Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Warriors of Death

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

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

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

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

The Temple of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Doctor Who - The Blood Cell

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Silhouette

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review: Doctor Who - The Crawling Terror

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

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

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

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

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