We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today we continue the Virgin New Adventures series (VNAs) with The Highest Science, by Gareth Roberts. Published on 18 February 1993, this story features the Seventh Doctor and Bernice Summerfield. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!
The TARDIS approaches the planet Hogsuum in the year 2680. The Doctor is in pursuit of a temporal phenomenon called a Fortean flicker, which creates coincidences and pulls people and things from their proper places and times. His research leads him to a 25th-century scholar named Gustav Urnst, with whom Bernice Summerfield is familiar, and who allegedly found and wrote about the fabled planet of Sakkrat. His writings speak of the Highest Science, the pinnacle of Sakkratian technology; but what it is, no one can say. Urnst himself disappeared before revealing his answers. Could Hogsuum be Sakkrat?
On the planet Vaagon, a Chelonian assault force is mopping up a human colony, when the Fortean flicker transports the Chelonians to Hogsuum. The force’s commanding general, Fakrid, prematurely delivers a clutch of stillborn eggs, which begins to drive him mad. He sends his troops into battle, where they confront the mysterious “eight twelves”, but they are repelled by intelligent weaponry. At the same time, the TARDIS arrives, and the Doctor and Benny meet a human named Rodomonte. Strangely, he seems to know them, at least by description. Faced with the Chelonian threat, the Doctor sends Benny and Rodomonte away to safety while he stays near the TARDIS. In orbit, another ship arrives, guided by an engineered being called the Cell. It awakens its crew: first, unwilling participants and master thieves Rosheen and Klift, then the psychotic warrior Postine, and then the worst of them all: the expedition’s leader, the storied criminal Sheldukher. They have been asleep for three hundred years, while the Cell searched for Sakkrat—and now it has found the planet, or so it believes. Sheldukher reasserts control over his crew by prematurely aging Klift, forcing Rosheen to obey. The Cell can’t properly scan the surface, but it telepathically contacts the Doctor, who is the first person to ever show kindness to it in its tortured existence. However, its power overwhelms him and knocks him out, and the Chelonians capture him.
Benny happens upon a swamp creature that hypnotizes its victims. Rodomonte gathers his two friends, Sendei and Molassi, who are behaving oddly; the trio also came here by way of the Fortean flicker, transported from the Ragasteen Music Festival of 2112. Sendei goes after Benny, provoking Molassi in the process; Molassi begins growing progressively more insane and dangerous. Sendei rescues Benny and takes her back to the camp, giving her drinks from a dispenser that they found after arrival. Unknown to them, the drink is from their relative future, but her past; it is called bubbleshake, and though developed as an appetite suppressant when coupled with a certain medication, by itself it is highly addictive and eventually deadly, with many mental side effects including amnesia and paranoia. As all three men have been drinking it, all of them are beginning to show the effects, with Molassi the most affected. He believes himself to be the Wizard King, adapted from the lyrics of his favorite band—lyrics which, coincidentally, seem to perfectly describe the situation they are all facing… As Benny consumes the bubbleshake, she too is affected, and soon forgets herself, the TARDIS, and the Doctor.
As the Chelonians move to attack the Eight Twelves, the Doctor intervenes. Bluffing, he persuades the Chelonians to let him deal with the threat. He finds that the “Eight Twelves” are twentieth-century humans; they were on the #812 bus when they were transported here by the Fortean flicker. Two of their number, Vanessa and Hazel, happened upon the intelligent weapons—also deposited by the flicker—that have heretofore kept them alive. The Doctor gets them behaving in a way that contributes to survival, and goes back to announce their “destruction” to the Chelonians… only to find that the Chelonians have been monitoring, and know that he deceived them. He is saved, however, when Sheldukher’s ship lands, and transmits a sonic signal that temporarily disables the Chelonians.
Molassi’s speeder craft carries his group, and Benny, to a ruined city before breaking down. This is the location Molassi, in his madness, has been seeking, and he runs on ahead to a ruined temple. Caught in addiction, he demands more of the bubbleshake, but the dispenser is empty. Enraged, he kills Sendei. At the temple, he meets ghosts, which probe his mind for a certain response, but do not receive it. The ghosts reject him, and give him visions which disillusion him, causing him to commit suicide. Rodomonte, too, is found and probed by the ghosts, and subsequently commits suicide. However, the ghosts get the response they seek from Benny, and let her live. She subsequently passes out inside the city from bubbleshake withdrawal.
