Saturday, October 12, 2013

Shadow of the Scourge: Parts 1 and 2

This one has some of my favorite things: Science, cross-stitching, Ace being snarky but not nasty, and making fun of New Agers. It also has some of my least favorite things: Mistaking pentagrams for a symbol of evil, the Doctor playing a transparent game, and demons. I guess you can't win them all.

I am enjoying Benny's voice actress. She plays Benny exactly as I think she should be played, and she works so well with Aldred and McCoy. The ongoing chemistry between the old series pair easily widens out to include her.

The plot so far: Evil aliens from another dimension are invading Earth, of course. Their location of choice? A hotel in Kent with three conventions going on: A time experiment seminar where a guy is trying to interest backers in his machine, a bunch of New Agers attempting to channel the Rigellian Enlightened Being Ulm, and a cross-stitch convention. What could possibly go wrong? It sounds like a perfect place to invade! (I mean, I would invade it. (Did I mention I cross-stitch?)

As it turns out, it is. And the plot thickens when it appears that the Doctor has sold invasion rights to the Earth, which he has claimed as his after the number of times he's saved it. To me, this is the weakest part of anything in the first two episodes: the Doctor's motives are transparent. The second weakest is the contract discussion. If the clauses discussed don't turn out to have relevance later on, I'll eat my hat.

Now the strong points: The plot is unfolding logically and it doesn't bog down. Again, the chemistry is fantastic. Benny is acting exactly as I would expect her to, occasionally putting her foot in her mouth and then using that as a springboard for more investigation. At one point, the Doctor asks "Isn't it obvious?" and a whole room choruses "No!" at once. I loved that. Maybe it was a cheap laugh, but it was so very well-done.

I'm going to hold off on more plot discussion for now. I'd like instead to talk about Ace's portrayal. She's apparently come to a kind of peace with the Doctor again. She's obviously got combat background, but the younger-Ace sass is present as well. It makes me wonder if I'd like Ace better as the cold, hard soldier if Sophie Aldred read some of the lines. Then again, these lines aren't so hard to hear from her as some from, say, Lucifer Rising would be.

So far, I've enjoyed listening. The voice acting is distinctive enough I have no issues telling the characters apart. The foley work is excellent, and the cast seems to be having a good time. I hope parts 3 and 4 live up to the first parts.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Chat: Tragedy Day

John: I don’t know why, but reading ‘Tragedy Day’ reminds me of nothing so much as the scene at the end of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, where George Carlin watches Bill and Ted practice and looks at the camera, shrugs, and says, “They get better…” It’s that kind of book. It’s so obviously the juvenalia that even ‘The Highest Science’ wasn’t, a sophomore slump from an author who would figure out exactly how to make work what fails here. Or was that just me? I mean, I know you weren’t fond of it either, but did you feel like it was Gareth Roberts trying really hard to make things click and just not having it all sorted out yet?

Dee: I don’t think he’d really thought through how to make the characters relatable. I couldn’t find any, except for Benny in a couple of parts, who felt like real people. That’s partly in an attempt to show just how decadent this culture was, but it was heavy-handed and really made the book a slog. It felt like no one talked to him about how to make things lighter. Once again, I am going to put a hell of a lot of blame on the editor.

John: I do think that’s part of the problem, yes. The previous five books had a lot of story hooks; “Ace and the Doctor are in a simmering conflict over the Doctor’s manipulaions”, “Benny is disenchanted with traveling in the TARDIS and contemplating leaving,” “There’s a shadowy figure playing with alterations to the Doctor’s personal history,” et cetera. Those were a lot of things that could spark a writer’s imagination. This? “The Doctor’s just traveling now, and he’s got companions he gets along with.” It feels rather flat. But I don’t think the novel does its best even with the things it’s got. Olleril never really feels funny enough to be a parody, and it feels too contrived to be real. Luminus is too pathetic to be a serious group of baddies, and too murderous to be joke villains. The slaags work neither as serious monsters or comedy monsters. Everything feels like it falls between two stools.

