Novel Review: The Dimension Riders

We’re back! So, how is the epidemic treating you? Still under lockdown? (For future generations, I’ll say that we are currently in the midst of an epidemic of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, with accompanying restrictions on contact and activities…as well as everything else that 2020 can throw at us.)

Today, we’re continuing our tour of the New Adventures novel series (VNAs, hereafter) with November 1993’s The Dimension Riders, by Daniel Blythe. Featuring Ace and Benny, this is the second of five novels loosely themed as the “Alternate Universe” arc, after the Doctor’s recent foray into an alternate Earth in Blood Heat. Let’s get started!

The Dimension Riders

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

While visiting a friend at Oxford, the Doctor and Ace are pulled across time and space to the ruins of a space station—where they are greeted by the crew of the starship Icarus, and by a warning previously recorded…by the Doctor himself! The Doctor is soon whisked away by a strange energy field, leaving Ace with the suspicious soldiers of the Icarus crew to find out what happened on the station, including the big question: Who or what has somehow aged the station’s crew to death?

Meanwhile, Benny remains on Earth, where she confronts the mystery of a female assassin who, it appears, may not be human; and a college president who definitely is more than he appears. Both, as it turns out, are in league with a creature from beyond time, an ancient Gallifreyan myth called the Garvond, which devours paradox to live and conquer.

The Doctor finds himself whisked back in time to a week before the station’s destruction, where he too must confront the Garvond and its soldiers. There he uncovers a plan to create a string of paradoxes which will feed the Garvond enough energy to manifest fully, and conquer all of time in its own image.

Now, all three strands of these events—and all three members of the TARDIS crew—must come together to somehow, some way, stop the Garvond and its servants, and preserve history from cataclysmic destruction. But how do you fight a creature that thrives on the breaking of cause and effect—and has your own memories as part of its very being?

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I’ve mentioned before that I found the entire Alternate Universe arc to be a bit of a slog. That feeling reached its peak in the next entry, The Left-Handed Hummingbird (and apologies in advance to those who loved that book—I don’t dislike it, I just found it to be a slow read, and I recognize that it’s well regarded). I wish I could put my finger on why I feel that way; no particular story is bad. However, I found The Dimension Riders to be the weakest entry.

But, that’s most definitely NOT the author’s fault. It’s that I’ve already encountered other versions of everything he does here. And that is admittedly unfair on my part; this story predates anything in NuWho, for example, and it should rightly be regarded in that light. It’s hard, though, to give proper emotional credit to the original source of an idea, when you’ve seen the later versions already. “It’s not you, it’s me!” And it really is. So, if you are the kind of reader who is able to easily read it just on its own merits, and not consider your prior experience, you’ll probably enjoy it. Definitely give it a try.

Right from the start, there are hints of Shada here. The Doctor visits a professor at Oxford; another Oxford figure turns out to have connections to Gallifrey; the villain is also heavily connected to ancient Gallifrey; there are multiple TARDISes. This story, like Shada, bounces all over the place, from Earth to the depths of time and space, and pulls in locals from every destination. That’s a good thing; I enjoyed Shada (the Fourth Doctor version), despite its lack of polish.

The Garvond itself is a bit tiresome as a villain, but again, that’s only because so many stories since have written similar characters. It’s a being from Gallifreyan myth, which is born from the minds of the Time Lords (via Matrix shenanigans), and lives on the energy generated by paradox. Its soldiers can time-travel, but this most often manifests as a phasing in and out of reality—in this I was reminded of The Sirens of Time, though that may be inaccurate; it’s been a long time since I listened to that audio. The Garvond’s feeding habits are echoed some years later in our favorite statue creatures, the Weeping Angels, who live on the energy created by destroying someone’s personal timeline. At one point the Doctor is revealed to have erased his own mental print from the Matrix in order to prevent the full form of the Garvond from arising, which is something that seems to be impossible based on later stories (most notably the recent The Timeless Children, where the Doctor’s Matrix print is much more extensive than we thought). (I should mention that others have compared the Garvond to the Dark Matrix from the novel Matrix, but I have not read that novel yet, so I can’t comment.)

I’ve often talked about how the New Adventures aren’t great for character development, especially for Ace. This is largely, I think, because of the rushed schedule; authors probably couldn’t communicate properly in time to react to each other’s work. Thus, a character may gain ground in one story, and then they’re back to previous states in the next one. That’s still happening here; we end the story with Ace and Benny still having a troubled relationship with the Doctor, despite all that has come before.

The other problem I’ve cited often is that authors in this series seem to have trouble managing a TARDIS team of three. As a result, either Ace or Benny—usually Benny—gets sidelined for most of the story. Maybe it’s an inevitable result of their drastically different natures as people and companions; maybe certain stories just lend themselves well to one or the other. But I disagree, and I think some upcoming stories will argue against that idea. In the meantime, though, Benny gets largely sidelined again here; she gets left on Earth while the Doctor and Ace solve the mystery, and her involvement mostly amounts to being captured (again) and/or pushed around (again). She does, however, come back with the last-second save at the end; she is able to pass a covert message via the outdated method of Morse code, delivering information that ultimately saves the day.

In the end, the Doctor comes to realize that, just as in Blood Heat, someone has tampered with his past, and this time has managed to affect the real universe. It’s a bit tacked on, but then, this is the literary equivalent of a stepping stone in the Alternate Universe arc, so we’ll come back to it in later entries.

Continuity References: The Doctor briefly uses the book titled The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, though not in its normal use (Shada). The android Amanda mentions the events of Terror of the ZygonsRemembrance of the Daleks, and Day of the Daleks (by way of Auderly House, which is mentioned in a few other stories–Time and Time Again, Who Killed Kennedy–all of which overlap to some degree). The Doctor’s friend, Professor Rafferty, knows UNIT (thought not in the context of any particular story), the Brigadier, Ian Chesterton, and Edward Travers (The Abominable Snowmen). Epsilon Delta, another Time Lord rogue, was inspired by the adventures of the Doctor, the Rani, and the Master. Frequent references are made to the previous story, *Blood Heat, especially in the context of the TARDIS that was taken from that universe to replace the Doctor’s original TARDIS. The TARDIS defensive mode, the “Defence Indefinite Timeloop Option” (DITtO? Hmm) is highly reminiscent of the “Hostile Action Displacement System, or HADS (The Krotons). It’s worth mentioning that Epsilon Delta’s TARDIS is a type 102, but that this is NOT the same as the type 102 humanoid TARDIS seen in the Eighth Doctor novel *The Shadows of Avalon. Some of the Garvond’s soldiers are of Tharil origin (Warrior’s Gate). Gallifrey’s Gold Usher is mentioned (The Deadly Assassin). Epsilon Delta has been to Argolis (The Leisure Hive). He has encountered Sontarans as well, who caused his first regeneration. The Doctor mentions Florana (Death to the Daleks) and his old nickname of Theta Sigma (The Armageddon Factor). He uses his common nickname of John Smith. A book in the TARDIS library mentions the Transit system (Transit). Ace—but curiously, not the Doctor—hears the Cloister Bell (Logopolis). Ace remembers characters from several past adventures (Remembrance of the DaleksSurvivalLove and WarGhost Light). And, last but not least, Darius Cheynor will reappear later in Infinite Requiem (VNA #36, same author).

Overall: Don’t be put off by my experience; this is a good one, I just wasn’t in a position to appreciate it as much as it deserved. In hindsight I think it plays out better than Blood Heat, and it stands well on its own, without the rest of the arc. It may or may not be an essential entry in the series, depending on your opinion, but it’s worth reading.

Next time: We’ll continue with The Left-Handed Hummingbird, which, as the back cover puts it, “is a triple first: Kate [Orman]’s first novel, the first New Adventures written by a woman, and the first written by an Antipodean.” (I don’t mind admitting I had to look up “Antipodean”; it means Australian, apparently. Not a common word in my part of the world.) 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.

