Virgin New Adventures Reviews: Theatre of War by Justin Richards (or, “Brax in the Future”)

Throughout the darkened, musty cloisters of Doctor Who fandom (read: bedrooms), one debate that has raged long and loud is that of radical versus traditional approachs to storytelling, or “rad vs. trad,” as it is often more commonly known.

Such a debate is immeasurably relevant to any discussion of the Virgin New Adventures, a series which pushed the franchise into bold and, more often than not, controversial storytelling practices. Casual swearing, sex, drinking and violence, along with a generally more angsty tone and a manipulative, morally questionable Doctor are just some of the reasons why this line’s legacy is still controversial, nearly 30 years after its beginning.

In such an environment, one almost gets the impression that there were no traditional writers whatsoever. Indeed, Justin Richards isn’t the type of author one would expect to flourish in an atmosphere like that of the VNAs. That’s not to say that Richards’ work lacks sophistication or talent, mind, but from the pieces of his oeuvre which I’ve read, they are generally more traditional, familiarly-structured stories, where A leads to B and neither’s nature is ever really in too much question, give or take a mystery here and there.

Yet we begin his literary career with a tale of manipulations, grey morality and a situation where it is unclear who precisely is the villain. An author playing outside of their strengths is occasionally great cause for concern. So it’s a pleasure, and indeed something of a minor miracle, that Theatre of War works as well as it does.

The Positives

Benny. Benny, Benny, Benny. In practically all regards, this is her book. Barring the Prologue (or Rehearsal as it’s known, in keeping with the theatrical theme of the novel) and a brief sequence featuring the Doctor and Ace, the first three chapters occur exclusively from the good Professor’s point of view, following on from her three-month-long dig on Phaester Osiris after the end of Legacy.

Theatre of War feels like a reaction, in a way, to how poorly Gary Russell handled Bernice, and most other things besides, in the preceding book. There’s pretty much no chance this is the case practically, given the two books were probably written concurrently and as such had no influence on each other one way or the other. Yet it’s worth noting that Richards does many of the same things, but better. The opening solo sequences on Menaxus with the Heletian archaeologists allow her to show her knowledge in a much more credible and believable way than just constantly fawning over Ice Warriors.

Of course, it’s not just Benny who proves her archaeology cred. Unlike the murder “mystery” on Peladon, no-one is made unrealistically and irritatingly idiotic purely in service of the plot’s momentum. Even the token “redshirt” troopers get a couple of ideas in.

Speaking of redshirts, this ties in to another point I made last time. There’s something decidedly Star Trek, or perhaps more specifically The Next Generation, about a narrative framework which, for a time at least, focuses on people making observations and suggestions in a conference-style format. This is a far more meaningful thematic connection than any of Legacy‘s talk about negotiations involving the politics of a Federation or descriptions of spaceships and nacelles.

Theatre also doesn’t fall into the trap of building the Doctor up by making everyone else incredibly stupid, or even vice versa. Although the Doctor deduces the Dream Machine’s true nature, and some of its purpose, it’s Bernice who figures out the source documents all had to have been written by the same author (which is a quite clever way of integrating the Source Documents preceding each Chapter, because, in reality, they were indeed all written by the same person: Justin Richards). It’s Bernice who Braxiatel approaches to reveal his plan (although, granted, at that point he doesn’t know the Doctor’s involved). Speaking of which…

Ah, Irving Braxiatel. Yet another wonderful creation of the New Adventures. So amiable and delightfully smug, yet it all conceals one of the most devious, downright diabolical minds in all of Doctor Who, at least among nominally good characters. It’s quite impressive how much of his eponymous Collection is formed right from the outset here, practically just waiting to be used as the backdrop for the Benny-era NAs three years hence.

Indeed, I could practically hear Miles Richardson’s delivery of every line. Once things started becoming odd, I immediately jumped to the conclusion that Brax was behind it all, but then again, I have 25 years’ worth of hindsight to work with. The man has two-thirds of an ancient, evil Time Lord President inside his head (or maybe he doesn’t… I’m not quite sure where this falls in his timeline; it could very well be after Fenman removes it), and erased Benny’s twins from existence.

Yet that’s the genius of Justin Richards. Even if you can figure out how things are likely going to play out, he still manages to make it so incredibly satisfying when they finally do click into place. The final twist, that Lannic was probably a construct of the Dream Machine all along, is just the proverbial icing on a cake of many twists and turns.

Even if Brax isn’t really the villain here, he still did plan on unleashing an army of killer robots on the Heletians. I’m pretty sure the Doctor wouldn’t even consider that. But then again, we’ve seen the man wipe out at least two solar systems, not to mention an entire universe. Brax, then, serves as a not-so-dark mirror of the Doctor, a comparison made all the more apt by… later revelations.

The idea that the Doctor, of all people, would be scared to meet someone who had managed to out-manipulate him is quite effective, however flippantly Ace and Bernice might laugh it off. It really does set him up as a person who you would not want to cross, right from the outset.

Both Ace and the Doctor are also very well-characterised. I touched on the genius of having the Doctor be unnerved at being outsmarted by Braxiatel, as well as how he isn’t treated as unrealistically stupid or smart, so there’s not too much more to say there. I will say, however, that Ace is pretty good here too. She’s impulsive and headstrong, but not to an unbelievable, irritating extent. Certainly better than being shipped off to some barely-tangible subplot with no impact.

Richards also makes full use of the medium of prose in the sequences where characters get adapted into theatrical sequences, repeating language for effect in a way one simply couldn’t do on screen. On top of all that, there’s even some excellent action sequences to be had. The living mud statues are a great concept, even despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that they’re not quite as they appear. They lend the whole first act a most enjoyable “Base Under Siege Story” atmosphere of the kind so often encountered by the Second Doctor. The sequences featuring the Rippearean cruiser chasing the Heletian orbiter are suitably tense as well.

The Negatives

Yet, despite all this, there is one main, fairly noticeable flaw in Theatre of War, in retrospect at least. One’s enjoyment will depend, in great part, on whether they are willing to look past this. That flaw is the characterisation of the guest cast.

One of the final scenes, for instance, involves Lannic revealing to the Exec that she has been attempting to ingratiate herself to get revenge for her husband’s brutal treatment by Heletian forces. As shocking as this reveal is in the moment, it does reveal a problem with the characterisation/backstory of Lannic and indeed the other characters: it’s practically nonexistent.

Each member of the Heletian guest cast is woefully underdeveloped and one-dimensional, hitting a specific basic emotion/personality trait and not much else. I’d also take issue with the decision to kill off the most interesting and fleshed-out guest character, Gilmanuk, halfway through. Surely Klasvik or someone could have been sacrificed instead? It just felt odd to me that he would be the one to survive.

I also didn’t really feel much of a sense of urgency from the whole Rippearean threat, barring the aforementioned chase sequence. Really the whole of the Heletian political landscape didn’t really come together quite as well as one might hope. The revelation that they were right bastards could have been more properly seeded throughout the book prior. For an aspect introduced in the last third, though, I think it was about as good as it could have been.

These flaws are only truly obvious in retrospect, though, and didn’t really detract at all from my reading experience, as I was quite engrossed throughout. They’re also very minor compared to the sheer quality of everything else, yet it still has to be mentioned, in the interests of fairness.

Miscellaneous Observations

Despite my complaints about the one-dimensional Heletians, I will admit that I found Bannahilk’s death due to his sleazy attraction to Ace quite amusing. It was a nice subversion of the tedious Ace romance plots. Although this was more akin to imminent sexual harassment than romance, I suppose. Either way, I don’t want to say he deserved to get killed by a sentient mud statue, but he totally deserved to get killed by a sentient mud statue.

OK, I don’t usually do this, but it’s time to go into Fan Theory Mode: Did Brax really live on KS-159 for about 1300 years between the Bernice-era New Adventures, which feature the Braxiatel Collection in the 27th century, and this, which occurs definitively in 3985? Or is there some kind of time travel involved here? Either one would be just as believable with Brax, quite honestly.

Useless Fun Fact: Coupled with my subtitle for my review of White Darkness, this marks the second time I’ve made a pun on Back to the Future in a review subtitle. Please don’t sue, Robert Zemeckis.

Final Thoughts

Despite some extremely minor flaws, this is a work of stunning creativity and intelligence. Fantastic regulars, a superb introduction for Brax, and a plot whose complexity more than lives up to Richards’ reputation. All but erases the memory of the awful taste left by Legacy.

Join us next time, when we’ll ask and answer the question, “What’s better than Sherlock Holmes teaming up with the Doctor?”

SPOILER: The answer is, of course, “Sherlock Holmes teaming up with the Doctor to fight monsters from H. P. Lovecraft.”

That’s right, we’re taking a look at the solo debut of Andy Lane in All-Consuming Fire!

