“Forever Autumn” by Mark Morris (2007)

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Darker days are drawing near

Darker days are drawing near

“When the bell finally rang, Rick Pirelli almost burst with excitement.”

This is only my third year writing this blog, but already traditions have sprung up. Most notably is the idea that each Hallowe’en, I read a book that is thematically suitable. Two years ago, that was The Haunted Book, a collection of genuinely terrifying ghost stories. Last year, it was Hallowe’en Party, a murder mystery with extra apple bobbing thrown in. This year, I figured it made sense to go for a book with a pumpkin on the front, hence Forever Autumn.

Suffice to say, while I won’t give up the tradition of spooky books around the end of October, I think I am giving up Doctor Who novelisations.

I’ve read some good ones, although often they’re the ones about the older Doctors. David Tennant’s live wire Tenth Doctor simply doesn’t work on paper. He needs to be springing about like a jackrabbit with three thousand volts up its bum. But I’m getting ahead of myself. You know I don’t like it, but here’s why.

The story takes place in New England (that’s New England on Old Earth, rather than New England on New Earth) in around 2008. Three teenage boys, Rick, Scott and Thad, are exploring their Hallowe’en-obsessed town of Blackwood Falls when they notice the gnarled, old tree at the bottom of Rick’s garden has started to glow green. They proceed to dig up the soil and find an ancient book full of weird writing. Rick hides the book under his bed and tries not to think about it.

However, the theft of this book has awoken the Hervoken, a race of pumpkin-headed skeletons whose spaceship has crashed where the town now sits. They are a race that cares only for their own needs, not worrying if they hurt anyone else in the process of doing what needs to be done. Enveloping the town in a green mist, they set about a plan of action, to get their book back, as well as find enough fuel to allow their ship to take off once more.

I know that Doctor Who is technically for kids, I do know that, but these days the show is definitely wired to get as big of an audience as possible, so it contains themes, jokes and issues that will go over the head of your average eight-year-old. Also, it helps that Peter Capaldi doesn’t seem in the least like someone who would be appropriate for kids television. But the novels are definitely geared at the younger audience, written with simplistic style and, in this case, with twelve-year-old heroes who speak with the defiance and measure of people much older.

Oh, sure, there are a couple of really creepy bits in here, can’t say there aren’t, but as I said above, it lacks the energy of the show. None of the characters sound different enough to be interesting, and I include the Doctor in that. He has a habit of waffling on about irrelevant topics to an even greater degree than on television, and the author has done his utmost to throw in as many references to events in the show as possible, clogging the text with them.

There’s an attempt at showing that Hallowe’en traditions have sprung up because of humans early, and now legendary, interactions with these aliens, but it’s not given much page time, so it’s impossible to say how far this effect goes. This may well be a series where the unbelievable happens on a weekly basis, but I’m still going to need something that makes me care about these characters. It’s like meeting an old friend and finding their personality has been replaced.

So, while I support the notion of reading a scary book for Hallowe’en, I wouldn’t go for this one.

If you want to try something a bit different, a bit gory, and a bit creepier, you could try my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, available from Amazon, iTunes and SmashWords for any e-reader device.

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“The Three Doctors” by Terrance Dicks (1975)

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"Three of them? I didn't know when I was well off!"

“Three of them? I didn’t know when I was well off!”

“For an adventure that was to be one of the most astonishing of the Doctor’s very long life, it all began very quietly.”

For the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, the celebratory episode had David Tennant, Matt Smith and John Hurt all play their own incarnations of the universe’s most famous time traveller. Under Time Lord law, crossing one’s own time stream is considered hugely dangerous to all concerned, but since the new series has dispensed with the Time Lords and driven them away to a pocket universe, there was no one to stop him. However, this is far from the first time the Doctor has met previous versions of himself. The first time he did, we got this story: The Three Doctors.

Originally aired in 1972 and then turned into a book three years later, this is nominally an adventure of the third Doctor, John Pertwee, and what happens when he joins forces (somewhat against his will) with his former selves, represented by William Hartnell (First) and Patrick Troughton (Second). Something is draining the Time Lord’s power and they are struggling to survive against whatever it is. Meanwhile, on Earth, a scientist and a farmer are sucked through a black hole, leaving behind no trace of their existence.

With the Third Doctor already looking into these strange disappearances, the Time Lords realise that they need his help more than ever and, figuring two heads are better than one, ignore their own rules and send in the Second Doctor to help him. And when it turns out that the two of them can do nothing but squabble, a third becomes required to keep order. The three must now save the universe from blob monsters and a legendary figure from their race’s history, the all-powerful Omega, the Time Lord who gave them the ability to travel in time at the cost of his own freedom and sanity.

