Saturday, October 12, 2013

Shadow of the Scourge: Parts 1 and 2

This one has some of my favorite things: Science, cross-stitching, Ace being snarky but not nasty, and making fun of New Agers. It also has some of my least favorite things: Mistaking pentagrams for a symbol of evil, the Doctor playing a transparent game, and demons. I guess you can't win them all.

I am enjoying Benny's voice actress. She plays Benny exactly as I think she should be played, and she works so well with Aldred and McCoy. The ongoing chemistry between the old series pair easily widens out to include her.

The plot so far: Evil aliens from another dimension are invading Earth, of course. Their location of choice? A hotel in Kent with three conventions going on: A time experiment seminar where a guy is trying to interest backers in his machine, a bunch of New Agers attempting to channel the Rigellian Enlightened Being Ulm, and a cross-stitch convention. What could possibly go wrong? It sounds like a perfect place to invade! (I mean, I would invade it. (Did I mention I cross-stitch?)

As it turns out, it is. And the plot thickens when it appears that the Doctor has sold invasion rights to the Earth, which he has claimed as his after the number of times he's saved it. To me, this is the weakest part of anything in the first two episodes: the Doctor's motives are transparent. The second weakest is the contract discussion. If the clauses discussed don't turn out to have relevance later on, I'll eat my hat.

Now the strong points: The plot is unfolding logically and it doesn't bog down. Again, the chemistry is fantastic. Benny is acting exactly as I would expect her to, occasionally putting her foot in her mouth and then using that as a springboard for more investigation. At one point, the Doctor asks "Isn't it obvious?" and a whole room choruses "No!" at once. I loved that. Maybe it was a cheap laugh, but it was so very well-done.

I'm going to hold off on more plot discussion for now. I'd like instead to talk about Ace's portrayal. She's apparently come to a kind of peace with the Doctor again. She's obviously got combat background, but the younger-Ace sass is present as well. It makes me wonder if I'd like Ace better as the cold, hard soldier if Sophie Aldred read some of the lines. Then again, these lines aren't so hard to hear from her as some from, say, Lucifer Rising would be.

So far, I've enjoyed listening. The voice acting is distinctive enough I have no issues telling the characters apart. The foley work is excellent, and the cast seems to be having a good time. I hope parts 3 and 4 live up to the first parts.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Chat: Tragedy Day

John: I don’t know why, but reading ‘Tragedy Day’ reminds me of nothing so much as the scene at the end of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, where George Carlin watches Bill and Ted practice and looks at the camera, shrugs, and says, “They get better…” It’s that kind of book. It’s so obviously the juvenalia that even ‘The Highest Science’ wasn’t, a sophomore slump from an author who would figure out exactly how to make work what fails here. Or was that just me? I mean, I know you weren’t fond of it either, but did you feel like it was Gareth Roberts trying really hard to make things click and just not having it all sorted out yet?

Dee: I don’t think he’d really thought through how to make the characters relatable. I couldn’t find any, except for Benny in a couple of parts, who felt like real people. That’s partly in an attempt to show just how decadent this culture was, but it was heavy-handed and really made the book a slog. It felt like no one talked to him about how to make things lighter. Once again, I am going to put a hell of a lot of blame on the editor.

John: I do think that’s part of the problem, yes. The previous five books had a lot of story hooks; “Ace and the Doctor are in a simmering conflict over the Doctor’s manipulaions”, “Benny is disenchanted with traveling in the TARDIS and contemplating leaving,” “There’s a shadowy figure playing with alterations to the Doctor’s personal history,” et cetera. Those were a lot of things that could spark a writer’s imagination. This? “The Doctor’s just traveling now, and he’s got companions he gets along with.” It feels rather flat. But I don’t think the novel does its best even with the things it’s got. Olleril never really feels funny enough to be a parody, and it feels too contrived to be real. Luminus is too pathetic to be a serious group of baddies, and too murderous to be joke villains. The slaags work neither as serious monsters or comedy monsters. Everything feels like it falls between two stools.

DeeL No, I don’t think that’s the problem. Ace and the Doctor are still fragile, and there’s a lot that could be done interpersonally with them to show that. You don’t rebuild that easily. Instead, they’re split up. I do agree that he couldn’t decide what he wanted to write, but I don’t think it was a lack of story hooks. And there are serious problems with the antagonists, all of them. Not just Luminus and its pubescent leader (which, ewww) but the big bads at the end, whose names I have forgotten.

John: I almost said “The Monks of Felescar”, but those were the guys from ‘Love and War’ who wrote that book. It says a lot that they’re more memorable than the big bads in this book. These guys were the Friars of Pangloss, but I had to look that up. And yes. They’re all utterly unmotivated. Crispin is taking over the planet and killing most of its inhabitants because, um...Reasons, and the Friars of Pangloss are EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL! Because of Evilness! That was actually the only bit of humor I thought worked, although it may not have been intentional. The Friars were so ludicrously and unmotivatedly evil that if it was parody, it worked. If it wasn’t, then oh dear.

Dee: And the way Crispin died was so very anticlimactic. It would have been one thing if he’d been portrayed throughout as a kid, but he was portrayed as a short adult with as many maturity issues as your average MRA Redditor. Which, of course, makes the Benny crush thing even squickier. I am glad Roberts got through this phase, because if you had only given me this book to read I never would have watched any of his episodes.

John: Anticlimactic and unpleasant, too. I mean, yes, he wasn’t portrayed as a kid, but I still felt like he was being killed off because That’s What You Do With a Who Villain, and Roberts didn’t even think about how it might come off in the book. There’s a very real disconnect, I think, between the way the book plays with the tropes of Doctor Who and the way it functions as a novel, and a lot of the issues come from the way that it breaks away from its own structure in order to make a joke about Doctor Who. Oh, and Forgwyn a Marty Stu, or just a badly-executed effort at making a sympathetic non-regular?

Dee: I am seriously hoping the latter. He’s pretty incompetent, really, and I would hope Roberts thinks more highly of himself.

John: And Forgwyn’s mom...actually, you know what? That I’m going to give at least mild props to. There’s something interesting about a character who’s sworn to kill the Doctor while owing him a debt of honor, and I like the way that he didn’t go the cliched route of making her deeply conflicted. She’s not happy about it, but she knows exactly who she is and what she’s about, and she is not going to let her guilt get in the way of her family’s future. It’s some good stuff. If the book had focused more about it, or even just had more stuff like it, I’d have enjoyed it more.

Dee: Yes. We didn’t need the stupid Big Bads. I would have loved a well-done novel with a fragile-relationshipped Doctor being pursued by a really competent assassin! Ah well. A book we didn’t get.

John: Oh, well. At least we’ll get more Cornell soon. Because it’s back to the audios, for our first listen to the one, the only Bernice Summerfield! Join us then!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tragedy Day

It's hard to be nice to 'Tragedy Day'. There are two basic tacks you can take when writing about it; you can either say that it proves that Gareth Roberts was really better suited to write something other than the Seventh Doctor, or you can say that it was a work of juvenalia that sorted through ideas he later did a much better job of handling in his other work. Let's do both, shall we?

