Sunday, 30 May 2010

Justin Richards Interview

Few writers have been as influential as Justin Richards in the world of Doctor Who novels. Contributing 22 original novels and 8 non fiction books, 7 Big Finish audios and acting as creative consultant on the eighth Doctor and past Doctor ranges and the phenomenally popular New Series Adventures, he is the all round most experienced and significant figure for Doctor Who in print for the past 9 years. An extremely versatile writer, his books weave through a variety of genres from horror (Theatre of War, Grave Matter, The Burning, The Deviant Strain), comedy (The Joy Device, Demontage), mindbenders (The Sands of Time, The Medusa Effect, Time Zero, Sometime Never…), SF (Tears of the Oracle, Dreams of Empire, System and Millennium Shock, Martha in the Mirror) and a dash of history too (Shadow in the Glass, The Banquo Legacy, The Clockwise Man). Known for his twisting storylines, dramatic prose, quotable dialogue and spot on characterisation of any of his chosen regulars, Richards is one of the series most talented and prolific storytelling voices.

Justin, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.

How did you become involved with writing Doctor Who novels?
Many years ago, when even Rassilon was young, I sent a proposal for a Doctor Who book to Virgin Publishing, who published the Doctor Who New Adventures series. I’d done quite a bit of writing already – articles for Doctor Who Monthly, as it was then, as well as lots of fanzine stuff – and I was working as a technical writer for IBM. So I guess I knew how to write. Peter Darvill-Evans at Virgin, who gave so many writers their first break into fiction and novels, liked the proposal and my sample chapters and commissioned me to write the book. That was my first Who novel, called Theatre of War and it was published in 1994.

Theatre of War was a haunting first novel with a very strong role for Bernice. Was this something you wanted to concentrate on? This book is almost a blueprint for the Bernice Summerfield New Adventures; Virgin losing the Doctor Who licence did not occur for many years after this novel was published, how did so many elements of Theatre of War wind up driving that series?
I wrote the proposal soon after Bernice was announced as a new companion. It struck me that if I came up with a story that actually played to the strengths of the new companion that had to be a good thing and would get me some attention. I didn’t want Benny to end up like so many companions who have a notional career or expertise which is then just ignored, especially as there are so many narrative possibilities for an archaeologist. Whether Theatre of War prompted other writers to think along those same lines, I don’t know. But I wanted to tell a story where Benny didn’t just get to do a bit of digging things up, but her expertise and experience are actually key to the story’s development...

The character of Braxiatel seemed to catch on quite well too – the Doctor’s ‘Mycroft Holmes’ is how I thought of him. I guess as this was a fairly early Benny story, the two were thought of together, which is maybe why Virgin wanted to bring him back – almost as a proto-Doctor figure, I guess – when Benny went her own way.
Then, when I wrote what I was told was absolutely definitely the last ever Benny book, it seemed like a good idea to bring things full circle. Since the Benny NAs were set before Theatre of War in terms of the date, I could end the series with Braxiatel setting up the place where he and Benny first meet for the readers and Benny, even though it hasn’t happened yet.

And then it turned out that wasn’t the last of Benny’s adventures by any means. For the last three Virgin books she was already there at the Braxiatel Collection, and when I helped set up the Big Finish series with The Doomsday Manuscript, I was happy to keep her there as a base. It seemed to work for the narrative and give lots of story possibilities, and from a practical, lazy point of view it saved me having to think of anything different and new!

Interestingly you did not writer again for the New Adventures but instead concentrated on a number of Missing Adventures. Were you more interested in telling the stories of the previous Doctor’s at the time?
That was partly because Rebecca Levene, the editor at the time, asked me to pitch for Missing Adventures if I wanted a commission in the timescale I was looking at, partly because I fancied just doing one of each to start with, and partly it was laziness. To do another NA, at the time when the books were becoming increasingly interlinked and interdependent, I’d have had to read all the other books!
That sounds awful. But it’s just logistics – I’d have had to read those books quicker and more closely than I did. For work, not for fun. I didn’t have time to commit to reading them and writing my own book in the schedule allotted.

Given its influences on The Sands of Time, what is your opinion of Pyramids of Mars?
I love it, not surprisingly. I think the ending is a bit of a get-out, and the last episode goes off into a different sort of story in many ways. But the first three episodes are exemplary. I admire the way the Egyptian mythology – or the popular perceptions of it – and the Hammer references are all bound up into something new that is also uniquely Doctor Who. Clever, frightening, and satisfying all at once...

Do you like the cover of System Shock, as far as I am aware the only computer generated cover of the range?
It probably is, yes. Of course all the covers are done with Photoshop or InDesign or whatever now – but that’s largely manipulating images that already exist rather than creating them from scratch. It was a bit different, and I thought very good. Martin Rawle is a talented artist and designer, and that was near the start of his career when he happened to be doing some work for my brother’s media company...

You wrote four novels for the Bernice Summerfield range over the space of three years. What is your opinion of the range looking back? Do you have a favourite of the four you contributed?
I’m very proud of all four of those books, for different reasons. I really enjoyed writing for the range – it had such potential and it’s a shame it never really realised that potential commercially.

I like the intricate plotting of Dragons’ Wrath. I enjoyed playing about with the readers’ expectations as well as tricks like having an unreliable narrator. Despite the fact that most reviewers seem to think the plot is watertight and really clever, it does have the biggest cheat in any of my books – and as far as I know no one’s noticed! I’m in two minds whether to mention it now, or see if anyone ever does spot it... Also, having got away with telling the readers the main twist of Theatre of War in the first sentence of the book, it was fun to go one better this time and put it in the title. (If you still don’t see it, check where the apostrophe is! Yes – there’s more than one dragon...)

The Medusa Effect was fun, and was my take on a book called Ghostboat, which has since been made into a TV mini-series with David Jason. That was set on a submarine, and I moved it to spaceship. Of course, the story ended up being very different, but Ghostboat was one of my starting points. The other was the haunted house at Disneyland – where there’s a ballroom, and you see people dancing. As you watch they turn into skeletons.

