Friday, December 30, 2011

Chat: Timewrm: Apocalypse

Dee: So yeah. I think you liked this one more than I did.

John: Only in the sense that there’s not really enough there to dislike. The prose is functional, the characters are stock, the plot is almost stolen word-for-word from an old Troughton story, and it just sort of trails off with one of the secondary characters wandering away with the MacGuffin and refusing to give it back. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was only 200 pages even with thick margins and wide line spacing, I’d probably be a lot harder on it.

Dee: I really don’t even have room to go off on my usual “they get Ace wrong!” thing, except for the “codswallop” point, which you brought up. Dear goodness, that speaks for itself. I find myself really wishing the author had thought outside the box, just a teeny bit.

John: Well, it is worth looking at his background. Remember, this was the range editor for the old Target novelizations, writing one of the very first novels. His book had been commissioned as part of the initial batch, back before anyone really knew what the series was going to be like. The previous original Doctor Who prose fiction had been things like “Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma”, or the Doctor Who Annuals. He turned in a glorified Target book because nobody knew, at this point, that the series could be anything more.

Dee: I... no, I’m sorry, John, I don’t buy it. At least, not in full. I think that if he thought enough outside to get a flashback to the second Doctor, he could have done more. In fact, I think you just proved my point: He was thinking inside the Target box and didn’t go bigger.

John: Oh, it’s not a defense. After all, Terrance Dicks was given pretty much the same brief and hit it out of the park. I’m just saying that I can understand why this particular writer turned in this particular book. He was setting a much lower bar for himself than future writers would set. This book isn’t really any worse than, say, ‘Escape Velocity’, or ‘Eater of Wasps’ (to pick a couple of books you’ve read that might not be memorable enough for you to remember) and they have a lot less of an excuse.

Dee: Mmm. I think “Escape Velocity” had Dave going for it, and “Eater of Wasps” had a creepy factor that made it better, but OK. The plot is about the same level, yes. I just think it’s such a waste. Imagine, spending another 10,000 words on characterization!

John: Except that...well, I think we might be better revisiting that when we read this author’s next book, ‘Birthright’. It’s not really much longer, but he does a lot more with his page count. He’s an economical writer, and that’s something I actually approve of as a rule. It’s just that here, he’s gone downright skeletal. And speaking of “skeletal”, we get the Timewyrm as a lecherous old lady here. But as you said, there’s still nothing that makes her the kind of threat that the Fourth Doctor would warn his future selves about.

Dee: Oh, I admit there’s a lot to be said for concise writing. You can get too concise, though. I never grasped why the Timewyrm took over the mind she did in this book, long before said old woman was old. We saw the results, but not the why, really. And we were back to the Doctor messing up names and locations again, like in the first book.

John: And some gratuitous fanwank thrown in, too. “Jamie and Zoe totally threw off the Time Lords’ memory erasure and recalled all their adventures! There! I put it in an Official Doctor Who novel, so it totally happened and you can’t take it back!” As to why the Timewyrm took over the little girl and the Doctor felt guilty, it was because she was actually possessing him at the time. Which is, of course, a much more interesting idea for a book,, look! Over there! Something interesting!

Dee: See, it melted away and I forgot. Oh noes, I have been attacked by telepaths who do that all the time because that’s how they accomplish their nefaaaaarrrious plots! What were we talking about?

John: We were talking about the lesbian undertones to the Timewyrm/Matriarch’s plans for Ace, which is a staple of gothic stories that, in turn, form the memetic underpinnings of Doctor Who and a host of other horror and adventure stories. Or maybe I’m reading too much into that?

Dee: This isn’t TARDIS Eruditorium, love. Talk about books that would have been more interesting...

John: Well, I suppose it would have been a bit more interesting if they’d developed Revna’s subplot; the fact that she was undermining the authority of the ostensible and obvious villain character, all the while planning to take power for herself, was kind of interesting. I also think it would have given some depth if we’d seen Ace and the Doctor have visible reactions to the fact that Ace’s “Hey everybody, let’s start a rebellion!” enthusiasm led directly to the Panjistri mass-slaughtering the rebels...

Dee: Or anyone have visible reactions other than “Well, we have each other!” So many wasted opportunities.

John: Wasted, I think, because up until now nobody knows what this series is capable of being. The bar has been set pretty low. But that’s about to change...

Timewyrm: Apocalypse

This was an apocalypse? I want my money back.

Don't get me wrong, this is a perfectly serviceable book. To me, though, it's like cotton candy. It tastes OK, but it melts away and leaves you feeling unsatisfied.

For all we're hearing about how scary the Timewyrm is, she doesn't seem to be able to really do anything except possess people and - sometimes - make them act weird. I didn't feel any sense of real threat to the Doctor or Ace here, or even to the side characters. It was obvious which ones would live and which die from the moment they were introduced. There's no real bonding with any of them. They're just there, pawns to move a story along.

The "romance" between Raphael and Ace is ridiculous and shallow. The cattiness between Raphael's "girlfriend" (whose name I've already forgotten) and Ace is about the same. The Kindly Old Man who bonds with the Doctor is so clearly doomed there's no point in even liking him. The Resident Baddie among the Putative Goodies is clearly wearing a black hat from the start, and equally clearly one of those who fall into the Sycophant Doomed To Die categories of DW villains.

Even the naming conventions hamstring this book. Calling the canine-ish servants of the baddies "Companions" was a bad and confusing idea.

Finding something good to say: it was a quick read. I was honestly confused about the radiation area with no radiation. I actually liked the first character introduced, and wished we could have seen more with him.