Like all the novelisations, they can be a bit hit and miss, having originally been written for an entirely different medium. At this point in the still admittedly early history of Doctor Who (although it had been running for nine years by the time the episode aired), they still haven’t quite worked out the naming conventions of the different incarnations, which translates into the book, too. While we use the terms Second Doctor, Ninth Doctor, Twelfth Doctor and so on, these names actually seem to have only come about since the revival, meaning that in the book, Pertwee’s Doctor is “the Doctor”, Troughton’s is “Doctor Two” and Hartnell’s never actually seems to be named, perhaps because calling him either Doctor One or Doctor Three is potentially confusing.

Refreshingly, we can see the first glimmers of a female companion who is not just there to scream and get rescued. Jo Grant is capable and competent, and while there are some scenes in which the Doctor refuses her help and insists that other men remove her from the action (which they frequently do bodily), she appears to have a functioning brain, can handle a gun and displays a wider range of emotion than “scared”. The role of gung-ho and capable companion will be expanded with the arrival of Sarah-Jane Smith, but it’s good to see its beginnings.

The story is about as nonsensical as all Doctor Who stories (which isn’t a complaint – they’re always a bit sketchy on the science) and it’s interesting to see how different versions of the Doctor react to one another, treating their original form with a certain reverence, and always seemingly annoyed at what they become.

A short snappy read, which also explains a good deal about the history of the Time Lords, which is something I’ve always been curious about, and introduces the reader to more detail on characters that fans of the revival are less familiar with, such as Jo and the Brigadier.

If you would like to read more of my writing, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon, iTunes, SmashWords or any other good ebook retailler.

“The Art Of Destruction” by Stephen Cole (2006)

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art of

Creation and destruction are just two sides of the same coin.

“The darkness plays tricks on you, down here.”

The modern Doctor Who books have become so hit and miss for me lately that when I approach one, I now do so with the caution of a bomb disposal squad. In particular, I wondered about this one as it features Rose who, at the time, I loved, but she has sort of faded for me since characters like Donna and Amy who I found more interesting and engaging. Nonetheless, I pushed on and found a genuinely good story.

The action takes place in Chad, Africa in the year 2118. Africa (there’s a lot of generalisation about the continent within the novel, and very little mention of the fact that there are actually 50-ish countries there) still seems to be poor and much of the land that was before seen as unusable has now undergone tests to grow food for the starving millions around the world. While there have been some successes, and genetic manipulation has come a long way, there are still troubles. A team is now working beneath an active volcano, trying to grow edible fungi.

The Doctor and Rose drop in having picked up on some alien activity, and it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Humans and assorted wildlife are being consumed by apparently living gold and turning into statues that seem determined to protect the caves beneath the volcano. Add to that an alien antiques expert, the beautiful but hidden haul of a race of artists and the incoming threat of more aliens with a score to settle, and things are about to get really messy.

Stephen Cole also wrote the Ninth Doctor novel The Monsters Inside which I read a few years ago and really enjoyed. He is one of the better writers for Doctor Who novels, unlike others. The Doctor seems far more like himself here, as if Cole has got a better grip on a character. It’s also nice to see Rose back again, despite her no longer being my favourite companion. The novel plays up the idea that Rose is the one person that the Doctor fell in love with, for whatever reason, and it isn’t a worse novel for it. The aliens are interesting, the whole concept is smart and original, but it does fall down with, as mentioned above, its continual obsession with the idea that Africa is a country rather than a continent. Also, simply because of the difference in medium, the aliens within will never be as clear or as terrifying as those on the television. Still, there are some funny gags, a lot of action and it feels like it could have been an episode in season two quite easily.

My faith in the Who books is redeemed. For now.

“The Tenth Planet” by Gerry Davis (1976)

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Well, ninth... poor Pluto.

Well, ninth… poor Pluto.

“The long low room housed three separate rows of control consoles and technicians and resembled Cape Kennedy Tracking Station in miniature.”

I’ve covered Doctor Who novels on a number of occasions, but this one takes us right back to the time of the First Doctor, as played by William Hartnell. The episode is from 1966, the book is from 1976, and it’s one of those ones that definitely shows its age.

Basically, in this story, Earth’s long lost twin planet Mondas has reappeared in the sky and the natives, Cybermen, are coming back to Earth to conquer it and steal all of its power. The Cybermen (for non-Whovians) are an alien race that were once like humans but had a desperation to survive at all costs. They replaced their body parts with metal and plastic until no flesh or bone remained and their brain was replaced with a computer. In their quest for eternal life, they lost their emotions and now run on pure logic.

