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.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: Rags

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on August 12, 2001.)

Well, I obviously took quite a long hiatus to get to the end of this one; unfortunately, I think some of this was engendered by the novel itself. I found myself agreeing with both sides of the debate over this novel; on the one hand, I agreed that it was an intruiging experiment in bringing elements from a different genre to the world of Doctor Who, while on the other hand, I agreed that it was repetitive and slow. On the whole, I'd have to say that its structural flaws outweigh its innovations in approach.

The biggest problem with Rags is that it doesn't progress forwards, rather it simply trawls along sideways until it reaches a certain point. Very little happens in the novel; to sum up the plot would be to repeat over and over, "The band and its followers move to a new town. People get killed. The band and its followers move to a new town. People get killed. The band..." until finally, the band and its followers move to the last town, and the Doctor lectures the evil creature until its followers turn on it and seal it up in a big rock. Needless to say, plotwise, this is not sparkling work.

Stylistically, it borrows heavily from the "splatterpunk" sub-genre of horror, which uses vivid and evocative images of violence, gore, and repulsiveness to create a horror reaction that isn't so much terror as it is reflexive revulsion; the scenes of the singer spewing maggots from his mouth, or the descriptions of the policemen being torn apart by the band's followers are perfect examples. Unfortunately, though, with nothing else but these images to sustain the narrative, the sheer repetitiveness destroys their power. (The same is also true for the descriptions of the band's music; there is an inherent difficulty in conveying music in a print medium, and ultimately, reading "They played a hateful tune" in umpteen variations grew tiresome by the end.)

In addition, the book suffers from "EDA Syndrome" the Doctor does sod-all through the course of the narrative, and spends large portions of it imprisoned and filled with self-doubt. Seen it, done it, been there, bought the T-shirt.

I had high hopes at the beginning of Rags... the author does have a vivid prose style, and some scenes still stand out in the mind. Ultimately, though, the story is a hollow shell, and while it looks interesting, there's nothing there to lend it weight.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Retrospective: Russell T Davies

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on September 25, 2003. Which should explain a lot.)

By the later stages of the Virgin New Adventures, word had spread far beyond the fan community about its quality and willing to take risks. Authors with friends and connections at the BBC, such as Ben Aaronovitch and Mark Gatiss, had communicated the enjoyment of writing for the range to other authors who'd not yet done a novel. Presumably it was this that attracted Russell T Davies, an award-winning TV dramatist, to write his novel Damaged Goods for the line. Whatever the reason, he brought a powerful intensity and a darkly different sensibility to the series.

Davies' previous work included the soap opera 'Revelations', and one can easily spot a "soap opera" influence on the novel; not in the pejorative sense it's usually used in, of cheap melodrama and endless shock revelations, but in a setting of all-too-human people, each concealing a life-time's worth of secrets and interacting with each other in a toxic cat's cradle of lies, anger, love, sorrow, and hatred. The Doctor beautifully describes the Quadrant, the housing settlement that forms the setting of Damaged Goods, as "76 fortresses", and Davies makes it seem as though he's worked out a complete life's story for each of those fortresses' inhabitants.

That's not to say that he ignores the science fiction elements of Doctor Who, though. Damaged Goods ties in quite well with the psi-powers arc it's a part of, neatly bridging The Death of Art and So Vile A Sin, even if the Brotherhood themselves play a small part. It also ties in with Gallifreyan history and legend in a way that neatly betrays Davies as a closet Doctor Who fan; no other could know not just about the War against the vampires, but also about the different colleges of Gallifreyan society as well (and the cameo by an ancestor of Benny is just the icing on the cake.) It all ties together with its human elements in a glorious tragedy that tears at the heartstrings.

But to laud the plot and characterization is to ignore Davies' true strength, his ability to generate atmosphere. When I say "glorious tragedy", I mean it; Damaged Goods generates an atmosphere of suffocating horror, despair, and dread so profound that when you finally do stop reading, it feels almost like you're surfacing. This is a book you could drown in, and it doesn't let up for even a moment.

I feel sure that Russell T Davies won't write for the range again; after all, he must have had opportunities in the almost seven years since Damaged Goods has been published. That's unfortunate, since his one novel for the range was a genuine triumph, a powerful and brilliant piece right down to its perfectly apt title. He's exactly the kind of author who needs to be invited back for a repeat performance; even if his follow-up is only half as good, it'd still be impressive.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Capsule Review: Fearmonger

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on October 15, 2003.)

A pretty strong audio, with an absolutely corking beginning (the DJ suddenly looking up and finding the Doctor sitting in on his call-in show), and an absolutely ripping ending, and several good bits in between. There's a bit of a muddle towards the middle, with people switching sides every five minutes and perhaps one too many speeches about the New Britannia Party being bad (although I do think it funny that for the whole audio, the Doctor's saying how he can't do anything about the NBP because they're a human problem, and humans have to deal with them... only to, at the end, cut them off at the knees and leave them to the mob); however, Sylvester gets some choice speeches, and shows why he's probably the best Doctor for the audios. (It's Sylv or Colin. Depends on the script and my mood, really.)

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Rescue

In a way, "The Rescue" is impressive precisely because it doesn't know what it can't do. Doctor Who, in its classic incarnation, is never going to be able to pull off really big action least, not in a way that will look convincing to modern audiences. It could be argued that contemporary audiences in 1964 weren't expecting a convincing and realistic depiction of a pitched battle between two groups of aliens, one of them utterly inhuman, as the clocked ticked down to nuclear annihilation...well, presumably nuclear annihilation, although it should be noted that everyone who wasn't a Dalek had already taken anti-radiation drugs...but the point is, we're not a 1964 audience. The final battle in this episode looks amateurish. Charmingly amateurish to some, frustratingly amateurish to others, but it looks like people trying to do an action movie on a stage play budget.

