We’re back! Today we’re looking at the twenty-second entry in the New Adventures (or VNAs) series of Seventh Doctor novels: Steve Lyons’ Conundrum, published in January 1994. This one is hard to describe, and although it was a fun read, I feel that it won’t lend itself easily to analysis; so we’ll make this quick. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!
- A family man with a dark and outrageous secret.
- A detective who’s just a little too cliched to be for real.
- An old man with both regrets and superpowers.
- A group of adventuring kids too cute for their own good.
- A criminal hiding in plain sight.
And right in the middle of it all—in a place that should no longer exist—the Doctor, Ace and Benny!
The town of Arandale is at the center of not one, not two, but three mysteries; and the Doctor, drawn here against his will, intends to solve them all. The problem is, nothing in the town is what it appears to be—and this time, that’s literally true! As events in the town race toward final destruction, the Doctor comes to realize he and his friends have been trapped in a realm he destroyed long ago, in another life: The Land of Fiction. Once again, someone or something has interfered with his past; and this time, he may not get away.
The Mind Robber is such a classic of early Doctor Who, that revisiting it is always a dangerous exercise. (Coincidentally, it was my first experience with the Second Doctor; accordingly, I think very highly of the story.) The Land of Fiction is a concept that by its nature has few rules for its usage; and so there’s a multitude of directions a writer can go with it—but, many of those directions won’t live up to the standards of the original.
Steve Lyons comes close, though. His take on the Land of Fiction relies on the original just enough to establish continuity and give solidity to the story, but goes its own direction just enough to keep the story from feeling like a copy of the original. It’s a bit scattershot; the plot is all over the place, and that’s probably its biggest weakness (especially given the ambition of a story that brings superheroes into the DW universe!). I feel there’s perhaps one or two subplots too many for the story to contain. But I get why he chose that tactic, and I agree with him: As I’ve said before, few writers in this series seem to know what to do with this TARDIS team. Lyons does a better job than most, by giving the Doctor, Ace, and Benny each a situation of their own to deal with—and crucially, by making those situations of equal weight. No one is sidelined here the way it usually goes; everyone is important. (He’s still needlessly hard on Benny, I think, but hey, we can’t have it all. For the record, though, it’s nice to see I’m not the only one who feels this way; from the Cloister Library entry for this book: “There are so many things so wonderfully right about this book, and the first among those equals is Benny. Finally, after a few books where she is underused, the character shines here, being empathic, sarcastic, hilarious and sad by turns.”)
As a consequence, he manages something else that others don’t usually manage: He brings the interpersonal tensions between the Doctor, Benny, and Ace out into the open, and to a head. Benny finally admits that she feels pushed to the edge by the conflict between the Doctor and Ace, and she intends to leave (spoiler: she doesn’t, but she plans to). Ace finally admits to her fury at the way the Doctor manipulates her, and declares that she’s staying on so she can beat him at his own game; she actively confronts him about it at the end. The Doctor, for his part, doesn’t resolve his issues, but he ends the book aware that that reckoning must come. (Now, with all that said, don’t take this to mean there won’t be any further regression of this arc; I can’t promise you that. But it’s progress!)
The Land of Fiction, as portrayed here, is one relying heavily on stereotypes, as a result of the mind and experiences of its new Master (usually referred to as the Writer in this novel—I wonder if there was a copyright issue for the original Master of the Land character?). You have the detective who’s too noir to be real (Ace’s thread of the story); the retired (and very sad and poignant) superhero and his over-the-top nemesis (Benny’s thread); the precocious children (the Doctor’s); a mysterious string of exsanguinated murder victims; and oh yes, a village witch caught in the middle of everything. It’s all played for laughs, but this book is not a comedy; the laughs are only there to call attention to the fictional nature of this reality. It’s hard to say when the Doctor catches on—he, of course, has been here before—but Ace and Benny take a surprisingly long time to figure it out. I suppose that’s only fair, though; you’ll have readers who have watched The Mind Robber, and figure it out early; and readers who haven’t, and may need longer. It’s nice that the book has something for each.
Continuity References: The Mind Robber, obviously; the Doctor destroyed the Land of Fiction, but it has been restored. He also has visits there in his Fourth and Sixth lives (The Crooked Man, Legend of the Cybermen), but this story predates those, and so the Doctor behaves as though this is his first time back. There are numerous references back to the previous entries in the Alternate Universe Arc (Blood Heat, The Dimension Riders, The Left-Handed Hummingbird), and they only advance from here. Ace sees fictional versions of her adventures, especially Dragonfire, Love and War, and Deceit. The Doctor plays the spoons (Time and the Rani, et al.). The Land of Fiction was created by the Gods of Ragnarok (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy). The chameleon circuit in this version of the TARDIS (the Blood Heat TARDIS) was repaired, and Ace knows how to use it (first explained in the last novel, and I apologize for not mentioning it there). The destruction of the Althosian system is mentioned (The Pit–spare us all from the memory!). The ghostly trio of Katarina, Sara Kingdom, and Adric make an appearance (The Daleks’ Master Plan, Earthshock); we’ve seen them appear similarly before (Timewyrm: Revelation). The Valeyard is mentioned (Trial of a Time Lord), as is Fenric (The Curse of Fenric) and the Timewyrm (Timewyrm tetralogy). Ace thinks of several old acquaintances: Chad Boyle (Timewyrm: Revelation), Robin (Nightshade), Jan (Love and War), and IMC (Lucifer Rising). And, for the first time, we get a clear picture of just who is tampering with the Doctor’s timeline: The Meddling Monk. The Doctor, however, will have to wait to find out later.
Overall: You’ll like this one, but don’t expect it to be straightforward or tame; it’s nonsensical, as befits a Land of Fiction story. You should definitely read it before wrapping up in the next book.
Next time: We finish out the Alternate Universe arc with Paul Cornell’s No Future. 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.