Virgin Decalog Reviews: Lost Property, edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

At long last, after over thirty years of adventures, Lost Property sees the Doctor venture into that most horrifying and impenetrable of landscapes: the real estate market!

More seriously, though, the second of Virgin Books’ Decalogs sees the series discard the notion of an opening short story that serves as a recurring framing device throughout the collection. Instead, the link is a more abstract one. All ten stories share a central theme. That theme, as I alluded to earlier, is the various properties and houses owned by the Doctor.

I don’t have as much to say in this Preamble as I did the first time around, since you probably understand the general premise of the Decalogs well enough by now. If not, feel free to go back and read my review of that first Decalog, because we’re going to jump straight into the first of Lost Property‘s stories with…

1. Vortex of Fear by Gareth Roberts (featuring the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe)

Oh dear Lord I already regret this decision. Talk about throwing me in at the deep end…

OK, anybody who’s read this blog for a while knows that I find it difficult to review Gareth Roberts stories. Not because the works themselves are bad, per se, but the man has just made himself a complete pariah in the world of Doctor Who at this point by going so far down the “They’re cancelling me!” rabbit hole of awfulness after he faced criticism for some transphobic remarks.

And the trouble is that he is definitely a talented writer. I can see why his works were as beloved as they were for so long. They’re enjoyably whimsical and quick-witted, and he’s very much the Doctor Who writer who has best captured the ethos of Douglas Adams and Season 17 in his stories. I think I’ve come to realise that, while I generally enjoy reading Roberts’ books, reviewing them is an altogether more exhausting prospect because I find myself reminded of just how spectacular his self-manufactured fall from grace has been.

With all of that being put aside, how about Vortex of Fear itself? It’s certainly odd, and it probably stands a fair chance of being crowned Roberts’ most experimental stories. To be honest, it’s perhaps a little much to jump straight into at the start of the anthology, but it largely succeeds.

The biggest problem, really, is that the story doesn’t feel too connected to the general theme of “houses owned by the Doctor.” There’s a cursory line from Zoe early on about the Time Vortex being the Doctor’s home, in a manner of speaking, but that’s really about it.

I could almost envision this as a rejected entry for the first Decalog that was reworked slightly to have the most tangential of links to the central theme of this second installment. I doubt that that’s actually what happened, and in any event I’d likely have no way of knowing one way or the other. Nonetheless, Vortex of Fear certainly feels of a piece with some of the first Decalog’s more mind-bending stories like The Book of Shadows or Lackaday Express.

These aren’t comparisons which are especially favourable to Roberts. Vortex of Fear has neither the tight command of pacing employed by Mortimore, nor the simple yet undeniably effective emotional core which Cornell brought.

By the same token, though, that isn’t to say that this story isn’t a lot of fun. It has a solid premise, and sticks to it throughout to deliver a short story that is, while perhaps not transcendent, still pretty enjoyable.

In essence, the story sees the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe stumble upon a lavishly-decorated hotel-like structure within the Time Vortex. It isn’t long before they begin to realise that the people inside the hotel have become the victims of an exceedingly timey-wimey misfortune, with all of them being stuck in a time loop. Only one of them is aware of this, but he’s been locked up as a madman and is desperately trying to escape.

I imagine the “weird and illogical hotel” elements of this premise have probably put quite a few of my readers in mind of The God Complex, but as I kept reading I honestly found myself thinking more of the early Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, The Royale. Both stories feature characters trapped in a time loop within hotel-like surroundings, with the only individual who is aware of the loop being holed up inside their room.

As usual when it comes to these comparisons, I do not draw this connection in order to spin some narrative that Vortex of Fear ripped off The Royale. Rather, I think that I enjoy this short story for much the same reasons as I enjoy that episode. Neither of them are close to being perfect installments of their respective series, but there’s something to be said for the strangeness of their premises.

The notion that the hotel is basically just an incredibly advanced tax haven is wonderful. As I alluded to earlier, much is made of Roberts as a successor to Douglas Adams’ tenure as script editor on Doctor Who, and this certainly feels like the kind of premise which the mind behind Hitchhiker’s might have toyed with.

Though it naturally isn’t delved into with as much depth as it might have been in a full-scale novel, it also serves as a nice piece of bitterly comedic commentary on the lengths that the ultra-wealthy will go to in service of their own ends.

Much like The Royale, the story also concludes with the knowledge that this loop will go on. The people within are trapped forever, and there’s something faintly chilling in the idea that this loop is playing itself out in a little corner of the Time Vortex every time that the Doctor traverses it. Obviously it’s hard to feel too much in the way of sympathy for a bunch of self-obsessed billionaires, at least one of whom is verifiably a murderer, but it’s still quite a horrific fate.

Indeed, it’s quite a bold storytelling choice to have the Doctor turn down Brachinnen’s desperate pleas for a means of escape. I can understand how some might think this a textbook example of the Virgin books’ reputation for grim, gritty cynicism, but I think it works within the context of the story. The hotel is a hellish place, to be sure, but it’s a hell that’s entirely borne of the billionaires’ own greed and avarice.

As for the regulars, this is another case where the Decalogs prove more adept at capturing the voice of the Second Doctor than the full-length novels I’ve looked at so far. It’s especially noteworthy in this case, since I think this is the only time Roberts has written for this incarnation of the Doctor. Despite that, the mannerisms and even the interactions with Jamie feel true to the spirit of the repartee between Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines.

It’s also always nice to see Zoe actually explored as a character in her own right. This kind of goes back to what I said about Dodo in my review of The Golden Door in the first Decalog, but the female companions in 1960s Who tended to start out with an incredibly interesting premise (a Time Lady in all but name, an orphan from the 25th century, an orphan from… the 19th century) but quickly settled into a more generic “companion” role. That much is certainly true of Zoe.

She was introduced as an incredibly intelligent character, but there was also a certain strain of condescension in the way the show treated her. It seemed to suggest that she was too cold and cerebral and needed to learn how to appreciate the world around her from a more emotional point of view.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this as a character arc. It’ll always smack of a faint whiff of anti-intellectualism, but it’s a solid grounding for a character. It’s arguably not too dissimilar from the central conflict at the heart of Star Trek‘s Spock. The crucial difference, though, lies in the gender of the two characters.

The “companion” role, as a genericised archetype within Doctor Who, has long had certain awkwardly-gendered implications for the power dynamics of the show’s regular cast. Those implications definitely bled into Zoe’s characterisation in a way that they didn’t for, say, Spock.

To say that Vortex of Fear provides the most interesting examination of Zoe’s character from the franchise to this point may not exactly be a very high bar, then, but I do still think it holds true. Zoe feels more like a fully-formed character here than she ever did in the television series, and I very much appreciate that.

Roberts seems to have reimagined Zoe’s status as an intellectual wunderkind in a way that puts her on a more equal footing with the Doctor, seeming more reminiscent of the show’s treatment of Romana than anything else. Again, this makes sense for an author who was always heavily influenced by Season 17.

All around, this is a pretty solid way to open the anthology. Its links to the collection’s overarching themes are pretty weak, but it has an interesting premise that is well-executed, as well as characterisation of the regulars that makes writing the Second Doctor look effortless. Of course, I’d also completely understand if people felt like skipping this one thanks to Roberts’ involvement.

2. Crimson Dawn by Tim Robins (featuring the Fourth Doctor, Leela and K9 Mark I)

Hey, remember Leela? She sure was a character in Doctor Who, wasn’t she?

I’m being flippant, but that’s just because I find it incredibly strange that Crimson Dawn is one of only two stories ever published by Virgin to feature Leela travelling with the Fourth Doctor. The other is People of the Trees from later in this very same collection, though she does have a guest appearance in the Seventh Doctor’s final New Adventure, Lungbarrow. When you consider that even Dodo was afforded a chance to anchor a full-length novel in The Man in the Velvet Mask, it just seems very, very strange.

Anyway, we’ll get back to Leela in a moment. Crimson Dawn also marks the return of Tim Robins to the Decalogs. He previously wrote Prisoners of the Sun for the first collection in the series, and it wasn’t one of the more promising franchise debuts Virgin has ever played host to. It was laden with a metric ton of clunky exposition, largely because of the overly-ambitious attempt to tell an alternate universe narrative within the extremely limited time allotted to a short story.

That being said, I was willing to give this story a chance. Some New Adventures authors have had pretty astonishingly poor debut novels, but have surprised me with a much more enjoyable sophomore effort (paging Christopher Bulis…). I knew ahead of time that Robins never wrote for the franchise after this point, but I was open to the possibility that maybe he was just an underappreciated talent who slipped through the cracks of Virgin’s open submissions policy.

Much as it pains me to say this, however, I don’t think Crimson Dawn is very good. It’s probably a bit of an improvement over Prisoners of the Sun, but it ultimately ends up succumbing to much the same problems that plagued that story.

There’s no alternate-universe shenanigans here, but Robins has still attempted to tell this very big, epic story of a businessman in cahoots with terrorists and aliens and… hey wait a minute this actually still sounds extremely similar to Prisoners of the Sun

OK, obviously I’m being a little facetious with these remarks. Just about any two stories can probably seem quite similar if you reduce them to the most basic, broad summaries like that, but it still felt eerily similar to me.

In Crimson Dawn‘s defence, though, the thematic point here does seem a little clearer and more focused than it was in Prisoners of the Sun. This is very obviously a thinly-veiled allegorical story about the crass commercialisation of non-European cultures by big companies for the purposes of tourism.

Honestly, I found this to be a pretty great premise that fits well with the grand science-fiction tradition of using fictional societies and cultures to comment upon real-world issues, and Robins very much highlights the classical sci-fi roots of Crimson Dawn. The Doctor’s houseboat (providing that link to the “property” theme) is named the Dejah Thoris, and the story is peppered not only with further references to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but also H. G. Wells.

For all that it’s propped up with some truly burdensome exposition, the vision of Mars presented here is a lot of fun. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of these kinds of tacky tourist traps that we’ve all no doubt been dragged to at some point or another. And yeah, I’ll admit it since I’m not a heartless, pun-hating Grinch: any story that features an actual dining establishment named the Mars Bar is automatically elevated by a few points at the bare minimum.

On a more serious note, the inclusion of Leela turns out to be a bit of a thornier choice, if you’ll pardon the expression. Leela was always a somewhat troubled creation. With her leather-clad, warrior woman demeanor, she often leaned a little too heavily into the kinds of patronising “noble savage” tropes which would ironically feel quite at home in a Burroughs novel. This was an impression which wasn’t at all helped by the fact that the production team decided to base her character arc around the idea of the Doctor “educating” her about her ancestors.

This certainly isn’t to say that it’s impossible to tell good stories featuring the character in spite of these problems. On the contrary, I think the expanded universe managed to get quite adept at humanising Leela in a way that the Hinchcliffe and Williams Eras sometimes didn’t. Big Finish’s Gallifrey audio series is a particular standout on that score.

Unfortunately, Crimson Dawn very much arrives before the franchise really got a handle on telling Leela stories in a way that didn’t play to the more unsavoury stereotypes with which she is associated. There’s a chunk in the middle of the story where the character reacts with bafflement when presented with the tacky excess of Mars, and it brushes uncomfortably close to the kind of romanticism of “less civilised” cultures that comes straight from the handbook of the noble savage trope.

This is all especially troubling in the context of the 1990s. It seemed like the popular culture of the decade held a particular fascination with non-European culture and spirituality, and especially that of Native Americans.

Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves was the fourth-highest grossing film of 1990, and took home seven wins from twelve nominations at the 63rd Academy Awards. Lost Property saw release two months after Chris Carter began to incorporate Native American culture into the mythology of The X-Files with Anasazi.

At the same time, Michael Piller was pushing for similar ideas within Star Trek: Voyager, an incredibly ill-advised move which would lead to trainwrecks like Tattoo and contribute to his departure from the franchise. Just one month before Lost Property‘s publication, Disney’s Pocahontas also sparked controversy over its numerous deviations from history.

Crimson Dawn is, thankfully, not quite as overt as all that, but it still plays into the broader context of white writers and directors’ fascination with these cultures as some kind of simplistic, romantic ideal. That this should come to the fore in a story which sets out with the worthy goal of criticising Western, capitalistic cultural appropriation only compounds the frustration.

There’s not too much more of any great depth to be said that I didn’t already say in covering Prisoners of the Sun, other than perhaps to note that Robins has gotten better at writing action scenes. Certainly none of the action was as disorientating as the choppy, confused raid on the BT Tower from his previous story.

Ultimately, I think I can only paraphrase what I said in my summation of Prisoners of the Sun. I could see there being a really good novel at the heart of Crimson Dawn, because it seems like Robins’ big ideas would be better suited to a longer-form medium. Unfortunately, that’s not what the Decalogs are about, and I have to judge these short stories as, well, short stories. On those terms, I just don’t think this one works.

3. Where the Heart Is by Andy Lane (featuring the Third Doctor and Jo)

Where the Heart Is builds from an incredibly continuity-heavy, fan-wanky premise. Reduced to its most basic level, it is the story of how the “manor house” UNIT HQ that debuted in The Time Monster was acquired from Doctor Dantalion, the Birastrop memory-surgeon from Original Sin.

It’s fair to say that this could easily fail spectacularly, coming across as a ridiculously self-indulgent, ill-advised mess. Thankfully, this is an Andy Lane story.

Lane is an author who has certainly never shied away from continuity references in his work. Lucifer Rising featured a main character whose husband disappeared on the Hydrax from State of DecayThe Empire of Glass was predicated on building out a portrayal of the Armageddon Convention from a single line in Revenge of the Cybermen.

To be fair, there were times when this tendency could backfire on Lane. The reveal in Original Sin that a cybernetic Tobias Vaughn was responsible for a millennium’s worth of the Doctor’s enemies was quite patently absurd, for instance.

Still, those instances are the exceptions that prove the rule. The fact remains that Lane has always been extremely talented at using continuity-heavy premises to paint a wonderfully detailed snapshot of a particular time and place, all while peppering the narrative with enjoyable, satisfying character interactions.

Where the Heart Is doesn’t have to do nearly as much worldbuilding as something like All-Consuming Fire or The Empire of Glass. That’s partially down to the fact that it takes place in the familiar, non-descript near future of the UNIT Era, but it also represents Lane rather shrewdly streamlining his storytelling sensibilities to fit within the short story format.

Instead of the worldbuilding, then, Lane places the emphasis on those smaller character moments. The story is pretty quiet, a marked change of pace from the apocalyptic, Earth-shattering (OK, Mars-shattering) stakes of Crimson Dawn. Things happen, to be sure, and there’s even a climax featuring a six-vehicle military convoy. Even that, however, feels pretty subdued, and this is a choice that works in Lane’s favour.

The real joy of Where the Heart Is isn’t really in the plot. On a basic level, it could probably be argued that it falls victim to some of the same problems which haunted The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back. Both are UNIT stories that focus on the characters’ responses to an external situation that we know must be resolved before the end of the story. Just like we knew there was never any real chance that the Doctor would leave UNIT in The Straw, we know that UNIT obviously cannot be disbanded here.

So what is it that makes this story succeed, where its spiritual predecessor didn’t? Well, it helps that Lane is, as I’ve said, a very experienced author at this point who has demonstrated considerable aptitude for writing characters. However, the story is also paced very well.

One of the biggest issues with the execution of The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back, looking back, was that it felt a little too frenetic. It bounced much too quickly from plot point to confrontation to other plot point. Here, Lane isn’t afraid to slow things down and make room for small touches that really make the characters come alive, whether it be the Brigadier snatching away Yates’ vol-au-vent or the Doctor pausing in the middle of an investigation to ruminate on Dantalion’s wine cellar.

Dantalion himself is fun, and it’s nice to contrast this much younger, more energetic personality with the version we met in Original Sin. It’s nice that he genuinely feels alien, both in appearance and in morals. The notion of a society where killing is tolerated if it’s done in pursuit of furthering medical knowledge is quite chilling, and the respective reactions of both the Doctor and Jo to this felt perfectly in-character. Some might argue that he gets off too lightly, but Original Sin doesn’t exactly see him living what you could call the high life, so I’m not too bothered by it.

I don’t have too much more to say. This is probably the best Virgin-published Third Doctor story I’ve read so far. To be fair, it’s not as if efforts like The Ghosts of N-Space have exactly set the bar very high, but still. I’m sad that this is the last Andy Lane story I’ll read for quite some time; it’s certainly the last of his stories for Virgin to feature the Doctor. When it comes to characterisation and storytelling, he’s really proved one more time that he knows precisely Where the Heart Is.

(Look, I held back for long enough, OK? Just give me that one…)

4. The Trials of Tara by Paul Cornell (featuring the Seventh Doctor and Benny)

The Trials of Tara marks the first “proper” Seventh Doctor story in one of these Decalogs. I use the term “proper” rather loosely for two main reasons. Firstly, the previous anthology’s framing device, Playback, did feature a starring role for Seven, albeit without any of his regular companions from the books or the TV series. Secondly, and perhaps more obviously, the term “proper” implies a sense of normality to the presentation of this story. Such a claim would be quite unfounded.

For you see, The Trials of Tara is not so much a short story as it is a four-act play script written in the style of a Shakespearean comedy. To give you an idea of how deeply Paul Cornell has committed to this idea, I need only quote the full, alternate title as it is given in the book: Would That It Were, the Comedie of Count Grendel the Master of Gracht with the Life and Death of His New Executioner.

So… yeah.

I’ll admit, I’m kind of thrown for a loop with this one. When you’ve reviewed things for years, you get so used to the rhythms of a short story or novel, no matter how experimental it might be. Any seismic change like this, therefore, kind of hits like a truck. In this case, it’s definitely a positive truck-hitting, though. I don’t think such a thing exists, but I’ve never let a wonky simile stop me before.

Anyway, as the title (well, both titles) kind of hints, this is a sequel to The Androids of Tara. As it goes along, it transpires that it’s also a sequel to The Happiness Patrol as well. On the surface, you could probably make all kinds of criticisms about how ridiculous it is to mash these two characters up. These criticisms would miss the fact that the ridiculousness is very much the point.

And make no mistake, this is a very silly (and often very funny) story, but it’s also quite an attentive recreation of the works of one of the most celebrated English authors of all time. It feels a little too much describe a pastiche of already-comedic stories as having “played it straight,” but the sentiment still holds. The bawdy humour and double entendres are amply represented, and those familiar with the Bard will also doubtless recognise a number of plot beats and names from his plays which Cornell has repurposed here.

I can’t really comment on if it’s accurate to the more technical aspects like the stage directions or the iambic pentametre or what have you. Yours truly does not, it must be said, really possess the necessary grounding in classical literature or poetry to make any such judgments. If you do, and you read the story, draw your own conclusions in this area.

One area which I do feel qualified to speak on, though, are the Doctor Who elements. Obviously the characters are a little exaggerated to fit into a Shakespearean comedy, but the Doctor and Bernice are both still pretty recognisable even through the farce. The latter in particular should come as no surprise, since we are of course dealing with the author who invented Benny in the first place, but it’s nice to see all the same.

The rest of the characters are fun enough, if perhaps not especially deep. Nonetheless, there were still some creative ideas. Taking Oberon and Titania and making them the monarchs of android fairies constructed as novelty Christmas gifts is a cute twist on the original play that also totally fits with what we know of Taran culture.

The last thing of substance I’ll note is that it’s interesting to view this in the context of some of Cornell’s later books. The obvious point of reference would probably be something like Oh No It Isn’t!, which is quite heavily steeped in ideas of pantomime and performance.

However, it also fits quite well with the author’s earlier reworking of Karl Marx in No Future: “They say history repeats itself… The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This time, it’s panto.”

To contort this quote beyond all reasonable measure, if The Androids of Tara is the tragedy, then it seems reasonable that The Trials of Tara is the farce. Does this make Oh No It Isn’t! the final, evolved iteration of Cornell-as-panto? Eh, probably not. Again, this all relies on me stretching a throwaway line to breaking point and I don’t really intend it in too much seriousness, but it is interesting to note these ideas recurring throughout the author’s work all the same.

The Trials of Tara is a delightful example of the way in which Virgin’s willingness to allow its authors to experiment could often pay dividends. It’s the kind of thing that you could never really do in a visual medium like television, but which also couldn’t really sustain a full-length novel. In that respect, then, it’s arguably doing exactly what a short story should.

5. Housewarming by David A. McIntee (featuring Sarah, Yates and K9 Mark III)

Kind of surprising that, with a premise like “stories about houses owned by the Doctor,” it took us until nearly halfway through Lost Property to get a haunted house story. Less surprising, though, is that it should come from the pen of David A. McIntee.

McIntee has always had a certain fondness for pulp. His debut novel, White Darkness, featured Haitian zombies under the thrall of an unnamed Cthulhu. His sophomore effort, First Frontier, was very much an archetypal “alien invasion of 1950s New Mexico” story that leaned heavily on the mythos and ambience associated with the Roswell Incident.

Housewarming slots rather comfortably into this tradition. Sure, the eventual explanation might rest more on time travel technobabble than on anything “supernatural” (perhaps an inheritance from McIntee’s other great influence, Star Trek), but the imagery with which the story is playing will seem familiar to any reader with even the most fleeting acquaintance with horror cinema.

The team of paranormal investigators that Sarah, Mike and K-9 find themselves teaming up with are all pretty broadly drawn. There’s the tech wizard, the skeptic, the young couple who inevitably wind up being creepily watched (though, in this case, not slain) by the main villain during a sexual encounter.

Again, this is all pretty standard stuff, but it’s largely carried by how much fun McIntee is having working in this space. The shorter format also helps ensure that Housewarming avoids the pitfalls of something like First Frontier in feeling so familiar that it becomes rote, tired and dull.

Speaking of First Frontier, though, there’s actually a pretty solid link to that novel here. What follows is technically going to be a spoiler, I suppose. Really though, if a bearded, aquiline man in dark clothing going by a name like “Marius Castillo” turns up in a David A. McIntee story, chances are pretty good that he’s the Master.

Predictably, that is indeed precisely who he turns out to be. However, it also seems like this is actually the Basil Rathbone incarnation from First Frontier. There’s nothing explicit within the text to really confirm this, but considering both stories are from the same author, it seems likely. Neither Mike nor Sarah recognise him, either, which would seemingly rule out the possibility that it’s Delgado or Ainley.

The Rathbone Master remains one of those delightful oddities thrown up by the New Adventures while they were given the task of proverbially shepherding the franchise continuity. Beyond First Frontier and this story, he would only appear in Paul Cornell’s Happy Endings before quietly disappearing. Some have speculated that he is, in fact, the incarnation played by Gordon Tipple that we glimpse at the beginning of the 1996 TV movie, but there’s nothing to really confirm that.

Since he only appeared towards the end of First Frontier after the Ainley Master was shot, this is really the first time we’ve gotten the chance to glimpse this incarnation “fully-formed,” as it were. How does he do? Well, he’s fine, albeit a little indistinct. The Master is really a character who lives and dies on the performance, or the capturing of that performance when it comes to literary media like prose or comics.

McIntee has already demonstrated a knack for capturing the performance and spirit of the Master to this point, but the Rathbone Master perhaps suffered from the jump in comparison to those on-screen incarnations. The character certainly does all the expected Master-y things, but still feels a tad generic.

Given this Master’s roots in Rathbone’s performance as Guy of Gisbourne, though, it was fun to see the story climax in a rapier duel between him, Mike and Sarah… even if the “I’m not left-handed” bit was pretty blatantly cribbing from The Princess Bride.

The last noteworthy thing about Housewarming is that I believe it marks the first story published by Virgin to not feature the Doctor at all. We’ve obviously brushed up against that in the past with novels like Birthright, or within the Decalogs themselves with The Duke of Dominoes. Still, even these stories featured a token Doctor cameo or two.

What would seem to be represented in this focus on Doctor-less stories (indeed, by the time they stopped writing Doctor Who-adjacent fiction in 1999, that would be the only thing Virgin was able to publish) is an attempt to broaden the scope of the Doctor Who universe. Again, as I kind of alluded to in that parenthetical just now, it was also often reflective of the fact that they simply didn’t have the rights to use elements like the Doctor, the TARDIS or the Daleks. I think the creative intent was still there in some form, though, however unconscious of it they may have been.

This also isn’t really something exclusive to the Wilderness Years. After all, Housewarming does owe a considerable debt to the failed K-9 and Company pilot from the early 1980s. At times it plays almost as a hypothetical second episode of the series that never was, although with the admitted caveat that it definitely takes place some time later in the 1990s. In a post-Sarah Jane Adventures world, it’s interesting to see how the seeds were sown, and the characterisation of Sarah, Yates and K-9 is solid.

Housewarming takes a premise that could probably feel tired and worn-out in different hands, and elevates it to something a lot more enjoyable. Much like Vortex of Fear, it’s not exactly high art, and that’s probably only further highlighted by the fact that it comes directly after two of Lost Property‘s strongest stories. Still, for what it is, it’s a great deal of fun.

6. The Nine-Day Queen by Matthew Jones (featuring the First Doctor, Ian and Barbara)

Oh hey, another story from a first-time Doctor Who author. More than that, a first-time author who would actually go on to have a reasonable amount of success and staying power in the franchise. I don’t know what it is about the Decalogs so far, but all the authors who have made their debut within these two collections haven’t tended to go on to write much outside of them.

Whatever the case may be, Matthew Jones (or, as his later credits would refer to him, Matt Jones) would go on to write two New Adventures novels in the form of Bad Therapy and Beyond the Sun. When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, he would contribute The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit to the revival’s second season, as well as penning Dead Man Walking for the spin-off series Torchwood.

There isn’t really much to tie The Nine-Day Queen to those later efforts, to be honest. Indeed, against their depictions of the Devil and Death itself, a story focusing on the Doctor, Ian and Barbara’s becoming enmeshed in the tragic fate of Lady Jane Grey seems positively intimate and small-scale by comparison.

The biggest problem with this premise is that it invited me to draw comparisons in my head to a previous First Doctor story, The Book of Shadows. To be fair, the notion of throwing that particular incarnation into a historical setting is one that would likely occur to a great many writers, based on his television tenure.

From there, it’s not exactly a great leap to throw in a science-fiction element and base the story’s central thrust around a tricky moral dilemma like the possibility of rewriting history. All the same, there are a few key shortcomings that unfortunately held me back from enjoying The Nine-Day Queen as much as I did The Book of Shadows.

Most glaringly, the story’s pacing is a bit of a mess. It’s supposed to take place over a period of a few months, but I simply didn’t feel that the text created that impression skilfully enough. The best example to illustrate my point is that the Doctor only spends one scene as Jane’s tutor before her wedding to Guildford.

We are, of course, told that they spend much more time together, but therein lies the problem: being told about two characters forming a deep bond off-screen is really not a substitute for actually seeing that happening.

“Show, don’t tell” has almost become a cliché in its own right when it comes to writing advice, and there’s a lot more nuance to be found in the application of those three words than is perhaps generally acknowledged. Sometimes, though, the old advice is still the best, and this is one of those cases.

(Much the same applies to Jones’ decision to begin the story in media res and tell the tale of Barbara’s possession by the Vrij entirely in Ian’s own memories. It just feels clunky and awkward, and recalls the problems I’ve discussed previously with Crimson Dawn or Prisoners of the Sun leaning much too heavily on expository infodumps.)

The truncation of the Doctor and Jane’s relationship also speaks to another complaint I have. For a story entitled The Nine-Day Queen, the Nine-Day Queen herself doesn’t have much presence. It feels like this was written with the intent of exploring the way in which Grey’s agency was robbed from her by the political machinations of the men around her, and while that’s certainly a noble sentiment, its impact is rather lessened by her absence from large chunks of the narrative.

There is still some emotion to be found in the Doctor just narrowly missing a chance to say a proper goodbye to Jane, or in Barbara musing on the Queen’s fate. Nonetheless, it’s largely drowned out by the generic sci-fi possession stuff involving the Vrij (probably the winner of the Most Inexplicably Dutch Extraterrestrial Name competition), and the tragedy that is present has been done better elsewhere.

I dunno. I feel kind of bad that none of the first-time authors from the Decalog series have really been “landing” with me, especially since I quite like The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit in particular. But yet again, here’s another story that just felt a little too large for a short story and so feels more than a little like squandered potential.

7. Lonely Days by Daniel Blythe (featuring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa)

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might recall that I wasn’t especially enamoured with either of Daniel Blythe’s previous novels. The Dimension Riders hewed much too closely to the template of Douglas Adams’ Shada, with a little bit of Star Trek thrown in for added flavour. Infinite Requiem was an improvement, but it still suffered from generic antagonists with unclear motives and an outrageously cheap “shock value” ending.

It’s perhaps too much to characterise Lonely Days as Blythe’s magnum opus or some unheralded masterpiece waiting in the wings, but I did enjoy it a great deal more than either of those novels. It almost feels a shame that it should mark his last story for Virgin, but that’s the way things go I suppose.

What hit me most about Lonely Days is something entirely unintentional. As the title implies, it’s a story dealing with themes of isolation and loneliness, as a survey officer grapples with being the only human being on an asteroid. Obviously this is something that resonates a lot more after the last two years than it may have done in 1995. While there is some awkwardness in aspects of Blythe’s approach to this idea, I did still appreciate the rather low-key nature of the premise.

Indeed, much like Where the Heart Is, “low-key” is very much the word of the day here. The story is quite short relative to the others in the collection, and apart from the researcher, the Doctor and Nyssa, there’s only one other character.

Honestly, I think that these kinds of narratives are much better suited to the short story format than larger-scale efforts like Crimson Dawn or The Nine-Day Queen. They’re not the only way to tell a good short story, and indeed there have been some “bigger” stories that I have still liked. Just look at The Book of Shadows.

Nonetheless, I find that the average quality of your short stories tends to improve when you treat them as “short stories” and not just “novels of a much shorter length.” Probably shouldn’t be a very radical observation but what’re you gonna do?

The plot itself isn’t exactly super groundbreaking. There’s some weird things going on at a far-flung research outpost on an asteroid that the Doctor once won while gambling, but everything is ultimately resolved without too much of a fuss once it turns out that the asteroid is actually a dying, sentient being who was just trying to warn the researcher.

This is all pretty stock-standard science-fiction stuff. It even feels a little reminiscent of the type of “misunderstanding between aliens and humans that is resolved by finding a way of breaching the barriers in communication and language” moral that Star Trek is particularly fond of (see The Devil in the DarkOne of Our Planets Is Missing, Home Soil).

While it might be a bit of a tropey plot, though, it’s executed well enough here that I can forgive it. If authors are going to pull aspects from Star Trek (which, though I am loath to admit it, is perhaps a little unavoidable since the books are the product of the 1990s), I’d rather they take some of the moral philosophy from it than just try to ape the setting and characters.

The premise does run into some issues, though. It turns out that the researcher has created a hologram of his girlfriend, who was killed in a Dalek attack during his posting to the asteroid. The story at least seems to recognise, on some level, that this is weird. It isn’t as if it condones it, but it doesn’t exactly feel like condemnation either. Indeed, the dying asteroid-being even agrees to remain in the form of the holographic girlfriend at story’s end.

All of this feels somewhat akin to struggles that the ’90s Star Trek shows would run into with the holodeck. The franchise seemed decidedly uncomfortable with the prospect of directly and seriously addressing the possibility that people would use this kind of technology for less-than-wholesome purposes. What you got instead were scripts like Hollow Pursuits or Booby Trap that seemed to gesture at a recognition of the holodeck’s creepy aspects, but always stopped just shy of explicit acknowledgment of those possibilities.

(Of course, when the franchise did grapple with these ideas, we got trainwrecks like the “Quark is hired to make holographic pornography featuring Kira’s image without her consent” subplot from Deep Space Nine‘s Meridian so… maybe it’s for the best that it didn’t happen more often.)

What makes this so frustrating in the case of Lonely Days is that the whole “holographic girlfriend” angle could have been cut so easily and the story would have avoided these issues altogether. It doesn’t exactly ruin the story for me, but it is just… a weird idea to drop so casually into a story like this.

I guess the last thing I’ll mention is the characterisation of the regulars. They’re both good, though perhaps a little broadly-drawn when compared to some of the truly great Doctor and Nyssa stories.

It is interesting to see authors begin to capitalise on the potential of the gap between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity as an opportunity to tell previously unseen adventures, though. Big Finish would later do the same, particularly in the early years before Janet Fielding agreed to reprise her role as Tegan.

Lonely Days isn’t a great story. It’s perhaps a little too simple and archetypal a plot, there are some questionable storytelling decisions, and while the characterisation of the Doctor and Nyssa isn’t egregiously terrible, it’s not exactly first-class stuff either. And yet, for whatever reason, I found it to be enjoyable enough.

Maybe if it was longer it would have wound up overstaying its welcome, but thankfully that didn’t really end up happening. While I can’t say I’ll especially miss having more Daniel Blythe stories to review, this was probably the strongest thing he wrote for Virgin.

8. People of the Trees by Pam Baddeley (featuring the Fourth Doctor and Leela)

People of the Trees is a baffling creation. On the one hand, it is reasonably well-written and flows pretty smoothly. There’s none of the awkwardly crammed exposition that has plagued some of the weaker stories the Decalogs have brought us. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a premise which can’t help but feel like an uncritical and unexamined use of the white saviour trope.

In keeping with the anthology’s central, unifying theme, the property which People of the Trees focuses on is an area of land which the First Doctor purchased on an unnamed planet. He did this with the intent of protecting the titular People of the Trees, an arboreal race considered by the other inhabitants of the planet to be “savages.”

Within the short story, it seems reasonably clear that the People are portrayed in a manner that evokes traditional conceptions of Native Americans and other First Nations peoples who have historically been the victims of violence and hostility from colonialist European powers.