DeeL No, I don’t think that’s the problem. Ace and the Doctor are still fragile, and there’s a lot that could be done interpersonally with them to show that. You don’t rebuild that easily. Instead, they’re split up. I do agree that he couldn’t decide what he wanted to write, but I don’t think it was a lack of story hooks. And there are serious problems with the antagonists, all of them. Not just Luminus and its pubescent leader (which, ewww) but the big bads at the end, whose names I have forgotten.

John: I almost said “The Monks of Felescar”, but those were the guys from ‘Love and War’ who wrote that book. It says a lot that they’re more memorable than the big bads in this book. These guys were the Friars of Pangloss, but I had to look that up. And yes. They’re all utterly unmotivated. Crispin is taking over the planet and killing most of its inhabitants because, um...Reasons, and the Friars of Pangloss are EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL! Because of Evilness! That was actually the only bit of humor I thought worked, although it may not have been intentional. The Friars were so ludicrously and unmotivatedly evil that if it was parody, it worked. If it wasn’t, then oh dear.

Dee: And the way Crispin died was so very anticlimactic. It would have been one thing if he’d been portrayed throughout as a kid, but he was portrayed as a short adult with as many maturity issues as your average MRA Redditor. Which, of course, makes the Benny crush thing even squickier. I am glad Roberts got through this phase, because if you had only given me this book to read I never would have watched any of his episodes.

John: Anticlimactic and unpleasant, too. I mean, yes, he wasn’t portrayed as a kid, but I still felt like he was being killed off because That’s What You Do With a Who Villain, and Roberts didn’t even think about how it might come off in the book. There’s a very real disconnect, I think, between the way the book plays with the tropes of Doctor Who and the way it functions as a novel, and a lot of the issues come from the way that it breaks away from its own structure in order to make a joke about Doctor Who. Oh, and Forgwyn...is Forgwyn a Marty Stu, or just a badly-executed effort at making a sympathetic non-regular?

Dee: I am seriously hoping the latter. He’s pretty incompetent, really, and I would hope Roberts thinks more highly of himself.

John: And Forgwyn’s mom...actually, you know what? That I’m going to give at least mild props to. There’s something interesting about a character who’s sworn to kill the Doctor while owing him a debt of honor, and I like the way that he didn’t go the cliched route of making her deeply conflicted. She’s not happy about it, but she knows exactly who she is and what she’s about, and she is not going to let her guilt get in the way of her family’s future. It’s some good stuff. If the book had focused more about it, or even just had more stuff like it, I’d have enjoyed it more.

Dee: Yes. We didn’t need the stupid Big Bads. I would have loved a well-done novel with a fragile-relationshipped Doctor being pursued by a really competent assassin! Ah well. A book we didn’t get.

John: Oh, well. At least we’ll get more Cornell soon. Because it’s back to the audios, for our first listen to the one, the only Bernice Summerfield! Join us then!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tragedy Day

It's hard to be nice to 'Tragedy Day'. There are two basic tacks you can take when writing about it; you can either say that it proves that Gareth Roberts was really better suited to write something other than the Seventh Doctor, or you can say that it was a work of juvenalia that sorted through ideas he later did a much better job of handling in his other work. Let's do both, shall we?

First, let's talk about Gareth and the Seventh Doctor. It's become more and more obvious over the years that Gareth Roberts is a warm, fluffy, huggable teddy bear of a writer who loves writing gloriously silly romps. He is a champion of the Graham Williams era, and has done an excellent job of pastiching it and capturing its humor, wit and charm. He's written for Tennant and Smith and Eccleston, and every one of his scripts is filled with glee and laughter. His Big Finish audios are comedy classics. In short, Gareth Roberts = fun and frolic and froth.

But the New Adventures were never particularly frothy, even after 'No Future' when they finally reined in the apocalyptic dysfunctionality of the TARDIS crew to manageable levels. Ace remains a hardened soldier and full-tilt badass, the Seventh Doctor is still a manipulative bastard (and I'm suddenly picturing the Tarantino Doctor Who story, "Manepulativ Basterd") and the Whoniverse is Grown Up and Serious. Trying to do a comedy in this line of books is like swimming the English Channel dragging an anchor. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it's difficult enough to make you wonder why anyone bothered.

