Friday, May 30, 2014

Review: The Squire's Crystal

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, March 6, 2003.)

Unfortunately, the good folks at Big Finish neglected to include a warning label on The Squire's Crystal, and I'm quite worried that someone might get hurt as a result. Hence, I'm including the following as a public service: Simply print it out, and affix it to your copy. Lives may be saved as a result.

"Warning: The plot of The Squire's Crystal is not a load-bearing narrative. Please do not attempt to put any pressure on the logic in the novel, as it can and will snap. Under no circumstances attempt to engage your brain while reading this book. Simply enjoy the funny dialogue and humorous situations, and return the book to its proper position when finished."

In other words, this book is total fluff. It's endearing, enjoyable, ever so slightly smutty fluff, and if you are in the mood for fluff, I cannot recommend a book more highly... but do not under any circumstances come to this book for its plot.

So, I've now read three Big Finish Benny novels, and I've now had three instances of Benny being duped by a good-looking guy. I don't wish to suggest that she's utterly desperate for a shag, here, but explanations are starting to get a bit thin on the ground. The "messages from Fred" come thick and fast in the section where she gets suckered by Dominic -- from "Nah, he couldn't be trying to dupe me, because it'd be so implausible if that were to happen right away again after the last two times" to "Oh, bugger, he did sucker me, how gullible must I be to let it happen again so soon after the last two times!" Yes, that's the author's conscience speaking out.

This is also the third consecutive book where someone's made use of the Fifth Axis... OK, yes, we get the picture, they're around. Aren't there going to be any other villains to deal with anywhere?

Other minor plot quibbles (How did Avril's lair escape Brax's notice? Why doesn't Benny start telling people who she is once she gets back to the Collection? When does Benny get the chance to do all the research that she claims to have done to uncover all the answers she dishes out at the end?) do get dealt with, eventually, sort of... but again, do not attempt to apply pressure to the logic of this novel. Especially not to the discovery of Avril's lair, which is the worst coincidence EVER. (Just as Dominic visits the Collection to tell them that Avril's lair is somewhere on the asteroid, it so happens that there's a cave-in, revealing said lair. *sigh*)

So, with no plot to sustain us, where does that leave The Squire's Crystal? With a lot of funny scenes and great Benny characterization. Most of the novel is told from a third-person limited perspective, with us seeing the action through Benny's eyes... or, as events unfold, through the eyes of the male body Benny inhabits. Many have made mention of the all-too-frequent jokes about male anatomy in this book... however, they're funny jokes about the male anatomy. (My favorite line was when Benny suddenly shrieked out, "Aah! It moved on its own!" right in front of the girlfriend of the man she was impersonating.) There's also some very funny bits when Avril attempts to pretend to be Benny using Benny's diaries as a guideline, not understanding that Benny uses her diaries not as a means of recording her feelings, but as a coping mechanism for concealing them. :)

The whole thing, despite a few deaths and a "stinger" ending, is a laugh riot from start to finish, a Big Finish equivalent to The Joy Device or Mad Dogs and Englishmen. It's fluff... but every once in a while, fluff is nice to relax into.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Firemaker

And so it comes down to what you always knew it would--blood. There has never been a story so raw as the first four episodes of Doctor Who; the danger has never seemed so real, the violence so intense, the brutality so shocking. The opening sequence, where the Doctor tricks Kal into revealing his betrayal of the tribe, is such a cunning piece of wit that in a lesser-but-still-good series, it could have stood as the conclusion. "There is no blood on this knife," the Doctor says, and Kal, knowing he has lost the advantage, bluffs that "it is a bad knife. It does not show the things it does." Again, note how clearly this is portrayed as a trial. The tribe understands the points being made. They're following the discussion with riveted intensity. These are not stupid people. So many times, science-fiction (even Doctor Who itself) portrays primitive cultures as "like us, only dumb and superstitious". These people are portrayed as "like us, only without the pretense that we're not like them".

What follows, as Kal is driven away only to return with murder in his heart, has to be one of the best-directed sequences in the series' history. The fight itself should be nothing special. It's two men in silly costumes wrestling. But Waris Hussein captures the bloodlust on both sides perfectly. It's absolutely clear from the moment the fight starts that it's only going to end when one of the two is dead. The final sequence, where Za picks up the rock and shatters Kal's skull with it, is utterly chilling even without seeing any blood. I really can't imagine this looking any better in 2005.

After that, Za, whose life was saved by Ian...surely he'll understand the lessons of friendship and trust? Why, of course he does! He understands them so well that he's willing to offer the group a lifelong alliance, a place in his tribe not offered lightly. After all, none of them can hunt. Their leader is old and feeble. The last person he accepted into the tribe tried to usurp him, and the one before that has spent most of the story undermining his leadership. Za's offer is a political alliance, and a very intelligent one at that.

Until finally the TARDIS crew gets their chance and legs it. This is a bit of a weakness, the only time when the tribe acts stupid and superstitious the way cavemen are expected to. But even then, we see Za pointing out the obvious--it's just a bunch of torches with skulls on them, people! Pull it together! And then there's time for just one last chase into the TARDIS, a frantic flight to safety that again manages to transcend its budgetary limitations by playing the tension absolutely straight. I won't say it couldn't have looked better in 2005, but it could never have been done in the new series. You could never imagine Rose and Tennant, or Smith and Coleman, staggering into the TARDIS in a state of bruised, battered, bedraggled exhaustion. Time travel is never going to be this scary again in Doctor Who, mainly because you'd wonder why they ever left the TARDIS if it was, but it's damned impressive here.

