Monday, September 10, 2018

Theatre of War

It's funny re-reading 'Theatre of War' after all these years, a bit like watching a recording of an old friend. You find yourself going back to the things that seemed so new at the time, so strange, but now are the old and familiar habits you've known forever. Sometimes you find yourself chuckling a little ruefully at their mannerisms, knowing that they haven't changed a bit in all these years. And of course, experience makes you appreciate everything you liked before in a new way as well.

I feel like that because when I first read it, 'Theatre of War' was the only novel from a young Justin Richards. It was before he became a reliable novelist for the Missing Adventures line, and well before he became something of a crutch for a BBC range of novels that was perpetually short on time and willing to throw commissions at someone who could write full-length books on laughably tight deadlines and come out with a result that was readable. And it was ages before he wound up the editor of said range of books, overseeing a late flowering of quality before the entire thing turned into a tiny adjunct to the most successful television revival in the history of ever. This was, in short, before we really knew Justin Richards as a writer.

As such, some of the things that seemed fresh and unpredictable then come off as a little shop-worn now. The intertwining of Shakespeare and science-fiction, which was startlingly strange on first reading, now stands revealed as one of Richards' stylistic quirks (and one that seems more than a little ironic in retrospect--in a story that revolves around a made-up civilization whose culture was never detailed beyond the bare minimum needed to fool people, it's more than a little amusing that the Heletian culture's obsession with theatre extends as far as Shakespeare, Osterling, and nothing else).

The functionality of the book also stands out more on re-reading as well; when I first read the novel, I was fascinated by the mystery of Menaxus and the clues scattered throughout the book, and charmed by the clever reveal at the end. Now that I know how it all turns out, it is hard to avoid noticing that the book functions more like a machine than a novel--everything intricately crafted to bring about the final conclusion, but very little done purely for humor and very few characters that function as more than plot dispensers. Even the scares are more a matter of disposing of people who've run out of usefulness to the story.

That said, the story retains its intricate craft; the scheme that Braxiatel lays out is ambitious and cunning, and the clues are laid out perfectly in a manner to keep you interested the entire way through. (This one is also particularly interesting to read in light of years of Bernice Summerfield spin-offs where Irving plays a major part; it's hard not to want to see a version of this from his perspective, meeting his old friend for the "first" time.) There are wheels within wheels within wheels in this story, revelations stacked on revelations that are in turn designed to disguise the big reveal in the third act.

A book this tightly-plotted demands discipline, and Richards is especially disciplined given that this is his first novel. There's not a slip or a misstep in his story, no anomalies that aren't planned with explanations already in mind. Every detail works towards the conclusion, every scene propels the plot forward with momentum, and the whole story races past in a matter of hours. It's a rare skill, and it's easy to read 'Theatre of War' and see how this particular writer was destined for greater things.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

"Theatre of War" by Dee

Life is weird, where it takes you. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say health problems interfered. Then I actually LOST our copy of this book! So I had to get back to writing, then get a copy of the book, then read it…

…and it was a lot better than I remember it being, as far as I’d gone into it. (Which was about 100 pages.) I think “Legacy” almost destroyed Dr. Who books for me. I haven’t cared much for Justin Richards before, but this was quite all right, and that’s good enough to get started again!

Ace is still militant in this book, but she’s calmed down a lot and she’s not violent for the sake of violence. Benny does more than drink and grumble about things - in fact, she gets some really good action. And I recognize the Doctor, which is the most important part. Here he is as both Time’s Champion and a chess player on a universal scale, and it works well - especially because there are other chess players around and he knows of and respects them. That part is fantastic!

Don’t get me wrong, I could see most of the way the plot was going for much of the book. I wasn’t particularly surprised by any twist but the closing one, and that one I could look back and see being telegraphed. The supporting cast is straight out of the show. But at this still-early stage, that’s kind of the point - and it’s something Richards tends to like anyway: bring back the feeling that this is an episode that could have been televised. And I had a great deal of fun imagining all of this action taking place on cardboard sets with the synth music blaring.

I really would like to point to good utilization of Benny, here. Yes, there can be issues with “archaeological dig” stories overwhelming the series, and I’ll be sensitive to that, but this time worked really very well. She is allowed to be intelligent, allowed to stretch and use her skills and training. I can see why she became a favorite with the way Richards presents her, and I’m still holding out for a Big Finish crossover with River Song and Benny. After “Theatre of War,” I am a lot more confident that they wouldn’t have to get Paul Cornell to write her in order to have her work well!

