Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Janus Conjunction by: Trevor Baxendale

One issue new authors have when crafting a story is keeping the pace of the story going.  Now the pacing of a story does not always have to be fast paced or slowly paced, but with a novel there must be some consistency with its pace.  This isn’t as much of a problem if the pace starts slow and then speeds up, but whenever this happens in reverse, or worse starts fast, slows down, and speeds up again, the integrity of the story doesn’t hold up.  That is one of the main issues at the center of Trevor Baxendale’s debut Doctor Who novel, The Janus Conjunction.  The Janus Conjunction starts off with a brisk pace as the Doctor and Sam arrive on the planet Janus Prime where they are immediately attacked by giant cyborg spiders, inaccurately called spidroids, and a large portion of the book is just their fight for survival.  There are two rival military factions on Janus Prime, which will become a recurring theme in Baxendale’s work, and the one in control of the spidroids is obviously the ‘evil’ of the groups.  By the time Baxendale begins to devote time to these factions The Janus Conjunction then switches focus from quick paced action story, to a slower paced mystery to unravel some anomalies on the planet, and finally into a quickly paced conclusion in the last 20 pages or so of the novel.   While the conclusion itself is for the most part satisfying, it almost comes too quickly for the reader to process just how everything has been done.  The speedup does seem to be out of style with the rest of the novel, and it leads me to speculate if The Janus Conjunction wasn’t a victim of BBC Books’ harder limit on page count and the conclusion was left behind in editing.

The actual conspiracy and mystery driving the plot of The Janus Conjunction is a good example of fun Doctor Who, yet a style of Doctor Who story that isn’t often done.  The grand conspiracy plot brings to mind a story in the style of The Ambassadors of Death, though outside of atmosphere the plots are incredibly different.  The Doctor and Sam must keep asking questions about what the conspiracy behind Janus Prime is.  Janus Prime is a planet in a binary system with one moon leaving the planet in a permanent total lunar eclipse.  The planet is also soaked in a type of radiation which starts mild: at first it leaves only some minor rashes, but it eventually kills the skin and melts its victims.  Baxendale has a way with describing the poor victims of Janus’ radiation, and the bitterness it causes.  Baxendale employs it as a looming threat over the heroes throughout the novel as at any moment Sam and the Doctor could start succumbing to the sickness.  The ending has Sam dead, which is perhaps Baxendale’s biggest mistake in The Janus Conjunction: the novel has no consequences and most of it is undone by the end which feels cheapened.  This could have been a decent exit for Sam, but she is spared.

The Doctor and Sam are also split for a good portion of the novel’s length which Baxendale uses to muse on the Sam is Missing arc for a bit, while the Doctor is on Janus Prime’s twin planet and trying to get the action going and Sam is being defiant in the face of an authoritarian military.  Gustav Zemler is the over the top villain of The Janus Conjunction, and as a character Baxendale slowly lets him become unhinged while the plot goes on around him.  Moslei, one of his underlings, is much more interesting and a source for worldbuilding.  Moslei fought in the Cyber wars and there are several war style flashbacks which show the horrors war has on a psyche and the actual threat the Cybermen and Cybermats can be.  Neither actually appear, but there’s a goldmine for Baxendale to explore here and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was meant to have the Cybermen in it at one point.  The rest of the supporting cast, however isn’t nearly as interesting.  They all kind of fit into stereotypes for action movies, which isn’t too bad considering this is Baxendale’s first novel, but with another round of editing and maybe some cutting down of one or two the supporting characters could have been stronger.  Finally, the Doctor himself while great feels slightly out of development here, acting more like his TV Movie persona than the development the past fifteen books have given him.  Overall, The Janus Conjunction is a good entry in the Eighth Doctor Adventures and a great first effort from Trevor Baxendale which perhaps needed one more draft and an extended page count to find itself amongst the greats of Doctor Who books.  7/10.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Last Man Running by: Chris Boucher

