Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gods of Night


I suppose it was only a matter of time before I turned to even nerdier pursuits. I’ve always been a fan of both Star Wars and Star Trek; I’ve never understood the apparent mutual exclusivity of the two fandoms. I’ve always preferred Star Wars, however, if only because there’s less of it, and once you’ve seen ten Star Trek episodes, you’ve pretty much seen them all. However, I hold a special place in my heart for the Next Generation and subsequently, the Borg. In addition, Voyager and their frequent clashes with the Borg have always interested me. On Goodreads, I stumbled across this Star Trek trilogy, which features the Borg, and once I had acquired an ebook version of it, I decided to give it a try. I welcome you now into a new phase of my nerdiness: I read a Star Trek book.

Gods of Night follows four starship captains across time and space: Picard on the Enterprise, Riker on the Titan, Ezri Dax on the Aventine, and in the past, Hernandez of the Columbia. In the present, the three captains are in search of something, anything, to explain why the Borg have suddenly changed their tactics from assimilation to genocide. The attacks in Federation space are increasing in number and in brutality. In the past, the Columbia, a ship that mysteriously disappeared, encounters a strange new alien race, one with awesome and frightening technology. It is only a matter of time (and space) before the Borg reach the core planet systems and destroy everything.

There’s a few things about Star Trek that I want to get off my chest right away before diving into this book. First of all, for a utopian society, there are no obvious gay characters in this entire book. Nor can I remember any gay characters from what little I’ve seen of the shows. Sexuality, like gender in Star Trek, appears to be monochromatic. In the thousands of species they’ve encountered and featured, it appears that there are only two genders, or a lack of gender. Same with sexuality: there are straight characters and there are asexual characters. This bothers me. I live in the 21st century, where people are straight, gay, pansexual, and asexual, and many people blur distinctions between genders, thanks to personal beliefs and science. What’s their excuse in the 24th century? A lack of reality, I suppose. Or perhaps, since Star Trek seems to attract straight white males (ie me), any ambiguity of sexuality is alien and therefore frightening. I shouldn’t really come up with hypotheses without any data, but there you have it. It’s just that this apparent lack of flavor is so obvious.

Something specific about this book is the author and the editor’s desire to include an example of any and all species they can come up that are serving in Starfleet. There’s a dog guy, a low gravity girl, a Vulcan, a Klingon, a bunch of mixed-species characters (which strikes me as especially unrealistic), and even an aquatic character with a breathing apparatus (there’s no fucking way that somebody who doesn’t breathe air would serve in a military organization. They would be a huge liability in any real crisis or combat situation. Any accident would cause them to be a casualty and the officers would have to worry about them at all time. Rant over). If the editors and author want to show how inclusive Starfleet is, I have to ask – where are the goddamn gay characters?

The other thing I want to talk about in terms of Star Trek is the apparent lack of relativistic effects. If the galaxy they live in is the same galaxy we live in, that means there’s a difference in time between one planet on one edge and the other. Time would flow differently for them. How in the world would you ever be able to communicate with them? Also, I’ve yet to see any explanation for how the warp drives manage to supersede relativistic effects, such as time dilation, or even the physical change in things as they approach the speed of light. It seems there’s a lot of “hand-waving” involved with scientific explanations. In one case of an apparent logistical problem, one character actually waves away the problem with her hand, coming up with some technobabble that’s supposed to mollify the reader: multiphasic mumbojumbo. Whatever. I don’t read or watch Star Trek to learn about science. I consume Star Trek to be entertained. So let’s finally talk about Gods of Night and see if it did such a thing.

In a word – yes. This was a gripping read. I read this entire 400 page book in two sittings, in less than twelve hours. The writer does a remarkable job of keeping all the balls in the air, and slowly but inexorably, drawing the threads together in an intriguing manner. The overall feeling I got from the book was a well-oiled and extremely efficient machine. Every single element of the book was working in perfect unison to a goal of – in the case of the first book – a cliffhanger that I sort of kind of saw coming, but was still awesome. I had no idea that time travel was going to play such a huge role in this book and I was pleasantly surprised.

On the large scale, the plotting is very well done, very tight. I was nervous at first because I only wanted to follow Picard on the Enterprise and I was going to have to deal with flashbacks to a ship I’ve never heard of, but I was startled to find that the flashbacks are the most engaging part of the whole novel. In fact, it’s in the past where the most exciting and suspenseful setpiece happens. That’s not to say that the other parts are boring – far from it. Mack jumps the reader from captain to captain, from ship to ship, with a light touch and an extremely subtle use of the cliffhanger. Each chapter ends like you’d expect a chapter in a thriller to end. However, the reader’s mind doesn’t produce a cloister bell of drama or a dun-dun-dun soundtrack thanks to Mack’s light touch. The danger is palpable, but never stomping on your feet to direct your attention to it.

In terms of small technical details, David Mack has a fairly strong hold of his narrative. The fan uninitiated into the extended universe of Star Trek won’t be entirely lost; Mack spends some time detailing recent literary adventures starring the cast, but makes it seem like it’s actually part of the characters’ history, rather than “remember that time we did this?”. The downside to this is the cast’s finely-tuned memory: Riker recalls something and instead of saying “a decade ago” he says “twelve years ago”. That seems unrealistic for somebody to a) remember so well considering how many goddamn adventures they have and b) actually say it out loud. Despite this small quibble, Mack integrates Trek TV and Trek books well enough, or at least for somebody like myself who stopped watching a decade ago (or twelve years ago hahaha).

Mack seems to have a good handle on the different characters’ voices. His Worf sounds exactly how I remember Worf sounding and the same goes for the rest of the bunch. The cast that is new to me, well, I have to say, Mack does a fine job of making them seem real and interesting (except for the aquatic character which just pissed me off). A lot of them have personalities and history and have likes and dislikes, or at least enough to make them seem like something other than “redshirts”.

However, all is not perfect. There are a couple problems, other than the exclusion of gays and relativistic effects. Mack doesn’t seem to have enough faith in the reader. His dialogue is good, and it’s rare that writers like this use sarcasm, or nuanced speech. Mack does so, but then makes the mistake of pointing it out to the reader. A character won’t just say something sarcastic – the narrator will describe it helpfully: “Example speech,” he said with an edge of sarcasm. Yes, we know, Mack. We’re not stupid. We can parse meaning from context. There’s a scene near the end of the book where an XO makes a joke in a tense situation, and then says, “Tough room” because nobody laughed. Now this could work really well, but Mack goes to the trouble of pointing out how tense everybody is and how they could never laugh in a situation like this. Why, Mack? Why? You ruined a perfectly good joke by explaining it – that’s like the cardinal rule of comedy.

The other problem is something that I can only assume is editorially mandated: Riker and Troi. Now, I have to admit critical bias here – Troi has always been the most and I mean the most uninteresting character in the history of fiction that I’ve ever encountered. Other than Kate from Lost. The subplot running through the Titan’s storythread is that Troi and Riker are experiencing problems carrying a child to term; the fetus miscarries. Maybe Mack has a plan for this storythread, but all it is doing is creating a feel of artificial drama. It’s a soap opera, essentially. And it feels so out of place in an otherwise tightly plotted epic-scaled saga. I get the sense that this is an arc being followed from the Titan’s literary adventures that Mack probably has to climax for maximum drama. It feels forced.

Other than this, the novel is pretty damn good. Far better than I expected it to be. Normally, the prose in things like this is execrable or woefully incompetent, but this is not the case. In fact, I’d have to say that this is better written than most “airport” thrillers I’ve read.

I want to be careful with these next comments, because I’m not entirely sure where I stand on the issue. It pains me, and sort of embarrasses me that I’m reading a Star Trek novel. But I cannot deny that I was wholly entertained and I’m excited to read the next one. It’s a shame that there is a stigma attached to reading extended universe fiction, because a good book is still a good book, regardless of inspiration. On the other hand, it’s somewhat disheartening that a writer of talent like Mack isn’t out exploring his own imagination instead of mining someone else’s work. So I can’t say definitively where I stand on this. I’m reading Doctor Who novels because for a time, there was only Doctor Who novels. The Star Trek brand is in the same place right now – the books are the only methods of enjoying new adventures.

There’s 1800 words about a Star Trek novel. Good lord, I need a hobby.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Genocide


I thought the last EDA was okay. That meant that three out of three EDAs were just okay. I’m hoping for an improvement of some sorts, or else I’m going to get discouraged and move on to something else. I tried with the fourth EDA, called Genocide by Paul Leonard.

The Doctor and Sam have arrived on Earth in 2108, but it seems vastly different. Instead of humans occupying the world, it’s a species called the Tractites, a peaceful race that have been living on Earth for hundreds of generations. It seems somebody has been messing with the timestream, so the Doctor and Sam travel to the prehistoric era in an attempt to figure things out. The problem is that reverting the timestream back to the human-occupied one will result in the destruction of all of the Tractites. The Doctor must choose: genocide for one species or genocide for the other.

One of the best parts about Doctor Who is that the Doctor is always playing four dimensional chess. The best stories are the one that capitalize on this aspect and deliver a clever time travel story. In Genocide, we finally have an Eighth Doctor Adventure that uses the TARDIS and uses time travel. I’m actually reminded a lot of Michael Swanwick’s The Bones of the Earth, a novel that I liked but didn’t love. In that novel, time is being changed and things progress in a decidedly non-linear aspect. The same thing is happening here. We follow the character back and forth through time as they try to unravel the mystery.