The specifics of the allegory aren’t one-to-one, to be fair. The Dascarians are never explicitly said to have colonised this region of the planet. Based solely on the evidence of the text, it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that the two races have always occupied the same area. Still, the discussion of the People’s tribes having been exterminated in the past seems fairly clear as to what part of history it is evoking, as do the persistent beliefs advanced by the Dascarians that the People are little more than “savages.”

I don’t necessarily take issue with the very idea of doing a story tackling these kinds of issues. Indeed, the collection’s theme of “land ownership” could have even provided a window into contemporary discussions of native title.

After all, native title was very much a hot-button topic in the 1990s, particularly in Australia. In the high-profile court case Mabo v Queensland (No 2), the High Court had almost unanimously voted to overturn the doctrine of terra nullius. One year later, Paul Keating’s Labor government passed the Native Title Act 1993 which enshrined the titular doctrine in federal law.

However, these decisions did not have the effect of quashing debate on the topic. Lost Property arrived a year before the High Court’s judgment in the Wik Peoples v Queensland case would receive intense criticism and blowback from federal and state Liberal-National coalition governments. The cover of a December 1997 issue of Australian periodical The Bulletin would pose the question “Land Rights: How Much is Too Much?”

People of the Trees obviously exists in a British context and not an Australian one, but it’s hard not to read it as reflecting these contemporary discussions in some fashion. Sadly, when viewed in that light, I think this story falls quite short.

As much as I wish we had got a bold and challenging story, something that might have affirmed the rights of First Nations peoples to exercise ownership of their traditional lands, we didn’t get that. The story pretty much takes for granted that the best possible outcome that the People can hope for is that the Doctor retains ownership of the land so that he can protect them.

There is… a lot to unpack in that, and as a white critic there are obviously limits to how qualified I can ever be to fully parse the implications of that assumption. What I will say, though, is that in the absolute most charitable reading possible, People of the Trees still brushes uncomfortably close to the imperialist rhetoric of the White Man’s Burden.

This is the kind of rhetoric that has been used for centuries to justify various policies that adopt a paternalistic approach to First Nations peoples in countries like the United States, Canada and Australia. In particular, the Doctor’s decision to carve out an area of the land for the People’s “protection” is scarily similar to the policy enacted in the United States by the government of President Andrew Jackson under the Indian Removal Act.

There are perhaps ways of making this revelation work. After all, it makes some measure of sense that the First Doctor might choose to do something like this. His presentation as a refined, scholarly English gentleman wandering the universe and righting wrongs has always carried certain colonialist undercurrents, so writing a story that called out some of those tendencies would make complete sense. Unfortunately, this isn’t what People of the Trees does, and it instead ultimately accepts the Doctor’s actions as being completely, unquestionably justified.

To be fair, there are times where the story seems to flirt with the prospect of making some more stinging criticisms. Most notably, the scene where the Doctor tries in vain to warn the Justiciar of Aulian Thorolis’ villainous intentions feels like it comes closest to recognising the ways in which the legal and judicial systems will often tend to be weighted in favour of the majority’s interests. The story still ends with the Doctor’s ownership of the land seemingly secure, though, which undermines any heft that the scene’s criticisms might have had.

I dunno. It just doesn’t quite sit right with me, even as I recognise that there are elements here that I do like. The Doctor and Leela’s relationship here seems perhaps a little more equal than it was in Crimson Dawn, though that might just be the effect of juxtaposing it with all the stuff with the People.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Baddeley also has a better understanding of how to structure and pace a short story than some other authors thus far. It’s a bit of a shame that this is her only story for the franchise, as the White Man’s Burden/white saviour aspects do overshadow the parts that show some promise.

Even more unfortunate is that this should prove to be the last time Virgin published a proper outing for the Fourth Doctor and Leela. It’s a shame that both stories have been tarnished by clumsy attempts to tackle issues of cultural imperialism and colonialism against First Nations peoples. Perhaps it’s not too surprising, though, given that Leela is a character whose base concept is more than a little iffy.

It’s strange, because I came into Lost Property hoping to be able to talk about these stories as some kind of forgotten, overlooked gems. That’s what I wanted, given their unique status within Virgin’s oeuvre. However, if Crimson Dawn and People of the Trees can at all be considered a valid barometer of the quality we could expect from further stories with the Doctor and Leela, then perhaps it’s for the best that this particular dynamic duo were never again put in the spotlight as they were here.

9. Timeshare by Vanessa Bishop (featuring the Sixth Doctor and Peri)

I wasn’t a huge fan of Vanessa Bishop’s contribution to the first Decalog, The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back. Its drama felt a little forced, there were some clunky writing decisions that made it a little too confusing to follow at times, and the whole thing also felt strangely truncated. Nonetheless, I went into Timeshare hoping that I would enjoy it more.

Thankfully, my hopes were vindicated.

Timeshare is a great deal of fun, and probably one of the strongest stories in Lost Property. I honestly think Bishop had a lot of potential, which is why it’s a bit of a shame that she apparently only ever wrote one other short story for Big Finish’s Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury anthology in 2004.

Still, there’s a lot to like here, starting with the way Timeshare handles its high-concept science-fiction premise. The property in this story is a sort of time-travelling timeshare, operated by an unnamed disreputable party who essentially allowed customers across time to “buy” the ability to stay there for one week. This is a neat idea, and the story explains it pretty clearly without ever becoming bogged down in the exposition. It’s a simple thing, but considering how many of these stories have had trouble with that so far, it’s appreciated.

There’s also a pretty neat twist to the general formulae that a lot of the stories in this collection have followed. The stories generally either start with the Doctor having suddenly remembered a house or piece of real estate that he happens to own (as in stories like Lonely Days or People of the Trees), or the house and its significance is revealed during the progression of a larger narrative. Timeshare initially looks like it’s going to go with the former, but it blends in a little bit of the latter by having the Doctor be unaware of his ownership of this particular house.

This all plays into the other big point in the story’s favour: the mystery elements. Bishop boldly sets up a number of plates that she has to keep spinning throughout Timeshare, and generally speaking, it’s a move that pays off.

I’ve spoken before about how it can be difficult to construct these kinds of weird, mind-bending sci-fi mysteries, because the universe is inherently not bound by such paltry trifles as the laws of physics or other things us mere denizens of reality have to contend with. It’s already difficult to make all the spinning plates of a regular mystery land in a satisfying way, even before you throw in uncertainty as to the laws of gravity.

In theory, I suppose one might expect me to chew out Timeshare for having its resolution come in the form of a convenient dose of exposition from a random, unnamed Time Lord. Honestly, though, I don’t mind it. Bishop demonstrates a knack for making the infodump feel like an actual conversation, so there’s a tad more elegance than you see in stuff like Prisoners of the Sun or The Nine-Day Queen.

It also helps that the aforementioned Time Lord is, himself, a lot of fun. I like the idea of a Time Lord who isn’t a stuffy old bureaucrat, a refined scholar or a stern military commander, but is just an ordinary, put-upon technician. He’s basically the Miles O’Brien of Gallifrey, which is the kind of character we never really got to see in the original show. The closest example that springs to mind is Neil Daglish as Damon in Arc of Infinity, but… yeah, what a memorable character he was.

Timeshare is also notable for being the first “proper” Sixth Doctor story from the Decalogs, after he took a turn as a guest star in The Golden Door in the first Decalog. Colin Baker’s performance definitely shines through the pages, and while his interactions with Peri are still a little combative at times, Bishop never overdoes it and knows when to rein things in before their conversations just become irredeemably unpleasant. Once again, it’s really interesting to see the progression of Wilderness Years authors steadily getting a better handle on how to approach this “black sheep” incarnation.

Finally, I rather liked the way the plot basically all just stemmed from a series of tiny, comical misunderstandings and errors which added up as the story went along. It really helped impart a sense of mounting tension to proceedings.

Timeshare is a return to good form for Lost Property after the slump represented by People of the Trees. It has just about everything going for it, and like I said earlier, it’s a shame this would ultimately be Bishop’s last Doctor Who short story for nearly a decade. In an ideal world, it would have been nice to see her get the chance to contribute a full-length novel. What we’re left with is still quite entertaining, so it’s hard to complain too much.

10. Question Mark Pyjamas by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker (featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Benny)

And Lost Property rounds itself out with another debut. Or, rather, almost debut. Robert Perry and Mike Tucker had both already contributed a short story, Girls’ Night In, to Doctor Who Magazine‘s recurring series of Brief Encounter vignettes. Nonetheless, this is still early days for the duo who would become best known for their Seventh Doctor stories for BBC Books’ Past Doctor Adventures range.

Question Mark Pyjamas is, needless to say, a bit of an outlier in their career. It’s strange to see Tucker and Perry contribute a story to Virgin – let alone a story so rooted in the particulars of the New Adventures – when most of their subsequent BBC work would seem to try and present an “alternate” continuation of the Seventh Doctor’s televised tenure.

Not only does this story feature both Benny and the NAs’ so-called “New Ace,” but the “lost property” in question is the house on Allen Road that has been a recurring fixture of the books since Warhead. It’s funny, but I had honestly gotten so wrapped up in reviewing the previous nine stories that “Why don’t they feature the house in Kent?” never crossed my mind. Now that it’s appeared, it seems like the most obvious choice in existence.

Anyway, this is a nice piece of fluff to end the collection on. It’s very silly, and that may irk some people, but I found it enjoyable enough. The New Adventures have such a (perhaps somewhat overstated) reputation for being dark and edgy, so it’s nice that between Question Mark Pyjamas and The Trials of Tara, both of Lost Property‘s Seventh Doctor stories have been pretty light-hearted.

I don’t doubt that a lot of my enjoyment of this story’s comedy probably stems from my general affection for the regular cast line-up of the Doctor, Ace and Benny. If this were another set of characters I probably wouldn’t find it quite as enjoyable, but I read much of Question Mark Pyjamas with a smile on my face.

It helps that the general comedy of “villains trying to fit a TARDIS team this dysfunctional into the mould of a stereotypical domestic family” is also backed up by some wonderfully ludicrous imagery. The house on Allen Road being incongruously transported to a barren asteroid is already surreal enough, but stuff like the Doctor using a lawnmower to cut the non-existent grass or Ace bursting out of a garage on a Harley-Davidson is just the cherry on top of a bizarre sundae.

Mr Garpol and Mr Blint, the villains of the piece (and the only major guest characters to speak of), are rather broadly drawn. However, that feels only appropriate for a story like this and they’re still great fun as your typical Holmesian double act.

If I had any major criticisms, it would be that Benny doesn’t get quite as much to do as Ace or the Doctor. It’s possible to cynically view this as Tucker and Perry’s potential preferences for those two characters bleeding through, but I think that interpretation is a little too uncharitable.

After all, Benny does still get some great lines and is well-characterised, so I find it hard to complain too much. The two authors seem to have a good grip on where she fits into the dynamics of the trio, and that’s honestly not really something I can say for every New Adventures author.

Question Mark Pyjamas may not be the deepest story in Lost Property, but it still manages to be a goofy yet strangely heartwarming conclusion that provides a nice reminder of just why I love the New Adventures to begin with. In a way, this feels like the perfect story with which to conclude the first five years of Dale’s Ramblings.

Who could ask for much more than that?

Final Thoughts

So… how does this stack up against the original Decalog? Probably ever so slightly better, by my estimation. The average quality of the stories was about the same, with some really strong efforts standing shoulder-to-shoulder with much weaker ones.

What gives Lost Property the edge over the original, I would say, is the abandonment of the “one single story” concept. Things just flow a lot smoother when you can jump right into the next story and figure out how it ties into the collection’s overarching theme, rather than having to read a couple of pages of an extremely tangential framing sequence. This is the approach that most of the Decalogs (and the spiritual successor series, Short Trips) would go on to take, and it’s not hard to see why.

So, that concludes all the Decalog reviews that I will be doing at this point in time. I’ll obviously review the remaining three when I get to them, but I see no need to skip ahead. The next blog post you see on here will probably be the five-year anniversary post in October, where I’ll do another Virgin Adventure Revisitation on Paul Cornell’s No Future. A few weeks after that I’ll conclude Moffat Era Rewatch coverage over on Twitter, and hopefully get back into the swing of proper Virgin Adventure Reviews in 2023.

Thank you all for sticking with this blog, even though it’s been pretty inactive for the past year or so. Think of 2022 as something of a “gap year” for the VARs, if you like. I’m just very busy with starting university and such, but it means a lot that people still read my stuff.

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

Virgin Decalog Reviews: Decalog, edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker

Ah, the Virgin Decalogs. I’m going to be completely honest with you up-front and say that I knew virtually nothing about any of the stories herein before starting this. There are several reasons for this, perhaps most obviously being that their relevant entries on various fan sites/wikis are incredibly stubby, even by the typically cursory standards of most VNA/VMA coverage.

I’ve also just never really worked up the courage to approach the task of reviewing a short story anthology, let alone multiple anthologies. It sounds simple in theory, perhaps even simpler than writing about full-length novels. For whatever reason, though, my brain simply refused to grasp the concept, and that still kind of persists.

As such, this review is kind of an experiment to simply see if I can actually do it. It’s also just something to tide folks over, because I won’t be getting back to Virgin Adventure Reviews for a while. They will return though, I promise!

It’s also worth noting that we’re operating a little out of synch here. Strictly speaking, the first Decalog, the one we’ll be talking about today, was published in March 1994, which puts it concurrent with the release of Tragedy Day. I’m obviously a bit past that point in my reviews, but bear with the slight anachronism if you would.

But what actually are the Decalogs? Well, it’s pretty simple. They’re a series of collections of  Doctor Who short stories (or, in the case of the fourth and fifth installments, “anything Virgin had the license to” short stories) published by Virgin Books alongside their full-length prose lines, the New and Missing Adventures. In essence, they were the precursors to BBC Books’ (and, latterly, Big Finish’s) Short Trips series.

(Indeed, since Goth Opera, the first MA, was only published in July 1994, the Decalogs technically pre-date that range as far as Virgin fiction centred around the First through Sixth Doctors go.)

The books usually had some unifying theme or central narrative around which all the stories were built. As the name implies, they also typically consisted of ten stories in total. All pretty simple stuff, but it’s good to try and lay the groundwork before actually getting into the meat of things. Speaking of which, let’s do that…

(And yes, there will be some spoilers, so consider yourself forewarned if you want to hold out on spoilers until you’re able to read a close-to-thirty-year-old, out-of-print short story anthology. Ordinarily I would just take the spoilers as a given assumption, but considering the structure of this anthology as being built around a single linking story, I kind of need to discuss and, by extension, spoil that story, so I figured I’d note it here.)

1. Playback by Stephen James Walker (featuring the Seventh Doctor)

Playback is a little difficult to review, which is why it’s actually one of the last segments of this review I’m writing. This is mostly because it’s not really a conventional short story like the other nine to come. In actual fact, it’s more of a framing sequence, with the book returning to the ongoing narrative (such as it is) after each of the stories.

This is, theoretically, an interesting structural experiment, and the collection leans quite heavily on it as a major selling point. The last line of the blurb proudly declares that this first Decalog, as “a cycle of ten linked stories,” is a novel idea (pun very much intended) within the world of Doctor Who.

The problem here is that… the stories really aren’t all that linked.

OK, yes, there is one very strong and tangible link from one of the stories to the framing sequence, but it’s only revealed at the very end. The other stories (and, honestly, even the one story with the strongest link) could pretty easily be packaged as part of a standard anthology without the framing device.

Once you finish the introduction, which sets up the Doctor enlisting the help of private detective Bart Addison and a psychic named Silverman to recover his lost memories, nothing much happens for the majority of Playback‘s length.

Said psychic basically takes a reading from one of several items that the Doctor has in his pockets, each item providing a loose segue into the proper content of the short stories. Rinse and repeat until the last-minute resolution (which, accordingly, I will discuss after the other stories just for the sake of simplicity and clarity).

So really, how much you enjoy this first Decalog will depend a lot on how much slack you’re willing to cut the weak framing sequence, and I can certainly see merit to both arguments.

On the one hand, there are several stories that are very good, and which work extremely well on their own merits. The fact that they can stand alone from the framing sequence just means that they should be taken as they are, and one should consider the sequence as something wholly separate.

At the same time, the framing sequence is touted as being central to the makeup of this book. It’s emblazoned over the front cover and blurb, as I’ve said. Playback should, by rights, be the central “point” of the collection, such as it is. The fact that it fails on that front is a valid criticism, and that failure could perhaps be said to extend to encompass the book as a whole.

Personally, I think I err on the side of “cut some slack.” This is a new format for the franchise, and not all experiments can be considered complete successes right out of the gate. It’s worth noting that, perhaps influenced by the way this book turned out, the remaining four Decalogs would generally organise their stories around a general theme and omit the framing sequence concept, so it seems the higher-ups at Virgin may have also agreed with me that it was a bit of a misstep.

The closest the series comes to this kind of thing again is probably the way Consequences tells one interlinked narrative throughout its various individual short stories… but we’re a while away from getting to that.

It must also be said that, at the end of the day, the story is broadly functional, if perhaps a little workmanlike. It does exactly what it says on the tin, in that it is a sequence which frames the other stories. The problem is that each of these stories should, in theory, feel like unveiling the different parts of a jigsaw puzzle. Instead, barring a few scattered hints here and there, it just feels like the opening credits, something to delineate these different chunks of prose from one another.

That may be the most literal interpretation of what a framing sequence ultimately is, but it doesn’t feel too unreasonable to expect more from Playback, particularly when the book’s own cover and blurb hype up its core concept so much. Nonetheless, it does mean we get some great stories, starting with…

2. Fallen Angel by Andy Lane (featuring the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe)

Well, they certainly knew how to start strong. Giving the first “proper” short story of the anthology to a writer like Andy Lane is a fantastic move. I’ve said before that I consider Lane to be perhaps the strongest character writer that Virgin ever had, and I stand by that. The fact that his talent remains so readily apparent even without the breathing room usually afforded by the full-length novel format speaks volumes.

But before we get to the character stuff, I suppose we’d better talk about the basic premise of the story. In essence, it is “Doctor Who meets The Saint.” Not literally, of course, but the character of Lucas Seyton is a very clear stand-in for Simon Templar. Lane signposts this right from the get go, dedicating the story to the then-recently-deceased Leslie Charteris himself, and even having the Doctor explicitly namecheck the Saint.

This crossover makes sense. The Saint was a veritable titan of British television in the 1960s, producing 118 episodes over six seasons, being aired in over sixty countries and ultimately earning production company ITC a profit that has been estimated in the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Given that The Saint and Doctor Who were contemporaries (the former’s second season started just two months before An Unearthly Child aired), a story like this was perhaps inevitable. That inevitability doesn’t make it any less fun, though.

Because, make no mistake, Fallen Angel is a blast. In such a short span of time, Lane still manages to construct a tightly-paced and thrilling action runaround (and I use that term in the most affectionate possible sense) which feels just the right amount of silly and which clearly comes from a place of love for the original source material.

Seyton and his old war comrade Kettering are wonderful. Cynics and buzzkills might say that hewing so closely to a pre-existing character is lazy, but I don’t see it that way. Again, it all comes down to the respect which is evident in the handling of the character, and the deftness with which the story sets about evoking the iconic and wisecracking performance of Roger Moore.

It’s a thing of beauty, and it almost feels a shame that, being creations of an obscure short story anthology spin-off of an already obscure novel line, the characters will likely never receive mainstream recognition, but c’est la vie.

As for the regulars, well! I’ve talked before about how the Second Doctor is pretty notoriously difficult for the books to get a handle on for a number of reasons, and that’s borne out by the two novels I’ve already reviewed which feature him. And yet here, over a year before the first full-length Second Doctor novel, Andy Lane makes it look utterly effortless.

Everything here just screams Troughton, from the mannerisms to the catchphrases. The book also doesn’t succumb to the trap of merely thinking of Two as an incompetent, bumbling clown. There are elements of that to his persona, certainly, but that’s not all there is.

There are moments here that understand that, and that capture very well the peculiar gravitas and mystique Troughton could bring to monologues when he had to. Indeed, it’s interesting that this story finds the Doctor grappling with what is strongly implied to be a Time Lord prison that he had some direct involvement in constructing.

(Obviously the Time Lords go unnamed, in order to keep continuity with Jamie and Zoe not recognising the name in The War Games, but the Doctor’s use of “we” while discussing the creators of the Crustacoids’ prison seems evidence enough. The reference implying that the eponymous prison asteroid of Shada is newly-constructed seems at odds with that story presenting it as an ancient facility, but I’m sure you can handwave that in one way or another.)

Jamie and Zoe themselves don’t have much presence in the story since the Doctor and Seyton spend most of the narrative separated from them and trying to return to the TARDIS, so it’s difficult to say too much one way or the other. As one kind of expects with Lane, though, they seemed generally pretty in-character, and certainly much better than the relative blandness of their portrayals in The Menagerie.

All-in-all, Fallen Angel is a very strong start to the Decalogs, and any occasion that I get to read an Andy Lane story is fine by me. I’d probably say it’s worth seeking out a copy just for this story alone. It’s great fun, especially if you like the kind of old-timey spy thrillers exemplified by The Saint and The Avengers.

3. The Duke of Dominoes by Marc Platt (featuring the Master, the Fourth Doctor and Sarah)

The Duke of Dominoes could have quite easily backfired. In spite of my saying that this story “features” the Fourth Doctor and Sarah, they’re really only there in one single scene at the very end. The story is actually told from the point of view of the Master, which is… potentially a problem.

The Master, to this point in Doctor Who, has never been an especially complex or deep villain. At best you have a performer like Roger Delgado who’s able to elevate the character by sheer brute force charisma, but at worst you have the very “Muahaha!” pantomime evil of Anthony Ainley, complete with corny, unconvincing disguises.

(To be fair to Ainley, there’s only so much a performer can do with scripts like “The Master plots to sabotage the Magna Carta using an android impersonating King John.”)

The revival would very much improve the proverbial batting average for the Master on television, in my opinion, but it’s fair to say that in 1994 the character was one that successive writing teams had tended to struggle with since Delgado’s final appearance in Frontier in Space.

Thankfully, The Duke of Dominoes is written by Marc Platt, in his first contribution to Virgin since the extremely early NA, Time’s Crucible, just over two years earlier. That book and Lungbarrow tend to overshadow the man’s catalogue thanks to all the discussion of the Cartmel Masterplan which they kick up, but I do think Platt is one of the most talented Doctor Who writers to ever work on the franchise no matter what you make of the Masterplan itself.

His best writings (and, quite often, even some of his weaker efforts) tend to have an eerily beautiful, lyrical and melancholic style, and that’s certainly true of this story. Never did I think a portrait of Prohibition-era Chicago would be described with the words “beautiful” and “lyrical,” but there you are I suppose.

This story is one of the longer ones in the collection, and its pacing could probably best be described as a “slow burn.” That may polarise readers, but I think it works. Then again, I’m one of those weirdos who adores the slow, dense, cerebral headiness of Time’s Crucible, so your mileage may vary.

Part of why I think The Duke of Dominoes justifies its pace is that there’s actually a surprising amount of ground for Platt to cover in terms of plot. The story starts off seeming like it’s just going to be a silly runaround with the Master as a Chicago gang boss, before taking all manner of twists and turns and becoming something entirely different.

These pivots have the potential to lose the audience, but in my personal experience I thought everything followed a relatively logical progression… or as logical as you can get from a story that features a living Abraham Lincoln statue in its climax.

The pacing gave all the ideas enough time to breathe that the narrative never became too crowded or messy, and by the end it all coheres to create what I found to be a pretty compelling look at the Master’s mind, and the central tragedy of his unwillingness to change on any kind of deep, fundamental level.

I don’t want to spoil too much about the Doctor’s brief presence in the story, but suffice it to say that it’s deliciously ironic after you’ve spent the whole story waiting for the shoe to drop and the Doctor to show up.

The central MacGuffin, though understandably a little underexplored, was interesting enough and again seems to serve as evidence of the NAs’ very 1990s fixation on apocalyptic anxieties, psychic powers and fears about “unreality.”

I have a feeling this is one of those stories that will divide opinion a little, largely because of that slow pace. Even with that pacing and the increased length, Platt’s writing of Chicago and the Master’s thought processes was so evocative and absorbing that I couldn’t help but be enraptured by it all. Once more, your mileage may vary, but I for one loved it.

4. The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back by Vanessa Bishop (featuring the Third Doctor, Liz and the Brigadier)

This is the first story that didn’t really work for me, which is a shame because I think the premise is pretty good. It is admittedly not perfect, and it’s arguably better suited to a longer-form medium like a novel than a short story, but nonetheless, building off the pre-existing tension between the Brigadier and the Doctor onscreen (and particularly the ending of The Silurians) is logical. Pushing it to breaking point is a decision that makes sense from a pure storytelling perspective.

Unfortunately, the way this all kicks off is a pretty bog-standard “Can the Doctor be trusted?” narrative, and that’s where the problems begin. We know that the Doctor can be trusted. We know that he has to ultimately remain with UNIT, unless they were to create some ridiculous alternate timeline scenario in this one short story.

Even on the off chance that the Doctor was being influenced by some outside power, we can feel pretty secure that it’s all part of some greater plan that he’s not letting the Brigadier in on for whatever reason. This hamstrings the story right out the gate, sapping a lot of the potential weight from the regulars’ confrontations.

(It also doesn’t help that a lot of these confrontations take the form of an endless back-and-forth between duelling sets of quotation marks, without any real break in the conversation to help orient the reader as to who is talking at any given time.)

And, of course, it turns out that it’s all part of some greater plan on the Doctor’s part. It’s… not exactly groundshaking stuff. It doesn’t necessarily have to be, of course, but it’s just unfortunate that the premise never really takes off.

Other than all that, the story is also perhaps notable for the way that it feels very… X-Files. I don’t say that as a negative, or as an accusation. I have absolutely no idea how much, if any, of the writing was inspired by Chris Carter’s hit show. After all, the first Decalog was released in the midst of the series’ first season, so it’s not unreasonable to just chalk this all up to coincidence.

Nonetheless, as a wise man once said, it’s the vibe of the thing. The paranoia of “Can the Doctor be trusted?” and the resulting confrontations between himself, the Brigadier and Liz feel very of a piece with The X-Files‘ (and the 1990s’) mood of skepticism towards authority and the establishment.

It goes deeper than that, though. Deeper even than any parallels that could be drawn between the “skeptic/believer” dichotomy of the two main protagonists. Not only is the main alien very much designed to evoke the grey aliens of which The X-Files would prove so fond, but the character of Maurice Burridge ties the narrative to questions of religious faith.

Faith (and the quandary of how to reconcile the existence of extraterrestrials with that faith) was a big recurring motif in The X-Files, as you’d probably expect from a series which popularised a catchphrase like “I want to believe.”

All of these are ideas that feel very much rooted in the particulars of the decade in which the Virgin Books were written. Like I said, I highly doubt any of this was intentional. I just found it to be an interesting resonance. Naturally, The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back doesn’t have the space to explore these ideas in anywhere near the depth of your average X-Files episode, but it seems churlish to make that point.

There are a few other issues, though. Most notably, the story just kind of… ends? The Brigadier’s attempted dismissal of the Doctor from UNIT service isn’t really resolved in any meaningful way, and the ending just feels a little arbitrarily sudden. I don’t really know how to explain it any better than that.

(The in medias res opening also doesn’t really add much beyond confusing the timeline, to be honest. Probably should have been left out.)

With all of that having been said, though, I do want to give credit where credit is due for the incorporation of Liz into the proceedings, lest I begin to sound unduly harsh towards this story. Liz was a character who was always underserved on the television programme, so it’s nice to see Virgin giving her something to do.

For all that the central dilemma of “Is the Doctor trustworthy?” may not be especially spellbinding, Bishop understands the dynamic of Liz, the Doctor and the Brigadier very well, and the interactions all feel natural.

This is perhaps the biggest thing in The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back‘s favour, at the end of the day. If it seems like a small thing to compliment it on, just remember how disastrously wrong The Ghosts of N-Space got it. Sadly, the end result is simply just a little too muddled to really work.

5. Scarab of Death by Mark Stammers (featuring the Fourth Doctor and Sarah)

Scarab of Death is a fun little story, but it seems like one that is practically destined to invite unfavourable comparisons. This all comes down to the fact that it is a sequel to one of the most beloved Classic serials ever, Pyramids of Mars.

I myself will refrain from making too many comparisons, just because it’s pretty unfair to compare a short story with a 100-minute television serial. On a fundamental level, they are never going to be anywhere close to identical.

Is the plot pretty simplistic and straightforward? Yes.

Is it arguably just an attempt to cash in on the pre-established goodwill that Pyramids of Mars had garnered over the past two decades? Yes.

Does any of that mean it isn’t enjoyable? In my opinion at least, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Scarab of Death arguably works best when it comes to evoking the general atmosphere of the Hinchcliffe Era in which the original story was made. The story is practically dripping with sinister, black-suited cults sitting in darkened rooms and stalking our leads down murky alleyways.

And yet this Gothic ambience which the Hinchcliffe/Holmes “Golden Age” was so renowned for is also fused with a more futuristic, neon-lit sensibility of the kind you’d be more likely to find in the Williams or Nathan-Turner years. It’s not the most noteworthy thing about the story, but it is an effective combination all the same.

The actual villains and plot themselves are pretty standard. The Cult of the Black Pyramid and their leader are suitably menacing antagonists, but they’re not exactly transcendent. Probably the most interesting thing about them is their suitably cinematic and slightly ridiculous choice of lair: a casino which is a smaller replica of the self-same Black Pyramid on Beta Osiris.

As in Pyramids of Mars, the cult are trying to resurrect one of the Osirans. This time, however, it’s not Sutekh they’re worshipping, but Horus. Though he doesn’t really interact with the plot in a tangible way, it’s a nice twist on co-editor Stammers’ part to reveal that while Horus may have stopped Sutekh’s reign of terror, that doesn’t mean that he himself was good by default.

(I am vaguely interested to see how this tallies with Virgin’s other attempt at writing a sequel to Pyramids of Mars, the Missing Adventure The Sands of Time. I will also note that describing Horus’ sarcophagus as “bull-headed” is a bit of a baffling error that I’m surprised nobody caught. I’m not an expert in the religion and deities of Ancient Egypt, but I’m pretty sure Horus is near-universally equated with the falcon, not the bull…)

Like The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back, though, the thing that Scarab of Death does best is the characterisation of the regulars. Sarah has proven an extremely tricky character for the Missing Adventures to write for. Either she’s varying levels of out-of-character (EvolutionThe Ghosts of N-Space and Managra), or she’s sidelined for most of the novel (System Shock).

It’s a little ironic, then, that the best depiction of the character that I’ve read thus far should come from a short story published several months before the Missing Adventures had even begun. Here, Stammers combines the best of both worlds by having her act in a manner congruent with the on-screen character, while also allowing her to have actual agency and an impact on the plot. Again, it seems like such a basic thing but so many authors seem to keep stumbling with it.

The portrayal of the Fourth Doctor is also solid, if perhaps a little less exceptional. Any prose author is always going to face an uphill battle in trying to replicate the sheer, iconic charm that Tom Baker brought to the role, but this story probably comes closer than most.

Scarab of Death is not some unheralded classic. It’s unlikely to top any “best of” lists. As the only story in this collection that can really be classed as a “full” Fourth Doctor adventure, though, it’s pleasant enough to accomplish what it sets out to do. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but believe me when I say it is not intended as such.

6. The Book of Shadows by Jim Mortimore (featuring the First Doctor, Ian and Barbara)

Huh, for a short story this felt huge and gigantic in scale. It’s filled with absolutely bonkers, massive ideas, a lot of deaths and a tricky moral dilemma. Oh hey, a Jim Mortimore writing credit! It all makes sense now.

Jokes aside, Mortimore has a very… particular style, shall we say. There’s a reason I subtitle all my reviews of his books with “The Bleakverse,” after all. Personally, this is a style that resonates with me, although I completely understand why it doesn’t work for everyone.

I consider Blood Heat and Lucifer Rising to be genuinely great, and even though Parasite is definitely flawed, it’s still inarguably the product of a singular artistic vision, so I have a soft spot for it nonetheless. Thankfully, The Book of Shadows falls more into the former camp. It’s probably the best story in the whole collection, come to think of it.

The most immediately striking aspect of The Book of Shadows is its non-linear narrative, a device which Mortimore would prove particularly fond of and revisit in his 1998 novel, Eye of Heaven. The story frequently jumps between ancient Alexandria in 331 and 322 BC, and as you would probably imagine, this is a little confusing at first. However, as things go along the timeline does start to make sense.

Now, this next part will involve spoilers. As I alluded to earlier, I don’t normally make too much of a fuss about such things, but this is no ordinary short story. So, if you’re particularly worried about it, there’s your warning.

Anyway. It’s gradually revealed that Barbara has wound up thrown back eight years into the past, and has become separated from the Doctor and Ian. In that time, having lost her memory, she’s wound up marrying the general who would become known as Ptolemy I Soter.

This all stems from an alien who’s crash-landed in the area and made a whole bunch of changes to the timeline by opening up a host of time portals and causing the Great Library of Alexandria to be built a couple of decades early.

So yeah, that’s… a lot.

It’s to Mortimore’s credit that he very skilfully rations the information so that it never becomes overwhelming. The Book of Shadows is ultimately paced to perfection, with layer upon layer being peeled back so that what at first seems to be a relatively simple conundrum of “Is it OK to bend the rules of established history slightly if the broader facts remain the same?” snowballs into a thorny moral quagmire with devastating consequences.

