Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Ancestor Cell by: Peter Anghelides and Stephen Cole

 

Lawrence Miles created Faction Paradox with an intention to write stories involving the mythic War in Heaven against the future Enemy of the Time Lords.  The earliest seeds of Grandfather Paradox were seeded in Christmas on a Rational Planet before Alien Bodies and Interference setup just what Faction Paradox is doing with the theft of the Doctor’s biodata, allowing Laura Tobin to become Compassion, and killing the Third Doctor on Dust.  Since The Blue Angel and The Shadows of Avalon, Compassion has become a TARDIS and is being forced into becoming the template for the rest of the sentient TARDIS’s.  This was meant to be a long story arc, but as Stephen Cole left the range editor and Justin Richards took over, Lawrence Miles vowed never to write for Doctor Who again, a promise which he broke by writing for Big Finish Productions as well as writing The Adventuress of Henrietta Street.  To wrap up the Faction Paradox and the Compassion arc, leaving editor Stephen Cole teamed up with Peter Anghelides to write The Ancestor Cell, a book determined to end this particular era of the Eighth Doctor Adventures and bring in the new team, finishing up the Faction Paradox and human TARDIS storylines.  This had the potential to be a complete disaster as it’s taking several threads and bringing them to a close all in one book.  The book also may have one of the higher word counts for the Eighth Doctor Adventures, with the text being smaller than the standard to keep the page count to the approximate 280 pages of a BBC Books.

 

The Ancestor Cell sees the Doctor, Fitz, and Compassion split up with Compassion captured by the Time Lords, the Doctor by Romana, and Fitz taken by Faction Paradox.  There is a bone flower growing in space out of the Doctor’s original TARDIS and Romana is attempting to win the War with the Enemy at all costs.  Anghelides and Cole essentially take a Lawrence Miles style story and write it in the practical style of say a Target novelization making this an interesting read to say the least.  There are also several horrific images such as spiders made of bone and the degradation of Fitz Kreiner into Father Kreiner.  Fitz’s brainwashing by Faction Paradox is something incredibly slow over the course of the book and is really only saved by Compassion coming in and being compassionate.  There is quite a lot of body horror and the voice of Father Kreiner is one of this jaded man, mad with power and an incredibly devious mind.  Kreiner blames the Doctor for leaving him to die on the planet Dust, bringing back the fact that the version of Fitz we have seen is actually a clone.  The modifications to Fitz throughout the book to slowly influence him into getting to become Father Kreiner.  This becomes incredibly apparent when Fitz and Compassion have their final moment with the now amnesiac Doctor in the ruins of the destroyed Gallifrey.  This is actually Compassion’s final story which makes it interesting as she doesn’t always appear throughout, but it makes her entrances into the plot and her contribution is her best appearance.  This is the book that makes me actually really like where Compassion has been going and ends up here.

 

The reappearance of Romana III here is also incredibly important to make her a War Queen of Nine Gallifreys, each of which is slowly destroyed as several timelines clash.  Romana blames the Doctor for starting the war, with the many Time Lord supporting characters having their own sense of madness which contributes to Romana’s madness.  What makes things the most interesting is the flashes of the old Romana which are included here and there give the cold President something human and the flashes.  Meanwhile Grandfather Paradox works as a cold and dark reflection against the Doctor, as a figure that the Doctor may be destined to become if he gives into the Faction.  The Doctor is perhaps the most distraught as he loses everything and the climax where he is responsible for starting the War and ending Gallifrey, all while losing his memory is absolutely beautiful.  Yes it has become a joke that the Eighth Doctor gets amnesia, but this is one of the few times where it has actual repercussions for future books.  The Eighth Doctor is also at his most sympathetic as he just finds himself broken at the end of this book.  There is an issue with the conclusion not really allowing him to react and respond, as well as essentially ending on a conversation.

 

Overall, The Ancestor Cell somehow manages to be a brilliant novel out of two authors who previously failed to entirely impress, making something great.  This deals with the destruction of Gallifrey in one of those stories where it actually feels important, giving some emotional closure to the story arc and prepares to usure in something new.  9/10.

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Dresden Files: Dead Beat by: Jim Butcher

 

Being completely honest, Blood Rites nearly made me stop reading The Dresden Files, at least for the time being, however, as everything I had heard about the next one was praising the improvements and the general fan consensus that Blood Rites is the weakest installment, I decided to give Dead Beat one chance to improve.  I was in for a treat when this novel turned out to be the best that The Dresden Files has had to offer thus far, in a book which builds its tension as it builds to the first climax that actually feels like the possible end of the world will come to pass.  There is also necromancy performed on Chicago’s most famous dinosaur, so if that doesn’t sell you on that as a scene which does occur in the book to just see how this could possibly happen, I don’t know what will.  Butcher actually plays a bait and switch with Dead Beat, the title clearly alluding to the idea of a deadbeat dad, which is not actually about Harry Dresden’s father, who is simply dead.  Yes there is an appearance from his father in a dream sequence and there is a theme of being cut off from family, this is the first book where Thomas Raith is cut off and living with Harry in his tiny apartment, but Dead Beat is literally about three necromancers each going after an ancient text from a German necromancer, as well as Harry being tasked to find it by Black Court vampire Mavra.  Of course Harry is only brought in because he is being blackmailed so that his closest friend, Karrin Murphy (who spends the book on vacation which is interesting for Harry’s development).

