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.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Option Lock by: Justin Richards

Justin Richards is one of those authors who got their start once Doctor Who was taken off the air and never really went away.  His first novel, Theatre of War, was published as a Virgin New Adventure in 1994, and his most recent work for Doctor Who was just last year with Jago & Litefoot Forever.  Whenever coming across a Richards story, the general fan consensus is that it will be a traditional Doctor Who story, and his first novel for the BBC Books range, Option Lock, is no exception to that.  Option Lock has a plot which is pretty standard Doctor Who: the Doctor and Sam arrive on present day Earth and get embroiled in an alien plot which could lead to the end of the world.  The cover of the novel is incredibly striking, showing the hand of a Khamerian on top of a nuclear explosion.  The contrasting red and yellows of the cover gives the reader a distinct impression that this novel is going to be one about the dangers of war and the potential of nuclear holocaust.  Indeed, Option Lock plays out in part more like a Cold War era thriller, yet within the traditional trappings of a Doctor Who story.  The first third of the story plays out as the Doctor and Sam are investigating mysterious goings on at the estate of Norton Silver where there is alien fauna and strange goings on.  It eventually is revealed that Silver is dealing with aliens who wish to cause a nuclear holocaust to take over the world.  There are shenanigans with an experimental doomsday weapon/space station called Station Nine, and much of the book focuses on American politics as there is a Cold War in full swing and using Station Nine becomes a last resort to potentially save/destroy the world.

Richards’ conclusion to the novel is perhaps the weakest element of the story as it feels Richards was working with a limited 275 page count.  This would not have been the same had this been a Virgin Book which would allow longer novels whenever it was required, the BBC Books generally enforced a strict page limit and word count of approximately 280 pages so it feels around page 260 Richards realized he was too close to the end so quickly wrapped things up.  The alien threat also feels tacked on to the novel as a way to keep the Doctor and Sam there when the conspiracy of Station Nine and the Silver family should have been enough.  Luckily Richards makes much of the book enjoyable with his characterizations of the Doctor and Sam.  Sam Jones spends much of the book having a romance with Colonel William Pickering, who could easily have become a companion.  Richards portrays Sam with quite a few of her edges sanded down to make her more palatable to the audience.  The romance helps greatly as it gives Sam a chance to feel more like a human being than a bland cipher for the audience to project themselves on.  Pickering also works well as a foil for Sam as they build a relationship on mutual respect for one another and mutual academic curiosity as they spend time on the Silver estate.  Richards portrays the Eighth Doctor perhaps the closest to his TV Movie counterpart: he’s the hopeless romantic who gets involved wherever he can.  Perhaps there’s a bit too much of the Doctor being placed in the background, but it wasn’t a big notice when reading the novel.  Penelope and Norton Silver both work well as characters.  Penelope is a touch too much of a background character while Norton is the over the top villain revealed in a pretty predictable trope, but they work well.  Overall, Option Lock is one of those books that may be traditional Who, but it’s still some pretty good traditional Who.  8/10.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Face of the Enemy by: David A. McIntee

David A. McIntee is one of those Doctor Who authors who became more well known as he contributed a series of historical set stories to the Virgin ranges of novels.  From White Darkness to Sanctuary, many of his novels pack an emotional punch for the characters and his first novel for BBC Books, The Face of the Enemy, is no exception to that rule.  The Face of the Enemy is the first novel of the BBC Books line to do something less traditional with a Doctor Who story: it’s a story that doesn’t actually feature the Doctor, but focuses on the UNIT team while the Doctor and Jo are away doing The Curse of Peladon.  The novel spends much of the first half as a traditional Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story sans the Doctor taking part in events, instead UNIT calls upon Ian and Barbara Chesterton to assist in analyzing some interesting metal which is probably from a crashed UFO.  McIntee uses the Master on the cover as a red herring to who the actual ‘villains’ of the novel are, having him take up most of the cover is a stroke of genius on the part of the cover designers.  Once the situation becomes far too dangerous for Ian and Barbara to understand, the Master is brought in essentially to fill the role of the Doctor.  This is the first novel to really show that having the Master in the role of protagonist could actually work and there is no doubt in my mind that Big Finish had this book in mind when commissioning The War Master series of audio dramas.

