Sunday, October 27, 2019

First Frontier by: David A. McIntee - A Re-Review

Longtime readers of my content will know that from November 2015 to December 2016 I read and reviewed every Virgin New Adventure and Virgin Missing Adventure, a feat which I did using PDF copies of the books as they are out of print.  It has been close to three years since then and now I’m collecting the physical copies of the classic Doctor Who ranges.  Recently I picked up a copy of First Frontier and believed it was time to make good on a promise I made during that initial run.  That promise was due to the format of the First Frontier PDF being incredibly difficult to read and now that I own a copy, I have rethought much of that original review.  First Frontier is David A. McIntee’s second Doctor Who novel and is an excellent example of the type of novel McIntee excels at.  The book concerns a species of little grey aliens making first contact with certain United States Army bases in 1957, and it’s up to the Doctor, Ace, and Benny to get to the bottom of what they want.  There’s a mysterious Major working with the aliens and the fate of the entire world rests in the balance.  First Frontier at its heart is a story about the Cold War using Roswell and Area 51 conspiracies as a backdrop to explore the themes of mistrust among the American people and in the ranks of the Army.  1957 was smack bang in the middle of a period known as the Second Red Scare, a time where Americans were suspicious that those around them could be Communist sympathizers and spies, waiting around every corner.

McIntee presents a story where the United States Army under the general paranoia of the era as they are incredibly secretive within their own ranks.  The arrival of the alien Tzun force, who claim to be Venusians, are only allowed to be known by a select few at the very top.  Anyone found leaking the information could easily be shot and disappeared from society.  The character of Major Marion Davison, in charge of the press for the Nevada Army Bases featured in the novel, almost serves as a gateway for the reader into the time period.  As a woman, she’s relegated her career to more secretarial matters, but is an example of the American Dream, willing to serve her country for the freedom of all.  She’s a character who won’t stand for corruption and almost acts in a classic companion type role, sticking with the Doctor through a majority of the novel.  There’s a small scene halfway through that cements her as a memorable character as she fights to expose the aliens to the general public with a television appearance.  I say she’s a classic companion as by this point in the Virgin New Adventures, the actual companions of the novel have morphed beyond the classic companion formula.

Ace as she appears in this novel is the hardened version of the character and McIntee shows he has a grasp on what she has become.  She is a character who knows exactly what she needs to do to further the situation.  Much of her story in the book is attempting to do a stealthy espionage mission, but bumbling her way through it as she has become detached from the human element.  She also steals a plane at one point, flies it recklessly, and eventually crashes it which feels like something Ace in any of her appearances would at least try.  Bernice Summerfield shows just why she is my personal favorite companion in this novel, going through the book with a sense of sheer wit to the villain of the piece.  She stands toe to toe with some of the greatest Doctor Who villains and laughs in their faces.  McIntee also does an excellent job of characterizing the Doctor throughout, as this is a situation where the TARDIS arrives by accident.  Yes, there is some manipulation in setting things up, but this wasn’t some grand scheme set up by the Doctor until after the book finishes.  It’s a nice aspect of the novel to have this not be one of the Doctor’s grand plans as that’s something that can easily feel like all the novels are too similar to one another.

McIntee also excels with creating the Tzun race.  The Tzun are aliens with a heavily enforced caste system and physical appearances which resemble the grey aliens most commonly associated with the setting.  They are also incredibly devious throughout the novel, and are wishing to use Earth almost in the way of an outpost for their own space conquering purposes and to achieve that they have an ally.  First Frontier is the first original Doctor Who novel to feature the Master, meaning it is also a successor to Survival, as readers discover just how the Master is still alive.  It’s also the first novel to feature a regeneration as the Master gets a new body, at last, one more time and sheds Tremas’s stolen form once and for all.  This version of the Master is unique to McIntee and the Virgin New Adventures, looking similar to a young Basil Rathbone and acting close to the Delgado version of the character.  Sadly, however, the characterization is slightly derivative of other stories with his plot ending in the most predictable manner.  Still, First Frontier manages to be a highly enjoyable novel and on reread is like coming back to an old friend, especially if you’re a fan of the Virgin New Adventures.  8/10.

Read the original review here!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Salvation by: Steve Lyons

Before I begin this review, I would like to get out of the way a little warning to potentially younger and more sensitive readers.  This review will be touching on the subject of sexual assault and potential rape.  As these topics are difficult to discuss and I do not take them lightly, I advise every reader to stop, take stock, and either stop reading or continue at your own discretion.