 

This is the first book where Butcher’s several subplots actually all feel connected, at least since the third novel, as every subplot is looking for the same thing, meaning that the connections are there from the start.  Yes there are investigations done by Harry which aren’t directly involved in finding the book, especially as it moves to Harry attempting to stop the necromancers from succeeding and even getting the White Council in on the action.  As this is a book which is a ride from start to finish, it’s actually surprising that the character depth here is really well done.  Thomas and Harry’s relationship which has developed has gone to an actual brotherly relationship.  That reveal in Blood Rites that they are brothers actually gets redemption here as they have these brilliant back and forth interactions where while Thomas has his own problems in keeping down a job (which contains slight cringe due to Thomas being a White Court vampire) and unable to actually contribute.  They also have to deal with Mouse, the dog from the previous book which has grown to a massive size and is actually as intelligent as a person and is adorable.  This trio kind of acts like a family unit which feels like a development for Harry especially as he really hasn’t gotten to have a family at this point in his life, like at all.  Thomas also has this great sense of humor throughout the book.

 

Dead Beat also sees the reappearance of mortician Waldo Butters, who is essentially forced into the magical world here and the way that Butcher writes the character is interesting, to say the least.  Butters has that scientific mind which attempts to rationalize the magic and has those points where he actually ends up being a brave addition.  He is a self-professed coward, but that actually isn’t accurate as the brand of cowardice is more common sense and there is a point where Butters saves Harry from a fire, putting his own life on the line to save him.  There is also something great about Harry’s actions in picking up the Denarius coming back with the demon Lasciel continuously tempting him (and a reappearance of the Dark Harry from Fool Moon), though that plotline is perhaps more setup for future novels and a question about what Harry’s morals actually are on a personal level.

 

Overall, Dead Beat is one of the best books in The Dresden Files, giving readers the first chance to see just what they can become.  There are still a few issues, mainly with Murphy essentially being sidelined so Harry can realize that he is actually jealous and might have feelings for her, but the progression here from the necromancy, to Harry becoming a Warden, to everything else in the book makes this genuinely great.  8/10.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Ark in Space by: Robert Holmes directed by: Rodney Bennett

 

The Ark in Space stars Tom Baker as the Doctor, Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, and Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan with Wendy Williams as Vira and Kenton Moore as Noah and the Wirrn.  It was written by: Robert Holmes and directed by: Rodney Bennett with Robert Holmes as Script Editor and Philip Hinchcliffe as Producer.  It was originally broadcast on Saturdays from 25 January to 15 February 1975 on BBC1.

 

The start of Season 12 included the final story under producer Barry Letts, who before his run had already directed a serial during Patrick Troughton’s run, The Enemy of the World, and essentially led the show through 1974, leaving after Robot and the end of the eleventh production block and handing it over to Philip Hinchcliffe.  Hinchcliffe was entirely new to the program, working closely with script editor and writer Robert Holmes to craft their 22 episode block, splitting it into five stories: three four part stories, one six part story, and one two part story.  The two-part story coming about only because Hinchcliffe and Holmes made the decision to decrease the number of six part stories to a single story per season, something which would become the norm until the end of Season 17 and the dismissal of six part stories overall.  This meant that in crafting the season the initial plans for production block 4B had to be split into 4B and 4C, in production a two-part story followed by a four part story, however their running order would be switched.  A further cost saving measure would commission serial 4D, what would be the season finale, to be set on the same space station sets of serial 4C.  The story was originally commissioned by Letts, Space Station by Christopher Langley in late 1973, however within five months Hinchcliffe and Holmes found that these scripts would be unusable.  Holmes turned to John Lucarotti who had penned three serials during William Hartnell’s time as the Doctor and commissioned The Ark in Space.

 

The Ark in Space under Lucarotti would have been a similar, yet surprisingly different story from what eventually was seen on screen.  Lucarotti’s scripts were similar in that they involved a space ark containing the last of humanity invaded by a parasitic alien, though this time it would be a fungus which was impervious to harm and multiplied rapidly.  These scripts would be abandoned due to transportation of the scripts from Corsica where Lucarotti lived, to the production office and the need for quick rewrites.  Script editor, Robert Holmes, would receive special permission to take over writing duties with Lucarotti losing credit, but being paid in full for his work.  Holmes’ story is entirely studio bound and was assigned along with 4B to Rodney Bennett in the first two of three serials of which he would contribute direction.  Bennett’s direction is perhaps a highlight as The Ark in Space could easily have become a serial famous for Doctor Who’s inability to subtly light sets, especially as Space Station Nerva is built with stark white walls, but the simple decision to start with the power off when the TARDIS arrives means that there is enough atmosphere built up through that first episode which lasts once the power is on.  There are also quite a few sets, especially below decks as it were, which are kept mostly in the dark without the white walls.  There are also some shots done from the overhead allowing some forced perspective in the cryogenics chamber to make it feel taller than it actually is.

 


The Wirrn themselves are already an interesting idea for a villain, something that Big Finish and the Eighth Doctor Adventures novels would use in future stories.  Having an alien species of essentially refugees makes them sympathetic, even if they take over a man and essentially wish to use the rest of humanity while each of the cliffhangers take advantage of the parasitic nature of the Wirrn.  The first is of the dead queen which entered the Ark in the past, the second being the character of Noah’s hand being taken over, while the third is Noah being completely taken over.  This makes for an exciting escalation of stakes as the first half of the story is allowed to deal with the awakening of humanity while the Wirrn remains a mostly off-screen threat, with the paranoia being directed at the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry Sullivan as the interlopers in their carefully made plans.  The Wirrn transformations themselves have mostly aged pretty well, however, between the end of Part Two and Part Three there is copious use of bubble wrap to represent the transformation, though that wouldn’t have necessarily been well in use by the public at the time.  It also doesn’t look as cheap while Kenton Moore’s performance is selling losing his mind to this alien creature.

