Saturday, March 23, 2019

Alien Bodies by: Lawrence Miles

Alien Bodies is often cited as one of the absolute best Doctor Who novels ever written.  Going in to this one I had already read Lawrence Miles’ previous work Christmas on a Rational Planet which introduced the time travelling voodoo cult Faction Paradox and laid a little groundwork for the story arc he begins here, yet as a novel it is a great first effort and is totally surpassed by its successor.  This review will contain quite a few spoilers for the novel so if you have not read it yet, it’s over twenty years old by this point and copies aren’t too difficult to track down.  The premise of Alien Bodies is quite simple: it’s Earth in the late 21st century and UNISYC, a successor to UNIT, are holding an auction for the Relic.  The Relic is the corpse of a Time Lord and contains important biodata several parties wish to get their hands on, it’s the corpse of the Doctor, but not the one you are expecting.  Yes Doctor Who hinges on the fact that the Doctor always gets out alive, but everything has its time and everything ends so this is his final incarnation in the casket.  Miles explores the idea of biodata and what exactly it is used for: every living thing has it and the Doctor, having traveled so much through time and space, has a biodata which is crucial for defeating ‘the enemy’.  ‘The enemy’ is something that is largely off-screen as it were due to the fact that at some point in Gallifrey’s future there is going to be a war which destroys the planet, a war against ‘the enemy’.  The Doctor refuses to fight in this war and his corpse holds the key to defeating them.  The war is this plot device that intrigues the reader and the threads are left hanging, which isn’t an issue considering there are over sixty novels left which it can be resolved.

One of the parties looking to bid for the Doctor’s biodata is the Faction Paradox, which in this novel is more fully formed than in Christmas on a Rational Planet.  They perform voodoo rituals and have a religious view on using biodata to control people and the universe.  Time Lords to them are liars and cheats, not without merit of course, but throughout the novel we see them controlling soldiers and attempting to complete their own plan.  Their plans are also left hanging by Miles to be picked up in future books, but the information gleaned in this novel is enough to tell a complete story.  It’s not actually the plot which is interesting in the novel, but it’s almost all the setup and worldbuilding Miles sets up for the Eighth Doctor Adventures as a range.  The treasure hunt so to speak of taking control of the casket and the Doctor eventually destroying it is an excellent plot and the ending is quite poignant, so the worldbuilding is just icing on the cake for the book.  The actual villain is Shift, an incredibly interesting incorporeal creature who communicates through psychic influences.  It is something that infiltrates the minds of its victims and intends to create times of great paranoia to gain control of the biodata.

Miles includes the Krotons as one party wanting to take the biodata of the Doctor which actually are quite threatening in this appearance.  Time is taken to describe the biology of the Kroton race as silicon base and individuals are able to commit suicide and rebuild themselves to make them stronger.  There’s also a Time Lord, Hommunculette, as a bidder who’s more interesting involvement is the relationship with his TARDIS, Marie.  Marie, being a Type 103 TARDIS, has an almost human sentience and form and her death about 1/3 into the novel is incredibly effective.  It sends her owner into a fit of rage as Miles implies a deep romantic and psychic relationship between ship and operator.

Finally, there is the inclusion of Sam Jones to consider when looking at Alien Bodies.  There have been complaints about Sam being a non-character in the previous five novels which only Paul Leonard attempted to rectify in Genocide.  Alien Bodies is a book where Sam’s non-character nature is revealed as setup for future novels again.  The idea is that Sam Jones has two biodatas.  The first is the one the previous five novels have given us: Sam is a young blonde woman, preoccupied with activism and a goody two shoes to boot who met the Doctor when running away from drug dealers in Totters’ Lane.  The other is a bit more interesting and a bit deeper than that: Samantha Jones is a dark haired young woman who has fallen into a heroin addiction and is friends with drug dealers.  This is the first glimpse of what Miles calls ‘Dark Sam’ and something that the Doctor decides to keep from his companion.  Yet outside of that Miles also makes Sam quite the likable character through the first half of the book, comforting a UNISYC soldier and honestly just acting like she wants to help out.  It makes a big change from the previous novels where she has been more of a whiny child.  Overall Alien Bodies is a novel full of atmosphere that takes a slow burn approach to storytelling.  It clocks in at 313 pages and is the first Eighth Doctor Adventure to really hit it out of the park and set up the storyline for the range.  10/10.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Illegal Alien by: Mike Tucker and Robert Perry