Chris Boucher wrote three stories for Doctor Who between Season 14 and 15: The Face of Evil, The Robots of Death, and Image of the Fendahl.  Outside of the show he worked on Blake’s 7 as a script editor, but left his novels to be novelized by the legendary Terrance Dicks in 1978 and 1979.  It’s important to note that Boucher has not written any prose work before the fifteenth BBC Past Doctor Adventures release, Last Man Running.  If one wasn’t familiar with the three television stories from Boucher, Last Man Running would be both one of the best and worst examples of his writing styles.  Last Man Running is a novel that encapsulates the atmosphere and science-fiction ideas from the television stories of Boucher.  The novel’s primary setting is a mixture of a lush jungle and ancient spaceship straight out of The Face of Evil, however, with the prose there are expansive descriptions to transport the reader right into the alien landscape.  There’s also a third act twist about the actual ‘last man running’ that feels reflective of The Face of Evil.  The surprise over the top villain is a reveal from The Robots of Death with the deeper meanings being nowhere to be seen, but not to the detriment of the character.  Morley as he is named here, brings some great chemistry to the novel right in the final third.  His interactions with the Doctor and Leela are excellent and one of the few real highlights of the novel.  The atmosphere draws the most from the gothic uncertainty of Image of the Fendahl, with the idea of some Lovecraftian beast killing a society.  The difference here is in the setting that while Image of the Fendahl is preventing an apocalypse, Last Man Running appears long after the world has ended.

The novel, however, is structurally weak.  Writing for television and writing for prose are two very different forms of writing.  Boucher is excellent when it comes to television which involves cooperation with entire teams of cast and crew to bring a story to life as well as having scripts edited by others.  His style of writing in Last Man Running is how you would describe a set and the type of actors you would cast in characters.  The two characters who Boucher captures in prose are the Doctor and Leela, as Boucher is responsible for creating the warrior of the Sevateem.  The rest of the characters are just names on a page, with defining characteristics ranging from couple which secretly hates each other to here to build up a body count.  The plot itself is incredibly an incredibly standard Doctor Who story that could have been an excellent addition to the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show with some work.  Putting Boucher on his own as an author with only one editor looking over the script leads to a novel that reads almost like a television script which just does not engage.   It feels like something that needs to be performed to be good, but as it stands it’s a subpar Doctor Who adventure.  3/10.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Scarlet Empress by: Paul Magrs

How does one describe the work of Paul Magrs (pronounced ‘Mars’ oddly enough)?  The first time he appeared in the professional sense is as a character in the Virgin New Adventure Love and War.  The Doctor Who writer began his writing career in BBC Books initial Short Trips volume and since has contributed several novels, short stories, and audio dramas to both BBC Books, Obverse Publishing, and Big Finish Productions.  This may technically be an accurate description of the work of Paul Magrs, but it doesn’t get to the wide depth on just the insane style and panache Magrs employs.  Most of his work is comedic in nature, yet with some dramatic underpinning that can bring some of the most emotional stories in the Doctor Who canon.  His first novel is the fifteenth Eighth Doctor Adventure, The Scarlet Empress, and while it is not one of the more emotional works in Magrs’ canon, shows all the elements which make Magrs such a prominent Who author in the expanded universe.  The plot of The Scarlet Empress is perhaps the novel’s weakest element, instead of being one cohesive story it’s almost a series of vignettes moving around the planet Hyspero in the quest to find the Scarlet Empresses meeting characters both good and bad, righting wrongs, and wronging rights.