But in a way, that's the brilliance of Doctor Who. John Nathan-Turner trotted the phrase out to justify his low budgets and cheap effects and wobbly sets, but he was right. The memory does cheat. The story we remember is never quite the one we saw, especially when we were children, and usually that's to its benefit. As the details fade away a bit under the relentless onslaught of what we wanted the ending to be, the shaky sets become the sturdy walls of an alien citadel. The twee Thals trying to push around the expensive Dalek props without breaking them become a last-ditch desperate assault against invincible robot overlords. The story we saw becomes the story we remember, echoing larger and larger in our memories until it becomes myth.

In that light, it's not surprising that Doctor Who never really did learn the lesson of "The Rescue". It should have learned that it can't do massive action set-pieces, that it needs to be small and intellectual and cerebral and focus on little character moments. Instead, Doctor Who decided it could be amazing and spectacular and it never stopped trying its big, crazy ideas, whether it could make them look convincing or not. And we got acid lakes and ant people and Dalek factories and the siege of Troy and Time Destructors and a million million memories, each one perfect...even if we sometimes go back to the series and feel just a tiny bit cheated.

Which is all a very polite way of saying that the final episode of 'The Daleks' isn't that good. The countdown to nuclear death feels flat and unthreatening, despite Hartnell's best efforts to raise the moment through strategic outrage (in some ways, this is the first episode where we see the Doctor behave like the Doctor we're familiar with, as he rages at the Daleks' decision to murder the Thals as a matter of moral principle and not mere self-interest). The fight scene is choreographed badly, and gives the impression that the Daleks were always one stumble away from destroying their own power source and wiping themselves out. And the moment at the end, where the Dalek begs for mercy and the Doctor spurns him with "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't," feels tone-deaf and out of place with the series as it would come to be. The Daleks of the first few episodes, who were more paranoid that evil, could have begged for mercy. The Daleks of "The Rescue" had earned their demise.

Still, the amazing thing about it is that it was tried. At this point, the series' only flaw was that it was too ambitious. And better that than the alternative.

Retrospective: David A. McIntee

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on May 29, 2003.)

David A. McIntee has never been an author I've been personally fond of. In fact, on more than one occasion, I've singled him out as particularly worthy of disdain among Doctor Who authors, using him as an example of a "bad" writer for the series. In fact, as I realized after reading his complete library (White Darkness, First Frontier, Sanctuary, Lords of the Storm, The Shadow of Weng-Chiang, The Dark Path, The Face of the Enemy, Mission: Impractical, The Wages of Sin, Autumn Mist, Bullet Time), McIntee has a lot to recommend him as a writer of Doctor Who...just not as a writer of Doctor Who novels.

I think the problem is that he's working in the wrong medium. His ideas and plots are actually quite clever and innovative when you describe them -- First Frontier, to cite one example at random, would have been a wonderful TV episode, re-invigorating the stale and cartoonish Master into a genuinely ruthless and menacing villain and playing with fifties sci-fi ambience to boot. (At this point, I should add the caveat that McIntee would do well to write for that Doctor Who series with an unlimited budget that we've all imagined.) He's also a meticulous and careful researcher, thoroughly grounding all of his stories in period history (with the obvious exception of Mission: Impractical.) When you summarize any McIntee book, it sounds like a great idea.

But when you read them, it's an entirely different story. McIntee's writing style is something akin to being drowned in porridge -- it's good, healthy stuff, but it's not meant to be taken in all at once, and you certainly want to spice it up with something. He uses very little humor in his novels, and what humor he does use is of the "dry" variety; stylistically, his novels almost read like a police deposition of their events. It doesn't help that he has a certain sameness to each scene within the novel; every scene must begin with a meticulous description of the area in which it's set, like he's writing a supplement for a role-playing game and needs to make sure his players know what they're walking into. Again, in a television show this wouldn't be a problem, because the visuals don't get described, but in prose, it drags down the story. Ditto with his action sequences -- McIntee loves martial arts, space battles, and gunfights, but those are exactly the things that don't translate well to prose, and his style of describing them as though he's putting down a report for the cops doesn't help matters.

His characterization would also be aided in a different medium -- with actors speaking the lines, they'd be able to add their own nuances, making his dialogue a little more "user-friendly". As it is, the Doctor comes off as so generic as to make the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Second, and Seventh seem exactly alike, and even Ace and Benny wind up feeling flat. His own characters come out of the realm of "movie stock characters", which again wouldn't be so bad with actors inhabiting them. (It also doesn't help that McIntee seems to have a blood-lust regarding the population of his novels; if he wrote a cop movie, every single member of the force would be One Day From Retirement. He apparently wanted to kill off Barbara and Sam in addition to his bumping off Dibber and possibly Sarah Jane, but luckily wiser heads prevailed.)

He did make some good additions to the Who mythos, though; the Tzun, the alien race that form the Doctor Who equivalent to the Greys and appear in four of his novels in some form, make an interesting change from the snarling thugs that usually try to conquer the Earth. Nobody else made use of them, but they do have a certain dry charm to them that epitomizes McIntee's work.

And, of course, no retrospective of McIntee would be complete without discussing the Master -- his first novel, White Darkness, featured a red herring in the form of a character named LeMaitre who was older than he seemed, but it wasn't long before we got the genuine article, and it seemed sometimes like all of the effort in characterization that should have been spread throughout his novel went instead into the Master. His trilogy of Master novels (The Dark Path, The Face of the Enemy, and First Frontier) redefine the melodramatic and one-dimensional villain of the television series into a ruthless, brilliant, calculating enemy worthy of the Doctor's opposition. When McIntee wrote the Master, you had a sense that he might win, which was most welcome given the character's tendency to degenerate into "Nuzzink in ze vorld can schtop me now!" cartoonishness.

On the whole, I do think that McIntee has more talent than I've given him credit for, and that he's an intelligent and innovative writer who probably has more to contribute to the range. I just don't think I could stand to read another of his books anytime soon.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Ordeal

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I mean, nobody's ever made a television series without a duff episode or two, and every seven-parter has its share of padding here and there. It just so happens that this is the episode where all of the padding went, and a good share of the awful acting as well. We've had a lovely run of great, tense sequences with lots of intelligent moral dilemmas and real intense emotions, and we'll get those things again. It's just one utterly missable episode, after all. Not so terrible in the scheme of things.

