We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we’re continuing the New Adventures (VNA) series with The Pit, by Neil Penswick. Featuring the Seventh Doctor and Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, this novel was released in March 1993. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!
Bored and looking for adventure of her own choosing, Bernice asks the Doctor to take her to the Seven Planets of the Althosian System. A former system of colony worlds that gained its independence, the system vanished before Benny’s birth, and no one knows why. Catching the Doctor’s attention, there is no mention of the system in the TARDIS memory banks or his own prodigious memory. En route, the TARDIS experiences some interference, then stalls out, before making a rough landing on a large, unnamed planet in the system. Determined to find out what is affecting the TARDIS, the Doctor explores the jungle.
Elsewhere, a scientist named Jarak is studying the water and life on the planet, which is ordinarily off limits. He witnesses the river turn red, then dies from exposure to it; the redness spreads onto the land, and anything it touches seems to be frozen in time. His wife Ell is forced to hide in their interplanetary ship. Yet elsewhere, two shapeshifters, Butler and Swarf, have stolen “Pandora’s Box”, the most powerful nuclear weapon in history; if used, it will destroy the entire system. Using a team of telepathic Khthons, the system’s natives, they are transporting the device through the jungle to an ancient and forbidding castle. In pursuit are a team of hunter-killer androids—Thomas, Chaney, Marilyn, and their leader, Spike—sent by the Archon of the Althosian system and his Justice Police from the capitol world, Nicaea, to recover the bomb. As they skydive onto the planet, their ship—with hidden orders of its own—begins a long but fatal countdown.
On Nicaea, and other worlds in the system, the situation is degenerating. An unwarranted military buildup has left the people starving, which in turn has caused riots that are just beginning to get out of hand. While the Archon and his Justice Police administrator, General Kopyion, deal with the crisis, Major John Carlson has a problem of his own to investigate: a strange series of murders. The investigation leads him to one Bulbir Singh Mann, a dealer in Earth relics and antiques, who took a book of poetry from the scene of one of the murders. He arrests Mann, but is forced to release him upon the interference of a politician, an Academician named Brown, who leads the opposition faction in the governing Academy. Kopyion tells Brown that the most recent victim was an undercover Justice Police officer on an unrelated investigation, confusing the Major.
Spike strikes the planet apart from his fellows, and is mortally injured; he will die in sixty hours. The Doctor and Benny happen upon him, and he takes them for the shapeshifters and holds them at gunpoint. However, the Doctor suddenly vanishes, leaving Benny in Spike’s possession. They are intercepted by the other androids, who cannot risk that they may be the shapeshifters, and open fire. However, Spike escapes with Benny, still believing that she is a shapeshifter. He takes her with him by raft down the river, in search of the bomb.
The Doctor falls through a hole in time, finding himself in a hellish underworld of sorts. He is captured by a race of creatures called the Cun, who force him to fight another creature while they bet on the outcome. He survives, but with injuries, and in the cells he meets the poet William Blake, who also fell through a hole in time. Blake believes they are in hHll, and who can argue? They escape and head for the hole in time, but are intercepted by creatures on pterodactyls. The Doctor bargains for freedom, but is disturbed regardless; the creatures spoke ancient Gallifreyan.
On Nicaea, Brown confronts the Archon in the Academy and attempts to restore order, but fails. The Archon retreats to his palace, but is killed during the night, in the same ritualistic fashion as the previous murders. The chaos accelerates, drawing in military and religious elements; the priests are insisting it is the end of time, the final battle against the demonlike Hunters that are native to the system. While Carlson tries to deal with the situation, his wife Melanie leaves him, volunteering as a nurse in the combat zones.