It’s simple and shouldn’t necessarily work, but there’s something about Magrs’ writing style which sucks the reader in.  The prose itself almost lilts through pages so once you start reading you’ll pass through with such speed.  The setting of The Scarlet Empress, Hyspero was meant to be returned to in its own spin-off range so Margs spends much of the novel worldbuilding.  Other Doctor Who planets wish they had this much time devoted to worldbuilding, from the various cultures, to caste systems, and even religions get touched upon. Magrs takes Hyspero and differentiates it and The Scarlet Empress by making the novel a blend of Middle Eastern folklore and quintessential fairy tale style novels, specifically 1001 Arabian Nights, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  The later in particular for the structure of the book as the vignettes are essentially a fetch quest to bring together a mercenary group to the titular Scarlet Empress in return for the life of a certain Time Lord.  If they fail it’s lights out for our hero for the final time.  The task is difficult that when opportunity arises that horrid renegade only known as the Doctor is brought in to help.  Oh, you thought this was a story about the Doctor? No, the real protagonist of these adventures, Time Lady and Trans Temporal Adventuress Iris Wildthyme is on the scene and in danger.  Marcus Cotton aka SirJediSentinel aka The Sentinel accurately described Iris as the Deadpool of Doctor Who and with this novel she immediately establishes herself in the seat.  Sure the book starts with the Doctor and Sam, but the protagonist of this one is Iris Wildthyme, and while it isn’t the same incarnation as Katy Manning’s defining portrayal, the character is still the same eccentric aunt with her TARDIS bus which is smaller on the inside than it is on the outside.  There are also actual stakes with Iris, her death feels like it could easily happen and her scenes with the Doctor sparkle with every line.

The Doctor is also one area where Paul Magrs shines above every other Eighth Doctor Adventure thus far.  He is ever the breathless romantic and childish adventurer, filtered through the lenses of Iris and Sam Jones who both have keen eyes on what the Doctor is doing throughout the book.  He’s described as pouting one moment and being overly excited the next, and the TARDIS feels like a real reflection of the Eighth Doctor.  It is honestly a shame that the Doctor is almost a supporting character in this novel as Magrs could do some great work with the Eighth Doctor.  Magrs is also the first writer since Orman and Blum to address the emotional state of Samantha Jones.  There are portions from Sam’s point of view and Magrs takes time to work on the fact that she is still in love with the Doctor, and is harboring these emotions.  The emotional turmoil doesn’t go too far, but it’s enough to remind the reader that they are bubbling in the background and ready to come to the surface.  Magrs also does an excellent job giving Sam a character to play off.  Gila, an alligator man and one of the Four, gets to have some great arguments with Sam about the nature of reading.  There’s a Bearded Woman, essentially half-bear, half-woman, a prophetess, and of course the titular empress who serves the Oz the Great and Powerful purpose, except less of a humbug.  Overall, The Scarlet Empress is stuffed to bursting with good ideas and great characters.  The biggest surprise, however, is that this is just Paul Magrs’ first novel.  9/10.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Dreams of Empire by: Justin Richards

The chess master incarnation of the Doctor is always described as Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal of the Seventh Doctor.  The Seventh Doctor manipulates situations in such a way that he knows the outcome when going in, manipulating friends and enemies alike.  So, the obvious choice for a Doctor Who novel written as a large game of chess is to give it to the obvious Second Doctor, as portrayed by Patrick Troughton.  Yeah, Dreams of Empire, which proudly displays an abstract cover with chess pieces and includes chess as a major theme, is a Second Doctor novel.  This seems to be down to looking at the Doctor in The Tomb of the Cybermen, at the time one of the most popular Second Doctor stories.  The Tomb of the Cybermen has the Doctor manipulating a group of archeologists into going into the tombs on Telos to potentially seal things off.  Dreams of Empire sets the scene in the midst of Season 5 with the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria arriving in the Haddron Empire, which is on the verge of collapse much like the Roman Republic after the assassination of Julius Caesar.  Author Justin Richards mentions this intentional parallel in his introduction to the 2013 reprint, as he attempted to tell a sort of alternate history set in the far future with characters who are analogous to historical figures.  The reader does not need any historical reference to enjoy the story, Richards does an excellent job of fleshing out this Empire while sticking close to one setting.  The chess metaphor for the novel works as Richards has the characters having a run around through this castle, being captured, released, and captured again.  Richards also excellently captures the feeling of Season 5, which is a tremendous feat as at the time this was written only The Tomb of the Cybermen was available in its entirety and Episode Two of The Abominable Snowmen, Episode Three of The Enemy of the World, and Episode Three and Episode Six of The Wheel in Space were available.  While it is never stated, I believe The Enemy of the World and its political machinations and James Bond-esque story inspired the novel.