Friday, October 7, 2016

An Update on the Blog's Status

Hi all,

Recently, someone asked if we had decided to abandon this blog, probably because it's been a little over a year since the last update. It's a fair question and it deserves an answer, even if that answer amounts to a long-winded "I really hope not."

Last year about this time, Dee started having some health issues due to some medication she was taking. The medication carried with it a risk of blood clots, and after a few weeks of what she thought was non-specific pain and nausea, she went to a doctor who confirmed that she had a blood clot on the portal vein leading from her liver. She went on blood thinners for an extended period of time to help diminish the clot.

Even after the clot got smaller, though, and she stopped taking the medication that caused it, she wasn't improving. It took us several months to narrow it down and get an official diagnosis, but the doctors confirmed that she has fibromyalgia and that the stresses on her system from the blood clot, the blood thinners (and attendant bruising and trauma from having blood that didn't clot well), and a few other shocks around the same time had left her entire nervous system hypersensitive to pain.

Basically, right now Dee is dealing with a chronic medical condition that leaves her susceptible to fatigue and discomfort, and she has very little energy. Under those circumstances, we're focusing on conserving her strength for things like work and family life, and letting other things go for a bit. We're hopeful that as she recovers from the shocks to her body, she will gradually see a diminishing of the symptoms of her fibro and be able to resume the blog, but it's not a priority (understandably) and we don't have a timeline. Thank you all for your patience and understanding.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


I've read 'Legacy' at least five times now. I read it shortly after it came out when I was buying every New Adventure I could get my hands on, I read it again when I got caught up and read the series in order to see how it all fit together, I read it when Virgin finally finished their run and I was reading the entire sixty-one book series as a whole, I read it when I was reading all of Gary Russell's novels back-to-back, and I read it for this blog. I may have read it additional times, although certainly not for pleasure. But it's at least five. And I have to admit, there's never been a time where I haven't struggled mightily to find anything good to say about the book.

It's not that there's no good ideas in there. Russell chooses to set the book well after both of the televised Peladon stories, picking up the relationship between the Federation and the Pels at a point when there are some tough questions to ask about whether the Federation's stewardship was an enlightened effort to bring civilization to a backwards planet or simply a means of exploiting an indigenous population for their natural resources. There's interesting material in that choice, especially since the Federation has always stood in as an allegory for a united Europe, and the European Union has always been a body more united in theory than in practice.

But that material never lives up to its potential. Which is a shame, because it's just about the only thing that has potential in what essentially amounts to a mound of words written to meet page count requirements more than anything else. Russell has two plots going on, neither one of which has enough material to sustain a full-length novel, and so he pads the book out to the required number of pages with tedious backstories of characters we're not given reasons to care about and endless digressions that come from nowhere and go nowhere. He confuses incident with plot, obfuscation with mystery and familiarity with significance, leading to a story that's clearly intended to be a landmark epic but which fades from the memory within moments.

The obvious problem is that it's woefully underwritten. The story doesn't even really start until page 75--everything prior to that is redundant backstory that's either irrelevant or restated later in the novel. There are numerous digressions to scenes that could have been alluded to, long conversations about characters from the previous Peladon stories that don't mean anything to this novel, and at least one sequence that seems to be there solely to show that Doctor Who books can have sex scenes now. A good trim for content would have cut this down to a novella.

Worse, it's not even good as a novella. It's presented as a murder mystery, but the only reason that there's any confusion at all over whodunnit is because Russell writes multiple scenes without specifying who's acting, and because the Doctor decides not to tell everyone who the killer is for seventy-three pages because Reasons. A good mystery should make you re-read the book with a new understanding of events; as mentioned, I've read 'Legacy' and still neither know nor care who's doing what for the middle third of the book.

And of course, no review of 'Legacy' would be complete without pointing out the obvious--Russell assumes that his potboiler murder mystery is made more significant simply by setting it on a planet that the Doctor has visited before and making numerous references to his previous adventures there. It's clear that he expects us to be cheering the return of Alpha Centauri, the Citadel, Mount Megeshra, Lady Lianna, the trisilicate refinery, et cetera et cetera, and to be comparing Atissa and Tarrol to the other High Priests and Kings we've seen in the previous iterations of this plot. But there's no genuine emotional resonance to any of it, just the mistaken belief that nostalgia can substitute for meaning.