This book wasn't any worse than several of the television episodes, but I'm having a hard time coming up with things to say about it. It's already melting away, and if I reread it I think I'd get a stomachache.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Timewyrm: Apocalypse

'Timewyrm: Apocalypse' is not a bad book. That's half its problem; it's not worth even calling "bad". It's simply there, barely managing to fill up 200 pages by fluffing out the margins, cranking up the font size to the point where you might accidentally imagine that you've picked up the Large Print edition, and going through a Doctor-Who-by-the-numbers plot that makes a mockery of the back cover's claim that it's "too broad and too deep for the small screen."

In point of fact, this is a story that could have fit anywhere into the JNT era of Doctor Who without even a modification. We have the perfect society with a dark secret at its heart ("Full Circle") and mutant outcasts that have been exiled for not fitting in (a muddle of stories from "Genesis of the Daleks" up through "Trial of a Time Lord"), with villains who seem benevolent but are actually conducting sinister experiments on people to gain ultimate power. ("Timelash", to name one of dozens of examples.) They're even secretly feeding people the remains of those they kill ("Revelation of the Daleks", and it's sad that even your shock-value cannibalism is stolen from an older story.)

The Doctor discovers the secret at the heart of the society due to his experience and outsider's perspective ("Castrovalva", just to shake things up from picking "Full Circle" again.) He engineers a revolt among the people (oh, Lord, where to start?) and then, even though he fails to stop the villains, he's inspired someone else to sacrifice themselves heroically to end the villains' power. ("Castrovalva" pops to mind again.) Just to cement this as a novelization of an old Christopher Bidmead story that somehow never got made, we even get a reference to the CVE, and the villain's ultimate goal is to set themselves up as God in order to halt the universe's progression towards entropy. Add in a stilted, laborious attempt at a joke and you get "80s Doctor Who Bingo."

Oh, wait..."It's called a hiccough in Paradise". What do I win?

Again, though, it's not like any of this is actually bad. Robinson is capable of turning in prose that doesn't irritate, and he knows the characters reasonably well (although anyone who puts the word "Codswallop!" into the mouth of Ace is definitely missing something. After reading this, nobody should ever complain about "Toerag" again.) It's just that you read this novel and think that it is the work of someone who cannot conceive of Doctor Who as anything more than it was on television, or anything more than a mild, inoffensive science-fiction series for children.

What the books need is to up their game a bit. Fortunately, that's coming soon...

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Chat: Timewyrm: Exodus

John: I think we both liked this one a lot, despite the extremely tenuous connection both to the ‘Timewyrm’ story arc and to the title. (‘Exodus’ refers to...what, Dunkirk?) You would agree?

Dee: I think he just thought it sounded cool. I don’t know that I’d say it accurately refers to anything at all! But yes, I did like it a lot. Especially the jail sequence.

John: The jail sequence is excellent. If I had to list my Top Ten Iconic Moments of the New Adventures, it’d probably be on there. (Note to self: That would make a really good sidebar, “Top Ten Iconic Moments of the New Adventures”.) I also thought the sequences with Hitler and his cronies worked remarkably well...Dicks takes the really daring step of making them, for the most part, likeable and charming. You’re horrified by what you know they did, of course, but they seem like the kind of people who could rise to power, instead of cartoonish supervillains.

Dee: And that’s where Dicks succeeds over Peel, in many ways.. although I think that means I need to amend my earlier comments to an extent about Dicks avoiding the “getting into the head” issues. He does avoid it with Qataka, but he falls into category one with the Nazi party members. But I can live with that, because part of the lesson I think we need to learn from the whole Nazi situation is the “banality of evil” thing, as has been stated by wiser heads than mine. And Qataka does not teach that lesson.

John: Well, we never do get inside Hitler’s head. We see inside the minds of some of his inner circle, but I think that Hitler is wisely left as a fulcrum that the plot revolves around. And of course, all of the War Lords narrate their motivations during their “Evil Speech of Evil” moment. We both talked a lot about the Nazis in our reviews, but what did you think of the War Lords and the War Chief?

Dee: Erm. Um. I don’t have the background to really appreciate them, perhaps? The War Lord leader is a massive whatever. I like the concept of the War Lords, and I really did like the War Chief, the Time Lord gone bad with the failed regeneration concept. That was really awesome. It gives additional perspective on what Davison’s Doctor was afraid of at the end of “Caves of Androzani,” for me.

John: Yes, that’s a clear case of the books doing something the TV show didn’t have the budget to make look good. Another advantage of print! I was just curious to see if you enjoyed them, or even followed what was going on, given that it’s such a major case of Terrance Dicks sequelizing an old story that he knew was popular with The Fans. (“The War Games”, in case we ever want to watch it together.) I liked it, although it’ll start getting old when he does it in his next thirteen novels.

Dee: Yes, that’s a story I’ll want to watch now. The moment that sold it for me was the Doctor’s sincere “I’m sorry,” to the War Chief. That resonated as a moment of pure compassion. It doesn’t change what he has to do, but Dicks gets across that “there but for the grace” that we actually don’t see with the Doctor that often.

John: It’s interesting, now that you point it out; the Doctor always seems to be a lot more merciful to his fellow Time Lords than he is to aliens. Blood is thicker than alien sludge that oozes out from between the slats of a Dalek travel machine, I guess. But it’s balanced out here with another trait of the Doctor’s--he’s very protective of Ace in this book, isn’t he?

Dee: He’d better be, to make up for the whole Gilgamesh thing! But yes, he is. Of course, given Dicks is all confused about which Companion Ace is... But I promised myself I wouldn’t go off about mischaracterization. I will say this, though: At first, I was going into these books saying “These people have Ace all wrong!” But harking back to “Remembrance,” I really have come to realize that it’s not that others don’t get Ace, it’s that my idea of her character is so very strongly influenced by Ben Aaronovich’s conception of her that no one else so far seems to be quite “on.”