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Novel Review: Blood Heat

We’re back! After a bit of a delay, we’ll be taking a look at the next entry in the New Adventures novel series (“VNAs”, hereafter): 1993’s Blood Heat, by Jim Mortimore. This story is number nineteen in the VNAs. We’ve just concluded what I informally called the “holiday tetralogy”, in which the Doctor repeatedly and disastrously tries to take a vacation; now we move into another loosely-connected subseries, a pentalogy occasionally known as the “Alternate Universe” arc. And that’s where we’ll begin, so let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

Blood heat

An unexpected and unexplained attack on the TARDIS sends it crashing to Earth. A sudden encounter with living dinosaurs makes it seem as though the Doctor, Ace and Benny (the latter of whom has been lost in the landing) have arrived in the Jurassic period; but slowly it becomes apparent that, to the contrary, they have landed in the present day of 1993! It’s a very different 1993, though, and something has gone very wrong.

Two factions are soon realized: The Silurians have conquered Earth’s surface and bent it to their will; and the remaining humans, rare and in hiding, stage a resistance under the leadership of a craggy and embittered Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. The reception the Doctor receives isn’t what he expects, however; for, as he soon finds, the Doctor is the one responsible for this mad universe–by way of his own death!

It proves to be true. Years ago, in the Doctor’s third incarnation, rather than resolve the matter of the Silurians, he was put to death by them. Since then they have waged a war against the humans, and reclaimed the surface.  Now, the Doctor must find Benny, and gather what allies he can, and broker peace between the Silurians and the remnants of humanity while there is still time. With the help of old friends Jo Grant–here a feral former captive of the Silurians–and Liz Shaw, and the unwilling assistance of the Brigadier, the Doctor and Ace race to set things as right as they can, in a world that will never go back to the way it was.

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I did something with this novel that I don’t often do: I went in blind, or nearly so. Usually I have a good idea of where a novel will go before I read it; I don’t object to spoilers, and between fan discussions and wiki pages, I usually know how it will end. In this case, I’m glad I avoided those spoilers, because this novel leaves its characters in a very tense place at the end.

Far and away the biggest issue–from the perspective of the characters–is that their actions here come to nothing in the end. The Doctor, Ace, Benny, and their allies certainly save the day. But, this is, as I hinted, an alternate universe; the TARDIS enters it through a puncture of sorts in the vortex. It’s worse than that, though; slowly the Doctor becomes aware that this is an artificial universe. Someone managed to spin it off of the real universe, by preventing the Third Doctor from regenerating upon his death (an event which already deviates from the real universe even before the aborted regeneration!). That, in turn, steals energy from the real universe to maintain this one, meaning that the real universe will reach heat death billions of years early. Either the Doctor can allow both to live abbreviated existences, or he can eliminate this created universe to restore the main universe. He chooses the latter, which in turn will cause problems between himself and his companions…after all, it’s a cold decision to condemn an entire universe to death, isn’t it?

There’s another issue, much downplayed in the story, but conspicuous to any longtime fan: The TARDIS. Upon landing on Earth, the TARDIS almost immediately falls into a tar pit, from which the Doctor never retrieves it. Instead, he later takes the TARDIS left behind by his deceased third incarnation. That sounds like no big deal, perhaps, except that that TARDIS is lacking several hundred years of experiences and data–something that has the potential to come up again in many stories down the road. Slight spoiler: I understand from the wiki that he will eventually recover his original TARDIS, many stories down the road–but that creates another problem: The Doctor destroys this universe. Moreover he does it by time ramming his original TARDIS, destroying it, and releasing enough energy to destroy the universe.

It’s quite a busy story, with many moving parts, as it were; you’ll see that the continuity references section is quite full. And yet, despite the fact that the story is full of detail and fast-moving, it took me a long time to finish it. I don’t have a good explanation; it just felt very heavy and deliberate, I suppose. There are the usual VNA tropes; the Doctor is irritable, Benny gets sidelined for much of the story, Ace gets into an ill-advised relationship and gets angry at the Doctor, something bad happens to the TARDIS. Of much more interest are the alternate versions of old familiar characters. The Brigadier is not the man we knew; he’s been crystallized in terms of his worst characteristics, and yet he can still play the part of the old friend–which in turn makes him more dangerous than some villains. Jo Grant meets a bad end here (I won’t spoil how!), as does John Benton. Liz Shaw has survived mostly unscathed, despite a very traumatic life, and proves once again to be an underrated but valuable ally. The Silurians fall into a familiar pattern–military vs. science–but at least it’s handled fairly well. Most of the Silurians we meet here are holdovers from the Third Doctor television serial; but here they are given names, in keeping with the novelisation of The Silurians.

For once, I don’t mind the ending. It sets up well for the next few stories; the Doctor is left determined to get to the bottom of the situation, and find the person who interfered with time itself to trap him. One gets the sense that he’s offended at the meddling because it encroaches on his own territory–or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Likewise, I’m content with the tension between the Doctor and his companions here; after, for once, they have a good point–he did cause the death of a whole universe. It’s a catch-22 of sorts; there was just never going to be a good option. The Doctor did what he felt he must, but the truth isn’t clear; did he really make the right decision? We’ll see, perhaps.

Continuity References: This isn’t the only time we see the TARDIS fall through a puncture in the universal wall; we’ll see that again in Rise of the Cybermen. This story branches off from Doctor Who and the Silurians, picking up an alternate version of where that story left off. It draws several details, especially the names of the Silurians, from the novelisation of that story rather than the televised version. Ace’s friend Manisha–deceased in the real universe, but alive here–was first mentioned in Ghost Light, and elaborated upon in the novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks. Time ramming between TARDISes is first mentioned in The Time Monster. In the original-universe TARDIS, the Doctor appears to possibly be using the secondary control room (The Masque of Mandragora). The Doctor recovers his dead third incarnation’s sonic screwdriver, last seen (on television anyway) in The Visitation. The alternate TARDIS’s temporal grace function is operational (The Hand of Fear, et al) as is its chameleon circuit (many stories, notably Logopolis) and HADS (The Krotons). Ace again mentions having left Spacefleet (Deceit, et al). The Doctor mentions the Guardians (The Ribos Operation, et al), Rassilon (The Five Doctors, et al), and the Master (Terror of the Autons, et al). He mentions the Autons and Nestene Consciousness (Spearhead from Space) to Liz Shaw. A prelude to this story was published in Doctor Who Magazine #205; you can read it here. Also, not continuity, but worth mentioning: Jim Mortimore has also published a “Director’s Cut” of the novel, largely divorced from Doctor Who (that is, with distinctive characters and concepts renamed), and greatly expanding most aspects of the book; I have not read it nor have access to it, but interested fans may want to look into it.

Overall: Mixed feelings again! On one hand, it’s a good story, includes lots of action, and sets up well enough for what lies ahead. On the other hand…it was such a drag to get through. Nevertheless, a lot of things happen here which will be important not only for the rest of the Alternate Universe arc, but also for the VNAs in general, so I can’t recommend skipping this one.

Next time: We’ll continue the Alternate Universe arc in The Dimension Riders, by Daniel Blythe! 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.

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Charity Zine Review: A Pile of Good Things, and The Birds of Sweet Forgetfulness

We’re back, with another charity zine review! Today we continue our look into the Eleventh Doctor charity zine, A Pile of Good Things, edited by Ginger Hoesly. We’re picking up with a contribution by Paul Driscoll, titled The Birds of Sweet Forgetfulness. Here we catch the Doctor at a low point in his life—read on!

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! For my rationale regarding spoilers in charity and fan works, check out the first entry in this series. To avoid spoilers, skip ahead to the next divider. And with that, let’s get started!