McIntee does not shine as well in writing the plot of The Face of the Enemy, as while the plot is engaging and two thirds into the book there is an amazing twist, it’s the character work McIntee does here.  A majority of the focus of the book is told from the perspective of Ian Chesterton who works well as a point of view character.  The audience can see just how much he and Barbara have grown since their experiences with the Doctor.  McIntee reveals that since their travels Ian and Barbara have returned to academia and Ian in particular has continued to work as a scientist.  They’ve also settled down, married, and had a son whom they love with Ian devoting much time in his thoughts to Barbara as McIntee paints a picturesque view of their marriage.  They are living in bliss with utter devotion to each other which makes it all the more emotionally devastating when halfway through the novel McIntee creates a situation where Ian thinks Barbara has been killed.  The effect this has on the character is incredibly intense and it drives Ian to attempt suicide, only saved by the rest of the UNIT team.  The man has nothing left to live for with the death of his wife and the Master plays on these feelings to great effect.  McIntee has the Delgado Master at his most manipulative, attempting to channel Ian’s anger into his own goals.  There’s also this amazing moment where McIntee devotes a little time to how Ian’s suicide attempt affects the rest of the characters, most importantly the Brigadier reflects on his failed relationship.  McIntee characterizes Lethbridge-Stewart excellently building upon The Eye of the Giant and The Scales of Injustice.

The Master as a character is one that McIntee has already featured to great aplomb in The Dark Path, and he continues many of the themes of that novel here.  The Master here is at his most suave and keeps his cool as while he does wish to see the day saved (he still has the Doctor to deal with after all and what’s the point if there is no world to dominate), but it’s these nice manipulations which give the character depth.  The final twist of the novel is that The Face of the Enemy is a sequel to Inferno which sees the survivors from the parallel Earth attempting to infiltrate their positions in the regular Earth.  This is the book that reveals that it was that universes version of the Master who worked with the authorities to defeat various alien menaces throughout history.  This version of the Master is the Delgado version seen in The Dark Path and the best scenes of the novel occur when the two versions meet.  There’s this little glimpse into what could have been between the two characters and it shows that the events of The Dark Path still effect this version of the Master.  There’s this little hint of humanity in the character buried deep in the soul of the man.  The Face of the Enemy while most definitely a BBC Books proves that there are still the connections to the groundwork laid down by the Virgin New Adventures and Virgin Missing Adventures and proves that non-traditional Doctor Who novels haven’t gone away just yet.  9/10.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Doctor Who and the Iron Legion by: Pat Mills and John Wagner with art by: Dave Gibbons

Doctor Who and the Iron Legion is written by Pat Mills and John Wagner with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Weekly issues 1-8 (October-December 1979) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: The Iron Legion by Panini Books.

Doctor Who in comics began in November 1964 in issue number 674 of TV Comic with a story called The Klepton Parasites featuring the First Doctor and comic exclusive companions John and Gillian and was a regular feature of the strip until July 1978 in issue 1385 with the final episode of The Image Makers with the Fourth Doctor.  These were comics primarily aimed at young children who watched the program on television yet as a strip much of this run has remained in the grey.  There really isn’t much known about who wrote and drew these strips and the license was only taken away once Marvel UK, yes that Marvel, was given the license to produce Doctor Who Weekly, a magazine which would go on to become Doctor Who Monthly and then Doctor Who Magazine.  It still runs to this day under that title and has run 536 issues with no signs of stopping.  The comic strip has become an integral feature and since 2004 has been reprinted in original form by Panini Books in Graphic Novel form with the exception of comics featuring in issues 228 to 243 and 531 onward as of April 2019.