In 'Tragedy Day', you can feel the anchor a lot. There are at least three too many gruesome deaths of innocent people to really enjoy the comedy surrounding it, and even the death of the main villain feels awkward and unpleasant because (spoilers) Roberts came up with the bright idea of making the villain a twelve-year-old kid. Which yes, funny that a kid is behind everything, but less funny that a kid gets crushed by girders. There's a constant, unpleasant dissonance in tone that makes the work feel like a Frankenbook, comedy and horror stitched so badly together that you can see the joins.

And, to shift to the second tack, the comedy isn't all that funny. Everything Roberts does here, he does better in 'The One Doctor'. A villain with a scheme to turn a whole planet into a 50s sitcom is a vaguely amusing juxtaposition of adventure-story tropes and mundane domesticity, but it doesn't do the job nearly as well as forcing the companion to assemble dimensionally-transcendent shelving to placate psychotic furniture-packaging robots, while the Doctor is on a Quiz Show of Doom. Roberts got the hang of this as he went along ('The Lodger' is another good example of him hitting that sweet spot between "normal life" and "madman with a box") but 'Tragedy Day' goes on too long and doesn't have enough jokes to make it work, even if it didn't also have the minor problem of being bleak and miserable. (Although some of that may be ironic; the Friars of Pangloss are so over-the-top EEEEEEVIL! that it almost does become funny through the back door. But there's too much going on to be able to make that stick.)

Basically, the nicest thing you can say about 'Tragedy Day' is, "He gets better." And he really really does...so let's just look at this one as an early work and move on.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Chat: No Future

John: The one thing I’m going to admit that the detractors of this book have right is that Paul Cornell has no idea what punk rock was about in the Seventies. Punk wasn’t actually about the political importance of anarchy; ‘Anarchy in the UK’ was taking the piss out of people who cared about that sort of thing. It appropriated the symbols of politics in service of nihilism, suggesting that the only real use for political symbols and movements was in displaying them in front of people who hated them and watching the sparks fly. If a real band had played a song called ‘Dissent Is Good’, like Plasticine did, someone would have cut their mike about thirty seconds in. That said, pretty good book, huh?

Dee: I loved it. I had such a good time reading it, and it’s one I’d go back and read again just for fun. The Brig, Danny, and oh my goodness the Monk... so entertaining.  If Cornell didn’t get punk, he did understand the Monk’s motivations perfectly. Also, origami.

John: It’s one I do go back and read again just for fun. Because it is fun. It’s so much fun. It is such a wonderful catharsis, after five solid books of “grim grim angst angst grouchy grouchy grouchy”, to see the Doctor win in such a magnificent, clever, spectacular, oh-my-freaking-grud-how-did-he-do that sort of way. It’s a clear influence on Moffat, now that I think about it; having the Doctor do something extraordinarily clever and wibbly-wobbly (if not actually timey-wimey in this case) that he waits to reveal to the audience until the last moment so as to preserve the wonderful gobsmacked-ness of it all is a very Moffat-y thing. And yes, origami is a Moffat-y thing too.

Dee: It’s the kind of thing he wishes he’d thought up first, yes. I wonder if Amy wasn’t in some way a recovery from Ace in the books. In some ways they have similar personalities. But really, I don’t want to compare this to Moffat too much. I want to talk about how much fun Benny is. I want to talk about the Brig’s perception and wisdom and his learning from his past experiences to keep from getting found out by the baddies. I want to talk about Ace’s being able to fool everyone. And I have to say, this is the book where I first found myself really liking Benny and seeing what everyone saw in her.

John: And coincidentally, this is the first book since ‘Love and War’ written by the guy who created her, and the first where he’s allowed to really play with her. You remember how I said that I felt like in ‘Love and War’ Benny wasn’t so much a part of the plot as a character who wandered through and explained her backstory? She doesn’t feel like that here. She feels like a proper viewpoint character, arguably the main character of the story, and she’s really good in that role. She’s the only person who has no trouble holding fast to her principles, because her principles are all about small kindnesses and human decency being the really important things when you get right down to it. And I think she’s vindicated in that, especially at the end where the Doctor symbolically restores his TARDIS to the blue box. (Which is now Cornell’s third book where the Doctor renounces his manipulative ways and vows to be a straightforward adventurer once more, but I forgive him that because it’s also a book where Ace learns that sometimes you gotta be sneaky.)