The hole in time takes the Doctor and Blake to London during Jack the Ripper’s murder spree, seventy years after Blake’s time. Blake is disillusioned that the progress he and his compatriots predicted has not swept the world. Their search for answers leads them first to a brothel, where the Doctor’s plans do not work out, leaving him disillusioned; his sonic screwdriver is then stolen, and in recovering it, they are captured by a cult whose members worship evil forces. They escape just in time to avoid being sacrificed, burning down the cult’s lair in the process. They find another hole in time, this time landing on present-day Salisbury Plain, where they are immediately picked up by UNIT. Verifying the Doctor’s credentials, the UNIT officers let him in on current events; they are assisting an archaeological dig which has unearthed the bones of a massive, reptilian creature, much larger than any dinosaur. The Doctor suspects it is only dormant, not dead, and insists that it be destroyed, but the archaeologist, Roberts, refuses. The Doctor realizes Roberts is a member of the cult he just destroyed in the past, and Roberts tries to kill him. A group of Hunters—the same as the ones in the Althosian system—interrupt, appearing through the hole in time and crashing a plane, which diverts UNIT to trying to save the passengers and kill the beasts. The Doctor, with Blake, steals the carrier holding the bones and drives it back to and through the hole in time. They find themselves back in the netherworld.
Butler stalks the androids through the jungle, killing first Chaney, then Marilyn. However, before he can kill Thomas, he falls into the encroaching red weed that has spread from the river, and is frozen in time. Thomas finds the ship in which Ell hides; she joins him outside, but destroys the ship, claiming there was a bomb aboard. Thomas knows this is suspicious, but has no time for that, and takes her with him.
Benny falls into quicksand, but is rescued by an invisible figure. She and spike then find a crashed, ancient space station near the castle, and explore it. Swarf discovers that Butler is dead, and goes to the space station to take revenge. He nearly kills Spike, but Benny escapes; Swarf returns to the castle. Meanwhile, Thomas and Ell discover that many things on this planet, including much of the plant and animal life, are artificial; they were manufactured by Mirage Enterprises, a company owned by Kopyion. They find Benny in the space station, and she tells them that Spike is dead, although she is not aware that the android survived.
Mann, the antique dealer, meets Brown at Brown’s apartment. Brown was the expected buyer for the book of poetry; together, they remove its binding to find packets of a potent drug, Dream B, which they sample. As their drug-induced visions wear off, an intruder shoots them both, killing them. Later, Carlson wants to investigate the murders, but Kopyion stops him and closes the case, tying it to the dead officer’s investigation. Carlson is not happy, but is interrupted by a notification that his wife was killed in a government-approved chemical attack on the rioters. IN a rage, he tears apart the file room, but finds nothing useful there. He follows Kopyion to the spaceport, where Kopyion declares these “the final days”, and takes a ship to the unnamed planet. Carlson accuses Kopyion of the murders—correctly, as it turns out—but before he can stop Kopyion, Kopyion kills him.
The khthons sense the approach of Benny, Ell, and Thomas to the castle. Ell has them surrender so as to get inside quickly; the red weed is closing in. En route to the castle’s cells, Benny notices that the walls are decorated with the Gallifreyan Seal of Rassilon. At Swarf’s direction, the khthons have used the bomb to power a dimensional drilling apparatus, which they now activate, trying to open a dimensional gateway to the netherworld. Swarf’s interest is financial; the netherworld is the source of Dream B, which he will sell. Outside, the Hunters gather, and one carries the dying Spike to the castle; he kills the Hunter holding him, and makes his way slowly inside.
The Doctor reveals to Blake that the netherworld is the home dimension of the Yssgaroth, the Great Vampires of archaic Gallifreyan history, which the Gallifreyans once allowed into the universe, thus kicking off their great war. Now the Cun and others are establishing a bridgehead for the Yssgaroth to invade again, and in the process they are mining Dream B, which the cult on the other side uses in its rituals. He tries to use the Dream B, which is explosive, to destroy the bridgehead, but before he can do so, he and Blake are spirited away. Their rescuer is Kopyion, who is more than he seems; he is Kopyion Liall a Mahajetsu, the nearly-mythical Gallifreyan general who led the war against the Yssgaroth, millions of years ago. He claims that Rassilon’s early experiments with time travel opened the gates that allowed the Yssgaroth into the universe; after the war, Rassilon hid the truth, against Kopyion’s will. Therefore, Kopyion has waited all this time for the monsters to return—and now it is happening. He is willing to carry out his plan against them even if it costs Benny’s life.
