Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Roundheads by Mark Gatiss

Plot: The Doctor, Jaime, Polly and Ben are embroiled in the politics surrounding the trial and death of King Charles. But is there a sinister plot that never made it to the history books and can the Doctor make sure that history as he knows stays on the right track?

Oh My Giddy Aunt: Absolutely spot on rendition of the hardest Doctor to capture in print, Mark Gatiss proves just how well he understands this show. His attire looks as though it has seen better days. He loves snow and claps his hands together in child like delight when he spots the roundheads. He still gets hopelessly lost in the TARDIS but there is already a sense that the ship looks after him. He is frequently hilarious, especially when put in awkward situations (such as having to pass Jaime off as a seer of the future and trying to convince Richard Cromwell that his CIVIL WAR book is just jealous propaganda). He was taught hypnosis by the Master. He has to pay the price for travelling through time and making sure that history runs its course is one of those responsibilities. You don’t realise it until the end of the book (because it is so darn entertaining) but the Doctor spends pretty much the entire book incarcerated! However I could feel Troughton radiating from every page from his giddy wonder at the Thames-side marketplace to his improvisation to how he can turn on a coin from mischievous charm to utter seriousness. Good job.

Who’s the Yahoo’s: Almost a sly dig to readers is the indication that Polly and Ben are no longer needed (thus their stunning last moment of glory in this story before their unfortunate dumping in The Faceless Ones), the Doctor and Jaime strike of on their own and prove why they were such a winning act. Jaime, still new to this time travelling gig feels a little hurt that Polly and Ben dig at him for his naiveté at times. He remembers his mammy singing ‘Adam Lies Y’Bounden’ in front of a roaring fire. He is starting to think of the TARDIS as his home and his fellow companions as his family. His honesty about knowing future events gets him dubbed McCrimmon, powerful seer of Culloden.

Able Seaman: Ben rarely received material this good on the telly (I can only think of The Smugglers and The Macra Terror) and The Roundheads proves what an asset he and Polly were to the show in one of its most difficult ransition periods. Booze always gets him lively and after a few he gets them noticed by cheerfully mentioning King Charles’ execution! His sailing days are exploited to great effect and he is press ganged into working for two ships, first for the sinister Captain Stanislaus and then for the brilliantly entertaining Captain Winter who he strikes up a rousing rapport with. Ben always wished he could live the life of a pirate and he sure gets his wish when the two ships go at each other, firing cannons and fighting hand to hand with cutlasses! He gets to have fabulous adventures in Amsterdam having a rowdy piss up, flirting with the girls and embroiled with Winter and the ominous mystery regarding Stanislaus’ package due for England. His relationship with Winter is a joy to read, he gets so close with her that after she is killed he tracks down her killer (okay so that’s Rupert but Stanislaus is her nemesis!) and seeks revenge for her dispatch. He almost gets a terrifying moment when he is trapped in quicksand to his waist, thinking he is going to die. It is a great book to show how likable this down to Earth character was and how sad it is that so little of his material can actually be seen.

Lovely Lashes: Polly too deserves much praise for her contribution. She had worked with a girl called Rosie in an office in Bond Street and Rosie took this shy young girl under her wing and turns her into a swinger! She is enchanted by the chivalrous and courteous Christopher Whyte and is devastated at the climax where she has to follow him and reveal where he is hiding the King to keep history on track. She strikes up a warm and friendly relationship with Frances Kemp and manages to make a bad situation even worse when she is tricked into freeing the King. She realises that when trapped in history’s key events her actions are no longer insignificant. Brilliantly, she flirts like mad with the lecherous guards in order to poison them and free the King.

Twists: The colourful writing is extremely attractive and readable and instantly noticeable, Gatiss blowing the works of the likes of Christopher Bulis and Gary Russell, out of the water. Ben is attacked outside the inn and Polly is kidnapped. Pages 68-69 depict a nightmarish battle in beautifully vivid prose prose. William Kemp is a firm Royalist and his daughter wants to marry a Roundhead, the excellent political intrigue starts early on. The Doctor drops his CIVIL WAR book, which is scooped up by Richard Cromwell who is horrified to learn his father will die in ten years and that he will be seen as an embarrassing footnote in history. Parliament wants control of the army and religious reforms. I loved the descriptions of the pirate fight (“Two great wooden whales in conflict, gaily dressed crabs scuttling about executing their dance of death, a dreadful popping sound and a sailors innards spilled from him like a cork from a bottle.”) O’Kane falling into a barrel is a brilliant end to such a brutal character, his beard aflame he sets the powder of and blows his head off! Winter and Ben plant a bomb on the Teazer after discovering the hung body of Ashdown and watch it go up. After freeing the King Copper attempts to stab Polly in the neck! We discover Stanislaus and Winter had an affair and he gave her the pox which ate away half her face and after their breathless struggle, Price Rupert cruelly shoots her in the back and the sea claims her body. Kemp slugs the vile Copper after he attempts to rape his daughter. Richard Godley is revealed as Prince Rupert, the Kings exiled nephew back with a plan to assassinate Oliver Cromwell and make way for a Catholic invasion army to move into British waters. van Leewenhoek’s method of assassination is a dart infected with plague, a week later and the victim is dead, not even knowing he was murdered. Politics is a dirty business and Culpeper is wrongly executed simply because Thurloe doesn’t like him.

Funny Bits: Jaime talks like Bill Shankey! The Doctor proudly owns EVERY BOYS BOOK OF CIVIL WARS. Euro-sceptics are like winnets on a mans backside! Stanislaus has less between his legs than a maiden girl, apparently.

Result: Tasty! Anyone questioning the validity of the Past Doctor Adventures should pick up this delightful book immediately. It slots beautifully into its chosen era and captures its regulars with pinpoint accuracy, highlighting all of their strengths and yet it also manages to be a brilliantly plotted, deliciously written and deftly handles political drama with tons of excitement, humour and strong characterisation. The book is worth reading just for Ben’s adventures at sea, which I would have to have been filmed. It is a well selected period of history, expertly explored with some lovely conspiracy theories and twists and with a guest cast that match the regulars for pure entertainment value (I wanted smelly Scrope to be a companion!). What’s more Mark Gatiss’ prose is blisteringly good, astonishingly visual, hugely entertaining and in places qutite inspired. Astonishingly good: 9/10

Nightshade by Mark Gatiss

Plot: Something has been brewing under the sleepy village of Crook Marsham for a long, long time. A radio telescope has been built on the site of a haunted castle and has started feeling power under the ground, power that gives the force the strength to reach out and bring back old loved ones home, even though they are already dead…

Master Manipulator: Without a doubt the best interpretation of the seventh Doctor yet. Whilst he remains sullen and uncommunicative, the work done with the Doctor here is so vivid and believable I cannot bring myself to complain. He has grown irritable and sulky of late and was in need of a change. He snaps at Ace for simply being herself (“It’s the Doctor! How many times do I have to tell you, you stupid girl!”). He wonders if he has really done any good over the years and if he has the right to act as judge and jury to the whole universe (that makes a world of difference to some of the other NAs, here he is questioning his manipulation of others). He is tired and is starting to wonder if he should settle somewhere for a few centuries, away from all the death and destruction. He knows it is time he stopped shirking his responsibilities and went home to Gallifrey to sort out his problems there. Perhaps the revealing moment in this book comes when he admits to himself there is nobody for him to run away from anymore. Only himself. He tells Ace she is too important to die. He feels a genuine melancholy at the thought of losing a friend. Sweetly, when the enemy using the image of Susan against him he is overwhelmed with a tide of grief and regret. Not a day goes by when he doesn’t think of her. He has a profound loneliness and yearning to belong. He’s a scientist, an explorer, philanthropist and general do-gooder. In a moment when you realise just how desperate for company the Doctor is, he ignores Ace wish to leave him and tricks her into one last ride in the TARDIS with no intention of ever taking her back to Robin. You want to punch the guy in the face for controlling her so much but the effort Gatiss goes to to make you feel sorry for the guy. This is what he should have been all along, not a Time Lord who is at odds with himself but one who is at odds with the universe. Here he is carved as a flawed hero, a thoughtful man and it is utterly compelling.

Miss Attitude: I would like to bow down and kiss Mr Gatiss’ feet. He even manages to make Ace palatable, something I would have thought impossible after these last seven or so books. The way he does this is to remind us of her innocence, the one thing that made her so appealing on the television and her romance with Robin is very sweet and (almost) naïve. The scene where they are sleeping in the same room, listening to each other’s breathing but too tired to go to sleep is lovely. Ace is terrified of living forever, watching her loves ones die around her. When the Doctor insults her she feels as though she has been struck. Ace had grown up before the Doctor’s eyes, this funny misfit, changing from a little bundle of venom into a confident, maturing adult. She has zest, spontaneity and sparkle and that is why Robin is so attracted to her. She has to believe in the Doctor otherwise there is no point in going on. Ace tells the Doctor she is leaving, she realises she has missed being with somebody real, uncomplicated and human. Her reaction when she realises he has tricked her is palpable, sliding down the wall in tears of grief.