Salvation is the eighteenth Past Doctor Adventure to be published by BBC Books and in many respects is a successor to Steve Lyons’ previous PDA, The Witch Hunters.  The novel is once again an examination of religion, its place in society, and the effects it can have on society.  The premise of the novel involves a godlike race of six aliens crashing on Earth and immediately setting themselves up as six gods, there to give the human race what they desire.  The Latter Day Pantheon consist of the Patriarch, War, Order, Materialism, Free Love, and Peace, reflecting specific aspects of 1960’s society.  Lyons takes care into recreating the society of the 1960s with all the tension of the Cold War and Vietnam War looming over the story.  It’s only been two years since the March on Washington, overt racism is confronted by Lyons throughout the novel and the Ku Klux Klan is more than a joke.  There is a scene where a group of Klansmen petition the gods to simply proclaim the inferiority of non-white races.

This is also the first scene to illustrate one of Lyons’ main points in writing the novel: the contradictory nature of the concept of a god.  Lyons posits that gods only exist to serve a purpose of the majority of humanity, something to be used to justify truly evil acts.  The six gods in reaction to this request begin in fighting because the view of the Klan was a popular view among humanity at that moment, and the gods are there to give humanity what they want.  This is all done, interestingly, in a small area in New York City, with the rest of the world intentionally going on with their lives, partially unaware to what has been going on.  There are glimpses into the outside world, before, during, and after the events of the novel as headers to each of the chapters.  Lyons includes snippets from tabloids describing exaggerated versions of events, to excerpts from a book by a man who saved the world, and even a review of a film adaptation of the events starring Peter Cushing as Doctor Who.

It is important to note that while the gods are the antagonists of the novel, Lyons does not present them as evil.  They are set up initially as formless beings which slowly take form based on their perceptions by humanity.  For example Jennifer, Goddess of Free Love, appears differently from an elderly and ragged prostitute to a beautiful young woman, depending on who is looking upon her and what their views are on the notion of free love.  As beings they shift and attempt to learn depending on what exactly their function needs to be.  In the early stages of the novel they are managed by Alexander Lullington-Smythe, a businessman and human leech, attempting to get rich quick and breaking down after the gods show that while they are becoming dictators of this small area in New York, they still have good intentions.  Yes it is totalitarian positions into which these gods are putting themselves, and what all gods end up being placed in.  They have the best of intentions but the will of the people is what is dictating their actions, representative of those who use the idea of gods for their own aims.

The Doctor is, as always when the novel is written by Lyons, is characterized impeccably throughout, with a standout scene being his interactions with the Patriarch.  The two characters have a verbal sparring match where the Doctor is taken to task for several of his previous actions from as far back as The Aztecs and as recent as The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve.  The Patriarch claims the Doctor is a hypocrite when it comes to what others are and are not allowed to do when it comes to time, which is an argument where he is not entirely incorrect.  The Doctor does often take matters into his own hands when it comes to travelling to the past, he was after all responsible for giving Nero the idea of burning down Rome in The Romans while chastising Barbara for attempting to influence history in The Aztecs.  The Doctor’s actions against Steven Taylor during The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve are also taken to task as Salvation occurs immediately following that story.  He has to admit in this story that he is not an infallible character, something incredibly reflective on the character journey for the First Doctor and in interesting foreshadowing of where his character will go after he regenerates.  Steven Taylor is also taken on an important character journey, resolving here to stay with the Doctor, but also attempting to find something bigger than himself.  Much of the early novel is told from his point of view, wallowing in the aftermath of The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve and the Doctor leaving Anne Chaplet to die.  He finds himself initially working for the gods which allows his own personal revelation into what his purpose is, foreshadowing his exit in The Savages where he finds that purpose.