I will say that Gary Russell gets better over the years. (I will also say that his strength still lies as a producer, a role he's thankfully gravitated to, but that's neither here nor there.) Here, though, undisguised by experience or editing, is the core of Russell's talent on display. And while I may yet wind up reading it a sixth time, I can't say it's gotten better with age.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


This sums up how I feel about Gary Russell's Legacy. I was so happy after Decalog, so sure I was going to be able to dive right back in and get the project going again!

Then I hit the first few pages of Legacy and the steam just left the engine. Wow. I began to refer to it in my imagination as "Lag-acy," because of the lag in posts. I finally forced myself to get through it, but I am now craving a really good one to be the next book.

It's not that there are no likeable characters at all. I actually enjoyed the Ice Warriors, and I could see so much wasted potential in so many others in the book. But I couldn't bring myself to really care about any of them, and that's a deep problem when you have the vast cast and numbers of races Russell brings to the table.

Maybe I would have liked it more if I'd been more familiar with Peladon, but I've never seen the TV episodes and by the time I was through the first chapter I didn't care. Pointless blood, beings pointlessly growling at one another, pointless. It did nothing, really, to illuminate the plot. Swords flash and people fall dead right after introduction, when the same points they are supposed to express are re-explained in later chapters. 

At no point did I really feel like any of the Main Three characters were in danger. At no point did I feel like I had a handle on what made any of the other races different from humans. 

It's not a horrible book. It's not like some of the others we've read that made me despair, and I can't honestly say I would have done better. But, as Opus says, "Lord, it wasn't good."

Friday, June 26, 2015

Chat: Decalog

John: Man, they call them “short” stories, but..the problem I always have with anthologies is that just when you’re getting interested in a story, it ends and you have to pick up a new one from scratch. There’s not enough narrative momentum, even with a framing sequence like this one has. Do you feel that way too, or is it just me?

Dee: I feel that way sometimes, and then sometimes it’s a relief. In one or two of the ones in here, it’s a relief. And I really have a couple of things to talk about with you, because I think we saw at least one story very differently and I wanted to explore that. In particular, “Fascination.” I didn’t like it for very different reasons than you, and I felt a little sick reading your review after I wrote mine and wondering how I missed those things.

John: Well, I think some of it may have been that I was around when that story first came out, and I was aware of a lot of conversation about it at the time. A lot of people felt that Howe was kind of crossing a line between “fanfiction” and “slash” that probably shouldn’t have been crossed in a canonical, authorized work, especially as a) it was about a lack of consent, and b) there was no place to really explore the consequences for Peri. She was very much the object of that story rather than the subject, and it was very “male gaze” for something that sat so near to a story like “Lackaday Express”. Especially as Howe has personal and professional connections to the editors.

Dee: Yes, and I want to clarify the reasons I said it had ingredients for me to like it. It has magic and that magic has rules, it had kindly elders who really turned out to be good guys instead of the Evil Ringleaders, and I do like a bit of mind control in my Doctor Who stories. It didn’t even occur to me as I was reading it that it was rapey, and I’m more than a bit ashamed that my near-total dislike of Peri may have blinded me to that. If it had been, say, Nyssa I think I would have noticed more.

John: Well, don’t sell yourself short--I think it was also the blithe obliviousness to consequences that played at least some part. They really do just sort of walk into the sunset with a, “Oh, tee-hee, my body and mind were violated by a stranger, but I got in a token retributive action and so now it’s alright, on to the next adventure!” tone to it all. I don’t think you can do that in a story that’s ostensibly a part of canonical Doctor Who, treating Peri like a real character. If it was a piece of erotica, I might feel differently, but this is at least claiming that Peri is the same Peri we see in ‘Caves of Androzani’, and it does something to her that would have consequences for a real character. But it doesn’t. The magic is good, the concept is good, but the sexual peril doesn’t belong here anymore.

Dee: That might be part of it. I think were it Ace I would have felt differently about the whole thing. But now I feel dirty, and glad I didn’t like the story in the first place. I just can’t help feeling like I disliked it for the wrong reasons. I also didn’t like “Prisoner of the Sun,” but you seemed to enjoy that one a lot. Can you explain to me what I’m missing there?

