death and being used as vessels for the survivors of the Cerebus. When we actually see the Doctor dead on pages 135 it is a hell of a shock because we all expected him to survive. The Doctor sums up the situation with his usual eloquence: “Two of me? A future me and present me? Aha! Until such time as I become the future me, when the present me will become the past me and the future me will become the present me. D’you see.” When you realise that ERIC is only suicidal because he was blamed for the deaths of the passengers even though he tried to prevent the disaster it makes his character suddenly very poignant. Captain Rochfort tries to take the blame away from himself and tortures ERIC by telling him to commit every second of his run time on suffering the guilt of a mistake that wasn’t even his. Even worse, Metcalf tortures ‘future’ ERIC by giving him insoluble equations that will make him ‘die’ and reboots him over and over. Just when the Doctor thinks he has gone back for the last time (or rather the first time!) ERIC recognises him: “You know this sort of thing is starting to get on my nerves.” Pages 153 and 154 are great, the Doctor and Romana leaving everything exactly how they found it for their arrival at the beginning of the book! Paddox slaughtered most of the Aboreteans on his experiments. The Necroport isn’t the power source for the Beautiful Death; the Beautiful Death is the power source for the Necroport, feeding the energy from the participants and into the 3 coffins. Aracnopods are biogenetically engineered life forms, homicidal, criminally insane, believed indestructible and capable of putting themselves back together when blown up. They ate most of the passengers and crew of the Cerebus. Tarie doesn’t go through to the other side and thus Hoopy survives. The Aboreteans secret is that they cannot die, when they die they go back and live their lives over again and the whole reason Paddox has set up the Necroport and the Beautiful Death is so he can go back in time and live his life all over again and save his parents (from the first scene). The Repulsion is the state between life and death and the reason the 218 Beautiful Death revellers come back as zombies is because the repulsion hijacked their ‘deaths’ and wants to get enough of itself in our reality to come through totally. When the Doctor finally ‘dies’ the Repulsion thinks he can download himself into the Doctor but instead the Doctor arranges for him to transfer to K.9 and then ERIC and once there the Doctor finally puts the computer out of his misery, as he promised earlier and kills the Repulsion too. In a twist of bitter irony Paddox does manage to go back and wakes up as a child but soon realises that the Aboretean gift is theirs alone and that he is going to have to live out his life in exactly the same way, over and over again in a never ending loop. His payment for wiping out the species is to be trapped in this endless cycle. Serves him right.

Funny Bits: Hoopy has some great dialogue: “Totally Ungroovy! This is beyond agony! This agony 2, the sequel!”
“Sorry I ever doubted you K.9.” “Accepted and archived for future reference.”
“Apparently the Hyperspace tunnel is about to collapse killing us all. But there’s no cause for public disquiet. Thank you.”
“They claim that had they been aware that death was fatal, they wouldn’t have submitted to the process.”
One thing the Doctor had noticed was that villains always loved having big levers to pull. Probably compensating for something.
We here Metcalf’s tragic tale of his wife running off with a holocameraman and when he tries to escape cowardly from the perilous situation what does he find hiding in his escape pod…a holocameraman!
The Doctor’s death scene is so funny it hurts, especially: “Romana, remember keep Australia beautiful” and “Kismet Romana” “You want me to kiss you?”
It is well worth waiting for the story of Harken Bart’s downfall. He made a fake documentary about the criminal underworld but attempted to broadcast it as the truth! Not realising that one of his actors had just been hand picked as the face of Nova Bright (Makes your Pants more White!). Both were broadcast at the same time, ruining his credibility.

Result: Astonishing. I have never read a book with such damnably clever and intricate plot, one which has the outward appearance of being such a sprawling mess and yet all converges together with inspired clarity. The narrative construction alone would be enough to recommend this book but you also have oodles of incredible plot twists (especially amazing considering we know the outcome at the beginning!), fantastic characterisation of the regulars (Gareth Roberts eat your heart out!), hilarious jokes and brilliant dialogue. Its outstanding on every level and remains riveting throughout, climaxing on one of the best ever comeuppances a villain has suffered. It seems any story to revolve around the Doctor’s death (Alien Bodies, Blood Heat) is an instant winner! Not only the best PDA to this point but easily one of the best Doctor Who books of all time: 10/10

Friday, 25 December 2009

The Banquo Legacy by Andy Lane and Justin Richards

Plot: Something sinister is brewing at Banquo Manor and the stage is set for a murder mystery of the highest calibre. The Doctor fears the Time Lords may have tracked him down and Compassion is forced into a disguise that even she cannot control…

Top Doc: Despite his absence from the book for 50% of its contents, this is as good as the eighth Doctor comes. He dresses as though for a formal occasion ten years ago and never got changed. Both Hopkinson and Stratford are perplexed by his intelligent, controlled personality, described as the only honest man in a world full of tricksters. His idea to fake his own death might seem callous but it affords an excellent chance to snoop around and get some answers unmolested. He stands at the periphery of the tale, allowing events to unfold around him, waiting for the Time Lord agent to reveal himself. He seems more restrained and focussed than usual which makes the book feel more important. He is a lover of independence and personal responsibility and shows great compassion at the climax when he comforts the clinically insane Catherine Harries at the moment of her death.

Scruffy Git: This is a fascinating look at Fitz from the POV of two complete strangers. Because we are no longer privy to his internal thoughts he comes across as idle and thick (one scenes sees him lounging about as if bored with the whole business). Described as distrustful on sight and acting as though the world owes him a favour and a confidence trickster too stupid to execute his own plans. His fake German accent is appalling but also very funny. The more time the narrators spend with him however they see the real Fitz shine through, devastated at the Doctor’s ‘death’, experienced in danger and practical when the situation arises. I loved it when he was described as being five sentences behind everyone else!

Stroppy Redhead: The opening sequence sees Compassion attacked, shrieking in agony at her near total loss of artron energy. She displays another astonishing ability, bonding with a regular human to maintain her outer plasmic ability. Linking with human Susan Seymour we see a bizarre mixture of Compassion’s cold efficiency and Susan’s warmth and…well compassion. She is wickedly unemotional in some scenes and loses it totally in others. The personality erosion between the two of them is quite disturbing but it is nice to see Compassion acting with some care and to get to experience a romance. Described as having the authority of a school mistress. Too true.

Foreboding: The hints and whispers as to who the Time Lord agent is were excellent, the extra room in the cupboard under the stairs, the six white plastic cards in Simpson’s room…The cliffhanging ending when Simpson discovers the code to Compassion’s randomiser and thus allowing the Time Lords to track her ends the book on the perfect foreboding note…

Twists: The bloodcurdling opening chapter sets the scene beautifully for the horror to come. The first person narration from two POVs is a stroke of genius and evokes a sense of period atmosphere that other historical novels lack. The tension is built brilliantly through the experiment so when the machinery goes up in flames and consumes Richard Harries’ life has the perfect impact it should. Banquo Manor is described in such vivid detail it practically becomes a character in its own right. The interrogation scene between Stratford and Hopkinson is told from both of their points of view and proves to be a fascinating psychological exercise. Hopkinson has a gross out dream about being stabbed in the eye. The Doctor’s ‘death’ is clearly staged but Fitz’s vicious reaction makes you believe it is real. Stratford’s ‘Poirot’ moment where he strolls around the suspects with his pet theories is brilliantly written, all the threads coming together satisfactorily. The fact that Hopkinson was responsible for Harries’ death and that we didn’t have a clue even though we have been experiencing 50% of the book from his POV is the work of an extremely talented author (the much underrated Justin Richards). The Wallace’s are discovered dead together, Elisabeth head peeling stickily from the wall (eugh). I loved the moment when Stratford thought the animated Harries was the murderer in a costume, it was beautiful when he realised the truth… There is a marvellous Doctor Who cliffhanger in the middle of the climax where Catherine Harries steps out from the shadows and reveals she was in control of her zombie brother all along (bwahaha!). Simpson’s reveal as the Time Lord agent isn’t such a huge shock but the fact that he has been using the rats to spy on everyone was. Harries’ dismemberment by dynamite was the perfect climax to the grisly climax. Somebody had to go, to make the struggle worthwhile but it saddened me that it had to be the very sweet Baker.

