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.