Throughout the darkened, musty cloisters of Doctor Who fandom (read: bedrooms), one debate that has raged long and loud is that of radical versus traditional approachs to storytelling, or “rad vs. trad,” as it is often more commonly known.
Such a debate is immeasurably relevant to any discussion of the Virgin New Adventures, a series which pushed the franchise into bold and, more often than not, controversial storytelling practices. Casual swearing, sex, drinking and violence, along with a generally more angsty tone and a manipulative, morally questionable Doctor are just some of the reasons why this line’s legacy is still controversial, nearly 30 years after its beginning.
In such an environment, one almost gets the impression that there were no traditional writers whatsoever. Indeed, Justin Richards isn’t the type of author one would expect to flourish in an atmosphere like that of the VNAs. That’s not to say that Richards’ work lacks sophistication or talent, mind, but from the pieces of his oeuvre which I’ve read, they are generally more traditional, familiarly-structured stories, where A leads to B and neither’s nature is ever really in too much question, give or take a mystery here and there.
Yet we begin his literary career with a tale of manipulations, grey morality and a situation where it is unclear who precisely is the villain. An author playing outside of their strengths is occasionally great cause for concern. So it’s a pleasure, and indeed something of a minor miracle, that Theatre of War works as well as it does.
Benny. Benny, Benny, Benny. In practically all regards, this is her book. Barring the Prologue (or Rehearsal as it’s known, in keeping with the theatrical theme of the novel) and a brief sequence featuring the Doctor and Ace, the first three chapters occur exclusively from the good Professor’s point of view, following on from her three-month-long dig on Phaester Osiris after the end of Legacy.
Theatre of War feels like a reaction, in a way, to how poorly Gary Russell handled Bernice, and most other things besides, in the preceding book. There’s pretty much no chance this is the case practically, given the two books were probably written concurrently and as such had no influence on each other one way or the other. Yet it’s worth noting that Richards does many of the same things, but better. The opening solo sequences on Menaxus with the Heletian archaeologists allow her to show her knowledge in a much more credible and believable way than just constantly fawning over Ice Warriors.
Of course, it’s not just Benny who proves her archaeology cred. Unlike the murder “mystery” on Peladon, no-one is made unrealistically and irritatingly idiotic purely in service of the plot’s momentum. Even the token “redshirt” troopers get a couple of ideas in.
Speaking of redshirts, this ties in to another point I made last time. There’s something decidedly Star Trek, or perhaps more specifically The Next Generation, about a narrative framework which, for a time at least, focuses on people making observations and suggestions in a conference-style format. This is a far more meaningful thematic connection than any of Legacy‘s talk about negotiations involving the politics of a Federation or descriptions of spaceships and nacelles.
Theatre also doesn’t fall into the trap of building the Doctor up by making everyone else incredibly stupid, or even vice versa. Although the Doctor deduces the Dream Machine’s true nature, and some of its purpose, it’s Bernice who figures out the source documents all had to have been written by the same author (which is a quite clever way of integrating the Source Documents preceding each Chapter, because, in reality, they were indeed all written by the same person: Justin Richards). It’s Bernice who Braxiatel approaches to reveal his plan (although, granted, at that point he doesn’t know the Doctor’s involved). Speaking of which…
Ah, Irving Braxiatel. Yet another wonderful creation of the New Adventures. So amiable and delightfully smug, yet it all conceals one of the most devious, downright diabolical minds in all of Doctor Who, at least among nominally good characters. It’s quite impressive how much of his eponymous Collection is formed right from the outset here, practically just waiting to be used as the backdrop for the Benny-era NAs three years hence.
Indeed, I could practically hear Miles Richardson’s delivery of every line. Once things started becoming odd, I immediately jumped to the conclusion that Brax was behind it all, but then again, I have 25 years’ worth of hindsight to work with. The man has two-thirds of an ancient, evil Time Lord President inside his head (or maybe he doesn’t… I’m not quite sure where this falls in his timeline; it could very well be after Fenman removes it), and erased Benny’s twins from existence.
Yet that’s the genius of Justin Richards. Even if you can figure out how things are likely going to play out, he still manages to make it so incredibly satisfying when they finally do click into place. The final twist, that Lannic was probably a construct of the Dream Machine all along, is just the proverbial icing on a cake of many twists and turns.
