Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Decalog

It's really tempting to spend my time talking more about what 'Decalog' represents than what it is. I'll try to resist, but it is worth mentioning that this is the first real attempt to treat the series' past as anything beyond an adjunct to its present--past Doctors had appeared before, in anniversary specials and nostalgia pieces, but this is the first real time that anyone had gone back to the show's history in an attempt to add onto it. It's all a big retcon in one sense; this is adding something new while attempting to pretend that it's been there all along retroactively. But in a greater sense, it's an acknowledgement that the Doctor's story has always been somewhat fractal in nature, capable of hiding an infinite number of stories in between any two points. We've known for ages that the Doctor has adventures even when we're not watching him; this is just the point at which everyone wakes up and realizes how much potential there is to the idea. But how well was that potential realized?

Well, 'Playback', the book's framing sequence, eases us into the idea by portraying the whole thing as a series of experiments in psychometry carried out on the contents of the Doctor's pockets. In other words, it's setting this clearly and straightforwardly as a series of flashbacks from the Doctor's present rather than stories about the Doctor's past. It's a framing sequence that seems a little unnecessary in retrospect--certainly you'll never see it again in any of the later anthologies, and thankfully the idea isn't carried through to the Missing Adventures line. But for a first effort, it's probably a good idea, and it helps that it's a nice little mystery that even ties together one or two of the stories within the anthology (although they'd later take this to more ambitious heights).

That makes 'Fallen Angel', by Andy Lane, the first trip into the Doctor's past proper, and it's an appropriately cute story that does things both Lane and Doctor Who do well. Specifically, it's a style pastiche of another genre's standards that drops the Doctor into it in order to see how he bounces off the tropes of another story. I'm not sure whether Lucas Seyton is meant to be the Saint or Raffles, but he holds up surprisingly well against a very vivid portrayal of the Second Doctor and makes this story more than the sum of its admittedly slight parts.

Meanwhile, 'The Duke of Dominoes', by Marc Platt, shows that there can be more to these stories than simple pastiche. Platt's story is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Master, the Doctor's legendary arch-foe, and gives him a depth and majesty that wasn't often present in his appearances on television. Platt's story does a wonderful job of creating atmosphere and pulling you along with its plot, all the while fleshing out the Master and giving more narrative richness to the series' past. Oh, and the Doctor's in it too for a few paragraphs. (Okay, that's actually a really funny gag, to be honest--the Doctor foils the Master's evil scheme without even knowing he's there.)

Vanessa Bishop's 'The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back' also tries to expand upon the era it's set in, this time in the service of repair to some damaged subtexts; many fans have commented on the strange relationships between career military man Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, acerbic scientist Liz Shaw, and pompous alien "John Smith", and the way that the tensions between them were remarked upon at times but never really explored or made meaningful. Bishop tries to correct this with a story that genuinely gets at the problems inherent in the Doctor's relationship with the Brigadier, but she doesn't have time to do it fully over the course of one short story--the result is good, but still leaves something wanting. (Luckily, this is just the first of many such explorations.)

On the other hand, 'Scarab of Death', by Mark Stammers, is the first appearance in this volume of fanwank. Fanwank, in the context of "missing" stories, usually takes the form of a sequel to a classic story that really only exists because the classic story is so beloved that people want to get just a little bit more of it and don't care whether it's warranted. Here, we get a sequel to "Pyramids of Mars", complete with more Fourth Doctor and more Sarah Jane Smith and more Martian pyramids, in a story that's by no means bad but also by no means necessary. It's hard to match Robert Holmes at his prime, but unfortunately this is only the first time someone's going to try.

Weirdly, Jim Mortimore's 'The Book of Shadows' feels like a bizarre harbinger of the book that would one day end his career. Like 'Campaign', it takes place around the time of Alexander the Great (this time slightly after his death), and like 'Campaign' it features a bizarre and otherworldly set of timey-wimey circumstances that lead to Barbara being the wife of a great leader of that time and bearing him a child, and with this shocking twist portrayed through narrative circumstances and experimental prose that deliberately unsettles the reader and leaves them off-balance. Like 'Campaign', it's a beautifully poetic version of the First Doctor and his companions that shows just how dramatically sophisticated and intelligent this era of the program truly was, and how well it holds up today; unlike 'Campaign', it has an ending that makes sense and doesn't wear out its welcome. Really, this is one of the best in the collection.