As a noted fan of the Virgin New Adventures, it actually didn’t bother me that when BBC Books wrote books featuring the Seventh Doctor they ignored the continuity of that book series and released the first Seventh Doctor novel, Illegal Alien, as a story taking place after “Survival” yet not far enough into the post-television series to have the Virgin New Adventures to have taken effect.  This is actually quite refreshing to explore some essentially unseen adventures with the Doctor and Ace free from the baggage of the earlier range.  Ace in particular here feels like she came fresh from the end of “Survival” which is at least in part due to the fact that Mike Tucker and Robert Perry’s story was a submission for Season 27 of the television series.  Putting Ace at the center of the London Blitz at a point in her life post “The Curse of Fenric” is a stroke of genius from Tucker and Perry.  She cannot stand Nazi ideology and some of the torture she endures near the end of the novel are just as brutal as some of the Virgin New Adventures, Timewyrm: Exodus and Just War immediately spring to mind.  Characterizing Ace as the teenager she was also gives the novel an edge as while there still is the growth of the television series, she is still a character who acts rashly when confronted with injustices of World War II.

Yet Tucker and Perry don’t attempt to have Illegal Alien be a part of some cosmic plan of the Seventh Doctor to save the universe, sure the Doctor spends much of the novel scheming, but the implication here is that this is just a story that they have stumbled upon.  The Doctor of this novel displays a side to his personality that is not always seen in this incarnation: his ability to think on his feet and change his plans at a moment’s notice.  The authors also include quite a bit from the point of view of the Doctor, really allowing the reader to sympathize with his emotions.  The Doctor is a man who cares deeply about Ace and exploring her room in the TARDIS while she is kidnapped by Nazis is a touching little scene where the Doctor actually is allowed to show some deeper emotions.  The main human villain of the novel is George Limb, a man who works with the Nazis under the mantra the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  He and the Doctor have interesting parallels: they are both schemers and chess masters, working for the greater good and not afraid to push the boundaries of morality to their ends.  There is a minor issue in that Limb is more obviously evil, due to his stance as essentially a Nazi officer which kind of drags portions of their chess match in the back fourth of the novel just not work as well as it could.

Tucker and Perry split the novel into four equally length parts echoing the idea that this is just a television story in novel form.  They share a descriptive style of prose fully immersing the reader in the empty streets of London during the Blitz, the novel truly feels like it’s a noir film with muted colors and a jazzy soundtrack filling out the scenes of the novel.  Cody McBride acts as a second companion to the Doctor here and he’s almost your stereotypical American detective straight out of a noir film who narrates the opening of the four parts of the book.  There’s also this sense of brutality about the book as Tucker and Perry bring the Cybermen to the BBC Books range with scenes that rival Iceberg and Killing Ground in terms of body horror.  The Cybermen here are the models seen in The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Wheel in Space and are biding their time.  There are initially three Cybermen present, yet they use the citizens hiding in the underground from the Blitz as stock to convert more to the Cyber race.  Tucker and Perry even include the image of a baby converted into a grotesque mix between a Cyberman and a Cybermat.  While there are no in depth descriptions of the Cyberman conversion process a la Killing Ground, but Tucker and Perry are masters at crafting horror off-screen so to speak.  They let the screams and following silence to really let the horror sink in.  As a first novel, there’s some real talent in Illegal Alien, giving the Seventh Doctor and Ace an excellent introduction to the Past Doctor Adventures range.  Both of their characters are perfectly characterized and Tucker and Perry include memorable side characters with an engaging plot that works incredibly well.  It is only let down by a human villain that doesn’t quite work and weakens the climax because of this.  9/10.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

