Monday, June 25, 2018

The Eight Doctors by: Terrance Dicks

The Virgin New Adventures and the Virgin Missing Adventures lost the license to publish Doctor Who fiction in 1996 with the airing of Paul McGann’s television debut in the TV Movie.  BBC Worldwide wished for the license back as they saw an avenue for making some money in the new imprint of BBC Books so when the license expired from Virgin in May 1997 with the publication of The Dying Days and So Vile a Sin.  June 1997 was the first time a book was released by the BBC itself with an original Doctor Who storyline and the latest Doctor.  They called up Terrance Dicks, who was willing to write, set it right after the TV Movie, introduced a new companion, and made it a multi-Doctor novel including the seven previous Doctors in one grand adventure.  It should have worked, it should be heralded as one of the great novels, but sadly The Eight Doctors is an example of the continuity fest going too far and fails to introduce the range to the adventures of the Eighth Doctor.

The Eight Doctors opens with a small prologue setting the novel right at the end of the TV Movie.  The Doctor has left Earth and finds himself back in the room with the Eye of Harmony where the Master has laid one final trap for his archenemy, something to make him lose his memory so he has to cross his timestream to earlier adventures and the paradox it causes will for whatever reason restore the memories up to that point.  There’s also a subplot on Gallifrey where President Flavia (not the previously established President Romana) and a bunch of Time Lords watch in awe and horror as the Doctor travels his path.  Ryoth, a Time Lord of the Celestial Intervention Agency, uses a Timescoop in an attempt to stop the Doctor but is eaten by a Drashig halfway through the novel.  He’s supposed to be the villain of the piece, but as he dies halfway through and without much interference from the other Time Lords, the back half of the novel is without a real villain.  The first segment takes the Doctor to where it all began, the I.M. Foreman junkyard.  This time it’s the 1990s where poor vegetarian Samantha Jones is being attacked by some drug dealers because she’s an informant on the evils of crack cocaine.  It becomes readily apparent that Terrance Dicks cannot write for an anti-drug PSA as the first few chapters try to be, so much so that they end with Sam in danger and the Doctor abandoning her.  Yeah, this is not a good start to the novel as Sam is made out to be our new companion with a weak characterization as annoying vegetarian and activist.  There is no sense of personality with Sam, no sense of humor or chemistry with the Doctor leaving the audience no drive to see if the Doctor is going to save her in the end.

After the segment at Coal Hill School, we go through the Doctors chronologically, starting with a rendezvous with the First Doctor during the events of An Unearthly Child.  The scene is the forest of fear and the caveman Za is injured; the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan are escaping the tribe of Gum and the reader can guess where this is going.  The Doctor is about to commit a murder so he can escape and the Eighth Doctor comes in to stop him.  It’s a quick little sequence as well as the sequence with the Second Doctor, set during The War Games where the Doctor must call in the Time Lords to help with beating the War Lords plan.  Both as segments Dicks is able to make them both easy to read, but nothing is above average in the characterization and the plot leaves much to be desired.  The Third Doctor’s segment however is the weakest of the novel, taking place after The Sea Devils.  It can be accurately described as a redo of the ending of The Daemons where the Master finds his TARDIS and escapes, whilst the Doctor acts horribly to Jo and everyone around him.  Odd considering Terrance Dicks was script editor for the Third Doctor and novelized much of the novels of the Third and Fourth Doctors.

The section of the Fourth Doctor is one of the highlights, taking place in the closing moments of Dicks’ own State of Decay.  The Doctor and Romana are lured away from the TARDIS and in the midst of a cult of vampires wishing to make the Time Lords their new king and queen.  The Eighth Doctor shows up and begins to get in on the vampire slaying action as well as giving the Fourth Doctor some of his blood to stave off death at Logopolis.  Terrance Dicks obviously enjoyed writing this one because the quality of the short passages shines through the rest of the book’s problems.  The Fifth Doctor’s section doesn’t work however as it’s another continuity fest with Raston Warrior Robots, Sontarans, and Drashigs.  Most of all, it is a dull segment of the book, overshadowed by the Sixth Doctor’s segment.  The Ultimate Foe is the setting of the penultimate segment where the Doctors have to uncover the conspiracy to kill the Doctor over the course of the Trial with the Valeyard.  The Sixth Doctor is a bit out of character being portrayed as just a fatty at points, but it’s at least enjoyable and close to his television counterpart.  I shall not comment on my favorite Doctor’s portion as it really isn’t a plot and just happens.  Then the book is over and we can get on to something better.  4/10.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Oh No It Isn't! by: Paul Cornell

