Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Warriors of Death

I've mentioned before that the Hartnell era was one in which the BBC really hadn't started thinking of television as a medium in its own right; in their mind, they were producing live theater with an audience they couldn't quite see. This theatrical inspiration can be seen strongly in 'The Edge of Destruction' and 'The Brink of Disaster', which plays like an effort from Sartre or Pirandello, and as the plot of this story kicks into high gear, it can also be seen very strongly in the Shakespearean convolutions of 'The Warriors of Death'.

The obvious parallel here is with Tloloxl, played by John Ringham like an extremely experimental version of 'Richard III'. Actually, no--that's what everyone says, because they notice his gait and his slightly nasal speech, which is how King Richard III is traditionally played, but he's really doing Iago. The director does a wonderful job of constantly putting him just a little bit upstage of every single character he speaks to...he's constantly whispering in everyone's ears, insinuating and promising and plotting. Constantly plotting, really; when he promised at the end of 'The Temple of Evil' that he was going to destroy Barbara, he didn't muck about. He forces Autloc to put Barbara through a series of grueling tests on religious doctrine, he frames the Doctor for violations of temple protocol, and he sets Ian up for a duel to the death in a scene with the Perfect Victim that is an absolutely letter-perfect manipulation. We are now officially light-years from Tegana and his overt mustache-twirling, here. Tloloxl is subtle, conniving, and in perfect command of the situation.

And of course, he's helped by the Doctor. The subplot where the Doctor's efforts to find a way back to the TARDIS inadvertently help Ian's nemesis Ixta is exactly the kind of thing Shakespeare loved. Mistaken identity, chance and coincidence conspiring to bring about tragedy, and of course a good old-fashioned Poisoned MacGuffin that owes more to the laws of drama than the laws of nature. (Oh, and a contrivance that furthers the plot in an ironic fashion--the Doctor's shout to Ian is exactly what causes him to drop his guard long enough for Ixta to scratch him.)

If this was a traditional Shakespearean play, though, the duel between Ian and Ixta would be the climax. Instead, we're at only the halfway point, and Ian's story serves only to advance Barbara's main plot. This is also Doctor Who when it's at its most ensemble-oriented, and Barbara is allowed to be the protagonist for a story in a way that Martha or Clara never are. As such, Ian is the peril monkey, the Doctor is held prisoner and it's Barbara who has to save the day. Which is frankly just awesome, full stop.

The Temple of Evil

It's really no wonder that this story is so fondly remembered--this is really the finest example of this era of Doctor Who. The cast, both regular and incidental, are firing on all cylinders, and more importantly they've figured out exactly how to do this kind of story. The Doctor and his companions are separated from the TARDIS quickly and elegantly, kept apart by the thinness of a brick wall and by the distance of an entire civilization.

But at the same time, this is about more than simply getting back to the TARDIS and getting the heck out of Dodge; the scene between Barbara and the Doctor, one of the best in fifty-plus years of the series, showcases what the first Doctor era did better than any other. Barbara isn't willing to simply sit back and observe history, not when she knows where it ends. She must know, as a history teacher, that the Aztec practice of human sacrifice is more than mere superstition; equally, she must be aware that history has never been kind to rulers (especially women) who attempt to use their power to change the long-established and deeply-held customs of their people. But at the same time, she knows she has a chance that no-one else will ever have again. Her final line to the Doctor--"Not Barbara, Yetaxa," is delivered with such steely determination that you can't help root for her quixotic dream.

But of course, it fails. It fails not just because of the arc of history, or because of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey fails because one person can't change the entire course of a civilization with a well-timed "No!" It fails because the 'victim' wants to honor the gods, and Barbara's intervention (no matter how well-intentioned) is nonetheless a condescending attempt to impose her culture on another because she thinks it's 'better'. What she's trying to do, while kinder in execution, is no less a destruction of the Aztec culture than Cortez and his successors attempted.

And more than that, it fails because it threatens the power of the priestly class. Tlotoxl is a master of realpolitik more than a true believer; he's fully aware that the rain will fall without blood. But he also knows that the Aztec military machine runs on the blood of its victims, that the sacrifices are as much a message to the empire's enemies as they are a devotion to its gods. He knows instinctively that Barbara is a threat--how could she not be? She interposes herself by her very existence between him and his gods, and his gods are all that make him who he is. And further, this is an era of the series where the past isn't presented as "just like the present, but everyone is stupid except for a chosen few who act just like us". Tlotoxl is religious, but he's by no means superstitious. He knows, from a thousand subtle and tiny cues, that Barbara is no reincarnation of a dead man. Even if she was, he'd have to destroy her...but the fact that she's a fraud and a charlatan make it not just a necessity but a duty as well. Tlotoxl is one of the best villains the series has ever produced.

And all that's just in the first episode. And all that doesn't even get into Ian's beautiful confidence as he fully recognizes that Tlotoxl is setting him up to be killed by Ixta and just doesn't give a solitary fuck because he's that badass, or the Doctor's flirtatious relationship with Cameca. That is a hell of a lot to pack into thirty minutes...small wonder, to bring it back full circle, that this one is held in such high esteem.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Doctor Who - The Blood Cell

First, a bit of full disclosure--I pitched a Doctor Who novel back before the new series revival that featured a manipulative Doctor trapped in an inescapable asteroid prison, which may have colored my enjoyment of this book with the faint taste of nostalgia. That said, a big part of why I wrote my pitch for 'Heist' the way I did was because I wanted to evoke some of my favorite elements of 'Doctor Who' during the McCoy/New Adventures era, the unexpected reveals of the Doctor in bizarre situations and the way he put authority figures so brilliantly off-balance. So it's not really so much that James Goss wrote a book I would have loved to have written as it is that he wrote a book that fits squarely into the traditions of the series that I love best.

And boy, did he. The very first scene is an absolute marvel--it's not just the reveal of the Doctor, it's not just the reveal of the prison. It's the Governor. The narration of the entire sequence, indeed of the entire book, is from his point of view...and it's wrong. Not in any way you can pinpoint yet, but something about the Governor is magnificently, ineffably wrong. The Governor is a man with mysteries to unravel, and the Prison is a place that conceals more than just prisoners. That initial scene pulls you all the way through the narrative on the sheer force of its writing.

And the rest of the novel is paced brilliantly. Each revelation, from the power outages to Clara's arrival to the Doctor's interactions with the other prisoners to the...well, but that would be telling, wouldn't it? They all come at exactly the right time to immerse you further into the story, to tantalize you with the next set of questions and the next set of answers. The Governor's palpable wrongness is teased out of the story expertly, the confessions drawn out of him at exactly the right times. Goss really is performing a masterwork of plotting, and his quiet, almost serene style nonetheless exacerbates the constant tension in the book.

And of course, Goss has a perfect handle on Capaldi and Coleman's renditions of their characters. The book feels like it couldn't be done with anyone other than Twelve and Clara, and the interplay between them sparkles magnificently. (The scene where Clara asks the Doctor why he can't simply regenerate his way out of a stubbed toe is a thing of beauty.)

Ultimately, the ending is satisfying, although it perhaps tries to ramp up the scale of its threat just a bit too much for what has up until now been an entirely holistic and seamless sense of menace. But it is unquestionably excellent, a masterpiece as both a Doctor Who story and a character study. The Governor will stay with you long after 'The Blood Cell' ends, an impressive achievement for any book. This is definitely one of the reasons to stick with the Doctor Who novels even though the television series has taken over a lot of their primacy in the greater narrative; it's worth sticking with them because every once in a while, they give you a novel like this.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Silhouette

It's sometimes difficult to remember, but there are actually two Justin Richards out there. The first Justin Richards is Justin on autopilot, the Justin who's asked to write a 250-page novel on about three weeks' notice and comes up with something palatable in that span of time, or the Justin Richards who writes the messy "arc plot" novels that are more of a laundry list of plot elements than an actual idea. It's the Justin Richards who wrote books like 'Grave Matter' or 'Time Zero' or 'Apollo 23'--not a bad writer by any stretch, but not a great writer either. He's a competent, reliable writer, no more or less.

And then there's the Justin Richards who wrote 'Silhouette'. This is Justin Richards when he's engaged with the material, when he's challenged by the writers around him to do his best work. This Justin Richards instantly grasps the tiny nuances of dialogue and mannerism that separate the Capaldi Doctor from the Smith Doctor, and writes him with that simmering, icy anger just beneath the surface that Capaldi's performance brings out. This Justin Richards relishes the chance to write for characters like Strax, Vastra and Jenny, effortlessly displaying the character dynamics between them and showing why so many people feel like they should have their own spin-off by now.

This Justin Richards delivers a Victorian mystery with science-fiction elements that seamlessly evokes the current season of the television series. It's a pastiche, without question--Richards isn't trying to do something that couldn't be done on television, he's trying to do something that would fit right next to 'Deep Breath' in the Doctor Who canon. But it's a pastiche that's executed with verve and energy and joy, one that feels fresh and exciting simply because it's been done so well. Richards "gets" modern Who, and he's having fun playing with it. That's not to say there's nothing he does that couldn't be done on the show--the scene where Affinity, the villain's shapeshifting henchman, tries to cast his glamour on the Doctor and repeatedly gets the wrong incarnation out of it is a treat--but the main point is that right now, the televised Doctor Who is good enough that pastiching it well is something to be proud of.

This Justin Richards doesn't make as many appearances as he used to--which isn't surprising, since he's the editor of the Doctor Who range and his commissions usually mean that there was an emergency somewhere along the line that required that other Justin Richards to step in and whip out a book in a hurry. But when we do get this Justin, I'm reminded that he's a great writer who can come back and do another book any time he wants to.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review: Doctor Who - The Crawling Terror

Review: Doctor Who - The Crawling Terror I'll be honest--I very nearly left this review as just the word, "Functional". Because that's all 'The Crawling Terror' is. It's a story that manages to tick off the requisite boxes in the "Doctor Who story" checklist and doesn't fail too hard at any of them. It's a book that achieves the goal of not irritating you, and nothing more. Which, given that it's being compared to the whirling fireworks of unpredictable creativity seen in the televised version, means that it actually fails very badly indeed.