In a lot of ways, this is still only the beginning--it could be argued that the first story is 77 episodes long, and is the tale of Ian and Barbara's wild adventures through time and space--but it's an amazing beginning. It's still worth watching for its own sake, and not just as a piece of history. And that's pretty awesome for a fifty-year old piece of television.

The Forest of Fear

You know what? I'm going to give the Doctor a pass on Za.

This episode, of course, contains the scene that pretty much everyone holds up as an example of how the Doctor, in his first appearance, was nothing like the heroic figure we've come to know and love. How back in his first story, he was actually willing to kill Za rather than have him slow up the group. This has become a defining moment of the Doctor's early character, so much so that Terrance Dicks had the Eighth Doctor come back to it in 'The Eight Doctors' pretty much solely so that he can realize what sort of man he shouldn't be.

But on watching it, I don't think it is a murder attempt. Or if it is one, it's a very badly staged one. As it happens on-screen, the Doctor reaches out and picks up Za's knife while everyone else is literally less than two feet away, in the middle of significant bustle. If the Doctor is planning to murder Za, his scheme is apparently that he's going to reach over, slit Za's throat with his own knife in the moment everyone's back is turned, and then...claim it was suicide? I might not credit the Doctor with much morality at this point in the show, but I at least assume he's got some common sense.

No, I honestly think his plan was nothing more than he said it was--to try to get Za to draw them a map so that if they have to waste time dragging his Cro-Magnon butt around, they can at least do so by the shortest route. His explanation sounds forced, but that's actually a more credible reaction. If he'd been guilty, he would have blustered and railed against the accusation. Knowing how stupid the truth sounded even as he said it would have produced exactly the same speech. So, Doctor? I'm going to assume the best of you.

Oh yes, and this was another great episode. The Old Woman is wonderful, with her fear played up as a threat to the group and then turning to their salvation, and Kal framing Za for her death. Again, I love the fact that these are not portrayed as stupid people. Their worldview is different, and their philosophy is far less genteel. But Kal and Za are both savvy, sharp men who improvise strategies and use their brains as well as their brawn to gain an advantage. I love that this is, when you strip away the furs and the scraggly hair and the missing teeth, a political thriller and a brilliantly made one to boot.

Retrospective: Marc Platt

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on April 21, 2003.)

When the Virgin publishers decided to begin presenting "New Adventures" of Doctor Who, one of the first places they turned to was the pool of writers that the TV series had used in its last few seasons. Marc Platt, writer of Ghost Light and one of the principal architects of the infamous "Cartmel Masterplan" that laid out the ancient history of Gallifrey and the hitherto untold secrets of the Doctor's youth, still had a couple of unused scripts from the planned Season 27, and was glad for a place to put them. All in all, then, it's not surprising that his three books written for the Virgin line (Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible, Downtime, and Lungbarrow) seem like a case of unfinished business.

Time's Crucible and Lungbarrow form an almost perfect matched pair; one, near the beginning of the line, laying the ground-work for the other's revelations about ancient Gallifrey near the end of the line. Stylistically, they're eerily similar; the unearthly, grey majesty of the City in Time's Crucible and the decrepit, buried mausoleum of Lungbarrow in Lungbarrow seem as though they could be in the same neighborhood. Platt's always stated that he's a fan of the Gothic novel, and nobody would have any difficulty believing it after reading Lungbarrow. Burns that never heal even after three regenerations, a living House that buries itself out of shame, a Ghost that haunts the halls until its missing will is found -- it's straight out of Poe or Peake, a compleat Gothic primer.

Platt's chilly, almost mathematically-precise prose style in the above books is hard to take for some; it's hard going to read at times, because there doesn't seem to be much emotion to it. However, once you get into the mind-set, there are gems to be unearthed. His Doctor, for one, is very much in the mode of the later seasons of the TV series -- strange, wonderful, and unknowable. His Ace in <>a href=cctim.htm>Time's Crucible sometimes seems as though she's skipped the previous four books of character development (most likely a legacy of its origins as a TV script), but his Ace in Lungbarrow is very much a creation of the books, and an elegant extrapolation of them at that. Plus, he does a wonderful job with the interaction between Chris and the Doctor and that sense of uncertainty between them that followed the death of Roz; I'd forgotten how well that was handled in those four books. Plus, of course, he writes the only appearance of Leela in the 94 Virgin novels, and does an interesting job of developing her out as a character post-Invasion of Time. It does make me wish we'd seen more of this version of the character.

Of course, no examination of Marc Platt's writing would be complete without discussing his take on Gallifrey and the Doctor, and after digesting it all, I still find it to be quite cleverly done. Everyone talks about how it removed the mystery from the Doctor, but I feel that the Doctor's mysteries had been removed quite effectively long before that -- towards the end of the Sixth Doctor's era, he was popping back and forth to Gallifrey like a Monday-morning commute, and mentioning Rassilon's name like he was just another historical figure he'd rubbed elbows with. By introducing the Other, the Pythia, and Lungbarrow, Platt added depth to the Gallifrey mythos, and I personally love it all.