First, let's talk about Gareth and the Seventh Doctor. It's become more and more obvious over the years that Gareth Roberts is a warm, fluffy, huggable teddy bear of a writer who loves writing gloriously silly romps. He is a champion of the Graham Williams era, and has done an excellent job of pastiching it and capturing its humor, wit and charm. He's written for Tennant and Smith and Eccleston, and every one of his scripts is filled with glee and laughter. His Big Finish audios are comedy classics. In short, Gareth Roberts = fun and frolic and froth.

But the New Adventures were never particularly frothy, even after 'No Future' when they finally reined in the apocalyptic dysfunctionality of the TARDIS crew to manageable levels. Ace remains a hardened soldier and full-tilt badass, the Seventh Doctor is still a manipulative bastard (and I'm suddenly picturing the Tarantino Doctor Who story, "Manepulativ Basterd") and the Whoniverse is Grown Up and Serious. Trying to do a comedy in this line of books is like swimming the English Channel dragging an anchor. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it's difficult enough to make you wonder why anyone bothered.

In 'Tragedy Day', you can feel the anchor a lot. There are at least three too many gruesome deaths of innocent people to really enjoy the comedy surrounding it, and even the death of the main villain feels awkward and unpleasant because (spoilers) Roberts came up with the bright idea of making the villain a twelve-year-old kid. Which yes, funny that a kid is behind everything, but less funny that a kid gets crushed by girders. There's a constant, unpleasant dissonance in tone that makes the work feel like a Frankenbook, comedy and horror stitched so badly together that you can see the joins.

And, to shift to the second tack, the comedy isn't all that funny. Everything Roberts does here, he does better in 'The One Doctor'. A villain with a scheme to turn a whole planet into a 50s sitcom is a vaguely amusing juxtaposition of adventure-story tropes and mundane domesticity, but it doesn't do the job nearly as well as forcing the companion to assemble dimensionally-transcendent shelving to placate psychotic furniture-packaging robots, while the Doctor is on a Quiz Show of Doom. Roberts got the hang of this as he went along ('The Lodger' is another good example of him hitting that sweet spot between "normal life" and "madman with a box") but 'Tragedy Day' goes on too long and doesn't have enough jokes to make it work, even if it didn't also have the minor problem of being bleak and miserable. (Although some of that may be ironic; the Friars of Pangloss are so over-the-top EEEEEEVIL! that it almost does become funny through the back door. But there's too much going on to be able to make that stick.)

Basically, the nicest thing you can say about 'Tragedy Day' is, "He gets better." And he really really let's just look at this one as an early work and move on.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Chat: No Future

John: The one thing I’m going to admit that the detractors of this book have right is that Paul Cornell has no idea what punk rock was about in the Seventies. Punk wasn’t actually about the political importance of anarchy; ‘Anarchy in the UK’ was taking the piss out of people who cared about that sort of thing. It appropriated the symbols of politics in service of nihilism, suggesting that the only real use for political symbols and movements was in displaying them in front of people who hated them and watching the sparks fly. If a real band had played a song called ‘Dissent Is Good’, like Plasticine did, someone would have cut their mike about thirty seconds in. That said, pretty good book, huh?

Dee: I loved it. I had such a good time reading it, and it’s one I’d go back and read again just for fun. The Brig, Danny, and oh my goodness the Monk... so entertaining.  If Cornell didn’t get punk, he did understand the Monk’s motivations perfectly. Also, origami.

John: It’s one I do go back and read again just for fun. Because it is fun. It’s so much fun. It is such a wonderful catharsis, after five solid books of “grim grim angst angst grouchy grouchy grouchy”, to see the Doctor win in such a magnificent, clever, spectacular, oh-my-freaking-grud-how-did-he-do that sort of way. It’s a clear influence on Moffat, now that I think about it; having the Doctor do something extraordinarily clever and wibbly-wobbly (if not actually timey-wimey in this case) that he waits to reveal to the audience until the last moment so as to preserve the wonderful gobsmacked-ness of it all is a very Moffat-y thing. And yes, origami is a Moffat-y thing too.

Dee: It’s the kind of thing he wishes he’d thought up first, yes. I wonder if Amy wasn’t in some way a recovery from Ace in the books. In some ways they have similar personalities. But really, I don’t want to compare this to Moffat too much. I want to talk about how much fun Benny is. I want to talk about the Brig’s perception and wisdom and his learning from his past experiences to keep from getting found out by the baddies. I want to talk about Ace’s being able to fool everyone. And I have to say, this is the book where I first found myself really liking Benny and seeing what everyone saw in her.

John: And coincidentally, this is the first book since ‘Love and War’ written by the guy who created her, and the first where he’s allowed to really play with her. You remember how I said that I felt like in ‘Love and War’ Benny wasn’t so much a part of the plot as a character who wandered through and explained her backstory? She doesn’t feel like that here. She feels like a proper viewpoint character, arguably the main character of the story, and she’s really good in that role. She’s the only person who has no trouble holding fast to her principles, because her principles are all about small kindnesses and human decency being the really important things when you get right down to it. And I think she’s vindicated in that, especially at the end where the Doctor symbolically restores his TARDIS to the blue box. (Which is now Cornell’s third book where the Doctor renounces his manipulative ways and vows to be a straightforward adventurer once more, but I forgive him that because it’s also a book where Ace learns that sometimes you gotta be sneaky.)

Dee: I agree. I think the events of Conundrum make it easier for her to do and say the things she does. She is really, really good to Danny and the other band members, and they appreciate it. Her reaction to the bomb is wonderful. I also like your point about Ace learning to be sneaky, but that is partly because she’s chasing something from someone who has the power to make her regret just about everything in her life. I love the red-clad woman bits of the book. At first, I thought they were a mind control device from the Monk. I was glad to be wrong.

John: No, they were awesomely fanwanky fanwank instead. (I find it amusing, by the way, that Craig Hinton reviewed this for Doctor Who Magazine and complained about how fanwanky it was to bring back so many old elements like the Chronovores, the Vardans and the Monk...and then he went on to write ‘The Quantum Archangel’. Bless his heart.) Actually, that’s something that takes some getting used to as I go back into the Wilderness Years stuff, how continuous the threading of continuity was through the work. It was like we were all speaking in a secret code back then, dropping all these references throughout each story as if to say to each other, “You get it, right? You’ve picked up on the secret messages that we’ve implanted into this TV tie-in, and you’re one of the We.” It makes more sense when you remember that these authors were really Internet-present back then during an era when that wasn’t as common, and that readers could go onto rec.arts.doctorwho and say to Paul directly, “I loved the ‘chap with ‘Wings’ reference!” It was a really weird sub-culture thing, I think, and you don’t see it at all anymore on the new series.

Dee: Having memory of the 70s makes me giggle at that because I remember not getting what the big deal was... it sounded like perfectly good music to me. I liked that part of it more than the in-joke for fandom. But I get what you’re saying there, of course. I just wasn’t a part of that culture. (I wonder if I’m going to be visited by a gatekeeper now? “You don’t like the joke because of the chap with the wings bit? You are NO TRUE WHOVIAN!”)