And it's followed by...well, it'd probably be unfair to call David Howe's 'Fascination' the worst of the collection, but it's certainly got a layer of tangible squick all over it that makes it unpleasant to read and leaves you wanting a hot shower afterwards. That may have been the intention all along, of course, but it still feels like this story about the Doctor saving Peri from a mind-controlling rapist with magic powers is a little too sleazy to really fit into Doctor Who at all, and it's hard not to feel like there's a little too much enjoyment of Peri's sexual assault included in the narrative voice.

And then, hidden in among all the random stories from the Doctor's past, we get a multi-Doctor affair that also happens to be the key to the framing story's mystery. 'The Golden Door', by David Auger, is a nicely twisty mystery that relies on something the classic series could never do--have one incarnation of the Doctor mistaken for another. The subsequent convolutions of the plot are surprisingly easy to follow while still quite dense in their variety, and the final moral (it's okay to be different) is by no means a bad one even if it is a bit unsubtle. This was a good choice to connect to the final act of 'Playback'.

But before we get that far, we have Tim Robins' 'Prisoners of the Sun', which is experimental enough to almost not feel like a Doctor Who story at all. It's a brutal alternate reality story involving all of the Third Doctor's allies turning into sadistic soldiers in a bizarre civil war engineered by mysterious aliens we've never heard of who are nonetheless ancient enemies of the Time Lords, all wrapped up in a retconned explanation for Liz Shaw's departure, the Master's arrival, and oh by the way the whole thing is an intervention by the Doctor in a Time War that presages the later BBC books and the New Series. It's no surprise with all that going on, the prose is packed so tight with revelations as to be practically incoherent with breathlessness. Still, there's a good read buried under all that, and it may well be one of the hidden influences on a number of later writers.

And last but not least, we have Paul Cornell, warming up his Fifth Doctor impersonation with 'Lackaday Express'. It's a good story that trades well in Cornell's strengths--warm characterization, celebration of the small human moments that connect us, an acknowledgment of the pain of nostalgia while still understanding the desire to revisit the happier moments of our lives--all wrapped up in a nicely science-fiction-y premise that makes consistent sense. I'm glad this wasn't his only visit to this era in the series' past--Cornell didn't make many, which makes me appreciate the ones he did all the more--but it's definitely a good one.

And then, of course, we get the redux of 'Playback', where all the loose ends are wrapped up in satisfactory fashion and the current Doctor walks off into the sunset, his memories safely relegated to his past. But that's the thing about the Doctor's past as opposed to ours. His past is still alive, still growing, still worth talking about. It's no wonder it didn't stay relegated to memory for long.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Chat: Shadow of the Scourge, Parts Three and Four

Dee: Surprise! Happy Valentine’s Day!

John: I’ve actually been wanting to get back to this for a while, but before we can move on to anything else, we need to finish up our talk on ‘Shadow of the Scourge’. And the back half...it’s good, but it’s good in that weird sort of way that an author revisiting a past triumph is good but not quite as good as the original. It kind of invites comparisons to ‘Timewyrm: Revelation’, and I think it’s hard to win those comparisons even though this is also a good story. Is that me being unfair, or did you kind of feel that way as well?

Dee: I… didn’t see that,  but that’s partly  because I was having too much fun with Sophie Aldred. Whereas in “TW:R” Ace was slogging through the Doctor’s mind, here Benny is more at home and Ace is busy going “EH!? ALL RIGHT, BUT I HOPE YOU HAVE A PLAN!!” at the top of her lungs. Much more fun, less imagery-heavy. For obvious reasons, mind you, but still they felt different enough I didn’t run to that comparison. And good grief, was the cast having fun.

John: Okay, yes. You’re absolutely right, this is one of the biggest reasons why Big Finish slowly took over as “Doctor Who” in the hearts of fandom over the period between 1999 and 2003, because they had Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy and Lisa Bowerman all sharing wonderful chemistry and bringing an indefinable magic to scenes that made them even better than on the printed page. Lisa Bowerman, in particular, deserves special mention simply because she makes Bernice seem like such a natural and organic part of the TARDIS crew. It feels like she’s known the Doctor and Ace for years (and yes, I know that’s technically true because she was one of the Cheetah people in ‘Survival’, but still…) You’re absolutely right, the cast is having a ball. I just kind of felt like when we went back into the Doctor’s mind again, and when he conquered his guilt again, and when we got a happy humanistic ending again...it was all good stuff, don’t get me wrong, but it just felt a bit over-familiar.

