Wednesday, 31 August 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 August 2011

World Game written by Terrance Dicks

Plot: Those dastardly Players are back and this time they are fiddling about with the lives of Napoleon, Wellington and Nelson to ensure a devastating future for the planet Earth and a game that will play on until the entire human race is plunged into war.

Oh My Giddy Aunt: The characterisation of Troughton’s Doctor is as good as you would expect from the script editor of his last season and the co-writer of his last story. What Dicks achieves here is nothing short of a miracle; he is no longer a renegade, not yet and exile, the Doctor is an unwitting agent of the CIA on Gallifrey You have got to admire the gall of the man, literally having his own cake and eating it, weaving together his own continuity from The War Games and his and Robert Holmes’ blatant disregard for it in The Five Doctors and The Two Doctors. Here he manages to open out a whole new series of adventures for the second Doctor, one where he has no ties, a functioning Type 97 TARDIS and is kept on a leash by the Time Lords. Frankly the possibilities are endless and whilst he has the Doctor head off to Space Station Camera to visit Dastari at the end of World Game it is a real shame the Past Doctor Adventures ended when they did because I could imagine a few more stories of this ilk chronically his post Trial, pre exile escapades!

He never stole the TARDIS, he just borrowed it. The Doctor is a person of great intelligence, courage and ability with a soft and gentle face. The Doctor blames the eighth incarnation for convincing him to contact the Time Lords that leads to his capture (The Eight Doctors). One of his motives for leaving Gallifrey was to escape the endless intrigue, back stabbing and double crossing. Serena is from one of the oldest and most respected family’s on Gallifrey and he objects to her presence on his mission. Cheekily he plans to steal the TARDIS and strand Serena at the first opportunity, figuring that a contract made under sentence of death cannot be morally binding. Brilliantly he is described as shooting into a room as if fired from a canon! He prefers his perpetual TARDIS without the functioning chameleon circuit as it would extremely embarrassing to lose your ship because you have forgotten what it looks like! He finds humans fascinating because you can never tell what they are capable of. I love it when he guzzles down champagne because he has never been on an expense account before! He treats Serena to shopping and dining and she is worried by his incorrigible frivolity! The Doctor is reckless and insanely brave and in this novel he manages add saving Wellington, Napoleon and Nelson to his CV. A mysterious wizard with dark knowledge at his fingertips? The Doctor is often tempted to use his fore knowledge of the future to save lives. There are scenes between the Doctor and Napoleon that I would have loved to have seen on screen where they circle each other like a pair of wary dogs. It is lovely hoe he comes to value Serena’s companionship as they dine and share tales of their pasts. He adores tinkering with the submarine. I love how he is written very much in the post War Games mould, this is a Doctor who has got nothing to lose any more so he leaps forward to a month after Waterloo to see if they succeed in stopping the Countess and even more frivolously he takes Tallyrand well into to the future to show him what will become of the Earth if they do not stop her. The Doctor’s furious anger at Serena’s death matches the readers own and the way he handles his grief, sitting on a stone bench throughout the night as the city prepares for war around him, is very moving. I adored the moment when with surprising and worrying ease the Doctor crushes his conscience and doesn’t step forward to help Serena’s killer. His suicidal plan to impersonate Napoleon on the battlefield and confuse the French troops is priceless! He ponders as to why he can never truly hate who he is supposed to or like those he should look up to. I love his wily ways, bargaining with the CIA to ensure a formal tribute is made for Serena, her death publicly acknowledged and memorialised and her name added to the Gallifreyan Roll of Honour. Just go back and read this paragraph again, that is some fine characterisation. Where has this Terrance Dicks been hiding since Players?