When the Doctor and Sam are separated by millions of years, the Doctor does the clever thing and leaves messages for the future, for Sam. It’s things like this that make me want to read Doctor Who. Plus, the big twist at the end, which is extremely subtle and not presented as a twist at all, features a very clever timey-wimey solution. The end result is actually at the beginning, but the reader doesn’t know that. Part of what makes this work is the sheer subtlety, something I would never expect of an Eighth Doctor Adventure.

Beyond the timey-wimey stuff, is there anything else worthwhile in this book? Well, sort of. Jo Grant, the Third Doctor’s companion, makes an appearance, but she’s some sort of crazed daffy butt-in-ski. It’s kind of weird. I’ve only ever seen one serial with Jo and she didn’t really strike me as being interesting, but I’m sure she has her fans.

There’s a lot of ethical hand-wringing as you can tell from the synopsis. Sam, the uber-Nineties gal, has a lot of problems with the potentiality of removing humanity from existence. But by the end of the book, she’s doing some fairly unethical things herself. That makes her a hypocrite, kids. With all this philosophizing you’d expect some sort of complexity in the ethics. Unfortunately not. It’s too much to expect a Doctor Who story to be subtle and morally ambiguous. The solution to the problem is apparent to the Doctor from the beginning: there is no future for the Tractites, no matter how awesome they are. Their continued existence has dire repercussions for all of the space-time continuum. It’s either a few billion Tractites or the existence of everybody and everything from the beginning of time to the end. Ummm, that’s not a hard question, is it?

Regardless, the novel’s fairly entertaining and engaging. There’s some exciting bits and some characters get killed a lot earlier than I expected so that was surprising (and satisfying: they were annoying). Leonard’s prose is workmanlike but gets across the imagery of prehistoric Africa.

I’m thankful that I’ve finally read an Eighth Doctor Adventure that I liked, even if it was only for its time travel stuff. Hopefully the sketchy beginnings of the series will even out and we can get on with enjoying Doctor Who.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Bodysnatchers


Whitechapel, 1899. People are acting rather strangely. The man who owns the local factory has gone from loving family man to a workaholic who never leaves. Another man has hired two ruffians to procure corpses, no matter where from. The Doctor and Sam arrive to pick up a magazine and end up embroiled in a conspiracy of somebody or something kidnapping people. A shocking face from the Doctor’s past comes to light, and the Doctor must make a terrible decision.

I said in my last EDA review, Vampire Science, that I’m always perturbed when the Doctor uses physical violence to solve things. I’ve always liked him as a character because he’s a Trickster figure, one that uses his wits and guile to get around. So imagine my surprise when in The Bodysnatchers, the Doctor punches out some dudes and breaks somebody’s nose. With his fist, no less. How crazy is that? It’s like this writer has pretty much missed the point of Doctor Who. I’m not saying the Doctor has never used his hands to fix things – just look at the tediously dressed Third Doctor. But this is the 90’s, man. A time of political correctness and burgeoning social awareness. Just look at Sam, an irritatingly stereotypical 90’s character. It’s like she stepped out of a Douglas Coupland novel. You’d think that both of them would be averse to violence, and yet, here they are kicking ass and taking names. Oh well.

This novel’s fairly okay. Nothing special for the first three quarters of the book. It’s an obvious and forcibly classic Who setup: mystery, reveal to be aliens, the Doctor is put in front of their leader so it can have a good gloat (remarked upon by this Doctor and in Deceit by the Seventh Doctor), and then the Doctor gets all clever and foils their plan. Well, The Bodysnatchers follows this formula up to that last part.

Spoilers here on out. The aliens turn out to be Zygons, from a Fourth Doctor serial that I’ve never seen. They look like more rounded versions of Spongebob Squarepants, if that helps imagine them. The Doctor’s “clever” plan (it’s not clever at all) is to knock ‘em out with sleeping pills and then drive them all in the TARDIS to a different planet. Instead, and here’s the shocking part, the sleeping pills fucking kill them all!

But here’s the best bit, here’s the bit where you just know that the writer doesn’t fully understand Doctor Who. When confronted with this information, the Doctor doesn’t get upset. No, the narration reminds us that the Doctor has got his hands dirty before, even committing genocide, but we can’t deal with that right now.

Are you kidding me? Thank heavens that both the New Adventures, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have picked up on this thread: that the Doctor is the most dangerous thing in the entire Universe. Admittedly, this genocide of the Zygons is accidental, but the book completely glosses over the remorse and the epic guilt that the Doctor carries at all time.

So let’s recap: we have a Doctor who commits mass murder without a second thought, plus he engages in fisticuffs on a regular basis. The important question here is, is this what the Eighth Doctor is like? Is this who he is? It’s only his fourth real adventure (the movie and three books) that we know of, so it’s possible. But that doesn’t seem right. The Eighth Doctor I know is a sensitive fellow, more in tune with humanity than, say, Seven or Six. I’m going to chalk this up as blatant mischaracterization. Almost character assassination, if you ask me.

I can’t say I was really all that impressed with this book. Sam’s far too thin to be interesting as a character, the supporting cast was okay (Litefoot from a Fourth Doctor serial makes an extended appearance), and the Doctor was bizarrely written. The prose was okay, I suppose. The Bodysnatchers could have done with a little sprucing up, I’m afraid. Somebody should snatch the body of the writer and switch it with somebody with talent! Oh-ho! I’m on fire over here. Thank you. Thank you.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Deceit


Peter Darvill-Evans was the editor of the New Adventures when he decided to wade in and produce a book conforming to the rules he himself set out for all of the writers. The result is Deceit, which features the return of Ace to the New Adventures, and ties up some lingering plot threads from the past five or six books.

The TARDIS is acting even more erratically and this is reflected in the Doctor’s behavior. Things are coming to a head with the TARDIS and Bernice is left helpless, stuck in the TARDIS’ constantly rearranging innards. Meanwhile, Ace has been fighting the Daleks across space in the 25th century, but when she stows on a ship heading for peaceful Arcadia, she finds that the 25th century’s corporations are hiding something big. At Arcadia, a giant satellite looms over the planet, a satellite with an asteroid belt in the shape of human faces, vibrating with the power of an intellect more vast and frightening than the Doctor has ever faced before.

Deceit should have been edited. This is an intentionally facetious statement because the editor in chief was the writer. He should have submitted his novel to a friend with a background in editing so that this friend could have told Darvill-Evans that his novel is too long and scenes stretch on to infinity. In keeping with the “new and improved” action-star Ace, there are a lot of gunfights and action scenes that just go on forever. As in, some action sequences last over thirty pages. The danger never feels real, possibly because of Ace’s participation, and it grows tedious as every scene begins to feel the same. Darvill-Evans will never be known for a great action writer, alas.

However, all is not lost. While the constant action wears the patience, the author manages to weave a decently complicated and exciting novel with some clever twists, and some clever mathematics. The central conceit of the novel is quite ingenious, sort of implicitly comparing the Seventh Doctor’s near-constant deceit with the villain’s. The villain has created a fake world for a very devious purpose and it doesn’t begin to come clear until the end of the second act. Of course, it’s frightfully obvious to the Doctor, and Darvill-Evans has fun with the cliché of the Doctor being persistently in the know.

Thankfully, the author writes a fun Doctor and well-drawn Bernice. This is a welcome change from The Pit, the previous New Adventures. Bernice’s outgoing and abrasive personality are a treat as usual, her verbal barbs always entertaining. The Doctor gets a few good lines as well, and as usual, when the end comes and the Doctor’s sleight of hand is revealed, it’s completely enthralling. I was chuckling and chortling as the book got closer and closer to endgame; I was relishing the moment of the reveal.

It’s not perfect, though. Like I said, it is in dire need of editing. The novel takes way too long to get going, trying to set up a bunch of plot threads that – in the end – don’t really matter. Just like in The Pit, the seeming randomness of the disparate threads never coalesces satisfactorily enough.

Plus, I’m not sure if I’m a huge fan of the new Ace. She’s lost a lot of her verbal tics (“Wicked”) and she’s not quite as engaging. There’s a strong sexual angle to her. This isn’t a problem for me; I’m thankful for sexually normal characters in fiction. What bothers me about the new sexually open Ace is that it feels like fan service. Who fans are predominantly male so this feels especially pandering. However, Ace seems more devious and manipulative than before, like she picked up a few tricks from the Doctor in her travels. This represents a good piece of opportunity. If the writers can pick up on Ace’s internal tension between her new tendencies for manipulation and her loathing of the Doctor’s frequent mindgames, then there are some great stories to be told. If this potentiality can be identified and used properly, however.

Overall, Deceit was a decent Doctor Who story. It’s technically speaking a well written novel, but it needs some tightening of the nuts and bolts. Also, I was often forcibly reminded a lot of Star Trek with Darvill-Evans’ word choices and plot threads. It’s too much like a Next Generation episode. It doesn’t help that the author refers to the military as Starfleet. But, as always, it’s fantastic to see the Seventh Doctor in action and he pulls off a rather good coup by the end – one that is properly set up like Chekhov’s gun.