This all just leaves Downtime, the odd man out in the trio -- it's actually a novelization of the script he wrote for a direct-to-video production, not an unused script that he turned into a novel. It's also stylistically different from the other two -- instead of being a chilly Gothic novel, it's a UNIT techno-thriller that fits neatly in between Mawdryn Undead and Battlefield in showing us the Brigadier's journey back to relevancy and redemption; here, the Brigadier learns about his grand-child and discovers that he doesn't need the Doctor or UNIT to be a hero. We also see loads of development to UNIT as well; Crichton from The Five Doctors shows up, as does Bambera (still a Corporal here), and we get hints of how the organization develops from the small group we see in the Pertwee era to the serious armed force that shows up in Battlefield. It's a trifle thin -- wide margins, big print -- but not bad for all that. Still, it's not the same sort of Marc Platt we see in his New Adventures.

On the whole, I doubt that we'll see another novel from Platt -- he's continued to work in other media, including some excellent audio plays from Big Finish, and I think that the novel was more a passing fling for him than a true love affair. Still, he's left us readers with loads of material to chew over, and he's not left Doctor Who behind... which is something of a relief, in my opinion.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review: Warmonger

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, February 21 2003.)

This book almost defies description. It's awful -- cheerfully, gleefully awful. The characterization of the Doctor and Peri is so different from any other version ever seen of either of them in print or on screen that I began to suspect Terry had gotten his notes mixed up and thought he was writing for Blake's 7. The plot, while epic, is "epic" in the sort of Boy's Own Adventures way that's probably only fun if you're ten years old. The continuity is a walking, talking nightmare, the sort of thing that will give serious fans aneurysms and could well be the final stake in the coffin of canon.

And yet...

I loved it. I loved every single page of this book, whooping and hollering in places as another continuity treasure got plundered for the sake of a single book, laughing insanely as time twisted around and characters got run through the mangler, and generally enjoying the hell out of myself. Like Blood Harvest, another Uncle Terry sequel to one of his famous TV stories, Warmonger carries off its prose style with such verve and sheer enthusiasm for the act of writing that I couldn't help but be carried along with it. This isn't fanwank, because in fanwank, the story exists to fill holes in continuity. Here, the holes in continuity exist because of the story.

So, where to begin? With "The Supremo", the Doctor's alias for most of the book? Aside from being the sort of name that provokes hoots of derisive laughter, and sounds like someone the Karkus might have fought in the Daily Telepress to boot, it's actually a clever idea. The Doctor is crossing his own timestream and, in his own personal past, leading the fight against the Time Lord Morbius who he will someday encounter as a disembodied brain. He certainly can't call himself the Doctor.

There. I've given it away.

Warmonger is a sprequel (part sequel, part prequel, only possible in a universe with time travel) to The Brain of Morbius. In fact, that's my only real problem with the novel (he says, awaiting the hoots of derisive laughter.) Dicks should have realized that any serious fan has figured out who "General Rombusi" is within two pages (and I mean that literally -- this is one of the rare stories whose main plot twist is given away in its dedication), and skipped the whole mystery thing to just go gung-ho with it. As it is, we're stuck watching the mysterious General, a charismatic renegade Time Lord, discuss private matters with Solon on Karn while the Doctor wonders, "Who can he be?" He's the Rani, Doctor. In a very cunning disguise.

Still, he does go pretty gung-ho. Peri becomes a guerilla leader, the Doctor leads an alliance of Ice Warriors, Sontarans, and Cybermen against Morbius' troops, Peri gets drunk and makes a pass at the Doctor only to be turned down when the Doctor describes the intended tryst as "incestual", Solon makes his first appearance, we get a vampire adjutant to Morbius thrown in for no apparent reason, and to top it all off, we get the first chronological appearances of Borusa and the Sisterhood of Karn to boot. This is a book that does not slow down for its readers. (And I didn't even mention that the Doctor threatens to kill Solon even before he becomes "The Supremo".)

The whole thing is a walking, talking, continuity nightmare on top of that. The Doctor travels from Karn to Gallifrey in a space-ship (contradicting every story that talks about Gallifrey as existing in the ancient past), and meets Borusa in his first incarnation, presumably before the Doctor's even been loomed (which contradicts all the rules about not being able to travel to Gallifrey in one's own personal past). Then the Time Lords recognize the Doctor, despite this being in his own personal past, and begin threatening to imprison him for the theft of a Type 40 TARDIS he hasn't stolen yet. By the time the Cybermen ally themselves with the Sontarans, The History of the Universe has gone right out the window.

Even so, it's just so much fun to read. Terry's having a blast writing this, and I can't say I had a bad time reading it. Great lines pepper the book, like, "The operation is a brilliant success. The life or death of the patient is largely irrelevant." It just feels like so much fun -- it might be cheesy, but it's a high-quality cheese.

Ultimately, I have to recommend this novel, although you should read it with the understanding that it's a "good bad" book. However, I do wish he'd chosen a different Doctor/companion combo for it. Sixth Doctor/Peri would have worked a bit better... but in a perfect parallel universe, it was Warmonger and not The Eight Doctors that kicked off the EDAs.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Retrospective: Craig Hinton

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, April 1, 2013.)