As this takes place immediately after The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, Salvation chronicles the first real adventure to feature Dodo Chaplet.  Steve Lyons takes full advantage of this to expand on Dodo’s backstory and motivations for staying on with the Doctor as the setting of the novel is the same time as the final scenes of the previous story, just primarily in New York instead of London.  Dodo does live with her great aunt Margaret, whom she does care for, and has lived a difficult life since her parents had died.  Bullied at school for having an upper class accent and name, Dorothea, Dodo created the more cockney persona the audience saw in her first few scenes to fit in.  Lyons writes her as an optimist and a seeker of adventure, but expands on the dark nature of her circumstances when she boards the TARDIS.  Dodo spends quite a lot of time helping an elderly man with housework and errands as he is old and feeble, and the beginning of the novel chronicles how the old man is killed and Joseph, the God of Peace, takes his form and keeps Dodo hostage.  This is due to the fact that at this time Joseph has not completely formed opinions and does not understand Earth society, and doesn’t want Dodo to escape out of fear.  Almost a reverse Stockholm syndrome situation arises as Joseph grows fond of Dodo, and at the climax of the second chapter, before escaping, Joseph sexually assaults and potentially rapes Dodo.  Lyons writes this scene with the upmost care for both Dodo’s trauma, as it does effect her throughout the book and she has to overcome, and for Joseph’s development into a human, as he learns to understand why what he did was wrong and actually patch up a relationship with Dodo.  Perhaps it finishes a bit too quickly and is patched up too nicely, but Lyons should be commended for tackling this sort of topic.  Overall, Salvation is not quite as good as Lyons’ previous novel The Witch Hunters, but is an excellent exploration and development of the era and an incredibly compelling story to boot.  9/10.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

'Salem's Lot by: Stephen King

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my absolute favorite novels, so Stephen King’s take on Dracula in ‘Salem’s Lot was always going to be at least a slight difficulty in selling me on the story.  The novel takes the general structure of Stoker’s novel and the 1931 adaptation starring Bela Lugosi and essentially changing the setting to a small Maine town in the then contemporary 1970s.  Nearly all of the well known plot points from Dracula are paid tribute to by King from the manor house in which the vampire moves into, the praying on certain young children, the specter like nature which the vampires attack, and the small band of friends coming together to slay the beasts.  ‘Salem’s Lot tonally only matches Dracula in that it is a slow burn of a book with the first actual vampiric killing appearing about a third of the way through the novel.  As always, King makes the first killing one of the more gruesome, describing the disappearance and slow wasting of two small children.  Of course King writes with his regular aplomb allowing the reader to visualize every detail and really get into the horror of the material.  What makes ‘Salem’s Lot an especially interesting read is the fact that this was only the second novel King published, an incredibly encouraging feat for the young author as it shows much of the great promise that his later books include.

The main character of ‘Salem’s Lot is Ben Mears, a semi-successful author returning to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine to attempt to write a book, partially about the Marsten House which he believed to be haunted.  Much of the early book is dedicated to Mears and characters in the town as King sets up the book as a ghost story with the potential ghost being of Hubert Marsten, a criminal who committed suicide in the house.  Mears is convinced that he saw Marsten’s ghost as a child and immediately becomes suspicious when the Marsten House is bought, the idea being that the ghost may be somehow controlling Richard Straker and Kurt Barlow, the home’s new inhabitants.  Of course this is not the case, as Barlow is the vampire while Straker is his human servant.  Barlow and Straker have an interesting relationship, entering the town under the cover of owning an antique’s shop and several members of the town theorize their relationship may be more than business.  This is clearly not the type of relationship as Straker serves as a more sane Renfield to Barlow’s Dracula.  Unlike Renfield, however, Straker is a threat and a decent sort of horror in his own right, delivering victims and scouting potential kills for Barlow.  He is a character who serves as a threat for the rest of the characters as he is devoted to protecting his master until his final breath, not having an eleventh hour redemption arc like his analogue in Dracula.  Straker is completely in control of his mental faculties and is working with Barlow willingly.

Barlow himself is a character who like Dracula stays in the shadows for large portions of the novel, but King does allow him some early appearances to build the mystery.  The reader gets to experience some of Barlow’s initial victims, one an innocent hunchback and the other a guilty adulterer, both killed yet not turned into vampires like many of the other townsfolk.  Barlow also is implied to be this ancient creature, old when Christianity was founded, and this isn’t the first town he has been responsible for feasting upon.  While Barlow is truly monstrous, there is this gentlemanly air about him throughout the novel.  There’s a moment near the end where he writes a letter to our heroes putting in simple language what he plans to do to them and how very sorry he is that he could not meet them personally that day.  It reads like a villain whose confidence creates the air of fear around them.  He also seems to take a true delight in seeding fear in the community and taking over slowly.  He can wait, because what’s a few weeks to an immortal vampire?