Not the worst New Adventures novel but neither the best. Magnificently average to be honest. At least, this novel doesn’t stink of missed opportunity like The Pit.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Pit


This book is regarded as one of the worst New Adventures books. It's not hard to see why. Here's an example of Penswick's flat, expository style that simply announces itself to the reader without any lightness or awareness:
‘Brown?’ the antique dealer asked.
‘Yes, Mr Mann.’
‘Can I speak?’
‘Yes, it isn’t an open line. Our conversation will be electronically scrambled.’
‘I was phoning to thank you for getting me out of police headquarters.’
‘Yes,’ replied Brown.
‘I think General Kopyion knows.’
‘Knows what?’
‘About the conspiracy,’ Mann said.
‘I realize that charade of tearing your shop apart was to discover if you had “friends”. But we’re both suspects. Me, a known Freedom Party sympathiser and you, a black marketeer.’
Indeed. Notice how I haven't given any context. You can certainly parse the meaning of the scene from this little snippet. What you cannot do is imagine any two people in the world speaking to each other in this flat way. If there is another writer who is less skillful with dialogue than Neil Penswick, I'd prefer not to read them.

It's a shame because there is an interesting plot buried somewhere under the egregiously poor characterization and the dismal prose. Within this plot is an intriguing mystery....

Another element of this book that forces the reader to avoid being entertained is Penswick's adoration for 20th century allusions. He makes no effort to populate his future history with any culture or reality. Characters listen to Leonard Cohen, talk about movies and make historical references to Ancient Egypt. Plus, when they use idioms, in that rare case, they use obviously English idioms from the 20th century. There's no illusion that this book was written in England, in the 90's. I kept expecting some sort of Thatcher reference. An alien race, subjugated by the future humans, sees a machine and mentally compares it to a typewriter with a QWERTY keyboard. The list goes on.

On top of the above complaints, the mood of the book is oppressively dour. I don't expect every Who story to have moments of levity, but the Doctor is sort of a light character. But every sentence and every paragraph just sags under the weight of depression and moodiness. It's all very exhausting. This is also the kind of book where a character punches something to show the reader that he's flipping mad. This happens a lot, unfortunately.

It's a shame because the plotting is decent. The overall story is complicated, confusing and convoluted. It's excellent. But you're going to have to wade through all of the above bullshit to get at it. The mystery at the core of the story is not perfect, not at all - there are some dangling bits left at the end, plus some wholly superfluous characters and plotlines. But, once you get to the end, Penswick manages to sell the feel of impending doom and unbelievably high stakes. It just falls flat because of everything else.

Specifically speaking about the superfluous characters, one of them is the poet and artist William Blake, randomly picked up from his time and deposited in this Hell. I have absolutely no fucking idea why the author chose Blake or even anybody for this part in the book. You could have put literally anybody in this part and they would have done the same job: ask questions of the Doctor and receive enigmatic and irritating answers.

The Doctor and Bernice are - in a word - unrecognizable. I can't say that this is a Who story in name only, because the central reveal hinges on a crucial part of Gallifreyean history. However, Bernice isn't anywhere as interesting as the previous book and the Doctor behaves extremely erratically, and I don't mean in the sense of the series-long arc of his erratic behaviour. I mean that the Doctor bows down to a Time Lord we've never heard of. Bows down? This is not the Doctor. He doesn't bow to anything. Period.

I disliked this book, but I didn't hate it. There's a tragic missed opportunity here. If the book had been written by somebody who could actually write, then we would have had a classic on our hands. Alas, it's not to be. The Pit is bad. Not as bad as Witchmark which was dully plotted and horribly written, but it's fucking bad.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Highest Science


The Highest Science is - so far - the funniest New Adventure I've read. The Doctor is exceedingly well written and his dialogue actually made me laugh out loud. Here's a pitch-perfect sample of the Doctor in action:
Before he could reach the hatch, there was a sharp crack and it slid slowly open.
The Doctor raised his hat. ‘Hello, I’m the Doc–’ he began.
An enormous bald headed woman dressed in battle fatigues emerged. She carried an enormous weapon.
The Doctor turned. ‘Not today, thank you.’
The woman sprang forward. She turned the rifle on its side and clubbed him down brutally with the butt.
Hilarious. The whole book is like this. It's written by Gareth Roberts, who would go on to write for the new era, and he displays a remarkably light and deft hand with comedy.

In The Highest Science, the Doctor and Bernice are travelling to this remote planet in search of a temporal problem that causes coincidences to pile up. They reach what seems like Sakkrat, the mythical and legendary planet where an ancient race created what is called The Highest Science, a secret so deadly and so dangerous that the whole world is set up with traps and guardians to dissuade villains from trying to steal the secret. Unfortunately, the temporal problem has brought random people from random time periods to Sakkrat, including the militaristic Chelonians and a group of useless humans from the 20th century. On top of this, the 25th century's greatest and most villainous man has come to discover and steal the Highest Science for himself. Will the Doctor be able to stop him?

Hahaha, of course. What a dumb question. The Highest Science sort of reminds me a lot of Gatiss' Nightshade, in that it's a wholly classic Doctor Who style story, but the way the material is handled elevates the book beyond its genre trappings. Roberts writes a humorous and fast-paced adventure that finds the Doctor engaged with men in rubber suits (or at least that's how they would be if the Chelonians were ever on the show) and terrible secrets from eons ago, which turns out to be something unexpected (except to the Doctor, who of course, is as clever as always).

Of course, the novel is exceedingly entertaining. I found myself almost sad to have finished it, but I couldn't stop myself from doing such a thing. The end is exciting and exhilarating and of course, features just fantastic bits of dialogue. A giant creature made up of other creatures seems to only attack the Doctor and he protests by saying, "Why me? I'm the only one wearing a tie!" Just utterly fantastic.

It's also nice to see Bernice get a bit more screen time than previously. This is the third book I've read with her in it, and she's slowly being sketched out. She's extremely clever and quite quick to call the Doctor out on his bullshit, but she still likes him in a way. It reminds me a little of Martha Jones' relationship with the Doctor, but minus all of the simpering romantic notions. I liked how Martha was the Doctor's equal - Bernice is very similar. It's always better to have engaging companions that can hold their own, probably a reason why I like Ace so much in the New Adventures.

The Highest Science was a fantastic read. I was delighted to read it and I can't wait to read more Roberts novels. But, next up is more New Adventures. Allons-y.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Transit

Let's take a step back into the Virgin New Adventures, shall we? We move on to the tenth book in the series, written by Ben Aaronovitch, who wrote the Remembrance of the Daleks episode I just recently reviewed.


The Doctor and Benny are separated when a wave blast of energy comes traveling up interstellar transit line, hitting them in Kings Cross Station. This is the same energy wave that killed the President as he was giving his speech announcing the opening of the new interstellar transit system. It also killed hundreds of people. Now there's something else coming out of the gateway, something big, and the Doctor teams up with Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart to figure out a) what it is, b) how to stop it, and c) where the hell is the TARDIS?

A cyberpunk Doctor Who novel... really? So what does this mean for the book? It means that the writer is going to bombard you with annoying technical jargon and use the words "subroutine" and "subset" almost to the point of self-parody. There's a three page scene in which a fighter jet carrying the Doctor and Kadiatu, piloted by her blind aunt, is being chased by three rockets. Aaronovitch manages to make it as cyberpunk-y as he possibly can. Here are two paragraphs from this scene.
The radar-proximity fuse mounted in the missile's nose behind the avionics saw the jet in its kill radius and fired. A shaped charge of flaked Brazilian TNT exploded. Thirty-three marble-sized bomblets were blasted forward in an expanding cone.

The aft quarter thermal imager on the jet flared out with the explosion. Francine felt the airframe shudder as three of the bomblets ripped through its carbon-fibre skin. The starboard turbine rev rate shot up as fragments of its shattered blades spewed out the exhaust outlet. Francine shut it down with a mental impulse while another part of her mind assessed damage to the fuel tanks and tailplane servos.
What the fuck does this even mean? I know, I admit that I'm providing this with little context, but you can see what I mean in regards to the density of the jargon and the density of the prose itself. The amazing thing is, Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson (which I loved when I was in my teens) came out the very same year, only a few months before Transit. This doesn't mean one was affected by the other; I suppose both were capitalizing on the emerging and soon-to-be-overexposed cyberpunk subgenre. This Doctor Who story also tries to be more adult, keeping in line with its more mature subgenre. As far as I can tell, this is the first instance of a Who story using the word "fuck" multiple times. It's also the first to have characters fuck multiple times. All in an effort to be edgy and be like cyberpunk! And in keeping with the genre's trappings, the climax of the novel is set in a virtual reality! Of course it is!

Let's try and clear our minds of the fact that cyberpunk is - at 2011 - a tired cliche. Let's try and judge this book on the basis of whether or not it's a good story.... Is it? Yes and no, I suppose. I really enjoyed reading this but not so much for the plot (which was confusing due to Aaronovitch's cyberpunk-style-aping). Instead, I really enjoyed the dialogue and the characters.