That quagmire also avoids some of the common pitfalls of these kinds of stories. Cautionary tales about the danger of changing history can sometimes wind up articulating the rather uncomfortable idea that one should just stand by and do nothing while historical tragedies unfold for the sake of abstract, nebulous concepts like “the timeline.”

Here, the tragedy stems from the alteration itself, so the question is no longer “Should you intervene to stop an injustice from history?” Rather, it becomes “Would you set history back on the right course to prevent massive loss of life, even if it meant erasing eight years of your life, your marriage, and your own son?”

This is a decision with much more concrete stakes than, say, The Aztecs or The Massacre. That’s not to say that those stories are bad, just that The Book of Shadows represents a welcome twist on established Doctor Who conventions.

Even if we know that Barbara will inevitably decide to erase this timeline, the decision still feels like it has weight and consequence, and isn’t that ultimately what tragedy is all about?

There are also a few interesting continuity links, with the titular book strongly implied to be The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey from Shada. As much as I’ve said the Decalog’s stories don’t have a unifying theme, there does seem to be a recurring trend of the Time Lords playing some kind of part in the stories outside the awareness of the regular cast.

It’s also worth noting that this story technically picks up in the aftermath of Paul Leonard’s novel, Venusian Lullaby. Of course, as those who have been keeping track of the publication dates will note, that book was ultimately not published until October, so the Decalog predates it by about seven months. The link is pretty tenuous though, and you can easily read this story without ever so much as touching a copy of Venusian Lullaby.

(However if, as seems implied by the short story, the Doctor used the Venusian equations he acquired at the end of that book to target the TARDIS’ flight to Alexandria, it’s a little baffling that the story ends with the Doctor still seemingly possessing these equations. Why does he never use them again? Let’s leave that one to the fan scholars and continuity obsessives.)

The Book of Shadows is yet another triumph from Jim Mortimore, and easily one of the highlights of the first Decalog. The fact that people aren’t talking about this short story with any kind of regularity is just one more reason why these books deserve to be reprinted.

7. Fascination by David J. Howe (featuring the Fifth Doctor and Peri)

Content/Trigger Warning: Discussion of sexual assault/coercion. Feel free to skip ahead to the next review if such topics are distressing to you.

The very concept of Fascination sounded alarm bells in my head when I first heard it. This is, essentially, a story where a creepy man, by means of magic, brainwashes Peri into being incredibly attracted to him and willing to sleep with him.

Considering that a recurring failing of the Virgin line has been an occasional tendency to invoke incredibly heavy and dark subject matter in a way that ultimately comes across as a little trivialising and surface-level, I went in expecting the worst.

And I… guess I didn’t quite get that?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, Fascination is a deeply troubled story. It definitely does that whole “include very dark/traumatic experience and just kind of gloss over it” thing. This is not really a good story, but considering the absolute fiery wreck that I was expecting it to be, it probably could have been worse.

It should be noted here that I don’t object to the very idea of stories about trauma or abuse or what have you. On the contrary, I think that, if handled with the proper care, such stories can in fact be an important exploration of grim realities that are all too often hushed up or brushed under the carpet.

But that’s the key, isn’t it? Handled with care. It’s all too easy for these kinds of stories to fall into overly sensationalised or exploitative patterns, and a lot of the time that is what ends up happening. This is, unfortunately, especially true in a franchise like Doctor Who, which has traditionally had a very male-dominated pool of writers.

Fascination is far from the most egregious example of this exploitative sensationalism I’ve ever read/watched/what have you, but it’s a trap the story does, in my opinion, ultimately succumb to.

Mind you, this isn’t exploitative in a “Doctor Who does I Spit on Your Grave” kind of way (thank God). A more apt point of comparison would probably be the recurring Deanna Troi-focused episodes that seemed to keep popping up across the length of Star Trek: The Next Generation, wherein Troi would form a romantic relationship with the guest star of the week. Said guest star would invariably turn out to be an asshole (as in The Price), a telepath in the habit of forcing disturbing visions onto others (Violations) or Dorian Gray in space (Man of the People).

Just like those stories were frequently plagued by some objectionable sexual politics, so too is Fascination. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the scenes/fantasies written from Peri’s point-of-view, to be blunt, never fail to make you painfully aware that they are written by a male author.

The internal monologue is not good. It’s trying way too hard to be “adult,” failing miserably, and the numerous winceworthy lines are probably the biggest culprit when it comes to exuding a general air of tackiness and sleaze.

The other culprit is the cavalier nature with which this narrative beat is dropped. By any reasonable standard, this should be something that has long-lasting psychological effects on Peri rather than a single event with no effects beyond the confines of a single short story. At best, it is misguided. At worst, it is a downright cynical ploy to add some cheap emotional heft.

All of this is compounded by the fact that Peri is a character which the television writers struggled with, to put it kindly. There was always an undcercurrent of objectification to the way in which she was presented, to say nothing of her exit being one of the most lazy and transparent instances of “fridging the woman” in all of Doctor Who. Fascination therefore serves as an unfortunate reminder that these tendencies remain alive and well.

(Lest one think I am just overanalysing the implications of all of this, Peri’s reflection on the situation in the aftermath seems to very consciously draw the parallel to real-world sexual assault and coercion, even if the actual events are couched in fantastical trappings about demons and magical spells and other stuff that doesn’t exist in the real world. Reading it, there is never really any doubt as to what topics Fascination is broaching with this storyline, so I do think it’s fair to examine the shortcomings of its portrayal of those topics.)

When all is said and done, there’s precious little else to discuss with this one, and it’s probably one of the weakest in the collection. All the analysis aside, the Doctor and Peri are written pretty generically. The idea of a village where people call upon demons for mundane chores in their day-to-day life has potential, but compared to some of the other “science-fiction meets magic” tales that the Wilderness Years would turn out, it goes pretty unexplored.

Ultimately, that whole avenue really just serves as a vehicle for the “Peri gets brainwashed” storyline, and I can’t help but feel that placing the emphasis in that manner was the wrong choice.

8. The Golden Door by David Auger (featuring the First and Sixth Doctors, Steven and Dodo)

The Golden Door is, in some ways, a more successful version of what The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back was trying to do, throwing some ructions into the friendship between a Doctor and their companions. It’s not entirely successful, but it does generally work.

What gives this story the edge is that it seems to do a better job of admitting to the audience that there’s no way this alteration will be able to stand, but perhaps it’s all just a case of the weirdness of the respective premises.

“The Doctor might be working to some secretive agenda” is mundane enough of an idea for the audience to be able to handwave it away with relative ease. “Steven and Dodo no longer recognise the Doctor… but instead also claim to recognise the Sixth Doctor” is a lot more fundamentally bizarre, and therefore a better hook. The audience are immediately intrigued, and therefore want to keep reading to discover the resolution.

We’ll get to that resolution later in this review (though I won’t spoil it, rest assured), but for now I want to back up a moment and address the fact that yes, this is the closest thing to a multi-Doctor story in the collection. Unless, of course, you want to argue (perhaps not unreasonably) that the Decalog itself constitutes a giant multi-Doctor story.

Indeed, it’s also the closest thing the Decalog has to a Sixth Doctor story. The two Doctors don’t meet, but the First does find himself caught up in the actions of the Sixth. It’s interesting that Virgin should still keep Six at a remove from being able to headline his own narrative, but it fits with that incarnation’s broader thematic/narrative arc across their books.

After all, Six was the only incarnation not to have any kind of presence across the New Adventures’ opening Timewyrm quartet, and later novels would seize upon this beginning with Love and War. Rather than just being an insignificant quirk, it grew to signal an apparent recognition that the Colin Baker years and the 1985 hiatus represented a foundational trauma that the Wilderness Years would have to address head-on.

Of course, The Golden Door is largely divorced from these concerns. If you go into this expecting a meta-commentary on Season 22 along the lines of Time of Your LifeMillennial Rites or Head Games, you’re going to be disappointed. Personally, I don’t think that’s too reasonable an expectation to have of a short story anyway. If anything, I think it was a wise choice on Auger’s part to recognise the limitations of the medium and choose to focus on telling a simple science-fiction mystery.

Both Doctors are generally pretty well-characterised, even if the portrait of the Sixth perhaps leans a bit too much on the “Unstable? Unstable!” type delivery at points. The First is a little sidelined at points, by virtue of there being a limit to how much the narrative is willing to allow him to know.

The attempted explanation of his apparent mysterious foreknowledge of the events of The Tenth Planet is admittedly a little clunky and ill-fitting, and if it weren’t for the reasonably solid central mystery you’d almost suspect that the entire short story was written for the sole purpose of explaining away this continuity point.

The choice of Steven and Dodo as the companion team is an odd one, considering how short a tenure the latter had on the show. She would prove to be a surprisingly popular character for Virgin going forward, with The Man in the Velvet Mask even going so far as to explore a point in time between the departure of Steven and the arrival of Ben and Polly which was pretty much non-existent on television.

More controversially, of course, she’d also prove to be a central character in Who Killed Kennedy (and trust me, we’ll get to that), but she’d make another Steven-less appearance in the Decalogs with Tarnished Image in the third anthology, Consequences.

Ultimately then, this makes The Golden Door the only time that Dodo appears alongside Steven in a Virgin story. Indeed, alongside The Empire of Glass, this is one of only two stories from Virgin to feature Steven at all.

There’s a sense here that, like the attempts to rehabilitate Six, the books are attempting to explore Dodo as a character in a far greater depth than the television series ever did. This is certainly a laudable goal, as it’s hard to escape the impression that the character (and the late Jackie Lane) was really not well-served by the show.

Dodo appeared, all told, in nineteen episodes broadcast across barely four months. That figure also includes her extremely short cameo appearance in the coda to The Massacre. Her exit is pretty infamously cursory, disappearing halfway through The War Machines to be promptly replaced by Ben and Polly and not even being afforded the courtesy of a proper on-screen farewell.

Here, the character seems much more assured and sarcastic than she was in her televised stories. Probably the closest we get to seeing this side of Dodo in the series proper is when she attempts to turn the tables on Doc Holliday in The Gunfighters.

This is a welcome change, as it helps her seem more like, well, a character rather than the simplistic and vague ’60s Who conception of an ideal or archetypal companion that she was often relegated to being in the past.

As for the resolution to the mystery, it makes a reasonable amount of sense and works well enough, dramatically speaking. Resolving mysteries in a science fiction setting is often difficult because of the fact that the worlds aren’t always bounded by what the audience recognise as the laws of physics or what have you, so it’s possible for the answers to feel like a bit of a cheat. All the same, Auger does a decent job of it, so I won’t spoil it here.

Certainly this is more satisfying than “The murder victim was a member of a species who conveniently happens to be able to simulate death!” or “It was the dog the whole time!” Not to name any names, mind you…

So The Golden Door is pretty good, with decent characterisation and an intriguing premise. The only caveat is that I’m obviously not sure how well it would hold up on re-reading, knowing the answer to the mystery. Can’t really comment on that, so for now any praise I could give it must be qualified praise, but oh well.

9. Prisoners of the Sun by Tim Robins (featuring the Third Doctor and Liz)

Hey, remember back in my review of The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back when I made a joking, off-handed comment about the writer creating a whole alternate timeline for a single short story? Well, Prisoners of the Sun does precisely that, and in another story featuring the Third Doctor and Liz to boot.

To be fair, there’s potential in alternative universe stories. They’re a fun “What if?” exercise, allowing for all sorts of creative possibilities. Unfortunately, the more complex of these tales generally require a lot of exposition and worldbuilding.

This isn’t a problem in and of itself, because the length of an average novel allows a talented writer plenty of space to pepper that kind of stuff throughout the narrative. However, Prisoners of the Sun is not a novel. It’s a short story.

I don’t think it’s impossible to tell a complex alternate universe tale in a short story setting. The Book of Shadows earlier in this very collection is proof that it can be done, and done extremely well at that. As I said in my review of that story, though, it succeeded in large part because Jim Mortimore had such a tight grasp of the pacing of all the reveals and let all the information flow in a natural manner.

The same cannot be said for Prisoners of the Sun. All throughout, Robins floods the audience with exposition and backstory on several decades’ worth of this timeline’s history, and it’s just far, far too much for one to be reasonably able to digest.

I honestly don’t have too much to say about this one, because the exposition overload colossally overshadows anything that the story might have been trying to convey.

Is it a parable warning of the dangers of global warming? Is it warning of the dangers of unchecked scientific development without giving heed to the consequences of one’s actions? Is it a character study devoted to exploring Liz Shaw and why she left UNIT? Prisoners of the Sun never really seems sure, smothered by the suffocating weight of backstory as it is, and so I can’t really find a decent angle to approach it from.

The action, such as it is, is also quite disjointed and messy. The attack on the BT Tower, as written, just doesn’t work. There’s too much rapid shifting of viewpoints for anything to have any real weight. Once again, it really makes me better appreciate the kind of thrilling yet ordered chaos that Jim Mortimore generally brings to his action scenes in novels like Blood Heat or Parasite.

It’s a shame that I’ve been so harsh in this review, because I think there is probably a really good novel at the heart of Prisoners of the Sun. In that format, I suspect the story would be given more space to focus its energies and attentions down a particular thematic/narrative avenue. Unfortunately, it must be judged as a short story, and I just don’t think it works as is.

10. Lackaday Express by Paul Cornell (featuring the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan)

What’s most surprising about Lackaday Express is how quiet and intimate it is, in spite of being a mind-bending time travel story that puts the whole universe at stake. Or, it would be surprising, if this wasn’t written by Paul Cornell…

In a lot of ways, this feels like Cornell’s answer to The Book of Shadows. Both are high-concept alternative timeline tales that make use of a non-linear/unconventional narrative voice, but it’s the emphasis of each tale that is revealing.

Where The Book of Shadows played up the grand, massive scale of its plot in typical Mortimore fashion, Lackaday Express finds Paul Cornell making use of his usual talent for finding the emotional heart at the core of this otherwise pretty cerebral and hard-going sci-fi concept.

The actual plot is remarkably simple, once you strip everything away. There’s a woman named Catherine from a research team working on a particle accelerator. When the team’s base comes under attack, she opens up a particle accelerator and can now travel back and experience any moment from her life again and again. This naturally puts the universe under a great deal of strain, meaning the Doctor has to jump into the particle stream and help Catherine get out, and he does so with the aid of Nyssa and Tegan.

The plot mechanics of Lackaday Express aren’t the point, though. If they were, you could undoubtedly pick any number of holes in them. Despite all the quantum physics-adjacent technobabble, the reasoning behind the “travelling backwards and forwards along your own timeline” thing feels flimsy at best. But then, the reasoning isn’t really based in science or plot. It’s based in the emotion of it all and, for lack of a better word, the magic.

That perhaps sounds a little corny, but I really can’t think of a better way to express the sentiment. Cornell’s prose has always had a propensity for the lyrical, and this short story shows that off to great effect.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the segments written from Catherine’s point of view would be impenetrably confusing and muddled, beyond the general confusion that the basic premise necessitates.

However, even before you understand the precise ins and outs of the situation, the writing flows beautifully and, perhaps most crucially for a short story like this, the stream-of-consciousness style really gets you to empathise with Catherine.

At first, part of me was a little worried by the whole “love triangle” dynamic of her, Alec and James. This was mainly because of my general wariness towards the uncomfortable subtext of a lot of romantic narratives like this, wherein a woman is essentially reduced to an object to be “won” or “lost” by the male characters.

(Which isn’t to say, of course, that the entire genre is irrevocably tainted or that nobody can ever enjoy a piece of romantic fiction. I get the appeal, and there are quite a few such pieces that I do genuinely enjoy myself. Nonetheless, it’s always good to try and reckon with the potentially troubling aspects of the narratives that proliferate in popular culture.)

So I did like that, ultimately, Lackaday Express pretty resoundingly concludes that both Alec and James are jerks, and that Catherine shouldn’t have to be forced by the intangible logic of the narrative to “choose” either of them. “Allowing women their own agency and choices in a romantic narrative” is the kind of thing that probably shouldn’t feel quite as subversive as it does, but its presence here is nice all the same.

There are also any number of sweet moments that make you remember you’re reading a Cornell novel. A scene featuring snowflakes pausing in mid-air, for instance, can’t help but evoke the famous opening lines of Revelation, and the story closes with a cheeky nod to the famous “Schrödinger’s cat” thought experiment.

There’s not too much to say on the characterisation front, other than that it’s pretty solid, and the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan are all very much in-character here. I have no idea if Cornell worked on this story before or after Goth Opera, so I don’t know how accurate it would be to call it a “trial run.” Still, you can definitely see the overlap in Cornell’s approach to the trio.

The story is more focused on Catherine than the regulars, but the central point of not being able to live in the past or change your regrets is tied in nicely to the argument over whether or not the Doctor can go back and save Adric. It’s a typically Cornellian moral, at once fairly simple yet still effective in its ultimate application.

And that’s Lackaday Express summed up, really. It’s a relatively slight and quiet story to close off the anthology, but the devil is very much in the details. For all that I’ve previously said 1994 was something of a weak year for Cornell (and even still, No Future and Goth Opera are both still pretty good books in my opinion), this throws something of a kink in that hypothesis. It may not be on the level of a Revelation or a Love and War, but few things are. It’s still a strong story from one of Virgin’s best writers, and highly recommended.

Conclusion to Playback and Final Thoughts

So, Playback returns for one final segment to conclude the framing sequence that’s been running throughout the whole book. What do I think of it? Eh, it’s OK.

Really, it didn’t surprise me too much in terms of being some stratospheric increase in quality over what came before. My general impression on the sequence/story as a whole still stands. It’s still a little flimsy in terms of fulfilling on the “bold new experiment” aspect that the blurb promises, but it does what it needs to.

And here’s where the spoilers have to come in, but frankly if you’ve got this far and are still reading, I’m going to assume you’re not bothered by such things.

So, in summary, it turns out that the person who the audience has been led to believe is the Seventh Doctor is actually… not. Instead, it’s Mykloz, the shapeshifting villain from The Golden Door.

As before, the word of the day is very much “workmanlike.” It fulfils the basic requirements of a last-minute plot twist, and leads to a suitably climactic action sequence, but it all happens a little too late in the piece for me to get too excited or invested.

There is a weird bit about Mykloz’s people replacing high-ranking German officials during the Second World War. I suppose it fits with the somewhat pulpy and silly vibe of the rest of Playback (“What if some of the Nazis were aliens?!” has probably been an inspiration for quite a few dime store paperbacks over the years), and it’s obviously just meant to tie in the Maleans’ pre-established eugenicist tendencies with the post-War setting to explain why Mykloz is even on Earth at all. Even so, it’s just a little bit of a strange idea to insert so casually into the book at such a late stage.

Really though, I’m reaching to find anything much to say here. For all that the framing sequence doesn’t fall flat on its face, that’s hardly the strongest of praise. The choice of The Golden Door as the big, important story that ties everything together ultimately feels quite arbitrary, and even Mykloz himself seems to recognise that the consultation of Silverman hasn’t really shed any light on anything. Even though Addison pushes back on this claim by sharing his deductions, it’s hard not to think there might be an inkling of truth to it.

So, as before, I come to the conclusion that while Playback might accomplish its goals in a general sense, it’s still far from being all it could be. That’s a shame, but part of taking on ambitious experiments like this is the possibility of falling short.

Be that as it may, it’s important for me not to get so lost in these critiques and deriding some of Decalog‘s shortcomings that I understate its influence. This book pretty much single-handedly blazed a trail for Doctor Who short stories and anthologies that still persists to this day.

And, for all that I’ve criticised the framing sequence and some of the individual stories, it’s still easy to see why this anthology proved to have such a lasting impact. The good stories in here aren’t just good, they’re very good, and a perfect example of Virgin operating with a great understanding of its writers and their own particular voices. Of course, not every story in an anthology can be a hit, especially not in the first dedicated Doctor Who short story anthology, but on the whole I would say that this is a very strong start.

I’m glad I took the time to go back and cover this rather than merely glossing over it. It’s always nice to be able to do something different and shake things up a little with my reviews. I think I did slightly underestimate just how long a post this would be, but then I guess that fits with the grand Dale’s Ramblings tradition of severely underestimating how long a project will take.

Apologies if this happens to be the first of my reviews you’ve ever read, I swear I’m not normally this long-winded. Well… not quite this long-winded, at the very least.

Regardless, I do want to try and review the second Decalog, Lost Property, some time before I put up the No Future Revisitation in October. So with that in mind, join me next time (whenever that proves to be) as I… do precisely that. Scintillating stuff, to be sure.

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

Virgin Adventures Revisitations: Apocalypse by Nigel Robinson

I’ve been doing Dale’s Ramblings for quite some time. In fact, in precisely a week from now it will be the blog’s fourth anniversary, which is just nuts to think about. Throughout most of that time, my attentions have been focused on the Virgin Adventures Reviews, as you probably know.

As with just about any project of a creative nature, (including, ironically enough, the Virgin New Adventures themselves) there has been a significant evolution in how I approach these reviews. This is inevitable, because I myself have grown and changed over the years. And that’s OK, that’s life. What it does mean, though, is that I sometimes look back on my earliest reviews and wince a little. OK, a lot of the time.

And through the entire Dale’s Ramblings catalogue, there is no review more winceworthy than that of Nigel Robinson’s Apocalypse. Why, you may ask? Well, it’s a very short review. Like, very short. Short even for the low standards of length that I held myself to in the early days.

The count currently sits at 334 words, according to WordPress, and that’s a far cry from the 2000 words I try and aim for every time nowadays. It’s something that’s never quite sat right with me, even though I really don’t care for Apocalypse itself all that much.

But I figure that I at least owed it the courtesy of a more in-depth review than what I originally afforded it, so I’ve long been meaning to revisit it, and now, with its 30th anniversary having arrived, I feel it’s a perfect opportunity to do just that. So let’s take a trip down memory lane and visit the beginnings of the New Adventures once again.

And what beginnings they are… It’s become received wisdom that the first three New Adventures or so are a bit of a false start, and I can’t help but agree with that assessment. This doesn’t mean that none of them are good, as Exodus is probably one of the best Doctor Who stories Terrance Dicks ever wrote.

Nonetheless, coming back to Apocalypse or Genesys after having read forty-five New Adventures in total, they can’t help but feel a little staid and safe. Even Exodus seems unadventurous when compared to the sheer mind-bending weirdness of Paul Cornell’s Revelation.

Perhaps part of the issue is that all three writers of this initial opening gambit of the novel line were creative voices that had already had a decently storied history in the world of Doctor Who print through their involvement in Target Books’ series of novelisations of classic serials.

Dicks obviously needs no introduction, since he contributed more than ninety novelisations to the range, starting with the very first Target-original one (i.e. the first to not be a reprint of the Frederick Muller books from the 1960s) back in January of 1974.

However, the authors of Genesys and Apocalypse were also pretty well-established, though certainly not to the same extent as Dicks. John Peel, who wrote Genesys, had quickly become the go-to writer for the Dalek serials which had yet to be novelised in the late 1980s.

Throughout 1989, he adapted The Chase and The Daleks’ Master Plan, the latter as two separate books. Two years after the New Adventures began, he would also novelise The Power of the Daleks and The Evil of the Daleks, serving as the very last Target-branded novelisations of televised Doctor Who serials for more than two decades. All five of those books still continue to enjoy a fair amount of goodwill from fandom.

Nigel Robinson, on the other hand, may not have been as prolific as either Peel or Dicks in terms of the raw number of novelisations he authored, but he was arguably more influential, serving as the editor of the range in its dying days. All this background detail is to offer a possible explanation for why Apocalypse feels as generic as it does, even when compared to the two previous books in the Timewyrm quartet.

Once again, this isn’t exactly a particularly insightful or original observation, but it is one that I think holds true, and is worth examining, especially since Apocalypse is, in a lot of respects, the dying gasp of a particular vision for what the New Adventures could be.

Just take a look at the next three books alone: RevelationTime’s CrucibleWarhead. All of these books are each far more willing to do bold, forward-thinking stuff with the universe of Doctor Who, and they very much set the “new normal” for Virgin’s novels going forward. Apocalypse is, in a sense, the calm before the storm that is Revelation.

But all this broader information and context is pretty meaningless unless I actually start picking apart the book itself, I suppose. Trouble is, there really isn’t much to pick apart. The actual plot itself is, as you might have guessed, painfully generic.

At its most basic, fundamental level, it’s a story of two groups on an alien planet, one of which aristocratically dominates the other in some way, and exploits them in order to achieve their own nefarious goals. Remove the Timewyrm from the equation (and, really, she’s already practically a non-entity in terms of how much story presence and influence she actually has) and this plot could describe any number of Doctor Who serials over the years. Granted, any plot can sound familiar when you reduce it to its most rudimentary components, so perhaps that critique isn’t entirely fair.

Yet no matter how many alien names or capitalised concrete nouns or clumsy infodumps about Kirith’s inner workings Robinson throws in, Apocalypse never quite manages to shake that sense of roteness and familiarity, which is a problem for one of the earliest installments in a book series that promises stories “too broad and deep for the small screen.”

All that being said, there are a few things that make Apocalypse stand out, a few interesting ideas at play that still manage to lift it above books like Genesys, in spite of its conventional nature. Chief among those is its appropriately apocalyptic, funereal atmosphere. It’s never really forefronted as well as it could be, in my opinion, but it is there.

The book opens with a quotation from Christopher H. Bidmead’s novelisation of Logopolis (which, by the by, just cements the impression that this book is more of a piece with the Target books than the Virgin ones, but I digress), followed by an expository prologue that basically informs the reader that, in the far future, the CVE that the Doctor managed to open at the end of that story has winked out. The first word in said prologue is even “nothing,” just to really drive the point home.

There is perhaps, underneath all this, a very typical 1990s existentialism about the end of the millennium and the “end of history.” The end of the Cold War brought about such a profound paradigm shift in global society that the media of the subsequent decade was flooded with stories giving voice to a fear that reality was a lot more malleable and fragile than people would like to believe.

After all, if a conflict like the Cold War, which had so strongly defined the second half of the 20th century, could simply end with a whimper, who was to say that any of the other core tenets of the world that we took for granted couldn’t also simply wink out? Or, on a broader and more devastating scale, the universe itself?

It’s not too unreasonable to suggest that the New Adventures’ recurring fascination with such topics as psi powers and virtual reality were a manifestation of this uncertainty in the building blocks of the universe, and Apocalypse is no exception. The villains’ core plan revolves around creating a deity from the minds of various other beings, which will use its powers to prevent the end of the universe. Only the powers of the mind and faith are sufficient to quell “fin du millénaire” anxieties.

Of course, it’s reasonable to argue that all this is just a happy coincidence, but it does tap quite nicely into the zeitgeist of the 1990s, even if it may just be accidental. The atmosphere of finality also fits with the aforementioned fact that this is the last book before the seismic upheaval of Paul Cornell’s Revelation. It lends the book a certain poignance that it wouldn’t really have otherwise.

This isn’t just the twilight of the New Adventures turning out relatively safe, conventional stories, though. I would argue that it’s also the last time we really see the characters of the Doctor and Ace cast in this particular light, prior to the dramatic changes to come over the next few books.

Ever since Remembrance of the Daleks, the Doctor has definitely been becoming more morally compromised and darker, but there were still the occasional stories that didn’t seem comfortable with that direction. Genesys and Apocalypse in particular fit that mold, seeming more akin to the Season 24 characterisation of the Seventh Doctor than to any of the trappings of the so-called “Cartmel Masterplan.”

Part of what made Revelation so groundbreaking was that it considered the possibility that the Doctor’s mind was an unhinged, terrifying place that was very obviously suffering from some serious psychological scarring. This was possibly the most important development in the early VNAs, because it played as something of an admission that Doctor Who itself was a franchise that had been scarred by the cancellation and the ignominy of the Colin Baker years, and that it would have to really grapple with that if it was ever to return to any position of cultural relevance and prominence.

Apocalypse doesn’t really have any of that, apart from the slightest smattering here and there. That’s perhaps the biggest knock against these very early NAs. I don’t know that the sort of approach embodied by this book would really have been sustainable long-term, but even if it were by some minor miracle, I’d still find it far less interesting than what we eventually got.

The treatment of Ace is a tad more interesting. With the benefit of hindsight, there’s a certain bitter irony in the way she’s so comparatively trusting of the Doctor. I know that the “New Ace” introduced in Deceit is one of the New Adventures’ more… controversial contributions, to put it mildly, but I’ve always found it dramatically satisfying, barring a few minor hiccups here and there. And, really, Ace’s bitterness is the logical endpoint of the Doctor’s behaviour in stories like Ghost Light or The Curse of FenricLove and War was the tipping point, sure, but I don’t think it’s completely out of left field.

Again, though, I feel it’s a case of the material in this novel being improved by later developments, rather than being genuinely brilliant or insightful in its own right. I don’t know how thoroughly they had mapped out Ace’s character arc at this stage, but I don’t get the feeling that any of these moments were intended as ironic foreshadowing by Robinson or the editors, because that just doesn’t really fit with the tone and depth (or lack thereof) of the rest of the book around them.

I suppose I should also talk about her romance with Raphael and… well, truth be told, Raphael just isn’t very interesting. To be fair, none of the guest cast are, but because Raphael is given a romance with a regular character he stands out more in his blandness, contradictory though that may sound.

In fact, it seems like Ace herself seems to agree with me, since I can barely ever remember her thinking of Raphael at all after this point, bar one brief mention in Robinson’s second, final and far superior NA, Birthright.

It just adds to the overall impression that nothing in Apocalypse really matters. The guest characters are all so one-note that I had forgotten all of them apart from Raphael and the Grand Matriarch, and even then my memories of both of them boiled down to their plot functions, not their personalities or anything. The plot is tired and predictable, and the few thematic points of interest just aren’t developed well enough to have any kind of emotional impact.

Regrettably, even after three years and 1700 extra words, my opinion on Apocalypse has not changed. It’s not offensively bad like, say, Genesys or Invasion of the Cat-People or The Ghosts of N-Space, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any good, either.

Miscellaneous Observations

The sequence wherein Ace, Miril, Tanyel and co. incite unrest against the Panjistri actually moves pretty quickly and is positively thrilling compared to the rest of the book. However, it ultimately goes nowhere from a plot point of view, and doesn’t reveal anything new from a thematic or character standpoint. Wow, the Panjistri aren’t nice people and are capable of being ruthless you say? Huh, never would have guessed.

This may sound a tad petty or nitpicky, but when you have characters named Ace and Arun, it can get a bit difficult to tell them apart on the page. Similarly, God help us all whenever there’s a scene referencing all three of the following: Raphael, Reptu and Revna. Just no hope at all of things not getting incredibly confusing.

I’ve scheduled this revisitation to go up on the 30th anniversary of the book’s publication, but it also serves as something of an early Dale’s Ramblings fourth anniversary special. I’m still shocked that anybody reads this blog, as well as the fact that I’ve been doing it for four years. Bring on Year Five, I suppose.

1995: The Year In Review

After having finished all the Virgin Adventures for 1995, all I can really say is… wow. This has easily been the best year for the series yet. Indeed it’s perhaps one of the greatest years for the franchise as a whole. As such, ranking all the books for the purpose of this list was difficult, to say the least, even before taking into account that there are 24 novels in total, more than 1991, 1992 and 1993 combined…

But I’m always up for a challenge, so let’s press on without any further ado, shall we?

The New Adventures

12. Toy Soldiers by Paul Leonard

I’ve got to admit, this was the point where I really realised how good this year was, because while this isn’t a particularly great book and probably my least favourite Leonard story so far, it’s still light-years ahead of previous “Worst NA of the Year” title-holders like Shadowmind or Legacy.

The initial sequences in the aftermath of the First World War are wonderful, and manage to powerfully capture the grief felt by all these different families. Unfortunately, this is not the centre of the book. Instead, the centre is a hazily-defined war that never really packs the visceral gut punch of raw emotion that you can feel Leonard desperately striving for.

Like both of Leonard’s previous novels, it has its good elements initially but winds up being a disappointment in the end. But I suppose there are at least tangible, substantial good elements. That’s got to count for something, right?

11. Infinite Requiem by Daniel Blythe

I feel kind of bad for giving both of Daniel Blythe’s NAs the second-lowest spot in their respective years, so I want to preface this by saying that Infinite Requiem is a definite improvement over The Dimension Riders. The fact that it’s not so transparently trying to be a clone of Shada certainly helps matters to no end, and though the attempts at imitating Star Trek are still present, they’re not as grating and prevalent as they are in the earlier novel.

However, this is still a largely forgettable sequel to a largely forgettable story. The contemporary segments are decent enough, but they regrettably disappear part of the way through, and what we’re left with is something I called “the narrative equivalent of a Paint-by-Numbers.” The cynical, unearned killing of two of the guest cast for cheap shock value also hurts things considerably.

10. Zamper by Gareth Roberts

There isn’t a whole lot to say about Zamper, which, again, isn’t a bad book. It’s fun enough while you’re reading it, but not a whole lot has stuck with me. However, there are some fun Holmesian double acts, and the Chelonians get some added depth, so I can’t call this a total loss. However, the way in which every member of the guest cast needlessly dies feels like it plays into the worst stereotypes of the VNAs being pointlessly edgy and violent. Guess there’s some overlap with Infinite Requiem there, then…

9. Shakedown by Terrance Dicks

A lightweight little story, elevated by how much fun Dicks is clearly having with the early setting of Megacity, and the way in which he wisely avoids the typical use of the Ogrons as dimwitted, uncomfortable racial caricatures. In doing so, he also winds up creating Garshak, one of the best guest characters the NAs have to offer. It might not be the best way to end a stellar year like this, but all-in-all I eagerly look forward to the sequel… when I get around to it in the far future.

