Category Archives: Doctor Who

Recent Reading

I have several half-finished book reviews sitting on my hard drive, all of books I liked quite a bit. They’re unfinished partly because my attention span for writing hasn’t been great, but mostly because of impostor syndrome: I’m having a hard time convincing myself these potential posts say anything intelligent or interesting. Since I ought to be getting some practice in, I’ve written a few paragraphs on books about which I have much less to say:

Agatha Christie, Appointment With Death and Murder in Mesopotamia

Christie’s second husband was an archaeologist and she often accompanied him on digs. Occasionally she worked her archaeological experience into her novels by sending Hercule Poirot off to stumble on murders in random middle eastern countries. She didn’t use nearly enough of her experience for my taste–for all that she knew her stuff, the settings of these novels read like a generic archaeological dig and foreign tourist site and could have been set anywhere in the world.

Trevor Baxendale, Fear of the Dark

This Doctor Who tie-in novel was first published in the years before the current series began. At the time BBC Books published one or two Doctor Who novels every month. I skipped this one at the time because Trevor Baxendale’s novels were always terrible. This one is a short story’s worth of secondhand ideas padded out to a 300 page novel. Here we have all the laziest clichés of late 1990s-early 2000s Doctor Who: Grimdark cynicism. Corporate space marines. Incessant deaths (all so grotesque I’m surprised the BBC republished this book in this more family-friendly era). An alien planet in the far future inhabited by people who talk and think like they’re from 20th century London (and who include, between a starship crew and a mining expedition, exactly one woman). A half-assed monster that is literally called “The Dark” and does evil things because it’s evil.

There used to be a Doctor Who novel just like this almost every month. So much nostalgia. I almost enjoyed it.

Various authors, “Time Trips”

The BBC has been releasing Doctor Who novellas as ebooks under the name “Time Trips.” They’re all very weird.

“Into the Nowhere” is about a planet of traps and walking skeletons controlled by a grotesque nerd caricature who turns out to be guarding all the knowledge in the universe, man, which manifests as the tree from the Garden of Eden because it pulled the image from Clara’s mind. The Doctor, while bleeding from his palms, tells Clara not to eat the metaphorical apple because “the entropic chronicle of perpetuity” would depress her.

“The Death Pit” is a fourth Doctor adventure on a golf course with a deadly alien sand trap. It’s perhaps trying just a little too hard to be Douglas Adams, but it’s charming and at times genuinely funny.

“Keeping Up With the Joneses” is about a sentient time war weapon that turns the interior of the TARDIS into a temporally indeterminate English village with occasional giant monsters. The strangest thing in the book is that the owner of the bed and breakfast is patterned after Lady Christina from “Planet of the Dead,” for all the world as though the Doctor might have had her on his mind. Or even remembered her at all. (When I wrote this review for a post on a mailing list I had to Google the episode to remember her name.)

These novellas are the product of writers who are doing their own thing rather than delivering a “standard” Doctor Who story. That’s fine by me regardless of the quality of the results (not that these three are bad). We have all the standardized, formulaic Doctor Who stories we need at this point.

Avram Davidson, Masters of the Maze

Like a lot of SF, this is the story of a young man discovering he has a hidden destiny and saving the world from an alien invasion. Because Avram Davidson wrote it, it is much better than that description makes it sound. Also much weirder. There’s an other-dimensional maze that runs all across space and time. At the center the hero has a philosophical discussion with Lao-Tze, Apollonius of Tyana, and Benjamin Bathurst. A villainous John Birch Society-type teams up with the aliens to take over the United States, cut taxes, destroy the welfare state, and outlaw milk pasteurization; he has the idea that he might then use them as contract labor to keep wages down. We get chapters from the point of view of the aliens themselves, humanoids who live and think like hive insects. Plus Ambrose Bierce turns up. It’s all as well written as you’d expect from Davidson. The most significant flaw is a lack of important female characters, but that’s sadly common with older SF.

David Edison, The Waking Engine

Portal fantasies have been out of style for a while but I’ve seen a few new ones lately. This is one of them, as well as an afterlife fantasy–the idea is that when you die you’re serially reborn on a series of China Miévillesque worlds until you finally reach the place that offers True Death.

I found this novel paradoxically both too weird and not weird enough. Too weird because the afterlife world seems like a collection of grotesque and baroque images that give very little idea of how people in this world would actually live their day-to-day lives. Not weird enough because the hero is almost as bland as an everyman can get. It was several chapters before I even had an idea of what he looked like, or what he was wearing. (The book described him lying down after work and waking up dead; I assumed he was wearing a suit and had to rapidly readjust my assumptions when the book mentioned a heavy metal t-shirt.)

The Waking Engine also suffers from a problem common to afterlife SF, the temptation to pack the story full of celebrity guest stars–here we get Richard Nixon, Cleopatra and Walt Whitman, with a cameo by Kurt Cobain. The end leaves plenty of plot threads hanging, so I’m sensing yet another series; I’m not sure whether I’ll try the next one.