Foreboding: The Doctor asks for his TARDIS back and seeks out his own companion, Jamie, and asks for him to have his memory altered so he thinks they have left Victoria studying graphology which leads very nicely into The Two Doctors. A Time Ring is mentioned but he wouldn’t get to use one until Genesis of the Daleks. World Game is blissfully confident with how it handles its continuity and throws in a Raston Warrior Robot (The Five Doctors), mentions of the Eighth Doctor (The Eight Doctors), the Players (who the sixth and Eighth Doctor’s would come up against in Players and Endgame) and he even finds time to introduce the Doctor’s psychic paper for the very first time (2005 NuWho). Oh and the Doctor keeps his Napoleon ensemble…which he puts on again in Time and the Rani! He cuts and splices all this continuity together in a way only somebody who is intimately involved in the series could do and by shamelessly making his points and not labouring them.

Twists: That is a truly memorable wrap around cover – Troughton dressed up like Napoleon – finally a good use of photoshop! An Oubliette is a superior Time Lord cell for important prisoners. Temporal dissolution is to never have existed at all. I loved the description of the Revolution devouring its children, many a head rolling due to fake charges. The Countess attempts to assassinate Wellington and Nelson during the one time that they met and thus altering the events of Trafalgar and Waterloo. She then attempts to build a submarine and offer it to Napoleon to sink the British fleet. I loved the scenes with the Raston Warrior Robot – it fires so many javelins into a barrel it looks like a hedgehog, fires one straight through a soldiers heart and extends its arm into a blade, Terminator 2 style, and decapitates a character! The Doctor manages to blow it up from one of the submarine torpedoes but being indestructible as it is it simply reforms like quicksilver. We get to visit a world where the Countess has one, it is an apocalyptic ruin with the whole world firing rockets at each other. The Grand Design is to mastermind the Earth into a chess game of war with the countries as the different species. That’s pretty obscene actually. He killed Serena…I cannot believe that Dicks had the courage to kill off a character that we were starting to grow fond off! Anybody who is used to his sugary nostalgia trip novels will be aware that this is not the sort of underhanded shock that he deploys and this subversion of his usual storytelling provides the best shock in one of his novels for many a year. The Historical Notes are a lovely, thoughtful touch, a coda that allows us to see these historical figures to their deaths.

Funny Bits: Serena snootily tells the Doctor that she will be his supervisor. You can imagine his reaction.
The spanking new Type 97 is apparently a massive improvement on the Doctor’s old relic!
‘I was saved by Napoleon’s chicken pies!’
Luco the traitor is dragged away down the corridor and we here ‘No! No! Not the Mind Probe!’ floating back. You have to love how Dicks takes the piss out of his own work!

Embarrassing Bits: Did we really need to pop back to The War Games and meet up with Lady Jennifer and Carstairs again? The Players seem to pluck dangers from the Doctor’s mind to use against him and fortunately they seem to have been watching a few Terrance Dicks stories too! The Vampire and the Raston Warrior Robot both seemed like a step to far into self plagiarism and yet the former is handled with a great gag (see funny bits) the latter features in some of the books best scenes. Go figure.

Result: An extremely entertaining and quick read returning to us the Terrance Dicks who wrote Target books that we used to wrap ourselves up in our duvets to devour. This is far and away his best book for the BBC and matches his best work for Virgin as well, it’s a gorgeous trip through some very rich history that brings to life some great mythic figures and leaves you gasping at how fabulous this would have been on the telly. Dicks’ prose is as light as champagne and its effect is just as effervescent, it is deliriously enjoyable. He manages to tell a fast paced traditional Doctor Who story within an innovative new life for the second Doctor. This is my Terrance Dicks writing Doctor Who books again; efficiently plotted, well characterised and pleasingly educational. A joy to read: 8/10

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Tomorrow Windows by Jonathan Morris

Plot: Alien auctions for planets, Tate Modern blown up, nuclear blasts, God worship, sinister lava lams, killer cars, politics, ghostly apparitions, crappy effects, mind reading, deep freezed superstars, pirate cities, Dalek and Cybermen knock offs….this book has it all. And a chapter set in Lewisham.