8. Sky Pirates! by Dave Stone

We’re still not quite in “great book” territory, but we’ve at least crossed over into “very good” with this one. There’s nothing quite like Sky Pirates!, for better or for worse. It’s bonkers, off-the-wall and unapologetically mindbending, but also has some very clever metatextual things to say about the nature of the way we perceive stories and the world around us. Its treatment of the Doctor is also fascinating, if probably unsustainable in the long term because of how powerful Stone makes him. Some of the humour occasionally falls flat, but some of it does land, and land quite hard at that. On the whole, I’d recommend this one, but be warned that it’s the type of book that probably won’t be to everyone’s taste.

7. Head Games by Steve Lyons

When a book as good as Head Games manages to fall into the bottom half of this list, that should give you some idea of just how fantastic the top half is. There are single sentences in this book that go on to influence the overall direction of Doctor Who as a franchise for decades to come, and it’s a shame that that influence isn’t discussed more often because of it being out-of-print.

With this novel, Steve Lyons proves that he deserves a spot alongside Kate Orman as one of the most important Doctor Who writers never to work on the television show. The notion of the Doctor as a traumatised individual, and the notion of that trauma as a metaphor for the show’s own anxieties after its 1989 cancellation, plays out over all three Eras of modern Who.

Even apart from all the psychological depth, though, it’s just a cracking, fast-paced, frequently witty novel with plenty of things to say about the way in which classic Doctor Who operates. It’s a meditation on the very existence of the New Adventures, and a brilliant example of the novel line seeing how far it can bend the show before it breaks. Quite far, as it turns out. Not even the shoddy, dull Detrios segments are enough to ruin this for me, though they do tarnish it somewhat. Still, this is one of the most important Doctor Who novels ever, and necessary reading for anyone with a passing interest in the evolution of the franchise.

6. Set Piece by Kate Orman

Another influential book, in that it proved that companion departures didn’t have to be cursory, sudden affairs. Ace is given a send-off that’s better than just about any other companion on television to this point, actively rejecting several of the tropes the audience have come to expect from such an occasion. On top of all that, it manages some startlingly excellent imagery, and offers a wonderful final examination of the relationship between the Doctor and Ace.

The only reason it’s in sixth place is because there are moments where Orman tries to replicate some of the cleverness of The Left-Handed Hummingbird, and doesn’t quite pull it off. The decision to have multiple historical settings also doesn’t quite pay off as well as it did in that earlier novel. Whereas The Left-Handed Hummingbird was able to juggle multiple eras such that one never felt shortchanged, here the 18th-century Egypt sections have very obviously drawn the short end of the stick. These aren’t insurmountable problems, though, so don’t mistake any of this for me calling this a bad book.

5. Original Sin by Andy Lane

A book that had the potential to be completely disastrous. Two new companions? Replacing Ace after nearly eight continuous years? How could this possibly go right? Thankfully the editors made the wise decision of assigning this tale to Lane, one of the best character writers the NAs ever had. And not only does he expertly introduce Roz and Chris, but he also manages to build a gripping, galaxy-spanning murder mystery, against the fully-formed backdrop of the Earth Empire.

The last-minute twist that Tobias Vaughn has been behind practically every monster the Doctor ever faced over a 1000-year period is silly, and the character of not-quite-Beltempest is needlessly complicated, but if you’re willing to forgive those things, what you’re left with is something quite great.

4. Warlock by Andrew Cartmel

Sequels can be a tricky thing, especially when they come nearly three years after the original instalment. However, Cartmel makes it look so easy that it’s honestly hard to say whether this or Warhead is the better book. Warlock is an emotionally powerful novel, one that will make you furious at the injustice of the world like no other.

Both the criticism of the War on Drugs and the anti-animal experimentation commentary are astonishingly well-handled, proof if proof were needed of just how political Doctor Who could be at times. Such is Cartmel’s mastery that he’s able to turn a cat into one of the most tragic figures the novels ever produced. At times this isn’t what you’d call an easy read, but it’s definitely worth it, and you won’t even notice that it’s the longest NA. I think that qualifies as a success.

3. Sanctuary by David A. McIntee

A surprising effort from McIntee, whose previous two books were either competent, pulpy fun but unexceptional (White Darkness) or cliched and boring (First Frontier). By contrast, Sanctuary is a rousing success, proving that the pure historical could still work nearly thirty years after The Highlanders.

Romance in Doctor Who doesn’t have the best track record, but just this once they seem to have got it right. The way Bernice and Guy’s relationship develops is subtle, without any big melodramatic scenes of them professing their love to one another or how the world’s orbit has dramatically shifted now that they’ve met. Indeed, Benny doesn’t even really realise she’s in love until it’s almost too late, which is heartbreaking.

Even outside of those two, the guest cast are all very well-written, with each of the villains being given a distinct, understandable motivation. The Doctor is sidelined for most of the story, but I find that OK. This is a story for Benny, and what a story it is. For how good this novel is, it’s underappreciated. But then that’s true of a lot of NAs, I suppose.

2. Human Nature by Paul Cornell

Oh boy, this was the tough one. I agonised over whether Human Nature or The Also People is a better novel before coming to this conclusion. Honestly, if you asked me a couple months down the line I could see myself possibly having a completely different answer. That’s how close the competition is here.

But regardless. Human Nature is obviously the basis for the two-part story in Series 3 of New Who. I won’t get bogged down in questions of whether the book or the two-parter are better, because I think that each are as good as you could make the story in their respective formats.

This is a book about just what it means to be the Doctor, and whether there’s more to that than simple biology. Of course, it’s also a love story, and while having two doomed historical love stories back-to-back may not have been the best choice, this is still a wonderfully endearing, poignant tale filled with memorable moments. The Aubertides are certainly not a patch on the Family of Blood, and are simply annoying more often than not, but all told this is a novel that definitely deserves its lofty standing. Which leaves us with…

1. The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch

Yes, really. Ultimately, the deciding factor for me was “risk.” Whereas Human Nature was a relatively simple story told in an evocative, heart-breaking way, The Also People is somewhat more ambitious. The idea of doing a light-hearted, low-stakes character piece with a four-person TARDIS team could have gone terribly.

Add in the fact that Aaronovitch has to try and wrap up the loose ends of Kadiatu’s storyline, establish the wide-ranging, expansive world(sphere) of the People, and tell an engaging murder mystery, and you’d be forgiven for thinking there are far too many irons in the fire for this to be any good.

And yet, in spite of all that, this is one of the funniest, most emotionally affecting and creative pieces of Doctor Who ever. The dialogue crackles and displays a razor-sharp wit, all the regulars are well-written and get their fair share of stuff to do, and it’s just… amazing.

This is one of those books that it’s impossible to really do justice in a short summary like this, because even reading the most effusive praise is no substitute for actually experiencing its brilliance first hand. If you can find a copy, hold on to it and keep it close to your heart forever. This is a masterpiece in the fullest sense of the word, and I cannot recommend it enough. Read it. It is that simple.

Virgin Missing Adventures

12. The Ghosts of N-Space by Barry Letts

In something of an inverse of the choice that faced me with the New Adventures, I was very much conflicted as to whether I thought this or Invasion of the Cat-People was the worst Missing Adventure of 1995. Similarly, I’d probably also be liable to give a different answer as to which I thought was worse at another time. For now, though, I feel The Ghosts of N-Space can reasonably take the bottom spot.

There is very little of redeeming value to be found here. The regulars are all pretty dissimilar from their screen personas, Jeremy is utterly insufferable, and the guest cast aren’t much better. Letts’ insistence on including “comedy” Italians is never even remotely funny and is tired and stale long before you reach the final page. Oh, and sexualising Maggie so relentlessly was bad enough, but revealing that the character is a survivor of sexual abuse only adds to the poor taste of the thing. Which I didn’t think was possible, but Ghosts manages it.

All this is without even touching on the nonsensical plot which contradicts several things Letts either oversaw or wrote himself. Vilmius is just a generic, moustache-twirling villain who isn’t even remotely interesting. If I had to say one positive thing about the story it’d be that it’s possible the original audio play has a certain novelty to it in being able to hear Pertwee, Sladen and Courtney together one last time. But that’d be clutching at straws, and I don’t think that’d be enough to sustain its three hour runtime. Avoid this one.

11. Invasion of the Cat-People by Gary Russell

It’s quite an achievement to turn a novel with the title of Invasion of the Cat-People into one of the most dull slogs the Virgin Books have produced thus far, but hey, we got it anyway. The titular cat-people are less a fully-fledged species and more a punchline, but not even a funny one at that, with far too much emphasis placed on nonsensical science, as if the book feels it needs to justify the existence of Cat-People. The guest cast are unmemorable, and there are points where the Second Doctor feels more like the Seventh. Then again, “poor characterisation of the Second Doctor” is hardly unique to this novel.

All of that’s without even touching on the offensive streak that runs through the novel, with the frequent description of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in outdated, pejorative language, and even the use of a slur for said peoples.

Alongside the use of derogatory terms for Asians, the Romani people, and disabled people, it just gives off a really objectionable vibe, and that’s the biggest reason why I found it so hard to choose between this and The Ghosts of N-Space as the worst book of 1995. So don’t mistake my putting this slightly above that book for any kind of recommendation or endorsement. They’re both terrible.

10. The Menagerie by Martin Day

Giving the Second Doctor’s debut to a first-time author probably wasn’t the wisest decision, all things considered. The Menagerie isn’t the worst or most offensive thing in the world, but it’s just so bland and flavourless that I’m honestly having a hard time remembering it.

There are momentary flickers of interesting ideas at the start of the book with the notion of a society that has suppressed knowledge of history and science, but these never go anywhere and the story quickly settles down into a pattern that is perhaps most reminiscent of a generic, unappealing Target novelisation. You know, the kind of book the NAs were churning out before they really hit their stride. Damn, the Second Doctor really hasn’t had too good a run so far…

9. Lords of the Storm by David A. McIntee

Another book that starts out promising but quickly fizzles out. The notion of a planet influenced by Indian culture is well-realised, managing to avoid exoticising the inhabitants, which was probably my biggest concern going in. It helps that, like with White Darkness and Sanctuary before it, McIntee has clearly done his research. However, the plot quickly becomes a secondary concern and takes a back seat to tedious, overlong action scenes that simply do not work in a non-visual medium like prose. A shame both that this was McIntee’s follow-up to the amazing Sanctuary, and that this was the book to close off 1995, but things could have been worse, I suppose.

8. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Christopher Bulis

A relatively fun, harmless Tolkien pastiche that wears its influences on its sleeve, stopping just shy of explicitly namedropping The Lord of the Rings. It’s hamstrung by the fact that it’s a pretty weak follow-up from Bulis after how good State of Change was, and the book’s insistence on cramming in a subplot with the Earth Empire that just serves to provide another example of why imitating Star Trek is a bad idea for these books. Oh well, I suppose.

7. Dancing the Code by Paul Leonard

This one hurts, because after a phenomenal first half that seemingly promises to be a deconstruction of the Third Doctor’s place as the most “establishment-friendly” of the Time Lord’s incarnations, offering typically detailed worldbuilding from Leonard, Dancing the Code becomes nothing but a generic runaround while people shoot at massive bugs. Definitely an improvement over The Ghosts of N-Space, but the Third Doctor has yet to get a truly good outing.

6. System Shock by Justin Richards

A competent enough techno-thriller, buoyed by the presence of an older Harry, which adds an interesting element to proceedings. Richards is the first author to actually write for Sarah in a way that feels accurate to her on-screen persona, but unfortunately she gets sidelined for a large chunk of the novel. The Doctor is better than he was in Evolution, but still not as lively as the portrait painted by The Romance of Crime. Finally, the villains make for some amusing jabs at corporate culture. As you can probably see, System Shock has a lot of elements that are fine on their own, but don’t quite manage to make something greater than the sum of their parts.

5. Millennial Rites by Craig Hinton

Another techno-thriller, at least for the first half, but this one does have some important points to make about the New Adventures. The Sixth Doctor and Mel are so well-characterised that you can’t help but bemoan the fact they were never this good on television, but such is life. The second half, where a portion of London is transformed into a sprawling, sword and sorcery hellscape, manages to switch things up enough to be interesting.

The main problem Millennial Rites encounters is that its commentary on the state of the New Adventures, and Doctor Who as a whole, is incredibly unsubtle. Unlike Time of Your Life, it’s also not barbed or insightful enough to make up for that fact. There’s also the weird writing of women as being jealous and petty (Mel at certain moments) or bitter spinsters (Anne Travers, who actually does get explicitly described as a “spinster” within the text of the novel, so…). As such, this is probably the weakest of the three Sixth Doctor Adventures we’ve had so far, but it’s still not all bad and is enjoyable enough on the whole.

4. Time of Your Life by Steve Lyons

Much like Head Games or even Millennial Rites, this is an incredibly important book in the development of both the Sixth Doctor and Doctor Who fiction at large in the Wilderness Years. Lyons pulls no punches in this incredibly scathing critique of Season 22, dissecting just who is to blame for the infamous 1985 hiatus which set the dominoes in motion for the programme’s cancellation, and coming up with some surprisingly frank and honest answers. Not perfect, since the actual plot is pretty light, especially towards the end, but for me personally the commentary largely makes up for it, especially since I feel it’s a better satire of violent television than something like Vengeance on Varos, though I realise I’m probably in the minority on that one.

3. Managra by Stephen Marley

It’s kind of hard to really do Managra justice in a short summary, because it’s just so unique in the world of Doctor Who literature. Marley is clearly well-versed in Gothic horror, and lovingly creates a futuristic Europe (or Europa) cut from that same cloth. The book is populated with stunningly imaginative ideas and a dry, barbed, intelligent sense of humour that fits perfectly.

The only thing I take issue with is the treatment of Sarah Jane, who is more than a little inconsistent from scene to scene. Sometimes Marley manages to write her friendship with the Doctor in a way that feels consistent with her televised stories. However, at other times he makes… questionable choices such as having her spend the entire first quarter of the book gratuitously clad in nothing more than a bikini, or having her ruminate on the idea of the Doctor as a weirdly paternal figure, which doesn’t really square with the way the two of them seemed to be on an equal footing with one another. That aside, though, Managra is definitely worth a read for just how distinct and unusual it is. It’s a shame Marley never wrote another full-length Doctor Who novel after this, because he does show quite a bit of promise.

2. The Romance of Crime by Gareth Roberts

God, I wish Gareth Roberts didn’t decide to become such a colossal transphobe and all-around bigot, because it would make praising books like this a hell of a lot easier. The man can write, but unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good person, it would seem.

All that aside, The Romance of Crime is excellent, perfectly capturing Season 17’s Adams-infused style while also avoiding becoming The Tom Baker Comedy Half-Hour like so many of the stories from that era. There are plenty of great, laugh-out-loud jokes and fun, memorable characters to speak of, but the plot still manages to be serious and layered.

Rather than serving to weigh down the levity or make it jar, however, it only serves to make the comedy, and the book as a whole, all the more enjoyable. The fact that the regular cast are so well-written also helps matters, especially after the disastrously off base portrayal of the Fourth Doctor in John Peel’s Evolution.

So I think one could reasonably call The Romance of Crime a worthy spiritual successor to City of Death. Shame about the author, though. I suspect I’ll be saying that with a lot of Roberts’ books in the future, but again, such is life…

1. The Empire of Glass by Andy Lane

One last hurrah for Lane, and in spite of how great it is, it still can’t help but feel a little bittersweet that we’re bidding farewell to one of the novels’ best writers. Regardless, the story is meticulously plotted, with events proceeding in a fashion that is wonderfully complex and intricate yet also logical, clear and never too confusing. On top of that, there’s wonderful characterisation of the regulars, memorable representations of three separate historical figures, and the welcome return of Irving Braxiatel.

I guess, if you’re going to leave the world of Doctor Who novels, the best way to do it is to bow out on such a high note that the audience are left wanting more. For me personally, at least, The Empire of Glass certainly manages that, and what finer tribute could any departing writer ask for?

Final Thoughts

So, that’s 1995 for you. What a year. The increase in quantity of books per year led me to fear that the quality might somehow suffer, but that’s obviously an unfounded fear, for the moment at least. That also means that this ranking is much less set in stone than previous Years in Review which I’ve done, as I’ve alluded to repeatedly. The books, especially the New Adventures, are all so close together in terms of quality that it’s really difficult to choose one over the other, but I tried my best.

It’s also quite surreal to think that, for the first time with one of these Year in Review posts, we’re closer to the end than we are to the beginning. Thank you all for sticking around for so long either way, and here’s to all the many Years in Review to come!

Virgin Adventures Reviews: Shakedown by Terrance Dicks; Lords of the Storm by David A. McIntee

Virgin New Adventures Reviews, #45: Shakedown by Terrance Dicks (or, “Dreams Walking in Broad Daylight”)

Shakedown is very much an oddity, more than it might initially appear to be. At first, “Terrance Dicks novelises a Doctor Who story” probably doesn’t sound particularly strange. After all, the man wrote over sixty of the blighters for Target Books across a time period spanning sixteen years.

Indeed, even within the confines of the Virgin Adventures, we’ve come across a novelisation before, and from another Pertwee Era alumnus, no less! Of course, Barry Letts’ The Ghosts of N-Space was perhaps not exactly what you’d call a ringing endorsement for the novelisation as a format, being both dull and offensive in equal measure.

However, Shakedown is a little bit different from that book. The Ghosts of N-Space was based on a radio drama also written by Letts and starring Jon Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney. Shakedown, in contrast, is based on a direct-to-video fan film that doesn’t feature the Doctor at all. There’s going to need to be a bit of explaining about the film here in addition to talking about the book, so bear with me.

The notion of independent spin-off films based on Doctor Who wasn’t one that originated in the Wilderness Years. Back in 1987, when the programme was still on the air, Reeltime Pictures would produce Wartime, which focused on John Levene’s character of Benton. I don’t wish to dwell on this film overlong, because it’s obviously not the subject of this review.

I bring it up, however, because it set a very important precedent for future fan films after the show’s cancellation in 1989. Though Reeltime and writer Andy Lane (yes, that Andy Lane) were unable to obtain the rights to the Doctor, they were able to obtain the rights to Benton and UNIT from writer Derrick Sherwin, who had created the character and organisation for use in his 1968 script, The Invasion, and still retained the rights to them.

A similar loophole would later be used by Dreamwatch Media, a division of Dreamwatch magazine who were responsible for producing Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans. Though Robert Holmes, creator of the Sontarans for 1973’s The Time Warrior, had passed away in 1986, his estate lent Dreamwatch permission to use the race. However, much like Wartime and a whole host of other similar fan films, the BBC wouldn’t allow the Doctor to appear or even be mentioned.

Therefore, what you get is perhaps best summarised as a bunch of Doctor Who actors (as well as some from Blake’s 7 for good measure) being menaced by Sontarans that resemble papayas or some other kind of tropical fruit more than the potatoes that are so frequently cited in discussions of the creatures.

At 55 minutes, there was never really any chance that Shakedown would have been a masterpiece, so there isn’t really much for me to dissect. If I could say anything about it, I guess it serves as an intriguing window into Doctor Who fan culture in the 1990s, where live-action content was so scarce that even something as comparatively shoddy as Shakedown would be embraced with open arms.

To return to the actual book that this review is about, you might be wondering how any of this could possibly work as a New Adventure. An NA without the Doctor? Birthright aside, that just didn’t make a whole lot of sense. More to the point, though, as you’ll be able to see from this post’s featured image, Peter Elson’s cover art quite prominently features the Seventh Doctor. How can the Doctor appear in a novelisation of a film that doesn’t feature or even directly reference him?

And that’s what makes Shakedown so odd as a novelisation, quite distinct from either The Ghosts of N-Space, or even Marc Platt’s novelisation of his similarly Doctorless spin-off, Downtime, released just a month later. This is a book that at once is a novelisation, yet also… isn’t.

The novel is split up into three “Books,” each subtitled BeginningsShakedown, and Aftermath. The portion that is an adaptation of the video is the middle, with Beginnings and Aftermath taking place around the events in the film and featuring the Doctor and the established NA regulars, on account of Virgin actually having the rights to the characters.

This is a decision that I think pays off for two reasons. Firstly, and most superficially, there’s the simple fact that I don’t think the plot of the original film would really have stretched to a full-length novel. However, it also means that there’s some more interesting stuff for me to dissect and think about, specifically with regards to how Dicks has integrated the original story into a larger framework.

Terrance Dicks’ output for the New Adventures has demonstrated a great fondness for detective fiction. Blood Harvest was, in part, a pulpy detective story set against the backdrop of Prohibition-era Chicago, which cast the Doctor in the role of a bootlegger operating a speakeasy. The book wore its influences on its sleeve, paraphrasing Raymond Chandler’s famous “Down these mean streets…” quote in one of its very first chapters. That same stylistic influence plays out across the Megacity segments of Shakedown as well, such that when Dicks revisited the locale for a sequel two years later, that sequel would literally be called Mean Streets.

Like with the Chicago segments of Blood Harvest, you can definitely tell that Dicks is having a lot of fun writing this type of story, a story that wouldn’t feel too out of place in a dime store paperback from the 1950s. Indeed, one can’t help wondering if the news that the incoming companions would essentially be two ex-policemen filled him with joy.

The Megacity segments are a blast, with Chris and Roz wholeheartedly playing the whole good cop, bad cop routine. It’s more than a little pulpy, and the whole place seems far more like a fabricated, romanticised construct than an actual society that could feasibly exist, in spite of some considerable infodumping to justify the set-up. The detective fiction-style authorial voice is layered on so thickly that it’s a wonder that Megacity is never described as a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

And yet none of that matters, because it’s just so much fun. Dicks clearly isn’t trying to aspire for great depth, but he still manages to provide believable, solid characterisation of the two Adjudicators, along with one particularly wonderful guest star. That guest star is, of course, Garshak, the augmented Ogron Chief of Police.

Now, the Ogrons are dated. They are undoubtedly iconic and memorable, yes, but they are dated and more than a little uncomfortable. The notion of “dark-skinned, strong, ape-like primitives who act as servants” has some very racist connotations, particularly when you consider the cultural context of 1972.

Within the world of Doctor Who itself, Day of the Daleks, the first of two Ogron stories, wasn’t too far removed from the casting of Roy Stewart as “strong, largely silent Black man” in both The Tomb of the Cybermen and Terror of the AutonsThe Black and White Minstrel Show, which had long been criticised for its racist depictions of Black people, would continue airing for another six years. Even if we confine our analysis to the realms beyond the television screen, race relations in the United Kingdom couldn’t exactly be described as utopian.

On April 20, 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, would speak to the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre. In this infamous tirade, which would come to be known as the “Rivers of Blood speech,” he rallied against the Labour Party’s proposed Race Relations Act 1968, which aimed to cut down on racial discrimination. Powell would employ alarmist and apocalyptic rhetoric, warning that he thought the white British population would “[find] themselves made strangers in their own country.”

Just over a year prior, the National Front had been founded by A. K. Chesterton, formerly a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, and would experience its most electorally successful years throughout the 1970s. The party quickly became known, unsurprisingly, for being incredibly racist, nationalist and right-wing to the point of fascism, and in spite of never having any MPs elected to British or European Parliament, the party persists more than half a century later.

This is the political and cultural context in which the Ogrons sit, and as a result of that legacy, any attempt to revisit them seems ill-advised at best. The Romance of Crime had managed to construct some good comedy with them that didn’t lean on the problematic aspects, but even still, I was never exactly clamouring for the return of the Ogrons.

Thankfully, Garshak is wonderful, and his character is all the more refreshing coming from the script editor who oversaw the Ogrons’ original appearances. In his first scene, the expectations of Roz and the audience vis-a-vis the stupidity of the Ogrons are expertly subverted. Indeed, he is probably the first truly individual Ogron. Previously, some of them had been given names, but they never rose above the crude, uncomfortable stereotype which formed their foundation.

Garshak, however, is given a proper backstory and motivations, which is a welcome change of pace. The notion of his police force, which exists purely to protect the interests of the rich and powerful, simply being a more honest expression of the worst tendencies of police forces everywhere is also inspired. And they say Doctor Who was never political…

In spite of corruption being rife in Megacity and among his ranks, however, he manages to be likeable all the same. He’s never reduced to the stock villainous role one might expect from the ghosts of Ogrons past, and he’s very much on the same side as Chris and Roz. It’s hard to properly convey, but it really works.

The Doctor and Bernice don’t get to do anything nearly as interesting as all that, but there’s still enough to hold one’s attention. It’s much like Blood Harvest, in that Dicks has clearly become very enamoured with the fun detective story. Consequently, he imbues those portions with so much life and energy that none of the other parts can really meet the bar that has been set, and you spend a lot of time wanting to go back to the Megacity segments.

Of course, the Sentarion storyline is still far in advance of the “State of Decay sequel” parts of Blood Harvest, and it’s also helped by the fact that Shakedown doesn’t have an irrelevant Gallifrey coda slapped onto things in the last tenth of the novel.

Dicks has definitely expended just as much effort into the worldbuilding of Sentarion as he has with Megacity, outlining the various aspects of the insectoid society that inhabits the planet. However, the planet never comes alive as much as Megacity does, never quite managing to transcend the base exposition/worldbuilding, and its rather transparent function as a means to keep Benny occupied for the bulk of the novel. It’s very much the sum of its parts, and not a whole lot more. Passable and captivating enough, but nowhere near as fun.

That kind of sums up the totality of Shakedown‘s plot as well, which is kind of why I’ve held off from really talking about it too much until now. Everything works well enough, with the intrigue and the spies and the returning iconic aliens all hooking you in such a manner that you’re never really bored, but it’s still very much a potboiler, without too many grand surprises in store.

Perhaps that’s the biggest problem with the novel. If this were the final New Adventure of just about any other year I’d probably receive it more positively, but 1995 has been a particularly great year for these books. Several of the novels have been not just good, but all-around classics.

Human NatureThe Also People, WarlockSet Piece… All of these novels can go toe-to-toe with the best that the television series has to offer. So closing the year on such an average note feels more like a letdown than a shakedown. In most other contexts, average wouldn’t be so bad, and indeed things could be worse. This isn’t a novel that’s as weak as Toy Soldiers, for instance, but even so.

I guess it’s also time to tackle the Sontarans and the Rutans. Shakedown very much follows on from Lords of the Storm, though even without having read that book yet I think one can understand what’s happening reasonably enough. Together, they form something of a Sontaran “double feature,” as the only time across either the Virgin or BBC lines that Sontarans have served as the main villains, at least during the Wilderness Years.

(Indeed, this fact is why, when BBC Books reprinted several novels as part of the Monster Collection in 2014, Shakedown was chosen to represent the Sontarans. It wasn’t as if they had a lot of choices, but it still feels notable, considering how few of the New Adventures have ever been reprinted. The only others, to my knowledge, are Dead Romance, branded as part of Mad Norwegian Press’ Faction Paradox line, and Human Nature, which was reprinted for the History Collection.)

Truth be told, the Sontarans are one of the less interesting recurring foes in the Doctor’s proverbial “rogues gallery.” The whole “warrior race” thing has been done time and time again in science fiction, even when you take into account the slight twist of them all being clones.

I would argue that The Time Warrior and The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky are the only Sontaran stories that are truly worth watching. The Sontaran ExperimentThe Invasion of Time and The Two Doctors are all pretty disappointing efforts for a variety of reasons, so they weren’t exactly batting a thousand by 1995.

That being said, Shakedown is perhaps the best use of the Sontarans since their original debut. Small beats like the conflict between individuality and monolithism among a clone race may not exactly offer Andy Lane levels of character depth, but it’s still far more interesting than anything that’s been done with them in the 20+ years since The Time Warrior first aired, so I figured it at least deserved a mention.

The Rutans are harder to really get a grasp on. They’re more elusive and lack any real kind of consistent characterisation. After all, though they’ve been referenced in nearly every Sontaran story, they’ve only ever appeared in Dicks’ own Horror of Fang Rock, and the Dreamwatch film version of Shakedown marks the only time the two species are actually seen on screen together.

Dicks seems to lampshade the comparative ambiguity surrounding the Rutans in the novelisation. When Bernice attempts to research both the Rutans and the Sontarans, she finds the former significantly less well-documented than the latter. Of course, there turns out to be an in-universe reason for this, but it still feels quite sly and knowing on the novel’s part.

All that being said, it is still quite enjoyable to see any small facet of the conflict between these two races which has been hinted at for twenty years, but never really seen. As I alluded to earlier, the stuff involving Rutan spies and military secrets may not be as fun or lively as the opening Megacity sequences, but it has a pace that is just fast enough that you don’t really mind so much.

So while I may have sounded quite harsh on the book at points, I do generally enjoy it. In any other year, it would certainly be an above-average, charming effort from one of the most beloved and familiar voices in the world of Doctor Who print, with some enjoyable settings and a particularly fun guest star in Garshak.

Unfortunately, it has the misfortune to cap off the New Adventures for 1995, which has easily been the best year for the line yet. Read on its own and divorced from the brilliant stories that have come before, however, I can certainly think of worse ways to spend one’s time than to pick this one up, especially since it’s one of the few Virgin novels to actually get a reprint.

Miscellaneous Observations

There are aspects of the plot I didn’t really touch on here, because there isn’t really a whole lot to say, fun though the story is. However, it is interesting to note the ways in which the book seems to prefigure the Doctorless NAs that will come to define the direction of the line after Virgin’s loss of the Doctor Who license.

Most conspicuously, there’s the simple way in which the Doctor is largely absent from proceedings for a substantial chunk of the novel. Obviously, this is hardly the first or the last time that such a thing happens in the New Adventures, but it’s especially noteworthy in conjunction with Bernice’s sojourn to Sentarion, a planet dominated by a university.

With the benefit of hindsight, this can’t help but bring to mind the planet of Dellah, which will come to be the centre of the range, beginning with Oh No It Isn’t! None of this really means anything concrete, and I don’t know how much Virgin had conceptualised of a Doctorless New Adventures range at this point, but it is something interesting to ponder. It feels only appropriate, therefore, that Shakedown should get a sequel in these Doctorless NAs.

Another part of the book I didn’t really touch on is the actual novelisation itself, and that’s because, like with the film it’s based on, there’s really not a whole lot to say. None of the characters are particularly deep, with Kurt and Lisa being the best. Everyone besides them is very much an archetype.

In addition, although there’s some extra layers imparted to the happenings through the freedoms afforded the prose format, on the whole it’s an example of the most barebones interpretation of “novelisation,” being a word-for-word, scene-for-scene adaptation of the original. Which is fine, but can’t help but feel a little disappointing when you consider how much the latter-day Target novelisations had done to deepen what could be done with the format.

The subtitle of this review might just go down as having the longest gap between initially being conceived of in my head and the review actually being published. I originally thought of it upon first listening to Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues all the way back in March of 2019, and I’m just now getting to use it. Worth it? Probably not. A funny anecdote? Hopefully.

Virgin Missing Adventures Reviews, #17: Lords of the Storm by David A. McIntee (or, “The Wrath of Karne”)

Lords of the Storm marks a pretty major departure from David A. McIntee’s established style. To be fair, the author himself is well aware of this fact, drawing attention to it in his Introduction. What is this change, you might ask? Well, I’ll quote from that same Introduction:

Free! Free at last! From historicals, that is.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, McIntee immediately qualifies this and says that he does enjoy writing them. However, the point is that this very quickly sets up the central question I went into Lords of the Storm with, that being: Will McIntee’s talents translate from a historical to a space opera setting?

To back up a minute, let’s talk about the writer’s previous books to this point. White Darkness was a fun, low-key, pulpy zombie/Lovecraft story set against the backdrop of the United States’ 1915 occupation of Haiti. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it did what it set out to do well enough, and made me interested enough to look forward to First Frontier.

Unfortunately, that book kind of wound up falling flat. Whereas the pulpy elements of White Darkness were unique enough that they felt fun, First Frontier just felt too derivative of earlier stuff, “grey aliens in the aftermath of the Roswell crash” having been done to death even before 1994, and only feeling more uninspired with retrospective knowledge of how well The X-Files would do that idea.

So it was fair to say that McIntee was cementing himself as somewhat uneven, and without a true classic under his belt, he hadn’t entered the upper echelons of New Adventures writers, for me at least. And then along came Sanctuary

Sanctuary is nothing short of incredible, an underrated gem which might just be the finest Doctor Who romance ever penned, while also managing to resurrect the pure historical from the Hartnell years to great effect. As a result of this book in particular, I went into Lords of the Storm with much higher expectations for McIntee’s abilities than I would have if I had read it directly after First Frontier. Unfortunately, I have to say that these are expectations which Lords of the Storm fails to live up to.

As I’ve alluded to before, McIntee’s writing has always been influenced by a certain strain of pulpy genre fiction, as can be readily seen in the premises and aesthetics of both White Darkness and First Frontier. Though it would be Andy Lane who “properly” incorporated Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones into Doctor Who lore with a full-fledged backstory in All-Consuming Fire, it was White Darkness which first included them. Coupled with a reference to Lovecraft’s Yuggoth in his sophomore novel, it’s clear that he has a great deal of affection for what we generally call “weird fiction.”

In spite of what I’ve said, therefore, the space opera trappings of Lords of the Storm (which McIntee summarises in his introduction as “shootouts, spaceships and lots of corridors”) aren’t too big of a stylistic shake-up on their own. It’s more in the absence of the “historical story” hallmarks that have been present up until now. Well, their almost-absence, at least.

Because, you see, McIntee has drawn from a period and place in Earth’s history in creating the backdrop against which the novel’s drama unfolds. That place is India. Initially, I have to admit that this did fill me with some measure of trepidation.