Tears of the Oracle was great fun to do. As it was the last ever Benny book, or so they assured me, I got to tie up as many loose ends as possible and make it all look planned and deliberate – which a lot of it wasn’t. But pulling together strands from however many books over the course of the NAs was an interesting challenge. Especially as the previous couple of books hadn’t actually been written yet. Lawrence Miles kindly posted me printouts of some bits of Dead Romance so I could link into Cwej’s regeneration properly.

And The Joy Device was a bit of a rush job when Virgin suddenly decided to do another ‘last 3’ Benny books. It’s no secret that I didn’t actually want to do it – though I’m glad I did as it was fun, and it was nice to write something a bit ‘lighter’ after Tears of the Oracle. Peter Darvill-Evans asked me to do the book in about a month, and I said I really wasn’t sure I could because the only idea I has was about Benny going on holiday and her friends all being worried she’d have such a great time she might not come back – so they have to make it the most boring and uneventful holiday ever. I told him I thought it would make a good short story, but probably wouldn’t sustain a whole novel. I guess it’s a measure of how desperate they were that Peter emailed me back within minutes saying: ‘Brilliant, and you could also do this, this, and thins... The contracts are in the post.’ So I had to work out an outline after getting the job.

Sarah Jane, Harry, Tegan, Nyssa, Jamie, Victoria, Peri, the Brigadier…you had the opportunity to play about with some of the Doctor’s best companions. Which were particularly fun to write and did you feel there were any companions that translated especially well into print? Speaking as editor/creative consultant were there any companions you were eager to include in the range and explore in more depth?
Oh I loved writing for them all, actually. There’s a great satisfaction in taking a character everyone knows really well – like Sarah Jane, the Brigadier, or Jamie. But equally, it’s good to take a character people know less well and explore them a bit –bring them to life more – like Victoria or Harry.

You made a real impact on the parent range when the 8th Doctor lost his memory and kicked off his recovery memorably in the spine chilling historical The Burning. What were your aims with this radical re-interpretation of the character? How do you think the theme of the Doctor’s mysterious past was handled over the next five years? Can you cite any particular examples where you felt the Doctor you were trying to create really flourished?
I think the ones that work best are those first few books where the Doctor is trapped on earth, not knowing who he really is. Especially as the character and his situation are such a contrast to the epic scale and events of The Ancestor Cell. Really what i was trying to do was to make it all rather more personal, and to get away from the mass of continuity and narrative baggage that had built up in the books over the years. It’s no one’s fault that this happens – it just does. And as soon as we ‘reset’ everything, we started building it up again! Typically, on TV, a regeneration has a similar effect – everything’s renewed and revitalised. Finding a way to do that in the novels without being able – or allowed – to regenerate the Doctor was a challenge. And in The Burning, I got to write the first ever Doctor Who story. Sort of. How great is that?!

You seemed quite keen to keep hold of Fitz in the range. Can you explain something of his universal appeal? Anji is a personal favourite of mine although I know she had some mixed reviews at the time, how do you feel she worked out? Trix was just hitting her stride when the series ended, do you regret not getting a chance to tell more stories with this identity shifting companion?
I agree that Trix still has a lot of potential we’ve not tapped into. It would be great to go back and do more with her and Fitz. It’s nice to see – or rather hear – Fitz appearing on Big Finish audios now too.

Developing a companion is harder than most people might think. An awful lot of effort went into Fitz – for which i can take almost no credit. He sprang fully formed from the notes and sample prose prepared by Rebecca Levene and Steve Cole, and was fleshed out fully by Mike Collier in The Taint. To be honest, he was so well defined that I didn’t realise until I’d just about finished writing it that Demontage was only his second story. It just seemed like there must be a lot more about him for the character to be so well defined...

Anji worked well – the brief I gave Colin Brake was fairly open. So most of Anji’s character, certainly at the detail level and including her name and background came from him. I wanted a young modern day professional woman – who might reflect the job background and age of much of the readership. I think she worked out very well, though she tends to be a bit overshadowed by Fitz simply because he was there for longer...

Time Zero and Sometime Never… are both very important novels in the 8th Doctor range, dealing with some very complex ideas. Can you tell us something about these two event novels? Am I correct in thinking Sometime Never… replaced your original plan for the Sabbath arc when the Daleks had to be pulled as the Sabbath’s employers? How do you think these novels hold up now?
Yes, my original plan was that the Daleks would be the villains behind Sabbath – hence all the references to the black eye. That would be a Dalek eye stalk. But I didn’t get even as far as outlining the book before it was apparent that we wouldn’t be able to use the Daleks. So I had to come up with a different set of villains and I decided on Time itself. How do you fight that? Surely it’s the ultimate enemy for the Doctor..? Of course, that needed personifying so it wasn’t just some nebulous insubstantial ‘thing’. And so I developed the villains as sort of negative Time Lords – they do nothing but interfere, and try to align History to their own ends. To take that further, each of the Council of Eight was an inverse-Doctor, and took their names from the Doctor they were shadowing – Like Singleton for the First Doctor, and ‘Fear’ (the German Vier) for the Fourth, and Octet as the Big Villain pitched against our own current Doctor.

I think both those books work well, though – by their nature almost – both are rather more complicated than they should be. Time Zero probably holds up better as it’s less mired in the ongoing story arc and the mythos of Doctor Who as a whole. But they were both great fun to write.

The alternative universe arc cam under some heavy criticism from fans for its relentless plotting and stretched out storyline. Do you think the run from Time Zero-Timeless would have run better with one novel a month?
Yes, it would. And that’s how it was planned. At a novel every other month it did outstay its welcome and the whole arc lost momentum. Just one of those things, I’m afraid and there was nothing we could do about that once the decision had been taken to cut back the number of novels.

Festival of Death, Rags, Ten Little Aliens, Heritage, The Eleventh Tiger, The Algebra of Ice, Fear itself…there were some fine Past Doctor Adventures published under your consultancy. How much impact would you have on the books? Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted with each book and would the authors often surprise you with their work?
Each and every book was different in terms of how it came about and was developed. It’s fair to say that the Past Doctors novels tended to be less ‘briefed’ by me than the EDAs which had to fit into an ongoing story and make thematic sense.
To take some of the specific books you mention, for Ten Little Aliens I specifically asked Steve Cole for a First Doctor Agatha Christie in space, and he developed it from there – including the adventure game aspects which were all his idea. At the other end of the scale, Festival of Death was an unsolicited proposal from Jonny Morris which I commissioned pretty much as it was. There was the usual editorial haggling, and I think I suggested a couple of ways the story could be simplified and made a little more elegant, but that really was a brilliant book despite me being there rather than because of me.

