Monday, June 9, 2014

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.

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