Saturday 31 December 2011

The Ultimate Treasure, by Christopher Bulis (BBC novel)

Quest stories are great for lazy writers. Just give the characters an objective, an opponent, some obstacles to face and throw in a twist or two to make it interesting. It is a banal strategy, but quite often it actually makes for an enjoyable story. Doctor Who has given us a few quest stories, most notably The Keys of Marinus and The Five Doctors. Christopher Bulis manages to pull this off rather well. Admittedly, it feels like it is aimed at younger readers and it is rather slow to get going, but halfway through it is a fairly exciting, if unadventurous read.

This is a Fifth Doctor and Peri novel. That is what got me reading it, as I am quite a 5/Peri fan, even though I admit the improbability and silliness of a gap between Planet of Fire and Caves of Androzani. Both Doctor and companion are characterised very well. Bulis manages to maintain the sense that Peri is new to the business of travelling in time and space. That said, he rather fails to capture the bleak and tragic feeling of Season 21. This feels in general like a positive and upbeat book that contrasts quite a bit with the televised story that follows it. In particular, Bulis gives us a silly retcon regarding Kamelion that rather undermines the tragic narrative of Season 21.

The Ultimate Treasure has a great cast of characters. The police officer,Myra Jaharnus is notably strong, but Alpha the villain is also interesting. Dexel Dynes the reporter is a bit of a caricature, but he is still very fun. The scene in which he interviews one of the criminal goons is very amusing.

That the treasure turns out to be something other than what is expected is no surprise. This novel borrows rather obviously from The Five Doctors in it's resolution.

This is not a deep or clever novel, but it does offer an easy, fun and undemanding read.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

Another year, another Christmas special, another story that I hate.

I am a massive fan of CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. I actually write fan fiction about Jadis, my favorite character. It was naturally of some interest that the latest Christmas special takes inspiration from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Doctor Who has often thrived when borrowing influences from other stories and genres. This works best when it is done almost unconsciously; this is quite the opposite. In The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, as with the previous Christmas special, the influences are shouted out over the rooftops.

It is quite clear to me that Moffat does not have a clue what makes the Narnia books so amazing and enjoyable. For a start, the Narnia books are a parent-free zone. The Pevensie parents only make a brief appearance at the end of The Last Battle, they are absent throughout the Chronicles of Narnia. The Narnia books are all about the children having adventures on their own. In contrast, the two evacuees in this story are accompanied by their mother. Their mother enters the strange forest world and the story turns out to be all about parenthood. The last season has shown that Moffat has a peculiar fixation with the theme of fatherhood. While it is a relief to see motherhood getting a mention in this story, it jars completely with the Narnian theme. For Moffat, the idea of children existing independently of a parental relations is simply anathema. In his fictional world, children can have no real existence except within the smothering confines of parental affection. In his book, children just need their daddy and then everything is right with the world.

The second failure to appreciate the Narnia books is in the way the fictional world is presented. Narnia was fascinating because of it's strange inhabitants. The forest world of this story is undoubtedly beautiful, but it feels empty and uninteresting. In fact, it creates no sense of wonder or majesty, but quickly becomes a place of melancholy and terror. On the plus side, the wooden king and queen look amazing, with their delightful folklorish quality, but they are not sufficient to make up for the otherwise hollowness of the forest world.

It is refreshing to see some attempt to deal with the pain and loss in warfare; but this is completely undermined by the resurrection of the children's father. While it came as no surprise and made for an happy ending, it seemed hollow, and almost a denial of the reality of death. I am sure it would have been very upsetting to children watching who had lost their parents and who could expect no return of their lost loved ones. Going back to the issue of motherhood, it also seemed to undermine the attempt to present Janet as a strong capable woman. She was presented as strong and determined, but there was still the suggestion that she was lost without her husband. If you are going to praise motherhood, why not show that mothers can be strong and bring up their children after widowhood as so many mothers had to do in the Second World War?

As for the Doctor, we are served up yet again another portrayal of the Doctor as a Mary Poppins figure who makes everything right for everybody and who appears whenever people wish for him. Does anybody else miss the days when the Doctor was bad-tempered, selfish and a bit scary?

Don't get your hopes up for the next season of Doctor Who.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Earth Aid, by Ben Aaronovitch (Big Finish Lost Story)

This story was built around a proposed opening scene in which Ace is unsuccessfully impersonating the captain of a starship. This premise leads on to what is essentially a parody of Star Trek: Next Generation. Making a parody of Star Trek back in 1989 would have had a caustic note. Back then Doctor Who was a struggling program, unpopular with both fans and public, while Star Trek: Next Generation was proving a massive hit.

It's a bit jarring to see Ace struggling with trying to captain a starship after reading the New Adventures. The NA Ace would have been totally at ease in that situation. It is a bit disappointing that after the strength of character shown by Ace in her two televised seasons, she is unable to summon up any confidence here. She is written as really stupid in this story. I won't go into the question of whether Ace would have actually watched Next Generation before leaving earth, as it is perfectly possible the Doctor has the DVD collection on the TARDIS. The Doctor is also made into a moron, with him breaking down as he is 'taunted to death.' We have had enough stories where the Doctor is put on a guilt trip for this to be in any way interesting. Raine is rather sidelined for much of the story. Doc Oho points out that she sounds an awful lot like Bonnie Langford in this story, which rather fits with the comic tone.

