The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Time TravellerBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 18 November 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
This seventh entry in the Time Trips series of e-books is the work of Joanne Harris, and sees the Third Doctor on the brink of oblivion as he struggles to hold back the deadly radiation he was exposed to on Metebelis Three. The Doctor is the only series regular character to feature, and that is because of his predicament in trying to land back 'home' - i.e. UNIT HQ. After the TARDIS is instead forced down into a Time Paradox ensnared village, with a 'Groundhog Day' style routine questions abound. But soon it is clear that the Doctor must somehow save the day once again - despite his very weak condition.

Although thrown into jeopardy from the very start, the Doctor does gain a 'one-off' assistant in the form of Queen Alice. She must help the Doctor overcome the seemingly deadly Gyre portal, and also mechanical creations with fearsome intentions - including impassive Dolls, Bears and Clowns. There is clearly not much of a breathing space when someone dares to upset the status quo and challenge the mysterious higher being that is apparently looking from above - but then things rarely are straightforward for the alien explorer. If someone were to be successful in reaching the controller of the Gyre and requesting the release of the village, it would appear to be the debonair Third Doctor. But being on death's door, without the help of fellow Time Lord K'anpo Rimpoche to assist him to regenerate, there is more pressure and demands made of him than normal. And there is also the issue of trying to reunite Alice with her beloved daughter. Will there be a happy ending for all concerned?

This is one of the most straightforward but pleasurable reading experiences I have had of any genre in recent times. Description is fulsome without managing to slow the story down, and the regular reminders of the Doctor's terminal condition are all very effective and fit the core themes of the actual story concerned. The Jon Pertwee incarnation is one of the more effortless personas to translate to the written word, but this is still an impressive portrayal. There is a lot of sound psychological insight into someone who might not be so 'all-conquering' in his own mind deep down.

The plot is measured very well and rewards readers for trying to get to the core of the mystery. Characterisation is also well above the average for Doctor Who tie-in novels, almost so much so one wishes this was a full-length work. Whilst perhaps needing readers to have seen 'Planet of Spiders' to have the maximum impact, this is a story that can be read by anyone looking for an engaging and thematically rich diversion.




The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 24 October 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage
Written by Derek Landy
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 October 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

If this month’s Puffin short story sounds as though it has a hackneyed title then there’s actually a good reason for that. Because the tenth Doctor and Martha rapidly discover – spoiler warnings again here! – that what they really need to investigate is the mystery of The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage: they are apparently trapped in a predictable, Enid Blyton-esque children’s book once read by Martha. In this sub-'Famous Five' world, populated by a jolly group of kids known as the Troubleseekers, the Doctor and Martha have to work out exactly what sort of trouble they’re in.

Derek Landy has created an intriguing scenario, adroitly referring to the Land of Fiction as well as the Doctor’s previous encounters with a certain fictional vampire. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable sections of the tale occurs when the Doctor and Martha tumble crazily through different narratives, suddenly finding themselves in a Stephen King novel, for instance. But the leading difficulty with this kind of tale – whose villain gains his power from readers’ willing suspension of disbelief – is ironically that you can’t suspend your disbelief. You know all along that the unreal worlds will somehow be switched off, that 'reality' will be restored, and consequently this feels more like hearing a shadowy dream recounted than reading a realist narrative.

For me, Landy’s version of the tenth Doctor is slightly off: this doesn’t quite sound like the David Tennant incarnation on occasions, unlike last month’s contribution from Charlie Higson which perfectly captured the ninth Doctor’s speech patterns. This representation of the Doctor says he’ll judge Martha Jones later on for the fact that she’s read the Twilight books, and though the comment may be a joke, it seems as if this rendering of the tenth Doctor has uncharacteristically become a literary snob rather than an open-minded figure. Other moments of dialogue also feel odd, such as the Doctor cursing by saying “seven hells” and remarking on his own "good hair".

At a vital point in his story, Landy offers us a glimpse of the Doctor’s imagination and all the books he’s ever read. If ever there was a candidate for an epic moment of the awesomely sublime then this ought to be it, but instead what we’re given here feels barely less clichéd than the Troubleseekers with their oath and their cheery picnics. This is very much a missed opportunity, all generic fantasy forestland and coloured sky, before changing into a constantly blurring flipbook of shifting scenes. To be fair, this does effectively convey the Doctor’s imagination in the process of overloading his antagonist, but it still feels rather cursory and predictable. The story’s denouement also disappointed me slightly. Its equation of the TARDIS with “the imagination” is well taken, but when a resolution pretty much boils down to shutting the TARDIS door then you can’t help but feel slightly cheated (whether or not this is readable as a tricksily “meta” version of Doctor Who, where going into the TARDIS necessarily means the end of the story).