In many ways, this is exactly the book for someone who thinks that the TV show is too unpredictable, because it couldn't be trying harder to be a "classic" Doctor Who story. The Doctor and his companion land in a quiet English village (tick!) where a mysterious, disfigured scientist (tick!) has been conducting strange experiments at his newfangled lab that the locals distrust (tick!). The experiments unleash monsters (in this case, giant insects--tick!) that mentally enslave the locals into doing their bidding (tick!) and it turns out that aliens were behind the whole thing and the evil scientist is collaborating with them (tick!). The monsters isolate the village from the outside world (tick!), with only a token heroic military presence just outside who is out of their depth when dealing with monsters but struggles on nonetheless (at this point, you can just go ahead and tick all remaining boxes on the list. If you made a Doctor Who Bingo game, this would be the blackout card.)

This isn't to say that you can't do anything with the classic Doctor Who tropes--Mark Gatiss is a hardcore traditionalist, and he makes his stories work by executing the tropes well and occasionally playing with them a bit. But here, everything is simply a sketch of things that were done better elsewhere. The Doctor is utterly generic, with none of the acerbic wit that marks Capaldi's performances, and Clara hits the beats in her story bible and nothing more. The supporting characters are caricatures, both the good and the bad, and the monsters are just big angry bugs of one sort or another. There's nothing to make this book stand out anywhere.

But even that isn't what makes 'The Crawling Terror' so frustrating. It's a bland, inoffensive TV tie-in novel pitched to tweens and teens, no different from many others on the market. It isn't bad, it isn't good, it's just a quick way to pass an hour or so before you move on to anothr book. That's what you get with Mike Tucker.

What's frustrating is that they knew they'd be getting that with Mike Tucker, and they commissioned him for this slot anyway. We've been getting fewer and fewer novels ever since the TV series restarted; why on Earth would you spend one of those precious slots on a bland timewaster when there are so many good Doctor Who writers out there? Why not slot in someone like Kate Orman, who can write a better novel than this while trapped in a safe underwater? Why not slot in some of the recent good writers that have done excellent Eleventh Doctor books, like Oli Smith, or Una McCormack, or Naomi Alderman? Even if you assume that they can't try an untested writer for the first few slots of the new Doctor, due to secrecy concerns for upcoming plot developments, there are better people out there than this. There are people out there who would try, and 'The Crawling Terror' doesn't try. It's content simply to be a book about the Doctor, and we all know that the line is capable of so much more.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: The Book of the Still

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on March 20, 03.)

The Book of the Still reminds me of no other debut novel in the history of the various ranges so much as Lawrence Miles' Christmas on a Rational Planet. Like Miles, Paul Ebbs brings so much energy, zest, and sheer swaggering charisma to the book that it feels like something new and ground-breaking, even though it's "just" a first novel. Both of them are flawed, as first-time authors tend to be, but both of them have a prose style that doesn't let even a single passage go by without trying to make it something special, something exciting, something that's never been done in Who before. It's that energy that lifts the book up to one of the better first novels I've read, and that makes me proud to be a fan of Doctor Who.

Right from the beginning, which Ebbs entitles the "Obligatory Spectacular Opening", we get a sense of amazing energy. The Doctor attempts to steal the eponymous Book through a plan that involves free-falling from orbit, a scene of dazzling excitement that sets the pace for the book to follow. We get lots of fun -- Anji stuck in a Bollywood movie, the Doctor trying to learn how to dance on a doomed planet, and Fitz... well, OK, Fitz does spend much of his time acting like a brainwashed idiot, which doesn't do wonders for him, but it's still a good book. The whole thing clips along with sparkling dialogue and a fascinating plot.

It's not flawless by any means -- the trio of villains who dog the Doctor throughout the book outstay their welcome by chapter two, and Carmodi is phenomenally irritating (although perhaps intentionally so). And I still couldn't tell you what Carmodi lost because of the Doctor, and why she believes the Doctor's responsible for it. But this was one of those rare times when I didn't care about the "whats" of a book because I was having so much fun with the "hows". I just had a blast reading this, and I can't wait for Paul Ebbs' next novel. If Lawrence Miles proves to be an accurate model, it'll be even better.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Keys of Marinus

And then there are the times when the budget really hurts.

The episode starts well enough; Kala makes a convincing villain, and the scene where she plays the grieving widow contains some good acting on the part of Fiona Walker. It'd be tempting to overplay the sobs and telegraph the twist to the audience, but she delivers her grief very convincingly. She also does a good job of not over-emphasizing her inadvertent slip regarding Susan's whereabouts in order to clue in the audience, although Nation includes a scene that probably wasn't necessary where Barbara and company discuss the slip at length in order to make everything clear to the very tiny children watching the show.

That's not terrible in and of itself, but it does foreshadow a problem Nation has. He can't just have people figure things out and do something about them, he has to put in a scene where they hash out the logic behind their realization at great length for the slow of brain. Which, again, is not such a bad thing when you're explaining how Kala accidentally mentioned a tiny piece of information that she had no way of knowing about if she wasn't implicated in the theft/murder/kidnap plot, but...

...well, there's no getting around it. It is a lot more of a problem when your characters are discussing that something seemed a little bit off about Arbitan. Something suspicious. Perhaps it's that he acted like he didn't know Altos when the two of them had supposedly met? Yes, maybe that's it. It's the kind of subtle mistake that any master villain might make, the kind of slip-up that could ruin even the perfect plan of covering your ridiculously elaborate headgear with a hood that you can barely even fit over it, not bothering to disguise your voice even a little tiny bit or take off your heavy black gloves, and sit two feet away from the people you're trying to fool at an angle that doesn't really hide your features concocting a story on the fly about how you're radioactive and can't get up or come any closer.

Yeeeeee-ahhhhhh. The problem isn't just that this scene is terrible. It isn't even just that it's unbelievably, ludicrously terrible and it's the climax of the story. It's that if anyone had put even a tiny bit of thought into the sequence, it would have worked just fine. A line or two explaining that Yartek (who was otherwise a fine specimen of megalomaniac villain) couldn't take the suit off for some reason. A line explaining that he knew Ian would only give the key to the real Arbitan, and some sort of line about, "We can't take it by force--the key is too delicate, he'd break it." And instead of Ian's labored and idiotic-sounding discussion of whether or not there was something fishy about Arbitan's sudden foot-long head extension, an explanation on Ian's part that he knew all along that "Arbitan" was Yartek and gave him the fake key on purpose. (Which as it stands is even more unforgivably stupid, as the scene involves Ian being fooled but giving him a fake key anyway, apparently just for the lulz.)

That's the lesson to take away from this episode, and this story. Doctor Who can survive being cheap. It can survive being weird. It can survive random genre-hopping at every opportunity. It can even survive being a Flash Gordon pastiche with a railroad plot. But it absolutely cannot survive being this rock stupid.

A Long-Winded, Discursive, and Possibly Educational Review of 'Shada'

(This review has been cross-posted to

It occurred to me that the novelization of 'Shada' might be something that readers here would be interested in, if they knew about it, and that it might also be something that readers here might not know about. So this is both a review, and an explanation of what exactly 'Shada' was, and how there came to be a novelization of it by Gareth Roberts from Douglas Adams' original script.

In addition to being tremendously famous for his 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' series, Douglas Adams also spent a bit of time as a writer and script editor for Doctor Who. This was just before 'Guide' hit it big, when he was mainly known for contributing a few bits to the final series of "Monty Python's Flying Circus". (The one without John Cleese.) His big breaks came in a sudden burst, which is why he wasn't on Doctor Who for very long. But he did do three scripts--the modestly successful "Pirate Planet", the incredibly well-regarded "City of Death", and "Shada"...which never actually completed filming due to a strike at the BBC, and which wasn't remounted for the ensuing season because incoming producer John Nathan-Turner had no interest in doing anything his predecessor Graham Williams thought was a good idea.

"Shada", in other words, is that rare beast - an unproduced screenplay by a now-deceased legend of science fiction at the absolute height of his skill, which can't be filmed at this point due to a simply insurmountable number of practical hurdles. But this is where a peculiar tradition of Doctor Who comes in, a legacy of one of the few sci-fi/fantasy series out there to predate video recording in any of its media. Virtually every single episode of the classic series of Doctor Who was adapted as a novel, in order to allow fans to experience episodes that had been broadcast before their time and which (due to the BBC's policies at the time on repeats and the previously noted lack of home media) they would probably never have the chance to see again. These novels were occasionally done by the original author, but frequently they were adapted by other hands.

While he was alive, Douglas Adams' stories were among the few that had not been adapted into novels; Adams preferred to adapt his own stories, and the company with the rights to the Doctor Who books simply couldn't afford his page rate. (According to Adams, every time a new editor took over the line, they had the exact same conversation with him about the chances of adapting his books, and he politely gave them the exact same responses each time.) But tragically, Adams died far younger than anyone that brilliant has a right to, which meant that even the adaptations seemed like a longshot.

Enter Gareth Roberts. Those of you who are fans of the new series might recognize him as the screenwriter of "The Lodger" and "The Shakespeare Code", among others, but he made his reputation on Doctor Who as an author of several pastiches of the Graham Williams era of the show. His novel 'The English Way of Death' (now sadly out of print) is considered to be one of the finest encapsulations of that period's whimsy, effortless humor, and penchant for borderline fantasy, and he's always been an outspoken fan of Williams and Adams. As such, when the rights issues were finally sorted out with the Adams estate, Roberts was the first choice to adapt Adams' unfilmed script into a novel. (For the pedants in the crowd, yes I am aware that the script was also adapted for audio by Big Finish Productions with Paul McGann reprising Tom Baker's part, and that there is an unofficial animated adaptation done by Ian Levine using Paul Jones as a Tom Baker impersonator. This is the first mass-market adaptation.)

(Yes, I'm also aware that the sequences that were shot were released on video and DVD, with Baker providing linking narration. That's not a proper adaptation. Sheesh.)

So now that you know what the novelization of 'Shada' is, the question that undoubtedly follows is, "Is it actually any good?" And the answer is, "Yes. Not as good as you'd expect a lost Douglas Adams masterpiece to be, but it's definitely a fun read." Roberts doesn't quite have Adams' deft touch for comic prose, but singling him out for that is almost entirely unfair. He's not trying to be Douglas Adams. He's trying to write Gareth Roberts' very good adaptation of a Douglas Adams story, and he succeeds magnificently at that. His opening line alone is one of the better starts to a novel that I've read lately: "At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways - with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking, 'Wait a second. That means there's a situation vacant.'"

