Thursday, February 28, 2019

Genocide by: Paul Leonard

Paul Leonard deserves congratulations for Genocide.  The fourth novel in the Eighth Doctor Adventures range has a lot going for it, but perhaps its greatest feat is that it takes companion Samantha Jones and is the first to make her likable.  This is done without having to take her away from her activist stereotype characterization, as Genocide deals with a simple premise that hits home to Sam as a character.  The premise involves the Tractites, an equine alien race of the planet Tractis which became ravaged by war in the far future.  This of course was a war with the emerging Earth Empire on an imperialistic streak, seeing Tractis destroyed.  Before the beginning of the novel the Tractites gain time travel technology, travel back in time, and rewrite the Earth’s history so the human race contracts a virus which destroys them during the homo habilis stage of their development.  Of course it is up to the Doctor and Sam to stop them, but there goes the dilemma, should they?  Earth has become Paratractis and they have their own society, living their own lives in peace, and by all accounts are less warlike.  Yes the Doctor wants to stop it, but only so far as sorting out the temporal stress problem that interfering in the past caused.  If that means that the human race no longer exists, so be it.  If that means that the Tractites still undergo the oppression of humanity, so be it.  The Doctor is working as a third party in this case, which allows Leonard to give the Doctor a backseat in the story.  When he does take the forefront, the characterization of the Doctor is close enough to the TV Movie portrayal, and gives the Eighth Doctor enough of his own identity to serve as a good characterization.

The portions of the novel with the Eighth Doctor that work the best are his interactions with Jo Grant.  Jo Grant has divorced Clifford Jones and is raising her only son Matthew (this continuity discrepancy can be explained away by the interference of the arcs that the next few books will begin).  Jo has grown up considerably since her time with the Third Doctor, and is going out on her own to a dig in Tanzania where a mysterious Captain Jacob Hynes is actually working with the Tractites to see the Earth destroyed.  Jo’s part in the novel is perhaps superfluous, yes it is nice to see her and the Eighth Doctor interact, but what she does could easily be taken by the two archeologists in Tanzania.  You see, the interference with time is allowing both existences to remain side by side and slowly bleeding over.  Rowena and Julie, two archeologists studying remains of the ancestors of humanity in Tanzania, are taken back in time with Jo and given the virus.  They both have a story which ends in tragedy, giving the audience the sway to the Doctor’s side as while Hynes is insane, he is kind of correct in his logic.  Humanity has caused extinction of several species of animals throughout our history, but part of that is the simple nature of humanity being animals at their core and survival is a prime instinct.  Jacob goes about his goals by going insane and attempting to commit a genocide in the past to ‘fix’ the present.

Leonard pairs Hynes with Sam for much of the second half of the novel where she is genuinely tricked into giving humanity the virus which is going to wipe them out.  Without spoiling how the Doctor ends up saving the day, I will say that the conclusion of the novel takes a left turn ¾ of the way through which works really well.  Sam throughout the novel has an internal struggle of if she should trust in the Doctor, and humanity, or with the Tractites.  She struggles with her own life, realizing that she could have contributed to the problems humanity give to the galaxy, and has to come to a catharsis by the end of the novel.  Her narrative is a highlight and makes Genocide an excellent novel, only brought down by the superfluous nature of Jo’s appearance and a few really predictable twists.  8/10.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Ultimate Treasure by: Christopher Bulis

Christopher Bulis’ past work on Doctor Who novels is a stripe of traditional Doctor Who during an era where boundaries were pushed.  Bulis as a writer handled his characters well and gave fun plots, if at worst nothing special.  With BBC Books starting two book lines that specialized in traditional Who novels there would not be a doubt Bulis would make the leap into that line, and in fact he was given the third novel in the Past Doctor Adventures line, The Ultimate Treasure.  The Ultimate Treasure is the first novel in the Past Doctor Adventures line to feature the Fifth Doctor and pairs him up with Peri Brown, taking place shortly after “Planet of Fire”.  This is also Bulis’ first novel to feature the Fifth Doctor, and only his second real foray into the eras of 1980s Doctor Who.  Yet, if a comparison could be made between The Ultimate Treasure and a different era of Doctor Who, the Hartnell era.  As the title implies, The Ultimate Treasure is a treasure hunt novel akin to serials like The Keys of Marinus or The Chase.  The Doctor and Peri become embroiled in a treasure hunt for Rovan’s treasure, the ‘ultimate’ treasure, the treasure seekers haven’t been able to find.  What is interesting is that while this is a solid premise for the book, and there are definite sections of this book which are great, Bulis doesn’t maintain a fast enough pace to pull off the treasure hunting format.