A Pile of Good Things cover art

The Doctor is alone—but it’s by his choice. In the wake of the exit—he refuses to call it a loss—of Amy Pond and Rory Williams, he has, at last, had enough. Now he parks his TARDIS on a cloud (on Earth, though, in the Victorian era; he can’t bring himself to let go completely even now) and hides from the multitude of distress signals the time machine brings in, and wishes he could forget. But that is the one thing a Time Lord can never do; forgetfulness is for humans and other races. Still, there is a place that may be able to help with that… And so the Doctor makes a short trip to the planet Galfaria, where he poses as a company executive to enter the rehabilitative facility known as Sweet Forgetfulness. There, in a combination of therapy and meditation and the strange mental effects of the large birds called Therapati, criminals can be reformed, and the past can be…well, if not fully forgotten, at least eased.

Of course the Doctor is never one to stay for too long—though he is determined to try it on his cloud! So, he returns to Earth, and parks his TARDIS; but now he has a plan to, at the very least, distract himself.

George Furman was once a burglar and petty thief, but that was long ago. Now, though he still lives in poverty, he is trying to be an honest man. At the least, he has found an outlet for his time and his mind: George trains songbirds. And as it turns out, there’s a new landlord, Mr. Smith, at the King’s Arms pub (now oddly renamed the King’s Giraffe), and the landlord has a thing for songbirds. That thing, specifically, being a competition. George can’t fail to enter his prize goldfinch, Joey; and now he is the finalist, up against the landlord’s oddly named “Murraygold”. Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived competition; and George leaves in frustration, sans bird.

Still, he was attached to Joey, and he can’t just leave it at that. He’s no sore loser, but he must know that Joey is alright. That night, he dusts off his old lockpicking skills, and sneaks into Smith’s house and back garden to check on the bird. He is stunned to find Smith, with Joey in hand, walking up into the sky! A quick check reveals a nearly-invisible, but extravagantly bejeweled, spiral staircase. What the hell—George decides to climb up after Smith. At the top, he finds a strange blue box…and the doors open for him, admitting him.

Inside, the larger-than-life room he finds—the console room, had he known as much—has been transformed into an aviary, full of chirping songbirds of all types. Smith is furious to find George here; but stranger yet, he seems to be furious not at George, but at…the box? He insists that the TARDIS, as he calls it, is playing games with him, trying to remind him of his responsibilities. He has countered by filling the space with birds to drown out the distress calls. He closes the doors to keep the birds inside, and George as well, though unintentionally. He explains that the TARDIS wants George to be his companion, so as to shake him out of his funk—but he has no intention of giving in. The TARDIS, however, has other plans; and in a flash, it takes them across the galaxy. Grudgingly, Smith—no, the Doctor—realizes where they’re going, and gives in. After all, what better place for a struggling former criminal than the most perfect reformatory?

The Doctor gives George his psychic paper and sends him out into Sweet Forgetfulness. He’ll appear as a transfer from a prison, but the therapy will be good for him. He claims he has no plans to leave George there—but of course he does.

George, meanwhile, stumbles into a feeding of the Therapati birds. He’s struck by the wonder of it all, and already begins to feel the positive effects of this place. Afterward he is escorted back to the incoming group from which he ostensibly was lost, and goes through the sifting, the process by which those who are ready for rehabilitation are separated from those who are not. He passes the test; but he suddenly learns that the facility has been taken over by a criminal gang, and is being used to release allies and silence enemies. Due to the psychic paper, George has, thankfully, been taken for one of the former. Meanwhile, the Doctor struggles against the TARDIS, which has decided to play havoc with its navigation system, bringing him back to Sweet Forgetfulness every time he tries to leave.

George makes a break and returns to the TARDIS, and swiftly tells the Doctor what has happened. The Doctor snaps to life at once, and instantly hits on an elegant solution. He grabs the psychic paper and leads George back into the facility, where he claims to be from headquarters, with a new shipment of birds. Then, with George’s help, he whistles for the songbirds…and the TARDIS releases them. This has the effect of startling the large-but-tame Therapati into a frenzy, which creates a similar frenzy among the gang members, setting them on each other. In the end, they are sent running; the Doctor summons the authorities to reassert control; and the songbirds, including Joey, have a new home inside the facility, separate from the Therapati, which will be returned to their natural environment (with no predators).

The Doctor returns George to London, where he commits himself to campaigning for the welfare of songbirds. As he departs, the Doctor settles back onto his cloud, and grudgingly tells the TARDIS that she won this round…but only this round. He refuses to take on a new companion. She, on the other hand, is content; she’ll continue reminding him who he is.

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I’ll credit this story with one fantastic quality: It feels very much like a Christmas special. I suppose that’s in part because of its placement; this story takes place shortly before The Snowmen, in which the Doctor meets the Victorian-era avatar of Clara Oswald. At any rate, it can best be described as “charming”, and I think that’s a fair term here.

We find the Doctor hiding out on a cloud, as in The Snowmen. The TARDIS, meanwhile, is having none of it, and making frequent attempts to pull the Doctor out of his depression and get things back to normal. Enter George Furman, potential (but ultimately declined) companion, a former petty thief and present bird tamer. The Doctor is cajoled into this adventure, with the TARDIS whisking him George off to the Sweet Forgetfulness rehabilitation center—where naturally, things aren’t all as they seem. It’s a quick fix for the Doctor, and a brief flash of his old self, and a happy ending for George. It’s not enough to bring the Doctor back to himself, but it does, perhaps, wear down his walls a bit, and set him up for the events of his meeting with Clara.

What can I say—a dose of whimsy is nice this time of year. If that’s not enough to interest you, there’s also some nice (and fourth-wall-breaking) references here, such as a reference to the Doctor’s own songbird as a “Murraygold”. The Doctor speaks birdish, now; move over, horse and baby! There are some continuity references, but only enough to establish the placement of the story; the Doctor refers to the events of The God Complex, and Amy and Rory’s exit in The Angels Take Manhattan, and the reboot of the universe in The Big Bang/The Pandorica Opens. He also makes a vague reference to other companions left behind, which can refer to any number of stories (maybe the Doctor has commitment issues?).

The thing I appreciate most here, however, is the view of the Doctor. He’s clearly seen to be struggling with his usual self. He’s clinging to his depression, but at the same time, his usual upbeat personality and desire for involvement can’t help leaking out; and he’s snarky and angry because of it. I’m somewhat reminded of his “And then I’ll have to find a new name” bit from The Beast Below in the way he seems frustrated, and the way his mood swings wildly here.

This is the first story we’ve had here with an actual villain and adversarial encounter, and I’m glad to have it. Not that I have any problem with the cozy vignettes we’ve had—the Whoniverse is full of them—but I like having both types of stories in the collection. It wouldn’t feel well-rounded without a few stories like this.

Overall: Quite fun, this one. A nice setup to the Clara Oswald era and the Impossible Girl arc. I’ve voiced my general dislike of Clara before; but I also enjoyed the early days of her time with the Doctor, and this story, though it doesn’t feature her, makes me want to rewatch. That’s not a bad sentiment. Check it out!

Next time: We’re quickly approaching the projected end of the sale period for this collection, so check it out while you can! I’ve been delayed a bit, most recently by a sick child at home, and so I don’t expect to finish before the end of the sale period. However, I do intend to finish the series, so stay tuned. To that end, next time, we’ll be reading The Stars and Their Promises, by Dana E. Reboe. See you there!

A Pile of Good Things is available here until 25 November 2019, in both physical and digital form.

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Charity Zine Review: A Pile of Good Things, and Someone Kidnapped, Something Blue

We’re back, with another charity zine review! Today I’ll be looking at the third entry in Ginger Hoesly’s Eleventh Doctor Zine, A Pile of Good Things. This entry, by Tina Marie DeLucia, is titled Someone Kidnapped, Something Blue, and features a few old favorite friends.

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! For my rationale for spoilers, check out the first entry in this series. If you want to skip the spoilers, you can pick up at the next divider, below.

For context, this story takes place near the end of the Eleventh Doctor comic, Hunters of the Burning Stone, after the end of the story’s primary action, but before the wedding scene. And with that, let’s get started!