John: I hope not. I mean, I’ll admit that one of the weird things nowadays about the new series is that it’s so easy to get into. You can pick up everything you need to know about the new Doctor Who over the course of a week or so with Netflix, whereas back in the day, getting every single joke in ‘No Future’ probably involved a masterclass in British Popular Culture. (I didn’t get everything either. I mean, I maybe got more of the Doctor Who jokes than you did, but I have no idea who the Goodies or the Wombles are, and I don’t think I could even name a single Wings song.) But I like to think that I have enough perspective to understand that those things aren’t actually important, just because they’re ‘Doctor Who’ references. Trivia is called that for a reason, after all.

Dee: Back to the Brig... I loved the natural progression of his growth from the series. It made perfect sense to me, the Buddhism idea. At the beginning of the book, I was as stunned as I was supposed to be by his behavior, of course. When the explanation came through it almost made an audible click, it matched so perfectly.

John: Oh, yes, it’s a perfect evolution of the character, and a wonderful comment on the Buddhist threads that ran through the series in that era. Barry Letts, the producer, was famously converted to Buddhism not long before he took over Doctor Who, and he tried to work little subtle references to the attainment of enlightenment and the abandonment of worldly things. The Third Doctor’s regeneration is presented as a sort of Buddhist parable; in that light, having a Zen Brigadier was a perfect evolution. And since they never used the Brig much in the new series, we can imagine that this was how he finally wound up. YAY!

And on that note, it’s time to move on to a book that both of us liked, um...considerably less. Join us next time as we slog through ‘Tragedy Day’!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tragedy Day

It was too good to last. The high point that was "No Future" is undercut by the very low point that is "Tragedy Day," and my head is shaking.

The good points: Ace was more along the lines of the series Ace, Benny was still funny and smart, there  was a reference to One and Susan (I am beginning to think I'm a sucker for that kind of thing), and some of the underlying plot made sense.

The bad parts: everything else. Good lord, this book was a slog to get through. Crispin was completely unbelievable, Forgwyn even more so. Ace being back along the lines of the series Ace was good for me, but bad for the character... there was no way to explain how she got back there from where she's been, character-wise. The dystopian setting was straight out of the time period without anything to distinguish it. I couldn't have cared less about the Friars of Pangloss.

It's really very sad, because I can see what could have been a good book under there. Seeing an older woman who is what Ace could become might have been good for our hera, but it's never explored. Benny could have been better used, although her decision to "go exploring" is right in character. A robotic Doctor is a great idea. Robots taking over major media figures is classic, and could have been so much fun. The Vijans are touched on, then never used again. Ever. What a waste.

The rest of the book is just awful, though. Crispin's about-face is reasonless and as arbitrary as they come. The slaags are more grotesque than scary. All of the bad guys are copied from pantomime. They just needed mustaches to twirl. The organized crime boss could have been interesting but was given incredibly little to do. The way scenes are telegraphed leads me to believe that this was started as a script with stage directions and the writer wasn't good enough to make the shift.

It's really sad when you find yourself thinking "At least no one walked up and started declaiming about what Tragedy Day really is." Bleah.

Friday, July 19, 2013

No Future

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I actually got the chance to tell Paul Cornell about this blog in person. He was here for CONvergence, an annual Twin Cities con that Paul himself has described as "the best in the world". He was very enthused to hear about a blog devoted to the books, as he clearly remembers the era fondly...but when I mentioned that we were almost up to 'No Future', he grimaced. "I'm sorry," he said, in that terribly polite way that he has. "I always hated that one."

This is not the first time I'd heard that. In fact, he said the same thing to me when I got the book signed at his first CONvergence appearance, a few years back. But even though I admire Paul tremendously, in this he is dead wrong. And I will now explain why 'No Future' is a wonderful book.

1) It is clever. One of Paul's biggest complaints about the book is that it ends with a big sequence of everyone sitting around a table while the Doctor explains the plot to them. But here's the thing: That's exactly what's needed at this stage of the novel, because Cornell has just rung in no less than a half-dozen extremely clever plot twists over the course of the novel's climax, and while some of them do get explained as they go on (Pike as a secret Vardan, Ace as a triple agent, the fake dagger, the misfiring gun) there are still plenty that deserve a spot for us to just revel in the sheer brilliance of the explanation. I do not care that there's a whocking great chunk of exposition at the end, not when it comes after a scene where the Doctor is stabbed in the chest, locked in a coffin, and left on an ice planet to die...and proceeds to rescue Bernice a bit later. The book is plotted too finely for me to care that the magician needed a whole chapter to explain how the trick was done.

2) It is witty. One of the complaints I heard from reviewers is that the book was too arch. Here I can at least acknowledge understanding what they're talking about; there are a few bits, such as the videotape of the alternate universe where the Doctor left himself clues, that come off as a titch too self-consciously wry and self-referential to work. But for every one like that, there are ten great lines like, "I demonstrated him in front of the whole cabinet on a flock of sheep." "But they're simple, wooly-minded creatures with no will of their own!" "True, but I think they were impressed with what he did to the sheep." This book has some great, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and I feel that it perfectly captures the joy that should be present in Cornell's "summer" novel.

3) It is deeper than it looks. For a novel that's about an alliance of the Vardans and the Meddling Monk (and does great things with both, by the way--this is very much a redemptive reading of these concepts) this is a book with a lot of thematic depth. The whole subtext is about everyone taking on the Doctor's role of master manipulator and deceiver, and the ways that doing so changes their perspective on the Doctor's actions. Ace finds herself switching roles with the Doctor, manipulating him and pretending to betray him for a greater good, and finds that it's not something that gives her a sense of power as much as it does intense guilt. The Doctor winds up in Ace's shoes, and gets a taste of what it's like to be the puppet on the strings. But it goes even deeper than that. With the exception of Benny, who's pretty much Cornell's Greek chorus, virtually everybody is more than they appear to be. Sergeant Benton is ostensibly loyal to UNIT, but secretly aids the Doctor. The Brigadier is pretending that the Doctor is an alien saboteur because he doesn't know who to trust. Mike Yates and Broadsword are pretending to be Black Star agents. Pike is a secret Vardan traitor who's actually a secret traitor to the Vardans. And of course the entire invasion plan is built on a massive deception. That's a subtext so rich you could grow crops in it, that is.

4) It is well-characterized. Another complaint I've heard about the book is that the Brigadier "doesn't act right". Oh noes! The Brigadier experienced personal growth as a result of being around the Doctor, and has become significantly more awesome as a result! CORNELL YOU FIEND! In all seriousness, there's a lot of great characterization here. Benny is excellent, Ace is wonderfully conflicted, the Doctor is in over his head and hating it, and oh by the way this is the first time I've read this book since actually sitting down to watch 'The Time Meddler' and Cornell nails Peter Butterworth. Absolutely nails the portrayal spot on.

5) It is cathartic. I think this is what always makes me stand up and cheerlead for this book, even over the objections of the author. At this point, the range needed a novel like this, one that ended the outward spiral of the characters away from being sympathetic and likable and turned them back along a path towards being a family. Ace needed to remember why she cared about the Doctor. The Doctor needed to remember that he was more than just a monster who fought monsters. Benny needed...Benny needed to get out from under the cauldron of seething angst and be allowed to grow as a person, is what she needed. I ached for this novel after four books of everyone in the TARDIS hating each other, and I loved it when I got it. Still do. That's why, despite the fact that even its author won't defend it, I will.

