Monday, 28 November 2011

The Infinity Doctors, by Lance Parkin (BBC novel)

'The Doctor closed his eyes. This was her, there was no possible cause to doubt that now. She had lived so much longer than him, lived at his Family home for countless generations. She had tutored his grandfather and his father. She had been there at his birth. She had nursed him, taught him, danced with him, loved him, borne his children.'

Aesthetically, I rather wish this had been the last Doctor Who novel ever written. This novel shows us the Doctor on his own planet, shows him choosing wandering over a contented life on that planet, it shows the Doctor's great strengths and desire for justice, yet it also shows us the woman he loves who bore his children; it is the ultimate glimpse into his personal life. This is a Doctor that we can relate to and also a Doctor that we can celebrate and delight in.

The Infinity Doctors is unique among Doctor Who novels in that it is never made clear which Doctor is the protagonist. His close-cropped hair sets him apart from all of the Doctors except Ecclestone. His dialogue suggests the Eighth Doctor, but his oval-shaped face could suggest a younger Hartnell Doctor. I personally dislike the notion that the Morbius faces were pre-Hartnell incarnations so I don't accept the notion that this is an unknown older incarnation. It has been suggested that this is novel is set on a resurrected Gallifrey after the closure of the BBC novels, but the presence of Hedin and the apparent friendship between the Doctor and the Master (the Magistrate) does not support this idea. I prefer to see this Doctor as a pre-Unearthly Child First Doctor before his exile from Gallifrey. This Doctor is not the rebellious student some have imagined, but rather a respected academic who serves on the High Council.

One of the clever feats of this book is the way it puts together everything we have ever been told about the Time Lords. Every Time Lord story is referenced in some way. Lance Parkin admitted that a consequence of this was that inevitably these details contradict different stories in different ways. The story of the Time Lords was never written with continuity in mind and this book does not try to give us a story that fits into any watertight continuity. It is tempting to see this as an 'Elseworld' or 'Unbound Adventure' in which the Doctor has given up travelling and gone home to Gallifrey, but this was not Parkin's intention and I think this detracts from the beauty of what The Infinity Doctors achieves. The Doctor in this novel really is the Doctor.

One of the things I love about this novel is the way it restores grandeur and nobility to Gallifrey. The Gallifrey we see here is an imperfect society (we see crime and squalor in Low Town), but it is not the cynical totalitarian regime of The Deadly Assasin. This Gallifrey is a place of beauty and grandeur, but even more importantly, it is a place in which the Doctor is respected and loved. This actually fits in better with what we know of the Doctor then the Holmseian vision. The Hartnell Doctor really did hope to return home to his world of silver trees and burnt orange skies. He would never have wanted to return to the degeneracy and corruption of the Deadly Assassin Gallifrey. Readers know how much I detest the BBC Wales series, but one of the things they did right was to throw out the Holmes cynicism and to make Gallifrey seem like a wonderful place that was tragically lost. The Time Lords of this Gallifrey are not he god-like figures of The War Games or the Lawrence Miles books. They are also conscious of their own temporality. They are well aware that Gallifrey will not last for all eternity.

The plot of The Infinity Doctors is not the strongest we have read, but it is exciting. Incredibly, this novel offers us a reworking of The Three Doctors that is much better than the original. How this incident fits in with the Pertwee story I can't say, but it's very good. We also get to learn a good deal about the history of the Sontaran/ Rutan war, with the Doctor involved in negotiations between the two races. We are promised that one day the two peoples will be at peace.

She was wearing a loose-flowing gown in ivory silk and lace, with bare shoulders, gathered at the waist by a wide belt. Her long blonde hair was held up by a gold clasp, and swept down to the small of her back. She wore a necklace of white flowers, and held a feather fan. She was his height, a little taller as her feet were bare, and he was wearing shoes.

In this novel we meet the Doctor's wife, not the TARDIS and not that cardboard tart River Song, but the woman who bore his children. This is the same character as Patience who Parkin introduced in Cold Fusion. She was shot dead, but brought back to life in Omega's universe. This lady is definitely somebody we can imagine being the Doctor's wife. She is mysterious and ethereal, like a woman in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. That the Doctor had several children supports the notion that he might have had more than one grandchild, hence the possibility of John and Gillian being canon. It is difficult not to suspect that Parkin has something of a foot fetish; the Doctor's wife is barefoot and the other female character, Larna is barefoot for most of the book.

