Doctor Who Book Review: The Witch Hunters

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As part of the new History Collection series, the BBC has reprinted one of the old first Doctor PDAs – The Witch Hunters, featuring the original TARDIS crew arriving in Salem, 1692, at the time of the infamous witch trials.

The Salem Witch Trials is, actually, a period of history I’m relatively familiar with – or at least, I’m familiar with The Crucible, having spent probably too much time studying it over the past two years. It was pretty weird, then, to see characters like Abigail Williams and John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse interacting with Susan, Ian, and the Doctor. (Obviously, I know that they were real people, but having treated them as essentially fictionalised versions of themselves for so long, there’s something of a disconnect for me.)

I think the novel works quite well, actually, in terms of the way it’s structured, and how each character is used. The role given to Susan stood out to me; it made a lot of sense to have her play off against the other girls her own age, particularly with the exploration of Susan’s own developing psychic abilities. Rebecca Nurse and the Doctor also had a rather interesting plotline, with a resolution that put me somewhat in mind of Vincent and the Doctor.

(Actually, I tell you what it really reminded me of in places – this story I wrote, also with Ian, Barbara, Susan and the Doctor, in a timey-wimey historical adventure.  Obvious similarities – historical with the original TARDIS crew with a changing of time aspect, but also both I and Steve Lyons alluded to a previous event wherein the Doctor learned the hard way about changing time, and gave Susan similar ish plot beats about how she’d feel if Ian/Barbara left. The main difference is that in my story, they succeed in changing time, as opposed to being unable to in The Witchhunters.)

All in all, then, I’d actually quite strongly recommend this book. You might not get the same level of enjoyment out of it as I did if you don’t have the same background understanding of The Crucible, but there’s still a lot to like – it’s a very well written historical with the original TARDIS crew, after all.

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Doctor Who Book Review: The Quantum Archangel

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Hear me, Lord of Time. We are a vengeful people. Our reach is infinite and our patience eternal. For your actions, we will have vengeance. And the vengeance of the Chronovores is terror beyond imagining.

One of the most interesting concepts the show has thrown out across 50 years is, I think, the Valeyard. A dark mirror – wait, I’ve used this opening already, haven’t I?

Like Time of Your LifeThe Quantum Archangel uses the concept of the Valeyard to explore the Doctor’s character, and in particular his relationship with Mel. The book opens with the pair reeling from the destruction caused by a nuclear war on the planet Maradnias – a war which was, ultimately, the Doctor’s fault. In what proves to be a wonderfully written opening, Mel decides to leave the Doctor, and return home. You get a real window into their thought processes, and you can understand every choice they make.

… except the novel doesn’t quite open with that. Beforehand, there’s a prologue with the Eternals, the Guardians, and the Chronovores, which sets up a lot of details that will become important later on in the book – the Six Fold God, Calab-Yau space, and so on and so forth. These bits really come into play in the latter half of the story. It’s brilliantly realised, and full of very intricate detail that definitely adds to the proceedings.

So with that setting the scene – immensely powerful beings from before the dawn of time, the Doctor feeling the guilt of his actions and mistakes, Mel trying to start a new life outside of the TARDIS – the plot begins. And it’s one hell of a plot.

Essentially (and I’m simplifying a fair bit) the Master is fleeing the Chronovores, and decides that in order to survive, he must become a God – the Quantum Archangel. And, naturally, this is all goes very, very wrong…

Beyond that, I won’t go into much more detail about the plot for fear of spoilers, but I might talk about it in more depth another time. It’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t want to ruin; there’s some really wonderful, reality-bending stuff, which is best experienced with no foreknowledge I think. (I will say this though – the section with Mel includes the most frightening scene I’ve ever read in a Doctor Who novel)

The characters are all handled really well; I loved reading about this chapter in the development of the Doctor and Mel’s relationship. Equally, the Doctor and the Master’s relationship is painted quite well, typifying the way they interact somewhere between enemies and old friends.

It’s not perfect, sure – it’s built around a pretty massive coincidence – but a lot of the flaws that people tend to pick with it are a bit exaggerated. There’s a lot of continuity references, but they don’t feel all that obtrusive to me. It’s also a sequel to The Time Monster, which isn’t the most popular of serials, but it’s still pretty accessible if you haven’t seen it (like myself!).

Overall, it’s a great book, and it’s really worth a read. Especially for fans of the Sixth Doctor, I think, but that’s everyone, surely. The Quantum Archangel tells a truly epic story, but tells it in a uniquely Doctor Who way – it’s close, intimate, and full of a hope.

