Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Vanderdeken's Children by: Christopher Bulis

Sometimes Doctor Who stories have incredibly evocative titles that once you experience the story there’s very little relevance to the actual contents.  Season 18 and Season 19 are perhaps the most obvious examples of this (Black Orchid and The Visitation immediately come to mind), but the fourteenth Eighth Doctor Adventure, Vanderdeken’s Children, is perhaps the most egregious.  The title is an attempt by author Christopher Bulis to tie together a theme about ghost ships and the ghosts of children which appear in the novel, but only mentions it on the second to last page.  Perhaps the title would work better had Vanderdeken’s Children been a book dripping with atmosphere: it’s a novel about two races at war set around an intergalactic cruise ship which finds an abandoned warship of the opposite sides before weird occurrences begin occurring.  This should be a setup for a story full of atmosphere, a ghost story in space where nobody can hear you scream.  Bulis’ style of prose however is detrimental to building any sort of horrific atmosphere due to this concise style.  Bulis writes in a “x” leads to this and “character” said this and “other character” responded with little in the way of descriptions beyond the basic setting and motivations for the characters.  A novel like this is one that needs to have descriptions that are more flowery to build a sense of tension in the prose which is where Bulis fails in this outing as a writer.  The prose becomes less engaging.

Another issue is that the two races featured in the novel, the Nimosians and Emindarians, are two indistinct races of aliens.  Yes, they are described differently and the Nimosian ship on the cover makes a striking image (and one of the best EDA covers), but for all that is done with the races they could just be two factions of humans.  The conflict between the races is not expanded upon throughout the novel, and is stuck firmly in the background while Bulis tells a lackluster ghost story.  Vanderdeken’s Children is not all bad however, the characterization of the regulars and the first few chapters in particular are excellent.  These first few chapters break away from Bulis’ prose as he describes the TARDIS and the Doctor and Sam living together like two roommates together.  There is a point where you don’t want the Doctor and Sam to land and just keep living their lives in the TARDIS.  The Doctor also perhaps has one of his best characterizations to date.  The novel is published well after the TV Movie and Bulis has given the Eighth Doctor of Vanderdeken’s Children an excellent evolution of the character as he was initially introduced as.  This is also the third consecutive novel where Sam Jones is written with a decent characterization which is going a long way to create a solid companion.  She will still be low on many rankings of companions, but by now she’s at least got a solid character and become a little softened.  Bulis also regresses her to a child for about a quarter of the book really allowing an emotional drama play out between the characters.  Still Vanderdeken’s Children is highly flawed as a novel and comes across as a bit of fluff. 5/10.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Zeta Major by: Simon Messingham

When it comes to writing a one and done author often refers to an author who only wrote one novel before calling it quits.  In Doctor Who circles, it refers to authors who wrote one novel for a range (and sometimes publisher).  Simon Messingham is an example of a one and done author who continued to write and eventually was able to publish for BBC Books, debuting with Zeta Major.  His Virgin New Adventure, Strange England, was in my opinion the worst Virgin New Adventure published with the intent of a story that for the Doctor was hopeless, but was meddled with resulting in an inferior product.  It was also the only Virgin New Adventure I gave a score of zero and one that I am unlikely to revisit.  This caused apprehension when going into Messingham’s first BBC Books effort, Zeta Major, compounded by the fact that it is a sequel to Planet of Evil which while a good story doesn’t have much sequel potential.  It bears the Anti-Man prominently on the cover, yet the digitally designed, time vortex themed cover of the Past Doctor Adventures acts as a red herring for the book as while the beings appear they are by no means the main villains of the piece.

Zeta Major is an examination of the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan dynamic by telling a tale where the Fifth Doctor, the Doctor most often calm in a crisis and looking for another way, is put in a situation which he has already stopped once, only for time to have made the Doctor’s work on the planet of Zeta Minor to be undone.  Messingham’s portrayal of the Fifth Doctor shows an excellent grasp on the character, attempting to stop the impending disaster of experimentation with antimatter and the antimatter universe which can be found through Zeta Minor.  The Doctor is also put through the ringer as this is one of the few novels where the Doctor becomes susceptible to dreams, in this area vague nightmares which rock the character to his very being.  The death of Adric in Earthshock still haunts the Doctor and much of his motivation is not just the necessity of saving the day, but also the fear that Tegan and/or Nyssa could end up dead because of his actions.  Messingham makes the Doctor become incredibly distant and the dreams and hallucinations stop the Doctor from keeping track of his companions throughout the novel.  The Doctor’s confidence in himself is in question internally, perhaps unfairly, but this is not an issue as Messingham shows just where the Doctor’s flaw in logic comes from.  The climax of the novel does an excellent job at resolving this little narrative arc that is present throughout the novel.  One of the major villains, Krystyan Fall, works to foil against the Doctor and makes the novel all the better for his inclusion.  If one character is not necessarily explored to the novel’s detriment it’s Nyssa, who’s characterization is just as limp as many of her television appearances.  Messingham portrays her as one-note with only a few mentions of her emotions about her father being taken over by the Master making her come across as a cold character, much less than the caring friend she is usually characterized by.  There is an attempt to make her interesting by turning her into an Anti-Man, and that is harrowing, but the companion being turned into a monster has been done better elsewhere.