I originally started doing these retrospectives for the Jade Pagoda mailing list, now sadly inactive; that was about ten years ago, and this retrospective was part of the reason I finally stopped. While Craig Hinton was alive, he was a member of Jade Pagoda and a frequent poster, and his presence greatly enlivened the discussions he participated in. I enjoyed talking with him about Doctor Who, and I didn't want to spoil the fun by admitting that his five Doctor Who novels (The Crystal Bucephalus, Millennial Rites, GodEngine, The Quantum Archangel, Synthespians) had always grated on my nerves when I read them. I knew it would hurt his feelings to read about someone not liking his work, no matter how I put it, and I didn't want to do that.

Then he died. He died far too young, and his passing was a shock to all of us in the (rather large) community of Doctor Who fans. If I'd had little taste for slagging off his novels before he died, I had even less taste for doing so afterward. Knowing that I'd have to skip Craig left me with little taste for completing the retrospectives, and the idea languished. But time gives us perspective on everything, I decided, and I disliked leaving something half-done; so despite the lack of a Jade Pagoda, I went back to re-reading Doctor Who, author by author... and Craig Hinton was bound to come up again. With not inconsiderable trepidation, I went back to re-read his books.

I was surprised to find that I liked them quite a bit. They're not High Art; they're very different in style and tone to the books around them. Hinton aimed for a voice closer to the epic comic book sagas of Doctor Who Monthly... or, to be more accurate, he aimed for the "cosmic" tone of many Marvel comics stories that DWM often imitated and sometimes duplicated. 'Millennial Rites' could stand next to The Tides of Time as a bookend, in some ways, but it feels more appropriate to compare it to Chris Claremont's X-Men comics. Not just because the plot bears some similarity to Claremont's "Inferno" storyline, either; like Claremont, Hinton has no interest in creating naturalistic dialogue or even naturalistic characters. Everyone is meant to be larger-than-life, filled with tragic secrets, shocking revelations and seething passions, waiting to be revealed as the novel progresses.

At the time, this felt like the worst kind of mistake. In retrospect (and this is, after all, a retrospective), Craig Hinton's biggest sin wasn't a lack of quality, it was that he was striking out in a different direction from everyone else writing at the time. The operatic sweep of gods and monsters in Millennial Rites, battling it out with magic as the Doctor battles to avoid becoming his darker self, reads more like a comic book translated into prose than it does like a novel. When read a few months after Paul Cornell's consciously literary Human Nature, and a few months before Ben Aaronovitch's transcendent The Also People, it sticks out like a sore thumb. But read on its own, or better yet next to other books steeped in that same atmosphere, it feels much easier to understand what Hinton was aiming for.

Even Hinton's least well-received book, The Quantum Archangel, makes sense when viewed in this light. It's meant to be a cosmic crossover, an epic "summer event" that features the return of the Chronovores, the true explanation of the nature of the Whoniverse, the Doctor and the Master teaming up, the Doctor gaining cosmic godhood and duking it out against a monstrous foe who nearly annihilated the Time Lords, the Daemons, the Exxilons, the Uxarieans, the Kastrians, the Sontarans, the Rutans... OK, at this point it's probably time to digress a bit and discuss the fanwank.

"Fanwank" is a term that Craig himself coined, and it's such a wonderfully vulgar, yet brilliantly evocative word that I think it will be remembered long after the Doctor Who novels are forgotten. It refers to continuity points inserted into a book for their own sake, digressions made by the writer simply to enshrine their pet fan theory into canonical print. When the Doctor suddenly says, in an aside, "Oh, and by the way, Jamie regained his memory after the Time Lords wiped it," that's fanwank. When a writer writes in a monologue that explains what happened to the second Zygon fleet, in a novel that features no Zygons, that's fanwank. And Craig Hinton wrote fanwank so grandiose and absurd that it almost transcended the term. His novels functioned in part as a sort of Grand Design for the Doctor Who universe, filled with explanations of how the different dimensions and the Time Vortex and the various cosmic entities we've seen over the years interacted. It makes sense, it forms a self-consistent whole... but I don't think it was ever particularly wanted or needed. That may have been the biggest reason why Hinton's novels were never accepted; Doctor Who is a series that never pays much attention to its own rules. Russell T Davies doesn't want to try to fit the Beast into the cosmology of the Six-Fold Realm, so he simply ignored it. (Assuming he was aware of it to begin with. That's the other thing that happens a lot in Doctor Who.)

And The Quantum Archangel sets out to be the ultimate triumph of fanwank, Craig Hinton's final statement on How It All Fits Together. It's about four hundred pages too short to contain its own plot, it makes obscure figures like the Celestial Toymaker and the Chronovores (each of whom appeared in exactly one story over the twenty-six year televised history of the original series) into major figures in the Doctor Who mythos, it is squarely aimed for an audience of obsessive fans that probably doesn't exist anymore, and it's been roundly ignored by subsequent creators. But on re-reading the novel, as part of Hinton's total works, I at least understand what he was aiming at.