Twists: Jack is lured out onto the moor and killed by an image of younger, beautiful wife. Betty dreams of her brother’s death in a scene full of nightmarish images, Alf clawing his way from the bath as a putrefying corpse. Jackson’s fingers push straight through Crooke’s forehead as though through rotten fruit! Hawthorne’s casual racism (Dirty, unnatural and somehow less human, like a chimp at the zoo dressed in human clothes) is terrifying. Pages 92-3 could be the scariest bit of Doctor Who fiction ever. The thought of the tar baby hiding under Hawthorne’s bed is petrifying, but worse when the Black Hand grasps his ankle. Trevithick in the lift shaft with the creature from his old TV show is wickedly exciting; I love it when the monster starts punching through the floor of the ascending lift. The thought of the petrified, lifeless old people makes me queasy. The Doctor hits the floor with sickening force and Ace has to pop his shoulder back into place whilst he is screaming. The Sentience runs through space, growing and hungry and has been on Earth for a long time. The Doctor manages to trick the being into space, with the promise of the energy of a star that has gone nova but instead it is sucked into a black hole. Memorably, Holly has the life sucked out of her in front of Vijay. The Doctor and Ace both manage to confront their fears, Susan and Ace’s mum Audrey.

Result: Absolutely fantastic, I read this in one sitting and was unable to put it down. Gatiss’ prose is superb and he carves out believable characters with only a page or two of description. He manages to populate the village of Crook Marsham vividly in the first chapter. Small, sensual details make the overall experience much more realistic. The theme of nostalgia and the thought of the past coming back to haunt you is terrifying and explored in some considerable depth. Even the regulars are given a chance to shine; both the Doctor and Ace are fleshed out more believably than in all their previous books put together. Pacy, awash with genuine horror and with enough atmosphere to trick you into thinking this is happening around you, this is the first NA classic and a book that deserves all the praise that it gets: 10/10

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Dark Horizons by J. T. Colgan

Plot: The Doctor comes to the aid of a group of villagers who are besieged by Vikings, famine and an alien intelligence that wants to fry their brains…

Nutty Professor: ‘The great snake eating its tail is simply the wheel of time, rolling around and around, ever on. And the poisons of the snake are the wounds of time. And yes it is my destiny to endure them, and to find them, and to fix them, if I can. But I don’t think of it as a terrible destiny. It doesn’t make me sad…’ I never would have thought that the eleventh Doctor could be transformed so potently in print. There have been a great many novels that capture his spirit (Touched By an Angel, Nuclear Time) but their reduced word count has prevented the authors from probing too deeply into his character, instead having to charge on with the plot. Colgan brings a unique, female voice to the range and captures his essence perfectly – giving him a great deal of time to ponder his responsibilities, much humour and capturing that mad energy of a crazed child juggling fifty problems at once. He leaps from the pages and makes every passage he appears in a joy.

With no companion the Doctor is lonely and finds himself playing chess by himself and always losing. He finds it much easier to have somebody else around to tell him precisely what he should be wearing. Humans and their ability to do astonishing feats for ridiculous reasons never ceased to amaze him. In his next regeneration he makes a silent wish for body fat. He’s a true action hero when he pops up with a plan to capsize the remains of the Viking ship and save the remaining crew. The Doctor always had to resist the urge to stay underwater because it was so beautiful down there, so new and with so much to see. This time the psychic paper lets him down and promotes him as a rabbit inspector! The Doctor talks to all but takes no sides. He’s a God, a trickster, a shape shifter and a joker. He can empathise with children because basically he is one. He tries and fails to look bashful, its just not in his nature. It took a lot to make the Doctor feel small. Normally he felt he danced across the universe on the tips of his toes like Fred Astaire. But this, somehow, seemed like a world that was not quite yet his to play in. He finds it an unsullied world, a bit horrible but doing its own thing. ‘This planet is very much not open for business to the rest of you, thank you’ he tells the rest of the universe. He draws the sea up into a defence wall, like a God controlling the elements. In a moment of pure cool he proceeds to surf the wave all the way to the shore! Suddenly the Doctor doesn’t feel flippant when a boy with his life ahead of him is reduced to a ghastly outline and the proud man who loved him is howling in pain. Even when he is in a hurry the Doctor is unable to stop himself from examining the more unusual species as he makes his way across the surface of the young ocean, bursting with new life. In the throng of asphyxiation the Doctor wonders if he might regenerate into something with gills. On the verge of death the Doctor feels for the first time in a very long time, relaxed. Nothing could scare him or chase him, he felt totally comfortable. The Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS has never felt more intimate as he orders her to run and save herself, leaving him to die. He admits that he isn’t a God but he is a Lord and he has no magic powers apart from his astonishing brain thank you very much. ‘Who says I’m grown up? Perhaps I’m just unnervingly tall!’ – there’s a lovely moment where the Doctor pauses to dance about in the rain with a child. He feels real frustrating because he isn’t used to problems that he can’t solve in an hour. The Doctor hates lying to children but not as much as he hated scaring them. He doesn’t know much about women but he does know that its always the mans fault. The Doctor is really torn at the climax because the Arill form a field of iridescent jellyfish that he finds utterly delightful to look at. He offers himself to the Arill, his brain like a massive battery full of energy, even though it will mean the end of his life. At least he wont have to eat anymore raw rabbit. His head is desperate to burst into flames with the millions of strands of consciousness feed on him, his brain screaming. How awesome is it that they become the Aurora Borealis? A line of charged particles, circling endlessly. ‘You’ll be able to check up on them whenever you like.’ Eoric isn’t saved but he does get to live with the Gods. All fathers and sons should get a chance to say goodbye and the Doctor manages to arrange that as the power leaves his body.

Great Ideas: You might find yourself instantly drawn to Freydis who is the Donna Noble of the Vikings, a loud mouthed, flame haired woman who is being held captive against her will and being taken as a gift to Gissar Polvaderson, the Icelandic King and the fattest man anyone has ever seen. Snakes of flame attack the Viking ship, bursting through its decks and crew and leaving an ominous fiery ghost ship approaching the shore. The fire snakes are indiscriminate, blazing, unstoppable. The Viking ship is capsized with all the spectacle and drama of the Titanic. Braziers are lit to warn the neighbouring towns – one means send help and two stay away because they have war or disease. Corc is described as a good chief but a terrible father which pretty much sums him up. His son Eoric resents his brother Luag because if it hadn’t been for him he would still have a mother, she died in childbirth. Erik’s Viking crew want to rape and pillage exposing just how extraordinary Ragnor’s crew were for not behaving that way, thanks to the Doctor. Suddenly Ragnor’s crew can see how terrifying the raiding parties can be to those on the land. For the first time ever the outside of the TARDIS impresses somebody far more than the inside (‘I realise you haven’t really invented perspective yet. But everything in there is actually bigger, you know, not just closer’). The TARDIS can jump galaxies in a heartbeat, throw herself headlong into hundreds of thousands of years and bounce along the very edge of existence…but she really, really, really doesn’t like water very much. Henrik’s way of telling the Doctor that he is impressed with the TARDIS (the ship that can ‘jump through the air’) is absolutely gorgeous. The world at the bottom of the ocean is dangerous, alien and utterly beautiful. The Arill live as ghost webs and trolls and throng cyberspace and endospace and any non physical existence. They are a race of pure consciousness that need networks in order to survive. They love war planets, anywhere they can parasite on energy sources with causing too much trouble. This time they are ridiculously, embarrassingly early. On the Earth at this stage all they have is tiny amounts of electrical energy in the brain to feed them. They are swarming wanderers and they need power connections to continue the line. They are beautifully visualised as a colourful fountain of 1s and 0s at the bottom of the ocean. The TARDIS has been trying to hide from them because she is the only power source in the world capable of sating them. They want to suck the life out of her once she has helped them to escape this primitive world. I loved the sudden leap to Henrik’s backstory, his story of falling through the ice and being carried along the river beneath the ice is rivetingly told. Its great set up for the climax, telling of how he was pulled from the freezing river close to death and survived – an impossible boy. The Arill can drain any power source, they could suck up a sun. They can’t stop being hungry and they will feast on everything and everyone they can get their hands on. To maintain their species they will feed on the only power source available to them – the people. ‘They steal and ravage planets and plunder all their power and leave them for barren waste. But some people think that’s quite romantic.’ I love the idea that Henrik thinks that other worlds are really small because that is how they appear in the sky. Braan killing his wife to spare her from an even worse death is painful to read. There is a fascinating passage about the many different hunger pangs a human being feels. Colgan suggests an anti-climax by making it appear as if the Arill are sacrificing some of their number to escape the Earth but its just a ploy to get the reader and the characters of their guard so they can attack in force. Some of the villagers are made so cold by the lack of fire they choose to join the warmth of the Arill. ‘They didn’t start out a bad race, you know. But they seem to have got a taste for it. Like children playing with matches.’ The Doctor’s very clever plan is to use swords as a lightning attractor and force the Arill out of his body as the bolt hits him, the unwanted hitchhikers flung into the sky with the awesome power source.

