Prose Review: Defending Earth Charity Anthology: When the Stars Come to Man, by William J. Martin

We’re back, with another Doctor Who charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing on our tour of the Sarah Jane Smith anthology, Defending Earth. You can catch up on previous entries via the links at the bottom of the post. Today—after some delay due to a power outage in my area–we’re concluding the “Investigations” portion of Sarah Jane’s life, with the tenth of fifteen stories in this anthology: When the Stars Come to Man, by William J. Martin. Let’s get started!

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! You can find my reason for this in the first entry of this series, linked below. As well, you can find links at the end to purchase the anthology, and to learn about and support the charity which the anthology supports, the Cancer Research Institute.

Defending Earth (Cover)

A star made of metal falls on upstate New York. The ship—for of course it is a ship—is a loss; but four spacesuited figures climb out. Very soon, the site is claimed, and developed.

Far away, and years later, Sarah Jane Smith, former investigative reporter and sometime savior of Earth, sits at lunch with her friends, Joshua Townsend and Natalie Redfern. Joshua, no stranger to Sarah’s investigations—especially into the mysterious White Chapter and Red Chapter—has brought news of a new topic of interest: A strange US Air Force base in upstate New York, that is showing strange signs of activity after five decades of abandonment. Two urban explorers are missing—and this is exactly the kind of thing Sarah and her friends investigate. Soon, they are on their way across the ocean to New York.

The former Baxter Air Force Base is quiet, overgrown with trees that have reclaimed the property—except that several large hangers, and a new gatehouse, show a surprising amount of upkeep. Outside the fence, Sarah dispatches Joshua and Natalie to check various spots. Natalie finds the gatehouse empty of life, but filled with computers with a strange atom logo on the screens. Joshua finds an opening through the fence—and is knocked unconscious, and taken away. Shortly thereafter a strange aircraft lands, and four people—much stranger than the craft itself—climb out. The four are possessed of strange abilities: one, introducing himself as Stephen Sinclair, can manipulate the atoms of his body into any shape and size, allowing him to stretch his body at will; his wife, Debbie Sinclair, can create energy shields and manipulate the density of her atoms. The third, Debbie’s brother Danny, calls himself Starblaze, and has the power to transform himself into photons and energy; and the fourth, the family’s friend Jacob, has phenomenal strength—but at the appearance of having his body transformed to living stone. This unlikely group of superheroes calls themselves the Quintessence Quartet…and Sarah Jane has encountered them before, if not in person. She explains to Natalie that they have been active since the 1960s, but suddenly vanished—or went underground, as Debbie explains.

At the revelation that Joshua is missing, the group allows Sarah and Natalie to join them, and Sinclair produces a life sign detector for finding Joshua. It reveals several lifeforms…all underground, beneath the hangars. The group moves to investigate. They quickly find that all the buildings are flimsy, looking to be not much more than movie sets, but that they each contain a tunnel that leads down, eventually converging into a master tunnel.

Meanwhile, Joshua awakens and finds himself a captive of the Red Chapter, which is bent on the fated destruction of humanity. He is quickly identified as the son of the leader of the White Chapter, which believes much the same as the Red, but seeks to save the world from destruction. Their differences are irrelevant right now, however, as it is revealed that the Red representatives here serve a greater power: the Mandragora Helix. And the Helix has detected intrusion. It quickly sends its minions to stop Sarah and the Quartet, transforming them into powerful warriors in order to meet the threat. Further, it is enraged to find Sarah jane, whom it calls the Herald of the Helix, and it vows to destroy her.

With battle joined, Sarah and her friends are overrun. Jacob and Danny volunteer to stay behind and handle the enemy, allowing the others to press on. They eventually find their way to a large control room, now vacant except for a groggy Joshua. As Sarah and Natalie help him up and free him, Sinclair and Debbie begin to activate the various computers in the room. They get a shock when they learn that the entire place is being controlled by an old familiar ally: an artificial intelligence named Gordon. Sinclair explains quickly how they got their powers: in the earliest days of the space race, he arranged a mission into space for himself and his three friends, anxious to get there before the Soviet Union; but their ship was exposed to a strange energy, and crashed back to Earth. The team survived, and found they were blessed with new powers. However, the ship was unrecovered, on this very site—and indeed, it appears it still exists, further down in the base. That ship was co-piloted by Gordon, who has somehow survived; and, augmented by the energy that struck the ship, he has begun to develop.