But perhaps I’m being too negative, just as the Doctor takes a cavalier attitude to the Troubleseekers and sparkly Twilight stuff. On the plus side, Landy gives Martha a strong role in this story; as well as hinting at her romantic interest in the Doctor – resonating with series three – it’s often Martha who works out what’s going on, and who takes risks that propel the story forward (and away from the threat of nothingness). And The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage also features some appropriate monsters or henchmen, neatly called the un-Men, who serve as a physical threat where needed. But having the Doctor be so starkly dismissive of “rubbish” old-fashioned children’s fiction makes him sound more like a contemporary writer than a citizen of the universe who walks (and presumably reads) in eternity. At one point, Landy’s plot relies on the observation that his omnipotent ‘Author’ can’t resist a temptation to insert himself into the story: likewise, the Doctor’s attitudes sometimes feel as if they veer too close to authorial commentary.

This story begins with a clever idea that is smartly developed in a series of ways (although the collision with fairytales might have played better as an eleventh Doctor scenario). It also offers a second pay-off to its title, in the form of an unexpected “haunting”, but nonetheless remains weakened by an overly convenient ending and a depiction of the tenth Doctor that feels slightly too churlish and self-appreciative. In the end, perhaps there just isn’t enough awe-inspiring mystery to this particular haunted cottage.




Spore (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 25 August 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Spore
Written by Alex Scarrow
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 August 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook. 

This is an effective short story which builds tension smartly and offers an interesting pay-off. But as a tribute to the era of the eighth Doctor it falls a little flat. Beyond details of his costume, this is barely recognizable as the Paul McGann Doctor, instead feeling very generically ‘Doctor-ish’ rather than resonating with this incarnation’s appearance in the TV Movie or indeed with any of his lives beyond television. Also, the Doctor is depicted as travelling alone, meaning that none of his TV, novel or audio companions are acknowledged. All of this makes Spore a rather pale shadow of earlier entries in this series, for example Philip Reeve’s Roots of Evil, which perfectly captured the spirit of its Doctor Who time. However, nor is this eshort comparable to Eoin Colfer’s opening story which actively reworked the first Doctor’s character – this isn’t so much a revisionist eighth Doctor as a reduced or thinned-out character denuded of distinguishing features.

More authorial energy has been expended by Alex Scarrow on realizing the Doctor’s opponent – the spore of the title which threatens the American town of Fort Casey. This organism breaks any living matter down into a black sludge which it can then use to create a network of biomass connections and defences. However, the alien pathogen isn’t simply intent on invasion: it has a further purpose which Scarrow gradually reveals, and which sets the stage for an intriguing denouement. And there’s also some back-story to cement the Doctor’s involvement, as it becomes apparent that this entity has been faced by the Time Lords before. As a plot device this feels slightly in danger of becoming a Who cliché, mind you: it offers an instant way of raising the stakes, and the Time Lords have had a motley collection of enemies and invaders over the years. But Scarrow’s decision to pit the US military against a creature previously encountered by Gallifreyans means that the Doctor can play a more intimate role in repelling the spore than might otherwise have been the case.

Given that he’s travelling by himself, the Doctor rapidly acquires a makeshift companion, Evelyn Chan, part of the US forces sent in to investigate events in Nevada. By name-checking UNIT the Doctor gets himself sent in as a troubleshooter, and works alongside Evelyn to discover how the alien creature can be tackled. But Chan is given little sense of fleshed-out characterisation, and in an eshort such as this, which needs to constantly keep hitting plot beats, there is precious little space to develop her as a rounded, three-dimensional figure. Consequently she ends up as a companion cipher, there to give the Doctor somebody to talk to. Perhaps this tale would have worked better as an equivalent to The Deadly Assassin, pitting companion-less Time Lord against unusual antagonist.

There’s an interesting moment where cosmic timing is discussed: had the creature arrived on Earth some years later then the Doctor realizes a very different outcome would have arisen. It’s tempting to wonder if Scarrow is smuggling in a reference to the TV Movie’s fate: in 1996 Doctor Who’s timing was off, and just a few years later it would meet with a radically different outcome... but the parallel isn’t really made strongly or playfully enough to hold water.