John: I don’t know for sure. I remember really disliking it the first time I read it, but this time it grew on me. It feels so weird and experimental, really just sort of setting itself along a whole different tack from the era it came from and the stories around it that I felt almost like I had to like it just for being so unashamedly itself. It was strange and uncomfortable, and I think maybe I was in the mood to be taken out of my comfort zone. Especially since the Pertwee era feels so “cozy” that it’s almost twee sometimes. Does that make any sense?

Dee: It sure didn’t feel that cozy in the stories in this book. I may just not have seen enough of that era to see what you’re saying. I felt like both stories with Three were really badly written. I didn’t care about the deaths in either, and I didn’t find the way they characterized Liz to be at all appealing.

John: Yeah, Liz gets short shrift for a long while. I think it’s because people cared about her for the wrong reasons. The people who wanted to write her the most were the continuity obsessives who wanted to “explain” her abrupt departure from the TV series, so they focused a lot on giving her reasons to leave without warning and hammering her personality to fit those reasons. It’s going to be a while before we get a good Liz Shaw story, I think.

Dee: Let’s move on to Four. I loved “Scarab of Death.” It felt just like it should, to me. I could see Tom Baker and Liz Sladen in every scene, and I’m not a visual person as a rule. But you thought it was fanwanky. At this point, I’m almost surprised we both liked “Duke of Dominoes!”

John: Well, it was fanwanky, but it wasn’t bad. It was one of those stories that didn’t have much to it beyond evoking the feel of its era, and I think we’re going to get enough of those that I want something a little more ambitious. It’s not that I disliked it, just that I felt like it could have done more than just say, “Hey look everybody! A sequel to ‘Pyramids of Mars’! Eh? Eh?” Which I thought ‘Duke of Dominoes’ really did well. It wasn’t just that the Master was well characterized and you could imagine Roger Delgado in every line, it was that it showed us the Master from a perspective we’ve never seen before and really made you think about the character in a new light while it evoked Delgado’s performance, and that was interesting. I like stories that get the past right and also show a new angle, and Marc Platt did a great job with that.

Dee: I fully agree with your thoughts on “Duke,” and I felt like it was a refreshing break from all of the Doctor-centered stories. The inter-story bit with the psychometrist freaking about about the evil of the Master was great too. And I didn’t see “Scarab” as just a sequel to “Pyramids,” I thought it was well-developed on its own. I loved the planet - it reminded me a lot in many ways of the planet in “Robots of Death” more than anything in “Pyramids,” and that was a good thing.

John: Fair enough. There was some worldbuilding in there, among the Osiran references. I’ll cautiously upgrade my initial impressions. Other than that, were there any stories you particularly wanted to get into? I think we both liked “Book of Shadows”, we both liked “Lackaday Express”...

Dee: If I talk about “Lackaday” too much, Paul Cornell might think he needs to avoid me at CONvergence next week. (He doesn’t, but I know how I sound when I fangirl.) I’ll reiterate what I said before: It started out as confusing as “Book,” but I felt like Paul pulled me out of the confusion faster, and I liked the characterization better. I liked “Book” as well, because I enjoyed the Barbara-centrism and her confusion but her equal determination. And “Fallen Angel” was fun. It anticipated the Christmas Angels from “Christmas Invasion” nicely, too. I wonder if that’s where Davies got the inspiration?

John: Good question. I know Davies and Moffat were reading during this era--heck, Moffat writes for a later Decalog. So anytime the question is asked, “Was this an influence on the new series?”, I think my answer is going to be, “Yes, it’s just a question of how much.” And this was mostly a positive thing--I think that on the whole, this was successful as an anthology, as a group of Doctor Who stories, and as science fiction in general. I can certainly see why Virgin commissioned a sequel. But we won’t read that for a while--for now, it’s back to the New Adventures with ‘Legacy’!

Monday, June 22, 2015


OK, so I admit this took me a while. Depression, losing a job, getting a new job and intensive training, and all-around burnout will do that to a woman. But I did finally finish Decalog, and I have thoughts!

Because this is a collection of short stories, I'll break this down by author:

"Playback," Stephen James Walker
A solid introduction, this is doing what you expect a prologue to do: set the stage. It's a frame sequence that allows the others to do whatever they want, but provides a theme. In this case, it's that the Doctor has lost his memory and goes to a PI to help him figure out who he is. The PI, in turn, intuits something is weird about this guy and takes him to a psychometrist to try to figure things out.

Naturally, this being the Doctor, that means we have a ready excuse to use any of the Doctors at all, and naturally all of them are used, some more than once. And we start with the Second Doctor in...