The plot is a fairly classic Doctor Who concept - a megalomaniac (in about as literal a sense as you can get this time) plans to take over the universe using forbidden Time Lord secrets that have been concealed at Cambridge, and the Doctor (accompanied by Time Lady Romana and robot dog K-9) have to stop him. But there are a number of clever twists and elegant misdirections between Cambridge and the lost Time Lord prison of Shada, and I really don't want to give any of them away for the benefit of those of you who haven't had the whole thing summarized multiple times in old Doctor Who episode guides. Suffice to say that this is a perfect example of doing something new and clever with an old idea, and the story hangs together very well.

The only issue I had with the book, and this may be my reaction as a long-time Doctor Who fan who had heard about this one for years as a "lost classic", was that I couldn't help spending my time wondering which bits were taken directly from Adams' original script and which were added by Roberts with the benefit of thirty-odd years of hindsight. (The joke about "edible ball bearings", for example, I'm reasonably sure belonged to Roberts.) I wound up wishing they'd also simply published the shooting script, so that I could see what had been done and when and by whom. It was a bit of a distraction, but one that a less obsessive person might not have to deal with.

On the whole, though, I thought it was a great story well-told, and I think that any fans of Douglas Adams will enjoy it. Pastiches of classic authors have a shaky track record, especially of Douglas Adams (I don't think, for example, that I'll ever recommend Eoin Colfer's 'And Another Thing...') but this one stands out as a fun read in its own right.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sentence of Death know when I said that Doctor Who's greatest strength was its ability to slip effortlessly from genre to genre? I have to say, I didn't expect them to test it quite so hard so fast. 'Sentence of Death' essentially jumps from 'Wolf Creek' to 'Murder She Wrote' in the span of a single episode-opening recap, as Ian arrives in the city of Millennius only to be instantly framed for murder. (I'm not entirely clear on what Aydan's plan would have been if someone hadn't conveniently teleported into the room facing away from him. Maybe he'd have tried to claim that Eprim was an unusually enthusiastic suicide?)

Luckily, this is also the episode where the Doctor returns from his two-week vacation just in time to solve the murder. It's a clear homage to Sherlock Holmes, but it's amazing how well it works--not only because William Hartnell is clearly relishing the chance to strut around and act intellectually superior to everyone around him, but also because Sherlock Holmes' memetic DNA has always been part of the underpinning of the character. The Doctor is built, in no small part, out of the concept of the genius who instantly grasps the import of tiny clues, but holds his revelations behind a screen of smug contempt until the point of maximum dramatic impact. Despite the fact that it's clearly insane to jump directly into an Agatha Christie mystery, the return of the Doctor papers over the join perfectly.

And the mystery itself isn't bad--it's a bit obvious, with the Doctor fingering Aydan over the course of a single scene and revealing his identity to the court with a single Perry Mason-esque stunt, but they spin it out a little bit longer with a conspiracy theory. (Which would perhaps be a bit more suspenseful if they hadn't included a scene where Aydan called up his co-conspirator and they clearly showed his face, but c'est la vie.) As a result, we get what may be the best cliffhanger in the story so far, with Barbara forced to choose between sacrificing Susan and allowing Ian to be sentenced to death.

But the actual mystery isn't as important as the atmosphere created by the trial. The entire episode takes place in the pressure-cooker of Millennius' unjust and irrational judicial system; from the moment he arrives, Ian is fitted for the role of thief and murderer simply because it makes everyone's lives easier to have a ready-made villain. The moments before the Doctor's arrival are a perfect pastiche of Kafka-esque paranoia, as Ian confronts the fact that he is a stranger in Millennius with no-one to vouch for his character and no-one sympathetic to his situation. Even after Ian's friends and companions arrive, the justice system is clearly anything but just in Millennius. (Which makes a certain degree of sense, if they've had to reconstruct the entire concept of a legal system relatively recently after centuries of Conscience-enforced peace.)

On the whole, despite the utter strangeness of the transition, 'Sentence of Death' really does act as definitive proof that there's nothing Doctor Who does better than hijack another genre's stories and make them its own. And that William Hartnell does "smug genius" better than anyone.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Snows of Terror

One of the greatest strengths of Doctor Who, and the biggest reason it has endured so long apart from its ability to recast the lead actor, is its ability to slip effortlessly from genre to genre. This may be one of the reasons that the series has become more popular after its relaunch; in many ways, the show presaged genre-bending classics like 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. Changing from horror to comedy to action/adventure within a single episode or even a single scene was once considered to be a symptom of lack of focus--now it's the televisual equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

'The Snows of Terror' highlights the series' skill in an episode that is almost undoubtedly the high point of the story to date. Vasor the trapper is in many ways far more terrifying than the Voord, the Brains of Morphoton or the moving jungle ever could be, because the terror on display here is all too believable. When Ian leaves the hut and Barbara is alone with a man who introduced himself with, "I can break a wolf's back with my hands," it takes no great leap of imagination to picture this as a potentially terrifying situation. Barbara is locked in a room with a potential rapist and murderer, with nothing outside but endless icy wastes and the howling wolves. This is a nightmare made flesh, and the episode pulls no punches in showing it.

The first half, as a result, plays out like a slasher movie in miniature, 'Wolf Creek' in the mountains instead of the Outback, and even the polystyrene snow and film-insert wolves can't materially damage the creepy atmosphere. It's all too easy to imagine Ian's death as the wolves close in, and the much deeper and inescapable torment of Barbara as Vasor's captive. It is brutally effective, and the audience's relief when Ian rescues Altos and returns is palpable.

The tone shifts palpably after that, with Ian getting a great turn as action hero (again, it helps that this is an era when the show is obviously an ensemble piece rather than "The Doctor and Friends") and Vasor shifting from a wolf-breaking murderer to a shifty, sleazy, treacherous ally as we go to an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt with more traps and mystical knights whose natures are never fully explained. There's a quick tour through the tropes of the sub-genre; rope bridges over bottomless gorges that break at the worst moment, relentless pursuit, collapsing tunnels, crawls over makeshift bridges, and "puzzles" that would perhaps take a bright child five minutes to solve. (The high point, to me, is Susan's reaction when the lashed-together ice bridge partially collapses. It's not the panic she's been displaying up to that point--it's a wonderfully put-upon expression that can be best summed up as, "Of course it breaks. Because what else would it do right now?")

If there's a single complaint, it's that Ian, Altos and Barbara grabbed hold of the Idiot Ball just long enough to not grab their micro-keys and travel dials before they went after Susan and Sabetha, necessitating a trip back across the gorge and back to Vasor's cabin. On the other hand, the episode wouldn't have felt complete without Vasor getting his comeuppance at the hand of the ice knights. No matter what tropes and what genres Doctor Who borrows, the series ultimately returns to the Manichean morality of the pulp adventure, and that means that even the minor villain has to be punished. It's the anchor that grounds the series, and allows it to effortlessly move between tones so easily.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Screaming Jungle

Believe it or not, the biggest problem about 'The Screaming Jungle' isn't the production values.

No, seriously. I mean, yes, Terry Nation was asking Ray Cusick to do stuff that most series wouldn't really be able to do effectively until the era of CGI, and certainly no series would be able to do effectively on the kind of budget Cusick was working with. So we get limp fake plants dangled from just off-screen on Ian and Barbara's heads, and even though they do their best to respond to this as an urgent and credible threat, it's still hard not to feel as though they're barely repressing giggles. But that's not the problem with 'The Whispering Jungle'. Other episodes have looked just as cheap, if not cheaper.

No, the problem with 'The Whispering Jungle' is that there's not much there once you get past the production values. The previous two episodes have both had interesting hooks to grab viewers--the initial episode had the creepy, silent Voord assault, and the second episode had the surreal and paranoiac brainwashing sequences of the Brains of Morphoton. Once the audience's memory did its usual job of replacing the weak special effects with a bit of budget-stretching imagination, they were interesting uses of the science-fiction tropes they embodied.

But 'The Whispering Jungle' is the point where the imagination, as well as the money, runs out. This isn't Nation's fault, really; again, this is a story written on incredibly short notice to fill a gap left by a script that fell through. Everyone is doing their best under incredibly trying conditions. It's just that here, everyone's best isn't quite good enough.

Again, as with the previous two episodes, the concepts aren't bad; a creepy jungle where the plants have turned aggressive and malevolent, and are eroding the planet to death with hateful overgrowth is an idea that will be used to great effect later in the series. A temple filled with deathtraps, and a paranoid old man hiding in the center of them unable to let go of his fear long enough to realize that these are the people he's been waiting for all this time? That's some gripping stuff. But in practical terms, all that winds up coming into play only in the last few minutes. There's a tiny bit at the beginning where someone drags a creeper across Susan's legs, and the bit at the end shows some of the promise that could have been, but the whole thing lacks pace. The plants should have been a menace from the beginning, a relentless pursuer that drives Ian and Barbara headlong into the deathtraps. The traps themselves should have been more menacing--a bit of a change in the direction here would have gone a long way. It's understandable that Cusick didn't have much to work with, but better pacing and a few changes in lighting and camera angles might have mitigated the flaws.

This isn't to say that the episode doesn't have its charms...there's a fascinating moment near the beginning where Susan explains that she decided to go on ahead of the others because she didn't like saying goodbye to her grandfather. Given that Nation also wrote 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', Susan's departure story that ends with the Doctor going on without her, it's interesting to think of this as a little piece of foreshadowing. It's also a good example of a character point noted by Wood and Miles in 'About Time' a product of a technophiliac society, Susan tends to get unnerved far quicker in natural environments than she does in alien spaceships and space stations. Carole Ann Ford has gone on the record about her frustrations with the hysteria she was forced to depict on multiple occasions, but they did seem to do their best in making it a character trait beyond simply "damsel in distress".