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Like Masters of the Maze this is really good, but not in a way that inspired me to try writing a full review. I read it a few months ago and at the time I was finding most novels hard to get into, but this one eventually built momentum and I finished the last hundred pages in an evening. It’s a discursive, essayistic novel, which is something that’s appealed to me lately.

It’s published as mainstream but is arguably SF in that it plays with scientific concepts in support of a sort of magic realist narrative, and would probably have been a better Hugo award candidate than most of what ended up on the ballot.

The Year of Intelligent Tigers

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Kate Orman’s The Year of Intelligent Tigers is the book every Eighth Doctor Adventure wanted to be.

Every era of Doctor Who has its own stereotype. The Terrance Dicks/Barry Letts template includes UNIT, the Master, 1970s earth, chases, and Venusian Aikido. Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories are horror pastiches starring charismatic master villains; Saward-era stories are violent, cynical tales with a surfeit of tough guys and mercenaries. The EDA stereotype has an alien planet (usually a human colony) inhabited by a couple of squabbling factions, whose mistrust of the TARDIS crew hinders the possibly amnesiac Doctor’s efforts to save everybody from some hitherto-unsuspected threat (usually a forgettable alien monster).

The Year of Intelligent Tigers is about a human colony inhabited by a couple of squabbling factions (humans and Tigers), whose mistrust of the TARDIS crew hinders the amnesiac Doctor’s efforts to save everybody from the hitherto-unsuspected threat of an apocalyptic hurricane season. It’s the ur-EDA! But done with so much more skill it seems to have descended from some distant galaxy to let the children boogie. YoIT (YOIT! Great acronym!) is almost hard to review; I’m tempted to spend 1000 words just listing all the ordinary things YoIT gets right that other EDAs missed. But that would be unfair to a book that’s pretty incredible on its own terms. YoIT’s not a tie-in that rises to the level of an ordinary novel. It’s a smart, exciting, elegant science fiction novel in its own right, something you could give to anyone who loves SF whether or not they care about Doctor Who.

Continue reading The Year of Intelligent Tigers

Interesting, if You’re Me

Michael Moorcock is writing a Doctor Who novel.

He says it’s “not a tie-in.” I’m not sure whether that means it’s not part of the regular “cheap, crappy little hardback” line (it certainly would be a special event) or just that it isn’t a novelization of a story from another medium. BBC Books actively approached his agent, so maybe they’re actually looking to make the books interesting again.

Doctor Who: Managra

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Interviewed for a Doctor Who Magazine article years after Virgin Books published his Doctor Who novel Managra, Stephen Marley recalled being “excited about what the series almost was… I thought the point was to consider what it would be like were it done properly.” And, lo, the traditionalists were heard to mutter “how dare he!” On the other hand, this was exactly the point of these books as far as I’m concerned, so I’m pretty much Marley’s ideal reader.

Marley thought the Missing Adventures “went too far in terms of ‘period’ feel.” Still, Managra fits the mold of the early Tom Baker seasons produced by Philip Hinchcliffe: a gothic horror adventure centered around a charismatic madman rather than a “monster.” The difference is ambition. Managra is epic: a big world with a big story reaching back through time and the Doctor’s life, but comprehensibly human on the character level.

Doctor Who was conceived to take people from our familiar world into strange new environments, anywhere in time and space. The 1990s-2000s approach sees the primary purpose of the series as bringing time and space into a familiar world. New worlds are deemphasized; in books like The Janus Conjunction or The Infinity Race, or in the new television series, they’re spaces just large enough to contain a plot for the Doctor to foil. The inhabitants have no lives outside their purpose in the Doctor’s story.

I think we’ve lost something here. Travel between worlds enlarges Doctor Who, allowing it to move between, and colonize, new genres. Endless invasions of Earth make the universe seem smaller. Strange environments are flexible, with great scope for telling different kinds of stories (in the UNIT years, the writers feared the series might become a series of alien invasions—what we’ve seen from the last two decades of Earth-based stories). New worlds provide more space for satire, commentary (contemporary alien invasion stories usually work on the level of “pick a trend and make it evil!”), and exploration of character under unusual circumstances.

And sometimes they’re just fun.

Continue reading Doctor Who: Managra

Vampire Science

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All I’ve been posting lately have been Interactive Fiction Competition reviews, which have a limited audience. So I’m posting this book review I had on hand. Which is about a Doctor Who novel, and therefore also has a limited audience, albeit a completely different limited audience. Sorry.

When, in Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum’s Vampire Science, a villain sneeringly refers to Sam as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” it’s hard to remember that in 1997 most people thought of Buffy as a crappy Paul Reubens movie. Vampire Science slipped in at the beginning of a vampire tsunami. Anne Rice started it; Buffy and Laurel K. Hamilton built momentum; today the healthiest marketing category in SF is “paranormal romance,” the genre of hot love between vampires, lycanthropes, and assorted psychics.

Vampires usually represent one (or both) of two things: disease and sex. “Disease” is the older metaphor. For the longest time, how disease got around was a mystery. So a town had some mysterious deaths, and people dug up a corpse for some reason, and it seemed very well preserved. And it looked like the fingernails had grown, and weren’t those canines longer?  So they staked the thing. Problem solved! This school of vampirism’s most famous representative is Nosferatu’s ratlike Count Orlok.