John: No, I think you’re also right in saying that Ace is mischaracterized. Dicks is, after all, the undisputed master of the Generic Companion...he wrote sixty books for five different Doctors, after all. They sort of blend together after a while. And Ace was such an attempt to do something outside the mold of the Generic Companion that when he falls back on the “screaming, fainting, plucky-yet-vulnerable female companion” tropes, they stick out like a sore thumb. Ace doesn’t even get to blow as much stuff up in this one.

Dee: No, the Doctor actually steals her stuff and does it for her! I’m not saying Dicks didn’t get it wrong. But I am saying that it really brought home to me just how much “Remembrance” cemented her character in my mind. I’ll be watching for that as we read on. And for the protectiveness thing, that’s really a Three-Sarah Jane flashback.

John: But Dicks uses it well. The moment where he realizes he’s tempted to use his borrowed authority as a Nazi to condemn a man to death just for smacking his friend around a’s a wonderful evocation of the novel in microcosm. The Doctor is not at all confident here that he’s not just abusing his power over time to make the timestream fit together the way he wants it, instead of being a cosmic crusader convinced of his own righteousness. Which hearkens back to ‘Remembrance’, and his late-night agonizing over sugar in the tea...and it’s something we’ll need to revisit in a couple of books, I think, but I don’t want to drop a big chunk of spoilers on you.

Dee: And now we go on to the novel where they couldn’t find a Biblical book title, I suppose?

John: Or where the author spoke fluent Greek. Take your pick.

Dee: OK, but with a name like “Apocalypse” for the third book of four, this better be good! My worry going in is that it’s going to make “Revelation” anticlimactic.

John: I think it’s just that they had trouble finding Biblical titles that sounded suitably dramatic for the third book. ‘Timewyrm: Paul’s Epistle to the Phillipians’ was probably not going to cut it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

TimeWyrm: Exodus

Ahhh... now this is much, must more like it.

Don't get me wrong, there were still off notes... such as the mischaracterization of Ace. (Really, Ace screaming? Not even when she was surrounded by shouting Daleks.) But this felt like the work of someone who knew the Doctor, knew what he'd do, knew his conflicts and wasn't afraid to let Seven be Seven.

A lot of this book was better, honestly, because the villain wasn't right there and we weren't right in her head. There are three things that can happen when an author gets into the villain's thoughts: first, the villain becomes sympathetic. Second, most commonly, the villain becomes a flatter, mustache-twirling baddy. Third, most rarely, the author strikes a balance.

Dicks avoids all this by simply staying out of her head, unlike Peel, who fell into the second category. We don't need to know what Qadaka is thinking to enjoy the story. In fact, it's counterproductive. She doesn't seem to be able to say or think much beyond petty revenge and conquer thoughts, so why bother?

Instead, he focuses on the results of what happens when a force of nature meets a bad Timelord and an alliance is formed. And he goes where Doctor Who rarely went before this: Nazi Germany. In fairness, it really had to be set in this time and place. While there have been madmen throughout Earth's history who might have fit the bill, the best known of them would be Adolf Hitler... and that goes beyond any residual British frisson at the thought of losing the war, a feeling which 70 years and another continent away isn't as strong.

This is not an artistic novel. This is simply solid storytelling, good craftsmanship, from someone who knows what he's doing.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Timewyrm: Exodus

To a generation of Doctor Who fans, Terrance Dicks is always going to be "Uncle Terry", the man who introduced us all to the delights of reading with his seemingly-endless numbers of Doctor Who novelisations and his sprightly scripts from 'The War Games' on up through 'State of Decay'. Even today, he still writes light, friendly, quick reads for the new Doctor Who series, simple (but entertaining) tales like 'Revenge of the Judoon'. If there is a single person who represents the notion of Doctor Who as a family-friendly series for intelligent children as well as adults, Terrance Dicks would have to be it.

All of which makes 'Timewyrm: Exodus' even more of a surprise. Nobody'd ever asked Terrance Dicks to write a Doctor Who novel this ambitious before, and nobody ever would again; after this, he started relying more on his party-pieces, delivering novels that shamelessly pandered to his old fans (while being just good enough to get away with it.) Here, though, he's deliciously cynical, delivering us a brutally amoral novel in which not only do we get the first appearance of the Nazis in Doctor Who (the only previous WWII era story, 'The Curse of Fenric', was set well behind the lines and featured treacherous Russians as its human villains), but we get a story in which the Doctor actually sides with the Nazis and becomes Hitler's best friend. All in the service of getting him to relent at Dunkirk and ensure the British victory, of course, but we'd never seen the Doctor acting as such a callous manipulator, even in his darkest moments on TV.

The "What if the Nazis won World War II?" plot is hoary and old-fashioned to modern audiences (and even to the audiences of 1991), but in Britain, it wasn't just a hypothetical gimmick. It was something they spent several years considering as a real possibility, even a probability, and it shows in this novel. The 1951 of Occupied Britain feels "real" in a way that Peel's genuine Uruk didn't, with casual brutality on open display. (The sequence where the Doctor realizes he's abusing his borrowed power in the same way as the Nazis he's condemning is a subtle, but omnipresent theme...for all that the Doctor wants to believe himself better, he's fully capable of being corrupted by the thrill of other people doing whatever you tell them to do.)

And of course, the whole thing moves along on breezy prose that never fails to capture the attention. Dicks' greatest gift is that he's so bloody readable; even when he's glossing over the story's weak points or jumping through necessary narrative hoops, he does so with a metaphorical wink and smile that says, "Just trust me on this one, okay?" Like the stage magician who covers his lack of skill with superior patter, Dicks gets you to go along with even the cheesiest of tricks.

'Timewyrm: Exodus' may be the work of an old dog doing old tricks, but even the grumpiest of fans would have to admit that he does them well.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Chat: Timewyrm: Genesys

Dee: OK, love, I think you have some ‘splainin’ to do. When you told me this novel was “bad,” you did not say “really, really, really bad.”