The moments like this are a bit few and far between in this episode, which is a shame given the potential that was wasted. But they are there. The money may run out, the time may run out, but Doctor Who always has at its core a concept that can sustain even the most exhausted of writers. And this episode, that describes Terry Nation perfectly.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Velvet Web

Once again, I feel like repeating that Doctor Who never really learned the lessons it was supposed to learn as a science fiction series. The production team should have figured out that their budgets were suited to small-scale psychological dramas set in various periods of Earth's history. They had a great cast suited to psychological drama, and they had set designers and costumers all over the place who had plenty of experience in making historical dramas on the cheap. Sure, Doctor Who was nominally science fiction, but making true science fiction of the scope that they envisioned was a ludicrous dream. 'The Daleks' showed it, especially in the final battle sequence...and yet, they never did learn to stop being ambitious. And thank goodness for that.

'The Velvet Web' is a perfect example. Terry Nation writes an episode that a) requires a number of sumptuous sets and costumes, b) cunning perspective shifts as Barbara resists the Morphos' brainwashing and sees the real world while her friends continue to see the illusion, and then c) the inner sanctum of the hideous brain-creatures, which gets destroyed in a spectacular action sequence as Barbara smashes it to pieces and the brain-creatures melt and die. The budget they have allowed for approximately three-fourths of a, one-third of c, and b would have been apocalyptically difficult even with a vast budget, thanks to the limits of film editing techniques in those days.

And did that stop them? No It Did Not. Ray Cusick, the BBC staff designer, threw himself gamely into the impossible task of realizing everything in Nation's script, and the regular cast swallowed their dignity and pretended that a dirty coffee mug was a cyclotron with the greatest of enthusiasm. And they made something that at least approximated the vision Terry Nation had when he sat down at his typewriter, albeit one that was never intended to be seen again at all, let alone watched on pristine DVD with all its faults revealed to the world.

And once the memory has glossed over the a's and the b's and the c's and Ray Cusick's desperation and the cast's embarrassment and time has turned what was actually on the screen into a potent blend of imagination and reality, you can see it for what it was intended to be rather than what it was. You can see the weird, paranoiac horror Barbara experiences as she tries to convince her friends of the shabby, dingy reality all around them while they caress rags and drink filthy water. You can sympathize with her plight, alone among an entire city that hunts her with a single-minded purpose for unknown reasons. You can shiver at the way that Ian almost absentmindedly tries to strangle Barbara, vividly and convincingly portrayed by William Russell. You can even be impressed when you remember that this is all just one city on the planet of Marinus, a science-fiction planet that's astonishingly enough not shown as a monoculture or a Manichean struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors, which is quite nice for a change. You can actually be quite impressed by this one...when you're not actually, you know, watching it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Sea of Death

In this case, necessity is clearly the mother of invention. With another planned script having fallen through on short notice, Terry Nation was asked to write a six-parter on incredibly short notice. Keep that in mind when you watch not just "The Sea of Death", but all of the subsequent episodes, because it's clear that the true skill on display here is one of economy. As soon as the Doctor and his companions (and at this point, it's pretty clear that the antagonism between them is mostly in the past--they're friends and fellow travelers, not a kidnapper and his victims) leave the TARDIS, we get a series of scenes that establish the narrative with great speed. The alien world and its acid seas get a quick scene of set up, the villains are shown with a minimum of dialogue and screen time to be ruthless and murderous and yes, actually a little bit creepy in the way that silent people wearing black vinyl outfits and holding knives are generally creepy. Everyone generally takes this opportunity to point out that they're not as scary as the Daleks, but I kind of feel like that's a bit unfair. Judged on their own merits, they're pretty effective.

The central conflict is set up with equal economy...or at least with as much economy as something so blatantly contrived can be. "We have a machine on our planet that makes it impossible to be evil...and before you ask, the bad guys are immune to it...and before you ask, we can't just wreck it because we're hoping that we can fix it...and before you ask, we can't just keep working on it because we can't let it fall into enemy hands...and before you ask, we have to fix it now because we've found a way to make it work on the bad guys...and before you ask, we can't just make new keys because they've got super-special codes that would take thousands of years to replicate." To his eternal credit, George Coulouris makes the scene work by playing up the ludicrousness of the concept just a little bit; he suggests through his performance that Arbitan may not be the most trustworthy of Wise Mentor characters. It's as though he's daring everyone else in the scene to point out what a crazy idea the Conscience is in the first place.

And then we cut directly from his impassioned plea for the main cast walking back to the TARDIS, feeling just a titch guilty about having turned him down flat. It's a scene that is utterly drop-dead hilarious to modern Doctor Who fans; the thought that the Doctor would respond to a planet under threat from evil dictators with, "Eh, sorry, that's not really my bag," contravenes not just the character but the basic laws of drama. It's no wonder that Arbitan railroads them into the story... again, with amazing economy. Invisible force field around the TARDIS, teleporters that pop the cast from plot point to plot's contrived, and it feels contrived, but you can't help but be impressed by the sheer streamlined efficiency of it all.

It's definitely a case of everyone dancing as fast as they can, and it shows in the production design (there's at least one, if not two, laugh-out-loud special effects sequences). But it's also an episode that hits all the beats it needs to hit without lingering around, and it's about to do in six episodes what took Tom Baker a full season. Not too shabby for a rush job.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Assassin at Peking

Remember how I talked earlier about learning the history of the Hashishin from the novelization of this story? And remember how it took pride of place on my bookshelves, and I kept it long after the rest of my Target novelizations were let go to clear space on my bookshelves? Well, I have to say that it was a good thing that Lucarotti got to write that Target novelization, because as good as this is as a final episode, he didn't quite stick the landing here.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great episode. It gets off to a fast and exciting start, with Tegana getting a great villain speech (and again, it's awesome that his superstition isn't used to make him seem foolish, and in fact more of a threat) and framing Ian for the theft of the TARDIS. At this point, it must be said that Tegana has had a lot of unearned luck, here--he wasn't the one to kill Kuiju, and if either the guards had overheard him boasting about making Noghai the ruler of the world or if the guards hadn't been overzealous and Kuiju had fingered him, this would have been a very short episode seven. But you can say the same thing about any long story with a villain, really. ('Under the Dome'--the novel, not the TV show--has the same problem.) Still, it's a solid scene, made more so by Derren Nesbitt's silky smooth performance.

Then we get a wonderful highlight of the story--the Doctor and Kublai Khan's backgammon match. The sequence where the Doctor totals up his winnings is sheer poetry. "35 elephants with all of their trappings, 4000 white stallions, and 25 tigers--" "That's not so bad--" "Oh, and the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha--" "Oh, that was a gift from Marco!" "...and all the commerce from Burma for one year." It's a great scene, and it sets up what seems to be the resolution of the story as the Doctor wagers it all against the TARDIS.

But in an episode that's absolutely jam-packed, that's nowhere near the end. The Doctor loses, Tegana plays Marco Polo's eagerness to leave the Khan's service against him by suggesting that Marco's sympathies secretly lie with the TARDIS crew, and Ian is set to go on trial for the theft of the Khan's property. Again, this scene works well because Nesbitt plays it well...but it also works well because the script plays him as a man with an intimate understanding of people's weaknesses. Tegana knows what secrets Marco holds, and he knows that revealing them to Kublai Khan before Marco has the chance will leave him on the defensive. It's actually a very well-written as well as a very well-acted sequence.

Unfortunately, the resolution starts to feel a bit perfunctory here. The death of Ping-Cho's intended, while a sequence that is not without a certain twisted humor, wraps up her sub-plot with the rapidity of a Restoration comedy deus-ex-machina. The TARDIS crew's realization of Tegana's plan, and their escape to the throne room, is equally rushed. And in the end, all they really do is tell Marco what's going on and let him do all the heroic lifting. It works better than it should, because at this point Marco has been on the show long enough to feel like a protagonist in his own right, but it's still a little odd in a show called 'Doctor Who' that the final confrontation features two incidental characters slugging it out.

And then there's the final conclusion, which has none of the elegance of the novelized version. Instead of Kublai Khan graciously ceding the TARDIS to the Doctor as repayment for saving his life, Marco just sort of shoves the keys their way and they sprint for the hills. And Kublai Khan, who had been established pretty well as someone who was more than just a figure of comedy, who had the power of life and death over Marco and was shown to distrust him because Marco seemed to have a conflict in loyalties over the TARDIS and its crew, just shrugs the loss of the magical caravan off with a joke about backgammon. It's a weak ending to a good episode, and it makes you glad that Lucarotti had a second chance. Because with two opportunities, he made a story that's a genuine classic.

Mighty Kublai Khan

As previously mentioned, there has been a bit of padding in the previous five episodes. A five-episode long journey through Cathay with Marco Polo may, in fact, have had a wee bit of extra kidnapping and banditry and so forth; however, that slow simmer of sub-plots now means we've got two whole episodes that are almost totally payoff. "Mighty Kublai Khan" brings (unsurprisingly) the Khan himself, and he's exactly what you don't expect him to be--far from a terrifying warlord, he's a slightly doddery old man with gout who lives in fear of his domineering wife and indulges in a quiet bit of gambling when she's not around. The scenes between him and Hartnell are adorable, and they're only going to get better.

Meanwhile, Ian and Ping-Cho wind up paired off in their own sub-plot, tracking down Tegana's theft of the TARDIS. This is where the amount of character development we've gotten over the last five episodes really pays off; Ping-Cho is far more detailed and realized than any incidental character in the new series possibly could be. We care about the resolution to her story, which makes it feel more grounded and realistic that the regular cast does as well. When they stand up to Marco, not knowing that Tegana has been playing Iago once again to undermine them, it feels like an earned character beat and not merely a further plot twist. It gives Tegana another chance to go swanning off and be evil, but by this point that feels earned as well. Sure, it's obvious to us that Tegana is evil, but he does a great job of getting his licks in early and often.

Nonetheless, even the longest-simmering plotline has to come to a boil eventually, and Kuiju's admission that Tegana hired him finally makes his villainy overt. Which leaves us exactly one episode to resolve Ping-Cho's wedding, Tegana's betrayal, Marco's moral dilemma, and oh by the way to get the Doctor and company back to the TARDIS. Too much to handle? No, the pacing finally feels like it's moving at just the right clip.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Rider From Shang-Tu

It really is amazing just how epic this serial feels. We're five episodes in, and already we have traveled from the Himalayas to Cheng-Ting and taken in sandstorms, oases, treachery, hidden caverns, and sub-plots galore. We've had what feels like a massive cast and tons of incident, and Shang-Tu and Kublai Khan loom ahead with all the weight of 150 solid minutes of foreshadowing. This is the episode where all that momentum really starts to pull the story forward towards its conclusion.