I can't tell him any of that. I normally wind up these pieces by talking about what it would be like to see another book from this author, but we all know that this is one time it won't happen. Craig Hinton is gone, and it's just now hitting me that I finally got around to writing the piece I was afraid to publish during his lifetime for fear of hurting his feelings, and seven years too late I want to tell him that I was wrong and he did a great job with Doctor Who after all. Life is like that sometimes; we don't get to say everything we should say to the people who need to hear it. But at least I can let you know: Craig Hinton wrote some really great Doctor Who books. They were mad, they were melodrama, but they were glorious. Rest in peace, Craig.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Review: The Tides of Time (Graphic Novel)

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, August 5, 2005.)

Hmm... probably going to upset a few applecarts by saying this, but... um...

These really aren't very good Doctor Who stories. They might be good stories if you ignore the fact that they're meant to be Doctor Who stories, and treat him as an interesting incidental character, but I couldn't do that.

OK, for clarity's sake, I should point out which ones they are. The Tides of Time, Panini's new trade paperback, collects The Tides of Time, Stars Fell on Stockbridge, The Stockbridge Horror, The Lunar Lagoon, 4-Dimensional Vistas, The Moderator, and Timeslip. All of them, excepting Timeslip, were written by Steve Parkhouse, and he really doesn't seem to care about the Doctor that much. You get the feeling that if he could, he'd happily ditch the Doctor and make this all about his own characters.

And they're great, don't get me wrong. I remembered the stories fondly from when I was a kid, because I thought Shayde and Sir Justin were neat, and they still are now that I'm grown up. But, well... Shayde and Sir Justin (and Gus and the members of SAG 3 and Merlin) are the main characters. They do all the heavy lifting, plot- wise, they defeat the villains (most of the time)... really, it seems like all they rely on the Doctor for is transport. He's not a Time Lord, he's a Number Three bus. (The Doctor does defeat one of the four villains in question, but makes up for that with his spectacular incompetence in supposedly "investigating" a mysterious time anomaly in the Antarctic by playing cricket in an English village and fishing in the Pacific. It'd be better for there to have been no linking retcon than one that makes the Doctor look like the dimmest individual to walk the planet.)

There's a phrase in the TV industry for this, which I learned from John Rogers -- "sucking the day player crack pipe". It means, being so much more into your own characters than the regular leads that you start focusing the story on them and ignoring the boring people you're stuck with, since you know everyone'll love them anyway.

In fact, you get the feeling Parkhouse isn't really familiar with Doctor Who at all. He comes up with most of his own mythos, and his only use of recurring villains is a reluctant-seeming team-up between the Ice Warriors and the Meddling Monk (or, as Parkhouse seems to think he's called, "The Time Meddler". If he's going to name villains after the first TV episode they appeared in, though, it could be worse. He could have used the more famous renegade Time Lord, "Terror of the Autons".) He makes the Monk's TARDIS look like a police box as well, like that's their natural shape -- which renders the chase/dogfight in the Vortex the most confusing damned thing ever written in comics.

I should probably be more charitable to these stories. While Parkhouse doesn't seem interested in Doctor Who, he does put a lot of style and imagination into his own, new stuff... it just never really seems like he wants the Doctor to be there. And for a collection that has "Doctor Who" right on the cover, that seems to be a pretty fatal flaw.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Retrospective: Gary Russell

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 8/23, 2003.)

It's been a bit of a struggle trying to come up with this particular retrospective; firstly, it's been a struggle trying to read through Gary Russell's contributions to Doctor Who (Legacy, Invasion of the Cat-People, The Scales of Injustice, Business Unusual, Deadfall, Placebo Effect, Divided Loyalties, Instruments of Darkness). Secondly, it's been a bit of a struggle trying to find a way to express my opinions on Gary Russell's contributions to Doctor Who without sounding overly negative. Russell himself has admitted that he writes Doctor Who not out of a passion for writing, but out of a passion for the series itself, and that he finds writing to be a struggle. As a reader, it's hard not to notice his flaws.

So to begin with, what's positive about Gary Russell as a Doctor Who writer? Exactly what I already mentioned in the previous paragraph -- he's a fan of the series, and has a strong and passionate love for the characters involved. Russell's Doctor Who isn't just a TV series that got a bunch of tie-in novels; it's a myth, a legend, a history, a universe to inhabit and explore. That passion does come off as fanwank, but sometimes it transcends it; his books will sometimes have pages-long sequences where all he does is extrapolate the history of UNIT, or hypothesize as to the nature of Peladon beyond the five rooms we saw on TV, or show Mavic Chen before he became Guardian of the Solar System. His Doctor and his companions take delight in each other's company and long stretches of his novels just show them interacting as characters, something we didn't get enough of in the series. When he^'s working with an expert editor, Gary Russell can go a long way just on the nostalgia value of these scenes and the goodwill we have towards our favorite series, turning out novels that are, if not exactly good, at the very least readable and enjoyable. (It's my theory that this is why Divided Loyalties is his least-well regarded novel, even though it's not actually that much worse than his other books; he gives us a supercilious and arrogant Adric, a hateful Tegan, a bitter Nyssa, and a weak-willed, incompetent Doctor. The novel might not be particularly worse than Placebo Effect, but the former shoves us away where the latter welcomes us in.)

