Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chat: Birthright

Dee: I know John usually starts these, but holy cow, I have stuff to say about this one. For starters, the more I got to thinking about it, the more I disliked this book. I am so. Very. Tired of TARDIS-rape. At this point, when I find myself saying “Well, say what you will about ‘The Pit,’ but at least the TARDIS wasn’t raped in it,” you start to get the idea that maybe they need a new plot.

John: I actually feel very guilty, because it didn’t even occur to me until you pointed it out, but once I saw it, man, it was not something I could deny. And it isn’t even something you can defend on the grounds that “it’s just a machine”, either; Robinson explicitly genders the TARDIS in the big virtual reality sequence that makes up the climax of the book (because it wouldn’t be a New Adventure without some sort of symbolic dreamscape-y thing.) About the nicest thing you can say is that Neil Gaiman does something similar, but a) tu quoque is not a valid defense, b) Gaiman makes sure that the TARDIS isn’t “at home” when it happens, so it feels less explicitly like an invasion, and c) Neil Gaiman handles it better on all sorts of levels. Which I’ll leave to you to detail, because I know you have thoughts on that too.

Dee: I admit that I’m going with an interpretation that many fans won’t want to consider because it’s, well, not fun and people want their DW to be fun. I’m going to contrast “The Doctor’s Wife” with “Birthright,” yes, and admit there are superficial but not-trivial similarities. First off, the Doctor’s impulsive actions (and I don’t care how much handwaving people do about “Seven had to do this,” it reads like an impulse action) set off the action in both sets. In both, two companions are trapped without the Doctor and have to make their way through minefields they wouldn’t have had to face with more information. In both, innocent bystanders die (although it’s not surprising the NA book has a higher body count). Both contain substantial amounts of background information which will set the tone for future adventures. Am I missing anything besides the critical TARDIS bits, which I’ll address?

John: I don’t think that Seven’s actions felt impulsive at all, which is in a way the worst thing about it. Robinson is really taking the “master manipulator” aspect of McCoy’s Doctor to its ultimate limits, which makes him out to just be a heartless bastard, and there really is an almost premeditated cruelty to his actions in this book. Yes, it’s meant to be a predestination paradox, but the guilt he shows at the end suggests that it’s not really one at all--he did all these things before ‘Iceberg’, not after it, and he’s really just finishing the job he started. Muldwych is really where you get the “future Doctor stuck in his own Web of Time” stuff, not Seven. But I’m digressing...no, I think you’ve hit the other similarities there. Feel free to go on with the critical TARDIS bits.

Dee: OK, so. Gaiman first of all, as you’ve said, removes the Doctor from the TARDIS. In this case, it’s more like a kidnapping and home invasion than a rape. (Still not good, mind you, but.) Where the TARDIS in “Birthright” is suffering terribly and no one can stop it, the TARDIS in “The Doctor’s Wife” seems more bemused by her state. Perhaps it’s because she gets to talk to the Doctor, and there is the second, critical difference between the two: in “The Doctor’s Wife,” they are a team, allies against the forces that took her from her home and are trying to kill her. In “Birthright,” the Doctor actually harms her himself, then shows up as if nothing had happened. In Gaiman’s story, the Doctor assists the TARDIS to get back where she belongs and then acknowledges her righteous anger, then spends time carefully repairing her and being loving to her in the only way he can. In “Birthright,” none of that happens.

John: Yes. Pretty much exactly yes. Robinson’s Doctor is someone who really does not care who or what gets hurt. He’s looking at the Big Picture, and everyone involved in this book is a detail. Which, I do understand, is what Robinson is trying for; he’s saying that this is the ultimate extension of the Doctor as the NAs portray him, but...there’s a limit to how far you can push the character and still have him be someone you want to come back and read about next month. This is about as far as it can go, I think. When he’s a pointless dick to Benny, Ace and the TARDIS in one book (and it is, as far as we can tell, utterly pointless--there’s never a reason for him not to let Ace or Benny in on his master plan) then we’re probably pushing the envelope. I think there’s a good reason that after ‘Iceberg’, we get a solid five novels of him getting his comeuppance for this kind of thing.

Dee: I know they were trying for the virus metaphor here. It doesn’t work, though, and a large part of that is that they have already done that with Ishtar. This isn’t new, it’s not novel, and there’s no sense of warmth or caring behind it. Amy and Rory weren’t supposed to get trapped in the TARDIS; Bennie and Ace were set up. Eleven cares deeply about Rory and Amy and Sexy, and he hurts deeply at the end. Seven just waltzes in. And if he wants Ace to be less bitter, he could stop poking and prodding her, by the way.