In no particular order could you name ten novels you are especially proud of under your consultancy and why.
Oh no, I don’t think that would be fair at all. There are no books in that run – well, to date! – that I am not proud of to a greater or lesser degree. Some have been less well received. Some had problems all of their own, and often not of the author’s making... But then again, good novels can come out of the challenges and adversities that such a strict and testing schedule throws up. To use some of my own books as example, Millennium Shock was written to plug a sudden gap in less than three weeks, and it shows. But under the circumstances, I’m very proud of that book. And having written it, I was better able to organise both The Shadow in the Glass and The Banquo Legacy to cope with similar problems. If nothing else, I’d learned to get some help! (Though that wasn’t an option with Millennium Shock actually as the timing was so tight it had to be a single author deal...)

Moving on to the New Series Adventures, is it more of a challenge writer the slimmer, more child friendly novels, having to inject all the imagination and plotting into a tighter word count? The novels seem to have found a new sense of joy since they have switched to the hardbacks, is that more to do with the younger audience for the books or because they match the ethos of the television series?
I’m not sure it’s more of a challenge so much as a different set of challenges. But you’re right about the ‘joy’ aspect. In that we try to reflect the generally upbeat tone of the TV series. With fewer novels, there’s less space to slip in a ‘dark’ one without affecting the overall feel of the series, so if they have a weakness it’s probably a similarity of tone and approach. I don’t think aiming at the younger audience has mean the books have suffered, except they are shorter and therefore less complex stories.

Looking back over 12 years of writing Doctor Who books can you name the one book you would hold up as the best example of your work, and the one book you would like to go back and have another stab at?
Given the chance – and a working TARDIS – I’d go back and tweak, if not completely rewrite, all my books! It’s difficult to pick out any that I would describe as ‘best’. I like them all, for different reasons. There are some that I think have not been as well received as they deserve – Demontage, for example... I guess the one I’d like to rewrite as I originally conceived it would be Option Lock, which was originally a werewolf story that explained why the 8th Doctor had to be half human – a conscious decision the 7th Doctor had made and ‘filed away’ for when he next regenerated... But it was not to be. Option Lock was at one point going to be the first EDA after The Eight Doctors, so that would have made perfect sense. But by the time it came out everyone had decided to ignore the half human thing, and Kursaal – with werewolves – was the EDA immediately before it!

Of my New Series novels, I think The Resurrection Casket and Martha in the Mirror work best. Too early to tell about Apollo 23, I think – ask me in a year! But The Clockwise Man is a little too complicated for what it’s trying to do, and The Deviant Strain, while I very much like the ending with Valeria and Jack, is too edgy and brutal to sit easily in the new series... Another one done in a hurry when – surprise, surprise – the new series was a success and the books sold well and suddenly the people who only wanted three new series novels decided they’d like another three to be ready for publication in a few months time! I had a rather worrying few days after that when it looked like I would have to write all three! Thank goodness I didn’t and we got the fantastic Only Human and Stealers of Dreams.

What can we look forward to in the future? Dare I ask the questions of Past Doctor Adventures that seems to be on everybody’s lips?
Obviously I can’t announce definite future plans. But I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’d like to be able to publish Past Doctor novels again. I’m still hopeful that will happen soon - though perhaps not in the way that people expect. As ever with Doctor Who, these are exciting times!

Justin, thank you so much for your time.

Asylum by Peter Darvill-Evans

Plot: The fourth Doctor and Nyssa team up for the oddest of reasons (because she is writing an essay!) and head to Oxford, 1278. Nyssa becomes the subject of infatuation from a soppy soldier and the Doctor gets embroiled in a murder mystery in a Friary. Yes this is all true. No I’m not sure why it was commissioned either.

Teeth and Curls: I doubt I have ever read a more inept interpretation of the fourth Doctor, outside of a particular Telos Novella. He’s pretty quiet and subdued for the most part, more introvert than extrovert and if this really does take place in seasons 14/15 it hardly suits the character at all. It even states in the text that he gets tired of drawing attention to himself! Never! His habit to be drawn towards the site of violent death. He’s eccentric and obviously educated. He has a carefree attitude towards his immortal soul. Could it be that he was so steeped in worldliness that he considered prayer futile? Open air preaching, no conspicuous wealth, an interest in scholarly learning and a cheerful disposition, the Doctor would make a good Franciscan. Though not with a religious disposition and a willingness to obey the rules. He has met Brunel.

Alien Orphan: Nyssa left Terminus having conquered Lazar’s Disease and ventured out into the galaxy full of spirit. She sought war, hunger and disease because she knew how to deal with all of them. But eventually she grew weary, there was always another crisis and she began to feel like a relentless pursuer. After a disaster on Exano she decided to settle and took a post at a university teaching technography. She lived alone and felt at peace, walking in the morning and attempted to put her violent past behind her. These days she rarely thought of the Doctor, her memories of Traken were more valuable. She was happy in those days the TARDIS was her home. She is a feast for the sense, exquisite as a jewel, pure and perfectly formed. She’s not exactly suicidal but she isn’t sure if she wants to fight for life anymore. Throughout the story she does start to see the value of living and at its close she can be seen embracing it and dancing with joy. There are few women in the galaxy with a pedigree as ancient and noble as hers.

Twists: Aliens land in London 1346 with their ship exhausted, requiring many years to be ready for launch. They take on human bodies but are concerned about the oncoming Black Death. They send an emissary to the past to discover Bacon’s ‘elixir of life’ so they can survive their wait. Nyssa’s thesis on Roger Bacon is corrupted and shifts so it was always about Brunel, causing the Doctor to show up, the TARDIS latching on to the change in the timeline. Brother Godwin is killed by Brother Thomas (who the alien is hiding inside) when he learns of Roger Bacon’s blasphemous research into the ‘elixir’. Thomas murders Richard when he accidentally gains possession of the elixir manuscript.

