We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today, we’re picking up the lost threads of our tour of the Virgin New Adventures (VNAs, hereafter), the Seventh Doctor novels published between the cancellation of the classic series and the release of the 1996 television movie. When last we met, we looked at the fifteenth (of sixty-one) entries in the series, White Darkness; today we pick up with Shadowmind, by Christopher Bulis, published in July 1993.
I’ll confess to having dropped this series for some time—in fact, I had unintentionally taken a hiatus from all my review efforts (appropriate, given that these books were published while the series was on hiatus). What can I say; I was getting burned out. There’s a wealth of Doctor Who material, and after awhile it begins to be too much to keep track of. But that in no way means my enthusiasm for the series is diminished! And so, here we are, getting back on track (hopefully). I will say, however, that due to time constraints—as I have a number of time-consuming things going on in my offline life right now—these next reviews will be brief, more mini-reviews than full reviews, at least until I’ve caught up with my reading. Still, I hope you’ll stick around.
As usual, there are spoilers ahead (for a twenty-six year old book)! While the reduced size of this entry will preclude a full plot summary, it is really impossible to discuss details of a story without some spoilers. Read at your own risk (but I hope you will anyway). And with that said, let’s get started!
I mentioned last time—a very long time ago—that the previous book started an informal “holiday tetralogy”, in which the Doctor tries, unsuccessfully, to take a vacation, either with or without his companions. Here he continues his efforts, and they seem to be successful…for about five minutes, anyway. Visiting the established colony world of Tairngire in 2673, the Doctor, Bernice, and Ace spend a few minutes wandering peaceful sculpture gardens…before getting caught up in a disaster in progress. They are quickly drafted into the efforts to save Tairngire from an unknown, extraplanetary assailant. It becomes evident that the assault is centered on the nearby world of Arden, a newly-planted colony world that is inhabited by the indigenous Shenn, a race of telepathic squirrel-like creatures that exist in the form of group minds. The Shenn have the ability to create organic duplicates of anyone they choose, and thus have infiltrated Tairngire…but to what end? And who is controlling the Shenn?
We’re embarking on a lackluster stretch of novels. For some time now, the VNAs have been a bit repetitive; there are certain plot points that get touched upon over and over. Ace (when she’s present) grapples with her time in Spacefleet much as she used to grapple with her family history; she’s a soldier now, and a brutal one at that, which brings her into conflict with both the Doctor and Bernice. Benny often gets kidnapped, tied up, drugged, or otherwise put aside; it sometimes seems that the authors don’t yet know what to do with her. The Doctor is both angsty and mysterious, and never quite puts his cards on the table, even among friends. Something bad happens to the TARDIS (not in every story, but nearly every one). We delve into the Doctor’s past lives. I believe that it wouldn’t have been so obvious to someone reading the VNAs as they released; but here, with the ability to binge-read portions of the series, it’s very plain. Some novels—The Pit and Lucifer Rising come to mind—are downright painful to read. (Apologies if that varies from what I said in the reviews of those novels; I like to be as optimistic as I can, and sometimes it’s only later that the flaws sink in.)
So, with that in mind, I’m pleased to say that Shadowmind is…well, acceptable. It’s neither great nor terrible. It’s good, middle-of-the-road Doctor Who. That’s a bit of a relief after the aforementioned Lucifer Rising; in fact, we’ve now had two decent stories in a row, with White Darkness preceding Shadowmind. I find this novel to be engaging, but a bit long for its material; it’s fun, with only a little of the introspection and navel-gazing of the novels before and after. (Literal navel-gazing in some cases; the Brigadier will use that very phrase in reference to Buddhist meditation in the upcoming No Future.) We get an interesting enemy in the Shenn and their patron, Umbra (I won’t spoil just what Umbra is); we’ve had group minds before, but here they actually have personality, and try to be as human as possible (for the sake of the humans they’re encountering). Ace is still in her struggling ex-soldier phase, but her actions are more sensible here than in some of the upcoming entries; her struggle is on the surface, and she’s trying to get along with the Doctor and Benny. Benny gets a taste of the military life herself, which will also come up again in No Future; she handles it decently here. This story is kind to her, in that she doesn’t get her usual level of abuse. The Doctor is at least not being particularly deceptive to his companions, though we do see him reiterate his pattern of not telling his secrets until after it’s all over (specifically so that the enemy won’t overhear). Still, the stresses among the TARDIS crew are showing, and they will only get worse from here—at least, for the next half-dozen entries. (I’m hoping for good things after No Future. Really I am. Or maybe I’m just naïve.)
Continuity references: Bernice makes a reference back to the events of the previous adventure, referring to it as “Club Zombie” (White Darkness). The local government, the Concordance, has access to records of the Doctor all the way back to his time with UNIT and his negotiations in the Human-Draconian War (Frontier in Space, Planet of the Daleks, et al). While navigating visions of the Doctor’s past, Benny sees the First Doctor, and the Doctor refers to her as Barbara and to Ace as Susan (An Unearthly Child, et al). The Doctor name-drops Marco Polo (Marco Polo). Various mentions are made of Jan, Ace’s fallen love interest (Love and War), Iceworld (Dragonfire), various UNIT-era enemies: Daleks (Day of the Daleks, et al), Cybermen (The Invasion, et al), Yeti (The Abominable Snowmen, The Web of Fear), Autons (Spearhead from Space, *Terror of the Autons), and Ice Warriors (not directly UNIT, but The Curse of Peladon).
Overall, not a bad story by any means, but not the most outstanding one either. I’ll take it; it’s going to get worse before it gets better. If you’re reading the VNAs, but only hitting the highlights, you should include Shadowmind for its decent overview of the issues the Doctor and his companions are going to have over the next several novels; after that, if you like, you can skip to No Future without great consequences (though I hope you won’t skip my reviews of them!).
Next time: The Doctor finally gets his vacation, leaving Benny and Ace to fend for themselves in Birthright! See you there.
The New Adventures series is currently out of print, but may be purchased in previously owned form via Ebay and other resellers.