Category Archives: Doctor Who

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?”

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New Adventures Reviews: White Darkness

Zombies are hip. They’re in our movies and comics and major investment firms. You can’t walk more than a few blocks without stumbling across some shambling horde of loosely anatomical types desperate for brains. Zombies, it seems, are the new ninjas. So the cover of White Darkness—on which a smiling Doctor, intrigued Ace, and off-model Benny greet their happy zombie friend—might look ahead of the curve. Not exactly. White Darkness gets into the kind of stuff that started the pre-pop-culture zombie legends. David McIntee “set out with the intention of giving Haiti and voudon society a fairer representation than is usual in fiction.” White Darkness is a straight-up historical adventure novel, with no pretentions to anything more, but it’s coming from a slightly smarter place than the books, films, and flash mobs covered in fake latex sores.

White Darkness innovated in setting the story somewhere other than goddamn London again. A lot of Doctor Who stories take place in and around London. I mean, a lot. There was a reason for this, once. The TV series had tight budget constraints and, hey, the Home Counties were right there. It’s slightly less understandable in the new series, which by the same logic should spend more time in Cardiff. When the novels and Short Trips collections head back to London again it’s plain baffling. It costs no more to set a novel in Africa, or India, or even on some entirely imaginary alien planet, than in Croyden. Apparently these stories suffer from imaginitive constraints… which may also explain those alien-world EDAs that could have been set in London. Conversely, many London-based stories could have taken place in any city and even at any time… but the TARDIS automatically, unthinkingly seeks out contemporary London again. (Preferably a neighborhood with some nice middle-class white people.) It’s like the default state of Doctor Who.

David McIntee did more than any other nineties author to claw the TARDIS from the death grip of southern England. Of his dozen Doctor Who novels only one is set in the London area, and that was a Pertwee-era UNIT story. Ironically, the author who in one book dropped in a lame joke about “political correctness”—which sounded completely bonkers coming out of the Doctor’s mouth, being normally used only by old-fashioned types who resent being asked to show some manners—did so much to diversify the series. When he wasn’t taking the TARDIS to strange new worlds, he set it down in 19th-century China. Or medieval France. Or imperial Russia. Or contemporary Hong Kong. Or, in this case, Haiti.

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New Adventures Reviews: Lucifer Rising

In their first couple of years the New Adventures covered surrealism, cyberpunk, high fantasy, space opera, a Quatermass pastiche, and even a right-wing religious authoritarian mystical horror novel (The Pit, which arguably took Doctor Who into places it should never have gone). Lucifer Rising was the NAs’ first Big Dumb Object novel.

Big Dumb Objects are one of your standard SF tropes—what Rudy Rucker calls “power chords,” the ideas that are to SF what the hooks are to a pop song. BDOs are the coolest gadgets in science fiction—both artifacts and environments. Rendezvous With Rama’s vast wandering starship is the canonical example. (And one of the blander ones, to my mind”¦ although it’s been years since I read it and if I went back I might have a different experience.) My favorite is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (from Solaris, natch). It might be stretching a point to class a living planet as a BDO, but Solaris does the same thing: injects Sense of Wonder straight into the novel’s jugular and gives the characters something mind-blowing to explore and react against.

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Possibly the Strangest Doctor Who Novel Ever

A recent post at on weird SF novels reminded me of Atom Bomb Blues by Andrew Cartmel. It may well be the weirdest Doctor Who novel ever. Also a very bad novel, although I can’t accuse it of a lack of imagination. Atom Bomb Blues is packed with ideas, practically all bad. It read like Cartmel just threw in anything that came into his head, and every other page there was something that made me blink and go “Huh?”

So… the Doctor is hanging around the Manhattan Project. In an alternate universe. And this alternate universe has been infiltrated by people from our own universe in the 21st century, who just happen to look exactly like people from this other universe’s 1940s. And the infiltrators plan to destroy the world because they think it will change history in other universes, causing Japan to win World War 2. Already we have reason to suspect that Andrew Cartmel has been snorting raw sugar. But wait! There’s more! Ace is taking fish oil pills that give her superhuman mathematical abilities! And she’s wearing a cowgirl outfit because she thought the Doctor was going to the Alamo! And she’s really, really dense! And one of the infiltrators is some kind of beatnik who talks like Maynard G. Krebs! Crazy, man!