This is a book that blew me away with its beauty, its depth and by its delight in the details of the show. If you read any Doctor Who novel, read this one.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Set Piece, by Kate Orman (Virgin New Adventure)

I found Kate Orman's Left-Handed Humming Bird a little on the heavy-going side, so I was a bit worried about this one. Nevertheless, as it is Ace's departure story (one of them...), it was pretty essential reading. I was pleased to find that it is a much easier read than Left-Handed Humming Bird and much more enjoyable, while still having all the Hurt/ Comfort elements that Kate Orman seems to love so much (amusingly she actually entitles one chapter Hurt/ Comfort!).

The opening chapter is remarkably disturbing. A woman is forced to participate in brutal surgical procedures against her will, along with other humans. For three weeks she has been participating in the torture of an escape-prone prisoner who turns out to be... have a guess. As with Kate Orman's previous novel, Set Piece is a novel that deals with real physical, as well as emotional pain.

Set Piece sees the return of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, the very likable character introduced in Transit. She is effectively re-introduced without tedious exposition. She comes across as an highly-intelligent, but also a very dangerous character. She has now mastered time travel, with terrible consequences.

Kate Orman clearly loved the character of Ace and in this novel she gives her depths that have not been matched in any other New Adventure novel. This is a truly mature Ace. She is not the confused teenager, but neither is she the thuggish and mentally scarred veteran that we see in previous New Adventures. Set Piece has Ace stranded in ancient Egypt and adapting to new circumstances, while at the same time having a profound self-consciousness about her role in them. Finally, she becomes a sort of Time's Champion, protecting earth from menaces created by rifts in time. It might have been nice to have seen Ace become a Time Lady, as was originally planned, but this is a strong departure for her too.

My favorite part of the book was the parts set in ancient Egypt and Ace's interaction with that culture. It felt very authentic, much more than the attempts of some other writers to do ancient Egypt. The stuff with the Paris Commune was also interesting, even if my conservative instincts are irritated by Ace siding with the revolutionaries. I was a bit irritated by the presence of a number of dream sequences. They are quite well done, but dream sequences in the Virgin books have been done to death. It is very much an NA cliche.

The Doctor is very well written here. Kate Orman very much goes for the NA Time's Champion interpretation. Accordingly, she makes him quite god-like, yet at the same time quite vulnerable. With the presence of Kadiatu and the focus on Ace, Benny still manages to have an interesting part to play in the book. She is perhaps less irritating than in other novels, but I still dislike her overconfidence.

The plot about metallic ants taking advantage of time rifts is very much secondary to the character studies going on. The plot is simply there to develop the relationship between the Doctor and companions. Regrettably, the threat is apparently to the whole of time itself (a very Moffaty trope). I really dislike stories in which the entire universe is threatened. It just reduces the scale of the Doctor Who universe and is never really believable. We might also ask why the Time Lords don't deal with a threat to 'time itself.'

This is a novel about history. It is about how history is paved with suffering and tragedy and so often feels futile. It is about how individuals relate to history, playing their part and ultimately being unable to alter its course. Yet the novel urges the notion that every struggle, every battle, every tear shed really does mean something whatever the outcome.

Set Piece was a massive improvement on Left-Handed Humming Bird and is a great example of how angst can be done really well.

Suggested soundtrack: Nocturnus- The Key

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Crime of the Century, by Andrew Cartmel (Big Finish Lost Story)

This is the second part of the lost Season 27. Despite keeping Ace on board, contrary to the original design, it sees the arrival of new companion Raine Creevy (Beth Chalmers), as well as the Samurai-like insect aliens, the Metatraxi.

One interesting stylistic feature of Cartmel's novel Cat's Cradle: Warhead was the minimal dialogue. The characters frequently said nothing to each other. This was clearly a good thing as Cartmel serves up some really appalling dialogue in this audio, most notably Ace's shockingly bad line "Come back and fight, you sexist Metatraxi!" This really does not fill me with confidence in Cartmel as a script writer. Maybe he was better at editing the scripts than writing them.

The new companion Raine seems to have proved popular with reviewers, but I'm afraid I don't care for her. She is sassy and confident, but that is not exactly unusual in modern science fiction. A posh cat burglar is a bit too much of an obvious television trope. Maybe I am a bit of an old fashioned moralist, but somehow I really do have a problem with 'good characters' who are thieves. I mean, stealing is actually wrong, is it not?

I agree with another reviewer, who points out that the tone of this story is rather uneven. It is very dark in places, yet the Metatraxi speaking like surfer dudes as a result of a translator malfunction is incredibly comic. Even more problematic, many elements of the plot do not really fit together, such as the revelation that the recession that ruined Raine's father was engineered by the Russians. Apparently, this is the 'crime of the century' in the title, which is odd given that the story is about alien weaponry. At the conclusion, we are treated to another revelation that seems even more pointless and irrelevant to the plot.

