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
Plot: Fitz is stranded on the planet of Yquatine with the knowledge it only has a month to survive. There he falls in love with Arielle, who just happens to be the Presidents bird. Meanwhile Compassion and the Doctor have a bit of a tiff when he tries to fit a Randomiser to avoid the Time Lords…

Top Doc: It is hard to watch the Doctor being so deferential to Compassion but he relies on her so much these days he has to pander to her feelings just for the privilege of travelling in time and space. Before he could just fit any old junk to his TARDIS but his attempts to fit her with a Randomiser are construed as an act of rape and Compassion violently ejects him and Fitz from her depths. His misjudgement of the situation leads to a nasty turn in their relationship and he wonders if she will ever trust him again. Trapped without his companions or his ship on a dying world he still proves incredibly pro-active, saving lives, butting heads with President Vargeld as they are at opposite ends of the conflict (the Doctor wanting to study and understand the Omnethoth and Vargeld wanting to destroy them…). His anger at the President for killing the last few Omnethoth is heartfelt. When he discovers Fitz’s death he feels more alone than he has done in a long time.

Scruffy Git: He is trapped in an impossible situation, caught in the past with the knowledge of everybody’s death (he even wonders brilliantly if his warning the authorities would lead to the attack on Yquatine). El Ruk decides Fitz doesn’t just have women troubles, but deep, deep mind problems too (never was truer a word spoken!). It is his humility and humour that allows him to fall on his feet on Yquatine and is described as someone who restores faith in the human race (amen to that). Arielle is failed romance number nine! He sure knows how to pick his women, this time knocking about with the Presidents woman! He thinks of himself as a pessimistic, questioning cynic with a shifty face…when he decides to abandon the Doctor and Compassion to their fates and make a go of it with Arielle he can barely look at himself in the mirror. He briefly entertains the thought that the Doctor and Compassion have hopped off for adventures and abandoned him. This is the point where you realise that Fitz is pretty writer proof, adding something to every book but as written here he literally makes the book.
Stroppy Redhead: And yet no matter how good Fitz is nothing can match Compassion for character to watch! She considers herself a child of the universe and it is going to have to sit up and take notice of her. Fits thinks of her as a scary new girlfriend and she lives up to that role with pride her, screaming as though she is being put to death when the Doctor tries to fit the Randomiser. She terrifyingly tries to kill Fitz to convince him to remove it. She is afraid of her abilities and keeps her exterior shape for comfort. There is an interlude on Beatrix where Compassion attempts to enlist help to remove the Randomiser and lets the pain of the procedure consume her and kills the man. Bloody frightening, she is! When she is reunited with Fitz he says “You bloody…thing!” and she has the humility to apologise for her horrific actions. To make it up she spends decades floating through the time vortex to reach him again. We learn she has a forest inside her, a place of nature and emotion. Touchingly she dulls Arielle’s pain in the forest and allows her to pass away in peace. It is very revealing when she thinks the Doctor is dead and feels empty inside…they must have more than a link than she thought. She accepts his apology at the climax but warns him against violating her again. Has any book companion ever been this interesting? Screw those Virgin companions; this is one ace reversal in the strength of the regulars!

Twists: The Doctor fitting the Randomiser, a truly dramatic moment. Fitz abandoned by Compassion in the past, a great set up for the story. The attack on Yquatine is described as nature gone mad and it is vividly depicted for us. The interlude on Beatrix is terrifying. The Doctor’s possession by the Omnethoth is pretty scary, especially when he starts spewing black gas from his mouth. The fall of Yquatine was all down to Arielle…the books separate plot threads lock together nicely when this is revealed. The military solution to bomb Yquatine and kill the Omnethoth is painfully inevitable. The moral of the story is hammered home effectively…life isn’t fair and the contamination of Arielle and the attack on Yquatine are both pure co-incidence. Arielle’s death is genuinely affecting, especially Fitz’s quiet reaction. Funny bits: Gotta love that story about the revolution by pie! Fitz boggles at the thought of having a wee inside Compassion.
Embarrassing bits: The Anthaurk are a bit cartoony as the villains of the piece. Their history is well thought out but their bullying, vicious nature reminded me of Star Trek’s Klingons without all the boring rituals. The Grand Gynarch is especially camp, with her embarrassing rallies for war battered down in the climax. The President too is pretty well characterised throughout but the thought of a man in charge of the entire system falling to pieces of a woman is just embarrassing. When millions are dying around him all he cares about is Arielle. Get some responsibility man!
Result: Another winner in what is turning out to be a great little run of EDAs. Fitz and Compassion take centre stage again and rarely have book companions been this fascinating, powering their separate plotlines with real style. The set up of having to experience the attack on Yquatine twice is exploited for all the drama its worth and the book never wastes a page in getting into its characters heads and revealing new colours. You can feel how much Nick Walters has improved since Dominion, his plot and characterisation much sharper and clutches of prose that whip the mat from under your feet. It is only the odd cartoonish moment that lets this book down and some moments of overplayed drama. I gobbled this down in a day, it is a remarkably easy book to read and will definitely surprise you at least once. Another confident, well plotted entry and a book that not only exploits the treasures unearthed in The Shadows of Avalon but actually improves them: 8/10

Friday, 6 November 2009

St Anthony’s Fire by Mark Gatiss

Plot: The Doctor and Benny visit the planet Betrushia in the grip of a war whilst Ace convalesces on the nearby planet Massatoris. The Chapter of St Anthony are a grip of religious zealots and they are on course of Betrushia where they turn a bad situation even more ugly…

Master Manipulator: The Doctor feels more confident and happy than he had in an age. He has spent the last few weeks tidying up loose ends has had spent his lives ignoring (probably setting up a ton of adventures still to come!). It is lovely to see the very Troughtonesque description of the Doctor splashing about in the seas, a smile on his pixie like features. It was one of his pet hobbyhorses to berate architects and town planners for their lack of verve.