Doctor Who and the Iron Legion is the first comic story in Doctor Who Weekly and as such it establishes much.  Writing the strip is the team effort of Pat Mills and John Wagner with artwork being provided by the legendary Dave Gibbons, and the Doctor featured was of course the then current, Fourth Doctor.  Mills, Wagner, and Gibbons establish the strip in these eight issues as a chance to tell Doctor Who stories with a wider imagination for visual imagery, only confined by the ability of Gibbons to draw.  The first page of the story is a gorgeous black and white illustration showing an English village ravaged by a Roman Legion consisting of robots and tanks which immediately grabs the attention of the reader and doesn’t let go until the end of the eighth issue.  Mills and Wagner drew upon script commissions to the television show for the basis of their run on Doctor Who Weekly, and while The Iron Legion was never made due to budget, Doctor Who and the Iron Legion gives a chance to see just what the team has in them to offer readers.  The tone of the plot closely matches the types of stories Doctor Who was doing on television at the time, with plenty of humor injected into the characters and a story that takes the form of a grand adventure.  Mills and Wagner establish the alternate dimension of a Rome that failed to fall due to influence from malevolent aliens without making it feel like there was anything too over the top about the situation.  The first issue has an added element of horror as the Doctor arrives in a village to stock up on jelly babies before seeing a man shot dead in front of him.

By the end of the first issue, the Doctor has made it into the alternate dimension and much of the middle strip is attempting to solve the mystery of what exactly is controlling this version of the Roman Empire.  This is finally revealed to be the mother of the current Caesar, who is the powerful alien Magog in disguise as a simple woman.  Along the way he has the help of two robots, the ugly yet kind Morris and the nervous yet intelligent Vesuvius.  Vesuvius is perhaps the weakest aspect of Doctor Who and the Iron Legion: he’s your standard comic relief character with the issue that his humor just is not well executed.  That’s a shame as much of the subtler humor of the comic strip is incredibly effective, from Roman Numerals being used to quite a few stealth puns, the authors obviously have a sense of humor.  As an introduction to the Fourth Doctor in the comics Gibbons captures the dynamic movements of Tom Baker on television while still creating art in a style closer to animation than reality.  The writing from Mills and Wagner assists this by creating a Fourth Doctor similar enough to the portrayal on television.  The story itself introduces the comics as a parallel to the television series at the time: a mostly unconnected series of stories following the adventures of the time which makes Doctor Who and the Iron Legion stick in the mind of the reader due to the sheer imagination of the world it creates and the fun of the story it tells.  8/10.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Kursaal by: Peter Anghelides

Taking creatures from mythologies and folklore and giving them a Doctor Who origin is nothing new, The Time Monster and The Horns of Nimon took inspiration from the Minotaur for their villains while State of Decay established the existence of literal vampires in the Doctor Who universe.  While The Greatest Show in the Galaxy included a werewolf in its story, Kursaal is the first novel to actually delve into what a werewolf race in the Doctor Who universe means, how it would function.  Peter Anghelides’s first novel has a decent premise, an evocative cover, and an enticing description.  Anghelides as a writer shows quite a bit of promise with Kursaal as there are good ideas here, the werewolf condition is passed on through a viral infection from a race long in hibernation.  The Jax is an interesting idea and the final third of the novel ends the plot on a high with Sam Jones infected and attempting to infect the Doctor to make him the king to her queen.  It’s a nice mix of body horror as Sam slowly transforms into a werewolf like Jax and character drama as the virus forces Sam to indicate she has romantic feelings for the Doctor.  Anghelides handles this aspect of the plot with grace, like when Charley pines for the Eighth Doctor, the Doctor has absolutely no idea what Sam actually means when she wants to make him her King.  He reacts with a pithy remark about calling him her ‘rex’ as there is a running note that Sam can’t speak Latin and wouldn’t find a use for the language as it is a dead language.  There’s also quite a bit of body horror as the novel goes into detail with the fact that being infected with the Jax is a complete rewrite of DNA.

Some of the biggest issues present in Kursaal is a lack of interesting characters and an incredibly standard Doctor Who plot.  The biggest theme of the novel is the importance of environmentalism and protecting endangered species above all else.  There is an attempt at nuance with the main villain of the novel being members of the HALF organization (HALF standing for Helping All Life Forms) which is a terrorist organization attempting to protect the species of the universe.  The setting is the titular Kursaal, a planet under development to become an amusement park which the Doctor takes Sam to for a vacation.  The plot has the potential to be engaging and full of twists and turns as Sam and the Doctor could easily have their relationship tested.  The first two thirds of the novel is incredibly weak: Anghelides moves the plot along at a snail’s pace which only increases once there is a time jump.  The actual time jump really doesn’t serve a purpose for the story and there comes a point where it feels Anghelides just used it as a way to kick things into gear.  Looking at the work Anghelides contributed before Kursaal makes me wonder if this started out as a short story and was expanded into a novel as the last third is great.  This is more apparent as the supporting characters do not have much character with the exception of Kadijk, who is an over the top military man, and Bernard Cockaign, who is the leader of HALF.  The rest of the characters are generally forgettable or only have one character trait.  As a novel, Kursaal doesn’t work, but as an idea there is a good story hidden somewhere which Anghelides needs to work on expanding the ideas and characters to make it something great.  4/10.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Roundheads by: Mark Gatiss