Funny bits: The 18th Century reaction to Compassion’s clinical nature was hilarious.

Result: I’m so glad this came along when it did, a complex and compelling read, the penultimate book of the Stephen Cole edited era and helping to round it off with some real style. It reminds me of one of those rare TV Doctor Who stories where everything comes together… and not a foot is placed wrong here from the mix of authors, the choice of narrative device, the pace, the setting, the plot, the gorgeous descriptive prose…it is a pleasure to read from the very first page. The amount of detail is extraordinary and the 18th Century is brewed up with atmospheric ease, I loved every single one of the characters and the horror content lives up to its name beautifully. The first two thirds are like the best Agatha Christie story ever written and the last third is pure Doctor Who madness done with real verve and nastiness. And the fact that it segues into the ongoing EDA arc unobtrusively but pushing along the plot and leaving you desperate to read the next book is the icing on the cake: 10/10

Monday, 21 December 2009

Warlock by Andrew Cartmel

Plot: The Doctor and Benny do absolutely nothing, Ace sits on a chair for 200 pages and a bunch of nasty and depressive nobodies spend a lot of time pontificating. Oh and some really nasty stuff gets done to animals…

Master Manipulator: The Doctor really does not contribute a single thing to this book. He is supposedly behind the scenes pulling the strings but really he sends Benny to New York, loses Ace and sits at home whilst everybody suffers. About two thirds through he decides to seek out Vincent and Justine but even that comes to nothing. It’s as though Cartmel just could not be bothered to write the little fella in. I’ve heard people comment that his presence can be felt on every page of this book but I did not get this feeling at all. He just wasn’t there. People die and suffer incredible torment and the Doctor just sits back and lets it all happen. When Vincent sees the Doctor in the back garden he tries to run from him – when did the Doctor become the villain in his own series? His handwriting reveals that he is ambidextrous, English is his second language and he isn’t very tall. He openly talks about his manipulation of Vincent and Justine in Warhead.

Boozy Babe: Benny takes a trip to New York, takes some drugs and comes back again. Seriously this is a real waste of some marvellous characters. I guess her reveal as Miss Witerhill makes are calmness and purity of character during the Warlock cop hunt quite impressive.

Oh Wicked: Ace still sleeps with her gun – old habits die hard. Now and then she gets stirrings for a baby.

Clearly Cartmel is not interested in writing a Doctor Who book, or certainly not one with the current TARDIS team. The small glimpses at them in the text reveal he actually has a good grasp of what makes them tick but he is far more interested in Creed, Vincent and Justine. A shame.

Twists: The thought of the Doctor, Benny and Ace helping a cat give birth in the wee small hours is lovely. The opening scenes compare Ace to the grace and alertness of a cat, they are superbly written – the POV of the cat is especially interesting and well observed (spoken as a proud cat owner). My heart skipped a beat when Chick was kidnapped. Pages 112-114 is quite a reasonable debate about which drugs are legalised and which drugs are criminalized – I’m just not sure why it is in a Doctor Who book. Chapter 12 following Creed on a particularly depressing trip around his house captures the pain of loss beautifully. The end of chapter 13 is horrific in its implications. Vincent is a weapon in human form, amplifying and directing human pain at a target. Vincent experiencing the old mans life is a surprisingly uplifting moment in a truly bleak novel. Pages 227-234 are just superb, the power of Vincent, gathered from the raw hatred Bowman has of his wife, creates a ball of fire that sweeps through the streets roasting people alive and destroys Canterbury Cathedral. Pam comes to the extraordinary conclusion that animals have been inhabited by human minds and takes up her despicable brothers work…

Funny Bits: I rather liked the Cary Grant computer…

Embarrassing Bits: I began this book quite happy, the first chapter is a delightfully well observed piece of writing and I thought I was in for a fascinating commentary on animal behaviour. But as each chapter progress I grew more unhappy…I’m not sure how it happened but there is nothing wonderful in the world of the New Adventures at this point – it has taken far too many steps into the adult world and is revelling in human (and now animal) misery for me to take any enjoyment from it. Being a Doctor Who fan during this period is just no fun. There were a number of elements I could have done without ever appearing in a Doctor Who book and when I mentioned them to my partner Simon (he wanted to know why I kept grumbling whilst I was reading) he asked why anybody would want to write about this sort of terror anyway, let alone in a Doctor Who book.

Here we have got the joys of coke being snorted from a porn magazine, drug dealers being spiked with an alien drug which ends in a horrific bloodbath of a shootout, a 3 year old covered in sores surrounded by dead needles, a character who enjoys torturing and murdering animals, a character attempting to resist the seductive powers of a Warlock pill, faked incest and child abuse, a mouse baby’s head jutting from the side of its mothers ruptured side, a bin full of baby mouse heads, a moment when a human character cannot resist humping a dog up the backside, “Kill her baby and put her to work in the heavy S&M section”, Chick being tortured and injected to death, “scraping out the lining of your womb”, smashing a cats head on a bench, the destruction of a happy marriage and a devastated husband abandoned by his wife…it is a relentless stream of human misery. Quite unsuited to a series about a character who travels around time and space in a police box. Most of this book is just horrible.

Not only that there is practically no plot to speak of. 365 pages makes this one of the longest Doctor Who books but only because the font is massive and we spend most of the book discovering the depressing secondary characters every thought. Whilst this makes for some vivid characterisation, it makes for a really slow moving narrative. Bernice heads to New York to steal some data on Warlock only to be summoned back. The middle 100 pages find the book in a holding pattern – the Doctor plots, Benny does nothing of consequence, Ace is locked up and Creed drowns in self pity…

…and the conclusion does not feel as if any justice has been dished out. The lab is shut down and Pam and Tommy are slaughtered…but it isn’t enough for what the characters have been through. I wanted these people to suffer but everybody got away far too easily. Not only that we close the book on Shell dead, Jack still in the mind of a dog, Vincent heartbroken and Warlock still on the streets…nothing is accomplished and nobody is happy. Is this a commentary on how depressing life can really be?

Result: A shockingly bleak book. Nothing could have prepared me for my reaction to Warlock, a 365 page animal rights thriller pretending to be a Doctor Who book. Andrew Cartmel has an incredible talent, this book is expertly written throughout by a man who can make you feel for his characters…but he wastes his incredible talent on a thoroughly miserable and plotless novel. I adore animals and have two cats of my own so the subject matter truly struck a chord with me and certain scenes told from the point of view of our furry friends were astonishingly good. The book seems to revel in the nastiness of animal experimentation and human misery but shies away when it comes to dishing out punishment and resolving its problems leaving me feeling disheartened and cheated. Creed, Vincent and Justine all spring from the page as living, breathing people but I really wouldn’t want to hang with any of them. The Doctor, Ace and Benny might as well have not been included at all. The New Adventures Depression reaches its height. Anyone feeling suicidal yet?: 4/10

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Imperial Moon by Chris Bulis

Plot: Victorian rockets…on the moon? Apparently so and the Doctor and Turlough stumble across a scheme from the deadly Vrall to conquer the Earth…
Fair Fellow: Yaaaaaawn. Why can’t anybody do anything interesting with the fifth Doctor? He comes across as such a dull fellow in print I find it difficult to muster any enthusiasm for him at all. Admittedly this is a Christopher Bulis novel and after his initial fifth Doctor book (The Ultimate Treasure) I should have been well aware that this would be like watching paint dry but even so, there is little here beyond the generic Doctor mould. He spouts out scientific gobbledegook, he berates his companions, he ingratiates himself with authority and he saves the day…its all very bland and vanilla ice cream. I cannot think of one moment where the Doctor did anything particularly clever or exciting, even atomising every Vrall is obvious. Some people might try and suggest the Doctor saving the day in such a violent method fits perfectly into season 21 where the Doctor was continually running out of options but frankly I may have been asleep at that point. Isn’t that sad?