But until then,

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

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Virgin New Adventures Reviews: Legacy by Gary Russell (or, “The Reign of Error”)

Well, it had to end eventually, didn’t it?

We’ve been on a pretty good run of quality here at the VNAs for the past few books. We had The Left-Handed Hummingbird followed up immediately by Conundrum, and even though No Future and Tragedy Day are nowhere near the same standard, they’re still entertaining and enjoyable. Not so for Legacy.

This book sets the unfortunate trend which will be followed by many a Gary Russell novel over the years: it’s dull, bloated and overly long, with pointless helpings of continuity which, more often than not, isn’t even correct. This time on the sequelitis, we’re returning the planet Peladon, as seen in two classic Third Doctor adventures, The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon.

I should probably mention upfront that I’m not intimately familiar with these stories like a great deal of other fans are. The last time I watched Curse, I still had a crappy, tiny CRT television, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched Monster at all.

But from what I remember of Curse, I don’t hold it in the usual high esteem. I recall it being a fairly dull, obvious and predictable allegory for Britain joining the EEC, which was topical back in ’72. Funny how the reverse is topical now, isn’t it? But anyway.

My point is this: How many of you would watch a Doctor Who story centred around the actual UK-EEC debate? As in, no aliens or anything, just Nigel Farage and David Cameron (or their ’70s analogues; I don’t know much about this topic, shut) arguing while “intrigue” occurs in the background. For 100 minutes. Probably not very many of you.

Wait a minute, this isn’t a review of The Curse of Peladon, is it? Well, I mention all this because, while Legacy is undoubtedly a god-awful slog of a book, this, in a way, (and solely in my opinion, mind) makes it a perfect sequel to the Peladon saga. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it anywhere close to a perfect book. Quite the contrary, in fact.

But I like to always look on the bright side of life (distant whistling intensifies), so before I get too vicious, let’s take a brief detour to…

The Positives

Uh… Bernice is given plenty to do, I guess? After a few books where she is effectively relegated to the Doctor’s side, she’s finally given the chance to do her own thing.

It’s a shame that “her own thing,” in this instance, doesn’t really entail anything all that interesting, but more on that in a minute.

I think there was also one occasion where I chuckled slightly from a witty line, but I can’t remember what it was, and I don’t really care enough to find out, so shove off.

That’s… really it, to be honest, so as much as I want to give this book a fair chance, it’s time to enter…

The Negatives

Oh boy, where do I even begin.

Well, the beginning sounds like as good a place as any, I suppose. This is going to be a lot more of a plot recap than I usually do; wasn’t really intentional, just kind of worked out like that, and it’s sadly necessary because there’s so much that is so gloriously wrong that it’s really the only way I can convey it all.

The glorified prologue, marked as Part One, is completely and utterly extraneous to the entire book. There is not a shred of information here which I either cared about or was relevant. It is just page after page of useless, fanwanky Peladon history which I don’t feel that even the most devout fanboys would care about. It also feels like it’s trying to do an old-fashioned swords and sorcery type epic, which might have been cool if it had been further developed. As it is, it just seems like an excuse for egregious violence.

Then we get what is quite possibly the most pointless scene in anything ever, outside of weird arthouse films with vignettes that go nowhere. For whatever reason, we are treated to a scene of the tribunal from The War Games (including Chancellor Goth of The Deadly Assassin, which I’m pretty sure is meant to confirm that both characters, being played by Bernard Horsfall, are canonically the same person, but again, I don’t care) arguing over whether to send the Third Doctor to Peladon shortly before the events of Curse. Oh and they happen to be having this conversation on the space station from The Trial of a Time Lord because, again, fanwank.

Even the poor man’s Conan part could potentially be argued to have some significance, given it explains the history of the planet where the action will take place. It’s uninteresting background info with no bearing on the plot, but it’s background info nonetheless.

But who on Earth cared that Chancellor Goth sent the Doctor to Peladon? Who cared that the pre-emptive meeting took place on the space station? Gary Russell, that’s who.

It’s not as if this book is short on pages, either. In fact, it’s the longest book since Blood Heat, and the first to crack 300 pages since then, just barely scraping by at 301, and by God does it feel it.

After the prologue that never should have been, followed by an Interlude to set up the MacGuffin of the week, the Doctor and Bernice arrive at the headquarters of the Galactic Federation on Io, while Ace goes off to pursue the MacGuffin – more on her later. We suffer through an exposition dump from the orange-skinned political leader (hey, I won’t make any political jokes if you don’t) and meet his insufferable son, Kort. Kort is set up to be acknowledged as annoying by practically everyone. I don’t really know about the wisdom of creating an annoying character with no real redeeming qualities, but whatever.

So the Doctor and Bernice go on board the Federation cruiser Bruk, where, because this is a Peladon story, we meet our requisite Ice Lord and Ice Warrior, Savaar and Sskeet respectively. They’re boring, shit and I don’t care about them. Next.

Although, I will say before I move on, why are the Doctor and Bernice taking the cruiser exactly? It’s not as if they’re lacking access to a mode of transport which can travel through space and time at nigh-instantaneous speeds. Again, I’m going to not think too hard about this, because if I did I think I’d have a brain aneurysm.

Because they’re on the Bruk, though, the plot gets dragged out some more. We get some dull scenes of Bernice supposedly being witty with Savaar, exposition on some Martian sword that is lifted from some unofficial sourcebook and is (say it with me now) completely extraneous. Shocker.

This is also where we meet Gary Russell’s favourite tool for this novel, the eavesdropping. There are so many conversations that are eavesdropped on over the course of this novel that it beggars belief. It’s reminiscent of conversations being played back on TV screens in The Natural History of Fear, but where Jim Mortimore was making a thematic point, Gary Russell is going for cheap intrigue.

So, the Bruk arrives at Peladon. We meet the conflicted young king, the wise chancellor, and the batshit insane high priestess of Aggedor, all of whom are just carbon copies of their equivalents from Curse. You see, Peladon is debating whether to remain in the Galactic Federation or not, while the King must also make his biennial restatement vows. Riveting.

Because we don’t have nearly enough deja vu going on, the ever-annoying Alpha Centauri shows up and I still don’t care.

We have some conversations about a master criminal seeking to bring the MacGuffin to Peladon, who I’m sure bears no relationship to the charming yet guarded Federation entrepeneur who Benny is infatuated with and who only just arrived on the planet after being delayed. That would just be silly.

It was at this point that I started realising just how glacially slow this all was. Let’s inject some excitement, shall we?

A guard who we’ve never seen before gets murdered. Yawn. Oh well, back to talking about the murder and not actually doing anything about it.

Oh no, now some previously-unnamed background extra from Curse/Monster is dead! Again, yawn. We’re supposed to care about her because she’s supposedly a dear friend of the Doctor’s, but we’ve never even seen her before, so it’s just confusing. You can’t just go “Oh she was totally there all along!” and just make up some bullshit character. Well, you can, but you’ll get rightly criticised for it.

Except this time, the Doctor’s holding the lance which impaled her. gasp

D’you know what time it is? Oh yeah, I think you know what time it is. It’s “totally convincing, not fake murder trial” time, woo everybody! Why are none of you clapping?

So yeah we have to suffer through two chapters of “The Doctor is totally going to be executed, you guys!” It makes for a striking cover, but even if we didn’t have 25 further years of adventures, would anyone really have believed this? At least garbage television episodes have the decency to pull this bollocks at the start of the story rather than making us wait through 60% of it to get to it. By that point, you’re not feeling particularly forgiving, which makes it even worse.

It turns out that, surprise surprise, the Doctor isn’t actually dead. I know, be still my beating heart. It was all a ploy to convince the xenophobic Priestess, Atissa, that the Federation influences were all destroyed. Speaking of which, now’s as good a time as any to talk about Atissa.

She’s an awful character. Really, everyone is, and I’m so sorry, because I feel I’m repeating myself ad nauseam, but if Gary Russell can get away with it, so can I. Atissa falls into the trap of using cliched dialogue every ten seconds. In particular, she really loves to pull the same statement-starting trick. Someone will say, “You are X.” Atissa will, nine times out of ten, respond with “X? X? How dare you, Aggedor really good and ur nan a fat quite honestly, btw the Federation smells like poopoo.” That’s just about all the nuance there is to it, i.e. none.

Oh yeah and then she just disappears from the book, because this is clearly a masterpiece of plotting. Well she doesn’t actually disappear, she just gets no comeuppance whatsoever and is allowed to exile herself into the wastelands without fear of punishment. If anything, she technically wins, because Peladon ends up leaving the Federation anyway. But we’re not quite there yet.

It’s then uncovered that the charming yet guarded Federation entrepeneur who Benny is infatuated with, and who only just arrived on the planet after being delayed, is actually the master criminal! Woah! Honestly, my cardiovascular system just gave out at this point, surprise is just piling upon surprise!

