Monday, 19 December 2011

Prisoner of the Daleks written by Trevor Baxendale

Plot: When the TARDIS jumps a time track lands back in the height of the Dalek Empire, the Doctor has to use all of his wits to prevent his greatest enemies from using time travel to turn the tide of Dalek history and irrevocably change the events of the Time War…

Mockney Wanderer: A huge glob of spit in the eye for all those people that dismiss the NSAs as having poor or no characterisation of the Doctor. Not only does Trevor Baxendale perfectly capture David Tennant’s wide-eyed Mockney Doctor but he also manages to scare us with the Doctor’s uncontrollable terror of the Daleks. There are some beautiful observations about the relationship between the Doctor and Daleks and the humans behave in equally obscene ways to the point where the Doctor begins to feel sympathy for one of the tortured creatures. It’s a remarkably intense portrayal of the Doctor and one of his best in print. Exceptionally good.

At the beginning of the book the Doctor and the TARDIS are having something of a domestic and she refuses to take him anywhere interesting anymore. I loved the observation that the Doctor has gotten on the wrong side of enough spiders in his time to keep well clear. It is noted that he wears a very tight fitting suit (ummm). His escape method is to tap out a morse code with a teaspoon! When he sees something of Martha and Donna in Stella the Doctor feels a longing for her to go with him. He never truly understands what happens to people when they die. He has too many bad memories, too many nightmares about the Daleks to feel anything but revulsion for them. He understands the creatures implacably, ‘They want to drag you into a long drawn out war because that’s what they like. Destruction, killing, slaughter, extermination. It’s what they do.’ The Doctor gets angry when he sees the remains of Auros; he finds it a stupid waste to destroy the planet since a self-inflicted wound of this intensity saves the Daleks from bothering. It’s the Doctor’s cold, quiet terror of the Daleks that makes them so frightening. His violent, suicidal rant at Bowman is genuinely disturbing. When the humans start tormenting the Dalek mutant the Doctor questions whether the Daleks have already won, losing their humanity. When the Dalek lets rip its first agonising scream the Doctor sinks to his knees in the corridor – this is some remarkably vivid characterisation. He longs for his companions of old, somebody who understands. He understands perfectly when Koral admits she is the last of her kind and if she dies there is nothing left of her civilisation. The Dalek prisoner thinks the Doctor has come to gloat at the end of its life. He tells the creature that their reign of destruction will end in burning and that there is a storm coming. In a rare moment of levity the Doctor is thrilled at the very notion that he is seeing something new that he has never seen before when they land on Arkheon. Apparently he hates name dropping (yeah, right) and is deeply embarrassed that he has to tell the Daleks who he is! It’s a great moment, he whispers his name to a Dalek and its headlamps flash involuntarily and its gun stick twitches. The Doctor is clearly revered within the Dalek echelons since the meeting between him and the Inquisitor General is made with a shivering thrill. The Doctor likes impossible. Dalek X sums up the Doctor as having above average intelligence, continually changing his appearance to avoid detection and relying on fortuity. He hates continuity (yay!). I loved Bowman’s comment, ‘Don’t cry, you’ll set the Doctor off, you know what a wimp he is.’ Its great to see the relationship between the Doctor and Bowman, how he is forced into respecting the Time Lord by his sheer drive of positivity and determination to survive. He insults, abuses and generally distrusts the Doctor throughout but before the end of the book they exchange slight smiles. There is a great image of the unrelenting tenth Doctor visiting Dalek X trapped beneath the surface of Arkheon never to be discovered and telling him that the Daleks always lose because they never learn, because everybody in the universe is better than them. I questioned the logic of having the Doctor travelling alone for the last of the Tennant books but Prisoner of the Daleks totally justifies the idea. He is a lonely force of nature and absolutely riveting to read about.

Foreboding: The Time War is mentioned several times. It must be tempting for the Doctor to tweak events whilst he has managed impossibly skip back before the War and change things in the Time Lords favour.