Devious Youth: Turlough doesn’t entirely trust Kamelion and finds him an unsettling companion. He feels as though there is something missing in his life and that he won’t find his place in the universe until he cuts off the ties from his past. There are strong hints that he is a virgin but that his sexually is blossoming, his almost romance with Lytalia is sweet and allows us to see a new side to this typically devious character. Unfortunately before this relationship can really go anywhere he discovers the woman of his affections is a brain muncher. I hate it when that happens. Bizarrely enough it Turlough seems to be under the impression that he doesn’t know where he comes from or where his homeworld is but then astonishing in Planet of Fire he suddenly knows everything! Foreboding: Turlough suggest going somewhere warmer at the end of this book which (possibly) leads in to Planet of Fire.

Twists: Okay, okay…Victorian rockets on the moon…at first I thought this would be a weird parallel dimension story but shockingly Bulis manages to pull this off in our reality. I love the idea that the Victorians could have the imagination and the ability to reach the moon and it finally makes good use of Kamelion to have him impersonate Prince Albert and convince the Queen to end the project for good. The time safe is a nice idea, putting things away for prior use! The artificial safari park on the moon is just odd enough to work, especially with corpses hanging from fronds and giant spiders chasing our heroes! Encountering beautiful alien exiled from their homeworld only furthers the B-movie nature of the book. The Doctor allowing the warden to die is quite a sweet move, stepping the book up a gear into self-destruct territory. The Doctor nearly dies when expelled to the surface of the moon but is rescued by Kamelion. Turlough’s girlfriend is revealed to be a Vrall and acquired her knowledge of humankind by eating Granby’s brains! We discover the British were lured to the Moon deliberately, the Vrall want them to lead them to a new feeding area…the Earth! I liked it when the action moved back down to Earth, putting the Queen in danger is far more interesting than Bulis’ tedious secondary characters. In a bloody ending the Doctor and Turlough wipe out all of the invading aliens before they can break in to the mess and start feeding.
Funny bits: “What’s the point of having a shape shifting android around if we never use him?”

Embarrassing Bits: The diary sequences at the beginning are really boring, written in a dry cod-Victorian manner with no sense of imagination or humour. How could nobody realise that the aliens would turn out to be bad?

Result: A shockingly bad B-movie style Doctor Who adventure with very little to recommend. In the hands of another author this could have been charming and imaginative but weighed down with Bulis’ depressingly dull prose Imperial Moon sinks like a rock. Just look at the contents: brain eating aliens, flying saucers, giant spiders…gosh how long did it take you think all that up Chris? Add to the ‘excitement’ some pretty uninvolving guest characters (and a couple of really boring romances) and a severe lack of surprises and you have what is easily the weakest book in ages. There are different stages of bad. Some have been badly written but fun. Others are well written but dull. This is just pure ambivalence: 3/10

The Space Age by Steve Lyons

Plot: There’s a war taking place in a futuristic city, a bizarre occurrence when it seems to be between the Mods and Rockers gangs from the 1960’s. The Doctor and Fitz find them caught up in the conflict and Compassion stands about for a bit…

Top Doc: Described as a wise old man and a mischievous child. He fears the Makers because Time is an irrelevancy to them. He is clearly loving the chance to play the hero here, jumping in and getting involved. He’s still dealing with losing the TARDIS by immersing himself in other people’s issues. I cannot believe he tries out the same riddles he tried to fox BOSS with in The Green Death and Davros in Destiny of the Daleks! He’s an extremely cheerful chap in this book and is prone to some horrid soap boxing speeches. It’s not the best interpretation of his character because he is pretty redundant to the book overall but the excitement and gentleness he radiates is McGann to a tee.

Scruffy Git: A bit useless all told. He has fallen into the Sam Jones school of companion roles…getting locked up and escape ad nauseam! You would think that in a book that concentrates on the atmosphere of the sixties that Fitz would be beautifully characterised throughout but aside from some nice pleasant interaction with the Mods/Rockers (with some excellent cod-sixties dialogue) he is pretty unmemorable. He still feels uneasy with Compassion and tries to think of her as an object to make travelling around in her feel less awkward. Still there’s no romance for the guy, which makes a nice change!

Stroppy Redhead: She’s showing off more abilities these days, such as her senses probing into dimensions the rest of us cannot see and being able to link with people an ease their pain. In one beautiful sequence we see her show Fitz a number of possible fates for one character, sharing the Doctor’s weird ability to predict the future of peoples lives. This would all be worthy additions to Compassion’s character were she not stolen from the book for 60% of its length. As if to highlight this error, Mr Lyons has her literally stand around and do nothing.

Twists: Fitz gets a knife in the chest! That was the only real moment that shocked me…the following category could possibly be included under the twist list too but they are twists so mind numbingly awful I could not include them here…

Embarrassing moments: The Mods and the Rockers transplanted into the future…what a load of old tosh. Sandra and Alec just happened to stumble across the Maker and he just happened to create the futuristic city for them? It’s good we have this co-incidence or we wouldn’t have this book (more’s the pity!). Rick just happens to be Sandra’s son and the new boss of the Mods! Gah you couldn’t make this **** up! The Mods and the Rockers have forgotten what they are fighting about…why bother then? They give up the fight just like that to take on the Makers! The Makers give these violent idiots a choice to travel into the future and make a mess of that too! The most brilliant bit of nonsense in the whole book is when you realise the original Maker has set the planet to self destruct (I know it’s a bit more complicated than that but that is what it basically boils down too…)…talk about trying to shoe horn some desperate tension into the book.

Result: Oh. My. God. This rubbed me up the wrong from the first scene and coming from the usually reliable pen of Steve Lyons it is a double shock. The premise is ridiculous and the book is full of stupid, illogical twists, the characterisation is poor (The Sandra/Alec thing could really have been exploited but it felt really unnatural) and the regulars barely register. There were a few moments where I perked up, mostly when Compassion turned up, even muted as she is here she pisses over all the other characters. This should have thrown in the slag heap the second it hit Steve Lyons desk, the prose is basic, storyline prosaic and considering its placing (in a pretty decent run of books) it sticks out like a sore thumb. Something could have been made of the Makers but not attached to this plot. One of the weakest EDAs I have read yet: 1/10

Friday, 18 December 2009

Parasite by Jim Mortimore

Plot: Welcome to the Artifact, a galaxy sized organism ready to drop… The Doctor, Benny and Ace explore the world and find it quite different from anywhere they have visited before. An organism so alien it poisons human life and absorbs them into its cycle to reproduce…

Master Manipulator: The poor Doctor is really going through the grinder of late. What’s more he is kept from the action again! The Artifact attempts to absorb the Doctor’s intelligence so he falls into a life saving coma. Stressing the awesome power of the Artifact, we get a brief glimpse of the eighth Doctor as a spore infection triggers his seventh regeneration. A truly heart stopping moment. When curious, delightful, strange and dangerous float around the Doctor he ponders that in a previous incarnation he would have spent hours studying them. He likes to think that he transcends fashion. When Ace ploughs an air buggy into a creature to save him he is horrified: ‘Something in this place knows my mind and wants it. Its out there now, hunting me. Whatever it was might have provided me with answers. Not anymore.’ Ace admits she has never seen such a look of pure terror on his face. He can survive a bullet through the heart, if he reacts quickly enough. You’ve gotta love how the Doctor diagnoses Benny’s wound as fatal, gives her a pill and tells her to come back and see him in the morning.

Boozy Babe: What can I say? The horror that has been inflicted on Bernice over the last two books goes beyond misogynistic, past sadism…into a nightmare of pain. Look at what she enjoys here, a fracture of the skull, drilled in the head, an incubator for a parasite, poisoned and hot with fever. She also eats a creatures she murders and witnesses more orgy’s of violence and murder. Just another day in the TARDIS. A shame because her initial reaction to the Artifact is one of pure wonder, flying away from the TARDIS to explore this most alien of environments. A year ago Bernice would not have trusted Ace as far as she could throw an elephant but times change and so do people. Now they have a lovely, relaxed chemistry – the sort they should have enjoyed after No Future. Was the Doctor becoming more human in his outlook and attitudes or was Benny becoming more alien? An archaeologist and anthropologist, Bernice knew the one universal constant of intelligent life anywhere in the universe besides the invention of income tax was religion. A young Bernice could not bond with her foster parents and ran off to a monastery on Olundrun VII but the Monks would not associate with her and her corrupting ways. She was almost driven mad over six weeks knowing that sanctuary was nearby.