It turns out that there’s been some Ice Warriors hiding in the caverns under Peladon all along, so it’s time for a big, dumb action finale! Some shit blows up, the criminal falls down a big hole, the Ice Warrior ship blows up the shuttle containing the MacGuffin, which by now has possessed one of the mercenaries, Tarrol tells the Federation to stuff it, everything’s over, and I still don’t care at all.

Oh, and it even ends with a sequel tease. Yeah, sure. Fuck off already.

Notice anything in all that mess? Apart from it being a mess, of course. Not once did I mention Ace. Like I mentioned earlier, Ace is supposedly on the trail of the MacGuffin, but does so little it’s actually laughable. Her contributions to the plot can be summed up as: finds a dead Pakhar, finds the dead archaeological dig, gets on a shuttle and follows the mercenaries, gets discovered and returns to Io. Wow. I guess Gary Russell just really hated the character?

Then again, maybe he just realised he couldn’t write for her, which is a perfectly reasonable epiphany to come to. Ace is introduced looking at weaponry, and is frequently described as stroking and cradling a blaster as if it were an infant. I have no words.

Well, actually I do. Try them: I’m a bigger defender of New Ace than most, but, every now and then, a woefully incompetent author comes along and demonstrates that they have no idea how to write for the character, and treat the whole false machismo act as completely and utterly real rather than anything more complex, which does Ace a great disservice. To give you a sense of just how bad it gets, have a sequence where Russell really wants to remind you of Julian from Love and War:

Julian. [The dead boy’s] name was Julian. Just like her Julian.

See also: Subtlety, Masterful.

Ace isn’t the only character to get a poor showing in the characterisation department.

This time, it’s apparently Bernice’s turn to be saddled with an embarrassingly poor romance plot. I already alluded to it briefly, but I think it’s best summed up by the scene where we divert the plot to have a scene between Alpha Centauri and Benny where, as seems to be the status quo, I didn’t care a jot. Not too much to say here, it’s just bad.

The Doctor, however, is so wildly out of character that it actually hurts. Once again, we jettison the Master Manipulator in favour of the Clueless Clown. Once again, Gary Russell proves he can’t do subtlety too well, literally featuring scenes of the Doctor playing chess.

Now, what’s so bad about that, you might ask? The Curse of Fenric and Love and War both featured chess, just to name a few. You’re right, but in those stories it’s thematically relevant, whereas here there’s not even a split-second where I felt the Doctor was manipulating events or knew more than he was telling. OK, he did know more than he was telling, but it was more frustrating than compelling. Russell seems to think the best way to make a character appear really smart is to make everyone else unrealistically stupid.

Thankfully, this is the only Doctor-era New Adventure from him, so we don’t have to sit through more woeful characterisation. Maybe his obsession for continuity will lead to him actually getting the personalities of past TARDIS teams correct in his Missing Adventures. Hey, one can only dream.

Miscellaneous Observations

I know it’s been pointed out before, but please explain to me how Alpha Centauri could be unable to identify their attacker? For those of you who are unfamiliar with this character’s appearance, allow me to elucidate:

alphacentauribodyshot

Half their head is an eyeball, how stupid can you possibly be?

What is up with the Doctor’s distrusting and downright racist attitude to the Ice Warriors? I know he’s had bad experiences with them, and he was also suspicious in The Curse of Peladon, but that was four incarnations ago, and he was proven wrong on that occasion at least. He also didn’t seem to give any indication of this prejudice when visiting their hives with Kadiatu in Transit.

One thing that hit me, and maybe it’s just because I’m on something of a Berman-era Star Trek binge at the moment, is how closely the depiction of the Galactic Federation seems to mirror the portrayal of the United Federation of Planets. I could vividly picture the Okudagrams in my mind’s eye.

This is 1994, after all, so pretty much peak Star Trek. In fact, we’re just one month away from the airing of The Next Generation‘s finale, All Good Things… Coincidence? I think not.

Also, for those of you playing the home game, this is the 25th New Adventure. Time sure flies, doesn’t it? Just under a year ago I was only up to Nightshade, reading at Dreamworld. Funny how life throws you for a loop sometimes. But don’t fret, we’ve still got plenty more to go!

Final Thoughts

So, is this the worst New Adventure I’ve ever read? Nope. It’s fairly competently-written, all things considered. From a language point of view, at least. It’s just a shame it was wasted on such a lazy, tedious plot. It’s not on the same level as something like Shadowmind or The Pit, but then again that’s not exactly high praise, is it? It’s still unquestionably the worst book of 1994 so far, but we shall see how things pan out.

Next time, we set up much of the Braxiatel Collection that will be seen in the later Benny-era NAs, including its esteemed owner, in Justin Richards’ Theatre of War. Hopefully we’ll climb out of this rut of low quality. Until then, however…

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

Virgin New Adventures Reviews: Tragedy Day by Gareth Roberts (or, “Would You Like Friars With That?”)

Man, the past five books were really moody and angst-filled, weren’t they?

That fact didn’t really hit me until Tragedy Day, which offers the perfect jovial, light-hearted palate cleanser after the Alternate History Cycle’s talk of war, genocide, human sacrifice, murder, anarchy, political conflict etc. All things considered, I’m amazed I managed to get through the whole thing without losing faith in humanity and jumping off a bridge or something, as enjoyable as it was.

And who better to author such a humorous work than Gareth Roberts? Roberts’ previous work, The Highest Science, was my personal pick as frontrunner for the Book of the Year award through most of 1993, until Kate Orman managed to just barely sneak The Left-Handed Hummingbird in under the radar in December.

It was a book which had just about everything, really. A perfect balance between witty dialogue and deadly-serious drama, great characterisation for almost everyone, the Eight-Twelves notwithstanding, and a fantastic new alien race in the form of the Chelonians. Not to mention that it was the first book to give Benny something to do, which had been sorely lacking from her two previous appearances.

So after all that, surely nothing could hold a candle to Roberts’ debut, right? And, as we’ll see, nothing really did.

Let’s get down to business, shall we?

The Positives

OK, maybe that’s a bit unfair. A whole host of things in this world are worse than The Highest Science, and Tragedy Day still has quite a few good elements, so let’s focus on those now shall we?

The world-building of Olleril is quite well-done. I had no trouble from the first few chapters believing that this was a society with a mass of citizens. Actual characters were rarer, but… no, stay positive damn it!

Some of the characters are quite good. For the regulars, it was quite nice to have the TARDIS crew no longer at each other’s throats 24/7. I’d kinda forgotten how that felt. Bernice is kinda relegated to being at the Doctor’s side, but then Ace doesn’t exactly strike out on her own all that much either, really. This isn’t a criticism, and ties into the necessity of a book like this.

We’ve spent the better part of a year in PT seeing the Doctor and his companions divided along lines so sharp you’ve got to be careful not to cut yourself, and while that makes for some great drama, I think it would’ve gotten tiresome by the time we see Ace leave in Set Piece eleven months down the line, so I welcome this change with open arms.

There are a few standouts among the guest cast, too. Forgwyn is great, conveying a mixture of exasperation and indifference (sounds like a contradiction, I know, but it works, trust me) to the lifestyle and ways of his pregnant assassin mother. Speaking of said mother, she’s a lot less interesting, having no less than two convenient changes of heart, a problem which does seem to afflict this book’s characters a bit, as we’ll see. The most intriguing moments are to do with Ace’s comparison between Meredith and herself, which could probably have been mined for more, but was alright as it was.

The Supreme One of Luminus being in actuality a twelve-year-old boy is quite an inspired idea, particularly when people in the organisation start questioning his leadership. I don’t quite know why it’s treated as a big reveal that Crispin is the Supreme One. I already knew the plot twist because in reading about this series as a whole I’ve spoiled myself countless times, but even then, the Supreme One is explicitly described as wearing pyjamas, enjoying a biscuit as a snack before going to sleep, which are hardly typical behaviours for an adult. (Incidentally, if you are an adult and this does happen to be your bedtime routine, I don’t care; generalisation is the spice of life, as a wise no-one once said… I don’t particularly wish to hear about your nighttime routine either, thanks).

Shrubb is the only other real villain I enjoyed (I’ll get onto Ernie McCartney later), and he really surprised me, and not just because of the bizarre plot twist they pulled out of nowhere towards the end. At first, I thought he was just a stock henchman type, and although he had some good lines, I didn’t expect he’d be anything special. Even his over-the-top politeness towards the Doctor just seemed like weird characterisation at odds with his otherwise gruff exterior. Little did I know that it was not only perfectly in character, but all to conceal a deeper menace.

