(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 29 September, 2003.)
As the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who approaches, I now present to you my thoughts on an anthology designed to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the program. Let nobody ever state that my reviews aren't timely and current.
Seriously, the reason I'm just now reviewing Perfect Timing, five years after its release, is that it's nigh impossible to get ahold of. An anonymous philanthropist made a copy available to me at last, but in all probability, if you don't already have it, you're not going to get it. This is a shame, because Perfect Timing is one of the best anthologies of Doctor Who short fiction extant, easily beating all of Big Finish and the BBC's efforts and standing on a par with Decalog 3 (which remains, to my mind, the gold standard for Doctor Who anthologies.)
Why is this anthology so much better than all the others? Certainly, a part of it has to be the A-list talent that Mark Phippen and Helen Fayle assembled. The project benefited the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death, and as such generated a lot of goodwill among the community of Doctor Who writers. Many professional Doctor Who authors contributed to it, donating stories that wouldn't necessarily get by their normal editors. But it wasn't just the pros that contributed great work; looking at the list five years on, three or four of the unpublished authors later wound up getting novels for the range... clearly, Phippen and Fayle had a good eye for talent.
In addition, it doesn't hurt that the editors took a slightly loose attitude towards the beast that is 'canon'... although note that I say "slightly", there. There's nothing in here that overtly contradicts anything in the novels, TV series, or audios; it just adds things to the margins that raise an eyebrow or two. (If you're treating Perfect Timing as canon, and I see no reason why you shouldn't, then you should be aware of the following: the First Doctor and Susan had a companion, Jed, before Ian and Brbara; the Voord were good guys; Sarah Jane was married, at least briefly, to a private eye; Kamelion is the last of his kind, and was created to worship a dead god; the Nimon are actually little blobs in giant, unconvincing minotaur suits; Grant traveled with the Doctor for years, during which time the Doctor had a Legion (from Lucifer Rising and The Crystal Bucephalus) as his companion, before finally being dropped off at the Bi-Al Foundation after a severe injury; the Eighth Doctor had or will have a companion named Carmen at some point, during which time he has a multi-Doctor adventure with the Sixth Doctor; the Doctor visited Grace Holloway several times on her birthdays after the telemovie, but could never convince her to travel with him; Bernice Summerfield traveled again with the Eighth Doctor after The Dying Days, but before Oh No It Isn't!, but we still don't know whether they shagged or not; and, finally, after the Doctor dies in some distant future point, one or more people take on his name and mission.) The only piece that's irreconcilable with canon is From the Cutting Room Floor, David McIntee's alternate versions of scenes from The Dark Path, and even some of those work just fine.
So, now that you've borne with me thus far, a discussion of the individual stories...
Lumping all the very short stuff together... personally, I prefer to see longer pieces in an anthology. If it's not at least a full page, I question the need for its inclusion at all. That said, that's just my personal quirk, so it's hard for me to judge The Use of the Myth, These UNIT Things, Second Hand, Doing It Right, Cheeky Things, Nightmare, and Transitions. None of them really lasted long enough to make an impression on me -- but that's just me.
Bear Paw Adventure, by David Howe, isn't exactly what you'd expect from a story that says it's going to explain the "Mountain Mauler of Montana" reference from The Romans. It's actually a story of a teen's prank gone wrong, and most of the real action takes place off-screen; however, it's well-characterized, and certainly the central idea, that traveling with the Doctor doesn't always leave you better off afterwards, is nicely expressed through Jed.
Always Let the Conscience Be Your Guide, by Mark Clapham and Jim Smith, expands on the world only glimpsed in The Keys of Marinus, and shows the wider conflict through the eyes of Yartek, the Voord leader. It drives home the idea already expressed in Keys, that free will is more important than the guidance the Conscience provides, and it does so with some interesting imagery and vivid prose.
Birth Pains, by Damon Cavalchini, is interesting, if sometimes incomprehensible; it attempts to do an over-view of the series from the perspective of the TARDIS. It's well-written, but the problem with writing from the perspective of something totally alien to human thought is that you wind up with something totally alien to human thought. Worth struggling through, but the very nature of it means you have to struggle.
Venusian Sunset, by Paul Leonard, returns us to Venus, this time with the Second Doctor. (A side note: This story features Ben and Polly, but not Jamie, and is hence set between Power of the Daleks and The Highlanders. Many novels make use of this team, even though it had a very short TV run before Jamie joined the team. Many novels make use of the Second Doctor and Jamie, because the two are such a great team. But nobody seems to want to use Ben, Polly, and Jamie all together. I don't know if this means anything, but there you go.) In any event, we return to Venus, but this story doesn't quite have the impact that Venusian Lullaby did, because it doesn't have that funereal atmosphere that permeated the former. A nice story, but a bit of a let-down as a sequel.