Oh Wicked: More ammunition for Ace’s growing desire to leave. It would finally seem that Ace is growing up, accepting that this life of constant pain is not going to get her anywhere (except possibly an early grave) and that she needs to head off on her own and find her own destiny. She is calling the Doctor Professor again. Imagining herself back in Perivale again after years of travelling the universe was a nightmare that still plagued her occasionally. Being with the Doctor is coming to be a pain in the ass. It might be time to move on soon. She’d done it before, she could do it again. Somehow though, she knew it would be different this time. This time, if she left, it would be to follow her own destiny. It would be forever. Ace gets to sample the delights of radiation poisoning and parasites bursting from her skin.

Foreboding: Obviously Ace’s thoughts of departure, which have been running through several books now…

Twists: Green’s reaction to the Artifact mirrored my own: rolling seas above his head, abundant life forms, giant mushrooms, monkey colonies, living planets… A world turned inside out, a helical accretion of stellar matter containing a complex ecological system. Its internal surface area is bigger than all the planets and moons in the Elysium system put together. The Space octopuses were great, especially the one that lands on Benny’s arm and starts gorging on it. Once they have the taste of blood they start hunting them! Ace catapults herself into the air! The shuttle explosion and crash is phenomenally rendered on the page. Ace almost drowns on page 90 and I was struggling for air myself! Page 145 – the city of the builders is breathtakingly written. The idea of the Doctor trying to get the Artifact to expel its dead egg to become a new world for the species living inside is brilliant. Bannen shooting the Doctor is a genuinely shocking moment. The ending of the novel, suggesting the death of an entire system is about par for the course for such a ‘knife at the wrist’ novel.

Embarrassing Bits:
Cheer up Jim! What is this obsession with death and destruction and pain and blood and tearing flesh and poison and bones splintering and screaming and nightmares and burning and drowning and shooting and fractures and parasites and terror and fear and sweat and drills in the head and deadly life forms and crushing and breaking and bursting and snapping and melting and suffocation and constricting, never ending, terrifying pain pain pain pain pain pain pain PAIN PAIN PAIN. Imagine a space filled with the bodies of fictional characters Mortimore has slaughtered. A universal morgue.

I just don’t get it when there is so much wonder out there…

Result: Probably the most alien environment we are ever likely to visit in print is squandered on a book that jettisons wonder in its first third and revels in pain. The first 100 pages flew by, I was absorbed by the breadth of detail and imagery Mortimore utilized to create the Artifact. This is an author who is far less interested in people and far more interested in ideas and a creature that can lay planet sized eggs spawning beings that can annihilate worlds is pure Mortimore. Unfortunately this is not a piece of SF art but a novel and the shoulder shrugging sadism inflicted on the characters did not sit well with me. Halfway through I was yawning at the dizzying surrealism and sickness, a plot which refuses to emerge because the author is having fun messing with your head. Can’t these New Adventures do anything with the regulars but torture them horribly? No wonder Ace is thinking of moving on! Sitting Parasite back to back with Falls the Shadow means we have suffered 600 pages of torture, pain and death. Both books have displayed tons of ambition and some unforgettable moments but drown in their orgy of death. Oh well, maybe we will get some light relief up next…: 5/10

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Prime Time by Mike Tucker

Plot: The Doctor and Ace are set up to take part in the most exciting broadcasting phenomena ever, Doctor When. To up their viewing figures they are put through some terrible trials, old enemies, new monsters and lot of running around…all broadcast to the salivating population

Master Manipulator: At the beginning of the book the Doctor is uncommunicative and serious and it is starting to nark Ace. Ever since his tussle with the Master on the Cheetah Planet the TARDIS has felt more than a ship, it had felt like home. A hero of mythic proportions? The Doctor says he might be a girl, someday. There is a lovely scene that sees the seventh Doctor investigating the aerial on the desolate surface of the moon, the light spilling out from the TARDIS (it reminds me of the cover of Timewyrm: Revelation, except with no dancing skeletons). Who on Earth would take the Doctor seriously on the telly in a question mark pullover? He is used to making complicated plans, it felt unusual to be so in the dark. He and the Master had been friends for so long, enemies even longer. He has always been more at home in corridors. There is a wonderful slant to the book that sees the Doctor questioning whether he could let the Master die but soon realises that he cannot, despite everything and then finds himself in the even more difficult situation of having to trust him or die. Some part of him wants the Master to get a new body, then that overwhelming drive would leave him and he could have some measure of peace. The Doctor had seen so many horrors in the universe, been presented with unspeakable cruelty but the flesh bank of the Fleshsmiths would continue to haunt him for a long time to come. So many innocents in need of a saviour. So many innocents that he could not save. The best he could offer them was death and there had already been far too many deaths on his conscience. Completing quite a nice package for the seventh Doctor, he sums up his televisual existence with a cutting last minute speech after he has defeated Lukos: “I live my life my own way, and I wont be forced into a mould that someone thinks I should be fitted into. I cannot be standardised, or compartmentalised, or Hollywoodised. I will not be written against type or censored. In short, I am a broadcasting phenomenon. There is nothing else like me. I am unique, and you haven’t handled me properly.” It is only in the shocking final scene that you realise just how much the Doctor cares for Ace, he finds her grave and stows her coffin on board the TARDIS, promising to defy Time and stop it happening.

Oh Wicked: It is a far less troublesome time for Ace for the most part until she is put on a show of her own, This Was Your Life. Here she learns that her mother would die alone and wishing her daughter would get in touch. Then she is shown her own grave, live on TV! She thinks the Doctor and her had worked together well for many months. Travelling through time, she often forgets her birthday. Alien food was always something of a lottery for Ace. She was the perfect companion in many ways, never complaining, rarely getting herself in to trouble that she cannot get herself out of but her boundless enthusiasm can get a little wearying.

Foreboding: The last scene leaves the Tucker/Perry Doctor/Ace arc on a real cliffhanger, Ace is dead and it will happen soon in the future. See also Embarrassing bits.

Twists: The Doctor is something of a celebrity in the universe, his part in the Coralee affair is known far and wide. The reveal of new reality TV show Doctor When is a great moment, especially because I was having a lot of difficulty figuring out just where the story was going until that point! See the Doctor engineered into a scenario he will find impossible to resist…transmitted into every home! Lukos wants to steal the TARDIS so he can go throughout time and film ratings winning events such as the birth of Jesus and the Big Bang. The reveal of the Master is another great shock. Never saw that one coming! Greg waking up without his legs facing Eeji’s disembodied head is certainly memorable. The Master is after a new body; the Fleshsmiths created one for him but betrayed him. Considering her future in the New Adventures, the news of Ace’s imminent death is another good shock. In another grotesque sequence we get to see into the flesh banks, a vault of hanging bodies, limbs sheared away and hanging like vines, Ice Warriors, Draconians, Ogrons… The Fleshsmiths are using Channel 400 programmes to carry a deconstructive enzyme, an agent that will break down flesh into a transmittable form. When the viewing figures reach their maximum it will trigger the enzyme, activate the transmitters and the flesh banks will be filled with raw, fresh material. However, Lukos is double double-crossing them, he knows of their plans and is planning to stop them and thus get political power for Channel 400. The Master tears out a Zzinbrizzi throat with his fangs. The Doctor in agony, thousand needles puncturing his skin, pipes pulsing with blood…it is a terrifying image until you realise it is a clone and it melts, introducing a biological agent into the Fleshsmiths that sees them all melt away and die. The Master watches furiously as his new body bubbles and melts.

Funny bits: Mike Tucker makes a couple of cracking digs at TV and Doctor Who:
Ace: “You’re a presenter of a new line of children’s TV programmes.”
“Giving gullible members of the populace a few fleeting moments of fame and very little money has proven elegantly profitable and the brain dead masses watch in their millions.” Hahahaha!
Having the cliffhanger at the end of part engineered so beautifully recalls Vengeance on Varos, but in a good way.
Its rather amusing to see how much we are manipulated into getting excited and then the sudden reveal of the Master…excitement!
There is a great gag about swearing on page 97.
The 7th Doctor: “He’s a ham. All that overblown emotion, it’s a performance of the lowest possible quality – he gabbles his lines and emphasises in all the wrong places! No star quality” Oh my God that is brilliant!“
The hiatus in the Doctor’s adventures will only serve to increase our audience share.”