Dee: I agree. I think the events of Conundrum make it easier for her to do and say the things she does. She is really, really good to Danny and the other band members, and they appreciate it. Her reaction to the bomb is wonderful. I also like your point about Ace learning to be sneaky, but that is partly because she’s chasing something from someone who has the power to make her regret just about everything in her life. I love the red-clad woman bits of the book. At first, I thought they were a mind control device from the Monk. I was glad to be wrong.

John: No, they were awesomely fanwanky fanwank instead. (I find it amusing, by the way, that Craig Hinton reviewed this for Doctor Who Magazine and complained about how fanwanky it was to bring back so many old elements like the Chronovores, the Vardans and the Monk...and then he went on to write ‘The Quantum Archangel’. Bless his heart.) Actually, that’s something that takes some getting used to as I go back into the Wilderness Years stuff, how continuous the threading of continuity was through the work. It was like we were all speaking in a secret code back then, dropping all these references throughout each story as if to say to each other, “You get it, right? You’ve picked up on the secret messages that we’ve implanted into this TV tie-in, and you’re one of the We.” It makes more sense when you remember that these authors were really Internet-present back then during an era when that wasn’t as common, and that readers could go onto rec.arts.doctorwho and say to Paul directly, “I loved the ‘chap with ‘Wings’ reference!” It was a really weird sub-culture thing, I think, and you don’t see it at all anymore on the new series.

Dee: Having memory of the 70s makes me giggle at that because I remember not getting what the big deal was... it sounded like perfectly good music to me. I liked that part of it more than the in-joke for fandom. But I get what you’re saying there, of course. I just wasn’t a part of that culture. (I wonder if I’m going to be visited by a gatekeeper now? “You don’t like the joke because of the chap with the wings bit? You are NO TRUE WHOVIAN!”)

John: I hope not. I mean, I’ll admit that one of the weird things nowadays about the new series is that it’s so easy to get into. You can pick up everything you need to know about the new Doctor Who over the course of a week or so with Netflix, whereas back in the day, getting every single joke in ‘No Future’ probably involved a masterclass in British Popular Culture. (I didn’t get everything either. I mean, I maybe got more of the Doctor Who jokes than you did, but I have no idea who the Goodies or the Wombles are, and I don’t think I could even name a single Wings song.) But I like to think that I have enough perspective to understand that those things aren’t actually important, just because they’re ‘Doctor Who’ references. Trivia is called that for a reason, after all.

Dee: Back to the Brig... I loved the natural progression of his growth from the series. It made perfect sense to me, the Buddhism idea. At the beginning of the book, I was as stunned as I was supposed to be by his behavior, of course. When the explanation came through it almost made an audible click, it matched so perfectly.

John: Oh, yes, it’s a perfect evolution of the character, and a wonderful comment on the Buddhist threads that ran through the series in that era. Barry Letts, the producer, was famously converted to Buddhism not long before he took over Doctor Who, and he tried to work little subtle references to the attainment of enlightenment and the abandonment of worldly things. The Third Doctor’s regeneration is presented as a sort of Buddhist parable; in that light, having a Zen Brigadier was a perfect evolution. And since they never used the Brig much in the new series, we can imagine that this was how he finally wound up. YAY!

And on that note, it’s time to move on to a book that both of us liked, um...considerably less. Join us next time as we slog through ‘Tragedy Day’!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tragedy Day

It was too good to last. The high point that was "No Future" is undercut by the very low point that is "Tragedy Day," and my head is shaking.

The good points: Ace was more along the lines of the series Ace, Benny was still funny and smart, there  was a reference to One and Susan (I am beginning to think I'm a sucker for that kind of thing), and some of the underlying plot made sense.