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Doctor Who Book Review: Time of Your Life

I’m trying to change my future… It’s a physical impossibility and in absolute contravention to the First, Second and Every Law of Time.

One of the most interesting concepts that Doctor Who has thrown out across 50 years is, I think, the Valeyard. A dark mirror of the Doctor, with all his capacity for cruelty and violence, all of his intelligence and his abilities, but without his moral code or his values. It’s pretty compelling stuff.

Admittedly though, the show did drop the ball a little bit with the Valeyard, in part due to some unfortunate behind the scenes consequences, and also because of Colin Baker being wrongly removed from the role. What that means, essentially, is that a lot of the potential of the Valeyard wasn’t really examined. (Personally, I’m hoping that he’ll return to the show again with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. It’s not all that unlikely, I don’t think; the Dream Lord from a few years ago was the Valeyard in all but name, after all.)

Because, however, a lot of the potential of the Valeyard wasn’t used in the show, he turns up a lot in the Expanded Universe… which brings me, finally, to the subject of this review.

Steve Lyons’ Missing Adventure novel, Time of Your Life, is set immediately after Trial of a Time Lord finishes. The Sixth Doctor has dropped off Mel, and has had his mind wiped. He doesn’t remember most of his trial, only bits and pieces – but he’s desperate to change the future. The spectre of the Valeyard is hanging over him; he’s exiled himself to the planet Torrok, living as a hermit, and refuses to take on companions, avoiding any red headed computer programmers he comes across.

But then, of course, the Time Lords have a mission for him. And a young girl, Angela, wants to travel with him…

The most interesting thing about this novel is reading about the Doctor struggling with his future. It’s always really compelling stuff, seeing him weigh up the consequences of his actions, wondering if the means (saving these lives in a violent fashion) justify the potential ends (becoming the Valeyard and doing untold damage), and his guilt over what happened to Peri (because of the mind wipe, he doesn’t know) as well as his fears about what may have happened to Angela when they’re separated. It’s one of the best portrayals of the Sixth Doctor I’ve read in a long time; not necessarily because this characterises him as he is typically, rather that it shows exactly how he would behave in one of the most trying periods of his life. One of my favourite scenes comes at the novel’s denouement, and it’s related to how the Doctor defeats the villain… I won’t say how, other than that it’s very, very fitting.

The rest of the novel has quite a few shades of Bad Wolf to it actually. Torrok is a planet which has gone to waste because it’s populace are addicted to bad soap operas – that’s where the Doctor lives as a hermit. The Time Lords then want him to investigate the broadcasting planet (it’s the usual thing; technology they shouldn’t have) and so along he goes (not without some complaining though).

The broadcasting planet, the Network, is a hell of a lot of fun. All the different characters are really well written, and you get a real sense of them and their existence. There’s Zed Martinelli, talk show host; Ray Day, soap opera star; Miriam Walker, campaigner against corruptive Television shows, and the fans of TimeRiders, a science fiction show unfairly cancelled, which suggests the Network bears a grudge against it. (Interestingly, there is no disclaimer suggesting that any similarities between the characters and real life people are entirely accidental. Odd that)

All in all, this is an absolutely excellent book. More than that, I’d say it’s an essential book; it’s a key part of the Doctor’s life, and it explores the consequences of his trial extremely well.

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Doctor Who Book Review: Blue Box

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They had an unusual relationship, these two travellers. The Doctor was twice Peri’s age at least, but he didn’t act like a father or an uncle – more like a big brother with a bad case of sibling rivalry. 

Recently I bought quite a few of the old Classic Who books, that were published when the show was off the air. I bought quite a few with the Sixth Doctor, and one of those books was Blue Box, by Kate Orman.

I was looking forward to reading this quite a lot – one of the few EDAs I’ve read, Vampire Science, was co-written by Kate Orman, and it’s an exceptionally good book. The same applies here; Blue Box is an absolutely fantastic read.

The plot is pretty clever, and not the sort of thing I’d ever really seen on Doctor Who before. It’s a novel about computer hackers, basically, and the Doctor has to join in with that world. There’s a lot of moving about from place to place (on a road trip!) as the Doctor, Peri, and two new characters track down Sarah Swan, another hacker, who has gotten hold of an alien computer device. It’s very well suited to a novel, and not the sort of thing you’d find in a TV episode.

For the most part, Blue Box is written in the first person, from the perspective of journalist Chuck Peters, who’s trying to write an article on the world of hackers. Because it’s all from his perspective, you see the way he rationalises it, swinging between assuming the Doctor was a Russian agent trying to find an American superweapon, or a British agent with his own agendas. Admittedly, this style of prose doesn’t always work – there’s quite a few instances where the character narrates things he wasn’t present to or couldn’t have known – but on the whole it was a nice change to the norm.