Boozy Babe:
Bernice is a 25th Century adventurer of dubious scientific repute. Being wholly honest did not come naturally to her. Ace is starting to think that Bernice talks more and more sense. It is a good and bad showing for Bernice’s conscience – she strikes up a nice friendship with Liso, who initially cannot stand her but is soon melted by her charms and resourcefulness. Bernice goes from being hanged out of a window miles in the air to agreeing to go on a suicide mission with him. However, St Anthony’s Fire also features one of the stupidest mistakes Benny has ever made, helping to destroying the St Anthony mothership and condemning innocents to a terrible death. For somebody who criticises the Doctor’s callous ways this is the ultimate hypocrisy.

Oh Wicked: Mark Gatiss gets Ace, I’m certain of that. Even New Ace who has eluded some of the finest Doctor Who writers. You can see the seeds being sown for Ace’s departure (yay!) here; she is getting restless just travelling and needs a break from it. Once she returns to the fold she wonders if it was a greater yearning that made her have a breather. Ace’s body armour was once a second skin but she has been wearing it less and less lately. The bright but somewhat disturbed teenager has given way to a mature and unreadable adult. She needs a break, a chance to do her own thing. Where a blaster would have felt like an extension of her arm, it now felt clammy and cold like a stranger in her hands. Was she changing? Was it the trauma of her conditioning or something more profound? The something, perhaps, which had led her to seek refuge from the TARDIS in the first place.

Foreboding: Ace’s feelings of leaving…the Doctor feels it wont be long now.

Twists: Pages 84-86 are horrific. You’ve got to love how Liso calls Bernice’s bluff and hangs her outside the airship! Page 98 describes the destruction of Porsim majestically. Priss’ death on pages 110-113 are disturbingly captured. The dirigibles plummeting towards the inferno is a terrific image. The Black ship of Keth tears through the dirigibles as though they were curtains. The religious ceremony Ace witnesses sees people being burnt to death for their sins. The faiths of the Earth merged to create planet wide peace and it was a disaster. No one could agree and the Chapter of St Anthony stepped into the breach to impose discipline. They travel through the wastes of the galaxy in search of those not yet blessed and they test their faith by destroying them. Magna Yong has devised a method of focussing the suns power into a colossal weapon. An organism created by the original Betrushians was invented as an evolutionary catalyst that would assess various life forms fitness for survival. If it didn’t come up to scratch the regulator was designed to annihilate it. Unfortunately it found all life unsuitable – so the Betrushians created the satellites which kept the organism dormant for millions of years. The satellites became encrusted with dust and became the rings of Betrushia. Once the Chapter of St Anthony came blasting through the rings the imposing mechanism began to fail. A chain reaction that has brought the organism back to life. That instability threatens to destroy Betrushia. Yong thinks the creature is St Anthony.

Embarrassing Bits: Are we honestly not supposed to realise that the unnamed woman suffering the religious torture is Ace? She is introduced mere pages after Ace left the book and if it was anybody but Ace, why is she unnamed? There is a chance here to deal with genocide and warfare…meaty issues but Gatiss chooses instead to have the commanders of both sides snarl insults rather than work their problems out. The war is represented in a handful of locations and characters, you never get a sense of its scale or its importance…come on Mr Gatiss, this isn’t a TV script! The Chapter of St Anthony is a potentially terrifying idea its is portrayed here with no subtlety or depth and as such fails to convince on any level. The biggest issues are the two villains, Magna Yong and De Hooch. Yong is so evil he spends one scene torturing an ickle wickle kitten! The fiend! He also has some of the most ridiculous dialogue: “No, no let them (the Doctor and friends) run loose, it amuses me to have some competition” and “I’m allowing you to live because, quite frankly, I’m bored. It’s been so easy for so long. I’d like to see how far you get at thwarting me before my inevitable victory!” Silly sod. De Hooch is even worse, a hideous midget (so naturally he’s evil) who admits: “I should have overthrown you years ago!” Page 223 sees them at their all time more ridiculous: “You. You, De Hooch? Don’t be ridiculous. I only promoted you through some misguided sense of pity. Magna? You? You ridiculous little freak! I am Magna1 I! I! For all time!” They spend much of the book torturing and maiming people in the name of religious supplication (Yong even feasts on children’s limbs!) before their bizarre power struggle leads them to kill each other (Yong has his shoulder blown off and is blinded and De Hooch has his head cracked open like an egg). I’m not sure what Gatiss was going for here but frankly they were the most fun part of the entire book!

Result: A book with a justifiably bad reputation but still quite fun if you are in the right mood because Mark Gatiss’ prose is a joy and individual scenes in this book have the potential to take your breath away. However there are still a stack of problems; the twin plots of Betrushia and St Anthony exist independent of each other for the majority of the book and never meet successfully, the book is riddled with unanswered questions (Why did the war start? Why did the original Betrushians create such a nonsensical entity?) and the ending replaces ingenuity with technobabble. Characterisation is sketchy at best, with Yong and De Hooch emerging as the most preposterous villains of the entire range. I think this might of started out as a book that wanted to say profound things about trying to play God (which both the Chapter and the original inhabitants of Betrushia tried and failed) but considering every religious character is either evil or just plain stupid it jettisoned these good intentions and just went for the amusing pot-boiler approach. A bit rubbish really but more fun than the last two: 5/10