John: So it might be a loaded question, but I just have to start this off by asking. Was that what you imagined the Doctor was doing when he wandered into the interior of the TARDIS at the beginning of ‘Birthright’ and didn’t come back out until the very end?
Dee: No. I’d rather hoped it was something more... I don’t know the right word for this, but this is not what I imagined. I was even more disappointed when he showed up in the cruise ship. I mean, really? I am hoping his weirdness is a side effect of what he did to the TARDIS, and serve him right!
John: I think his weirdness was...well, I don’t want to say that as a writer, David Banks makes a terrific actor, but I do think he was wandering pretty far afield in his interpretation of the Doctor. I understand that some people might see the Doctor as an eccentric sage, but there’s more than a hop-skip-and-jump from that to making him a portable Lao Tzu, complete with his own miniature jade pagoda. It felt like he was writing about a character he’d made up that interested him, and then slapped the “Doctor” label on that character. I’d say his original characters were better, but really the only good character in this one was Ruby. And even she was your basic “plucky young lass”, as comes kitted standard in the new series. Or did you like the supporting cast better than I did?
Dee: This isn’t a mature novel. It feels a lot like a teenage fanfic, and accordingly the characters aren’t developed. Ruby was way too young to have the position she had. None of the other characters are given any kind of development at all. I also think that the diversity of the cast was a very paint-by-numbers thing: Oh, let’s have a black guy, and if we have one of them we need an Asian woman. That’s even more problematic given the links to Tomb of the Cybermen, which wasn’t exactly the most racially sensitive of episodes either. The thought processes we’re shown of any given supporting character are interchangeable. A couple of times I had to check who was the focal character in question.
John: I do think that Bono was there as a deliberate counter to Toberman in ‘Tomb’--sort of a “Look, this African-American character is really really smart and well-spoken as well as being physically powerful!” thing. Which made me uncomfortable in a whole different way, because there’s nothing quite like tone-deaf overcompensation for racism to compete with tone-deaf oblivious racism for cringe-worthiness. Other than that, yes, I think pretty much everyone is either undeveloped or developed poorly. He was clearly trying very hard with Mike Brack; the character has a dark secret, a Byronic brooding intensity, and winds up making a heroic attempt to save the day at the cost of his own life...only to turn up alive at the end and win the heart of the female lead.
Or, at least, that’s what Banks was aiming for. In practice, Brack is just a grumpy asshole who drinks a lot and has no chemistry with Ruby’s character, to the point where you’re sort of surprised at the end when Banks seems to imply that they get together. (Really, does this make any sense as a romance? “Yes, I know I came off like an arrogant prick and a creepy stalker. But it’s only because I didn’t want to tell you that I’m the guy who crippled your dad!”)
Dee: Yeah... absinthe isn’t as edgy as Banks thinks it is, either. And I really wasn’t paying attention at the point where he implies they get together, because I was all riled up at the Doctor and didn’t really care about the supporting cast.
I keep coming back to “The Impossible Planet.” There are so many parallels, but it succeeds where “Iceberg” fails because you end up caring about the characters early on. It’s not just the classic “base under siege” elements becoming boring, either. The creepy sneak-up-and-convert Cybermen are more effective than new series Cybermen. But you have to care about the characters being converted, and here I just don’t.
John: It helps that in most “base under siege” stories you actually get, you know, bases under siege. The good Cybermen stories worked because there was a sense of claustrophobia that was almost tangible; the characters were either trapped inside by the monsters, or trapped inside with them. Banks keeps skipping away from key points in the action (the capture and brainwashing of all the station personnel, the planting of the bomb, the Doctor’s escape...) to go faff about on the cruise ship for another sixty pages or so. Which would be almost unforgivable in and of itself, but ultimately the cruise ship turns out to have nothing to do with the Cybermen’s plans. Brack isn’t working for them, Straker isn’t allied with them...they just happen to be passing by when the Cybermen need a convenient source of body parts. And then, just as that becomes important, we jump back to the army base! It’s like Banks has a pathological aversion to drama.
Dee: And that further sabotages feeling any sympathy for the Doctor, in my opinion. I can’t shake the feeling he didn’t really do anything, even though if I recount the plot he did do quite a bit. We just never saw it. It’s hard to like a book without any real developed heroes.
John: Or any real developed anything, for that matter. This one felt like opening a Christmas present and finding out that the giant box contained one action figure and a million foam peanuts. Luckily, we’re pausing in the books for a little bit to look at how the Cybermen should be done. Join us next time for our first Side Trip, to Marc Platt’s ‘Spare Parts’!