But that isn’t all. The files reveal that the energy isn’t just random; in fact it is an old enemy of Sarah Jane: the Mandragora Helix. The Doctor warned her, many years and some centuries ago, that the Helix would return—and so it has. Now, it seeks to control Gordon, and through him the entire area, right down to its very fabric, its stone and soil, to establish itself and control the world. It must be stopped.

Debbie quickly concludes the obvious: That means that the Quartet’s powers are also the work of the Helix. Sarah Jane concurs, but points out that this is cause for hope: After all, they’ve controlled it for decades, rather than the other way around.

Sinclair chooses to stay and continue trying to disrupt the Helix from here, sending Sarah, Josh, and Debbie on ahead to try to reach the ship and shut everything down. Natalie, quite adept at a computer herself, chooses to stay and help him. Meanwhile, up above, Danny and Jacob are in the fight of their lives—and slowly, they are losing. The enemies are closing in on the rest of the team.

Sarah, Josh, and Debbie make their way down to the deepest point of the base—and there they find the wrecked spaceship. It is guarded by a field of energy—and by two ominous jars containing badly mutated fetuses. Sarah realizes that these are the bodies of the two missing explorers, heavily twisted by the Mandragora Helix in its attempts to give itself a body on Earth. Leaving Debbie outside to stand guard. Sarah and Joshua push on inside, and confront a fully corrupted Gordon, serving as the mouthpiece for the Helix. Once he brought man to the stars…now he brings the stars to man. The Helix, speaking through it, is angry at Sarah, remembering her past involvement in its defeat.

Outside, one of the jars shatters, and Debbie—following a purpose she doesn’t fully understand—sends the mutant into the blackness that borders the ship.

Sarah confronts the Helix. She is no longer the young woman she once was, and she is no longer frightened of this being or its plans. She challenges it, and forces it to name its two victims, the explorers—and forces it to explain its plans. It acknowledges it wants to give itself form and walk the Earth before bringing about destruction. But it is interrupted by the arrival of the mutant child. The Helix screams in terror as its own creation comes to it, looping its own power back onto itself—an act that will be sufficient to force it back on itself, out to the stars where it belongs. Sarah and Josh try to flee, but cannot.

But all is not lost; for Natalie has determined the truth: the entire base, its buildings, even its soil, consists of Helix energy. Gordon has been controlling it, but his control is slipping. However, a human mind can do it, at least briefly. Sinclair knows the kind of control necessary—he’s been living it for years with his own treacherous body—but, as Nat points out, he can’t be the one to carry this burden. He has been sufficient to control the Helix energy in his body; but this amount, added to his own, will overwhelm him. It will take someone without any previous touch of the energy; and Natalie is the only one able to do so. She connects herself to the system.

Sarah and Joshua—along with the others—find themselves in a vast, constructed pit of sand and statues. Sarah sees that the slaves of the Helix are here as well; but the humans, Red Chapter though they may be, are fighting their master for control of themselves. They approach the monolith that represents the Helix. Sarah confronts the creature, and tells it of its ultimate defeat—and then the slaves release their store of Helix energy back into the monolith. This is the final step needed to banish the Helix. Creation explodes around them, and all goes dark.

One by one, Sarah and her friends awaken in the forest. Of the pit, and the base, there is no sign. Only a long trench is visible, at the end of which they can see the ruin of a spaceship. In the absence of the Helix energy, the area has reverted to the state it was in on the night the Helix came to Earth: the night of the crash, more than fifty years ago.

With the Helix vanished, Sarah and her friends bid the Quintessence Quartet goodbye, and watch them leave, taking the ruined ship with them. Then, they turn to make their own way home, another battle won. The White and Red Chapters may continue their war; but for now, the Helix is gone, and the Earth is safer than it was—and that is reward enough.