Escaping the cells, Thomas, Benny, and Ell head to the courtyard where the drill is running. There, Ell reveals that she and her husband were Nicaean members of the Yssgaroth cult, as were the now-deceased Brown and Mann. It was they who hired Butler and Swarf, in order to gain access to the netherworld. Thomas tries, but fails to kill Swarf, who instead kills him. Ell then kills Chopra, the final surviving khthon, in preparation for the arrival of the Yssgaroth. Kopyion prepares to deal with Ell, but Spike arrives, and destroys the drilling machinery.
Some small part of the bomb’s force radiates outward, bringing down the castle; it crushes Ell, and Kopyion then beheads her for good measure. Most of the explosion has flowed through the gateway, causing incredible destruction in the netherworld and closing the gate for now. The Doctor argues with Kopyion over his methods; Kopyion insists his resolve is strong, and he will stand against the Yssgaroth regardless of cost. To prove his point—and to close this gateway for good—he reveals that he is allowing the androids’ ship to self-destruct; its explosion will destroy the entire system, including this world and its gateway. Benny objects, but the Doctor reminds her that they are already aware of the destruction of the system, and thus part of events—therefore they cannot avert the destruction. Kopyion erases this information from the Time Lord Matrix, deeming it too dangerous. He warns the Doctor to stay out of his way in the future, as he will kill the Doctor if he sees him again. Before the system goes up in flames, the Doctor and Benny take Blake back to the TARDIS, then take him home.
I have to admit, I didn’t care for this entry. It took me nearly two weeks to finish it (I’m averaging about a week per book, given that I have other reading material as well), and toward the end it felt like a trek trying to get through it. While I certainly don’t want to insult the author, it’s a difficult and rambling read; it’s well done in a technical sense—Neil Penswick can certainly write—but it’s just boring. The book is Penswick’s only successful contribution to Doctor Who, although he previously submitted a script which might have been accepted, had the televised series not been cancelled. He does have some other writing credits, including a short story for a French publication described on the wiki as an “analogue to the First Doctor”. I do find myself feeling some sympathy for Penswick, however; he and I are both primarily social workers, and writers of fiction on the side.
I do like the history of Gallifrey, and I was especially fond of the Fourth Doctor serial State of Decay, from which this story takes its lead. The lore added here, regarding the Gallifreyans’ (the book uses the term “Time Lords”, but technically they wouldn’t be Time Lords yet, although that time was approaching) war against the Great Vampires, is very interesting; it’s unfortunate there isn’t more of it, and I wouldn’t have minded a story that actually took the Doctor back to that time. The book doesn’t actually state that the Great Vampires are the same as the Yssgaroth—a term which first appears here—but the context makes it clear, and it will later be confirmed in Interference. They don’t appear to have the same form as the Great Vampires, but this seems to be an illusion of some sort. (I understand that they also appear in some of the Faction Paradox works, but I don’t have enough experience there as yet to comment further.) The Gallfreyan general, Kopyion Liall a Mahajetsu, is quite a formidable character: ancient in ways even the Doctor can’t approach, world-weary, focused, and deadly. I would love to see him again, or even see him become an occasional nemesis of the Doctor; the book ends with his promise to kill the Doctor if he ever sees him again. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case; he has no other appearances to date. The book also adds one more piece of lore: “Gallifrey” is said to literally translate to the phrase “They that walk in shadows”.