Embarrassing bits: The biggest question is…why? I cannot comprehend the purpose of slapping an early fourth Doctor and late Nyssa together. It muddles things for no particular reason and means their entire time together the fifth Doctor knows that Nyssa will turn out well, leaving any time she was in danger and him overreacting looking a little stupid. Also how about the fact that Nyssa knows the fate of the fourth Doctor, she could effectively tell him about the Master and his dealings on Traken and stop the whole sorry mess from happening again…she could save her father and stepmother and entire planet! Also she could prevent the fourth Doctor’s premature death from the radio telescope. Its just a stupid, stupid idea which seems to creep up now and again, lumping together two characters who were never meant to meet and don’t work when they do. The essay at the end tries to explain why the Past Doctor Adventures don't work but Asylum does, frankly it is something of an embarrassing statement that this could be reversed quite as easily.

Result: It doesn’t inspire much hope does it? Justin Richards, editor of the BBC range accepted this commission and encouraged its development. Worse, Peter Darvill-Evans, editor of the New Adventures wrote the damn thing. Just how can we feel safe in either range in the hands of people that will give us something us utterly pointless as this? It just doesn’t work, it’s a book that is far more interested in its setting than its plot (nonsensical and slight as it is). It dares to suggest development in both Nyssa and the fourth Doctor but neither translates as the person they were on the telly or an updated representation of them. The guest cast are dull as dishwater and the pace is so slack I actually stop caring about the plot and concentrated more on the exploration of Oxford in the 13th century. Admittedly the prose has taken a massive leap since Independence Day and there are some fruitful passages here and there that describe the scenery in exquisite detail but when this is the biggest strengths this is book with problems: 3/10

Monday, 17 May 2010

Fear Itself by Nick Wallace

Plot: Farside Station fell into Jupiter’s orbit and split the Doctor, Fitz and Anji for four years. Now we get to see what happened, the Doctor and Fitz four years in the past trying to figure out what sinister experiments are going on on the station and Anji alone, four years in the future, trapped on the decaying station besieged by aliens…

Top Doc: The book is full of intense observation about each of the regulars, on the grounds of exploring their feelings and development it could well be the best Doctor Who book yet. He considers Anji his responsibility and if someone wants to hurt he wants to know why. Fitz thinks he should have learnt something about women in his 100-year exile but he is still as naïve about his charms as ever. There is a toughness to the Doctor that was never there before. He can dance but he won’t lose himself to the music. He is lucky, adaptable and curious. For those 100 years there was something cold and alien he refused to show people but now his friends are hurting he is ready to unleash it and let his darkness show. We discover when he killed Nepath he felt cold and divorced from the human race, he didn’t understand the good that people were capable of. There is a steel to him that is leading him to taking more risks but Fitz still recognises him as the man he trusts his life with. Although he does wonder if the Doctor can still be a hero without knowing who you are or what you’ve done. He realises all his current brain activity is being routed through his fore brain and there is a wall locking away something from him. He wonders how bad it can be to have it hidden away from him. At the books climax he knows who he is, has all his ‘current’ memories back, both good and bad, and tells Fitz that finding out about his old life can wait for another day. He just wants to be himself and have adventures.

In the course of this book the Doctor is ‘burnt to the point of death, ejected, rescued, restored, mind wiped and drafted into Earth Special Ops.’ One of several astonishing twists reveals that the emotionless, violent, tactical and skilful Professional who is skulking about the decayed Farside station is in fact the Doctor. At the close of this book he regains all his old memories but remembers everything, every killing blow he dished out. Imagine Paul McGann, shaved head, broken nose, agile and deadly. How cool is that?

Scruffy Git: Not that smart but good with people. He thinks he was a chronic underachiever until he met the Doctor, the only man who makes him feel alive. He reveals he used the name Fitz Fortune because people remembered the war. The second the Doctor woke up on Earth he knew he didn’t belong there, now he’s back in outer space it all feels familiar but they are not what makes him sure of his life, Fitz is. Anji calls him the comedy sidekick but the amount of worrying he does for the Doctor here proves how much he loves him. He is too scared to tell him the truth about his home planet but keeps reminding him they need to talk. He’s scared his own memories are starting to fade (as set up in Earthworld).

Career Nazi: Besides Earthworld, Hope and Timeless, this is the Anji book. She is horrified at the opening, as the station plummets and with it her only hope of getting home. She used to have a sly fag on the quiet, a little rebellion her parents knew nothing about. She feels she didn’t know the Doctor and Fitz long enough to grieve their deaths. Being stuck on Mars helps her get over Dave’s death, with no reminders around her. She starts seeing a man called Michael and eventually they get married. She feels a part of her life is missing and she starts obsessing about the Fall. She misses her family and wishes they could meet Michael. She isn’t living the life she thought she would be realises you have to adapt to survive. Her marriage grows increasingly distant and she realises she has never moved on from the day she lost Fitz and the Doctor. Eventually they drift apart.

The climax reveals that all of Anji’s through the last four years have been filtered through the Fear virus that wants to head back to Jupiter and destroy its enemy. Thus her obsession with the Doctor and Fitz’s deaths allowed her to rationalise her return to Jupiter and interpret the virus’s goals. Her last four years are suddenly a dream fading fast as the Doctor repairs her memory and before she loses the last four years she tells Michael that she did love him. When she marries Greg (see Timeless) she has echoes of her life with Michael. When he begs her to stay, to try again she merely says, “Sorry, this isn’t my life.”

Foreboding: This book uses its ability to predict the future brilliantly, setting up some future twists. Fitz’s hazy memory starts here, the Doctor’s aggressive streak has a reason, Anji’s intense feelings about Dave’s death are highlighted because of her resurfacing memories. Anji says she wants to buy shares in 22nd Century, setting up her eventual scam in The Gallifrey Chronicles. When Fitz turns in the Doctor and tells him they were going to talk through everything, he is referring to this book.