Which isn't to say it's perfect--the bandit fight is a tense sequence, but the whole "let's scare the superstitious peasants by popping bamboo at them" strategy is a bit embarrassing in that way that treating everyone from The Past as superstitious peasants always is. Luckily, that's not the only thing going on here; Tegana shows he's not just a panto villain in a kiddie show by ruthlessly sacrificing his compatriots to preserve his ruse. He also shows himself as clever and adaptable--when his first ploy, canceling the raid to discredit Ian, fails due to Acomat's impatience, he's willing to change tactics and ingratiate himself further to Marco Polo.

The scene with Ian and Marco bears special mention as well, as it's a good example of the kind of characterization this story does well. The two men are clearly comrades, in an era of the series where Ian is treated credibly as a second protagonist (it's unfortunate that Barbara is mostly sidelined in this episode and to some extent in this entire story), and the speech between them shows a respect and admiration that clearly makes them wish their goals didn't conflict. Which leads also to the wonderful scene where Marco asks for their promise to cease trying to steal the TARDIS...and each of them respects him too much to lie to him. (And where he displays a common-sense, healthy distrust of Tegana by refusing his offer of bodyguarding duties. In one brief moment, we're made aware that Marco knows he has no true allies on either side.) The dynamics of this story really do make it a highlight of the "circumstances have separated us from the TARDIS for X episodes" era of the series.

And in an episode filled with so much plot and character development I almost can't fit it all in, I also want to bring special attention to Tegana's character once again. He's an interesting twist on the "superstitious peasant" trope that I disdained just a few paragraphs ago. Ian points out that he can't be after the TARDIS because he believes it to be magical and he's terrified of it, and he's both very right and very wrong. Tegana isn't faking his superstition about the TARDIS; he genuinely does believe it to be a magical artifact created by a wizard with evil magical powers. But it's exactly that quality that makes him want it so badly--Tegana believes that with the TARDIS' power, Noghai will gain a decisive advantage over Kublai Khan. His superstitious make him more dangerous, not less, because Lucarotti understands that superstition and stupidity don't necessarily go hand in hand.

And then there's Ping-Cho, who suddenly steps to the forefront and gains agency in a story where she has conspicuously been denied it at every turn. She still has no control over her own life, but circumstances put her into a position where she has both a moral dilemma and the power to bring hope back to her only friend. (Although it does put the idiot ball squarely into Marco's hands--why not just re-hide the keys?) Her inventive solution to the moral dilemma is obvious equivocation, but it's also an entirely understandable character beat that shows just how deep the characterization is for all the cast. This really is an ensemble series at this point, with the incidental characters just as important as the regulars.

Oh, and there's a great cliffhanger too, with Susan under threat for the entirely understandable decision to repay her friend's kindness with a small gratitude. Ping-Cho asked for only one thing in return for stealing from Marco and possibly earning herself a dreadful punishment, and Susan refuses to leave without giving it to her. It's a risky thing to do, but not a foolish one, and deeply rooted in everything we've seen about Susan so far in the series. Shame it's gone so badly for her.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Wall of Lies

Now this is more like it. At this stage in the BBC's history, they really do view television as a sort of strange variant on the stage play, and so they're playing to their strengths when they treat 'Doctor Who' like a stage play as well. "The Wall of Lies" opens with the resolution of Barbara's rescue, but this is really just the mechanism to get to the far more important and effective conflict between the TARDIS crew and the locals. Barbara knows Tegana is up to no good, even if she didn't see him with the men who tried to kill her. Tegana knows that he's in a precarious position; there's no direct evidence implicating him, but Barbara can definitely finger him as being up to no good.

And what follows is a wonderful riff on "Shakespeare's Greatest Hits". Tegana outmaneuvers the TARDIS crew using the most effective political tactic of them all--come out swinging and immediately accuse the other party of the exact thing you're doing. He warns Polo that the Doctor and his friends are trying to set the two of them against one another by lying, in a scene reminiscent of Iago's performance in 'Othello'. When Barbara does tell Marco that she followed Tegana to the cave, she doesn't realize she's playing right into his hands.

We then follow up with a platonic twist on 'Romeo and Juliet', as Marco decides to limit Susan's influence on Ping-Cho without realizing that the Doctor distrusts Ping-Cho just as much as Marco distrusts Susan. The two friends are caught in the middle, with a wonderfully effective sequence displaying the difficult position Marco is in. Even if Tegana is lying, it's not like Marco can simply kick his butt to the curb; Tegana is an emissary of peace from a foreign power conducting delicate negotiations. This is the kind of person Marco can't antagonize, not without definitive proof of wrongdoing. His anger at Ping-Cho is almost like a father getting upset with his daughter for doing something dangerous without even realizing it.

And it all leads up to a wonderfully effective sequence as Marco discovers the grain of truth that makes Tegana's lies so effective. For all that the Doctor is right about Tegana, Tegana is also right about the Doctor in one key area. He doesn't trust Marco, he doesn't respect Marco's authority, and he is working behind Marco's back to defy his edict and steal what Marco has claimed as his property. The fact that Marco essentially stole said property, which the Doctor views as justification for his actions, only hardens Marco's heart against him; in order to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of stealing the TARDIS while still viewing himself as a moral man, Marco needs to see the Doctor as deserving of his fate. The Doctor's actions give Marco the excuse he needs to justify his harsh actions. The scene in front of the TARDIS, where Ian is forced to bluff things out until it all collapses (to Tegana's quiet delight) and the Doctor threatens to scuttle the TARDIS rather than let it fall into Marco's hands, is a brilliant and insightful sequence that changes the whole nature of the story.

And then, just when you think that the paradigm for the story's second act has settled, we get the excellent cliff-hanger. Ian prepares to subdue the guard and escape, only to find him already dead. The more this story focuses on its characters, the better it gets. This episode is a huge improvement off of last episode's stall, as Lucarotti figures out that the best thing about the series at this point is its characters.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Five Hundred Eyes

It's a little frustrating that this is an episode that doesn't know what the series' strengths are at this point. They have a great regular cast, all of whom are bringing their A-games week in and week out. They have a great guest cast who are really engaging with their material. They have some really good emotional material here to work with. And we just don't get enough of the real conflicts. Tegana is lying when he says that "bandits" prevented him from getting back to the caravan with life-saving water, and everybody knows it. But that scene is cut tragically short. Likewise, the conflict between Polo and the Doctor is really great stuff, with Polo as a sympathetic antagonist and a really fascinating ethical dilemma...but we get one snippy exchange in the whole episode.

Instead, we get a lengthy sequence where Ping-Cho tells the story of the Hashishin, which...look, on the one hand, I have pangs of nostalgia for this scene. Years ago, as a kid, I learned the history of the Hashishin from the Target novelization of this story. It's still got a place on my bookshelf, years after I let the rest of the Target books go in order to conserve shelf space. (The only other survivor was 'Remembrance of the Daleks', although I've built it back up a bit since then.) And it's performed beautifully by Zienia Merton. So with all that, I can't say that it's a bad scene, I really really can't.

What I can say, though, is that it doesn't really fit in with the tone of the episode that surrounds it and that it kills the momentum of the episode. And this is not an episode that can afford a five-minute stall, not with as little plot as it has. We've had a five-minute sequence involving the explanation of condensation, and now we're getting a history lesson. Even for a series that at this point has an educational mandate, this is draggy.

Luckily, Tegana is on hand to at least nudge the plot along by having Barbara kidnapped. It's really more of a set-up for next episode's action than anything else, but at least Jacqueline Hill gives it her all the way she always does. (Have I mentioned yet that the regular cast brings their A-game every week? Oh, yes. Right there, three paragraphs ago. Carry on.) This episode is definitely a bit of a longueur, but it's hard to get through a seven-parter without one. And as longueurs go, at least this one has the tale of the Hashishin.

The Singing Sands

And so, after an episode that's all about messing with people's heads and establishing the premise, 'The Singing Sands' settles in and does exactly what a story like this is supposed to do. Lucarotti is telling an exciting story of a journey through foreign lands, and that means the heroes have to overcome obstacles rooted in the cultural and geographical lore of the countries they're traveling through. Which means that the caravan has to go through the Gobi desert, which in turn means that the big drama is going to come from sandstorms and thirst. It's not rude to point out that these are old standards--a story that didn't hit these beats wouldn't feel like it was doing its job.

Likewise, Tegana is playing exactly the kind of character that needs to be in a classic adventure story; he's villainous enough that we can all lustily boo his schemes and machinations, but not so effective that he's actually disturbing. His plan to murder everyone in the caravan by cutting their water skins hits just the right sweet spot. It's potentially deadly, but not actually scary. (Which is actually one of the criticisms of the story--that Tegana is such an obvious mustache-twirling villain that the heroes seem like idiots for trusting him as much as they do. But at least at this point, it's clear that the TARDIS crew don't trust him at all, and Mark Eden does a good job of playing the part ambiguously enough that you can at least make a case that he doesn't so much trust Tegana as tolerate him.)

That said, it is an episode that does pretty much what it says on the tin, no more and no less. It's an adventure story for children, with none of the moral ambiguity or interpersonal drama of the previous fourteen episodes. Even worse, the Doctor is almost entirely missing from the story. As great as Ian, Barbara and Susan are (and at this point, I'm fully convinced that this is the best TARDIS crew ever), they need the Doctor to play off of. So does everybody else. The big emotional conflict is between Polo and the Doctor, even though Tegana is the ostensible villain; with one of them sidelined for the episode, we're left with the Boy's Own storyline for a full thirty minutes. And while that's not bad, it's not as good as it was or as it's going to be.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Roof of the World

The thing that's striking about 'The Roof of the World' is the way that it delights in playing games with its audience's heads. It's a trick that perhaps slides past us modern viewers if we're not careful; in retrospect, this is the first "historical" story and a classic example of a common sub-genre of this era of Who. But that's in retrospect. At the time, the series had never done a proper "historical" story--we'd had a bizarre drama playing out among prehistoric humanity and a science-fiction epic, but many in the audience had no idea what to expect when the travelers next stepped out of the TARDIS. (The Radio Times had published an article on the upcoming story, but it was a far cry from the modern spoileriffic Internet.)