The British pantomime tradition is a form of theater that I am for the most part, unfamiliar with and as such reading a novel that takes place inside a pantomime becomes an interesting task for one such as myself.  The flagship novel in Virgin Publishing’s line of Bernice Summerfield novels begins with Oh No It Isn’t! written by Paul Cornell, the creator of the character of Benny way back in Love and War, and picks up where The Dying Days left off with Bernice Summerfield an actual professor of archeology with her own book deal.  I mean she already published and had no intention of writing a sequel, but she just had a really bad divorce and is attracted to one of her students.  Yeah, Benny has already had a pretty weird year and it’s about to get weirder as she takes an archeological expedition to the planet Perfecton, home to an ancient civilization of the Perfectons who have connections to the People from The Also People.  In orbit around the planet, however, are the Grel, a race of squid-like humanoids obsessed with creating facts who bombard the planet with missiles sending Benny on an adventure into Pantoland where she’s joined by her students (as the Seven Dwarves), her cat Wolsey (who is sentient), her colleague Professor Arthur Candy (who becomes a woman), and the ship’s crew as Menlove Stokes from The Romance of Crime and The Well-Mannered War looks on trying to find a solution to the problems.

Creating this fantastical environment for Benny to react to is a great way to start off the novels, while not having to begin any real overarching series plot.  Cornell creates a believable way for Bernice to get to the planet and has Benny like a fish out of water and utterly confused.  The parts of the pantomime our characters play alter as Benny alters the reality around her through several breakings of the almighty fourth wall.  Her first character is that of Dick Whittington, a pantomime role often done by a woman in drag, leading to several Dick jokes from the pussycat Wolsey who gained sentience to serve as companion to the adventure.  They go through several fairytale tropes before saving the day.  Benny keeps her general wittiness about her yet has a reserved sadness.  Her robotic room servant Joseph brings one of her students early on in the book for a bit of romance and you really get to see how bad losing Jason Kane at the end of Eternity Weeps has left her.  She thinks the student, Michael Doran, she’s brought is cute, but cannot bring herself to do any lovemaking with him as it would be wrong.  She has the desire to do it all, but she controls herself making her mood even worse.  It falls deeper once she goes into pantoland and sees Doran as one of the dwarves who are infatuated with Benny and able to see through the character.

Benny then becomes a princess ala Cinderella in the pantomime before finally manifesting as the character of Aladdin and having to fulfill the plots of those stories, all the while Wolsey and the dwarves sort of tag along for the ride.  Being not your traditional seven dwarves, they make for some good comic relief along with Dame Candy, the quintessential Panto Dame.  Menlove Stokes and the rest of the faculty’s plot only really ties in at the end of the novel and it is easy to see why it was cut out when Big Finish adapted this book for an audio drama in 1998 (only a year after its release).  Stokes is still the funny character we’ve seen and Cornell populates the University of Dellah with interesting people such as a pair of old ladies who constantly bicker and a Pakher Professor, but they don’t really hold a candle to the comic adventure that Benny has embarked on in the rest of the novel.  As a novel, it is not quite perfection, but it at least gives us a good base to start on the series for Bernice Summerfield as well as give us a jumping on point for new readers outside of Doctor Who’s sphere of influence. 9/10.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Eric by: Terry Pratchett

FaustEric is the ninth Discworld novel and the shortest of Pratchett’s series, at least amongst the ‘adult’ novels.  It clocks in at less than 150 pages and was originally published in an illustrated edition.  Serving as a tribute to Goethe’s Faust and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Homer’s The Illiad, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, Pratchett puts Rincewind in the role of Mephistopholes and the titular Eric in the role of Faustus.  Eric is a demonologist who is attempting to summon a demon, but gets Rincewind and the Luggage instead.  After some time poking fun at the 13-year old who thinks he knows what he wants and his vulgar mouthed parrot, Rincewind finds out that he can grant the wishes of the boy with the snap of his fingers.  This is because demons in Hell have plans to use Rincewind because allowing him to escape the Dungeon Dimensions from Sourcery because they want to revolt in Hell.  Apparently bureaucracy is the complete evil, something that is quite a bit cliché.  It doesn’t really matter because the demonic characters of the novel are the weak link, the strong link are the three mini-adventures in the form of the wishes which allow Rincewind and Eric to have good jokes at each other’s expense.

The first wish is ‘to be ruler of the world’ so Pratchett transports the pair to a parody of the Aztec empire with a parody of Ponce de Leon and his search for the Fountain of Youth.  Quezovercoatl is this version of the Feathered Serpent and all life’s misfortunes are blamed on the Ruler of the world.  You can see where this is going and we have some scenes of Rincewind and Eric on the top of a pyramid where they are to be sacrificed.  The Luggage is the one who gets the two incompetents out of their troubles and Rincewind snaps his fingers again, transporting them elsewhere.