Also in Richards introduction mention is made of the difficulty in capturing the Second Doctor in prose, which oddly enough is something Richards seems to have had little difficulty with.  Patrick Troughton’s spirit is felt throughout the novel with very few points which are out of character for this incarnation.  This is most obvious in a brick joke involving sandwiches which feels like it is attempting to be something Troughton and Frazer Hines might have snuck in, but it falls flat.  Richards also characterizes the Doctor as the version seen in The Tomb of the Cybermen, which may rub people the wrong way, but it doesn’t get in the way.  The novel does suffer slightly in its portrayal of the Doctor’s companions.  Victoria Waterfield is far too close to the stereotypical fan held belief of a young woman who cannot fend for herself, once again partially due to the lack of her best material being available to Richards.  Victoria has little presence in the novel and only feels like a springboard for dialogue between the Doctor and Jamie.  Jamie fairs slightly better as Richards gets his historical heritage and general demeanor right, but really only has him bluster into situations.  It’s really the supporting cast where Richards shines throughout the novel.  Hans Kesar is a prisoner who kind of fits the Julius Caesar role, put into prison instead of being assassinated has some great moments with the Doctor about chess.  Trayx works well as a mix of a stock comic character and ally to the Doctor and the villain himself, which is kept a mystery so I will not spoil it, is executed with aplomb.  It becomes easy to see why Dreams of Empire would be reprinted for the 50th anniversary celebrations, though it is not without its flaws.  It’s a good mystery with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers interested.  The characters are fun, and it is really the main characters who feel almost out of place as it’s one that could easily be converted to just a science fiction text.  7/10.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Vanderdeken's Children by: Christopher Bulis

Sometimes Doctor Who stories have incredibly evocative titles that once you experience the story there’s very little relevance to the actual contents.  Season 18 and Season 19 are perhaps the most obvious examples of this (Black Orchid and The Visitation immediately come to mind), but the fourteenth Eighth Doctor Adventure, Vanderdeken’s Children, is perhaps the most egregious.  The title is an attempt by author Christopher Bulis to tie together a theme about ghost ships and the ghosts of children which appear in the novel, but only mentions it on the second to last page.  Perhaps the title would work better had Vanderdeken’s Children been a book dripping with atmosphere: it’s a novel about two races at war set around an intergalactic cruise ship which finds an abandoned warship of the opposite sides before weird occurrences begin occurring.  This should be a setup for a story full of atmosphere, a ghost story in space where nobody can hear you scream.  Bulis’ style of prose however is detrimental to building any sort of horrific atmosphere due to this concise style.  Bulis writes in a “x” leads to this and “character” said this and “other character” responded with little in the way of descriptions beyond the basic setting and motivations for the characters.  A novel like this is one that needs to have descriptions that are more flowery to build a sense of tension in the prose which is where Bulis fails in this outing as a writer.  The prose becomes less engaging.

Another issue is that the two races featured in the novel, the Nimosians and Emindarians, are two indistinct races of aliens.  Yes, they are described differently and the Nimosian ship on the cover makes a striking image (and one of the best EDA covers), but for all that is done with the races they could just be two factions of humans.  The conflict between the races is not expanded upon throughout the novel, and is stuck firmly in the background while Bulis tells a lackluster ghost story.  Vanderdeken’s Children is not all bad however, the characterization of the regulars and the first few chapters in particular are excellent.  These first few chapters break away from Bulis’ prose as he describes the TARDIS and the Doctor and Sam living together like two roommates together.  There is a point where you don’t want the Doctor and Sam to land and just keep living their lives in the TARDIS.  The Doctor also perhaps has one of his best characterizations to date.  The novel is published well after the TV Movie and Bulis has given the Eighth Doctor of Vanderdeken’s Children an excellent evolution of the character as he was initially introduced as.  This is also the third consecutive novel where Sam Jones is written with a decent characterization which is going a long way to create a solid companion.  She will still be low on many rankings of companions, but by now she’s at least got a solid character and become a little softened.  Bulis also regresses her to a child for about a quarter of the book really allowing an emotional drama play out between the characters.  Still Vanderdeken’s Children is highly flawed as a novel and comes across as a bit of fluff. 5/10.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Zeta Major by: Simon Messingham

