Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Hollow Men by: Keith Topping and Martin Day

The Hollow Men is a dark novel.  The image on the cover portrays a threatening scarecrow only previewing the horrors within.  The tone set by authors Keith Topping and Martin Day is very similar to The Wicker Man.  The setting of the novel is an isolated village, inhabited by Englishmen terrified of outsiders and who refuse to leave.  The opening chapters of the novel are a slow burn, the Doctor and Ace arrive in Hexen Bridge where if inhabitants leave they become infertile and there are mysterious goings on at the local church.   Scarecrows made from the recently deceased stalk the night and there is a mysterious black spot slowly growing in the center of the village.  Topping and Day’s actual plot of the novel really doesn’t extend too long, but in slowly revealing to the Doctor and Ace the history of Hexen Bridge and what exactly Jack of the Green is, the novel serves as an incredibly effective horror novel.  An effective plot device used here is that Ace and the Doctor are split up for the majority of the novel.  The Doctor gets kidnapped by Shanks, a gangster style character who is influenced into putting the chemical in the water supply to cure the infertility.  It’s actually causing the infertility and implied to potentially place the rest of England under the control of Jack of the Green.  In doing this, Topping and Day bring into sharp context how active in proceedings the Seventh Doctor is, even when he is not present.  This is a story where the Doctor doesn’t go in having a master plan, so to understand what exactly is going on with Hexen Bridge taking him out of Hexen Bridge handicaps his ability.  The Doctor has to have his wits at hand immediately to latch on any little clue.  Yes he had been monitoring the village since The Awakening, but that doesn’t mean he knew exactly what was going on and how to save the day in the end.

Ace’s plotline is perhaps the more interesting one of the two as it’s this plot which plays out like the traditional Hammer Horror film a la The Wicker Man or Blood on Satan’s Claw.  She is trapped in the village, accosted by a racist innkeeper who has a little sympathy for the outsider.  Themes of racism is one constant thread through Ace’s plotline.  This comes partially from the TV series where a Pakistani friend, Manisha, was killed by neo-Nazis which is a formative event in Ace’s character arc.  It’s what set her to burn down Gabriel Chase and give the Doctor reason to initiate the events of Ghost Light.  This time the Chen family, an Asian family new to Hexen Bridge, are the recipients of persecution for (as with any racist act) no reason.  It’s a great plotline as Ace forms a close friendship with Steven Chen building a party of survival once the scarecrows start attacking the village.  Topping and Day avoid the question of fitting Ace’s character into the development of the Virgin New Adventures, as they set this before Survival and after The Curse of Fenric.  Yet, The Hollow Men feels right at home with the Virgin New Adventures range.  The rotting corpses of villagers as scarecrows, an over the top human villain who is converted into the alien entity, and a true cosmic horror: Topping and Day pay tribute to the range of novels with aplomb.  Jack of the Green is a terrifying villain and like many of the great horror villains, it is kept off-screen for the majority of the novel allowing the reader to fill in the gaps.  There are these glimpses here and there, descriptions by the villagers who live in fear of the creature that remain on the vague, and when it is finally revealed like many of the best Virgin New Adventures, an element of the trip factor to make the alien nature of Jack of the Green feel just right.  The supporting characters are also great, especially Matthew Hatch, our villain who acts as the focal point, and Rebecca Baber.  Hatch’s insanity throughout the novel is underplayed, just teetering on the edge of letting it loose until the end where he physically goes through a looking glass.  Baber, like Jane Hampden in The Awakening, acts as a pseudo-companion in places and is excellent.  The only place where the novel is let down is that the ending is slightly rushed away from the slow horror to quick action set piece.  This does not mean that the ending is bad, it just causes quite a bit of tonal whiplash.  The Hollow Men feels like it would fit right at home with the Virgin New Adventures and once again proves that the early Past Doctor Adventures is a stronger range than the Eighth Doctor Adventures.  9/10.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Timeslip by: Paul Neary with a plot from: Dez Skinn

Timeslip is written by Paul Neary with a plot from Dez Skinn.  It was released in Doctor Who Weekly issues 17-18 (February 1980) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: The Tides of Time by Panini Books.