On Earth, it is the year 2000 and the only people capable of stopping the invasion are the Doctor, his companions Polly and Ben, and the scientific crew of a space tracking station buried beneath Antarctica. But the Doctor is ill and his strength is failing fast. He must work with the humans to stop the invasion and remove Mondas from the sky before the Earth loses all of its power and the human race is deleted from history…

Cybermen have never been my favourite Doctor Who villains, although they look marginally more scary now than they did back then. They come across as creepy, but this is their first appearance and the writers are still clearly working through a few flaws. The Cyberman have names here (possibly the only time they ever do) and there’s still some semblance of humanity about them. They are slightly more hive-mind-like in later appearances; here they still seem to be individual. One particularly odd moment is when they disguise themselves as human soldiers.

The novel also includes the Doctor’s first regeneration at the end of the book. This can’t count as a spoiler, as the cover mentions that it is the First Doctor’s last adventure, so you know that it’s coming. It builds up to it slowly. The Doctor doesn’t do much here, merely gets older and paler, and then turns into Patrick Troughton.

The story has dated in the way that anything from that era that tries to predict the future does. It’s the year 2000 (their future, our past) and mention is made of a manned mission to Mars having just returned to Earth. I miss that optimism and, once again, I must say that it’s about time we started getting interested in manned spaceflights again. We owe it to the past, if nothing else!

A quick read, and of its time, but nonetheless interesting to see an early incarnation of both the Doctor and the Cybermen.

“Sick Building” by Paul Magrs (2007)

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This is more than a tickly throat.

This is more than a tickly throat.

“She was running through the winter woods because death was at her heels.”

In my eyes, books are superior to films and TV in many ways, but one way in which their superiority is undeniable is the fact that books are not limited by budgets or special effects. While I love Doctor Who, you can’t deny that a huge number of episodes are set in early 21st century Britain, despite the fact that the entire premise of the show is that the Doctor has a machine that allows him to travel anywhere in time and space. This is why the Doctor Who novels are a great boon, as you can tell the stories that take place on other worlds and with very strange events without spending an extra penny on costumes or location scouting. However, unlike the show, the books are far more hit and miss with how well they’re executed.

In this novel, the Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones have arrived on Tiermann’s World, a planet in the distant future that is owned by one man who lives there with his wife and son surrounded by robot servants to do everything for them. They are, however, in trouble, as the planet is being consumed by a huge alien beast called a Voracious Craw, a tapeworm-like creature that is more mouth than anything else. It circles the planet and sucks up anything and everything into its maw. The Doctor and Martha intend to save the Tiermann family.

However, Ernest Tiermann is something of a madman, having build his perfect house, the Dreamhome, and encased it in force shields to protect him from the outside world. This won’t stop the Craw though, and they all know it. While trying to save the TARDIS, the Doctor is accused of damaging the force shields and consigned to Level Minus Thirty-Nine of the Dreamhome, where he becomes friends with a vending machine and a sunbed. (Yes, that’s right.) When it becomes clear that Tiermann is going to leave all his robots behind however, they and the sentient computer that runs the Dreamhome, the Domovoi, begin to plot their revenge.

So what did I like about this book? I liked the set up and the concept of a man being vain and rich enough to buy a whole planet and name it after himself. I liked the sheer strangeness of a vending machine and sunbed becoming central characters. I even quite liked some of the really dark stuff that’s going on here. But the list of things that disappointed me is far longer.

Martha had barely any page time at all and, aside from administering a little bit of medical assitance, she does next to nothing. The Doctor is at his most arrogant and adventurous, and with a new writer penning his story, the characterisation seemed a little off. Magrs appears to be trying to out-Doctor the Doctor. I mean, can you really imagine him stopping everything to sing the entire of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to a machine to calm it down? Problems are solved too quickly, there’s mention of all technology going haywire, and yet the TARDIS somehow remains completely unaffected, and distinctly Earth-like saber-toothed cats roam the wintry forests of the planet. And the method of saving themselves from the Vorarcious Craw, which is otherwise quite an interesting beast and concept, is downright stupid.

There are good Doctor Who books, just as there are bad episodes on the TV, but this one felt a touch forced. I’ll soldier on through the novels because sometimes I find a gem, but this wasn’t one. It had so much potential, but failed to completely live up to it.

“The Ark In Space” by Ian Marter (1977)

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ark in space“Out among the remotest planets, in faithful orbit through the Solar System, the great Satellite revolved slowly in the glimmer of a billion distant suns, reflecting their faint light from its cold and silent surfaces.”

Huge Doctor Who fan though I am, my knowledge of it prior to the 2005 revival is rather lacking. I’ve done the research and therefore get a lot of references in the newer episodes, but I’ve seen very few of the old ones and have therefore slightly sketchy opinions on each of the actors and their portrayals of Doctors 1 through 7.

However, here I found myself with the novelisation of one of the stories featuring the Fourth Doctor, as played by the always incredible Tom Baker with companions Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan. I’ve never seen the episodes in question, but I may have to seek them out. It is interesting to read a book that was first done in another media, as it is so often the other way around. The last time I did that it was with the novelisation of Agatha Christie’s play Black Coffee. As an added twist, the book was written by the actor who played Harry in the show, Ian Marter. Anyway, here’s what it’s about.