The dialogue might be the highlight of the entire work. There are so many funny one-liners and asides and replies. Each character gets a chance to say something snarky or snide, and each time, it's pretty damn funny. And the characters are pretty fun, too. Kadiatu is a fun and interesting addition to the cast. There's a hint somewhere in this book that Kadiatu was made as a reaction to the Doctor, that she's the antidote or something. It's all very vague and abstruse on purpose, but whatever.

Here's a problem for me as a Who fan: there's a lot of history with these books and most of the time, I'm quite out of date. Specifically, this is a very famous Who book because of the controversy and because of an ultrafan's comments regarding its importance. Lawrence Miles, the aforementioned fan, said somewhere sometime that Who canon post-88 revolves around Aaronovitch. I read this little tidbit in a very entertaining review, which also tells me about the future of the novels and how they were greatly inspired and shaped by this book. But, I'm not enough of a hardcore fan to really appreciate Transit's impact - I'm reading them twenty years after publication and I'm reading them in a vacuum: no context, no historical background, and no prior knowledge. I don't really go to messageboards, nor do I read the fanzines. The best I can do is read Transit without any bias from the fan community and judge the novel based on its merits as a novel.

It's an entertaining book and I really liked it. In fact, the more I think about it the more I like it, even though the cyberpunk angle is hopelessly dated. The book kept me happy for hours and at the end, I was still excited to keep reading Doctor Who books. Plus, if you squint hard enough, you can start to see the greater picture with these books. By that I mean, a larger story is starting to be told. Previously, the books were linked by a rather vague commonality like a Timewyrm or a silver cat. But now, there's a larger story of the Seventh Doctor being Time's Champion, and a recurring theme of the Doctor's tense relationship with his companions. You can see this forming ever so slightly with this book. Plus, recurring elements such as the Doctor's house in Kent come back in this book, finally creating a sort of continuity.

So yes, overall, I enjoyed this book. I didn't love it, if only because of the cyberpunk and the narrative pushing aside new companion Bernice in favor for yet another new companion, but I did like it a lot. All I want from these books is to entertain me and get me all excited about Who. This novel succeeds entirely. Anybody searching for something else from this book might be disappointed.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Used book find


I picked this up yesterday, after randomly walking into a used bookstore. It was 11 bucks for all three. I'm pretty jazzed about these because they're kind of experiments with form and larger stories. I'll probably read these soon enough.

Also, I took that picture with my new phone, upon which I've been reading all of my new ebooks.At first I was a little nervous about reading books on a screen, but now that I've read like 15 of them, I think I can deal with it. So for Christmas, I'm asking for an iPad or a Kindle.

Vampire Science

This is the second Eighth Doctor Adventure. Rest assured that I will be reading these in order, unlike the Missing Adventures or the Past Doctor Adventures (which I haven't started at all).


Sam Jones, the Eighth Doctor's young companion, tells a brief anecdote of the time the Doctor dropped her off at a rally for something and then toddled off into the TARDIS to "take care of some things". He spent a full year running errands and saving the world(s), forgetting that he had left Sam back on Earth. He used the TARDIS to go back to Sam five minutes after the rally was done so that she would never notice he had been gone for a year, but he told her anyways. This heartbreaking and beautiful little story is kind of a microcosm for this whole book. Vampire Science is a fairly sad and depressing book, one where the Doctor isn't perfect and life with him isn't all whizbang fun and that lives are affected by "the Oncoming Storm" sometimes fatally.

However, this is also the first vampire novel I've ever read that seriously deals with the issue of how vampires do a number two. There's also a truckload of ethical hand-wringing over the issue of vampires - are they just animals like lions who need to be tamed or controlled, or are they mass murderers?

There's not a lot of plot to this novel, and that's a bad thing. I don't read Doctor Who stories for ethics or for theorizing on genetics. I want to see the Doctor be the Doctor and have some cool adventures. So, when I read Vampire Science, and it's 200 pages of the plot moving listlessly from one event to the next, I'm slightly disappointed. The plot doesn't come together in any cohesive manner until the last ten pages, when the Doctor finally becomes cool and kicks ass.

Noticeably with this novel is how true the emotions ring. I mentioned above that this is a rather depressing book and it is. There's ton of nihilistic sentiments voiced by the secondary cast, including the humans, and everybody gets all depressed and sad. But you really get invested in the emotional arcs of the characters, which is something very rare for Doctor Who books, it seems. Sam and the Doctor share a tempestuous relationship for most of this book - actually everybody has a tempestuous relationship with the Doctor!

A word about Sam Jones, though. It's hard to tell what kind of companion she is. She's barely in the first book, so this is her first "real" adventure with the Eighth Doctor. Here's what we know about her: she's very outgoing and quick to respond, she's a big believer in "issues" and she participates in a lot of rallies and political things. In other words, she's a perfectly normal rich kid from 1997. For a good portion of the book, I was getting an "Ace" vibe from Sam, but further on, I was also getting a "Sarah Jane Smith" vibe as well. It's hard to tell what she's like from this one adventure. Overall, I can't say I disliked or liked her.

The Eighth Doctor gets perfectly summed up in this book as well. Somebody says that in contrast to the Seventh's more aloof presence, the Eighth is much more cuddly and compassionate and touchy-feely, but still prone to action. He's not the whizbang "brilliant!" style like the Tenth, but nor is he the Venusian Akido expert like the irritating and pompous Third.

For some reason, I've always found it somewhat off-putting when a Doctor uses physical violence to subdue a foe. The Doctor I love the most is either the Tenth or the Seventh, both of whom would be loathe to touch somebody. In fact, the Tenth goes off on rants all the time about this kind of thing. So it's weird to read Vampire Science's climax, which echoes all "thrillers" and "airport reads" in its execution of the ending, which is to say, a physical confrontation. Thank heavens the writers manage to pull of a very Doctor-esque twist at the very end to kind of salvage the physicality of the ending.

Overall, I thought this book was good, but not great. The plot is incredibly weak and stretched out for far too long, but the character are exceedingly well written. The prose ain't bad either. Although, I do have to mention the egregious American voices the British authors think is working. All of the American characters just have the most obvious non-American voices, and some of them even use English expressions! Oh well. We can't all be perfect. This was better written than the last Eighth Doctor adventure and overall it was a better read. I look forward to the next adventure.

(Also, that cover is very misleading. I kept expecting there to be some sort of political intrigue or some sort of "holy shit, the President is a vampire!" in true Who fashion, but alas, the plot stays rather mundane)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Crystal Bucephalus

After a break from New Adventures with an Eighth Doctor book, I thought I'd take a stroll into the Missing Adventure line. There doesn't appear to be an order in which to read these, so I started with a Fifth Doctor adventure, written by Craig Hinton, called The Crystal Bucephalus. Let's take a look.


The Doctor, Tegan and Turlough are wrenched from their dinner in 17th century France into the most intriguing restaurant in the history of the universe, The Crystal Bucephalus. It turns out that the Doctor is the owner of this restaurant, where patrons are sent to eat in restaurants back in the past. But the Doctor's presence is an ill omen for the restaurant as another unwelcome visitor hangs in the background, waiting for the chance to strike.

There's an amazing bit to this book that made me laugh hysterically. The Doctor is cast out of the "grid" of restaurants in the past and he finds himself on a planet far far far away and a long long long time ago. He's out of the "grid" and has no way of getting home. So, his ingenious solution is to open a restaurant and make it famous enough to eventually become part of the "grid"! Now that's some four dimensional thinking!

This whole book is rather enjoyable in the same way the previous paragraph is. There's some exceedingly clever bits, some good plot twists, and Hinton spends enough time setting up a future society with enough back story to make the big plot twist at the end very satisfying and shocking rather than just "oh that happened". It reminded me a lot of Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos actually - not just the complicated backstory, but the love of hard science fiction.

Hinton fancies himself a hard sci-fi writer, I guess, which is why there is an unusual amount of technobabble in this book. There's three, count 'em, three temporal physicists who are constantly "reversing the polarity of the neutron flow" and then you add the Doctor to the mix and you've lost the rest of the cast, even the intelligent Turlough. A lot of the technobabble is somewhat stupid - a lot of 90's era nonsense about hyperspace and holograms. It's all very Star Trek. But Hinton sells it well enough to have the outcome of the discussions make sense, so I suppose it works.

The other problem with this book is that Hinton has nothing for Tegan to do other than scream, run around and ask questions. She displays none of the "brave heart" that made her such a memorable companion. This book also fails the Bechdel Test. There are three major female characters in this book and every conversation they have revolves around the men in their lives. It's seems odd to require a Doctor Who book to pass the Bechdel Test, but it's not regular to have this many well drawn female characters in a Doctor Who story.

The central conceit of the story is clever, if somewhat borrowed from Douglas Adams. But instead of just making a sci-fi novel that features a character called the Doctor, Hinton straddles the line and has a Doctor Who story with some complicated science fiction elements. Of all the spin-off material I've been reading, this is the only book that seems to do everything.

I really liked this book. Hinton's prose is good, his sense of pacing fantastic, and his Fifth Doctor just flies off the page at you. For my first Missing Adventure, this worked out really well.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Gangsta Doctor Who



Video proof that the Doctor is the baddest motherfucka in the whole Universe

Ellis on American Psycho turning 20

Publisher's Weekly has a brief and superficial interview with Bret Easton Ellis about his 1991 novel American Psycho turning 20 years old this week. First of all, Jesus Christ - has it really been 20 years? That makes me feel old. Secondly, this interview, which you can read here, has all of the hallmarks of Ellis' darty and mercurial interviewee presence.