John: Well, if I started in on the superlatives now, how would I be able to describe ‘The Pit’?

Dee: Ha ha. So, anyway. “Timewyrm: Genesis:” bad enough that should be “Genysys,” or simply awful?

John: Everything had extra y’s in the 90s. It was the way of things. And yes, there’s no question this one was a bad one. I think we both agree on that. But I’m not sure I agree with you that it had the potential to be really good. I think it had the potential to be an unambitious potboiler, the kind of thing that would fill a gap in the release schedule. But for it to be really good, it’d have to be something more than a bog-standard “The Doctor meets someone famous and fights aliens interfering in history” plot.

Dee: I disagree. I think that is exactly, precisely what the novels needed: to take something bog-standard and do it with excellence, throwing in things that are impossible to do on the screen. The same, but more and better! to woo in the loyal fans. Then, if you want, start pulling in new things.

John: In fairness, it’s a lot harder to judge this as a good plot once people have tried things like ‘Father Time’ or ‘The Year of Intelligent Tigers’ (to pick a couple of books that I know you’ve read.) But it’s not really worth arguing about the relative merits of the story we didn’t get, not when the story we got did so little with what it had. Whatever the concept, Peel just didn’t execute.

Dee: Why didn’t we get more verse sections? Or even replace whole boring stretches with verse? THAT would have been awesome. And I suppose we have to talk about the Doctor’s past selves here. I will try to avoid ranting...

John: Oh, I won’t. I swear, I cannot for the life of me understand why the very first novel of the Seventh Doctor was given to a man who didn’t think the series had been any good since they went to that newfangled color thing. He portrays McCoy as a pompous imbecile, and an insensitive jackass to boot (“No, no, Ace! It’s vital that I leave you alone with the serial rapist again!”)

Dee: At which point I stop you to rant. OK, granted, Seven can be a manipulative bastard. But nothing in his portrayal on TV says “Hey! It’s perfectly OK to condone sexual assault in the name of cultural sensitivity when I am being taken as a GOD.” Also, I really wanted Ace to be armed with more than nitro-nine for those scene... pepper spray was available then, wasn’t it? I seem to recall my sisters having some. And also also, it’s one thing for the characters of the time to excuse Gilgamesh, but I don’t think, say, Eight would have not just left Ace with Gilgamesh, but shoved her toward him. I think Peel blew the characterization big time. You don’t get it both ways. Either the Doctor approves, in which case he is not a hero, or he disapproves and keeps Ace away, or he works to change things.

John: Well, he wouldn’t work to change things, because of the Web of Time and all that, but yes. Either the Doctor approves of Gilgamesh’s behavior, in which case he’s acting totally out of character in an utterly terrible way, or he doesn’t approve and is still leaving Ace in a dangerous situation, in which case he’s acting totally out of character in another utterly terrible way. And when Peel actually wants the Doctor to come off as competent and intelligent? He deus ex machinas in the Third Doctor to solve things!

Dee: And oh, that scene wasn’t just deus ex machina. It was a horribly written deus ex machina. And it showed all the previous Doctors were stupid too! Seriously, let a cyborg intelligence which has shown it can survive in computer systems into the TARDIS without one hell of a firewall?! Forgive the interrobang, but I really think it’s merited here.

John: I think by that point, the Seventh Doctor had taken over again to take the blame. By the way, the scene in question wasn’t just dumb, it was a shameless rip-off of a scene better done on TV in ‘Castrovalva’. By the time Peel did it, the bit was so hackneyed it actually got parodied in a later novel. Which we’ll discuss later, but it is worth bringing up the repeated and pointless invocations of older scenes....

Dee: I had utterly forgotten about it being done in “Castrovalva.” You’re right. That makes it even worse, and I am even MORE appalled.

John: But it’s really no more appalling than the Doctor randomly flashing back to the deaths of old companions, or infodumping his past adventures to an amnesiac Ace...

Dee: Don’t. Get. Me. Started. That whole second chapter made my teeth itch. “Oh, here’s underwear! Hee hee hee!”

John: Although it does take on an interesting new meaning (probably inadvertently) in light of a couple dozen audios, comics, and additional novels set in the gap between ‘Survival’ and this story. It certainly explains why she gives up “Ace” in favor of “McShane”, and then goes back to her teenage self without even a blip.

Dee: Just awful. I managed to find things I liked, but...but... but...

John: But you, like me, wish the whole thing had been done as an epic poem, the way it started on page one. Now that would have been ambitious.

Dee: I suppose we need to talk about Ishtar, but here my paganism makes me want to either rage or fall over laughing. Seriously, what part of “non-technological society” equals “dumb?”

John: Actually, I thought that was one of the better elements. King Agga isn’t portrayed as dumb at all. He’s in a desperate, untenable position, and he’s from a culture very different from ours, but he is doing the smartest thing he can in the position he’s in. Enkidu’s no dummy, either. No, my complaint was that the mythological elements made no sense. Qataka is posing as Ishtar to gain an advantage, but why is Utnapishtim Utnapishtim? Is it just a coincidence?

Dee: My take on that is that he was the source of that myth, where Ishtar is found in more places, so that didn’t ring false with me. But the culture is mocked for believing in deities, and while some people won’t have a problem with that, I did... for the reason that belief in the actual deities is limited to two people. One is made a terribly weak character and mocked for her ritual practices, and the other is the abovementioned serial rapist.

John: Oh, now that’s just not true! There was also the misguided dupe who was enslaved by a cartoonish supervillain for the mistake of trusting her lies!

Dee: **RAGE**

John: ...yeah, pretty much. Anything else you have to say, before we leave this one behind and move on to a much, much, much, much better book?

Dee: Yeah, that it’s too bad Qadaka was a female character, because she badly needed moustaches to twirl?

