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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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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Novel Review: White Darkness

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today we’re continuing our tour of the New Adventures line of Seventh Doctor novels, with the fifteenth entry, David A. MacIntee’s White Darkness. Published in June 1993, this novel weighs in at 244 pages, and is MacIntee’s first contribution to the Doctor Who universe. Let’s get started!

white darkness cover

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

After events at Lucifer were a bust, the Doctor is ready for a break. He attempts to take Ace and Benny to Key West, Florida, 1915; but as usual, his aim is…less than stellar. Instead, the group ends up in Haiti, 1915, which may as well be a world away from Florida. The island is ruled by the despotic President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, but his reign is under threat by General Rosalvo Bobo, the leader of a popular rebellion—nothing new in Haiti, but the timing is unfortunate, as both the Germans and the Americans have a vested interest in the tiny nation. The Doctor and his companions are pulled in when they stumble upon some mutilated bodies, and are taken in for questioning from General Etienne, who is loyal to President Sam.

The Doctor quickly takes charge of the situation, and ingratiates himself with the group’s guard, Captain Eugene Petion. He begins an investigation into the deaths, but moreover, into rumors of the dead rising; Haiti has long had talk, and sometimes more than talk, of zombis, but this seems out of proportion. He does not realize just how deep the web goes: for the Haitians are not the only ones present. The Germans have a hidden base on the island, in which they have allied themselves with a houngan named Lemaitre, or Mait for short; Mait’s underlings: the assassin Carrefour, the vodoun bocor Henri, and an American military attache—and devoted killer—named Richmann. With their help, the Germans are seeking to industrialize the ancient arts and potions that the locals use to create zombis, giving them a mass-produced weapon that will bring the war in Europe to a standstill—in Germany’s favor. As well, the American Marines under Admiral Caperton wait at nearby Cuba, poised to invade at a moment’s notice.

The Doctor senses odd telepathic whispers, which lead him to the local university and a doctor named Howard Philips. Philips, in addition to performing the autopsies on the original bodies, has long been researching the zombie tradition; and also, he has found something stranger still. He tells the Doctor of carved stones—now located in the university museum—that seem to date back much, much further than even the existence of humans, and which radiate a strange power. The Doctor sends Benny to investigate the stones; but she is captured by Henri, and taken away to be made into a zombi herself. Mait, fearing the interlopers’ influence, orders General Bobo to begin his attack on the palace. Ace returns with Petion to move the TARDIS to a new location, but they are attacked while en route; she manages to get them inside and pilot the ship to a safe location as instructed. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Philips try to return to the hospital, but are ambushed unsuccessfully by Richmann. Bobo and his men attack the palace, and Sam commits suicide (later to be believed an assassination). Meanwhile, the Marines, seeing their opportunity, invade the island to restore order. The Doctor quickly works his way into their ranks, and begins using them for his own purposes.

Benny awakens and escapes, only to find herself in the underground German base. She learns of their plan to use the mass-produced chemicals, and then escapes through a tunnel to the sea, coming ashore just in time to be picked up by the Marines. Meanwhile, General Etienne is killed by Carrefour.

The Doctor has learned of an upcoming ceremony in a nearby cemetery, to be conducted at midnight, and enlists the Marines to prevent it. He reconnects with Ace, Benny, and Petion—but he will need additional help. He meets and recruits another houngan, Dubois, who is also an Empereur of the Bizango, the island’s de facto council of houngans, who serve as a sort of unofficial law enforcement and court. With Dubois and the others, he visits Lemaitre’s villa, and destroys his vodoun workshop; he also finds a device that is used for amplifying telepathic signals. The device is Mait’s instrument for controlling his new breed of zombis. The Doctor doesn’t destroy it, but alters it to trap Mait’s mind and concentration—but unknowingly, he leaves an echo of his own memory in the device. He also realizes what is happening behind the scenes: Lemaitre serves the Old Ones, beings from before the dawn of the universe, who are disembodied—but who are using Mait and his upcoming ceremony to restore themselves to physical form. As well, the German plan will create an army of slaves for the Old Ones. The battle to end the ceremony just became much more urgent.