The other strand of the mythology portrays vampirism as… ah, intimate contact (a phrase which describes both subtext and text). These vampires are hypnotically glamourous. Usually literally. It’s most famously represented by the novel Nosferatu plagiarized: Dracula. Jonathan Harker hardly has time to unpack before he’s surrounded by lovely women with interesting dental work, and I’ve never seen a version of this story in which Lucy and Mina’s trysts with the Count aren’t sexualized.

Over the past couple of decades an army of stories forcibly evolved modern vampires from seductive psychopaths into the heroines’ boyfriends. Sex has won the Vampire Metaphor War. What’s remarkable about Vampire Science, then, is that Orman and Blum found something else to do with their vampires. Continue reading Vampire Science

British Summertime (and Paul Cornell’s Books in General)

The cover of British Summertime.

British Summertime, Paul Cornell’s second entirely original novel, was published in 2002. Since then he’s published short stories but, aside from a novelization of a BBC webcast, no more novels. Lately he’s been writing for television and for Marvel comics. I can’t help feeling he’s come down in the world.

I’d like another book from Cornell. You will not believe that after reading this review. I ask that you take it on faith. Paul Cornell, I’ve come to realize, is one of those writers whose books I enjoy for reasons I cannot fully explain. Ask me why his books are worth my while and I’ll spend half the time on apologetic “okay, admittedlies,” “despites,” and “even thoughs.” I liked British Summertime, mostly, but all I can think to write about are my reservations, which have to do with Cornell’s obsessive sentimentality. His books drip with sentiment. Like Charles Dickens dipped in treacle. It’s both charming and irritating, in at least three ways. (Although as I’ve worked on this review I’ve come to think that “sentiment” isn’t the right word for the latter two. Maybe “unwarranted optimism.”)

Cornell’s books bask in nostalgia for a stereotype of early twentieth-century England (which seems to be the home of many Cornell characters’ speech patterns). It’s gotten worse over the years. In 1995 his Doctor Who novel Human Nature celebrated the death of Victorian values and the beginning of modernity; a dozen years later in Cornell’s television adaptation the hero learned to Do His Duty and die for his country. British Summertime, written in between, features Commander Leyton, an alternate-universe space pilot who talks like a stereotypical World War 2 RAF pilot. (Apparently this is a takoff on Dan Dare.) Leyton’s navigator is the disembodied head of a campy flapper. It’s like they walked out of the Powell and Pressburger production of Bring Me the Head of Zelda Fitzgerald.

What’s interesting is that, just while I’m reading, I’m willing to suspend disbelief in this sceptered-isle, stiff-upper-lip stuff. Continue reading British Summertime (and Paul Cornell’s Books in General)

Surprisingly, This Has Nothing to Do with Michael Jackson

This is the list of cast and crew interviewed for a behind the scenes “making of” documentary from an upcoming Doctor Who DVD (emphasis mine):

• Who Wants to Live Forever? (dur. 24′ 30″) – cast and crew look back at the making of the story. With actors Peter Davison, Nicholas Courtney, Mark Strickson, David Collings and Lucy Benjamin, director Peter Moffatt, script editor Eric Saward and plastic surgeon Dr. Simon Withey.

A Couple of Torchwood Books

Recently a couple of Torchwood books were recommended to me on the Jade Pagoda mailing list. I’ve now read Slow Decay, and decided to review it. I’m going to begin by talking about Another Life. I read Another Life, and tried to read Border Princes, not long after they came out. This is why I’ve only now read Slow Decay.

Torchwood is strange. It has moments of genuinely good drama, sometimes, but for the most part it’s fun for reasons the producers did not intend and will never fully understand. At heart it’s a series about dumb, horny college kids who somehow got the keys to the most powerful paranormal investigations agency in Wales… basically a Battlestar Galactica-style dark reimagining of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, except instead of a talking Great Dane it has Ianto.

Continue reading A Couple of Torchwood Books

Doctor Who Reviews: Shadowmind

You know what’s interesting about Shadowmind? It turns out I’d never read it before. I skipped it when it came out due to a limited teenage book-buying budget and mediocre reviews. Much later I decided I wanted an obsessive-compulsively complete New Adventures collection, picked up a copy at a used bookstore… and immediately forgot about it.

You can’t blame me. By that time I was all too familiar with Christopher Bulis. Among Doctor Who fans the Bulis name is synonymous with “meh.” As I’ve mentioned before, Bulis’s trademark move is to take a really amazing, ass-kicking central concept and surgically remove the fun. I’ll bet his novels sound wonderful in outline–Space marines meet Dungeons and Dragons! A steampunk expedition to the moon! I imagine Bulis working far into the night on his outline. Sweating over it until it gleams. With sweat. Finally he holds the precious document to the light. It’s perfect. “This is the most brilliant idea I’ve had so far!” exclaims Bulis. “Now… how can I make it suck?”

Continue reading Doctor Who Reviews: Shadowmind