The key thing about Blue Box is characterisation though. Every character us absolutely pitch perfect. The new characters, Bob (a hacker friend of the Doctor’s, enlisted on the road trip for tech support) and Chuck both shine; they’re very distinctive, realistic characters. (There’s an interesting twist about Chuck and his background, which I wasn’t quite sure what to think of, but I’ll hold off in case of spoilers.) Sarah Swan is a perfect villain for this story – she’s petty, greedy and vindictive, and I guarantee you will hate her by the end of it. Other background characters like Mondy and Luis Perez also fit the story and add really well to the tone of the novel, creating a detailed view of the hacker world.

What’s really fantastic though is the Doctor and Peri. Because this story is set in America, near Peri’s home, what Kate Orman does is examine Peri’s homesickness, and why exactly she still travels with the Doctor, now he’s quite so abrasive. Their bickering is really well described, but it’s also made very apparent that the pair do care about each other a lot. It’s quite touching at times, and it’s absolutely how I think of them – sometimes the bickering is quite terse, but behind it is genuine affection. All in all, this is an excellent book. I loved the focus on technology, on computers when they were brand new. It’s particularly nice to read that now, when computers are such a big part of our lives. I’ll give it an 8/10.

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Doctor Who Book Review: Engines of War

doctor who book review engines of war george mann war doctor john hurt cinder borusa rassilon daleks time war other doctor renegade warlock moldox skaro

The death of millions is as of nothing to us, Doctor, if it helps defeat the Daleks.

I think the phrase is “poisoned chalice”. I’m not sure where it comes from, it’s probably Hamlet or something similar. Sort of ironic too actually, given how Eight regenerated.

I’m digressing though, heavily. I should backtrack a bit.

Engines of War is The Time War Novel. It’s so important that you capitalise The Time War Novel. It’s the event novel – probably the most important Doctor Who novel since… The Infinity Doctors. No, scratch that. I don’t think there’s a single Doctor Who book which could be said to cover a more important part of the show’s mythos.

The Time War has been the driving force of most of the show since 2005. It’s affected all of the New Who Doctors, and the Eighth Doctor as well. It’s a Very Big Thing. But we’ve never actually seen it. We’ve built up a picture across nearly ten years from the odd line, a few references here or there, occasional glimpses. Mentions of things like “the Nightmare Child”, or “The Could Have Been King and his armies of Meanwhiles and Never-weres”. There’s the “Skaro degradations”, “the Cruciform”, and the “Gates of Elysium”.

All of that evocative imagery coming together to conjure a picture of a horrible, eternal, all-consuming war fought on a thousand fronts, reaching every corner of the cosmos, corrupting and degrading and reducing the Universe. A war that “made the higher beings weep”, and “made the Eternals flee the Universe, never to be seen again”.

Russell T Davies described the Time War as “obscene” once, and that’s always sort of stuck with me since I first read it. Obscene. This dark, endless, hellish war. Obscene.

That is very difficult to put across in a book, or on TV, or in audio. Not impossible mind you, just very difficult. But if you add to the fact that everyone is going to have their own version of the Time War in their heads, it’s more or less inevitable that the book is going to disappoint.

So that’s what I was getting at with poisoned chalice. As a book, it’s in a hell of a difficult place. Technically, it was always destined to fail. How awful is that? Very much a poisoned chalice to have been given.

Obviously going in I knew that, and I tried to keep my expectations low…

But… this book is a letdown. There’s no other way to put it really.

It follows a largely generic plot, opening with a Dalek base we’ve seen hundreds of times before, an infiltration we’ve already seen before, a planet we’ve seen before. Nothing new or unique. (Having said that, I think I’m being a bit disingenuous – I really really like the opening part, Moldox. It’s very well written, and it’s actually quite a nice window into how the War has affected people who aren’t actually involved in it. The thing is, it’s just a little bit underwhelming – especially since it’s firmly set at the latter end of the Time War, when things really should be much, much worse.)

Then we move from there to Gallifrey, and it just devolves into the most ridiculous fanfiction ever. There are so many references and callbacks, and you just need it to slow down. That sort of continuity requires both tact and finesse, and neither was on display – it begins to read like a list of Gallifrey’s Greatest Hits. It’s back to the 80s, even, which is hardly lauded as the show’s best decade. Normally I don’t have much trouble with this sort of thing, but it could get very obtrusive here. It’s more subtle in some places, sure – there’s a reference to The End of Time with Rassilon tapping out a certain rhythm – but then on the other hand, you’ve got Zero Rooms, the cast of The Five Doctors, and even the bloody Mind Probe. In some places, it is far, far too much – quite often, less is more. (There was a pretty subtle reference to Sam Jones, the Eighth Doctor’s companion, which I liked, but probably also says a lot about quite how many continuity references there were.)