When asked if Patrick Bateman was a prescient character, predicting the metrosexual craze or a symbol of the future zeitgeist, Ellis makes some rather intriguing comments on the origin of American Psycho. Here are his thoughts, in true vague Ellisian fashion:
Whenever I am asked to talk American Psycho, I have to remember why I was writing it at the time and what it meant to me. A lot of it had to do with my frustration with having to become an adult and what it meant to be an adult male in American society. I didn't want to be one, because all it was about was status. Consumerist success was really the embodiment of what it meant to be a cool guy—money, trophy girlfriends, nice clothes, and cool cars. It all seemed extremely shallow to me. Yet at the same time you have an urge to conform. You want to be part of the group. You don't want to be shunned. So when I was writing that book as a young man, I was having this battle with conforming to what was then yuppiedom—the yuppie lifestyle—going to restaurants and trying to fit in.
This is interesting and somehow in contradiction to previous origin stories about American Psycho. Previously, we've been told that Bateman represents Ellis' father and that American Psycho is Ellis' loathing of his father's world. While this interpretation is attractive, a possible bridging of the two might even be better. Perhaps Bateman is Ellis' own self-loathing, his desire to fit in, considering he was the breakout star of his college that no doubt ostracized many of his LA peers. But it's also self-loathing at how attractive and sinking the yuppie lifestyle can be.

Of course, the interview doesn't go anywhere near this. Ellis provides more answers than the minimalist questions require. However, the interview disintegrates into a celebration of Bateman's ubiquity, rather than an exploration of why Bateman remains popular. It's not enough to say that Bateman presaged metrosexuality; why exactly are we celebrating 20 years of cultural relevance? Why is Bateman still so popular - in an ironic way and in a literal way?

The interview is supposed to be about the book's 20 year anniversary, so it doesn't really touch on the film adaptation, but I suspect the true answer is there. American Psycho's resistance to obscurity is due to the film, and mostly to Christian Bale's bravura performance as Bateman. Without this film, the controversy surrounding the book would have diminished, and the book would only be remembered as that violent misogynistic satire from that one writer.

I don't think this minimizes the book's impact by saying this. Even in the interview, Ellis recognizes that in our current society, controversy lasts only so long due to the speed of information. I can't decide whether it's the interview's fault or Ellis' for not acknowledging the film's contribution to the book's lasting appeal. Regardless, the book is as close to as masterpiece as Ellis will ever write. I don't think I'm going to re-read it anytime soon, though. I'm very nervous that the book won't hold up. But maybe it's time to give it a go. It has been almost ten years since I've read it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Weight loss Update

Here's a picture I made that documents my weight loss - sort of. I should have taken more pictures, but that's really all there is of my fatness. I was at my biggest in 2010 of all time. The last photo in this series was taken today - at a weight of 187. Therefore I've surpassed the 50 pound milestone; I've lost 53 pounds. I'm not done yet!

Click the picture to make giant-size (unlike myself)

Blood of the Daleks

Well. My Doctor Who nerdiness might have reached critical mass. I'm doing something I've never done before: listening to a radio play. Plus, I'm going to review it, which will be difficult as I've never reviewed something in this medium before. I listened to this while I was working out, and I'll probably listen to more, considering they distract me from the terrible boredom of working out. Alright, let's dive in.


The Eighth Doctor is surprised to see Lucie Miller suddenly materialize in the TARDIS control room. They argue for a bit, and when the Doctor attempts to drive her home, the TARDIS gets stuck on this weird planet where an asteroid strike is slowly creating a nuclear winter. They get involved in the President's attempt to reach somebody - anybody on the radio to rescue them. Unfortunately, the Daleks show up, offering a hand in friendship. But all is not as it seems.

This story represents the first two episodes of the first "series" of ongoing Eight Doctor audio adventures from Big Finish Productions, whom have held the audio license for a long time. It stars the original Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, who does a terrific job. Apparently other Big Finish productions feature original Doctors as well, including Colin Baker, in an attempt to fix the Sixth Doctor's reputation (and he allegedly succeeds!).

This is sort of hard to review because I've never critiqued an audio drama before. Let's take a look at story basics and then take it from there. Does the story, the bare minimum of plot, make any sense? Why yes, it does. The story is twisty and features enough plot to keep the characters busy and keep them from being stagnant figuratively. It's also rather gripping, but kind of obvious in the sense that you know the Daleks had something to do with the asteroid and you know the Daleks have something up their sleeve.

What is surprising is the twist at the halfway point, the end of the first episode. This twist? I did not see coming. I was standing in the gym lifting weights and when this bomb dropped, my jaw fell open and I stopped lifting. I'm sure I looked like an idiot standing there. I quickly regained my composure and enjoyed the rest of the first episode. So yes, the story functions quite well.

Next basic: can I follow along with what's happening with no visual cues? Yes... mostly. There are some instances of noises and whatnot where I had no idea what was going on, but these moments are few and far between. The beginning is a little disorientating, but I think that's the point. Also, I wasn't always sure if characters were speaking to each other or having little asides to themselves. But these are all very small things in an otherwise larger "picture". I could follow along, even while working out, and I was quite drawn into the story.

The acting is quite impressive, which would make sense if they really wanted to sell me on a Doctor Who audio production. Paul McGann's Eighth Doctor is just so different than all of the others (thank heavens) but still has obvious echoes of the Doctor: he's arrogant, he's charming, he has that sense of authority in everything he does, and he always has faith in humanity. This Doctor, however, is a bit ruthless. He engineers the death of mutant Daleks by allying with regular Daleks! That's cold blooded, son. But he's not as ruthless as Seven or even Ten at the end of Family of Blood. He's a more caring Doctor, quite unlike Six.

[Fuck me I'm a goddamn nerd. I'm like Trekkie level nerd at this point. I need a girlfriend.]

The rest of the cast is good, including the actress playing Lucie Miller. When I found out the character is supposed to be in her teens, I kind of guffawed as the actress sounds much older than that (turns out she's three years older than I am!) but this isn't a huge problem.

What's really goddamn impressive is how the Daleks sound. The production manages to give each Dalek (within a scene) a different pitch in voice, making it obvious who is talking and when. It's a small and subtle thing, but it greatly adds to the listener's comprehension. Plus, it's always exciting to hear Daleks warble "exterminate" at the Doctor.

On the whole, it's pretty good. Without any visual components to worry about, the audio productions can do big stories. But the reverse of this is also true. With no visual aspect, the action, however complex or simple, can be tough to follow. Blood of the Daleks seems to straddle this line pretty good. There's some epic stuff going on in terms of visuals that you couldn't pull off with the BBC's budget, but the writing keeps it clear enough to be entertaining.

Will I listen to another one of these? Probably. But maybe I'll listen to some Sixth Doctor ones and try and give that big galumph a chance. It's not like I have anything better to do than immerse myself further into Whovian nerdiness already. God I should just cut off my genitals - I'm never getting a girlfriend ever again at this rate. Hahaha.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Eight Doctors

A long time ago, the only experience I had ever had with Doctor Who was the TV movie that aired on FOX in 1996. I was 11 years old at the time, but I still sort of remember it in a very hazy way. I recall not being able to make head or tails of it. I also recall preferring FOX's Generation X TV movie that aired around the same time. So, that being said, my only experience with the Eighth Doctor was my first. I've decided to take a wee break from Virgin's New Adventures to take a look at the first of 70-something books starring the Eighth Doctor. This one, written by Terrence Dicks, is called The Eight Doctors.


Immediately after defeating the Master in San Francisco, the Doctor climbs aboard his TARDIS, only to set off a final trap created by the Master: amnesia. The Doctor no longer knows who he is, nor does he understand why his TARDIS is traveling to the distant past, 10,000 BC, where he meets the First Doctor. Now all becomes clear: in order to regain his memory, the Doctor must visit every single incarnation of himself, even if it means causing great damage to his own timeline. However, a silent and unseen enemy is tracking him through time and space, waiting to strike when the moment is right.

Sounds fantastic, doesn't it? I should write the blurbs on the back of the books for a living. Anyway, let's dive in. I've already read a Dicks novel, so I shouldn't be surprised at the quality of prose contained within. It's no spoiler to say that the prose is limp and at a few odd times, dismal. However, Dicks knows how to plot a riproaring adventure.

And this is certainly an adventure across time and space. However, the Doctor Who nerd in me is crying out at certain irregularities in Time Lord rules. Crossing his own timestream results in all sorts of odd side effects, like a convenient time bubble allowing the Doctors to telepathically share their memories. It seems that Dicks avoids continuity regarding time travel for the sake of his plot.

Which is odd considering how much of a wank this is for continuity. Every time Eight visits one of his previous selves, they're right in the middle of a famous adventure. For example, the Second Doctor is in the midst of the War Games, his most epic and final story. And the Fifth Doctor has just come away from the Game of Rassilon (aka The Five Doctors). Everything is rooted deep in Doctor Who history. It's not terrible. It's not like Dicks hasn't had a chance to write every single incarnation of the Doctor.