Timeslip is an odd little comic story.  It’s a story which ran for two weeks in Doctor Who Weekly and was not written and drawn from the then current team of writers Pat Mills and John Wagner and artist Dave Gibbons.  Magazine editors Paul Neary and Dez Skinn came up with this particular story and slot it in between City of the Damned and Doctor Who and the Star Beast.  It is a plot which is confined to the TARDIS exclusively for the eight pages the story runs.  The plot is pretty simple: there is a space amoeba creature which the TARDIS runs into which causes the time machine to reverse in time.  Reverse in time in this strip means for whatever reason the Doctor and K9 are sent back on their personal time streams, so the Doctor cycles back through his regenerations which ends the first issue.  The second issue quickly wraps the story up a la The Edge of Destruction: flipping a switch after connecting a gizmo to the console which saves the day.  As a story there isn’t much to go on in terms of plot, but what can you do to fill only eight pages of story on a time crunch so there cannot be too much fault for it.  The opening panels feel ripped straight from Season 17 with the Doctor and K9 playing a board game before the events of the story proper begin.  There are decent little dialogue exchanges between the Doctor and K9 throughout the comic which really feel like they are coming directly from the TV series.

The biggest drawback of this particular comic is the shift in art style from Dave Gibbons’ style of detailed backgrounds and thick lines, to one of almost scratchy character designs.  Most of the comic looks like it was traced over from a photograph which isn’t a compliment.  Building a story based on publicity photographs stitched together in black and white makes the poses of the Doctor and K9 awkward to look at.  There’s a point where the Second Doctor’s head looks like the neck has been snapped with one shoulder up in a rather awkward pose.  Jumping from publicity photo to publicity photo makes the costumes and hair of the First Doctor in particular lack continuity.  One moment it will be a costume from 1963, then one from 1965, and then back to a 1963 costume.  The montage of the Doctor going back through his previous regenerations takes a full page spread filled with memories of past villains, for no particular reason than to remind the reader that this is a Doctor Who comic strip I guess.  Overall, Timeslip is one of those comics which really doesn’t fit into what the strip has established and can be taken or left.  It’s obvious that it was only included in The Tides of Time and not the more appropriate The Iron Legion to complete the set.  5/10.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Legacy of the Daleks by: John Peel

It is interesting that John Peel’s Legacy of the Daleks relies far less on past continuity than his first Dalek novel, War of the Daleks.  There are references integral to the plot (having a decent knowledge of The Dalek Invasion of Earth in particular), but unlike the previous novel, this one does not get itself bogged down in filling in as many details of Dalek continuity possible.  The novel begins relatively Dalek free, instead focusing on the efforts to rebuild the Earth after their invasion.  Technology is improving while the system of government put in place resembles one of lords and serfs instead of a democratically elected system.  Susan and David Campbell are seen entirely as war heroes and have been instrumental in building up Earth’s society.  There are still dangers left over from the Dalek occupation, mainly the Slythers are still around and much more dangerous than the one that appeared on television.  The first two chapters are dedicated to introducing Donna, a knight in an arranged marriage to Lord Haldoran who acts as a one off companion to the Doctor.  This is because Legacy of the Daleks continues the story arc where Sam Jones is missing.  Peel immediately endears Donna to the reader by having her save a little girl wandering into a forest after a cat.  Donna exudes a sense of chivalry throughout the novel and Peel writes her with amazing chemistry when it comes to her interactions with the Eighth Doctor.  There comes a moment when the reader wants to have the Doctor invite her to be a companion with him, yet because the books have already established Sam as the companion.  Donna also serves to shine a light on just how much Sam Jones drags the Doctor down: Sam is only mentioned at the beginning and end of the novel with implications that it takes the Doctor time to find her.