Twists: That’s a fantastic cover; it had me practically salivating when I first saw it! There is a delicious Nation-esque beginning set in a macho location with the doctor falling into a logic trap like a fly caught in honey. The mention of the Dalek heartbeat and the awesome comic strip Dalek font caused a fan boy thrill to ripple through me. Stella has a piece of exploded fuel tank jutting from her thigh and bleeds profusely before being exterminated; this is one book that does not respect its nice characters. What about the image of the icy Dalek, dripping with icicles. Dalek armour learns and adapts. Bounty hunters receive a bonus for every Dalek eyestalk they bring back. The Dalek Generation are orphans who have lost their parents in the Dalek War with the Earth Empire. There are enough self-destruct explosives inside a Dalek to keep a bomb disposal squad busy for a month. Spooks are Earth military intelligence agents. We are greeted by Auros on fire, the planet burning and breaking apart. The Osterhagen Principle is to detonate warheads to stop the enemy getting hold of the planet. In an inevitable moment of mass slaughter the Daleks surround the Auron fleet and destroy the lead ship as an example of why they should surrender. Page 78 features a truly spine chilling revelation about the Daleks, that they can blast a human to death in a split second but they deliberately turn down their weapons when exterminating their victims to make sure it hurts and lasts. The Dalek mutant is described as ‘something pale and wet moved like a slug amongst the exposed machinery.’ They gouge the mutant free of its housing like an oyster from a shell and its accompanied by a foul stench of pure wrongness. The dying Dalek is a ‘distended brain sac lying like a rotten melon, squid like arms coiled around the carcass.’ The Arkheon Threshold is a tear in time and space at the heart of a planet torn asunder by the Daleks. A pale, wraith like world, shrouded in mists and shimmering ice with one half of the planet a glowing molten core exposed to space like a luminous scab. The Dalek planet splitters are like hitting an apple with an axe. Imagine reaching the mist shrouded molten rock at the edge of a planet? The exposed molten core of Arkheon broils and spits cauldrons of fire into space. Daleks love prisoners; humiliation, torment and slavery are their thing. The Dalek experimentation facility is called the Black Hole because once you go in you never come out. How scary is the thought of Daleks with surgical instruments instead of suckers? The Wayfarer is blown up in front of Bowman and its remains scars the snow for hundreds of metres. The truth is that the Daleks are losing and they want to use the Arkheon Threshold to change time and turn things in their favour. Anger is something that every Dalek knows. One truly magnificent scene sees a Dalek crushed by an invisible magnetic fist and the creature inside is forced through the splits in the metal armour! The story ends on a fantastic planet-bursting explosion, which ruptures and disembowels the most devastating Dalek warship.

Funny Bits: Tenten 10 is the decimal planet!
‘Between them an your lot, it’s a wonder there are any planets left in the galaxy!’
Apparently the TARDIS is designed to blend in and come and go like a whisper in the night…what went wrong?

Result: A fantastic read. Unexpectedly adult and graphic with some devastating psychological moments, this is a cut way above your average NSA. What I really loved about this story was the mention of the mock sixties things like ‘Space Major’ and some of the more Saward-esque macho dialogue, it’s a real love letter to the Dalekmania that spread through the classic series whilst never forgetting the fantastic innovations of the new series. The Doctor is really put through the wringer and makes some fascinating observations about the Daleks and we learn so many new and wonderful things about the creatures beyond their ability to exterminate. Add to all of this Trevor Baxendale’s most accomplished prose to date, some stunning imagery and a cracking final scene and you have a book which scores very highly on every count. I wouldn’t want every book to be this intense but it makes for a gripping change of pace: 10/10

Friday, 16 December 2011

Spiral Scratch written by Gary Russell

Plot: Lampreys, Doctor’s and Mel’s…oh my! The sixth Doctor has to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the whole of space and time, over and over and over and over and over and over…

Theatrical Traveller: Gary Russell has always been able to capture the sixth Doctor really well. I think he has a definitive image of this much criticised incarnation, one that is far fluffier and cuddlier than the guy we saw on the television. He pushed him in that direction with Big Finish but Colin Baker was still on hand there to give the Doctor some bite and he has really let this far more pleasant Doctor flourish in his novels and yet he still can’t resist leaking in some of his more theatrical and annoying extremes. They are part and parcel of the character no matter how much you try and dress him up as something more approachable. This is perhaps the ultimate sixth Doctor novel (don’t mistake that with the best), a multi Doctor story that finally has the guts to be about various assortments of the same Doctor and we are introduced to some intriguing alternatives. I could bang about the problems with this novel as long as you want to hear them I still couldn’t deny that Spiral Scratch leads up to a moment of self sacrifice with emotional consequences rarely seen in the books and with a final chapter that beautifully explores how much we have come to love the sixth Doctor. It may contradict Head Games (who cares?) but this is a very worthy final end for my favourite Doctor.