 

While Barry Letts was responsible for setting up most of this season, the eventual decision to have Robert Holmes writing this serial allows for the new team to make their mark.  Holmes’ script already plays to the strengths of Baker, Sladen, and Marter.  Tom Baker’s Doctor here already overcomes whatever shortcomings were in Robot being essentially a Jon Pertwee story, dialing up the charm with the mania while berating Harry for his poor decisions on his very first spaceship and caring for Sarah Jane.  Baker gets one of his iconic moments in this story, giving a speech on the persistent nature of humanity and there is a famous moment where the Doctor uses minor cruelty as a motivator to get Sarah Jane through the vents.  Ian Marter’s Harry Sullivan is essentially the audience insert character here, allowing viewers to ease their way into the gothic horror that this serial establishes for the new era as the newest companion.  Harry also shines perhaps at the detriment for Sarah Jane, who for the first half is sadly sidelined in places, though the second half allows Elisabeth Sladen to shine as well.  While Kenton Moore’s Noah makes a great villain, the Ark’s crew is supported mostly through Vira, played by Wendy Williams, who plays the role as this very cold and clinical scientist.  Holmes makes the humans of the future feel genuinely aliens to the way that people behave, as Vira and Noah are concerned about their genetic purity as they are responsible for repopulating an empty Earth.

 

Overall, The Ark in Space has all the makings of a classic Doctor Who story, bringing in a new production team with their own goals by putting to life a fantastic script.  This is a story that looks excellent in its restoration as well, being mostly on videotape so while the Blu-ray isn’t true HD, it is a consistent viewing experience like much of Season 12.  While some of the effects may not hold up on modern day viewing, the performances sell a script about the remnants of humanity living on and waking up after disaster to another possible extinction event.  This is a classic story which New Series fans can take delight in as an entry point into the classic series, and those who haven’t seen it in a while can perhaps delight in the Blu-ray release giving it new life.  9/10.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Heart of TARDIS by: Dave Stone

 

Dave Stone is a writer who often has this air of being ungodly clever with his books in an attempt to be funny and that’s kind of what Heart of TARDIS entirely is.  Prominently displaying the Second and Fourth Doctors on the cover with some abstract timeline and the TARDIS at the center, there really isn’t any cover which can prepare a reader for the absolute trip one undergoes reading this book.  Essentially Stone writes two novels which are interconnected by the theme of time, Time Lord intervention, and an obsession with the idea of continuity.  The Second Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria find themselves in a midwestern town in the USA where they become suspects in a series of brutal murders while the Fourth Doctor and Romana are taken away from their quest for the Key to Time by a Time Lord agent of the High Council against an enemy threatening Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, UNIT, and the whole universe.  Like every other Stone novel which I have read, Heart of TARDIS is dense, boasting two distinct plotlines that all nearly collide while the main enemy, Continuity and the Jarakabeth, make their evil plans for the Doctor.  Stone’s book is also fairly slow going in terms of pace, it takes about 80 pages for the Fourth Doctor to actually get involved in his plot while the Second Doctor had already been accused of the murders.  The ending is also equally slow, ending nearly 20 pages before the book actually concludes as Stone includes an appendix essentially to attempt to squeeze as many jokes out of the premise.

 

As this is a book of two halves, that is how it should be discussed, starting with the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria’s half.  This is the weak half of the book and is one that is incredibly difficult to read, especially if like me your familiarity with the pop culture phenomenon of The Simpsons is only through cultural osmosis.  Stone essentially sets half of the book in Springfield from The Simpsons with several characters having their serial numbers filed off in the style of E.L. James form the work of Stephanie Meyer (which I have not read).  Bringing up an author like James is not a good sign for the book as Stone, while cleverly building up ideas and commentary on those fans obsessed with continuity, just gets lost in a plot for this Doctor which does not really amount to anything outside of some explanations for what actually is going on.  The start of the plot, mainly the scenes with the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria in the TARDIS, are actually really good and the characters are well characterized, but as soon as they step out, they somehow become generic.

 

This is infuriating as Stone opens the book thanking those with whom he consulted to ensure the Second Doctor at least had a decent characterization.  Victoria is the one who perhaps gets the best characterization, as Stone does nail the idea of her being a little orphan girl alone in the universe, though this may be because much of the book spends time in her headspace.  There are several attempts at fish out of water humor with Victoria throughout, however, those actually come across more as creepy and Stone seems to revert her back in places to the stereotypical screaming companion archetype which isn’t actually accurate to her as a character.  There is at least one reference that actually works, and that’s doing a chalkboard gag right in the epilogue with Jamie and his tendency to stab people and monsters.

 

The Fourth Doctor and Romana’s plotline is actually sublime.  Stone clearly has a joy in writing this particular TARDIS team, capturing the spirit of the Graham Williams era while still stylistically having Stone’s style right at the forefront.  The story, almost like The Banquo Legacy, is told from an outsider’s perspective, Katherine Delbane, a woman living a normal life, a boring life, and slowly being entangled with UNIT.  The Brigadier and Sergeant Benton appear here and their interactions with Delbane, the Doctor, and especially Romana, are absolutely wonderful.  Benton is clearly a character whom Stone loves, as the lovable Sergeant is given quite a bit of backstory and an interesting skillset as he’s the one at points to go and help save the day.  The Brigadier and Benton reacting to Romana is also an interesting reflection on the characterization of the ice queen as Stone captures Tamm’s upper class airs and graces from The Ribos Operation, although this is supposed to occur after The Stones of Blood.  The actual villains are explained here as well which feels purely like something out of Douglas Adams in City of Death.  It’s also dripping with tension and the standard Stone madness throughout the book making this half make up for the lackluster other half it is sadly interspersed with.

 

Overall, Heart of TARDIS is one of those absolutely dense Dave Stone books that is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but it does somehow manage to have half of its page count be absolutely terrible while the other is absolutely brilliant.  The brilliance and commentary on Doctor Who fans in particular here is also enough to just allow the good to outweigh the bad, but other readers may end up disagreeing depending on their tolerance for Stone and his style.  As it stand’s it’s a decent read.  6/10.

Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons by: Terrance Dicks

 

Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons was written by Terrance Dicks, based on Terror of the Autons by: Robert Holmes.  It was the 14th story to be novelized by Target Books.

 

Terror of the Autons is one of those television stories that people either love or hate.  It’s the introduction of the companion most associated with Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor, Jo Grant, and the introduction of the Master.  It is also another story by Robert Holmes and lays the groundwork for a lot of what the next four years of the show were going to be, however, the production of the serial showed producer and director Barry Letts’ penchant for using colour separation overlay in areas where it perhaps was unnecessary.  This makes listening to the audiobook version of the story, Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons, a very different and almost more engaging experience.  Terrance Dicks provides the adaptation and while not taking the chance to expand upon much (though there is much made of the Time Lord being part of the tribunal responsible for exiling the Doctor to Earth in The War Games and there is a sense that the Time Lords were just using the Doctor as a scapegoat), but the lackluster special effects are updated through the prose.  The cover prominently displays the Nestene seen at the climax of the story, not as shimmering light with vague limbs, but as a giant octopus alien being similar to the tentacled mass from Spearhead from Space, something that Dicks delivers on as it acts more like a kaiju in this version, nearly bringing the radio telescope to the ground.  The doll which comes to life and kills Mr. Farrell is also given a much better sequence as Dicks’ prose builds upon horror tropes and the CSO kitchen is nowhere in sight.  It helps build tension and a little background to the fear and care of Farrell and his wife help bring that together.  The Master here is also interesting as he appears to have a more catty relationship with the Doctor which is what it would develop into throughout Pertwee’s run, but wasn’t actually present in the first few serials making an interesting change.  Geoffrey Beevers’ narration also gives the Master here that silky voice which isn’t Delgado, but makes him just as much as a threat.

 

Overall, Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons might actually be the superior version of an already brilliant story, taking away the poorer aspects of the production and being narrated by someone who puts evil into the Master.  10/10.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Inferno by: Terrance Dicks

Inferno was written by Terrance Dicks, based on the story of the same name by Don Houghton.  It was the 89th story to be novelized by Target Books.

 

The novelization of Inferno is an interesting one as unlike other Third Doctor stories, this is one of four Third Doctor stories to be novelized after the end of the Fourth Doctor’s run and the confirmation of the junkings of episodes (the others were The Ambassadors of Death, The Mind of Evil, and The Time Monster), but all were done by the script editor of the era, Terrance Dicks.  This book was released in 1984, fitting as that year saw the original television serial returned to the BBC Archives from Canada, though it would be a decade before it was released on home video.  The novelization plays out less like the James Bond thriller of the televised version, but more like a mystery where the Doctor is playing detective against what is going on at the Inferno Project, which makes me wonder if that aspect of the story was what played into fan consensus until it was released to the public.  There is this focus on Stahlman as a man of science and some backstory given to just what his background was.  Less of the focus comes on Stahlman being a mad scientist, and more of a man driven by vision, making the mad scientist tendencies in the parallel Earth plot come to the forefront there.  Dicks also makes some of the performance subtext of the parallel Earth version to become text, with a few added lines here and there about the characters and their motivations.  It makes the bravery and cowardice parallels between the Brigadier and the Brigade Leader come right to the forefront especially in the adaptation of Episode 6.  Dicks also has clearly perfected his writing style by this point, giving Inferno this easy read, however, that is a slight detriment when it comes to the conclusion.  While the final episode of the story remained tense, this one almost jumps the shark in immediately revealing that there is a way to conclude the story.  It means that the final episode feels incredibly rushed and the book ends almost unsatisfactory.

 

Overall, Inferno is an interesting way to experience a Doctor Who story which is regarded as a stone cold classic, even if it is one where the story itself is slightly let down in the adaptation.   The audiobook also deserves a mention for Caroline John’s wonderful narration and the wonderful music score from Simon Power.  9/10.


Friday, April 16, 2021

The Dresden Files: Blood Rites by: Jim Butcher

 

The Dresden Files may have had its ups and downs, but Blood Rites is perhaps the worst that the series has been.  Now my biggest complaint with the series thus far has been with the second installment, Fool Moon, and its tendency to introduce several plotlines and floundering as a story, and those are still present in Blood Rites which is on the whole weaker there as Butcher just writes something which becomes difficult to get through.  If Summer Knight and Death Masks were formulaic, but improving on the formula, Blood Rites is a step backwards, going right back to the standard detective story with only an A plot and a B plot actually worth talking about while the C plot is essentially a running gag which of course ends with Harry adopting a dog, something signposted right from the first page where he rescues said dog from demon monkeys.  The gag is essentially: Will you take care of this dog, no? Okay, I guess I’ll have to take care of him.  It’s fine, but really it doesn’t to anything, though the setup of getting the dog is perhaps where it falls apart to be the worst.  The opening action sequence starts out fine, but the tone is immediately set when the demon monkeys end up flinging feces at Dresden and you kind of know just what sort of installment in The Dresden Files you’re in for.  It barely is connected to the rest of the book outside of reintroducing Thomas and the dog bit, and there is a silver lining of the opening paragraphs being some of the best so far.