Because, you see, Shrubb… is fucking insane. There’s really no other way to put it. As Luminus approach Tragedy Day and the completion of their plans, Shrubb becomes gleefully enthusiastic, taking every chance to recite the cult’s teachings to the Doctor, and ending up foaming at the mouth on numerous occasions. And I love him. Even Crispin gets unnerved by his lackey’s zeal, and the two of them make a great Holmesian double act. I’ll touch on the strange direction the character takes further on, but suffice it to say that, all-in-all, it still didn’t detract from what I saw as an excellent guest star.

The A-plot, involving a secret society’s attempts to pattern the entire planet around a fictional sitcom, has the typical Roberts zaniness, but it’s treated with the appropriate gravitas where it never feels like it’s taking the piss, yet also never seems so po-faced that it stops being fun.

Some might say that the point it’s making about society being slaved to sitcoms and celebrity culture is hammered home to a ridiculous extent, to the point where the celebrities of Olleril are literally robots. Those people probably have a point, but I’d personally take a novel with an entertainingly-presented, albeit repetitive, point over meaningless tripe like Shadowmind or Witch Mark any day.

Finally, in the Slaags, we have a suitably menacing and grotesque monster. I don’t have too much to say about them, but they’re by no means bad additions. Solid yet unremarkable, as I am often fond of describing things.

But it’s not all quality entertainment in Empire City (where the Slaags are green and the Celebroids are pretty? I got nothin’), as we shall discover in…

The Negatives

So the main plot is entertaining and fulfilling, that we have established. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, we have this weird, half-baked sub-plot that feels like a completely different book.

In essence, long ago, in the Doctor’s first incarnation, before the start of the series in An Unearthly Child, he and Susan visited the planet Olleril and cured the natives of a radiation-induced blight which had been plaguing their society.

Afterwards, he took a mysterious piece of red glass with him. Unfortunately, said glass happened to belong to these super spooky (p)sychic Satan dudes (and the alliteration was going so well, too) called the Friars of Pangloss.

Confused? Yeah, I don’t blame you.

This confusion only really started to set in for me around the time a flashback involving Susan and Barbara occurred. It’s so weirdly continuity-heavy for a Roberts novel. Granted, it’s nowhere near Gary Russell levels, – ooh, foreshadowing – and it’s not continuity in the traditional sense per se, not relying on any previous stories, but the fact is that this is a crucial part of the plot which hinges on events which happened long ago in the Doctor’s personal time-stream, but which we were never privy to until now. And that feels more than a little like a cheat.

Then the Friars themselves show up, and again, it feels like someone has used highly advanced technology to snatch Tragedy Day by Gareth Roberts out of my very hands and replace it with some… weird faux-Biblical bullshit!

Ostensibly, this plot connects with the main one through the Friars hiring assassins to hunt and kill the Doctor on Olleril, but in actuality, the two plotlines just kind of happen parallel to each other, never meaningfully crossing paths.

The Satan Crew also have even more appearances peppered throughout the book, because the disconnect wasn’t jarring enough, I guess.

Finally, as if to prove my point about just how feeble and futile this story was, the Doctor and the TARDIS are transported to Pangloss in the penultimate chapter, and we get the big showdown we’ve been waiting for… supposedly.

These guys have been built up for the entire book, so what do they do to our hero? Uh, nothing, really. I mean, they transform themselves into trees, which is cool, I guess? Oh and they talk in that really verbose and annoying way, which is really fun too! Wait, no, the other word… it escapes my memory at the moment… oh yeah, that’s the one: shite.

But we’re not done yet. As if they haven’t already become woefully disappointing, they then get the Doctor to pilot the TARDIS to Olleril. Upon their arrival there, they are defeated by a dancefloor. Now hold up, it’s not quite as stupid as it sounds. The dancefloor emits a pulse of antimatter, which robs them of their powers, because said powers are fuelled by heat.

OK, I lied, that’s still pretty stupid.

This dancefloor was set up as part of a one-off joke a couple of chapters earlier, and to make it the key to the entire plot (well, a crappy side-plot, but I digress) doesn’t add ingenuity to the story, but rather an extra layer of confusion, disappointment, and stupidity.

Right, Friars rant over. Now to other stuff that doesn’t work.

I earlier complimented a few of the characterisation decisions of this book (and The Highest Science, for that matter), but unfortunately not everyone is quite as well-rounded as these gifted few. What is the point of knowing the bartender’s backstory, exactly? His inner monologue has a few good lines, but that’s hardly a good enough justification for spending our time on him. What does the knowledge that his wife is sick add? It goes nowhere and is barely mentioned, except when his bar is burnt down and she presumably dies of smoke inhalation.

What a joyous and meaningful ending to that plotline. Who wrote that, Jim Mortimore?

Both the assassins are pretty weak. Yes, I said it, both. Everyone seems to heap praise on Ernie McCartney, the Yorkshire-accented sharpshooting spider mutant on the cover, but I just don’t see it. Maybe my expectations were too high, I dunno. He seems rather like a one-trick pony. The joke is usually that he doesn’t like humans, is oblivious to how alarming he appears to humans, or casually blows something up, and for Gareth Roberts that’s pretty weak.

It was funny the first time, in his introduction, but it simply got tired, and I honestly didn’t feel as regretful as some people apparently did when he was ultimately killed off. The best jokes to do with him are the TARDIS crew’s understandably bemused reactions to the situation. So, yeah, rather than being a supposed “saving grace” of this book’s comedy, he’s probably the weakest comedic element for me.

I already touched on Meredith, and she works a lot better than Ernie but still isn’t great.

Then we have Crispin’s change of heart towards the end. While the idea of an evil genius suddenly losing all self-confidence in himself thanks to the onset of puberty is quite amusing (especially Bernice’s nonplussed reaction to discovering Crispin’s crush on her), and there’s some genuinely powerful writing here and there, it’s just far too sudden. It’s the quickest and most convenient villain turnaround since Carrefour and the lab scientists in White Darkness.

Oh yeah and as great as Shrubb is, he’s involved in a weird plot twist where it turns out he was a Celebroid the whole time *gasp*. There’s even a dramatic moment where the real, organic Shrubb has his life-support turned off. Am… am I supposed to care? I only ever knew the robot! It’s really just very baffling.

To be entirely fair to Roberts, I think this is just a natural side-effect of scaling up the size of the secondary cast from The Highest Science. Some characters end up well-written, whereas others are more lacking. I think any author would be hard-pressed to scale up from writing a couple disparate groups of misfits on a barren, uninhabited planet to an entire, functioning society in their second book, and he does a pretty good job in spite of that.

Miscellaneous Observations

Oh yeah and there’s also some Zsa Zsa Gabor analogue who appears briefly and is killed off? Honestly don’t have too much to say about her, really.

Once again, an obviously not intentional allusion, but nowadays the toppling of General Stillmun’s statue can’t help but evoke images of the Saddam Hussein statue’s similar fate. Or maybe I’m just looking too hard for things that aren’t there.

The setting up of the dancefloor for use in the climax may be somewhat stupid, but it does at least give me the opportunity to use the phrase Chekhov’s Dancefloor. How many chances am I gonna get to say that in this life?

Incidentally, Chekhov’s Dancefloor sounds like a Star Trek edition of Dancing with the Stars hosted by Walter Koenig. Make it happen, folks.

Final Thoughts

So, while it has some issues with melding two plots together, as well as characterisation, on the whole I feel this was an enjoyable, inoffensive story which served to remind me that the universe isn’t quite as shit as the Alternate History Cycle makes it out to be.

We seem to regrettably be on a bit of a downward trajectory at the moment. Tragedy Day is not quite as good as No Future which is nowhere near as good as Conundrum. However, none of these books are ones I could really say are “bad,” per se.

Time to change all that.

Do you remember Peladon? Well, Gary Russell sure does, and he’s gonna let you know alllll about it in Legacy. He’s jumping into the Authorship Pool and continuity will never be the same. Cornell help us all. But that’s next time.

Until then,

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

Virgin New Adventures Reviews: No Future by Paul Cornell (or, “The Invasion of Peter Butterworth and the GLAD Wrap of Doom”)

First things first: I love Paul Cornell.

That much should probably be obvious by the fact that he’s a two-time winner of my Book of the Year award. OK, technically I never made a Year in Review for 1991, but rest assured, Revelation would easily have won. I mean, its only real competition was Terrance Dicks’ Exodus, and they’re still not really in the same league of quality or complexity.

Regardless, Cornell is, in my eyes, the definitive voice of the New Adventures. If it weren’t for Revelation or Love and War, the line would have turned out completely differently.

So it’s bizarre, then, that his third outing in the Who universe, the first in over a year, should be such a… non-entity, especially when it’s concluding a story arc which, as these things go, has been remarkably strong.