The Doctor always won arguments. What on Earth was he wearing? The Doctor has a nice smile even if his fashion sense borders on the disastrous. When he beams it is easy to feel warm and comfortable around him. One of the alternate Doctors is black cloaked with a scar on his face and comes from a universe where England is still an Empire with Empress Magararita is on the throne. The Doctor has a Tigger look and curly hair like Diana Ross! He can be a big baby sometimes. He threatens to punch Rummas on the nose for all of his interference. Sophisticated, elegant and remarkable or a blowfish with an over inflated sense of self importance. The Doctor would happily sacrifice himself, use himself as bait. I love the myriad of sixth Doctor’s from alternative realities – a little touch of magic when we see the Doctor and Evelyn and the Doctor and Frobisher. I know some people get upset when writes suggest these different ranges exist in different universes but as an excuse to bring together all these wonderful sixth Doctor’s we have been privy to I can think of worse storytelling techniques. All of them are sacrificing themselves to save reality – what a guy. Each an every sixth Doctor is giving his life to ensure that his personal timeline will live on. Looking at the stars he has saved the Doctor thinks his sacrifice was worth it. He feels he has had a good innings and cannot complain this time.

Screaming Violet: Its really odd that Gary Russell, champion of Melanie Bush in the Doctor Who novels should get her so totally wrong in her last book. The Mel we saw on TV was a bubbly, perky, melodramatic fitness freak with a lust for adventure and totally in love with both of her Doctor’s. The Mel of Spiral Scratch is a depressed, downbeat, miserable, bitchy, swearing, moaning sort of girl who argues with everything the Doctor says. It’s the worst thing about the book by far and a real shame because had this been corrected Spiral Scratch would have scored even higher. Russell tries to fill in a lot of the gaps in Mel’s life but a lot of it doesn’t ring very true (the Shag Palace!!!).

Described as a wrapped up boiled sweet, Mel is wearing her pink and white puffed up costume from Time and the Rani which should give you a clue as to where this is leading. With Mel its all black and white unlike the Doctor who can really spin a yarn. Lately Mel has had a pang for Sussex and her parents, a comfortable living room at Christmas, dates, walnuts and figgy pudding. She’s also have odd memories of a troublesome sister… Oddly whilst Helen Lamprey is being friend Mel’s only thought are to punch her lights out and thinks lovely thoughts like ‘die bitch die!’ When they first moved South Mel’s mum always threw impressive dinner parties to try and fit in. I rather like Melina the slave, its an intriguing take on the Doctor/Mel dynamic. There’s a lovely scene where we think we are with our Mel and the Doctor but it transpires it is Melanie Baal the Silurian! Mel sneakily tries to find out about her own future. Does Mel have a sister called Anabel that she knows nothing about? For Mel Pease Pottage is the home that says love and the TARDIS is the home that says friendship. Mel broke her eighteen month sister like a biscuit? She isn’t sure what happened to Peri and she isn’t sure the Doctor knows either. I really liked it when Mel, Melanie Baal and Melina all join forces to save the Doctor – the madness starts to cohere. The Doctor is a father figure to Mel, they needed each other.

Foreboding: Lakertya is on the edge of this system. Turns out the Doctor was dying all along when the Rani’s tractor beam buffers the TARDIS!