This was mostly due to some issues I took with White Darkness‘ treatment of racism, namely its rather cavalier and free use of the N-word, particularly coming from a white Scottish author like McIntee. So a part of me was afraid that Lords of the Storm would fall into the trap of exoticising Asian locales like India, the Middle East, or China. However, by and large, I think those pitfalls have been avoided.

The planetary system of Indra isn’t just some vague, exotic paradise that exists to be gawked at by white Europeans, but a living, breathing culture in its own right. McIntee has taken the care to actually research the caste system, and it shows, with the society and its inter-caste dynamics feeling lived in and authentic. Unfortunately, not much is really done with these dynamics once they have been established, which feels like a missed opportunity.

Doctor Who is a British franchise, and therefore setting a story in India (or even an India-analogue) will always bring to mind questions of the British Empire and its ruthless, exploitative treatment of the local populace. Indeed, even the caste system in its present form is a legacy of the country’s colonial period.

The system predated the beginning of company rule in the 18th century, but would take on characteristics of the British class system after that time. Susan Bayly, Professor of Historical Anthropology at Cambridge, would write in her 2001 book Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age that the use of the caste system in censuses “purported to aggregate and rank supposedly comparable castes from different regions… with the aim of establishing who was superior to whom in any part of India by virtue of their supposed purity, occupational origins and collective moral worth.” In a similar vein, colonial officials like Herbert Hope Risley used racist, pseudoscientific theories of the ratio of the width of a nose to its height to categorise Indians as “Aryans” and “Dravidians.”

In light of the way that India and its caste system are given so prominent a role in Lords of the Storm, one would be forgiven for thinking that this might provide an opportunity for some interesting postcolonialist analysis. After all, in December 1995, the handover of Hong Kong, a date often taken to mark the end of the British Empire, was barely 18 months away.

In fairness, this analysis is occasionally gestured at by Lords of the Storm, with Ambika allowing Jahangir to introduce the common cold into the water supply of the “lower” castes in order to simplify census-taking. Sound familiar? The book even makes note to flesh out the Sontaran clan system to draw parallels for how both systems could easily be used to fuel discrimination and prejudice. However, these ideas are largely just outright stated for the audience in one particular scene, which is not really a substitute for a proper, nuanced exploration of the concept, so I can’t really say that these attempts are successful.

It is interesting to note that it seems to start something of a trend in McIntee’s novels. From this point forward, a lot of his stories will be set in the dying days of major imperial powers. The Shadow of Weng-ChiangThe Wages of SinBullet Time, and The Eleventh Tiger all take place in the final few decades of long-lasting historical empires. Hell, Bullet Time would even be explicitly about the aforementioned handover of Hong Kong.

(You could also not unreasonably point to White Darkness as dealing with questions of imperialism, featuring, as it does, scientists from the latter-day German Empire, and taking place in Haiti, a country uniquely established by a slave revolution against French colonialism)

All these later novels would actually take place in the genuine historical articles, however, rather than far-future replications like that seen here. It’s interesting to wonder whether this was a conscious choice on McIntee’s part after having completed this novel.

Speaking of replication, we also need to talk about another heavy influence on Lords of the StormStar Trek. And yes, I’m inordinately proud of myself for that segue. Nonetheless, it’s also perhaps no surprise that McIntee should filter his first future-set novel through the lens of the popular American TV series. Not only is there the usual cultural osmosis you’d expect with a book released in 1995, roughly concurrent with the beginning of Voyager and the transitioning of the wildly popular TNG cast into a blockbuster film franchise, but the author himself would later go on to write for Star Trek.

There are some caveats here. McIntee never wrote for any of the television shows, with all his work being confined to the realms of print. His first writing on the franchise would come in the form of 2000’s Delta Quadrant – The Unofficial Guide to Voyager, covering the first five seasons of the show. He would subsequently go on to write two short stories in 2007 and 2010, before releasing his first (and, to date, only) full-length Star Trek novel, Indistinguishable from Magic, in 2011.

So, again, not too surprising that he would prove to be fond of Star Trek and allow it to colour his vision of the future here. Indeed, the novel is even set in 2371, which would place it in the same year as the roughly contemporary first season of Voyager and third season of Deep Space Nine.

This Trek inspiration turns out to be a hindrance, however, as it often does. I’ve outlined my reasons for disliking when New/Missing Adventures authors take heavy inspiration from Star Trek in the past, so I won’t dwell on them for too long, but the fundamental problem is often a lack of realisation that the two shows have different outlooks and formats which don’t readily lend themselves to stylistic “crossover,” as it were.

However, Lords of the Storm fails on a different front to the usual ill-judged Trek pastiche. McIntee has very clearly sought to provide big, bombastic, theatrical space battles of the kind one might see in the Star Trek of the big screen in particular.

And herein lies the central problem with all of these battle scenes: Lords of the Storm is not a product of the big screen. It is not a film. No matter how much it tries, it will never be able to compete with the action scenes of, say, the then-recently-released Star Trek Generations. Watching a space battle in a major motion picture with a $35 million budget will always be more captivating than reading about it in a novel, regardless of the quality of the film, or novel, around that battle.

Continuing along those lines, there’s also the simple fact that the plot of the novel around these battles is, in this particular case, quite poor. If the story were great and it was just the battle scenes that dragged proceedings down, I could probably forgive that. But that isn’t the case. The story of Lords of the Storm is never particularly exciting or engaging, instead opting for formulaic, simplistic plotting without much in the way of surprises.

If anything, it only makes me appreciate Shakedown more. That story also adopted a pretty simple, straightforward plot structure, but managed to provide just enough enjoyment and fun that meant, while it never set the world on fire, it kept the reader engaged. Here, that spirit of enjoyment and fun is absent, and it’s an absence that is keenly felt, especially when one reads the two books in quick succession.

McIntee’s novel feels all too often like it’s just going through the motions, and everything apart from the early stages is just pure runaround without any real advancement of the narrative until the very end. Said narrative is your fairly standard tale of conspiracies, corruption and aliens (in this case, the Sontarans) with shadowy agendas.

The characters aren’t all that interesting, either. There’s no guest player who’s on the level of Garshak. Hell, there isn’t even really a member of the guest cast who manages to be as interesting as either Lisa or Kurt. Instead, it feels like Unukalhai is a system populated with people on the level of Mari or Zorelle, broad archetypes that never feel especially fully-formed or three-dimensional.

You have the disillusioned military officer, the reluctant bureaucrat, his rebellious fighter pilot daughter, the medical man who’s tired of being surrounded by so much death… Nothing is ever wholly original, but a good writer can make initially generic characters come alive. That doesn’t happen here, and as such anyone with a decent amount of science-fiction literacy could probably predict the characters’ arcs and internal struggles, such as they are, with a reasonable degree of accuracy. At times, it’s honestly hard to believe that this was written by the same author as Sanctuary, which gave us wonderfully well-rounded, believable characters with understandable motivations and distinct personalities.

As for the regulars? Well, the Fifth Doctor, appearing here for the first time since The Crystal Bucephalus over a year prior, is fine. Nothing exceptional, but fine, and is believably the same character portrayed by Peter Davison on-screen.

Turlough, on the other hand, is woefully inconsistent. At times he possesses the same cynical, snarky streak with which Mark Strickson often played the character, but at other moments his thought processes become softer and less harsh in a way that doesn’t really line up with said performance and serves to make him virtually unrecognisable in all but name.

It must be conceded that Turlough was certainly never the most well-developed or consistently characterised of the leads on TV, through no fault of Strickson’s acting. After all, there were gaping holes in his backstory that weren’t plugged until his final story, and these holes felt more like the result of laziness than any kind of forward planning.

Under those circumstances, there’s only so much that an actor can do, so there wasn’t exactly a deep pool of Turlough character moments for McIntee to pull from. Even so, it’s very jarring to have a main character who varies so wildly from scene to scene.

(It’s also not helped by having said character often think “Huh, I sure am acting out of character today, wonder what that’s about,” which doesn’t really solve the central problem. If anything, it only makes it more likely that the audience will notice.)

In isolation, and with a better story surrounding them, none of these issues would really be insurmountable. Unfortunately, we are not talking about a better story. Lords of the Storm is pretty much the very definition of the term “runaround,” with an unengaging, plodding story, inconsistent or barebones characterisation, and lengthy action scenes that simply do not work in the form of a novel.

Part of me wonders if my negative reaction to the novel is borne in part of exhaustion. After all, this’ll be my last review before I take a little break. In other circumstances, maybe I’d be more favourably disposed towards Lords of the Storm. After all, its biggest crime is largely just being uninteresting, and there are worse sins a book can commit.

But because of the context in which it sits, both as the last book of an amazing year like 1995, and as McIntee’s first book since the phenomenal Sanctuary, it feels like a disappointment. I hate to close this “block” of VARs on such a sour note, but such is life.

Miscellaneous Observations

The biggest thing approaching a twist in Lords of the Storm is the revelation that Karne is actually a Rutan spy. Unfortunately, even this is completely undercut if you happened to read Shakedown first as I did, because Dicks’ novel repeatedly makes Karne’s true nature clear. There’s also not enough in the way of dramatic irony for it to work on that level, either. A shame, really.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it, the end of 1995. I wish I were able to sing the praises of either of these books, but as is, the overwhelming impression is that the year decided to close with a whimper rather than a bang. All things being equal, I can’t help but wonder if it might have been a better decision to end the year with a masterpiece like The Also People instead. After all, the continuity between that book and Shakedown isn’t so strong that the order can’t be shuffled around. Then again, for all I know Dicks and McIntee’s novels might not have been complete enough to publish in November. Who knows…

As I alluded to earlier, this’ll be the last installment of the Virgin Adventures Reviews for a while, since I’m going to be taking a little break. Considering I’ve been reading and reviewing 18 novels pretty much non-stop since November, I think I’ve earned it. Thank you all for your continued support and readership these past few months.

There’ll be the customary Year In Review post for 1995, of course, but if you desperately want more Dale’s Ramblings content I’ll be continuing with my Moffat Era Rewatch on my Twitter page, @DalesRamblings. Don’t know precisely when I’ll be back, but when I do return we’ll see if Lance Parkin can manage to pull off a seemingly disaster-prone premise like “Doctor Who and the Nazis” in Just War, and Marc Platt returns after nearly four years to give us another novelisation of an unofficial fan film with Downtime. Until then, though…

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

Virgin Adventures Reviews: The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch; The Empire of Glass by Andy Lane

Virgin New Adventures Reviews, #44: The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch (or, “People Ain’t No Good”)

That was quite the wait, wasn’t it?

Ben Aaronovitch was an incredibly important foundational figure in the development of the New Adventures. Despite the name, the Cartmel Masterplan owed a considerable debt to the groundwork that he laid down in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks. That story, as we discussed in Head Games last time, marked the metamorphosis of the Seventh Doctor into the darker personality that would play out over the original show’s final two seasons. Remembrance still holds up today, over 30 years later, as one of the greatest Dalek stories ever written. Hell, even one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever written in general.

Once Season 26 rolled around, Aaronovitch also contributed another four-parter, entitled Battlefield. The story wouldn’t have quite the same long-lasting impact as Remembrance, but it still served as the Brigadier’s final appearance in televised Doctor Who proper, and established the status quo of UNIT in the late 20th century that would be expanded upon in extended universe materials.

His influence would be felt just as keenly in the world of print, however. His novelisation of Remembrance would mark the first explicit reference to the mysterious Other, a legendary figure from the days of Rassilon and Omega. It would also feature mention of a “Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart,” a future descendant of the Brigadier that we all know and love.

With his first New Adventure, Transit, Aaronovitch expanded on this to present another Kadiatu, descended from the one referenced in Remembrance, who was essentially a genetically-engineered supersoldier and the universe’s response to the Doctor’s manipulations. Even outside of that, though, it featured the first (and second… and third… and…) use of the word “fuck” in Doctor Who, a decision that was incredibly divisive, but served as a clear and irrefutable indicator of just how far these books were willing to push the envelope.

But then… silence. For nearly three years after the publication of Transit in December 1992, Aaronovitch wouldn’t write anything for the New Adventures. However, just at the tail end of 1995, he would make a return to the line in The Also People. And by goodness was it worth the wait.

The Also People is frequently cited as being one of the best stories that the New Adventures has to offer, and I really can’t disagree with that assertion. It may not have the same depth or long-lasting impact as some of the other novels in the range, but it’s not trying to. Instead, this is a book that has clearly been constructed as a light-hearted character piece, allowing our regular cast to take a break for a little bit and have some fun.

That’s not to say there aren’t things going on in The Also People, because there are. Aaronovitch returns to Kadiatu, following up on just where she ended up after we last saw her in Set Piece. There’s also a murder mystery to be solved. However, while these elements undoubtedly work well, it’s the character stuff that really elevates this novel.

Even when the mystery steps into the light and the TARDIS crew find themselves investigating it, there’s still a whimsical attitude present in the way the story is handled. When agRaven and kiKhali show up at the villa where our regulars are staying, Bernice and Roz treat the situation relatively light-heartedly, putting off opening the door to make a pizza.

This is a moment that could easily come across as callous. After all, a person has just died. However, it’s treated with a light enough touch that it works. It also helps that the narrative is willing to call out Roz’s repeated, stony-hearted use of the term “robot” to describe the murder victim, in spite of the protests of the two Interest Group members, demonstrating that Aaronovitch is very clearly conscious of the fine balance he needs to achieve between whimsy and seriousness. This only makes the fact that he achieves it (and makes it look effortless to boot) all the more impressive.

Indeed, The Also People is, in itself, aware of the fact that the murder mystery plot is something of a distraction. Throughout the course of the book, Benny finds herself suspecting that the Doctor is deliberately extending the course of the investigation in order to divert attention from another issue. Of course, he is, and it turns out to be a problem with a decidedly more human element, in the form of Kadiatu.

That’s very much a nice little microcosm of the driving philosophy behind this book. The real heart of it is in allowing the characters to experience this new world. Each of their reactions is coloured by their own personal experiences and foibles, and that’s quite the achievement when you have four regulars to deal with, as well as a recurring character.

The companion that it was perhaps most crucial that Aaronovitch get right was Benny. Technically, Aaronovitch was the first person to write for her other than her creator, Paul Cornell. However, one of the problems with Transit was that it failed to really give the new companion something to do. Instead, she spent most of the novel possessed by the alien intelligence that would come to be known as Fred.

Here, however, she’s excellent. I’ve noted for a while now the trend towards having Benny be a secondary main character, in the way that Chris and Roz don’t quite manage. Ever since Ace’s departure, she’s now the companion who’s known the Doctor for the longest amount of time, and she can see through all the Doctor’s misdirections and false affectations of foolishness.

Though we still have another year and a half to go before the switchover occurs, you can really see the seeds being sown here for Benny’s takeover of the New Adventures in Oh No It Isn’t! The writers really seem to be aware of just what an excellent character they’ve created, and well they should be. The way she’s characterised here more than makes up for the blunder that was Transit.

Aaronovitch also provides perhaps the best portrait of Chris and Roz that doesn’t come from the pen of Andy Lane. It’s because of books like this that I think Roz’s eventual death (look, that’s not really a spoiler, everyone knew about her death before So Vile a Sin was even out) avoids becoming a cynical case of “fridging the woman.”

Roz Forrester isn’t just a companion to the Doctor, she’s a fully-formed human being in her own right, with her own history and her own flaws. Her recollections of life under the domineering hand of her mother in high-society Imperial Earth are affecting, and manage to give her some greater depth beyond the simplistic character breakdown of “gruff, hardened police officer.”

Also affecting is her blossoming romance with feLixi. This story of two hurt, scarred people who at first seem to make a genuine connection recalls the heights of Doctor Who romance that were attained between Bernice and Guy in Sanctuary, and that’s probably the highest praise I can bestow. It might be just one of many moving parts in the novel and never take centre-stage like that Albigensian amour, but it’s just as touching and ultimately tragic nonetheless, albeit for different reasons.

Roz isn’t the only one to get a love story though. Granted, after just six books, “Chris becomes infatuated with a member of the guest cast” has been a trope at play in three of them, almost back-to-back, with the exception of Toy Soldiers. However, his relationship with Dep is notable in that it actually leads to him getting her pregnant without knowing.

Aaronovitch handles the dialogue and interactions with customary aplomb, and it’s certainly the best execution of this trope thus far. However, after so many “casual Chris relationships” coming so thick and fast, I find myself at something of a loss when it comes to talking about them, as the repetition prevents it from having the same emotional impact as it otherwise would.

That being said, however, the moment that they share on the zipline from the power station to the villa was brilliant, managing to be beautiful while also perfectly capturing that youthful tendency to do something stupid to try and impress a girl, and the notion that God would go so far as to move the sun to allow them a sunset to fly off into at the end of the novel melts my soppy, sentimental heart.

Finally among the regulars, we have the Doctor himself. Aaronovitch proves his mastery once again, with his post-Cartmellian interpretation of the Doctor firing on all cylinders. The novel slots perfectly into its place after Head Games, even apart from the ways that Lyons deliberately added links into the earlier book that foreshadowed this one.

There’s an impression that, although the Doctor travels to the Worldsphere to deal with Kadiatu, there’s still an element of him craving relaxation and a simpler life. His foisting off of the situation onto Bernice feels very much like an attempt to weasel his way out of the decision.

In hindsight, it also kind of recalls the similar logic employed by the Twelfth Doctor in Kill the Moon. Like with that episode, the narrative is ultimately very critical of the Doctor’s arrogance in doing this, and Bernice sees through all his flowery language and high-handedness much as Clara does. Once again, the New Adventures prove that even their more light-hearted entries can be influential.

Staying on the topic of the Doctor, I want to specifically praise the sequence that ends Chapter Seven. It could easily have been cut, as it’s just the Doctor spontaneously deciding to be a street performer. However, Aaronovitch makes this simple scene one of the most moving in the entire book, as the Ka Faraq Gatri gets to take the weight off his shoulders, ditch all the manipulations and the masterplans, and experience an uncomplicated, happy life, even if just for a moment. I’d go as far as to say no single scene in these books so far has better encapsulated the central tragedy of the NA Doctor’s character.

I’m surprised I haven’t talked much about the titular People, so far, but I guess that just goes to show how detailed and well-crafted the character work is. The society of the Worldsphere is no different. In fairness, Aaronovitch seems to have drawn a lot of inspiration from the Culture series of novels by Scottish author Iain M. Banks.

Banks’ science-fiction novels, beginning with the publication of Consider Phlebas in 1987, revolved around an alien society that was similarly utopian and post-scarcity. By the time of The Also People‘s publication in November 1995, the series numbered three novels and a short story collection, and six further novels would be published before Banks passed away in June 2013.

There’s not really any chance that the similarities between the People and the Culture are mere coincidence, especially since Banks had received multiple awards and nominations for his novels well before the New Adventures even started. All that aside, though, Aaronovitch manages to distinguish the People well enough that I don’t particularly mind.

The Worldsphere and its inhabitants would go on to play a big role in the later New Adventures, once they shifted their focus to Benny as the main character rather than the Doctor. I’ve heard some people say (pun not intended) that they aren’t happy with the direction they were taken in those books, but it’ll be a while before I can really offer any opinion of my own on that.

On its own terms, then, what we get here in terms of worldbuilding is pretty impressive and solid, but there’s also an interesting subtext to the way in which the People and their society are presented in a way that evokes the counter-culture of the 1960s.

Doctor Who obviously always had rather tangible ties to the 1960s, starting as it did in 1963, and the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy no less. As the franchise’s experience with cancellation forced it to grapple with its own mortality and longevity, certain New Adventures would tap into that decade. Mark Gatiss’ Nightshade suggested that the ’60s tended to have a lot of their ugliness glossed over through blunt force nostalgia.

After all, this makes a certain amount of sense. While they may have given us Doctor WhoStar Trek and the Beatles, the 1960s also saw the assassinations of many voices that were seen as offering hopeful messages for the future of the world, such as JFK, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

1968 in particular seemed to serve as a boiling point for a lot of these anxieties, with more Earth-shaking events than I could realistically count. Just to name a few, the aforementioned assassination of MLK, the protests and unrest that swept the nation, the Tet Offensive, and the black power salutes at the Olympics in Mexico City. All of these happened in the space of a single twelve-month period, and such was the year’s impact that as late as 1988, Time would write:

Like a knife blade, the year of riot and revolution severed the U. S. from its triumphant optimism, exposing a confused, divided country that was fighting a war it could not win. The dramas of 1968 shaped the world we know today: heroes were gunned down, the Soviets trampled Prague’ s spring, Richard Nixon was elected, and man for the first time orbited the moon.

Not only would Nightshade make a point to revisit this chaotic year, but Kate Orman would do something similar in The Left-Handed Hummingbird, presenting a world that was so violent and turbulent that Huitzilin had no trouble at all stepping into that context and upsetting the balance even further.

What’s more, Orman also suggested a degree of commonality between the Doctor and the counter-cultural movement, to the point where he finds himself taking LSD in an effort to defeat the story’s main villain. Paul Cornell developed this strand further in No Future when he suggested that the Doctor, in spite of working for the establishment during his time at UNIT, had nonetheless become a hero to anarchists.

All of this is to say that there’s a definite undercurrent of engaging with ’60s culture and counter-culture throughout the New Adventures, and The Also People is just the latest example in that tradition. The People, with their liberal, utopian society, casual drug use and comparatively open attitude towards sexuality, can’t help but bring to mind the popular image of the counter-culture movement in the late 1960s.

There are reasons why the NAs might have been interested in examining and critiquing that archetype. Perhaps most obviously to fans of science-fiction, that kind of imagery also puts one in mind of another popular franchise from the 1990s: Star Trek.

The Federation as presented in the Berman Era films and TV shows isn’t too far removed from the Worldsphere in conceptual terms, and although The Original Series generally tended to be a lot more cynical about the idea of utopia than popular memory would have you believe, it still was a broadly liberal, progressive vision of the future.

Of course, as a product of 1995, The Also People comes off the back of 1994, what may very reasonably be called “peak Star Trek.” In that year, The Next Generation had wrapped up its successful seven-season run, Deep Space Nine was beginning to find its own voice, and the commercially successful (if not critically so) release of Generations marked the first of four films featuring the cast of TNG. In that context, it makes sense that Doctor Who would seek to probe at the darker side of the franchise’s roots in the 1960s.

For example, in spite of being pretty open and tolerant when it comes to sexuality, there are still some rules in the People’s society that must be adhered to. It’s not entirely “free love,” because that 1960s ideal didn’t look quite as appealing in a world still reeling from the AIDS scare. The Next Generation would learn this the hard way when it tried to transpose “free love” into the context of 1988 with the disaster that was Justice.

A piece of ’60s iconography that has considerably more influence over the general narrative of The Also People, however, is the Vietnam War. Despite generally being presented as peaceful, the People are said to have been engaged in a bitter conflict with a group of insectoids. This conflict is consistently said to have taken place thirty years ago.

Considering the United States’ direct involvement in the ground war is generally dated as having started with the landing of 3,500 U.S. Marines at Da Nang in March of 1965, this choice of timeframe feels revealing. If there still remains any doubt about the significance of Vietnam to this story, frequent reference is also made to characters who fought in “the proxy wars.”

The main villains in the murder mystery are both motivated by dark and traumatic events from their past service. For feLixi it’s the loss of his lover, aTraxi, and for the !C-Mel it’s its slaughter of two-hundred thousand people in a moment of rage on Omicron 378, back when it was still called the R-Vene.

It’s not too unreasonable to interpret this as Aaronovitch dealing with the question of what a society like the Worldsphere would do with its veterans, and specifically veterans of Vietnam-analogous conflicts. The matter of veterans was very much one that was relevant in the 1990s. Veterans returning from the Gulf War in the early 1990s had reported strange symptoms, which would give rise to the coining of the term “Gulf War syndrome.” This had put veterans’ health firmly in the spotlight of public consciousness, and the United States’ Veterans Health Administration would begin to reform and improve itself under the auspices of its new Director, Doctor Kenneth W. Kizer.

Even today, twenty-five years later, there are more Vietnam veterans receiving veterans’ disability compensation (VDC) in the United States than those from any other conflict. Now, granted, Doctor Who is a British franchise, and Ben Aaronovitch is a British author, so one could perhaps argue that all these points I’ve raised reflect an American standpoint and have no bearing on The Also People. However, I do maintain that there’s enough evidence to at least make the connection.

Of course, I’m not saying that The Also People is a super deep political thesis on how Western nations handle veterans’ affairs, because it isn’t, nor is it trying to be. My point is more that the global context surrounding those issues seems to have informed certain plotting and characterisation choices.

I will admit that in talking about all this I’ve neglected to really mention what might just be one of the novel’s strongest points: it’s just… really funny. Doctor Who comedy can sometimes be a little hit or miss, but Aaronovitch has it down to a fine art here. There are several moments that are genuinely, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the whole thing sparkles with a sustained, disarming wit and charm. This same wit was responsible for some of my favourite parts in Transit, so it’s good to see it focused on a little bit more than it was in that earlier novel.

So The Also People really is as great as they say. It’s capable of evoking both laughter and tears with equal levels of finesse. I would have no qualms about putting this as one of my favourite pieces of Doctor Who in any medium. This is practically a laundry list of everything that makes this book line, and this franchise as a whole, so brilliant.

Unfortunately, none of that answers perhaps the most pressing question of all: Just why does it have to be an apple tree, anyway?

Miscellaneous Observations

I have no choice but to assume Matthew Graham had this novel’s title in mind when he wrote The Almost People for Series 6. Certainly it’s a better title than what it was initially going to be called, Gangers.

It’s probably obvious by the way I’ve used it as my profile picture on many a social media site for a while now, but can we just take a minute to recognise how absolutely fantastic Tony Masero’s cover art is? Certain novels early in the range could have some pretty dodgy covers, but that’s certainly not the case here. Bravo.

There are too many wonderful lines for me to choose just one favourite, but if it was a matter of life and death and I had to make a choice, I’d go with the following:

“Don’t tell me you’re a pacifist.”
“No,” said God. “I’m an extremely large target.”

As someone who tends to read novels aloud, I started off dreading the unique consonants used by Aaronovitch in naming the People and their Ships. Nonetheless, after a while I managed to get the hang of it, and it added considerably to the book’s unique flavour.

I also suppose it should be mentioned that, since this is the 59th book I’ve reviewed out of a total of 117 across the Virgin New and Missing Adventures (a total which doesn’t include Who Killed Kennedy, though I will be covering it), we’re now closer to the end than we are to the beginning. That’s a surreal feeling. Thank you all for sticking with me half the way. Now let’s tackle the final half…

Virgin Missing Adventures Reviews, #16: The Empire of Glass by Andy Lane (or, “Nothing at the End of the Lane”)

It’s hard not to feel a touch of sadness when reading The Empire of Glass.

The book itself isn’t particularly sad or melancholy or downbeat, it’s more about what it represents. Because, my dear readers, this is the final contribution to the Virgin lines by Andy Lane. Granted, he’ll go on to co-write The Banquo Legacy for BBC Books’ Eighth Doctor Adventures with Justin Richards, and many other stories in the world of non-televised Doctor Who fiction, but never again would he write for Virgin Books.

For those of you who don’t remember, Lane has been one of the strongest writers the books have ever had. His first effort, a collaboration with Jim Mortimore, was Lucifer Rising, one of the best books of 1993 and a great murder mystery while also examining the newly-returned Ace.

His first solo venture, All-Consuming Fire, was similarly excellent, taking the goofy premise of “Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor team up to fight Lovecraftian horrors” and actually turning it into something well worth reading. It perfectly captured the authorial voice of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, abounding in clever jokes and brilliant characterisation of the intrepid detective and his sidekick.

And then, of course, we have Original Sin, the book that introduced new companions Chris and Roz. In the wrong hands, it could have been an utter disaster, but once more Lane handled the introduction of the characters with his usual artfulness. Simultaneously, he painted a detailed, expansive picture of the decline of the Earth Empire in the thirtieth century. Even a silly twist involving the return of Tobias Vaughn wasn’t enough to ruin the proceedings.

So now we arrive at the end, and I’m pleased to say that The Empire of Glass is a fitting farewell to one of the great voices of the novels. It’s one of the finest Missing Adventures I’ve read thus far, perhaps even the finest. It goes to show just how great the MAs could be when they really wanted to be, and it’s a shame that that didn’t happen as often as it could have.

The basic plot all stems from a single line in Revenge of the Cybermen, where the Doctor off-handedly mentions that Cyberbombs were banned by the Armageddon Convention. Here, we finally see the Convention. It isn’t unprecedented for Lane to pull from throwaway lines or work in continuity references to Classic Doctor Who. For instance, Piper O’Rourke was motivated, in Lucifer Rising, by the loss of her husband on the Hydrax, the ship that would be encountered by the Fourth Doctor in State of DecayOriginal Sin gave us the TARDIS boot cupboard, and built up the Earth Empire from background details in stories like Colony in Space and The Mutants.

It’s a testament to his skill as a writer that he can so frequently turn these references into something more, and that he doesn’t descend into the kind of indulgence that one might expect from, say, Craig Hinton or Gary Russell. The Empire of Glass is no exception.

I think a key part of this success is in the way that Lane firmly anchors the Convention in a returning character. That’s right, it’s the return of the one, the only, Irving Braxiatel. Since Lane has always been one of the greatest character writers that the VNAs have ever had, if the thought of him offering a take on Brax doesn’t make your heart skip a little beat in happiness, then I don’t know what to tell you.

The New Adventures were able to build up a pretty solid supporting cast over the years. Of course, we just talked about Kadiatu in The Also People, but Braxiatel is also a wonderful creation. Theatre of War did an outstanding job at establishing him, ending with the chilling realisation that he had managed to outmanoeuvre the Seventh Doctor, of all people. The editors must have realised that they had struck gold and that the character was just too good to be confined to one book, and I have to concur.

Predictably, Lane manages to make writing for the character look like child’s play. It is, once again, quite incredible how easy it is to imagine Miles Richardson in the role, well before his debut as the character in 2001’s The Extinction Event. His mixture of disdain and grudging respect for the Doctor is captured perfectly, and provides some quite effective hints as to the nature of their relationship.

Even though it will take until Tears of the Oracle in the very dying days of the New Adventures for it to be explicitly stated, you get the sense that Justin Richards and Lane still had some idea in their minds, and it’s remarkable how well the revelation slots into their interactions, both here and in Theatre of War.

It’s also worth saying that the novel does a good job of conveying the idea that this is a younger, more hopeful Braxiatel who genuinely wants to do something good, in contrast to his more manipulative persona in later stories, so kudos for that too.

But the Convention doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Far from it, in fact. The Empire of Glass sets it against the backdrop of Venice in the early seventeenth century, with more than a few famous faces from history popping their heads into the narrative.

In light of this, it’s not unreasonable to kind of look at this novel as a companion piece to Stephen Marley’s Managra. Indeed, Lane even writes in a nod to Francis Pearson from that earlier story. Both books prominently feature historical figures (although in Managra they were clones and not the genuine articles as they are here) in a setting that partially evokes, or simply is, Renaissance Europe.

I noted the fine level of detail that Lane imbued into his portrait of Victorian London in All-Consuming Fire, and that same care is taken with the Venetian milieu here. There are early scenes where the Doctor explains the historical context of the time to Steven, but they were interesting enough that I didn’t find them clunky. Of course, the fact that it’s real history helps matters greatly, and given the Hartnell years often pitched themselves as being somewhat educational anyway, it doesn’t feel too out-of-place.

There are three particularly interesting figures who crop up in The Empire of Glass: Galileo Galilei, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. We’ll talk about Galileo first, for no particular reason. He’s superb, hitting a fascinating balance between being a world-weary, bitter cynic and an idealistic seeker of knowledge.

His scenes with the Doctor, in which they discuss their respective outlooks on science and the world around them, are illuminating, as well as allowing for some amusing rivalry between the two. It’s very clever on Lane’s part to pair the two of them, given the fact that the First Doctor is often characterised as a scientist himself, more so than other incarnations. Perhaps the only other Doctor with whom such a pairing might be possible would be the Third Doctor, but either way it’s a good choice that definitely pays off.

As for Marlowe, he’s quite simply fantastic. Eagle-eyed readers will note that, though Marlowe died in 1593, I said The Empire of Glass takes place in seventeenth-century Venice. Well, any Elizabethan scholar will also know that it is highly debated whether Marlowe did indeed die at the time he is said to have, due to a lack of good documentation.

This is perhaps one of the greatest triumphs of the novel, offering a portrayal of a Marlowe who faked his death in order to operate as something of an Elizabethan James Bond for Sir Thomas Walsingham. It’s fun enough on its own, but when you learn how much Lane has actually folded elements of real history into it, it becomes even better.

One could possibly argue that this narrative encourages conspiracy theories, but honestly I find it just a harmless bit of fun. People had concocted similar theories about Marlowe being a secret agent long before 1995, and continue to do so now. Indeed, twenty years on, journalist Derek Flynn would write for the Irish Times that “there are as many conspiracy theories about Marlowe’s death as there are about JFK’s.”

That last line is particularly telling. The positing of a secret history like this does seem like a particularly 1990s narrative convention. After all, Oliver Stone’s JFK had become the sixth highest-grossing film of 1991, and the director would release a spiritual successor in Nixon only a month after The Empire of Glass‘ release. The X-Files was in its third season, a season that had opened with a two-parter that incorporated shady elements of American history like Operation Paperclip into the series’ mythology.

This tendency to look inward seemed to be something of a response to the so-called “End of History,” that long unipolar moment from the collapse of the Berlin Wall to the destruction of the World Trade Centre where it seemed the United States had “won” the 20th century. Though this tendency largely hadn’t made its impact quite as profoundly on Doctor Who as it had on American media, there was a sense that the franchise couldn’t quite escape the fears of its time. Millennial Rites had suggested that the dawn of January 1, 2000 would be an Earth-shaking event that would completely transform the paradigm by which we lived our lives. That same anxiety would also find itself expressed in the TV Movie, just six months later in May 1996.