War of the Daleks by: John Peel

War of the Daleks is one of those novels with a divisive reputation amongst Doctor Who fans.  Half of the fanbase seems to hate it as a continuity fest, determined to retcon nearly every Dalek story into one timeline as well as the climax of “Remembrance of the Daleks”.  The other half seem to think it’s a brilliant piece of Doctor Who fiction, finishing the 1980s arc of Doctor Who Dalek stories with aplomb.  With a reputation such as this, perhaps it is not a surprise that my personal opinion on War of the Daleks is very middle of the road: John Peel does a lot of things right, and a lot of things wrong when it comes to this novel.  Looking at his past work, there is no surprise that Peel was chosen for the first ever Dalek novel: he adapted “The Chase”, “Mission to the Unknown”, “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, “The Power of the Daleks”, and “The Evil of the Daleks” into Target novels and was friends with Dalek creator Terry Nation.  Yes, his work for Virgin Publishing is a 50/50 split between good and bad, he only wrote two original novels so third time could be the charm to mix a metaphor.

The highlight of the novel is how Peel uses the Daleks to full effect: they have a formed caste system that makes an extreme sense and recontextualizes the grey Daleks of the classic series the easiest to defeat adding a level of tension to the novel.  Daleks don’t just shout exterminate without actually doing anything in this novel, killing characters on sight.  The plot concerning the Quetzal and the Thals are also highlights of the novel.  Peel does an excellent job in touching on the idea of the Thals wishing to enhance themselves to be more like the Daleks in a bid to ending the fighting against the Daleks.  Peel makes them have become a desperate race, sick of the war and plague the Daleks have caused throughout the cosmos.  It’s an excellent plotline which creates an engaging moral dilemma for the first half of the novel.  Sadly it gets wrapped up around the halfway point.  This novel overall is structured quite like a television serial, in four parts with three chapters per part.  The simple answer for why Peel did this is that he was adapting a script originally meant for television, with a few alterations to expand the scope and scale of the conflict.  The second half of the novel shifts into what feels like a completely different story, one which I would call “The Trial of the Daleks”.  It’s a plot like all the post “Genesis of the Daleks” stories bar “Remembrance of the Daleks” that gets overshadowed by the inclusion of the Daleks’ creator Davros.  Davros is put on trial, unbeknownst to him, as defendant of the Dalek race which for some reason has decided that if found guilty they should undergo self-destruction.  Some of the logic used by the Daleks and explanations given for the trial does not make sense, but that does not matter.

Yet, outside of these instances, there is quite a bit of War of the Daleks that just doesn’t work.  First, the characterization of the Doctor and Sam Jones falls incredibly flat outside of the first chapter.  The first chapter has the Doctor tearing apart portions of the TARDIS for repairs and in this scene we really get the sense on the aloofness and romantic nature of this incarnation of the Doctor, which disappears once they arrive on the Quetzal.  They both revert into generic Doctor and companion characterizations, which is a massive step down from the portrayal in the previous novel.  Peel attempts to give Sam a blasé attitude towards the Daleks, and pulls the joke that they don’t actually look threatening, but this really doesn’t work well because outside of this joke there isn’t any character to Sam.  She also sees the destruction the Daleks cause firsthand and honestly she almost seems cocky when facing them.  In the second half of the novel she also has absolutely nothing to do, with the Doctor taking center stage for the remainder of the book.  Which doesn’t work because even when taking center stage, the Doctor doesn’t do much.  There really isn’t any satisfactory resolution to this novel as the Daleks just sort of blow each other up really quickly.  The final nail in the coffin for this novel so to speak is the retcon: the idea goes that in “Remembrance of the Daleks” the Daleks saw that the Doctor would use the Hand of Omega to blow up Skaro so they replaced it with a similar planet, Antalin, which in turn changes at least some of the motivation of every classic Doctor Who Dalek story.  Now it’s nice to get an explanation for why Skaro exists, but the retcon is just too confusing and the plot almost stops for twenty pages or so to stop it.  The opinions on this novel are incredibly conflicting, some of it’s great, some isn’t.  5/10.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Business Unusual by: Gary Russell