Dee: Eh. You’re allowed, obviously. I just don’t see it. I think that guilt and shame are things that creep back in, speaking as a person with depression, and that you really do have to beat them again and again. This time felt different to me, and that’s perhaps good enough. Or maybe I’m just easier to please as long as Ace isn’t being a total git. That’s also very possible. And again, we’re talking about a story that could have been written for my interests, so it had me a lot earlier and kept me better. And I loved “Revelation.” At least I remember loving it!

John: Well, it is pretty easy to please me as well, when it comes to Paul Cornell writing a 7/Ace/Benny book. For all that I gripe a bit about it being a lot like Cornell’s other work from this era, it’s worth noting that I consider Cornell’s other work from this era to be some of the best of Doctor Who, full stop, and a model for the New Series to the point where they had to just break down and adapt ‘Human Nature’ because it was the mission statement of Doctor Who from the moment it was released and they needed to make sure everyone knew about it. If it’s an imitation of Cornell’s other work, there are worse things to impersonate. And the message is good, too. It’s not just that you have to beat back guilt and shame, it’s that if you reach out to other people, they will support you and help you in that fight. They will forgive you if you ask forgiveness, they will care for you if you need care, and that as bad as it can seem sometimes, you’ve got more friends than you realize. It’s a little sappy, but it’s an important thing to hear.

Dee: I’m wondering if that message is more visceral to me because of my depression, too. It’d be really nice to think that instead of having broken circuitry in my brain, it’s aliens trying to use me to gain power when I feel like staying in bed for a week, you know? I don’t think I can hear the “reach out, you’re not alone” enough. Might have to mention that to Cornell at CONvergence this year. And that might also be something that influences my opinion of this story. Also cross-stitch. (Seriously, pointing that out will never get old to me.)

John: The cross-stitch convention is awesome. It’s a sign of Cornell’s creativity and cleverness, to me; I think the easy route would have been a sci-fi convention, complete with lazy jokes about con-goers that would get laughs out of familiarity. Instead, he gets to show the audience that everyone’s got things they’re passionate about, and even if we don’t share that passion we can understand what it’s like to care that much about a hobby. I also like the ending, where the Doctor tells Brian that he will find someone else not because he has some secret insight into the future, but because he believes in the healing power of time and understands that no matter how bad things seem when they’re at their worst, there’s always tomorrow. Those are good things. (Oh, yes, and Ace wandering around being smugly badass to monsters that don’t know how dangerous she is to them. That’s cool too.) There’s definitely a lot to like here, no question.

Dee: Honestly, I’ve liked Benny OK before, but I think this is the first time I’ve really loved-loved her, and her beautiful snarkiness made me giggle. I feel good about this story, and I hope everyone involved does as well.

John: I suspect they do. And now, back into official Virgin territory, and the first short story anthology we’re about to tackle! Join us next time for ‘Decalog’!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Shadow of the Scourge

The main reason this fits as well as it does with the era it's set in is that Paul Cornell really doesn't like the Seventh Doctor that much.

Oh, don't get me wrong; he's a Doctor Who fan and always will be. But he's a fan because he admires certain qualities in the Doctor--his sense of whimsy and magic, his essentially romatic nature, his irrepressible joy at the human spirit. The "sweet" side of the Doctor. He's deeply conflicted when he has to write the Seventh Doctor, that sinister manipulator and player of games with the darkest of monsters. It's not that he doesn't understand that they're two sides of the same person, and that the whimsical Romantic sometimes gives away to the terrifying monster-to-monsters that the Doctor can be...but he's not comfortable with it. Virtually all of his Seventh Doctor stories exist within that tension, and explore it like a scab that just won't heal.

And 'The Shadow of the Scourge' is no exception. The front half is mainly about the Doctor coming up with what Cornell thinks of as one of his "typical" plans...although it's really only typical for a Cornell Seventh Doctor story. When other authors describe the Seventh Doctor as doing something that will eventually come to be known as "timey-wimey", it's usually presented in the form of a benevolent predestination paradox; the Doctor discovers that events have already been arranged in a particular way, and ruefully assents to being history's puppet just one more time. Whereas Cornell always describes it as weeks of tedious stage-managing in order to make sure the latest caper goes off without a hitch.

It doesn't work, of course, because it never works. The halfway point of the audio marks the end of the first act as all of the Doctor's manipulations are undone, forcing him to improvise desperately and to rue and regret his manipulative ways. The former happens in most of the Seventh Doctor's stories--after all, it'd be a pretty poor piece of drama if the Doctor solved everything in the first fifteen minutes. But the second part, the Doctor confronting his personal flaws, is unique to Cornell. In that respect, 'Shadow of the Scourge' is a close cousin to 'Timewyrm: Revelation', to 'Love and War', to 'No Future' and to 'Human Nature'. It's an analysis of the fundamental contradiction within the Seventh Doctor, the dynamic between his callous and cruel manipulations of his friends and of strangers and the ultimate rightness of his actions when all is said and done.