Sheldukher threatens the Eight Twelves to get the Doctor to lead him to Sakkrat city. The Doctor reluctantly does so, following Urnst’s cryptic directions, which Sheldukher had never seen, having been in cryo-sleep at its publication. To discourage the Chelonians as he departs, Sheldukher kills four of him; however, this drives General Fakrid into a frenzy, and he takes his troops to follow Sheldukher to the city, several thousand miles away. As Sheldukher’s ship lands at the city, the Cell locks everyone inside and tries to destroy the ship and end its own life—and take revenge on Sheldukher in the process—but the Doctor is able to get everyone out, including the Cell. However, the self-destruction leaves them stranded here, far from the TARDIS. The Doctor finds Benny, and manages to repair her mind telepathically, although she will still require medical treatment for the addiction and its effects. She too knows Sheldukher by reputation. Sheldukher sets Postine to hold off the pursuing Chelonians while the others enter the temple. The battle outside brings down part of the structure, trapping Klift; but he subsequently confronted by the ghosts, and dies. The Doctor seems to recognize the ghosts. Postine manages to mortally wound the general, but dies in the process. Before dying, Fakrid passes command to his First Pilot, Jinkwa, whom he reveals to secretly be his son. Jinkwa, however, is already stressed past breaking, and is just as mad as Fakrid. Benny and Rosheen escape the city, but are caught by the Chelonians, and Rosheen is killed. Benny is transmatted to safety by the ghosts. Jinkwa orders a suicide mission to destroy the city; two of the three suicide operatives carry out the mission, but are transported beyond the city by the ghosts before they can explode. The third, in an attack of conscience, returns to stop Jinkwa, and detonates near his command vehicle; however two other vehicles take the explosion instead.
The Doctor, Benny, and Sheldukher, with the Cell, pass through a strange chamber, a slow-time conversion chamber, which matches them to the slower passage of time beneath the city. This field of slowed time would protect whatever it encloses, possibly for millions of years. They are attacked by a robotic monster called the Monumental Guardian, but it lets them go after trying to scare them. Sheldukher is then captured by a containment field. Two humanoid genetic Contstructs approach the group, and demand that they return Project FXX Q84…also known as the Cell. Finally the Doctor explains.
Three hundred years prior, Sheldukher stole the embryonic Cell from a horrific research world called Checkley’s World, planning to use it to find Sakkrat. When Sheldukher vanished, the controlling firm of Checkley’s World created a plan to trap him and recover the Cell, which had the power to become the greatest mind in existence. They altered the planet Hogsuum to more perfectly match Sakkrat’s description, and created the various guardians and traps in order to lure in Sheldukher and recover the cell. However, the slow-time chamber’s control globe became faulty, creating the Fortean flicker. The Doctor makes his way to the control globe and shuts off the faulty circuit, ending the flicker; however, shutting down the rest of the system proves impossible. Sheldukher overcomes that problem, however, when he cannot handle the truth, and kills himself; but he is wearing a powerful explosive on a deadman switch and a timer, and in fifteen minutes it will vaporize everything for a thousand miles around. The Doctor and Benny flee try to flee via the facility’s emergency transmat, and are attacked by the Monumental Guardian along the way; they escape seconds before the explosive detonates.
The Doctor and Benny materialize near the TARDIS, only to find the Chelonians about to wipe out the Eight Twelves using a lethal Zarathion gas. Using the facility’s control globe, he freezes the area in slow time, saving the lives of all the survivors, but leaving them as a problem to be worked out another day; he cannot enter the slow-time field, as it would kill him at this level. With Benny, he returns to the TARDIS. Inside, he administers the antidote to the bubbleshake, and she slowly recovers over several days; when she is fully recovered, he celebrates by taking her to 1935 Earth, for a meeting with Virginia Woolf, or—failing that—a night at the theatre. As they exit the TARDIS, they fail to see that it is behaving oddly; and later, they find that it has moved itself to another spot nearby. In the theatre, they watch the show before getting bored and leaving for other worlds, without realizing that Gustav Urnst, the lost scholar, is there, having been displaced by the Fortean flicker to this historic time. Urnst watches them go, and muses on their existence as travelers from the future.
I had heard this story mentioned in many contexts in the past; and so I was a little disappointed to find that it reads more like an extended interlude in the Doctor’s adventures. It’s not a bad story, but if this were Big Finish, it would be a Short Trip story. (Actually, as Big Finish has included this novel in their line of Novel Adaptations audio dramas, perhaps I shouldn’t say that.) Its events cover a few days, but they don’t feel like it; it gives the appearance of brevity, despite being as long as most VNA novels.
The story covers the Doctor’s trip to what appears to be the legendary world of Sakkrat, where a motley collection of others have also arrived, including a Chelonian (think intelligent, angry tortoises) assault force. He is in search of a temporal disturbance called a Fortean flicker, which is responsible for transporting the various groups to the planet. The Chelonians are on a mission of conquest, now tragically misdirected; a group of music fans are chasing a vision that keeps inexplicably coming true; a certain criminal element is in pursuit of the fabled Sakkratian “Highest Science”, which is reputed to reshape reality; and the human tourists in the middle of it all just want to go home. Toss in some serious drug addiction with amnesia on the side, and an alien conspiracy that may or may not be what it seems, and everything goes haywire in very short order. For once the Doctor isn’t able to do any of his customary scheming, and it’s refreshing to see him have to think on his feet (especially impressive, considering that he repeatedly gets knocked off of them); he does figure out what’s happening before the conclusion, but not in time to manipulate the situation to any great degree.