Unlike last month’s Puffin ebook, Malorie Blackman’s magnificent and formula-challenging Ripple Effect, there’s little in the way of social commentary this time round. By contrast, this is an adventure firmly in the mould of B-movie antecedents, and although it darts along with plenty of narrative energy it ultimately feels rather insubstantial. The eighth Doctor has been poorly served in certain ways in the past (the TV Movie can hardly be described as having a well-plotted conclusion, for instance) and this strikes me, overall, as another disappointment. You get the feeling that Scarrow isn’t sure of what he should be building on from Doctor Who’s past, and his Doctor ends up feeling excessively generalised rather than specific.

It wouldn’t be fair to describe Spore as poor, however, but for me it is one of the weaker Puffin ebooks in this anniversary range. I expect the remaining titles will grab a much firmer hold of their source material, meaning that ninth, tenth and eleventh Doctors will most likely feel ‘authentic’ in a way that this eighth Doctor simply doesn’t. And although I realize the brief for this range was to use new authors, thereby reaching out to YA readers, perhaps the Paul McGann Doctor would have been better served by a writer who’d already established a feel for this incarnation across the “wilderness years” of the interregnum. Instead, Spore presents an oddly generic Doctor alongside an equally generic companion. The fact that it is starkly named in honour of its extraterrestrial invader shows in a single word where the story’s centre of gravity really lies.

And as rumours continue to circulate about who might have agreed to write for this series, it will be interesting to see which authors contribute to Puffin’s run of ‘new Who’ adventures…




The Ripple Effect (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 24 July 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Ripple Effect
Written by Malorie Blackman
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 July 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook. 

This is undoubtedly a bit of a scoop for the world of Doctor Who publishing; it’s not every day that the Children’s Laureate pens a story featuring the seventh Doctor and the Daleks. Even in this anniversary year, replete with Proms and Celebrations and previously unknown incarnations of our favourite Time Lord, it’s good to know that Who can still break new ground in its literary guise. A perfect companion to the BFI’s July screening of Remembrance of the Daleks, this novella (also featuring Ace, and referring to her prior adventures with that baseball bat) might almost be dubbed ‘Amnesia of the Daleks’. Because something terrifying and vastly alarming has happened: nobody other than the Doctor and Ace seems able to recall that the Daleks are a force for evil. In this alien universe, the Daleks are instead skillful geneticists (“I bet they are!” mutters the Doctor darkly at one point), surgeons and philosophers dedicated to keeping the peace. The concept of Daleks as academics is highly intriguing, and as might be expected from a writer as skilled as Malorie Blackman, this is impressive stuff.

Of course, given the brief word count there’s little scope for an intricate series of twists and reveals, and the basic mechanics of this storyline are fairly guessable. But the chief pleasures of The Ripple Effect aren’t really ones of plotting. Instead, the thrill here is that this short story comes about as close to being one kind of ‘anti-Doctor Who’ as is possible without causing brand management to implode. Challenging the central tenets and structures of Who, this is akin to a moment from Genesis of the Daleks expanded to novella length, or an instant from Dalek vigorously elaborated upon. In The Ripple Effect, Blackman sets up a startling moral question and pursues it to the very brink: what if the Daleks really were good, and the Doctor was prejudiced against them, unable to let go of a counterfactual past that he remembers all too well?

Readers are warned that this isn’t going to be a conventional tale when we begin with exaggerated stasis. The TARDIS is trapped, for once, and could remain so for the rest of time. The Doctor’s usual ingenuity doesn’t appear to be working, leaving Ace worried that she might be forced to live out her days inside the time machine. It’s the kind of opening you could imagine a script editor querying, but Blackman is free to engineer her own scenario here. Indeed, she has expertly explored prejudice before in a science-fictional setting, particularly in the award-winning Noughts & Crosses book series. By pushing artfully at the boundaries of what makes Doctor Who, well, Doctor Who, the Children's Laureate is reiterating and extending some of her characteristic concerns. And if ever there was a Doctor who we might doubt, I guess it’s Time’s Champion, the Machiavellian and manipulative seventh incarnation.