Even if Brax isn’t really the villain here, he still did plan on unleashing an army of killer robots on the Heletians. I’m pretty sure the Doctor wouldn’t even consider that. But then again, we’ve seen the man wipe out at least two solar systems, not to mention an entire universe. Brax, then, serves as a not-so-dark mirror of the Doctor, a comparison made all the more apt by… later revelations.
The idea that the Doctor, of all people, would be scared to meet someone who had managed to out-manipulate him is quite effective, however flippantly Ace and Bernice might laugh it off. It really does set him up as a person who you would not want to cross, right from the outset.
Both Ace and the Doctor are also very well-characterised. I touched on the genius of having the Doctor be unnerved at being outsmarted by Braxiatel, as well as how he isn’t treated as unrealistically stupid or smart, so there’s not too much more to say there. I will say, however, that Ace is pretty good here too. She’s impulsive and headstrong, but not to an unbelievable, irritating extent. Certainly better than being shipped off to some barely-tangible subplot with no impact.
Richards also makes full use of the medium of prose in the sequences where characters get adapted into theatrical sequences, repeating language for effect in a way one simply couldn’t do on screen. On top of all that, there’s even some excellent action sequences to be had. The living mud statues are a great concept, even despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that they’re not quite as they appear. They lend the whole first act a most enjoyable “Base Under Siege Story” atmosphere of the kind so often encountered by the Second Doctor. The sequences featuring the Rippearean cruiser chasing the Heletian orbiter are suitably tense as well.
Yet, despite all this, there is one main, fairly noticeable flaw in Theatre of War, in retrospect at least. One’s enjoyment will depend, in great part, on whether they are willing to look past this. That flaw is the characterisation of the guest cast.
One of the final scenes, for instance, involves Lannic revealing to the Exec that she has been attempting to ingratiate herself to get revenge for her husband’s brutal treatment by Heletian forces. As shocking as this reveal is in the moment, it does reveal a problem with the characterisation/backstory of Lannic and indeed the other characters: it’s practically nonexistent.
Each member of the Heletian guest cast is woefully underdeveloped and one-dimensional, hitting a specific basic emotion/personality trait and not much else. I’d also take issue with the decision to kill off the most interesting and fleshed-out guest character, Gilmanuk, halfway through. Surely Klasvik or someone could have been sacrificed instead? It just felt odd to me that he would be the one to survive.
I also didn’t really feel much of a sense of urgency from the whole Rippearean threat, barring the aforementioned chase sequence. Really the whole of the Heletian political landscape didn’t really come together quite as well as one might hope. The revelation that they were right bastards could have been more properly seeded throughout the book prior. For an aspect introduced in the last third, though, I think it was about as good as it could have been.
These flaws are only truly obvious in retrospect, though, and didn’t really detract at all from my reading experience, as I was quite engrossed throughout. They’re also very minor compared to the sheer quality of everything else, yet it still has to be mentioned, in the interests of fairness.
Despite my complaints about the one-dimensional Heletians, I will admit that I found Bannahilk’s death due to his sleazy attraction to Ace quite amusing. It was a nice subversion of the tedious Ace romance plots. Although this was more akin to imminent sexual harassment than romance, I suppose. Either way, I don’t want to say he deserved to get killed by a sentient mud statue, but he totally deserved to get killed by a sentient mud statue.
OK, I don’t usually do this, but it’s time to go into Fan Theory Mode: Did Brax really live on KS-159 for about 1300 years between the Bernice-era New Adventures, which feature the Braxiatel Collection in the 27th century, and this, which occurs definitively in 3985? Or is there some kind of time travel involved here? Either one would be just as believable with Brax, quite honestly.
Useless Fun Fact: Coupled with my subtitle for my review of White Darkness, this marks the second time I’ve made a pun on Back to the Future in a review subtitle. Please don’t sue, Robert Zemeckis.
Despite some extremely minor flaws, this is a work of stunning creativity and intelligence. Fantastic regulars, a superb introduction for Brax, and a plot whose complexity more than lives up to Richards’ reputation. All but erases the memory of the awful taste left by Legacy.
Join us next time, when we’ll ask and answer the question, “What’s better than Sherlock Holmes teaming up with the Doctor?”
SPOILER: The answer is, of course, “Sherlock Holmes teaming up with the Doctor to fight monsters from H. P. Lovecraft.”
That’s right, we’re taking a look at the solo debut of Andy Lane in All-Consuming Fire!
But until then,
Special Agent Dale Cooper