John: Yeah. This is a Doctor who is going out of his way to be the most manipulative dick he can possibly be. It never feels like Jared Khan or the Charrl are the kinds of threats that he needs to go eight million miles out of his way to deal with in the specific way he does (unless you buy into Muldwych’s “the Charrl are the nicest, bestest, sweetest, gentlest carnivorous insects that plan to wipe out the human race and use the pitiful survivors to incubate their eggs” bit, which was a pretty rough example of ‘tell, don’t show’ by itself.) This feels like the author wrote a normal plot, and at every stage where chance, coincidence or happenstance would normally occur, he just wrote in, ‘And the Doctor was behind that too’ without ever turning the story inside out to figure out what the Doctor was thinking when he did something. (Which is, I suppose, a point in favor of the predestination paradox idea...this is a book that can literally only work if at some point Ace and Benny sat down and told him everything that happened, and he said to himself, ‘Bugger, that was stupid. But I guess I’ve got to do it now!’)

Dee: It was doing OK... not great, but OK... until Ace knocked out Benny. From there, I just wanted to throw the book. Before that, I was at least enjoying watching Benny chasing around fin-de-siecle London. It was marginally entertaining, and as I said, Robinson did a far, far better job of it than some others. I found myself wishing that not all the East Enders had hearts of gold under their shabby exteriors, but that’s not an unexpected way to draw stock characters. But after that... just no. I didn’t care how it ended.

John: Do you care how this chat about ‘Birthright’ ends?

Dee: RAGE HISS SPIT AND FYI I AM NOT ENJOYING “ICEBERG” EITHER!!! **pantpantwhew** OK, I feel a little better now.

John: Very few people do. Enjoy ‘Iceberg’, that is. Still, we’re going to give it our best effort next time!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Wow. Now this here is some serious fanwank. It makes sense, don't get me wrong, but it's wanky.

On the one hand, we have the Doctor off doing he-knows-what, his absence more of an annoyance than a chance for Benny and Ace to stretch their legs. One of the annoying parts of the novel was how very often the women go off on inner rants about this. Not that they aren't entitled, but I found myself skipping paragraphs. It felt as if the author noticed the book was coming in short and padded it with grumps about what a manipulative shit Seven is.

And good lady, the timey-wimey got thick. I've knitted cable scarves with fewer twists in them. I could have enjoyed it more if there had been fewer clearly-Doctor-dropped clues. As it was, every time Benny got into a rhythm of her own, there was another drop (and another rant, of course). At least Ace got to do some organizing and figuring out of her own, a talent I wish was used for more than military purposes.

Now the big gripe: I hope we don't see the TARDIS have to expel someone/thing again soon. I really got my fill of that over the first seven books, and here we are again. It starts to feel like that's what excited the editor more than anything: watching the rape of the TARDIS. That's what it is, and it is becoming seriously uncomfortable. All the virus metaphors in the world can't obscure it by now, especially in a novel of what is essentially sisterhood.

The plot worked, and it was much better in its take on the East End than the joke that was "The Pit." It did try hard. Ultimately, though, this was a novella that got overexpanded.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


'Birthright' feels a lot like a ghost story where the ghost is the Doctor.

Really, I want to stop there, because I don't think I can do a better job of summing it up in one sentence than that, but it probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense on its own so I'll explain. This is mostly known for being part of a two-book sequence that takes place simultaneously with 'Iceberg'. 'Iceberg' is a companion-free story with the Seventh Doctor, and this is a Doctor-free story starring Benny and Ace. But let's face it, a Doctor-free Doctor Who story is kind of a nightmare brief, despite some really good episodes of the new series that pulled it off, and this one's been given to Nigel Robinson, whose previous book was...well, let's just say it was not well-received and leave it at that.

But here, he does something very different and fascinating. I don't know if it's the first time anyone's ever done it, but this is certainly the first book that decides to look at the world as a series of consequences of the Doctor's actions. Jared Khan has been chasing the TARDIS for seven hundred years, and his trail is like a tangled thread winding its way through the Doctor's adventures. Margaret Waterfield lives her entire life in the wake of the Doctor's decisions, and Benny and Ace do as well in their own way. Whether it's the Doctor's past or the Doctor's future (not just in the obvious sense, although we'll get to Muldwych later) they can't escape the effect he has on their lives. And by implication, none of us can. We are all the way we are--human history is what it is--because one person made a series of decisions that caused it all. It's hard not to see why people can hate the Doctor when he's viewed in that light. If he's responsible for everything, surely he bears a share of the guilt for the problems we face? It's a question that Benny is still asking herself at the end of the novel.

Of course, the real problem the Doctor has, thanks to his wibbly wobbly timey wimey lifestyle, is that even he's a prisoner of his own manipulations. Some key sequences in the book involve predestination paradoxes that the Doctor logically must set up in between this book and 'Blood Heat'...does the Doctor, you wonder, rage at his future self for forcing him to send flowers to a funeral instead of attending? For that matter, how does the Doctor feel facing his own future, knowing that he's destined to be on the other side of the conversation someday and still calmly explaining to himself that he has no intention of freeing his future self from exile and imprisonment?