Hearing of the explosion of his workshop, Mait and Henri hurry back to the villa, where Mait is quickly trapped by the device. However, Henri frees him, and Mait gains a glimpse of the Doctor’s nature and plans. He sends Richmann to stop them at the cemetery, but the Doctor manages to convince Richmann he and the Germans are being betrayed by Mait. Richmann takes the Doctor to the base, but Mait intercepts him and interrogates him, unsuccessfully. When he leaves, the Doctor escapes, and plants explosives around the base and on a loaded transport ship, planning to destroy the chemicals. Meanwhile Ace, Petion, and Benny return to the cemetery with the Marines and their leader, Mortimer; but Mortimer holds out too long before attacking, allowing Mait to store sufficient telepathic energy in his device to complete the ritual on his own. He, Henri, Carrefour, and Richmann escape and retreat to the base, with Ace and the others in pursuit. Ace demolishes the door of the base, and the Marines invade it, joining battle with the Germans. Meanwhile, Richmann lashes out and kills Henri.

The Doctor chases Mait toward the lowest chamber, where the Old One’s body is buried, sending Benny to keep the Germans busy. She is captured by Richmann and Carrefour; but Carrefour has a crisis of memory, and takes out his long-delayed anger on Richmann. Richmann prevails and kills Carrefour, chasing the now-escaping Benny. En route he encounters Ace and Petion; and when he shoots Petion, Ace kills him with great prejudice. Mortimer is also killed in the fighting.

The Doctor manages to reach the chamber ahead of Mait, where he finds—and sabotages—a scaled-up version of the mind device. He also plants explosives with motion sensors behind him as he leaves, to bring down the tunnels. He encounters Lemaitre, and tries to talk him down; but Mait pushes past him, triggering the sensors and destroying the tunnels, killing himself. The Doctor heads back to the docking cavern and starts an evacuation—and just in time, as the hidden explosives detonate, bringing the project to an end.

In the end, the Doctor recovers the TARDIS, and the group moves on. The Marines, as history shows, will take control of the island, leading to the next chapter in its history. Petion will survive, though he will lose an arm. But the biggest shock is for Ace, who is confronted with the fact that in her last three years she has become a killer—perhaps not so different from Richmann. That is a fate she abhors, but can she still escape it?

White Darkness back cover

I’ve come to informally think of this book as the first in the “holiday tetralogy” (not an official designation, of course). After several difficult adventures, the Doctor makes attempts, over this and the next three books (ShadowmindBirthright, and Iceberg) to take his companions on a restful holiday…with predictably terrible results. Some people just can’t catch a break. At any rate, this book represents one of Doctor Who’s occasional takes on the classic zombie story—and literally, as these are traditional Haitian “zombis”, as it should properly be spelled.

Speaking of those who can’t catch a break, this is another entry in the now-well established tradition of doing terrible things to Bernice “Benny” Summerfield. Here, Benny gets a taste of what it’s like to become a zombi, though she thankfully recovers and escapes before it can be made permanent. She gives as good as she gets, several times fighting off various attackers and captors; but still, no one else seems to get into these situations in the first place. Maybe in the next book… (hint hint, Ace). Benny has had a tougher time since Ace returned; for one, the two women do not always get along; and for another, it’s hard to make anyone look tough beside hard-as-steel Spacefleet-era Ace. It will take a few more books to begin to balance things between them.

At the same time, this is Ace’s story too. When we last saw her, she was in full vengeful Spacefleet mode, taking out her long-delayed wrath on the Doctor and everyone else. Now that she’s got that out of her system, we’re slowly going to see her new persona get deconstructed; and it begins here, as she has to face the killer she’s become. The character of American assassin Richmann is otherwise extraneous to the story; but he’s here to show Ace what she’ll become if she doesn’t get a grip on herself and her future. I find that interesting, because Ace’s arc throughout the television series and early VNA novels was always about getting a grip on her past; now she’s shifted to look ahead. Meanwhile, Benny is the one focused on the past—specifically the matter of her father, though it will be a very long time before that thread comes to fruition.

Although this book itself is sunny enough, it must be pointed out that it occurs at a dark moment in history. The war in Europe—that would one day be called World War I—rages on; and Haiti is in a period of upheaval. It is, unfortunately, also a very racist time in the Western Hemisphere. The book doesn’t shy away from accurately describing the situation; characters sometimes use the word “nigger” and other insulting terms (not our heroes, thankfully), and the whole phenomenon of the racist relations between groups is on display. I was surprised that things were as explicit as they were; books today would tend, I think, to acknowledge the situation in info-dumps, but gloss over it in dialogue. There’s none of that here, and I can’t help wondering if the book would be rejected today. Certainly a story like this wouldn’t make it onto the television series, with family viewing at stake. Essentially it’s a gritty story set in a beautiful environment, and the contrast is jarring but satisfying.