Embarrassing bits: Aside from the regulars (which includes the Master), characterisation is thinner than Weight Watchers soup. Whilst the ending is fantastic it is not followed up until three years later! By then we had all forgotten what the fuss was all about.

Result: Forget the loose prose and lack of characterisation; this is an entertaining adventure. Admittedly it is a huge step down from the previous group of books but what this book has in spades is the ability to twist and surprise. Mike Tucker has constructed a fun story around three great shock moments (the Doctor’s reality TV show! The Master! Ace is dead!) and they keep the story moving, striking a few punches against both Doctor Who and television in general along the way. It is interesting to see the Master involved but not as the villain of the piece and whilst we are not approaching anywhere near the potential of his character it is nice to not have him hamming it up with some ridiculous scheme and just an intruiging supporting character. The Fleshsmiths are a great notion too and their flesh bank is disgusting. There is some padding and if you pulled a thread it would fall apart at the seams but for once literature is not what is sought, simply a good, fun read: 6/10

Friday, 27 November 2009

Steve Lyons Q & A

It is unsurprising that Steve Lyons books stand out at the top of Doctor Who novel polls; his work is widely recognised as being extremely polished, well written and having lots to say about the period they are written. He made an instant name for himself with the wickedly clever and funny Conundrum, following that up with the bitingly satirical Head Games. Time of Your Life and Killing Ground were both viciously dramatic books with a refreshingly nasty take on the sixth Doctor. His work for BBC Books proved he hadn’t lost his bite, The Witch Hunters and The Crooked World are widely considered the best of their respective ranges. Playing against the cuddly beginnings of the range, Steve wrote a clever and intelligent New Series Adventure with some superb twists. His non fiction books have proven a great success too, I laughed myself silly with his Completely Useless Encyclopaedia (and the Star Trek one was hilarious too!) and the Red Dwarf and Blackadder guides were informative and great fun too. Proving that no media can beat him, he has conquered the world of Big Finish audios too giving us a Bonnie Langford story that is truly dramatic, a chilling vampire tale and kick started the eighth Doctor audio adventures on BBC7 with some considerable style too.

Steve, thank you so much for your time.

How did you come to be involved with the New Adventures? Were you reading them yourself? You got to tackle the infamous New Ace in your first book, was this a hindrance to your novel or did you find that her emotional state worked well within the confines of the book?
Yeah, I was reading the New Adventures, though I was submitting proposals for them even before the first one came out.

I was never a great fan of New Ace, to be honest, but she certainly wasn’t a hindrance to my book. As I remember it, Peter Darvill-Evans wanted to resolve the animosity between Ace, Bernice and the Doctor by the end of ‘No Future’, the novel after mine, and we talked about how that was all going to pan out, so I ended up with quite a clear direction in which to take the character, which is always nice.

Head Games has come in for some strong criticism in the past but in the wake of the New Adventures it seems to have developed a far more positive reaction. There are so many questions I would like to ask about this novel…what were your aims in writing this one? What was the purpose of brining Mel back, to highlight the changes that have occurred since the NAs began or to condemn them? What on Earth is going on inside the Doctor’s head? Is the sixth Doctor really chained up in there…or are these the current Doctor’s fictional delusions?
‘Head Games’ was my one big ‘continuity agenda’ book. I suppose it’s something that most writers who are also fans have to get out of their systems! It was actually reviewed pretty well when it first came out – but then fandom got it into its collective head that all continuity was bad and had destroyed the TV series, and I watched ‘Head Games’ plummeting in the online polls. As you say, it’s had a bit of a resurgence over the past few years, perhaps because the new series has proved that you can use continuity without alienating your audience.
I certainly didn’t want to condemn the changes that had taken place in the New Adventures. I just thought it would be interesting to see how Mel reacted to their version of the Doctor, given that he had become so different to any version we’d seen on TV. The other companions in that book represent a range of other opinions, with Roz Forrester being the most supportive of the NA Doctor and Benny being somewhere in the middle. Myself, I tried not take sides.

As for what’s happening in the Doctor’s head, you’ll have to ask Paul Cornell about that one because I was really just following his lead from ‘Timewyrm: Revelation’. Personally, no, I don’t think his other selves are literally running around in there, just that sometimes it must feel like that to him.

Given both books influences, what are your thoughts on The Mind Robber?
Not surprisingly, I love ‘The Mind Robber’. It was one of the first black and white Doctor Who stories I ever saw, back at a Local Group meeting in 1987, and it’s really stuck with me. I like it when Doctor Who tries to do something a bit different.

Tells us something about your opinion of the sixth Doctor. Time of Your Life has been described as paranoid, toxic and disturbing, showing the bloody consequences of travel with the 6th Doctor. Is that a fair assessment? Did you have a statement to make with this book? Killing Ground feels much more grounded, a dramatic take on the Cybermen and introducing Grant Markham to the mainstream audience. Did you have fun with these two elements?
That is probably a fair assessment. I always liked the idea of the Sixth Doctor’s character, the whole unstable regeneration thing, but I was frustrated by the way it was handled. I’ve no problem with the Sixth Doctor, for example, pushing someone into an acid bath, but it would be nice if the series – probably through the voice of Peri – had actually questioned such actions rather than appearing to support them.

So, yeah, I very much wanted to explore that whole issue of the Sixth Doctor’s violent streak, and that just naturally gelled with the meta-issue of television violence that reared its head again during Season Twenty-Two, and that was my starting point for ‘Time of Your Life’.
I originally proposed ‘Time of Your Life’ as an introductory book for Mel, but Rebecca Levene wasn’t keen on doing that, I can’t remember why, and she suggested giving the Doctor a new companion instead, which of course I was delighted to do – and yes, I did enjoy having the chance to flesh out Grant Markham a bit by taking him home in ‘Killing Ground’.

The Cybermen are my favourite monsters, and I really wanted a crack at writing them, although I waited to get three books under my belt before I dared suggest that to Virgin. I wanted to really look at this idea of their converting human beings into monsters like themselves, as at that point it hadn’t been explored much on screen.

Jumping ahead to the Past Doctor Adventures, were the authors involved in the Virgin range asked to contribute or was it submission time again?
A bit of both. The BBC wrote to the Virgin authors asking us to send in submissions. I sent two – one cyber-punky New Adventures type novel and one very traditional Target-style novel, because I didn’t know which direction the BBC were going to jump in. They turned down the former, and accepted the latter, which became ‘ The Murder Game’.

The Witch Hunters is an extremely popular book. Are you happy with how it turned out and public reaction? Was it hard to write such a tense and fatalistic book? Was it easy to translate the characters of the first Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan to print?

Yes, I’m very pleased with the way ‘The Witch Hunters’ turned out, and with the reaction to it. If ever there was One Book I Always Wanted to Write, ‘The Witch Hunters’ is it. I’d actually submitted it three times to Virgin – twice as a New Adventure and once as a Past Doctor Adventure in pretty much the same form that it eventually saw print – and I’d had it rejected three times, but remained convinced that it would work. In the end, it was a very good thing that I got to write it as my sixth novel rather than my first, because it was a difficult one to write and it helped that I had some experience by then. It wasn’t so much the fatalism that made it hard, more the sheer depth of the historical detail that I had to deal with. Unlike, say, the last days of Pompeii, we know so much about what went on in Salem in 1692 that I was terrified of writing almost anything in case I got it wrong! Sometimes it felt like I couldn’t go two sentences without having to get out a book and look up some odd detail.

The First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan on the other hand were a gift. I found them some of the easiest Doctor Who characters to capture in print because their characters are so well-defined on screen.