So, that mentioned, how does Gary Russell fare overall as a writer? Not well, unfortunately. He severely underplots his novels, usually padding them out to the requisite word-count with alternating descriptions of the villain doing something horrible to a random stranger and of the Doctor and companions doing something cheerful and companionable. The overall effect reminds one of Eddie Izzard's description of a mass murderer's day planner: "Death, death, death... lunch... death, death, death..." Frequently, the novel is three-quarters over before the plot actually begins. His prose is a little better, since he cares strongly about his characters and stories and wants to convey it, but it's still the sort of breathless, over-excitable prose that teenage fan-fiction writers use. He seems uncertain as to how to convey plot and characterization through his prose; when he wants to show how trustworthy the Doctor is, or how terrifying the Wirrrn are, he more or less just outright says so. His characters, the regulars aside, are quickly-sketched caricatures, but as with Bulis, they're caricatures the reader is usually familiar with and can inhabit with their own imaginations. They're not deep, but they feel comfortable most of the time.

Gary Russell is currently harnessing his passion for Doctor Who as producer of the Big Finish series of audios, and I think that this is the best of all possible worlds for Gary and for the fans. He can find and nurture the new generation of great Doctor Who writers, giving them the chance to produce Doctor Who stories actually voiced by the classic Doctors from the series. The fans get audios produced by someone with a deep and abiding love for the series and its traditions. And, as a not-inconsiderable side benefit, Gary's schedule keeps him from writing novels too often.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review: The Crooked World

(Originally posted to the DWRG, April 2003.)

As I began reading The Crooked World, it only took me a few pages before I immediately decided that the whole thing was a great idea with the wrong author. The idea of the Doctor materializing in an animated cartoon world with cartoon physics was fun, yes, but Steve Lyons has a far too solid, sensible approach to really make such a thing work. This would have been better suited, I thought, to a wild, wacky author like Jac Rayner or Dave Stone, and not to Steve Lyons.

Then I got into the book, and I realized I was wrong. As the story continued, I started to realize that this wasn't a "wild, wacky" book. This was full of interesting questions about morality and free will, as the inhabitants of the Crooked World took a look around them and wondered just what they'd been doing all these years. I began to grow attached to the characters, and started wondering how it would all turn out. I found myself very impressed with this novel, and I understand exactly why it's gotten such praise.

The two big decisions that Lyons made that I applaud: One, he didn't decide to make the Crooked World a "virtual thingie, a computer thingie, or an alternate thingie" (to paraphrase Daniel O'Mahoney.) We don't get an easy explanation for the Crooked World so we can dismiss its inhabitants as figments or phantoms or computer programs and stop caring about them. They're real, and they stay real throughout the book. Two, (which is linked to One,) Lyons doesn't press a reset button at the end, or destroy the whole world. The inhabitants live (most of them, anyway) to deal with the consequences of their newfound free will and the society they're beginning to make. This is all really happening. We don't switch it all off at the end and walk away.

That's what gives the book its momentum as well -- the whole thing just seems to proceed to its inevitable conclusion like water running downhill. From the beginning, where Streaky Bacon finds out the consequences of shooting people with guns, everything seems to flow naturally... all the way down to the end where Mr. Weasely gives his wonderful, wonderful speech about the consequences of a villainous life ("Yes, I did have choices, I can't deny it, but I was weak and I was selfish. I let other people make my decisions for me, and this is what they have brought me to.")

Admittedly, the book could come off as preachy to some -- to me, though, it was saved from that by the sense of purity. When the Doctor defends Jasper the cat in his trial for killing Squeak the mouse, what could come off as a bunch of speeches feels to me like these people are really thinking these thoughts for the first time, really considering these ideas as real, and having to grope their way to the conclusions on their own, just like we have. It's my favorite scene in the novel, and it really does define the book for me.

Not everything's perfect in the book -- Anji gets sidelined a lot, and Fitz... no, Fitz is still writer-proof as I think about him trying to describe "real" villainy by using James Bond movies as a guideline, and trying the moves on Angel Falls, only to find out she's not quite anatomically correct. Still, I understand now why The Crooked World ranked so highly, and why Steve Lyons was just the person to write it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Retrospective: Terrance Dicks

(Originally posted at the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 2/13/14.)

It's worth mentioning right at the start that, unlike previous retrospectives, I did not try to read the entirety of Terrance Dicks' published output, or even his published Doctor Who output. "Uncle Terry" has been inextricably linked to the series since before I was born, and his prose stylings practically defined the Doctor for an entire pre-VCR generation. Ask any Doctor Who fan over thirty-five, and their memories of their favorite classic series episode are probably going to be at best half-actual-TV-show, half-novelization. And since Terrance Dicks wrote about a third of the novelizations, the simple math means that Doctor Who as we know it is about 1/6th Terrance Dicks' output by volume. So, for these purposes, I made the cut-off at the start of the Wilderness Years, and read my way through Timewyrm: Exodus, Blood Harvest, Shakedown, The Eight Doctors, Mean Streets, Catastrophea, Players, Endgame, Warmonger, Deadly Reunion, World Game, Made of Steel, and Revenge of the Judoon.

The overall experience was a bit like sitting through the stage show of a magician you remember seeing in childhood, now well past his prime. The robes are a bit threadbare at the sleeves, the collapsible hat creaks dangerously as it expands, and every once in a while one of the tricks goes horribly wrong. But he's got his patter down to a polish so fine that even as you spot the sleight-of-hand, you can't help but be charmed by the act all over again.