Of our supporting characters, Father Callahan is one most familiar to me, due to his role in King’s The Dark Tower series.  Callahan’s story here is one of a skeptical priest already drinking, having to reclaim his faith, nearly succeeding, only to be broken and made unclean by Barlow at the last moment.  He’s mainly in a supporting role throughout the novel, only first appearing after one death has taken place in any major capacity which is an interesting story move for King.  This doesn’t reveal the real involvement in the story Callahan has.  Overall, ‘Salem’s Lot is an excellent example of a horror novel with a slow burn to some truly great action.  While it is heavily inspired by Dracula, Stephen King manages to take the general structure and make it his own by adding several supporting characters and themes of his own to make an excellent entry in his canon.  9/10.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Doctor Who and the Time Witch by: Steve Moore with art by: Dave Gibbons

Doctor Who and the Time Witch is written by Steve Moore with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Weekly issues 35-38 (June-July 1980) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: The Iron Legion by Panini Books.

Steve Moore is a comics writer who took over from Pat Mills and John Wagner as writer for the Doctor Who Weekly comics in June 1980 and ran the comic until May 1981, still during the Fourth Doctor’s run.  Doctor Who and the Time Witch is his first story and immediately there is a marked difference in the structure of the story, instead of the eight-part epics of Mills and Wagner’s four stories Moore’s debut is a four-issue adventure.  This story feels like unlike Mills and Wagner’s penchant for expansive stories, Moore is attempting to emulate the format of the television series.  He gives a four-part story over the course of four weeks with a structure similar to a four parter of the era.  There’s one problem with this, the length of these comics are still only about 4-5 pages per magazine issue and a total page count of only 16 pages.  That’s not that much time to tell a Doctor Who story in.  I’m not certain as to why, but for whatever reason it is just these four issues that had their page count reduced as midway through the next story the page count is back to a more sensible 6-8 page count per issue once Doctor Who Weekly becomes Doctor Who Monthly.  The only possible explanation for this may have been that Moore couldn’t finish eight pages of script on a week to week basis.

The story itself has an interesting concept, a woman called Brimo from the planet Nefrin is imprisoned in an eternity capsule.  She has psychic powers which she used in some sort of conspiracy, we are not privy to the details, and the eternity capsule slowly drives her insane.  She’s still alive in there and eventually is ripped into a pocket dimension which she uses her psychic powers to inhabit with a paradise of her own making.  The TARDIS with the Doctor and Sharon inside wander in which causes some interference and slowly destroys her dimension.  She fights back, attempting to kill the Doctor and Sharon and being generally unwilling to discuss the possibility of peacefully discussing things, so the Doctor has to stop her.  Sharon is also aged four years at the end of this story.  As a plot it’s got the makings of a great Doctor Who story, but the tone of this story is far too comedic for the tone and Moore doesn’t take full advantage of the Doctor and Sharon being under the thrall of someone all powerful.  Brimo’s insanity is also far too subtle and the amount of time that passes isn’t quite understood, all due to the lower page count.  Perhaps if this story was eight issues more time could have been taken to expand the plot and give some more depth, but for what it is it’s just a good installment in the comics.  6/10.

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Face-Eater by: Simon Messingham

Simon Messingham is an author whom I’ve had a bit of a storied history with.  I’ve reviewed two of his novels previously, the first being his Virgin New Adventure Strange England which to this day remains the weakest novel in the range, and his second being his first BBC Book Zeta Major which managed to be an engaging read.  While Zeta Major showed promise for the writer, he still only had a 50% success rate when it came to writing, and doing preliminary research into his debut Eighth Doctor Adventure, The Face-Eater, I found that it is a book often regarded as one of the last books before the range takes an increase in quality with the introduction of the range’s iconic companion.  This did not bode well for the quality of The Face-Eater, implying it’s one of the weaker entries in the Eighth Doctor Adventures range.  The book’s description also did not bode well as it described the story as a generic Doctor Who story set on a distant planet where the streets of a sprawling metropolis are being stalked and killed by a mysterious figure.  This is pretty much the description for a Doctor Who runaround that after experiencing you would forget in an instant, maybe with some focus on action.  Needless to say the combination of these elements lowered expectations considerably for the quality of The Face-Eater.