But it is utterly missable. It's a complete stall; the Doctor's group sits around for most of the episode playing ineffectual pranks on the Daleks before getting captured, while Ian's party wanders around in a series of caves running into literal as well as figurative dead ends. As for the Daleks, the only thing they manage to achieve in thirty minutes of screen time is figuring out that it wouldn't be very exciting if the heroes had only twenty-three days to stop them from wiping out all life on the planet. Oh, and they get a scene where they just straight up do Nazi salutes and announce that tomorrow belongs to them. Terry Nation's thirty-three year long analogy begins here, folks.

Perhaps the episode wouldn't have been so bad if Marcus Hammond had made a better job of his performance as Antodus. The whole tension of the episode, at least on paper, revolves around Antodus' slow, inexorable nervous breakdown that threatens to undermine the success of Ian's expedition. (It should be noted that even on paper, this isn't particularly enthralling, because Antodus is never entrusted with any particular responsibility with which he could fail and cause danger to the others. He more or less hangs out at the back whining, and the primary danger seems to be that they could at any moment lose a bit of the deadweight slowing them down. The only way Nation can contrive even a small amount of danger is to literally tie Ian to Antodus and make his dead weight a concrete threat instead of merely a metaphor.)

But even with its other flaws, Hammond's performance drags the whole thing down. His plea to Ganatus to turn back, which should be a total breakdown into quivering panic, sounds more like he's advising that they're all out of cucumber sandwiches and it may just be time to retire to the clubhouse for gin and tonics before the weather gets too bally rough to get in another round of croquet. He has no urgency, no fear, and no real character in the scene, and as a result you're utterly uninvested in whether he succeeds or not. And if Antodus, the one potentially interesting aspect of the episode, fails...well, you're not left with much to work with. It says a lot that even the cardboard Dalek standees couldn't lower the previous episode to this story's level.

(But wow, did they try.)

The Expedition

As with "The Dead Planet", this is an episode that's much more about the decisions that everyone makes in the episode, and the rationales behind them, than it is about the events. Not much actually happens here, any more than it did in "The Dead Planet"; the majority of the episode centers on whether or not the Thals will help the Doctor and his friends. More importantly, it centers on whether they have the right to convince the Thals to fight and die in order to rescue the Doctor from his own stupidity. The scene where Ian, Susan, the Doctor and Barbara argue about whether they should convince the Thals to go to war is really startling for a number of reasons.

The first is the way it shows a new side of Barbara. After only nine episodes, she's really established herself as the moral center of the group, and so it's shocking to hear her take the harshly pragmatic tack of pointing out that they can't spend the rest of their lives trapped in a petrified jungle with the Thals waiting for the Daleks to kill them. When Ian points out that she's being selfish, and she doesn't disagree, it's a side of her that we've not yet seen. (And it's also clever of the show to resist having "sides". This fight is the Doctor and Barbara against Ian with Susan as the mediator. We've previously seen the Doctor and Susan as a pair, and Ian and Barbara as another pair, but now we're forced to reexamine everything we know about the group.)

The second is the emotional intensity Ian brings to the scene. Again, you don't get companions like this anymore. He's seething with frustration at the situation he's in, knowing that he's about to ask people to die for him. "What victory are you going to show these people when most of them have been killed, eh? A fluid link? Is this what you're going to hold up to them and say, 'Thank you very much! This is what you fought and died for!'?" It's a brutal, scathing indictment, delivered with amazing passion. (Again, I hate to keep bringing up the Aaru version, but the same scene as done by Roy Castle and Peter Cushing has absolutely no dramatic tension. It's also telling that there's no deliberation on the part of the Thals afterward in the film, whereas in the televised version their decision is the centerpoint of the episode.)

And the third is that the Daleks are right. In the scene immediately preceding this one, the Daleks are watching the TARDIS crew with the Thals, and they say that the logical assumption is that the two groups will try to kill the Daleks. And it's completely true. The Daleks' paranoia and fear of all non-Dalek lifeforms, at this crucial juncture in their history before they became monsters, is absolutely proved true. It's really quite chilling, and carries some horrifying implications for later stories. Would the Daleks really be so aggressive if the Time Lords hadn't kept trying to unhappen their very existence?

But then there's the defining moment for the Daleks, the one that I talked about in the essay on "The Survivors". So far, they've been monsters that don't know they're monsters. But in this episode, they find out. They distribute the anti-radiation drugs, thrilled at the idea that they can finally escape their metal shells and their sterile city. Their five hundred-year long ordeal is over and things can return to normal. Even the Thals, their long-feared enemies, are within striking range, and the war can finally end...

And like Rappacini's daughter, the cure is poison to them. The radiation they had assumed was toxic is now their lifeblood. They can only survive on a dead world. What is survival to all other lifeforms in the universe is anathema to them, and they are damned to skulk inside their metal shells forever. Is it any wonder that their next move is to utterly lose their shit and set off a neutron bomb that will wipe out every living being on the planet that isn't a Dalek? For them, this is the point of no return. If they must be monsters, then they will be fucking effective ones, at least.

This is the moment where the Daleks are truly born. And because the Doctor really doesn't become the character we know him to be until he has some monsters to fight, you could argue that this is when Doctor Who is truly born as well.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Review: A Life of Surprises

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, March 14, 2003.)

Now that Bernice Summerfield has been around, as a character, for a decade (a quite respectable length of time for a fictional character), it's time for a celebration of her exploits -- an anthology that selects moments from her long and storied career and presents them to us for our enjoyment!

Except for her time with the Doctor, because we don't have the rights. And most of her time on Dellah, because we don't have the rights. And we've just decided to ignore those five years on Vremnya. So, here it is, a celebration of the last year of the ten years of Bernice Summerfield!