This is on the face of it, remarkably similar to the story that preceded it. A Soviet setting, war-like aliens and a struggle between different factions for alien technology. This is even more disappointing given how much that story owed its plot to Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis. I can't help feeling that Cartmel is a bit short on ideas, which is ironic given how he has criticised much of classic Doctor Who plotting for being formulaic.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Placebo Effect, by Gary Russell (BBC novel)

Placebo Effect has Kleptons in it. Those aliens from the first ever Doctor Who comic strip; the ones that look like Greedo the Rodian. You know what that means? If Placebo Effect is canon, then so are the TV Comic strips. The Doctor really did have two grandchildren called John and Gillian, really did meet Santa Claus and really did call himself Dr. Who. That Gary Russell references the TV Comic without trying to exclude it from the canon (as Steve Lyons did in Conundrum and Head Games) makes me quite favourably disposed towards this novel.

Although this novel is not highly regarded among fans, I mostly enjoyed it. It's very light-hearted and packed with continuity references. Russell brings back Stacy and Ssard, who appeared in an 8th Doctor comic strip in the Radio Times not that long after the TV Movie. This novel offers some explanation as to how that strip fits into continuity.

Russell claims he originally proposed to write a novel about Nimons vs Macra, but what he gives us here is a novel about Foamasi and Wirrn. Russell does rather a better job with the Foamasi than he does with the Wirrn. His Wirrn lack sufficient body horror to be really disturbing. He does make his Fomasi quite interesting, however. He gives them plenty of character and explains how their disguises work. In a quite disturbing moment, a human realises that the woman he has been sleeping with was really a Foamasi in disguise.

The Doctor is very well characterised. He is dreadfully nice; always remembering the needs of his companions and doing his utmost to look after them. This is perhaps a little strange given that this is the same person who never went back for Sarah and seemed to forget about his own granddaughter. I suppose he has matured, but it makes it even stranger that he has still refrained from paying Sarah a visit. Russell is perhaps a little less successful with Sam, but then it is difficult to avoid having a teenage character coming off as anything other than mouthy and irritating.

Sam gets involved in an interesting debate between creation and evolution. This is not resolved, which makes a nice contrast with the materialistic tendency of the show. I am no longer a Six-Day Creationist, but I am not completely convinced by the theory of evolution. The actual arguments used against evolution are not all that impressive, but at least there is some acknowledgment that the not everybody is convinced by Darwin.

I really liked the Duchess of Auckland. She was a really fun character, even if a parody of the royal family. I thought it was a bit of a shame that Russell killed her off. Why do writers have to kill characters so easily?

Despite its reputation, Placebo Effect is a reasonably decent novel. The cover is good too; especially with its subtle reference to the V series.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Thin Ice, by Marc Plattt (Big Finish Lost Story)

It's a real tragedy that Season 27 was prevented by the show's cancellation in 1989. Script editor Andrew Cartmel had a clear idea where he wanted to go and Doctor Who had a strong set of leads in Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred. Given the presence of a clear design for Season 27, it makes a lot of sense for Big Finish to create this lost era on audio. The big problem with this project is that we already have a Season 27 in the Virgin New Adventures. Those books carried on where the show left us in 1989 and to some extent continued the vision that Andrew Cartmel had set for the show. Cartmel himself contributed to these novels, most importantly with Cat's Cradle: Warhead. Not only do we have a Season 27 in the Virgin novels, but we also have a Season 26B in the Big Finish audios set in between Survival and Timewyrm: Genesys.

This story was intended to see the departure of Ace to train to become a Time Lord, an idea which has a lot of merit and which makes sense of the way the Doctor was continually manipulating her. Big Finish opted not to abandon the continuity of the New Adventures and altered the premise of the story so that Ace is rejected by the Prydonian Academy. Thus, Ace remains through 'Season 27' and an even bigger gap between Survival and Timewyrm: Genesys is created. I am going to speak as somebody who loves the Virgin New Adventures from the bottom of my heart. I have a real problem with Big Finish when it comes to Ace. For me the New Adventures defined how Ace would develop after Survival. We see a progress in them from Ace as an immature teenager to Ace as a hardened, brutalised war veteran (the Ace that everybody hates except me). I refuse to accept that the gap between Survival and Timewyrm: Genesys lasts longer than a couple of weeks. I see the New Adventures as following on directly from Season 26 and being the real Season 27. Big Finish have almost killed this notion by filling up a non-existent gap with audios featuring a pre-NA Ace. We are now saddled with a pointless set of continuity where Ace starts calling herself 'Dorothy McShane' and is then joined by a bloke called Hex. I like Colditz just because it introduced the delightful Elizabeth Klein, who is the most wonderful companion ever, but otherwise I hate it because it detracts from the NA story. The Ace in the early New Adventures is not a young woman who has had a tonne of different adventures and more mature than the t.v. version. The Ace in the early NAs is the same immature teenage Ace at the end of Survival. I refuse to believe otherwise.