Using a title like Legacy of the Daleks and having much of the early novel not feature the titular aliens, Peel crafts a story where the Daleks are not necessary making the moment when they appear superfluous.  There is already a plot containing the Delgado Master manipulating events on Earth with Draconian technology he gained in Frontier in Space.  Peel could have settled with the Master on Earth as the only antagonist, making the ‘legacy’ of the title literal.  The Daleks shouldn’t be the main villains, the Master should be using fear of their return as a way to gain power.  The novel culminates in Susan shooting the Master and leaving him to die for killing David in a moment of emotional catharsis for the novel.  It’s moments like these that could elevate the novel into one of the greats and make up for the average turn out in War of the Daleks, but the Daleks themselves are what bring the novel down.  Peel does however understand what makes the Daleks work: he evokes The Power of the Daleks and The Evil of the Daleks, showing the Daleks scheming to build their numbers to take over the Earth a second time.  There are several scenes which evoke sequences of The Power of the Daleks beat for beat, fitting seeing as Peel novelized that story for Virgin Books.  Though these scenes are simply rewrites and add little to the actual events of the story, but fill out the page count.  He does have a grasp on the Eighth Doctor, who is the hapless romantic who understands what his ‘flirting’ does so he employs it with an air of facetiousness about him.  The biggest issue with the Eighth Doctor is he is almost a background player in events.

Peel also deserves praise for his handling of Susan and David.  While Peel disappointingly does not allow Susan and the Doctor to interact with one another, Susan’s plot is one of a politician attempting to help rebuild society, something Big Finish Productions will pick up on when they brought her into their Eighth Doctor range of audio dramas.  (On the note of Big Finish, the contradictory information here can be explained away by meddling from Faction Paradox.)  Susan has grown tremendously and is having difficulty keeping her ageless face from David.  She cannot bear to see him grow older and wishes to spend the rest of her life with him, an impossible feat.  It is his death at the hands of the Master which tears her apart.  Overall, Legacy of the Daleks works as a novel but it’s the ‘of the Daleks’ part of the title which brings it down.  6/10.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Witch Hunters by: Steve Lyons

Events in the History of the United States of America are often overlooked when Doctor Who tackles historical adventures.  It is then to my surprise that the Past Doctor Adventures premiere First Doctor novel, The Witch Hunters, not only brings back the tradition of the Hartnell historical, but takes readers tot the United States for a tale of witches in 1692 Salem.  The plot of The Witch Hunters integrates the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan in the events of the Salem witch trials, the basis for Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.  Lyons novel reaches great heights as he plays on the idea that as the TARDIS travelers are outsiders in the Puritan society, they are easily on the list of suspicion and persecution once the accusations begin.  The tone of the novel is set from the first page as bleak: the reader knows that most of the likable characters, the accused, will not survive the end of the novel.  Lyons does much more than an attempt to retell The Crucible with the Doctor Who cast placed in.  Careful research has been done to restore some of the historical accuracy lost in the moments of dramatic license of Arthur Miller.  Abigail Williams is returned to a twelve-year-old, and there is no affair with John Proctor present.  John Proctor, the protagonist of The Crucible is almost a minor character here, appearing about 2/3 of the way through the novel as part of a plot with Ian to attempt to get Susan out of prison and put a stop to the trials.