Actually, that's a bit harsh. Several of the stories do at least make veiled references to the Doctor, even if they can't mention him directly (except for Terrance Dicks, who gets away with it because he's Terrance Dicks.) And there's even one story that mentions Dellah. Still, the whole thing is weighted a bit heavily towards the Big Finish era of Benny books and audios, which, while it isn't a bad thing, does get away from the "anniversary" aspect of the anthology.

Don't get me wrong, though -- I loved A Life of Surprises. This is, overall, one of the top anthologies produced for Doctor Who and spin-offs, and possibly the best ever. Lots of great authors, lots of strong stories, and very little dross.

The Shape of the Hole, by Paul Cornell, is one of the ones that makes veiled reference to the Doctor, and has a nice message. Kind of hard to say more about it, because it's two pages long.

Kill the Mouse!, by Daniel O'Mahoney, is another example of why I think this writer should do another Who novel -- while this is a beautiful bit of prose and a fascinating story, it still feels way too short. It's as though he wrote an excerpt from a novel (my complaint about the last O'Mahoney story I read, Heart of Glass, as well.) Still, it's got vivid imagery and creepy scenes.

Solar Max and the Seven-Handed Snake Mother, by Kate Orman, is the result of what I can only assume was some sort of bet to see if she could write a story based on that title. It is a good story, if a bit strange, but the whole thing seems ever so slightly, well... like it was written to justify that title.

A Mutual Friend, by Terrance Dicks, is utter shameless pandering to the fans by making an utterly contrived meeting between Sarah Jane Smith and Bernice Summerfield. That said, I loved it because I'm one of the fans being shamelessly pandered to. That, and I loved the line about "alco-pops saying 'pop' but thinking 'alco'."

Alien Planets and You, by Dave Stone, is one of the highlights of the collection for me... then again, I'm a Dave Stone fan. It's a hilarious how-to-be-Benny guide, complete with footnotes on how the hints are used in practice. My one complaint (which also pops up later) is that the footnotes are placed at the end of the story instead of the bottom of the page, which breaks the rhythm of the story a bit.

Something Broken, by Paul Ebbs, is another funny one -- Benny lends herself to humor better than the Doctor, I think, and the short story lends itself better to humor than to any other genre, so the two together help a lot.

The Collection, by Peter Anghelides, might have worked better as a novel -- it's a time travel story, with several twists and turns, but crammed into such a small space that it's like watching Greg Louganis try to do a triple-somersault half-pike into the shallow end of the pool. It also doesn't help that it has the same footnote problem that Alien Planets and You did.

Setting Stone, by Mark Stevens, is another story that makes reference to the Doctor... and to the morally ambiguous nature of some of the Seventh Doctor's adventures. Here, the archaeologist Benny comes across the remains of a civilization she helped bring down, lo those many centuries ago. Bittersweet, but pretty good.

Time's Team, by David McIntee, ranks as one of his better works -- I've always liked McIntee's ideas, but felt he had somewhat undifferentiated prose, so it's nice to see him put some work into making this one... well, still not sparkle, perhaps, but at least glint. It's another humorous story, too.

Beedlemania, by Nev Fountain, is possibly the strangest story in the collection, needing to be read to be believed. It's also quite, quite funny, although it doesn't do wonders for Ace's reputation. So mind-bogglingly strange as to beggar the imagination.

The All-Seeing Eye, by Justin Richards, is haunting, beautiful, and strange... and creepy, too. Richards is usually noted for his plotting, not his characterization, but this one is almost all character -- and does a lot of development in a very short span. Seen as a companion piece to Virgin Lands from the Short Trips: Zodiac collection, it's very interesting indeed.

And Then Again, by Rob Shearman, is yet another one of those bloody alternate universe stories... and one that has the (unnamed) Doctor in it to boot. That said, it's still quite good, being a glimpse of the one person who you'd expect to be most like Bernice, and yet is pretty much her exact opposite.

Cuckoo, by Stephen Fewell, is actually a bit of a plodder... after all is said and done, not much actually happens in this story, unless of course you count the chicken attack. The message seems kind of vague, too. Probably the weakest story of the anthology, but still not actually bad.

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, by David Bailey, has the world's biggest plot hole, but dances around it interestingly. (The story involves Benny having stored some of her memories in a 'menmosine store book', which locks up the memory so she doesn't remember it, but the book will. The bad guy tricks her into reading the book out loud so he can find out what she knows... but she's stored so much stuff in it that help arrives before he gets to the relevant information. The plot hole? If she's stored all this stuff in it, she doesn't remember it, which basically means that Benny is a total amnesiac.) Also notable for another hidden Doctor appearance, in which he restores all of Benny's lost diaries to her.

Squadborronfell, by Nick Walters, is a nice enough mood piece, a sad little reflection on war and hatred that rises above the 'Star Trek'-esque plot it's given. Still, not that memorable -- although again, not bad.

Taken By the Muses, by Steve Lyons, is an absolutely hilarious story of Benny having to argue for her life entirely in rhyme before the Supreme Muse. Steve Lyons every once in a while gets a weird rhyming obssession which can turn out quite funny, and this is another recurrence of it. I loved it.

The Spartacus Syndrome, by Jonathan Morris, could well be the best story of the collection and cements Morris' skyrocketing reputation after two fantastic novels. I won't go into detail, except to say that first, this is a story worth picking up a collection for (although I hope I've made it clear that the collection as a whole is good), and second, he fits the 'Life of Brian' joke in there.

Might, by Neil Corry, brings back Keith from Return of the Living Dad... well, maybe it does. Maybe it doesn't. Hard to say, which is one of the strong points of the story. It's got some interesting stuff in it -- not on the high end of the anthology, but that's only because it's a very good anthology.

Paydirt, by Lance Parkin, takes the same level of myth-building that we see all the time for the Doctor and points out that, by now, this can actually apply to Bernice as well, which is an astonishing thing when you think about it. Probably more "ground-breaking" than "good", but still both, which is always welcome.