 

The plot proper follows Harry as he is hired to investigate threats on a pornography shoot.  Yes.  That is the plot we are going with.  Butcher already has been critiqued for chauvinist and outright sexist characters, but the objectification here is perhaps at its worst, though it is at least rarely coming from Harry.  There wasn’t an expectation of Butcher making this an analysis of sex work, but there are a few decent scenes with this aspect of the plot where those involved are mostly just treated as decent workers.  It’s just the description of the actors and the cliches of the prima donna especially which just gets boring, and the twist there is also incredibly obvious.  The idea of a death curse is interesting, but it is wasted on this setting.  This is also the first time that Karrin Murphy, a character whom I praised for defying stereotypes, is not only objectified, but her marital history is a minor subplot which while good for depth just doesn’t fit with the absolute sleaze that this book includes.  Butcher wants to have the porn plot be at least a little comedic, but the comedy just doesn’t work.  Luckily the second half of the novel goes to a plot involving Dresden and Thomas attempting to take down Tomas’ father and White Court Vampire, Lord Raith.  The brewing war doesn’t actually get touched on here, but the heist style of the second half is one of the few redeeming figures, allowing characters from previous books to appear and get some depth.  The only characters whose added depth doesn’t really work are Thomas, who is revealed to be Harry’s secret half-brother, and Kincaid from Death Masks, who is sexist now I guess and just has a wildly different personality.  The climax is fine and Harry’s lasting injury might actually help the series in the long run, but a lot of this book just does not focus on anything that moves things along.

 

Overall, Blood Rites is most definitely a misstep and if the follow up, Dead Beat, does not improve things, it could be a fatal one.  Reading this book is only saved by Harry having some nice character moments and growth and Butcher’s easy to read stylistic choices shining through.  It’s one that could have been skippable if it wasn’t for the fact that several major things about Dresden are revealed as well as some character moments, even the ones that do not resonate.  It’s a book that does not come recommended as it fails on most levels to be engaging and easily could cause some readers to jump ship at this point.  3/10.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Banquo Legacy by: Andy Lane and Justin Richards

 

The issue with the run of Eighth Doctor Adventures post-The Shadows of Avalon and before The Ancestor Cell involves an inability to understand how to utilize Compassion in her nature as a human TARDIS.  Coldheart and The Space Age are the most egregious in sidelining her, both giving her absolutely nothing and The Fall of Yquatine putting her through an assault storyline without ever actually resolving what it means.  Her penultimate appearance in the range is The Banquo Legacy a book by future range editor Justin Richards and Virgin New Adventures veteran Andy Lane which could only be accurately described as an unconventional gothic horror mystery adventure.  The format of the novel is told through two separate accounts of supporting characters, “The Record of Inspector Ian Stratford” and “The Account of John Hopkinson”, meaning that the Doctor, Fitz, and Compassion are all sidelined for the first third of the book, not appearing outside of the prologue for sixty pages.  This device allows Lane and Richards to give the reader a good idea of the situation at Banquo Manor, its inhabitants, and the murder investigation already going on.  The Banquo Legacy primarily concerns a series of macabre experiments in group learning and telepathy in mice.  This becomes a gruesome thriller as the head scientist, Richard Harries, is murdered and eventually rises from the grave.  The evocative image of the rat in the skull is really where the murder finds its ending, and is a great representation of what the book is trying to do.  It essentially represents the characters as lab rats with a looming specter of death hanging over them.

 

Ian Stratford arrives at Banquo Manor looking into a missing persons case, something that Scotland Yard has a vested interest in as the experiments have been causing quite a stir.  Stratford’s narration reads almost like a Sherlock Holmes short story, and feels like this is the half of the story contributed by Andy Lane, as he wrote All-Consuming Fire in a similar vein and Young Sherlock Holmes books.  Stratford is the one who actually brings the Doctor and company into the plot and serves as an outsider looking in, a character whose own peaceful outlook in the village surrounding Banquo Manor is crashed down around him while discovering the experiment and the murders.  This is contrasted with the na├»ve John Hopkinson, who feels more like the primary narrator as he seems to be someone affected by the experiment, although he is certain he hadn’t been to Banquo Manor before his arrival.  He acts cold and clinical and is there in the capacity as a lawyer and is already coming because of a suicide of a mutual friend.    This becomes especially apparent when the Doctor is murdered a little after the halfway point of the novel and there is a wonder if this is actually going to be an end.  It’s this middle of the book where the story falls at least a little flat, not moving quickly as the switches between the two narrators become rapid, chapters taking up less than a page and the pace not actually increasing with the changes in chapters.  The mystery eventually deepens when the plot involving a Time Lord Agent plays into the conclusion, but until then there is a long stretch where things just fall flat.

 

There is this mistrust and naivety with the rest of the characters as the narrators’ own observations of the Doctor, Fitz, and Compassion (or the woman Compassion has overtaken in this story) makes the reader unsure of exactly if this trio can actually be the TARDIS team as we know them.  Seeing the Doctor, Fitz, and Compassion from an outsider’s perspective is something that makes this book unique.  Fitz especially is affected as being someone who on the surface seems incredibly shallow, being unable to keep up his cover story of being German with the Doctor as his boss and not really doing anything to solve the murders.  While this is something that wouldn’t work if every story featuring Fitz, but because it is a one-off here it really works well.  Compassion on the other hand is partially sidelined in the prologue, which made my heart drop as it seemed Richards and Lane were going down the route of Coldheart and The Space Age, but putting her in the body with a supporting character actually makes her appearance great.  This is one where seeing her coldness form the outside is interesting as the emotional nature of the woman she is inhabiting sometimes bleeds through.  There’s also some genuine compassion in Compassion here with the ending of the book for her in particular being dark and harrowing.

 

Overall, The Banquo Legacy does a lot of things correctly, setting up the end of an arc incredibly well, but falling flat in a few places as its own story, especially in the second act where things don’t take any time to move along.  The Doctor’s fake out death is also something that doesn’t work being seen from the outside, especially as the range wasn’t ever going to end with this book.  It’s a good read, but one that needs at least a little patience.  7/10.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters by: Malcolm Hulke

 

Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters was written by Malcolm Hulke, based on his story Doctor Who and the Silurians.  It was the 5th story to be novelized by Target Books.