While the TARDIS Wiki lists Samuel Parris and Abigail Williams as the main villains of the novel, there really cannot be a specific villain.  The villain is the atmosphere and hysteria of Salem itself, tempting the TARDIS team to interfere with history, and just to save something, someone.  The Witch Hunters serves as a reflection on The Aztecs and where it fits in with the rest of Doctor Who continuity.  The novel maintains that there is absolutely nothing the TARDIS team can do about changing the events, as every attempt to educate the members of Salem on the idea that this is not actual witchcraft, just mass hysteria fails.  It is almost a ‘crucible’ for Susan Foreman in particular, as from the beginning she has integrated herself with the girls of Salem.  She participates in the ‘witchcraft’ with the girls and knows that it’s all just mumbo jumbo.  There’s not a way to predict whom someone is going to marry, they aren’t actually conjuring up the Devil, and all the girls are lying about actual witchcraft in the village.  The adults aren’t tormenting them and forcing them to sign the Devil’s book, they’re just play-acting.  Susan over the course of the novel defies her grandfather’s wishes and attempts to no effect to save someone anyone.  There is this subtle relationship developed between Mary Warren, portrayed as the oldest yet weakest accuser in the proceedings.  The story is as much about Susan influencing her to become a stronger person, which while this may be a historical liberty as there really isn’t much known of Mary’s fate after the trials, Lyons takes care to make the relationship believable.  Susan and the Doctor even offer her the chance to join them on their travels, though she refuses as not to change history.

This is also a novel where Steve Lyons takes the time to solidify the romantic relationship between Ian and Barbara.  On arrival in Salem, they present themselves as husband and wife with Susan as their daughter and the Doctor implied as Barbara’s father (a potential reference to Dr. Who and the Daleks) as to integrate into the Puritan society of the time period.  Of course their lack of devotion to religion compounded with the fact they are strangers makes them some of the first suspects when the strange goings on occur.  Ian is taken prisoner near the end of the novel and any hope is stripped away as the TARDIS is burned and Barbara believed to immolated.  Either that or worse, the Doctor left them to save him and Barbara as a last resort.  This turn of events breaks Ian and there is this subtle description at the end of the novel where they reflect on events, the Doctor has taken them to Earth in the future as a ‘vacation’.  Nothing is explicit but it is implied that this is one of the important moments in solidifying their relationship.  Barbara Wright also gets quite a bit of her own story arc as being a woman in Salem is incredibly defeating for the strong woman.  Men push her around throughout the novel and there is nothing she can do to retaliate for if she retaliates she will be accused.  Having Susan taken away from her, as an almost surrogate mother figure throughout the novel, she breaks down and gets ready to attack Parris.

Finally, the Doctor here is also put to his limit.  Lyons does not include much from the point of view of the Time Lord, but there is enough.  The story is essentially told out of order with quite a few flash forwards to future events and flashbacks, which only helps in disorienting the reader.  The point is to get you right in the middle of the action of Salem, 1692.  Near the beginning of the novel we get a glimpse of a First Doctor travelling with Ben and Polly (just after The Five Doctors) giving Rebecca Nurse a glimpse of the future.  While he is showing her that she is going to die, become a martyr for the community, she will be remembered, and it is this little act which gives her solace in her final moments.  He shows her a performance of The Crucible where Lyons comments on the piece of entertainment, about the cruel distractions humans are prone to.  A reading of the Salem witch trials can be that.  The Witch Hunters as a novel is not The Crucible, but it is most definitely a crucible.  10/10.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Longest Day by: Michael Collier

As a show about time travel, it is perhaps odd that before returning to television in 2005, rarely played around with the concepts of time travel.  The Space Museum and The Ark are two William Hartnell stories which play around with the concepts of time travel, the later having the TARDIS crew arrive at two points in the history of a ship and the former taking the crew sideways in time.  Outside of these two stories, it is really the mechanics of time travel and the occasional time loop in stories like The Claws of Axos and Meglos to really play around with the basic premise of the show.  Longest Day is the ninth novel in the Eighth Doctor Adventures and the debut for author Michael Collier, a pseudonym for range editor Stephen Cole.  The plot of the novel takes place on Hirath where the planet is going through its “longest day”.  It is dying and there is time distortion as the planet is covered in various time zones.  The idea of the novel is great, yet sadly Collier in his first novel, doesn’t have the best grasp on prose to keep the reader engaged.  There is a poor sense of pacing with scenes either running far too long or ending too abruptly so they do not feel complete. 

