New Adventures Reviews: The Highest Science

(Another Doctor Who book. Continue bearing with me.)

I’m just getting back to rereading the New Adventures, and I find I don’t have much to say about The Highest Science—in fact, I couldn’t even summon up the enthusiasm to read it properly, though I skimmed bits of it. I don’t know why. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I have nothing against Gareth Roberts in general. It just didn’t grab me. (I’m actually more interested in rereading The Pit, just to see if it’s as bad as I recall.) So this is a much shorter and less careful review than some of my others.

The Highest Science was Gareth Roberts’s first novel and has a virulent case of first novel syndrome: the compulsion to pack in as many ideas as he can, because he might not have this chance again. (He did, of course, and Tragedy Day was more interesting.)

What’s interesting is that Roberts built first novel syndrome into the foundations of The Highest Science. There is a specific in-story justification for throwing a bunch of disconnected ideas in a blender and pressing “puree.”

The gimmick is a “Fortean Flicker,” a probability phenomenon that teleports a bunch of random stuff from all over space and time to the planet Sakkrat. What stuff, you ask? That’s the other interesting thing: this is specifically a first Doctor Who novel. The Highest Science was Roberts’s chance to pull all the bits of Doctor Who he might ever want to write about into the same book. You’ve got your contemporary Londoners confronting weirdness. You’ve got your Von Danikenesque lost city. You’ve got your Eric Sawardish hardass space mercenaries. You’ve got the NAs’ first (and pretty much only) recurring “monsters”—although this being the NAs the Chelonians are more complicated than the word implies. Despite being obviously based on turtles. And the whole thing takes place on a planet suspiciously resembling a quarry.

Most of all, you’ve got that Graham Williams feeling. The Highest Science is a book that says “I am whimsical, dammit!” in much the same way as seasons 15-17, Roberts’s chief influence and favorite era. (His essay in Paul Cornell’s License Denied admits as much.)

So it’s a surprise when it whimsically maneuvers the Doctor into a dark corner and refuses to let him out. The Highest Science put the Doctor into the NAs’ worst no-win situation up to that point (a record that lasted until the very next book), leaving the people the Doctor had hoped to rescue trapped forever one moment before death. A solution doesn’t present itself until Paul Cornell’s big loose-end-cleanup in Happy Endings, and even then it’s a plan the Doctor could never have pulled off himself.

It’s like a dozen clowns stuffed themselves into their clown car and drove into a junkyard compactor. It’s like a mildly crazy beer party which ends by running into a wall. And, in context, it was probably the best way to end the book… almost a preview of coming attractions. If Roberts had carried the whimsy all the way through, the oncoming aesthetic whiplash of The Pit might have been rough.