A Pile of Good Things cover art

The Eleventh Doctor stands on a battlefield, the sounds of combat dying around him. With him stand two old friends—the oldest, or very nearly. Friends he never expected to see again: Ian Chesterton, and Barbara Wright. The unlikely trio have just survived the battle between the Prometheans and the now-uplifted Tribe of Gum—old adversaries and new, now turned on each other—and it is time to make an exit. For a moment, Ian and Barbara think the Doctor has been scarred by this encounter—but it only takes that moment for his boyish enthusiasm and boundless energy to return, and he ushers them aboard the TARDIS with glee.

It’s all been a lot to take in for Ian and Barbara. For them, it’s only been months since they last saw the Doctor—their year is still 1965, the year in which they returned home from their travels with him. For the Time Lord—did he ever even say that phrase to them?—it’s been centuries, and lifetimes. There’s a core of him that is still the same man, though—as Barbara says—changed for the better; but in so many surface ways, he’s a new man. Moreover, the TARDIS is different; Ian even finds himself missing the old bright white walls. But the Doctor doesn’t give them time to process it; he’s already bustling over the controls, and he claims, no, insists, that he knows how to fly the ship properly now! He hits a switch…

…And the TARDIS materializes in deep space. Well, that wasn’t according to plan!

Another attempt takes them to a tube station, in the path of an oncoming train! Another terrified, hurried jump takes them to yet another new location…and none of them are 1965 London. The Doctor is forced to come to a rather unusual conclusion: The TARDIS is playing with them. In fact, it seems—though the thought is bizarre to Ian and Barbara—that the ship…has missed them. After a brief, slightly huffy argument, the two schoolteachers leave the Doctor to work out his differences with the errant time machine.

Some time later—minutes, hours?—the Doctor is sitting on the edge of the doorway of the TARDIS, gazing out over the glowing spectacle of a galaxy. Ian comes to join him, and the Doctor nudges him over his anxiety to return home. At last Ian admits that he has a question to ask Barbara, and he doesn’t want to ask it here, or in the depths of space, or anywhere else in their travels. After all, it’s a very important question–the question, the only one that matters to them: He plans to ask Barbara to marry him.

The Doctor’s reaction is one of boundless excitement—he practically falls out of the ship in his joyful congratulations. He has already moved on to planning the wedding, while Ian is still voicing his concerns! Will Barbara take it seriously, Ian wonders, or will she think this is only a grab at normalcy after the world has moved ahead without them?

But the Doctor can’t accept that. Instantly he reassures Ian that Barbara loves him as well; after all, the two are not exactly subtle about it. Moving on, he announces that his oldest friends need the best possible wedding, certainly one better than his own (a revelation that sets Ian back a step). His enthusiasm is infectious; and in the midst of all the plans of dubious viability (Ian hasn’t even asked her yet!), he finds time to make a spur-of-the-moment request that is, despite it all, perfect: He asks the Doctor to be his best man.

In the morning—TARDIS’s morning, at any rate—the time machine has finally become more agreeable, and the Doctor is able to take his friends home. And as they step out into the London sunlight, and Ian gets down on one knee, the Doctor takes a moment to reflect that stealing them away, all those years ago, was worth it. He may not belong anywhere…but they do, and for a moment, he can enjoy that belonging as well. And, he decides, he will miss them.

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I’m a sucker for a good story involving Ian and Barbara, and I particularly like Hunters of the Burning Stone, the story on which this story builds. I wasn’t expecting to find it complemented here in this collection, but the surprise was certainly pleasant.

In any story like this, that brings the Doctor into contact with old companions, there is naturally going to be a heavy emphasis on referring back to old times. This story is no exception, and there’s a considerable amount of reminiscing that goes on: Ian talks about the changes in the TARDIS, Barbara talks about the changes in the Doctor. As a result, we do get a few continuity references. There are references to The Aztecs, and especially to Cameca, the Doctor’s erstwhile fiancée from that story. There’s a reference to the events of The Chase, most notably the Dalek time machine used to transport Ian and Barbara home. From the other direction, there is a quick overview of the Doctor’s relationship and marriage to River Song (A Good Man Goes to WarThe Wedding of River SongLet’s Kill HitlerThe Impossible Astronaut, and others). There’s even a bit of foreshadowing of much later events; the Doctor mentions the Kerblam! shipping company while talking about plans for Ian and Barbara’s wedding.

Overall: This is a much-appreciated vignette giving us a glimpse of a very important moment in the Chestertons’ lives. We’ve seen their wedding; we’ve seen their future and their son; here we get the proposal that started it all. It’s yet another good moment in the Doctor’s very long life, and it’s a pleasure to see it with him.

Next time: I’ve gotten a bit behind, so I may rush a bit to get through the remaining stories in the collection. Next we’ll be looking at a very low moment in the Eleventh Doctor’s life with Paul Driscoll in The Birds of Sweet Forgetfulness. See you there!

A Pile of Good Things is available here until 25 November 2019, in both physical and digital form.

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Charity Zine Review: A Pile of Good Things, and “Lost Soul”

We’re back, with another review! Today we continue our look at the Eleventh Doctor charity zine, A Pile of Good Things, edited by Ginger Hoesly. You can find the previous entry here. Today we’re reading the second story in the collection, Lost Soul, by Katie and Claire Lambeth. Let’s get started!

A Pile of Good Things cover art

Spoilers ahead from here to the next division line!

A young girl of twelve, Edna Ashcroft, is alone. She was accustomed to being out of place, but this was different: for the first time, she was truly alone. No one could be found anywhere for miles around: no clerks, no pedestrians, no drivers, no shopkeepers—and most of all, no soldiers. That was significant, for Edna lived in a war zone.

Now, she stood outside Dover Castle, and stared in awe as, with a strange wheezing sound, a blue box heaved itself into existence in front of her, and a strange man in a jacket and bow tie stepped out.

The man quickly introduces himself as the Doctor. He cements his strangeness by asking what year it is—as if anyone wouldn’t know the years was 1943! Still, despite his strangeness, it only takes him a minute to detect the problem, and leap into action, pulling young Edna along with him.

The search takes them into the tunnels beneath the castle, shelters for military personnel against the bombings. Edna marvels at the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver—secret wartime technology??—before following him inside. No one is around, and the place has been deserted in the moment—even a cup of tea has grown cold, untouched on a desk. In a medical bay there is blood from recent procedures, but no patients, no doctors, no nurses. Flickering lights lead them back to the surface, this time on the top of the castle—and there they encounter a group of tall, humanoid aliens, clad in arms and armor.

But, once the initial misunderstandings are resolved, the aliens—who decline to name themselves—reveal a shocking notion: That Edna is, in fact, one of them! They assert that she was left behind on a scientific expedition twelve years ago, and simply does not remember; and now they have come to rescue her and return her home. When queried as to why she looks human, they explain that they altered their forms on arrival in order to blend in. The Doctor checks Edna’s DNA against theirs, and indeed, there is a match.

But it’s not so simple as letting a child go with these strangers. The Doctor wants to know: Will she be safe? And for that matter, what does Edna want? His caution is admirable, and he continues to argue for her safety as Edna slowly comes around to the aliens’ view. She explains that she has always felt like an outsider, as though she doesn’t belong…it turns out, now, that she truly doesn’t belong. And moreover, she wants to go with them. The Doctor declares then that he will go along, see her settled in safely.

Before they can leave, however, a crisis presents itself. The aliens have stopped local time briefly—quite powerful indeed—and set a bubble of vacancy around the local area, to allow themselves privacy to find Edna. Now that bubble is collapsing, and if they do not set things right, there will be trouble. They rush through the castle with the Doctor and Edna, setting things back to normal in their wake. They teleport to their ship just in time, as everyone in the castle reverts to their former places and time…

On the bridge of the ship, the Doctor watches the planet Earth below. At Edna’s request, he reassures her that the war on Earth will end soon, and many good people will survive. She sees the emotion in his eyes, and remarks that he really loves the Earth. He confirms that he does, almost as much as his TARDIS…wait, where is the TARDIS?!