The novel is also the beginning of a mini story arc within the early Eighth Doctor Adventures with Sam Jones departing (going missing) for a few books.  This ‘cliffhanger’ on the novel is perhaps one of the more interesting developments of the story, at least as it gives the reader a chance to have some novels where Sam does not appear.  That is not to blame Collier for the poor characterization of Sam Jones in Longest Day as it is apparent, he is only writing her with the paramotors of the other authors.  She is written as slightly above the bland character the other books as Collier gives her a subplot on the surface of the planet where like Option Lock, she gets good chemistry with characters on the planet, albeit not romantic chemistry.  Collier fully realizes the idea that Sam is in love with the Doctor and that is the trigger which makes her leave.  Sadly, this does nothing to improve the character, as companions who are in love with someone as ancient as the Doctor.  Matters are only made worse with the fact that Sam as a character understands that the Doctor could not love her, and she simply cannot cope with the fact.

Collier writes the Eighth Doctor as perhaps the biggest redeeming quality of the novel.  The Doctor of Longest Day is still the hapless romantic, arriving to the situation without a care in the world and attempting to fix everything quickly and with an almost flighty attitude.  There is a point in the novel where the Doctor drives his Volkswagen Beetle down the hallway of a moonbase.  Scenes like this really give the Eighth Doctor his own identity apart from the TV Movie portrayal, yet much of the book is focusing right on Sam Jones.  The Doctor is most definitely developing as a character in line with the later work done by McGann and Big Finish Productions.  Sadly Collier makes far to many missteps in writing his first novel making Longest Day feel like a much longer read than it is as well as the weakest of the first nine Eighth Doctor Adventures.  3/10.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Eye of Heaven by: Jim Mortimore

Leela is one of those Doctor Who Companions who Big Finish almost single-handedly gave a renaissance in popularity.  Played by Louise Jameson, she featured between The Face of Evil and The Invasion of Time, and while never unpopular, she had always been eclipsed by Sarah Jane Smith and Romana who came before and after respectively.  In terms of expanded media, the Virgin Missing Adventures did not include a single book which featured her as a character, and she only showed up in Lungbarrow as a way to break the curse of the Pythia.  Yet the inaugural Fourth Doctor novel, Eye of Heaven, not only features her as companion but is a story told from her point of view.  Like his final Virgin New Adventure Eternity Weeps, Jim Mortimore writes Eye of Heaven in the first person perspective, using Leela as the major point of view character.  This is done very effectively, getting right inside Leela’s head as Mortimore explores what exactly makes the character drive to learn with the Doctor.  The adventure takes place sometime soon after The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Leela has not evolved into the more intelligent version of the character, yet there are seeds in the depths of her mind that there is a willingness to learn.  Mortimore also includes quite a bit of backstory for the time before she knew the Doctor: mainly he details the death of her older sister at age three, attacked and skinned by the horda.  While Leela was not alive to see this, there is a memory of the event which has formed in her mind that haunts her to the day.  It’s a memory imprinted by her mother

Mortimore effectively integrates Leela into the major setting of the novel.  The reader is taken to the 1800s and entrenches the reader, and the characters, in Victorian culture.  Much of the book feels like a high seas adventure as the Doctor, Leela, and the crew of a ship are travelling to Easter Island where there is a pretty standard alien invasion plot occurring that takes the characters through a wormhole.  Mortimore however makes the novel interesting by employing a non-linear narrative structure.  The reader has to piece together the various plot threads as the chapters occur out of order.  It is used to create a mysterious atmosphere of what exactly happened on Easter Island, which doesn’t begin being revealed until about halfway through the novel.  The potential issue with this format is that it could easily be seen as a cheap gimmick to drum up conversation about the book, yet Mortimore employs it carefully.  He demonstrates a knowledge of just what to give the reader and when to switch to a different section of the storyline.  The plot is split up into four even segments which each could have been told chronologically as a standard four episode format, while the events are rather scrambled to fit better thematically.  Of course, there are a couple of storytelling twists thrown in for good measure.  The major theme is the idea of belief and what people will do for those beliefs.  It’s a comment on the integration of religion into the then current society, according to a note from Mortimore (who himself is an atheist).

