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: 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: The Pit

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we’re continuing the New Adventures (VNA) series with The Pit, by Neil Penswick. Featuring the Seventh Doctor and Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, this novel was released in March 1993. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

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Bored and looking for adventure of her own choosing, Bernice asks the Doctor to take her to the Seven Planets of the Althosian System.  A former system of colony worlds that gained its independence, the system vanished before Benny’s birth, and no one knows why.  Catching the Doctor’s attention, there is no mention of the system in the TARDIS memory banks or his own prodigious memory.  En route, the TARDIS experiences some interference, then stalls out, before making a rough landing on a large, unnamed planet in the system.  Determined to find out what is affecting the TARDIS, the Doctor explores the jungle.

Elsewhere, a scientist named Jarak is studying the water and life on the planet, which is ordinarily off limits.  He witnesses the river turn red, then dies from exposure to it; the redness spreads onto the land, and anything it touches seems to be frozen in time.  His wife Ell is forced to hide in their interplanetary ship.  Yet elsewhere, two shapeshifters, Butler and Swarf, have stolen “Pandora’s Box”, the most powerful nuclear weapon in history; if used, it will destroy the entire system.  Using a team of telepathic Khthons, the system’s natives, they are transporting the device through the jungle to an ancient and forbidding castle.  In pursuit are a team of hunter-killer androids—Thomas, Chaney, Marilyn, and their leader, Spike—sent by the Archon of the Althosian system and his Justice Police from the capitol world, Nicaea, to recover the bomb.  As they skydive onto the planet, their ship—with hidden orders of its own—begins a long but fatal countdown.

On Nicaea, and other worlds in the system, the situation is degenerating.  An unwarranted military buildup has left the people starving, which in turn has caused riots that are just beginning to get out of hand.  While the Archon and his Justice Police administrator, General Kopyion, deal with the crisis, Major John Carlson has a problem of his own to investigate:  a strange series of murders.  The investigation leads him to one Bulbir Singh Mann, a dealer in Earth relics and antiques, who took a book of poetry from the scene of one of the murders.  He arrests Mann, but is forced to release him upon the interference of a politician, an Academician named Brown, who leads the opposition faction in the governing Academy.  Kopyion tells Brown that the most recent victim was an undercover Justice Police officer on an unrelated investigation, confusing the Major.

Spike strikes the planet apart from his fellows, and is mortally injured; he will die in sixty hours.  The Doctor and Benny happen upon him, and he takes them for the shapeshifters and holds them at gunpoint.  However, the Doctor suddenly vanishes, leaving Benny in Spike’s possession.  They are intercepted by the other androids, who cannot risk that they may be the shapeshifters, and open fire.  However, Spike escapes with Benny, still believing that she is a shapeshifter.    He takes her with him by raft down the river, in search of the bomb.

The Doctor falls through a hole in time, finding himself in a hellish underworld of sorts.  He is captured by a race of creatures called the Cun, who force him to fight another creature while they bet on the outcome.  He survives, but with injuries, and in the cells he meets the poet William Blake, who also fell through a hole in time.  Blake believes they are in hHll, and who can argue?  They escape and head for the hole in time, but are intercepted by creatures on pterodactyls.  The Doctor bargains for freedom, but is disturbed regardless; the creatures spoke ancient Gallifreyan.

On Nicaea, Brown confronts the Archon in the Academy and attempts to restore order, but fails.  The Archon retreats to his palace, but is killed during the night, in the same ritualistic fashion as the previous murders.  The chaos accelerates, drawing in military and religious elements; the priests are insisting it is the end of time, the final battle against the demonlike Hunters that are native to the system.  While Carlson tries to deal with the situation, his wife Melanie leaves him, volunteering as a nurse in the combat zones.

The hole in time takes the Doctor and Blake to London during Jack the Ripper’s murder spree, seventy years after Blake’s time.  Blake is disillusioned that the progress he and his compatriots predicted has not swept the world.  Their search for answers leads them first to a brothel, where the Doctor’s plans do not work out, leaving him disillusioned; his sonic screwdriver is then stolen, and in recovering it, they are captured by a cult whose members worship evil forces.  They escape just in time to avoid being sacrificed, burning down the cult’s lair in the process.  They find another hole in time, this time landing on present-day Salisbury Plain, where they are immediately picked up by UNIT.  Verifying the Doctor’s credentials, the UNIT officers let him in on current events; they are assisting an archaeological dig which has unearthed the bones of a massive, reptilian creature, much larger than any dinosaur.  The Doctor suspects it is only dormant, not dead, and insists that it be destroyed, but the archaeologist, Roberts, refuses.  The Doctor realizes Roberts is a member of the cult he just destroyed in the past, and Roberts tries to kill him.  A group of Hunters—the same as the ones in the Althosian system—interrupt, appearing through the hole in time and crashing a plane, which diverts UNIT to trying to save the passengers and kill the beasts.  The Doctor, with Blake, steals the carrier holding the bones and drives it back to and through the hole in time.  They find themselves back in the netherworld.