The BBC Books line of Doctor Who novels began with a definite attempt to separate themselves from the line of Virgin New Adventures and Virgin Missing Adventures before them.  They began a line with the Eighth Doctor and when starting Seventh Doctor novels, only used the companion of Ace instead of picking up at the end of Lungbarrow.  Yet, the fourth Past Doctor Adventure is the first novel to be a direct sequel to a Virgin Missing Adventure.  The most interesting aspect of Business Unusual is that it follows up the hanging C19 plot threads of Who Killed Kennedy and The Scales of Injustice.  The Pale Man is now referred to as the managing director and Business Unusual does not include the Silurian plot, but the elements are there for a sequel.  The plot of Business Unusual also attempts to tie together one of the hanging threads from the television series: this is the story where Melanie Bush meets the Doctor and begins her travels meaning it’s the beginning of the end for the Sixth Doctor.  Gary Russell writes the Doctor throughout the novel closer to the version of the character seen in Season 22.  The Doctor is arrogant and quite put off throughout proceedings as he attempts to avoid the inevitable.  He tries his hardest to make Mel put off by the idea of travel, wishing her to stay home in her town of Pease Pottage.  Yet, by the end of the novel, he’s accepted the fact that she’s going to come with him and has become closer to the character Colin has played in recent years.

In characterizing Mel, Russell takes his time with her, starting her out with a deeper characterization than the optimist we got on the television series.  Here she sees herself as needing to get away from an overbearing family, almost becoming cynical as a result, yet the novel ends with Mel reconciling with her family before going off with the Doctor.  Of course they get off on the wrong foot, again the Doctor is characterized as his more arrogant persona and we get the fact that Mel is a vegetarian really coming into conflict with the Doctor.  By the time the Doctor and Mel are having breakfast together, any kink in the characterization of the two is worked out by Russell.  Staying with Mel is American Trey Korte, a transfer student who has awakened psychic powers due to proximity to either the Doctor or the TARDIS, both are hypothesized to be the reason, yet that remains unanswered.  Trey honestly has a lot of potential as a possible companion to the Doctor, he has a good personality and gets along with Mel and the Doctor.  There’s this really nice dynamic between the three and seeing a series of adventures would have been a treat.

Ciara and Ciellan, the Irish Twins from The Scales of Injustice also reappear here and Russell takes some time to delve into their backstories.  They were young nurses in the 1960s who stole drugs from the pharmacy at the hospital they trained at for parties, were caught and essentially bought by the Pale Man.  In giving them both dialogue throughout the novel, Russell gives both characters a decent character arc with a resolution to become better people, in spite of the Auton technology making them totally inhuman.  The novel ends with them driving off into the sunset.  The Stalker also returns as a threat to Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, investigating SeneNet on the orders of Sir John Sudbury.  The Brigadier spends most of the novel in a cell as he is captured and only really gets to meet the Doctor in the final 50 pages or so.  This allows Russell not to actually include an introduction between the two characters, while really getting inside the mind of the Brigadier.  His deteriorating relationship and eventual divorce from Fiona is expanded upon here: he hasn’t seen his daughter Kate in years and has realized that he’s probably going to be a bachelor for the rest of his life (if he only knew).  He remembers the names of every officer killed in the line of duty, and is aghast when someone with a full life ahead of him is sent to his rescue.  He also has met several versions of the Doctor by now and they never actually appear in the right order.  The book is as much his story as it is of the Doctor and Mel.  Business Unusual is a book of many highs and maybe one or two lows, but is an incredibly enjoyable experience giving Mel a fitting introduction, and wrapping up some loose ends from the Virgin books.  9/10