Saturday, December 29, 2012

White Darkness

The thing I think you have to understand in order to have any hope in hell of deriving satisfaction from 'White Darkness' is that it is, first and foremost, a love letter to the pulps. And when I say pulps, I mean the unreconstructed, practically paleolithic by modern standards pulps. The novel references Lovecraft, World War I Germans and voodoo in a sort of ur-pulp villainous scheme...evil voodoo priests team up with German soldiers to revive C'thulhu. It doesn't get more pulpy than that.

And this is, as often happens with Doctor Who, both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because as Paul Magrs famously described it, the TARDIS is really a machine that travels between genres. The Doctor frequently works best when he's bouncing off the well-established tropes of other stories, reacting against them in unexpected ways and making them respond in ways they're not used to. (The crude, but effective example on display here involves the Doctor chasing down the evil bocor Gilles Lemaitre through a network of tunnels...and using a laser cannon to cut shortcuts into the rock so he can get to the villain's destination first.) Plunking the Doctor down into a stew of pulp tropes is a good way of developing an interesting story almost by default.

The curse comes from the fact that those tropes are so old and well-established that they resist that kind of deformation. For all that David McIntee tries to show a more culturally aware and socially responsible view of voudou and Haiti, the old pulp tropes of savages making human sacrifices and dancing under the moonlight to their debauched and foreign gods still come out, simply because McIntee can't wholly let go of them and still create the kind of atmosphere that he's looking for. The most heroic native character is mixed-race, and even though I don't think the intent of it was racist, it's hard not to escape the problematic implications of making the "better" character whiter as well. Deliberately attempting to recreate a racially problematic era, it is hard not to bring the bad along with the good.

And frankly, this kind of subversion works better with a writer whose gifts involve wordplay and humor. You don't get that with McIntee. He's a functional writer whose strengths are plotting and concept, not characterization and wit. Twisting a genre trope on its head doesn't come naturally to him, because he relies on those tropes to sustain his novel when his narrative gifts aren't quite up to the job. (Take Colonel Mortimer, for example, who's basically a stock Marine character from Central Casting there to handle a role McIntee doesn't care to invest more energy into. Or medical examiner Howard Phillips, whose name might as well be Lovecraft P. Pastichey.)

This isn't to say that the novel is bad--only that it aspires to be nostalgic and functional in a range that is rapidly becoming much more. We're still in a period where Virgin is finding its way, and certainly we've already seen much bigger stinkers from the range. 'White Darkness' works as a piece of fiction in a way that say, 'The Pit' utterly doesn't. But at the same time, it's hard to read 'Lucifer Rising' right before this and feel that the two of them belong in the same book line.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Chat: Lucifer Rising

John: So I guess the first thing that comes to mind is, "Wasn't it nice to read a proper, grown-up book again?" I mean, this one had actual characters, a proper plot, all that good stuff. Nice change after the last couple books, wasn't it?

Dee: Definitely. I mean, the book had its definite flaws, but I thought it was miles, light-years, above the previous few.

John: Well, the previous two. I think that 'The Highest Science' beats this one out. But that might be a little unfair, because my primary complaint about 'Lucifer Rising' is that none of the big plot points ever went anywhere in the later books. The big epic ending is Ace realizing she never loved Jan, Benny realizing that she doesn't need to hold onto her survivor's guilt over her mother's death, and the Doctor realizing that he's become too manipulative and needs to start killing people face to face, where he can watch them suffer. (Or something.) And they all became telepathically linked and best buddies, and the Doctor had a premonition of his impending regeneration. And NONE of that ever came to anything. Unless, if you want to be generous, you count the TV movie as the culmination of that last one.

Dee: Yes. But that said, the Doctor is back! The spraypainting the spybot is so very very Seven. I could see Sylvester McCoy doing that without even stretching a neuron, and it brought a real smile to my face. For the first time, I felt like we got to know Benny, too. Climbing into the food dispenser was a metric ton of awesome in a very small container. I found myself more relaxed reading this book, more confident that nothing that was completerly and utterly out of left field was coming. Even the bit characters meant something. I liked the relationship between Sam and his wife, for instance, short as the scene with them together was.

John: I agree on that score...although I think the juggling was probably just a titch too far. (Still funny, though.) This was definitely one of the major early triumphs as far as Benny went (although again, I think that 'Highest Science' did a good job of developing her.) It's funny that you mention "nothing that was completely and utterly out of left field was coming", though, because I felt like it did, at least twice. First with the IMC mercenaries...not only was their arrival not foreshadowed, but the entire piece of conceptual worldbuilding that explained why they were allowed to do what they did came after they arrived. And then at the end, the explanation of what the mushroom farm did felt like it was just sort of, "Oh, we need it to do something big and potentially universe-endingly scary."

Dee: It could have been playing the spoons! (That would have been too far in my book. Juggling, eh. No weirder than Four doing the hypnosis in The Ribos Operation.)

What I meant by coming out of left field was more in characterization than plot, and I think what you're talking about is more plot-related. Yes, holy cow, what on earth we have space mercenaries? is a valid reaction. I wasn't as put off by the mushroom thing because I was already on board for "this place does astonishing stuff and that's just asking for it to go terribly wrong" with the unexplained moon orbits.

What I really want to note here is the way I saw shades of The Impossible Planet in this one. Or, more accurately, how I think this was concept-checked in The Impossible Planet. Is it just me, or do you see that too?

John: Oh, totally. We've both been operating for a while now on the working theory that the NAs were a big crucible that they used to distill out the key elements of the new Doctor Who before it went to series, and this one is a clear influence. (We'll actually see the writer of 'The Impossible Planet' show up before we leave the Virgin books, in fact.) There are other books that influenced it as well, but yes, this is a clear ancestor.

Dee: Alas, there was no way they could pull this book off in a season. It would take the total season budget, period. But I can feel the aspects of it peeking through. Although I think I liked the characters better as people in The Impossible Planet, I have to say... but that's me. I did like that the Doctor could have left at any time, unlike the TV episode... but didn't. He was going to see it through.

John: Yes. Although I didn't like the whole, "The Doctor secretly uses mysterious telepathic powers to make people accept his presence without asking awkward questions" bit. Primarily because if he really could do that, he wouldn't get locked up as quickly or as frequently as he usually does.

Dee: Maybe it's something he's just learning to use? Spitballing, as I agree with you it's very deus ex machina-y.

Other things I like: the idea of a multi-moon ecosystem-and-power plant-and-temple. That was awesome. It felt both natural and appropriately alien. I liked the multicultural nature of the crew. I liked the idea that they were in a money crunch... too often that kind of economy gets ignored in books, but it felt real. There was a sense of a greater universe of which this was one part, and that's hard to do convincingly.

John: Yes, that's the upside of Andy Lane's continuity fetish; he's engaging in some serious worldbuilding here, taking the background details of continuity that we saw in TV stories like 'Colony in Space' and doing some serious thought about what the world would be like given the glimpses we've seen of it...and what history would be like given the moments the Doctor's stepped into. It gives the book a sense of texture, of having a universe that's really lived in. (The downside, of course, would be the unsubtle winks to the past like the mention of the Hydrax. Those always seem to me like when bands shout out, "Hello, Minneapolis!" at concerts, just because they know they'll always get a cheer when they mention something you already know and love.)

Dee: Hee. Well, yes. In this case it works out well, though. It's not much different than things we've seen in the TV show, like the Macra in Gridlock. They didn't really add much to the plot, but hey, fans, we looooove you! And that texture is really important. It even adds to the idea of the Doctor having a lot of work to do to erase himself from things hundreds of years later, so I can solidly get behind it.

John: I can generally get behind it, but occasionally Andy Lane takes it a bit far. But we'll discuss that more when we get to 'Original Sin' and the scene where the Doctor reminisces about the footgear he wore on previous adventures. Likewise, I think we'll save Jim Mortimore's peculiar tendency towards whacking his supporting cast...unless you want to comment on it?

