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.

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