Although I was impressed by Kopyion, it’s hard to get a feel for any of the characters in this book. All of them—including, strangely enough, the Doctor and Bernice—feel shallow, as if we’re only ever seeing the surface. I suspect that this is because there are too many characters, with too many plot threads for this rather short book. There are two shapeshifters and their telepathic slaves, who have stolen the most powerful nuclear weapon in existence; the trio of androids sent to take it back; the fourth, displaced android, who ends up with Benny as an escort; the mysterious General Kopyion with his secrets; Major John Carlson with his murder investigation; Academician Brown and relic dealer Mann, who have their own plot threads; the Archon, the leader of the Althosian system, who is trying to put down a growing civil unrest; Ell Romer and her husband Jarak, a scientist with secrets; a mysterious cult on Earth; UNIT; and the Doctor with—most improbable of all—the poet William Blake. It’s simply too much, and as a result it ties together in ways so improbable that Douglas Adams would cringe. There’s simply no time to get to know anyone. Some plots, such as Carlson’s murder investigation could be cut completely, and their characters reduced to the background; Carlson’s meaningless death negates his importance to the story in a single moment. Blake’s character serves no real purpose at all, and shouldn’t have been included (besides being unnecessary, he’s also incredibly unlikely—a random person falls through a hole in space and time, and it happens to be a historical celebrity? That stretches credibility even for Doctor Who!). In fact, we know in advance that this system is about to be destroyed completely, and everyone in it will die; therefore none of the local characters have much significance to the overall story.
I will give the story credit for explaining further about a plot that has been in the background for some time: the infection of the TARDIS. This phenomenon began in Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark and has steadily increased since; this is the source of the two competing cat-avatars of the TARDIS in Transit. Until now, it’s been essentially a nuisance; but here we see that the TARDIS’s actual function is breaking down, and the Doctor—by merit of his psychic link with the TARDIS—is breaking down with it. He very nearly loses the battle here, and in fact he is not really instrumental in the victory at all, all because of the TARDIS infection. That plot line will be resolved in the next book, Deceit.
I can’t help feeling that Bernice’s character is floundering at this point in the series. My feeling is that, after so long dealing with Ace, the writers simply don’t yet know what to do with a new companion. This holds true even with those writers who haven’t previously written for Ace; for several years at this point, Ace has been THE companion for the Seventh Doctor, and any writer doing research for the series would have to deal with her. As a result, Benny indulges in a number of traits that were common to Ace: impulsiveness, resorting to violence against the Doctor’s wishes, boredom, and fixating on her relationship with one or both parents. If I have counted correctly, she ultimately appears in more of the New Adventures than Ace or any other companion; therefore I hope that her character levels off soon and finds her own personality. Ace is slated to reappear in the next book, and I think this is a good thing; with both of them present, Benny shouldn’t be able to fill Ace’s niche, and may be forced to be herself.
There is a prelude to this book that was published in Doctor Who Magazine and subsequently excluded from the finished volume. It focuses on Major Carlson’s early investigations into the string of murders. It feels very rough, as though it was an early draft, and doesn’t add anything vital to the story, but it may be worth a look. You can find the full text here.
This book chooses to focus more on Doctor Who lore than on past continuity; however there are still a number of continuity references. The Doctor mentions Susan, in that she loved the works of William Blake, although I haven’t managed to pin down a particular story in which this is stated. There are numerous references to the lore established in State of Decay. Bernice makes several references to past adventures with the Doctor (Love and War, et al.) and especially to her own personal family history, as introduced in Love and War. She dates those events to 2450, which contradicts The Highest Science, though this may just be an error. There is a reference to the creation of the Eye of Harmony via a black hole (The Three Doctors); here it is stated that Rassilon deliberately caused Omega’s accident to cover up his own mistakes. The Doctor has a new Sonic Screwdriver (his original being lost in The Visitation, and confirmed as still lost in The Highest Science), although he will lose it again before Lungbarrow. The Time Path Indicator is mentioned (The Chase, et al). Several UNIT personnel get mentioned, including Brigadier Bambera (Battlefield), though they do not actually appear here. The Doctor finds Ogron bones (Day of the Daleks) and Terileptil bones (The Visitation). He mentions meeting Kublai Khan (Marco Polo) and Houdini (Planet of the Spiders, Smoke and Mirrors, et al). He mentions the Pythia (Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible).
Overall: Not so great, this one. It does have some good points, but they’re overshadowed by its problems. I’m glad to have it behind me, and I hope the next book picks up a bit.
Next time: We’ll be reading Deceit by Peter Darvill-Evans, which features the return of Ace! See you there.