And on Earth, a man in uniform reaches for his tea, and finds it cold. So fast! What, he wonders, has he missed?

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We’ll be jumping around a bit in the Eleventh Doctor’s life as we work through this collection. Here, we find ourselves in the post-Amy and Rory period (or at least between their adventures), but pre-Clara. The Doctor is traveling alone, but he still seems to be young and full of life. Now that I think of it, given his high spirits here, it seems likely that this story occurs between adventures with the Ponds rather than afterward; he has not yet sunk into the depression we’ve seen in the wake of their loss, and there is no mention of their departure.

I’ve occasionally tried to sum up each Doctor’s personality in a single word. The First Doctor could be described as “old-fashioned”, the Second as “bumbling”, the Seventh as “calculating”, etc. Usually the exercise breaks down at certain points; for example, I have trouble limiting the Sixth Doctor to one word. The Eleventh, however, could easily be described as “whimsical”, and that’s what we see here in this story. He’s interacting with a child (well, mostly a child—we don’t know her real age), and he’s full of energy and fun even in the face of what seems to be a very serious situation. I don’t think I could subsist on a steady diet of stories like this one—we need the serious Eleventh Doctor as well—but as an interlude or an escapade, it’s quite welcome and enjoyable.

The villains here are quite nondescript, and that’s okay; they aren’t here for their villainy. In fact, they’re not truly villains at all; I’m only calling them that because they fill that niche in the story, with a brief sense of menace at their introduction. We never even get their species name; but it doesn’t matter, because what is important is what they mean to Edna Ashcroft. That child is reminiscent of Nancy from The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances; but perhaps that’s just the wartime backdrop of the story. She accomplishes much here with little elaboration; but then, that’s often the case with children in Doctor Who stories. Their presence, and the reaction they inspire in the Doctor, is usually enough.

Overall, a quick and cozy story. Little happens, but that’s not the point; it’s the emotion that matters here. We’ll find action elsewhere; this one simply makes you feel good.

Next time: We’ll look at Someone Kidnapped, Something Blue, by Tina Marie DeLucia, with a cameo from some very old friends. See you there!

A Pile of Good Things is available here until 25 November 2019, in both physical and digital form.

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Charity Zine Review: A Pile of Good Things, and “Displaced Persons”

It’s review time again! Today we’re covering something new and different.

Some of you may recall a review several months ago for the wonderful Moon Man charity zine featuring Peter Capaldi in all his various roles. Recently I was approached by the editor of that zine, Ginger Hoesly, about another upcoming zine, which I’m happy to cover. This project is titled A Pile of Good Things, and features the Eleventh Doctor in a collection of short stories and artwork. This project is a little different, in that it’s more of a small anthology, focusing on the Eleventh Doctor specifically as opposed to the actor; and so it will take me a few posts to cover it. In the meantime, you can find it for purchase at this link, where it will be available until 25 November (along with some of Ginger’s other projects, including Moon Man). Check it out!

A Pile of Good Things cover art

Cover art (edited for size)

There are nine stories in this collection, and twenty-five art pieces. My goal is to review each story individually, and to wrap up with a post featuring a selection of artwork. As I mention in every case of a charity or fan project, my usual procedure is to include a plot summary. “Spoilers!” I hear you say. Well, yes, but there’s a reason for it! These projects as a rule don’t get the kind of documentation that licensed works get. There’s no TARDIS wiki for fan projects (to my knowledge anyway, and if I’m wrong, someone please hook me up!) [EDIT: Thanks to Aristide Twain for pointing out the Whoniverse wiki in the comments below, which covers works of this type.] Star Trek has Memory Alpha for canon works and Memory Beta for…well, less canon works, but we Whovians don’t have anything like that. The thought that such a broad swath of the Doctor Who universe should be unknown and undocumented is downright criminal. In addition, fan projects are usually available only for a limited time, and thereafter become very hard to obtain. Therefore, I add a level of detail here that definitely falls into the category of “spoilers”, so that there will be a record of these stories (for the record, I put these posts on Reddit’s /r/Gallifrey subreddit as well as here on the blog). But, if spoilers aren’t your thing—or if you simply plan to buy the zine and see for yourself—you’re still in luck! I clearly mark the spoiler section, and tell you where to pick up if you want to skip it.

With that said, today we’re reading Displaced Persons, by Michael O’Brien, featuring the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead from here to the next division line!

Amy Pond didn’t ask for a quick lesson in TARDIS mechanics, but she gets it anyway, as the Doctor holds up a smoking bit of electronics. The device is—or was–a vortex transducer, which enables the TARDIS to materialize as it exits the time vortex. Unfortunately, the main collection of transducers has burned out…as have the backups…and the emergency units. The TARDIS is, as it were, on its last legs. The good news: It can synthesize more! The bad news: To do so requires a supply of a temporally active material called tetratimoline vizorimide (“tetraviz”, for short), and that substance is rather rare. Still, as usual, the Doctor knows a guy, and so he takes the TARDIS in for a bumpy landing.

The Chasisto: a fine military cruiser in the Planetary Alliance Star Navy. Humanity is mostly (if briefly) at peace, but still, vigilance and weaponry are constants of history… at any rate, the Doctor quickly introduces Amy to Captain (formerly Commander) Ben Criette, an old friend. Criette’s ship and crew can produce the tetraviz, but with a mind-bending twist: the process must be initiated about forty-eight hours after it is completed. Amy waves this off with characteristic grace, because there is another issue at hand.

Isn’t there always?

The Chasisto has recently taken on a rather odd, sarcophagus-like object. [Note: I’m going to interject here and say that I was absolutely certain this was going to be another Genesis Ark and thus a Dalek story. I was pleasantly surprised! Read on.] The device has been analyzed, and revealed to be a Multi-Dimensional Memory (MDM) unit. Such a unit could hold a galaxy’s worth of information! But there’s a catch—the technology is notoriously risky, and humanity abandoned the idea. But what if this unit is functional–! Stranger still, the device is transmitting, but no translation has yet been possible. And more: It is exhibiting odd temporal phenomena, winking in and out of existence—so, does it come from the past, or the future? The Doctor quickly sorts out the translation, and finds that the device—or at least its message—stems from an old familiar race: the Vardans.

The message is a distress call. It states that the Vardans are refugees from the Last Great Time War. They are escapees of a prison set up by the Doctor long ago, in which the Vardans—in their pure-energy forms—were trapped in a temporal loop on a distant world. They claim to be non-combatants, held in slowly failing storage. The Doctor deftly avoids any discussion of the Time War, and puts it to Criette and his senior officers (and one Admiral Drayth, who is along for the ride) to decide: Help the Vardans, or not? The decision is aided by the surroundings: the room in which the unit is being analyzed is a sort of tactile imaging chamber, able to produce solid holograms. While the ship can’t hold thousands of refugees, it can allow some representatives to manifest in a physical form, and make negotiations. The plan seems sound; and via some quick maneuvering around Drayth’s objections, the Doctor ensures that he and Amy will be present when the Vardans are unbottled, as it were.

Five Vardans are manifested, led by one Kamark. But—perhaps predictably—it quickly proves to be a trap! The Vardans seize control of the chamber and its holographic projectors; however, their forms instantly melt away and resolve into something more monstrous. The Doctor recognizes these insectile forms…

Wirrn.

Even the humans recognize this parasitic race as a threat, and open fire, but to no avail. They begin to grapple with the Wirrn. The Doctor demands to know how many Vardans were infected by the Wirrn; the lead Wirrn claims that they have infested the entire data unit. Further, they’ve learned a trick from the Vardans: With the ability to become solid via hologram, they are able to infest living beings again—and they plan to do so to the crew of the Chasisto.