Dear Friend, by Jim Sangster, is Benny's open letter to the Doctor... and does anyone else find it odd that the Doctor apparently never visits her, even "off-screen", and she never mentions his name, even when talking about him? It's like the characters are aware of the licencing agreements. *shrug* A nice enough capper to the collection, except for...

Afterword, by Lloyd Rose, which isn't a story at all, but the actual afterword -- an essay on the evolution of Bernice which really makes you just want to stand up and cheer for the character.

That's basically what this anthology is -- a big cheer for Bernice. And as one of her big fans, I invite everyone to join right in.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Ambush

Once again, it's amazing how bloody watchable the main cast makes this series. It is really hard to impress upon people who've grown up thinking of Doctor Who as a show with a fundamentally changeable dynamic, where cast members rotate regularly on a season-by-season basis, just how much thought and effort went into making every one of the series leads an important character in their own right and just how much this pays off on a week-by-week basis. In this episode, there's no less than three scenes that could have been mundane time-stretchers (and in the Aaru film, they were exactly that) transformed brilliantly by the chemistry among the four leads.

The first is when Ian is stuck in the Dalek machine. Again, from a plotting standpoint this is nothing more than a stall; it plays for time during the escape from the Dalek city that has to take up the better part of a whole episode, it provides a cheap "race against time" thrill as the Daleks try to cut the door down before Ian can get out and get away in the lift, and it gives a brief shocking moment when the sequence is edited misleadingly so that it looks like he failed.

But as played, it's something much better. William Russell plays Ian's demand that the others leave him with an utterly believable intensity, all the more impressive for the fact that you can't see his face and his voice is being converted through a ring modulator. Jacqueline Hill responds with an equally ferocious determination to stay, reminding you through her performance that to Barbara, Ian is just about the only thing she can rely on in the entire world right now. They're marooned together in a strange world, and the Doctor and Susan are aliens who've kidnapped them. She needs Ian, and the actress plays that perfectly.

And of course, the Doctor's response is to say, "Sounds good, let's go!" He's still not the Doctor as we know him. He is perfectly happy to skive off and leave others to take the brunt of his mistakes...and while some would argue that never entirely changes, at least later on he stops doing so knowingly and deliberately. This is a Doctor who is a coward, and Hartnell manages to play that effectively while still remaining sympathetic. And finally, Carole Ann Ford acts as the bridge between his alien morality and his human companions, instinctively grasping the importance of sticking together and helping those who help you. It's a brief scene, but it's rendered magnificently.

The second moment is when they do escape the city, and have to decide whether to go back to help the Thals. Here again, it's Ian who volunteers to do so alone, settling firmly into the mantle of hero at this stage in the series. (Yes, Sue is right. At this point, they really should have called the show 'Ian'.) Again, we see the Doctor entirely willing to agree with any plan that involves someone else taking the risk, and again we see Susan determined to do the right thing because at this point in the series, she's the Doctor's conscience externalized. But Barbara, this time, has calmed herself to the point where she recognizes the wisdom of Ian's plan. It shows that she's not hysterical or clingy, which the previous scene might have conveyed on its own; she's intelligent, sensible, and no more in over her head than everyone else is. Which happens to be a lot.

And the final moment is the cliffhanger which is delightfully experimental, playing with the audience's expectations almost before it's had a chance to form them. We're at the end of the fourth chapter of the serial, the Doctor and his friends have reached the safety of the TARDIS just like they did at the end of "The Firemaker", and it's time to be off. But just when the audience is assuming they know the structure of the show, and just when they're assuming it's all over, Ian drops the bombshell. They can't leave without defeating the Daleks. They have to get involved, whether they want to or not. And every moment of that realization is etched so perfectly on the regulars' faces that it's a better cliffhanger than any monster scare ever could be.

Ian, Barbara and Susan. I don't think that Doctor Who could ever have succeeded without them.

The Escape

Mark it here: The first real creative misstep of Doctor Who happens seven episodes in, and it's a doozy. It happens as soon as Susan sees Alydon for the first time, and responds to his appearance with the words, "'re perfect."

There are really only two ways to read this scene. The first is that Terry Nation didn't think about the implications of having one of the four main characters respond to the appearance of a traditionally Aryan blond-haired, (metaphorically) blue-eyed white man by coding them as "perfect". That to him, that was completely obvious and the only reason Susan needed to comment on it was that it was unusual given what she'd been told about the Thals by the Daleks. I'm going to be immensely charitable here and not read it that way, because that's pretty much racism at its most overt and I don't think ill enough of Terry Nation to believe that he just assumed that white people were better than everybody else. Not less than twenty years after World War II, and not given that he makes the Daleks into Nazi analogues in every subsequent appearance.

The second, then, is that it's intended as deliberate irony that the pacifist Thals were once the aggressors, and their racial coding along with the suggestion that they were the ones who started the war is supposed to suggest that they're like post-war Germany. They're so traumatized by their own propensity for violence that they have rejected it utterly, and this is being exploited by monsters who have no scruples or principles. Which would code the Daleks as the Soviet Union, still paranoid after the last war and unwilling to see any kind of common ground with an enemy that nearly wiped them out. (Or as Israel, but again, choosing to not assume Nation is a horribly horribly racist person unless it's explictly coded as such.)

Which, okay, that's a fair enough reading, given that the Dalek plan to wipe them out seems to be portrayed in the story as a "preemptive retaliatory strike"; the Daleks can't even conceive of helping the Thals after all they've done to them, and they assume that the Thals will respond to a refusal of aid with violence, so the only option is to get their licks in first. But if that's the case--if that's the reading Nation is going with--then suggesting that the Thals need to renounce their pacifism and take up arms again, as he inevitably does in a couple of episodes, is pretty awful. In keeping with the character of the times, when the same people who completely and totally disarmed Germany and Japan then started to wonder why they weren't doing more to help us in the Cold War, but awful nonetheless.