The "patter" is a big part of the Terrance Dicks experience. After writing over a hundred books, most of them featuring the same exact character with a change of face here and there, Dicks developed a few turns of phrase that served him well over the course of his Target novelizations. The TARDIS always dematerializes with a wheezing, groaning sound; the Doctor's face is variously "open", "young-old", or "teeth and curls", depending on the incarnation; and the Doctor breezes through situations with a calm, "In an authoritarian society, people tend to obey the voice of authority" or "A path once trodden is never forgotten." It's either brilliantly economical or ferociously lazy, depending on how generous you tend to feel during any given book.

This same ruthless economy of effort extends through to his plots. Terrance Dicks never comes up with anything just to use it once. Looking at the list above, Dicks reuses plot elements from The War Games, State of Decay, Shakedown (once you've written it as a video, why not write it again as a novel?), The Sea Devils, The Daemons, The Five Doctors, Shakedown (again, actually...once you've created some new characters to flesh the script out to novel length, why not reuse them?), Mean Streets (once you've reused your characters, why not reuse the story elements in the new story?) Players (multiple times; if Dicks was going to have to create a new villain, he at least wanted to get some use out of her) and The Brain of Morbius. All of which just happen to have been written or script-edited, by sheerest coincidence, by one Mister Terrance Dicks. (The effect is stronger when one reads the books back to back to back, of course. By the time World Game rolled around, with entire sections quoted word for word from Players, it started to feel like Dicks wasn't so much writing as reprinting.)

Still, the same instinct for economy serves him very well most of the time. Even his most frustratingly lazy works, like Warmonger and The Eight Doctors, are plotted and scripted so concisely that the prose flows with remarkable speed and rapidity. There's never a point where a Terrance Dicks novel feels bogged down or dull; the plot constantly moves from event to event, with no doldrums or unnecessary sequences. Uncle Terry doesn't see the point in writing something that he doesn't absolutely have to in order to move the story along, and while that can sometimes mean that the plots rely on coincidence and the Doctor develops superpowers as needed to get him out of a tight spot (or the right people believe him simply because of his "commanding nature"), it also means that you're never bored reading a Dicks Doctor Who novel. Occasionally flabbergasted, but never bored.

Ultimately, the best of Dicks' original Who is his early and his late work. His first novel, Timewyrm: Exodus, was written for an editor who clearly challenged him to go above and beyond his usual party-pieces. The result is a savagely brilliant, witty indictment of the corrupting nature of power that lingers long after The Eight Doctors has been blessedly forgotten. And his recent Quick Reads books, Made of Steel and Revenge of the Judoon, have deprived him of his usual fallback of reusing his own material. The result is a pair of taut, fast-paced reads that remind you just how much of Doctor Who is, and always will be, the work of Uncle Terry. And just how much we look forward to more.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Cave of Skulls

I've never understood what people didn't see in this episode. All the time, I hear people complain that the four-parter 'An Unearthly Child' is one great hook and three episodes of people faffing about in animal furs, and every time I watch this one, I wonder if they haven't suffered some sort of head trauma that leaves them unable to appreciate awesomeness.

Because this is great stuff. Really, crackingly great stuff. Hartnell's wonderful line, "If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds, and watch them wheel in another sky, would that satisfy you?" Russell's iconic statement, "His name's not Foreman. Who is he? Doctor who?" Derek Newark's magnificent, anguished cries as he tries to make fire spring forth from the sticks, and the brilliantly poetic taunts of his people as he fails. "Tomorrow, I will kill many bears for you. Many warm skins." "I think that tomorrow you will stand here and rub your hands together, and ask Orb to bring you fire...and the bears will stay warm in their own skins."

And the climax of the episode. Za and Kal exhorting the crowd brilliantly, finding the basic levers of their tribe's primal fears and hopes and pulling on them with all their force. "Za will leave you to the tiger!" Kal cries, certain he has the whip hand. "Za will leave you to the cold!" And then, when the tables turn, Za twists Kal's rhetoric right back against him. These aren't stupid people. Primitive, unlearned, but by no means dumb.

And scary, too. There's a raw edge to these episodes I don't think Doctor Who will ever regain. The Doctor, Ian, Susan and Barbara are among people that have absolutely no qualms about casual, brutal violence, and everyone involved knows it. Every moment, it feels like one of the tribe could just decide to smash a rock through someone's skull and end the series for good after only two episodes. That tension is greatly evoked through the acting and the direction; the cliffhanger, where Ian notices all the holes in the titular Cave's deceased inhabitants, feels almost redundant. This is Doctor Who at its most nerve-racking, no matter what the Hinchcliffe fans might tell you. "The Cave of Skulls" might not have the same virtues that "An Unearthly Child" had, but I frankly think I like it even more.

An Unearthly Child

I watched this for the first time in a while tonight (and here I should mention that I'm specifically referring to the half-hour episode "An Unearthly Child", and not the four-part serial that takes its name from that first title). It still astonishes me what an amazing piece of television it is. Perhaps it's the fact that it was remounted after the famous failed pilot, but it really feels very confident in what it's trying to achieve.