Mortimore also uses the first person narrative to give the reader a rare glimpse into the head of the Fourth Doctor.  Now this is something that will be revisited in Tom Baker and James Goss’s Scratchman, and while between the two novels they are portrayed as the same character, Mortimore writes the Doctor’s sections from a slightly more reserved portrayal.  Think more The Seeds of Doom or The Talons of Weng-Chiang, as the Doctor realizes that there is a potential threat to the entire planet and is acting accordingly.  Mortimore also has the Doctor shot at one point and the reader is given the privilege of seeing into the recovery process for the character.  There are flashbacks to an early incarnation, possibly the Second Doctor pre-The Abominable Snowmen, showing just how the Doctor deals with pain.  It’s a riveting section of the book and is another highlight.  Finally, the prose style of Mortimore is incredibly easy to read, grabbing the reader and is perhaps his best novel yet.  It is the first of the BBC Books published novels that reaches the heights in storytelling that the highest Virgin books did.  It can easily stand amongst the likes of Lungbarrow, Head Games, Just War, Love and War, and the many other classic Virgin novels.  10/10.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

City of the Damned by: Pat Mills and John Wagner with art by: Dave Gibbons

City of the Damned is written by Pat Mills and John Wagner with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Weekly issues 9-16 (December 1979-January 1980) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: The Iron Legion by Panini Books.

With Doctor Who and the Iron Legion, Doctor Who Weekly sets a tone for its comic strips as outrageous adventures in time and space with the Doctor.  It was an outrageous story with colorful characters and most definitely aimed at children.  The odd thing is that the follow up story, City of the Damned, begins almost as a story meant for adults with the Doctor arriving in a grim dystopia.  The titular city is a place where emotion has been banned and is being regulated by the Moderator General and the Brains Trust.  The first issue of the story in particular is one that is incredibly bleak as a man’s wife shows an emotion and willfully allows herself to be executed.  The initial reaction from the Doctor once he arrives places him in the place of the audience surrogate (we still do not have the Doctor travelling with a companion yet).  Mills and Wagner’s script then becomes something that is nothing new for Doctor Who: it’s a standard the Doctor saves a society from oppressors, yet in filling 8 issues of Doctor Who Weekly the comic story seems to drag.  The first two and final three issues are perhaps the most interesting as we explore the society and the tyrannical regime as the Doctor is captured and escapes.  The end of the second issue brings back the more insane tone from Doctor Who and the Iron Legion.  The middle issues of the story has the Doctor meet up with the rebels of this planet, called ZEPOs.  The rebellion members are either savages or hang gliders all lead by Big Hate.

The idea that each member of the rebellion devotes themselves to mastering a specific emotion is a great one, if reminiscent of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Mills and Wagner have an interesting idea of having Big Hate be just as much a villain as the tyrannical overlords, sending a flood of blood bugs into the city which will kill anyone who does not release adrenalin.  Both villains of the story are not very in-depth characters.  Both are over the top ranting characters with dedication to their goals and no regard for the lives of the others.  The conclusion of the story itself is just a bit too quickly done in one issue, unlike Doctor Who and the Iron Legion which paced it across two issues.  The Brains Trust is perhaps the best idea: they are beings who have brains for heads and are devoted to living in harmony, which they believe can only be achieved through the deletion of emotion, and the ending where everyone is inspired to dress like the Doctor is great.  The biggest issue with this story is that there is too much tonal inconsistency between the issues as it starts quite dark, becomes campy, and attempts to go back down into a darker tone at the end.  Still, Dave Gibbons artwork is excellent, using sharp angles and blank, yet unique, faces in the background.  The Doctor also feels like the Fourth Doctor here and actually works as an audience surrogate.  7/10.