And Lucarotti's screenplay plays with that for most of 'The Roof of the World'. The first thing we see is a footprint larger than a human being could make...which is promptly dismissed as a half-melted bootprint. Barbara sees strange, furry monsters...which turn out to be normal people in furs. Tegana, warlord of the Mongol Noghai, tells of shapeshifting evil spirits...but Marco Polo dismisses it as superstition, and it's not brought up again. Marco, when confronted with a "flying caravan", speaks of it as part and parcel of the same magic that allows Buddhist monks to levitate cups of wine to the mouth of Kublai Khan...but this is presented as a mere unusual background detail to what is otherwise settling into an adventure with a well-known historical figure in a well-documented historical period. Everything seems to be settling in...

...until Marco announces that he wants the strange, miraculous flying caravan for Kublai Khan, and we realize we've been looking in the wrong place for aliens and strange science-fiction weirdness. It's not the situation that the Doctor and his companions have stepped into; it's them. They are the strange aliens that have stepped into Marco Polo's story, and far from being the first example of a classic historical, this is the exact opposite. This is a science-fiction story, and the TARDIS--that wonderful, impossible piece of futuristic technology--is the key to it all.

But it's also, fundamentally, a personal conflict in the way that the early Hartnell stories managed so effortlessly. With the tension more or less resolved among the TARDIS crew, Polo takes the place of Ian and Barbara as a sympathetic character who nonetheless has goals that conflict with the other protagonists. The Doctor has resolved himself to helping Ian and Barbara get back to England, but Marco is willing to do whatever it takes to reach his own home. And he's utterly incapable of understanding the bitter irony in his statement that Ian and Barbara can get back, but "it would take some time".

With all that, it's almost overkill to find out that Tegana's planning to kill everyone. That may be the cliffhanger, but the climax is the Doctor giggling maniacally at the thought of Buddhist monks piloting the TARDIS. His world is so alien to Polo's, literally and figuratively, that he's reduced to tears of helpless laughter at the thought of reconciling them. A brilliant end to a brilliant episode.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Review: The King of Terror

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on June 19, 2001.)

In a word: Errrrrr...

In several words, Topping tries to pull off a serious stunt, here, taking the "aliens in the boardroom" plot, which is almost more of a sub-genre than a cliche of Doctor Who by now, and strip it down to its bare minimum, counting on sheer style to keep us from noticing how little plot there is. It almost succeeds, too...clears the canyon, but perhaps skins its knees and scuffs its jacket here and there.

The book can more or less be divided into "things that worked" and "things that didn't." Things That Worked: Turlough's escape from his torturers; Paynter and Barrington's "squaddie eye view" of UNIT; the characterization of the Brigadier; characters' general reactions to odd, small moments, like Johnny Chess's guest appearance, or the UFO; the discussion at the end of what humanity will be remembered for; and, in general, the style of the book.

Things That Didn't: Turlough's torture (why do writers in the books always feel the need to torture the Doctor and his companions?); the plot, which is almost non-existent and has a deus ex machina ending that comes right out of Topping's arse; the cliched "first they fight, then they kiss" scenes between Paynter and Tegan; the American dialogue en masse; the six or seven mentions of the Waro when they're not in the sodding book; Control, who I just don't get... is this some in-joke Topping has going with someone?... and the first two pages of dialogue, which are so purple as to choke one.

On the whole, the book is very good unless you start to think about what's actually happening in it; then you rapidly realize that the plot can be summarized in about two sentences. :)

Next up, The Quantum Archangel, which I'm about five pages into and already dreading... haven't really enjoyed Hinton's first three books, and this looks to be no exception.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Review: Bunker Soldiers

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on June 25, 2001.)

Well, I was going to head from Quantum Archangel to Imperial Moon... but after reading Quantum Archangel, I decided I desperately needed something not written by Chris Bulis, so I switched around and read Bunker Soldiers next. I was glad I did...the book is a sharply written First Doctor story, with good characterization of the regulars and a plot that is a kissing cousin to other stories of the era, such as The Aztecs and Marco Polo, but has some good alien stuff therein.

First, anyone know what the chapter headers really said?

Second, Day's prose is workmanlike, which is not meant as an insult -- there are very few pages where I'm wowed by the dialogue or descriptions, but the story is always clear, I always understood exactly what was happening, and the details of life in the Middle Ages were well-placed.

The alien's actions and motivations provided a clever puzzle, and the solution at the end was worth reading. The Mongol hordes provided a wonderful backdrop to the whole thing, and the characterization of the First Doctor is nigh-unto-perfect.

If it had any flaws, they were thus -- Steven's first person narration feels slightly "off", in a way I can't describe, and Dodo, despite Day's best efforts, gets very little to do. (What can you say -- she's Dodo.)

Up next, I tackle Imperial Moon... if you don't hear from me within a week, tell my parents I love them. :)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Review: Creed of the Kromon

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on January 18, 2006.)

So the Doctor and Charley are in an entirely new, Divergent even, universe. One completely different from anything in ours, in which anything, anything at all can happen.

Blimey, I thought as I listened to Creed of the Kromon, who'd have thought he spent most of the 80s there.

Seriously, this is exactly the wrong way to kick off the first real exploration of the Divergent universe; it's a vapid retread of old Doctor Who ideas combined with themes that are, to say the least, well-worn even in our own universe. To find that the Kromon, a species in a different universe with a different perception of time and space, behave exactly like an Earth corporation from the 1980s, well... it's disappointing to say the least. The plot is a four-part treadmill of capture/escape/capture/escape, the Doctor commits genocide at the end without even the slightest hint of a whisper of a notion of remorse, and C'rizz is wetter than a swimsuit model at a sprinkler convention. Scherzo might have been frustrating, but at least it understood what should be done with the idea of a Divergent universe and did it. This should have been shelved until there was a slot open for one of the other Doctors.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Review: Short Trips - Companions

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on May 18, 2003.)

Upon thinking about it, I have to say that Short Trips -- Companions improves upon its predecessor from Big Finish, Short Trips -- Zodiac. The theme is better, allowing for a focus on characters who might not have gotten their chance to shine in the TV series. There's no linking material (and given the linking material in Zodiac, trust me, this is an improvement.) It still suffers, though, from a generally unambitious set of stories... stories that, when you finish them, you'll comment on with a sort of "Huh. That was a story that was, indeed, set in Doctor Who. It had words that combined into sentences. Can't argue with that." There's some nice stuff, but as with Zodiac, there's nothing that makes this a must-buy.

The opening story, Tip of the Mind by Peter Anghelides, does deal with one of the single greatest injustices in Doctor Who -- the violation of the minds and memories of Zoe and Jamie in The War Games. Unfortunately, it deals with it by definitively establishing that Zoe never gets her memory back, a downer that tainted this story for me. I can't say it was bad, though -- just that I didn't like it.

The Splintered Gate, by Justin Richards, has a cute ending, but little more. Really, it's so short that I think my two-sentence review of it is actually longer than the story; at the very least, it doesn't wear out its welcome.

The Man From DOCTO(R), by Andrew Collins, wins an award for "Goofiest Story of Anthology", and is actually quite enjoyable because it presents its oddness with a straight face. It's Harry Sullivan's War, crossed with Dave Stone's mentality, and I enjoyed it (even if it seems very out of place in the anthology.)

Apocrypha Bipedium, by Ian Potter, definitely has its moments, and there were points I laughed my head off... but it drags on too long (I think ten pages, instead of twenty, would have been a better length) and it doesn't help that it's set between two audios I haven't heard, near-totally losing me in its talk of temporal paradoxes and whatnot. Still, the list the Doctor gives to Shakespeare at the end of Things Not To Do is worth the whole wait.

A Boy's Tale, by Gary Russell, is a surprisingly readable story (well, surprising for me. I'm not a Russell fan.) It's not exactly intellectual -- this is the sort of story I'd have loved to read if I was the age of ten, say -- but it's a very well-written kid's story that illuminates how, at one point, Doctor Who was in fact a series for children.

Kept Safe and Sound, by Paul Magrs, is the second story in two anthologies in which Magrs writes for K-9, and the second story in two anthologies in which he can't get the character even close to approaching a very great distance from a locale somewhere near 2,000 miles away from "RIGHT". The first time it was funny; this time it's just perplexing, and kind of annoying.

The Lying Old Witch In the Wardrobe, by Mark Michalowski, seems written entirely to explain away the inconsistencies in Destiny of the Daleks. It's got a few cute moments, but I have to say, did we really need an entire story to explain why Romana goes through the quickie regenerations at the beginning and only takes one radiation pill?

Hearts of Stone, by Steve Lyons, is all about Adric, and I think that was its big mistake right there. It's well-told, but it's still the adventures of a whiny teenager doing something stupid, and frankly, I had enough of that when I was a whiny teenager myself. The whole reason we hate Adric is that he reminds us of how stupid we were when we were that age.

Distance, by Tara Samms, is very much in the mold of Samms' other work; sad, quietly lyrical, strange, and haunting, if not exactly sensible and well-explicated. Stephen Cole uses the pseudonym when he's writing to create a specific effect, and he definitely hits the nail on the head here.

Qualia, by Stephen Fewell, is a classic "OH!" story. You get thrown from scene to scene, you have no clue what's going on, it barely makes sense... then you get to the explanation at the end, and say, "OH!" Not bad (quite good in showing some of Turlough's background), but very very confusing. (It doesn't help that the guards on Turlough's homeworld are described in a way that makes them sound like the guards on Gallifrey.)

Curriculum Vitae, by Simon Guerrier, does touch on a vital theme of companion appearances after they've left the TARDIS -- why does it so frequently seem as though they're unhappy? Polly, of all people, explains just what it's like to come back to the world after traveling the universe, and does it with style. A nice piece.