Continuity references: The Doctor mentions having learned hypnotism from the Master—not by name, but by description, and not from any specific story. He wears the brooch given to him by Cameca in The Aztecs, and comments on the situation as a possible turning point in his character. In the same passage, he mentions Ian and Barbara’s return home (The Chase). It’s worth noting—though not mentioned here—that the First Doctor sold it for clothing in The Suffering, published sometime later; he seems to have recovered it. It will materialize again later in Relative Dimensions, as the Eighth Doctor gives it to Susan. The Doctor mentions his time as President of Gallifrey (The Invasion of Time, et al). He is reminded of his experience at the Dark Tower in The Five Doctors. He mentions hearing telepathic whispers (The Pirate Planet). He mentions wishing he had built another K9 (various stories). The HADS is mentioned (The Krotons, et al). The TARDIS translation feature works only erratically here (various stories). Ace mentions injuries from big cats, probably the Cheetah People (survival). Several figures, too common to name particular stories, are mentioned: Davros, the Brigadier, Bessie, Draconians, Centaurans, the Daleks. Drug use for mind control, seen here, is very similar to that used by the Usurians as mentioned in *The Sun Makers. The later novel All-Consuming Fire will indicate that the Old One featured here is Cthulhu, from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos series. Slightly unrelated, but I should point out as well that “Lemaitre” is French for “the Master”, though this is only an inside joke; the character is not the Time Lord by that name.

There is also a prelude to the story, available here. In it, Paul Richmann returns to his childhood home to kill an old man, presumably his grandfather, in the wake of his mother’s death (possibly at the old man’s hands). He takes a pocketwatch from the man, which is later lost in Haiti. Many years later, the Third Doctor—joining the Brigadier on an excursion for the American government—finds the pocketwatch, and feels something from it, before burying it again. I admit that I didn’t read the prelude before the novel; I didn’t discover its existence until afterward. However, you can read it at the above link.

Overall: I first stated this book more than a year ago, but couldn’t get into it, and put it aside. On a second reading, it was much better; a bit of a slow starter, as there are many pieces to be placed on the board here. However, once it picked up, I had to finish it. While I don’t know that I would call many of the VNAs essential yet, I will say that this book represents the start of a turning point in the relationships among the Doctor, Benny, and Ace. It’s a fresh start, of sorts, and I’m curious to see where it leads.

Next time: Shadowmind, the first Doctor Who novel by prolific author Christopher Bulis! 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: Lucifer Rising, by Jim Mortimore and Andy Lane

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! Today we’re picking up an older thread from this series: The New Adventures line of Seventh Doctor novels, published by Virgin Publishing (series sometimes abbreviated as “VNAs”). It’s been awhile since our last visit here—almost two years, in fact, when we examined the thirteenth entry, series editor Peter Darvill-Evans’s 1993 novel, Deceit. I should point out that this is one of the hazards of tracking the Doctor Who universe: There’s so much material to cover, in so many ranges and media, that it’s easy to let a series lapse for far too long. But today, we’re making a course correction, so, welcome back!

Now, a confession: As I moved to pick up this series, I realized that I completed the next novel long ago, but failed to post about it at the time. I’m picking up that lost entry today, but it will be a bit of a rush job; I have various resources to jog my memory, but the material isn’t exactly fresh after nearly two years. As well, I’ll admit to being in a hurry to move on to more recent reading. So, today we’re looking at May 1993’s Lucifer Rising, by Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore. Let’s get started!

Lucifer Rising front cover

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel! For a more spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

The Doctor, Bernice Summerfield, and the recently-returned Ace McShane arrive on the Project Eden station above the planet Lucifer, and almost mysteriously begin to insinuate themselves among the crew. One of the Project’s team members—Paula Engado, daughter of mission commander Miles Engado—has just died by re-entry, falling into Lucifer’s atmosphere in a starsuit—but unknown to anyone, she saw angels as she died. Miles summons an adjudicator to investigate the death. As the Adjudicator arrives, the team’s mission continues: to research and lay bare the mysteries of Lucifer and its rather odd star system, centered on a strange subsurface power transmission facility dubbed the “mushroom farm”. More deaths occur, along with acts of sabotage—and it seems that Ace, or perhaps the Doctor, may be responsible. Miles slowly loses his mind in the course of his grief, and tries to commit suicide in the same manner as Paula’s death; but he is rescued by Paula’s spirit, accompanied by the angels. The Doctor convinces the Adjudicator of his innocence, and sides with him to help stop a rogue scientist, Bannen, from taking control of the mushroom farm and destroying the system in his ignorance. As the system is activated, the planet’s atmosphere is torn away into black holes. Ace reveals that she manipulated the Doctor into coming here as part of a mission left from her days in Spacefleet; in the twenty-sixth century, there is an exclusion zone around the Lucifer system, and she wants to know why. That portion of the system’s history is about to begin, and she intends to witness it. The Adjudicator is killed by a strange being, and the Doctor kills it in turn, realizing that he has himself been too often guilty of manipulation. He sends the crew away in the Adjudicator’s shuttle, and takes Ace and Bernice to confront Bannen in the mushroom farm. The farm is revealed to control morphic fields, energy fields that shape biology—but the system is now running out of control due to sabotage to its feedback mechanism. The Doctor joins hands with Bernice, Ace, and Bannen, fusing together in the face of the morphic fields, but—through their dreams—providing the necessary feedback to shut down the system. Bannen becomes the new feedback mechanism for the system, and the Doctor and his companions are restored to normal. They depart—and as history demands, the system’s exclusion zone is complete. Later, the Doctor and his friends join Miles on Earth to honor Paula’s memory.