So the back half is mostly about the Doctor beating himself up over being such a jerk to his friends, and because he wants to explore that theme, Cornell uses the Scourge as a villain precisely because they're using his own conscience as a weakness. The Scourge point out everything Cornell's thinking--that his overplanning and arrogance were used as a weakness against him, that he was used as the Scourge's weapon against humanity precisely because of his conceited belief that he could stage-manage one of the oldest and most powerful races in the universe to death with just a few parlor tricks. It overreaches, perhaps, in suggesting that everyone can defeat their own private Scourge simply by remembering the small and simple pleasures in life...not only does it weave unsteadily across the line between sentiment and schmaltz in places, it's also unfair to people to suggest that they always have the power to defeat their own private demons if they'd only think happy thoughts.

But ultimately, the point of the story is that optimism and hope are stronger than despair, that friendship and unconditional love can defeat the worst things in the depths of our souls if we'd only reach out and ask for it, and that people have an enormous capacity to forgive, if we only extend our sincere repentance. Oh, and that cute babies and long parties with tea are pretty damn awesome. Those are messages worth having around, even if they do come with a bit of schmaltz on them. (It brushes off.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Shadow of the Scourge Part Two

I didn't care as much for the second half of this story, but when I say that it's because the first half was so very good. There are still so very many wonderful parts it feels a bit petty to complain.

For instance, Ace's sacrifice of her hearing was a lovely, inspired touch. Sophie Aldred plays that scene wonderfully, and while some of the jokes were predictable it would have been sad if they hadn't been made. She is violent when she needs to be, but it isn't her first choice of methods. (She does, however, still think confronting the enemy is the way to go. The minute she yells "Oi!" I start grinning.) Ace is back, and back to having faith. It's not the unreasoning faith of her youth, but the tested faith of someone who has made the choice to believe. 

Joining her in that faith we find Bennie, and she is fantastic. I particularly loved her comments about Eight, who doesn't play an active role but whose existence provides a plot point. Her partnership with Ace is beautiful and forms an important fulcrum on which the Doctor can move events. They have come to an understanding. Bennie is equally capable of snark, but she has an innate tenderness. Her intelligence gets them through multiple bad moments, and the aforementioned faith is pivotal in fixing the situation.

The Doctor is less a factor than normal as far as actions go. His primary role is to struggle with himself and the Scourge.  While this lets the humans play the most active part in events, it means we get a lot of what comes dangerously close to whining. On the plus side, McCoy gets some lovely lines and he does a great job when he's allowed to be reflective. The end, too, is well-acted.

Michael and Annie's story comes to a more-or-less satisfying end. So does the story as a whole. 

I would not advise listening to this story with a headache, by the way. The sound effects can get a bit harsh. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Chat: Shadow of the Scourge, Parts One and Two

John: So the plan to seamlessly flow this off of the back of ‘Tragedy Day’, and thus see ‘The Shadow of the Scourge’ in the context of its era, seems to have gone a bit off the rails. On the other hand, I’m not so sure this is a bad thing. I’ve seen a lot of posts where people do that, and they all seem to come down to, “Gee, it doesn’t fit in there all that well!” I hope that the delay means we can talk about more than just whether they recaptured the mid-90s feel.

Dee: I can’t say I felt like it was anything like ‘Tragedy Day,’ and if you hadn’t told me they were supposed to flow one from the other I wouldn’t have known it. On the other hand, the first two parts are a solid adventure and a fun one. Especially for me, as I said in my review post a few months back. Geeking plus mocking Newagers (which you should pronounce “newage” like “sewage”) plus cross-stitch. They had me at the concept.

John: The concept is great. But I have to say, as we sit at the halfway point, that it hasn’t really gotten going yet. It has a problem that was always one of the weaknesses of Paul Cornell’s Seventh Doctor material, which was that he never really liked the manipulative aspects of McCoy and so they tended to be a bit ham-fisted. The Seventh Doctor rarely did anything as clunky or blatant as nip back in time and stick a giant cylinder of sleeping gas in the ventilation ducts to foil the baddies’ plans, even during this era (which may be why it doesn’t feel like it fits in with ‘Tragedy Day’). He was always a subtle manipulator and a brilliant improviser and you could never tell where one ended and the other began. This part, where he’s just being really obvious about scamming the monsters, is the weakest bit of the story to me. Do you feel the same way?