John: And that it’s just a shame that this story took place years before the invention of the steam engine, because it meant that she couldn’t tie anyone to the railroad tracks.

Dee: Please tell me the next one is better.

John: Night and day, love. Night and day.

Timewyrm: Genesis

Okay, so let's be honest here: this book is bad. And by bad I don't mean there's no story. In fact, one of the things that so irritated me about this book is that I could feel the story trying to work and failing. It was battering itself against the cage of the prose, desperately longing to be free and entertain but stuck fast in the morass of the author's prejudices.

Let's start with the fact that, without the censorship of television or writing for a "kid's show" the author felt free to take on the concept of what would happen if a young, brash feminist was dropped into a society that was at once more sexually liberal and at the same time utterly male-dominated. The problem is that Ace, instead of speaking for the audience, goes up against the Doctor urging her to fit in. This puts the reader in a terribly uncomfortable bind: are we to sympathize with Ace, who is unwilling to be felt up and sexually assaulted? Or are we to consider her simply inexperienced at time travel, culturally intolerant, and sympathize with the Doctor while he keeps putting her in positions to be alone with a man who considers sex to be merely his due on account of his political position? It is obvious that the writer has no appreciation for the role of temple priestess as sexual initiatrix or valued member of that society. He keeps making jokes through the characters about the priestess earning her living on her back, and makes her a weak character so that her protests that this is her role in life and she accepts it and, before the coming of the Big Bad, actually really liked it, off as ignorant and misguided. The first outing of Doctor Who into the realm of the novel and larger concepts fails miserably in the sexual politics arena.

And yet, the story is not a total loss. While the Big Bad is utterly unbelievable, and while the Doctor does absolutely stupid and out of character actions to defeat her, there are incredibly positive moments. I loved the portrayal of Enkidu so very much. I felt for Dumuzi and wished we had seen his character before his possession to greater contrast his fall. The sections of the novel written in the style of "The Epic of Gilgamesh" were absolutely wonderful.

So much potential, and all of it wasted by an author who just couldn't grasp the opportunity he had. If it weren't for the books to follow, I have a feeling that the Virgin line of novels would have ended here. I haven't read the others yet, but something tells me they have to be better or there simply wouldn't have been all of the books we have on our shelves here at home. This book is by no means strong enough or high enough quality to have ensured the continuation of the line.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Timewyrm: Genesys

"Stories too broad and too deep for the small screen." That was the rationale for the New Adventures from the very beginning, confirmed by line editor Peter Darvill-Evans in his introduction when he said the new series of books would "continue the trend of recent seasons of television stories towards complex, challenging plots with serious themes."

But a better description of Timewyrm: Genesys comes at the start of that paragraph instead of the end: "Here is an introductory word about Doctor Who - The New Adventures: Continuity." John Peel, author of the first NA, seemed to take this statement as a license to shoehorn in as many references to old episodes as humanly possible. The Doctor receives a message from his fourth incarnation to start the story, mentally regresses to his third to finish it, and in between spends his time reminiscing about as many old adventures as John Peel can fit in without utterly losing the thin thread of the plot. It's books like this that led to Craig Hinton coining the legendary term "fanwank". (Fanwank. n. Continuity that serves no purpose within the story in which it is placed, and is there merely to satisfy nostalgia or settle a point of fan debate. We will be returning to this many times, so I figured I'd get the definition in now.)

Still, in some senses, Peel did produce a story that could not be told on television. But that's true only in the narrowest sense of the concept; Genesys wouldn't fly on TV in 1989 more because the Girls Gone Wild pixelation technology hadn't come down in price enough for the BBC to afford it than because it was too mature and challenging. The story feels like a mid-to-late Hartnell episode, with the Doctor and Ace (neither of whom feel particularly like the characters we're familiar with) going back to an Important Time in History and learning about Life the Way They Lived It Back Then while fighting a Sinister Alien. The only real difference is that they make smutty jokes about temple prostitutes and Gilgamesh raping all the women he meets. (Get the hot water ready, by the way. You'll need a long shower to feel clean again after the Doctor tells Ace to ignore Gilgamesh's sexual assaults and keep an eye on him.)

When this novel first came out, all the way back in 1991, I skimmed it briefly and put it back on the shelf, dismissing it as another juvenile tie-in novel on the level of the Forgotten Realms books I'd just gotten sick of. I've later changed my mind about the New Adventures, but I think I was right on the money about Timewyrm: Genesys.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Chat: Remembrance of the Daleks

John: You know what I love the most about Ben Aaronovitch? No matter how many times I read one of his books, I always find something new and interesting each time. It’s one of the things that makes doing this project with you so much fun.

Dee: You know what I don’t love about Ben Aaronovitch? Getting Dragon to recognize his last name - I gave up writing my regular entry! But you’re right, there is something new. And the way he portrays the Doctor is interesting to me. He really does make the Doctor seem incredibly alien.

John: Aaronovitch is definitely one of the few people who can pull off scenes from the Doctor’s point of view. (This does not stop other people from trying. You will see. Oh, yes, you will see...) I think he was tremendously influential in that regard; every time you hear “Rule One: The Doctor lies,” or see someone get upset with him for being too ruthless and playing games with people’s lives, you’re watching the work of a writer who loved this story.

Dee: He seems to love trying to bring in the alien perspectives. The Doctor, the Daleks... I forgot to mention the Hand of Omega’s perspective as well, but he works from its point of view. And I love how it really loves its work.

John: I think that “perspective” is a major theme in this book. Everyone gets a turn at being the protagonist, and everyone has a worldview that makes you understand why they behave the way they do. Mike, Ratcliffe, Davros, the Special Weapons Dalek, the Hand of Omega, the Black Dalek, the Doctor...they all have what they see as good reasons for what they do. But interestingly, what sets the Doctor apart from all of them is that he’s the only person to try to step outside his worldview. He’s the only person who really questions whether what he’s doing is right. Which, paradoxically, is part of how we know he’s the good guy. He’s the only one who wonders whether he’s the bad guy.