The biggest issue in terms of pacing is that the first 77 pages are a mix of exposition and character introductions.  The issue here is that Bulis writes these scenes to be quite short which should keep the pace up, but it makes it difficult to really understand these characters with a few exceptions.  The idea behind the Doctor and Peri arriving at the space station to unwind because of the events of “Planet of Fire” works for the most part, though during the shopping segments Peri feels a bit stereotypical valley girl.  After this she improves to have a character closer to her television version, and the resolution Bulis provides for Kamelion at the end is quite good.  There’s also Sir John Falstaff, a wealthy man taking Shakespeare’s character’s name and actions in an attempt to become popular.  Falstaff is a nicely comic character and Bulis knows exactly when to use him and when to keep him off-screen, something that many authors often over or underuse.  There’s also a nice little ending to the book where comparison’s are made between the Doctor and Rovan, who had similar motivations to their actions.  The rest of the characters however, all blend into their characteristics.  There’s the space cop verses the space mafioso, there’s a unicorn who Peri spends quite a bit of time with a la Ace in Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark, though the unicorn here is actually a better character than most of the characters in Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark.  The actual quest for Rovan’s treasure takes quite a bit of time and several missteps, the biggest of which being Bulis deciding to use the damsel in distress trope on Peri, putting her offscreen for quite a bit of the runtime as well.  Bulis attempts to create fun and hazardous traps, some of which are nice, but they almost go by so quickly and are dealing with weaker characters, there just isn’t a lot of them.  There’s also just an underwhelming nature for Rovan’s treasure that the journey and destination aren’t anything to write home about.  That isn’t to say that this is the worst book ever, but there just isn’t enough to keep my interest for 280 pages.  A rare disappointment from Bulis.  3/10.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Scratchman by: Tom Baker and James Goss

When announced that Tom Baker had decided to release an adaptation of his aborted film script Doctor Who Meets Scratchman with James Goss, I became incredibly skeptical about the ability to make the project work.  Descriptions of the original script in places had an almost 1980s level reliance on continuity: it’s a story with Daleks, Time Lords, Cybermen ripoff’s called Cyberons, living scarecrows, and the Devil himself is almost too much to bare.  However, the sheer curiosity of reading a Doctor Who novel written by Tom Baker got the better of me.  While this book was only recently released, discretion is advised as this review will contain spoilers for the recently released Scratchman.  For quick thoughts, overall it’s a really good novel with amazing prose from Tom Baker and James Goss, terrifying imagery, and rich characters.  If you haven’t familiarized yourself with the classic series, this can serve as a pretty good introduction to the Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith, and Harry Sullivan.

The best decision Tom Baker and James Goss made in adapting the script, probably due to the book rights to these characters always being difficult to get, is they cut the Daleks from proceedings.  The original descriptions of the script have the Daleks essentially be a cameo villain role near the end to have some last minute danger during the giant game of pinball (trust me it makes sense in context), and by taking them out the climax is allowed to run smoothly to the conclusion of the novel.  Baker and Goss also take advantage of the fact that they are writing a novel and not a film script by spending much of the book in the heads of the characters.  The novel is written in a first-person perspective from the perspective of the Doctor, with a framing story of the Doctor on trial by the Time Lords recounting events of the story.  This framing thematically links the story into the Last Great Time War, with the Doctor appealing to the Time Lords to allow him to interfere with other planets.  The interludes in the tale come at perfect moments for suspense and general explanation of some of the possible plot holes written into the script.  There’s even a potential reference to Lungbarrow hidden for that eagle eyed to find it.  The first-person perspective offers the audience a unique reading experience: the Doctor as written by Baker is truly alien and truly a portrayal of the Fourth Doctor.  You couldn’t really imagine any of the other Doctors in this role and the several mental tangents and divergences are just amazing to read.