For most of the book, Dicks sweeps us from one adventure to the next, with slamming whiz bang awe at every scene. It's not until Eight meets Six that things take a turn for the worse. In fact, the incredibly long and twisty scenes with Six are so terrible that I thought about giving up the book. They're set at the end of the Trial of a Time Lord, not Who's greatest hour. I've mentioned before that I found the whole Gallifryan political stuff to be tedious. Now imagine two Doctors meddling with politics and trying to get somebody else elected so they can alter the outcome of the trial. Ugh. It's boring. Utterly boring. And there's so many little diversions and digressions in this long digressive scene, like when Eight goes to a rough and tumble dive bar and recruits some rebel fighter to help him achieve some weird goal. Again, like I say, it's fucking boring.

For the most part, the book is rather lively and quick, as easy a read as there'll ever be. Dicks is a great plotter, but not the world's strongest prose stylist. His skills with dialogue are decent to say the least. Anyway. This book is okay. A solidly mediocre beginning to the Eighth Doctor Adventures. I'm aware that the books wildly vary in quality, so there's sure to be some good ones and sure to be some real stinkers. Here's hoping though.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Love and War

I really loved the previous New Adventures book. Would the streak continue? Would I enjoy Paul Cornell's second Doctor Who book? This is the one that introduces the famous Bernice Summerfield to the canon, by the way. Let's dive in.


The Doctor and Ace have come to the planet Heaven, a perfect paradise where the worlds send their dead in space capsules, a perfect resting place. Ace falls in love with a member of a gang of Travellers and the Doctor meets an archaeologist by the name of Bernice Summerfield. But all is not paradise on Heaven. A strange conspiracy centuries in the making is coming to fruition, and the Doctor's game to defeat it might go too far.

To say anything else of this story would ruin it. This is definitely one of the things that you want to start reading blind. It's a fairly depressing story, full of love and war, just like the title, but there are beautiful moments. This is the first Doctor Who story to explicitly refer to sex; Ace and Jan make love. They don't just have sex - they make beautiful tender love. It doesn't take a genius to see where this is going. He might as well be called Cannonfodder. However, it's how he dies and how everything comes together that's so perfect and wonderful.

It's an entirely bittersweet story that echoes "tis better to have loved and lost..." without actually coming out and saying it. The reason why this works is twofold: our investment in Ace's development across 9 books and because of Cornell's light touch. This is a short book and it doesn't need to be any longer than it is. Cornell just sketches out the details of the love, sketches out the details of everything, and then in the last third, lets the Doctor Who story become a Doctor Who story. This isn't a criticism. Far from it. How the Doctor manages to pull off this feat is incredible and fun and exhilarating all at the same time. This sort of echoes what I loved about Silver Nemesis so much: seeing a master work is always amazing.

The villain in this story is ostensibly a classic-style Who villain. But in the last twenty pages, Cornell manages to make them seem even scarier. He raises the stakes to an impossibly high level and the danger feels palpable. This is a hard thing to do and Cornell does it magnificently. It helps that he's not hindered by the budget of a tv serial. He goes all out for the climax, including a skyscraper made of bones and an infinite staircase made of bones. It's creepy and effective.

Also effective is the love story. I can totally believe that Ace would fall in love with Jan. He's so right for her but in that way that he's wrong for her. Because of its believability, the ending is heartbreaking in all the right ways.

I don't really have much more to say about this story. I liked it. It was well written and well executed. It featured many elements of Doctor Who that I am a fan of. So there you go. Onwards and upwards.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Silver Nemesis

[Note, I'm no longer going to call this posts "Random Classic Doctor Who Reviews" because I'm going to reviewing more of them more frequently, thanks to the current series' four month break. That being said, I will still use the tag for these reviews. Just mentally substitute the tag "random classic doctor who" for "classic era doctor who"]


Thanks to the Virgin books, I'm still greatly interested in the Seventh Doctor. I decided to pick one of the three remaining serials from series 25 (of which I watched the Daleks episode) and just go with it. Here's what I thought about Silver Nemesis.

An asteroid with an orbit that circles the planet every 25 years has finally fell to Earth. Greeting it are a gang of Neo-Nazis, a time-travelling sorceress from the 17th century, and a "away team" of Cybermen. It seems something of great value is inside that asteroid, something the Doctor wanted off Earth on purpose. 300 years after he shot the rocket in space, it has come back and now the Doctor has to deal with it all over again.

There's two amazing scenes to discuss in this serial before getting to the meat of my review. The first one is the scene in which a lady and her servant, both dressed in 17th century garb, try to hitchhike by literally sticking out their thumbs. The ridiculousness of this scene is exquisite, a word I don't often use. This time-travelling sorceress and her servant are hopelessly lost until a boorish American stereotype drives by in a limousin. It's hilarious. Plus, it's smack dab in the middle of an intense scene in which Ace thinks she's about to get some answers. But more on that in a second.

The other scene worth talking about is the one in which the Doctor is doing some sort of Doctor-y thing with knobs and gizmos while Ace single-handedly takes on an entire platoon of Cybermen, armed with only a slingshot and some gold coins. Three of them corner Ace, and she's only got one coin left. The Cybermen tell her to surrender, but then she asks which one wants to die. It's fucking badass and there's a reason why Ace is my favourite of the classic companions. The only female companion to like bombs and to kick serious ass (Leela doesn't count as an asskicker).

So, to the review then. Well, in short... I fucking loved this serial. It's incredibly complicated and so goddamn modern. I can't believe this is a classic serial. It's more convoluted than most of the Russel T Davies era. The time travel stuff is utterly confusing and the chronology that you have to keep straight in your head is intentionally obfuscating. It's all part of the masterplan of making the Doctor seem scary and dark. And it totally works. Not only does the Doctor play metaphorical chess across time and space, but he keeps going back to 1638 and playing literal chess with an unseen and mysterious opponent. It's a small running gag that plays throughout the episode and it pays off handsomely at the end when the Doctor reveals that the time-travelling sorceress was his pawn all along and not the other way around. He's playing chess across time! How fucking cool is that?

That's not all there is to like in this serial. It's tremendously exciting and there's a big shootout between Nazis and Cybermen with a crazy lady flying arrows into the battle at the same time. There's also double-crosses, a rare triple-cross by the Doctor and the aforementioned scene in which Ace is the world's coolest companion. Did I mention it's convoluted and awesome?

All the answers aren't forthcoming either, something very rare in stories nowadays. The audience is still left in the dark about a few things, like how did the Nazis know about the asteroid, how did the Doctor plan this out so perfectly and how the hell did that crazy lady figure out time travel from an asteroid of liquid metal? Part of the charm of this serial is how little is explained to the audience. We know, thanks to Ace, that the whole thing was a ruse for the Doctor to eliminate the Cybermen's fleet (something that eventually resonates with the Tenth Doctor's era). But we don't know a whole bunch of other stuff and you know what? That's okay. In fact, that's frigging great. Why can't more serials be like this?

I really liked this serial. Not only because both the Doctor and Ace were totally badass, but because it's well written and riveting. This was entirely exciting and this is exactly why I'm so goddamn obsessed with the Doctor! How could you not be?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Paul

[Can this be? Content not related to Doctor Who? Why yes. Read on]


Simon Pegg. Nick Frost. Both names are synonymous with nerdy but smart humour. Both of them respected comedians and respected nerds. They wrote a movie. The guy who directed Superbad filmed it for them. They starred in it. What's it all about?

Pegg and Frost are vacationing in America for the Comic Con and afterwards, take a road trip to Roswell. Along the way, they pick up a fugitive alien by the name of Paul. He's a potsmoking cool dude who swears a lot. So we knows he's super cool cause only cool people swear. Anyway, they pick up ultra religious Kristen Wiig who drops her fervor when the plot requires it. They're being chased by Jason Bateman, a super dickish FBI agent who we know is a dick cause he never takes off his sunglasses and he speaks sharply. So yeah that's the movie.

The story's lazy. Really lazy. There's a scene in which Paul heals a dead bird and you just fucking know that this healing thing is going to make an appearance in the climax. It's like movie math. Well, actually, it's called Chekhov's rule: if you have a loaded gun in the first act, make sure it's fired in the third. This is what I mean by laziness. The uptight nerds learn some valuable life lessons about letting loose and standing up for each other and whatnot by the end of the movie. Paul teaches them to be cool dudes and listen to ELO and smoke pot.

But is it funny? Man, I don't know. I laughed a few times. Then I got over it. The gags are for the most part forgettable. It all depends on how much of Seth Rogen's voice you can handle. For me, the answer is very little. I don't find him funny at all, and he's playing the title character, so take that into account. His weird smug cadence never changes and he just talks constantly. Saying random things in your own voice does not equate to a joke, Seth Rogen, just so you know.

There are some funny cameos and a fairly sweet action scene near the end of the movie that involves a car chase. But on the whole, it's entirely forgettable. The story is lazy, the gags are lazy, but the cast is pretty good. Like usual, the highlight of the entire movie is Wiig. Her character's attempt at swearing is wholly hilarious and no doubt improvised. She's funny.