When it comes to writing a one and done author often refers to an author who only wrote one novel before calling it quits.  In Doctor Who circles, it refers to authors who wrote one novel for a range (and sometimes publisher).  Simon Messingham is an example of a one and done author who continued to write and eventually was able to publish for BBC Books, debuting with Zeta Major.  His Virgin New Adventure, Strange England, was in my opinion the worst Virgin New Adventure published with the intent of a story that for the Doctor was hopeless, but was meddled with resulting in an inferior product.  It was also the only Virgin New Adventure I gave a score of zero and one that I am unlikely to revisit.  This caused apprehension when going into Messingham’s first BBC Books effort, Zeta Major, compounded by the fact that it is a sequel to Planet of Evil which while a good story doesn’t have much sequel potential.  It bears the Anti-Man prominently on the cover, yet the digitally designed, time vortex themed cover of the Past Doctor Adventures acts as a red herring for the book as while the beings appear they are by no means the main villains of the piece.

Zeta Major is an examination of the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan dynamic by telling a tale where the Fifth Doctor, the Doctor most often calm in a crisis and looking for another way, is put in a situation which he has already stopped once, only for time to have made the Doctor’s work on the planet of Zeta Minor to be undone.  Messingham’s portrayal of the Fifth Doctor shows an excellent grasp on the character, attempting to stop the impending disaster of experimentation with antimatter and the antimatter universe which can be found through Zeta Minor.  The Doctor is also put through the ringer as this is one of the few novels where the Doctor becomes susceptible to dreams, in this area vague nightmares which rock the character to his very being.  The death of Adric in Earthshock still haunts the Doctor and much of his motivation is not just the necessity of saving the day, but also the fear that Tegan and/or Nyssa could end up dead because of his actions.  Messingham makes the Doctor become incredibly distant and the dreams and hallucinations stop the Doctor from keeping track of his companions throughout the novel.  The Doctor’s confidence in himself is in question internally, perhaps unfairly, but this is not an issue as Messingham shows just where the Doctor’s flaw in logic comes from.  The climax of the novel does an excellent job at resolving this little narrative arc that is present throughout the novel.  One of the major villains, Krystyan Fall, works to foil against the Doctor and makes the novel all the better for his inclusion.  If one character is not necessarily explored to the novel’s detriment it’s Nyssa, who’s characterization is just as limp as many of her television appearances.  Messingham portrays her as one-note with only a few mentions of her emotions about her father being taken over by the Master making her come across as a cold character, much less than the caring friend she is usually characterized by.  There is an attempt to make her interesting by turning her into an Anti-Man, and that is harrowing, but the companion being turned into a monster has been done better elsewhere.

That is not the problem with Tegan Jovanka who is overflowing with her harsh Australian personality.  Luckily, Messingham sets this novel after Arc of Infinity so she is no longer looking for Heathrow, and gives Messingham the opportunity to show her vulnerabilities in the novel.  Once the Doctor shows signs of being taken over and not being himself, she immediately wants to help yet is afraid to get involved as she may get in the way with her limited knowledge of the universe.  However, while much of Zeta Major can be described as going over the fallout from Planet of Evil Messingham adds to it by entrenching the novel with a plot where the Doctor is a mythic figure and Sarah Jane Smith as a handmaiden.  The Morestran Empire has built their entire religion about the Doctor as a mystic, with interestingly having a contrast with a scientific sect present in the Empire.  Tegan’s harsh nature is able to dismantle the organized church, much a commentary on churches like the Roman Catholic Church and the political power they have and still hold, into what religion is.  Religion in the book is a game of telephone where things started out with a grain of truth, but has spiraled out of control.  Messingham’s novel overall is a pleasant and welcome surprise showing just how far he has come creating a book with deep themes and an engaging plot while having a few unnecessary characters and some pacing issues.  8/10.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Placebo Effect by: Gary Russell