Was The Murder Game a specific attempt to write a lighter novel? Are Polly and Ben hopelessly in love? You wrote the introduction of Dodo to the range not long after Daniel O’Mahony and David Bishop finished her off…do you think the books are a good way of fleshing out the lesser liked companions? Which were your favourite set of regulars to write for?
‘The Murder Game’, as I mentioned above, was an attempt to write more of a Target book style novel, something that I could imagine having been a TV serial in the 60s (It’s a five-parter, with cliffhangers at the end of every third chapter). I wanted to do that partly as a reaction to the Virgin policy of rejecting anything that ‘could have been done on TV’. The whole rad/trad debate was in full swing, then, and it did feel as if a lot of people had turned away from the books because they didn’t remind them all that much of Doctor Who on the telly. I wanted to write a book that did. Oh, and because Paul Cornell had said it would be impossible to do a Troughton base under siege story in the 90s, and I wanted to prove him wrong!

A lot of Doctor Who writers like to write for their favourite Doctor/companion teams. I prefer to write for those characters who perhaps never had their full potential tapped on TV – like Dodo, yes, and also Mel and the Sixth Doctor. I think those untapped characters can give you a lot more scope for doing something new. Having said that, I wanted to write Ben and Polly too, because they are my favourite companions. I zeroed in on the issue of their feelings for each other because it’s something about which there had been a lot of speculation, but that the TV series in the sixties would never have tackled.

I think Ben and Polly probably had a bit of a fling after leaving the TARDIS, but unlike Ian and Barbara for some reason I don’t think I see them ending up together in the long term.

You had the opportunity to write for the pre and post amnesiac eighth Doctor. Which appealed to you more? Fitz and Compassion or Fitz and Anji? The Crooked World was a great chance to tell a fun and poignant standalone story…can you tell us something about how this memorable novel came about.
I came into the post-amnesiac Eighth Doctor arc a bit late, so the amnesia itself wasn’t really an issue by then and I treated him as more or less the same character he had been in ‘The Space Age’, maybe a little more sombre. I’d choose Fitz and Anji over Fitz and Compassion because, while Compassion was certainly a brave attempt at doing something different, I didn’t feel that we had much to go on with her, character-wise. There was also that danger of her becoming a walking deus ex machine. Oh, and her entire story arc changed while I was writing ‘The Space Age’, but no one thought to tell me. Originally, Compassion was meant to become gradually less human and more TARDIS-like over the course of several books, which is why she spends half of ‘The Space Age’ just standing around, staring into space. Anji was a more rounded character, and she was perfect for ‘The Crooked World’ because I could have her desperately trying to apply her logic to the crazy situation around her.

‘The Crooked World’ was born on a panel at a Gallifrey convention in LA. For some reason, I was talking about Scooby-Doo, and Justin Richards said he’d be interested in a novel in which the Doctor and Scooby-Doo met. At first, the idea was to bring Scooby-type characters into the Doctor’s world somehow, but after thinking about this for a while I realised that I was more interested in doing the opposite. I’d recently seen the film Pleasantville, and loved the premise but had some issues with the execution, and with the moral that the film was pushing. Suddenly, I had an opportunity to tell a story with similar themes but to tell it the way that I thought it should be told.

The Stealers of Dreams dealt with some weighty issues for its target audience. Were you determined not to dumb down your novel? Are you proud to be one of very few authors to tackle the bovver boy ninth Doctor? Looking back on Russell T Davies’ tenure what do you think were the strengths and weaknesses to his approach?
I wasn’t asked to dumb down ‘The Stealers of Dreams’, so I didn’t. However, the New Series Adventures are a lot shorter than their predecessors, so obviously there isn’t room for them to be as ‘broad and deep’ as the Who books used to be. A New Adventures version of ‘The Stealers of Dreams’ would have four or five more characters in it, and I’d have had to have found other aspects of the planet’s society to explore. Whether that would have enhanced the novel or whether it would just have been padding, I’m not sure…

I am very pleased to have written the Ninth Doctor, if only to complete the set! I wouldn’t mind another crack at him, actually, now that I know the character better. I had to start writing ‘The Stealers of Dreams’ after seeing only the first episode of the new series, so I really had to work on the regular characters as I went along, going back and rewriting their dialogue after each new episode aired.

Looking back on Russell T Davies’s tenure... I like the energy of it and the fact that it commits so whole-heartedly to the big ideas. We could easily have had a version of Doctor Who that kept the monsters off-screen, and in fact this was what I was expecting in 2005 (that’s why there are no visible monsters in ‘The Stealers of Dreams’!). I would like to see a bit more attention paid to the actual story, though, rather than just to the visuals – and especially to those plot resolutions!

Which of your novels would you hold up as the best example of your work? Alternatively which one do you think could do with another draft?
I think ‘The Crooked World’ is my best work. ‘The Witch Hunters’ has had a slightly better reception, but then I think that one gets a lift from being about real people. The book most in need of another draft is ‘Time of Your Life’, which needs to have a few characters cut from it, although I would like another pass at ‘Head Games’ too.

You have become quite prolific with your Big Finish audios with eight under your belt. Do you have any favourites of those you have written and why? The spin off series Sapphire and Steel and Gallifrey are such a blast…which was your favourite to write for? Is it true you were less than enthused when you heard the results of Colditz? Are you excited about the return of Klein to the series? Can you tell us something of the difference between approaching a novel and approaching an audio?
‘Son of the Dragon’, I think, is probably the best of my Doctor Who audios, though I’m still very fond of ‘The Fires of Vulcan’. My favourite Big Finish series to write for has been Sapphire & Steel. I’m not sure why, I just always loved that show and there’s something about the rhythm of the characters’ dialogue that appeals to my ear.

It is true that I was less than happy with certain elements of ‘Colditz’, and I really wish it had been sent back to the sound designers for just a few elements to be fixed before it was released. However, we did get the wonderful Tracey Childs playing Klein, and I’m really excited about her return. It’s something we’ve talked about several times over the past ten years and it’s never happened for one reason or another. I had just about accepted that it never would when suddenly we were back in the studio.

Writing an audio feels like a more concentrated process than writing a novel. You have far fewer words in which to tell the story, and you have to do it all in dialogue and sound effects, so you’re trying to do a lot of work with each line. I do enjoy writing audio scripts, though – I didn’t think I would at first, because as a novelist I was used to being my own director and cast, and I was nervous about handing over control of those elements. There’s something very wonderful, though, about hearing your script being brought to life by somebody else.

What can we look forward to in the future Steve?
I’m busy with my third Warhammer novel at the moment. Doctor Who-wise, I’ve been writing for the Doctor Who Adventures comic strip, which is a medium I love. There’s also my Klein audio, of course, which is out in March next year. It’s called ‘The Architects of History’, and as well as featuring Klein it also contains the Big Finish debut of a certain element from my novels…

Thank you again for your time.
No problem.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Coldheart by Trevor Baxendale

Plot: There are troubles ahead for the people of Eskon as the Doctor and company pay them a visit. Something terrible is brewing beneath the surface of their planet and threatening to contaminate the water supply of the desert environment and the violent slimers, genetic abhorrences, threaten to bring down the city…

Top Doc: Almost too generic to describe and yet perfectly recognisable as the Doctor. Whilst I feel we have lost the eighth Doctor for this book, the righteousness, eccentricities and humour are all spot on recognisable as the greatest hero ever known. He is described as having to go digging up dirt wherever he goes. The Doctor gets drunk on company, which he describes as the best way to get drunk because there’s no hangover. A Gallifreyan freak? Compassion seems to think so and her uniqueness attracts his attention wildly. Fits thinks he is distracting himself with other people’s problems to forget about the loss of his TARDIS. There is a fantastic moment where the Doctor visits a market and talks with people, samples the local produce and plays with the children…it reminds you of why he travels the universe in the first place and provides an excellent example of his explanation to Compassion at the climax. He shares his secret for enduring immortality, travelling, meeting people and staving off the borderm.

Scruffy Git: He is described as always pretending to be something he’s not. It is clear the Doctor is rubbing off on him in more ways than one and he is starting to emerge as a real hero of the people, he knows that some injustices cannot be tolerated. He considers the old TARDIS his home now and misses it. Described as human-normal. Ish. Florence is failed romance number ten but losing her is not really his fault considering she gets eaten by a ruddy great slug. Even Compassion notices he is no longer the self obsessed runt that he had been.