The structure of the novel is split into two halves, the first being set in a Scottish village in 1960 terrorized by living scarecrows which have been converting the population into them.  Baker relishes the truly horrific prose of these segments, shifting the tone from a light and fluffy picnic to a battle for survival.  The villagers are led into a church which serves as a fortress while the Doctor attempts to figure out just what is behind these scarecrows.  Thematically fear and paranoia are essential for both parts of the novel to work overall and in both halves fear slowly mounts incredibly well.  From the light relief of Harry attempting to get sugar to help the Doctor and killing three scarecrows by accident in the process, to the chilling chase through the TARDIS with Sarah Jane, and finally one member of the village ruining it for everyone letting the scarecrows in literally dooming everyone, the first half just has an amazing buildup to conclusion.  The chase in the TARDIS includes perspectives from the scarecrow chasing Sarah Jane which humanizes an inhuman monster where it slowly remembers who it was.  It’s a truly emotional sequence and involves an interesting concept: there is this clock tower inside a clock and a room which shows your entire life all hidden away in the TARDIS, kept locked for safety.  The climax of this half see the two companions changed into scarecrows and the Doctor sent to hell which is an evocative end to the first half.  The second half of the novel takes place exclusively in hell, aka another dimension resided over by the titular Scratchman.  Baker and Goss follow the Doctor before introducing Scratchman, as he has his defenses slowly chipped away at so when we get to the deal with the Devil, there’s a real sense that the Doctor is willing to take it.  There are three ‘torture’ sequences which all have clever endings (one with a cameo from a certain northern woman in a long jacket).  Scratchman, himself, oozes charm as he pretty much wants the Doctor to allow him into our dimension to rule.  There’s a reason he was meant to be played by Master of Horror Vincent Price.  The novel culminates in a giant pinball game, chosen as their fate ala Ghostbusters because Harry Sullivan just couldn’t keep his mind clear.  The pinball game really shouldn’t work, but the prose really sells it to the reader and putting it in the mind of Harry Sullivan helps give it this sense of realism.  The outrageous statements in neon lights above the game come straight from lines Harry was famous for saying and the ending of the book is heartwarming.  Overall, Scratchman comes across as a love letter to Season 12 and 13 and is an excellent addition to anyone’s collection. 10/10.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Bodysnatchers by: Mark Morris

A first time author has a lot on their shoulders: they must prove to their audience that they can tell a story with good characters in a good pace and have a unique style to their writing.  Some advice to beginning writers is to start by writing fanfiction, and indeed it is fanfiction which has given some Who authors, including Paul Cornell, their start.  Writing a Doctor Who novel has some of the same difficulties as writing fanfiction, you have previously established characters to play around with, but you have to write those characters as those characters.  Mark Morris is the first new author to be brought on to the BBC Books line to be given his own, standalone novel.  Both Keith Topping and Jonathan Blum had their books coauthored with others, so in that sense The Bodysnatchers is an event novel in this sense and it has a lot to prove, and as a first novel Morris does an admirable job.

Perhaps the biggest issue the Eighth Doctor Adventures has had in its beginnings over the Virgin New Adventures, is that the Eighth Doctor Adventures were much less wary when it comes to the use of continuity.  The first novel not to use any previous continuity is the seventh book in the series, Kursaal.  The Bodysnatchers uses the Zygons and Professor George Litefoot as major elements in the story, and perhaps this is what is holding the book back from being amazing.  In using the Zygons nearly every twist Morris executes is broadcast pages before it appears several pages later.  Morris does an excellent job using his novel to develop the mythology of the Zygons, giving them a planet and an enemy which caused the destruction of their planet.  There’s also the implication that there are several refugee groups of Zygons which have landed on Earth and have been manipulating their way into society, though this is left by the end of the novel ambiguous.  Morris succeeds at making his Zygon characters different from the Zygons of “Terror of the Zygons”, mainly by playing out a piece on morality between a Zygon who serves as leader and warlord and a Zygon who leads as a scientist.  Tuval, the scientist character, has an excellent arc going from begrudgingly following her leader, into making her own decisions and joining the Doctor, Sam, and Litefoot in the fight against her species.  Balaak is a weaker character overall, essentially being more of your standard shouting villain, which works well enough for what the novel is, but Morris could have done more with the character.  The climax also needed a bit more work, as the novel loses steam about forty pages from the end.