Dee: “Best to just get on with it...” and with those words, a barista dooms a planet.

John: And that man went on to found Starbucks! Actually, that line is a wonderful example of the playfulness in Aaronovitch’s scripts. It’s not just that he plots so hard you could bounce a quarter off it, it’s not just that he’s exploring some really interesting ideas (the Daleks move from being Nazi parables to something more complex and engaging, for example...) It’s also that he’s funny as hell. “Daleks are blobs. Imperial Daleks are bionic blobs with bits on.” “I had an argument with a window.” “It’s called the Hand of Omega because Time Lords have an infinite capacity for pretension.” “With all respect, Captain Gilmore, your career is magnificently irrelevant.” Every scene is practically quotable in its entirety.

Dee: Fanboy! … I agree. The writing is extremely dense, but it’s not unreadable-dense. The one thing I think is missing is the humor. The episode brought out the humor in the performances. The book is missing some of that, I think, if you don’t go looking for it. Of course, the Dalek interfacing with the little girl having the urge to skip is funny, but minus the tones of voice a lot of what I laugh at watching the episodes sails right on by.

John: Like the scene where Mike tells Ace that Captain Gilmore has ordered her to stay behind. The actors really added a lot of nuance to that scene, with Ace grabbing for the note and Mike holding it out of reach. ...but we’re here to praise the books, not to bury them! Whatever the book loses from not having actors, it adds in texture and density and depth. Kadiatu and the Zen Military, Dalek language and culture, the origin of Davros...there’s so much of the modern Doctor Who mythos that originates here, right down to the first actual mention of the Time Wars in Doctor Who history. And all that in a paperback book a tenth the size of a single ‘Wheel of Time’ novel.

Dee: I almost picture him giggling gleefully. “Ha! I worked in The Other!”

John: I see him going all fanboy about working in references from Alan Moore’s run on the Doctor Who comic strips in DWM. (Speaking of people who were disproportionately influential on Doctor Who, by the way...I said Aaronovitch came up with the Time Wars, but Moore came up with a very similar idea and did it a decade earlier.)

Dee: I want to talk about Ace a bit. I love early Ace. And I love the way Aaronovich has her think. “I’d be a right wally to go in there...” and in she goes.

John: Ace is a huge triumph. She’s not just a “strong female character” in the sense that she blows things up and hits things, she’s a strong female character in the sense that she’s a well-written character with a developed personality who isn’t just an appendage of a man. Not even in a series where that’s her ostensible role. Oh, and she also hits Daleks with baseball bats and makes her own explosives and she never, ever screams. She is the best of all possible companions for the Doctor to take with her into the realm of books, bar none.

Dee: And she does have a crush on Mike, but she doesn’t let him get away with anything. There’s no Bella-ian “oh, he’s just that way.” She calls him on it where he’s wrong, and he’s honestly taken aback. And good for her.

John: Yes, there’s nothing Bella-ian about Ace. (Bella-ian? Bella-ish? Bella-esque?) She’s an active character, with a strongly developed moral imperative, who thinks about others before herself. She was designed to be a “modern” companion, one with an actual backstory that came into play in the series (as opposed to all the classic series companions that had hugely elaborate biographies that were read once by the actors and thrown into the trash so they could become generic thinkers, thumpers or screamers...) And I think that’s why, in some respects, the time was perfect for Doctor Who to launch into a line of novels. The Sixth Doctor and Peri would not have worked for the New Adventures, nor the Seventh Doctor and Mel.

Dee: And yet she’s so very young. And she’s aware of her weaknesses, and in some cases embraces them. “I’d have to be a right wally to walk in there,” and yet she does. And some of that is what makes her a Companion. A Companion can’t resist going in the door.

John: Unless it’s on ‘Firefly’, then it’s totally her choice whether she goes in the door or not.

Dee: Reading this book, it’s hard to comprehend how close the series was to its cancellation.

John: Totally. The series was in the middle of a creative renaissance when it went away. The script editor responsible for the show’s doldrums was gone, and Andrew Cartmel was drawing his inspiration from the new wave of British comics writers like Gaiman and Moore and his talent from a bunch of eager young writers who wanted to really impress people with their work. It was ready to be deeper and more “adult”, and not just in the juvenile sense of the word. An adult Doctor Who could be more than just “the TV series sex and swearing”...

...which, unfortunately, was a concept that escaped the author of our next book.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Remembrance of the Daleks

Who could ever forget the dynamic image of Ace, in her flight jacket, beating the ever-living tar out of a Dalek? We get that in Remembrance of the Daleks, of course. But we also get a lot of the inner thought processes of the episode's characters. For me, that is part of what really makes this book a treasure: those moments where we see what the television simply can't convey.

We learn, for example, just why a seemingly-nice guy like Mike would be in cahoots with the obviously odious Ratcliffe. We learn that group Capt. Gilmore and the scientist Rachel have a history with one another, and the tiniest fragment of what happens to them after the episode is over. We discover more details of why Mike really, really blew it with Ace when she found out about his-and his family's-casual racism. We even get inside the head of the Doctor a little bit. (I particularly love his casual reaction to the on-screen bombshell of the Dalek levitating.)

It is the Dalek perspective on the events, however, that really makes this book for me. We are lucky that the screenwriter is also the writer of the novelization. While I believe this to be the case for a large number of Doctor Who books, it isn't quite as common for novelizations of movies or television as a whole. It allows us to get a glimpse of what the screenwriter imagined while writing. Most writers will tell you that the worlds they imagine are much greater than what ends up showing up in the finished work, whether that is in text, film, or radio. To have the additional insight into the imagination is both fun and fantastic.