It then became incredibly surprising when The Face-Eater turned out to be a decent novel, albeit a novel that wasn’t properly marketed.  The book is marketed as an action/adventure story, which will convince you that Messingham had nothing to do with writing the description.  The genre that The Face-Eater fits in is horror.  It is fitting that I read this book in October as that really adds to the atmosphere due to Messingham’s style of writing horror in the style of H.P. Lovecraft.  Messingham sets The Face-Eater on Proxima II, the first permanent human colony, introducing an atmosphere of isolation.  This is a period of history where light speed travel is possible, but incredibly primitive and the colony of Proxima II became self-sufficient because without it, survival would not be possible.  Nobody can come to help them, so when the bodies start piling up there’s already the fear that situation implies.  Messingham also doesn’t use a typical Doctor Who villain, the face-eater of the title is a creature from the legends of the indigenous life of the planet and it absorbs the brains of it’s victims, consuming their face.  But how does that play into Lovecraftian horror? Well, the creature does not have a corporeal form, and those who survive encounters are driven insane.  Added in for extra measure, it is a shapeshifter building on the paranoia of the situation.  Messingham plays to full extent on the idea that nobody knows who this creature is which is excellent, allowing every supporting character to gradually be driven to insanity.  The point of view for The Face-Eater is shifted between the characters which assists in building the paranoia, including having some sections from the perspective of the monster.  This allows the monster to truly come across as an inhuman entity.

Bringing the Doctor into a situation like this obviously makes him and Sam the most likely suspects as the identity of the murderer.  When this trope is used in other Doctor Who stories it does not always come across naturally as to why the Doctor and companion are put under suspicion, but with this premise having them be the main suspects works.  Putting the Eighth Doctor into a story like this is also a stroke of genius.  His romantic nature works incredibly well for this story, as he tries to save everyone and wants to understand the villains instead of just finding a way to defeat it.  There is a sense, however, that Messingham, like myself and many fans who read the Eighth Doctor Adventures, does not have sympathies for the character of Samantha Jones.  Messingham just adds her most basic characteristics and keeps her to the sidelines for most of the runtime.  Let’s just keep it at the idea that the next Eighth Doctor Adventure for the introduction of a new companion.

Messingham is also weak in the characterization of the supporting characters.  Of the supporting characters, perhaps Jake Leary and Joan Betts are the most enjoyable as they descend into madness and Leary and the Doctor have a really fun standoff near the end of the novel as both think the other is the face-eater.  Overall, The Face-Eater has a great concept, great story, and a great antagonist, but is dragged down by a poor characterization of Sam Jones and supporting cast.  It’s laudable for doing something unique and is a great novel for the Halloween season, so give this one a try.  7/10.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Infinity Doctors by: Lance Parkin

The Infinity Doctors is a novel released for the thirty-fifth anniversary of Doctor Who, technically as part of the Past Doctor Adventures range of novels, yet Lance Parkin’s novel leaves the identity of the Doctor and the novel’s place in canon ambiguous.  There are some indicators as to the appearance of this Doctor, he looks like Paul McGann and Parkin does characterize him as the Eighth Doctor, but overall there is no real confirmation that this is an Eighth Doctor novel.  If it is there are also several places to which this novel could have been placed, each with their own pros and cons, which is a testament to Parkin’s intentional ambiguity in writing the book.  Ambiguity in something as vast as Doctor Who is difficult to maintain for any significant length of time so it is a feat that Parkin manages to pull it off.  The plot of The Infinity Doctors, like the other three Parkin novels, deal with complex themes about society and Doctor Who lore.  It involves the Doctor on Gallifrey at some point in its history living as a member of the High Council, facilitating a peace treaty between the Sontarans and the Rutans hoping to bring their endless war to an end.  There are also a series of murders and break ins occurring on Gallifrey whose culprit leads to an ancient secret of the Time Lords hidden throughout infinity.

Parkin’s portrayal of Gallifrey may just be the novel’s greatest accomplishment.  Throughout the thirty-five year history there have been several portrayals of the planet from the clean and sinister portrayal in The War Games, to the bureaucracy of stories like The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time, to the Shakespearean nature of Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, and the mystical science fantasy realm of Cold Fusion and Lungbarrow.  These portrayals are incredibly disparate and The Infinity Doctors easily could have gone for showing off a single one of these and it would be fine, but Parkin opts for blending each of the disparate versions of Gallifrey and melds them into a cohesive whole.  There is the sterile architecture and dark attitudes throughout the novel, but descriptions of technology and several of the characters match the science fantasy aspect.  Even the extreme bureaucracy is paid tribute to with several scenes of the High Council attempting to make decisions and several characters only being referred to through their titles such as the Castellan, the Lord President, and the Magistrate (who we promise isn’t just the Master).  The planet Gallifrey feels almost alive in this novel, as Parkin does an excellent job of integrating the setting into the novel itself.  Gallifrey is not just the stage where the story is set, it is almost a character in its own right with a bustling society with customs, cultures, and classes.  The society is a complete entity throughout the novel and the sheer amount of worldbuilding of this book alone to explore could take hours to get to every nook and cranny.