Stroppy Redhead: She thinks she is dead, because she cannot be hurt or killed. She is absolutely dumbstruck when Fitz tells her he has never considered her to be a woman. She finds herself questioning her allegiances here, wondering what is stopping her abandoning the Doctor and Fitz and striking out on her own but the truth is she is more scared of the Time Lords than she is being on her own. She tells the Doctor whatever he might have had with his old TARDIS he does not have with her. At one point Compassion describes herself as a walking, talking, dimensionally transcendental broom cupboard! There is a great moment at the climax where the Doctor questions whether she will save him or leave and they share a moment of understanding when she does the right thing and rescues him.

Twists: It is not until we get to the heart of the problem on Eskon that the book really surprises but then it kicks into high gear with scenes of rampaging slugs tearing through the Eskon community. There are a number of brilliant deaths, among them Garek (vomiting up snakes in black bile), Revan (torn to shreds by an explosion), Manag (melted by a steam generator, ‘the mucus covering his body sizzled like cooked fat…’), Anavolus (the sound of crunching bone as he is devoured) and best of all is how the Doctor deals with the problem of the Spulver worm, attracting it to Tor Grymna by warming up an explosive, it swallows him whole and the guy explodes inside its stomach! Genius! The scenes of the Spulver worms tearing through people’s homes are terrifying. The twist that it is the Spulver’s pus infecting the water is obvious but still disgusting.

Funny bits: There is a fantastic joke about the Timewyrm. Fitz and the Doctor are described as cancelling each other out, Fitz being geared for self-preservation and the Doctor well…not. Fitz smokes an alien cigarette and faints.

Embarrassing bits: This is a book that is trying desperately hard to shoehorn a traditional Doctor Who story into Lawrence Miles’ ultra trad universe. Whilst it pretty much succeeds on that level it feels desperately out of place. I take it back, the twist that the infection is in the water supply is really obvious as is the appearance of some nasty beneath the surface.

Result: Predictable and safe and yet somehow strangely likable, despite the feeling of laziness in the plotting and content it ticks all the right boxes for a ‘classic’ Doctor Who TV adventure (and lets face it, that’s what got us into this lark in the first place!). It is barely endowed with innovation and you can guess pretty much every single twist that’s coming, characterisation is pretty sketchy and the prose is nothing to shout home about but Trevor Baxendale clearly LOVES Doctor Who and his enthusiasm for his material is quite infectious. From no-where the last fifty pages are genuinely excellent, the book kicks into high gear, the deaths are extremely memorable and the plot is tied up very nicely. It is the weakest book for an age, which goes to show how good they have been lately because regardless of its unimaginativeness it is still enjoyable and passes the time: 6/10

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Falls the Shadow by Daniel O’Mahony

Plot: Pain! Torture! Mayhem! More pain! The Doctor, Ace and Benny are forced down into a house called Shadowfell, a mental asylum of twisted characters and traps. Whilst the Doctor steps out on the existential plane, Ace and Benny are tortured beyond tolerance by two angels…

Master Manipulator: Highlighting the best and the worst of the seventh Doctor, Falls the Shadow might possibly be the definitive seventh Doctor story. We get to see how much he loves his companions, how much they contribute to his life and how lost he is without them. We also experience him at his most impotent. Crushed and emotionally drained. It is no wonder he concludes the universe is no fun anymore.

When he thinks the TARDIS is dying, the Doctor is scared too. When he loses control of his ship the Doctor screams in near bestial rage, “This is my ship!” like a real alien. The Doctor’s eyes are defiant, reserved and patient. He sums up the book when he states, “There is something sick happening in this house.” Page 129 is a hallucinatory trip into the Doctor’s mind and is far more effective than any of his trips into cyberspace. He realises how much simpler things are through the eyes of a human being. His family are long gone. He has had so many friends, it was easy to let them go but so difficult to find them again. Sometimes he misses the warmth of belonging to single place but thinks he would be just as lonely there. The Doctor’s battle with the Daleks is described as: ‘At times the contest seems to be one to find which of you can display the least possible morality’. His reaction to Benny’s death is pure dumbstruck horror: “There must be guilt. And vengeance. And retribution. He admits to Ace in a quiet, defeated moment that he doesn’t know what to do. He asks if it would be better if he died. If that would be a good way out. The mere fact that he travels in time erases hundreds of futures.

Boozy Babe: Poor, poor Benny. What on Earth has she done to these NA writers to deserve this sort of treatment? She is literally pulled inside in this book, forced to endure physical and psychological torture, sucked dry by blood sucking tendrils, forced to swallow down blood, murdered and left to rot on a dying contraption. If I was her I would be demanding a refund and getting the first shuttle home. I realise it is great to push the companions to their limits, it really does reveal her true colours but her abuse is just obscene in this book.

At the beginning of the book there is a long and healthy description of Bernice’s physical aspect…something that is forgotten by many authors so it is good to get a decent visual description of what she looks like. She is mentally tortured; she is shown her past, someone at school that she hated and how, with a little prodding, she could have driven the splintered end of a piece of wood into their face. Turning a living being into an empty shell. She wouldn’t hurt a fly normally but she is capable of great violence. When Ace and Benny discover a cellar full of corpses and the face of a young boy crumbles to dust she collapses into a shrieking mess on the floor. Gabriel takes Benny to the edge of death until she feels bedtime existential terror she had never felt this close. She is forced to lick blood from Gabriel’s wound, drinking gutturally, like a first kiss. In the cold dread of death Benny tells Ace: “I loved travelling in the TARDIS. If you see the Doctor again, tell him that I loved him. He was a git but I loved him. And I loved you. Remember.” As a child Benny slept with death under her skin. She prefers alcohol and orgasms to killing.

Oh Wicked:
Whilst Ace does strut her stuff and act like the macho space bitch we all expect we really get under her skin in this book and see that underneath all the bravado she is still a frightened child. I really like that.

Derelict houses form a vivid part of Ace’s childhood nightmares. She has shown the Doctor that she can survive in a totally alien environment and in that respect she is a better person than the Doctor. He needs the ship. Ace had grown into a very meticulous young lady. She had killed more than a few people in her time but only people who deserved it. Being described as a potential murderer is something she almost finds offensive. Ace had never forgotten her first sight of the TARDIS. She has become hardened to death and gore: “You’re lying” said the Doctor. “No, this shit doesn’t screw me. Period” she tried to sound cool. “It should.” Ace ended up in her room crying into her pillow for something delicate and gentle she had lost forever. She never hangs around long enough to get to know people but she wished she had the chance. She admits that she loves Benny. Ace cries when she realises Benny is dead and tries to murder Tanith, seeing herself reflected in her, a vicious animal, face contorted with rage.

Twists: ‘The console room was dead, crypt-like and sepulchre-silent’ – what an eerie opening. The house is described as: ‘a monstrosity, rising out of the bleak landscape like a jagged, rotten tooth.’ Pages 80-61 are horrific, poor Benny! Wedderburn found an instrument for the manipulation of reality in the Amazon and Winterdawn used Thascales theories and applied them and can now warp space time. He can enter institial time. Sandra making love to Truman is a surprisingly delicate moment. Truman is revealed to be Justin Cranleigh – Gabriel and Tanith shaped him from Justin’s mind. The Doctor and Winterdawn are trapped in a living (and possibly sentient) death. They are attacked by a cloud of glass shards that cut them to ribbons. Gabriel and Tanith are lovely, loathsome, wonderful, worthless, superlative and shit. The word made flesh. They are the suffering of the universe, the scream. Jane Page is a lost soul, a phantom from a potential reality destroyed by some clumsy time traveller. Winterdawn’s experiments with the metahedron have distorted and mutated parts of the fabric of reality on the physical plane and the damage has manifested as negative, destructive sentience. The Grey Man plucked the TARDIS from the time stream at random to deal with this menace. The Cathedral: a decaying, rotting city of industry. A place of ambiguity and chaos, subverting, undermining, creating challenges, awakening trends and thoughts into the universe. The Cathedral moves from world to world every 80,000 years. Cultures of the cosmos have affected the Cathedral, the trappings of a million societies are stamped upon it. The Grey man is the messenger of the City, he created it and it creates him. Gabriel and Tanith best and kill the man who created them. Benny is dragged to Golgotha to be executed. The Grey Man is recreated and cuts Gabriel and Tanith from their power – Ace takes the opportunity to stab Gabriel and shoot Tanith.