This is a shitty and lazy review. But that's all Paul deserves. It's not a movie for nerds cause the references are far too obvious. It's not a movie for casuals because it stars two nerdy Englishmen. So who the hell is this movie for? Not me, that's for sure.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Random Classic Doctor Who Review

"Oh god! When will this blog talk about anything other than Doctor Who? I mean, it's been over a week and it's all fucking Doctor Who this and Doctor Who that. Come on!"

Okay, I understand. It's been a little crazy around these parts lately, what with all of that British TV hero called the Doctor. I admit it. I'm a little obsessed. I just finished watching the first part of the sixth series, and it was exciting, so I need to keep going. I need to get my fix. I decided to watch a random Seventh Doctor serial, considering I've been immersing myself with him in the books. I went with Remembrance of the Daleks, and here's what I thought.


The Doctor and Ace find themselves in London, 1963. Or rather, the Doctor has brought them here. They find a mysterious van with a physicist monitoring a school. Then they find the military attacking a lone Dalek, who the Doctor kills quite easily with some of Ace's explosives. The Doctor realizes that there is a game afoot, a war brewing between two rival Dalek factions over the mysterious Hand of Omega. The Daleks have chased the Doctor across time and space to find this device and they'll stop at nothing to get it, including killing each other.

One of the major problems with classic Doctor Who is the pacing. Since I was born in the Eighties and grew up in a time of increasing shorter attention span, television and movies have opted to go faster and faster. I'm used to things that move quickly. Classic Who serials do not generally fall into this category. They're slower than what we're used to. Except for this serial. Remembrance of the Daleks might end up being the fastest Who serial I've ever watched. The first part just zings by and leaves you on a cliffhanger that no doubt blew minds back in the day: stairs are no longer an obstacle for Daleks.

This whole serial, while still couched in the classic elements of running down corridors, still has some fantastic setpieces, and some very clever misdirection. It's no shock to say that Davros makes his appearance in this serial, but where and when is left to a surprise. There's also elements of the Who lore that get its beginning in this serial.

This is the one where the Doctor obliterates Skaro. This is essentially the moment where the Doctor becomes "the Destroyer of Worlds" and one of the biggest threats in the Universe. A manipulative, deceiving, calculating Doctor is possibly the scariest one. There's a reason why I love the Seventh Doctor so much. Sylvester McCoy's portrayal is equal parts sinister, fumbling and Shakespearean and it succeeds on all levels. While the Tenth Doctor will remain my favourite for years, the Seventh is sneaking up and stealing the show very quietly, just like he would.

Here's an amazing mindblowing moment: the Doctor and Ace find a transporter device in the basement of the school. While a Dalek is materializing, the Doctor messes with the device and causes half of the Dalek to materialize where the other half is, thus destroying him. Shit, son! That's fucking cold blood. It's pretty rare to see the Doctor just up and kill something. That's how badass this Doctor is.

Something to mention about this serial though: it's incredibly violent. There are scenes in which Ace is running around with a missile launcher and blowing up Daleks like it ain't no thang. In fact, for one of the most scary monsters in Who history, the Daleks are pretty easy targets in this one. They're dying left right and centre. I've never seen them so easy to kill in Who. (The modern era does a bit of a better job making them scarier by making them fairly indestructible.) This is a facetious complaint because without all this violence, we wouldn't have the most violent Who serial I've ever seen. Tons of Daleks are blown up and quite a few people get their innards scrambled! There's a also a space shuttle that lands randomly in the middle of a schoolyard and the special effects don't look that terrible. Some of them are pretty awesome. The makeup on Davros is quite good too.

If there's a problem with this serial, it's that there's no emotional connection. Ace kind of likes this one cute military boy, but then he betrays them by giving info to a random National Socialist who's in league with the Renegade Daleks. Ace gets all emo about it, but there's no real catharsis. At this point, the actress playing Ace isn't the world's greatest, so it's not wholly convincing. Plus, in 1963, women physicists employed by the military? Don't make me laugh. That'd never happen.

Otherwise, this is a fucking awesome serial, full of violence, Doctor-manipulation and deception, fun times, and a killer ending that proves to be an essential part of the rest of Who history. I love Doctor Who, man. Love it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Nightshade

I hated the last book. Hated it. Forced myself to read it. Would that be the book that breaks this Doctor Who streak? Well no. I found out that Mark Gatiss and Paul Cornell wrote the next too, so I had to give them a chance. Both Gatiss and Cornell ended up writing for the new series. Whereas Cornell's episodes are among my favourite, Gatiss' episodes tend to be throwbacks and often satisfactory. Would his novel be any good?


The Doctor is weary. He takes Ace and the TARDIS to a small village in Northern England so that he can contemplate retiring, settling down for a few hundred years and just trying to live a normal life. Ace is distracted by falling in love with a boy named Robin, so she's barely paying attention. Too bad though. They should be. There are strange things afoot in this village, like the ghosts of loved ones coming back to kill people, like the creatures from an old sci-fi TV serial coming back to kill the retired lead actor, like the strange numbers on the readouts at the new astronomy facility.

This is a classic Doctor Who story, and by that I mean the setup is old and tired. This should be a problem, but thank heavens it's not. The plot itself contains no surprises and no twists. It's simply an old TV serial where the Doctor and the companion are a little slow to figure things out and then when they do there's a lot of running in corridors. The monsters are even men in rubber suits, or at least that is their inspiration. But somehow, thanks to Gatiss' skillful and light hand, and some subtle metafiction, the story is elevated from old creaky plot to something amazing and transcendent.

It's Doctor Who at is purest. There's an historical section with real history, there's horror elements like monsters stalking you in the rain, there's some technobabble related to pulsars and quasars, and even some very clever (and subtle) time travel elements. All of the best parts of Doctor Who distilled into one breakneck paced novel.

I loved this book as much as I hated the last book. Gatiss' prose is perfectly fine and gets everything across. I found that I could enjoy sentences and savour them. This is a rarity with the New Adventures line. Only Cornell and Cartmel have prose this fine (even then, Cornell's prose was a little loopy for a bit). But mostly Gatiss' skill is creating a superb secondary cast.

The scientists at the laboratory are exceedingly well written (except for the stereotypical racist in the group) and even a handful of the villagers are given lives beyond the expendable nature of a secondary cast in a Doctor Who story. It helps that their memories are made into physical manifestations. Gatiss uses the same trick over and over but to positive results: he introduces a character, gives some backstory, and then brings in the ghosts from the memory. It works perfectly well. These characters shimmer with reality, something very very very rare in books and stories like this.

And when you have real characters running amok, the emotions tend to be real too. The love story of Robin and Ace is destined to end poorly, but there's hope in the reader that maybe Robin might be a new companion. Although, we all know how it ends. It's just the details that surprise us. The same with some of the other characters. You have an idea of where they'll end up, but Gatiss takes a different or esoteric root to get them there, and it's positively surprising and well done.

Every cog and gear in this book is running at optimal levels. Everything moves perfectly. The suspenseful parts are terrific, the heartrending moments are perfectly breaking, and the time travel stuff is just immaculate without being too showy. I really loved this book. I can't wait to continue with this highly nerdy project. The pace might slow down a bit, though. Eight books in nine days is hard to keep up with. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cat's Cradle: Witchmark

With a good book behind us, would the New Adventures line deign to provide me with another? We move onto the third book in the loose trilogy called Cat's Cradle: Witchmark.


The TARDIS, on its last legs, deposits the Doctor and Ace in Wales for a bit of a vacation. Unfortunately, trouble has a way of finding the Time Lord. It seems that this little village in Wales is home to a policeman who sets a centaur on fire, a bus full of dead people with million of pounds hidden in luggage, and a veterinarian who stumbles upon a unicorn's horn. On top of this, the Doctor and Ace accidentally walk through a stone circle and find themselves in a mysterious and fantastical land, where things aren't quite what they seem.

There's a Doctor Who fansite that aggregates reviews of everything Who-related. I sometimes read the reviews to see what other fans are saying about a particular book. Not every review is well-written and not every review is insightful. However, this one review kind of summed up this book in one perfect phrase: "fantasy bollocks". I can't think of anything better to say than that.

This book is a complete load of bollocks. The prose is absolutely terrible. And I mean fucking terrible. I haven't read prose this bad in a long time. The author describes everything in the most purple and irritating manner. Here is an example:
"Her hair tumbled around her shoulders in chestnut streams and when she smiled it was as though the sun had emerged from behind a cloud."
Yeah. It's that bad. Now the whole book is written like this. If the prose was awful, well maybe there's a saving grace with a decent plot? Nope. Sorry, son. The plot is utter bollocks. The reveal at the end is so painfully obvious and very classic Who that is kind of spoils the experience. The end barely makes any sense and there's so much of the cast going back and forth to arrive at the conclusion. They travel from one end of the mystical land to the other for no fucking reason. On top of that, the author introduces all this irritating political stuff related to the various tribes in this land - as if we gave a shit at all.

Plus, the characters are poorly written and I mean poorly. You can tell the background of the character by the stereotypical exclamations they make. For example, all the Welsh say "boyo" and all the Americans say great masculine things. We know Ace is English because she only ever says "Brilliant" or "Wicked" for like the entire novel.