From the Cutting-Room Floor, by David McIntee, consists of excerpts from the unpublished sections of The Dark Path. McIntee's been vocal, publicly and privately, in his condemnation of the editing of The Dark Path, and so I was quite interested to see what was lost. On the whole, I don't think much was. Don't get me wrong, the material here isn't bad; there's a nice little self-contained story that shows the Master and Ailla "at work" before the events of the novel, and establishes their partnership. But I think that part of what makes The Dark Path so good is the focus it shows, and the pieces contained herein would, I think, have diluted that focus. It's nice to see these pieces, though, just like it's always fun to see 'Deleted Scenes' on a DVD. (And I think you could probably do a whole set of short stories or even novels featuring Koschei and Ailla.)
Thicket of Thieves, by Kathryn Sullivan, suffers from a profusion of characters and alien races introduced to each other in rapid succession, all with similar goals but different motivations. That said, it's got some great comedy scenes with the Second Doctor (particularly well-characterized here) and Jamie (likewise).
Entertaining Mr. O, by Paul Magrs, features Iris Wildthyme, and as such, I hated it before finishing even the first page. Iris has long since worn out her welcome with me, having turned from a cleverly post-modern examination of the role of the storyteller within the story into an irritating Mary-Sue who goes about wittering about how much better she is than the Doctor. I'm sorry, but the very mention of her name sends me into fits of rage, and as such, I can't review this story objectively. If you don't utterly hate Iris Wildthyme, you'll probably like this. However, if you don't utterly hate Iris Wildthyme, your name is probably Paul Magrs.
Masters of Terror, by James Ambuehl and Laurence J. Cornford, feels like it was written as part of a bet to see if you could fit H.P. Lovecraft, the Master, and the Silurians all into a single story. Which, mind you, they do, and make it all seem quite natural... it's just that I'm still so amazed that there's a story that juxtaposes those three elements that I can't think about what actually happened. Worth reading, just to see how it all fits.
Baron (Count) Dracula and Count (Baron) Frankenstein, by Stephen Marley, is a beautiful confection that takes place in the same setting as his novel, Managra. Marley has a great comic sensibility, and this piece is a smooth, delightful little comic gem that goes down in moments and leaves a wonderful after-taste in the brain. It makes me wish he'd write another Doctor Who book, or failing that, that BBV, Big Finish, Telos, or one of the other people doing spin-offs would start commissioning a series set in his 'Europa'. It really has the potential for a full series there.
The Aurelius Gambit, by Helen Fayle, commits one of the occasional sins of a Doctor Who short story, that of biting off more than it can chew. It brings in a new love interest for Sarah Jane Smith, while introducing a pair of criminals with access to alien technology who are committing crimes, then framing the Master for them in the sure and certain knowledge that the Master isn't going to care, and UNIT isn't going to catch him. That's a lot of great ideas, but it's also a lot of work for a short story, and unfortunately it all feels terribly unfinished. I'd love to see this expanded, though.
Not Necessarily In That Order..., by Paul Ebbs, is another comic gem. It's a very simple story, more an extended, shaggy-dog joke than an actual "story" per se, but it gains a lot of humor from the fact that the punchline is actually the set-up, and the whole thing is cleverly told out of order. A short, sweet little story.
Child of Darkness, by Daniel Blythe, is a Terminator pastiche, but cleverly done, tied-in well to the mythos, and with a wonderful twist ending. It's also got great prose and nice characterization. But apart from that, you know...
The Zargathon Menace, by Jonathan Morris... well, by now, my admiration of Jonny Morris has solidified into a Salieri-like envious hatred, so you can imagine how reading yet another clever, hilarious, well-written short story from him made me feel. You'll probably be reading his obituary soon enough, and I'll be eating his brains to gain his writing skills. That is how it works, right?
One Perfect Twilight, by Craig Hinton, is basically a solidified chunk of fanwank dropped into the anthology, but frankly you should have figured that out when you saw the name 'Craig Hinton' under the title, right? Fanwank works or doesn't depending on my mood, and I happened to be in the mood for this one; Kamelion's origin story caught my interest, and I polished it off quickly. Others might like it or not, depending on their respective tolerance levels for references to the series.
Ghost in the Machine, by Trina Short, is a cute little story with Turlough solving a cute little problem; I liked it, in no small part because the author paced it well and didn't pad it. Turlough's a bit of a jerk, but then again, that's just excellent characterization more than anything else.
The 6th Doctor Sends A Letter, by Charles Daniels, is a bit OTT, but contains some great lines, and captures the bombastic side of the 6th Doctor well (if, again, exaggerating it a bit for comic effect.)
The Great Journey of Life Ends Here, by Gary Russell, is a story idea mentioned in his introduction to Placebo Effect, but I really thought he was joking. He wasn't. This story is, indeed, a Nimon vs. Macra story, which was turned down to make way for his Foamasi vs. Wirrrn story. Actually, this is better; given a short story instead of a novel, Russell eliminates a lot of the padding that afflicts his longer works, and while the two monsters don't get much time "on-screen", he at least gives them a sense of menace. And I think he's probably been waiting years to explain away the Nimon's costumes.