Monday, July 15, 2013

No Future

Paul Cornell once again does wonderful things in this novel. I've never seen the episode with the baddie in it, so I'm perhaps under-educated on some of the background story. That said, I had a blast reading it.

The Doctor's treatment of Ace and their mutual mistrust has come to a head. Her neutrality toward Bennie has slid toward dislike. In addition to all that, Ace has started having visions of a red-clad woman. Meanwhile, they're back in the 1970s and finding out that something or someone has been interfering. The solution? Save the world with rock 'n roll!

OK, fine, punk. Regardless, this is a great setup for a novel. And Cornell's usual deft touch with character is back. He's shameless about invoking elements of Love and War, of course, because he understands the unwritten parts of that story. I enjoyed this book a lot more than Love and War, though, for multiple reasons.

First, that aforementioned deft touch with characters. I liked the punk band, especially Danny. The UNIT subplot is ingenious and works only because Cornell makes you believe these characters would behave in just the way they do, especially the beloved Brigadier. What do you mean, you don't recognize the Doctor and Ace? And yet Benton recognizes the Doctor, as does Yates? This plot, by the way, had me almost biting my nails... and I've been working very hard to quit! So well done, and so much fun. Bravo. And while I have no idea, as previously stated, if Mortimus is true to the series, he is internally consistent through the whole novel. His mannerisms are distinctive but not overplayed and he comes across as a very real villain, in part because of his capriciousness.

Second, the usual Cornell tight plotting. He knows where he is taking the book, and so events unspool cleanly and with a sense of inevitability. This can be hard to take, like when Ace is so very clearly being manipulated by Mortimus. As she follows him into his TARDIS, as he apparently mind-controls her, it made me want to reach through the pages and shake her. A feeling of real danger to main characters is hard to come by, even in the NAs so far, but Cornell can bring it off.

Third, because despite all this it has a wonderfully light touch. Even when I was trying not to bite my nails, Benny could make me laugh. Even when I was seriously worried for Ace, Danny's nerves about sex kept things from getting too thick. No, this isn't a romp. It's clear that for at least some characters, things are not going to end well. The ability to soft-pedal that, though, is magnificent. And the Doctor's brilliant escape at a pivotal moment is both jaw-dropping (yes, even though of course he's going to escape) and funny. I mean, really... origami?

It's really almost too bad that you have to go through Blood Heat and The Dimension Riders to get to this point. The other three books in the arc - Left-Handed Hummingbird, Conundrum, and No Future - stand as shining examples of what Doctor Who can be when it's freed of budget considerations and has excellent writers to take it that next step farther. I'll read the latter three again for fun, where I won't read the former two. And I feel bad for Gareth Roberts, because he had to follow this one... and I just don't know how anyone could pull that off.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Chat: Conundrum

John: And the hits just keep on coming, don’t they? This is part of a stretch of books I absolutely love...which is funny, because I kind of hated them the first time I read them. I read the series out of order up through...oh, I think it was ‘Head Games’...and so I really didn’t understand at the time that this was a story arc that was deliberately ramping up the tension between Ace and the Doctor so that it could release it cathartically. I thought Ace was just being kind of a jerk. Mind you, she still kind of is, but so is Benny. The regulars don’t cover themselves with glory in this one, do they?

Dee: No, they really don’t. I love the book, but at this point I’d love to give Ace a swift kick in the tail. Except, of course, I’d get flechetted. Benny, I can understand behaving as she is to an extent. It must be decidedly uncomfortable on the TARDIS at this point, and who can blame her for wanting to leave?

And yet, holy cow, I love this story. The characters are so improbable, and they don’t realize it... and I never saw the original Land of Fiction story in its entirety, so I didn’t pick up on what was going on until the robots appeared. Once they did, though, I did remember what I’d seen: the distinctive noise kept going in my head. Then everything makes sense, but it’s not like the original Land of Fiction, so how are they going to get out of it? Especially with the tension and the team not working together, unlike the original trip to the Land.

John: Actually, I thought that Benny was worse than Ace in this one. “I’ve finally got Ace to confide in me! I’m going to go blab it to the Doctor now!” ICK. But yes, the main thing here is just how wonderfully deadpan Steve Lyons is. It’s this beautiful double layer of irony involved--on the one hand, he’s taking all these old shop-worn tropes and lame ideas from ancient adventure fiction, like the Famous Five and the Phantom Stranger, and putting them in modern, grim and gritty stories to show how utterly unrealistic and ludicrous they are...and then, he reveals that this approach is taken by a whiny, overgrown adolescent who’s run out of good ideas and is pissing in the sandbox because he can’t think of anything good to do with the toys anymore. That is absolutely beautiful to me.

Dee: That’s the only way this can work, and (at least for me) work it does. I love how the relationships in the Land weave together, as well. This character married to that character, a group of kids traveling to the beach when their parents seem to have been in the village without leaving for decades... priceless. Superhero meeting spy novel meeting thriller meeting Lifetime drama about abuse. It’s great. And at first the TARDIS crew grates in that somehow-harmonious milieu, and it’s only later that it becomes clear that the grating is all that’s saving them. He does great work here.

John: And he plays it all so straight. I think that’s why Phil thought that it was a serious book that was wrecking his favorite story, because Lyons never breaks character. He’s writing from the point of view of the Master of the Land, and he never deviates from that perspective even when it’s obvious that there’s a huge disconnect between what the narrative is saying and what the author thinks. It’s like watching Stephen Colbert work in some ways. The whole thing with the Famous Five’s dog going rabid and having to be put down is simultaneously funny and mean-spirited, but you’re meant to see both ends. That’s the book in a nutshell, I think.

Dee: Very much so. And, of course, your beloved Scrabble game moment. It’s beautiful and hair-raising at once. And at the end, when they confront the Master of the Land, you do feel sorry for him. How can you not? He’s a victim. You wish that the Doctor could rescue him as well. I think it was never quite explained why not, but I understand why: he’s too much a character himself.

John: Well, they’ll get into that a lot in Lyons’ next NA, ‘Head Games’ (um, not to spoil or anything...) But I think it’s more a case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma than any kind of physical barrier. The MoL is, to his mind, playing the odds...yes, the Doctor could theoretically get both of them out, and yes, he could even more theoretically defeat the villain behind all this who seems to have unlimited power and a long memory for grudges. But if the MoL allies himself with the Doctor and the Doctor loses, then he’s bound to be punished for picking the losing side. Better to try to the last to defeat the Doctor and hope for either a win or a merciful ally in defeat. At least, that’s the impression I got.

Dee: It’s a great ending. Reading it as an arc book, I can see why so many threads are left unresolved. I can imagine the frustration of fans at the time, though... Ace’s last action, again, makes me want to put her in time out. And Benny discovering the place wasn’t what she hoped is sad. None of this makes the book less to me. It did make me nervous about how they were going to wrap all this up.

John: I’m actually pretty sure I read the wrap-up first, so I already knew that it was heading for a great ending. Which is our next book! ‘No Future’, by the always excellent Paul Cornell. We saw him last weekend, and he visibly winced when we mentioned we were reading it. Let’s see if we can’t show him how wrong he is about it, shall we?