In line with stories like Power of the Daleks and Victory of the Daleks, readers might expect that The Ripple Effect’s well-behaved 'monsters' will eventually prove to be scheming their way to galactic domination. We sympathise with the Doctor at first because he’s still behaving as if he’s inside a conventional Doctor Who story, and his reactions make sense in that template. But then doubts begin to magnify: what if this story isn’t patterned after Power or Victory after all? What if, this time, the Doctor really is trapped in old-fashioned and obsolete beliefs, left following the wrong script?

The Ripple Effect offers a viewpoint figure in order to dramatise its challenge to the Doctor’s moral superiority and good sense, and this is Tulana from the planet Markhan. A student of the Daleks, Tulana is appalled by the Doctor’s refusal to accept her universe as it is, and tells him so. Occasionally this means that Blackman’s moral lessons are voiced very directly rather than left to echo uncannily and uneasily through the world she’s created. And when matters eventually come to a head then they do so very rapidly, something that left me wishing for much more of this universe and its Dalek gentlemen-scholars.

Malorie Blackman's contribution more than maintains the high standard set by recent Puffin stories from the likes of Philip Reeve and Richelle Mead. And although you get the feeling that, ultimately, the author isn’t able to push things quite as far as she’d like to, The Ripple Effect thoroughly deserves to resonate out through the larger Doctor Who mythos. I’d be amazed if it doesn’t end up being a high water mark for this particular series. Well suited to the novella format, this is an entertaining parable that enables the Doctor and the Daleks to pose serious questions of (unearthly) prejudice. Essential reading!




Something Borrowed (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 25 June 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Something Borrowed
Written by Richelle Mead
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 June 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook. 

Puffin's series of short stories continues with something of a triumph for the sixth Doctor’s era. In Something Borrowed, US author Richelle Mead adopts the first person perspective of Ms Peri Brown, as well as having fun with the gaudiness of mid-80s Doctor Who (but not fun at its expense). Here, the Doctor and Peri visit the Koturians, a race who have been so inspired by their experience of Earth’s Las Vegas that they've modelled themselves on its culture. In place of the Strip there’s a “Swathe”, and even an Elvis impersonator turns up at one vital moment. But for all its energetic knowingness, Something Borrowed also refines its Who source material by setting out a coherent, well thought through storyline (not something that could always be said of the sixth Doctor’s TV outings, in my view).

Mead’s decision to use Peri as her viewpoint character means that the Doctor occasionally bursts in on proceedings and has to info-dump what he’s been up to, but on the whole it’s a gambit which further lends coherence and credibility to the tale. Peri’s American vantage point is (perhaps understandably) well realized, but there are also lovely little character moments such as her anxiety about being stared at by a crowd of wedding guests when she and the Doctor are about to intervene in one particular ceremony. Given the story’s title – and its Vegas-esque setting – it probably comes as little surprise to find that there’s a wedding at the heart of matters. But this isn’t Doctor Who-as-romance: nuptial themes are precisely and sharply integrated with a daring scheme that could transform the Doctor’s world (and even Doctor Who) as we know it.

The Doctor and Peri face a familiar nemesis, and though the identity of this villain is eminently guessable it is still a pleasure to encounter them, and in a well-written guise at that. The Doctor’s acerbic reworking of “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue” may be rather mean, but it’s also very funny, and in keeping with this era’s focus on badinage. At one point the Doctor overcomes some henchman-type creatures (hench-creatures?), and you half expect him to toss out a Sawardian one-liner. But no, rather than caustically quipping, he pauses to express his regret (and I’d love to know if that moment emerged through an editorial note: it really does feel like a knowledgeable fan taking the time to ‘correct’ tonal worries rooted in long-term readings of the sixth Doctor).

The villain of the piece wants a Koturian groom as part of their capricious machinations to ‘borrow’ (OK, steal) something that’s lacking in “most” Time Lord’s capabilities (and the story fudges this by inserting “most” and “definitively” in its eventual explanation, thereby glossing over the debacle of a certain fourth Doctor Dalek story). But what’s most impressive is that while acknowledging details of fan knowledge here and there, the storyline still rockets along and everything dovetails neatly together in a logically and emotionally satisfying way. There are bits of dialogue you can almost hear Colin Baker’s voice saying, they fit so well into his Doctor’s character. And both Peri and the returning baddie are also well served. In light of what would happen later in the run of television stories, a casual threat about the possibility of the Doctor regenerating “sooner” than he might think also resonates rather smartly for the reader.