Twists: Chapter one is surreal but it certainly peaked my interest. The story of Dominique and Julien is lovely, a fairytale of two green children who turned up in a village to cure its ills. I could have read a whole book in this vein. Several versions of the Doctor turn up in the console room to warn him of the Lamprey. Chapter four is actually a very beautiful piece of writing, probably the best thing Russell had written to date as Mel’s parents say goodbye to her dead sister before moving away. Rummas obtained a TARDIS and nips into burning buildings and saves books that would otherwise be lost. Lots of dead Rummas’ and dead Doctor’s? There are temporal shenanigans centring on the library on Carsus, a pan dimensional rip, a scratch right through the groove of the vortex spiral causing jumps and gashes. When a Lamprey snatches away somebody time makes adjustments and installs a new person to take their place and fiddles with the details to make sure everybody thinks that has always been the case. Maddeningly (but also quite fun) you can’t tell if you are reading about the same character from scene to scene or one from a different universe! In one universe we visit Utopiana City wrecked by the Lamprey, chewing up concrete towers and spitting out the rubble to crush the inhabitants. Chapter seven is a moonlit flit through various realities whilst the lamprey devours the best of each reality. Cleverly the story crosses through interstitial time and tells the same narrative with different versions of the Doctor and Mel. The lamprey devour time, extinguishing entire multiverse of realities just to fed. It needs a focus, someone to home in on and break through into that reality and they seek out time sensitives and use them as an anchor when they arrive. Rummas has stolen a Spiral Chamber from Gallifrey. I like how Russell plays the same scenes over from the POV of the opposing characters – pages 137-139 are the same as 41-43. If the Spiral were to become damaged and allow leakage within realties all creation could descend into chaos and only the Lampreys would survive. Monica is the green girl from the opening chapters, the female Lamprey. Sir Bertrand is also a Lamprey who blocked his memories so he could forget who he is. Chapter sixteen features Helen’s party again but this time its told on a space station rather than a country manor house – these parallels are boggling! Rummas caused the moment where chaos was unleashed upon creation. Every action he has taken to go back and prevent what he has caused has been anticipated and negated by the Lampreys. This filth is going to destroy everything, past, present and future just to its bloated existence. The chronon energy the Doctors have built up tears free and kills all of the sixth Doctor’s and the Lampreys.

Embarrassing Bits: A cover more garish than the sixth Doctor’s coat, Simon walked into the bathroom whilst I was reading this in a steamy bath and asked why I was reading a murray mint! Why doesn’t Russell learn from the mistakes of his previous books, like Instruments of Darkness come chapter three there are too many characters and choppy scenes with no momentum. Sometimes the prose is just…yuck (page 100 –‘clearly facing the same treacle effect’). The Last Resort did rather a better job of playing the trick of shifting to a different universe from scene to scene and built up t a spectacularly surreal and exciting climax but then I simply think Paul Leonard’s prose is superior which automatically makes things easier. The Earth Empire, the evil Nazi’s and their space conquering Fuhrer were finally destroyed – given the imagination he displays here surely this is the least imaginative alternative universe imaginable? 117,863 Mel’s – the mind boggles! Oh come on…Mel used to live in ‘the shag palace’ when she was at university and whilst she pretended to be prim and proper she secretly loved it! Mel saying ‘Screw you. Bitch!’ is just plain wrong and following that up with a right hook is even worse! ‘Why are you so pissy all the time?’ is a another horrible Mel line.

Funny Bits:
· We get to read an extract of Benny’s view of the Time Lords – ‘Time Lords are like that. Gits. Pompous gits of the highest order. No one likes them very much. Because they’re gits. Big, fat smelly ones.’ The Doctor mentions it is ‘written I believe by some grumpy Professor or other.’ Mel likes her which is ironic consider she would hate her in Head Games!
· The Doctor wrote ‘The History of Gumblejack fishing in the eighth galaxy’, did signings, dinner speeches and made a fortune and donated it to charities the universe over! He became known as the Great Benefactor! This might be a lie.
· ‘Sometimes you can be infuriating!’ ‘Only sometimes? I’m slipping…’
· Page 153: ‘I’m waiting thirty minutes for your response and using software to speed up your words so I can understand them.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘That wasn’t worth waiting for!’
· ‘It’s alright I always get a twinge when I discover myself dead. I think its times way of telling me to watch myself.’

Result: Ignore the odd horrendous Russell turn of phrase, this book is a kaleidoscope of wacky imagination and clever ideas. There are problems for sure but considering this range has already flogged the alternative universe angle to death Russell manages to find lots more interesting things to do with the premise including a multi Doctor story with the same Doctor, some delicious end of the universe action which feels genuinely apocalyptic and a truly climatic finale with a deeply moving finale chapter. The story is not especially well structured, each chapter feels like a short story in an anthology with some being rather good and others not so but astonishingly there is the odd dribble but on the whole a distinct lack of fan wank. ‘It’s very complicated’ says Mel – too complicated, you could happily snip a handful of characters, dodge a few pointless revelations and make this story a smoother ride. Spiral Scratch is ambitious and brave and even if the author doesn’t quite have the skill to pull off the insanity of the ideas coherently there is still a great deal of fun to be had here: 7/10