Dee: Nah. He seems to enjoy it a bit much, but then, that didn't happen as much as it should have even on the series, so. I do want to touch on Ace, though. I have reached the conclusion at this point that Ace is going to be like that kid I knew in high school who I had a crush on but then she went in the military and we just can't relate any more. And I'll have to be OK with that, but damn, you know? That's kind of where I am with her at this point.

John: Yeah...there's a lot more sturm undt drang to get through before we finally get a reasonable interpretation of the character. Although thankfully not a ton in our next book...which has ZOMBIES! Woo! See you there!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lucifer Rising

My frustration with the line abated slightly with this book. For e first time in a bit I could actually hear Sylvester McCoy's voice speaking theDoctor's lines. I could see the movements as he would do them. I could even, I sigh to say, see Ace and hear Sophie Aldred.

That wouldn't be a problem if I actually liked the way her character arc is going. Frankly, I don't understand how we get from the Travelers to the current Ace, but I am going to have to let that go. So, given the Ace we are given, I have to say she is drawn pretty well. Within this book, the characters are consistent to themselves. That certainly puts it more than a cut above the other books lately.

I think this is the first book I feel I'm truly getting a sense of Benny, too. Before, she was mainly not-screamy and not-Ace. This book, she forms friendships. She tries to escape competently. She is actually helpful. I seriously want this trend to continue.

Most importantly and thank Gods, the Doctor is back. I missed him so. Yes, he's plotting. Yes, he doesn't tip his hand and he overshoots and it bites him on the butt. But it's the Doctor I recognize, and I am so thrilled to have him.

I can see points in the new series possibly influenced by this book, most notably "The Impossible Planet." The Angels in the atmosphere are replaced by the demon in the planet's heart, and the two planets in impossible orbits are replaced by one in impossible stasis, but the claustrophobic atmosphere is very similar. It's easy to imagine Davies thinking about this, knowing that he'll never have the budget to realize it, and telling someone he wants something like it. (Not saying that happened, but...)

And there are interesting ideas here: the simulated child, the feedback loop system, the theological implications. I'm still not entirely sure what was going on with Miles and the tribal history. I did like the fact that at least someone tried to make the future multicultural whose name was not Paul or Ben. I also liked the multidimensional aliens, although I thought they could have been more, well, alien.

This is a book that could have been made clearer, but it succeeded on so many points I don't feel like nitpicking. After the previous few, it comes as a complete relief for me.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lucifer Rising

Recently, I was chatting with Phil Sandifer (whose own excellent blog, the TARDIS Eruditorium, is actually intersecting with the period we're covering here) and was surprised to find out that even by the standards of "hardcore" Doctor Who fans, I've read these books a lot. ("Hardcore" is in quotes because everyone measures this in their own way. I can name every Virgin NA and MA and who wrote them, but I didn't make Time Lord ceremonial robes for my wedding. But I digress...) The point is, I've read 'Lucifer Rising' probably half a dozen times now, more than most people, and I've had the chance to rethink my opinions on it multiple times. And what I keep coming back to is that this book illustrates the hazards and hardships of working in a shared universe better than any other story I can think of.

Because 'Lucifer Rising' is good, and it's well-regarded, but it has ambitions greater than that. Which is actually pretty impressive, considering how much it achieves. Mortimore and Lane produce a good hard science-fiction novel in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke, with a fully-realized backstory and characters that feel like they could sustain a story of their own even without the Doctor and company, while not shoving the main characters off into the role of passive observers in their own series. This is no easy feat to manage, as we have seen in the last two novels, and the quality on display here should not be underestimated.

It's not a perfect novel--there are at least two plot swerves that Mortimore and Lane don't even feint at setting up (IMC's corporate takeover of the base, in a book that has barely even mentioned corporations to that point, and the "morphic field generator", which feels more like the authors realized they needed a big third-act climax than a logical conclusion to the rest of the book.) And for those of you who will be following along with us later, Mortimore's tendency to kill off any character who's ceased to be important to the plot begins here, and Lane's habit of referencing old episodes is already on full display. (Zeiton-7, vraxoin, the Hydrax, the Adjudicators eventually becoming the Knights of Oberon, Delphons...I'm sure someone else has made a comprehensive list somewhere, but I can't be bothered. The Dalek invasion is probably the most excusable, as it provides a whacking great chunk of atmosphere that permeates the book.)

That said, it's amazing how well the characters work as people in their own right. Mortimore and Lane try very hard not to reduce anyone to a stereotype; Piper, one of the book's ostensible villains, is scared and desperate and stupid, while Legion, the book's actual villain, is just as desperate on a more cosmic scale. Ace is confused and frustrated in a very human way and Bishop is a character that I actually would have liked to see in his own spin-off. And the dialogue fairly crackles at times, with Bishop and the Doctor getting the best exchanges ("I'm not reading you rmind. It's just that everyone thinks that when they first see us.") Really, it's a strong effort that hangs together well. But as I said, the book has greater ambitions than simply to be good.

Mortimore and Lane wanted this book to be a game-changer. Theirs was to be the book where Ace cast off her cynicism and deep distrust of the Doctor through a cathartic confrontation with the "ghost" of Jan, theirs was to be the book where the Doctor shed off his manipulative skin and finally stopped making other people do his dirty work. (And where he became Ah-nuld, apparently...there's no way to read "Welcome to hell, Legion," unironically.) They even foreshadowed a regeneration sequence. This was, in short, meant to be a turning point for the entire series of Doctor Who.

Didn't happen. Nobody followed them along this new direction, not even a little bit. Ace continued to be the same person she had been in 'Deceit', and needed an entire second cathartic arc to shake her of her cynicism and deep distrust of the Doctor (and arguably, a third, counting 'Set Piece'.) The idea of the Doctor as gun-toting action hero was taken out back, beaten with a shovel, and quietly buried never to resurface. And the regeneration was nixed by the BBC.

As a result, the book feels a bit portentous at times, particularly at the end where the Doctor, Ace and Benny all resolve all their emotional problems through alien super-science and become besties. It's not that the scene is bad per se, it's that it rings hollow in light of what we know about the characters. It's hard to sell that kind of personal transformation at the best of times, but it's even harder knowing we have nine more books of these characters not getting along for the exact same reasons they didn't get along at the beginning of this one. Mortimore and Lane tried to take the series in a different direction, and it's hard sometimes to focus on the success of 'Lucifer Rising' as a novel when it so obviously fails as a blueprint for the future of the line.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Chat: Deceit

John: So...not quite sure where to begin with this. I suppose we should start with Ace, because really, that’s all anyone remembers about this book. “It introduced the new Ace.” Even then, though, I think this book overcorrects from the “teenage Ace, sidekick to the Doctor” in a way that we’re going to spend the next ten books fixing. As someone coming in cold, what did you think of the new Ace?

Dee: OK, first of all, a little note about how this blog works: We don’t read each other’s reviews before we’ve written our own. Despite the fact that John had his review weeks ago, I didn’t read it until I’d hit publish on mine. So I had NO IDEA even going out of my review that Darvill-Evans had written game books. That said? Ace didn’t come across as just a Mary Sue. She came across as a RPG NPC character Mary Sue that the GM had basically made into zir own PC. The whole book read to me as being just as much a RPG-personal-game-based book as the first DragonLance trilogy, except DragonLance was better written. And Ace’s buffness and luck and whatever was completely in line with minmaxing and rule lawyering.

John: Yeah, I found it both striking that we both independently came to the conclusion that this felt like a dusted-off RPG scenario, even though you had no knowledge of Darvill-Evans’ RPG work. And I know just what you mean...if I’d written a scenario like this, my editor would have killed me. Because ultimately, Captain Defries and Trooper Johannsen are the PCs in this scenario (well, actually those two along with Francis and Elaine, but the party is split up and doesn’t get together until the end. More bad GMing.) And they mostly either stand around or die while the NPCs do all the work. Defries keeps complaining about how she’s stuck watching Ace and Daak do all the cool stuff and she has no real influence; that’s a classic “railroad plot”, and it’s pretty sad that the novel feels like a railroad plot in a medium where that shouldn’t even have meaning.

Dee: And Benny is... well, she’s pretty much an NPC in the role of a PC. She’s the player who gets what’s going early on, realizes the railroading is going on, and kinda checks out. Every so often, there’s a fit of activity which might stun the GM: “But... what do you mean, you sneak out of the room with Lacuna?! You can’t... Oh, fine. Roll at -8. ….. Natural 20. OK, you sneak out...” and then the GM sabotages any attempt to do anything productive. I mean, once Benny sneaks out and finds Ace, she isn’t even really in the book from there. It’s totally a GM punishment thing.

John: So we’ve pretty much established that not only is it a gaming scenario, it’s kind of a failure even at that. This is the kind of gaming scenario you get stuck in at conventions, basically. Beyond that...actually, there’s not a whole lot beyond that, is there? I mean, I commented in my review on how this feels very similar to ‘Timewyrm: Apocalypse’, only padded out with some macho space troopers running around. (And the “macho” is so painfully earnest...I just wanted to pat Defries on the head and say, “Bless.”) Oh, and the sex. You can really see how something like ‘Timewyrm: Genesys’ got published now that you’ve seen this editor’s idea of “adult”, can’t you?

Dee: I want to tell that one character whose name is already gone from my brain because she is otherwise unmemorable “...seriously, go to a munch before you get into a scene. And make sure you negotiate.” And in an attempt to make Ace seem tough and willing to do what needs to be done, we get those awful, creepy, rapey scenes with Daak, which.... look, I know you love engaging with misogynists, but really, anyone who defends this one needs to be on the police watchlist, not on your list of people to yell at. (I won’t say debate, because you can’t convince someone that icky.) They left me feeling unclean, and I imagine they could well be triggery for some people.

John: It was Britta, but I had to look it up. And ugh, yeah. The scene with wasn’t just that he was portrayed as being Rapey McRapester. It wasn’t just that this was being portrayed as kind of okay, because That’s Just His Way, Charmingly Brash and Uncomplicated. It was that Ace’s reaction when he was about to rape her was to sort of shrug and say, “Oh, well. He’s going to have sex with me against my will and I can’t stop him. Whaddya gonna do, right, ladies?” That sequence flew in the face of everything we’d ever seen about Ace as a character, in the service of gender politics that could be politely described as “mace-worthy.” (Yes, that’s the polite description.) Pair that with the creepy lesbian sexual predator, and you wind up really wondering how people like Paul Cornell and Kate Orman got hired.

Dee: I’d just like to say it here, in case somehow it’s never been said before because people are scared to say it or think it’s impolite to say it: This Kind Of Thing Is Not OK, and playing Ace as being OK with it is Also Not OK if you want her to be a “strong woman character” or even a freaking sentient female. The only Remotely OK sexual relationship in the book is Francis and his girlfriend at the beginning, and even that had things about it that bugged me. So, Peter Darvill-Evans? I really hope you meant this to be creepy. And if you didn’t, please examine your life. A LOT. Because This Is Not OK.

Whew. Got that off my chest. And I have to say other than that, I can’t find a lot to talk about. It’s better than the previous book, but only because D-E is a better writer. (I remain convinced that our six-year-old is a better writer. I might try to get some of her stuff to post here to prove it.) If it weren’t for the fact it was preceded by The Pit, this book would be the worst we’ve read so far.

John: Agreed. Beyond the fact that the book was a dull slog, the reintroduction of Ace was mishandled, the gender politics made ‘Sucker Punch’ look like a feminist film, and the whole thing is more or less a deservedly forgotten mess, there’s not really a whole lot to say about ‘Deceit’. Thank goodness the next book is another step up, even if it’s got its own problems. On to ‘Lucifer Rising’!

Saturday, November 24, 2012


OK, I'm sorry this has taken so long. I've worked more hours of overtime in the past few weeks than I know what to do with, plus (one of the) pagan New Year(s), and I owe you all an apology. And it doesn't help that it was this book.

I am not so much for the shoot-'em-ups, and a large portion of this book involved that kind of thing. I'm a veteran RPG player, but the fights were never my thing. I would have enjoyed Deceit a lot more if more of it had focused on the society of Arcadia.

But no. Instead, we're back to Not-In-Character Doctor, Military Ace, and Naughty S&M Action from the bad guys. Benny at least comes off well, and I liked Francis. The most affecting scene in the entire book took place inside Elaine's head. But while this wasn't on the level of The Pit, it sure wasn't good. It scares me that this is what the line editor felt he was capable of doing. I have seen few books that so much needed an editor themselves. And I'll be candid: I skipped the afterword. The last few pages of the book so irritated me that I didn't feel like reading his justification for plopping his own book in the middle of the line.

If you like military, tactical books, this might work better for you than for me. Honestly, though, it was hard to motivate myself through this. Two real stinkers in a row... I hope better is coming down the pike, because the holidays are also coming up...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Brief Explanation

I know we said that this blog was going to update sporadically, but nonetheless I feel like I need to explain the lack of an update. :) Both of our jobs are offering overtime right now in copious amounts, and reading Doctor Who is really something that has to happen on our off-hours. So we're a bit busy. Updates will continue to happen, but, um...yeah. That. Sporadically. Thanks for your patience, feel free to read and comment on back entries in the meanwhile!

Monday, October 15, 2012


It says on the back cover of 'Deceit' that Peter Darvill-Evans, the author, is also a long-time writer and editor of role-playing games, and the line editor of the Virgin New Adventures books. That's a very handy little blurb, because it neatly prepares you for a book that comes off as a cross between a dusted-off module for the 'Time Lord' RPG and a brutally functional reintroduction of Ace to the range. With not one but two appendices that explain the future history of the Doctor Who universe and the line editor's personal ideas about how time travel works in the series. With all that working against it, it's a wonder this book isn't worse than it is.

It's still not great, don't get me wrong. Much of the book feels like it was lifted from 'Timewyrm: Apocalypse'...and I gotta say, if it's a bad sign when you're less than fifteen books into the series and you're having to crib from someone else's work, it's an even worse sign when you've picked 'Timewyrm: Apocalypse' to crib from. (Although Darvill-Evans is also generous enough to crib the scenes from 'Timewyrm: Genesys' where Ace nearly gets raped by a thuggish alpha male and makes it out to be nothing more than a mild inconvenience, too. Just in case there was any danger of liking the book.) We get yet another colony world kept in perpetual ignorance, that yet again turns out to have been established for sinister and universe-shaking purposes. The only real twist here is that the villains are so barking mad that the Doctor actually has to give them a hand to keep their plans from failing before he can stop them. (Oh, and the other twist is that the villain and her henchwoman are in a seriously dysfunctionally kinky lesbian relationship, which Darvill-Evans seems to find far more interesting than the actual plot.)

And of course, we get the return of Ace, who takes the place of the PCs in the "Spacefleet investigates the colony" role-playing scenario. Obviously, in retrospect this was a big deal. Bringing back Ace as a hardened Dalek-hunting space mercenary was a major shift to the character and to the whole dynamic between the Doctor and his companions; if there's a single iconic thing you can point to that represents the way the New Adventures was for adults and not kids, it's the way that Ace was changed from a teenage sidekick to a grown-up with her own agenda. But it's really the next novel that actually examines that. Here, she's just another hardened space marine wandering around in a book that's got too many of them to begin with.

To say nothing of the fact that her decision to tell the Doctor to sod off and quit being such a manipulative git is presented as another manipulation by the Doctor, this time to get her off the TARDIS until he needed her again. This undercuts 'Love and War' by suggesting that Ace's departure, which should stand as the moment when the series starts to really examine the relationship between the Doctor and his companions in a mature and serious light, is just another case of Ace being puppeted by the Doctor for his own purposes. And while it's not Darvill-Evans' fault that this isn't really examined in any kind of meaningful way until the next book--he's the editor, he shouldn't be hoarding all the really big moments for himself--there's not even a hint here that Ace is bothered by this. Or that the Doctor feels anything about it. It's just something that happens, in a book that's full of stuff that happens.

That said, the prose is serviceable, the plot hangs together reasonably well and is decently paced, and the book isn't so much terrible as just sort of there. But coming as it does right on the heels of a total disaster, this book doesn't improve things nearly enough.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Chat: The Pit

John: Pfft. The Ponds. “True love”, they said. “Total commitment”, they said. All they did was jump off a building together. You and I? We read ‘The Pit’. Now that’s walking through hell for the person you love.

Dee: I honestly don’t know where to start here. It’s so bad, so very bad, and yet to explain how bad it is might make someone actually want to see if it’s as awful as we say, and I don’t want that on my conscience. I could quote a couple of paragraphs, but it can’t get across the sheer mind-numbing drudgery of 200-plus pages of that kind of writing. I could talk about exactly how much the editing fell down by not rejecting this outright, but I cannot imagine the expression on Darvill-Evans’s face when he sat down with the finished volume.

John: I have to imagine, given that Darvill-Evans was not only the range editor at the time, but also the writer of the next novel on our list, that he either didn’t have the time or the energy to find something else to fill this slot. I think it really was a case of “we either release this, or we put out a book of cat pictures this month that ends with, ‘Oh and by the way the Doctor and Benny had an adventure too that ended with a whole solar system blowing up, but you don’t want to see that.’” And as it turns out, they made the wrong decision there.

Dee: I think that would have worked better. There is a silver lining, of course: I imagine this inspired hundreds of aspiring, talented young writers to submit their own ideas under the rationale that they literally could not write that badly. But that’s some pretty tarnished silver. I have to ask: was there anything, anything at all, that you found likeable about the book? I think the unintentional comedy of counting how many time someone “shouted (insert thing they shouted here)” amusing, but then I was on cold medicine for the last 100 pages or so.
John: I liked one line. When the cthon says that it’s getting stronger, closer, more and more vivid visions of darkness and evil and armageddon, and the shapeshifter responds with, “Yes, but think of the money.” There’s a certain dark humor to that line that suggests that Penswick came up with it ages ago and was just itching for a chance to get it into print. If he’d spent that many years on the rest of the book, it might have been worth reading. In general, though, the book does feel like being caught out in a cold, wet drizzle that gradually seeps through each layer of clothing until you’re utterly soaked to the skin. Does that feel like the right way to describe Penswick’s prose to you? Like standing right under a leaky drainpipe, with that drip-drip-drip of monotonously uniform sentences plopping on you?

Dee: Only if you are in a straightjacket and it’s a leak of unflavored pudding. (Can’t be flavored, it might actually taste good then.) If you make that small change, it’s a good simile. Which, by the way, means you can come up with a better simile in twenty seconds than he had in the entire book, which he had who knows how long to write. I just don’t even know what else to say. The entire Best Brains team couldn’t make this book palatable. I seriously think it might be on a parallel with “The Eye Of Argon” in some ways, without the fun of being able to be redeemed by competitive readings.

John: Well, we could talk about what he was trying to say. Because that’s worth pointing out--Penswick might have horribly botched the execution of the novel, but at the pitch stage this must have sounded promising. There’s a dark secret at the heart of the Time Lords’ history, born out of the arrogance and incompetence of their greatest figure, and now it’s coming back to haunt the Doctor on a planet that is destined to die in seven days. That’s a good idea on paper. I can see how it would get commissioned...although I can’t see how any of those chapters would have been the sample chapter that sealed the deal.

Dee: The thing is, OK, I see your point... but I think that Penswick just recycled plot ideas already explored in the TV series and added Arkham House-like critters. By the time the Fifth Doctor regenerated we already knew there might be more to the Omega and Rassilon story than the Time Lords were saying. By the end of the 80s, we knew that the Time Lords were by and large callous jerks. (I think an argument can be made we knew that by the end of the 60s.) I don’t think there’s anything new or particularly exciting being explored here, even in a plot synopsis.

John: Callous, yes, but this is the first time they’ve ever been portrayed as reckless. The ancient Time Lords had always been portrayed legends that strode the universe, maybe even that made it into what it was. Rassilon had been portrayed as a mysterious wizard who lay in his tower somewhere between life and death, and Omega was the Promethean titan who stole the secrets of black holes from the gods and was eternally tortured for it. Their battles against the ancient vampires were portrayed as something out of myth. Here’s the first time we see the suggestion that they might have been not just ruthless and cruel, but out-and-out monsters. Even in later stories, when you see them as genocidal warriors against the Racnoss and so forth, you don’t see the demythologizing of the Time Lords taken this far very often. Penswick was pushing the boundaries of the idea, even if it wasn’t new.

Dee: I am not so sure I agree. I think that the reckless idea had been very well put across in Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible by Mark Platt. That wasn’t so long ago in our reading that I’ve forgotten it, you know! (And the banging my head against a wall summoned by The Pit didn’t knock it out of my brain either.)

John: Well, there’s reckless and then there’s “oh, hey, did we just punch a hole in the universe? Whoops, our bad, don’t worry, we’ll kill anything that comes out of it” reckless. I think that as bad as this book is, it is a keystone to the direction that Virgin is going to take in the next sixty-odd books. We are going to see a vision of Gallifrey that is “ancient monsters doing battle with ancient monsters”, and the Doctor is going to be seen as atoning for the sins of his people’s past...which are also, just possibly, the sins of his own past. The Lovecraftian angle is the completion of that vision--for the Time Lords to be convincingly omnipotent, they have to be struggling against equally legendary, opposite foes. Lovecraft’s mythos is really the only kind of thing that can bear that weight. Again, this isn’t to argue that the book is good, only that the book is necessary. A book like this needed to be here at this point. Just a much better one.

Dee: I remain only marginally convinced, but then I’ve always felt the Time Lords were exactly the kind of beings who would punch holes in the Universe... because they’re so darn rigid when we meet them that it’s always seemed to me that they were reacting against something. Be that as it may, I need to get this taste out of my mouth. Bleah.

John: I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, the next book is better. The bad news is, that’s pretty much only because you couldn’t get a worse book released commercially that doesn’t have ‘Twilight’ somewhere in the title.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Pit

I seriously had no idea that the Virgin line was so hard-up for writers that they commissioned fifth graders. Reading this one, it's very easy to get the impression that they were in fact doing just that. Unfortunately,  I'm sure Nigel Penwick was already an adult when he sold The Pit. I have no idea what the editor was thinking when this came across his desk, but if the words "Holy hell, there's no way to get another book in here in time to save the publishing schedule" weren't high on the list, I am really really worried.

When I say that a fifth grader could have written this, I mean it. It is chock full of sentence fragments. Penwick has clearly never heard the adage "show, don't tell" when it comes to writing. The monster names come straight out of a really bad tabletop Call of Cthulhu game where the GM decided to throw out the rulebooks. We have religious killer androids (whose only reason for being androids is to give them batteries which will wear down, and even that gets thrown out). We have a completely unrecognizable Doctor and a Benny who doesn't wish for a beer. We have Christianity on alien worlds under the thinnest of veneers, and we have the Arkham House mythos under the same kind of thin veneer. There's more, but this is starting to feel like piling on.

The sad part is that there is the traces, just the faintest traces of what could have been a good book crying under the weight of the horrible authorship here. Religious androids? OK, why do they believe what they do? Because they are programmed to do so? Because it seems logical? How does this impact their being killers? The Time Lords had failed experiments before the Eye of Harmony? Great! There was a war because of it? Sure! They then wrote it out of history? ...buh? To the point the Doctor "shouts" that he doesn't believe it? O...K, if you say so.

The Prime Mover and Form Manipulator bits are clearly Zoroastrianism/Christianity glossed over. The only reason I bring it up is that anything that changes in this book is going to be evil. Even if they hadn't identified the shapechangers as servants of evil already, they'd have been obviously evil by their nature. Why keep reiterating it? Oh, right, because Penwick thinks if we don't get constantly reminded of who is good and who is evil, who is missing his wife and who is enigmatic and knows too much, we might miss it!  And religion does have a big role to play in this book, but it's enough to make a pagan like myself pull her hair out. It doesn't help that he throws in William Blake to make it worse. This is historical real person abuse of the highest order. Having Blake possibly mistaken for Jack the Ripper at one point made my skin crawl.

If you are looking for a good New Adventures book to read, please, I beg you, skip this one. Don't even be tempted to pick it up to see how bad it is. And if you ignore this advice, remember I warned you... because on this one, I am not afraid to say "I told you so."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Pit

There's a certain phenomenon that I think all writers experience sooner or later. Whether in writers' forums, or through emails, or in person, someone eventually comes up to you and says, "I've got this great idea that I think would make a neat book. Now I'm no writer, so I know I can't do it justice. But your writing is really good. Would you be willing to write it for me?"

This demonstrates both an amazing amount and an amazing lack of self-awareness. On the one hand, they understand that ideas aren't the important part of being a writer. The expression of them is. Hamlet, boiled down, is "stepdad killed original dad, son kills stepdad in revenge." That same plot can be one of the greatest works of literature in the English language...or it can be a Lifetime original movie starring Eric Roberts and Kirk Cameron. The concept is only the beginning; turning it into an actual plot requires subtlety and deftness of touch, and working the plot into a functional story requires an ear for dialogue, a gift for phrasing, and an understanding of human nature. Not everyone can do that, and it takes a lot of humility to get that. (By contrast, it takes a remarkable amount of obliviousness to miss the fact that every good writer has about a dozen ideas on a notepad somewhere for every story they write, and they really don't need more.)

Why do I bring this up? Because 'The Pit' was clearly written by one of those people who wasn't a writer, but had lots of ideas. Practically every single one of them made it into the book: A planet contaminated by a mysterious "red weed" that slowly spreads, stopping time for everything inside it; android hunter-killers chasing shapeshifters who've stolen a bomb that can obliterate whole solar systems; a time-displaced William Blake helping the Doctor hunt Jack the Ripper; a forbidden planet that's secretly artificial; telepathic police and criminals who defy them by refusing to think about their crimes; an ancient Gallifreyan who's the last survivor of a war that the Time Lords wrote out of the history books because it was caused by the arrogance and stupidity of Rassilon; a cult that has spread through time and space that worships the Time Lords' ancient enemies in that war; a drug extracted from another dimension that creates perfect, inhabitable hallucinations; oh, and the whole thing is also trying to work as both an explanation and a critique of Manichean philosophy and the eternal question of free will.

But in practice, the whole thing turns into a muddled mess. Every situation devolves into almost-total stasis; the Doctor and Blake spend much of the book wandering through time and space with no purpose or destination, and Benny is pretty much just a passenger as well. The book spends big chunks of time on a murder mystery and a civil war, neither of which goes anywhere and both of which are simply abandoned when the novel ends with the solar system blowing up. (Which would be spoilers if, y'know, we weren't told at the beginning of the novel that Benny and the Doctor were investigating a whole solar system that blew up.)

It's astonishing how early the novel establishes the key situations (androids hunting shapeshifters, civil war raging on planet Nicaea, Doctor and Blake lost in space-time, Benny a prisoner of one of the androids who was separated from the pack, scientist's wife on planet escaping the red weed, shapeshifters heading toward a ruined castle to make use of their doomsday bomb) and how late it is before any of these plots actually begin to move. Characters talk and talk and talk, they walk and walk and walk, but it's maybe page 200 before the plot actually moves. And even that wouldn't be such an unforgivable sin, if not for the actual talking we get:

"'Do you believe in the Prime Mover?' Brown asked. Kopyion didn't answer. 'I just wonder about the future. Will there be any beauty, or is there just aching, longing loneliness?'"

People have called Ayn Rand didactic, but she's Noel Coward next to 'The Pit'. Nobody comes off as a real person, only a vehicle for the author's speechifying. The Doctor and Benny come off worst, because we have examples by other authors to compare them to, but they're not actually written any worse than anyone else--we just notice it more because they're both behaving so badly out of character. Penswick was clearly trying to make a point about perils of treating the Doctor as an unimpeachable authority source by giving us an even older and wiser Gallifreyan who sees the Doctor as naive and foolish...but again, there's a lot of work that goes into the translation of that idea into an actual story, and Penswick doesn't do it. He's forced to make the Doctor less competent and intelligent than we've ever seen him, simply so that Kopyion's "I'm going to blow up an entire solar system to show the Yssgaroth how tough I am" plan sounds sensible by comparison.

People who defend 'The Pit', and there are some who do, point to its influence on the series. A lot of its ideas about ancient Gallifrey and the wars it fought against creatures that would be inimical to the very order of the universe have become accepted as a general underpinning of the history of the Time Lords. But those ideas became accepted because they were better written later, by writers who turned that basic notion into something interesting and meaningful. 'The Pit' is less a fully fleshed out novel in its own right than a collection of ideas that Neil Penswick presented to present and future Doctor Who authors...saying, in essence, "I've got this great idea that I think would make a neat book. Now I'm no writer, so I know I can't do it justice. But your writing is really good. Would you be willing to write it for me?"

What reputation 'The Pit' has rests on the fact that eventually, somebody did.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Chat: The Highest Science

John: Cyborg hermaphrodite turtles. I’ve been trying to think of where to start this off, and I think it has to be with the Chelonians. They are to the New Adventures what the Weeping Angels are to the Moffat era, or the Ood to the RTD era. It feels like they’re inextricably linked to the period all out of proportion to the number of appearances they made. And they’re awesome, too.

Dee: With PMS. You can’t forget with PMS. I love that joke, and it’s not one your mind would automatically necessarily see. I can forgive the obvious “Luka, I am your mother” bit completely as a result. It’s even funnier given this was the era of TMNT movies. I think this is a lot better than those ever could have been. It also plays a bit with the idea that herbivores are peaceful, which is nice.

Really, I see this as being good, but even better when it was released. It was the last big era of the music festival: Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, and so on. There haven’t really been as many of those since the advent of music downloads. He’s playing with the big festival idea too in a way that wouldn’t work as well today.

John: There’s definitely an element of that...oh, I hate to say “counterculture” but I can’t think of another word that fits. The New Adventures were written by a lot of people whose lifestyles were outside the mainstream, whether they were gay or kinky or poly or recreational drug users or possibly all of the above in the case of Dave Stone, and you see it come out in a really authentic use of alternative culture. The three music fans are obvious parodies of that Deadhead type of follower, but they’re parodies that are inhabited by a lot of real understanding and knowledge of the people who spend their lives traveling from festival to festival. They feel believable, which helps make the humor work.

And, I’ll admit, which makes their eventual fates seem harsher. I know you think I disliked this book, and while that’s not entirely accurate, I did dislike the way that it seemed to punish you for finding it fun.

Dee: It goes back to the idea you told me a long time ago and I see firm evidence for in the series, books, and audios: It’s not so bad to be the primary villain, necessarily. But if you’re in cahoots with him, you’re doomed. And the fact is that a lot of people in those cultures did fall in with the wrong people and suffer for it. I didn’t see that as punishment for finding it fun. I saw it as the inevitable side effect of choosing your “friends” based on the wrong reasons. (I do think those fates were some of the poorest writing in the book, but that’s not to criticize the lesson; Kurt Cobain may have still been alive as of the time of publication but a year later he was gone.)

I think more what’s happening is that Roberts hadn’t yet learned some of the deftness of touch he later shows. The Unicorn And The Wasp is hilarious, but there’s a point to the kitchen scene with the poison that gets softpedaled by the humor: If it had been a human and not the Doctor in that circumstance, that human would have been dead. It’s something Roberts got the hang of as he went along. So there’s some first-book-itis going on here.

John: Yeah, I think that’s what I was trying to get at with my review (whether I succeeded or not is another question.) He’s a good writer from square one, but he gets a lot better at making that subtle shift between, “Oh, that’s so awesome!” to “Oh, my GOD...” There are places where you see that in this book, with the creepy Guardians turn out to be remarkably inept when they encounter something outside their limited worldview, but it does feel like a patchwork creature at times. The joins between the gruesome horror novel and the light-hearted comedy are very visible at times. Especially the ending, which feels very sour and unfair to the very sweet eight-twelves. I think I could have taken a lot more of the stuff in the beginning and middle if the Doctor had unambiguously defeated the Chelonians at the end.

Dee: Right with you there. But Transit felt similarly “We’re done now? Oh!” to me, as did Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark. It felt like they got to editing stage, and the editors said “WAIT! We can use these critters. Let’s not have them all wiped out.” And Roberts wasn’t yet skilled enough to make it more than a deus ex machine literal moment.

John: I’d say ‘Transit’ worked better because it wasn’t so much of a downer--Kadiatu going out, inventing her own time machine, and exploring the universe felt like something you could imagine lots of fun possibilities for even if you didn’t know when you’d see them. But yes, I’d agree that the evil Doctor and Ace in ‘Witch Mark’ were another example of a pointless, irritating loose end.

But in this case, it felt more like either Roberts or the editor wanted to kill off the eight-twelves completely and make this a total downer ending that showed how trusting that the Doctor knew what he was doing could sometimes backfire horribly, and there was a long bitter argument behind the scenes and this is the compromise that nobody was happy with. Which is something else to remember...Peter Darvill-Evans was still trying to find the range’s voice, just like each author was trying to find their own. I think that might explain some of the reasons why this felt like it lurched around so much--Gareth Roberts might not have had as much choice as he would in later books.

Dee: Point. Editing can make all the difference in the world.

Another thing I thought was perfectly in time range for the book, by the way, was the Cell. Holy cow. Dolly the Sheep was a couple of years in the future, but the “horrors of cloning” was a big trope at the time. The Cell fit perfectly into this. And Benny as euthanizer was a bit of a shock.

The drug thing was interesting. I wanted to see more of that. I liked that the Chelonians were also vulnerable, but wondered what on earth made a Chelonian sample an unknown foodstuff.

John: Maybe they’re part turtle, part goat? Or maybe turtles just do that. I’ll admit, I don’t know much about the eating habits of small-c chelonians, let alone big-C Chelonians. Certainly the idea behind the bubbleshake was very much of its time...which isn’t to say it’s not still relevant, but the 90s were the era when people first started to really consider the potential consequences of genetic engineering and designer drugs being in the hands of corporations that had grown so large that any given person’s ethical objections were subsumed into a sort of bland, gray sociopathy.

Which is why the ultimate answer to Sakkrat worked so well, I think (switching topics from the books problems to its successes.) The fact that ultimately, the whole thing boiled down to a big corporation attempting to recover its stolen property with absolutely no concern for the consequences wasn’t just a logical answer to everything that was going on, it also fit in thematically with the Cell and the bubbleshake that had been such large elements leading in. Sheldukher is supposed to be the universe’s most terrifying psychopath, but he only steals the Cell. He’s a puppy dog next to the people who made it.

Dee: Another of the book’s successes: Mocking the Lovecraftian writing style. That was hilarious. He did such a fantastic job with it. The smile I had from that kept me going a ways into the book.

John: Oh, I’ll totally grant that one. If the whole book had been written in that Gustav Urnst hyperbolic uberdramatic style, I would have probably still been hoping for more. Again, I don’t think there’s any question that this book has a lot to recommend it. It’s just that, equally unquestionably, much better is on the horizon for Gareth Roberts.

Dee: But... before that... we have a book I have heard rumored in shaking whispers wherever DW novel fans meet. It’s spoken of with averted eyes in dark corners by fans who assert their longing for a shower afterward, and not in a good way. It is said to have emerged from the birth pangs of the line and to lurk trying to pounce upon the unsuspecting who think the premise is promising. I refer, of course, to The Pit..........

John: **sad, slow nod** We’ve had such a great run. ‘Nightshade’ to ‘Love and War’ to ‘Transit’ to ‘The Highest Science’. You had to know it couldn’t last. Join us next time for what may be the worst book we’ll read for the rest of the blog!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Highest Science

I found this one satisfying. It wasn't, say, Paul Cornell, but it was exactly what I was looking for after a couple of months' break from this blog.

The initial jumpcuts were slightly annoying. In the opening paragraphs, Roberts does a good job of telegraphing that they're coming up. This kept the annoyance factor from getting out of control, since I knew there was a connection and that it wasn't just a bad writer. Still, I felt the novel didn't really take off until Benny and the Doctor appear.

Once it did take off, I enjoyed it every bit as much as I have Roberts' forays into the new series. The Lovecraft pastiche of Urnst made me giggle. Benny has obviously developed quite a bit of comfort with the Doctor, and he is starting to settle down with her. That really helps.

I loved the Chelonians. Full disclosure: one of my immediately post-college nicknames is "Flaming Death Turtle" (... It came out of an RPG session. Don't judge!), so I was naturally predisposed to like disintegratey cyborg death turtles. I mean, it's kind of the natural next step in the progression. And I loved the tongue-in-cheek "Time of Blood" bit. I think giving the General the equivalent of PMS was pretty awesome.

Given the novel was written during the height of Lollapalooza, I also had some nostalgic love for the druggies. The Dead were still touring too, so that kind of big event show was a major part of the culture. Roberts' extrapolation of how that kind of event would play out made a lot of sense and brought me further into the novel. I found Rodo and Sendai at least very plausible characters.

Sheldukher didn't really keep my interest as a villain, except to wonder exactly how the Doctor would deal with him. But the entire setup of the plot, as explained in the later chapters, was very well done and satisfying. the Mcguffiny bits were handled deftly, and the wrapping up of the end worked beautifully.

I look forward to one day rereading this again. I'm also happy that a storyteller like this has found ongoing work with the series.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Highest Science

This one is stranger than usual, I think. It's the work of a first-time writer who will go on to big things, from his extremely well-regarded Missing Adventures to his work on the new series...and like all first works from future great writers, it's uneven as all hell. But most of the problems with the book lie with the lurches from extremely polished humor to frustratingly clumsy attempts at shock and horror; we've just seen the first NA from Gareth Roberts, but it pretty much exemplifies all of his experiences with the line. Gareth Roberts is not particularly interested in being a grown-up.

Or, to be far more accurate and charitable, Gareth Roberts subscribes to the Doctor's own philosophy: "What's the use of being a grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes?" His major antagonists in the book, the Chelonians, are giant cyborg hermaphroditic vegetarian turtles with a ludicrously extreme case of xenophobia (and rotten anthems.) Their opposition is a train full of British commuters who've accidentally found space guns. The Doctor attempts to construct "Diplomacy" as a literal super-weapon, knowing that the Chelonians wouldn't know what the word meant if they were presented with the definition on a neon sign. This is, at heart, a comedy.

But then you get Sheldukher, who's the kind of brutal and humorless thug that really doesn't belong in a book like this. You get a genuine psychopath like Molassi, who is genuinely effective as a murderous madman but who never feels like he fits in with the narrative. You get death, death, death and more death, ending with the Doctor catastrophically failing in his efforts to save the really sweet and nice humans and having to just up and leave. In another book, that might feel appropriate, but Roberts hasn't quite figured out how to stick that blend of humor and horror...or more accurately, he hasn't quite figured out which side to err on. He feels like he's trying too hard at times.

Which isn't to say he fails. For all that it never quite gels as the sum of its parts, 'The Highest Science' has some genuinely effective chills in its narrative (Benny's realization that the addictive drug she's drinking is killing her, even as she pops open another can, is inexplicably squicky. And even though you get the feeling that Sheldukher was intended more as a Julian Glover-esque charming villain, and Roberts was then asked to "NA it up a little", he's still very well-written for what he does.) And the comedy bits, though not as prevalent as in Roberts' later books, are funny indeed. (There's just something so surreal about the Chelonians that I'm still hoping we see them in the TV show, practical difficulties aside.) It's just that the divide between the funny bits and the creepy bits feels more like a chasm than a slope.

It's a good book, and I'm glad it was written...but at the same time, much better is on the horizon for this author.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Open to the Public!

Hi all! We've been working on this blog for a little while now, while we decided exactly what we wanted to do with it...but we've decided to make it public, so that you can all join in. A quick summary of what the whole thing is about:

I'm a lifelong Doctor Who fan whose heart belongs, deeply and truly, to the Virgin and BBC book lines. They're "my Doctor" the same way other people view the Tom Baker era or the David Tennant era as "their Doctor", and while I've shared a lot of my love of Doctor Who with my beautiful wife Dee, she's read a relatively small portion of the book lines. And so we decided to read them together, and write about them together, and then talk about what we read. For her, it's a brand new journey to a part of the series she missed; for me, it's a trip down memory lane and a chance to explore how the new series couldn't exist without the New Adventures. We don't have a set timetable, so updates will be irregular, but we hope that you'll all join in the adventure with us!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Chat: Transit

John: So admittedly, it’s taken us some time to schedule this little chat about ‘Transit’. Luckily, I’ve read this one so many times I’ve practically memorized it, so I’m not worried about losing anything.

Dee: I’ve read it before too, because it stands alone fairly nicely as a Doctor Who novel. And here’s where I start to think I sound like I don’t like any of the books: I loved this novel, but not as a Doctor Who novel. As a standalone SF novel, it’s utterly and totally fantastic. Clear characterization - I loved Kadiatu putting her back against a drink machine to cool off, for instance. Just lovely. Fun plot. But as a Doctor Who novel, I am not so sanguine.

John: I noticed that from your blog. And don’t feel bad, because that actually puts you more in touch with the majority of the Doctor Who fanbase at the time. Even by the standard set by the previous book, this one jars. We get very little Benny (although the bits we do get are choice), we get a Doctor who’s undergoing an emotional crisis and not handling it feels like a cyberpunk novel that the TARDIS is passing through, and that ticked a lot of people off. And of course, other people were outraged by the sex, swearing, drugs and alcohol abuse, but I know you well enough to know that’s not an issue here.

Dee: Oh, the sex was fine. So was the threat of what would happen to Kadiatu if she couldn’t pay her debt. Honestly, the thing that turned me off was Benny. I felt like we didn’t know her well enough after one novel to know whether this was out of character for her or just a side not seen in the previous book. I felt like we were supposed to infer this was weird, and I could tell he wanted us to think it was weird, but... no. And that was sad, because I’m aware that Benny has a huge fan club in the DW fan community. I couldn’t have told you why based on this book, though.

John: As I say, it’s a common complaint. And a not unjustified one. But on the other hand, we do get the wonderful flashback to her childhood, the scene of the last time she saw her’s a tiny moment in a book in which Benny is generally conspicuous by her absence, but it’s glorious. And it sets the tone for much of the later books. Almost like, “Okay, we’ve seen her deepest and most heartbreaking tragedy. Later books can focus on the superficial stuff.”

Dee: I see your point. But I really enjoyed this much more the first time I read it, when I wasn’t aware that Benny was brand-new. Let me focus for a moment more on things I liked, though. The world was fully realized. It was one of the clearest, sharpest societies we’ve yet seen in Doctor Who, and future novels will have a hard time capturing the same feel for their settings. The bar’s been set very high by this one. The bits about the Martians, little as we get, are absolutely awesome. I want to take Ming out for dinner.

John: Ming is, by the standards of this book, a relatively minor supporting character, and she is better drawn, more interesting, more sympathetic, has more quotable dialogue and is generally much more fun to read about than everyone in ‘Timewyrm: Apocalypse’. PUT TOGETHER. Really, there’s not a single character in here that couldn’t sustain their own book: Kadiatu, Old Sam, the Angel Francine, Zamina...even the razvedka are compellingly creepy. And they work in service to the story, not to distract from it, the same way the setting does. It’s important that the story is set in a post-Thousand Day War world, but it never overwhelms the plot.

Dee: And there is a huge, Ace-shaped hole in the story. On purpose. Aaronovich is drawing our attention to it without being a jerk. “What would it have been like had Ace been here?” is one of the questions the Doctor is asking himself, and Aaronovich’s talent is to make the reader ask it as well without being maudlin. (The Doctor gets to be that himself.)

John: Oh, and the Doctor is great in this. I remember getting a copy of the Writer’s Guide for the New Adventures so that I could pitch for them (I have a great knack for deciding to pitch right as a book line is ending), and they actually made a rule about Not Writing From the Doctor’s Perspective, because they’d read so damn many lousy first-person Doctor Who samples by then. But Aaronovitch does it and nails it so well that the Writer’s Guide pretty much says, “If you have to do it, do it like Ben Aaronovitch does it.” And he gets some of the best dialogue in a book full of sharp, witty lines, too. “Oh no.” “Oh yes.” “Oh no.” The best six-word exchange in literature.

Dee: I don’t think many people do well at writing truly alien, but yes, Aaronovich pulls it off. Like I said, I like the book. I just don’t enjoy it as a DW novel.

John: I think it helps a bit if you’re not reading them in sequence. It also helps if you’re more familiar with Benny...and the next book is one of the more Benny-centric novels. And our introduction to another future TV luminary!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I never imagined how hard this post would be to write.

This was one of the only Doctor Who books I'd read before we started this project. I liked it because it was good, semi-hard SF. I liked it because the characters made sense and were internally consistent. I liked it because I liked the protagonists, from Blondie to Ming to Kadiatu. Even the razvedka bad guys were at least understandable. Ben Aaronovich is an incredible writer who takes you on an amazing ride, from dropping country names like Burkina Faso to the blind pilot to talking about the meteor dropped on Paris by a war in the not-too-distant past. (And I'm being deliberately elliptical, because I want people who haven't read it before to enjoy it immensely without my spoilers.)

But as a Doctor Who novel, I didn't like it as much on the second read.

Partly it is because we just met Benny, and to drop her into this and have the things happen to her that happen to her... well, it's hard to realize how out of character they are. Partly it's because I'm coming off the previous book and not terribly sympathetic to the Doctor. I think if this book had come two books later, I would have enjoyed it much more. And as I said, I really like it as a SF book. This is not at all a "don't waste your time" post... read it, by all means!

But as a Doctor Who book, well, I just don't enjoy it as much.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


'Transit' is a rarity, not just among Doctor Who books but among books in general; it's a book that keeps getting better every time you read it. Ben Aaronovitch, who I previously described as the creator of modern Doctor Who, wrote a novel that works on multiple different levels. It's primarily a cyberpunk take on the classic Doctor Who thriller; Something Creepy(tm) has gotten out into the transit system due to explorations of places Man Was Not Meant To Go(tm), and the Doctor has to banish the monsters back to the spaces beyond. But at the same time, it's a brilliant exploration of the Doctor's effect on history, told through two simultaneous and intercutting plot threads; one that plays almost continuously in the background, exploring the knock-on effect of a single intervention of the Doctor's, and the other that builds over the course of the book, showing how his interaction with humanity has produced Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart. Aaronovitch is genuinely thinking about his theme and subtext, working to produce something that's more than the sum of its parts.

The primary plot, while nothing we haven't seen before, is proably about as well-executed as it's ever been in Doctor Who. The STS virus, named by the Doctor with perfectly appropriate whimsy as "Fred", is an interestingly alien alien, with goals and motivations and planning styles that feel genuinely like something not of this universe. Unlike the vast majority of pseudo-Lovecraftian monsters that populate Doctor Who (and most genre fiction), Fred seems authentically unknowable, not merely a moustache-twirling bad guy that happens to drive people insane when they look at it. And the Doctor's solution, concealed beneath layers of subtlety by the author, comes as both genuinely surprising at the time and brilliantly thought out in retrospect.

(It does take a bit of retrospection, of course. One of the things that's most noticeable about 'Transit' is the prose style; form follows function in this book, as the theme of "transit" encapsulated in the title is incorporated into the way the story flows. The sentences are staccato bursts of text, the scenes are short, and there's frequent cutting from place to place and character to character. We are constantly in motion in 'Transit', and there's really no point at which Aaronovitch pauses to let the slower readers catch up. This is a book that almost demands re-reading.)

At the same time, 'Transit' functions as a sequel to the Troughton-era story, 'The Seeds of Death'. Back in the 60s, when Doctor Who was primarily seen as a kiddie show with spooky monsters for the Doctor to beat, the Ice Warriors were nothing more than that week's bad guys, and the Doctor consigning their invasion fleet to a one-way trip to the heart of the sun was just that week's gimmick for defeating them (conveniently off-camera, so as not to have to pay for any model effects.) But 'Transit' shows the way that this tiny skirmish was just the first battle in a much larger and more brutal war that transformed human culture, and the way that the Doctor's casual interference and refusal to stick around to deal with the long-term consequences has had major ramifications for the whole human race. The post-war society of 'Transit' is never lingered on, of course. Nothing in 'Transit' ever is. But it permeates the entire novel.

And then there's Kadiatu. Years later, of course, the TV series would pick up the general idea behind the character, dust it off, mix it with some bits of Benny that were left lying around and call it "River Song"...but here, Kadiatu is something far more interesting and dangerous. She's a human response to a Time Lord poking around into their affairs, but she's nothing so simple as a living weapon created by an eyepatch-wearing band of supervillains. Kadiatu is presented as something quite possibly necessary, someone who can operate on the Doctor's level without being defined by him. She's not the Doctor's lover or his sidekick or his partner or his assassin. She is our representative to the greater universe, a higher being who can operate on the plane of the Time Lords and the Daleks and the various time-active powers with humanity's interests paramount. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions as to whether or not that's true of the Doctor, and whether we can really trust someone so alien even if he does claim that human beings are his favorite species, and whether Kadiatu's struggles with her inbuilt propensity to violence make her worse than the Doctor, or just more human...all of which is pretty heady stuff for a novel that's been consigned to a ghetto even within the ghetto of science fiction. If you ever wondered why I defend the Doctor Who novels, this is Exhibit A.

And of course, there's so much more to talk about. The subtle jokes in the glossary at the end, the casual brilliance of Ming as a character, what exactly the book was that Benny was trying to mentioned, this is a book that rewards re-reading. And lucky us, it's so damn amazing that you can't help wanting to read it again, too.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Chat: Love and War

John: Paul Cornell’s back...and this time, it’s personal! I know you thought this was a bit of a sophomore slump for Cornell, but I actually thought it was a bit better as a novel. Not as much fun as ‘Revelation’, perhaps, but it’s kind of hard to write an upbeat novel about Ace and the Doctor having a falling-out over his callous treatment of her fiance and his gruesome, untimely death.

Dee: I wouldn’t say “Revelation” was fun, so much... people getting heads cut off, a crucified Doctor, and so forth. But I felt like it hung together better in some ways. And this one wasn’t bad, at all. One thing that I thought was interesting was the way at the end, the TARDIS took away Ace’s ability to understand languages before she’d even really left... a bit final, that.

John: It’s one of the things that happens in a more “mature” version of the series, I think. They tend to explore some of the logical consequences of things that were just lampshaded in the old series. You can see how the books influenced the new series in that sense; the scene where Rose suddenly begins understanding the Sycorax is a distant descendant of this book. But to get back to your more general thrust, “final” is really a good word for this whole book. It’s all about the way things end, and at the time, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ace was gone for good. (That’s not spoilers, right?)

Dee: The worst of it was that she’d be right. The Doctor was more of a Right Bastard to her than he’d been to anyone in hundreds of years. Ace was perfectly entitled to be pissed at him. And “forgive me” only works so many times. He’d pretty much used his up. Seven might have big soulful eyes, but actions speak so much louder than those.

John: But you know, no matter how many times I read this one, I’m still never sure whether the Doctor planned all along for Jan to be on that ship at that time, or whether that was his backup backup backup backup plan and everything he did leading up to that was an attempt to save everyone including Jan...and it just failed. He definitely knew from the beginning what was going on, as soon as he sniffed the soil and saw Jan. Everything after that...the Doctor is a very opaque figure in this novel. This is Ace’s book.

Dee: To me the theme of this novel is trust, and how when it’s not given everything falls apart. The lack of trust between Roisa and Jan, Roisa and Maire until the last second, Jan and most everyone, the Doctor and Ace... and the places where things work, it’s because of trust: Jan and Christopher, the military guy and the Doctor, Ace and Benny.

John: But it’s important, I think, to note that it’s not as simple as just, “If you trust people, everything will all work out great!” The Hoothi really do have spies and eyes everywhere, and the Doctor plays it close to the vest because he has to. Some of the saddest parts of the novel, I think, are the ways that Roisa winds up betraying the people she loves so much, all through no fault of her own. The scene where the priest asks her if she has a hole in her shoe is utterly chilling and note-perfectly ominous.

Dee: No argument there, except that had she trusted them earlier it wouldn’t have been so bad. I agree with you that it’s perfectly executed, don’t get me wrong. I just think there’s a lot of meditating on trust in it. And in the end, it was Julian and Jan’s trust in Ace that ended the menace, despite them being controlled and even killed.

John: And in a way, Jan’s trust in the Doctor. I think that Jan is the only one who trusts completely in this novel; even though he doesn’t consciously go along with the Doctor’s plan, he does let the Doctor know that he’s willing to do anything to save his friends, and in the end, he does what the Doctor asks of him with all that’s left of him. He’s kind of a twit at times, and a bit clueless and inept with his interpersonal skills, but you have to give him that. (Or did you not think he was a bit of a clueless twit?)

Dee: A bit? Very. I thought the “Ace Goes For The Bad Boy” thing was a bit too pat. She didn’t thwap him upside the head (metaphorically) enough. But he did have the strength to keep up with her, and in ten years he might have been quite a decent guy.

John: Oh, yes. Tremendously immature, no question. Which plays, I think, into the reason that he couldn’t make a poly couple work very well. His motivations for being with Roisa were not good ones, he couldn’t let go of her and he couldn’t be what she wanted him to be, which was more committed (I never got the feeling that she wanted him to be exclusive to her, only that she wanted him to be her husband...) He hurt her a lot by trying not to hurt her too much. Even though it was a portrait of a poly relationship that wasn’t working, I thought it was a poly relationship that wasn’t working for real reasons, not just because “poly relationships never work”.

Dee: I’d agree with you if we’d seen one that worked. I get the feeling that Cornell thinks they don’t, but well-meaning people can try to make them work. Call it a hunch, we’ll see if it plays out at all in future books. But yes, he did give it real reasons, which is refreshing.

I’m still having a hard time fitting this Ace into the Ace from a few books back. I don’t see how you can deescalate from warrior with gunsights to the calmer Ace here.

John: I think you’re right. I think they actually made the break here the way they did because the direction they wanted to take the character couldn’t really work as a gradual transition; it was like the ghost of the character we saw on TV kept hovering over the Ace of the books, constantly dragging her back to fit into that mold. By taking her off the scene for a while, and then bringing her back as almost a new character with a new character bible, the editors stopped people from writing her like it was still Season 25. I think this is really the major transition point for the series, where they finally leave the TV show behind completely, and leaving behind the TV version of Ace is a big part of that.

As is introducing Benny. It’s funny, but as much as Cornell puts into showing you the character in this one, I don’t think she really does much here. She basically spends the whole book waiting to step into the TARDIS, only occasionally contributing to the plot. (I liked your idea of Maire on the TARDIS, though. But given the way the Doctor acted, she’d never have gone with him.)

Dee: I’m not quite sure why Benny did, given how she backed up Ace.

John: I think the opportunity of traveling through all time and space, combined with the not-quite-buried thought that she could find out what really happened to her father, was just too much to resist no matter how badly she thought of the Doctor. (Hmm, and years later we’d get “Father’s Day” from the same author...have I mentioned lately that the new series drew heavily on these books?)

Anyhow, next time we’ll get another plot that Benny is involved in both very much and almost not at all, but in an entirely different way...