It's a glorious little mystery, the sort of thing you can easily imagine hooking viewers of any era--the strange girl who lives in a junkyard and knows more than her teachers, alien and alienated and yet delighting in the quirks and trivialities of "modern" life. And when her teachers investigate, well...isn't that first scene with Hartnell wonderful? Doesn't he come off as delightfully rude and mischievous, sinister and sarcastic and puckish all at once? The energy between Russell and Hartnell immediately gives the story a frission of tension that really doesn't go away until well into Russell's tenure on the show, and it's a trick the New Series has almost completely missed--all the New Series companions have been willing daytrippers, able to go home whenever they pleased. I've always felt that the Classic Series, especially these early episodes, capture a bit of the double-edged sword of traveling in the TARDIS. You can't get off this ride until it comes to a complete stop.

There are clearly story ideas from this episode that were abandoned, and I don't just mean Susan's existence...the Doctor and Susan portray themselves more like exiled royalty than fugitive thieves. And of course, nobody involved in the production had any idea where it might lead, and certainly not that it would lead to fifty years of adventures. But they certainly built a solid foundation for future stories here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What Makes a Monster?

It's pretty much taken as read, after fifty-odd years, that the Doctor fights monsters. This has been the subject of much debate--shouldn't the series have more moral complexity? Is it right to portray aliens as "monsters" and humans/humanoids as heroes as the default setting, even if it is sometimes deliberately subverted (as with the Ood and the Silurians)? But to me, it seems to be worth taking a moment to figure out exactly what we mean by "monster" to begin with. It seems like the basic component of a "monster", as defined in Doctor Who, is "an enemy that cannot be reasoned with". The Doctor frequently tries rational arguments against his opponents; it's just that they very rarely work. (Rarely is not "never", though. Look at 'Forest of the Dead', which basically ends with the Vashta Nerada becoming smart enough to realize they should probably let the Doctor go just on basic survival principles.)

But if it's "lack of reason" that makes a monster into a monster, the question then becomes, "Why can't anything be reasoned with in the Whoniverse?" (The obvious answer, of course, is "Because then the stories would be short and boring.") Still, I do think there's something to be gained by looking at the in-story reasons that monsters are monsters in Doctor consider what follows a rough taxonomy.

The first category is the non-sapient monster. This is, essentially, the mindless animal that preys on whatever is around it. Your basic Vashta Nerada, your Mandrel, your Kroll, your Taran Beast. It attacks the Doctor and whoever's around because they're around, and because it doesn't know what else to do with something that's in front of it and living. This is frequently subverted through the solving of a mystery of some sort: The Doctor figures out that the monster is protecting its young, the killer turns out to be smarter than expected (and moves into a different category of monster), or the creature gains sapience and learns how not to be an indiscriminate killer.

The second category, closely related to the first, is your inimical intelligence. These are creatures that have intellect as defined by their ability to plan and communicate with their own kind, but it's an intelligence of an order so different from ours that there is no room for co-operation or mutual understanding. The Flood from 'The Waters of Mars' is the perfect example of the inimical intelligence; it can talk, it just doesn't bother because it can't see us as anything other than hosts. It's more dangerous than the first category of monster because it can reason, but it still can't be reasoned with. Arguably, the Daleks and Cybermen could fit here, because they are intelligent but are limited by their programming, but as we'll see, they're a little bit more complex than that.

The third category is the uniform mentality. These are intelligent, and can even understand rational arguments against their position; but for one reason or another, they share a set of goals, ethics and beliefs so closely that all of them respond identically to identical stimulus, and they generally have a belief system that precludes meaningful interaction with those outside the group. This can be because they have been programmed (like the Daleks, who are unable to conceive of pity because of limitations put on their mind by Davros) or because their culture produces strongly-conditioned belief systems (like the Sontarans, who have been raised from birth to glorify military triumphs and who breed for uniformity of thought and body), or simply because they share a group mind (like the Rutans, at least in theory). Fanatics and cultists tend to fall into this category, like the Krillitanes attempting to solve the Skasis Paradigm. (The Cybermen would also fall into this group.)

The fourth category are those I'd term "monsters of circumstance". These monsters would not always be monsters, but in this particular situation, they are forced to act in monstrous ways. The Saturnyne "vampires", for example, have no particular emnity for humankind...but they're on Earth, and allowing us to live would mean the extinction of their species. As such, they cannot be meaningfully reasoned with because their desperation makes alternatives seem impossible. Other examples here would include Scaroth, and even Erato from 'Creature from the Pit'.

And finally we have the worst monsters, monsters of choice. These are sapient entities capable of understanding rational argument and a code of ethics...but they refuse to listen to rational argument about the ethics of their actions, because they don't subscribe to an ethical code and refuse to behave in a moral fashion. The Master, the Slitheen, the Weeping Angels...all of these enemies understand perfectly well that what they're doing is wrong. They just don't care. Either the profit it gains them is greater than their feeble moral sensibilities, or they just like inflicting suffering on others. It's worth pointing out here that a lot of human characters, like Tryst and Salamander and Sabalom Glitz (at least in his first appearance) quality as monsters under this definition...which suggests that maybe the dualism of "monsters and humans" isn't as clear-cut as we like to admit. Doctor Who suggests, in fact, that it's the monster inside that you need to watch out for.