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