To the people of the 1990s, conspiracy theories were a fun distraction, a way to look back on a country’s history and pose some half-serious possibilities for what might have happened off the public record. Of course, 9/11 made the notion of shadowy cabals seem a lot less fun, and it’s worth noting that The X-Files found itself ending in May 2002.

In recent years, we’ve also seen how damaging conspiracy theories like Pizzagate or QAnon can become, but I think it fair to argue that “Shakespeare, Marlowe and other Elizabethan playwrights secretly served as spies” is a far less damaging and far more fun breed of conspiracy theory than some of the unhinged nonsense spewed by the alt-right.

In all this talk about the End of History and conspiracy theories, I’ve kind of neglected to discuss Shakespeare himself. It’s quite something when a figure as famous as William Shakespeare manages to be just one of a whole host of well-characterised, attention-grabbing individuals rather than the main attraction. His weariness at having to constantly serve as a spy for the Crown is entertaining, as are his interactions with Marlowe, so the fact that he’s never quite the most captivating voice in the room shouldn’t be taken as too great a slight against Lane’s abilities. Marlowe is just so fascinating that any other character is going to have a tough time measuring up to him.

The regulars themselves are also interesting. I’ve always thought that Peter Purves’ character of Steven Taylor doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as he deserves, largely due to so much of his stories being missing, so I’m glad to see him be given an outing in the Missing Adventures to make up for it. It’s nice to see Lane actually acknowledge how traumatic the character’s two-year imprisonment on Mechanus must have been, considering it was pretty much never mentioned again after The Chase. Obviously, there’s a reason for that, given the state that DVRs and any resultant potential for story-to-story continuity were in in 1965 (i.e. non-existent), but either way it’s good that the novel dives into that kind of stuff, and does it very well to boot.

We do also have to touch on the attraction that Marlowe feels towards Steven, and this is one area where I must submit that, as a straight man, I’m kind of out of my depth. I don’t really know what would make for a good queer romance story, and I’m loathe to make any rash proclamations for fear of accidentally making ill-informed or offensive statements.

I will say that the fact that Doctor Who was even willing to acknowledge the possibility of same-sex attraction even existing (and not have Steven be immediately repulsed or what have you) does at least put it above contemporary Star Trek, which was so averse to having any content that could even remotely be viewed as queer that David Gerrold’s Blood and Fire, an allegory touching on the AIDS crisis and featuring a gay couple, was scrapped.

Hell, there are even stories of director David Livingston rushing onto the set of The Offspring to prevent two same-sex background extras in Ten Forward from holding hands. So if nothing else, I guess Doctor Who is doing better than that, though that is admittedly not the highest bar in the world for one to pass.

Even still, the fact that Marlowe ultimately dies could reasonably be seen as an example of the problematic “bury your gays” trope. Obviously his death is a matter of public record, and Galileo and Shakespeare can’t die in 1609 without compromising historical verisimilitude, but it still feels a little off that the only gay character winds up dying, particularly when his very inclusion in the story necessitates that you concoct a story to explain why he’s still alive sixteen years after history says he died. Would it have been too much to have him survive at the end?

That aside, the rest of the regulars are equally well-drawn. I’ve mentioned most of the fun bits of the Doctor’s interactions with other characters like Galileo and Braxiatel, but even apart from all that, Lane has captured the mannerisms and affectations of William Hartnell quite well. Really, all the First Doctor Adventures thus far have featured pretty good characterisation of the Doctor, so it’s not a groundbreaking achievement, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.

Vicki isn’t given too much to do, unfortunately, which is a bit of a shame. However, like Steven, her tragic backstory is delved into considerably more than it ever was on-screen, which is at least something, I suppose. It’s also nice that she isn’t treated quite as patronisingly as she often was on the TV show. She’s more “grown-up” in The Empire of Glass, for lack of a better word. Also, seeing her and the Doctor improvise the first performance of Macbeth makes for quite the amusing and memorable climax.

Speaking of which, I realise I haven’t really mentioned much about the plot, but that’s not to say it’s bad. In fact, it’s quite deliciously layered without ever becoming overly confusing, so I’d say that Lane proves himself to be adept at writing mysteries one last time.

There are even clever little touches like having the book open just after the First Doctor has experienced the events of The Three Doctors. At first, this just seems like an example of Lane’s tendency towards continuity references, as previously discussed. However, it winds up being a means of initiating the mystery around the invitation. There’s definitely a certain dry humour to the notion that Braxiatel had actually already explained everything to the Doctor, but that the Time Lords cavalierly wiped the latter’s memory and set a whole lot of confusion in motion. Certainly not too out of character for them.

As for the villains of the piece, the Greld and the Jamarians, they’re both well-realised, with their motivations being both believable and understandable. The way their schemes and machinations are undone by, to quote the novel itself, “a series of stupid little incidents” is also highly amusing. As for specific characters, Albrellian is perhaps the most individual member of either species, and his characterisation is as solid as you’d expect from Lane, if a little unexceptional, and I suppose there are worse things for a character to be than that.

There is one final lens I want to examine The Empire of Glass through, and that’s in the context of arm control, particularly arms control as it existed in the 1990s. The dying days of the Cold War saw a number of notable new agreements on the use of arms.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, commonly referred to as START I, would be signed in Moscow by George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev on July 31, 1991, just one month after the release of the first New Adventure, Genesys. The Chemical Weapons Convention would be signed in January 1993, prohibiting the acquisition and use of chemical weapons.

However, perhaps the most high-profile arms control treaty of the decade was still to come, in the Ottawa Treaty of 1997, which aimed to eliminate anti-personnel landmines on a global scale. Despite this, the Treaty did not spring out of thin air, and there were still several relevant important events that had taken place before The Empire of Glass‘ publication.

The Ottawa Treaty was the result of years of calls from various organisations and governments to prohibit the use of mines in warfare. Perhaps the most famous of these organisations was the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), established in October of 1992 by American political activist Jody Williams with the co-operation of six non-governmental organisations.

In March of 1995, Belgium would become the first country to pass a law banning the use of landmines. In September, just two months prior to the publication of Lane’s novel, the total number of governments in support of a ban would stand at 14.

Just over a year later, in October 1996, Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy challenged the world’s governments to negotiate a treaty that would enact a ban on mines and sign it in Ottawa by December of 1997, starting what would come to be termed the “Ottawa Process.” Seven days after the signing of the Treaty, the ICBL and Williams would jointly be given the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize “for their work for the banning and clearing of anti-personnel mines.”

Obviously, Lane wouldn’t have known some of these things at the time because, y’know, precognition has yet to be scientifically proven, but the fact remains that I think it unlikely that The Empire of Glass, as a narrative about limitations on weapons, was wholly uninfluenced by the high public awareness of the anti-landmine campaign in the 1990s. Although the story isn’t an in-depth look at the landmine issue by any means, it’s still reflective of a certain cultural moment, and therefore I think it’s worth talking about nevertheless.

Ultimately, though, The Empire of Glass is a slick, stylish production and a fitting final work from one of the most consistently talented authors that Virgin ever produced. Literate, intelligent, well-paced and just all-around fun, this is the gold standard for what the Missing Adventures could be, and it’s a pity that they rarely reached these heights.

Miscellaneous Observations

Much as I love Paul Campbell’s artwork on the front cover, the fact that it shows the island of Laputa flying when it doesn’t actually do so until the final quarter of the novel misled me a tad and meant I constantly envisioned it as flying, only to realise later that it hadn’t been doing that yet. Maybe that’s on me though, I don’t know.

It’s interesting, in retrospect, to wonder how this story fits in with Nev Fountain’s 2006 audio The Kingmaker, which entails Shakespeare being replaced by King Richard III in 1597, twelve years before The Empire of Glass takes place. On the balance of probabilities, I’m inclined to agree with Lance Parkin and Lars Pearson’s assessment in AHistory that the Time War may have erased/changed the story’s events. A copout, maybe, but none of this is particularly important anyway.

There’s an interesting thematic thread that runs through The Empire of Glass about outward appearances simply being masks that conceal a deeper truth underneath, but this is mostly interesting because it makes me wonder if it was intended to foreshadow the work that Daniel O’Mahony would do on a similar notion in the next First Doctor Adventure, The Man in the Velvet Mask. Odd, either way.

I will admit that I’m slightly worried about missing out certain points from the book, even though this review has already gone on for over 3000 words at this point, but I guess that just gets at how much fine detail Lane has woven into his novel. It’s far too much for me to cover all of it, so I think I’ll call it a day and stop now.

Final Thoughts

All around, this has been a remarkably strong month. Aaronovitch’s return was definitely well worth the wait, and I can’t recommend The Also People enough. As for The Empire of Glass, while it’s sad to think that we must say goodbye to Andy Lane, at least he bowed out on a high note. I’d probably also recommend the latter novel, as it’s certainly one of the better Missing Adventures I’ve covered so far.

Perhaps it’s just emblematic of how excellent a year 1995 has been for the Virgin Books. One way or another, we’ll see if they can wrap up the year as strongly next time. It’s a Sontaran double feature as Terrance Dicks returns to give us an almost novelisation in Shakedown, and David A. McIntee transitions into writing Missing Adventures and brings back the Fifth Doctor after an absence of over a year in Lords of the Storm. Until then, however…

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

The End of History: The Decline of the Doctor Who Historical

“Is no one interested in history?”
~ The Fourth Doctor, City of Death

January 7, 1967 doesn’t seem like a particularly important date in Doctor Who on the surface. Certainly it doesn’t have the same instant recognition among hardcore fans as November 23, 1963 or March 26, 2005. But I’d argue that that date marks just as pivotal a turning point in the history of the franchise as the 1985 hiatus or the 1989 cancellation. On January 7, 1967, at 5:50 PM, Episode 4 of The Highlanders was broadcast on BBC1.

The serial itself wasn’t overly noteworthy, bar two important points. Not only did it mark the debut of Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon, but it also closed the book on one of the defining staples of the Hartnell Era: the pure historical.

For those who are somewhat out of the loop on these things, I’ll bring you up to speed. Doctor Who was originally conceived as something of an educational programme, with three settings in mind: forwards in time, backwards in time, and the rare “sideways in time.” Stories which were “backwards in time” would typically take the form of pure historicals. That is to say, they contained no science-fiction elements outside of the TARDIS or its crew, and revolved around historical events, often with the intent of teaching the younger members of the audience about the past.

Of the 29 serials which make up the William Hartnell years, nine can realistically be counted as pure historicals. As we’ll discuss, some of these have wildly varying degrees of historical accuracy or overall seriousness, but the point still stands. In contrast to this, though, The Highlanders marks the first and only time Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor engages in this type of adventure. To this day, 54 years later, there has never really been another.

(NB: Yes, before someone points it out and acts all smart, the Season 19 story Black Orchid, featuring the Fifth Doctor, technically has no science-fiction elements in it and takes place in the 1920s; however, all the characters and narrative events in that story are fictional, so therefore I don’t count it)

Much like history itself, however, this “End of History” didn’t spring out of nowhere, but was the culmination of a number of trends that stretched all the way back to the programme’s inception. What were these forces, though, and just why did they play out the way they did?

Well, we know where our story ends: January 7, 1967. But where does it begin? Some might point to An Unearthly Child as the first historical, but I’d once again like to mention several salient facts that disqualify it, in my mind. Of course, there’s the fact that the first episode actually takes place in contemporary London. On top of that, though, the characters and events are all completely fictional once again, even if they play out without the involvement of any aliens. It’s hardly “historical” if it never happened in any form. Hell, no-one in the story even explicitly confirms that it’s set on Earth, though it’s obviously intended to be such.

With that important qualification made, then, the first “proper” historical is John Lucarotti’s seven-part Marco Polo, with its first episode being broadcast on February 22, 1964. No prizes for guessing what that one’s about. Lucarotti would write two other historicals, The Aztecs later in the first season and The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve in the third, and they’re all pretty conventional examples of the genre.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Aztecs in the broader context of the franchise is that it’s the strongest articulation of the stance taken by early episodes with regards to whether or not one can change history. Namely, “You can’t rewrite history, not one line!”, a position which would gradually be stepped away from once David Whitaker was replaced as story editor.

No, the really important historical from Season 1 is The Reign of Terror. Now, that’s not necessarily because the content of the story is anything overly revolutionary, if you’ll pardon the historical pun. Rather, it marks the Doctor Who debut of Dennis Spooner, one of the most influential writers in shaking up the face of historical stories.

The Reign of Terror aired from August to September 1964 as the final story of Season 1. However, it wasn’t the last story made as part of the first production block. Both Planet of Giants and The Dalek Invasion of Earth were made as part of that recording block, but were held over to start Season 2. Once the block came to an end, Whitaker would step down as story editor to fulfil previously-made commitments to other programmes, but not before writing The Rescue to start off the second recording block.

His successor would be none other than Dennis Spooner, and though he would only keep the post for about half a year before leaving to work with Terry Nation on the adventure series The Baron, he would make long-lasting impressions that are still felt to this day.

The first of these seismic shifts in the way historical stories could be told came in The Romans. Whereas previous stories had generally tried to adhere to established historical fact, this story, from the pen of the new story editor himself, offered a more comical take on the Great Fire of Rome, complete with future Carry On actor, Derek Francis. Spooner’s use of comedy in such a prominent fashion was extremely influential in that it paved the way for other authors to write comedic historicals, significantly reshaping the definition of a Doctor Who historical. It also obviously showed that comedy could have a place in Doctor Who, which was influential even beyond the confines of the pure historical.

Despite his last credit as story editor coming on The Chase, Spooner would also contribute the final story of Season 2, The Time Meddler. Not only did this introduce the first member of the Doctor’s race besides himself or Susan, but it also proved the first example of what would become the successor to the “pure historical,” the “pseudo-historical.” A pseudo-historical is, in essence, a story which takes place in a historical locale, but with a science-fiction element present somewhere in the narrative.

It’s hard to really grasp just how revolutionary this would have been at the time, because we very much take the pseudo-historical for granted nowadays. Nonetheless, this was the first time in over 75 episodes that a story set in the past would feature some kind of science-fiction twist. The influence of this change can’t be understated, as it paved the way for the whole “celebrity historical” subgenre that the revived, post-2005 series would so frequently use in episodes like The Unquiet DeadVictory of the Daleks or The Haunting of Villa Diodati.

Once both Spooner and producer Verity Lambert handed the show over to their respective successors, Donald Tosh and John Wiles, the historical would undergo even further revision. Though the new production team commissioned John Lucarotti once more for the more traditional The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve, they also contacted a writer named Donald Cotton.

Cotton (later co-creator of the cult classic and Verity Lambert-produced comedy adventure series Adam Adamant Lives!) was known, much like Dennis Spooner before him, for writing works which often had a certain sense of humour about them, and this would be reflected in both his scripts, The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters. The former was a retelling of the mythical story of the Trojan War, which drew more from pre-existing literature from sources as diverse as Virgil, Homer, Shakespeare, Boccaccio and Chaucer than from actual history.

(In an ironic post-script to this story, the elements of The Myth Makers which were inspired by the legend of Troilus and Cressida wound up not being accurate to any of the versions of the myths, let alone history. This was forced by Wiles’ sudden decision not to renew Maureen O’Brien’s contract, which necessitated rewrites to the effect of her character of Vicki, under the alias of “Cressida,” staying behind with Troilus and helping him survive, unlike the original story.)

Once again, it should be mentioned that without Spooner’s use of comedy in The Romans, it seems unlikely that a serial like The Myth Makers could have been made. As if to finally validate the connections between the authorial styles of the two men, Cotton would even novelise The Romans for Target Books after Spooner’s death from a heart attack in September 1986.

However, though Wiles and Tosh had only spent a short time on the show, they had found themselves embroiled in several disagreements with William Hartnell, with the actor reserving particular scorn for Wiles. Hartnell had become the only member of the original cast and crew remaining following Lambert’s departure, and had almost immediately caused trouble for the incoming producer, throwing tantrums on the set of The Time Meddler, the story on which Wiles began trailing Lambert in preparation for the transition in producership.

Things would only get worse from there. Hartnell’s aunt Bessie would pass away during production on The Myth Makers, but commitments to the serial would prevent him from attending her funeral. His health was also taking a turn for the worse, with his already spotty ability to remember lines being hampered even further by arteriosclerosis.

It was during the gruelling recording of the lengthy twelve-part epic The Daleks’ Master Plan that Wiles decided he had had enough of these disputes (which had now added a temporary crew strike on the set of Master Plan to their expansive ranks).

The producer would write to Gerald Savory, the BBC’s Head of Serials, asking for permission to write out Hartnell at the conclusion of Brian Hayles’ The Celestial Toymaker and replace him with another actor. When Savory disallowed this, Wiles would resign in January 1966, followed shortly thereafter by Tosh.

Taking their positions as producer and story editor would be Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis respectively, and all this background information is necessary to get to one crucial point that must be brought up: Lloyd and Davis were both very disdainful of historicals.

Though The Myth Makers had proved popular enough with Wiles and Tosh that they commissioned a second script from Cotton that would become The Gunfighters, the incoming duo were not as impressed. They felt that the comedic stylings didn’t fit with the serious direction that they wished to take the show in, and also thought that the programme’s audience shared their dislike for the format.

In spite of short-term plans to scrap Cotton’s story altogether and replace it with Ian Stuart Black’s The SavagesThe Gunfighters would go ahead as planned and air in April and May of 1966. However, its poor reception only bolstered Lloyd and Davis’ convictions that the historical was an outmoded type of story.

(Popular myth has it that The Gunfighters achieved the lowest ratings of any Classic Doctor Who story. However, not only is this incorrect, but it isn’t even the lowest-rated First Doctor story. However, the final episode, “The O.K. Corral,” did achieve the lowest Audience Appreciation Index scores for any episode of the show, at just 30%)

This point, more than any other, truly marked the beginning of the end for the historical. The Gunfighters is, in my personal opinion, a very fun, enjoyable story if you’re willing to accept its wild historical accuracies, but it very much served as the critical point of the trends that had been steadily building over the past three seasons. From this point forward, Lloyd and Davis would only commission two pure historicals, The Smugglers and The Highlanders.

Neither of these are particularly illuminating as to the general arc of the historical, and are very much a last traditionalist dying gasp from the format. The shape of Doctor Who to come had very little to do with history, with the Troughton and Pertwee Eras both predominantly taking place in contemporary or futuristic settings. This would start to change towards the end of the latter Era, with The Time Warrior offering a glimpse of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes Era’s coming penchant for stories set in the past.

Nonetheless, the pure historical was very much over and done with by a quarter past six on that fateful Saturday afternoon in January of 1967. The format would see something of a revival in the non-televised material, starting with David A. McIntee’s Sanctuary in 1995, but it would never return to the television screens. As Doctor Who lurches forward towards its 60th anniversary, perhaps that return is long overdue.

Virgin Adventures Reviews: Head Games by Steve Lyons; Millennial Rites by Craig Hinton

Virgin New Adventures Reviews, #43: Head Games by Steve Lyons (or, “Why is Seven Afraid of Six?”)

Here’s one for the fans of unsolved mysteries in my audience, because I know there must be some of you out there: Why isn’t Steve Lyons talked about very often when it comes to influential Doctor Who creators?

OK, I submit that it’s hardly the most compelling mystery. After all, the explanation is pretty simple: Lyons never wrote for the TV show, with all his work being for the non-televised, extended universe stuff. I was really only being rhetorical, but my overall point still stands that his works were massively influential in shaping the way modern, post-cancellation and even post-revival Doctor Who stories would be told.

Admittedly, Conundrum wasn’t really the Ghost of Who Future or anything, though it was still an amazingly creative, funny and poignant novel. It was with Time of Your Life, though, that Lyons began to make proverbial waves. Though the groundwork for the Sixth Doctor’s renaissance in non-televised media was laid by Christopher Bulis in State of ChangeTime of Your Life took on the unenviable task of dissecting the messiness that was Season 22 and the resulting Michael Grade-imposed hiatus.

It made sense for the Virgin Books to be haunted by the Sixth Doctor’s era, as the hiatus from 1985 to 1986 could quite easily be seen as the precursor to Jonathan Powell’s decision not to renew the show for a 27th season in 1989. As a product of the Wilderness Years, the trauma of that cancellation always informed the novel line.

Head Games takes that trauma to its logical extremes, building upon hints dropped in previous books in order to create a story that is essentially a manifesto of sorts for the entirety of the New Adventures, looking back on how far the novels and the franchise as a whole had come in the decade since the hiatus, and providing hints that they were still willing to go even further. Because of all this, to properly break down Head Games, we need to go back. Way back. Brace yourselves, this might be something of a long one, folks, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.

The date is Monday, February 25, 1985. The second episode of Robert Holmes’ The Two Doctors has been broadcast just two days prior, and producer John Nathan-Turner has returned to the UK after a brief sojourn in the United States, attending a convention. Four days earlier, the production team had been informed by fan and unofficial “continuity advisor” Ian Levine and Holmes himself that the rumour mill was abuzz with claims that Doctor Who was to be cancelled once its 22nd season finished airing in late March.

Upon his return to Britain, Nathan-Turner was given some good news and some bad news by the BBC’s Head of Drama Series and Serials, Jonathan Powell. The good news was that Doctor Who was not to be cancelled. The bad news was that, instead of starting in the spring of 1985 as had been planned, the 23rd season would be delayed until the spring of 1986, leaving an 18-month hiatus when Doctor Who would not be on the air.

This, in combination with the decision to reduce the episode order to consist of just fourteen 25-minute episodes, forced the abandonment of the original plans for Season 23, to be replaced by the season-long story arc known as The Trial of a Time Lord. Reflecting the programme’s own brush with cancellation, the story would see the Doctor placed on trial by the Time Lords.

The most relevant contribution of Trial to the mythos of Doctor Who was the character of the Valeyard. Played by Michael Jayston, he served as the prosecution in the titular trial. Of course, as most people now know, he was revealed in the final “segment” of the season (often referred to as The Ultimate Foe) to be “an amalgamation of the darker sides of [the Doctor’s] nature, somewhere between [his] twelfth and final incarnation,” to quote the Master.

What wasn’t planned about The Trial of a Time Lord, however, was that it was to prove the final season for Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, despite his having only played the role for 31 episodes. On October 29, 1986, just eight episodes into the season, Baker would be informed of the bad news by Nathan-Turner.

The actor was offered the chance to reprise the role for a single four-episode serial which would end with the Doctor’s regeneration into his seventh incarnation. However, Baker declined, and so Time and the Rani would confusingly open with the Doctor already regenerating, played by Sylvester McCoy in a ginger wig.

Initially, the Seventh Doctor was of course much different in characterisation to the version that readers of the New Adventures will be familiar with. Pip and Jane Baker’s take on the character is generally held in very low regard, with a penchant for mixing up proverbs in an allegedly humorous fashion, and just all around being a bit of a bumbling clown. This wasn’t to last, however.

When Season 25 began with Ben Aaronovitch’s Remembrance of the Daleks in October of 1988, the audience would be treated to a revolutionary new take on the Doctor. Far from being the Troughtonesque blunderer of Season 24, and with Sophie Aldred’s Ace taking over the companion role from Bonnie Langford’s Mel, the Doctor was now secretive, aloof and mysterious. Thus began a storytelling decision often referred to as the Cartmel Masterplan, which still resonates in the way Doctor Who is approached to this very day, more than 30 years on.

Of course, it should be noted that despite the name, the Masterplan was not solely the creation of script editor Andrew Cartmel. It was very much a collaborative effort, constructed by a whole bunch of writers working in tandem. Unfortunately, this new direction wasn’t enough to save Doctor Who. The broadcast of Survival, Part Three on December 6, 1989 would mark the end of the original iteration of the show after 695 episodes broadcast over twenty-six years.

Now obviously this didn’t mark the end of Doctor Who or the Masterplan. If it was, I wouldn’t be here talking about either of those things in the way that I am. The New Adventures were very much a continuation of the Cartmel Era, both in the trappings like the Doctor and companion (initially, at least), and in the themes.

And these were themes that were controversial, to say the least. The retooling of the Doctor to be far more morally ambiguous and manipulative definitely ruffled some feathers. Nevertheless, the books kept on trucking, and I can honestly quite respect that. Of course, I have the benefit of the fact that I actually like the execution of these themes, but even if I didn’t I’d like to think I could still respect the authenticity with which the authors set about enacting their vision.

Head Games isn’t the first instance of a lot of these themes, but it is the first time that they’ve all been combined in such a manner as to provide a retrospective map of the franchise’s trajectory ever since that fateful hiatus in 1985. It’s surprising, then, that it’s still so very enjoyable more than 25 years on.

That kind of distance from the context in which the book was written could very well harm it. However, a quarter century of Doctor Who storytelling which owes, directly or indirectly, a debt to the New Adventures and Head Games in particular, means it never does feel too disconnected or outmoded. Many of the meditations on the way the franchise has changed still ring true, even when there have been six further “main” actors and incarnations since 1995.

Lyons has shrewdly picked apart a decade of franchise history in a way that manages to be gloriously entertaining. On the surface, this is just a sequel to his debut novel, Conundrum, along with a “duplicate Doctor” storyline of the type we’ve seen in stories dating all the way back to The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve. What’s going on just under the hood of all this, though, is where the novel really shines.

Ever since Love and War, we’ve had hints that the Seventh Doctor “killed off” the Sixth Doctor because the latter had become paralysed with indecision after seeing his dark future as the Valeyard. The actual regeneration from Sixth to Seventh in Time and the Rani was always kind of confusing, due in large part to Baker’s departure necessitating a lack of any prior context as to why the Doctor was regenerating at all.

Turning this confusion into an actual plot point, then, is quite the astute move. It’s also doubly appropriate, since it recognises the sudden real-world way in which Baker’s tenure was cut short, and positions the 1985 hiatus as the “original sin” that had a traumatising effect on the franchise out-of-universe. This trauma is, of course, realised in-universe as the psychological trauma and guilt of the Doctor himself.

It’s hard not to see echoes of this approach to the character in the New Series. When Russell T. Davies revived the show for television in 2005, much would be made of the Last Great Time War, that fiery, destructive temporal conflict which seemingly led to the end of the Daleks and the Time Lords. The Doctor was positioned as the last survivor of that war, at least at the start. The Time War was very much a metaphor for the series’ own trauma of the cancellation, much akin to the question of “Did Seven kill Six?” in the New Adventures as a metaphor for the troubles of the Saward Era.

On top of all that general stuff, though, there are a couple of clever pieces of commentary specific to Head Games itself. These chiefly revolve around the presence of the Doctor’s fictional doppelganger, Dr Who, and the presence of past companions. We’ll tackle Dr Who first, because that seems the most logical progression.

The world “inhabited” by Dr Who and Jason (the previously unnamed Master of the Land of Fiction from Conundrum) is one that should be familiar to any fan of the Classic Series. It’s filled with planets controlled by oppressive regimes that are fought against by underground movements of rebels. It’s a place where there is clear-cut right and wrong and any consequences, emotional, physical or otherwise, are minimal at best and never long-lasting.

However, times have changed. That type of world isn’t the standard for Doctor Who any more, for better or for worse. Things are more introspective, to the point of being angsty, and there’s a greater focus on continuity between adventures. Of course, there are legitimate, real-world reasons why this change didn’t happen earlier.

Digital video recorders didn’t become commercially available until 1999, and that would provide considerable fuel to the fires of the serialised television revolution that had been spearheaded by programmes like Twin PeaksThe X-FilesOz and The Sopranos. In light of all that, then, the New Adventures were probably somewhat ahead of their time, which is, I suspect, why all this stuff has aged as well as it has.

It should also be noted, though, that Lyons is still willing to concede that the earlier model still had its advantages. After all, it had served the franchise well for 25 years, and produced plenty of classics along the way. I think this is the crucial part, because without it Head Games would feel like a mean-spirited attack on a well-established type of Doctor Who storytelling. As it is, it all feels good-natured and thoughtful, or at least it does to me.

There’s also the fact that the novel recognises, as most of the VNAs do, that the angst isn’t perpetually sustainable as a status quo, that eventually there does have to be a healing. The show had been confronted with a ghastly vision of its future in the symbol of the Valeyard, but if it wasn’t careful, this world of moral ambiguities and psychological trauma could quite easily become that very same future that the reinvention originally aimed to prevent.

Lyons also reinforces the point of the change Doctor Who has undergone since 1985 in the contrasting of various former TARDIS teams. Not only does Ace return for the first time since Set Piece, but Mel also reappears for the first time in an original novel. Indeed, her surname of Bush is actually used for the first time here (barring, perhaps, the Target novelisations, I’m uncertain).

Mel is, of course, a very tangible connection to the aforementioned “original sin” of the hiatus, given that she was introduced in Season 23 to replace Nicola Bryant’s character of Peri. She’s also not the most popular of companions, but in recent years spin-off material has kind of rehabilitated her reputation somewhat, as I’ll discuss more in Millennial Rites in a moment.

Then there’s the fact that her departure in Dragonfire came just prior to the Cartmel Masterplan really taking shape in Season 25, as I mentioned previously. Obviously, that transition from Mel to Ace was always going to be just as central to the mythos of the New Adventures as the 1985 hiatus, so properly formalising that is another perceptive choice on Lyons’ part.

However, the way in which that moment is folded into said mythos brings us to one of the most controversial elements in Head Games: the idea that the Doctor compelled Mel to leave with Glitz in order to fully take up his role as Time’s Champion.

For me personally, I don’t really take too much issue with this notion, because the original departure itself never really made much sense anyway. It’s not like Deceit‘s efforts to retroactively make Ace’s first departure in Love and War a deliberate manipulation. In that case, the drama of Cornell’s novel was kind of undermined, because it hinged on Ace finally having enough of the Doctor.

There, making it something that the character was pushed into both denies her agency in her own story and is contrary to the point of the original book. But really, Mel’s original inexplicable (or, I suppose, previously inexplicable) decision is miles away from the level of Love and War, so I’m not particularly incensed as I know some people are.

I guess that debate gets at what could be seen as a problem with Head Games, though: If you’re not already a fan of the New Adventures and their general mood, you’ll probably hate it. But really, if you dislike the New Adventures on a fundamental, philosophical level, and decide to read the book that is, perhaps more than any other, their mission statement, well I’d say that’s on you for making a silly choice, not Steve Lyons. Life is too short to seek out things you know you won’t like.

Aside from questions of whether or not you think the characters were taken in a good direction, though, I think they’re all well-handled. That’s quite the achievement when you have five companions, two of whom are from days gone by. The fact that the story manages to give them all things to do and undergo their own emotional arcs is quite impressive. All of them are given equal focus, and it never feels like things are crammed into too small a space. So, if nothing else, Lyons proves he’s able to do some considerable psychological and thematic heavy lifting, even if the way he lifts might not be to your personal liking.

Head Games isn’t perfect, though, and I do have a few complaints. They don’t completely destroy my enjoyment, but they’re notable nonetheless. Firstly, the fictional adventures experienced by Benny and Chris within the Miracle in the early portions of the novel.

These are the points where the “Conundrum sequel” aspects are strongest. Unfortunately, despite nominally being a sequel and featuring the reappearance of Jason, what this novel is trying to do is very different from what the first novel was trying to do. Therefore, it can’t help but feel like an ill fit, and the fact that it takes up such a large chunk of the early book also counts against it.

Speaking of things which take up too much space… Detrios. Need I say any more? Pretty much everyone is agreed that the Detrios parts are very much the weakest of the story, and I’m afraid I have to agree there. Kat’lanna is likeable enough (and her arc is certainly a far better execution of the “Chris falls in love with a member of the guest cast” trope than Zamper‘s), but apart from her, nothing about the planet particularly captivated me. When the scenes on Detrios disappeared for a spell halfway through, I didn’t really mind, which is probably something of an issue.

I can see why the place is there, certainly. It’s obviously meant more to function as an archetype or a symbol, a representation of that same contrast between the “black-and-white” world I discussed earlier and the more ambiguous, three-dimensional world of the New Adventures. It’s never really imbued with that spark that it needs to rise above archetypality, however, which is something of a shame.

It’s not enough of a shame to undermine all the other wonderful work that Head Games does, however. A bold, insightful, thought-provoking and all-around entertaining mission statement for the New Adventures, and one that lays the series’ metaphorical cards on the table in such a way that continues to influence Doctor Who a quarter of a century later. Not the best New Adventure by any measure, but perhaps the most important of all.

The popular narrative about the Virgin Books is that they were unrelentingly angsty and wallowed in grim self-pity without even a hint of introspection or awareness, but I think that having a book like this serve as a fulcrum for the themes and stylings of the line goes a long way towards showing how ridiculous that notion is. Like what you like, and say whatever you will about whether or not you personally enjoy the NAs’ take on the Doctor, but to my eyes at least, Head Games makes it very difficult to seriously argue that there was absolutely no thought put into it all.

Miscellaneous Observations

I know I’ve said I don’t mind the revelation that the Doctor manipulated Mel out of the TARDIS at the end of Dragonfire, but I also think her resulting rebuke of him is only logical in those circumstances, and more than justified. Certain critics of the VNAs tend to like to claim that the books allow the Doctor to be superior and moody without any consequences, only to complain that things are too angsty when he does face any consequences. Make up your minds, people, do you want him to face consequences or don’t you?

Like what you like, but I just find it frustrating that so many of the novels’ detractors act in such a holier-than-thou manner, loudly and nebulously proclaiming that “this isn’t real Doctor Who,” and books like Head Games seem to draw those reactions even more than usual.