And then there’s the alien. Named Zorg. Who keeps adding a “z” to the start of people’s names. And writes poetry. He’s not there for a reason. Cartmel just threw him in. Why not? And the Japanese agents in bright, color-coded Zoot suits. And the random encounter with Duke Ellington. And the stereotypical Indians. And Major Butcher, the Los Alamos security officer, who is heavily and obviously based on Dashiell Hammett for absolutely no reason I can determine at all. What’s up with that, Andrew?

And then the story stops dead for a bizarre chapter in which the Doctor, for no reason in the world, convinces Major Butcher he (Major Butcher) has been drugged with peyote. This is the chapter with Zorg, and the Indians. It has dialogue like “That was very dapperly done, Doctor,” and “Don’t be so literal-minded, Bulldog Bozo.” The whole chapter has absolutely nothing at all to do with anything else in the novel. Put it all together, and you’ve got something that left me staring at the book in my hands, muttering “what the hell was that?

Finally, I’d like to note that I can’t read the phrase Atom Bomb Blues without thinking of “The Wedding Bell Blues” by the Fifth Dimension. It makes reading this thing even more surreal when, every time you look at the cover, you hear a choir of carousels.

Doctor Who Reviews: Sometime Never

This is another old _Doctor Who_ tie-in review. If it seems oddly snarky, consider that I wrote it years ago, not long after the book came out, while I was still actively following a series that was determinedly running itself into the ground.

Sometime Never… is the culmination of over three years of eighth Doctor books. This is the ultimate fruition of the ongoing storylines introduced during Justin Richards’s tenure as editor. This is the climax that every EDA since The Burning has built towards.

Book cover

And it stinks.

It’s too damn long, for one thing. Sometime Never… only exists to tie up a number of dangling plot threads. That’s it. There is nothing else to it: no theme, no plot, no character development. The little that Sometime Never… accomplishes could be done in the space of a novella. But Richards has 280 pages to fill, and he fills them with padding. Lots of padding. The most superfluous padding since Robert Jordan published volume three hundred of The Wheel of Time. Over seventy per cent of the American sales of Sometime Never… have been traced to a single bulk purchase by the Wisconsin Federation of Mall Santas. They’re going to scotch tape copies to their beer guts this December.

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Doctor Who Reviews: Palace of the Red Sun

This is another old Doctor Who tie-in review, written years ago and revised only slightly.

Why do we always come here?
I guess we’ll never know.
It’s like some kind of torture
To have to watch the show.

–The Muppet Show

Reading Palace of the Red Sun, I had occasion to think of Statler and Waldorf. They were the two old guys who sat in the balcony in “The Muppet Show.” Whenever anyone did anything, their response was a derisive comment and a forced laugh. This took a serious toll on everyone’s self esteem. Eventually Kermit had to keep a therapist on call backstage to prevent some of the less stable Muppets from slitting their wrists.

Obviously Messrs. S. and W. thought the show was crap. Yet for some reason, week after week, they kept coming back. You see, Statler and Waldorf led empty, hollow lives. The dreams of their youth had withered, leaving them unfulfilled. Their families had long since died or moved away. If not for the Muppets, they would have spent the evenings in their tiny, dingy rooms at the nursing home, drinking themselves into a stupor and reminiscing about their glory days before the war. I think on some level Kermit understood this, because he never had Animal drag them out behind the theater and beat them to a bloody pulp.

Palace of the Red Sun brought this to mind because it parallels my own relation to the literary works of Christopher Bulis. Not the drinking and the empty life–just the fact that, no matter how bad his books get, something keeps me coming back.