Top Doc: He has really found the fun since sorting out the trouble with the broken down universe hasn’t he? This marks as real development because the Doctor has come through his trauma with a brand new lust for life and it is extremely infectious. It is wonderful to see him having fun with some of his confused memories and he is utterly delighted to be told that he defeated the Yeti’s in the Underground, the shop window dummies at Ealing and the Dinosaurs in St James’ Park! His relationship with the Kendroid ('Ken we had a deal, I defeat the aliens from outer space, you get the buses running on time!') is really gigglesome. However he has lost none of his bite and he is extremely sarcastic and edgy at times ('Mankind will learn and it can’t do that if it can flick to the back of the book and look up the answers'). His philosophy: 'Why waste time when you can do it all in a mad rush?' His anger at feeling powerless to stop a planet being destroyed is extremely palpable ('You stupid, stupid fools!'). Saving planets never makes up for the ones he has lost. He has a nagging feeling he is in deficit, that he is seeking redemption. He feels there is always a way and when one doesn’t present itself he gets very angry. The Doctor’s favourite place to be lost is his thoughts. He condemns Prubert for introducing the selfish memes ('Do you have any idea what this idiot has done?'). He is never cruel and he cares for all. He and Trix finally bridge their differences, he realises how Martin has violated her and kisses her, stroking her hair and comforting her.

Scruffy Git: Fitz is still going super strong even after all this time. He looks into a Tomorrow Window and sees a toothless old man…then it shifts to a handsome chap with an olive skinned bride. It gets him thinking about the future and he is very unsure. He has been living in the moment for so long he has forgotten to think beyond it. He’s scared if he leaves the Doctor he will regret what he has left behind. One day, maybe soon he will get a life. He doesn’t know where he belongs, he has no family, no career, no way of determining his life. His adventures being hypnotised by a car would be patently absurd if it was written with such frightening conviction. His Poirot scene (more on that later) is truly excellent and easily the best Fitz moment in his entire run until this point, displaying his wit, his intelligence and his physical ability. Oh and its hilarious too!

Identity Tricks: What started out as a one trick wonder is slowly developing into one of the more interesting companions the eighth Doctor has ever travelled with. What I love about Trix is that she is clearly so vulnerable underneath her bravado, it is very appealing, especially because you only see it when her guard is down such as it is in the latter stages of this novel. Saving planets is what she does. Delightfully (and imaginatively…when you find out the reason why) the book adopts a first person narrative for Trix’s scenes, which allows us to get closer to her than ever before. She is confronted with a cot full of mutilated babies about to be slaughtered and tries desperately to grasp a persona who can deal with the horror, further proof she is hiding from reality in these acts of hers. She cannot remember which story she is supposed to tell, she has spent so long trying not to remember that sometimes she can almost forget (which later transpires to be a deadly secret about her father, who was rushed to hospital after a confrontation, Trix angry and ashamed at what she had done). Annoyingly the Doctor can see through all of her disguises (even the Trix Macmillan one, which we later discover is genuinely an act and not who she really is) and see her, the real her. When it transpires that Martin has been reading her thoughts throughout, getting off her secrets Trix feels sick to the stomach that her privacy has once again been abused (after this and Reo she feels a girl cannot call her mind her own anymore!). She isn’t even sure if she remembers her past anymore because she has spent so long trying to bury it. In her best scene to date she manages to convince Martin that he is the most gorgeous bloke in the universe (with her thoughts alone) just long enough to get close to him and kick him in the nuts.

Foreboding: The Doctor looks into the Tomorrow Window and sees many possible futures but the image finally settles on…Christopher Eccleston!!! Trix’s confrontation with her father will return to haunt her in The Gallifrey Chronicles.