Notre Dame du Temps, by Nick Clark, is another nice piece, and it doesn't hurt that it uses the EDA-current TARDIS crew. (As well as the Doctor between Lungbarrow and the TV movie -- sure, there shouldn't be gaps there, as the Doctor supposedly left Gallifrey on his big mission -- but if we've established that he put off getting the Key to Time for 30 years or so, what's a few side trips before picking up the Master's ashes?) Oh, and it echoes City of Death, so it picks up the spare in terms of "great eras of Doctor Who."

The Little Drummer Boy, by Eddie Robson, is notable mostly because it's the only Doctor Who story in the post-Survival era ever to use Sara Kingdom as a companion. Not that it needs to, or that this matters to the story, or... sorry. It's a bit generic. Not bad, just a bit generic.

Speaking of generic, Hidden Talent, by Andrew Spokes, is a Third Doctor/Master story and that's about all you can say about it. Well, OK, there's a good joke about eighties fashion at the end, and the Master's plan is endearingly goofy, but that's it.

David Bailey's The Canvey Angels goes for the same effect as Distance, but I'm not sure if it achieves it as well. It's got some nice imagery and clever themes, but it never seems to quite connect it all together. (As a side note, to older fans of the series, it's quite distracting to name a major character in the story "Hemmings", as I kept expecting the whole thing to tie back into the Timewyrm saga.)

Balloon Debate, by Simon A. Forward, almost succeeds brilliantly through its sheer audacity, being a story in which every single companion is stuck in a room together and has to justify their continued existence to the others (Romana I's explanation that she should survive over her future self is great), but then chickens out at the end in a big way. A very big way. A huge, story-deflating, worse-than-it-was-all-a-dream, worse-than-they-were-all-clones, worse-than-it-was-an-alternate-reality way. Too bad, because I was right with it up until then.

And, last but not least, A Long Night by Alison Lawson makes an excellent... er, companion piece... to Curriculum Vitae by touching on the one thing that never gets touched on in Doctor Who... what about the families of the companions? Don't they worry? How do they deal with their loved ones just... vanishing? It's a heart-wrencher, it really is.

On the whole, again, I can't find much to actively dislike here... but at the same time, there's not much to make me stand up and cheer. I know Big Finish is capable of doing something much better -- A Life of Surprises is tied with Decalog 3 as tops in the Who anthology contest. But this one just has too many stories put in there just to fill up the page count.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Capsule Review: Made of Steel

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on February 12, 2008.)

Part of me dreaded the idea of encouraging Terrance Dicks to write an even smaller, thinner, less substantial book than he'd been doing for the book line up to now; after the last two or three books, I was worried that a less-substantial Dicks offering would be a pamphlet with "Go Watch The Five Doctors" written on it. But, as it turns out, the Quick Reads series is ideally suited to Uncle Terry; he's a master at storytelling economy (a couple hundred Target novelizations will do that for you), and all that he really ditches when he slims down is padding and references to The Five Doctors, which he could probably stand to give a rest anyway. A light, fun read, exactly what the series demands.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Important Message About "Genesis of the Daleks"

I would like to set this down here, so that every single time I hear somebody say, "Oh my gosh, the Doctor killed those monsters, that's not the Doctor I know, this scriptwriter/script-editor/producer/showrunner clearly doesn't get 'Doctor Who', because the Doctor I remember would never kill anyone in cold blood like that, not even the Daleks, remember the scene in "Genesis of the Daleks" where he stood there outside the Dalek hatcheries, wondering "Do I have the right?", it was such a classic scene, the essence of 'Doctor Who', and Tom Baker was the definitive Doctor, and he wouldn't kill, so clearly this isn't proper 'Doctor Who', it's so sad that they're making such a lazy slapdash parody of my favorite series, it's a shambles..."

I can point out that in Part Six of "Genesis of the Daleks", the Doctor realizes that he made a horrible mistake in not blowing up the hatchery when he had the chance. He goes back in there, he hooks the explosives back up, and (with the help of a clumsy Dalek) he does blow up the hatchery. It's not due to the Doctor's compassion that the Daleks survived, it's due to their persistence and inhuman determination to survive. The Doctor's "out of their evil must come something good" speech at the end isn't a summation of his moral decision, it's just an attempt to put a cheerful front up after failing at what he tried to do. Which was, again, to wipe out the Daleks. He didn't make the decision lightly, but that was his decision. Anyone who thinks that the Doctor wouldn't do that simply wasn't paying attention.

Review: Instruments of Darkness

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on April 16, 2002.)
Instruments of Darkness is certainly head and shoulders above Russell's last output for the line, but it's still not that good. IoD is readable in spots -- very readable, in fact. When Russell is doing a James-Bondian thriller with mysterious Magnates, sinister albinos, deranged Networks, and all that, it's very interesting indeed. Then the Doctor shows up, and the whole thing seems to come to a screeching halt.

Part of the problem is Evelyn Smythe. She's not a Mary-Sue, technically, but it's certainly grating to have her show up and have the Doctor go on for pages and pages about what a great companion she was, and how he misses her terribly, and how she can single-handedly take on Dalek armies, and how her touch can cure scrofula, and... wittering on about characters he's created is Russell's primary sin in this book. The Irish twins, Trey Korte, Bob Lines... everyone makes an "old home week" reappearance in this book, despite the fact that nobody's been clamoring for their return to begin with.

The eventual revelation of the villains is right out of an old Star Trek episode, and their defeat is right out of a ST:TNG one (ie, lumps of technobabble in place of a plot resolution). All in all, the book degenerates fast after a promising start. But it did have a promising start, at least...

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Brink of Disaster

Everyone who points it out is absolutely, one hundred percent correct. Nothing the TARDIS does in this episode makes any sense. If you're trying to warn people that there's a stuck switch that they need to fix, melting all the clock-faces and knocking them unconscious and rendering them half-crazed with concussions and flashing random lights and showing random pictures on the scanner and electrifying most of the console is not the way to go about it if you have any kind of common sense at all. The big twist of the episode is that the TARDIS is intelligent, but it's rubbish at communicating.

But isn't that exactly what makes this concept work? The TARDIS is intelligent, yes. But it's not intelligent like you or I are intelligent. It is not a human. Ironically, Barbara had it right in the very beginning--there is a strange, alien intelligence inside the TARDIS. It's just that it's the TARDIS.

In that light, the weird and shambolic attempts to communicate are strangely brilliant script-writing. They convey just how alien the TARDIS is; simply attempting to communicate with the crew drives them to the edge of madness. Just describing a stuck switch can only be done in the loosest, most symbolic terms, by a creature who barely understands linear concepts of time let alone such human constructs as language. Idris might have gotten her tenses mixed up, but her human body brought her closer to the way the Doctor thinks than she'd ever been. And watching "The Brink of Disaster" shows that clearly.

Of course, I can't discuss an episode at this stage of the program's history without gushing over the chemistry between the four regulars, and this is no exception. The scene between the Doctor and Ian, where he explains that he lied about the amount of time remaining to them so that the others won't die in fear, is a wonderful piece of bonding between the two characters. It makes the subsequent scene, where the Doctor struggles to swallow his pride and apologize to Ian and Ian lets him squirm for just a moment before letting him off the hook, work that much better. This whole episode is really a turning point for the regulars, in fact. The final sequence between the Doctor and Barbara (and really, I can't imagine this scene working for any other set of actors in the show's long history) is a magnificent piece of characterization.

It's also quite necessary. As much as the semi-antagonistic relationship has created some amazing tension, it has to break at some point. The four leads can't spend forever at each other's throats, not without the story degenerating into pure antagonism. They're learning to trust each other, and you know what? It's the perfect time for that to happen. Ian, Susan, Barbara and the Doctor are about to start their real adventures, as a real TARDIS crew. And this two-parter--a crisis affecting only the four of them, that they could resolve only as a team--was exactly what was needed to make it happen.

The Edge of Destruction

This is a point where they still didn't know what Doctor Who was supposed to be. Really, it's a point where they still didn't know what television was supposed to be--the BBC had been broadcasting since the medium had been invented, and certainly long before most people had a set to view their output, but they were still getting used to the idea that television was its own dramatic form and not simply an exotic way of bringing live theater to the British public. Sydney Newman, the new Head of Drama, was in the process of reconceptualizing the medium for a modern era, but the process very much occurred in fits and starts. And it showed in "The Edge of Destruction", which feels very much like an avant-garde play by Samuel Beckett brought to the screen.

It really shouldn't work--some people would say that it doesn't--but it is nonetheless fascinating to watch. Again, you have to credit the four regulars with whatever success the episode does have; they're all behaving out-of-character, with varying degrees of confidence in the script (William Russell, for one, seems very unclear on what exactly he should be doing with the part as written and settles for a sort of amiable giddiness) but their characters have been established so well over the previous eleven episode that you can tell perfectly that they're not themselves. It's an unsettling effect, watching Susan stare with cold-eyed suspicion at Barbara only a short while after the two of them relied on each other implicitly.

Most of the criticism of the episode--and let's face it, this is the point where we all admit that we're none of us watching the series in a vacuum; it's almost impossible not to engage with fan consensus, whether we agree with it or not--centers on the fact that the explanations offered for the events on-screen make no sense. Which is more or less true, for what it's worth. Susan and Barbara spend the whole first episode speculating that some sort of alien intelligence got into the TARDIS and is possessing them, moving from one body to another and turning them against each other. That's not what's happening, but it's frankly such a good idea that it's amazing nobody's ever tried it in the fifty years since. It's risky, coming up with a really interesting plotline and mentioning it in your story and then not using it like that. There's always the chance that the audience will wish you'd stuck with the red herring.

But even though nothing makes literal sense, it makes emotional sense in the same way that a Beckett play does. Something strange has happened to the TARDIS. Instead of being a refuge at the end of a long and horrific journey, it's now become a place of danger. Just what sort of danger is left inchoate and unspoken, but the very minds of the crew are affected. Nobody is certain of themselves or each other, and it seems like some alien presence is hovering over them. And what the crew doesn't know that they're right. There is an alien presence in the TARDIS. It is what's making them act giddy or paranoid or out-and-out homicidal. They just haven't figured out yet what it is. The whole thing hangs together as an aesthetic perfectly, even if a plot summary of it doesn't seem to follow linear logic. That's why in some ways, this episode feels strangely modern. It wouldn't be out of place next to "Ghost Light", or "Midnight" from the new series. Sometimes "sense" isn't about intellect. It's about emotions. And the emotions of "The Edge of Destruction" work perfectly.