Funny Bits:
  • ‘We’re going to have to make like fish’ ‘Under the water?’ ‘No, flying fish. Yes under the water.’
  • The Doctor’s boat didn’t look seaworthy for a Sunday duck pond, never mind the wild North Atlantic!
  • Freydis’ escape from the Viking’s the second time around is very funny, attacking the guard who hadn’t even bothered to ogle her and holding Erik hostage and hoping that he wasn’t fearsomely unpopular! Just as the ship is turning back to the shore the Doctor blunders in with the TARDIS and ruins everything!
  • ‘Argh! I am not going to die in metric!’ – the TARDIS falls to the bottom of the ocean like a heavy stone and the Doctor counts down their descent.
  • ‘Unless we all start living underwater. But that doesn’t happen until the year 3000.’
  • The Doctor is desperate for that game of ‘Chest’ so he teaches Luag who resorts to a battle featuring a red headed Queen, a fat King, Horsies and Prawns!
  • He is appalled that the Vikings have a word for ‘cool’ but not one for ‘bow tie’ especially when the two are practically synonymous!
  • Only Doctor Who would dare to stage a sitcom domestic between two Vikings!

Notes: There are moments and images in this story that feel like kisses to previous books in the range even though it is probably entirely coincidental. There have been so many books in the Doctor Who range now that you are bound to happen across similar ideas and set pieces from time to time. Eoric with glowing eyes and smoking footsteps is reminiscent of the fire creatures from Justin Richards’ The Burning. Henrik in the diving suit attempting to rescue the Doctor brings back memories of an Impossible Astronaut (which is referring to the TV series but could also be a reference to Apollo 23). Eoric’s burning boat funeral brings back images of the Doctor’s death in the season six opener. Freydis trying to save Henrik feels remarkably like Amy’s attempts to revive Rory in The Curse of the Black Spot but it has much more tension because unlike ‘cat of nine lives’ Rory you actually feel as though Henrik might die. The Doctor using the elements so powerfully to save the day recalls The Year of Intelligent Tigers.

Result: Dark Horizons is an effortlessly readable book, concealing evocative imagery and charming characterisation within. Potent set pieces, an unusual and voracious villain and a great deal of humour add to this books charms and help it go down like a spectacular desert. Henrik and Freydis have a terrifically engaging romance that sees them coming from different worlds and triumphing despite their heritage and the dangers that are constantly thrown at them. Colgan allows you to get close to the characters so that their losses really hurt and without undoing those deaths allows for a marvellously uplifting climax. Its not an especially complex plot but this is one book that will bewitch you with the quality of its writing, its fabulously drawn setting and a cast of characters that really come alive. Chief amongst them is the eleventh Doctor who has never been better served in print and made me laugh and cry in equal measures. He’s absolutely delightful here and you might find yourself longing for more full length novels featuring him once it is over. With her delicious prose and exciting storytelling, Colgan is a fresh new voice for the range and continues the strong line of female writers attracted to Doctor Who (Orman, Rose, Rayner). I had a blast reading this book and found that once it had got its hooks into me I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it: 9/10

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Devil Goblins of Neptune by Keith Topping and Martin Day

Plot: A complex conspiracy is unravelled when a sadistic alien menace threatens the Earth and the Brigadier is horrified to discover that UNIT is involved. The Doctor meanwhile, attempts to defeat the evil Waro in Russia and finds out some horrifying truths of his own…

Good Grief: The Third Doctor is such a delightfully brusque fellow and works beautifully in print. His love for the finer things in life and his gentlemanly arrogance beams from every page. In the hands of these two authors he comes across as a firm member of UNIT and an independent agent in his own right. He is a fop, a dandy, quite debauched and lacking in moral decency (clearly the CIA don’t know him that well!). He swears in Venusian. As with all the best storytellers, the Doctor’s tales are at best apocryphal and at worst entirely fabricated. He admits he is a terrible namedropper, especially when dealing with gullible humans! He is very unco-operative when trussed up like a sack of potatoes. He is not too proud to ask for help. Noble and powerfully melancholic, alone and lonely, a stranger in a very strange land. He has the ability to ‘soul catch’, transferring the dying memories of somebody into his own. An ability that would have come in handy in quite a few situations after this tale so it quite surprised me that it wasn’t taken from him in this novel. 

Smart Chick: Liz is clearly approaching the end of her time with UNIT in this story and feels quite out of her depth with the military invasion of her life. She is a meteor expert, medical Doctor and a quantum physicist with an IQ of over 200. She hated working for UNIT at first but has grown accustomed to sharing new wonders with the Doctor. She feels alienated returning to her digs at Cambridge with her college chums because she has been out of the loop for so long. She did not become a scientist to help soldier boys fight wars with nastier toys than they already have. When she is given a gun to fire at the Waro she fires blind, terrified at handling the weapon. She thinks she is getting old and feels a stab of jealousy at people who are living mundane lives and know nothing of alien invasions. After she left UNIT she published a book which earned her fame, money and death threats. Her tutor, Professor Trainor, turns out to be a huge disappointment when collaborating with the villainous Rose, and dies whilst she still has ill feeling towards him. It leaves a nasty taste in her mouth. 

Chap with the Wings: I fine character study of the season seven Brigadier who was all business and lacking the charm that creeped into his character later. Whilst an American CIA agent is looking down his nose at the British arm of UNIT the Brigadier considers Americans too loud and full of their own self-importance. You really can see why he was chosen to head UNIT since his determination to get into the heart of the conspiracy at UNIT is a potentially career destroying move. His plan to hire a group of prostitutes to rip each other’s clothes off and scrap to cause a diversion shows that he isn’t afraid to use whatever resources he has to hand to get the job done.  He is almost tricked into murdering a UNIT officer but realises there are conspiracies within conspiracies occurring like a Russian Doll of betrayal. His motto is ‘if it moves, shoot it!’ and sounds about right. It is when we go underground with the CIA and you see the difference between Control (who exploits, kills and steals from aliens) and the Brigadier (who sets them free and asks them to help save the Earth). He’s definitely the man for the job when it comes to first contact with aliens. 

Camp Soldier: You’ve got admire a man who is so chauvinistic that he admits he is all for women’s lib but thinks that having a woman as head of UNIT is taking things too far. Thank goodness he has been quietly put to pasture by the time Brigadier Bambera turns up. He’s so professional that he falls to pieces when he is in the big chair, he is trying to sleep with women when he should be doing his job and his least favourite words are ‘my boyfriend’ when chatting up the ladies. He tells one chick he is a racing driver! There is a moment of depth when he shows real remorse at having sent Benton into danger but on the whole there is a real impression of a private schoolboy trying his damdest to play James Bond and failing. Bless him. 

Foreboding: Control makes an appearance (head of the CIA) who will crop up from time to time in BBC books (Trading Futures, Time Zero). Liz Shaw has a very successful life away from UNIT and it would be nice to explore that further (The Wages of Sin). 

Twists: The Doctor escaping from Soviet ‘custody’ is one of many red herrings but a fantastic look at the physical ability of the third Doctor. Learning that something is rotten in the heart of UNIT is quite disturbing given their important role in making contact with alien races. Bruce’s infiltration into UNIT makes for memorable reading, his thought processes leave little to be desired and he steals secret information with casual abandon and leaves bombs primed in his wake. Benton is caught in the explosion in the Doctor’s laboratory. The Waro mass attacking the Soviet aircraft is well written with some memorable visual prose. When the Waro attacks the Doctor he receives deep cuts to the chest and shoulders and Liz thinks he is close to death. There was a time when alien invaders set up mining operations for a real purpose but for the Waro it is just a massive diversion. The Waro are described as evil, egotistical and depraved but not stupid and they want to cleanse the Earth with a nuclear device so only they can populate its surface. Capitalising on the ambitious James Bond feel of the era, the Doctor finds the Waro ship under the sea and has an underwater action sequence. It’s the books indulging in something that could never have made it on screen and good on them. The CIA under Control, have been harbouring aliens since the 40’s and attempting to subvert UNIT’s aims ever since the organisation was conceived. The Nedenah are the Waro’s sworn enemy and currently held hostage in CIA custody. Whilst the rest of the world has been defeating alien the US have been stealing and utilising their technology. The Doctor is quick to point out that any government would do the same and utilise it for their own benefit. What with Torchwood around plucking alien technology from the skies its any wonder there was any left for UNIT! In a horrific moment, Rose blows the brains of a Nedenah out. The Waro are defeated by turning their anger against themselves, amplifying it and ripping each other to pieces. Its quite a neat solution but the body count would be astonishing. Chalk another act of genocide up for the Doctor. Tom Bruce tries to kill himself but is reminded, ‘When you join the CIA, you join for life.’ It’s a typically unsubtle ending for an unsubtle character but its nice to see him bow out in such an ignominious fashion. 

Embarrassing bits: Mike Yates. What a prat. The prose can be a little too dry and functional at times in a very David A. McIntee sort of way. There’s nothing wrong with adding a bit of flowery description at times or delving a little more into the emotion of a situation. Like season seven itself, The Devil Goblins of Neptune is written in a very serious, action packed fashion with a focus on the nastier aspects of the military and lacking agreeable characters. Which means the authors capture the era beautifully but it’s a book to admire rather than like. Oh and the cover is dismal, as though a child has glued two pictures together without much effort. The drawing of the monsters of the piece defies belief. 

Funny bits: Benton and Yates trying to pass off as hippies. And then reporters. 
I love this exchange, ‘You do still remember how to follow orders?’ ‘Yes, but I think you’re acting like a pillock. Sir.’ 