I don’t want to come across as though I hated this book, because it was certainly an enjoyable book to read. It’s really well written, with an excellent style of prose. The descriptions are fantastic, from the war-ravaged planet of Moldox to the Panopticon on Gallifrey itself. The main characters are excellent as well – John Hurt’s Doctor is a tired, sarcastic old man, grappling with the weight of worlds. George Mann has him pitch perfect to how he was in The Day of the Doctor.

Cinder, the companion, is also pretty damn great. She’s got a pretty good character arc, if, admittedly, a predictable fate, and provides a pretty good outside perspective on events. She’s also one of the first canonically LGBT companions in quite a long time. And, like all the best companions, she brings out the best in her Doctor…

… but that really leads me onto the biggest fault I had with the book. All throughout, John Hurt’s Doctor is called exactly that. He’s referred to as the Doctor by everyone. By the Time Lords, by Cinder, even in the actual prose itself. There’s no delivery on the idea that he’s “the one that broke the promise” – he might as well just be any other incarnation. I know that won’t bother most people, but it really, really irked me. It’s… I mean, you’ve got the toys, you might as well play with them, you know? Use it, have it mean something. For example, there’s a very nice coda at the end, where the Doctor wonders if anyone will ever call him the Doctor again… after three hundred pages of no one calling him anything else!

When the tagline of the book proclaims “WAR CHANGES EVERYONE – EVEN THE DOCTOR” you need to deliver, and show us a Doctor who’s actually different. Reveal to us, through Cinder, a quiet rising malevolence. Have him not only condone, but suggest, the death of thousands, because it would save the lives of billions. Give us a Doctor who’s scarily close to becoming the Valeyard. Give us a man who would make even the Seventh Doctor run away in horror. Up the ante. Change. The. Doctor. Make. It. Count.

Ultimately, it’s a book of wasted potential. That’s a horrible thing to say, and I don’t want to say that, because I did enjoy the book. There’s some fantastic concepts – George Mann’s explanation of the Skaro Degradations was wonderful, and his Possibility Engine was downright horrific. But that’s the sort of tone that should have been prevalent across the whole novel. I wasn’t reading this for a fun adventure with the Daleks, I wanted to see a glimpse into this reality twisting, obscene war.

Whether I would recommend this… I guess it depends on how you responded to this review. If none of my complaints bothered you, then I honestly would recommend it emphatically – it is, for the most part, fantastic. But if you’re the sort of person who’s ever sat and thought about the Time War… give it a miss. This book will just sweep away your version, and won’t have anything satisfactory to replace them with.

So that’s… that’s a mutable five out of ten and eight out of ten. It’s morphing between them, just like the Probability Engine.

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Doctor Who Book Review: Plague of the Cybermen (by Justin Richards)

doctor who book review plague of the cybermen eleventh doctor justin richards new series adventure cyberman cybus castle

Spoilers, ish.

No one really seems to know what to do with the Cybermen now, do they? Or at least, in terms of New Who material, I’m not all that familiar with any recent Big Finish outings.

At any rate, there seems to be a desire to change the Cybermen, presumably to give them some sort of edge. This isn’t really a problem, apart from the way it’s manifested itself – slowly but surely, the Cybermen are being turned into Borg. In Nightmare in Silver, they were Borg in spirit – connected to a hivemind, constantly adapting to the situation, and with an overall ‘leader’.

This novel turns them into the Borg in terms of physicality. It takes the idea of Cybermen as scavengers on their last legs and runs with it; in a reversal of the Cybermen concept, these Cybermen are having to harvest flesh and blood limbs to replace their own broken or missing metallic ones. It’s an interesting idea, and is a pretty good use of body horror – the only problem with it is one of coincidence really. If it hadn’t been for Neil Gaiman’s recent Borg-ification of the Cybermen, I would’ve  seen this in a much more positive way; in the way it deserves to be seen, really… but when reading it now it wasn’t as impactful as it could’ve been, and it came across as a bit distracting.