Dee: It’s hard for me to say. Right now, having not heard the whole thing, my feeling is that he’s still playing them because Seven was never this, as you say, blatant. But there are lots of old Who episodes where the Doctor was, so I am inclined to give it a pass. Instead, I’m focusing on the lovely character grace notes and the humor, which is thrilling me no end. I don’t even want to specifically talk about the parts that made me laugh out loud in case I spoil it for someone else. Furthermore, with Cornell writing and Sophie Aldred reprising her part with clear joy and her usual talent, we’re back to an Ace I like. That goes a long way, in my heart, towards spackling over plot holes.

John: Oh, yes. Ace and Benny are the clear highlights of the first disc, what with her casually chatting about how she did her usual “storming off in shocked betrayal” bit, and Benny getting a rather terribly large number of good lines. I will avoid quoting most of them, for the reasons you mentioned, but I have to say that the exchange: “Are you pregnant?” “How did you know?” “I didn’t. I just ask that question to break the ice at parties,” is one of his better Benny moments, and this is the man who created the character. They were clearly having a ton of fun, and you totally forget that this is the first time that Sophie Aldred and Lisa Bowerman have acted together as Ace and Benny. Which is why I’m glad they didn’t do a story set earlier--with chemistry this good, why waste it by having them act all tense and angry at each other?

Dee: Precisely. The bigger negative, to me, than the plot being hamfisted is that I just can’t tell the baddies apart. It’s one thing when you can see actors facing each other on screen, but in this case it’s just distracting because you’re never sure which baddie you’re hearing. It’s still minor, though. And it doesn’t hurt my anticipation of the next installment. I do want to address the nice bait-and-switch that was almost set up, which is that we hear the possession of the medium before we have the body in the elevator. I wish we could have had the body first, so it looked more like a murder mystery. But then I suppose the fandom gatekeepers would have been upset we didn’t get the monster first, so there’s no way to win on that one.

John: I know what you mean about the monster voices. The actors in question have some really good voices, but they’re so heavily modulated that you can’t tell them apart in monster form. I agree that the body would have been a better cold open in some ways...actually, I was going to say “but” when I realized there’s no “but” there. The body would have been a better open, it would have foregrounded the Doctor, and it’s not like they couldn’t have gotten to the other stuff later. Have you noticed, by the way, that we haven’t been talking much about themes? This feels so much like a nostalgia piece to me that it seems more concerned with being of this era than being about something. Or am I being too hard on it?

Dee: I don’t see that at all. I see it as being more of a throwback to a Hinchcliffe era, if you want to talk nostalgia, but that’s OK with me. To me, the themes are more about people needing something to believe in. Mary needs to believe in Brian and the medium. Michael needs to believe in Brian, then in these people who are (hopefully) saving his life. Ace and Benny need to believe in the Doctor and are almost desperately doing so.

John: I can see something of that, but it does feel sort of secondary at this point to the Doctor being smug about fooling aliens and the aliens being smug about fooling the Doctor. I do recall some people at the time being put out a bit about the Scourge, by the way. In terms of themes, there were people at the time who felt like putting clinical depression down to “evil aliens making you feel that way” was trivializing a very real thing. Speaking personally, I sometimes feel it’s helpful to externalize depression, to remind myself that it’s a brain chemistry thing affecting me and not an aspect of my feelings, but I can see how this might be taking it too far.

Dee: As someone who’s mentally ill myself, and sensitive to this, I didn’t hear the Doctor mention “clinical depression,” which can be seen as different from colloquial “depression,” so unless on a relisten I hear him use the word “clinical” I’m giving it a pass. I welcome others to feel differently, though, and there is a bit of ableism in there. I don’t think at the time this was made that was even a word, though, so again, giving Cornell slack. He always tries hard to be openminded and caring, and he’s a definite ally to many communities. Now, the smugness thing… yes, but holy cow, how many times did Baker do that schtick? It’s not new to the series, that’s for sure.

John: No, it’s not new at all. But I just feel like McCoy doesn’t quite know how to play it. He’s good at enigmatic, he’s good at knowing, but he always played that off in the past as distant and mysterious. I don’t think he likes having to be the one to explain all his own plans here. But as I said, he’s much better when he gets to be clever instead of smug and improvisational instead of all-knowing, so the next disc should be much more entertaining. Join us then!

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!