But in some ways worse than all that...they're just so bloody twee! Every scene they're in, they undercut not just the drama of the story but the logic of the plot and the mood of the scene and basic common sense, to be perfectly blunt. We're told that their crops all failed, that they're a people on the edge of starvation and extinction who are reduced to begging their once-mortal enemies for mercy. But on-screen, they engage in middle-school banter about how "Alydon's got a girlfriend", lounge around in ridiculous outfits, and seem unconcerned with their situation except as a point of philosophy. They're polite and mannered to the point of absurdity--it's like watching Tolkien's elves stuck in the plot of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'.

Frankly, every time the story cuts back to them, it's like a splash of cold water in the face reminding you that you're really just watching a bunch of actors larking about on a cheap jungle set. Thank goodness the episode also contains the wonderfully tense jailbreak sequence that gives it its title, which is staged, shot and acted brilliantly, or this episode would be a disaster.

Retrospective: Dave Stone

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on April 13, 2003.)

Every once in a while, when reading and writing reviews of any sort, it becomes clear that there is no "Everyman" reviewer. Everyone brings their own personal quirks and preferences to the judgement of a creative work. Frequently, this doesn't matter because the work in question is either so self-evidently good or so self-evidently bad that a consensus can be reached... but every once in a while, you get an author who divides opinion sharply, and who cannot be categorized. Dave Stone (Sky Pirates!, Death and Diplomacy, Burning Heart, Ship of Fools, Oblivion, The Mary-Sue Extrusion, Return to the Fractured Planet, Heart of TARDIS, The Slow Empire, The Infernal Nexus, Citadel of Dreams) is one such an author, and I for my part have to pin my colors to the wall at this point and stand on one side or the other of the "love him or hate him" line.

For me, it's adoration. Dave Stone is one of my favorite authors for Doctor Who and its spin-offs, and it's not because I'm unaware of his flaws as an author; it's simply because I don't care about them. Yes, he recycles character names, characters, place names, places, races, jokes, and in a few notorious incidents entire passages of text simply because he likes them (and if I'd included his Judge Dredd novels in this retrospective this trend would be even more pronounced). Yes, he does dwell obsessively on a single theme and has made a whole career out of variations on it. Yes, his writing style does come off as a mix of Douglas Adams, Clive Barker, and a maddened thesaurus. Yes, he does veer back and forth between groan-worthy, shaggy-dog jokes and visceral, shocking body-horror sequences. Yes, yes, yes, and yes to all that as well. Everything you hear about Dave Stone, personally or professionally, is very probably true. But I don't care.

For one thing, I think he's funny. Humor is one of those incredibly personal things, and it's really not possible for me to either say why I find Stone's writing funny, or why other people don't. But when Stone features "great detective" Emil Dupont explaining away the murders in Ship of Fools as the work of limbo-dancing midgets, I laugh. When he includes, at the end of The Infernal Nexus, the porno-movie synopsis of that novel, it's funny to me. His style is digressive and expansive, and tends towards footnotes, parenthetical comments, and irrelevant appendices... and yet, he's all the funnier for it.

For another, I do find his central obsession interesting. Stone dwells in all his novels, to a greater or lesser extent, on how we shape the world we live in through our perception of it -- not in any sort of magical, "what we don't want to happen doesn't happen" sense, but just in the way that things that we don't like, we ignore if we can just as thoroughly as if they don't exist... and how contact with those things that are "non-existent" in that sense can drive you just as crazy as an injection of LSD. This idea is large enough to fuel any number of stories, from the cartoony world of the System in Sky Pirates! all the way to Hokesh, the city of his most recent work Citadel of Dreams, and still bear fruit.

Third, I think he's got a good sense of character. It's easy to forget that his first novel, Sky Pirates!, was in fact the first novel about Roz and Chris not written by their creator, Andy Lane -- and he does an excellent job of capturing them as real people, both in that book and in his follow-up. His Bernice Summerfield vies with Justin Richards and her creator, Paul Cornell, for the title of "definitive", and more than that, he seems to have a nice general sense that people are more fuzzy-minded, morally ambiguous, and generally contrary than the dictates of fiction normally allow for.

And fourth, he's contributed some excellent material to the Doctor Who universe. He gave us the Sloathes, which have propagated through his books under various names and provided much enjoyment for us pretend-move monkey-hominid things. And, of course, he gave Benny her fiancee, husband, ex-husband, lover, straight man, and general bete noir, Jason Peter Kane. Jason is probably his best-realized character, and one of Stone's amazing achievements is to give the reader the sense that Jason is off doing interesting, novel-worthy things on his own while we're off following Bernice.

So, in short, yes, I am looking forward to another Dave Stone novel, should we get one, and yes, I'm well aware that many others aren't. But me, I'm a Dave Stone fan, and I don't care who knows it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Survivors

There are Daleks in this one.

Except that really, there aren't. The Daleks in 'The Survivors' are nothing like the Daleks as they're going to become; they're not vicious, merciless killers with endless ambitions to wipe out all other lifeforms and imprint their existence throughout space and time. These Daleks are the cautious, ruthlessly pragmatic survivors of an ancient war that are in the midst of vacillating between a desire to escape their self-imposed prisons and breathe free for the first time in five centuries, and a paranoid fear that their monstrous enemies have survived all this time and still represent a threat to them. These are Daleks, in short, that have not yet realized they're monsters. (Which foreshadows a later essay...)

And as such, they're strangely novel to long-time fans of the program. The Daleks will later become predictable as they change from being "the first alien race the Doctor encounters" to "the Doctor's arch-nemeses". They see something, and they either want to enslave it or exterminate it. You can actually find "Dalek flowcharts" online. But these are complicated individuals that say things like "a few questions will resolve the mystery", and actually confer about whether the prisoners are worth saving. These are Daleks that could do anything, which means that we don't know just how they'll react. It actually makes them scarier in some ways. Because they're more alien.