That is not the problem with Tegan Jovanka who is overflowing with her harsh Australian personality.  Luckily, Messingham sets this novel after Arc of Infinity so she is no longer looking for Heathrow, and gives Messingham the opportunity to show her vulnerabilities in the novel.  Once the Doctor shows signs of being taken over and not being himself, she immediately wants to help yet is afraid to get involved as she may get in the way with her limited knowledge of the universe.  However, while much of Zeta Major can be described as going over the fallout from Planet of Evil Messingham adds to it by entrenching the novel with a plot where the Doctor is a mythic figure and Sarah Jane Smith as a handmaiden.  The Morestran Empire has built their entire religion about the Doctor as a mystic, with interestingly having a contrast with a scientific sect present in the Empire.  Tegan’s harsh nature is able to dismantle the organized church, much a commentary on churches like the Roman Catholic Church and the political power they have and still hold, into what religion is.  Religion in the book is a game of telephone where things started out with a grain of truth, but has spiraled out of control.  Messingham’s novel overall is a pleasant and welcome surprise showing just how far he has come creating a book with deep themes and an engaging plot while having a few unnecessary characters and some pacing issues.  8/10.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Placebo Effect by: Gary Russell

Gary Russell is one of the Doctor Who authors for whom inserting continuity references is a favorite past time.  His only contribution to the Eighth Doctor Adventures, much like his contribution to the Virgin New Adventures, is a tribute to one of his and many fans’ favorite stories.  Placebo Effect proudly bears the striking silhouette of a Wirrn (Or as Russell puts it in great tribute to Ian Marter, Wirrrn) over a coin bearing the logo of the 3999 Olympic Games.  The plot of the novel is a commentary on the very real controversy of drug abuse and doping in high level sports events, having the Wirrn Queen spread her seed through red and blue acetaminophen pills distributed throughout the games.  This is a bid for the Wirrn to take over the galaxy and then the universe.  Russell’s prose style works incredibly well when switching to several points of view of characters assimilating into the Wirrn.  The style becomes conflicted, emulating the thought process of someone whose control is slowly being coaxed away from them and into a massive hive mind.  Russell captures the fear, yet excitement of coming to the cusp of knowledge while still losing freedom.  The issue of using the Wirrn mainly comes from the reveal of their presence, which comes halfway through the novel, being squandered by the cover and introduction.  The first half of the novel is a standard mystery Doctor Who plot with the Foamasi from The Leisure Hive.  The Foamasi were never fleshed out within the context of The Leisure Hive and Russell creates a mafia style society, but manages to make the reptilian characters more interesting than Fisher’s script.

The Doctor and Sam Jones only get involved in the events of the novel due to an acknowledgement of the Radio Times comic strip starring the Eighth Doctor, Stacy Townsend, and Ssard.  Russell uses Stacy and Ssard’s wedding to wrap up any remaining plotlines from that comic strip as at this point the strip had stop running.  The first third of Placebo Effect explores the nature of the Eighth Doctor and his wanderings.   During the year-long gap in between The Eight Doctors and Vampire Science, the Doctor travelled with Stacy and Ssard and has been avoiding going to their wedding.  The Eighth Doctor is the perfect example of a wanderer, forgetting several points that there is a wedding to be getting to, even when getting people to the wedding.  Sam reflects early on in the novel that everything has returned to normal since her exit, really underselling the impact that Seeing I should have had on the range.  There’s something deeper to the Doctor that Russell only vaguely explores: he genuinely cares for his companions and is attempting to make their lives better.  Yes he doesn’t always get around to things when he should, but he will eventually.  Stacy and Ssard as characters disappear once their wedding is over, which really makes the pacing of the book feel like there is meant to be two stories here.  The first story would have Sam, Stacy, and Ssard as companions helping the Doctor foil a murder mystery while the second would have been the Wirrn plot of the back 2/3 of the novel.  Stacy and Ssard come across with the chemistry a couple would have, however, Russell for once does not rely on the continuity to introduce the characters, expecting the reader to have already experienced their comic strips.  There are plenty of emotional moments as the wedding is of course interrupted and the Doctor brings Stacy’s parents into the future as a present making their portion of the story enjoyable, but it is not necessary.

The glue that attempts to bring together the two plots is one with the Church of the Way Forward, an extreme religious sect who disapprove of interspecies marriage.  Russell uses this sect to provide commentary on the form of American Evangelicalism which demands evolution to be just a theory and that the only way to live a good life is to follow the faith.  There’s even an insane reverend who ends up converted to the Wirrn cause by the end of the novel.  Perhaps the weakest aspect of the novel is Russell’s subplot of Sam questioning atheism through poor arguments.  Sam starts to believe there may be something out there due to an argument that can be boiled down to there aren’t enough missing links and evolution is just a theory.  Russell implies that this has been building up and it is the influence of Kyle Dale, her love interest of the adventure, has brought this on.  There really is no resolution to this budding character development, and by the end it is at a point where she’s simply questioning her perspective of being an extreme activist.  The Doctor of course has no faith, but had at one point what might have been called a “family” and it is that which gives Sam some hope.  Sam is actually characterized quite well by the end of the novel after spending much of it closer to the blank slate character.  At least she is less insufferable than she has been since Seeing I developed the character.  Overall, Placebo Effect is a book which suffers the most from having too many ideas and too many pacing issues to bring it to a truly great novel.  It’s not nearly as bad as some would have you think, in fact it’s pretty good. 7/10.