Virgin Missing Adventures Reviews, #15: Millennial Rites by Craig Hinton (or, “Rite or Wrong?”)

Millennial Rites covers a lot of the same thematic ground as Head Games, generally speaking. Indeed, this is probably the first time since the Blood Harvest/Goth Opera pair of July 1994, at the very beginning of the MAs, that a month’s New and Missing Adventure have been so closely intertwined.

If Lyons’ novel served as a mission statement for the New Adventures and just what they were willing to do, Hinton’s is a prologue of sorts. There are references to the events experienced by the Sixth Doctor and Mel in this book peppered throughout Head Games, so the two authors have obviously conferred pretty closely. Though Millennial Rites is the weaker of the two, I’d say that that close conference has nonetheless paid off and made things interesting.

Part of this comes down to the fact that the Sixth Doctor Adventures, thus far, have very consciously been building towards a book like Millennial RitesState of Change got the ball rolling by proving that this oft-maligned incarnation could be the centre of an enjoyable story, and that the Six-Peri TARDIS team didn’t need to be one that was uncomfortable and generally unpleasant.

Time of Your Life then offered a post-mortem of the Colin Baker years and their violent, nasty tendencies. This would prove to be a very informative text for future non-televised Sixth Doctor stories, focusing on the status quo in the aftermath of The Trial of a Time Lord. That book featured the Doctor consciously trying to avoid Melanie Bush, fearing what he would become if he met her.

It seems fair, if perhaps a little cynical, to suggest that the books themselves were avoiding the character of Mel in general. On the whole, she wasn’t exactly incredibly popular. Even allowing for the fact that novels and audio stories have led to her receiving a reappraisal in the eyes of some, I’d still wager that most Doctor Who fans wouldn’t place her in the upper echelons of companionhood.

There are probably a few reasons for this. The fact that she was played by Bonnie Langford, an actress generally known for light entertainment like pantomime or The Hot Shoe Show, or for her work as a child star on programmes like Just William, is perhaps the biggest one. Coupled with the John Nathan-Turner Era casting many other actors famous for more comedic roles, it likely contributed to a perception (an unfair one, I would argue) that Langford wasn’t a “serious” actress, whatever that means.

Mel also had the misfortune to be the immediate predecessor to Sophie Aldred’s Ace. Whatever you might think of either of these characters, or the directions in which Ace in particular was taken by the New Adventures, I think it’s indisputable that the latter had a far greater impact on the way companions were portrayed in Doctor Who, and was more popular to boot.

All that’s to say that the holding back of Mel’s debut until the third of the Sixth Doctor novels seems like a very deliberate choice, waiting for the audience to have some confidence in the handling of this Era and this Doctor before featuring her.

Generally, I think this is a decision that has paid off, as it’s given the writers time to figure out just how they want to handle her character. The Mel that we see in Millennial Rites is largely pretty likeable, and mostly consistent with her on-screen appearance, though there are some problems which I’ll touch on later.

Those areas where she perhaps isn’t entirely consistent are more due to omission on the part of the TV show. For instance, it’s nice to see Mel’s background as a computer programmer (and an incredibly intelligent one at that) actually be integral to the plot, because it often seemed to be forgotten by the television show.

Admittedly, Hinton is given something of a de facto carte blanche and general leeway in these matters, as it’s kind of hard to really discern a companion’s personality in much depth from just 20 episodes. That’s just one episode more than Dodo got, after all.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t detract too much from the good work that he does. Though this is the only Virgin Book where she’s a member of the regular cast (Head Games is really a guest appearance, in my eyes), it still paved the way for later books and audios to deal with the character further and allow her to begin to step out of the shadows of fandom’s ignominy.

Speaking of ignominy, how about that Sixth Doctor, hey? For an incarnation whose televised tenure is often derided, I think it’s quite incredible that the first three “proper” novels would capture his personality so well. Nowadays, those of us who read/listen to the non-televised stuff kind of take Six’s popularity for granted somewhat, but it shouldn’t be forgotten just how risky a proposition this would be. I genuinely think it would be comparable to trying to revisit, say, the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Indeed, there’s probably an interesting article to be written on the differing experiences of Doctor Who and Star Trek going into the 1980s. Though both of them produced seasons of TV in that time which could comfortably be counted among the weakest of their respective franchises, Star Trek would flourish, while Doctor Who would begin something of a slow decline.

All that aside, going back to a reviled Era could be a recipe for disaster, but instead it almost makes you regret what could have been if the circumstances were different. I’ve read it said that if we had a Sixth Doctor that was this well-written right from the word “GO,” the show’s luck might have been better.

While I think the hatred and animosity that management figures like Grade or Powell felt towards the show were too strong to ever be fully overcome (the latter would later be quoted as saying that he wanted Nathan-Turner to “fuck off… or die,” so…), I agree with the general point that the book version of Six is better than anything we ever got on television.

The Sixth Doctor here is arrogant and bombastic at points, but there’s a genuine Doctorly (capital very much intended) humanity and care for life underpinning all his words and actions that was often sorely lacking on screen, and which made him just come across as an unhinged, unlikeable git, through no fault of Baker’s. It also becomes clear, as the story goes along, that all his bluster is very much just a cover to hide his own insecurities about the Valeyard, and that works wonders.

I’ll admit I do have some complaints about what I think is the first appearance of “haha, the Sixth Doctor eats a lot and that’s why he’s so fat,” a recurring gag which I think gets picked up by Gary Russell in his later novels for this Doctor, and which I always found both unfunny and more than a little mean-spirited. On the whole, however, Hinton has definitely succeeded in capturing and improving upon the Sixth Doctor.

I suppose we should also talk about the villain of the piece, Ashley Chapel. He’s certainly not the deepest of characters there’s ever been, and there’s always something slightly cheap about the “This character was deeply involved in the events of a previous story but he was never once mentioned before” thing, but on the whole he works as much as he has to.

He also resonates a lot more in a post-#MeToo world, with the greater societal awareness of the way toxic, powerful men are still able to maintain an image of being some kind of “great, prestigious philanthropist” through silencing anybody who speaks out against them, and women in particular.

I mentioned last time that the Missing Adventures seem to be attempting to create something of a continuity of their own, and Chapel also plays into that. Managra had vampires that were all descended from Goth Opera‘s Jake and Madelaine, and foreshadowed The Empire of Glass.

Here, we follow up on the mention of Chapel as a competitor to I2 in Justin Richards’ System Shock, while simultaneously sowing seeds that will be explored in Marc Platt’s novelisation of Downtime in three months’ time. It’s an interesting idea, but this prospective continuity is never quite fully-formed enough for me to call it a success.

The plot of Millennial Rites itself also feels like it shouldn’t work. Startlingly, however, it just about manages to. The first half manages to be more exciting as a techno-thriller with retroactively Davies-esque elements than System Shock was. Once Chapel’s machinations transform London into the Great Kingdom, things definitely take a turn. The entire concept is a very indulgent one, and there are moments where Hinton has obviously let his taste for exposition and info-dumping overpower him, but he largely makes it work through his sheer, infectious enthusiasm.

However, it’s not all held together by duct tape, force of will and several minor miracles. There are some interesting thematic points to be gleaned from it all. The Kingdom serves as a further catalyst for the Sixth Doctor’s worries about becoming the Valeyard, by presenting him with a twisted mirror of the ordinary world that makes him ponder whether he too could be affected by it.

Ultimately, of course, he is, and he has to confront the Valeyard and reaffirm that he’ll never become some kind of master manipulator. This leads to some nice symmetry with the discussions that have been had in Head Games and other NAs, and is positively dripping in dramatic irony.

What holds Millennial Rites back, however, when compared to those novels, is the fact that Hinton has decided to go about having these conversations with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Admittedly, I don’t think that subtlety always has to be a given. Time of Your Life‘s commentary, after all, was arguably even less subtle than anything in Millennial Rites, but Steve Lyons compensated for that by being brutal and unsparing in his condemnations.

Millennial Rites doesn’t have the subtlety of the best NAs, nor the intensity of something like Time of Your Life, and so it inevitably feels comparatively superficial, which is a shame. There are good ideas present, but they’ve been executed far better in other places.

It makes one suspect that the Valeyard is a character who works best as an abstract metaphor, a hypothetical “Worst Case Scenario” for the very programme of Doctor WhoHead Games grasped this, and indeed the Writers’ Guide distributed by Virgin for the NAs would call him a “continuity nightmare – and a rather dull villain.”

With a description like that, one can’t help but wonder why they would permit a book like Millennial Rites that deals with him so directly, and written by an author with as strong a predilection for continuity references as Craig Hinton. Still, there are worse crimes than being unsubtle, and some may conceivably find Millennial Rites‘ take on these matters more palatable than the New Adventures, so I don’t mean to sound too harsh.

Millennial Rites does have some extra depth to it, however. There’s another interpretation of the book’s fascination with the conflict between different worlds/universes, and it’s one that we have seen surprisingly little of in the books to date: anxieties about the pending millennium.

The 1990s were a strange time, coming between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror, with the United States seemingly emerging the proverbial victor of the 20th century. This fact gave rise to any number of neologisms to describe the spirit of the times, from Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” to Charles Krauthammer’s declaration in July 1990 of a “unipolar moment.”

Naturally, one can see these anxieties play out a lot in the popular culture of the time. Shows like The X-Files and Twin Peaks were heavily informed by America’s radically changed position on the stage of global politics, airing fears about a modernised, post-Cold War world stripping an older, quainter world of its identity and unique character.

It’s not too surprising that we haven’t seen these emotions play out too much in the New Adventures, in spite of their status as a product of the 1990s. After all, Doctor Who is a British production, and the shows I cite were American. It isn’t called the American Century for nothing, after all.

However, Millennial Rites very much proves that even the distance of the Atlantic couldn’t completely rid the franchise of the misgivings which pervaded popular culture at the time. Anne Travers consciously makes a point to reference the general mood of existential dread as the clock inches towards New Year’s Eve:

People have lost direction, purpose, faith. All manner of religious cults and new age philosophies have sprung up, half of them promising that the world will end at midnight tomorrow, the other half claiming that it will usher in a new age of paradise. In short, everybody in Britain has one eye firmly fixed on New Year’s Eve.

There is, of course, something of a Y2K subtext here in the way the story revolves around a tech firm and the Millennium. Hinton lampshades this in dialogue between Chapel and his right-hand man, Harker, and it’s amusing in hindsight.

It also perhaps more profoundly speaks, however, to a populace emerging from the omnipresent threat of the Cold War and finding themselves somewhat adrift, rudderless in the currents of time. Entire generations had been defined by the seemingly universal, unerring constant presence of the conflict. Now, however, the TV station had stopped broadcasting and people were blearily waking up to the white noise, wondering what to do next.

Chapel’s end goal is, in essence, to return to an idealised, ordered “old world,” but the accidental fusion of Saraquazel and Yog-Sothoth, both of whom respectively represent the world to come and the world that was, metaphorically underlines just how incompatible that old world is with the new way of things.

That’s all very well and good, but such a reading is admittedly somewhat undermined once the Great Kingdom actually comes into being. Again, this is a problem with the lack of subtlety. Hinton has so obviously reinforced the point he’s trying to make that any alternative readings will be difficult to support, right from the outset. I felt it worth mentioning anyway, however.

A bigger problem with the novel than any lack of subtlety, for me, is the weird characterisation of women throughout. I already alluded to Anne Travers, who reappears here after her appearance in The Web of Fear, but I didn’t mention the direction the story takes her in. It’s just really uncomfortable.

Essentially, the idea is that after the events of Downtime where her father died (or, according to some moments in the text, her husband, but I don’t think she has a husband in the story in question) she became a bitter and spiteful spinster. Lest you think that’s me being behind the times in my use of vocabulary, Hinton himself actually uses the word to describe her within the book.

The fact that it’s Mel speaking it makes things worse, as not only does it feel woefully out of character, but it plays into the depiction of the women of the book as cold and petty. Mel also makes comments about one of her friends being “frumpy,” and how makeup would improve her life. It’s a piece of characterisation that feels very mean-spirited and atypical for the Mel we know.

There’s also Louise Mason, a guest character. Most of the time she’s alright, but there’s a weird subtext to the fact that her character arc climaxes in her acknowledging the father of her child and making plans to marry him. Coupled with the other moments I’ve just talked about, it seems as if, in the world of Millennial Rites, any woman who dares to be a single mother must just be trying to prove something and she should stop being so silly and settle down with a husband ASAP. I don’t think this is me reading too much into things, either, as Louise pretty much says how wrong she was to try and support herself. That sledgehammer subtlety rears its ugly head again.

We also need to talk about Hinton’s seeming lifting of ideas from other authors. Ordinarily I wouldn’t necessarily raise any objections to another author revisiting elements of Andy Lane’s All-Consuming Fire like the Great Old Ones hypothesis and the Library of Saint John the Beheaded, but once the Doctor says a line that is almost identical to the quote on the back cover of Original Sin, it can’t help but feel strangely personal.

Then again, the fact that Lane is thanked in the Acknowledgements at the end might imply he provided permission for the line’s use, so it’s possible I’m just overthinking things. We’ll never know for sure, I suppose, but I figured I’d raise it nonetheless.

Maybe it sounds like I’m being overly hard on Millennial Rites, which isn’t my intention. I did generally enjoy it, as it’s still got plenty to say on the Sixth Doctor and characterises him and Mel excellently to boot. Both the techno-thriller first half and the more fantasy-oriented stuff in the Great Kingdom manage to be fun, and they’re both satisfactorily fleshed out.

Yet the uncomfortable attitudes towards women and the need to drive home the points it’s making mean it can’t measure up either to Head Games‘ handling of similar topics or even Hinton’s first novel, The Crystal Bucephalus, which was fun but inconsequential. Maybe it’s ultimately in trying to be more consequential that the book stumbles. Either way, there are worse novels out there, but there are also certainly better ones.

Miscellaneous Observations

I don’t normally comment on such things, but the return of Alister Pearson as a cover artist for the Missing Adventures is a welcome one. No slight intended against the skills Paul Campbell, who’s largely been handling the covers in Pearson’s absence (though Martin Rawle and Colin Howard contributed the covers for System Shock and Invasion of the Cat-People respectively), but sometimes the first artist is the best artist.

I talked about how millennial anxieties didn’t seem to hit the Virgin Books particularly full-force, and speculated it might be partially due to its nature as a British property, but I do think it worth noting that, as soon as an attempt was made to revive Doctor Who as an American co-production, those anxieties were there as plain as day in the TV Movie. An interesting thing to ponder.

Addendum to the whole Anne Travers thing: Don’t even get me started on the weird obsession with sex she has in the early chapters. The moment where she assumes the Doctor is attempting to sleep with her after he offers her a bed in the TARDIS is really uncomfortable and reeks of “This is how women think, right?” The justification of it being due to her husband’s death doesn’t even make sense because, as I said, her husband doesn’t even appear in Downtime.

Final Thoughts

October 1995 ultimately turned out to be a very important month in the development of the New Adventures, and Doctor Who as a whole. Head Games still influences the direction that the franchise has taken over a quarter of a century and six Doctors later, and while Millennial Rites might not be quite as skilled in its commentary, it’s still a worthwhile read to further expound upon the themes of Lyons’ novel.

Next time, we come full circle as Ben Aaronovitch finally returns to the New Adventures after nearly three years with The Also People. On a sadder note, we bid farewell to one of the greats, as we take a look at Andy Lane’s final book for the Virgin lines, The Empire of Glass. Until then, however…

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

Virgin Adventures Reviews: Toy Soldiers by Paul Leonard; Managra by Stephen Marley

Virgin New Adventures Reviews, #42: Toy Soldiers by Paul Leonard (or, “Martika Lawsuit”)

Paul Leonard is a weird author for me to talk about. Not because the content of his books is particularly surreal or any other adjective that might lend it the status of “weird,” but because my critical opinion on him is bizarrely contradictory and full of many warring aspects. Because, you see, my reaction to a Leonard novel seems to be initially very positive, with me heaping praise on one or more parts of the book. Ultimately, though, that cheery appraising is often dragged down by other flaws, which leads to me coming away with a more negative view of the book than I really want.

To be more specific about the two Leonard novels I’ve covered for this series thus far, Venusian Lullaby was a fantastic piece of worldbuilding, making the titular society come alive and with spot-on characterisation for the three regulars. Unfortunately its villains were only vaguely and hazily defined, so I wound up ranking it as the second-worst Missing Adventure of 1994, though still with a substantial gap in quality between it and the lowest-ranked book, John Peel’s Evolution.

Dancing the Code was perhaps even more disappointing, starting out with a poignant and insightful look at the Third Doctor’s having assimilated into the British establishment in a way no other Doctor would be likely to do. There were also some passages that really underlined and spoke to the political realities of the post-colonial era. Once the second half rolled around, though, it largely ditched those elements in favour of a “run around and shoot at aliens” plot that was underwhelming to say the least.

Which brings us to Toy Soldiers and provides you with the necessary context for my feelings going into the book. I really didn’t have very strong expectations one way or the other. Even when I enjoyed parts of the opening, my past experiences led me to expect some kind of letdown at one point or another. So, was that the case? Well… kind of?

Like Dancing the Code before it, this is a book that’s very much engaged with the political climate of its time. The 1990s saw many civil wars raging throughout African nations that had once been colonies of the major European powers, and Leonard very clearly drew on those conflicts in creating the fictional nation of Kebiria.

Here, though, Leonard has engaged with these realities in a more metaphorical sense. Specifically, Toy Soldiers deals with the question of child soldiers, one that was very relevant in the mid-1990s. Though the story involves the kidnapping of children to fight in a war on another planet, and takes place in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, science-fiction is obviously a genre that has never been averse to the power of allegory, and this case is no exception to that rule.

In order to understand the world in which this novel was written, I want to try and give some background information. Please note that this will therefore mean discussing the abduction of children for forced participation as soldiers in war. This is obviously a subject that could be distressing to some, so I advise reader discretion.

The use of children as soldiers in times of war is, sadly, not a new phenomenon. It dates back thousands of years, but perhaps the most infamous pre-modern example is the supposed Children’s Crusade of 1212, when, according to legend, as many as 30,000 children left on a Crusade to peacefully convert the Muslims in Jerusalem, only to be sold into slavery.

Now, that story is generally accepted, nowadays, to be something of a conflation of several different stories, with the proportion of children in the Crusade probably being greatly exaggerated. Nonetheless, the fact that such a story spread indicates that the idea of children serving in war was not a completely unimaginable one.

To pick an example closer to the timeframe of this book, I’ll direct you to the unsettling and tragic story of Momčilo Gavrić, an eight-year-old boy who was accepted into the Serbian Army in 1914 after Austro-Hungarian forces killed nine of his family members.

Gavrić continued to serve in the Army until the liberation of Belgrade in November 1918, and managed to reach the rank of Lance Sergeant, as well as being awarded the Albanian Commemorative Medal for his part in the Great Serbian Retreat. He was the youngest known combatant in the First World War.

Of course, even aside from such extraordinary circumstances, both the First and Second World Wars would see many who were under the age of 18 sign up for military service. After the latter conflict, however, the newly-formed United Nations would take measures to clearly and stringently oppose the enlistment of children in the army.

To quote the first Additional Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1977:

The Parties to the conflict shall take all feasible measures in order that children
who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in
hostilities and, in particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them into their
armed forces.

~ Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), Geneva, 8 June 1977, Article 77(2)

In spite of the adoption of this and other statutes/laws prohibiting the use of child soldiers, the practice sadly continues to be prevalent to the present day. It was a particularly relevant question in the 1990s, so much so that, in June 1994, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed Graça Machel, former First Lady of Mozambique and the future wife of Nelson Mandela, to oversee a study on the impact of armed conflict on children. In her introduction to the report, presented to the General Assembly on August 26, 1996, Machel would write:

…more and more of the world is being sucked into a
desolate moral vacuum. This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a
space in which children are slaughtered, raped, and maimed; a space in which
children are exploited as soldiers; a space in which children are starved and
exposed to extreme brutality. Such unregulated terror and violence speak of
deliberate victimization. There are few further depths to which humanity can
sink.

Now, this isn’t to say that Paul Leonard was necessarily intimately familiar with all, or even any, of these United Nations documents. Certainly Toy Soldiers predates the publication of Machel’s report by almost a year. The point I’m trying to make is that the matter of child soldiers was one which was relevant to the world of 1995, and this seems to be what the book has tapped into.

Obviously the use of children in warfare is a disgusting, heinous practice which violates any decent form of morality, and one could construct an emotive, powerful masterpiece of a book around fully exploring the topic. In theory, Toy Soldiers has the potential to be a true great and one of the highlights of the New Adventures. In practice, however, it’s another frustratingly disappointing work from Leonard.

There are elements that work pretty well, so I’ll start with those first. The explorations of the different families and their responses to the loss of their children are very well done, with the grief, numbness and general anguish all being effectively realised. I think it fair to say that these early, Earth-bound passages are the best part of the novel, and serve to provide hints at what could have been.

I especially appreciated the decision to only tell the story from the viewpoint of the guest characters for the initial stages. Not only does it add some mystery to the Doctor and the other regulars in the true Cartmellian fashion, but it also allows the characters some added nuance, with their perceptions of the strangers being coloured in unique ways by their own personal emotions in the face of the tragedy.

The regulars themselves are well-handled, especially for a writer without any previous experience at writing for the Seventh Doctor or Bernice. A cynic might argue that Leonard’s job of writing for the Doctor is made easier by his conscious decision to keep him largely removed from the narrative, but I think that’s unduly harsh, since he does a good job at dealing with the character when he does appear.

It’s not a particularly innovative or eye-opening treatment, but it’s not egregiously poor or jarringly different, so I don’t really mind all that much. Not every book can be a deconstructionist character piece in the vein of Head Games or The Room With No Doors, after all.

Benny also gets some good character development, continuing to come to a new understanding of her time with the Doctor and look upon it with a more critical eye. The moment where she realises the teddy bears are being used to kidnap half a million children, and is only disturbed by how much it doesn’t unnerve or surprise her, is a true standout moment.

Roz and Chris, though, play perhaps the best part of all, given that they spend most of their time in the post-World War I Earth. There’s some great work done with their adjustment to such an alien timeframe, driving home the fact that this is their first adventure into Earth’s history without belabouring the point.

This culture shock can range from the comical (the exchange about Coca-Cola) to the serious (Roz’s experiences with the racism of early 20th century Europe), but no matter the tone, it’s integrated in a way that feels natural and adds extra depth to the book’s setting.

It’s yet another reason why the sequences set on Earth are the most engaging portions of the book. Venusian Lullaby and Dancing the Code both proved that Leonard was a writer with no small penchant and talent for detailed, intricate and solid worldbuilding, but this is the first time he’s turned that skill towards developing an actual, historical setting, and it works well even outside the aforementioned culture shock.

Little details like the anti-Semitism in post-War Germany really help the setting feel authentic and as if it’s a part of a greater history and world that doesn’t just stop existing beyond the confines of this one story. Which is ultimately the fundamental basis of all worldbuilding, I suppose, but you’d be surprised how many Doctor Who stories can fall into the trap of disregarding that.

However, this brings us to the biggest fault with Toy Soldiers, and one which kind of contradicts everything I just said. Because you see, Toy Soldiers somehow manages to both avoid this trap and fall head first into it at the same time. It just so happens that the “falling head first” component of the equation revolves around the one element that needs to work in a story dealing with the matter of child soldiers: the war.

It seems self-evident that a book examining the horrors of war and what despicable acts humans are capable of in such times kind of needs to develop the war in question. It’s a rather crucial component if your story is going to have any kind of emotional or dramatic heft and impact. And it’s with a heavy heart that I say this, but the war at the centre of Toy Soldiers is just dull, which is perhaps the worst possible thing in a situation like this. That’s all the more disheartening given Leonard’s previously-demonstrated skill at developing fictional societies.

Every time the action would shift back to the war, the momentum and urgency of the narrative was just completely sapped. It’s very clear that the battle scenes are intended to have a certain kind of intensity and drive to them, akin to a Jim Mortimore novel. However, they just don’t, and so they blend into a kind of hazy  tedium that’s as grey as the mud on a First World War battlefield, punctuated by moments of incredible violence that don’t feel as if they’re in service of any real kind of point.

Even the plight of the child soldiers, which should be the core of a story about, y’know, child soldiers, doesn’t have nearly the impact it could. Many of the children spend the majority of the book completely unaware of the fact that they are actually children.

Now, if I were feeling charitable, I could perhaps submit that this is to underline the strength of brainwashing necessary to have children fight in wars. However, the way the brainwashing is realised isn’t anything to write home about either, often simply taking the form of the refrain “Best not to think about it,” which just becomes repetitive after a while rather than anything particularly moving.

Even then, there are still some moments that do manage to be genuinely affecting in spite of all these flaws. The scene where Benny talks Gabrielle out of killing her is both tense and emotional in equal measure. Unfortunately, moments like this are very much the exception, and that’s a shame.

Perhaps the one advantage that Toy Soldiers does have over something like, say, Invasion of the Cat-People, is that it’s a relatively easy read. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s particularly light-hearted, but just that, in comparison to other truly awful books I’ve read, it flies by. As such, it never has that lingering, sluggish vibe that a lot of those books possess and which often becomes their biggest failing.

Even allowing for that, though, I sadly have to consider Toy Soldiers a disappointment. I do wish that one day I could unreservedly praise a Paul Leonard novel, but unfortunately this isn’t that day. The pacing is better than some novels, the regular characters are handled well, and the post-War environments are vividly captured, but the book fails to flesh out the one component that it most needs to, and that’s a crying shame.

Miscellaneous Observations

Despite being largely disappointed with the book, I do want to take this moment to say that I quite liked the twist that the “trenches” in which the war is being fought are actually just one big trench encircling No Man’s Land. It’s not that it’s particularly amazing, but it’s just such an evocative image that I felt giving it no credit at all would be remiss of me.

Virgin Missing Adventures Reviews, #14: Managra by Stephen Marley (or, “Isn’t It Byronic?”)

The Hinchcliffe Era of Doctor Who is a beloved one. The slightest analysis of fandom’s opinions will readily verify this statement. It’s often touted as the best period for the Classic show that there ever was, if not for Doctor Who as a whole.

Now, I’m a child of the twenty-first century, so I don’t have nearly the same emotional attachment to the Hinchcliffe and Holmes years as I think a lot of people do, but I can certainly see the merits of the era. There are countless stories that remain among the most iconic and influential Doctor Who adventures ever produced, from the introduction of Davros in Genesis of the Daleks to the robots of death in, well… The Robots of Death.

Hell, in the Chibnall Era we’re now getting into a story arc that takes the faces seen in The Brain of Morbius and finally “canonises” the long-held fan theory that they represent previously unknown incarnations of the Doctor. No matter what you think of the merits of the whole Timeless Child thing, the fact that such an incidental moment would prove so influential to the direction of the franchise 45 years later is no small feat.

(Of course, there’s an argument to be made, and one that I personally subscribe to, that the idea of the Timeless Child is more tangibly influenced by the Cartmel Era and, ironically enough, the Virgin Books, who already postulated that the so-called Morbius Doctors were incarnations of the Other, another (pardon the pun) legendary figure in Time Lord history with a connection to the Doctor; indeed, the Timeless Child plot slots rather neatly, at present, into the pre-existing Other storyline, but you get my point)

Even aside from abstract questions of “influence” or “iconography,” there are a couple of basic facts which go a long way to proving how popular it was. Each of the three seasons overseen by Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script editor equalled or exceeded average viewing figures of 10 million per episode, for the first time since William Hartnell’s second season all the way back in 1965-66.

Indeed, Season 14 managed to best that season’s record, being viewed by an average of 11.08 million people per episode. If you disqualify Season 17’s average of 11.21 million, since the first eight weeks of that season’s broadcast were concurrent with a strike at ITV, that makes Season 14 the highest-viewed season of Doctor Who ever.

Of course, this popularity also brought its fair share of controversy. Hinchcliffe’s stewardship of the programme was noted for frequently borrowing from Gothic fiction, often tending towards the stylings of such horror classics as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This, in turn, led to a darker and more violent tone than had been typical of much of Doctor Who to that point.

Perhaps the most well-known critic of these Gothic tendencies was the hard-line conservative activist Mary Whitehouse, whose National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association staunchly opposed the BBC at large and Hinchcliffe’s Doctor Who in particular.

The greatest outcry against the show that she ever caused was probably that against the cliffhanger to Part Three of the 1976 serial The Deadly Assassin, which featured a freeze-frame of the Doctor being drowned by Chancellor Goth. Coming in the final few months of the Hinchcliffe years, Whitehouse’s complaints were loud enough on this occasion that they actually prompted an apology from Sir Charles Curran himself, the Director-General of the BBC.

While Hinchcliffe and Holmes had been contemplating leaving Doctor Who well before Season 14 actually aired, Whitehouse’s complaints played a big role in the tonal shift to a more light-hearted approach embodied by the following producer, Graham Williams. It also ensured that she would remain a controversial figure in Doctor Who fandom long after her death in 2001.

There’s certainly a very credible case to be made that the departure of Hinchcliffe and subsequent retooling of Doctor Who to be more light-hearted (perhaps best exemplified in the hiring of Hitchhiker’s author Douglas Adams as script editor for Season 17) led to a pattern of decline that would culminate in the 1989 cancellation.

Certainly neither the Fifth nor Sixth Doctors ever saw a period of consistently high quality like the Letts or Hinchcliffe Eras. I would argue, unsurprisingly, that the quality of the programme saw a definite increase under the hand of Andrew Cartmel, but by that point the audience had dwindled considerably and the BBC management itself was actively hostile to the show, scheduling it against ITV’s popular Coronation Street in an era before DVRs or streaming services.

With all that in mind, then, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the Hinchcliffe Era would be a point of focus for the Virgin Books. Not only does its ending have a tangible connection to the demise of Doctor Who on television that necessitated the novels’ existence in the first place, but the more adult target demographic would theoretically allow for a further development of the Gothic horror themes than would have been possible on a show often seen as a “kids’ programme.”

Which is why it’s extremely weird that Managra is really the first time that the Missing Adventures have unabashedly engaged with the substance of the Hinchcliffe years. Yes, we finally got to the novel that this review is nominally about!

I feel all this background context to be necessary, though, because this is a book that is, in a lot of ways, the ultimate Hinchcliffe Era story, while also being the ultimate Missing Adventure. It’s flawed, yes, but it’s at least flawed in ways that don’t undermine any of the genuinely interesting, wacky stuff that’s going on in it.

I’d also just like to briefly return to the point of the VMAs’ prior engagements with the Hinchcliffe Era. I know, I know, I swear I’ll get to the book itself! But like I said, the context behind the book is almost as important as the book itself with Managra, even more so than a regular piece of art.

One could say that the MAs engaged with the spirit of the Era from the very beginning, with John Peel’s Evolution offering up a spooky tale about an evil scientist conducting experiments on people that cause grisly deaths in a dark, secluded English village. The problem with that book, though, was that… it just wasn’t particularly good.

The Romance of Crime is obviously kind of exempt from consideration for the purposes of this list, since it takes place during the Williams/Adams Era of Season 17. System Shock technically takes place in the gap between Seasons 13 and 14, but its contemporary techno-thriller sensibilities feel more suited, with the benefit of hindsight, to something like the Davies Era.

Which brings us, at much length, to Managra. And it feels like Stephen Marley decided, either at the instruction of editorial personnel or of his own volition, to make up for the deficit in Gothic stylings exhibited by the previous novels set in the Hinchcliffe Era. This is a book that is absolutely dripping with Gothic atmosphere and imagery. The world of Europa is a nightmarish one, with vampires and werewolves stalking the Black Forests of legend.

Hell, even real-world figures and authors who were integral to the development of Gothic fiction, like Mary Shelley or Lord Byron, roam the streets of a conglomeration of disparate historical eras. Or rather, clones of these figures.

You see, the central conceit of Managra is a gloriously inventive one: a Europe that, in the 33rd century, has been transformed instead into Europa, a mish-mash of various different time periods, from roughly the 15th to early 20th centuries. The historical figures alluded to earlier aren’t the genuine article, but are instead “Reprises,” clones encoded with a personality matrix from a computer bank. Alongside ordinary, non-cloned human beings and mythical beings from continental folklore, they make up the population of this bizarre, one-of-a-kind world.

This leads to a great deal of questions of existentialist philosophy. In particular, Marley deftly illustrates the way these Reprises manage to diverge from the “originals” through the character of Lord Byron and his three copies: Mad Byron, Bad Byron, and the one who helps the Doctor and Sarah, Dangerous Byron. All of them are sufficiently distinguished, even in spite of Dangerous Byron obviously getting the most development.

The reference to Lady Caroline Lamb’s famous description of Byron demonstrates just how literate and well-read Marley is on the subject of Gothic fiction. Even outside of the Reprises, there are references to Edgar Allan Poe, as well as conversations on the themes of Frankenstein and whether they conflict with Percy Shelley’s Prometheus UnboundManagra is very much an intellectual book, and while I will concede that this high-brow attitude might be off-putting for some, I found it original and inspired enough that I got quite a bit of enjoyment out of it.

You can very much tell that Marley has a deep and abiding adoration for this literary movement. Considering that he wrote a trilogy of novels from 1988 to 1993 in a subgenre he dubbed “Chinese Gothic,” and would later work on the video game Martian Gothic: Unification, I think that’s a pretty safe bet. As such, the passion rubs off on the audience and you can’t help but smile at all the gleefully self-aware literary references and quotations peppered throughout.