Twists: The word twist was invented for this book! The opening is fab, Farside station plummeting into Jupiter’s atmosphere. Following that up with Anji and the Professional skydiving through Jupiter’s atmosphere! We realise Anji has aged four years and the Doctor and Fitz have been missing, presumed dead all that time. Farside station, decayed and decrepit, with mad people locked up (the Wounded) and makeshift quarters made out of hollowed out shuttles, is vividly depicted. The Doctor jumps into an area about to be depressurised to save a man. The relationship between Caroline and Robertson is gorgeous, the split time zone allows us to see the dizzy heights of their initial romance and the awkwardness between them after four years of war (“I can never get back what we lost” she tells him). They feel like real people in love. In an exciting sequence, the Professional and Anji are attacked by the alien aggressors and he blows of the fuel line and they crawl through the resulting explosion, which devastates the creatures. The Doctor and Fitz are blown into the vacuum of space. The Doctor and Valletti arguing over violins is brilliantly dramatic. You can feel the tension when Anji admits there never was a war to the survivors of Farside. Fitz punches Anji in the face and lights up a ciggie.

We realise Farside was creating soldiers without them ever stepping into the field, implanting memories that they think are REAL. As the Doctor investigates further, he realises there is a arms race on between the implanted soldiers and the Professionals…who will be more effective in bringing down potential alien aggressors? The Professionals are aliens that are aliens that are brainwashed into thinking they are human and press-ganged into fighting for the Earth. The soldiers are fitted with implants that gives they collected strength and confidence. To create a realistic aliens for them to fight in the simulations they have real aliens, trapped at the point of death in stasis, that they poke with a stick when they need them to react in the simulations.

The Doctor is revealed as the Professional! Anji is Fear virus infected! There is a war going on between two viruses in Jupiter’s atmosphere, waiting for something to break their deadlock. Farside station is a giant Petri dish, over the four years it has been primed with a chemical that will eliminate the Fear viruses opposition. The station is a bomb, waiting to deliver its yield over Jupiter. The aliens on the station are revealed to be the 101st, mutated into monsters to make sure the survivors don’t think about what has happened and keep the station intact long enough to turn it into their weapon.

Result: One of the best Doctor Who books. A superbly plotted thriller, which is loaded with twist after twist that will leave you reeling at its conclusion. There are loads of exciting set pieces, a cast of guest characters that come alive like you wouldn’t believe, a host of fantastic, imaginative ideas, suspense and drama. All this and there is still room to take three fascinating regulars, put them through hell, get up close and personal, and see them emerge stronger and more interesting than they were. The amount of detail that has gone into writing this is rare for a Doctor Who book, the three time zones come alive with astonishing clarity and the prose itself is full of great observations, strong descriptions and a terrifying pace. It really is one of the best Doctor Who books you are likely to read and the one I would personally recommend to non fans who love science fiction. A blistering read: 10/10

Monday, 10 May 2010

Shakedown by Terrance Dicks

Plot: The Doctor, Chris and Roz and Bernice are all on different planets trying to follow the trial of a Rutan with a big secret. On the run from the Sontarans, the Rutan takes refuge on the solar yacht Tiger Moth. The ensuing bloodbath sees that one side might finally win in the never-ending war between these two species…

Master Manipulator: Zzzzzzzz…oh sorry I nodded off. Lets be honest this is Terrance’s standard Doctor model, heroic, sensitive, and mild and its boring as sin. He managed to give the Doctor real spice in Exodus and Blood Harvest but this is just a copy and paste job from many of his target novels. The Doctor does very little of consequence in this novel, stands up to the Sontarans and the Rutans, but then any of the others would behave in pretty much the way. There is none of the madness of Head Games or the chilled out behaviour of The Also People, it once again feels like we are reading about a completely different character. One who is bland and forgettable. He gets on better with riff raff than he does officials.

Boozy Babe: Bernice visits a university and disappears for 100 pages of a 233 page long book. Enough said.

Stroppy Copper: More surface characterisation. Roz spends most of the book rolling her eyes at Chris.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Once again we are drawn to Chris’ naiveté. Why do I get the impression he is heading for some serious hurt. He strokes a blokes arm and wonders why he thinks he is getting frisky. He is described as a slow thinker but a fast reactor. He is so dumb he believes everything the Doctor says (what, despite being tricked into committing genocide just two books earlier!). He is a seven foot toddler with in insatiable curiosity.

Twists: A sea of ice with mist floating over the top and a desert planet with gleaming spires and ornithopters sees Terrance at his visual best. As Roz and Chris corner the Rutan things get very bloody, eviscerations and decapitations! The Shakedown section is probably the best of the book, fast paced and brutal.

Embarrassing Bits: Page 21 – Uncle Terry is writing gay jokes!

Result (the book): Shakedown is an attempt to do something different in the range, an extended novelisation of the Dreamwatch production. Unfortunately this feels as though it was written in a terrible rush by an author who does not suit the rougher tone of the books these days. Terrance has already written two very good New Adventures but this slim thriller does not make the grade. His handling of the regulars is awful, especially in comparison to the sharp characterisation of them in the next novel and Bernice disappears for the length of a bible. Admittedly the Sontaran/Rutan conflict is brought into sharp focus (but lets face it is a joke in comparison to the revelations about their races in Lance Parkin’s The Infinity Doctors) and we are made to realise just why this is so important to the galaxy but the feather-light prose, modest dialogue and lack of any real surprises really makes this a tiresome effort: 3/10

Result (the video): Now this is more like it. Astonishing how in the hands of a decent director the same material that bored me rigid in the printed version can be so gripping. It doesn’t matter that the casting is made up of old Who and Blake’s 7 actors, the performances are great and the actors really do suit the roles they have been given. Carole Ann Ford is a real eye opener as super bitch Zorelle and Jan Chappel makes a surprisingly believable leader. The Sontarans have never looked better (and I include their return visit in New Who) and the script beautifully highlights their alien qualities and love of war, making them a formidable force. Some of the set pieces, the solar sail drill, the boarding of the Tiger Moth, the airlock bomb conclusion are superbly shot. For a low budget production this is quite lush and expensive looking with a fantastic musical score. My favourite spin off video: 9/10

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Rags by Mick Lewis

Plot: People are dying in unspeakable ways. A new band has formed, playing hate filled gigs which is setting the world of class hate alive. The Ragman has woken and he will tear the world apart in violence and destruction…

Good Grief: Rags is quite a misunderstood book, especially where the Doctor is concerned. It does appear that he is sidetracked for much of the book and just pops up at the end ala the seventh Doctor from the New Adventures but there is much more exploration of his character than that. His nightmares inside the Ragman’s cattle truck reveal his insecurities like no other novel in this vain and for one of the first times it feels as though the Doctor has genuinely been beaten.