The Bodysnatchers takes a while to get going, the plot of shadowy creatures pitching off people around a factory owned by a one Nathaniel Seers and a young Skarasen terrorizing Victorian London works well enough.  The plot is just incredibly predictable with Seers’ daughter, Emmeline, noticing her father being off and wouldn’t you know it, he’s a Zygon in human form.  Emmeline for the first half of the novel serves as an almost companion to the Doctor and honestly she works better as a character than Sam.  Samantha Jones continues to really only have the characterization of ‘I’m a social activist, Victorian London needs feminism’ which could work, but it’s just a bit too cliched for anything.  By the second half of the novel Sam gets some time with the Doctor and their clashing about how he treats her as younger than he should could be interesting, but it just doesn’t really amount to much of a character.  This is not a fault of Morris as it’s something Dicks, Orman, and Blum have also had issues with writing Sam.  There just doesn’t seem to be much forethought onto what Sam was supposed to be.  Morris is wonderful at characterizing the Eighth Doctor however, as he feels like he just went through “The TV Movie”.  The Doctor is a hopeless romantic, there to help the damsels in distress and always gives the villains a second chance, and is willing to let some of the Zygons live.  Litefoot as a character is also well written, and while there isn’t any indication that Jago & Litefoot occurs, his appearance here could be inbetween Series 3 or 4, as Jago is in Brighton.  He’s a nice addition even without his partner in investigating infernal instances, so there’s a bit missing here.  The novel is an enjoyably traditional romp through Victorian London from a first time writer.  7/10.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Murder Game by: Steve Lyons

Steve Lyons is a writer whom throughout the Virgin run of Doctor Who books, was responsible from some of their best work.  Conundrum and Head Games are an amazing pair of books for reflecting on the character of the Seventh Doctor and the Virgin books on the whole while Time of Your Life and Killing Ground are really what began the redemption of the Sixth Doctor in the eyes of the fans.  Sure that really wouldn’t be completed until Big Finish allowed Colin Baker to return to the role, but Lyons laid the groundwork for what Big Finish would pick up on immediately.  So when the second Past Doctor Adventure released from BBC Books is a book by Steve Lyons and exploring an area which up until that point had only been explored by Gary Russell’s Invasion of the Cat-People, I will admit I got quite a bit excited.  Yet, The Murder Game is a novel that perplexes me quite a bit.  Sure the cover is lackluster, but that’s really the trend of the Doctor Who book covers at this point and honestly they never really improve in my opinion.  The color scheme is nice, but it’s the Selachian which grabs my eye.  The Selachians are an amazing villain Lyons introduces here: they evolved on a marine world and are one of the few species coming from a marine world which has risen outside of a Level 2 civilization.  They alter themselves to look closer to sharks as a form of psychological warfare and are an addition to another warrior race.  They have been stockpiling weapons bought from Earth, through corporations who are content to look the other way while essentially giving the race the power to destroy the Earth.  They even refer to humanity as plankton scum.  As a race of villains, they work incredibly well setting the tone of the novel back to those 1966/1967 serials with hints of a base under siege story structure.  There’s also some of the Virgin ‘adult’ material with some pretty vivid descriptions of how the Selachians mutilate themselves to fit in their suits.

Lyons also continues a streak of writing excellent characterizations of the regular cast: the Second Doctor feels like we have just left “The Power of the Daleks”.  There’s a real sense that you cannot trust this version of the Doctor, he’s still getting used to the fact that he’s regenerated, and not really comfortable in his own skin.  The Doctor is perfect about obfuscating any questions once arriving at the Hotel Galaxion and indulges in the random penchant for drag as seen in “The Highlanders”.  Lyons also gives the audience some real insight into the minds of Ben and Polly.  Ben is still incredibly untrustworthy of the new Doctor, even if he will not show it, and has difficulty coping in a surrounding with several new aliens and relies on going to the bar to almost drown his sorrows.  Polly on the other hand, while not as fleshed out on television and often put into making the coffee, even if it can be justified in the story, doesn’t really make a character.  Lyons gives Polly this uncertain nature: she doesn’t actually want to be going on adventures, sure they’re fun, but life with the Doctor is dangerous and again not having any consistency doesn’t actually make her easy.  She has to crawl through ducts in the hotel and is all for helping out, but she still has this extreme fear in her life.  The plot of The Murder Game has the Selachians finding plans for a doomsday weapon from two traitors on this space hotel masquerading as authors while a murder mystery weekend party is going on.  It’s here where the novel has its biggest problem: the Selachians only really show up on page 155 and from then on the book is great, but before that the murder game plot just isn’t engaging.  The plot goes through every cliché where people are suspected of murder, actual murders occur, and there’s this attempt to have the story follow an And Then There Were None type plot, but that just doesn’t work.  The characters may be great but having over half of your book drag just doesn’t justify calling this one a slow burn.  6/10.