In Doctor Who, the Daleks are such an iconic enemy that it is difficult to get beyond the screens of "EXTERMINATE!" and their ridiculous appearance. As we near the end of 2011 it is almost impossible to realize just how much the events of this episode blew the doors open on the Daleks. Not only do they levitate but the Special Weapons Dalek was introduced. The highlight of the book for me is learning exactly how batshit crazy an individual can go in a society that actively tries-not just kinda wishes for, but actively tries-to make everyone the same. In the novelization we get that, and it is both awesome and sad at once.

Equally awesome and sad is the handiwork of the Hand of Omega. We are reminded that the planet Skaro has a whole ecosystem, and the Daleks are only one part of it even to this day. It makes what happens even sadder.

When reading this book, I am reminded that there are people we love and always will, but we may not like their actions. The Doctor in this novel is like that for me. I love the Doctor. I respect him. But boy, it is sometimes hard to like him. Ace, on the other hand, I continue to love and like all the way through-although sometimes peering out through my fingers hoping to high heaven that she doesn't find the right chemicals to make everything go explodey. She is at once a role model for girls and at the same time doing things so dangerous you don't want your kids anywhere near her. But then, you might not want them anywhere near the Doctor either.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Remembrance of the Daleks

This is where Doctor Who began.

Well, okay, there was a TV series before that, one with a very respectable 26-year run on television and several adaptations in other media as well. But that series got canceled in 1989. It was, despite the hopes and wishes of fans, over and done with. It would be over fifteen years before the BBC decided to launch a new TV series, one that kept the same continuity but changed just about everything else imaginable. And that TV series, that approach to Doctor Who, that show that triumphantly emerged in 2005 as a major hit...that started here, with Ben Aaronovitch's novelization of 'Remembrance of the Daleks'.

This is a Doctor Who story that gives us deeper, more realized supporting characters than anything we ever saw on screen. This is a Doctor Who story that really cares about crafting excellent prose (the descriptions of the Special Weapons Dalek from the point of view of other Daleks, which called it the Abomination and loathed it almost as much as it loathed itself, the brilliant moment where the Supreme Dalek gets confused by its link to its small-child-as-battle-computer and wants to skip...) This is a Doctor Who story that actually gets into the heads of its villains. Everything about this book is a template for the direction the New Adventures, the audios, and eventually the new TV series would take, right down to its depictions of Rassilon, Omega and the Other (who wasn't capitalized here, but would be soon everywhere else.)

And it's bloody marvelous, to boot. Aaronovitch takes one of the best TV episodes ever, and magnificently fleshes it out in ways that the budget couldn't afford. The scenes of a few poncy Daleks exchanging primitive CGI laser blasts becomes an apocalyptic civil war on the streets of London. Flashbacks to ancient Gallifrey turn the Doctor's exposition into an epic that stretches back ten million years. Skaro boils away into space in a way that they might still not be able to do, even with Steven Moffat's budget. Characters are given extra depth, and the story feels like it's been freed of the confines of the small screen. It is no wonder that Virgin suddenly decided that they could sustain a series of original novels after reading this manuscript.

If Doctor Who was dead in 1989, Ben Aaronovitch showed us in 1990 just how it could live again.

Chat: Introductions

John: So, we're starting a book about Doctor Who books with introductions to Doctor Who books. If that gets any more recursive, we'll have people writing about this sentence. :)

Dee: That's true! And yet, I can't think of a better place to start. Except by marveling at Harlan Ellison admitting, at the time he did, that he actually enjoyed a TV show.

John: That is right up there with Dave Sim gushing about a female writer, yes. And yet, when you read it, you get exactly what he's talking about. He's saying that Doctor Who isn't trying to be like television.

Dee: Really? I got from it that it was trying to be television, but trying to be more at the same time. His problem with other shows seems to be they don't try hard enough.

John: Well, he's certainly on record with that, but I kind of got the sense that he was pointing to Doctor Who as an inheritor of a literary tradition. He talks about Tarzan, H.G. Wells, Uncle Wiggly...the Shadow, too, but that's radio. The main point seems to be that Doctor Who isn't about spectacle, it's about ideas.

Dee: I'm not entirely sure I agree with him that it's the only show about ideas.

John: Yes, but I think that it goes without saying that Harlan Ellison might be using dramatic hyperbole to make a point. I just think it's interesting for our purposes that he compares Doctor Who to literature and contrasts it with TV and movies...and years later, Neil Gaiman talks about how he doesn't want to go back and watch old episodes on TV because they're better inside his head.

Dee: Could you expand on that a bit for me? The thing I took away most from that essay was the idea that Doctor Who spreads itself, but we can talk about that in a moment.

John: It was a throwaway comment, when he was talking about 'The War Games'. He said he didn't dare go back and watch the story because it wouldn't live up to his memories of it. Which is interesting to me because so many Doctor Who fans, particularly ones about my age, did read Doctor Who as much as watch it. In a pre-VCR, pre-DVD era, you were as likely to have read the book as seen the episode.

Dee: I wonder if Harlan feels the same way! I have to admit that one thing I enjoy about going back and seeing old episodes IS seeing if I can see the zippers or the Hand of Sutekh.

John: Well, yes, no book can ever convey the delivery of "Nuzzink in ze vorld can schtop me now!" But I think that one of the reasons that the novels came out so well is that there was already a strong culture within fandom of Doctor Who as a literary phenomenon--and it's something you can see in these introductions.

Dee: I have a general rule of thumb that "whichever came first is better" when it comes tg visual media and novelizations. I haven't read any of the Target novelizations, so I can't say if that applies to DW, but I also think that what you're saying amounts to "it doesn't matter which came first here."