Bernice has a rough time in this story. In fact, her adventures with the Doctor aren’t going well at all at this point, though she remains inexplicably optimistic. Her adventures on Heaven (Love and War) ended terribly for everyone involved; in Transit, she was possessed by the transit system entity for most of the story. Here, she spends most of her time largely incapacitated by bubbleshake addiction. I’m reminded of the tendency in the early Fifth Doctor era to write the episodes in such a way that one of the three companions was out of action throughout the story. That technique was justified at the time by the fact that it’s just simply difficult to write for four main characters at once (for comparison, watch Stargate SG-1, and see how many times Daniel Jackson is either dead or off on an archaeological dig, or both). Here, we don’t have that excuse, but the various writers still seem to insist on writing Benny out as fast as they can—which is odd, given that she’ll be with us for something like forty-five of these novels.
This story relies heavily on deus ex machina events. Spaceships and transmats arrive at just the right time; characters mysteriously know each other when they shouldn’t, with little ultimate explanation given. On the one hand, these things should be expected, because the story’s macguffin—the Fortean flicker—causes odd coincidences. On the other hand, early in the story we get a set of indicators that show when the flicker is active, and it’s never active at the time that these particular coincidences take place. That negates the effect, in my opinion. We could forgive one such event—the arrival of the villain’s spacecraft, which in turn saves the Doctor’s life, is excellent—but a string of them is sloppy writing.
For a story set on an isolated and uninhabited world, there are a lot of supporting characters here. The mad Chelonian general Fakrid and his First Pilot Jinkwa; the leaders among the human tourists, Vaness, Hazel, and Witcher; the three music fans, Rodomonte, Sendei, and Molassi; the criminal Sheldukher and his entourage of Rosheen, Klift, Posteen, and the Cell; and several constructed beings inside the Sakkrat temple. Most of them are believable characters, but their circumstances have them acting in very erratic ways; Sendei, Rodomonte, and Molassi in particular are all suffering from various degrees of madness thanks to the bubbleshake addiction. Fakrid suffers from his own rapidly-advancing madness, and Jinkwa picks up some of it near the end. Fakrid and Sheldukher are both caricatures—Fakrid a caricature of a mad military commander, Sheldukher of a ruthless-but-cultured criminal—but otherwise, the characters are fairly well done.
Some continuity references: The Eternals (Enlightenment, et al) get a mention by the Doctor. The Chelonians are first mentioned here, but will appear in other stories later, including The Well-Mannered War, also by Gareth Roberts. Lasty’s Nebula will also be mentioned in The Dark Path. There are several references to the events of the preceding two novels (Love and War, Transit), mostly made by Bernice. The survivors of this story, left frozen at its end, will be rescued in Happy Endings, many novels from now. The Doctor states that he asks three questions every time he awakens after being knocked unconscious: “Where am I? Who am I? And who are you?” These questions date back to Time and the Rani. Elements of this story—especially the underused element of the bus tourists stranded on an alien planet—will be reused in Planet of the Dead, also written by Gareth Roberts, which I will coincidentally be covering next week, barring unforeseen circumstances. Allegedly Roberts wished to use the Chelonians in that story, but declined due to the difficulties of putting an actor in a Chelonian costume in the Dubai heat. Notably, this story is the first to spell out what was suggested as far back as Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, that the TARDIS likely requires six pilots for normal operation; this would later be adapted into television canon and confirmed in Journey’s End, which I covered last week. The Doctor’s ring here resembles the First Doctor’s ring (last seen in The Power of the Daleks) and may possibly be intended to be the same one.
Overall: Although I understand the book was well-received, I found it to be so-so at best. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely not one of the better novels in the series, either. The running theme of the book can be summed up in the repeated line: “He [or she] just couldn’t understand some people.” The characters don’t understand each other, and every step of the plot is built on such misunderstandings; and in too many cases, we the readers don’t understand them either. Roberts is good for some quick wit and humor, and his plot does hold together (with the exception of the deus ex machina moments I mentioned earlier), but it’s nothing to write home about. Planet of the Dead does it better, and I think that Roberts benefitted from the years in between when it comes to refining the basic ideas here.
Next time: The Pit, by Neil Penswick! See you there.
Although most of the Virgin New Adventures novels are out of print, this novel has been adapted into full-cast audio drama format by Big Finish Productions as part of their Novel Adaptations range. This adaptation’s purchase page is linked below.