Retrospective: Andrew Cartmel

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on February 7, 2004.)

When Doctor Who fans think of Andrew Cartmel, they immediately think of the Seventh Doctor; before Virgin published anything other than novelizations of the televised episodes, Cartmel had already established himself as a major force in the Doctor Who creative pantheon with his tenure as script editor of the show. He did a lot to reinvent the lead character in the final years of the series, re-establishing him as a man of mystery and magic and bringing in an element of manipulation to the character -- Cartmel's Doctor isn't an explorer of the universe so much as a grand-master playing chess against it. Some traditional fans claimed that he'd gone too far... but when the time came for Virgin to begin the New Adventures, Cartmel's books for the Doctor Who series (Cat's Cradle: Warhead, Warlock, Warchild, and the later Foreign Devils for Telos Press) showed that if anything, he'd been restraining himself.

The three books for Virgin, Warhead, Warlock, and Warchild, are frequently referred to as a trilogy, but they don't really take a single plot and progress it as trilogies usually do. Rather, they're three distinct and separate novels that share common characters and themes, and many of these shared themes involve the vision of the Doctor that Cartmel had when he was script editor for the program. In fact, he pushes these boundaries so far that at times, the Doctor doesn't seem like the same character we see elsewhere in the books and on TV; he's more judgemental and less compassionate, acting almost as a supernatural force in defense of Earth against its own inhabitants. (Indeed, a common theme running through all four of Cartmel's books is an acceptance that magic is just as real as science, if not moreso -- a complete departure from established Who canon prior to his tenure on the series, but now just accepted as another aspect in the highly flexible Whoniverse.) Cartmel's Doctor also amps up his manipulative tendencies; in Warhead, his first novel, the Doctor works behind the scenes for the entire novel, appearing only in a few short sequences in the middle and at the end. (Of course, Cartmel adheres to long Doctor Who tradition by having the plan spectacularly collapse at the end, forcing the Doctor to succeed through a combination of luck and brilliant improvisation.) Warhead also introduces Justine and Vincent, who would become in many ways the central focus of the trilogy.

Warlock doesn't pick up the story of 'Warhead' at all, though; instead, it takes the central characters of Warlock and involves them, along with several new characters introduced in the second book, in an entirely different story. But again, the Doctor stays predominantly "off-screen"; most of the book is devoted to Ace and to Creed McIlveen, one of the new characters created. The Doctor steps onto the stage at the end to set things right, but Cartmel still tries to keep him very much at arm's length from the reader... and, in long-standing Doctor Who tradition, the Doctor's way of setting things right is haphazard, succeeds in no small part through chance, and leaves a lot of loose ends lying around waiting to blow up in someone else's face.

Warchild, the final book in the trilogy, concerns itself mostly with wrapping up those loose ends, and is as such rather light on plot. In fact, all of Cartmel's books are fairly light on plot, but that doesn't seem to concern him over-much; Cartmel writes very much to evoke a sensation of tangibility in the reader, a feeling that one could literally step into the scene he's describing. As such, he spends a lot of time describing the sensations, the emotions, the details of a scene to great effect; his books have a very immersive quality to them. It does mean that he takes a lot of time to describe very simple events, though; Warlock, which is one of the longer Doctor Who books, takes almost fifty pages to describe a drug bust. It's almost the opposite approach to writers like Lawrence Miles and Ben Aaronovich, although it's not without its charms.

Until relatively recently, the 'War' trilogy summed up Cartmel's contributions to prose Who, but he did contribute to Telos' line of Doctor Who novellas with Foreign Devils. This is a slice of nostalgia, which seems almost surprising coming from an author like Cartmel; still, you can see his stylistic influences creeping in on the cozy and traditional Second Doctor. It's a world where magic exists and the Doctor knows it (indeed, the book acts as a cross-over with an early 1900s character named Carnacki, an investigator into the spiritual world.) Cartmel's attention might be elsewhere, but his interest in Doctor Who has, apparently, not yet entirely faded.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: Camera Obscura

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on September 1, 2003.)

Camera Obscura isn't so much a book as a piece of confectionary -- Lloyd Rose's second book is light, sweet, and fluffy, leaving a pleasant taste in your mouth as it melts delightfully into the memory. It's not a calorie-heavy work; the plot, which revolves around a dangerously malfunctioning time machine, is a light run-around that never distracts from the important part. This is a book that entirely deals with the repercussions of The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, and provides us plenty of Sabbath/Doctor conflicts and confrontations to bring a grin to our faces. Sabbath more or less winds up being the straight man to the Doctor's "Bugs Bunny"-esque revenge for the events of the last several books, and we love every minute of it.

I do recall saying in my review of The Adventuress of Henrietta Street that had the Doctor been in full possession of his faculties at the time, he would never have allowed Sabbath to do what he did -- and furthermore, that once his faculties had returned, he'd reverse it. In fact, he goes one better than that. Upon finding out that his second heart now beats in Sabbath's chest, he finds method after method of making use of the fact to make Sabbath regret every possible moment of his double-hearted-ness. From invading Sabbath's brains to stabbing himself in the chest just for fun, we finally see a bit of a return to form for the Doctor. He's no congenital idiot in this book... instead, he's the one pulling the strings, and Sabbath dances for him.

Mainly, I think, this is because Lloyd Rose is writing a thinly-disguised Seventh Doctor. In fact, I think that Lloyd Rose is writing a thinly-disguised Virgin NA, complete with an appearance by Death and as many other continuity references as she can get away with. Not that I think this is a bad thing by any stretch, naturally. I geek out on the NAs with the best of them, and anyone trying for a conscious evocation of my favorite era of the series gets my vote.

This is, for the most part, a "mythos" book, and as such it really lives or dies on the strengths of the regulars. The plot isn't much cod, another "oh, look, with the Time Lords gone time machines are common and that's BAD", with some clever little curlicues. But it's not about the plot -- it's about finding out what Sabbath's been up to, and getting the first real confrontation between the two and the setting down of their respective philosophies... and in that sense, it shines. Sabbath comes off well, the Doctor comes off better, and the companions get some good moments too (although Anji still doesn't drive me wild.)

The prose is just delightful, too... every scene between the Doctor and Sabbath crackles with energy, and there's just some wonderful lines and wonderful scenes. It does subscribe to the Kate Orman School of Torturing the Doctor, in some very gruesome ways...but unlike some of the other novels that went in for this, the Doctor gets sequences that show that he can take the pain and still save the day, which I love. Recommended.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Retrospective: Barry Letts

In order to understand Barry Letts' three efforts as a Doctor Who novelist (The Ghosts of N-Space, Deadly Reunion, Island of Death), you first need to understand the period in which they were written. The Wilderness Years, as they've become known, was an era in which Doctor Who had no presence on television--the only way to experience the show was through an alternative medium such as books, comics or radio. However, there was still a large audience for Doctor Who stories.

More accurately, there were still two large audiences for Doctor Who stories. On the one hand, there were a large number of fans who felt like the series had been cancelled just as it was hitting its stride and reinventing itself, and they best loved those stories that pushed the boundaries of what Doctor Who had been doing over the last few years of its televised existence. (Doctor Who stories that fell into this category were usually called "rad".) On the other hand, there were a large number of fans who felt like the series had gotten too far away from its roots, and preferred stories that returned to a storytelling style more in keeping with the older episodes. (Doctor Who stories that fell into this category were called "trad".)

Barry Letts, as a former writer, producer and director for the show, was much beloved as an elder statesman figure by the fans who enjoyed "trad" Doctor Who. His heyday, the Jon Pertwee era, was to some the epitome of what the series did best. This audience was present in sufficient numbers to get Letts, along with Jon Pertwee and Lis Sladen, to reprise their roles for two radio plays on the BBC's radio network written and directed by Letts. As was generally the case, Virgin Books (who were starved for new material during the Wilderness Years) adapted the first one as a standalone novel, and the second one as part of their Missing Adventures series.

This second novel, 'The Ghosts of N-Space', proved to be something of a sticking point. Because although there were a lot of "rad" fans, and a lot of "trad" fans, they didn't necessarily congregate in the same places or look to the same sources for their Doctor Who enjoyment. And Virgin Books, with its New and Missing Adventures, was definitely the home at the time of "rad" Doctor Who. 'The Ghosts of N-Space' felt very out of place next to the New Adventures, and even somewhat out of place along the more overtly nostalgic Missing Adventures. Later, when he published 'Deadly Reunion' (with Terrance Dicks, his script editor during the Pertwee era) and 'Island of Death', the situation had in some ways gotten worse--"trad" fans had moved to the Big Finish audios, which featured the original actors reprising their parts, and Letts' novels were even less welcome. Because fundamentally, Barry Letts hadn't really changed anything about his style since the early 1970s.

His novels fell very much into the "Boy's Own" style of pulp adventures, with very thin and very straightforward plots driven by villains without much motivation beyond the desire for power for its own sake. His prose could best be described as similar to the Target novels of the 1970s, serving mainly to transcribe the events of the story with very little in the way of the stylistic flourishes that were in vogue at the time. Most of the characterization in his books came from recreating the actors' performances, although Letts did introduce a new companion in the form of Jeremy Fitzoliver. You could say that this was a radical thing to do, as Jeremy didn't fit into the mold of most companions; he wasn't very bright, or very brave, or very interesting, or even tolerable to be around for more than a few minutes. But the same qualities that made him somewhat experimental as a companion made him also pretty difficult to stomach reading about.

In short, Letts was primarily a producer and director who was asked to write, in order to please an audience that primarily wasn't paying attention to novels. As a result, the novel-reading audience that did pick up Letts' books was anything but charitable to his old-fashioned style. This isn't to say that his novels are terrible; in fact, divorced from the expectations that were placed upon them during the Wilderness Years, they're quite readable, if fairly forgettable, action-adventure novels. If they'd come out during the period they were set in, Barry Letts' tenure as producer of Doctor Who, they'd probably be quite fondly remembered. But Doctor Who had moved with the times, and it's hard not to feel as if Letts might not have been better off serving as a beloved elder statesman than as a modern author.