The bad parts: everything else. Good lord, this book was a slog to get through. Crispin was completely unbelievable, Forgwyn even more so. Ace being back along the lines of the series Ace was good for me, but bad for the character... there was no way to explain how she got back there from where she's been, character-wise. The dystopian setting was straight out of the time period without anything to distinguish it. I couldn't have cared less about the Friars of Pangloss.

It's really very sad, because I can see what could have been a good book under there. Seeing an older woman who is what Ace could become might have been good for our hera, but it's never explored. Benny could have been better used, although her decision to "go exploring" is right in character. A robotic Doctor is a great idea. Robots taking over major media figures is classic, and could have been so much fun. The Vijans are touched on, then never used again. Ever. What a waste.

The rest of the book is just awful, though. Crispin's about-face is reasonless and as arbitrary as they come. The slaags are more grotesque than scary. All of the bad guys are copied from pantomime. They just needed mustaches to twirl. The organized crime boss could have been interesting but was given incredibly little to do. The way scenes are telegraphed leads me to believe that this was started as a script with stage directions and the writer wasn't good enough to make the shift.

It's really sad when you find yourself thinking "At least no one walked up and started declaiming about what Tragedy Day really is." Bleah.

Friday, July 19, 2013

No Future

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I actually got the chance to tell Paul Cornell about this blog in person. He was here for CONvergence, an annual Twin Cities con that Paul himself has described as "the best in the world". He was very enthused to hear about a blog devoted to the books, as he clearly remembers the era fondly...but when I mentioned that we were almost up to 'No Future', he grimaced. "I'm sorry," he said, in that terribly polite way that he has. "I always hated that one."

This is not the first time I'd heard that. In fact, he said the same thing to me when I got the book signed at his first CONvergence appearance, a few years back. But even though I admire Paul tremendously, in this he is dead wrong. And I will now explain why 'No Future' is a wonderful book.

1) It is clever. One of Paul's biggest complaints about the book is that it ends with a big sequence of everyone sitting around a table while the Doctor explains the plot to them. But here's the thing: That's exactly what's needed at this stage of the novel, because Cornell has just rung in no less than a half-dozen extremely clever plot twists over the course of the novel's climax, and while some of them do get explained as they go on (Pike as a secret Vardan, Ace as a triple agent, the fake dagger, the misfiring gun) there are still plenty that deserve a spot for us to just revel in the sheer brilliance of the explanation. I do not care that there's a whocking great chunk of exposition at the end, not when it comes after a scene where the Doctor is stabbed in the chest, locked in a coffin, and left on an ice planet to die...and proceeds to rescue Bernice a bit later. The book is plotted too finely for me to care that the magician needed a whole chapter to explain how the trick was done.

2) It is witty. One of the complaints I heard from reviewers is that the book was too arch. Here I can at least acknowledge understanding what they're talking about; there are a few bits, such as the videotape of the alternate universe where the Doctor left himself clues, that come off as a titch too self-consciously wry and self-referential to work. But for every one like that, there are ten great lines like, "I demonstrated him in front of the whole cabinet on a flock of sheep." "But they're simple, wooly-minded creatures with no will of their own!" "True, but I think they were impressed with what he did to the sheep." This book has some great, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and I feel that it perfectly captures the joy that should be present in Cornell's "summer" novel.

3) It is deeper than it looks. For a novel that's about an alliance of the Vardans and the Meddling Monk (and does great things with both, by the way--this is very much a redemptive reading of these concepts) this is a book with a lot of thematic depth. The whole subtext is about everyone taking on the Doctor's role of master manipulator and deceiver, and the ways that doing so changes their perspective on the Doctor's actions. Ace finds herself switching roles with the Doctor, manipulating him and pretending to betray him for a greater good, and finds that it's not something that gives her a sense of power as much as it does intense guilt. The Doctor winds up in Ace's shoes, and gets a taste of what it's like to be the puppet on the strings. But it goes even deeper than that. With the exception of Benny, who's pretty much Cornell's Greek chorus, virtually everybody is more than they appear to be. Sergeant Benton is ostensibly loyal to UNIT, but secretly aids the Doctor. The Brigadier is pretending that the Doctor is an alien saboteur because he doesn't know who to trust. Mike Yates and Broadsword are pretending to be Black Star agents. Pike is a secret Vardan traitor who's actually a secret traitor to the Vardans. And of course the entire invasion plan is built on a massive deception. That's a subtext so rich you could grow crops in it, that is.