 

Target novelizations provide an interesting opportunity for authors to expand their serials and in Malcolm Hulke’s novelization of Doctor Who and the Silurians, Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters somehow adapts a seven episode serial into the standard Target novelization length while expanding many of the elements.  Hulke’s structure of the book spends nearly a third on the first episode meaning that the majority of the story doesn’t actually have a lot of page space, yet manages to pace out the story wonderfully.  There is some brilliant tension as the mystery of the Silurians and what exactly they are and are attempting to do.  The plot doesn’t actually deviate from the televised version much, the plague is released and the interactions between Quin and Dawson are still there, Masters is still irresponsible in releasing the plague, and Major Baker (here Major Barker) is still killed.  The political undertones of this story are built up even more, with Major Barker being more of a nationalist throughout, out and out advocating Britain for the British and power for the British Empire.  Hulke clearly wants to make the audience hate the character and it’s something that really works.  The relationship between Quinn and Dawson is also fleshed out incredibly well as Quinn is motivated by a desire to be known for unravelling the past while Dawson has unrequited love for her coworker.  There’s also a lot about their personal pasts which wasn’t necessary, but was a welcome edition as it made all of the characters feel like well-rounded people.  There is also an incredibly important sequence where the Silurian culture is fleshed out with each getting names.  This is where fandom got Morka and Okdel as characters which would be used in Blood Heat and other VNAs involving the Silurians.

 

Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters manages to somehow improve on the already classic television story by bringing the reader some more depth to an already deep story.  Hulke is unrestrained by television and allows his political messaging to excel further in book form.  The audiobook read by Caroline John is also an excellent performance.  10/10.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Dune by: Frank Herbert

 

Dune is a novel who’s influence can be felt in nearly every piece of science fiction written after its initial publishing date of 1965.  Frank Herbert’s book combines two previously published serials, rewritten and reedited into book form: Dune World and The Prophet of Dune, and published by the publisher of manuals for automobiles.  It’s a book with an odd origin from an author who is equally as odd.  Herbert lived his early life in poverty and became inspired by sand dunes in Oregon to create Dune, imbuing it and his other writings with his political and personal philosophy against the selfishness of the human race, taking up causes, rightfully, against the United States government during the second Red Scare and the Vietnam War.  He was clearly a man appalled by the way he saw the world turning, and put that in his writing, writing which would resonate with the world.  Dune as a work is both incredibly simple and incredibly complex: the story is mostly a standard tale of a royal house being overthrown and retaliating after a period of time to plan and recover themselves, building an army.  It’s almost deceptively simple, but it’s a long novel as Herbert puts into every word, every scene takes on some sort of double meaning.  Books could be written on what Herbert does in this book and without a doubt they most likely exist or will exist.  The experience of reading Dune alone can put it in a class of its own, even if the engagement is one complex.

 

The first scene of the novel involves the young Paul Atredies being tested by a Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.  This test is where one of the book’s most famous and important lines appears: “I must not fear.  Fear is the mind killer.  Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration”.  These three simple sentences introduce a major importance for Herbert, the idea of action and overcoming the fear of action and change being what humanity is all about.  Herbert is cynical, making the distinction between people and humans.  While perhaps pithy, to describe the view of people would involve the sneering idea of sheep being led through their lives as the victims of other people, while humans are the ones who dare to act and rise above.  This premise is flawed, as Herbert simplifies the argument to people only having one-dimension which doesn’t actually apply.  It doesn’t attempt to look at the societal problems which create the kind of fear that Herbert implies is the little death, just acting as if people cannot live for themselves.  It’s so he can set up the messianic nature of Paul for the Fremen later on which is something where while personal feelings may find distaste, the cynicism still finds a way to resonate through the plot in tandem with some optimism that the great evil still can be overthrown.  Now, the messianic nature of Paul may be Herbert’s attempt to justify the nature of just one man being able to change the world which would be a hopeful message, though it isn’t the actions of just one man.  Paul is not the one who saves the day, it’s his entire family working together even without contact or communication once the house falls that end up bringing the positive outcome.

 

Herbert also doesn’t allow his cynicism to cloud ideas of love.  There are two principal couples in the book, first Duke Leto and Lady Jessica (Paul’s parents), and eventually Paul and Chani.  The traitor to House Atredies, Dr. Yueh, is only motivated by love and ensures that those in love can actually survive, even if it is something that he will not make it out of alive.  Leto and Jessica are one of the few couples in science fiction who are happy together, even if marriage was always impossible.  Lady Jessica at every turn is motivated by the love for Leto and then the love of her son, Paul, above even the orders of the sisterhood which have one goal of manipulating and creating prophecy throughout the universe.  While Leto is a minor character throughout, Lady Jessica is a fascinating study in the love of a wife and mother and is a morally complex character.  She is manipulative, but never abusive.  She goes through several points where she is the one making mistakes and eventually has to acknowledge them and rise above them.  Her character arc hits its high point at the end of the second part of the novel, where she takes on more responsibilities, becoming a Reverend Mother.  She is the one who has to take quite a bit of time to actually figure things out.