And if we don't know how they'll react, imagine how the TARDIS crew feels. They spend most of the episode in a state of desperate fear, from the moment that they realize that the sickness they're feeling is radiation poisoning (and oh my goodness that scene between Ian and the Doctor is just magnificent, every moment of that is so freaking amazing) to the horrified realization that Susan is their only hope, all the way through her desperate flight through the jungle. It's only six episodes into the series, but already the characters are being pushed to their breaking point in a way that the 2005 relaunch never dared. It is utterly riveting, and timelessly classic as a result.

The Dead Planet

It is quite frankly amazing how good the dynamic is between the original TARDIS crew, and 'The Dead Planet' shows it to astonishing effect. Very little actually happens in the episode; the TARDIS lands on a strange planet, and the main characters wander around for a bit before reluctantly exploring the citadel they found earlier. But the episode isn't about where they've landed; it's about where they haven't landed. Ian and Barbara had their adventure with the cavemen, and now it's over and they're expecting to go home. Instead, the Doctor seems perfectly content to start another adventure right on the back of the first. And it's the rest of the cast's reactions that drive this episode and make it so incredible.

Every scene works because of the characters and the actors playing them. Susan does an excellent job of mediating between the Doctor's enthusiasm for exploration and the schoolteachers' desire to simply move on--her growing fear of the jungle, driven by her certainty that they are not alone, leads her to do what was unthinkable just four short episodes ago and side with the humans against the Doctor. Barbara is relentlessly pragmatic, attempting to find ways to reconcile the conflicts among the group simply because she recognizes that a bad situation won't be any better if they're all at each other's throats, no matter who's right. Ian slowly simmers, his frustration building as the Doctor's arrogance and obstinacy risks all their lives. And the Doctor, well...he's already driving the series. The look on Hartnell's face when he "reluctantly" concludes that the city is their only option to find mercury speaks volumes not just about the scene but about the whole character.

This is why the Aaru movie feels much longer, even though it's actually quite a bit shorter in terms of the running time. The plot beats are all the same, but the conflict that makes this such riveting television isn't to do with the plot. It's the characters. Frankly, the show is never going to be quite as good once Ian and Barbara leaves, simply because there's never going to be anyone who challenges the Doctor quite so credibly.

Review: Deadly Reunion

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, December 22, 2003.)

The one-sentence review: I think someone left the middle word out of the title.

Actually, "dull" doesn't quite describe this reunion of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. Awkward, confused, lumpy and top-heavy, generic, and loopy all work as better substitutes... but if you could boil it all down, "dull" works better than some other words.

Part of the problem -- in fact, most of the problem -- is that the novel begins with a huge mutant prologue that takes up a full third of the novel. It's like there's a novella about the Brigadier's adventures just after World War II, and then there's a second, somewhat larger novella about the Doctor, the Master and evil Greek gods. (I'm aware that I probably just gave away a huge spoiler about the Master... to the approximately six people who heard about a Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks Third Doctor/UNIT novel and didn't immediately expect the Master to be in it.)

The prologue is a vast mistake. First, it's got these bloody Greek gods in it, and they all have the charisma and interest of particle board. The account of their origins is ludicrously bland -- just a "Oh, yes, we're ancient and powerful beings and we've all posed as Greek gods, and by the way, Hades is really evil and wants to take over the world, and we should probably stop him, and by the way for those of you who've wondered, that's who the Players are too. Tea?"

Second, it's way too long, and features a silly caricature of the Brigadier engaging in a silly "what-ho old top" adventure to defeat Hades... only to have the whole thing end in a literal deus ex machina. This should have been broken up into smaller chunks, and interspersed throughout the book to keep it from sticking in the reader's craw.

Third and fatally, it gives away most of the plot; when you reveal that Hades is an evil Greek god, and that Demeter, Persephone, and Hermes are good Greek gods who oppose him, and that Zeus is out there as well but is off contemplating his navel and isn't getting involved... well, when the Doctor shows up in a quiet English village and finds a three-person family with near-identical names to the Greek gods muttering about how they daren't try to stop "Him", the plot from here on is going to be an exercise in the characters finding out things the readers already know.

And the plot is a masterpiece of "generic Third Doctor", almost like they were working from a checklist. Brigadier being militaristic? Check. Doctor arguing with him? Check. Quiet little English village with something sinister going on? Check. Evil cult? Check. Master shows up? Check. Jo into "pop culture" in a way that seems oh-so-dated? Check. They've added an attempt to be socially conscious by lecturing on the evils of drug abuse, in an afterschool special sort of way, but otherwise this could come out of a Markov chainer fed with the scripts of the Pertwee era. And it ends with another bloody literal deus ex machina, to boot!

I'm probably being too hard on the book, truth to be told; after years and years of doing Target novelisations, we've probably been genetically conditioned to like Terrance's style of prose, and he always has a certain minimum standard of readability. So it's not totally bad. You'll be able to get through it. But Lord, it ain't good.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Retrospective: Andy Lane

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, September 15, 2003.)

Most authors in the Doctor Who range have certain distinct elements that stand out in their writing; whether a certain style, a recurring set of characters or locations, or a fascination with a particular era of the show, each author handily carves out a distinct niche in the series. Andy Lane, though, at first proves frustratingly elusive in that regard. Some of this comes from the fact that a good percentage of his published work (Lucifer Rising, All-Consuming Fire, Original Sin, The Empire of Glass, and The Banquo Legacy) has been written with other authors, and even those novels that he wrote on his own, he wrote while in close contact with other authors for the range. In addition, his novels vary widely in style -- All-Consuming Fire is a conscious attempt to pastiche Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, while Lucifer Rising deliberately mimics the style of his co-author Jim Mortimore. For someone trying to discern a common thread, a distinct "Andy Lane" that sets him apart from any other writer, one must look to the common thread that unites all his novels -- a fascination with the past, both historical and fictional.