No Future is not as bad as fans (and, allegedly, the author himself) would have you believe. Equally, however, it is nowhere near representative of Cornell’s abilities. As such, in the vein of my Iceberg review, I shall forego the typical Positive/Negative structure.

Typically, one can find something of a critical consensus among fans as regards a story’s quality. There may be a few outliers here and there, but generally people concur at the end of the day. Not so here.

Reading No Future is like trying to keep a roiling, shifting ball of liquid in your hands. Every time you think you’ve got a hold on it, it swerves in another direction and makes you question whether you ever did.

So you can see the corner I’m in here, I’m sure. The book is quite profound at times, quite simplistic at others. Now, simplicity is not a bad thing. I don’t need every story to have the complicated, twisting narrative flow of something like The Left-Handed Hummingbird. Far from it. I think there’s a beauty in just telling a story in a straightforward manner that is sadly underappreciated sometimes. I do, however, like my stories to be… interesting?

This’ll be getting spoilery, but I honestly don’t really care anymore, because I doubt anyone will be able to read these books anyway, and those who are dedicated enough to track them down probably don’t care about spoilers after 25 years anyway.

Righto, then. No Future is the culmination of the Alternate History Cycle which the past four books have been a part of, including finally revealing the identity of the guilty party. And it’s… the Monk. Yeah. Him.

Now, I love The Time Meddler. I love The Daleks’ Master Plan (well, the three surviving episodes that I’ve seen, but I digress). I love both Peter Butterworth and Graeme Garden’s turns as the Monk. But… seriously? The Monk? The Monk is who you chose as your big bad?

He’s a character who really requires a good performance to bring him to life, I feel. This is definitely borne out by the fact that, confined to the medium of prose as he is here, he just kind of reads like a second-rate version of the Master. The fact that the Monk has never been the villain of another novel only further proves my point.

Of course, the Master couldn’t realistically have filled his spot here, because he’ll be back in a few books’ time, and it would be quite a dull, uninteresting reveal to go “It was the Master the whole time! Again!” Say what you want, but the revelation (no pun intended) that it’s the Monk is certainly… interesting.

Part of that reason is to do with the dreaded C word. That’s right. Chichester. No, I’m talking about continuity. This is a subject I don’t usually touch on in my reviews, because until now it’s been really nitpicky stuff that doesn’t have an impact on a book’s overall quality. Here, though, the error impacts the reader’s understanding of the Monk’s motivations for this whole Cycle.

OK, so the Monk’s plan is based on getting revenge on the Doctor for marooning him on an ice planet in his second and final TV appearance. This is why he keeps his TARDIS cold, and eventually he even ends up leaving the Doctor on said ice planet. But here’s the kicker… That never happened.

Yes, Episode 10 of The Daleks’ Master Plan (or Escape Switch if you want to be pedantic) ends with the Monk on an ice planet, but he’s quite explicitly not marooned. To quote, verbatim, from the scene in question:

The Monk: A planet of ice? I didn’t set course for this. The Doctor again. The Doctor. He’s stolen my directional unit. Now I’ll have to wander through time and space as lost as he is. I’ll get you for this, Doctor! I’ll get you one day!

So there you have it. He’s still able to travel, and while he does vow vengeance, it doesn’t make sense that he claims to have been marooned. You could probably fix it by saying that between that passage and some indeterminate point he ends up ruining a vital component or something, but A. that’s pretty clearly not what Cornell intended and B. it doesn’t make sense why he’d blame the Doctor for that. Just very sloppy work.

And all of that without mentioning the other not-so-spectacular final boss of this pentalogy: the Vardans. The Vardans are pretty infamous for being among the cheapest, most laughable villains to appear on the show. In their only televised appearance, 1978’s The Invasion of Time, they were introduced as beings of pure energy who can travel along any waveform, including thought. However, what they actually ended up resembling were sheets of tinfoil, rustling a bit and unconvincingly CSO-ed onto the footage.

The Monk may never have been a particularly convincing threat, but at least I could believe he was real. Granted, you don’t really need special effects to depict a humanoid, but you see what I mean. And again, I should mention that the show was going through some severe budget woes at the time, due to their budget not having kept up with inflation and such. This is best exemplified by the cheapness of Season 15’s penultimate story, Underworld, whose egregious use of CSO makes the Vardans look like high artistry. Maybe some day I’ll get around to reviewing that travesty.

Anyway, got sidetracked. So, yeah. The Vardans aren’t really up to much, to say the least. Their plan is (I think…) to first of all use the technology of the Mediasphere (a realm the Vardans inhabit which presently plays host to a vast agglomeration of ’70s television; more on that later) to brainwash the population of Earth into being aggressive and anarchic, then take advantage of the situation to broadcast a concert across the globe, which will enable them to take over the bodies of all the humans watching. It’s at this point I start getting flashbacks to The Idiot’s Lantern. I don’t really want or need flashbacks to The Idiot’s Lantern.

Pretty standard plot, really. There’s nothing bad about that, to be fair. Love and War had a pretty simple, traditional plot. But then, it also had the Hoothi, who are in a whole other league from the Vardans. Even Revelation had the Timewyrm as well as the weird goings-on inside the Doctor’s mind, back before Virtual Reality shenanigans happened every other month, and the whole thing felt new and fresh.

Speaking of which, this month on Virtual Reality Shenanigans

Last time, Cornell gave us Puterspace, which was easily the weakest part of an otherwise stellar novel. This time, the Mediasphere. It probably doesn’t do itself any favours by coming directly after Conundrum, which is practically a textbook on how to do meta humour properly. By comparison, this can only seem half-assed at best.

And my God are some of the jokes weak. OK, it’s not that they’re weak per se, but man are they obscure. The entire chapter (yes, it’s only one chapter; for Christ’s sake, even Birthright gave us more than one chapter of Virtual Reality Shenanigans!) seems to take it for granted that everyone reading is intimately familiar with British television of the 1970s. This fails to take into account the people who weren’t around in the ’70s. Or aren’t British. Or don’t watch a lot of television to begin with. Or all three at once.

The only reference I was able to catch was the brief, amusing sequence parodying The Goodies, and even that took me a while. I guess you could count Professor X (no, not that one!), but it’s pretty much a given that I’ll know what Doctor Who is if I’m reading a Doctor Who book. The rest of it just had me sitting in utter bewilderment, trying to find anything to latch onto.

But here’s the thing. For all that I’ve just written about the novel’s drawbacks, I still really enjoyed it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if the Vardan invasion is a bit bare-bones, because that’s not what No Future is about, at its core. This is the logical culmination of all the angst between Ace and the Doctor since her return in Deceit. And nobody knows how to tug on an audience’s heartstrings quite like Cornell.

Benny is as great as you’d expect her to be, given this is a book written by her creator. She may not get a lot to do, but she gets quite a few great lines, and the introspective moments she has when she suspects Ace has betrayed the Doctor and caused his death are quite touching, especially when she seems fully prepared to kill her travelling companion.

Ace is a bit less consistent. While a lot of her musings, particularly those accompanied by Danny, are genuinely moving, others… well, I think I can best sum it up in this quote from the Prologue:

They didn’t understand that you could enjoy explosions and violence and murder and still be sane.

Yeah, I thought as much.

The UNIT family are always a delight, and I could practically hear the voices of the Brigadier, Benton and Yates in the back of my mind. The whole “Brigadier as a Buddhist” thing is a bit silly, to be honest, especially considering it’s never been mentioned before or since. I guess all memory of it was erased by the mind-wipe the Doctor performs at the end of the book? And while Claire Tennant may be woefully underdeveloped, Alex Pike the undercover Vardan is a true delight.

Finally, the Doctor’s portrayal is also interesting, being shown to be quite broken and remorseful for all the things he has done in the name of being Time’s Champion. It’s books like this that cause the argument that the VNAs turned the Doctor into a ruthless, cold, manipulator to fall apart.

Even in Love and War, he was sorrowful when Ace left at the end. He’s vowed to change his ways several times, and does again here, but at the end of the day the methods of the Ka Faraq Gatri win out, because that’s just who the Seventh Doctor is. Does that remorse excuse destroying Skaro, or manipulating Jan into killing himself? Well, if I gave a hard answer on that, that would undermine the VNAs’ whole examination of morality and grey areas, now, wouldn’t it?

And that’s what makes No Future, on the whole and despite numerous shortcomings, click. It fits with the VNAs’ understanding that, when all is said and done, Doctor Who doesn’t have to be about huge invasions with more CGI than you can shake a stick at. It can, in the hands of a talented author, be a tale of the emotions and interpersonal conflicts underpinning the interplanetary ones. Maybe I’m just a sentimental old git, and it probably helps that the book ended on said emotional note rather than the limp invasion plot, but in the end, I found myself thinking fondly of the book.