John: Not quite--Doctor Who has had a lot of talented actors working on it over the years, and that's something you can't duplicate--but I think Neil makes a good point when he says that Doctor Who is all about its ideas and its worldview. Doctor Who has concepts that change the way you think, and those work well in any medium.

Dee: How has DW changed how you think?

John: I think it certainly makes me look at everyday objects differently--I can't look at someone wearing a Bluetooth without getting creeped out, for example.

Dee: I think in a big way it's made me feel I'm not alone. I'm not the only one who looks up in a city, sees an airplane going by, and imagines the sky filled with zeppelins instead.

John: Which is something, until 2005, that the series never had the money for. But lucky for us, that never stopped it from trying.

Dee: I think the richness of the world is also part of it. The books will deepen that richness, of course.

John: Yes, and I think that's a perfect segue to the next book on our list--the novelization of 'Remembrance' demonstrates how a really good writer can take an excellent TV episode and flesh it out even more without the constraints of filming holding them back.

Dee: I have a lot to say about that one!

John: And I can't wait to hear it!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Beginnings and Introductions

Neil Gaiman. Harlan Ellison. Two wonderful writers, two gents who know whereof they write. And in this case, they are writing about pure awesome: Doctor Who. One man confrontational, argumentative; the other calm, reasonable. One comparative, while the other is emotional. In both cases, the love for the show shines through in scintillating colors.

Harlan Ellison recounts an event at a SF con where he introduced a whole crowd of people to the sheer, unadulterated find that is Doctor Who. In typical Ellison fashion, he manages to win friends and influence people. It's an interesting contrast to how he portrays his own first encounter with the series: two brilliant writers watching the telly, one an evangelist while the other is caught up in the magic. For many fans, I imagine that this was, indeed, very much like their own first encounter with the series: "Hey man, you've got to watch this!"

Gaiman, by contrast, speaks of the introduction of a good percentage more of fans when he talks about watching the series as it ran the first time, simply a part of daily life for a child growing up. For those fans, watching Doctor who is as natural as breathing. It's simply what you do. And it is those fans who often become the evangelists for the Ellison group.

There are, of course, more ways to encounter the series than these two ways. Yet for the lion's share of fans, this is how it is. Doctor Who spreads, as Gaiman points out, very much like a thought virus. "Viral" has become the catchphrase recently for any phenomenon that is spread from one person to another, any thought or experience or product to which one person alerts another by word-of-mouth. Seldom is that more true, however, that in the case of Doctor Who. Gaiman is aware of the truth of this; he speaks of his surprise in realizing that he, too, is spreading the appreciation for this wonderful series in that way and even of how shocked he was in realizing how deeply the series unconsciously imprinted his own work.

Ellison doesn't seem to note this. He simply gives reasons why he loves Doctor Who and expects the reader to share them. This essay was written at a time when Doctor Who was far less known in the United States than it is today. For that reason, Ellison contrasts the show to other television shows and movies of the time. His well-known dislike for television is not in question in this essay. This makes his argument for why the reader should watch Doctor Who far more compelling: if the man who wrote The Glass Teat can like a television show, it is by definition far more worth watching than your run of the mill TV fare.

Reading Ellison's essay is like having a conversation with the man himself. It is simple, direct, and to the point. Reading Gaiman's essay, by contrast, is more like listening to another story being told. At least for me it evokes the typical, dreamlike feeling that so much of his writing evokes.

So, which is more convincing to me as a reason to go on and read the Doctor Who novels and novellas? Or, more to the point, which one sets the mood for the story it precedes? It really depends on whether you are already a fan or whether you are encountering the series for the first time. Ellison's introduction is meant for the totally new reader. Gaiman's is meant for the existing fan, I think. Perhaps this makes sense, given that Ellison's essay is found at the beginning of mass-market paperbacks and Gaiman's at the beginning of a novella probably only those who already knew about the series would purchase. Both made me want to turn the page and dive into the story that follows.

So which kind of thing on, then, am I? As we begin this adventure of reading the books where the classic series left off, I think I am in an interesting middle ground. I am not an obsessive fan the way so many fans become. However, I have to admit that I have already begun to spread the Doctor Who evangelism: to my children, to my extended family, to friends. Even my older child is already spreading the word about Who to her high school friends.

I am the target of neither essay. Both moved me. Both inspired me to take on the journey that my husband and I are about to undergo. My reactions are likely to be more visceral than literary, despite the fact that my college major was literature.

If you are reading this, it is very likely that you, too, are in that middle ground with me. Take my hand. Come with me as we explore books of which you may never have heard before this blog. I know I am encountering many for the first time myself. As I take up Ellison's challenge and respond to Gaiman's dreamlike love, I hope you enjoy the journey with us.

Introductions: Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman

Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? Not the very beginning, with Hartnell and a junkyard on Totter’s Lane, but my beginning. When I was first learning to read, the Pinnacle Doctor Who books were the first books I read that didn’t have pictures in them. I was far too young to know who Harlan Ellison was, but I knew what Star Trek and Star Wars were; and I knew the man who wrote about how much better Doctor Who was than either of them was funny, passionate, and clearly right. His words stuck with me for years, longer than any individual moment from the show, and it was from Harlan Ellison that I first got the idea that Doctor Who wasn’t just about moving pictures.
And then, years later, Neil Gaiman wrote his tremendous introduction to The Eye of the Tyger. It almost felt like Neil had read the same exact words, and had taken Ellison’s invitation right along with me (not actually possible, given the respective ages of everyone involved, but allow me a bit of romance here.) And Gaiman’s introduction talked eloquently and elegantly about the way Doctor Who changed you. It wasn’t just about the special effects or the acting, it was the ideas. Long after you grew up and recognized how silly the costumes looked and the way the walls wobbled, you’d never to be able to escape those ideas. Doctor Who takes place inside your head. What better medium for that than a book?