The Doctor loves the Brigadier dearly but he would never admit such a thing in public. A pompous old devil? He believes his exile on Earth is the equivalent of the Time Lords shoving him in a retirement home. As the Doctor explores the nightmare realm of the Ragman his hearts race with each other and a primal fear roars inside of him. The Doctor is an Everyman, a Man of the People, a wanderer with no distinction, no shackles. He topples tyrannies, tramples on egocentricities, an orphan in space – condemned to search for meaning and yet trapped on Earth. He feels he abandoned Susan, running away from his responsibilities as usual. He is tortured with a vision of himself burning at the stake, his old companions stoning him. Another features the TARDIS being clawed to death, a floating tomb adrift forever in the vortex. The level of self-doubt he goes through is astonishing. Perhaps his past, Gallifrey, his travels had all been a dream within a dream. Perhaps there had been nothing more than an empty police box and his delusions to fill it. Inside a fake empty TARDIS the Doctor tells Jo: “Perhaps I don’t want to play anymore. Perhaps I want to go home. Wherever that is.” When he finally stirs his stumps he confronts the Ragman with renewed vigour: “You’re a morphic monstrosity, a mutation of cosmic spew and human indignities. You are scum, Ragman. Scum from the end of time.”

Dizzy Agent: Woah! Now this is a slap in the face for all of those people who find the Pertwee era safe and cosy. From dizzy, clutzy hang on to insecure, bisexual dope head, Barry Letts would have had a heart attack if this had been submitted! It is shocking but great fun to read, a million miles from the snugly, silly biblybiblybibly Jo we are used to.

Jo can giggle her way out of the Doctor’s bad books. She isn’t easily fooled despite her goofy surface act. She was really growing with the Doctor as a companion. Jo has never been a fan of punk; it always seemed too violent and nihilistic for her. She feels lonely and excited at being left by the Doctor to follow the tour. She had the air of somebody who had been away for a while, someone who is normally in tune with the times and liked to be as trendy as possible but had recently been whisked off somewhere that fashions didn’t or couldn’t reach. Is she brainwashed or liberated by the Ragman? That is for the reader to decide but here she has grown tired of the Doctor’s meddling and is pissed off that he thinks she cannot cope on her without backup. She gets embarrassed by Mike Yates’ presence and hideous hippy disguise and threatens to blow his cover unless he leaves the gig. Now she has normal friends who believe in things other than interfering other people’s lives. She understands why they are pissed off with the consciousless, consumerist society. She feels she is dragged from one horrendous conflict by a man who purported to be on the side of freedom yet needed the support of the military and all of its stifling, conservative authoritarianism to back him up. Ouch! And after all these admissions she snogs Sin hungrily towards the climax of the book.

Chap with the Wings: The Brigadier becomes all bluff and flustery if he ruins one of the Doctor’s experiments. One of his more endearing habits was his irritating knack of putting his finger clumsily and unerringly on the most sensitive area. He firmly believes a disciplined mind comes from a disciplined lifestyle. It is terrifying when even he comes under the Ragman’s influence. The Brigadier is the one man on the Doctor’s travels who you can count on totally and his sudden turn into a violent, uncaring soldier leaves you wondering how anybody in this book is going to survive.

Ewww: Rags has something of a reputation for being the most disgusting Doctor Who book ever written. I don’t think it is entirely unjustified. Lets take a look at the evidence…

Roger is stabbed with an ancient dagger.
Animal is smacked over the head with a tyre iron.
Alf gets a corkscrew in the eye.
A pickaxe is driven through Officer Evan’s chin.
Officer Jellard’s head is smacked in by a shovel and he is hacked to pieces by garden shears.
The lead singer spews a green waterfall over Sin’s face and she feels grateful to be chosen!
A leg trap is wrestled around Edward’s throat until blood squelched over his red livery.
Kane has slugs, worms and spiders shoved down his throat until he is choking on his own vomit.
PC Williams bludgeons his wife’s brains over the wallpaper with a golf club and dismembers his daughter.
Pages 95-96 – the band spit out blood and vomit as they sing, then one singer vomits maggots over the crowd, grabs Sin and snogs her violently, hacking up maggots in her mouth! Eugh!
Alcoholics butcher executives, slashing with broken wine bottles, mutilating with hoes…
Princess Margaret shoots down her own assassin in front of TV cameras.
Willis blows his brains out when his political career goes down the swanney.
Simon ploughs his car into a standing stone at 68 mph, the village refusing to let him leave.
A sergeant’s head is pounded repeatedly against a standing stone until his skull is smattered over rock like bloody broken eggshell.
A screeching sergeant has his eyes gouged out and his ribs kicked in.
One policeman has his throat slashed and his blood collected in his helmet.
A bobby has his arms and legs popped from his sockets.
A UNIT soldier is shot in the throat releasing a torrent of blood.
Counwall is strangled by a noose, his tongue hanging obscenely from his mouth.
Charmagne impales Sin to the Ragman with a pitchfork in her chest.

Twists: The cover is excellent, extremely atmospheric. The prologue, where young Kane finds the story of the Ragman in the library, is full of foreboding and fear. The band singing is described as a murder of a song, which paradoxically threw out hooks of harmony at once irresistible and repulsive. Page 62 is truly terrifying: ‘the zipper man came for Penelope. But not all at once. He took time to take his instrument of choice – a long, viciously hooked gaffe – down from the wall, and displayed it for her with relish, like a shopkeeper demonstrating his wares, as the music burst into brutal orgasm beyond the pub walls and Penelope screamed and screamed and…’ Willis and Pole scheming together is great, Princess is due for a visit, there is a demonstration of the Rural Country Sports Brigade and the Mummer Band will be present too. It will be like a powder keg waiting to explode, the most effective demonstration of class hate in Pole’s career and it will discredit the government and thus allow Willis and the opposition to move in. Charmagne being dragged into the cattle truck is positively terrifying, trapped with the Ragman in the filthy void. Jo turns on Mike once his cover is blown. The creature was conceived within a womb of rock spinning through the radiation-bathed flue of a black hole, cosmic spawn without rhyme or reason. It was attracted to the Earth and adopted and worshipped by primitive man. His birth from the rock took place when a mummer trips on a courting couple on the Downs and has his brains smashed out, blood splattering over the rock and birthing the Ragman who brings the mummer back to life, kills the man and rapes the woman. Inequality and oppression, conflict and intolerance are the first emotions and concepts experienced. He champion’s equality and nullity, all classes shall be equal in death. Kane and Charmagne are both descendants of the Ragman and it is Kane who eventually defeats the creature, putting down his great grandfather, the pair of them trapped in the stones for eternity.

