(Originally published June 11, 2003 on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.)
On the surface, Christopher Bulis is an unlikely choice for the label of "controversial author". Yet, in his own way, he's become something of a focus for controversy just as polar opposites like Lawrence Miles and Ben Aaronovitch have. To fans who enjoy the ground-breaking efforts of the aforementioned "rad" authors, Chris Bulis' work stands as an example of exactly the sort of pot-boiler the range should avoid. Yet he's been commissioned more than any author save Justin Richards, with twelve novels (Shadowmind, State of Change, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, The Eye of the Giant, Twilight of the Gods, A Device of Death, The Ultimate Treasure, Tempest, Vanderdeken's Children, City At World's End, Imperial Moon, The Palace of the Red Sun) to his name. So why, if he's a bland and boring author as some (myself included) claim, does he have so many champions, both in fandom and at the BBC? And if he's good enough to get commissioned twelve times, why do so many people hate his books?
Fundamentally, I think a lot of people dislike his books because they don't seem like Bulis spent a lot of effort on them. The characters never really rise above their own one-sentence descriptions; The Eye of the Giant is about a Disgraced Scientist, an Alcoholic But Likeable Movie Star, a Disabled Person Who Gracefully Handles It, a Cold-Hearted But Pretty Movie Star, and a Father Who Just Wants the Best For His Little Girl going out to a mysterious island, and those brief phrases are about as deep as Bulis ever gets. All of these characters feel as though they should have a stat block under their names, and instructions to the Game Master on how to play the characters. Even the Doctor and his companions come off as remarkably generic.
His plots, too, come out of the "generic" school. State of Change, the world where Rome never fell. The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the world where magic works. The Ultimate Treasure, the quest for a mysterious treasure that throws together unlikely companions. It's all so generic and cliched that by his third or fourth novel, he's having the characters themselves comment on how cliched it all seems, as though he feels a subconscious need to apologize. (The ultimate example of this comes in Imperial Moon, where Turlough and the Doctor find the diary of one of the main characters and Turlough laughs at how bad the concepts within seem, even predicting major chunks of the rest of the book based on the excerpts.) The worst part comes when his characterization and his plotting interact -- after all, one of the usual concepts of Doctor Who is that the Doctor shows up and solves the mystery/ends the deception that the society, expedition, refugees, whatever, are trapped in. Since Bulis' deceptions and mysteries are so simple, his only option is to make his characters progressively more idiotic until they can't solve the simple mysteries he puts before them, then lets the Doctor come in and tell them what the audience already realized 200 pages ago.
So, given all his considerable short-comings, why do people still like him? Why did I not commit suicide rather than read twelve of his books in a row? Why, in fact, would I recommend him again for the range?
The answer lies in his prose, I think. It's not brilliant, world-beating, white-fire-across-your-soul stuff like the Paul Cornells and Ben Aaronovitchs of this world produce, but it's pleasant, comfortable writing that feels like that old, worn sweater that you wear on cold days. He's a breeze to read -- whole books pass by in less than two hours, and even though the plot is old, it's still entertaining to hear it again. He's a good raconteur, I think; even as you chuckle at the same old tricks, you have to admire that he continues to use them. He's also got a reasonable sense of humor about his work, which helps.
So, overall, I wouldn't mind seeing another book out of Chris Bulis. I don't think he represents a good model for the range, and I'd hate to see his style of unassuming pot-boilers become the norm, but as an occasional diversion, or a rest between Lawrence Miles world-shatterers, you could definitely do worse.