The second wish is ‘to meet the most beautiful woman in all history’ where Pratchett parodies again the Trojan War with the city of Tsort.  They materialize in a wooden horse which is discovered by the soldiers of Tsort.  Also the Luggage eats four people which causes Pratchett to potentially make a reference to Doctor Who as it seems to be bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.  Eleanor of Tsort is apparently the most beautiful woman in all history, but the reality of the situation is that she has gone middle aged and had children since the war started, pissing off poor young Eric.  Rincewind and Eric also meet an Odysseus parody Lavaeolus which means Rinser of Winds, indicating that he is possibly one of Rincewind’s ancestors, who doesn’t like him for spoiling the war so to speak.

The final wish is ‘to live forever’, so Rincewind snaps his fingers and bang: they’re transported to the beginning of the universe outside of time.  God or ‘the creator’ is having trouble with finishing the Discworld and the universe begins with a paper clip.  Death is there and he’s just starting out, so he is content to wait until his function becomes necessary as he knows that it is coming.  Eric is at his limit because he doesn’t want to wait millions of years with only Rincewind to talk to because Rincewind is not good company.  Rincewind convinces Eric to reverse the summoning sending them to hell.  In hell they are let out after the two demons have a fight, one is deposed and trapped in the prison of his own making, and Rincewind and Eric escape.  FaustEric is a light read with many clichés, but it is at least enjoyable.  6/10.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Guards! Guards! by: Terry Pratchett

A redemption story is one that can always draw in a large audience as its one of those story types that lends itself well to sympathetic characters.  The down on their luck protagonist always has to overcome some sort of problem of their own making and bring glory to their surroundings, returning them to a point where they can live their lives.  Guards! Guards! at its heart is a redemption story about returning the Ankh-Morpork City Watch to its original purpose as men of the law protecting the city from near do wells.  Terry Pratchett’s redemption arc is created through a simple, yet effective plot about a power hungry brotherhood overthrowing Patrician Vetinari and unleashing a dragon on the city.  Dragons, at least the big, fire-breathing, burn down the village, dragons, the draco nobilis, have not been seen on the Discworld in eons, being cast into another dimension by a book that our villains steal under the nose of the Librarian of the Unseen University so they can instate a puppet king by slaying the dragon.  It’s up to the Watch to bring the villains to justice and reinstate Vetinari at all costs.  The plot is constructed simply as to keep everything moving at a brisk pace and the 400 pages of the novel devote a large amount of the book to fleshing out our characters.

The City Watch is led by the rather drunk Captain Samuel Vimes, introduced in a bar, drunk, and unable to remember his own name.  Vimes has this cynical attitude about him throughout the book, attributed to the fact that he was born two drinks too sober, and unable to find any enjoyment out of life.  It’s because of his mismanagement and the fact that Ankh-Morpork has organized crime that the Watch has fallen apart after all of these years.  Yet, with his laziness and cynicism, Vimes still doesn’t want to see the city fall apart and is ready to go to almost any lengths to save the city.  He even gets a love interest in the form of Lady Sybil Ramkin, a breeder of swamp dragons, aristocrat, and all around swell woman.  Ramkin’s role in the novel, apart from the understated romance, is to be the motivator to the Watch.  She is responsible for giving them a new headquarters when it burns down because of the dragon and is the one who gives them the confidence to fight back against the dragon, and as Ramkin and Vimes fall in love, the solution to the novel is the dragon mascot of the Watch (Errol) and the dragon king fall in love.

The behavior of the dragons in the novel is reflective of dragons of classic literature, especially Beowulf and The Hobbit, with a nature of hoarding for gold and wisher of virgin sacrifice.  They like to burn things down and have short fuses overall.  Yet the dragon’s reappearance leads to some great gags from Pratchett involving people selling merchandise as the city burns.  Our protagonist of the novel is Carrot, a volunteer to the Watch.  Carrot was raised by dwarves and identifies as one, in spite of his six foot, six inch height, causing him to have a strong sense of justice and a literal mind.  Tell him to throw the book at someone, he will do just that.  His adoptive parents volunteered him for the Watch and he immediately gets in trouble for arresting the head of the Thieves Guild.  He’s read all the laws of Ankh-Morpork and that thick book is what guides him through his everyday life.  He’s the one who initially teaches the Watch what it means to be in the Watch.  There are also a couple of supporting characters in the novel who all have their own little quirks and things.  There are more members of the Watch who all have their own problems: they steal things off murder victims.  There are also plenty of normal citizens, especially merchants which Pratchett uses to help give the story some sense of a life.  There really isn’t all that much more to say about the novel except that it is the first of the works of Terry Pratchett that are worth a 10/10.