warhead-3

Up front, I’ll say I found Lucifer Rising to be a difficult read. It’s a good story, to be sure, and replete with the weirdness and technobabble that I sometimes expect from Doctor Who; but it takes a long time to get to the point. More than that, the story jumps around quite a bit, with little explanation between leaps. Perhaps the most immersion-breaking moment for me was near the beginning; the body of the story opens in media res, with the Doctor and his companions already having been present on the Eden Project space station for some time, and no one thinking this is odd! In fact, several of the crew find themselves wondering if the Doctor and his friends had been there all along, or were part of the crew. It’s been awhile, but I don’t remember any proper explanation for this phenomenon (something something telepathic circuits, maybe?), and I don’t recall seeing this happen in any other story. I’m accustomed to the Doctor having to smooth-talk his way into a situation. Mysterious, indeed!

I haven’t looked deeply into the behind-the-scenes aspects of the production of the New Adventures; but I think it’s telling that the previous novel was written by series editor Peter Darvill-Evans. It seems to have been a course correction of sorts for Ace, who returned therein after three novels away. For the Doctor, that’s been a fairly straightforward time, perhaps a few months at most, but for Ace it’s been three years—and not just any three years, but three years of enlistment in Earth’s Spacefleet. She comes back hard as nails, bitter and angry, and dangerous. Jim Mortimore and Andy Lane double down on that here, and has Ace be the manipulator as well, tricking the Doctor into bringing her here to complete a final Spacefleet mission. I don’t know yet how far this new Ace will go; but she won’t show the first signs of her old, happier personality returning until we get to Shadowmind, a few more books ahead.

Bernice, meanwhile, can’t catch a break, and there’s no sign of any change in the near future. She seems to exist only to have brushes with death, and has several here; otherwise she spends most of her time in the way. I feel bad for her; she has so much potential as a companion—and obviously things must get better at some point, as she takes over as the lead character of the New Adventures after the licensing of the Doctor expires. So far, though, she’s essentially disaster bait, and never accomplishes much. Spoiler alert: That’s not going to change in the near future.

We get introduced to the Guild of Adjudicators here, from which future companions Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej will spring. The Guild was mentioned as far back as Colony in Space, but their first onscreen appearance is here, in the form of the dour and analytical Adjudicator Bishop. Bishop is a bit trigger-happy, and spends a considerable amount of time coming to the wrong conclusions; but I like the guy, and was disappointed to see him meet a bad end. (Not much of a spoiler, that; deaths are like pennies in the New Adventures, they’re everywhere.) We’ll see more of the guild later, of course, but this book does a decent job of setting the tone for them: even Bernice, in the future, is familiar with them, and isn’t a fan.

Continuity References: Quite a few, actually! The starship Hydrax (State of Decay) gets a mention, as one Project Eden scientist, Piper O’Rourke, had a husband, Ben O’Rourke, serving aboard that ship when it vanished. This also gives a timeframe for the disappearance of the Hydrax, as Lucifer Risingtakes place in 2157. Ace refers back to several past stories, including Deceit (mentioning a ship, the Admiral Raistrick, on which she served), Dragonfire(mentioning being from Perivale), Love and War(her love interest Jan, and her earlier love interest Julian), and—indirectly–Colony in Space(mentioning IMC being aware of the Third Doctor and Jo Grant by way of that story). She also dreams of the death of her father, addressed in Rapture. Bernice also mentions Love and War by repeating the story of her father’s disappearance in the Second Dalek War. The Doctor dreams about the hermit on Mount Cadon on Galifrey (The Time Monster), and mentions having spared Davros (and thus condemned billions) (Genesis of the Daleks). This story occurs during—but at a distance from—the Dalek invasion of Earth in 2157, and the Doctor gives Piper the packet of powder that his first incarnation will then use on Earth in defeating the invasion force. Oddly, though, no direct mention of the invasion is made, although it is indicated that they are destroying Earth colonies on a possible track to Earth. The Doctor mentions Orcini from Revelation of the Daleks. The honorific terms Krauand Trau, last heard in The Caves of Androzani, are used here. Ace mentions having stolen the energy packs from a Special Weapons Dalek, last seen in Remembrance of the Daleks. Also, the Doctor mentions his age, claiming to be 943 years old.