Maybe it’s the ideas. Bulis does almost nothing right, but there’s one thing he’s good at: coming up with interesting ideas to build his novels around. Palace of the Red Sun has a planet of fairy tale holograms and gardening robots, surrounded by a temporal anomaly and placed under siege by a megalomaniac who’s granted an extended interview to a mediocre journalist. In an alternate universe, a place of sunshine and lollipops, somebody like R. A. Lafferty or Philip K. Dick might have taken this stuff and turned out a quirky, interesting, exciting novel.

Unfortunately, this is the real world. It is frequently cloudy. The lollipops fell on the floor and are now covered with lint and crud from the avocado shag carpet, which hasn’t been shampooed since the late seventies. In the real world, this novel was written by Christopher Bulis, and Christopher Bulis could not write his way out of a wet paper sack with a sharp pencil. His characters are cardboard. His prose is flat. His dialogue is inane. He can’t even make a decent plot from the great ideas he managed to pull together. The Doctor and Peri spend 280 pages wandering through a morass of stupid cliches. They run around, get captured, escape, and meet rebels. The Doctor patronizes the secondary characters with shallow “wisdom,” and Peri is sexually harassed. There’s even a subplot about an intelligent robot learning what it means to be human. I looked in vain for some sign that Bulis was trying for irony–apparently he just doesn’t realize how stale this plot is. (You know an idea is past its sell-by date when it turns up on Star Trek. Multiple times, even.)

Palace of the Red Sun sucked. Yet I could not turn away. Perhaps someday Christopher Bulis will write another Doctor Who book. If so, I will buy that one as well, and read it. Because it feels so good when I stop.

Doctor Who Reviews: The Slow Empire

It’s been a while since I’ve posted much on this blog. I should do something about that. To get things going, here’s a review of a Doctor Who novel which originally appeared in the second issue of Shooty Dog Thing, a fanzine edited by Paul Castle.

Of course, if you’re not a fan this won’t be of any interest. Feel free to skip it.

If you are a fan, let me recommend The Slow Empire by Dave Stone.

You may have come across The Slow Empire. If so, its profound ugliness probably discouraged you from picking it up. When I say The Slow Empire is ugly I don’t mean it’s unpleasant or somehow immoral. I’m saying it’s physically ugly, as an object. BBC Books’ chronically maladroit designers managed to top themselves with this one. On the cover, a dull arrangement of planets and electrical arcs in the colors of unpleasant bodily fluids haloes the head of a half-blurry, bile-filtered stock photo of Paul McGann. Inside, whole sections of text are laid out in Comic Sans MS, the font that turns everything it touches into an amateur garage-sale flyer. This thing looks like it was vanity-published by a high school dropout.

In short, The Slow Empire needs a little love… the more so because Dave Stone is an acquired taste. Honestly, he’s kind of weird. But it’s a grounded weirdness. Stone has a deep grasp of human nature; characters react to freakish and strange plot twists in ways that seem just somehow right. There’s an aura of conviction here that many Who writers can’t manage. He’s also digressive, tossing ideas around like cheap salad, following wherever they lead. His books are as much about his digressions as about plot, and The Slow Empire has less plot than most. It’s there, but it’s not the point so much as an excuse to have a novel.

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New Adventures Reviews: Deceit (Part One)

(This is the first half of a half-finished review. I’m hoping going ahead and posting it will prod me into writing the rest.)

The word for Deceit is “functional.” It does not tell an exciting story. It does not explore characters in great detail. It doesn’t say much about the human condition. Deceit was conceived and written solely to advance the editorial goals of Peter Darvill-Evans, New Adventures mastermind.

He’s testing his own editorial guidelines. He’s reintroducing Ace. He’s filling in the New Adventures’ future history. He’s cleaning up and retconning the last few books’ worth of characterization oddities. And he’s explaining his theory of time travel. As Darvill-Evans says in his afterward/apologia, “That’s a lot of functions for one medium-length novel to perform. I hope you didn’t notice it creaking under the weight of so many burdens.”

Deceit creaks. Understandably. Any writer juggling five such unwieldy objects hasn’t got a lot of spare attention for the things that make a book, y’know, good. The surprise is that Deceit is adequate. Continue reading New Adventures Reviews: Deceit (Part One)