Result: A bloody, visceral, slaughterhouse of a novel. Thanks to the beautiful, perfectly paced and chosen prose the violence and horror in this book transcends the usual ‘shrug it off’ affect from your average Doctor Who novel and well and truly frightened me. Rags is a horror story, something the show excels at and this is one of the best ever stabs at it in the Doctor Who universe. Blood spills from every page, as human beings are torn apart in the most horrendous fashions you can feel their pain in their last moments of excruciating agony. Never before has human misery and suffering taken on such presence, a force of its own. Rags is a perfect example of what you can achieve if you destroy the boundaries of what you expect Doctor Who to be….its like rolling around in mud completely naked, a totally filthy experience. And I loved it: 9/10

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Earthworld by Jacqueline Rayner

Plot: The Doctor is back in outer space! Somewhat ironically he finds himself on New Jupiter, a planet which is happily obsessed with all things Earth! Hence a zany trip through Earthworld for the Doctor, Fitz and Anji, menaced by dinosaurs, mad triplets, crooners, robots, knights and all manner of emotional problems…

Top Doc: He is extremely self confident again and unconcerned by the superficial. He realises the only way he can make his sonic screwdriver work is to distract himself whilst he is using it! He is described as being a caged tiger when he is locked up and shows Anji a flash of despair once they are, a twinge of memory from Seeing I. Anji thinks he’s got a dreamy voice and is sexy without being attracted to him in any way (thank God…we’ve had enough of that!). Says he never screams. He thinks Sam is a man and has no memory of Gallifrey, he agrees with Fitz when he says it would be a good place for a holiday. His nasty streak is still very much apparent, he never shies away from assigning blame and he reminds President Hoover of his responsibility of locking up his kids and driving them insane. He doesn’t remember he can turn his body off. When offered the chance to regain his memories at the climax he jumps at the chance but really doesn’t show that much disappointment when it all goes tits up. He doesn’t realise it but Fitz is protecting him from his dark secret.

Scruffy Git: The best Fitz book so far by a million miles. Rayner gets his voice so perfect it is enough to wish she wrote every other book. He gets insulted when he is described as ‘just’ a pleb. After he is copied into an android all of his memories surface and he goes through a terrible identity crisis and the android copy ends up whimpering in a corner when he thinks of being left behind by the Doctor again. Turns out his real self has similar thoughts, but not as strong, he just thinks of himself as a fake. He likes a laugh, knows he falls in love too often and hides behind other personalities because they make him more confident. The only person he would risk his life for is the Doctor. His philosophy is if it looks female, shag it. For a moment he wonders if he is invulnerable as ‘fake Fitz’ because he cannot remember bleeding since being ‘remembered’ and then, hilariously, cuts himself. When strolling through his memories he realises how many girls he has been out with and wonders if he has commitment issues!
The only woman he ever loved was Fillipa and she clears up all these issues when brought to him in VR, a part of his mind that is telling him he is REAL, he needs to stop wallowing in self-pity and start living his life. He realises the Doctor needs to discover what happened to Gallifrey in his own time, not a sudden shock that will destroy him like last time and vows to look after him until he is better.

Career Nazi: A stunning re-introduction for Anji after her travesty of a debut. She is already thinking of the room on the TARDIS as HER room and halfway through she has the disturbing thought of automatically thinking of further adventures with the Doctor. She finds Fitz’s all pervading knowledge of time travel patronising and at one point she tries to think of one positive thing to say about him, and fails. The emails she sends to Dave are very Anji, but also very touching. She compares their living situation with a flat share she once lived. She cannot believe she used to worry about work deadlines given her current hectic lifestyle! She has only ever relied on herself, she can adapt to new situations. Fitz thinks she shouts so much because she is short! She knows she doesn’t have patience or the ability to laugh at herself. She realises, despite everything, she loved Dave deeply and aches for him throughout the story. Anji finally lets her guard down during the beautiful climax and joins the Doctor in the butterfly room to experience new life and ends up weeping in his chest.

Foreboding: Fitz’s inconsistent memory is set up here, since he has been remembered his old and new memories are all hanging about on the surface and his old ones refuse to be buried.

  Twists: The opening featuring caveman, dinosaurs and robots pretty much sums up the craziness of the book! There is a terrorist group called ANJI! The domestic drama with the President, his wife, their chief technician and the kids is a fabulous back-story. The resulting story goes that the President wanted kids but could not bear them so his wife secretly took sperm from the chief technician and had the triplets. Hanstrum then killed Elisabethan but the President thought it was the kids and locked them up which sent them insane. The resulting psychotic pair winds up killing for pleasure, causing much of the problems in this book. There is a scene with a Dino versus a Sphinx! Even more crazily, Fitz goes up against Elvis in a death match! We only realise that Fitz is android when he explodes! The climax is very poignant, with Asia killed and the remaining trips screaming for their dead sister but re-united with their mother. In a moment where we realise how much both Fitz and TARDIS love the Doctor he asks the machine to stop him from using the memory machine.

Funny bits: I have decided that Jac Rayner is a gloriously funny person because like her earlier/later Wolfsbane (whichever way you want to look at it) it is crammed full of great jokes (or annoying post modern reference if you are anal sort). Fitz has told Anji that they used to travel around in a stroppy redhead but Anji so isn’t going there. The Doctor shouts out “Number 17!” to which Anji is as bemused as him, the best ever use of the horrendous number escape plans! Anji wants to get a T-shirt printed that says I’M A MAIN CHARACTER, DON’T KILL ME. The cultural inaccuracies are hilarious (War Machines delivering post, fishy chips, cheese on toes, a Herbivore is a monster who only eats blokes called Herb, etc). When a guard yells silence, the Doctor asks if he has a headache. I shouldn’t laugh but Elvis gets a bullet in the chest. Fitz is so inept at fighting he gets his scourge wrapped around his shorts and has the lingering thought that he might die with shorts around his ankles.