A prologue to the story was published in DWM 199, pictured below.

Lucifer Rising prologue

Worth mentioning is that, allegedly, Virgin Books was looking into a possible regeneration for the Doctor, which would have seen his eighth incarnation resembling David Troughton. These plans were being laid at the time of this book’s writing, although it does not directly reference them. Eventually the plans were scrapped, and the 1996 movie, just three years later, would give us the now-accepted regeneration into the Eighth Doctor.

Overall: A good story, with lots of good material, but unfortunately fractured in its execution. It also perhaps goes on a little too long. I may be a bit biased; at the time I read it, I was fairly burnt out on the New Adventures, and this novel had much to do with that. Nevertheless, if you’re coming into it fresh, you will most likely enjoy it.

Next time: I’ve picked up the series again, and we’ll begin with David A. McIntee’s White Darkness! 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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Audio Drama Review: The Dark Flame

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week we’re returning to the Main Range with 2003’s The Dark Flame, release number 42 in the range. Written by Trevor Baxendale, this story features the Seventh Doctor. It’s part of Big Finish’s sporadic “Sidestep into Virgin Territory”, a very occasional series of stories set in the continuity established by the Virgin New Adventures line of novels. (While it can be argued that the VNAs fit into the same continuity as other stories, Big Finish usually refrains from setting stories during that portion of the Seventh Doctor’s life.) As a result, this story also features Ace McShane and Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, and takes place between the novels All-Consuming Fire and Blood Harvest (which I have not yet reviewed). It is the second and—so far—the last Main Range story set in the VNA continuity, although some Companion Chronicles have followed, as well as several novel adaptations. With that background, let’s get started!

The Dark Flame

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.

Part One:

En route to the Orbos research station to pick up Bernice, the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits are struck by a massive cry for help—and it comes from an old friend of the Doctor, an elderly researcher named Remnex. This interruption leaves the Doctor and Ace with visions of black flames. Remnex, not so coincidentally, is stationed on Orbos, where he and two colleagues are experimenting with black light—a dangerous phenomenon of its own, separate from ultraviolet, which the Doctor has encountered before.

On Orbos, which orbits the dead and volcanic planet Marran Alpha, Remnex is alive and unharmed. He discusses with his colleagues Lomar and Slade—as well as Benny—the imminent arrival of the Doctor, who may be able to help with their experiments. However, Benny is more concerned about another friend, archaeologist Victor Farrison, who was supposed to have met her here by now. As it turns out, Victor is down on the planet with his android servant Joseph, excavating a burial pit. In it they find a seemingly human skull; though it is ancient, it feels strangely alive to Victor. They are met by their employer, a man named Broke, who demands the skull; Victor demands answers first. In reply, Broke knocks him out and takes the skull, despite Joseph’s concern for his master. Broke reveals he is a servant of the Cult of the Dark Flame, and the skull is that of the cult’s founder, Vilus Krull.

The TARDIS arrives on Orbos, and while Benny and Ace catch up, the Doctor chats with Remnex. At Lomar’s request, he examines their experimental apparatus—they are attempting a controlled black light explosion, something never done before. The Doctor uses his sense of time to determine that their control element, an isochronyte crystal, is unstable; they need one that exists partially outside the spacetime continuum. Slade insists it will work until they find a better one, and explains that Remnex is responsible for the first stage of the experiment—the creation of an artificial sun to power the explosion. The Doctor goes in search of Remnex again.

Benny enlists Ace to help with rubbish disposal. To that end, they dump the rubbish into a rather shoddy transmat, which sends it to the volcanic surface of the planet. Ace is concerned the transmat might be leaking exotic particles, and her fears seem confirmed when Benny experiences a migraine—but when it turns into a vision of black flames, she seeks out the Doctor.