With the situation deteriorating, the Doctor looks around for something that will get them out. Most of the items in the room are useless; but he spies Amy wielding a bottle of a heavy fluid to beat down a Wirrn. Wait…where did that come from? With a sudden flash of intuition, he tells her to throw it at the databank. She catches it as it fades out of existence; the bottle is caught and goes with it, leaving only the fluid—the tetraviz—to splash on the unit as it fades in again. The Wirrn vanish, along with the unit, and the ship’s computers begin to reboot themselves.

In the aftermath, the Doctor explains that he noticed the container, and realized it hadn’t been there before—meaning, it came from the future. That guaranteed that it was filled with the requested tetraviz. Meanwhile the databank was already temporally unstable, due to its passage through the Time War and the effort of holding corrupt Wirrn bio-data (the Wirrn not being naturally suited to energy forms). Combine the two, and… well. The results were catastrophic, for the databank at least. Oh, it will require that another batch of tetraviz will have been started for the Doctor…but that’s the future. Isn’t it? It’s enough to give anyone—especially Amy—a headache.

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Well, that was fun! This story, I have to say—and if you read the spoiler section, you’ll have seen my note to this effect—did not go the way I expected it to go; but it was a refreshing change. The Vardans are a bit of a one-note villain, as are the Wirrn; but one note is really all that’s needed here. Remember, this is a short story, and that’s by design.

I like the reference to the Time War. It’s always interesting, to me, to see how the Time War relates to the universe as it exists after the War ended. While humans may not have much memory of the War, other races weren’t so lucky, and it’s interesting to get a look at how they’ve changed in the wake of events. The Vardans were last seen on television in The Invasion of Time, before the War; this story serves as a followup of sorts. The Vardans here are a remnant of those trapped by the Doctor in that story, now having survived the Time War, only to fall to the Wirrn. A terrible ending for them, no doubt—they were always second-string villains in terms of power and capability (Bernice Summerfield once stated that they were “the only race in history to be outwitted by the intellectual might of the Sontarans”, a reference to The Invasion of Time, mentioned in No Future), but they still don’t deserve the Wirrn. But I have a bit of a soft spot for the Vardans; shortly prior to this story, I had finished reading the New Adventures novel No Future, which gives the canon explanation for the Vardans’ escape from the Doctor’s trap. They, uh…they come off looking pretty bad there as well. Oh well, can’t win ‘em all, I guess (and if you’re a Vardan, can’t win any).

All joking aside, though, the best thing about this story is seeing the Doctor and Amy together again. There are few hints as to when this story takes place, but given that Rory isn’t mentioned, I’d place it in early Series Five. No cracks in time are mentioned, but as this is indeed a very short story, that’s no major issue. I took great pleasure in casting the lines in my head in the voices of the Doctor and Amy; my compliments to Michael O’Brien for absolutely capturing their mannerisms, their banter, their wit. In addition, we get a nice setting for this story in the Chasisto. I’m reminded of the ship in Into the Dalek, though this is not (apparently at least) the same military, and definitely not the time of the Dalek wars. Supporting characters are briefly described, and not deeply developed (again, short story), but we get some nice hints of backstory between the Doctor and Captain Criette, which are really all we need to bring that character (and by extension, the others) to life.

All in all, well done, and a nice beginning. If we can proceed in this vein, we’ll do well. It’s worth the purchase just for this story—and we have eight more to go, plus a wealth of artwork.

Next time: Lost Soul, by Katie and Claire Lambeth! See you there.

A Pile of Good Things is available here until 25 November 2019, in both physical and digital form.

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Novel Review: Iceberg

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today, we continue catching up on the Virgin New Adventures (VNAs, hereafter) featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Bernice Summerfield. Today we’ll be looking at Iceberg by David Banks, published in September 1993.

Iceberg cover

As I mentioned last time, due to my being a little behind schedule, this and the next several reviews will be a bit shorter than usual, and less involved. I hope you’ll stick around anyway.

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! Given that the books are two and a half decades old, I suspect that won’t be a problem; but at any rate, read at your own risk. And with that, let’s get started!

Here we come to the end of what I informally dubbed the “Holiday Tetralogy”, in which the Doctor wants a vacation. That sounds like such a simple premise; but this is Doctor Who, and of course nothing is that simple. The events of this novel take place at the same subjective time as those of Birthright–that is to say, while Benny and Ace are dealing with the Ch’tizz, the Doctor is on his own adventure in 2006 Earth.

Having split off a portion of the TARDIS into a separate—and alarmingly temporary—craft, the Doctor finds himself aboard the SS Elysium, a new and elaborate passenger liner on a voyage through the Antarctic seas. At the same time, the world is facing a crisis, as its magnetic field is about to reverse itself. Fortunately, there’s a plan! At an Antarctic base—one that is distantly familiar to the Doctor—a team works to assemble a machine that will, in the critical moment, reverse the reversal, and set the magnetic field back to its normal alignment. Unfortunately, no one imagined that under the ice waits a force of silver giants: Cybermen, with a plan to take over the planet. Now, undercover journalist Ruby Duvall must join this strange little man in stopping the plans of the Cybermen…and oh yes, saving the world from a natural disaster as well. All in a day’s work, right?


 

When I describe it the way I did in that summary, it sounds incredibly clichéd. I had some doubts when I read the cover blurb; but I was pleased to see it didn’t work out that way in practice. The story is engaging; and I have to say that it was refreshing to have a story that didn’t focus on the terrible relationships among the TARDIS crew. In NuWho terms we would call this a companion-lite story; ultimately I think it’s most reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor special Voyage of the Damned. The Seventh Doctor works best when he isn’t brooding all the time, and Ace and Benny (or maybe it’s just Ace; it doesn’t seem to happen as much without her) seem to bring out the brooding in him. Here, it’s clear throughout the story that, regardless of how dire the situation may be, he’s enjoying himself. So, maybe the holiday situation worked out in the end?

The comparison to Voyage of the Damned also works in relation to the companion of the day, Ruby Duvall. (She does, momentarily, travel in the TARDIS; but still, I wouldn’t call her a regular companion.) Ruby is very similar to Astrid Peth from Voyage in terms of personality; perhaps a little more world-weary, as she has a more varied set of life experiences than Astrid, but with the same eagerness to get involved. Like Astrid, she too wants to leave with the Doctor, but doesn’t get the chance, even though he is willing to take her. (Fortunately, it’s not through death that she misses her chance—Ruby lives to tell the tale, literally, as she dictates the final chapter of the book.) She follows a familiar pattern; many of the Doctor’s one-off companions seem to fit this template.

The biggest issue I find with this novel is that it contains several threads which never really pay out. Most notable is iceberg-sculpting artist Michael Brack. One would believe, from the first half of the novel, that he is going to be a major figure, with possible ties to the Cybermen—after all, they’ve used human agents many times before. In the end, though, he doesn’t amount to much, and his big secret—while emotionally significant for Ruby Duvall—feels rather tacked on at the end.

It’s worth noting that there’s a theme in the background of the VNAs, regarding the state of the Earth in the 21st century. It’s generally depicted as a hothouse of resource depletion, pollution, and general environmental abuse, largely due to the actions of corporations like the Butler Institute (not pictured here, but prominent in other novels in the series, such as Cat’s Cradle: Warhead). Ten years ago, I would have mused about how quaint the view was; these days, it’s uncomfortably relevant, with the real-world climate change issue. That theme is the backdrop for this novel as well, though it’s shielded a bit by the fact that this story takes place in the Antarctic; it is mentioned prominently in the early chapters and again at the end, but not much in between.