4) It is well-characterized. Another complaint I've heard about the book is that the Brigadier "doesn't act right". Oh noes! The Brigadier experienced personal growth as a result of being around the Doctor, and has become significantly more awesome as a result! CORNELL YOU FIEND! In all seriousness, there's a lot of great characterization here. Benny is excellent, Ace is wonderfully conflicted, the Doctor is in over his head and hating it, and oh by the way this is the first time I've read this book since actually sitting down to watch 'The Time Meddler' and Cornell nails Peter Butterworth. Absolutely nails the portrayal spot on.

5) It is cathartic. I think this is what always makes me stand up and cheerlead for this book, even over the objections of the author. At this point, the range needed a novel like this, one that ended the outward spiral of the characters away from being sympathetic and likable and turned them back along a path towards being a family. Ace needed to remember why she cared about the Doctor. The Doctor needed to remember that he was more than just a monster who fought monsters. Benny needed...Benny needed to get out from under the cauldron of seething angst and be allowed to grow as a person, is what she needed. I ached for this novel after four books of everyone in the TARDIS hating each other, and I loved it when I got it. Still do. That's why, despite the fact that even its author won't defend it, I will.

Monday, July 15, 2013

No Future

Paul Cornell once again does wonderful things in this novel. I've never seen the episode with the baddie in it, so I'm perhaps under-educated on some of the background story. That said, I had a blast reading it.

The Doctor's treatment of Ace and their mutual mistrust has come to a head. Her neutrality toward Bennie has slid toward dislike. In addition to all that, Ace has started having visions of a red-clad woman. Meanwhile, they're back in the 1970s and finding out that something or someone has been interfering. The solution? Save the world with rock 'n roll!

OK, fine, punk. Regardless, this is a great setup for a novel. And Cornell's usual deft touch with character is back. He's shameless about invoking elements of Love and War, of course, because he understands the unwritten parts of that story. I enjoyed this book a lot more than Love and War, though, for multiple reasons.

First, that aforementioned deft touch with characters. I liked the punk band, especially Danny. The UNIT subplot is ingenious and works only because Cornell makes you believe these characters would behave in just the way they do, especially the beloved Brigadier. What do you mean, you don't recognize the Doctor and Ace? And yet Benton recognizes the Doctor, as does Yates? This plot, by the way, had me almost biting my nails... and I've been working very hard to quit! So well done, and so much fun. Bravo. And while I have no idea, as previously stated, if Mortimus is true to the series, he is internally consistent through the whole novel. His mannerisms are distinctive but not overplayed and he comes across as a very real villain, in part because of his capriciousness.

Second, the usual Cornell tight plotting. He knows where he is taking the book, and so events unspool cleanly and with a sense of inevitability. This can be hard to take, like when Ace is so very clearly being manipulated by Mortimus. As she follows him into his TARDIS, as he apparently mind-controls her, it made me want to reach through the pages and shake her. A feeling of real danger to main characters is hard to come by, even in the NAs so far, but Cornell can bring it off.

Third, because despite all this it has a wonderfully light touch. Even when I was trying not to bite my nails, Benny could make me laugh. Even when I was seriously worried for Ace, Danny's nerves about sex kept things from getting too thick. No, this isn't a romp. It's clear that for at least some characters, things are not going to end well. The ability to soft-pedal that, though, is magnificent. And the Doctor's brilliant escape at a pivotal moment is both jaw-dropping (yes, even though of course he's going to escape) and funny. I mean, really... origami?

It's really almost too bad that you have to go through Blood Heat and The Dimension Riders to get to this point. The other three books in the arc - Left-Handed Hummingbird, Conundrum, and No Future - stand as shining examples of what Doctor Who can be when it's freed of budget considerations and has excellent writers to take it that next step farther. I'll read the latter three again for fun, where I won't read the former two. And I feel bad for Gareth Roberts, because he had to follow this one... and I just don't know how anyone could pull that off.