The Doctor, meanwhile, hears a more natural scream from Remnex; and he runs to Remnex’s cabin, but finds it locked. Ace also arrives, at the same time as Lomar, and smashes the door open. Remnex is dead, stabbed through the left eye. Slyde and a now-recovered Benny arrive as well, as the Doctor sees that Remnex is holding the isochronyte crystal; its temporal properties seem to be what sent his scream rocketing through time, prompting the visions. The group confers on their experiences, and Benny remembers an ancient cult, the Cult of the Dark Flame, which seems related. The cult worshipped a being from outside the universe; but they died out centuries ago—or did they? Meanwhile, Slyde accuses the Doctor and Ace of killing Remnex. His allegations are dismissed by all, and Ace and Benny storm off. Slyde leaves as well; after some discussion with Lomar, the Doctor goes to speak with Slyde. Slyde catches up to Ace and Benny in the transmat room; as the Doctor approaches, he hears a struggle, and when he arrives he finds only Ace. She is disoriented, but claims that Slyde overpowered her and pushed Benny into the transmat; she is likely on the surface, and more likely dead.

Part Two:

Lomar confirms that the transmat was just used. The Doctor concludes that Ace was shot with a stunner, and takes her to sickbay; fortunately, her customary combat suit diffused most of the blast. He hypnotises her and makes her sleep, then goes in search of Slyde. Slyde, however, is not on the station; he has transmatted himself along with Benny, to a cavern beneath the surface. He meets Broke there, and locks Benny in a cell with Joseph and Victor. He intended to use Benny’s archaeological skills to find the skull, but it won’t be necessary, as Victor already found it. Slyde quickly returns to Orbos, then brings back the body of Remnex, which will be used as a host for the resurrected Emissary of the Dark Flame—Vilus Krull. Broke brings Benny and Joseph to watch as Slyde uses the skull to bring life to Remnex’s body—but it’s no longer Remnex inside it.

While the new Emissary is distracted, Benny, Joseph and Victor steal the skull and run. Benny and Joseph are quickly recaptured, while Victor is shot with the stunner on full power; he manages to crawl into the transmat with the skull. Meanwhile, on the station, the Doctor finds that Remnex’s body is missing. Over Lomas’s objections, he wakes up Ace to help him investigate. As they talk, they encounter Victor near the transmat; he hands over the skull, but succumbs to his injuries and dies. The Doctor experiences something like a seizure when he touches the skull; he realizes it is parachronic, partially outside time—and this has horrific implications for the black light explosion. He gives the skull to Ace, who is unaffected. He tells her to guard it, and sets off for the transmat, which he suspects has been altered for safe transport. As soon as he reaches the cavern, he meets Joseph—who reveals that, unfortunately, the Doctor has walked into a trap. The Doctor is brought before the Emissary.

Slyde returns to the station in pursuit of the now-deceased Victor, and accosts Ace, demanding the skull. She breaks free and runs. She reaches Lomar, and warns her that Slyde is a member of the Cult of the Dark Flame—but as Slyde arrives, Lomar reveals that she also is a member of the Cult.

Part Three:

Ace has hidden the skull, and uses its location as a bargaining chip for her life. She then uses a smoke grenade to cover her escape, and hides in the dark light laboratory. Slyde and Lomar find her there, but it becomes a standoff; she threatens to detonate the smart bombs she is carrying if they attack her.

In the caverns, Broke locks up the Doctor and Joseph along with Benny. Joseph apologizes for trapping the Doctor, but says that Broke would have killed Benny otherwise. Broke returns and takes the trio for an audience with the Emissary. Benny mocks the Emissary, disbelieving his claims—until he reanimates the long-dead bones around them, giving them life and strength, if not flesh. He explains that he requires the skull of Vilus Krull—his own skull from his original life. The Doctor explains that Victor died to get it to safety, and it is now hidden. The Emissary threatens to burn the information free of the Doctor’s mind, but refrains, and puts them back in the cell. There, the Doctor explains that the Time Lords believe the Dark Flame to be an energy source from a pocket universe, which will be created far in the future at the death of this universe; the bizarre physics of that time will allow it to function backward in time to this day and beyond. The parachronic skull connects to that universe, making the black light explosion very dangerous indeed—it will spread the flame’s power throughout all of space and time.

Lomar reports to the Emissary about Slyde’s standoff with Ace. The Emissary gives the Doctor ten minutes to retrieve the skull, or else his skeletal troops will kill Benny. Back on the station, the Doctor tries, but fails, to reason with Lomar. In the lab, the Doctor convinces her and Slyde to let him talk to Ace alone; he uses that opportunity to fill her in on a plan. Meanwhile, in the cells, Broke antagonizes Joseph over Victor’s death, until the robot flies into a rage and attacks Broke, gravely wounding him. However, Joseph is shocked at his actions, and allows Broke to deactivate him. Elsewhere, the Emissary forces Benny to look into his eyes—and takes control of her.