Gary Russell is one of the Doctor Who authors for whom inserting continuity references is a favorite past time.  His only contribution to the Eighth Doctor Adventures, much like his contribution to the Virgin New Adventures, is a tribute to one of his and many fans’ favorite stories.  Placebo Effect proudly bears the striking silhouette of a Wirrn (Or as Russell puts it in great tribute to Ian Marter, Wirrrn) over a coin bearing the logo of the 3999 Olympic Games.  The plot of the novel is a commentary on the very real controversy of drug abuse and doping in high level sports events, having the Wirrn Queen spread her seed through red and blue acetaminophen pills distributed throughout the games.  This is a bid for the Wirrn to take over the galaxy and then the universe.  Russell’s prose style works incredibly well when switching to several points of view of characters assimilating into the Wirrn.  The style becomes conflicted, emulating the thought process of someone whose control is slowly being coaxed away from them and into a massive hive mind.  Russell captures the fear, yet excitement of coming to the cusp of knowledge while still losing freedom.  The issue of using the Wirrn mainly comes from the reveal of their presence, which comes halfway through the novel, being squandered by the cover and introduction.  The first half of the novel is a standard mystery Doctor Who plot with the Foamasi from The Leisure Hive.  The Foamasi were never fleshed out within the context of The Leisure Hive and Russell creates a mafia style society, but manages to make the reptilian characters more interesting than Fisher’s script.

The Doctor and Sam Jones only get involved in the events of the novel due to an acknowledgement of the Radio Times comic strip starring the Eighth Doctor, Stacy Townsend, and Ssard.  Russell uses Stacy and Ssard’s wedding to wrap up any remaining plotlines from that comic strip as at this point the strip had stop running.  The first third of Placebo Effect explores the nature of the Eighth Doctor and his wanderings.   During the year-long gap in between The Eight Doctors and Vampire Science, the Doctor travelled with Stacy and Ssard and has been avoiding going to their wedding.  The Eighth Doctor is the perfect example of a wanderer, forgetting several points that there is a wedding to be getting to, even when getting people to the wedding.  Sam reflects early on in the novel that everything has returned to normal since her exit, really underselling the impact that Seeing I should have had on the range.  There’s something deeper to the Doctor that Russell only vaguely explores: he genuinely cares for his companions and is attempting to make their lives better.  Yes he doesn’t always get around to things when he should, but he will eventually.  Stacy and Ssard as characters disappear once their wedding is over, which really makes the pacing of the book feel like there is meant to be two stories here.  The first story would have Sam, Stacy, and Ssard as companions helping the Doctor foil a murder mystery while the second would have been the Wirrn plot of the back 2/3 of the novel.  Stacy and Ssard come across with the chemistry a couple would have, however, Russell for once does not rely on the continuity to introduce the characters, expecting the reader to have already experienced their comic strips.  There are plenty of emotional moments as the wedding is of course interrupted and the Doctor brings Stacy’s parents into the future as a present making their portion of the story enjoyable, but it is not necessary.

The glue that attempts to bring together the two plots is one with the Church of the Way Forward, an extreme religious sect who disapprove of interspecies marriage.  Russell uses this sect to provide commentary on the form of American Evangelicalism which demands evolution to be just a theory and that the only way to live a good life is to follow the faith.  There’s even an insane reverend who ends up converted to the Wirrn cause by the end of the novel.  Perhaps the weakest aspect of the novel is Russell’s subplot of Sam questioning atheism through poor arguments.  Sam starts to believe there may be something out there due to an argument that can be boiled down to there aren’t enough missing links and evolution is just a theory.  Russell implies that this has been building up and it is the influence of Kyle Dale, her love interest of the adventure, has brought this on.  There really is no resolution to this budding character development, and by the end it is at a point where she’s simply questioning her perspective of being an extreme activist.  The Doctor of course has no faith, but had at one point what might have been called a “family” and it is that which gives Sam some hope.  Sam is actually characterized quite well by the end of the novel after spending much of it closer to the blank slate character.  At least she is less insufferable than she has been since Seeing I developed the character.  Overall, Placebo Effect is a book which suffers the most from having too many ideas and too many pacing issues to bring it to a truly great novel.  It’s not nearly as bad as some would have you think, in fact it’s pretty good. 7/10.