If you can, search it out. The journey might not always be perfect, but the destination is pretty worthwhile.

(PS: It’s a bit strange in hindsight to read the semi-excuses for terrorism and actions like destroying Big Ben; they’re just artists, are they? OK *tugs collar nervously and tries not to make eye contact*)

Next time, pregnant assassins, robot celebrities and soap operas! It’s the return of Gareth Roberts in Tragedy Day. Until then, though…

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

Virgin New Adventures Reviews: Conundrum by Steve Lyons (or, “Fiction Paradox”)

Meta humour is something I don’t typically like. To quote something I said in my review of The Highest Science, because I’m a lazy sod, too often “it just descends into the author annoyingly winking at you and digging his elbow into your stomach in a manner that, after a while, ends up making you feel like Harry Houdini on his last night on Earth.”

So, despite all the critical praise I had seen lauded upon it, I was slightly apprehensive about the humorous elements of this book, because it can so easily go so horribly wrong. Thankfully, Steve Lyons’ debut novel is not one of those works. Conundrum mixes drama, pathos, and laugh-out-loud humour to create a deeply enjoyable and memorable experience.

I have nothing further to say in this introduction, really, so let’s jump into…

The Positives

In order to discuss Conundrum‘s humour, I’m going to have to spoil a fairly pivotal plot point. It’s not as bad as it could be, given this plot point is one of the first things mentioned about the book on many of the sites discussing it, but still, fair warning if you don’t wish to be spoiled.

Essentially, in 1968 there was a serial broadcast, featuring Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor alongside Jamie and Zoe, featuring the Land of Fiction. This story was entitled The Mind Robber, and I, like many others, absolutely adore it. Because the Land of Fiction was, funnily enough, a land of fiction, slaved to the whim of the Master (the Master of the Land, that is, not the evil renegade Time Lord of the same name, who wouldn’t appear for another two years) pretty much anything could happen. Well, within budget restrictions of course.

Which is why an idea like Conundrum works perfectly, further exploring the Land in a medium which is less restricted by financial realities. Plus, it means you can do some things which you simply couldn’t do on television with regards to narration and viewpoint characters.

Speaking of which, allow me to compliment the execution of the narrator. While some of the later Benny NAs would feature unreliable narrators cracking wise about the story (I’m specifically thinking of Lawrence Miles’ Dead Romance, and Dave Stone’s two books featuring the Stratum Seven Agent), Conundrum is (to the best of my knowledge) unique, in that its narrator actively reacts to events in real-time, rather than passively recounting an adventure past.

The narrator in question is the Master, but not the same Master from 1968. Instead, he’s a dreggy 90s teenager. Although he’ll be named Jason in the sequel, Head Games, for now he’s just the Master. But I’ll call him Jason for convenience’s sake. He comes up with some of the wittiest remarks in the book, and is just an all-around delight. I imagine Steve Lyons had a lot of fun writing this, because he’s in essence writing a character who is writing the book that we are reading in-universe (it’s kind of hard to articulate, but if you’ve read the book or seen the episode, you’ll know what I mean).

There are also many affectionate parodies of Doctor Who and fiction in general, from private detectives and comic books to murder mysteries and the Famous Five. Even though none of them are real people, you still feel for them. Then again, I suppose the Doctor and co. aren’t real people either. And that’s where the book excels, at making the line between fact and fiction hard to discern.

But it’s not all fun and games. There’s also the quite saddening yet also quite beautiful subplot of Norman Power, a former superhero who desperately wants to reclaim his powers. His ultimate fate is simultaneously darkly comic, horribly tragic, yet somehow so poetic you’d swear you were reading a Paul Cornell book. Not that that’s a bad thing, by any stretch, mind.

Speaking of Norman’s subplot, he ends up bonding with Benny, and… wow. I complimented The Dimension Riders for giving Benny stuff to do, but she did kinda end up falling back into the “damsel in distress” position around the halfway point, and didn’t do much else for the rest of the book, so I’ll retract that statement from my earlier review. Here, though, she dazzles, showing every facet of the character I love: She’s wickedly sarcastic and clever, yet still easily the most rational and sensitive member of the crew. Some authors could fail to see the tender side of her which makes up as big a part of her personality, in my opinion, as her quick wit.

It’s telling here that Benny is the only one actively seeking to mend the wrecked, mangled bridges between the TARDIS crew. The Doctor, while he seems genuinely remorseful about what he’s put Ace through, isn’t actually doing anything, and as for Ace herself, well…

OK, I’ve been an outspoken defender of New Ace in the past, but even I have to admit that at points she did get somewhat grating. Not to the extent other people seem to find her, but I did still want her to shut up sometimes. I don’t consider that a failing in characterisation however, as it still feels like a logical progression. I believe people’s dissatisfaction with Ace stems from there originally being a one month gap between each novel, only to return and find the same fighting still going on. From that point of view, I can understand it, but Lyons still writes her very well.

Finally, the Doctor. He’s in excellent form here as well. Him quickly figuring out what’s going on could have been annoying, but instead manages to be both amusing and clever. The Scrabble game is a stroke of genius, and when he finally starts speaking directly to Jason in absentia and directly influences the course of events, it’s one of the biggest “Oh shit!” moments in the books so far, upending the status quo and sending shivers down my spine just thinking about it.

The murder mystery is also engaging, despite the fact that it’s nothing more than a fictional diversion, and the resolution is brilliantly clever. I didn’t even mind the fourth-wall-breaking joke which ended the book, due to the sheer joy with which it’s done.

The Negatives

The only thing that I can really point to as anything approaching a drawback is the Adventure Kids subplot, which is probably the weakest point in the novel for me personally. I fully accept that this is mostly due to the fact that I’m not particularly familiar with a lot of the Famous Five literature, so quite a few of the jokes flew over my head. I still feel it’s worth noting, however. I did find it  enjoyable, though, don’t get me wrong.

Apart from that, though, I really don’t have any complaints to make. Just a damn good first showing from an author who I can’t wait to see more from.

The Alternate History Counter

Part Four, and this time we’ve got an alternate timeline for an alternate dimension, with the Land of Fiction being restored from its destruction at the end of The Mind Robber. Interestingly, this seems to confirm that the Land of Fiction is “real” in the sense that it is an actual place. Previously, there was some debate over whether the events of The Mind Robber had actually occurred, or if they had all been a dream.

This time we also get more hints about the mysterious party’s identity, and the reveal that Ace has been having dreams of a woman in red and a door in the TARDIS that she can’t open. These will all be explained next time, in No Future.

Miscellaneous Observations

When taken in combination with last year’s The Highest Science, there seems to be a trend emerging where the first book of the year is more comedic than usual. I have no idea if this was intentional, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Speaking of trends, Conundrum sets up fiction as a running theme in Steve Lyons’ works in the Doctor Who universe. Obviously there’s the sequel, Head Games, later on in the VNAs, but one of his Missing Adventures, Time of Your Life, also features a society slaved to television. Of his Eighth Doctor Adventures, The Crooked World has a world of bizarre cartoon characters, while The Space Age doesn’t really fit into the theme, but honestly, it’s The Space Age, so who really cares? Even The Stealers of Dreams is about a colony where fiction has been outlawed. Just something intriguing I noticed.

Final Thoughts

Perfectly balancing comedy and serious drama in the traditions of the best Doctor Who humour, reading Conundrum is not just a task, it’s a journey in and of itself, where the bounds of reality and fiction are entertainingly blurred to create something very special indeed.

All things considered, then, this Alternate History Cycle has been a pretty good run of books, bar The Dimension Riders. But can they stick the landing? Find out next time as Paul Cornell finally returns to the VNAs with No Future!

But until then,

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

1993: The Year In Review

Well, here we go again.

1993 has been quite a year, hasn’t it? Among other things, we’ve seen the return of Ace, the beginning of an arc which won’t be resolved until next February, and the returns of such classic foes as the Cybermen and Silurians. We’ve also seen a distinct uptick in the number of novels published, with one New Adventure being released every month, rather than once every two months.

This means 1993 featured the publication of more novels than both 1991 and 1992 combined. Ranking eleven books from best to worst is certainly a more difficult task than ranking six, but what’s life without a little challenge?

Here, then, are my picks for the best and worst of this past year of novels.

11. Shadowmind by Christopher Bulis

Shocker, right?

Between abysmal characterisation of both the regulars and guest cast, more “characters” than you could shake 52 separate sticks at, the unbelievable boredom of the thing, and telepathic fucking squirrels, Christopher Bulis doesn’t so much walk onto the scene as he does drunkenly stumble around before his legs crash out and everyone is just greatly embarrassed.

Really, though, it’s just ruddy awful, and you should avoid it under basically all circumstances.