Twists: The Tomorrow Windows have been set up in Tate Modern to give people the ‘Gist of Things to Come’. Brilliantly when the Doctor looks into one it shows him several ‘possible’ futures (including Rowan Atkinson, Alan Davies, Eddie Izzard, Michael Jayston) and also some events (the Daleks/ the Time War?, the Nimon (Seasons of Fear). After making a speech Ken Livingstone’s head splits to reveal an electron bomb (leading to the brilliant line, 'The Mayor of London is about to explode!') and Tate Modern is reduced to rubble (hurrah!). The tribal war dance on Valuensis is brilliant. I love the ‘only God can save us now’ situation because all the jokes become suddenly, terrifyingly real and you realise these people are really willing to destroy their entire planet for one more glimpse at their God and that the Doctor can do nothing to prevent it. I love the Ceccecs, what a fabulously scary idea. All the auctioneers are marvellous creations and they all get a funny (in the spirit of taking the piss…Alien Bodies also gets ribbed!) introductory chapter (my favourite was Question Intonation: ‘Why have the creatures chosen to name themselves after a mode of speech. It is my firmly held belief that they do it to be annoying.'). The visit to Welwyn’s Gaia Sphere is brief but memorable, especially when he realises it has reached puberty! The Aztales are very memorable, their never neding conflict and their pretense of humanity is frightening. The Astral Flower, one of the natural wonders of the universe, is beautifully depicted in print and it destruction is tragic but similarly beautiful. The cause of all these planets having their populations wiped out is all down to the loathsome Martin, who is 14,000 years old and (basically) wants a load of cash to settle down (with Trix!). He wants to sell all the planets on the Galactic Heritage list but the troublesome populations need to be dealt with first so he employed Prubert Gastridge to pretend to be the God of these worlds and introduce selfish memes into their meme pools that will ultimately bring about their destruction. Then Dittero Shandy can take the auctioneers on a tour of the galaxy and get the bidding rolling! Gotta love Fitz’s Poirot sequence; proving peoples innocence ('I’m sorry Vorshagg, as much as you’d like to be I’m afraid you are not the murderer'), someone pointing out absurdities ('What would a lava lamp want with a planet?') and revealing the murderer to be Dittero himself ('I had to get the highest possible price by any mean necessary! I am an estate agent!'). Absolute genius. The pain Trix goes through is horrible but her revenge ('Well Mr Mind Reader, listen to this, you disgusting, effluent creep. I would rather die than kiss you. I can think of nothing more revolting then you, your face and your body. You sick, nasty pervert. I think I’ll kick you again') is very sweet. Martin fulfils Astrabel’s prophecy that he will die on Gadrahadrahon and shoots him but Charlton is there to show the younger Astrabel his notes.

Funny bits: Zoberly Chesterfield’s breasts seem to be forming an escape attempt from her brassiere. Prubert Gastridge is a hilarious reminder of all those ex-Doctor Who actors…once famous and now relegated to doing panto at seaside resorts and voice work! When it comes to saving planets from spooky alien tentacles stuff the Doctor is so 'da man!' 'What sort of person leaves a nuclear bomb unguarded? I mean its just shoddy, what is the universe coming to?' / 'God has excellent time managing skills.' / 'Any sudden moves and its hors d’oevres!' All the chatter about Earth is hilarious, especially, 'No other planet in the universe has produced a Rolf Harris!' and 'Ooh a moon…what do they call it?' 'They call it "the moon".' The line, 'The people get the government they deserve' is marvellously apt. One chapter is called The Tomorrow Peephole. The running joke about Gallifrey is perhaps the funniest thing in a book full of laugh out loud jokes…talk about taking the p*ss in style!

Result: Screaming with imagination, excitement, fantastic jokes and with a sense of whimsy that is impossible to dislike, this is one of those rare Doctor Who books that deserves its chart topping position. Every page has gags, dialogue and plot revelations that sparkled and the sheer number of ideas thrown at you is breathtaking. It is deceptively simple to read but contains a lot to think about when you are done rolling about on the floor with laughter, much of the humour having a touch of horror about it. The regulars gleam with interest, especially Trix who (again) is treated to some fascinating developments. Johnny Morris is one of my top three Doctor Who authors, he makes his novels look so effortless and yet clearly a lot of work has been put in here. Sublime humour (“None may sup the sacred soup!”) and a twisty turny plot make this a ruthlessly entertaining book. A top five (of all ranges) book: 10/10