"Fallen Angel, "Andy Lane
Plot: The Second Doctor teams up with a gentleman thief to stop alien robots from causing problems in the English countryside.

I liked this one. It took me a few minutes to figure out which Doctor we were on, and the character of Lucas Seyton isn't as deep as he thinks he is, but it hit all the right notes and it was an engaging read. I did like it better than Lucifer Rising, for what it's worth, and Lane proves he can characterize other Doctors than Seven without missing a beat.

"Duke of Dominos," Marc Platt
Plot: The Master is trying to take over the Universe, and he has found an important key! Will he be stopped in time?

This one is written from the Master's point of view, and I love that! I'm not sure it pulled it off, mind you, but at least it tried. Yes, the Master gets a few digs in at the Doctor, who in this case turns out to be the Fourth. The Doctor is more in the story in spirit than in actual body, and I didn't mind that much. Well done.

"The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back," Vanessa Bishop
Plot: Three detects an alien whose gaze kills people, while he has a fallout with the Brig.

I have to say this is my least favorite in the volume. As I write this, there is a big fooferaw going on in the fandom community about "message fiction," and while I like my stories to have an moral and ethical center, I think this one could be cited as one that delivers it with a club. It's almost toy-tie-in-cartoon levels of "Do you get it? DO YOU?" Three deserved better.

"Scarab Of Death," Mark Stammers
Plot: Four and Sarah Jane are up against a cult trying to resurrect one of the Osirans.

I loved this one. It's very cinematic and captures that era of Who beautifully. Evil cult leaders, dark and dusty city streets, "I suppose you're wondering why you're here" pontificating - perfect. It's not the strongest story, but it's close!

"The Book of Shadows," Jim Mortimore
Plot: In a Barbara-centric story that jumps back and forth through time, the First Doctor has to make a hard decision about changing history - more than one line.

This one starts out pretty confusing and then unknots itself nicely. I do like the characterization, and Mortimore is good at ending lines for each scene. I can see people dropping out because of the confusion early on, though, so my advice is to stick with it.

"Fascination," David J. Howe
Plot: Peri and Five arrive in a perfect village. So, of course, it isn't - and Peri is the target of dark magic.

This one has all of the ingredients for a story I should like, but the fact that I can't abide Peri makes it hard for me to care. I suppose that's a sign of good characterization, but for the life of me I can't see what the Doctor sees in her. It might not help that I've seen magic in Who done so well in City of the Dead with the Eighth Doctor. It's not a bad story, but it's solidly Eh.

"The Golden Door," David Auger
Plot: Dodo and Steven don't recognize the elderly First Doctor. Meanwhile, they DO recognize the Sixth and there's some mysterious guy trying to scare them!

Another solidly Eh story. Dodo can only cling to Steven so many times and deny knowing One before I roll my eyes, and I found myself skipping pages. Not good. The good side: Six and One are well-drawn. Meh.

"Prisoners of the Sun," Tim Robins
Plot: The Third Doctor is pitted against UNIT colleagues in a future he never expected. And who is to blame but Liz...and the Doctor's own knowledge!

Argh argh argh. This is a neat concept, but it's not so well-written. I want to see what someone like Andy Lane could do with this idea, because it's a good one. I like the idea of the Doctor's knowledge. given to someone else, and then used to derail time. But I don't like the idea that the Doctor himself can muck around with time with nothing more than his bare hands, and I felt like there was a lot of detail that could have been better-expressed. Again, Three deserves better!

"Lackaday Express," Paul Cornell
Plot: Five, Nyssa and Tegan must save a woman who is trapped in a time loop, doomed to live her own life over and over and over. But, of course, attempting to save her might destroy the Universe...

This story starts out as confusing as "The Book of Shadows," and Cornell is, as always, equal to the task of sorting it out. He doesn't disappoint on the one-liners, either: "Your refusal to come to terms with your personal life may quite possibly mean the end of the entire cosmos!" Hee. And the ending is, of course, perfect. Yes, this is the best in the book, and I am becoming a raving Paul Cornell fangirl. I'm OK with that.

"Playback (ending)," Stephen James Walker
Plot: Finishing up the frame story, the PI must solve the riddle of why the Doctor can't remember any of this.

It's passable, and it certainly does wrap things up well! I could have done without the villain being one from an earlier story, but it will do just fine.

Next up: Legacy!