In terms of character, setting, alien culture, and its villain’s grandiose scheme, Something Borrowed hits all the right notes. Richelle Mead has lovingly borrowed a sometimes unloved period in Doctor Who’s rich tapestry, and not only restored its sense and sensibilities, but also stitched it back together in a new and somewhat improved pattern. Rarely has Peri been this three-dimensional a character. And although the TV programme had begun to recurrently plunder Time Lord lore by the mid-80s, it rarely did so in a particularly coherent manner (something brought home to me when rewatching The Two Doctors at the BFI recently). On this occasion, however, Mead’s handiwork makes judicious use of Time Lord capacities to power the overall storyline. “Impressive” really is the most apposite epithet for this month’s Puffin ebook.




Tip of the Tongue (Puffin Books)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 23 May 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Tip of the Tongue
Written by Patrick Ness
Puffin Books
UK release: 23 May 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

There can be no doubting Patrick Ness’s credentials as a writer of YA fantasy, and this Puffin series continues to add ‘big name’ authorial value to its month-by-month releases. Reaching the fifth Doctor’s tenure, Tip of the Tongue features Nyssa as the Doctor's sole companion, also including some smart continuity references to Adric and Tegan near its conclusion.

Ness excels at creating fantasy worlds. Here it’s America in 1945, but very much with an alien twist. Strange creatures dubbed 'Truth Tellers' (which attach themselves to their recipient’s tongue) have invaded Temperance, Maine, meaning that locals can indulge themselves in expressing plenty of plain, unvarnished reality. Of course, Ness can’t resist having some fun with this concept, working in a version of a “does my bum look big in this?” gag, but he also strikes a more serious note by illustrating just how much society hinges on degrees of tact, if not innumerable white lies. Constant truth-telling offers a ready way for veracious intruders to disrupt human existence, it would seem.

Appropriately enough, Ness withholds the full truth of his own tale, and as a result there’s a satisfying twist towards the end of proceedings. He relies on his readers’ sense of what constitutes a Doctor Who story (e.g. extraterrestrial threat) to misdirect and mislead, and the “Dipthodat” race are ultimately not quite what you might have expected… If economy with the truth gives rise to a clever denouement, there is nevertheless a danger that this doesn’t always feel exactly like Doctor Who. It’s more of a scenario which the Doctor happens to breeze through, with our celery-sporting hero reduced almost to a guest-star role. Ness is far more interested in his own original characters and their relationships, focusing on the friendship between young Jonny and Nettie rather than centring events on the Doctor and Nyssa (even if the latter’s trousers cause a bit of a stir in 1945 Maine).

Last month’s Roots of Evil simultaneously captured the flavour of fourth Doctor-Leela adventures and conveyed Philip Reeve’s authorial voice, whereas this time round we get more of a character study, and a carefully thought-out, localised transformation of history, but not something which necessarily fits snugly into the Davison era. Instead, Tip of the Tongue skillfully combines its truth-telling theme with a coming-of-age tale, where the reality of the human heart becomes something subtle and malleable – something not fully in the grasp of its teller – rather than a mere matter of reportage. Ness makes us care about Jonny and Nettie, and with more than a hint of “new Who” permeating the turn of events, emotional realism becomes just as important here as the matter of an alien incursion.

Ultimately, Tip of the Tongue contradicts its title; unlike a word that’s almost remembered, yet can’t quite be recalled, this material is always under its author’s control, and it’s a beautifully crafted piece of fiction - a good story first and foremost, and a Doctor Who story second, as if viewed from the perspective of somebody who would usually be a bit-part character. And where child actors can sometimes pose a problem for televised Who, no such difficulties plague the written word. Young characters come into their own in this deft integration of YA fiction and the Whoniverse.

To be sure, Patrick Ness hasn’t written a novella which simply apes family entertainment TV, nor one which offers unbridled SF spectacle in literary form. And, unusually, fan service is almost an alien concept here (bar a few moments of continuity referencing, and the fifth Doctor’s attitude towards travelling companions). But perhaps the most compelling form of “fan service” lies in creating a thematically coherent, intelligent and consistent story-world that never feels programmatic. Tip of the Tongue isn’t a “game changer”. It doesn’t promise any big secrets or any devastating reveals. Yet, perhaps unwittingly echoing Peter Davison’s portrayal of the Doctor, this month’s Puffin ebook combines quiet integrity with true warmth and charm.