The characters of The Infinity Doctors also are some of Parkin’s best and this section of the review is where I will be going more in depth into spoilers.  The Infinity Doctors is still a book which relies on quite a few twists so please before continuing track down a copy and read it for yourself before coming back here and continuing the review.  The most significant character of the book is Parkin’s stand in for a companion, Larna.  Larna is a new Time Lady adjusting to her new upper class lifestyle while being one of the Doctor’s pupils.  She actually doesn’t share many scenes with the Doctor, yet there is the sense that she is the companion of the story due to the way Parkin characterizes her.  Larna has an inquisitive mind and spends much of the novel investigating the murders and attempting to get to the bottom of what exactly is happening on Gallifrey, and it is a shame that the book doesn’t end with her and the Doctor going off together.  Their few scenes together are excellent, showing just how close a Paul McGann Doctor and companion team can be, which helps reflect on the poor nature of the relationship between the Eighth Doctor and Sam over in the Eighth Doctor Adventures.  The Sontarans and Rutans, while not the villains or even essential characters in the novel (the peace treaty subplot could have been between any warring factions) both are welcome additions to the prose.  Parkin goes into depth with the mentalities of the races and why this one time they’ve decided that maybe they should try working towards some sort of peace.  It’s a hopeful message that even the most deadly of enemies have that slight sliver of a chance of giving peace a chance.

The only concrete aspect of The Infinity Doctors to be placed in the main continuity of Doctor Who is the inclusion of the Time Lord Savar, a minor unnamed character from The Invasion of Time who is explored in Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum’s excellent Seeing I.  Savar is one of the villains of The Infinity Doctors and Parkin characterizes the Time Lord as being driven insane by his experiences with the “I”.  Savar is revealed not to be the main villain, as Parkin uses The Infinity Doctors to remind readers of books like Cold Fusion and Lungbarrow, bringing in Omega as the main villain.  This version of Omega seems to be pre-The Three Doctors, still having his form in his anti-matter world and being generally less insane.  His motivations are the same and it is implied in this book that the events here are what drives the ancient Time Lord to madness.  The sequences with the Doctor in Omega’s anti-matter universe are excellent and are a great deconstruction of The Three Doctors as a story, while maintaining the menace of Omega as a character.  Parkin also leaves one last surprise in the final third, bringing back the character of Patience in all but name stuck in Omega’s realm.  The climax of the story is almost a version of the Orpheus myth which is plain fascinating with Patience, in a new regeneration post-Cold Fusion I believe, in the role of Persephone and Larna put in the Eurydice role.  Parkin somehow manages changing the ending to the myth of Orpheus, with a real happy ending and the Doctor going off to feel like it’s starting some new era of Doctor Who.  Overall, The Infinity Doctors might just be the absolute best anniversary celebration for Doctor Who, beating all the television and audio celebrations to date.  10/10.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Stand by: Stephen King

How does one really discuss a novel like The Stand?  Do you try to summarize the hefty plot or go into depth on the characters and themes employed by Stephen King in what could easily be considered his magnum opus (until The Dark Tower)?  Do you attempt to build a case on the basis of the deep mythology King creates?  Any of these methods would be valid and this review is going to be sort of a mashup of all the possible ways of discussing The Stand.  Stephen King has published two versions of the novel, the first in 1978 which ran 823 pages in hardcover, a hefty tome to be sure, but the second version is the one this review looks at.  The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition was published in 1990 after King had reinstated nearly 400 pages now running in paperback at 1,439 pages.  Unlike other tomes by King, The Stand defies any real restriction on genre.  Most classify the novel as a horror novel, but it equally qualifies as political thriller, dark fantasy, a dystopia, and theology.  Above all else, The Stand perhaps should be described as a quest for meaning in an uncaring world and standing for something.  While King meant The Dark Tower to be his version of The Lord of the Rings yet that title really should go to The Stand.  Like The Lord of the Rings, The Stand is one story told in three books (yet only ever published in one volume).  The first book is about characters being uprooted from their normal lives and are forced to head to an elderly authority figure while a sinister figure begins raising an army like The Fellowship of the Ring, the second book is about preparing and dealing with corruption while finding a position to fight back in like The Two Towers, and the third book is about the final confrontation and defeat of the great evil like The Return of the King.  This is by no means a criticism against King, as the structure of the novel reads more like an homage than a rip-off of Tolkein’s style and story.