Earth Aid was a really unimpressive story. It tries to hard to be funny and ends up overdoing it. The plot is badly thought out and fails to deliver anything of interest. The idea of a sentient planet is a really interesting one, as is the charitable organisation, Earth Aid, but these ideas are never given any time or thought. It's remarkable that a writer as strong as Ben Aaronovitch would write something so bad. Does he just not care that much about Doctor Who these days?

This story has the Metatraxi cropping up once again. The way these stories are built around a central story arc, as well as the presence of a few timey-wimey moments is remarkably reminiscent of Moffat Who. It is almost like Cartmel had watched the first Moffat season and thought "Yes! That's how Doctor Who should be done!" I beg to differ.

These 'Season 27' stories have been the biggest disappointment I have ever had with Doctor Who. None of them is in the least bit inspiring. As I said in an earlier review, for me the real Season 27 was the New Adventures. Forget everything Big Finish has done with Ace, none of it is at all interesting. The New Adventures took up Ace where Survival left and did amazing things with the character. These stories have done nothing to add to the character. The addition of Raine is just candy, and its candy I don't care for much.

Friday 9 December 2011

Vanishing Point, by Stephen Cole (BBC novel)

Did Stephen Cole really co-write the underwhelming Ancestor Cell? This book is so much better!

This is not a light-hearted book. It deals with serious themes, most notably that of religious belief. It is also very violent (though some of the Virgin NAs are more graphic). All of the characters are continuously put in physical danger and they have to be ruthless and violent just to survive. This actually led me to feel really involved in the book, reading each page with worry about how the characters were going to get through. I seldom find Doctor Who novels as engaging as this.

The society depicted in Vanishing Point feels so much more real than societies in other Doctor Who stories. This is a world in which there are hospitals and police, where people get into trouble for being late for work, where low-paid women have to prostitute themselves to pay the bills, where people have affairs and where there are mentally and physically disabled people. The last point being of particular significance. We have an whole group of people with learning disabilities in this story. How often do we find disabled people in Doctor Who other than a crippled or deformed villain? The writer even departs from convention and has Fitz having sex with one of the disabled girls.

Not only does the planet in Vanishing Point feel like a real place, but the characters feel so convincing and believable. You really feel for Etty with her tragic background and fearfulness, for Nathaniel with his doubts and confusion and for Vettul with her loneliness and frustration. These are characters the reader can understand and identify with. The two companions also come across very well; with Anji contemplating belief in God and Fitz getting involved with Vettul. Whatever one thinks of his going to bed with Vettul, it is done believably.

We see the 8th Doctor in this story as we have never seen him before. Right at the start of the book, he jumps right into the action. He is hardly ever portrayed as so decisive, determined and strong. He is a Doctor who protects the vulnerable and stands for justice. He is also prepared to use violence when he has to. This is a Doctor that evildoers really would fear. One thing that is interesting is that in this novel the Doctor defends the status quo and works with the authorities, even though they are clearly quite flawed. While in stories like Happiness Patrol and The Sunmakers, the Doctor overthrows the Powers-that-be, here he attempts to uphold society.

Where the book does not do so well is in its handling of the big themes. While the discussion about faith in God is interesting, it makes the common error of thinking that faith is incompatible with proof or certainty. The Greek word for faith (pistis) means the same thing as belief. All of us believe lots of things that can be proved and which we are certain about. The New Testament would use the same word faith to refer to those beliefs. The hard science stuff about genetics comes across as rather incomprehensible. I understand the concept of 'junk DNA' is actually quite inaccurate.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Animal, by Andrew Cartmel (Big Finish Lost Story)

Animal has some stinging, walking plants that are remarkably similar to John Wyndham's Triffids. Sadly, they don't play a massive role in this story, which is a shame because I think the Triffids are the creepiest science fiction monster ever.

Finally we get the return to Doctor Who of Brigadier Bambera. While she does not get to say "shame," Angela Bruce gives a great performance. She's a bit wooden, but she is playing a tough military officer. Bambera has a lovely rapport with Ace. Unfortunately, we also get the return of Dad's Army UNIT. The current membership of UNIT appears to be our lovely Brigadier plus an incompetent, mentally unstable and rather trigger-happy corporal. It is a bit disappointing.

Animal features yet another instance of the Seventh Doctor putting in place a meticulous plot and then finding it go pear-shaped. We have seen this in the New Adventures a few times, and in Big Finish. Unfortunately it is played for comedy here, but rather badly. The moment when the Doctor announces the imminent arrival of the Metatraxi to find they don't show up is incredibly painful. Did Cartmel have to subject the Doctor to that?

The alien race that sidelines the almost-Triffids is the Numlocks. Aside from having a daft name, they are pacifists and ostensibly vegetarian. They are very well realised with John Banks giving them wonderfully dull and dreary voices. They manage to come across as quite sinister.

New companion Raine does not have a lot to do in this story, but as I said in my review of Crime of the Century, I don't like her anyway. We do get an interesting seen when she discovers the implications of time travel by learning of her father's death on the Internet.

Cartmel himself admits that this story is full of his tropes- animal experimentation, environmental issues and secret military technology. It's all interesting stuff, but there are a lot of ideas here that never quite gel into a unified whole. It's hard to see exactly what Cartmel is trying to say in this story.

As with the two previous stories in this series, I found myself getting rather bored. These stories really don't do a good job of keeping my attention. So far these 'Season 27' stories have not impressed me at all. Doc Oho makes the interesting suggestion that this series reveals that John Nathan-Turner may have had more to do with the strengths of the McCoy era than he is generally given credit for.