As to the rest of the novel, it’s a pretty traditional fare; it’s a base-under-siege story, essentially, with a slightly macabre atmosphere. And a well written one too. (Admittedly, elements of the plot riffed upon Richards’ earlier novels, such as The Clockwise Man and The Resurrection Casket, even copying a few of the jokes!) The style of prose was good (which is definitely a good thing; I don’t know why, but sometimes Justin Richards’ novels seem… off slightly? It’s probably just me) as was the characterisation of Matt Smith’s Doctor. It was exactly right, striking the balance between silliness and seriousness. Richards’ even managed to throw in a few morbid jokes, and make them feel in character. That’s a pretty impressive achievement.

Overall, I did like this book a lot, and would probably read it again. So…

7/10.

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Doctor Who Book Review: The Shroud of Sorrow

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Doctor Who Book Review: Shroud of Sorrow (by Tommy Donbavand)

doctor who book review the shroud of sorrow tommy donbavond eleventh doctor clara oswald wobblebottom

Wow.

I want to post the blurb here, first of all.

23 November, 1963

It is the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination – and the faces of the dead are everywhere. PC Reg Cranfield sees his late father in the mists along Totter’s Lane. Reporter Mae Callon sees her grandmother in a coffee stain on her desk. FBI Special Agent Warren Skeet finds his long-dead partner staring back at him from raindrops on a window pane.
Then the faces begin to talk, and scream… and push through into our world.

As the alien Shroud begins to feast on the grief of a world in mourning, can the Doctor dig deep enough into his own sorrow to save mankind?

You’d think that this is a relatively serious book, wouldn’t you? One with quite a mature tone – after all, it does have a rather mature theme (death and the stages of grief), so you’d expect it to be a generally mature book, right?#

And… well, I suppose it is in places. But in other places, it’s the exact opposite. The tone is as malleable and inconsistent… clay in water? Does that analogy work? Probably not. But the point stands – the tone of this novel is ridiculous. You’ve some very serious moments on one end of the scale, such as the introductory scene for FBI Agent Warren Skeet (this scene fleshes out his backstory, and depicts the death of his former partner) but on the other side of things you have Wobblebottom.

Yeah, you read that right. Wobblebottom.

You see, around halfway through the novel the Doctor, Clara, Warren Skeet and Mae (another new character) travel to the previous world which the Shroud had attacked, and they find the remains of the civilization. In what should have been a very complex and intelligent segment of the novel, the Doctor & co find a group of crazed tribes, each defined by a separate feeling – different emotions took over after their grief was removed, and so they become Tremblers (fear) or Ragers (rage) or Wanters (averis). That’s a pretty bold and interesting concept, I think, which should have been explored much more fully, and with a great deal more intelligence – instead we’re soon introduced to Wobblebottom and Flip flop, leaders of the Circus resistance.

It’s… it’s a nice idea, that a Circus is trying to give people back their emotions through happiness… but it doesn’t work, not in this scenario. It just undercuts everything that had been built up already. Not that much had, admittedly – the tone was always going to be an issue, what with the way the Doctor has been characterised in this novel. It’s as though all the whimsy, all the jesting, all the not-at-all-serious-and-sometimes-borderline-irritating aspects of the Eleventh Doctor have been distilled and put into this (it really is a pastiche, the sort of thing you find in juvenile fan fiction. The Doctor even calls the TARDIS “sexy”. Twice. Like… what?). It’s a terribly misjudged piece of writing, one that doesn’t deserve to be likened to Matt Smith’s brilliant portrayal.

The other issue is a gratuitous overuse of continuity. And I mean that quite seriously – continuity is great, but this is too much. Way, way too much. A couple of examples –

  • The policeman at Totter’s Lane. (He’s totally superfluous to the plot, sadly)
  • 23 pages in, and we have a reference to Astrid. Seriously?
  • The Fast Return switch is introduced in the most poorly written way (“What’s that?” “Oh, it’s the Fast Return switch”) simply so it can be used as a plot device in a few pages time. (And it barely makes sense there either)

Given that the final confrontation is, essentially, a huge continuity fest (flashbacks from painful moments in the Doctor’s lives) I would’ve expected all those little things to have been cut right down. They do get very, very distracting, and can bring you right out of it. Especially when it’s wrong, for goodness’ sake! (Admittedly, the larger moments – flashbacks and a joke sequence – do work very well, but they feel cheapened by all the other, prior references)

So… eh. This book was not a good one, to be honest. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for anything beyond completion’s sake, unless you enjoy that more whimsical tone of story. Certainly one to avoid if you’re expecting a serious novel, in the vein of prior stories (I was actually expecting this to be sort of similar to Vampire Science, but… it couldn’t be further removed from it)

2/10

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Doctor Who Book Review: Plague of the Cybermen

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