Because yes, that's the other thing this book is known for. "Muldwych", the mysterious Time Lord who helps the Charrl, is very strongly hinted at as being a future incarnation of the Doctor. ('Happy Endings' will later pound that hint into your skull with a sledgehammer, just for those few people who tried to suggest he might be the Meddling Monk or something, but that's for a later post.) And even though part of me will always twitch a little at "a future incarnation of the Doctor" as one of those fan-fiction concepts that everyone thinks of and almost nobody ever does well (like "the Doctor's parents", "the Doctor's time on Gallifrey with the Master", and "a second encounter with the Valeyard"...) I still have to admit that thematically, it makes perfect sense here. Everyone in this story is a pawn of larger players, higher powers; everyone has to perform the role assigned to them by fate. And by that light, it makes sense that the Doctor should also be enmeshed in the web of destiny...and who could manipulate  the Doctor if not the Doctor?

Oh yes, and it's also got some great scenes and solid characterization of Benny (and Ace, I suppose, although this is an era during which Ace is at her least likable) and the plot hangs together well and it's just generally a huge improvement on 'Timewyrm: Apocalypse'. But the main thing is all the stuff about the Doctor. Which is pretty impressive, for a Doctor-free book.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Chat: Shadowmind

John: And we have now finished the first work of one Chris Bulis, a name that will loom larger over this blog than almost any other. By book count, at least. Surprisingly, given his reputation as a "filler" author, I think we both liked this one quite a bit. Fair to say?

Dee: I did, yes. It felt to me a bit like "Doctor Who" meets something of which Gene Roddenberry might have approved. Not necessarily Star Trek, mind, but it would not have been out of place in that universe. And yet it was fully a Who story. The thing which is most intriguing to me is how it feels like a nice book. That makes no sense, given the body count, but it's true.

John: Yes, this does feel like another one of those books where the body count was tacked onto a cheerful and charming little book by Editorial. But i think if I was Editorial, I'd have done the same thing. Ace kind of needs to be in a bad place for the next few books to work, and the next few books need to work for her to get into a place where she can be a really viable companion. They must have realized very quickly that 'Lucifer Rising' totally didn't get the job done there, I think. Um...but yes, a generally nice book. A nice world full of nice people being nice to each other with just one nasty villain to defeat. Two nice worlds full of nice people, if you count the Shenn. (Which I think one should definitely do.)

Dee: I enjoy the Shenn. Their eventual alliance with the humans rings true for me. It doesn't hurt that we get to see them learning how to understand the humans, or that we learn the fate of the duplicates' originals isn't so bad. Even Umbra is a "Q"-ian character, in his way. So I'm hard-pressed not to rank this among my favorites to date.

John: There are certainly a lot of things that stand out in the memory positively. Not so much the plot, oddly enough, but the little things. Bulis is one of the few writers I can think of that starts with the TARDIS crew having a really nice time together on an alien world, and I think that worked even better than he intended it to. Not only is it a sweet moment in and of itself, it shows Tairngire as a place worth protecting. That comes back to us at the end, when Umbra is playing out its final gambit.

Dee: I am having the hardest time not comparing this to "Shore Leave," reading that! Most of the issue is that I'm trying to avoid giving the impression that this isn't a wholly Who novel. But I do think there are places where the series does have some tone overlap, and this is one. "Squire of Gothos," "Shore Leave," and the characters would be perfectly at home in any colony world in any universe, so that works too.  And yet it falls apart if the characters aren't the Doctor and Ace and Benny. You can't put Spock and Kirk and McCoy in those roles.

John: I agree on both counts...ish. I agree that it’s not written as a ‘Star Trek’ novel, but that the culture the Doctor and company interacts with is one that comes strongly out of the utopian tradition of the Trek future. This is a time and place where humanity has more or less Worked Things Out, at least when it comes to ourselves (as with Trek, there’s a ginormous military presence, but it’s clearly designed to deal with external threats. Tairngire is not a military dictatorship.) And I agree that the solution to the situation is a Whovian situation. There’s no stirring speech that convinces Umbra of the importance of the human condition, no technobabble or military solution, and gaining the understanding and trust of the Shenn is portrayed as vital. Those are all key differences, to some extent or other. But I think there’s a bit of a difference, in that I felt like the Doctor is frustratingly generic “wise mentor” at times. The scene where he recites his monster-fighting credentials feels almost like Bulis is making explicit in the text what he couldn’t quite convince us of in the characterization.

Dee: Ish. I feel like that’s kind of an issue with many of the books, so maybe I’m kind of getting used to it. But I think it’s also OK that there is tone overlap between two series I like. This came very close to hitting my sweet spot for both series, and while the book has its weaknesses I’m OK with having those positive buttons hit.

John: Yes, I think that’s it exactly. It’s just so hard to really dislike this book. It feels like Bulis really loves the world and the characters he created, and that shows through in the prose. That makes up for a lot of the problems, because the passion and enthusiasm he displays is so genuine and joyful that it kind of carries you along. Probably why I still have fond memories of this one, while ‘The Ultimate Treasure’ (to pick a later one) doesn’t resonate so well. And speaking of fond memories, the next book is one I also remember pretty well too. Join us next time for a return engagement from long-time Target author Nigel Robinson!