The novel opens with 400 pages detailing the fall of society and the scattered survivors attempting to find others who are still alive.  The premise of The Stand is that the United States Government had been secretly working on a strain of influenza known as Project Blue or Captain Tripps with a 99.4% rate of effectiveness at infecting and killing, which due to bureaucracy and human negligence, escapes and of course kills most of the population of the Earth.  The sequence of events in this section of the novel flash across the United States of America as King chronicles what normal citizens are doing as the epidemic hits, how exactly it hits, and how they react as the world falls apart.  This is perhaps the most formulaic portion of the novel, going from scene to scene, introducing a character, giving the reader a glimpse into their lives to sympathize with their struggles and enjoy their triumphs, have either them or someone close to them get the superflu, and slowly chronicle their death.  King does intercut these stories with each other which allows much of the formulaic nature of this section of the novel to be spiced with different stories being told.  King also does an excellent job of introducing a mix of important characters, unimportant characters, main characters, supporting characters, and minor characters with each of them having some time in the forefront.  There is a sense that any of the characters introduced in this part could have become important characters had they been lucky in surviving the plague.  This is also the section of the novel which is the most down to Earth, following human characters dealing with very human conflicts.  If there was to be a singular protagonist who is the main character throughout the novel, from beginning to end, it would be Stu Redman, introduced early on as patient zero of the superflu drives and dies in his town, yet throughout this section of the novel Stu is either a background character or under the jurisdiction of the United States Government for his immunity to the superflu.  The more interesting characters are Larry Underwood and Frannie Goldsmith.  Larry is a singer who is down on his luck and has to move back in with his mother at the beginning of his mother and throughout the novel his arc involves coming to term with being given power and having to learn to lead.  He has to find a purpose and is introduced as a character who doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing with his life and his story ends making a final stand for justice and freedom.  The middle of the novel isn’t kind to Larry as he doesn’t get as much to do while things move on, but King still manages to make him an interesting character.  Frannie Goldsmith is perhaps less interesting as much of her role is to be the standard love interest for Stu past the first third of the novel.  Her backstory is interesting, with King going a long way to destigmatize a woman becoming pregnant out of wedlock and deciding to have the child.  Her conflict with her abusive and controlling mother ends when her mother dies from the superflu with her father and she has to perform a burial.

For much of the middle of the novel she acts as the narrator as the plot shifts from post-apocalyptic horror to a political telling of the rebuilding of some sort of society from the survivors.  Frannie acts as secretary and member of the committee in charge of running a community in Boulder, Colorado along with the other protagonists for the novel.  The community is run initially by Mother Abigail Freemantle, an elderly woman who represents the side of good and God in King’s allegory of good vs. evil.  Mother Abigail is one of King’s most memorable characters, who doesn’t actually appear in any of his other books.  She exhibits telepathic powers and points of real magic as she can heal the sick, which she believes are provided by God.  She implants dreams in survivors to attract them to her, and while in any other story this would be the set up for a twist where it is revealed Abigail is the villain.  King subverts expectations and makes Mother Abigail a kindly old woman with no ulterior motives except genuinely wanting to see society rebuilt.  Once her community is set up, she goes out to find herself, only returning to save the day before a tragic end of second act death.  The middle of the novel is also where we really get to see the novel’s main villain, Randall Flagg, who is essentially an evil wizard.  Flagg is a character who delights in his evil deeds, creating his own community full of thugs and run as a fascist regime in Las Vegas, Nevada.  There is delightful glee taken in the way which King writes for Flagg as a character, as he tempts people over to his authoritarian regime through promises of riches and magic.  King contrasts the glee with downright dark and upsetting imagery of crucifixion, whippings, and other gruesome executions.