Result: Not a bad opening act for the Past Doctor Adventures at all with plenty of action and incident to kept fans of the era happy. All the regulars are given loads to do and the book is convincingly set on an international scale (England, Russia, Nevada) and builds a gritty atmosphere of conspiracy and murder. It would seem that The X-Files created a taste for paranoia tales and the Brigadier sourcing something rotten at the heart of UNIT is worth the admission price alone. We don’t find out much about the Waro and Rose’s motives are a bit sketchy but I am willing to overlook this for the sheer amount of excitement this book provides. In order to pull off its ambitious action the series would have needed the budget of a blockbusting film and the Devil Goblins of the title feature in a number of unforgettably grisly moments. Exciting and intriguing in equal measures with only its occasionally dry prose holding it back, Devil Goblins outshines all of the other novels that kick started the various book eras (with the possible exception of Goth Opera). Authentic: 8/10

Friday, 20 July 2012

Beautiful Chaos written by Gary Russell

Plot: The Doctor, Donna and the rest of the Noble clan take on the evil Mandragora intelligence which has changed its mind about humanity…

Mockney Dude: ‘Last time we had a chat I sent you into darkness. Remember that?’ When the Doctor had lost Donna he had looked so haunted, so lost and so old. The eyes of an old man trapped in a ridiculously young body. So miserable and alone. The Doctor has learnt that people don’t like getting hints about their future (is that a reference to the eighth Doctor?). Spoilers, as someone once said. Food was nice but a good mystery was much better. The Doctor is ill at ease with domesticity at the best of times. Is his style geek chic or scruffy Arthur? Donna opts for the latter. Jackie he had worn down through sheer charm (once he had regenerated) and Francine through her daughters faith in him. Once the Doctor might have used Netty with less conscience. The Doctor and Wilf in the garden laughing about his adventures is a wonderful image. Without Donna to bring him back here was there a guarantee that the Doctor would save the Earth next time? ‘Everywhere we go we make a difference, we put things right, we make things happier. That’s what the Doctor is all about. He finds a way for the universe to make sense.’ 

Tempestuous Temp: Gary Russell thanks Russell T Davies in his acknowledgments for his help with fleshing out the Noble family and his input is really felt simply because Donna, Wilf and Sylvia all feel so authentic. There is no effort in conjuring Catherine Tate, Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King up but this much more than just a description of their features and mannerisms. It’s a book that tries (and succeeds) in getting in touch with what makes these characters tick, how they function as a family and how they have had to handled so much grief over the last couple of years. There are a few occasions where the book feels as though it is a little too celebratory when it comes to Donna but for once its okay for Russell to enthuse like an exploding Catherine wheel because as far as Donna is concerned there is a great deal to celebrate. The tragedy of Donna is really highlighted in this book, that the old, selfish Donna has gone because of her travels with the Doctor but forced back into existence after the events of Journey’s End. Donna Noble is Queen of the ‘Oi’s!’ The Doctor and Donna played a game, a game of two equals who’d gone through so much together and played instinctively with each other because of it. It was all about familiarity and friendship and fun. Before she met the Doctor Donna would always put herself first but she had learnt so much and wanted to go back and help her mum on the anniversary of her dads death. Donna would loved to say that her bitterness and resentment was because of her dads death but the truth was Sylvia had always been with her daughter and rarely hid it. And Donna didn’t understand why. Donna and Sylvia loved each other. She just wasn’t entirely sure they liked each other. It’s a universal truth amongst family members that Russell capitalises on really well here. When did the idea of coming home fill Donna with such dread? Was this the downside of travelling with the Doctor? That normality was now alien? Now Wilf could see what a brave, brilliant woman Donna had becomes he loved her even more. She admits that she misses her father and Sylvia holds her. Remember when Rose went to pieces when she saw the future of the Doctor’s companions in School Reunion? Donna is given the same treatment here and instead of falling to pieces she tells Madame Delphi that she lives in the here and now. Travelling with the Doctor, Donna finally thinks she’s doing the right thing. She feels alive.

The Cribbins: ‘Come back soon, Doctor. Not just when we need you. Pop in for a cuppa one day…’ The rain always reminds Wilf of the sad, awful day that the Doctor brought Donna home. He enjoys looking up at the stars at the planets that were still there because of his Donna. He felt insignificant in comparison to the Doctor but that didn’t matter because the honour had been knowing him. Geoff’s death brought back memories of his wife’s death but he soldiered on making arrangements and supporting the others. When did Wilf get so old? What happened to that naughty old man who used to take Donna for a spin and she her off to his paratrooper mates? Wilf wanted to prove that he was independent, strong and about 20 years younger than he was! He likes to look and imagine and dream. There is a real sadness to Wilf knowing that he will lose Netty to Alzheimer’s and his quiet hope that the Doctor will be able to provide some medicine from the future to cure her.  You can just imagine Bernard Cribbins playing the climactic scenes of Netty being possessed by Mandragora and Wilf having his heart ripped out. It would be heartbreaking, utterly manipulative (the Doctor brought her along just to give the climax some sentiment?) but still very poignant. Donna offers to stay and be with her Gramps but he, selfless as ever, tells her to get out there with the man she loves and enjoy the life he could never have.

Moody Mare: For all the good work that is done with Donna and Wilf that is nothing compared to the depth that Russell brings to Sylvia. Over the course of Beautiful Chaos Russell takes this aggressive Jackie Tyler clone and turns her into a full bloodied character that is trying to hold her family together with her bare hands. There’s a moment where Netty gives a speech about Sylvia after she has been viciously rude to Wilf’s friend that is very useful because it is wonderful to see from an outsiders point of view how much Sylvia is tryingSylvia thinks that the Doctor brings monsters in his wake. Sylvia had been prepared for Geoff’s death but after 38 years of marriage it haunted her like nothing else. They had only been at the new house for 3 months when Geoff died and the whole reason they had moved was to provide him with new challenges. Talking about anything with Sylvia Noble was rarely a positive experience. She doesn’t like people being too open and honest – ‘those bleeding hearts who wear their hearts on their sleeves!’ Mothers have an in-built guilt trip that forbade you from saying the things you want to say to them. She desperately needed to cry at her husbands passing but her attitude to bleeding hearts meant she could never do that. In a touching (and unexpected) outburst Sylvia admits that she doesn’t know if Donna’s disappearances are the last she is going to see of her and that she has images of a policeman turning up on her doorstep to tell her that she is dead just like they did with Geoff. The moment when they suddenly drop all the pretence and cry in each others arms almost made me shed a tear. She’s not selfish, she’s worked hard and built a life and always tried to do the best by her daughter. She tolerates the Doctor for Donna’s sake just as she tolerates Netty for Wilf’s sake. She wants Netty to move in and be a part of the family for Wilf’s sake but Netty refuses saying that they are not prepared for how difficult it will be when she loses her mind completely.

Great Ideas: So much sadness in the Noble household over the last couple of years and so much emotional gold for Gary Russell to mine. Revenge on the Doctor after 500 years is a good clue about the villains identity early in the book. Wilf has discovered a new star which has been named after him. The stars are aligning to form a malevolent, smiling face. A column of light strikes London and the infected people heads towards it, hypnotised by its majesty. When the Doctor earthed Mandragora it got into the land, the water and ultimately the people by attaching itself to DNA. Transferring from generation to generation, the Helix now has a willing army. Mandragora has realised there is no stopping the human race flooding to the stars and building empires and colonies until the end of time. It wants a part of that action and plans to infect humanity and help to push their advancement forwards. Spreading Mandragora as the human race infects the corners of the universe like a plague. That’s actually a pretty solid reversal of The Masque of Mandragora and holds a lot of weight. Dara Morgan = Mandragora! Am I the only idiot that didn’t spot that? He was chosen at the lowest point in his life and offered power and riches. Callum is killed by the woman he once loved – his ascension to power is well catalogued and his downfall is one of pure ignominy. The climax comes down to an old man trying to hold on to the woman he loves and how can you fail to be moved by that? The unusually long coda marks this out as something a bit different. The Doctor pointing out that there is no miracle cure to Netty’s condition is exactly the statement e book needed to make. Imagine how awful it would have been had the story ended with a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s? Instead this feels very real.