Butler stalks the androids through the jungle, killing first Chaney, then Marilyn.  However, before he can kill Thomas, he falls into the encroaching red weed that has spread from the river, and is frozen in time.  Thomas finds the ship in which Ell hides; she joins him outside, but destroys the ship, claiming there was a bomb aboard.  Thomas knows this is suspicious, but has no time for that, and takes her with him.

Benny falls into quicksand, but is rescued by an invisible figure.  She and spike then find a crashed, ancient space station near the castle, and explore it.  Swarf discovers that Butler is dead, and goes to the space station to take revenge.  He nearly kills Spike, but Benny escapes; Swarf returns to the castle.  Meanwhile, Thomas and Ell discover that many things on this planet, including much of the plant and animal life, are artificial; they were manufactured by Mirage Enterprises, a company owned by Kopyion.  They find Benny in the space station, and she tells them that Spike is dead, although she is not aware that the android survived.

Mann, the antique dealer, meets Brown at Brown’s apartment.  Brown was the expected buyer for the book of poetry; together, they remove its binding to find packets of a potent drug, Dream B, which they sample.  As their drug-induced visions wear off, an intruder shoots them both, killing them.  Later, Carlson wants to investigate the murders, but Kopyion stops him and closes the case, tying it to the dead officer’s investigation.  Carlson is not happy, but is interrupted by a notification that his wife was killed in a government-approved chemical attack on the rioters.  IN a rage, he tears apart the file room, but finds nothing useful there.  He follows Kopyion to the spaceport, where Kopyion declares these “the final days”, and takes a ship to the unnamed planet.  Carlson accuses Kopyion of the murders—correctly, as it turns out—but before he can stop Kopyion, Kopyion kills him.

The khthons sense the approach of Benny, Ell, and Thomas to the castle.  Ell has them surrender so as to get inside quickly; the red weed is closing in.  En route to the castle’s cells, Benny notices that the walls are decorated with the Gallifreyan Seal of Rassilon.  At Swarf’s direction, the khthons have used the bomb to power a dimensional drilling apparatus, which they now activate, trying to open a dimensional gateway to the netherworld.  Swarf’s interest is financial; the netherworld is the source of Dream B, which he will sell.  Outside, the Hunters gather, and one carries the dying Spike to the castle; he kills the Hunter holding him, and makes his way slowly inside.

The Doctor reveals to Blake that the netherworld is the home dimension of the Yssgaroth, the Great Vampires of archaic Gallifreyan history, which the Gallifreyans once allowed into the universe, thus kicking off their great war. Now the Cun and others are establishing a bridgehead for the Yssgaroth to invade again, and in the process they are mining Dream B, which the cult on the other side uses in its rituals.  He tries to use the Dream B, which is explosive, to destroy the bridgehead, but before he can do so, he and Blake are spirited away.  Their rescuer is Kopyion, who is more than he seems; he is Kopyion Liall a Mahajetsu, the nearly-mythical Gallifreyan general who led the war against the Yssgaroth, millions of years ago.  He claims that Rassilon’s early experiments with time travel opened the gates that allowed the Yssgaroth into the universe; after the war, Rassilon hid the truth, against Kopyion’s will.  Therefore, Kopyion has waited all this time for the monsters to return—and now it is happening.  He is willing to carry out his plan against them even if it costs Benny’s life.

Escaping the cells, Thomas, Benny, and Ell head to the courtyard where the drill is running.  There, Ell reveals that she and her husband were Nicaean members of the Yssgaroth cult, as were the now-deceased Brown and Mann.  It was they who hired Butler and Swarf, in order to gain access to the netherworld.  Thomas tries, but fails to kill Swarf, who instead kills him.  Ell then kills Chopra, the final surviving khthon, in preparation for the arrival of the Yssgaroth.  Kopyion prepares to deal with Ell, but Spike arrives, and destroys the drilling machinery.

Some small part of the bomb’s force radiates outward, bringing down the castle; it crushes Ell, and Kopyion then beheads her for good measure.  Most of the explosion has flowed through the gateway, causing incredible destruction in the netherworld and closing the gate for now.  The Doctor argues with Kopyion over his methods; Kopyion insists his resolve is strong, and he will stand against the Yssgaroth regardless of cost.  To prove his point—and to close this gateway for good—he reveals that he is allowing the androids’ ship to self-destruct; its explosion will destroy the entire system, including this world and its gateway.  Benny objects, but the Doctor reminds her that they are already aware of the destruction of the system, and thus part of events—therefore they cannot avert the destruction.  Kopyion erases this information from the Time Lord Matrix, deeming it too dangerous.  He warns the Doctor to stay out of his way in the future, as he will kill the Doctor if he sees him again.  Before the system goes up in flames, the Doctor and Benny take Blake back to the TARDIS, then take him home.