Thursday, June 13, 2013


So right, 'Conundrum', really freaking awesome and brilliant and good and stuff. Now on to the important part--violently disagreeing with Phil Sandifer!

Phil (I am on a first-name basis with him, and almost certainly will be even after this, because he's always up for a good argument) wrote a piece on 'Conundrum' for his blog, the TARDIS Eruditorum, in which he basically argued that the entire brilliance of the concept, the novel, and the storytelling is utterly invalidated because the Doctor at one point says that the Land of Fiction was created by the Gods of Ragnarok. Which is pretty impressive on the face of it, especially when he argues that the problem is that it caters to pedantic people who focus on insignificant details instead of appreciating the magnificent whole, but it's even more impressive when you remember that this occurs towards the end of a book in which the Doctor blatantly lies about every damn thing that's happening the entire book long.

The fact is, Phil's reading of 'Conundrum' only works if you approach it with the prima facie assumption that the book is utterly lacking in irony on any possible level, which is sad because it ignores the fact that the book couldn't be dripping with irony more if it was a special irony sponge, dipped deep into the broth of irony until it was saturated with irony down to the last tiny ironic pore. Even the irony itself is steeped in irony in this book. The whole story is exactly what it doesn't mean. Reading this and deciding to take only the parts that piss you off as intended seriously is like choosing to believe that Kubrick made 'The Shining' just to tell you that he really did fake the moon landings but you'll never catch him hahahahahaha!!!!

The whole idea of the novel, like the idea of the original 'Mind Robber' before it, is that the Master of the Land of Fiction is trying to trap the Doctor within the context of our understanding. He's trying to reduce him to nothing more than a fictional character, something that we can switch off and ignore when the screen goes dead. But the Doctor is more than that, and always has been. You can't get rid of the Doctor by switching him off--he's not defined by the fictions around him, he defines them. He warps genre, he infects tropes, he subverts cliches and traipses gaily from one metafictional universe to another. He is bigger than fiction.

But in the original 'Mind Robber', this was expressed by having the Doctor rewire a computer and blow it up, because it's hard to express this concept in a way that also makes for satisfying drama. How do you have the Doctor win by subverting a trope, or defining a narrative? How do you beat a bad guy by outwriting him?

Oh wait.

Because that's exactly what the Doctor does to beat the Master of the Land of Fiction in the end. It's not that he tricks the Master into creating a big bunch of technobabble radiation that disperses the Land, it's that he subverts the narrative by suggesting that technobabble radiation should disperse it in the first place. The Land of Fiction is part of his universe, not the other way around. The Doctor narrates the Land of Fiction into defeat by crafting a conceptual framework for it that gives him narrative primacy. He's not a character in someone else's story. Everyone else is a character in his.

In that regard, it wouldn't work if the Doctor took the Land on its own terms. It wouldn't make any sense if he accepted its reality and nonetheless escaped it, because the whole mechanism of its defeat is that he defines it as a part of his world. That doesn't mean it actually is--the entire book is quite literally a duel between two unreliable narrators, and there's nothing in the entire story that can be trusted as "fact"--but to express that, to suggest that the Doctor is lying to, not lying, telling a story--HIS story...would be to break character. And Lyons is too damn good a writer to break character just to explain the story to people who wouldn't get it anyway.

So if there are a group of fans who decide to accept the Doctor's narrative of the Land of Fiction, who feel that it tucks the Land neatly away into the structure of the Whoniverse and makes it all Make Perfect Sense, well...let 'em. But to suggest that it was written for that purpose, and to hate it for that reason, does nothing but reduce your own enjoyment of a perfectly awesome book.

Oh, and the Scrabble scene is freaking metal.

Monday, June 10, 2013


Back after successful surgery, healing beautifully, off pain meds, and still with a warm glow regarding this book. It's another highly readable, fun piece. 

I think the word that first comes to mind is "irreverent." The characters are delightfully goofy (except when  they're not), and the breaking of the fourth wall early on and repeatedly seems to indicate this will be a rule-breaking book. In fact, it's only as things go on that it becomes very clear that, in fact, it's a highly rule-obeying book. It's just that those rules are a bit different. 

I loved this book and got into it like a well-broken-in pair of jeans. In total fairness, I can see the stereotypical characters getting on the nerves of a different kind of reader. I can imagine someone becoming annoyed with the predictability of the action unspooling. Just as there have been books in this range where I was not the target audience, those would not be the target for this book. This time, I feel like I am.

I also enjoyed this much more than the Second Doctor adventure on which the concept was based, although I think that's largely down to the TV limited budget factor. Here we have a Land of Fiction that literally is only bounded by what its Master can be arsed to delineate. The revelation of who that Master is makes perfect sense, and it fits perfectly with the previous events in the book.

It wouldn't be one of my reviews without me talking about Ace, of course. Benny shines here, and it's one of the first times I really love her and can see her meriting the adulation. Here, though, the Doctor nearly reaps the whirlwind with Ace. He's lied straight out and by omission so many times that he nearly loses Ace's willingness to even work with him at all... And this time it's not his fault, but he has to deal with it anyway. It really makes me wonder where they can go from here.

I highly recommend this one, and if you're not the target audience, just remember: it's only a story...

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Blog note!

I am going to be having surgery on 3-JUN. (No worries: it's fairly major but everything is expected to be just fine.) Because of this, we're going to try to get through Conundrum and then there may be a delay before the next entry. Alternatively, I might feel like blogging on pain meds, which should be amusing!

We're having way too much fun with this blog to stop doing it, and we are both deeply grateful to the regular readers for your support!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Chat: The Left-Handed Hummingbird

John: It's been a while since we've had a book this good, hasn't it? I mean, it's been a while since we've had one as bad as 'The Pit', but this one really does make you sit up and take notice.

Dee: Yes, and I have a confession to make about this one...

John: Yes?

Dee: ...I reread this one three times for fun before writing my blog entry. I think that was against the rules or something...

John: I'm spending all my intervening time between blog entries re-reading the Doctor Who books author by author. I'm not sure I can really judge you there.

Dee: Still. It's that good. I wanted more, but she knew when to end it.

John: It really is one of the best debut novels in the whole range. The opening sequence, the murder of John Lennon, is absolutely riveting. It's like a splash of cold water in the face, waking you up and getting you to pay attention. And yet it doesn't feel exploitative in any way. I can see how some people might feel like that, especially since the death of Lennon is within the lifetime of the reading audience, but it's done with such intensity that you feel like Kate feels it as strongly as you do. Like she picked it because it was personal.

Dee: Further confession: it's within my own memory. The colossal outpouring of pure grief was amazing. I remember it keenly and yeah, there was a hell of a lot of emotional energy there. It makes sense within the novel's framework, it makes sense with the characters, and it seems fitting: the reason the Doctor didn't save Lennon is because it's partially his fault, in that universe. It's a real gut-punch.

John: The whole book is a gut-punch. I can't think of another book, certainly not of another author, that does such a good job of creating such an immersive, vivid, emotionally wrenching experience. The Doctor is vulnerable in a way that he's never been before (maybe a few times since, but you never forget your first time) and it absolutely gets at you. Everything feels desperate. The stakes feel so high, because if Huitzilin can do this to the Doctor--and not just any Doctor but the Seventh Doctor, one of the most scary Doctors of all of them--then how is anyone going to get out of this alive?