Embarrassing Bits:
  • Initially I quite liked how all of the characters we given a decent bit of background. It felt like a refreshing change for the NSAs to include a wealth of characters who felt like real people with dreams and a history. However the book repeats the trick again and again right down to the most insignificant character to a point where this is focussed on to the detriment of the (slight) plot. Points of populating your book with fleshed out characters, minus points for regurgitating their life history in one great heave of exposition when their main purpose is to be a corpse.
  • Russell occasionally adopts an omnipresent narrator which is very jarring after the intimate character scenes from Donna or Wilf’s POV because I kept wondering who was thinking these thoughts…
  • Ben is the obligatory gay character and his inclusion is utterly cringe-inducing. His ‘sorry, you lose…’ to Jayne adds nothing to the story and feels like it is trying to be modern for moderns sakes.
  • Although his handling of the Noble clan is superb generally he can get a little too enthusiastic at times – sometimes a little restraint can be more effective and you don’t have to be cute all the time.
  • Russell has great fun comparing the events of this book to the importance of the Kennedy assassination. Delusions of grandeur much?
  • ‘It was like a slow motion moment in a movie’ – under any circumstances that is an appalling descriptive term. It sounds like it was written by a five year old.
  • Killing off all the presenters of Big Brother? Really? Its not a show that I have ever watched but this seems like tedious point scoring with the novels audience to me. This mention just jars because its not really connected to anything, its just the author trying to be smart and falling flat on his face.
  • Joe! It wouldn’t be an NSA without the obligatory child character!
  • Splitting the story into days is a nice idea in theory but makes finding a point to stop the book if you want a quick ten minute read before bed nigh on impossible.
  • Why does Madame Delphi talk like such a smart arse?
  • Caitlin’s crisis of faith is so sudden its deeply unconvincing. Its what the plot needs her to do rather than any kind of natural character progression.
  • As affecting as the Wilf side of the climax is (and it really is), Mandragora ultimately proves to be a bit rubbish. All those centuries of scheming and growing to be defeated that easily?
  • ‘A few days later, and mankind, as it always did, coped and moved on…’ – Russell as good as admits that his plot was just a bit of useless fluff to hang the more personal Noble drama on!

Funny Bits: The image of Donna glammed up and having to escape from danger on a push bike made me chuckle. You could imagine Tate playing that for every laugh she could get! ‘Never cracks a noble tart, how about a good night sweet Donna?’ earned Neal Bailey a clump in the nuts when he took Donna on a date!

Notes: Nice mention of Park Vale School (SJA). Oddly considering this is a Gary Russell book (even though it is scaled back there is still a fair bit of continuity – perhaps that’s why he didn’t write for the eighth Doctor range post amnesia because he couldn’t write a novel without including aspects of the past?) he doesn’t reference the SJA adventure The Secrets of the Stars of which there is a great deal of similarities (including the obvious use of Mandragora in that episode despite it never being named). Garrazone (Big Finish stories such as The Sword of Orion were set there). The Tycho Project (SJA – The Last Sontaran). There is something of Polly in Miss Oladini, a temporary administrator who gets caught up in the extraordinary and brainwashed. The plot is basically a cross between the SJA stories Secrets of the Stars (Mandragora) and The Man Who Never Was (SERFboard/MTEK) although one wasn’t written yet so that's not really fair...although it does make me wonder if this inspired Gareth Roberts (frankly superior) take on the subject. 

Result: I spent the majority of this book swinging from one emotional to another, from one extreme to another, from wiping away tears with the poignancy of the characterisation to laughing at the ineptitude of the plotting. Russell is never going to be the worlds best writer but (as with Mel in Business Unusual and Evelyn in Instruments of Darkness) if he really likes a character he will go the extra mile to bring them to life with real gusto and the characterisation transcends his often, barely perceptible, plots. Beautiful Chaos is littered with Gary Russell’s usual faults as a writer; its over indulgent, continuity obsessed and features prose that is so enthusiastic the word restraint is a forgotten concept…and yet his handling of the Noble clan is exceptional and offers a glimpse of the character writer he could be if he calmed things down a bit. His touching treatment of Donna, Wilf, Sylvia and Netty elevates this considerably and there is a great deal of development for each of them, especially Sylvia who has never been handled so sympathetically. Plus the way Alzheimer’s is handled deserves real credit, especially for not searching for an easy answer at the climax. Massively flawed but beautifully characterised and ultimately very touching, Beautiful Chaos is Gary Russell’s greatest accomplishment in prose to date: 8/10

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Eight Doctors written by Terrance Dicks

Plot: Following on directly from the TV Movie the Eighth Doctor falls foul to one last trap left by the Master that leaves him amnesiac. To regain his memories he must pop through time and meet his previous selves and in doing so he gets involved in An Unearthly Child, The War Games, The Sea Devils, The Daemons, State of Decay, The Five Doctors and The Trial of a Timelord. All in a days work really.

Top Doc: Unfortunately the Doctor spends most of the book amnesiac or as a collection of certain memories and thus displays little character outside of the generic ‘Doctor’ image that Terrance knows so well. On the plus side, this book also contains nine other Doctors (there are two sixth Doctors and the Valeyard) which Uncle Terrance has been writing for for far too long now to get wrong. His bombastic sixth Doctor is a particular triumph and considering how hard he is to capture in print the season eighteen fourth Doctor is word perfect too.

Friend or foe: I cannot imagine what possessed whoever was editing the books at the time to introduce Sam Jones in this fashion? Having to live up to a legacy left by New Ace (who as much as I didn’t like her she certainly made an impact), Benny (rock on!), Chris (a total wet blanket but again memorable for his grief following Roz’s death) and Roz (wasted but a fine companion who deserved a longer run) would be intimidating enough but being shoehorned into one of vaguest books Doctor Who history like a spare part was not the way forward. Its no wonder everybody was against her if this was their first glimpse of the girl. She jogs every morning and hates drugs but is totally unfazed by the interior dimensions of the TARDIS. She’s totally faceless here and a complete irrelevance to the main plot. It would have made much more sense to have had her join in Vampire Science and give her Carolyn’s role in that story. Oh well.

Foreshadowing: It might have been unintentional but the mention of the Third Doctor’s death on Metabelis Three will be a vital plot point in Interference. Flavia is President of Gallifrey…what happened to Romana? Old town is referred to which will be followed up in The Infinity Doctors. And indeed the Master’s presence in the TARDIS will be forgotten from this book onwards right up until the very last Eighth Doctor book, The Gallifrey Chronicles. The Vampires of the State of Decay segment will be followed up in the very next book.

Twists: The entire book! Who could dare to conjure up such a book? One which would encompass so much Doctor Who history? That would have the third Doctor threaten to murder himself! That would allow the Eighth Doctor to give his fourth incarnation a blood transplant! To follow up on several Doctor Who stories with mini-adventures (State of Decay, The Daemons, The Sea Devils and The Five Doctors). The writer of this book is either very brave or inexplicably stupid.

Funny bits: I was roaring with laughter throughout, sorry. It’s such implausible twaddle! But the moment of absolute genius has to come when the Time Lord Ryoth beams a Drashig to the Eye of Orion to kill the Doctor only to have it beamed back and eat him. Hilarious stuff! You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried! Oh and the sixth Doctor’s insatiable hunger is also worth a chuckle.

Embarrassing bits: Oh gee I think I covered that in the last two columns. This is clearly the work of a deranged mind…only somebody who is very sure of their talent would even attempt to write a book that contains ten Doctors, four Masters, Susan, Ian, Barbara, Jaime, Zoe, Jo, the Brig, Romana, Tegan, Turlough, Mel, Flavia, Spandrell, Borusa, Engin, Rassilon, a Raston Warrior Robot, Sontarans, Giant Spiders, loads of TARDISes, Gallifrey, the Eye of Orion, the Trial ship, Metabelis Three, etc, etc…and try and write a coherent plot around it. Looking at it this way it’s rather more embarrassing for the writer and editor than us. I think I was most embarrassed whilst I was reading the first thirty pages which consists of Terrance attempting to wipe away what he considers to be the terrible mistakes of the TV Movie and get back to good old traditional Doctor Who. And a cringe-worthy lecture on crack cocaine…say no drugs kiddies!

Result: Well you’ve got two choices. Hurl the book at the nearest wall after fifty odd pages or accept that it is total madness and enjoy it on that level. As the book develops it ties itself up in knots, piles implausibility on top of embarrassment until I was at a loss at how much lower Terrance could sink. As an introduction to the eighth Doctor it sucks because we learn nothing new about him and instead churn up his previous selves for what feels like a particularly retarded anniversary party. For those initiated newcomers who watched the TV Movie this is a nightmare of continuity wrapped up in some astonishingly weak prose (which is so lacking in description or nuance that it could be arrested for being described as such by the trades description act). A garbled, incomprehensible mess but surprisingly fun if you’re in the mood (the same way Time and the Rani, Warmonger and Zagreus are fun if you’re in the right mood), nonetheless as a novel it has to rank as one of the least interesting and most desperate entries in the entire range. You’re not going to appeal to the fans of the New Adventures who are used to something a lot more sophisticated than this and you’re not going to appeal to anybody who is familiar with the English language and simply wants a good read either. The Eighth Doctor Adventures really couldn’t have gotten off on a worse footing: 2/10

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Night of the Humans written by David Llewellyn

Plot: The Doctor and Amy are trapped on the Gyre and fighting for their lives as a savage tribe of humans launch an all out attack on the Sittuun…