The actual plot is, admittedly, kind of thin, but that rather belies the point of the whole exercise. Nevertheless, it’s quite easy to sum up, and revolves around a failed English playwright possessed by an (say it with me now!) evil from the dawn of time, the eponymous Managra. If you hadn’t worked it out already, Managra is an anagram of, well… anagram. There’s quite a bit of clever wordplay around anagrams. “The name of the rose is Eros,” indeed.

It also bears mentioning that I’m always a fan of the idea of books being a sequel to an adventure we in the audience didn’t see because, when done properly, it helps create the impression that the world of the Doctor doesn’t just stop existing when we stop watching (or reading, or listening, or whatever).

Of course the classic example of this is another Hinchcliffe Era story, Chris Boucher’s The Face of Evil. A not-so-classic example is Glen McCoy’s Timelash in Season 22. Thankfully, though, Marley’s efforts are closer in quality to the former rather than the latter.

We never find out too much about the unseen adventure, other than that it took place in modern-day Slovakia and involved the infamous Hungarian serial killer, Countess Elizabeth Báthory and an unknown entity. What I think does wonders for the mystique of this adventure is the way in which it’s made clear that the Managra, a formidable power in its own right, is just a shadow of the power summoned by Báthory.

Indeed, the Doctor seems to be quite thoroughly haunted and traumatised by whatever it was that happened. If this had been handled poorly, it could have backfired, but in my opinion, it works. It probably helps that I just find Marley’s rendition of the Fourth Doctor to be pretty much spot-on, in spite of some people’s complaints to the contrary.

Really, the plot of Managra is more of a thematic and mood piece than a super intricate story. Oh there’s intrigue, sure, but the most interesting parts were the meta bits for me. There’s a certain dark humour about the idea of a playwright seeking to conquer the world just because his works were dismissed as derivative, meritless schlock.

I’d argue that Pearson is very much constructed as the worst case scenario for something like the Hinchcliffe Era, a macabre theatre of grand guignol and senseless gore with no redeeming characteristics or sophistication whatsoever, pulling from countless literary sources without a care for originality or inspiration.

Pearson’s plays feel like the Hinchcliffe Era as seen or thought of by Mary Whitehouse, and it’s quite a bold move for Marley to concede that such a beloved era had the potential to be unmitigated tripe under certain circumstances.

It can’t help but put me in mind of the clever use of a Whitehouse stand-in in Steve Lyons’ Time of Your Life, where he juxtaposed her criticisms of the so-called H&H “Golden Age” against the less highly-regarded Colin Baker years. That’s the sort of iconoclasm that I think modern fandom needs from time to time, especially with the way nostalgia has been so weaponised and commercialised in these kinds of spaces.

Managra isn’t a perfect book, however. While the complaints about the plot and characters not being the world’s most developed don’t particularly bother me, there is one character which the book never quite gets right: Sarah Jane.

I mean, this shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone who’s been following my reviews for some time now. I’ve spoken multiple times in the past about the way authors seemed incapable of accurately portraying the character, from the bizarrely violent streak in John Peel’s Evolution to whatever the hell was going on in The Ghosts of N-Space.

Justin Richards managed to get the character right in System Shock, but even there that achievement was tarnished by the fact that she spent a long stretch of the novel not really doing anything. While Sarah Jane isn’t quite as poorly-written in Managra as she was in Evolution or The Ghosts of N-Space, she’s still not as well-characterised as she was in System Shock. Or at least, not all the time.

What’s frustrating about the portrayal of Sarah Jane in this novel is that, at times, the spirit of her friendship with the Fourth Doctor is actually pretty well-captured, but at other times Marley makes decisions which are more than a little uncomfortable.

Perhaps the biggest offender here is the decision to have her spend the entire first quarter of the story in nothing but a bikini. Here’s a good rule of thumb: Don’t take “companion introduction” lessons from Peter Grimwade and Planet of Fire

Even once one gets past that part, though, there’s the weird bit about how she apparently perceived the Third Doctor as a father figure, and the Fourth Doctor as a “crazy uncle.” Granted, there are paternalistic elements to the traditional Doctor-companion dynamic, which is doubly true for certain companions.

However, Sarah Jane was always one of the companions who was on a more equal footing with the Time Lord than most, so much so that stories like The Seeds of Doom and The Masque of Mandragora would have the Doctor refer to her as his “best friend.” As such, this take on the character can’t help but jar a little, which is a shame when there are glimmers of good characterisation amongst it all.

In spite of these problems, though, Managra is an excellently literate, imaginative, Gothic, acerbic and just all-around fun piece of literature. There’s nothing quite like it in all of Doctor Who, before or since. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing will depend on the reader, but for me personally, I’d comfortably call this the best of the Virgin Books that I’ve read since Dave Stone’s Sky Pirates!

It’s certainly worth at least checking out, because there’s enough depth and wit to it that I simply couldn’t fit it all in to this review. Honestly, it’s kind of a shame that this is the only full-length Doctor Who novel Marley has ever written, because if he’d kept at it I think we could have gotten some truly special results. Ah well, such is life, I suppose.

Miscellaneous Observations

The fact that the Big Finish audios have subsequently depicted the historical, non-Reprise Mary Shelley travelling with the Eighth Doctor, along with the fact that Reprises share all the memories of their historical selves, makes one wonder if the Reprise seen in Managra was hiding her knowledge of the Doctor’s future. Of course The Haunting of Villa Diodati from last year’s Series 12 also makes things a bit more complicated, but I lean towards the idea that the events of the Eighth Doctor/Mary audios were erased by the Time War. Which is admittedly a cop-out, but y’know.

I do think it interesting that this book kind of sees the Missing Adventures trying to establish their own internal continuity like that of the New Adventures. For instance, the vampires of Europa are said to be descended from a “Lord Jake and Lady Madelaine,” who are obviously the Jake and Madelaine that we saw all the way back in the very first MA, Goth Opera. The Doctor also makes reference to an adventure in Venice in his first incarnation, which we’ll soon see in The Empire of Glass.

Justin Richards did something similar in System Shock, with multiple references to the tech developer Ashley Chapel, who will go on to be a major player in Millennial Rites, the very next Missing Adventure. It’s a novel approach, if you’ll pardon the pun, and I do quite like it. I’m not so big a fan of the decision to kill off Jake and Madelaine in an off-handed line of dialogue and kind of negate the rather sweet, romantic ending Paul Cornell gave them in Goth Opera, but that’s by the by.

Also, on a slightly more cynical note, I feel it worth noting that the idea of Europa being formed in the aftermath of Original Sin is infinitely more interesting than any of the “aftermath of Original Sin” stuff that Christopher Bulis did in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Another recurring motif I’m noticing in the Missing Adventures, and one that’s a lot weirder, is the repeated mentions of the bodily functions of companions? References to companions and urine have popped up in Christopher Bulis’ State of Change, Paul Leonard’s Dancing the Code, and now this. I don’t really know what to make of this, beyond that it’s… weird. My only guess would be that it was some attempt on the part of these authors to be more mature, but if anything it just makes the whole thing seem needlessly puerile.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it. For what I think might be the first time, this month’s Missing Adventure was noticeably better than the New Adventure. Maybe some day I’ll give Marley’s Chia Black Dragon novels a read if I can track down some copies. Maybe I’ll even write about them, I dunno.

Either way, that’s it for this time. Next time, however, we delve into two of the most thematically important of all the Virgin Books, as Steve Lyons crafts a sequel to Conundrum and a treatise on the psychology of the Seventh Doctor in Head Games, and Craig Hinton tackles that dreaded continuity bugbear, the Valeyard, in his sophomore novel, Millennial Rites. Until then, though…

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

Virgin Adventures Reviews: Zamper by Gareth Roberts; Invasion of the Cat-People by Gary Russell

Virgin New Adventures Reviews, #41: Zamper by Gareth Roberts (or, “I Love Zamp”)

Author’s Note: Given the fact that this is a work from the pen of Gareth Roberts, who has become somewhat controversial in recent years for his comments on transgender people, I feel obliged to link to the statement I made on the situation in my review of The Romance of Crime. The statement, as well as an addendum, can be found here.

To summarise, I disagree with what he has said in the strongest possible terms, and find it unfortunate that he has chosen to double down on it. However, I will try and keep my opinions on his work separate from my opinions on his politics and sentiments, unless I find an instance where I think those sentiments bleed through into the work.

That being said, I do not blame anyone if they cannot overlook his comments and feel uncomfortable when thinking or reading on the subject of his work. Therefore, reader discretion is advised.

Gareth Roberts has always been one of the more consistently high-quality authors for Virgin Books. Both The Highest Science and The Romance of Crime are highlights of their respective years that still shine after a quarter of a century. Even Tragedy Day, though it suffered from trying to meld two disparate plots together, wasn’t nearly as bad as the worst efforts of some other authors.

With Zamper, Roberts closes off his involvement in the New Adventures, though he would still be a prolific contributor to the Missing Adventures, writing three further books beyond this point. So, how does it hold up? Well, it’s certainly better than Tragedy Day, but it’s no The Highest Science or The Romance of Crime.

The guiding principle behind Zamper seems to be that of “back to basics.” The Highest Science succeeded as well as it did, in part, because of the relative simplicity of the premise, throwing a few disparate groups of characters together and letting them all interact. Tragedy Day and The Romance of Crime both had much broader scales, both in terms of character and plot. While this elevated Romance, it didn’t do wonders for Tragedy Day.

And so it seems the decision was made to peel back a few layers and get back to that earlier approach. On the whole, this does work. There are only five flesh-and-blood human characters on Zamper, and the two Chelonians bring that total up to seven.

This relatively small guest cast therefore allows for Roberts to do some nice character work. While none of the characters here are exactly the world’s deepest, they’re still better than they could otherwise be. All their relationships make sense and feel real. This leads to the world they inhabit feeling more real in turn.

But while the human characters are rather nicely drawn, the true standouts here are the Chelonians. Their presence also further invites and reinforces the comparisons to Roberts’ debut, making their first real substantial appearance since that book.

If the Chelonians had been their usual intolerant, xenophobic selves without any additional depth or facets, I think this would have been a lesser book for it. Fortunately, Roberts makes considerable effort to distinguish them and take them to a different point, culturally, than they were at in The Highest Science, while still remaining recognisable enough.

The premise of the Chelonians’ involvement in Zamper is that they have to journey to the titular planet to make a deal with the human corporation responsible for selling ships to interested parties. Given the fact that the Chelonians are incredibly disdainful of human beings and regard them as “parasites,” this is a setup that is rife with dramatic potential, and I’m happy to say that full advantage of that potential is taken. The conversations between the Doctor and Big Mother towards the novel’s end give more depth to the species than the entirety of The Highest Science. That’s not to claim that that earlier novel was terrible or something, just a point worth noting.

The only reason that the Chelonians consider dealing with humans is in an attempt to end a coup by Little Sister, who has been attempting to reform Chelonian society to a more peaceful way of existence. Needless to say, this adds considerable nuance to the species beyond just “rampaging cybernetic turtles,” and makes them feel like an actual people with a society and history rather than just a tropey, stock “warrior race.”

Roberts also furthers this characterisation through the wonderful interactions between the more cautious and experienced General Hezzka, and his hot-headed, brash, young First Pilot, Ivzid. Admittedly, this is a character dynamic that has been seen many times, both before and after Zamper, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. Indeed, it’s arguably the perfect type of character interaction for a Doctor Who story.

Much has been made, in discourse and analysis of Doctor Who, of the classic “Holmesian Double Act,” a method of writing character duos as something of a cohesive, single unit by focusing on and developing the way the two individuals interact with and play off one another.

As the name implies, this is most commonly associated with legendary Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes, commonly held to be one of, if not the, best writers working on the original iteration of the programme.

Some of the more obvious and memorable examples of this style of character writing include Vorg and Shirna in Carnival of Monsters, Jago and Litefoot in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, or Glitz and Dibber in The Mysterious Planet.

Now, long-term readers of my blog may remember an abortive series entitled The Robert Holmes Chronicles (which I am still not averse to resurrecting at some point in the future, incidentally). I wrote this before starting up my Virgin Adventures Reviews in March of 2018, and in it I frequently expressed some criticisms of certain Robert Holmes stories.

Nonetheless, while I may have reservations about calling Holmes the best of the best, I do think the Double Act structure is an important one that has had a big impact on the way Doctor Who writers tell stories and write for characters.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that Robert Holmes was the inventor of this particular storytelling device, given that there are undoubtedly numerous examples one could point to in popular fiction that long predate the broadcast of his first story, The Krotons, in late 1968. Nonetheless, it retains a particular association with him in the world of Doctor Who due to its use in several of his most iconic and beloved stories.

Hezzka and Ivzid are just one of many examples that are inspired by that Holmesian style of writing and character development, and Roberts does a wonderful job with it, as he did with certain characters in The Highest Science.

Their relationship is believable and engrossing, and progresses naturally throughout the course of the story. Admittedly that’s true of pretty much all the relationships on display in Zamper, but it’s especially notable when it gives greater depth to a species that could easily become one-note or dull if written in a poor fashion.

What’s also notable is the way in which Roberts treats the Doctor. Zamper is very much your typical “Doctor wanders onto the scene and rights wrongs” story. There’s not as much of the Cartmellian scheming and brooding as there might be in works of other authors. Indeed, far from having some masterplan from page one, the Doctor actually gets things disastrously wrong vis-a-vis the intentions of the Zamps, and that leads to a great deal of deaths.

Now, one of the things that often gets overlooked in discussions of the Virgin New Adventures (and, indeed, Seasons 25 and 26 of the actual television show) is that the Seventh Doctor’s masterplans frequently fail. He often has to resort to last-minute revisions to things. Think of how he has to destroy Ace’s faith in him in The Curse of Fenric, or how his plan to use Vincent and Justine as a weapon in Warhead is undone by their falling in love.

Even so, the Doctor here is very much the blunderer, and Roberts lampshades this by having the Chelonians refer to the Doctor as Sla-Ifrok-Yalkoz-Slan, which he assumes means something akin to the Draconians’ Karshtakavaar or the Daleks’ Ka Faraq Gatri… but instead just means “interfering idiot.”

This is generally broadly consistent with the way in which Roberts has drawn the Seventh Doctor in both The Highest Science and Tragedy Day, so it does largely work. However, it does feel somewhat odd being positioned between two books that are so heavy in Cartmellian overtones as Sky Pirates! and Head Games. Yes, I know Toy Soldiers separates things, but you get my point. It’s not bad per se, but it’s intriguing and different enough that I think it merits a mention.

And if there’s one last chance to say it, I guess I’ll say it now: Gareth Roberts is brilliant at writing for Bernice Summerfield. Again, this isn’t surprising if one performs an examination of his previous work. The Highest Science was very much the first book where Benny truly “clicked,” after being sidelined for the drama between the Doctor and Ace in Love and War and being possessed for the majority of Transit.

Sure, there would still be teething problems with the character (in particular, the less said about The Pit, the better), but Roberts really proved that Bernice could hold her own, so it seems strangely fitting in a bizarre, poetic way that he should be allowed one final opportunity to write for the character to close off his involvement in the New Adventures.

As with the past couple books, Zamper really makes note of the ways in which Benny has changed since her introduction nearly three years prior, and how she’s grown more aware of the Doctor’s behaviours. For the most part this works, though I do find it odd that she would describe the events of Transit (alien possession, as previously mentioned) and The Pit (a story which culminated in the Doctor standing aside and letting a Time Lord destroy an entire solar system) as “almost fun.” Coupled with Roberts misremembering the fate of the Chelonians at the end of The Highest Science (y’know, a book that he wrote), one does get the feeling these continuity references could have been better thought out, but I digress.

Perhaps more interesting and enlightening, though, is his writing for Chris and Roz, since this is the only time Roberts would actually write for those two characters. As with Sky Pirates!, the two of them are split up from the Doctor and Bernice very early on. One might say that this proves that four regular characters in the TARDIS was too many, but again, I’d point out that similar issues plagued Benny’s early adventures too. Hopefully this is just a similar type of early awkwardness that will be ironed out as time goes on.

Despite that split, Roberts is generally pretty good at writing for the two characters, and they’re fairly consistent with their previous appearances. Between this and Sky Pirates!, I now have some measure of confidence that Roz and Chris will be consistently characterised across the books, but, again, I suppose we shall see in time.

One thing I did think was odd was his decision to have Benny be jealous of Roz and the Doctor’s bond. Quite simply, this struck me as a very unimaginative and cliched way to generate tension between the two female leads. Original Sin pretty much leads directly into Sky Pirates!, as Sky Pirates! does into Zamper. So, the question must be asked, where exactly did the two of them find the time to develop a bond of this nature and strength, such that it rivals Benny’s? Again, it really didn’t work and came completely out of left field.

Speaking of out of left field, how about that tonal shift in the last part? When doing some preparatory reading about the general impression fandom has of this novel, I came across a review by Finn Clark at the Doctor Who Rating Guide describing Zamper as “Gareth Roberts puts on his Jim Mortimore head.”

Now, at first this baffled me, because at the point in the novel I had reached at that stage, I wasn’t personally getting much of an inkling of that. I still maintain that the first parts of the novel develop the characters more than your typical Mortimore book. Again, they’re not going to win awards, but they’re certainly appreciably deeper than the cast of Parasite, I would say.

There’s something of a resemblance in the way a lot of the book is spent unravelling a sci-fi mystery around some weird artifact, but that’s hardly an invention of Mortimore’s. The whole “strange and mysterious artifact that is responsible for inexplicable phenomena” thing is a science-fiction staple, because it’s an effective hook to get the audience interested.

Where I do think the book starts becoming Mortimore-esque, however, is in the final act. At that point, Roberts starts killing off characters left-and-right, such that no-one in the guest cast survives the events of the novel. That’s very much in keeping with Jim Mortimore’s style. Yet here we run into what is probably Zamper‘s biggest problem: Gareth Roberts is not Jim Mortimore.

Mortimore is an… interesting creator, and a very controversial one. Personally, while I acknowledge there are some shortcomings to his style, I have largely enjoyed the three of his books that I have read at present, as well as his audio drama The Natural History of Fear. It’s certainly an acquired taste, because the world he paints is often very grim and nasty and a lot of death occurs, but I think, at its best, it manages to still create an emotionally affecting and anxiety-inducing atmosphere that properly capitalises on the pathos and makes for a memorable experience.

However, a large part of why I like Mortimore is that he’s so unafraid to tell the stories he wants to tell. There’s a certain authenticity to his works that makes me kinder on them than I think I otherwise would be if they were by another author who doesn’t really fit with the whole Mortimore vibe. And ultimately, I can’t really think of a worse fit for the style that Mortimore embodies than Roberts.

That’s not to say that Roberts’ work can’t be serious. The thing with Roberts is that the plot is usually pretty serious, but it’s the dialogue and narrative voice around that plot which is so effervescent and sparkling and full of life. There’s a very stark contrast between something like The Romance of Crime and, say, Eternity Weeps.

So, once the Zamps fully evolve and start killing people while speaking in calm, considered, businessmanlike tones, there’s something of a tonal dissonance. This arises from the strangeness of juxtaposing Roberts’ whimsical satire of corporatism with the grim, nihilistic and death-laden mood common to a Mortimore novel.

The Zamps in and of themselves are a fine antagonist, nothing too exceptional, but their squirminess in their deadly “loop” form is well-realised by Roberts and is a nice bit of body horror. Again, though, they just kind of sit ill with the rest of the book in just how gory they can get. Admittedly, this is still a relatively minor niggle, however, and certainly isn’t as strong or as pervasive a dissonance as, say, the Friars of Pangloss plot in Tragedy Day.

So really, when taken as a whole I quite enjoyed Zamper, even if there were some elements that were a little weird and didn’t cohere as well as they possibly could have. It’s a lightweight romp without a whole lot of dramatic heft, but sometimes that’s just what you need. Add some good worldbuilding and development of an already iconic species, and you have yourself a book that may not be a masterpiece, but is still entertaining enough that maybe, just this once, that fact doesn’t particularly matter.

Miscellaneous Observations

I’m aware that there’s something of a trope in later NAs around Chris getting romantically involved with members of the guest cast, and Zamper seems to be the first real inkling of that. In itself, his attraction to Christie seems to be superfluous, and doesn’t really go anywhere interesting, hence why I’m only talking about it here. Can’t comment on the later instances of this trope at present, but we shall see how things go, I suppose.

Virgin Missing Adventures Reviews, #13: Invasion of the Cat-People by Gary Russell (or, “Tarot, Tarot, Tarot Your Boat”)

Between Christopher Bulis last month, and Gary Russell now, it seems like it’s a real red letter time for “Authors Whose First Book I Strongly Disliked…” Odd, that. For those who don’t remember, Gary Russell made his debut for the New Adventures in April 1994 with Legacy.

There were many things I criticised Legacy for, but above all it was just an overlong, dull rehash of the two previous Peladon stories from the Jon Pertwee years. None of the characters were all that interesting, it was jampacked with needless continuity, and Ace was completely sidelined to take on a McGuffin plot that ultimately meant very little in the grand scheme of the book.

I was so bitterly disappointed in the book that I gave it perhaps one of the most scathing reviews I ever have. Sometimes I do wonder if it was too scathing, even though I still believe it was small potatoes compared to some of the raw and unfiltered, unhinged vitriol and ad hominem attacks on authors that the Internet has to offer.

Nonetheless, when approaching Invasion of the Cat-People, I tried my best to maintain an open mind and hoped that Russell would wow me on his sophomore effort. After all, Christopher Bulis’ Shadowmind was another work I was singularly unimpressed by (to put it mildly), but by the time State of Change rolled around, he had cleaned a lot of things up and so I was pleasantly surprised. So, y’know, I figured anything’s possible.

Unfortunately… Yeah, Invasion of the Cat-People isn’t great. On the whole, it’s largely better than Legacy, but that’s not saying much. Even then, there are some… problematic decisions that were made in representing and referring to various different cultures and groups which give me pause and make me hesitant to put it above Legacy. But we’ll get to all of that in good time.

A title like Invasion of the Cat-People suggests and evokes a certain kind of story, doesn’t it? Pulpy, B-movie, silly schlock. Somebody needs to go back in time and tell Gary Russell this, apparently, because this novel has a lot of elements that could create such an atmosphere if spun correctly. What he opts for instead, however, winds up making everything more than a little tedious.

Ideas like ghosts, a haunted house, a slightly eccentric professor with a dark, tragic past, over-the-top German accents and, oh I dunno, Cat-People, are all concepts that are rife with fun, if not particularly deep, possibilities. However, Russell seems uncomfortable with this fact, and as a result has strained to justify them to the audience, as if worried the reader may dismiss the book if exhaustive technobabble lectures on the Stone Tape theory, Tarot cards, and “Reverse Tachyon-Chronons” are not given.

While this may be true for some readers, those types of people are unlikely to even pick up a book entitled Invasion of the Cat-People, so feel free to go all out on the ridiculousness for those of us still remaining. It’s a similar conundrum as that I talked about last time with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where Christopher Bulis had to have a sci-fi, 30th-century plot to “justify” the fluffy, lightweight Tolkien pastiche, a move that actively detracted from said pastiche and made it far less fun or well-developed than it could otherwise have been.

Speaking of recurring frustrations that can be found in works by both Bulis and Russell, it’s time for the return of my personal favourite narrative trope among authors for the Virgin Books, “Let’s do something like Star Trek, but in Doctor Who!” Most of you probably already know my whole spiel about this, yada yada yada, the three worst books of 1993 all attempted this trope in some form.

However, what’s more relevant, salient and informative when it comes to discussions of Gary Russell and Invasion of the Cat-People is its use in Legacy, which was perhaps the most extensive Star Trek pastiche yet. Rather than the mere use of the whole “bridge crew with assigned stations” and names format (which doesn’t work for reasons I explained in my review of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Legacy took the Galactic Federation originally mentioned in Brian Hayles’ two Peladon stories and hewed it closer to the shape of Star Trek‘s United Federation of Planets.

My problem with this was a mite more abstract than the usual “the bridge crew format doesn’t work.” One could make the case for this shift being flawed due to the UFP’s status as an extrapolation of the contemporary United States, rather than the European Economic Community allegory that the Galactic Federation originally represented. However, even there I’m willing to give a little leniency, because different interpretations of the same fundamental building blocks are what Doctor Who is built on and thrives off of.

The main problem, though, was that it was just jarring to read about a setting so clearly evocative of Berman Era Star Trek within the confines of Doctor Who. Maybe I’m wrong and that wasn’t the feel Russell was going for at all, but it’s how I personally interpreted the environments of the novel as they were presented to me.

Within Invasion of the Cat-People, that Trek aesthetic returns in scenes on the ships of the Cat-People and the Euterpians. It’s certainly not as strong or as pervasive as it was in Legacy, but it’s there nonetheless. The bridge crew stuff, transporters (explicitly referred to as such, so I ain’t just looking too deeply into things), shuttlepods.

Even under the best of circumstances, the bridge crew format in Doctor Who only serves to underscore how underdeveloped a guest cast of a novel is. This is an error that is especially compounded when the crew are not humans, but instead a race of anthropomorphic alien cats. The best alien races succeed because they come alive, imparted with enough character, personality and development that they feel like an actual culture.

This is another score where Invasion misses the mark. The Cat-People feel like punchlines, not an actual species. When you have them spouting lines like “You were not given permission to mew,” (a line so bizarre I partially disbelieved it when I saw it quoted in Lars Pearson’s I, Who, but nope, it’s actually in there) how am I supposed to take them as anything more than a joke?

There are actually even some interesting ideas with the Euterpians. I like the idea of an immortal, mysterious race who achieve space travel and construction by humming. All the fun possibilities, however, are drained out by the aforementioned need to offer long lectures about it.

Indeed, for all that I say the Cat-People are a punchline, I would be relatively OK with that if it felt like that’s what Russell was going for. Instead, the dull scenes and discussions make it seem like the book wants me to take them seriously, and I just can’t. In situations like this, the author should choose one or the other, unless they can strike a proper balance between the two, where the aliens can be comical without it diminishing too much from their threat.

I submit that part of my negative reaction may be motivated by having this book scheduled directly after Zamper, which obviously has a similar “aliens that resemble common Earth animals” type race in the form of the Chelonians. Hell, both books even do the same “hot-headed, young and self-aggrandizing subordinate officer” thing, as well. Unfortunately for Invasion of the Cat-PeopleZamper does it much better, and actually works to impart its aliens with a depth that the Cat-People never receive. Therefore, the comparisons aren’t too favourable towards Russell’s work.

On the topic of poorly-handled cultures and groups, we now need to talk about the fatal flaw with Invasion of the Cat-People, the thing that really drags it down below Legacy, in spite of generally being an improvement in most other areas. There is really no way to sugar-coat this, so I won’t even try. You see, Invasion of the Cat-People is a very racist book. Hoo boy is it ever.

The group that are most affected by the use of racist, outdated and colonialist language throughout the book are the First Nations peoples of the Australian continent. Russell consistently and repeatedly uses terms that are widely considered derogatory and outdated, and were even considered derogatory and outdated by 1995. Even more unforgiveable than that, however, is the use of an actual, full-blown slur.

For context, this word is not used by a character who is presented in such a manner that they are obviously supposed to be read as bigoted. Even if it were, I would still have my reservations about it, given that Russell is not Australian nor a member of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples. It would be a similar situation to David A. McIntee’s White Darkness, where the N-word is used eight times. I still found that choice questionable, because even though the characters are quite flagrantly racists, the use of such a charged and offensive word by a white Scottish man like McIntee wasn’t a very good look.

But Russell never dwells on the word’s status as a slur, and just seems to think it is a colloquialism or nickname for First Nations people, which is so far from the truth it just boggles the mind. I’ll admit I’m Australian, so I may very well be more aware of these issues than Russell would be, and I’ll concede that the Internet of 1995 wasn’t as extensive as it is in 2021.

However, neither of these things are really excuses for using a word which one would know to be offensive if they had done the bare minimum of research. The sting of this blow is only magnified by the fact that Russell makes much of how much research he did in the novel’s Introduction. Apparently it wasn’t enough to include “These are words that you should not use.”

I realise I’m walking a very fine line here, and don’t want to stoop into attacks on Russell as a person. I’m not accusing him of being a massive racist, or thinking that he deliberately set out to be offensive with this book. Hell, I don’t even really want to assume he still stands by the use of the words in this book. I would hope that in the 25 years since he has been corrected and has realised just why those words aren’t OK. I have no way of knowing that, however, and can only speak to the book in front of me. And the book in front of me isn’t pretty.

But the book doesn’t just use offensive words for First Nations peoples, no. Other groups who are subject to derogatory language in the authorial voice include Romani people (the G-word appears multiple times in a flashback, and no variations on “Romani” are ever used), Asians, and disabled people. Put it all together and you have a really offensive and ill-judged piece of work.

And all of that is just about the use of pejorative, derogatory language, and doesn’t even touch on the idea that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples developed the Dreaming not on their own, but at the hands of the Euterpians. Not the greatest look, when taken in tandem with the use of racist language.

But what makes all of this especially disappointing is that there are some hints of promise, unlike the sea of dullness that was Legacy. In particular, the character work done with the Doctor, Ben and Polly is actually pretty decent. There are moments where it seems like Russell wishes he was writing for the Seventh Doctor instead of the Second, but by-and-by he’s captured the spirit of Troughton pretty well, even without the presence of Jamie. Certainly he does a better job than Martin Day ever did throughout The Menagerie.

Ben and Polly, though, are where the book really shines, if it can be said to truly shine anywhere. There are segments devoted to them coming to terms with the culture shock of visiting England in 1994 and seeing how vastly different it was from 1966. Particular highlights include Polly realising, upon visiting Byron Bay, that the whole ’60s counterculture movement never really panned out.

It’s interesting that Russell should choose to set Invasion of the Cat-People so early on in the Second Doctor’s tenure, coming just after The Power of the Daleks. That’s obviously a deliberate choice in order to explore two companions who were kind of sidelined and forgotten once Jamie came along, a fact that’s only exacerbated by the fact that all but the first of their stories are either partially or wholly missing.

If that was all Invasion of the Cat-People really set out to do, while simultaneously offering a schlocky, fun, appropriately ’60s-style B-movie in prose form that the title suggests, I’d probably be a lot kinder, because the stuff with the two of them is well done. Hell, Russell even takes the opportunity to actually use Polly’s last name, as given in her character outline, nearly 30 years after her first appearance.

I’m not sure the whole “Polly is actually somewhat into spiritualism and has some kind of telepathic abilities” thing really vibes with her on-screen portrayal, but I can forgive that, because it’s more interesting than anything else that had been done with the character up to this point.

Unfortunately, Invasion of the Cat-People is not wholly or even primarily a character study of Ben or Polly, and I have to take the rest of it into account as well. And the rest of it isn’t great. The constant use of objectionable, offensive and otherwise outdated terminology is incredibly unpleasant. Even if you were to put all that aside, though (and that’s an extremely big “if” because it’s just so prevalent throughout the book), you would be left with a book that’s just kind of dull and plodding.

I’m honestly struggling to decide whether I dislike this or Legacy more. The earlier novel was very dull, and Invasion is something of an improvement over that admittedly very low benchmark. Yet at the same time, I can’t overlook the fact that Legacy wasn’t dropping derogatory terms left, right and centre.

Ultimately, if I had to choose, I’d probably say Invasion was worse. I take no pleasure in saying that, believe you me, because there are ways in which it’s better. But the use of slurs and offensive terminology for minorities is just too much for me to ignore. Very disappointing, ultimately.

Miscellaneous Observations

One last time, I want to stress that I’m not accusing Gary Russell of being a racist or someone who deliberately used all these words to harm and offend people. I don’t know him personally, obviously, and so can’t comment on that, let alone the fact that a lot about a person’s knowledge and understanding of these issues can change drastically in 25 years. Even if the use of this language came from a place of ignorance rather than deliberate malice, however, that’s not an excuse and I still think it should be called out.

Between the use of offensive language, as well as other errors in the text, I honestly get the impression that the editing/proofreading process for this book was somewhat substandard. Perhaps the biggest mistake is the repeated “forty thousand years ago” figure, when the Prologue gives the date of the Euterpians’ arrival as just “3978 BC.” I find it likely that there’s a missing digit there, and it’s actually supposed to read “39978 BC” or something similar, but even still that’s a pretty glaring error, and being on the first page you’d think someone would have caught it.

Other weird things include the book having the city of Baghdad be inhabited twenty thousand years prior to 1994, when in reality the city as we know it today was only established by the Abbasid Caliphate in 762 AD. Even if this was another error and Russell meant to say it was two thousand years ago, there’s still a pretty big gap between 1232 and 2000. That’s not even mentioning the weird pacing of the entire Baghdad section, which is utterly pointless except for setting up a weird time loop-esque situation with Thorgarsuunela, which is, in itself, unnecessary and confusing.

I will say that I did kind of find the notion of giving a hypothetical cast list at the end of the book to be something of a novel idea, if an ultimately largely pointless one, especially given how harshly I was disposed towards the book by that point in time. 

Final Thoughts

So, that’s Zamper and Invasion of the Cat-People. The former might not be the world’s strongest book, but it’s fun enough even if it doesn’t completely gel in the end. The latter is a massive disappointment, both extraordinarily dull and more than a little offensive. Truly we are living in the Polarised Age.

Quite apart from those two books, I do also want to mention that we recently passed the third anniversary of the Virgin Adventures Reviews, which is… mind-boggling. I never thought I’d be doing these for this long, but 54 books later, here we are. Oh and this should also be going up on my 18th birthday so… happy birthday to me, I suppose.

Regardless, next time we travel back to the aftermath of the First World War as Paul Leonard writes his first New Adventure, Toy Soldiers, and Stephen Marley writes his only novel for Doctor Who in the Fourth Doctor Adventure Managra. Until then, though…

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper