Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chat: Nightshade

John: With ‘Nightshade’, we get another writer who will prove to have a significant future in Doctor Who. But at this point, we’re a long way away from the tremendously successful Mark Gatiss of 2012, who’s working on his fifth script for the revived series and has done tons of other TV both as a writer and a performer. This is his first published work. Do you think this feels like a first-timer? Because it sure doesn’t to me.

Dee: I think that he’d been writing this in his head for a long time, slicing and adding, shifting emphasis on who was important and who wasn’t. The character of Vijay feels like a later addition, for instance, one added because after Ace’s well-known intolerance for bigotry. The Robin-Ace interaction feels like something written by someone very young. As a result, I think he’d been self-editing for a long time.

John: Yes, but that’s something you don’t generally see in first-time writers. Cornell’s book is the kind of thing you expect to see from a really good debut novel: Wildly undisciplined and occasionally self-indulgent, but with an energy that drives it despite it being somewhat scattershot. While this...Gatiss is really hitting the theme and plot like a black belt cracking through a stack of cinderblocks, with not just power but precision. There’s very little in this book that feels extraneous or unnecessary.

Dee: Actually, there’s a lot that feels truncated to me. And just because you don’t see it in first-time writers doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, the exception that proves the rule. That said, I would have preferred some Cornellian self-indulgence and energy. But it does provide an interesting contrast to Witchmark.

John: In the sense of, “In contrast to Witchmark, it’s interesting”? No, I know what you mean here. It doesn’t feel adolescent like Witchmark did. It feels like the work of an adult, especially on an emotional level. Instead of seeing something twee like Ace’s “Not the unicorns!” moment, we get characters that have some heft to them. Even the minor characters like Medway wind up feeling like real people, because it’s a novel about memory and nostalgia, and so he has to push himself to get into the minds of the characters. I think maybe that’s why this is Gatiss’ best portrayal of the Doctor, because he can’t simply treat him as an icon and leave it at that.

Dee: He tries, a bit. But you’re right, it’s not as flat as his portrayal in the new series scripts. What I find very interesting is that, except for the Abbott who is distinctly without it, faith plays no role at all. That’s a huge contrast to Cornell. No one in the novel has any religious feeling at all, including the old people who might legitimately be expected to. No one really calls on $deity. Interesting.

John: You’re right. I hadn’t really noticed it, but this is just not a novel about religion at all. It’s a novel that features Oliver freaking Cromwell in flashback, and it’s got almost no religion! I think that’s to its benefit, though. I think that he’s not writing a novel about the power of faith, and if you’re not writing a novel about faith as a saving force then having a character who tries to use faith to save themselves and fails is just unnecessarily bleak, and this is already a pretty bleak novel. (Which is probably an understatement--this is a book about people whose best years are behind them and who want to live in the past instead of the present. That’s bleak stuff on the face of it. The scene where Holly gives up and lets herself die because the memory of her dead lover is better than the man standing right next to her is probably the most depressing thing you’ll see in Doctor Who.)

Dee: It’s just interesting to note. I did like the flashback scene, by the way. I wish there had been more of them, showing the effects over time rather than being told by an old book. I think those might have been victims of the editing we discussed, though. I also felt that the flashback scenes felt more satisfying than the end of the novel.

John: I think that just about everything felt more satisfying than the very end of the novel. Or were you not talking about the scene where the Doctor basically just straight up kidnaps Ace?

Dee: No, that’s what I’m talking about. Kidnaps, and doesn’t even face her. That was both cowardly and cruel, sorry Mark.

John: Yeah. It’s something that I can kind of accept, because this is my third or fourth read-through of the series and I know there’s a handwave-y explanation coming up in five or so books, but it’s still rough, and I can only imagine what it must have felt like for you. This is, I think, definitely where Ace’s relationship with the Doctor begins to change from what we saw on TV, and it’s never going to be the way it was again. I wonder if Gatiss had it forced on him? It certainly doesn’t feel like he’s trying to “sell it” as in character for the Doctor...

Dee: No, it feels like “AGH OK I WILL WRITE THIS BUT I DON’T HAVE TO LIKE IT AUGH.” Caps intentional. Sort of like taking that cough syrup... I’ll do it, and I’ll go along, but yech, the taste.

John: And coming as it does after such a good book, it feels even worse. Seriously, I think Gatiss did such a good job here. He integrated what he saw as a need for Doctor Who’s trademark gruesome horror with the needs of a serious, adult novel better than he ever will after this; and he made it a recognizable Doctor Who story without it feeling formulaic, something I don’t think he’ll ever manage again. Things like dislocating the Doctor’s arm...I mean, injuring the Doctor is almost going to become a cliche of the New Adventures, but it was so shocking at the time. It made the Doctor vulnerable in a visceral way that having him piss and moan about dying in a cellar in Cardiff just doesn’t do.

Dee: At this point, by the way, I am just pretending the Doctor-As-Ecoterrorist book never happened, OK? Because you can’t take Ace there and then bring her back to the Ace cuddling Robin in the dark.

John: I have no problem with treating Andrew Cartmel’s three novels as a self-contained separate canon, no. Mind you, Robin and his romance with Ace is something of an exception to that statement I made about “well-realized, well-developed characters with depth” earlier...his basic plot function in this novel is to be cute. I feel like there’s not a whole lot of chemistry between the two of them, other than the basic “he makes me feel squishy” type. You agree?

Dee: Yeah... that has the impression of being written a lot longer ago, and just not changed much. And I’m not sure I want Ace to change, but... looks like that’s backed into a corner, so.

John: Yeah, that’s already halfway out the window and the next book is where it hits ground. Not to spoil or anything...


After the long slog that was the previous novel, I was very glad for the page-turner that is "Nightshade." Creepy without being outright scary, this novel held my attention even though cough syrup with codeine - a major feat.

There were many likeable characters in this book, although none were drawn very deeply. I didn't feel like I could identify strongly with any of them. This did have a bit of an impact on the way the book affected me, in that I didn't care too much about any of the characters who died.

One thing that struck me was that this was a story that could have been done on television, although it would be much better done with today's technology than that available in the 80s. This novel didn't so much push the boundaries of what was possible as go "back to basics" and throwback to what Doctor Who had been fifteen years earlier, with a nudge forward in what would have been required for visual effects.

The solution to the situation was rather interesting and seemed to follow naturally from the ideas on which the book was based. The characterization of the Doctor and Ace was solid. While no one could call this a romp, it moved quickly and steadily forward with moments of humor sprinkled here and there.

All in all, I'd call this a solid effort. It wasn't high art, but it was satisfying and a good book to read while I recovered from the flu.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


If anyone ever asks me why I complain so much about Mark Gatiss' work on the new Doctor Who TV series, I always point to this book.

Because once you've read 'Nightshade', you will never be able to escape the understanding that Mark Gatiss is settling for less in all his subsequent efforts. Gatiss is, of course, an outspoken writer and director and actor who has been public and vocal in his opinions that the series started to go rather seriously downhill at about the time that he hit puberty, but that this is purely a coincidence and it just so happened that his growing up coincided with the exact moment when the show became cheap and silly and all of the other people of varying ages who say the exact same thing about the era of the show that coincided with their hitting puberty are wrong because he knows when it became a tacky mistake. (I paraphrase slightly for effect.)

Gatiss' response to this has been to use his considerable talent as a writer to attempt to recreate what he sees as the One True Formula for writing Doctor Who, as seen in the Pertwee era; strange and mysterious happenings begin to occur somewhere in Britain, the Doctor investigates, everyone becomes trapped with the evil alien presence that is causing all this, and one by one the cast is whittled down to a manageable size in a string of memorable set pieces until the Doctor figures out how to outwit/destroy/defeat the monster of the week and all is made well again. This is Doctor Who, in Gatiss' mind, and you stray from it at your peril.

And while certainly 'Nightshade' falls loosely into that formula, Gatiss writes it with an intensity and an earnestness you'll never see again in his work. The Sentience doesn't feed on nostalgia and remorse because Gatiss decided that "nostalgia and remorse" was this week's gimmick; it feeds on those because they're powerful, relatable emotions and Gatiss is making a point about the need to not let oneself be consumed by them. The Doctor isn't having problems stopping the monster because it's only page 100 and there's still about 60% of the novel left to go; he's genuinely heartsick and exhausted by centuries of death in a way that few other writers have had the courage to convey. Ace doesn't decide to ditch this week's love interest because the actress still has another season left on her contract; the conclusion to this story is far more tense and bittersweet. (It's just unfortunate that at this stage, writers like Paul Cornell weren't informed about heartwrenching conclusions like this early enough to really work them into their novels. In later novels like 'Human Nature', Cornell, yeah then.)

Gatiss is writing about something here, and his book has an emotional core beyond simply "scare the kiddies, follow the formula, get to the end." It makes you feel in a way that something like "The Idiot Lantern" doesn't, and once you know he's capable of something like this, you never want to settle for something like that again. And because I keep having to, I keep complaining about Gatiss. Which is a shame, because he's almost certainly the best writer ever to irritate me this much.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Chat: Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark

Dee: And what a long, strange trip it’s been the last few weeks. Which, really, is what this book is about, so it’s fitting that we’re talking about strange trips. And it feels redundant to say that about a Doctor Who book.

John: But in an odd sense, despite its being about travel to a far-flung fantasy world with unicorns and centaurs, this is almost quaintly domestic. The Doctor and Ace abandon the TARDIS early on to stay with a Welsh farm family, and much of the early goings of the book is spent romping about the countryside in Wales with big friendly dogs and eating large meals. Really, by the time we get to strange trippy territory, you could almost be forgiven for thinking that this was a crossover between Doctor Who and All Creatures Great and Small.

Dee: You mean it wasn’t? Honestly, though, I kept flashing to American Werewolf and so on much more. Which made one sequence almost a “what... really?” I meant what I said about this book feeling like “Hey! I just saw/read this and it was cool! Let’s throw that in!” Legend, AWIL, Dirk Gently, All Creatures... Sure! Why not! I’m sure there’s some British TV show focusing on the characters of the Celtic epics I’m not aware of that’s mixed in there somewhere.

John: Well, I think that’s more literary than televisual. Throw a rock in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of a Barnes and Noble and you’ll probably hit a book just like this. And deservedly so, too. That was probably my biggest problem with the book, apart from the relentless blandness of its prose; shoving the Doctor into your half-baked fantasy novel that you wrote when you were thirteen doesn’t automatically make it good. Better, yes. Good, no.

Dee: Yes. Reading this, I did wonder at the age of the author. It read like the author had some growing to do. For all the New Adventures are touted as being “DW for grownups” so much, I am thinking this might be the exception that proves the rule. And the haphazardness of the endings for various characters added to that. We have characters with whom we are invited to sympathize who get nothing, and others who have a positive resolution for no reason whatsoever... and this doesn’t feel like “the arbitrariness of life,” it feels like “Whoops! I forgot to handle these characters!”

John: Well, it’s worth remembering that they were going for young, fresh faces in this book line, and people who hadn’t been professionally published before. Sometimes the downside of that is going to be that you’re very clearly reading someone’s first novel. What’s the old saying about first-time writers, that they try to cram in every idea they have just in case they don’t get published again? (Which in this case was a very good instinct, but...) Certainly, I know what you mean. There’s a very obvious loose end at the conclusion of this book that you keep expecting the Doctor to resolve, but he never does. Not to mention, the mysterious fleck of goo the Doctor accidentally brushes into the TARDIS, the one that makes the whole “Cat’s Cradle” arc seem to have an even more meaningless and arbitrary starting and stopping point...but I digress.

Dee: I’d have to say that I am disappointed in this whole arc. Maybe it was that I got spoiled by Cornell, but I kept thinking “Isn’t there going to be more to this?” But then, I’m perhaps not the target audience. And this book was such a long slog to get through, for a little book. But I have faith it can get better, because we’ve seen that it has potential.

John: No, I don’t think it was just you, and I don’t think it was just the lack of another Paul Cornell novel in all this. The “Cat’s Cradle” arc was vague, ill-defined, and didn’t really have a proper through-line. But I think that Hunt is more the victim than the perpetrator on that score. He started the novel with the TARDIS on the point of collapse after its ordeals, not really knowing that the author immediately preceding him would skip all the “ordeal” part in favor of the Doctor killing Evil Rich People. He’s clearly someone expecting a different previous novel to tie in to, and he’s also someone who’s been told to add a “stinger” ending that he doesn’t have a whole lot of faith in. There are a lot of sins in this book, but I don’t think that FUBARing the arc plot is one of them.

Dee: Can we also just stipulate that having Ace talk to the unicorns was cheesy on the face of it? I mean, Ace is SO the centaur type.

John: That bit...oh my sweet merciful spaghetti monster, I think that 90% of fanfic written by twelve-year old girls involves the main character learning how to talk to unicorns, regardless of genre or setting. And they all read like this. And Ace getting her own special unicorn friend? I felt like the pages were being dusted with glitter while I read it. Am I being unfair here, or did Ace’s Special Unicorn Magic Hour hit you the same way?

Dee: I think Hunt misread the target audience there too. The Ace of a couple of books back would have done far better with the Warrior Belching Centaurs, as I just said. But I also think this is beginning to pile on a bit, so let me say that I think that within the goofy places he put her, the characterization of Ace in those situations is spot-on.

John: And for that matter, the Doctor is well done too, albeit in a way that ignores the characterization of the last two seasons of the TV show and the first six books. It feels like what you might imagine Sylvester’s Doctor was going to be if all you’d ever done was seen his pre-Doctor Who acting--not the direction they went, but not bad either. And, if we’re saying nice things, he did make an effort to have the supporting characters act just a little bit differently from their stereotypes. Not enough to make it a classic, but enough so you felt like he was making an effort.

Dee: You know, that puts the finger on why I didn’t like the book. I wanted to see what this Doctor and this Ace would do if the American WereTeens In TirNanOg, Dirk Gently, and Tristan weren’t around. And I think this author could have given us a better book if he’d just written his own. He does have a good feel for character. And I admit I hoped for something more Lovecraftian in this wet, standing-stone, weird-events England. My problem is that I can see the book this almost was.

John: And given the number of “Doctor Who in a fantasy universe” novels we get over the course of the various series, you’re probably going to get a better chance at it. But now it’s time to get away from bland fantasy, and into Doctor Who’s preferred territory. Horror.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark

This isn't a bad book. It might even be considered a fun book. The characters are true to themselves, Ace gets to blow stuff up and it makes sense with the plot, the Doctor works well with aliens, and it even has plausible unicorns and centaurs and trolls! But one thing it isn't: a page-turner.

I kept feeling like I'd read other parts of this book or seen them in movies before, and the author while in the writing process had run across them and said "Ooh neat! Let's incorporate this!" Book set in the English countryside with Odd Events Happening and American Werewolf In London comes on the telly? Let's put two American male post-teens in it! Need to get Ace from one place to another and Legend strikes your fancy? No problem! (I do not, by the way, think that this settles whether or not Ace is a virgin.) Need someone sympathetic in a police force? Dirk Gently-analogue to the rescue! We even have a minor nod to Peter Davison's other best-known role in a country vet. Again, it's not badly done, per se, but the deja vu got distracting and I'd have to put the book down while I figured out where I'd seen this before.

I also felt the book was left with too many loose ends. There were too many things the Doctor didn't check on, too many things left hanging far too nastily for me, and some things which were given a far happier ending than I felt appropriate for the story.

But the good did outweigh the bad, in the end. I enjoyed the way the society of Tir-Nan-Og was constructed, and how the sub-societies worked. I did feel like the Doctor was regaining his balance by the end. Ace never just pointlessly wandered off; she always had a motivation that felt right for the character. I just wish the book had moved a little faster.