Given that Ace does not end up departing the Doctor to go to Gallifrey, one has to ask what the point was in including the subplot about her being tested by the Time Lords. It all feels rather pointless and it just ends up being another example of Ace getting mad at the Doctor for manipulating her and the Doctor promising to be nicer next time (yeah, right..).

Re-locating the original story to Soviet Russia in the Sixties was a nice idea that could have worked well, but somehow the audio does not use this setting to any great effect. The claustrophobic cold war atmosphere fails to register with the listener and it just sounds like any old place with a lot of people speaking in foreign accents. One odd feature of this audio, as pointed out by another reviewer is just how quiet the audio is. There is a real lack of any significant background noise. There are parades going on commemorating the October Revolution, yet we don't hear any military music whatsoever. They should have thrown in the Russian anthem and at least one Red Army marching tune. John Nathan-Turner would have killed for the budget to re-create a Red Army parade as television spectacle. We could at least hear what it sounds like. That said, I do like the musical score with its strong percussion.

The plot is not that unlike Silver Nemesis or Remembrance of the Daleks, with factions competing over alien technology. This time the main aliens are the Ice Warriors. Nicholas Briggs does a great job with the Ice Warrior voices, but many fans have had problems with the way they are portrayed. These are revisionist Ice Warriors who have been living peacefully on Earth and who eat fish fingers. Yes, fish fingers. This could be a reference to The Eleventh Hour. I quite liked these Ice Warriors, but I understand why they will bother some listeners.

This was an interesting audio, but came across as rather dull for the most part and just a little bit pointless. Quite a disappointment on the whole.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Gallifrey Chronicles, by Lance Parkin (BBC novel)

"My dear, one of the things you'll learn is that it's all real. Every word of every novel is real, every frame of every movie, every panel of every comic strip."

This novel was the last in the series of BBC Eighth Doctor novels. Lance Parkin was given the Herculean task of providing a conclusion to the various mind-boggling story arcs of this series. How Parkin did this is quite surprising. Rather than giving us a big epic event novel as one might have expected, he wrote a light and slightly fluffy novel with a very easy-going plot.

The result of the lighter tone means that the BBC novel series is able to end on an upbeat celebratory note. In every way, The Gallifrey Chronicles celebrates Doctor Who. There is a real sense of magic in the way that the Doctor appears to bring the dead back to life and reunite families with their apparently deceased loved ones. Likewise, the cliffhangar ending, with the Doctor leaping into action to deal with the monsters, for all its uncertainty is a celebration of just what the show is about.

There is a good deal of meta-textuality going on in this story, with the reference to John Peel's goof about Ace being in Paradise Towers, the Doctor being sent to sleep by reading about Gallifrey and the glorious line about every spin-off being true. This very much fits with the agenda of the book being about celebrating Doctor Who. There are also hints in the book of Parkin's frustration at the complexities and problems of continuity. If he it is true that 'every panel in every comic strip' is real, it would have been nice of Parkin to include the TV Comic stories in his majestic AHistory. It seemed a bit mean to me to include the DWM comics but leave out all those wonderful Sixties adventures with John and Gillian.

In Marnal, Parkin offers a really interesting character. Like the Doctor, he has been exiled to earth. Yet unlike the Doctor he feels only contempt for humanity and is obsessed with returning to Gallifrey. There is a strong touch of William Hartnell's Doctor about him and in his attitude and methods he does resemble the Doctor in An Unearthly Child. Marnal is the Doctor as he could have been. He ends up being paired with an human companion, his nurse Rachel. Rachel is well characterised and it was surprising that she did not become a new companion at the end.

The BBC range had already given us the disastrous Ancestor Cell and Parkin had to tie up the loose ends created by that book. The Gallifrey Chronicles provides a flashback to the Doctor destroying Gallifrey. This flashback is a much stronger scene than anything that occurred in The Ancestor Cell. The Gallifrey Chronicles offers the possibility of Gallifrey and its inhabitants being restored (only to be destroyed in the Time War, if you believe the BBC Wales series).