 

The idea of inspiration of good people to cause others to do good is also present in the book.  As mentioned previously, Dr. Yueh is a traitor, but only motivated by a desire to see good happen even if the ends have to justify the means.  The character of Liet Kynes is introduced as a man who scoffs at authority, but almost immediately respects Duke Leto and has second guesses of his part in the conspiracy to take down House Atredies while the villains essentially rule through fear.  House Harkonnen is represented by the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, who is perhaps the one aspect of the book which has not aged.  The Baron is a pedophile and homosexual, perpetuating that stereotype, though you’re never actually given any scenes of sexual acts.  There’s also the incest element and cruelty which makes him as a villain fascinating, but not easy to actually read about.  The cutting to him really only works after the first part when he is used to advance some of the plots of the minor and supporting characters.  There is also some amazing worldbuilding and Herbert’s prose is excellent, however, the confusion of the philosophy and plot is where Dune really makes me think.  It’s a book which will stay with the reader for a long time after you finish.  It’s a read which feels both complimentary and contradictory, and ends with several questions about just what was being accomplished while that accomplishment remains satisfactory.  10/10.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Grave Matter by: Justin Richards

 

Doctor Who has always had a relationship with classic horror and science fiction literature for stories.  The Hinchcliffe/Holmes producer/script editor team drew heavily on Frankenstein, Forbidden Planet, Who Goes There?, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Mummy throughout Season 13 and stories like Robot and State of Decay took plot elements from King Kong and Dracula respectively outside of that particular duo’s era proving how much influence horror has on Doctor Who.  Interestingly of the classic horror monsters of vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monsters, and zombies, zombies were absent from the television series, with vampires making multiple appearances (The Claws of Axos and The Curse of Fenric are also vampire stories, though with a science fiction and World War II twist respectively), werewolves getting their day in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.  While David A. McIntee would use zombies to great effect in his first book, White Darkness, these were the genuine zombies of the voodoo faith and overshadowed by the Lovecraftian horror of the Old Ones and violence of the period, meaning that it wouldn’t really be until the Past Doctor Adventures novel Grave Matter in 2000 for a traditional “western” zombie story.

 

Grave Matter is a book of two halves, the first half being a traditional Hinchcliffe/Holmes style Doctor Who horror story and the second half transitions excellently into a science fiction zombie thriller akin to the best aspects of Seasons 18 and the Pertwee era (without the military intervention).  The book takes place on the secluded island of Sheldon’s Folly, a mist covered island trapped in Victorian times with no electricity and a folly at the peak of the island run by a mysterious Christopher Sheldon who spends most of his time in London.  Richards’ thrust of the narrative is a misunderstanding of what time the Doctor and Peri have landed in, as the island is technologically distant the initial idea is that they’ve landed in Victorian times at a funeral.  These sections of the book are excellent as the Doctor and Peri are essentially outsiders who can’t find their way into these islanders’ social circles, performing their own social faux pas as they imply that the dead were somehow terrible in their navigating of the sea.  Early scenes take place in the local pub right at the end of the funeral, and that slow build helps drench the book in an atmosphere.  One scene which perfectly encapsulates this is the Doctor and Peri, out in the fog, being passed by a zombie whose nature isn’t revealed right until the final third.  It’s a scene which essentially builds tension where the Doctor, Peri, and the reader really don’t understand just what this person is doing out in the fog, wandering through its life.  The Doctor and Peri’s dynamic are also incredibly well developed here: there is definitely slight antagonism as this is early for them, but it isn’t every hateful like in The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen.  Richards gives Peri her own moments where she can challenge and quip right back at the Doctor for an excellent point to develop why they work as a TARDIS team.

 

Interestingly, Grave Matter essentially unfolds as a mystery as the Doctor and Peri are simultaneously attempting to solve where exactly they are, why there are so many people dying on this island, and why the children are acting strangely and can learn somehow simultaneously.  Richards just gives everything this absolutely dripping layer of horror atmosphere.  Once the genre shifts and the zombies start to rise Richards employs several other twists, one of which is the only point where the book slightly falters.  There is a character who goes through several identity reveals, so when you actually get to his true identity it kind of feels extraneous to requirements and it doesn’t even impact the solution to the plot.  The science fiction aspects of the plot also feel incredibly clinical and similar to a pandemic thriller as the zombies are essentially the result of a science experiment gone right but also wrong.  It’s eventually revealed to be mad science gone mad and the local village doctor has been manipulated and infected with the virus, his suicide marking the shift in tone with some passages which are most definitely Richards’ best prose.  It’s such an emotional sequence where you feel this doctor character’s life slipping down the drain and eventually to his own death.  The fear of the virus escaping permeates each page and the implication of the Doctor and Peri being infected also makes the tension build towards a conclusion.

 

Overall, Grave Matter is a Doctor Who book which doesn’t actually get discussed nearly enough by fans.  It’s a PDA which flies under most people’s radar, which is a shame as it’s a brilliant piece of horror coming from an era which isn’t usually associated with horror.  Justin Richards knocks it out of the park with one of his best books and something that everyone should track down.  9/10.

Breach of Peace by: Daniel B. Greene

 

Daniel B. Greene is a YouTuber who focuses mostly on fantasy and science fiction, reaching over 250,000 subscribers and like many YouTubers he made what seems to be an inevitable leap to writing.  Breach of Peace is the first of a planned trilogy of novellas before a main series and unlike other, bigger content creators who make the leap into writing, Greene at least has always had a passion for writing and a basic understanding of storytelling.  Breach of Peace is a novella which has a clear beginning, middle, and an end while still setting up a larger universe with no ghostwriter in sight.  Its plot is fairly standard murder mystery fare, set in a world in the grip of authoritarianism with a police force which is corrupt, and journalists who will rewrite history for their own ends.  Greene’s worldbuilding does hint at something greater, however, one of the novella’s biggest faults is that it doesn’t feel like this is an introduction to a world.  Like many author’s, Greene falls into the trap of writing a story without giving the audience the proper bearings that are clearly in his head but fail to translate to the page.  The trio of characters Breach of Peace follows all clearly have their lives, but the book feels like this is right near the end of their stories and we don’t actually get a beginning.  This perhaps would have worked better if this was released in an anthology of novellas instead of as the first of a trilogy of upcoming stories.  Greene has also confirmed the characters here will not be the protagonist of his main series.