Martin Title Card

One of the difficulties of the charity anthology”scene”, if you will, is that we readers must really keep up. Anthology authors, like any other authors, will often want to have some continuity between their own stories, perhaps introducing characters or settings that will continue from one story to another. With licensed works, this usually isn’t an issue. Stories tend to remain available in some form, and there are resources such as the TARDIS wiki which can be consulted. Anthologies, on the other hand, tend to have print runs that are limited in both number and time; once it’s gone, it’s gone, as these books usually don’t get much resale traffic either. Nor are there encyclopedic references for charity works, such as there are for licensed works. So, when an author introduces a unique character, he or she has to either work hard at making each story stand alone, or just hope that the reader can keep up.

We’ve encountered some of this already: for example, our very first entry, The Sparks, included the character of Lola, who it seems has appeared in at least one more of the author’s stories; and also a meteor shower was mentioned, which the author covered elsewhere. Thus far the effect has been minimal, and the stories have been perfectly capable of standing alone. That changes today, with the introduction of the Quintessence Quartet.

I want to go on record immediately as saying that I am not, in any way, complaining about the characters. I found this story to be a rollicking good read, owing much to the comic books from which it takes inspiration. I’m only complaining (if I even want to use that word) that there’s clearly history here that I most likely won’t be able to appreciate, because it comes from a source that I won’t be able to track down.

The Quintessence Quartet are best described as a tribute to Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four. Their powers, appearances, and names are tweaked enough to not be a direct copy; but it’s overwhelmingly obvious what they represent. Even the name of the airbase in the story—Baxter Air Force Base—is a Fantastic Four reference, as the Fantastic Four have long worked out of a skyscraper called the Baxter Building. (I’ll admit I was testing my memory to come up with that fact; it’s been a great many years since I last read any Fantastic Four comics, and, well, we’re still waiting for a good movie treatment, in my opinion.) They’re a good tribute, though—a respectful one, saturated in the wholesomeness of Silver Age comics.

I suppose it didn’t help me, in my grasp of this story, that it takes place during the events of Big Finish’s Sarah Jane Smithaudio series. This, too, is an era that I am unfamiliar with, although some research helped. The series, from what I have read, revolves around the battle between the White Chapter and the Red (or sometimes Crimson) Chapter, two offshoots of a single organization, both of which believe the end of the world is imminent. The Red Chapter seeks to hasten the end; the White Chapter seeks to prevent it. The Red Chapter appears here. The author deftly weaves it together with another established villain: the Mandragora Helix, from the Fourth Doctor serial The Masque of Mandragora (one I have seen, at least!). That serial predicted the return of the Helix at or near the end of the twentieth century—a thread that has been tugged in a few licensed stories, but never again on television. (For reference, compare the novels Beautiful Chaos and The Eleventh Tiger, and the comic The Mark of Mandragora.) The connection between the Helix and the Chapters is implied in the audio series, but not so explicitly as describe here (or so my sources indicate—I really should listen to the audio series).

But, enough complaining! Now for the good. For any fan of either the audio series or Marvel comics, this story is going to be pure fun. It’s long, one of the longer entries in the anthology, though much shorter than Swinging Londons; and yet it moves quickly, never lingering, much as the comics to which it pays tribute. Moreover, it’s upbeat—the characters, including Sarah Jane, are confident, peppy, and strong, without being annoying. More than any story I’ve read so far, this is a feel-good story, with none of the darkness and tragedy that usually accompanies a story in the Doctor Who universe. It makes me want to read more. (If anyone has experience with the author’s previous work involving the Quintessence Quartet, feel free to join in the comments!)

Overall: I was a little dismayed at first. Who are these people? What’s going on? There’s some explanation for each story in the editor’s introduction to the anthology, but even that wasn’t enough to prepare me for the way this story jumps right in. As well, I was concerned about the introduction of superheroes into the Doctor Who universe…until I was reminded that the television series already covered this ground, in The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Nevertheless, I’m glad I stuck with it. It made the teenage comic book reader inside me quite happy, and brought back good memories. Perhaps it will do the same for you.

Next time: We start the final section of the anthology, “Family”, with a contribution by the editor, M.H. Norris: Gifts for Good. See you there!

Defending Earth: An Unofficial Sarah Jane Smith Charity Collection is edited by M.H. Norris, and is produced in support of the Cancer Research Institute, researching the immune system as a weapon in the battle against cancers of all types. You can find the Cancer Research Institute here, and you can purchase the anthology here. The anthology is currently available in ebook formats, and is available for preorder in a print edition.

The Sarah Jane Smith audio drama series may be purchased here.

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