Nutty Professor: ‘He is a good man, better than any of us, and it broke his heart…’ Llewellyn is not interested in merely having the Doctor prance about making witty asides, popping about in his own timeline and breaking rules of time to tie up plots and generally acting like a bit of a smart mouth buffoon but instead wants to take him to a genuinely dark place where his efforts to save the day don’t always go rewarded. Steven Moffatt take note, this is how it is supposed to be done. The way that the 11th Doctor is pushed to the edge in a dramatic situation reminded me very strongly of the events of The Waters of Mars and there is that similar feeling of desperation. You get the feeling that the Doctor has totally bought into the myth surrounding him and that he can do anything. Boy is he about to be proven wrong. If there is a mystery behind the TARDIS door then the Doctor is bound to open no matter how much Amy objects. The Doctor has faced many dangers before, found himself in so many situations in which there seemed to be no way out. In his many lives he had fallen great heights and been shot. He had lost a hand and grown one back. Had seen the end of the universe and lived to tell the tale. But acid would rule out regeneration. Acid would be final. Its so unlike the Doctor to think defeatist thoughts like this I was completely gripped. The Doctor preparing himself for death makes this danger suddenly feel very real. The last time the Doctor saw Slipstream he was behind bars and he was the one that put him there. The book is vague about which Doctor watched him go down but it was ‘many regenerations ago’ so take your pick. The Doctor tries in vain to convince the humans to leave the Gyre but they are blinded by their ignorance and their faith. For once he simply cannot get through to them and many women and children are going to die as a result. Amy had never seen him like this – pale and drawn and so much older, his boyish charm nowhere to be seen. There are no last minute solutions this time. She can do nothing but reach out and hold his hand and he finds some small comfort in that. The Doctor has built himself up as a mythic figure that can do anything and he simply crumples when he fails. He is surprised, sad and deeply moved when Amy values his life more than her own. If leaving the humans to meet the fate they have chosen was a loss, then having Amy (the little girl with the monster in her wall) beside him took some of the pain out of losing. Getting back to the TARDIS has never felt like such an incredible relief. Slipstream describes the Doctor as ‘irritatingly astute.’ The Mymon Key is the last remnant of the Hexion Geldmonger civilisation and with it the Doctor could be invincible. He could bring his own species back. The key to the universe is too powerful for anyone to own and he tosses it into the acid swamp as so much rubbish. As the bomb explodes the Doctor watches a world being destroyed. Again. Two civilisations erased from history on the surface. For one who is so young he has the air of somebody who has seen the universe several times over. ‘You’re a good man, Doctor and you did everything you could’ are kind words but they barely impact.

Scots Tart: A truly responsible take on Amy Pond and one of her best showings in print, this is so much better than Justin Richards’ slight take on the character in Apollo 23 its actually a little embarrassing for the editor and it genuinely feels as though it takes place in the early run of season five where Amy is finding her feet in this time travelling lark. Llewellyn grasps hold of what little we know about Amy and wrings it for every drop of emotion that he can and whilst I maintain that she will never be one of the more riveting companions in print here is proof that she can at least be made to work if you push her to the limit. She doesn’t like being called Pond or Amelia. Fussy cow. Captured by the Sittuun on an alien planetoid, Amy is terrified for once rather than cocky. It makes her feel much more real. After hearing insults all of her life about redheads, Scots and women Amy never thought she would ever have to feel offended on behalf of her species. She struggled with the scale of how far away the Earth is in both miles and years. If there was one thing she has learnt about the future, it was that it was nothing like people said it was going to be. When she jumps to her possible death Amy thinks of home, the Doctor and the dress she will never wear. If Amy dies here everyone will think she’s run off to Thailand or something and she wont exists for her loved ones for another 250,000 years. How could her life have taken such a diversion that was leaping over a cavernous pit of monsters onto a spacecraft on an alien world in the distant future? Only when she is out of danger and can relax does Amy break down. She wants to rescue the Doctor because he is her friend but he is also her only way home. There’s a gorgeous relationship the builds between Amy and Charlie as she tries to understand him and the prejudice of his people against humans. Through her Charlie has an example that they aren’t all as racist as his father thinks. Drama was definitely Amy’s best subject at school, she was a natural. She teases the Doctor that she has rescued him for a change and that he is jealous of her friendship with Charlie. There was no way that Amy was leaving without the Doctor. Not after waiting 14 years for him to come back for her. Amy knows she has to go home sooner or later. She’s got a big day tomorrow and she can’t keep putting it off. After the events of this book Amy starts to wonder if all humanity if good for is being horrible to each other until Charlie plays her some music and reminds her of the beauty her species can create.

Great Ideas: I always applaud the books when they try something visually interesting and the emergency log of the crashed ship gets us off on an intriguing footing. The idea of the TARDIS bouncing off of speed bumps in space really made me smile as did the distress beacon that travels in time so that a rescue mission can be organised before the crash has taken place! The Gyre is such a fantastic location and it is described in exquisite detail. Its an endless scrapyard as far as the eye can see with a flaming comet filling the sky and heading towards the planetoid. Shipwrecks and refuse are brought together by the gravitational force of the five nearest stars. If Schuler Khan hits the Gyre it will send chunks of debris the size of cities spinning off towards the twelve inhabited worlds of the system. The Sittuun want to detonate a nanobomb in the upper atmosphere and neutralise the comets threat, literally eating away the Gyre so it can pass harmlessly through. Within seconds the Gyre will be a mist of atoms. There’s a great lake of acid with a giant rusted exhaust pipe as a bridge. The Sollogs live in the acid; fat slimy slugs with long spindly legs and gaping maws that attack anybody that tries to pass over. Its nice to see the books trying to pull off something this disgusting that a TV budget could never pull off. There is a brilliant role reversal where you think the Doctor has been saved by the humans from the aliens but they in fact turn out to be the aggressors. The human settlement is built from refuse; towers, shelters and huts all lit up by burning torches. Ancient, run down and rusted; stinking of smoke and rotting food. Ancient adverts for sportswear and soft drinks looking weathered an otherworldly, as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Roman mosaics. Whilst there are shades of The Face of Evil with the human settlement being constructed around the remains of the crashed human ship many generations ago this is a much more fulsomely realised, insidious location. The humans are described as ‘superstitious, unpredictable and violent…scared of absolutely everything.’ There’s definitely something in that. Dirk Slipstream’s rocket ship lands and is described as a glittering diamond in a mound of coal. I think Llewellyn is playing games with his audience because Dirk Slipstream screams of Zap Brannigan from Futurama down to his look (in fact with Gobocorp being a delivery company there is more than a touch of a dark, skewered version of Futurama here) and diction and yet I think this deliberate so we think he is going to be as inept and as cuddly as the cartoony character. Instead he is completely amoral, murderous and lacking any kind of moral sense. And he hides it all behind a perfect smile. There’s a great action set piece when the pipe breaks in two and Achmed falls to his death and Amy hangs onto the vines for her life and Slipstream simply waves goodbye to her grisly fate in the pit of Sollogs. The relationship with Heeva and Jamal is nicely handled and is all the more impressive because it isn’t necessary to tell this story but makes for a poignant background detail that gives these character and extra touch of realism. They clutched hold of each other in this situation of crisis but now Jamal is going home to his wife and Heeva has to pretend nothing ever happened. Slipstream was responsible for the Belaform diamond heist where he crashed a passenger ship into the diamond depository and killed 600 people. He was sentenced to 70,000 years imprisonment. Tying up one little mystery, Slipstream was the one that sent the distress signal that attracted the Doctor to the Gyre. Wars have been fought over the Mymon Key; it is an unlimited energy source, drawing its power from gravitational force. It can drive a ship through a black hole and be used to tear the fabric of the universe apart. Slipstream is quite mad, planning on using the Mymon Key to turn the sun into a black hole unless he gets 10% of the all the profits from the industries on Sol 1. ‘The humans are coming…’ – what a genuinely ominous threat humanity is in this book. The dark mass of humans caked in clown make up tearing across the desert of glass on a murderous journey is an unforgettable image. The Sittuun under attack by laughing, insane humans and the destructive comet fragments reveals a level of terror that is rare in the books these days. The whole Gobo/clown/western religion is so ridiculous but because the humans (and the author) take it so seriously it transcends that and becomes something very dark and malignant. With the burning fragments raining from the sky and causing such devastating earthquakes and craters it feels like Armageddon has arrived. Slipstream’s greed is what gets him killed and the Doctor doesn’t show a flicker of remorse.

