Recently, I was chatting with Phil Sandifer (whose own excellent blog, the TARDIS Eruditorium, is actually intersecting with the period we're covering here) and was surprised to find out that even by the standards of "hardcore" Doctor Who fans, I've read these books a lot. ("Hardcore" is in quotes because everyone measures this in their own way. I can name every Virgin NA and MA and who wrote them, but I didn't make Time Lord ceremonial robes for my wedding. But I digress...) The point is, I've read 'Lucifer Rising' probably half a dozen times now, more than most people, and I've had the chance to rethink my opinions on it multiple times. And what I keep coming back to is that this book illustrates the hazards and hardships of working in a shared universe better than any other story I can think of.
Because 'Lucifer Rising' is good, and it's well-regarded, but it has ambitions greater than that. Which is actually pretty impressive, considering how much it achieves. Mortimore and Lane produce a good hard science-fiction novel in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke, with a fully-realized backstory and characters that feel like they could sustain a story of their own even without the Doctor and company, while not shoving the main characters off into the role of passive observers in their own series. This is no easy feat to manage, as we have seen in the last two novels, and the quality on display here should not be underestimated.
It's not a perfect novel--there are at least two plot swerves that Mortimore and Lane don't even feint at setting up (IMC's corporate takeover of the base, in a book that has barely even mentioned corporations to that point, and the "morphic field generator", which feels more like the authors realized they needed a big third-act climax than a logical conclusion to the rest of the book.) And for those of you who will be following along with us later, Mortimore's tendency to kill off any character who's ceased to be important to the plot begins here, and Lane's habit of referencing old episodes is already on full display. (Zeiton-7, vraxoin, the Hydrax, the Adjudicators eventually becoming the Knights of Oberon, Delphons...I'm sure someone else has made a comprehensive list somewhere, but I can't be bothered. The Dalek invasion is probably the most excusable, as it provides a whacking great chunk of atmosphere that permeates the book.)
That said, it's amazing how well the characters work as people in their own right. Mortimore and Lane try very hard not to reduce anyone to a stereotype; Piper, one of the book's ostensible villains, is scared and desperate and stupid, while Legion, the book's actual villain, is just as desperate on a more cosmic scale. Ace is confused and frustrated in a very human way and Bishop is a character that I actually would have liked to see in his own spin-off. And the dialogue fairly crackles at times, with Bishop and the Doctor getting the best exchanges ("I'm not reading you rmind. It's just that everyone thinks that when they first see us.") Really, it's a strong effort that hangs together well. But as I said, the book has greater ambitions than simply to be good.
Mortimore and Lane wanted this book to be a game-changer. Theirs was to be the book where Ace cast off her cynicism and deep distrust of the Doctor through a cathartic confrontation with the "ghost" of Jan, theirs was to be the book where the Doctor shed off his manipulative skin and finally stopped making other people do his dirty work. (And where he became Ah-nuld, apparently...there's no way to read "Welcome to hell, Legion," unironically.) They even foreshadowed a regeneration sequence. This was, in short, meant to be a turning point for the entire series of Doctor Who.
Didn't happen. Nobody followed them along this new direction, not even a little bit. Ace continued to be the same person she had been in 'Deceit', and needed an entire second cathartic arc to shake her of her cynicism and deep distrust of the Doctor (and arguably, a third, counting 'Set Piece'.) The idea of the Doctor as gun-toting action hero was taken out back, beaten with a shovel, and quietly buried never to resurface. And the regeneration was nixed by the BBC.
As a result, the book feels a bit portentous at times, particularly at the end where the Doctor, Ace and Benny all resolve all their emotional problems through alien super-science and become besties. It's not that the scene is bad per se, it's that it rings hollow in light of what we know about the characters. It's hard to sell that kind of personal transformation at the best of times, but it's even harder knowing we have nine more books of these characters not getting along for the exact same reasons they didn't get along at the beginning of this one. Mortimore and Lane tried to take the series in a different direction, and it's hard sometimes to focus on the success of 'Lucifer Rising' as a novel when it so obviously fails as a blueprint for the future of the line.