 

The actual murder mystery is excellent: Khlid is essentially our primary point of view and detective, and she’s gotten her way in the world with her own sets of prejudices against the system, yet a taste for power.  She’s happily married to Samuel, her partner, has a chain smoking problem and is ready to abuse her power.  There is definitely a logical series of deductions present in the mystery, even if that mystery ends up becoming a simple working to the solution.  The graphic depiction of the murder, one of an entire family with a young boy being hanged out of a window, is excellent and immediately sets the gritty tone of this world.  Breach of Peace doesn’t quite set itself in a standard fantasy world, there is clearly some magic system though it isn’t fleshed out nearly as well here and the technology is most definitely more advanced than medieval, but not steampunk or modern as most high fantasy alternates usually choose.  It helps with Greene’s attempt to comment on abuse of power in police systems, however, that metaphor doesn’t every actually comment anything more than abuse of power is bad.  Part of this is due to the fact that this is a novella, and including that as a large theme with a comment would be incredibly difficult, however, Greene needs to do something to follow up.  There are also points where Greene’s plot just stops dead until he can find a way to move things forward instead of flowing neatly from one scene to the next.  The first chapter in particular is incredibly slow and probably could have been split to help feel more in line with the other seven which are incredibly snappy.

 

While there are a multitude of issues with Breach of Peace, it still does provide a good time with a nice introduction to Greene’s world and what will become his eventual series.  It’s most definitely a great first book to send out into the world, but it may be something people may wish to skip until the rest of the trilogy of novellas are published and the world can be fleshed out more than is presented here.  7/10.

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Trials of Apollo: The Hidden Oracle by: Rick Riordan

 

The Trials of Apollo is a series with a premise which shouldn’t necessarily work: the god Apollo cast down from Olympus for his failings in The Heroes of Olympus (or perceived failings) and essentially having to survive as a mortal.  It’s an interesting premise, and one that Rick Riordan easily could mess up especially as writing a character whose only concept of time to this point had been of an immortal, only understanding an eternity.  There is also the massive amounts of identity issues one such character would undergo now becoming a 16 year old who has to interact with his own children.  The Hidden Oracle is the first book of Riordan’s third pentalogy and is perhaps his most ambitious book yet.  There have been several criticisms which I have had of his previous series in not giving enough time for the side characters to really shine and an overabundance on simply retelling myths in the modern day, but The Hidden Oracle takes great steps to go away from that type of storytelling and into something different.  This really is the first novel from Riordan which does not actually go across swaths of the US or the world to tell its tale, limiting itself to New York City and Camp Half-Blood which really allows some honing in on the plight of our characters and how the world has changed since the end of The Blood of Olympus.

 

The premise here is that the prophetic powers of the Oracle of Delphi, and four other ancient oracles, has disappeared and an evil corporation, Triumvirate Holdings, has been building power in the last twenty years or so to hold some sort of takeover.  The extent of the takeover is never really clear and it seems that Riordan really wants to write something that goes blatantly against corporations and capitalism in general, but this book doesn’t ever actually make the villains plans clear, though this is the first of five books it isn’t that much of a problem.  There is also a nice twist with one of the characters having connections to the Emperor Nero who is alive and running Triumvirate Holdings.  Nero is an interesting final act twist villain, as he isn’t played as the usual insane man who played the fiddle while Rome burned, Riordan even going so far as to lampshade the saying as completely historically inaccurate.  Nero’s madness is much less ranting villain who is ineffectual, but charming madman who is clearly moving pieces along a chessboard, yet still a man.  There is the implication of the Python of Greek Mythology being a true big bad, but humanity becomes a major theme of The Hidden Oracle which is perhaps some of Riordan’s most interesting work.  Every character is written intentionally to be human and just that, not necessarily all good, not all bad, just painfully human.  Meg McCaffrey’s a homeless teen and daughter of Demeter who is simply human: she saves Apollo because he’s there and ends up using him for her own ends.  They learn to care for one another.

 

Apollo being forced into mortality means that over the course of the book he is becoming human, and that really can be seen in multiple ways.  First, his way of speaking and internal monologue starts incredibly arrogant, only actually caring for his own children as human beings (though being disgusted at being in a body younger than some of them), but slowly morphing to someone who actually begins to understand and almost resent bits of his godliness.  He’s still got a long way to go with a lot of his godliness still seeping through.  There’s also the matter of the chapter titles: they’re haikus as Apollo is the god of poetry, but as the book goes on they start from mostly pithy comments to some genuinely heartfelt reflections on Apollo’s slow realization about himself.  His conversations with his children, including Will Solace is also an incredibly interesting thing.  There is most definitely some oddness in the fact that he is now younger than some of his children which means that there are things here that are awkward as well as Apollo’s regret about his past lovers, ancient and modern.  Daphne and Hyacinthus are perhaps the most prominent lovers that Apollo actively regrets leaving, or ending in a poor fate, and yes the pansexual nature of the character is present, though Riordan’s rather odd it’s okay to be LGBT aside early on does feel really out of place and very tell instead of showing (which he then shows anyway with Will and Nico being in a happy relationship making the need to tell us this feel even more off).  Will and Nico’s relationship is also finally given some exploration, and having someone outside of Nico’s perspective definitely helps the audience see just how weird he actually is about himself and his happiness.  Chiron also ships it.

 

Overall, The Hidden Oracle is definitely good and is helped by having one setting, however, as an introduction it almost tells a complete story and leaves a lot to be desired in the end.  A lot happens in this book, even if the book is kind of short.  The character work is great, but things move quite a bit too fast before anything else can really be setup, while having a writing style that occasionally tries to tackle something incredibly adult while in the guise of a children’s book.  8/10.