Dee: Yep...we understand Benny's urge to ditch the whole thing back in the 60s. This one makes you feel the probability of disaster like few others. They're doing their best to pull togeth, but when Benny starts swinging that frying pan and Ace does what she does and the Doctor is dropping acid and shrooms... Wow.

John: Yeah. By the end, you can totally understand why the Doctor decides to stage the final confrontation on the Titanic, just in case. But it's not really just "just in case", is it? This is where you start seeing a recurring theme in Kate's Doctor Who novels, this idea that on some level the Doctor wants to go through these ordeals. He almost seems to welcome the suffering, because deep down he feels like he might deserve it. Let's face it, after some 200 adventures full of death and destruction, the Doctor has to be suffering from some epic survivor guilt.

Dee: Cornell explicitly went there back in T:R, with Five being crucified.

John: Yes, but that was more intended to be the Doctor suppressing his conscience. With Kate, it feels more like the Doctor has a secret death wish.

Dee: Well, he's tired, and he screwed up Ace. I think he has more of a make-it-stop wish, really.

John: I think it goes a bit beyond that. I think he really does feel like he deserves to suffer. You see it a bit more in Kate's next book, perhaps, but even here there are points--like right before jingle-jangle time--where it seems like he wants to find the solution that will cause him the most pain and suffering. Because he's dished out so much of it that he almost feels like it's his turn to hurt.

Dee: No argument except that suffering and death are not the same, and some would argue that death for a Time Lord could be a fate worse than life... Because your next regeneration might care even more.

John: And it's crazy to think that this comes just three books off of 'Iceberg'. It really is Paul Cornell all over again. This is just an author that is operating on a whole different level of talent.

Dee: And it's so unbelievably readable.

John: Oh gods yes. This is one of those books that practically inserts little hooks into your eyeballs and drags you through it. You wince, you whimper, you want to give every single character in it a big hug, but you cannot. Stop. Reading. (Which is another interesting thing--since this happens mid-arc, there's very little catharsis at the end. Some people have accused Kate of writing "hurt/comfort" fiction, but this is very much "hurt/comfort" without the "comfort".)

Dee: Except for Christian and Ben, who make me happy.

John: Yes. This is, in a lot of ways, Cristian's story. And on that level, it's beautiful. He's one of the best-written guest characters I think I've ever read in the series.

And while I think we could both gush even more about this one, we do have to get on to another one I really like, 'Conundrum'! Join us next time for superheroes, deadly board games, and Doctor Who's other grandchildren!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Left-Handed Hummingbird

And here we are, in a book that I have to consider one of the top three books in the line to date. THIS is a story with some bite to it. This is a story that shows what Doctor Who can be when you take away the need for a budget. And thank goodness for Kate Orman, because I was really starting to wonder what some people saw in the line.

This book is clearly thoroughly-researched. I have no idea if it's accurate or not because the Aztec mythos is not my specialty, but if it's not accurate it holds together as cleanly as reality does. Tenochtitlan is a tangible place in Orman's capable hands. The Doctor's love for the place and its people - odd as it might seem to his companions - shines through. 

The characters are plausible. The enemy is menacing and really terrifying - where we've been just told to accept some of the enemies as dangerous, boy howdy this one is believably nasty. More important, this is the first book since White Darkness where I really, really like Benny. She is scared and overwhelmed and when she thinks about jumping ship, it's clear this is not just a feeling-sorry-for-herself moment. Anyone would feel the same in those circumstances. 

Best of all and thank goodness, Ace isn't falling into bed with anyone. I cannot express how happy this makes me. Orman has a fantastic feeling for Ace's natural speech rhythm and how a grown Ace would sound, and instead of Ace being a soldier paper doll she's a real person again. It gives it even more impact when the baddie does what he does to her, and makes it even more poignant that the Doctor elects not to tell her what she did.

The Doctor makes mistakes, and bad ones - but he doesn't come across as blind to the implications of the chances he takes. He does figure out what's going on in time to save the day, and he nearly loses himself in the process. 

The plot uncoils itself very neatly, with a minimum of missteps. Christian is a sympathetic character, and his bundle of blankets and its passenger in the end are wonderful. He is intensely human and I like him as well.

The best thing about the book is the cleanness of the prose. Everything is clearly described. Orman doesn't try to keep her words to small syllables. She has faith in the reader, and as a result the book just flows. She assumes that the reader loves Who as much as she does, and that love carries the characterization through hard scenes.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Left-Handed Hummingbird

Within the world of Doctor Who, Paul Cornell has to be considered not just one of the best but also one of the most influential writers out there. 'The Left-Handed Hummingbird', by Kate Orman, is one of the first wave of books to be conceived in the wake of Cornell's debut novel, and it shines through with every word. Kate Orman completely understood everything Cornell was saying, not just with his approach to the Doctor as a character but with his approach to storytelling, and her debut novel absolutely explodes with that same vibrant energy. If Paul Cornell was the first disciple of the new Doctor Who, then Kate Orman has to be the first disciple of Paul Cornell.

Everything about the novel brims with energy. From the opening, a transcendently chilling retelling of the last moments of John Lennon's life, through to the shocking and brutal sequences of human sacrifices in the Aztec Empire, up to the final showdown with Huitzilin on the Titanic is written with an intensity rarely seen in any kind of TV tie-in. This is a grown-up novel written for grown-ups, and not just because it's got blood and gore in it. It's a book about damaged relationships and wounded people, with a complex time-twisting narrative that seeks to explore the Doctor's effect on people and people's effect on the Doctor. Nobody would give this to their kid, even if you removed every swearword and bowdlerized every fight scene, because it's a book you have to be an adult to understand. It couldn't get published today, more's the pity, but at the time it was exactly what Doctor Who needed to be.

I could gush for another several paragraphs about the prose, because it's absolutely brilliant, but what's striking to me is what happens to the Doctor. This is a rarity for the Seventh Doctor, a book in which he is nothing more than a victim. His every effort to fight Huitzilin fails, he's tortured and brutalized and violated and in the end, it feels entirely believabe when he decides to make his last stand on a sinking ship in the middle of the Atlantic, just in case. Because Kate Orman makes it absolutely believable that this Doctor could lose. It's exactly what's needed at this stage of the arc, a novel that pushes the Doctor to his limits and beyond.

And Ace is just as well handled. You can feel, intensely ("intense" is a word I keep coming back to when I write about this novel, but it's the perfect word for it--it's a book you don't stop reading, you come up for air from) the way that Ace is losing her faith in the Doctor. Not in a simple, adolescent way like she did in 'Curse of Fenric', but in the way that adults look at their parents and wonder why they ever thought that they had all the answers. Ace is caught up in trying to justify herself for not being the Doctor, and it causes her to doubt that even the Doctor is really the Doctor. And with the Doctor in this novel looking very much like he doubts it too, we're given several threads that are well-developed as the arc moves toward a climax.