Much of this love of the past comes out in the form of love of the past of the TV series Doctor Who, and it's no real surprise that Andy Lane is one of the worst offenders in regard to that peculiarly Whovian pastime known as "fanwank". Every novel he's written is solidly grounded in the series' history, from his explications of the Armageddon Convention (mentioned once in Revenge of the Cybermen) and setting of one of his novels (just before The Dalek Invasion of Earth) to his re-use of Tobias Vaughn, a villain from the Troughton era who'd only made one appearance, or his creation of a character who'd been married to a crewman on the ship Hydrax, which was in the TV story State of Decay, and... you get the idea. He even has one scene, early in Original Sin, in which he actually has the Doctor rummage through the TARDIS boot cupboard and reminisce about his old boots and which adventures he wore them in. Sometimes it's silly, as the above example, but sometimes, like an archaeologist or historian, he can use these elements of the series to illuminate something stronger. Though set far in the future, the Earth Empire from The Mutants becomes a dynamic, vivid society in his hands, and he fleshes out quite well eras and ideas only hinted at on the series.

This same historian's passion comes out in his other novels, those set solidly in real eras of Earth's past. He spends as much time working to re-create Victorian London, distant Bombay, and 16th-century Venice as he ever does with the plots of his stories, and a good part of his skill lies in vividly decribing these places and times, showing them as exotic and foreign lands -- even when they should seem familiar. He has a passion for tiny details that lend verisimilitude to the story, whether they be the tendency for British barkeeps to add strychnine to beer, the convoluted politics of Venice, or the exact origins of the word "posh" (POrt in, Starboard Home). Even his style evokes the elegant past -- The Banquo Legacy and All-Consuming Fire both take the form of journals written by men of another age, and feel authentic.

Beyond the passion for history, Lane comes off as a solid writer. His plots, while not necessarily as intricate as some other authors, still come off as intelligent and straight-forward, while his characters make themselves likeable (if occasionally veering towards caricatures.) And two of his characters, the police duo of Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej, have wound up becoming vital parts of the Doctor Who mythos and fondly-remembered companions. Roz, in particular, is given a solid and deep background without Lane dumping loads of information on the reader in her first appearance. The New Adventures were better for the appearance of two such well-realized companions.

It's uncertain whether we'll see another Andy Lane novel; never one of the more prolific authors for the line, his books have come with far less frequency now that they have moved from Virgin to the BBC. Still, a return engagement wouldn't be unwelcome -- or, perhaps, he might consider writing a reference guide for the series. For someone with such a passion for history, it seems like a natural occupation.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Head Canon: The Second-To-Last Dalek Story

I've always said that there are three fundamental aspects to Doctor Who continuity: 1) There are no mistakes, 2) it all joins together, even the bits that seem directly contradictory, and 3) sometimes the bits that explain how it all joins together without any mistakes haven't been written yet. "Head Canon" entries highlight those bits of continuity that haven't been written yet.

The second-to-last Dalek story could really fit anywhere in the Doctor's continuity; after all, the Daleks and the Doctor are both time travelers, and it's distinctly possible that Capaldi could realize he's come along much further into the timeline of his enemies than he's ever been, but the specific incarnation doesn't matter. It's well after the Desolation of Skaro, well after the Movellan Wars, well after the Time Wars, well after the Dalek Civil Wars and the Dalek/Federation Wars and all of the other bloody, nasty conflicts that we've seen over the ages. This is the era of the Final Dalek/Thal War, and it's the worst of them all.

The Thals have been opposing the Daleks from the beginning, of course. Long before the Doctor, a thousand years before the Time Lords made their first strike at opposing the Daleks, the Thals were locked in an unrelenting war with the Kaled race. They've circled round to complete pacifism in their time, and then back again. They've even allied themselves with Davros once before. But now they've been united in their desire to utterly exterminate the Dalek species. And this time, they are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

When the Doctor happens upon them, he finds out that this includes remaking themselves the same way the Daleks did. They've decided that their pacifism has made them weak, unable to finish the Daleks when it was needed, and they've been taking steps to remove their mercy and pity completely. They're becoming monsters, quite willingly, because they now believe that the only thing that can stop a monster like a Dalek is a worse monster.

And the Doctor--reluctantly--helps them. He knows he's playing the part of Davros in the creation of the monstrous versions of the Thals, but he rationalizes it away with the belief that they'd only do it without his advice if he refuses. He assists them in their war, pushing back the Daleks on every front even as he worries about the tendencies towards brutality and cruelty he sees in the once-noble Thals. Until the final offensive. The Daleks are reduced to one planet, one fortress, no time travel, no space travel, no creator, no escape. This time it will be the final end for the Daleks. In twenty minutes, the Thals will bombard the planet from space until nothing living remains.

And then the Doctor discovers why the Daleks have chosen this planet to make their final stand. It has a lost colony of Thals on it. These Thals know nothing of the bitterness and hatred that have consumed their brethren; for them, the Dalek Wars are a thing of the ancient past. They don't even remember space travel. To them, this planet is Skaro.

And so the Doctor acts. With only twenty minutes left in a war that has consumed untold trillions of lives, the Doctor convinces the Thals to meet their lost cousins. The meeting awakens the empathy and compassion that the Thals tried to breed out of themselves forever, and makes them realize what they have lost. They choose the alternative path--they modify the Daleks remaining on the planet to remove their independent power supply, leaving the last Dalek survivors totally dependent on their citadel for life support. They declare this final Dalek fortress to be protected as a testament to their refusal to become their enemies--as debased as these Thal survivors realize they have become, they will not commit genocide. The Thal colony is left on "Skaro" as well, in the hopes that they can someday teach the Daleks another way of living.

And the Doctor is horrified to realize the truth--this is the "Skaro" he visited all those centuries ago, in his first incarnation. Those Daleks he encountered weren't the ancestors of the Daleks, or even an off-shoot of them; they were the last Dalek survivors, the tiny vestiges of a once-dreaded race. And he'd killed them without even knowing what he was doing. The Dalek Wars...all of them...had ended before they'd even begun for the Doctor. And all his efforts to find another way to stop the Daleks? Doomed before they even started.

On the other hand, he decides, at least for some, he knows that the threat of the Daleks is ended forever. For him? Well, that's part of being a Time Lord. He can always find himself in a time or a place where the Daleks aren't gone. Yet.