Wish Upon A Star Beast, by Steve Lyons, suffers from one flaw -- he never does explain why the villainous Santa Claus wants to unleash a horde of vicious killer Meeps upon the unsuspecting children of Earth on Christmas Eve by generating Black Star radiation from the Christmas Miracle Star. But frankly, if that's the plot of your story, who really needs an explanation for it? This is drop-dead hilarious, and a delight to read.
Schroedinger's Botanist, by Ian McIntire, is pretty much everything you ever need to know if you want to do a book set during Grant Markham's time as a companion. Which, admittedly, people haven't exactly been clamoring for, but if anyone does, they should read this story first. McIntire conveys the passage of years through smooth, elegant prose, and develops Grant quite a bit in the process. It also gives him a nice, if very sad, departure scene, something he never got in the books.
Chain Male, by Keith Topping, further develops that weird thing he, Martin Day, and Paul Cornell have worked out with Ian and Barbara's son John becoming a rock star and getting married to Tegan. I'm sure if I'd been following their fan-fiction for decades, I'd get a lot out of this, but I haven't, so it just confused me more.
Ascension, by Stephen Graves, takes place between So Vile A Sin and Bad Therapy, and feels like it fits in perfectly. It's got amazingly good characterization of the post-Roz relationship between Chris and the Doctor, and explores it quite nicely. The plot's another "life-force vampires luring in innocents" one, but well-executed for all that. Another excellent read. (Oh, and the Doctor gets one tremendous line that neatly encapsulates every fan's thought about Chris.)
Caveat Emptor, by Susannah Tiller, is a short, sharp story about the fate of the last human, and the role the Doctor plays in it. I liked it, but it's so short that it's hard to dislike. It certainly doesn't wear out its welcome.
Doctor-Patient Relationship, by Kate Orman and Jon Blum, is actually from the first draft of Vampire Science, but it's so far removed from what we finally got (since permission was withdrawn to use Grace Holloway) that it's essentially a separate, self-contained story now. And on that level, it works quite well. Wonderful prose, like I expected anything else; great characterization, like I expected anything else; a clever central idea, well-developed -- see points one and two. It's interesting to think that part of the reason they included the bit in Vampire Science about the Doctor making side trips away from Sam was to have room for this opening chapter; instead, that's now become justification for Stacy, Ssard, The Dying Days, and the entire Big Finish run. He must have been pretty eager to ditch her... not that I blame him.
Worm, by Lance Parkin, takes place in that same gap, suggesting that the Doctor and Benny took more than a few side trips on their way to Dellah. It's also a story that takes a great idea and develops it wonderfully -- finally, a race of monsters that takes the Doctor's advice and just surrenders. I've never heard of this "Lance Parkin" fellow before, but I think he just might be someone to watch.
The Ravages of Time, by Mags L. Halliday, shows yet another Eighth Doctor and Benny story, yet another story featuring Poe, and another famous person traveling with the Doctor (anyone want to do a multi-Doctor story with the Sixth Doctor, the Seventh Doctor, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe?) Yet, despite all this, it comes off as original, and in its brief space tells a lot of story. It could probably have done without the "story-in-a-story-in-a-story" device, but it's still a good piece.
Emerald Green, by Mark Phippen, isn't bad. It's not great -- for one thing, it labors under the weight of Sam Jones, the anchor who drags all stories down in which she appears -- but it's a decent enough piece of storytelling that doesn't falter or confuse itself.
Sad Professor, by Nick Walters, shamelessly panders to the fanboys by giving us a meeting between the Eighth Doctor, Sam, and Benny, set on Dellah not long before Where Angels Fear. Speaking as a fanboy, I say pander away! Highly enjoyable, but I confess a bias.
Dark Paragon, by Jon Andersen, I wound up not being fond of. The central idea, that the Doctor found a successor to carry on after he died and that she named herself the Doctor as well, is very clever; the further development, that the Master goes after the new Doctor in order to spite his old enemy is also good. But the problem is, there's no story to go with those ideas. The Master relentlessly stalks the new Doctor and, on all the worlds where he catches up to her, yammers on about how the old Doctor wasn't all that good of a person. The story never manages to rise above the three problems with this -- first, that the Master isn't exactly threatening when he relentlessly talks to his foes, second, that the Master complaining about the Doctor's lack of moral rectitude is like Adolph Hitler bitching that Ghandi forgot to buy a birthday card for his grandmother one year, and third, that after the third planet and conversation, the whole thing starts to feel like a Moebius loop. A lot of very good ideas, but I think it needed another draft or two.
So, after all that reviewing, what's my ultimate opinion? If anyone managed to last through what was, quite possibly, the longest review I've ever written (and I don't blame you if you haven't), I'd ultimately say that this was great. Doctor Who has had a slightly spotty record in the short story area, but I think this anthology shows that you can do something amazing with the form.