Result: After The Taking of Chelsea 426 (a fun but unremarkable book) I would have never thought that there was a novel quite this gripping to come from David Llewellyn but he has defied all expectations with this nourishing read. The Gyre is a superbly thought through and vivid location that comes across as very alien and packed with dangerous detail. Llewellyn stacks up the dangers for the Doctor and Amy (both superbly written for) to face from the nest of dark hearted humans, the disgustingly realised Sollogs, Slipstream and his absence of morality to the comet that is screaming through space towards the Gyre and the bomb that will destroy it. Despite the fact that this is a tie in novel by the end of the book the location is so oppressive you might wonder if our heroes are going to escape with their lives. The prose is visual, dynamic and conveys a real sense of jeopardy. At first Dirk Slipstream comes across as a superfluous element but before the book is over he has become the most vivid of characters and the most dangerously unpredictable one. Night of the Humans isn’t trying to be too clever or cute, its simply a gripping piece of writing that wants to captivate you from beginning to end and it succeeds admirably. The ending is particularly memorable, with the Doctor tragically failing to save lives but with a hint of optimism in the poignant coda. Powerful and unexpected: 9/10

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Peacemaker by James Swallow

Plot: Standby for a rootin’ tootin’ adventure in the Wild West with dusky babe Martha Jones and her sonic slinging, fancy talking companion the Doctor! They’ll be parties, gunfights and plenty of riding through the desert and alien weapons that threaten to destroy the Earth in its infancy…

Mockney Dude: I really don’t understand the comments of people who say that the tenth Doctor is ill characterised in these books. Read on to hear some top notch characterisation of one the most subversive and aggressive of incarnations…

The Doctor had a way about him as if he took every piece of sadness in the universe personally and like he had the sole responsibility to banish such things. His open manner is infectious and his intelligence stimulating. He is so fascinated by anything out of the ordinary sometimes he needed reminding that normal people are caught up in it. ‘We just help the ones we can’ – the Doctor and Martha make an excellent life saving team. In chaos the Doctor became the eye of the storm. He held a sheriff’s badge once and it brought him nothing but trouble. He requires a gun belt so he can brandish his sonic! The Doctor can make a good time out of anything, never mind if it was terrifying as well. Usually it takes at least 3 minutes for people to want to kill the Doctor. He is a Time Lord and moves between the ticks of a clock. He is described as Rides in Night, Brother of Coyote and the man who defeated the Bad Wolf. A legend, a story for young braves. After Martha is shot he is a nightmare storm, absolutely furious as he approaches the long riders. ‘Like knows like Doctor. I can smell the blood on you. I can hear the echo of war that clings to your coattails. Such dark glory. I envy you.’ The Doctor’s mood darkens when the Clades brandish him a murderer. On another day he might have turned his back and let Nathan kill Godlove. When Martha is at the very edge of her life the Doctor can see the sheer weight of blame in Francine’s eyes. Once it is inside the Doctor’s mind it forces him to see Rose, Mickey, K.9, Captain Jack and Sarah Jane dying in wastelands of fusion bombs. He was willing to do a terrible deed, to destroy so much to defeat a terrible enemy. When the Clade ask him to merge with them and dangle the carrot of hunting down every last Dalek and erasing them from existence, he wants to agree. He hates himself for that. If he had been one with the Clade the Daleks would be gone and the Time Lords would have survived, Rose would still be with him and the Cybermen would be nothing but scrap metal. The Doctor knows violence, he knows anger only breeds more anger. The Doctor can think beyond four dimensions and he locks the Clade weapon into a feedback loop. He doesn’t mess about, he drops a hill on top of them! With the Doctor around nothing will seem scary again.

Delicious Doctor: You will hard pressed to find a book with Martha written for more accomplished than Peacemaker. James Swallow simply gets her, the mild lust for the Doctor, her love of travelling and her ability to snap into action as a training medical student. Throughout she continually sparkles with wonderful observations and sneaky peeks at her family life and Swallow seems to enjoy really selling how accomplished this duo can be at their height. Whilst Donna will always be my favourite tenth doctor companion (and one of my favourite companions full stop) Swallow convinces that Martha was top dog here.

Martha slyly suggests that their movie is a date. When they were kids Martha, Leo and Tish always stuck on a western whilst Francine cooked a joint and made great roast potatoes. With her mum and dad they would eat during the last half  and thinking of them causes a tightness in her chest and a pang of homesickness. She feels cheerless that a creaky old western is the only way she can feel close to her family. Martha wonders when she will get blasé about time travel because it hasn’t happened yet. She wants to visit the Alamo, Deadwood, Tombstone and the gunfight at the OK Corral (‘Been there, done that’ the Doctor retorts). Martha studied smallpox in her training and remembers the victims scarred by lesions and blinded. Quack Doctors with made up cures make Martha quietly furious. At times the Doctor thinks he is in charge but that’s not how they work. Martha sighs with regret when she tells Jenny its ‘not like that’ with the Doctor. She thinks life challenges us and we should challenge it right back. Injured people are her priority. I love the moment when the Doctor makes Martha realise that prejudice can cut both ways. Martha sticks her cowboy hat at a jaunty angle and declares herself ‘very Madonna.’ Living on the outskirts of London’s sprawl all that country horsy stuff felt a million miles from the world she comes from. Martha recognises shock in Nathan, hiding bereavement behind a wall of anger. Martha feels sadness about her family knowing they are so far away but joy knowing they are waiting for her. Lately Martha has learnt a lot about courage, to be afraid and still face what terrifies you. Trying to be as bold as the Doctor, even for a moment, was never easy. Martha is shot and the pain is like a million times every broken bone, rotten tooth and gut sick agony all in a rush of hurt. She actually thinks am I going to die? Martha snogs the Doctor to bring him back to reality. Whenever she has a bad experience in the past Martha always called Tish but she’s not sure her sister would believe her anymore.

Great Ideas: White fire ripped into them turning their flesh into ashes – you know you are in for a well characterised book when two incidental characters jump of the page so well in the prologue. The planet Hollywood has its sign made out of ice and rock dust in orbit. The Doctor is taking Martha to the pictures where the chairs are intelligent and mould to your comfort zones. I love the idea that one of the films is the Starship Brilliant story! Smallpox has been cured in the Wild West? Nathan is one of the townsfolk who was struck with the pox and cured and now he is plagued by terrible dreams of a future war. I like the way Swallow makes you feel sympathy for the unlikable characters in this book, especially Sheriff Blaine who is shot dead after betraying the Doctor. There are small mentions of naongenes, New Earth, small moments of continuity that place this firmly in NuWho territory. The Clades are weapons that are independently intelligent and so advanced they are capable of conscious thought and action. They would hunt down and destroy their creators enemies without pity, remorse or pause. They are the pinnacle of biological engineering named the Peacemakers, the last resort. The peace that reined in the wake of weapons brought untold prosperity. The Clades watched and waited through peace time, silent and calculating. Without fire, blood and destruction they had no purpose. Peace was repulsive slow decay. They reactivated themselves and turned on their creators, it had been what they were made for. They don’t want power or wealth, just to destroy. There’s always a war going on somewhere and now the Clades exist as mercenaries. All they leave behind them is ashes and destruction. They have a limited regenerative ability built in – Godlove’s cure all. Side effects are fragments of the Clades battle reports from a million campaigns across the galaxy. The telepathic imprint of a never ending war. The Clades are insidious, Martha will die slowly unless they take them Godlove. Walking Crow’s sacrifice could have been like a hundred other scenes we have seen of this ilk but instead it is dignified, poignant. I love Martha’s mow-bile from Nathan’s point of view! The long riders tear a rattlesnake in half and eat the raw meat in silence. Like an angry child in a tantrum the Clades were not going to go quietly. They’d want to destroy something just because they could.

Funny Bits:
  • ‘Jules took a lot of convincing to cut out the stuff about the Silurians’ – the Doctor on Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea!
  • Professor Alvin Q Godlove’s Powerful Dispatulated Incontrovertible Panacea Potion! I would buy that medicine just because of the name! Although I am reliably informed by the Doctor that it tastes gross, proof that that is simply the case the universe over!
  • Martha calls her buck toothed horse Rose! Ahem…
  • Martha isn’t sure if the Doctor looks like Clint Eastwood or the Milky Bar kid!
  • The Doctor unleashes a torrent of technobabble – ‘Please do not speak in that manner. It causes pain in my head.’
  • When she is shot the Doctor thinks Martha is going to confess her love for him when she just wants to tell him where Godlove is!
  • Martha doesn’t leave dirty kilts everywhere unlike some people!

Result: The beating heart of the American Frontier is our stomping ground in this attractive tale, the Wild West in all its glory! What impressed me here was how confident and engaging the prose was, James Swallow is not a name I am familiar with but he writes a Doctor Who story with artful passion. His characterisation of the Doctor and Martha is peerless and both characters jump from the page as living breathing people. The Clade backstory is a little similar to that of the Daleks but its such a good story who actually gives a damn? I am not a huge western fan so the fact that Peacemaker appealed to me as much as it did was down to some nifty writing, an authentic location and a real sense of pace of danger. Lets see another from this accomplished writer please: 8/10

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Shining Darkness written by Mark Michalowski

Plot: The Doctor and Donna are separated from each other in Andromeda galaxy and caught in the middle of a race war…

Mockney Dude: ‘I’m the Doctor’ ‘That’s not a name, it’s a title’ ‘Well as long as I get the job done isn’t it enough?’ Splitting up the Doctor and Donna is a great idea because initially she gets to do all the Doctory bits with the villains and he gets to do all the Doctory bits with the good guys and then halfway through the book they get to swap places. It’s a chance to see both characters at their best amongst ally and enemy. The Doctor brought Donna to the Andromeda galaxy for the very reason that he was out of his depth, he wanted to take her somewhere where his ignorance matched hers. Donna wonders what the Doctor would do in her situation and ponders if he has ever sat any of his companions down and taught them ‘Breaking out of Locked Rooms for Beginners.’ He shows real compassion for Mother when she reveals about her shady past and the lengths she went to to escape it. Threatening Donna is the quickest way of ensuring that this is the Doctor’s fight. He’s rather attached to his head and is (fairly) certain that if it is cut off another one wont grow back. The Doctor knows that if you stop thinking of somebody as being like you then it means that you start treating them differently and that usually means treating them worse. He points out the one flaw in all megalomaniacs plans when they are trying to subjugate others: ‘When you’re done and look around you’ll find that the universe isn’t any better after all!’ The Doctor hates people who turn individuals into types. For one awful moment he genuinely thinks that Donna is dead.