Ace seems entirely unaffected by the events of the past books. It's almost like she's not Ace at all. The Ace of the last few books was a weary warrior, starting to grow tired of the neverending battles, and the only person she trusts now is the Doctor, even if that means being a pawn. In this book? Ace is a 16 year old girl who plays rock n roll records at 2 in the morning. She displays none of the careful characterization set up by the last few books and she's unbearably annoying in this book.

I fucking hated this book. As the end of a trilogy it fucking stank. As a Doctor Who adventure, it fucking stank. As a story in its most base sense, it fails fundamentally due to poor plotting, dismal prose, and character more thin than you could imagine. Fuck this book.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cat's Cradle: Warhead

Alright, let's just dive into this, shall we?


In the near future, a large corporate conglomerate has devised a way for the super-rich to avoid the impending ecological oblivion by transferring their minds into a series of supercomputers deep in the heart of a mountain where they will survive forever. The Doctor has sent Ace to Turkey to pick up a mysterious item, to bring it back to Kent, where another item waits for them. Slowly and inexorably, the Doctor is assembling a weapon, a weapon strong enough to defeat a corporation that doesn't value life at all, one of the greatest crimes possible in the eyes of the Doctor.

Carmel's first book for the New Adventures line is the second in a loose trilogy, and it's the first in Cartmel's own "War" trilogy, whereby each novel of his has the word "war" in the title. As far as I can tell, Warhead doesn't really fit into the Cat's Cradle's trilogy at all, unless you count the thematic scope, in which the Doctor creates a careful plan to defeat his enemies.

Luckily, Cartmel has the best prose out of everybody I've read in the New Adventures line. Hands down the best prose. He sinks the reader into enough physical and mental detail to keep things imaginable but also keeps Ace and the Doctor had a far enough distance to play this long game. There's a scene in which a Turkish mercenary, stinging from an unintentional insults, assaults Ace with a lead pipe. The fight that ensues is harrowing and brutal, but the choreography is always clear and coherent.

The game that the Doctor is playing is vast and somewhat confusing. The conspiracy that he has uncovered is well disturbing, but I haven't quite figured out how all the pieces even got to the starting position or how the Doctor was able to even see them. How did he know about the plot in the first place? How did the first part of the weapon get to Turkey, or more importantly, why did it find its way there? In the very last act, at the climax, the tables are slightly turned, and it's never clear how that happened. The problem is that Cartmel wants to keep the reader in the dark, and the only information he is willing to provide is long tedious examples of future technology he has imagined.

In terms of hard science fiction, Warhead succeeds at imagining a very real future. Written in 1990 or 91, Cartmel has imagined all sorts of ecological stuff, holograms, how we speak on the phone, weapons, and computers. He stumbles slightly with CDs and floppy disks, but that's forgivable. Most of the book is scenes of exposition in which Cartmel has thought of something clever and wants the audience to be impressed with how clever he is. It's not like Cartmel is a futurist of William Gibson level, so it's hard to be really that impressed.

When all of these hard sci-fi concepts are injected in the book, it weighs the story down and distances the reader from the Doctor's game. Plus, the Doctor is only in a handful of scenes, and he is exceedingly abstruse. Now, there's a word I didn't expect to use in two consecutive reviews of Doctor Who books. However, unlike the previous book, this one sort of benefits from it.

What is sort of very interesting with this book is that this Doctor is the antithesis of the previous book's Doctor. Here we have a Doctor who is not full of despair or indecision. Here we have the scariest kind of Doctor: the master manipulator, using everybody and everything like pawns in chess to right what he sees as wrong. This thread is picked up a few times by the modern era, especially the end of the Tenth's run and recently with the Eleventh getting superbadass on Demons Run. This is the kind of Doctor that makes people quake with fear: utterly merciless and driven. Very intriguing.

My overall feelings with this novel are difficult to explain. Certainly, I enjoyed the prose, and once the Doctor's plan comes to fruition, the payoff is excellent. But it's a long road to get to that point, and the multitude of diversions and digressions hurt the pace of the book. It's a Doctor Who story in name only, as the TARDIS appears in one extremely brief scene, and the Doctor even uses a plane to get from Turkey to Kent, England. One could replace the Doctor with a similarly badass Machiavellian manipulator and achieved the same effect. That's why this review is so... hesitant. I'm hesitant to conclude positively or negatively. Again, I have to reiterate, the prose is gorgeous and the game is fantastic. It's just... this book could have been better, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly where.

Regardless, I'm not done with the Doctor yet....

Monday, June 6, 2011

Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

Okay, so the fourth book was a bit of a mindfuck and kind of hard to follow. Would the fifth book, the first in a loose trilogy, follow the same sort of pattern or would it go back to the form set by the first three books?


A strange silver cat has been hanging around the Time Lord and the girl from Perivale. It seems that the cat is an avatar of the TARDIS, auguring a danger far greater than ever before, so great that the TARDIS even shuts out the Doctor and Ace. Something has invaded the blue box and it's causing all sorts of problems throughout time. Then, the TARDIS collides with another timeship, causing the blue box to explode into nothingness. Ace wakes up in a grey world, populated by angry chrononauts who want answers, but the Doctor is nowhere to be found. Time is flowing in all directions in this crazy grey world and Ace has to figure things out, because she's got a glimpse of her own future, and it's harrowing.

Marc Platt wrote Ghostlight, allegedly one of the more opaque and impenetrable serials in Doctor Who history. He's also famous for furthering the Cartmel Masterplan, but not really in this book. Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible is a very confusing and abtruse book. It's also very fucking long.

This is the longest New Adventures book so far, coming in at an incredibly long 350 pages. I'm not really sure why it's so long, nothing really happens in this book. I'm going to try and not be overly negative, but really, I did not love this book.

Superficially, it's not a bad novel. The more complicated aspects of the novel, like the flow of time in this strange city, is done rather well. There are a lot of instances of prolepsis that pay off, if you can remember everything and if you can keep the strange chronology in your head. The Captain of the timeship that collides with the TARDIS has lost an eye at some point, but a younger version of him is running around with two eyes, so we know that he didn't lose an eye in the crash. So the question is, how and when does he lose the eye? The answer will surprise you. This is only one of many examples where Platt plays with time and form. These parts work, but only in a technical sense.

What throws this book off is Platt's prose. It's turgid, purple and far too in love with its self. He describes things and events as far away as possible, as an attempt to infuse everything with an oneiric kind of feel. It doesn't work very often. The whole novel is written like this and it just distances the reader from understanding what's happening. One of the crew members of the timeship has the power of pyrokinesis, but Platt never fucking says this. Instead, the kid suddenly displays this power when the plot requires him to. I'm sure Platt tiptoed around this point earlier in the book, but I didn't pick up on it.

The other major problem with the sheer amount of fanservice. Here's a novel that provides an explanation for why the Time Lords don't have children, and a novel that helpfully offers the origin of the Sisterhood of Karn. Now, I am a big Doctor Who fan, but I'm not that big. I wasn't curious about either of these things. In fact, anytime the Doctor deals with something from Gallifrey, I tend to get a blank look on my face and wonder when things will move on. I've never found the Gallifreans to be interesting. Never. Maybe it's the pompous robes and weird hats - maybe it's the irritating Star Wars-esque naming conventions. They bother me in the same way I'm bothered by Klingons and Cardassians: they're just too one-note.

Okay, so what's good about this book, then? Earlier I said I didn't want to be too negative. Well, there are positive points to say in regards to this novel. First of all, the scale and the ambitious size of the novel are commendable. Platt has written something incredibly intricate and everything seems to move together like a giant clock. The timey-wimey aspects of the book are very labyrinthine and this is a credit to him. I want time travel books to challenge me, and Platt certainly does.

There's a plot element (reused from the previous book) that bears looking at. One of the major problems of the new era of Who is that the Doctor is extremely powerful: his sonic screwdriver does everything, he's able to pilot the TARDIS expertly, and he's Machiavellian to a perfect degree. Two of these elements come from the Seventh Doctor, but Platt (and Cornell) take away all of his tricks to provide a sense of true danger. The Doctor disappears into the vortex of time at the beginning of the novel, has his memory stolen, and his TARDIS destroyed - he has become a regular person. Now that's raising the stakes. Cornell sort of visited this with the fourth novel, but Platt takes it to the extreme. Moffat would do well to remember this and maybe take Eleven down a peg or two in order to keep the suspense up (and this is especially true of the midseries finale that aired last week). I did enjoy Platt doing this, but it kind of echoed the previous book, lending it a sense of déjà vu - not really Platt's fault though. The Doctor moves with a despair and a lack of purpose, and it makes the book more frightening.

So it's not a wash of a book. It's still enjoyable if over long and over written. Both Ace and the Doctor are well written, and a couple of the chrononauts are satisfactorily characterized, more than most secondary expendable characters in Who fiction.

With five books done, the question arises: is it worth continuing? Are these books good enough to read about 60 something? Um... not really. There are a billion other books to read out there. But this doesn't mean I'm going to stop. Unfortunately, I want more. I'm going to keep reading these until I get sick of them. Not only that, but I have 80 of the Eighth Doctor Adventures to read. Plus another 50 Missing Adventures/Past Doctor Adventures. We have officially fallen into hardcore nerd status on this blog. Stay tuned.