The Doctor and Sarah Jane have taken Harry with them to prove that the TARDIS can indeed travel in time and space – the plan is just once around the moon then back home. However, Harry can’t resist pressing a few buttons and the three find themselves in the distant future on board a spaceship where the humans are cryogenically frozen, along with numerous other Earth species. One of the humans, Vira, defrosts and believes them to be the enemy, and they must convince her that they mean no harm and have arrived by mistake. On top of that, Sarah Jane has just gone missing and there’s something creeping about the ducts leaving sticky silvery trails behind it.

Things become even more fraught when the Doctor uncovers a Wirrrn Queen, a huge alien insect that lays its eggs inside the bodies of other living species. And there are plenty of those on board right now…

It’s a good spacey romp but it’s also a classic example of how some of the earlier Doctor Who episodes have aged. Sarah Jane immediately falls into the role of the damsel in distress, although thankfully does later prove herself as more than capable of holding her own just as was always shown in the programme, and in fact is certainly more of a hero than the old-fashioned Harry. The Doctor is in full jargon speak here, with lots of technological words batted about to describe the spaceship and the cryogenic technology, some of which goes entirely over my head. The book has the claustrophobic feel of some of the best episodes of Doctor Who (see “Midnight” from the 2008 series), but I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see much more of the Ark. Humans are shown in large numbers, and there’s a reference to elephants, but what could otherwise be a wonderful bit of scenery porn is skipped over entirely. It’s all panels and flashing lights.

It’s quite dark and the body horror inflicted on some of the characters is enough to make your skin crawl, and the Wirrrn are an interesting species but, again, I don’t know if we really see enough of them. They’re another one of those races native to the series that are perhaps justified in their evil, because that’s simply the way they do things. A good read, but a lot of wasted opportunity.

“The Pirate Loop” by Simon Guerrier (2007)

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pirate loop“Six thousand robots danced through the streets of Milky-Pink City.”

Although I have mixed feelings about the genre of science fiction, I am a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Doctor Who. That’s probably because, as has been said before, it’s far more of a fairy story than a science fiction tale. There are many people happy to criticise the series for whatever reason, but there are many more who are willing to give it their all and prove that they love it. The 50th anniversary episode (and the fact that it is the first science fiction show to achieve a 50th anniversary) just went to show how much people care about the series and how invested people are in it. It is part of our culture – everyone, in Britain at least, knows what the TARDIS is, what Daleks are, and can probably name at least one of the Doctors.

I’ve read a couple of the books before, and embarked on this one, The Pirate Loop, with a hint of excitement, as it features the Tenth Doctor – a fabulous creation from David Tennant – and Martha Jones, a companion who seems to get a lot of flack from the fandom, for reasons I still don’t fully understand. As she only had one full season with the Doctor, it’s nice to get a few more of her adventures fleshed out. This one takes us to the fortieth century, a time where space piracy is all the rage, and there’s a war brewing somewhere in the galaxy.

The Starship Brilliant disappeared from history one day and no one, not even the Doctor, knows what happened to it. Theories range from suggesting it was destroyed in the first shots of the war, to the idea that it dropped into a black hole. Martha convinces a cagey Doctor to visit the starship and find out what exactly happened and why it vanished. The pair get more than they expect, however, when they stumble upon a cocktail party full of oval, tentacled aliens, a strange substance that looks like scrambled egg, and pirates with the faces of Earth badgers. As it turns out, the ship is being invaded, but, in typical Doctor Who fashion, time is a bit wibbly-wobbly, and things don’t make much sense. And then Martha gets shot, and it goes from bad to worse.

I’ve probably rattled on before about the difficulty in telling stories in different mediums (if I haven’t, then pretend I have – I’ve written over seventy of these now, I can’t remember everything!) but it’s quite pronounced here. Obviously, this adventure was never an episode of the series, but the characters are the same. However, with a novel you don’t get the immediacy of appearance, body language, gesture and tone. These things are explained out – they have to be – and that can slow things down. It sometimes feels like Guerrier is trying too hard to make the Doctor “the Doctor”. Ditto Martha.

It’s a great story, with typically Whovian technical gobbledegook that makes sense in context of the plot. It gives the Doctor a difficult decision, and it, like the best Doctor Who stories, blurs the lines between who is good and who is evil (for a comparable episode of the series, A Town Called Mercy is a good example of that theme). The resolution seems quick and a little sloppy – another one of those ones where the Doctor does something offscreen and it somehow fixes everything.

I think the books do well and remain interesting because they spend far more time with alien races and on alien planets than the show does, thanks to a lack of budgetry concerns. For that reason, I still like it, and it’s nice to see the Tenth Doctor and Martha again, but I’ve read better Doctor Who novels.

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