10. The Dimension Riders by Daniel Blythe

There are parts of this that I could point to and say I enjoyed, making it a marginal improvement over Shadowmind, yet it still suffers from a few of the same problems, such as an eminently forgettable threat and poor characterisation, as well as a few of its own, like being a poor man’s Shada, some crucial plot details that just don’t make sense, and its irritating tendency to presume everybody who’s anybody has spent time in Oxford.

And all this in the month of the 30th anniversary, too. Shame, as I definitely see potential here. But potential doesn’t make a work of art, it’s following through on that potential that matters.

9. Deceit by Peter Darvill-Evans

Ironic that a book featuring so many milestones should be so forgettable, and, well… nothing. At the time of its publication, it was the longest New Adventure yet, but so much of that page count is taken up with extremely dull action-adventure sequences that do nothing but demonstrate why that sort of thing should generally be avoided in novels, unless you’re extremely talented at it like Jim Mortimore, which Darvill-Evans simply isn’t.

Despite reintroducing Ace after a three-book absence, she’s not really given too much to do. Oh, unless you count those aforementioned sequences. Great. The most effective and memorable stuff is all to do with Britta, Lacuna and Pool. (I should mention, however, that despite how memorable I just said it was, I still had to go and look up Britta’s name to be sure, so make of that what you will)

It’s a shame, then, that so much time is devoted to Arcadia when it’s so decidedly uninteresting, being a standard “paradise with a nasty secret” planet that we’ve seen all too much of over the years.

The historical essay at the end is a nice touch, though. But it’s not really worth the other 300-odd pages just to get to it, not even close.

Side note: Isn’t it interesting how the three worst books of 1993 all try and have a Star Trek-style ship with a crew and everything? It’s almost like the universe is trying to tell us something there.

8. The Pit by Neil Penswick

Objectively speaking, The Pit is easily not only the worst Who novel of 1993, yet also quite possibly one of the worst novels I have ever read. Why, then, is it ranked above so many of these other novels? Well, there’s one simple reason for that: The Pit, for all its glorious ineptitude, is never, not for one solitary second, boring.

Whether it’s describing Kopyion’s bizarre fascination with Leonard Cohen, Bernice doing literally nothing, or the plot which is basically “ancient vampires are trading interdimensional drugs with shapechanging dwarves,” this is a book that will have you by turns enraged and completely baffled, and loving every minute of it.

Should definitely be tracked down if you can, as it’s amazing, but for all the wrong reasons.

7. Iceberg by David Banks

A definite oddity. Two of the three regulars are completely absent, and the Doctor doesn’t interact with the main plot until over half the book has elapsed. That’s not as big as a problem as it might sound, given Ruby is a surprisingly strong character, but it’s just weird to have so little that’s recognisably Doctor Who in a Doctor Who book, especially one featuring one of the most iconic foes.

For everything good this book has going for it, it’s almost instantly undone by something equally bad. A very strange experience, and one I’m still not quite sure what to make of.

6. White Darkness by David A. McIntee

Not going to win awards, by any stretch of the imagination, White Darkness is nevertheless a fun little page-turner with a fantastic setting, a few wonderfully-realised characters, and an enjoyable classic pulp science-fiction aesthetic.

If you can find a copy, pick it up. It’ll keep you entertained, and won’t outstay its welcome, and really, what more could you ask for?

5. Birthright by Nigel Robinson

In this day and age, with all our science and information directly at our fingertips, I believe we have a tendency to sometimes expect the world to operate in perfect accordance with our laws and rules.

Every now and then, though, it doesn’t hurt to have a friendly reminder that the universe sometimes makes no damned sense whatsoever, and that we still have so much to discover.

Birthright is one such reminder.

From the pen of the man who brought you Apocalypse just less than two years earlier comes one of the most intelligent and nuanced examinations of the Seventh Doctor’s persona yet. No, I don’t understand it either.

Edwardian London is a great setting, simply dripping with atmosphere, and although the later sections on Antykhon aren’t quite as good, they’re still quite enjoyable. Jared Khan and Muldwych are excellent creations, almost threatening to overshadow the Charrl themselves.

I didn’t really touch on this in my original review, but I quite like the idea of a race of beings who genuinely do treasure life, art and beauty, yet treasure their own survival more. It’s a novel concept, and, as I’ve said about so many things before, true to the themes of these books vis-a-vis morality and the like.

Damn shame about the virtual reality ending, which holds this back somewhat from becoming the true masterpiece it could be.

Still, it’s well worth a read, in spite of that one glaring flaw.

4. Blood Heat by Jim Mortimore

This is where things start getting really close, and I could really see someone making a solid argument for any of these top four books as the best of 1993, so keep that in mind.

That being said, while Blood Heat is amazing, and chaotic, and exhilarating, it doesn’t quite have that same magnetic pull as those above it that makes you want to turn page after page. This is mostly due to the somewhat morbid tone. Even though it’s quite exciting, there’s still only a certain level of horrible death everywhere that I can take.

Besides that, though, this really is a powerhouse of literature. It’s like an insane rollercoaster that constantly speeds up and before you know it the rollercoaster is coming off the rails and people are dying oh Lord oh Jesus oh fuck why!

In all seriousness, it’s got some quite nice characterisation, with the alternate UNIT characters in particular being excellently twisted and tragically plausible mirror images of the people we’re familiar with, and it’s got a grand sense of scale, as one expects with a Mortimore book.

Basically, if you like Jim Mortimore’s style, give it a read. If you specifically dislike a lot of his trademarks, though, it’s probably not going to win you over. You probably could’ve worked that one out for yourself, though.

I, for one, love it. But not as much as these others.

3. Lucifer Rising by Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore

Given their common author (or co-author, I guess… whatever), Lucifer Rising and Blood Heat share many of the same elements: a mature tone, a cracking pace, and a solar system that actually feels appropriately massive for once.

Its characterisation is what ultimately gave Lucifer Rising the edge in my mind. As commendable as Blood Heat‘s efforts are, most of its characters were simply slightly distorted versions of characters that had existed, in some cases, for over 20 years, rather than original.

On the other hand, this novel, despite its many continuity references, is completely populated by original characters (barring the regulars of course, duh), each of them well-defined and three-dimensional. Maybe I just appreciate the Twin Peaks-esque approach to this characterisation, in that the majority of the characters are defined by their relationships with one central, female figure. Where Peaks had Laura Palmer, Lucifer has Paula Engado.

That approach goes deeper, though. In another similarity to Peaks, this character feels just as tangibly alive and real as any of the living characters.

Then you have the wonderfully high-concept villain that is Legion. I always like it when a novel truly takes advantage of the medium of prose, and even though Legion may not be an ultra-developed character like everyone else, he certainly is gloriously inventive.

All around, this characterisation is even enough to buoy the book through the somewhat sudden transition from a murder mystery to “running through corridors” fare, holding my attention until the very end. I could certainly understand how the stuff after IMC’s arrival might be a deal-breaker for some, but once again, it didn’t really bother me, and I give my personal recommendation.

2. The Highest Science by Gareth Roberts

Roberts’ debut is just as witty as you would expect, being the first time Benny truly shines, after Love and War where she was mostly just a supporting character and the real focus was on Ace, and Transit where she spent the majority of the book possessed.

All of the guest characters are well-realised and distinctly memorable, bar the “Eight Twelves,” but they take up hardly any time in the book compared to the others, so I’ll forgive it. There are also some distinct moments of tragedy regarding the eventual fates of the Ragasteen youths, and the Cell is a deeply unnerving creation.

Even though it is a Roberts book, and the wit is there, it also seems somewhat more serious than the other works of his that I’ve read/listened to. Not that I dislike those other works, but there’s a clear difference in the level of tension one experiences in this book and, say, The One Doctor. Here, it’s never overly comical nor overly serious, but strikes the perfect balance of both, and that’s quite an achievement, especially for a debut novel.

1. The Left-Handed Hummingbird by Kate Orman

Speaking of achievements that are impressive for debut novels…

I imagine you probably predicted this one after my recent review which was spent lavishing non-stop praise on it, and you won’t hear any differently here.

The Left-Handed Hummingbird is clever, well-written, and extremely entertaining all around. The use of time travel is an utter delight too, being used as more than a simple means of transportation, which I always enjoy in a Who story, especially when it works as well as it does here.

Orman’s passion and attention to detail with regards to the depictions of these historical locales and the use of Aztec culture/myth also frequently shine through, such that I think that you’d have to be actively trying if you don’t get caught up in it all and go along for the ride.

When all is said and done, it’s just a real fun time, and I honestly found myself wishing I could read it all over again almost as soon as I had finished it. Simply amazing.