Ace takes the Doctor and Lomar back to the transmat, and hands over the skull. She expresses concerns again about the safety of the transmat; to set her mind at ease, the Doctor adjusts its focusing coil. Once in the caves again, they are reunited with Benny. The Doctor breaks away and grabs the skull, tossing it to Ace, who throws it to Benny. The Doctor tells her to throw it into the transmat, which has been recalibrated to destroy it completely—but Benny hands it over to her new master, the Emissary.

Part Four:

The Doctor doesn’t believe Benny has really surrendered to the Dark Flame. To prove it, the Emissary has the skeleton creatures hold Ace down while Benny beats her. The Doctor gets him to stop, but remains unconvinced; he is sure Benny is being controlled by force. Meanwhile the injured Broke arrives, and offers himself as a new body for the Emissary, whose current body is decaying; the Emissary declines, and orders Broke to fix the transmat. The Doctor asks to follow the Dark Flame as Benny has done, but the Emissary refuses. When the transmat is fixed, the Emissary leaves Broke to die and takes Slyde, Lomar and Benny back to Orbos. He intends to kill Benny and take over her body; and there is still the explosion to oversee.

Broke destroys the transmat controls, and then dies. The Doctor is sure that the Emissary is not strong enough to control him as well as Slyde, Lomar, and Benny; that is why he refused the Doctor’s surrender. The Doctor reactivates Joseph and recruits him to help repair the controls. However, the control processor is ruined. Joseph offers his own processor—his “brain”—to replace it, knowing he will essentially die in the process. Reluctantly the Doctor agrees, and says goodbye to Joseph before pulling out the processor. He and Ace then transmat back to the station.

Slyde and Lomar prepare the experiment, and install the skull. They activate the solar generator, creating the artificial sun; Benny then activates the converter, and the light from the artificial star begins to darken. The Doctor and Ace arrive as the black light explosion begins. The cultists begin to feel the Dark Flame burning inside them. However, Benny is shocked back to awareness, and sees her hand on the converter withering with age. It’s too late to shut it off, however. Ace tries to shoot the Emissary, but he shuts down her weapon with his mind. He then freezes the Doctor in place; as the Doctor screams in pain, the Emissary gloats that with the Dark Flame’s arrival, he is now strong enough to control even the Doctor. Ace knocks the Doctor out in order to save him, and she flees with Benny. However, this was all part of the Doctor’s plan; and now Ace has had a good look at the converter.

As the Doctor recovers, he taunts the Emissary; he insists that the Dark Flame is not a being, but a simple force of nature. It has no will; it simply obeys Krull. He challenges Krull to a battle to prove it; they will both put their hands on the skull and battle for control of the Flame’s power. Enraged, the Emissary agrees, and joins battle with the Doctor. However, the Doctor had adjusted the transmat after using it; and now Ace and Benny use it to teleport back into the lab, catching the others off guard. Benny deactivates the converter, and time twists back on itself, wiping Krull from existence. The artificial star returns to normal, and Benny’s hand is restored. Slyde and Lomar are knocked unconscious.

Lomar awakens to find things changed. She and Slyde are now free of the Flame’s control; Slyde is naturally unpleaasant, but no longer directly dangerous. However, the Doctor suggests that his researches be redirected. The Doctor explains that he tapped the Flame’s power briefly; he fought down the temptation to set everything right—a level of power even he should not wield—but couldn’t help fixing a few things—like Benny’s hand, and Remnex’s death. No, the old researcher is not restored to life; but his death was peaceful, in his sleep. The skull has been sent out into the continuum forever, and Krull is no more.

Before the Doctor and his companions depart, he takes the omnitronic processor—all that is left of Joseph. In honor of Joseph’s bravery, he intends to take it to someone who can try to salvage Joseph’s memories; and he hints that Benny may need Joseph’s help again someday.

The Dark Flame 1

While this story isn’t a direct port of the New Adventures—we’ll get to those eventually with the Novel Adaptations—it feels like one. Those adventures, I find, tend to be a bit darker and grimmer than the average televised story (and by extension, the average Big Finish story), though not terribly so. They often feature large, world- or universe-ending threats, often involving ancient resurrected evils and paranormal phenomena, some of which are explained away in scientific terms, but very often not. All of those points are present here. While I often find myself getting impatient with the New Adventures, I didn’t feel that way at all here; I think that’s largely because of the format change instead of the content. The novels are brooding and slow, often leaving the action behind to examine what’s going on in the characters’ heads—this seems to be true regardless of which author we’re reading. Audio doesn’t lend itself well to that kind of literary indulgence, and so we’re forced to cut the story back to its essential action; and Doctor Who thrives on action! We end up with a story that’s very much a New Adventure in tone and content, but very much the Main Range in execution, and that’s a great combination.