We can’t completely escape the tropes we’ve built up; this book continues the trend of drawing heavily on past (read: televised) stories. Here it’s The Tenth Planet that gets revisited. The Antarctic base is the same one featured in that story; its new commanding officer, US General Pamela Cutler, is the daughter of deceased Brigadier General Cutler, who died in that story. Both stories feature the Cybermen; but the Cybermen here are not from the Mondas situation addressed in The Tenth Planet, but relics of an older invasion attempt in the 1970s (The Invasion). Other continuity references: The Doctor is reminded at one point of his Sixth incarnation’s multicolored coat. His first regeneration (at age 450) is mentioned (The Tenth Planet). International Electromatics is mentioned (The Invasion, et al). Ruby Duvall will reappear in Happy Endings (if we ever get there, that is). The Doctor mistakes Ruby briefly for Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart (Transit). Ruby mentions the Cottingley fairy photos (Small Worlds). Photographer Isobel Watkins and her work are mentioned (Who Killed Kennedy). The Doctor has a vague memory of Daleks connected to a cricket match (The Daleks’ Master Plan). As well, there are many references to previous Cybermen stories, many of which have timeline conflicts that are subject to some efforts at reconciliation.

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Overall: Not bad, and I’d even go so far as to agree with the Discontinuity Guide in calling it underrated. The author is an occasional Classic Series actor, having played a Cyberman on a few occasions, and has a great interest in and detailed knowledge of the Cybermen and their history. It shows, as this book makes them a more visceral enemy than their Classic Series television appearances; there’s more of the body horror that we see in NuWho and Torchwood, where we actually witness transformations in progress. It’s worth it just for that; and it’s a nice break, as well, before we dive back into the mess that is Ace and Benny’s relationship (and the Doctor’s, with both of them).

Next time: We sidestep into an alternate universe in Blood Heat, by Jim Mortimore! 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.

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Novel Review: Birthright

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today, we continue catching up on the Virgin New Adventures line (VNAS, hereafter) featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Bernice Summerfield. Today we’ll be looking at Birthright by Nigel Robinson, published in August 1993.

I mentioned last time that I find myself in a combination of conflicting factors. For one, I dropped this line for some time due to burnout, meaning I’m further behind than I meant to be. For another, in the month of September I read a number of VNAs without posting any reviews, meaning I’m now behind on both reading and reviewing. As a result, these reviews (until I’m caught up) will be shorter than usual, less involved. I hope you’ll stick around anyway.

And finally, as always, there will be spoilers ahead! Granted, they’re spoilers for a book that is two and a half decades old, but, read at your own risk. Let’s get started!

Birthright cover

Picking up after the events of Shadowmind, we continue what I have informally dubbed the “holiday tetralogy”, wherein the Doctor really just wants a vacation. I don’t blame him; no one in the current TARDIS crew seems able to get along, nor to work through their own issues, and that includes the Doctor. He’s going to get it, too, whether his companions like it or not.

This book and the next, Iceberg, follow a pattern that ought to be familiar with viewers of the modern series: A “Doctor-lite” story, followed by a “companion-lite” story. The two stories take place at the same time (as much as any time travel story can be described in that way), at least from the perspective of our main characters. Here, we follow Benny for about two-thirds of the novel, and then incorporate Ace’s perspective. After experiencing a catastrophic event in the TARDIS, Benny finds herself stranded in 1909 London, where a serial killer is eviscerating young women. Ace lands on the planet Antykhon in the approximate year 22,000, where she finds humanlike survivors waging a resistance war against the ruling, insectoid Charrl, the reputed most noble race in the universe. There, an old hermit named Muldwych assists the queen of the Charrl in her efforts to transport her race through time to twentieth-century London; and all he needs is a missing piece of the TARDIS. The Doctor, of course, would know what to do—if he could be found.

I mentioned previously that we were embarking on what I consider a lackluster stretch of the VNAs, and that is true. It’s a sequence that highlights several plot and character elements that become so repetitive as to be tropes of the series, especially as relates to the relationship between Benny and Ace. But, in the interest of fairness, I did enjoy this book, once it got going. It, alone of this stretch of entries, tries to subvert some of those tropes; for example, instead of locking Benny up (or otherwise disposing of her) for two-thirds of the story, it puts her in the spotlight, allowing her some much-needed character moments. Of course, the downside is that now Ace is out of the picture; no one seems to be able to do justice to both characters together. We do, unfortunately, continue the trend of catastrophically removing the TARDIS from the story (though it’s not as egregious as what’s going to happen in Blood Heat when we get there!).

I liked the Charrl and their queen, Ch’tizz, as villains, largely because they don’t want to be villains; they feel driven to it by the threat of extinction. Their world, Antykhon (which has its own secrets that I won’t spoil), is a colony world that turned out to be hostile to their form of life; within a few centuries they will be extinct. This, in turn, drives Ch’tizz to strike a bargain with the hermit Muldwych to take them away somewhere safe, in exchange for his own freedom. On the other hand, the point is driven home many times that the Charrl are the most noble, most beautiful, most peaceful, most creative race the universe will ever know—a point which seems unlikely enough, but even the Doctor makes it, in his brief appearance at the end. I could have done without this particular bit of trivia, especially on repeat. The secondary villain, Ch’tizz’s human agent Jared Khan, was much more forgettable; there’s a hint of an interesting backstory involving the Doctor, but little is done with it. He could have been removed from the story with no great impact.

Of much more interest to me is Muldwych the hermit. As this isn’t addressed in this novel, I don’t consider this a spoiler; but other materials make it clear that he is a future incarnation of the Doctor, albeit a very odd once. It seems that he may be the incarnation that earned the “Merlin” moniker in Battlefield (although other incarnations have also been known by that name). Although he has made other, subsequent appearances, which confirm his connection to the Doctor, the wiki indicates that Nigel Robinson did not intend for Muldwych to be Merlin (and therefore presumably not the Doctor either). Indeed, the Doctor interacts with him here, and speaks of him familiarly as though they have met before; this would seem to imply they are not the same, as if he were a future incarnation, the Seventh Doctor should not be able to remember any past encounters with Muldwych. Muldwych is cantankerous, devious, and far less moral than the Doctor, and seems to have developed a strong sense of self-interest; so I’m interested to see how he is portrayed in later entries.

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Continuity References: We’re swimming in them today! It’s still some distance ahead of us, so I’ll go ahead and say that the Charrl and Muldwych will appear again in Happy Endings. Muldwych refers to 699 Wonders of the Universe; the 700th was destroyed in Death to the Daleks. Muldwych quotes the Fifth Doctor on the subject of tea, calling it “a noxious infusion of dried leaves” (The Awakening). Jared Khan, while following the Doctor through several hundred years of Earth history, ends up in the court of Kublai Khan (Marco Polo), and just misses the Doctor at Culloden in 1746 (The Highlanders). Muldwych recommends Madame Bovary to Ace via the Doctor, as a hint toward an as-yet-undefined future related to events of The Curse of Fenric (I admit this one is a stretch for me; I’m pulling that information from the Discontinuity Guide for this story, but I don’t personally know all the links in this chain of events yet). The TARDIS performs a time ram on part of itself, as first described in The Time Monster; this results in the famous Tunguska event, a massive explosion over Siberia. The character of Margaret is an aunt to Victoria Waterfield (The Evil of the Daleks); Ernie Wright, meanwhile, is implied to be Barbara’s grandfather (An Unearthly Child, et al). There is a bank account holding a large amount of money for use by the Doctor’s companions in emergencies; its five co-signatories are Benny, Victoria Waterfield (The Evil of the Daleks), Susan Foreman (An Unearthly Child), Sarah Jane Smith (The Time Warrior), and Melanie Bush (Terror of the Vervoids). And many more: for time’s sake, I’ll quote the Discontinuity Guide:

The Time Vector Generator first appeared in The Wheel in Space. The Cloister Bell rings again (Logopolis). There is a reference to the Seven Planets (The Pit). The Doctor mentions Susan. He has told Bernice, “sleep is for tortoises” (The Talons of Weng-Chiang) and has told Ace about the Wirrn (The Ark in Space). He mentions the Eye of Orion (The Five Doctors). Deaths for which the Doctor is held responsible include Adric’s (Earthshock), Katarina’s and Sara Kingdom’s (The Daleks’ Master Plan), Sorin’s (The Curse of Fenric), Julian’s (Love and War), and Raphael’s (Timewyrm: Apocalypse). There are references to Draconians (Frontier in Space), Hoothi (Love and War), Special Weapons Daleks (Remembrance of the Daleks), Karn and the Elixir of Life (The Brain of Morbius), Mondas (The Tenth Planet), Rassilon, Jan and Heaven (Love and War), Cybermen, Lady Peinforte and Richard (Silver Nemesis), Ace’s trip through a time storm to Svartos (Dragonfire), the Hand of Omega (Remembrance of the Daleks), Vicki, Steven, Nyssa, and Peri.