If I had one complaint, it's that Benny is a bit sidelined in this novel. With Ace and the Doctor getting all the meaty character development, and Cristian acting as a surrogate companion, Benny's role is basically to tag along and get in all the good jokes. ("Twentieth century medical care? I suppose you're still sewing people up with thread!") Still, she's authentically Benny, something that more than a few novels before now haven't managed, so I shan't complain overmuch. Not with as much to praise as I have. I really can't gush about this book enough--it's one of the finest debut novels the range ever produced, and it's no wonder that Orman became one of the "go-to" authors for Virgin and the BBC.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Chat: The Dimension Riders

John: It says a lot that when I sat down, I had to remind myself that we weren’t doing the chat for ‘The Left-Handed Hummingbird’. Because this really is such a forgettable book--in fact, I’d say it’s the only forgettable book of this whole arc. All the others stand out in my mind as classics (and yes, I do consider ‘No Future’ to be a classic, no matter what know-nothings like Paul Cornell might say) but this’s there. Things happen. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. A monster from Gallifreyan myth shows up, it does bad things, and the Doctor stops it. Oh, and there’s a lot of continuity references. If they ever made a Generic New Adventure, I think this would be it. Or am I being unfair?

Dee: I can’t say yet, we’re not done with the New Adventures. But I’ll say that it’s a quick read, hits all the beats, and still somehow melts away after. It’s not bad, like Warhead, of which I now remember all of three scenes. But I wonder if, in six months, I will remember any at all from this book.

John: I rarely do. I’ve read it at least four times now, maybe five, and all I ever remember is that it’s got the Garvond in it--I don’t remember who the Garvond is or what it wants, which is mainly because the author barely explains who the Garvond is and never gets around to explaining what it wants, but I do remember the name “Garvond”, because it has that perfect “generic Doctor Who monster name” feel to it. It feels like if you were to chop up all the phonemes of all the Doctor Who monsters into a blender and reduce them down to a two-syllable puree, you’d wind up with “Garvond”. So I remember it for that. Oh, and I always remember that whatsisname dies at the end. And the author makes it blatantly clear that I’m supposed to care a lot, but doesn’t clarify the reason. I think that’s about it, although I think if you quiz me in three months’ time I might remember that it’s got an evil Time Lord in it. But not in six months’ time.

Dee: … I’m honestly hung up for what to say here.

John: Well, we could try to puzzle out the villain’s plan together. I get that he wanted the President to assassinate himself, because that wasn’t supposed to happen, because...well, wait, if he was a disguised Time Lord all along, then how was that part of “established history” to be disrupted? Or was the whole “disrupting established history” thing just what the Garvond told the President, and actually it was a closed loop like what happened on the space station and that was how he got his power? And where do the two Cheynors actually fit into any of this, anyway? And also, what the heck was the Garvond going to do when it got all this power? I mean, the Doctor said, “If it does this, it’ll be invincible,” but so what? Is it going to be an invincible model train hobbyist, setting up its tracks in the Basement of History regardless of who tries to stop it?

...or did it make more sense to you?

Dee: I hate to tell you this, but I don’t remember the Cheynors. And I didn’t have a clue as to what the Garvond wanted. It was, for me, very much a “OK, this thing is killing and torturing people for no expressed reason, not that I would have accepted any reason given for the crap it was doing. Therefore, it’s bad. Therefore, it getting any more power is bad. Therefore, stop it.”  I’m shallow, I’m afraid.

John: The Cheynors were the college student from Oxford and the second-in-command on the spaceship, who was supposed to be his descendant. They were the Garvond’s Time Focus, which was important because it was capitalized in the middle of a sentence and you don’t do that with ordinary words unless they’re important to the plot. I think that’s how ninety percent of fantasy novels work. Other than that, I got nothing. But I should wasn’t that I didn’t understand why the Doctor should stop the Garvond. The whole “killing people” made that pretty clear. (Certainly clearer than why whatsername went crazy and started talking in French midway through the book. Did you pick up on why that happened?) No, I just meant that there was never a clear idea of what was at stake in the story. To pick a not so recent example, since I just realized that it’d be mean to give away the ending to ‘Name of the Doctor’ so soon after it aired, in ‘The Big Bang’ we see very quickly and clearly what the consequences are of not fixing the TARDIS. Every star in the entire universe has gone out. (Although, speaking of things that don’t make sense, what consequences exactly are the Silence trying to prevent by killing the Doctor that could be worse than that? Um...but I digress...) Blythe never really makes the threat of the Garvond concrete and tangible. It’s just something that dicks with people...using TIME! And capitalized words.

Dee: I know something that caught my attention! The TARDIS team isn’t really a team here. They’re in three different places hoping to God they find one another. I don’t care for Who books like that. Small thing, but there you go. I don’t think the writer was clear on multiple fronts, and you’ve hit a few of them. Mostly, I could have wished for another chapter or so telling me why I should care.

John: I’d like to say that was deliberately done, to emphasize their emotional distance from each other, but I just don’t think the writer was thinking that far ahead. Unlike our next book, which is really about to grab the TARDIS crew’s emotional centers and yank on them. See you then!

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Dimension Riders

It's clear that 'The Dimension Riders' is the work of a first-time author. It has the very specific, utterly unmistakable feel of a writer who's been living with these characters and these ideas for years, perhaps even decades, and is so completely in tune with them that he totally forgets that we're being introduced to them for the first time. Daniel Blythe assumes a rapport instead of building it; James Rafferty is, to him, a well-known and beloved character who's an old friend of the Doctor and the Brigadier, with a fascinating past filled with adventures all his own. But he forgets to tell us about them. Instead, we get a blast of old continuity references and name-dropping, and a bland academic who wanders through the plot without really connecting.

The same goes for Romulus Terrin, whose tragic past is clumsily dropped into the narrative rather than being organically exposed, and whose supreme self-sacrifice falls flat as the emotional climax of the book because we just don't know him very well. (The same can be said, even moreso, of McCarran and Strakk.) It's not that Blythe is incapable of doing these things--there are hints here and there, with Tom Cheynor, of a personality that could be charmingly mischievous. But Blythe makes the unfortunate assumption that we know him already, instead of taking the time to introduce us.

Even the villains fall into the same trap. The Garvond feels like the work of someone who assumes the audience is already intimately familiar with 'Shada' and the rest of the Gallifrey stories; his scheme, an overcomplicated trap involving grandfather paradoxes, time-traveling spaceships, two TARDISes, and an assassination that happens a couple of times, never stops feeling abstract and unengaging. There's never a sense that we know what the Garvond is trying to do, or more importantly why it's trying to do it; Blythe assumes we already know. The President's downfall, which has the potential to be rich with irony, fails to affect because it's not really worked into the plot properly. It just sort of floats on top of it without getting involved.