 

So, there you have it. I’m still on hiatus at the moment, reading Magician, but when I return, we’ll head into 1994, the year that saw the conclusion to the Alternate History Cycle, the first of the Missing Adventures, and the return of an old, old enemy…

Until then, however,

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

Virgin New Adventures Reviews: The Left-Handed Hummingbird by Kate Orman (or, “Columbo: Now With Added Time Travel”)

I would like to apologise in advance if it seems I’m beating the “debut novel” horse long past the point of death, until all that remains is a pulpy mess. The fact of the matter, though, is that 1993 has been a year of debuts. Out of the eleven novels we’ve read over the past year, only two have been written by returning authors. Even then, of those two, Blood Heat was still something of a debut, given it was Jim Mortimore’s first solo effort.

You probably have some idea where this is going.

The Left-Handed Hummingbird features the Doctor Who debut of Kate Orman, who would go on to become the most prolific of all the authors for the New Adventures, as well as the first and only writer for the line to be neither male nor British. Admittedly, though, if one extends the definition of “the New Adventures” to encompass the twenty-three Benny novels published after The Dying Days, there is one other female author to be found, that being Rebecca Levene, who co-wrote Where Angels Fear with Simon Winstone.

But that’s beside the point.

The point is, this is a fairly big milestone for the range. Surely, if Orman was to write the most books in the NAs, her debut novel must have been fairly good, right? Well, that logic certainly seems sound, but on the other hand, the most prolific author for the Missing Adventures was Christopher Bulis of Shadowmind infamy.

I digress, however. With a certain degree of stolid apprehension, let us see what the Hummingbird holds in store for us.

The Positives

It will no doubt relieve you to know that The Left-Handed Hummingbird is, in fact, good. Indeed, it is very, very good. Great, even.

Out of the 21 VNAs so far, this is definitely a serious contender for the title of the best.

Chief among the reasons for this primacy is the sheer cleverness it so frequently displays. In particular, it’s quite an achievement to have a novel featuring five(!) different settings without the whole thing feeling like a jumbled mess.

On top of all that, there’s the added complexity of the narrative structure. The idea of having the Doctor arrive in the middle of a problem and having to work his way back to the source, while everyone else knows more than he does, is an excellent one, and carried out very well. Kinda like Columbo with time travel, in a way. If that sounds belittling, I apologise, because it’s absolutely not intended as such.

Despite all this, though, the book never feels too clever. You know, the level of clever where it sort of just devolves into the author trying to point out how clever they are, sacrificing any meaningful level of enjoyment. Thankfully, Orman’s writing is brilliant enough to pretty much single-handedly prevent this from happening, in allowing the book to stand on merits other than “It’s got a clever premise,” which can be said of many books which, all things considered, aren’t too great.

There are so many beautiful touches that I couldn’t possibly mention them all, but just to name a few:

  • The pausing of the videotape at the beginning of Chapter 14
  • The shocking cliffhanger at the end of the First Slice
  • The use of various Nahuatl terms, in particular otiquihiyohuih, and the resonance of the words “Enough of this”
  • The Doctor bringing along a list of the survivors and dead of the Titanic when he arrives and saving/not saving people based upon said list

Once again, there are far more than this, but these are the ones which stood out the most.

Another perk of this narrative structure is that it allows us to explore the long-term effects the Doctor’s actions have on the ordinary people he comes across, which is an idea I’ve always had a particular fascination with, especially when it’s implied that said effects aren’t particularly amazing. There’s a reason this theme would carry over so much to the revived series.

Here, we’re given two sides of the same coin, so to speak: Cristián Alvarez and Hamlet Macbeth. Both are superficially different, yet the essence is the same, without being lazy.

Macbeth is a bright young psychologist whose work of UNIT’s Paranormal Division is eventually shut down in tragedy and disgrace, causing him to become embittered and obsessed with uncovering the truth about the organisation.

His intentions might seem somewhat misguided, but look at it this way: Removed from the cozy familiarity we, as viewers/readers, have with the so-called UNIT Family, they really must seem a very shadowy and somewhat nefarious lot. Again, this is very similar to how Torchwood would be portrayed upon the series’ return in 2005. In addition, David Bishop would tap further into this idea when he wrote Who Killed Kennedy, showing just how strong an idea it is.

Cristián, on the other hand, is perhaps even more tragic, given he never asked to be involved in any of this. His experiences in 1968 leave him a psychological wreck, wracked with panic attacks, and with no-one to talk to about it all. Well, except when the Doctor shows up, but that’s hardly a reassuring event, given it generally foreshadows Huitzilin’s arrival.

Speaking of Huitzilin, what a fantastic villain. He works not just on a character and plot level, but on a thematic one, too. Despite rarely appearing in person, his menace hovers over everything that occurs, manipulating events to his desired outcome. Sound like anyone we know?

The Doctor attempting to remain himself, rather than some mythical being, is a nice parallel to both the Other and the Valeyard, without beating us over the head with it.

Indeed, this struggle is perfectly encapsulated within the quote that prefaces the table of contents, from Suetonius’ Divus Vespasianus:

Oh no, I think I’m turning into a god.

And they did it all without using that old cliche “We’re not so different, after all.” (well, apart from in Ace’s dream sequence with the businessman, but I digress, because that’s a completely different matter) Who woulda thunk it?

I’ve already kind of touched on this with my reference to the use of Nahuatl phraseology, but I have to commend the book for its authenticity and care with regard to its historical settings. Aztec Mexico, the Titanic, 60s London, 80s New York, and 90s Mexico are all recreated with equal attention to detail, and a lot of the stuff regarding Aztec myth was genuinely fascinating to me.

I won’t even bother listing “The Negatives,” as I genuinely can’t think of any. Some people with more experience with Orman’s novels have criticised it for featuring the beginnings of her signature “hurt/comfort” writing style, and while I can certainly understand where they’re coming from, it doesn’t bother me all that much at this point. In all honesty, I’d much rather read an author with a distinctive yet repetitive style than one with no flair whatsoever, so it seems a bit of a moot complaint, personally.

The Alternate History Counter

It’s Part Three of the Alternate History Cycle, and due to the sheer level of temporal jiggery-pokery it’s probably the most complex alteration, given just how much hinges on that one moment, as is driven home by the novel multiple times, without getting too repetitive. Essentially, the idea is that Huitzilin shouldn’t have been able to survive as long as he did, and if not for the interference of our unnamed party, would have just wasted away to nothingness.

Everything in this book, as convoluted as its narrative structure may make it, can be traced back to that one manipulation, until gradually the consequences build up, as if one had stepped on a butterfly in the past. Indeed, Cristián airs this very concern, and it’s very appropriate, given Orman’s repeated use of butterflies throughout her work.

It also features a fairly big turning point for the arc as a whole, representing the point where Ace decides to don her combat suit once more, after a few novels where she’s gone without it.

The combat suit, and its symbolism as regards Ace’s character and her relationship with the Doctor, have been running themes throughout the past three books, and will be taken to its culmination in No Future.

Miscellaneous Observations:

In the row-boats, the women shivered and clung together. Some of them wanted to go back, imagining husbands and friends amongst the howling hundreds. But they were cold and frightened, and the ship might drag them down with it, and the swimmers might crowd on board and sink their little boats.

So they waited, bobbing up and down, listening to the screaming until each of the screams went out, one by one, like little candles going out, each snuffed flame dampening the bonfire of the screaming, until they were left in the darkness, alone, alone under the stars.

I have literally no point to make with regards to that. I just absolutely adore the writing of this book, and wanted to include a quote. Sue me.

After the excellence of The Dimension Riders’ cover, this one’s… something of a downgrade, to put it nicely. Huitzilin is alright, although his deformed left foot is conveniently hidden, and he’s missing the geometric designs that are referenced as being printed on his cheeks. The Doctor, on the other hand (the left hand, if you will… hahaha I wish I was dead), is locked in some bizarre pose that is coincidentally similar to my laughable attempts at dancing, and Tenochtitlan is looking remarkably beige and dull.

Although at least the Doctor looks like himself (*cough* White Darkness *cough*), I suppose.

Fun fact literally no-one will care about: We are now precisely one quarter of the way through the New Adventures! Woo!

Final Thoughts

This review is somewhat shorter than some of my others, but that’s because this novel is a relatively simple situation, quality-wise, despite it being an incredibly complicated book.

The bottom line is this: The Left-Handed Hummingbird is undeniably one of the cleverest, most enjoyable pieces of science fiction I have ever read, not to mention literature in general. Writing this review has only made me want to re-read it all over again, which is quite a feat.

Although I must press on, I believe this is one of the books I will keep coming back to over the years, and I can’t wait to do so.

I’m going to be taking a brief hiatus to read the second half of Magician, but when I return we’ll burst into 1994 with Steve Lyons’ Conundrum. Before that, though, I will write up the customary year-end list ranking 1993’s output, so look forward to that.

Until then, however,

Kind regards,

Special Agent Dale Cooper

Enough of this.