Tempestuous Temp: I think its tragic that Donna only appeared in four Doctor Who novels (she was similarly neglected in the comic strip whereas Martha had a wealth of stories in both medias) but in a way I can almost understand why they chose this option rather than keeping her on because she’s almost too good in this format and practically overshadows the Doctor. Its fortunate that the Donna tetralogy came along when the NSAs where really picking their feet up and producing works that could easily sit side by side with the paperback ranges that preceded them and The Doctor Trap, Ghosts of India, Beautiful Chaos and Shining Darkness are all great reads with a great role for Donna. I find that the Doctors/companions that transfer most successfully into print are those that had an awful lot of personality on screen (the First, Third, Sixth and Tenth Doctors, Ian and Barbara, Jamie and Zoe, Leela, Romana and Peri work really well in the books) and the ones that tend interpret blandly are those whose performances were a little more subtle (the Fifth and Ninth Doctors especially). Donna definitely falls into the former category and in the hands of Michalowski (who has never been accused of subtlety!) she springs from the page as a fully formed character, hilariously funny, armed with acerbic wit, ready to tackle anything that is thrown at her and almost fulfilling the Doctor’s role for large chunks of the book. Its an extremely vivid depiction (compare and contrast with the yawnsome handling of Amy Pond in the books) and throughout you can hear Catherine Tate saying the lines (‘Go on, Sister Wendy, what is it?’).

Within moments Donna is being bossy, funny, picking fights and tossing pop culture references at anyone who gets in her way (‘That supposed to be some kind of insult? ‘Cos where I come from, sunshine, that wouldn’t get you on Trisha, never mind Jeremy Kyle!’). She nearly coughs up a furball when somebody calls her the Doctor’s pet. Donna genuinely loves art and had a copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at home but she thinks that you have to earn the title and not just slap random things together and call it art. She thinks of herself as an Ambassador for Earth (Lord help us!) and spells her name TROUBLE. The Doctor describes her as a priceless treasure when she is stolen along with the exhibit. She has never been this far away from the Doctor before on a world that feels so alien. These robots creeped her out because they looked too much like living things. If they look more like robots then she might be more comfortable around them – the novel goes on to explore her prejudices in a very creative way. For Donna psychological abuse is being kidnapped and locked up without a television. She shows great compassion for one of the bimbots when its spine is snapped and is determined to point out that it is murder when Ogmunee shoots it. As a child Donna was teased relentlessly about the colour of her hair and so becoming a Goddess for that very reason almost makes up for it! For one silly moment she wished that her mum (who always told her to stop being so sensitive) was her to see her being treated to deification. There’s a very telling moment where Mesanth compares Donna’s non reaction to her kicking a door to her more emotional reaction to the destruction of the bimbot on Karris – Donna’s emotions very much depend on appearances. The Doctor grins at her down-to-Earthness and how she often misses the bigger picture but gets the details right. Donna is not a racist because she judges by appearance and not race (‘Its only natural to see something that doesn’t look human and doesn’t act human and assume it doesn’t think human’). She acknowledges that her shortcomings aren’t how things should be and that we are only as ignorant as we choose to be. Donna is a quick thinker when she is in danger and thinks up the awesome plan of everybody squeezing into an escape pod, Mother wrenching it free of its defective release mechanism and ride atop as they fly away from the exploding spaceship! Travelling with the Doctor scares the willies out of Donna but she’s learnt to question what is normal with hi and to question her core beliefs in a way that she feels has made her a better person.

Great Ideas: Mother is our main robot character and is described as looking like a high speed collision between a truck and a steel mill (you can check her out yourself on the splendid cover!). She was created as a product of war but tried to damage herself so she would be of no use to them, literally attempting to commit suicide so she wouldn’t have to kill. Through Mother we experience a robot with feelings and the emotional/thematic crux of the story. Promechanicals are friendly types that harp on about robotic rights. The Cult of the Shining Darkness on the other hand are a bunch who refuse to believe that machines intelligences are sentient They consider anything non organic to simply be a collection of spare parts. The Shining Darkness is a time when they fear that the machines will rise up against organics and slaughter them all. The people of Jaffee collect religions like ornaments and they often have two or three mutually incompatible ones going at the same time! They are too smart and rational to actually believe in any of them and so consider the pinnacle of sophistication to believe in something utterly without any proof. It was easy to believe in things where there was evidence but took a special sort of person to devote themselves to something when there isn’t a scrap of corroboration. They especially love the idea of Heaven because you could make it as fabulous or as strange as you wanted and no one could prove you wrong! Sacred artefacts are great because you can lose them and then spend ages going on quests trying to find them again. These sequences are simply divine, like we have tripped into the Hitchhikers Guide with a wonderfully silly parody of religious zealots who can change their faith on a whim. Like Adams at his best there is a serious meaning here amongst the fluff. Unfortunately the artefact that was left on Jaffee by the cult was tossed in the junk cupboard when a more interesting religion came along! Junk is a planetoid where you can unload all your obsolete technology and it is crushed and catapulted into the sun. For the surface think of the opening scenes of Wall-E with towers of junk. Crusher (he crushes the junk up) and Chuck (he tosses it into the sun) make an impressively macho entrance like two killer Transformers but they turn out to be a pair of bitching mincers who let their squabbles interfere with their work! Weiou with his cartoon display emotions and excitable manner is another gorgeous invention. Given the right resources machinekind can reproduce at a much greater rate than organics (‘But they haven’t’ points out the Doctor). The Cult have an ideal hidey hole inside a black hole where they can plot and put their plan into action. There’s a really exciting sequence where the Sword of Justice is on a collision course with the Torch and Donna’s only escape route (the TARDIS) has been blown into space! ‘Every home should have one’ says one character about the robots and it evokes a feel of how black women were treated in the 50s. Li’ian is revealed to be Cult member and in an unexpected moment shoots who we thought was our central villain, Garaman, right between the eyes! Her plan is to take control of all the mechanicals via the Mechanet and use them as an army to subdue organics and ensure that their warped view of reality endures. They want everybody to be frightened of machines so they will wipe them out. Boonie placed an antimatter bomb inside Mother as a final solution to stop the cult if all else fails. I really like how the Doctor comments that even though their plans have been scuppered they cannot wipe out the Cult because it’s a state of mind and not an organisation. As much as I hate the BNP if we managed to snuff out their political party there will still be racists out there. The Doctor sums up this books moral: ‘People being people. That’s normal.’

Funny Bits:
  • ‘I have to find a friend!’ ‘You’ll be wanting the companion district then…’
  • ‘A bit Scooby Doo, isn’t it?’ – if only he would go on to be this smart in Judgement of the Judoon where that is literally the case!
  • ‘Earthons!’ ‘We’re called humans’ ‘How confusing!’ – I love the way that Michalowski is constantly taking the piss out of science fiction conventions in this book. Donna also names the Solar System and the Sun (‘how quaint!’) and suggests that because they are invaded all the time that humanity are ‘major players!’
  • There is a forty year old childlike man…is the author taking the mickey out of the fact that every NSA has to contain a child of some kind as an identification figure?
  • ‘You never hear of the second rate ones going mad though, do you? Its always the geniuses.’
  • Donna winging her way into becoming a deity is as priceless as you can imagine! Michalowski has really though about how Catherine Tate would bring this scene to life and its all in there; dramatic pauses, mouth hanging open and sudden bursts of emotion! What a shame The Ginger Goddess never made it to the screen! The Doctor: ‘I think she’s getting ready for panto season.’
  • The Mechanet: ‘Generally its just full of nerds and losers complaining that machinekind isn’t what it used to be or circulating rumours about an organic agenda’ Naughty, naughty Michalowski! Hahaha! Even Weiou has been looking at specialist sites that make his display blush!
  • Weiou: ‘Explosions always make me feel bilious!’ and ‘So we’re all dead and this is the final upload?’

Notes: ‘Don’t use Huon particles for anything, do you?’ the Doctor asks as Donna is beamed away.

Result: Nothing made of circuits and cogs could really feel, could it? Why is it when Star Trek tries to humanise machines it comes across as a preachy sermon but when Doctor Who tackles exactly the same theme its more of a charming fairytale? I’m putting it down to Shining Darkness having a fantastic sense of humour so that despite having a very serious point to make it is always a joy to read regardless. Michalowski packs his book full of silly, quirky, funny touches and whips up a crazy, colourful corner of the universe for the Doctor and Donna to have a spin around. Within its chucklesome exterior is a very serious message and a touching exploration of prejudice proving that the NSAs can tackle important themes and yet still keep things light and readable. By making the victims of hate crimes robots the author can tackle the subject of racism in a censored and creative way. I love all the idiosyncratic robotic creatures that we meet along the way and the author has the voices of the Doctor and Donna so perfect its as though he had created the characters himself. Donna in particular is expertly handled and learns some valuable lessons from this adventure. It’s a genuinely lovely piece of work that wouldn’t be at all out of place next to Mad Dogs and Englishmen and The Tomorrow Windows in the EDA range. I got through this in record time and I don’t think there was a point where a smile left my face, this is a book which evokes pure sunshine: 9/10