Sometimes the quality of a novel can be gained from the amount of time it takes to read said novel.  A quick read is often the mark of a great novel and a slow read is often the mark of a bad novel, yet this is only a guideline to this judging of quality.  Some great novels work better if you read them slowly and some bad novels are easier to get through if they’re read quickly.  And finally there are novels where you do not quite know where the quality lies.  Mark Gatiss’ first Past Doctor Adventure, The Roundheads, is one of those novels.  It took me only about a day to actually get through the 282 page novel, yet when looking at the quality there’s nothing in the book that really screams a masterpiece.  The plot is a standard pure historical story taking place in 1648, about a month before the execution of King Charles I, in the beginning of a ten year rule of Oliver Cromwell.  The Doctor, Jamie, Ben, and Polly arrive and get divided into their own little plots.  The Doctor and Jamie get stuck with a child’s book about the time period leaking to Richard Cromwell while Ben is put on a ship bound to Amsterdam and Polly is caught in a plot to save King Charles from trial and execution.

Looking at the three plotlines Gatiss includes in the novel, it is interesting to note that unlike serials like The Romans where multiple stories cross paths at multiple points, each remains pretty separate once the party splits off.  The weakest of the bunch is the Doctor and Jamie’s story as it reads like Gatiss read the novelization of The Highlanders and wanted to write his own version.  The Doctor gets a chance to have his own comedic subplot where he and Jamie get up to comedy antics, pretending Jamie is Scottish fortune teller McCrimmon of Culloden.  The problem with the subplot lies in the fact that the Doctor loses a children’s book about the English Civil War.  This is really the one major misstep Gatiss makes in characterizing the Second Doctor, who throughout most of the novel is on top form.  Gatiss shows that he has understanding of what makes the Second Doctor work as a character and just how to characterize Patrick Troughton’s mannerisms in print.  There’s care here to show just how the Doctor and Jamie’s relationship has grown since the latter’s introduction.  The Doctor has been drifting himself away from Ben and Polly as they have made it incredibly clear that at their first chance they will be leaving the TARDIS and The Roundheads works well for that end as it takes place after The Macra Terror.  Jamie perhaps is a little closer to the more primitive version of the character as seen in The Highlanders than he should be, but the two work off each other well enough and Gatiss keeps it interesting.  It is just the plot itself really lets down the characters for their portions of the novel.

The plotline revolving around Ben Jackson is perhaps the most well written of the plots, yet it is the one that has the least to do with proceedings in England.  The scenario is similar to the plot of The Smugglers, with Ben being kidnapped and put to work on a ship to Amsterdam run by the Polish Captain Stanislaus.  Things take a turn for the interesting when he escapes to the ship of Captain Sal Winter, a female captain with a false nose who wishes to regain lost treasure from the Polish Captain.  Winter and Ben have a great chemistry with each other, with several points where Gatiss indicates there could be something a little more to their relationship had Ben stayed behind here.  Polly’s story is almost equally as good as like The Highlanders she gets a female sidekick and plays in some espionage for long stretches of the novel.  She gets some incredibly interesting moments with Charles I around Chapter 8.  What is interesting is that Gatiss includes a brief prologue to the novel from the point of view of an older Polly and gives some real insight into the secretary’s life before and after travelling with the Doctor.  Polly’s always been a companion who slips through the cracks and The Roundheads is really her time to shine during the events.  The Roundheads as a whole isn’t going to win any awards for best novel, and there are definitely better novels to have reprinted, but it’s still a fun romp through history with a good set of characters.  7/10.