Flagg’s villainy builds up to the final part of the novel where King brings everything to a head and ends on both an uplifting and deeply troubling note.  King added a second ending to this novel in the 1990 expansion which adds the troubling note retheming the book to once of the cyclic nature of the battle between good and evil.  There is something almost misanthropic in this epilogue which is only about two pages long, and something that might just reflect King’s outlook at the time of publishing.  The third part of the novel is really where Stuart Redman gets to be the main character.  When Mother Abigail leaves, Stuart is the character we follow the most as people rally around him.  Stu is not a character who is completely well spoken, but he is still a symbol of hope for the community of Boulder, even when Flagg influences a member of the community to blow up a hospital killing seven members of the community.  Stu is also not the typical hero (it’s Flagg’s own hubris which brings him down), being a leader who doesn’t even make it to the final confrontation with the villain.  Stu’s story is one of becoming a leader and returning triumphant as a bringer of hope, months after going to confront Flagg and being disabled with a broken leg.  The real hero may be the mentally handicapped Tom Cullen whose condition seems to make him believe everything is spelled MOON, who is sent to spy on Flagg and is an emotional center for the later half of the novel.  Or perhaps deaf and mute Nick Andros is the true hero of The Stand who is killed near the end in an explosion and whose spirit allows Tom to save Stu’s life.  Or maybe it’s Glen Bateman who shows defiance against Flagg up to his final moments.  The Stand is a book where the hero figure isn’t really that clear and that is one of its greatest aspects.  All of the human characters show the strengths of humanity and all of its villains show its weaknesses, from pride, to lust, to sadism, King writes a story that weaves in and out of humanity and explores what that means.  This isn’t a novel that should be read quickly, with time taken to enjoy everything, and as far as I’m concerned it is one of King’s best 10/10.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Beltempest by: Jim Mortimore

Perhaps over my reviews I have not done proper justice to the Doctor Who works of Jim Mortimore.  Mortimore contributed four Virgin New Adventures, one Past Doctor Adventure, and one Eighth Doctor Adventure, before a single Big Finish story with the Eighth Doctor and falling off the face of the Earth.  There has been a constant theme through Mortimore’s work; a theme of religious belief from the perspective of an atheist without actually demonizing religious belief.  From Lucifer Rising, to Eternity Weeps, and finally Beltempest, there is this trilogy of novels where the characters have to come to terms with their place in the universe as some large disaster happens.  Beltempest is the final of the trilogy and perhaps the novel with the biggest stakes, an entire solar system is going to die.  The system’s sun undergoes a triple eclipse, eternal night, and the beginning of the end for the system is marked.  The tone of Beltempest is perhaps closest to the tone of Eternity Weeps, with this sense of existential dread as the Doctor is trying to avert a disaster which he really cannot avert.  The religion in this novel is a sect which is spreading quickly as the solar system is closer to dying.  The religious theme of Beltempest is people grasping at something to save them when all hope is lost, a function that hope and religion attempts to provide.  Beltempest is perhaps the most critical Mortimore is of religion, as no matter how much religion tries to provide hope, when pushed against the wall the inevitability and uncertainty can still take hold again.  While Eternity Weeps is a story about losing hope and still finding a way to be saved in the eleventh hour, Beltempest is about how fickle hope is and how easy it is to let go.  It reads like someone falling into a sort of depression about the universe and Mortimore’s place in it.

The Doctor and Sam as a pair are the best characters in the novel, as Mortimore’s usual flair for supporting characters seems to have dried up.  The supporting characters feel hollow throughout the novel as they haven’t really been given a chance to be fleshed out.  There are some characters who imprint Sam with an idea of being part of a family, but nothing really comes of that thread.  Outside of that there just isn’t much in Beltempest’s characters to latch on to.  Mortimore does use the Eighth Doctor effectively, taking the romantic innocent that the TV Movie and some of the best novels have established, and put him in a hopeless situation.  It’s a characterization which isn’t explored in many other novels, with only Vampire Science going anywhere close to putting the Doctor in some sort of hopeless state.  Mortimore’s Eighth Doctor is somehow childlike having to go through some sort of revelation about what his place is in the universe and having to come to terms with the fact that he cannot solve everything with a smile and some spirit.  A characterization like this could easily have become a flaw in the book, but Mortimore writes from a positive place and a sense of love for the character.  Mortimore is bringing some sense of the Virgin New Adventures’ experimentation to both the Doctor and Sam throughout the novel.  Sam Jones is characterized as incredibly reflective throughout the novel as she is attempting to take on rescuing this system on her own, building on the work of Orman and Blum from Seeing I.  She has become a more caring companion and perhaps if this characterization had been more present throughout the books she would have been better received as a companion.  Overall, Beltempest may be one of Mortimore’s most deeply themed novels, but it is a novel that is a theme without the skeleton and connecting tissue to hold the theme together.  It’s a good read, but not one of Mortimore’s best.  7/10.