Embarrassing Bits: Around 300 pages in I had lost all interest – bored of torture, metaphysical discussion and existential hallucinations. Even the prose dragged in the end, soaked in depression, pain, murder and destruction. This novel spends too long masturbating over pain.

Result: Falls the Shadow reads like a deranged, psychotic fever. On the one hand this is a sprawling, undisciplined, plotless and misguided mess. On the other it is an evisceratingly written, rarely achieved scare ride into the nightmares of the Doctor’s companions. It is far too long and the plotting doesn’t even register but certain scenes have the ability to truly wind you. If you cut out 100 pages and added a few more explanations this would have been a near perfect experimental read but as it stands it left me bored come the last third. There are only so many times you can watch Ace and Benny forced to endure in the pain of humanity before you want to move onto something more interesting. Nice ideas again, a truly haunting prose style and some shocking imagery help move things on but this remains one of the nastiest Doctor Who novels around. A misogynists wet dream: 6/10

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Books - Your Opinion: Jon Arnold

Name: Jon Arnold

Age: 35

Tell us a little about yourself: Pub quiz genius, pop culture junkie, sports freak and still a prototypical 90s slacker in my mid 30s. Contributed a story to the Craig Hinton tribute volume Shelf Life.

What Doctor Who book are you currently reading: Erm, I'm not due to the fearsome nature of my non-Who To Read pile. Last one I read was Time's Champion though.

What I love about Doctor Who books is: At their best they've aspired to be more than hackery draining the pounds and dollars from the pockets of willing fans. They've looked for interesting and unexpected things to do with the Doctor, often things that couldn't be done particularly well in other media. And for well over a decade they were the ongoing story of Who.

What frustrates about Doctor Who books is: That some authors who seemed to think there's a template for the average Doctor Who story.

My favourite Doctor Who book is: Changeable. One from Conundrum, Managra, The Also People, Human Nature, The Blue Angel or Time and Relative.

Because: They're all vastly ambitious. They take intrinsically fascinating set ups and proceed to twist said scenarios into interesting and unexpected shapes. And they're all wondrously good writers.

My least favourite Doctor Who book is: Shadowmind.

Because: There are many, many worse books from a technical point of view, or what they failed to achieve with their components. But none of them were quite such a struggle to overcome reading inertia, seeming to be cursed with a spell which diverted atention away from the pages. Although Coldheart came close. It's the only NA I've not reread because it's so resolutely bland despite an agreeably strange set up.

Favourite covers: The Telos limited edition covers were generally things of beauty. Millennial Rites, the magnificently flamboyant Mad Dogs and Englishmen, The Turing Test, Year of Intelligent Tigers, The Infinity Doctors, Anacrophobia, Interference's cover's a lovely bit of design work. History 101 is a great cover which managed the difficult job of illustrating the main themes of the novel. The Taint and The Domino Effect are a great concept covering a disappointing novel. There's a fair few Targets too, of which Ghost Light is the finest. Wonderfully moody.

Least favourite covers: No Future and Set Piece just look shoddy and amateurish. Otherwise I'd be more critical of design flaws - the NAs initially suffered due to the insistence that they had to portray an actual scene from the story, the PDAs were lumped with a nasty 'Doctor's head in a swirl' design which was tough to do anything interesting or memorable with. And I'm none too keen on the current range's design with two thirds of the cover taken up with Doctor/Companion photo and logo. Oh yeah, and the Target photocovers which redefined blandness.

My favourite Doctor Who author is: Toughie - probably Paul Magrs at the moment.

Because: He has his own idiosyncratic version of Who, as clear a vision as any Who writer's ever had. And it's different to any other writer you could come up with and somehow very, very right. He's a formidably talented and immensely witty writer (as you'll see if you read his non-Who fiction) and has the vision to explore possibilities that other writers wouldn't see, and the talent to exploit them. It's saying something that his novels are amongst the strangest things published under the Who banner.

My least favourite Doctor Who author is: I'm diplomatically avoiding naming names on this one because it encourages mean spriritedness to a subject I'm passionate about and because he likely as not isn't around to defend himself. And I've done that once already.

Because: Said writer utterly seems to be one that range editors turned to when they were desperate to fill a space in teh schedule. Consistently dull, cliched scenarios, characters who aren't strong enough to be called cardboard, hopelessly unrealistic dialogue, poorly told stories which plod along seeemingly just to fill a wordcount... all the traps of bad writing are seemingly a checklist to be checked off for the author when he's flexing his typing fingers.

The funniest moment in Doctor Who fiction is: The twenty questions at the end of The Blue Angel. If you have to ask why, you probably wouldn't understand, but it's a quite wonderful undercutting of a line from the classics that's always grated on me. Or No Future's 'Chap with Wings - five rounds rapid!'

The scariest moment in Doctor Who fiction is: Probably when I consider how much money and time I've invested in it! Or quite possibly everything in Dmaaged Goods once events each critical mass

How do you select which book you are going to read: If I've read it or not, which usually means it's the new books. Or if I've seen some criticism which has made me rethink my opinion of a book, I'll often try to go back to see where I might have been wrong or may have changed my mind over the years.

Where/when/how do you like to read: As often as possible, it usually ends up being lunch break in work or curled up on the sofa or in bed. I do like peace and quiet though, music tends to distract my attention.

Best novel Doctor: At his best, the Seventh. Probably for what the NAs represetned to me he'll always be the definitive literary Doctor.

Best novel companion: Oh easy, Benny. Struggled for a decent characterisation for much of the first year after as strong an introduction as any companion's had, but let's put it this way, she's been in print/audio constantly for seventeen years. I'd say that's a sign that Benny was a companion done very, very right. Mel's been strengthened immeasurably

Worst novel Doctor: Second, there hasn't been a definitively great Troughton book or short story. Possibly because a lot of the character's appeal lies in the performance, and no-one's quite distilled that essence into print, although a few have come close and got elements of the character right.

Worst novel companion: There was obviously a backstory lined up for Trix but it had to be wrapped up almost indecently quickly due to other concerns. Could've been intersting but never had the chance. Otherwise, a lot of the TV companions who were simply template companions for the Doctor on screen didn't work in print either.

Most overated Doctor Who author and why: What, one that I don't particularly care for that other people do? Difficult. Um, Steve Lyons because he consistently comes up stories that make me wonder how the hell he came up with them and then made them work (not every time, but most of the time).

Most underated Doctor Who author and why: Probably Andrew Cartmel, although Atom Bomb Blues isn't great. The War trilogy is the ultimate evocation of his vision of the Seventh Doctor and doesn't shy away from the consequences of the master mainpulator's actions, both seen and unforeseen. Or Paul Dale Smith, simply because I don't understand why the wonderful Heritage gets overlooked, plus The Many Hands is one of the best TDAs. And there's a scene in THe Book of the Still , in which the Doctor dances as a world ends, which is as perfect a Doctor Who moment as there's ever been. But I'm not saying Ebbsy as it'd only go to his head.

Which Doctor Who book do you wish you had written and why: Timewyrm: Revelation. No, it's not even close to being Paul Cornell's best book, and, as with all good writers, he's improved vastly since, but it's probably his most passionate work. No, it's because it changed everything about literary Doctor Who fiction. It was the first novel that sought to play to the strengths of the medium rather than just be 'another exciting adventure with the Doctor' that could've been on telly. It was Peter Creegen's vaunted 'Doctor Who for the 90s', written by someone of my generation for my generation. And all of a sudden writing for Who didn't seem like a distant near unachievable dream for fans. It's as key to the NAs as Alien Bodies is to the EDAs. If you weren't there, it's almost impossible to convey how exciting it suddenly seemed - an infinity of unexplored horizons and possibilities opened, all impossibly thrilling. It opened our minds. If you came to it later it's not going to have anything like that impact, you'll have seen all the tricks in it a hundred times in other works since and the pop cultural references that seemed a statement have dated badly and probably make it seem more of a period piece than anything from the original TV series. But it was exactly the right book at exactly the right moment