Embarrassing bits: Unfortunately yes, occasionally the prose will lurch into some really childish or irrelevant observations. Such as…BIG SCARY ROBOT WITH GUN! Or some such…

Result: Jac Rayner is clearly finding her feet as an author but there is so much here that is good it is clear she will go on to great things. Her treatment of the regulars is exemplary and she manages to update the new readers about the Doctor and Fitz and re-introduces (as a real person) Anji with effortless ease. She does this without resorting to cheap tricks, getting us close to these people and their insecurities and allowing us to see how much they have lost but how much they gained by finding each other. The book is blissfully funny in places and the main plot regarding the trips is well worth sticking with for the heartbreaking conclusion. The only criticism I have is the prose, which is far too chatty for its own good and the plot, which is thin but made up for by the top-notch characterisation. The end result is an extremely entertaining book, one that clears up a lot of backstory for the regulars and sets them forward for some fab adventures. I found it pretty addictive, especially in the excellent second half and fell in love with Anji all over again: 8/10

Escape Velocity by Colin Brake

Plot: Two rivals are competing each other in a race to get into space, both being aided by the monstrous Kulan for very different reasons. The Doctor has a date with Fitz and he’s only been waiting over a century. And a woman called Anji Kapoor is about to get a change in lifestyle she never dreamed of…

Top Doc: This should have been great; it should have been the Doctor regaining his ship and his friends in triumphant style. But something went horribly wrong and the Doctor’s reunion Fitz, his realisation that his ship is a TARDIS and his subsequent escape from Earth is woefully mundane. He is described as a protector, a magician and a storyteller, Anji trusts him instantly because he reminds her of her father when she was younger. She finds him easy going and nice, too very boring features in most people so she cannot understand why he is so fascinating. He grabs Fitz with a great hug of joy when he realises who he is. He recalls the TARDIS as his only remnant of home, remembering that she is his oldest friend. Annoyingly he is somewhat absent from the climax, leaving Anji to make stupid mistakes and her boyfriend to get stabbed and fried. He considers himself a citizen of the universe and his piloting skills of the TARDIS are still bloody awful. And at least he doesn’t like Babylon 5 (good man).

Scruffy Git: Fitz returns to the book range to provide some continuity between the Doctors old life and new. His characterisation is pretty standard stuff, still a clumsy and awkward action hero, hopeless with the ladies (“I find it difficult to keep relationships of any lengths”) and trustworthy. Anji thinks he is a bit weird but gentle. They do have a good chemistry, his scruffiness and stupidity setting her off on one and it looks like they will make a good pair in the hands of a more sophisticated writer. Fitz is awkward around the Doctor and his complete lack of memory and this is something worth following up too. Hilariously, he walks into the TARDIS thinking it has recovered and smacks his nose right into the interior wall! At this point he knows of Gallifrey’s demise.

Career Nazi: Introducing Anji, one of the most underrated companions in Doctor Who. You couldn’t tell from this book but Anji would offer a great deal to the series, the first time we have ever got to experience the adventures of the Doctor from the point of view of a level headed normal person. There are no gimmicks, she is a career woman, level headed and with her feet on the ground and there will be lots of times in future books when her very 2001 viewpoint on future and past events will delight.

  She is in a long term relationship with Dave which is going no where, pretty stroppy with him most of the time but loves him all the same even if he can make her angrier than any other person (oh yeah, that’s love alright!). She is described as sharp, intelligent, with hidden depths, quick, attentive and ruthless. Brilliantly, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and often has to remind the Doctor and Fitz about what they should actually be worrying about! She is calm and logical in a crisis and very proud of her work in the City as a Futures Trader, three things that have turned much of fandom against her and helped me to coin her category name. She is devastated by the death of her boyfriend and even more mortified to find herself on some alien plain at the books climax.

Foreboding: Control, a malevolent presence in the books makes an appearance here. The rocky plain with the shadow grazing towards the TARDIS mirrors the ending of An Unearthly Child beautifully and provides some excitement for the next story, our first one set in space for ages!

Twists: Too be perfectly honest that aren’t that many moments that standout, especially since Colin Brake has a horrible habit of explaining characters motives and plans before they happen (see Embarrassing bits…). I did like the way the Doctor bought the bar and called it St Louis so he had a place to meet Fitz. And the timing of the TARDIS was cool, completing its healing just as the Doctor needs it to get over to the Kulan ship. Oh and Dave being stabbed to death and then fried by rocket fuel was pretty harsh too.

Embarrassing bits: Pretty much the whole book really. The first 50 pages are astonishing devoid of events. The dialogue for most characters is dire, especially Tyler and Dudoin who come across as terrible Bond villains. Tyler actually admits to a perfect stranger he is working with aliens! Sa’Motta reveals his plan to betray Dudoin to Fitz, a man he doesn’t know from Adam! The Doctor luckily manages to pilot his ship, a machine he has lost all memory of to exactly the right place. Anji accidentally triggers a weapons system and wipes out half the Kulan fleet. The Kulan are so stupid they thin they are now in civil war and start shooting at each other! Dave, having been stabbed to death then has to suffer the indignity of being frizzled alive by rocket engines…just to make sure Anji has no reason to stay. Speaking of Anji, she actually has the nerve to crave something exciting and to want to visit somewhere truly alien…for God sakes Brake this is hardly the most subtle of writing!

Result: Oh. My. God. Who on Earth thought closing one of the best arcs in any novel range with this shite? Lance Parkin showed us how traditional Doctor could be done in the novel series with his beautiful Father Time and now Colin Brake demonstrates perfectly why the books shouldn’t mimic the TV series too much. This is bland muck; written so a six year old would feel insulted, with some seriously shallow characterisation, a yawnathon plot, some tedious aliens and a climax that is awful it has to be read to be believed. As an introduction to Anji it sucks (and probably has much to do with her reputation) because it is so poor and she reads as nothing more than a character profile. I cringed with embarrassment throughout most of this book, wanting for it to be over so I could move on to something more interesting. A serious error of judgement, ending the arc on this one, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth after all that sweetness: 2/10