The alien menace, the Vore are oddly incidental to the plot, despite appearing to wipe out much of the Earth's population. They are rather scary and what they do is quite disturbing, but their main role is simply to show the Doctor shine at what he does best. As I said above, the way the Doctor appears to bring back the dead is just magical.

We are also treated to a scene on Gallifrey which features the Doctor's parents. Yes, the Doctor's parents. Those who had read The Infinity Doctors will be already aware of Ulysses and Penelope, the Doctor's mother and father. I'm not at all happy with the idea of the Doctor having a human mother, but as the idea has been done, I feel I might as well accept this admittedly rather intriguing couple as the Doctor's parents.

The Doctor's companions Fitz and Trix form a relationship in this story. This is quite believably done, if a little sudden. There is, however, a note of sadness to this as revealed by Fitz's song 'Contains Spoilers.' The Gallifrey Chronicles does not give any answers to Trix's past. We know she is wanted for murder, but did she do it? This is just a small fault I have with the novel.

The Gallifrey Chronicles is a lovely upbeat conclusion to the 8th Doctor novels.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Kingmaker, by Nev Fountain (Big Finish audio)

To my mind, the 5/Peri/Erimem series is among the strongest of Big Finish developments. The stories that this team have been given have a real sense of fun and excitement that makes a strong contrast with not only the televised stories of the Fifth Doctor era, but also other Fifth Doctor audios released by Big Finish. The Kingmaker is the most comedic of Peter Davison stories. This is not just funny; in places this audio is roll around the floor funny. Davison does not attempt to be overtly comic as Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy do in The One Doctor and Bang-Bang-a-Boom-Boom, but plays it straight. His dry performance adds a lot to the fun of this hilarious script.

There is a slightly new series feel to this story. It's Bill and Ted theme park view of history reflects how the new series approaches historical stories. To be honest, I was very irritated by the anachronistic modern dialogue used by the characters, though the setting has been more carefully researched and thought out than it would be in a new series story. In a hilarious nod to BBC Wales, Richard III, played by Stephen Beckett sounds remarkably like Christopher Ecclestone, so much so that I actually had to check the CD case to make sure it was not the man himself. Beckett uses all the vocal mannerisms of the 9th Doctor and even says 'fantastic!'

Despite the nods to the new series, The Kingmaker is very nostalgic. A laser-wielding robot from the far future demands that the Doctor completes a series of children's books before they miss the publisher's deadline. These are in fact a real series of books that attempted to cash-in on the series back in the Seventies. We are treated to a brilliant impersonation of Tom Baker courtesy of Jon Culshaw from Dead Ringers.

The plot is extremely complex, being set in different time periods and involving multiple twists. While it is very gripping and full of surprises, I can't help agreeing with people that it does try to be just a little too clever. While nobody would have expected the conclusion, it does feel just a little too bizarre to be true. That said, the writing and the script are of a really high standard. It would be wonderful to see this kind of quality on the televised show.

As mentioned above, Stephen Beckett's Richard III has a strong vocal resemblance to the 9th Doctor. I'm not sure this was entirely for comic purposes, or just because he was a northerner. There is something of a similarity in that both characters have a strong sense of world weariness, but also a hardness and sense of purpose. This Richard III is very far from Shakespeare's version and has real depth. Not a villain, but a man who is prepared to be ruthless. I found it amusing that he is used to getting time travelling visitors. Apparently each of them offered an opinion on whether he should kill the princes in the tower, even before the situation had arisen. Thus, he is a man who knows his own fate in advance. It is interesting to ponder whether other historical characters in the Whoniverse might have had a similar experience.

Together, Caroline Morris and Nicola Bryant deliver one of their best double acts as Peri and Erimem in this story. These girls are great; completely different in their cultural background yet as close and as argumentative as sisters. Peri acts really stupid throughout this story and Erimem amusingly gets annoyed by her idiocy. That's the real charm of Peri for British fans; she comes across exactly as how we would like to imagine American girls- spoiled and a bit thick, but essentially benign and very cute. Not that real life American girls conform to this stereotype at all. There is a touch of Leela to Erimem in this story. In a very impressive moment, she suggests to Peri that the two should kill each other to prevent history being altered. When Peri is absolutely terrified by the suggestion, Erimem claims to be joking, but had in fact been serious.

The Kingmaker is not quite a perfect audio play, but it is one of the strongest audios they have done; hilarious, innovative and distinctive with a real affection for the history of the show.