The story deviates a bit from the typical pattern with regard to its major villain, the titular Dark Flame. Typically, when Doctor Who stories set up an overpowered or supernatural villain, they follow through; the Doctor’s ingenuity may be what triumphs, but the threat is real. Less often we get a story like this, where the villain is not at all what it seems—still dangerous, perhaps, but not what was advertised. There’s potential to fall flat in stories like that, but here it’s an integral part of the plot, and it’s played triumphantly. The final confrontation is a bit abbreviated, but the lead-up is fantastic.

The voice acting for the secondary villain, the Emissary of the Dark Flame (and also for one of his henchmen, Slyde) is a bit over the top, but it’s easy to forget about that once you reach, say, part three. (I’d say part two for Slyde; however the Emissary doesn’t actually show up until part two.) The other supporting characters are decent; and Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, and Lisa Bowerman all turn in their usual great performances.

Continuity gets a bit tangled in this story. It ties into not only the Doctor’s portion of the New Adventures, but also Benny’s, as well as other audio dramas, especially regarding the character of the android Joseph (whom, incidentally, I can’t help picturing as Michael Fassbender in the role of the android David in Prometheus). Much of this tangled continuity involves stories I haven’t read or heard yet, and so I’ll borrow a summary quote from the Doctor Who Reference Guide:

Joseph the porter (whom we shall refer to here as Joseph-2) was first introduced in the [Bernice] New Adventure Oh No It Isn’t!, which on the face of things suggests that the Doctor supplied Joseph-1’s omnitronic processor to the University of Dellah. However, in Tears of the Oracle it is revealed that Joseph-2 was in fact a front for the People’s [The Also People] ship J-Kibb, which therefore suggests that the Doctor instead gave the omnitronic processor to the People for them to incorporate into their fake University porter. However again, J-Kibb and Joseph-2 were destroyed, and thus in The Doomsday Manuscript Irving Braxiatel gave Benny a new porter whose personality and appearance were based on Joseph-2. Since Joseph-3 in The Greatest Shop in the Galaxy and The Green-Eyed Monsters is performed by the same actor who voiced Joseph-1 in The Dark Flame, it’s at least possible that the Doctor in fact supplied Joseph-1’s omnitronic processor to Braxiatel for use in Joseph-3, and simply advised on the programming of Joseph-2 in order to maintain the historical balance. In any case, one thing is clear: for any of this to work, the Doctor most likely already knew something of Benny’s future by this point, devious little git.

All in all, it sounds like I have my work cut out for me in catching up with the novels.

Other continuity references: Black light was first encountered in The Mysterious Planet. Ogrons, mentioned here by Benny (but not actually seen), first appeared in The Day of the Daleks. The Cult of the Dark Flame will reappear in another Benny story, The Draconian Rage. The Doctor mentions Chelonians, which first appeared in the VNA The Highest Science; his actual line, “Sleep is for Chelonians”, is an oblique reference to The Talons of Weng-Chiang, where the Fourth Doctor commented that “Sleep is for tortoises” (the Chelonians are a tortoise-like race). In conversation with Remnex, the Doctor mentions that Mel is traveling the universe with a con artist (Dragonfire; Remnex gets the Best Comeback award here, when he remarks to the Doctor that “nothing has changed, then”). Ace’s military and paramilitary career (Deceit) gets a reference. In trying to wake Ace, the Doctor says “We’ve got work to do” (a reference to his last line in Survival); he uses her surname “McShane”, which originated in the VNAs (sorry, could not track down which novel specifically revealed it), and finally succeeded in waking her by calling her “Dorothy” (Dragonfire).

Overall: After the lackluster Nekromanteia, it was nice to get back to a story that was genuinely enjoyable. While I do, as I said, get impatient with the New Adventures, I mostly enjoy them; and this story is a refreshing take on the kind of material we get in that series. Ace has always been one of my favorite companions; Bernice, not as much, but she’s at least entertaining when she’s not being mind-controlled (wait, no, that happens to her here as well…never mind). Well, at least Bernice is very well represented here. Although the New Adventures tend to be a bit cut-and-paste in their broad strokes, this story breaks away from that a bit by giving us a unique adversary, and a very comfortable running time as well. I wasn’t expecting this to be a great story—it doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s list of the best Main Range audios—it was surprisingly good. It’s worth checking out, if you haven’t already.

Next time: We’ll check out something unusual: a Doctor Who musical! The story in question is Doctor Who and the Pirates, featuring the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe. See you there!

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

The Dark Flame

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