Even through all that, you can see that there are seeds of talent. The plot is ultimately coherent, even though it never feels particularly well explained. Characters have detailed backstories, even the minor ones. The Doctor himself is portrayed as an alien wanderer haunted by his past, which is perfectly apt for this particular point in the story arc. Benny is spot-on as well, although Ace comes off a bit more like her teenage self than she should. Even the setting is nice, although here again there's a bit of first-novel jitters--it's simply assumed that Oxford is a fascinating, larger-than-life location with more than its share of weirdness and hijinks, so why bother showing them? And at 241 pages, the book certainly doesn't outstay its welcome...but a bit less tell and a bit more show would have done wonders for it, even if the page count would have gone up a tad.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Dimension Riders

After the sturm und drang of "Blood Heat" comes the also-violent but oddly bloodless-feeling "The Dimension Riders." After the last chat talking about the 90s gritty hero bit, I can clearly detect that here. Unlike the previous book, though, there's a different flavor: where the remains of humanity are struggling to just survive in "Blood Heat," here the theme is sacrifice for the good of the many.

Almost all of the heroic characters in this novel make brave sacrifices in order to make sure the main cast can save others.  Note I don't say a lot about the actual wisdom of said sacrifices: many times the sacrifices the characters make aren't all that bright. Nevertheless, they make them. They're a survey corps ship, not really military, but they behave far better than the remaining members of UNIT in the previous book. 

I have to say I'm getting really tired of Ace having emotional one-night stands with some soldier or other. It was all right for a book here or there, but it's getting a bit old. It would be one thing if she was just enjoying the connection physically, but it seems that every other book she's getting drawn to stay. Eventually, I'm sure this will end. Right now, it feels like a square on a New Adventures bingo card. Benny drinks, the Doctor is cryptic and creepy and enigmatic, Ace gets a soldier boy. I also thought the Epsilon Sigma character was too unbelievably dumb to be a Time Lord. 

All of that said, I don't think I'll be reading this book again. It's like cotton candy, melting away. I can't remember almost any of the character names three days after finishing. I don't feel the need to go back and find out, either. I'm ready to move on. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Chat: Blood Heat

John: the ‘Blood Heat’ chat. (Cue John Williams score...) This feels to me like a big watershed arc, the point where the juvenalia gets all tucked away and the TARDIS crew becomes a functional group of friends instead of a book-long bicker each month, but I’ll admit that seems pretty far away at the beginning of this arc. In fact, I think they kind of try to make things worse before they get better. I’ll toss it up to you--did you feel like there was too much TARDIS-angst?

Dee: This book is dark. DarkDarkDarkDark. At some points I was thinking it read like someone trying to do a White Wolf game without any supers. But angsty? Mmm. I’m not sure I’d agree until the very end of the novel, and then the gutpunch seems to be almost par for the course of the book, a kind of “Well of COURSE it can’t be that easy, not this time.” But it made me want to watch “The Doctor Dances” to clear the taste from my mouth.

John: But at the same time, stories like ‘The Doctor Dances’ are written because the writers remember stories like this. Eccleston’s “Give me this...” moment comes from Moffat reading a story like this, or possibly even this very story, and imagining the Doctor so infinitely old and weary and heartsick from seeing death beyond human comprehension. And somehow enduring, somehow able to turn that into hope. Stories like this convey that he is alien, truly alien. And I think that part of the process for Ace and Benny is understanding that they have to take him on his own terms, that he’s not going to become a normal person just for them. That he will have his moments where he does terrible things, for good reasons. (And supposedly the arc is about the Doctor learning to do that a little less, but we both know that’s not going to stick.)

Dee: I know. It just strikes me that this is where Ace *should* be turning from him, at the end of this novel, and that it makes more sense that way than earlier on. And I really can’t see how the Brig got so clearly broken. And yet... I really actually liked this book, and I couldn’t tell you why looking back at it now.

John: I think it pretty much works on Mortimore’s prose skills. He’s an excellent stylist, to the point where I’m not even sure “prose” is the right word; there’s something so poetic about the way he describes the posthuman Earth, and paints such a vivid picture of something strange and new growing out of the bones of the Nightmare. I don’t think he’s always going to be able to carry off so much bleakness and ugliness with poetry (certainly I don’t think he manages it in his next novel) but here it works. And of course, the plot is purest fan-porn. A bad-ass Brigadier on the edge of madness leading a UNIT Resistance movement in a fight against the Silurians? You could practically hear the fangasm across the Atlantic.

...or did you not see it that way?

Dee: Um. No, I didn’t. I saw the Brig as a shell of a broken man, not a badass. No fangasm here. I didn’t see the group as really being UNIT so much as “who can we get together and oh yeah we’re ex-mil so of course we’re in charge.” The fighting almost got them wiped out early. I would never have had what you described occur to me.

John: Point taken. I should say that it’s a fangasm for a certain type of fan, the sort who wants to see ‘grown-up’ versions of all their childhood heroes, with ‘grown-up’ being synonymous in their minds with “sees violence as a first resort, is bitter and emotionally scarred, dispatches one’s enemies in gore-porn fashion, has casual sex/drinks/uses drugs/all of the above, and doesn’t display much of a moral compass because being a goodie is for chumps and suckers.” As you may be able to tell from my description, it’s not actually a viewpoint I’m enthralled by. But in the era this book was written in, this was a huge movement in fandom, and not just Doctor Who fandom. This was the era where Mystique and Sabretooth were aggressively promoted as “the new anti-heroic X-Men superstars”, the era where we got a grim ‘n’ gritty post-Apocalyptic dystopia in the X-books (literally--this was the dawning of the Age of Apocalypse) and...well, let me put it this way. This is where Warren Ellis’ career took off. Not where he started writing, but where he realized that the way to make money off of fandom was to write stories like ‘Ruins’ and ‘G.I. Joe: Resolute’, then use that money to fund his actual good writing like ‘Transmetropolitan’. Basically, the TL;DR version of that last paragraph is that the Brigadier in ‘Blood Heat’ = Spider-Man in ‘Reign’.

Dee: I am looking at you with the same complete and total lack of impressed-ness with which I regarded this kind of thing at the time.

John: And that’s an entirely fair response to me giving you a window on a type of human who thinks that the Brigadier is cooler in this book than he’s EVER BEEN. (Which, BTW, is also the look I give to people who really loved Future Amy in ‘The Girl Who Waited’. But I digress. Again.) The point is, this was a book that was practically a manifesto for the edgy, violence-is-cooooool type of adult Doctor Who fan. And I think it’s pretty safe to say that Paul Cornell’s book, at the end of the arc, is designed to be an explicit and glorious antithesis to it. But I’m getting ahead of the story. But at the same time, it’s hard not to because really, all that ‘Blood Heat’ is memorable for is the prose style, the grim ‘n’ gritty UNIT, and the fact that the Doctor is forced to do unspeakable things at the end and only the beginning. (To coin a phrase.) Fair or unfair?

Dee: Fair. Also, congratulations: I now like the book less because I need brain bleach. The Doctor in that view is both cowardly AND cruel, and I can’t see the same guy in Remembrance in this book when put into that frame. I think I like mine better.

John: Well, I don’t know that the Doctor is part of that world. He’s visiting, and I think all the regulars spend most of the book trying to avoid the gravity well of grim ‘n’ gritty...but he doesn’t live there. In the end he puts it back in the box and says, “No. This isn’t the way things should be.” And he even does it in a way that lets everyone live. Does that help?

Dee: Eh. I won’t be rereading it. But at the same time, again, it was a good read while it lasted. And I’m already done with the next one...

John: And you may well have forgotten it already. That’s right, folks, up next is ‘The Dimension Riders’!