Overall: I actually wanted to hate this one, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a nice break in the midst of a lot of repetition. Just by nature, the next book will be similar, as it’s hard to have tropes about the companions without the companions. In a very real sense, the two books are halves of a whole. After that it will be back to business as usual for five books at least. Doctor-Lite and Companion-Lite are formats that I hope we see again in the novels.

Next time: We’ll get the rest of the story in Iceberg, by David Banks! 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.

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Novel Review: Shadowmind

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.

Shadowmind cover

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?

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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 SpacePlanet 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 SnowmenThe 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.

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Charity Anthology Review: Mild Curiosities: Comfort in Tea and Tales of Time Travel, and The Peculiar Package

We’re back, with another charity anthology review! Today we’re continuing our look at the Ian and Barbara anthology, Mild Curiosities, with two entries in Chapter III, the post-Doctor era: Comfort in Tea and Tales of Time Travel, by Dana Reboe; and Logan Fairchild’s The Peculiar Package.

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! I do this when reviewing charity projects, because these projects are generally only available for a limited time or in limited quantities, and because they get little in the way of documentation. Although I would not give the text away for free, I believe these stories deserve to be remembered, and also to be catalogued and accessible in some way. Therefore, I include plot summaries, which are naturally heavy in spoilers. (But don’t let that stop you from buying the anthology and appreciating the work firsthand! Purchase link is at the end!)

With that said, let’s get started!

Mild Curiosities

Comfort in Tea and Tales of Time Travel

After two years of trying—give or take; with time travel, who can tell?—Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright have made it home. The problem is: What to do now? Sometime shortly after their return, the duo sit in Barbara’s flat, just taking it all in. It’s been a stressful transition—of course it has—but here they are, at long last, sipping drinks and enjoying the peace and quiet. After all, those are things they rarely experienced with the Doctor; adventure, action, and even outright terror were more the order of the day. This is so much better.

Therefore, it comes as a bit of a surprise when Ian asks Barbara if she is happy.

She is taken aback; of course she’s happy, right? This is what they wanted. She turns the question back to Ian; and as always, his answer is a bit layered. Of course they’re happy; but, what about the Doctor? It was quite a blow to him when Susan left, and now they’ve followed suit. Will he be okay? To put it another way, though they wanted this for years, was their leaving a bit premature?

Barbara spends a moment musing about her time in the TARDIS—specifically, an early moment, in which she sat in the open doorway of the ship and looked out at the stars, with nothing beneath her feet but the vastness of space. What a view! It brings back all the longing, the curiosity, the sense of wonder she has felt—and yes, she is forced to admit, she too will miss the Doctor. So will Ian, obviously. After all, who will challenge the Doctor’s technobabble? Who will argue right and wrong with the old man?

It all begs the question: Will they see him again?

They don’t know. There’s no way to know.

But—and here Ian joins Barbara at the window, looking out over a bustling London morning—the world is still turning, and the two of them still carry on. There’s something satisfying about that. Despite what they’ve given up, they have each other; and if they are now on the slow path through life, rather than the highlights, well…Ian doesn’t mind. Barbara, either.

The Peculiar Package

It’s been some time since Ian and Barbara found their way back to 1965 London, and they’ve begun to settle in. More to the point, they’ve finally found time to make their relationship something more than just friends or traveling companions; and so, while Ian is away for the weekend with family, Barbara finds herself unexpectedly at loose ends.

She doesn’t have long to think about it, though; for a mysterious package has arrived in the post. Inside, she finds a strange, handheld device, made up of a screen like those on the TARDIS, surrounded by a large number of switches and buttons. Intrigued—and a bit worried at the obviously alien nature of the machine—she spends the rest of the weekend tinkering with the device, but to no response. When Ian returns (with romance on his mind, but unfortunately he’ll be redirected in a moment), she enlists his help with it. He spends the evening working with the device, but also gets no response; in the end he falls asleep on her sofa.

During the night Barbara awakens—and spots a strange light from the room where Ian is asleep. She knows at once it’s the device, and with a sinking feeling she moves to check it out. When she picks it up, however, she is shocked to see the Doctor and Vicki on its screen!

It quickly becomes apparent that she can’t only see them; they can see her, and speak with her. They tell her that the device is a telepathic communicator—just in case Ian and Barbara ever need the Doctor for anything. However, he congratulates her on their engagement, confusing Barbara; they’ve never discussed marriage yet. Vicki realizes what has happened, and chides the Doctor for calling too soon. The Doctor retorts that perhaps he isn’t early; perhaps Ian is late (conveniently ignoring the fact that it’s the preoccupation with his own gift that has distracted both Ian and Barbara!). Just before he cuts contact, he warns Barbara not to check Ian’s jacket pockets.

In the morning, Barbara tells Ian about the call from the Doctor. Feeling emboldened, she includes his congratulations on their engagement. Ian, quickly chagrined, produces a ring box from his jacket pocket, and apologizes, saying that he intended to propose on their now-canceled date last night.

And of course, Barbara’s answer is “yes”.

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I’ve placed these two stories together in part for a reason of my own—that is, that I’m falling further behind in this series, and need to catch up. However, I also observed that the two stories go very well together, almost as chapters in the same story. Comfort in Tea and Tales of Time Travel (hereafter abbreviated as Comfort for convenience’s sake) takes place very shortly after our heroes’ arrival back on Earth; it’s broadly hinted that it takes place on the night of the same day in which they arrived, but I have left that open to interpretation, chiefly because of the insinuation in our last story that their flats may no longer be available to them. Here we see Barbara’s, so I’ve chosen to allow for the possibility of a little more time. The Peculiar Package takes place some time later, possibly months, but still not too long thereafter. Ian and Barbara have moved forward with their relationship, and here we see one account of their engagement (there may be others in existence, I’m not sure). I’m stating that I think this story is only a few months after their return, because that is in keeping with Hunters of the Burning Stone, which recounts their wedding; that story has them encountering the Eleventh Doctor after being kidnapped from 1965, indicating that not too much time can possibly have passed before their wedding.

These stories are more of the slice-of-life variety. There are no villains, no adventures; only good feelings here—after all, the first story’s title begins with Comfort. That’s fair enough for now; after all, they’ve only just come off of two years of adventures. I will be happy to see more adventures later if possible, but for now, this is all we—and they—need. Put another way, all they need is each other and time—and that’s time in linear order, as we must clarify.

I know this is quite fan-service-y, for lack of a better word; but I love the suggestion that The Chase was not the end of their encounters with the Doctor. They don’t need to come back for constant adventures; but just to know that they weren’t abandoned to their own devices forever is nice. We got a hint of that in The Wreck of the San Juan de Pasajes, with the Seventh Doctor; and there will be other stories down the road. It’s comforting to know that in a pinch, they still have access to their old friend, as we see here.

Overall: Two short stories that accomplish exactly what they set out to do: They set our heroes on course for a happy, if Earthbound, life. I’m content with that. In our upcoming entries, we’ll see if it lasts.

Next time: We’ll wrap up this chapter with Riviera Refuge by Stephen Hatcher! See you there.

Mild Curiosities is published in support of Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s largest breast cancer charity and research organization. You can learn more about them here. The anthology can be purchased in digital form here for a limited time.

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