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I have to admit, I didn’t care for this entry. It took me nearly two weeks to finish it (I’m averaging about a week per book, given that I have other reading material as well), and toward the end it felt like a trek trying to get through it. While I certainly don’t want to insult the author, it’s a difficult and rambling read; it’s well done in a technical sense—Neil Penswick can certainly write—but it’s just boring. The book is Penswick’s only successful contribution to Doctor Who, although he previously submitted a script which might have been accepted, had the televised series not been cancelled. He does have some other writing credits, including a short story for a French publication described on the wiki as an “analogue to the First Doctor”. I do find myself feeling some sympathy for Penswick, however; he and I are both primarily social workers, and writers of fiction on the side.

I do like the history of Gallifrey, and I was especially fond of the Fourth Doctor serial State of Decay, from which this story takes its lead. The lore added here, regarding the Gallifreyans’ (the book uses the term “Time Lords”, but technically they wouldn’t be Time Lords yet, although that time was approaching) war against the Great Vampires, is very interesting; it’s unfortunate there isn’t more of it, and I wouldn’t have minded a story that actually took the Doctor back to that time. The book doesn’t actually state that the Great Vampires are the same as the Yssgaroth—a term which first appears here—but the context makes it clear, and it will later be confirmed in Interference. They don’t appear to have the same form as the Great Vampires, but this seems to be an illusion of some sort. (I understand that they also appear in some of the Faction Paradox works, but I don’t have enough experience there as yet to comment further.) The Gallfreyan general, Kopyion Liall a Mahajetsu, is quite a formidable character: ancient in ways even the Doctor can’t approach, world-weary, focused, and deadly. I would love to see him again, or even see him become an occasional nemesis of the Doctor; the book ends with his promise to kill the Doctor if he ever sees him again. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case; he has no other appearances to date. The book also adds one more piece of lore: “Gallifrey” is said to literally translate to the phrase “They that walk in shadows”.

Although I was impressed by Kopyion, it’s hard to get a feel for any of the characters in this book. All of them—including, strangely enough, the Doctor and Bernice—feel shallow, as if we’re only ever seeing the surface. I suspect that this is because there are too many characters, with too many plot threads for this rather short book. There are two shapeshifters and their telepathic slaves, who have stolen the most powerful nuclear weapon in existence; the trio of androids sent to take it back; the fourth, displaced android, who ends up with Benny as an escort; the mysterious General Kopyion with his secrets; Major John Carlson with his murder investigation; Academician Brown and relic dealer Mann, who have their own plot threads; the Archon, the leader of the Althosian system, who is trying to put down a growing civil unrest; Ell Romer and her husband Jarak, a scientist with secrets; a mysterious cult on Earth; UNIT; and the Doctor with—most improbable of all—the poet William Blake. It’s simply too much, and as a result it ties together in ways so improbable that Douglas Adams would cringe. There’s simply no time to get to know anyone. Some plots, such as Carlson’s murder investigation could be cut completely, and their characters reduced to the background; Carlson’s meaningless death negates his importance to the story in a single moment. Blake’s character serves no real purpose at all, and shouldn’t have been included (besides being unnecessary, he’s also incredibly unlikely—a random person falls through a hole in space and time, and it happens to be a historical celebrity? That stretches credibility even for Doctor Who!). In fact, we know in advance that this system is about to be destroyed completely, and everyone in it will die; therefore none of the local characters have much significance to the overall story.

I will give the story credit for explaining further about a plot that has been in the background for some time: the infection of the TARDIS. This phenomenon began in Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark and has steadily increased since; this is the source of the two competing cat-avatars of the TARDIS in Transit. Until now, it’s been essentially a nuisance; but here we see that the TARDIS’s actual function is breaking down, and the Doctor—by merit of his psychic link with the TARDIS—is breaking down with it. He very nearly loses the battle here, and in fact he is not really instrumental in the victory at all, all because of the TARDIS infection. That plot line will be resolved in the next book, Deceit.

I can’t help feeling that Bernice’s character is floundering at this point in the series. My feeling is that, after so long dealing with Ace, the writers simply don’t yet know what to do with a new companion. This holds true even with those writers who haven’t previously written for Ace; for several years at this point, Ace has been THE companion for the Seventh Doctor, and any writer doing research for the series would have to deal with her. As a result, Benny indulges in a number of traits that were common to Ace: impulsiveness, resorting to violence against the Doctor’s wishes, boredom, and fixating on her relationship with one or both parents. If I have counted correctly, she ultimately appears in more of the New Adventures than Ace or any other companion; therefore I hope that her character levels off soon and finds her own personality. Ace is slated to reappear in the next book, and I think this is a good thing; with both of them present, Benny shouldn’t be able to fill Ace’s niche, and may be forced to be herself.

There is a prelude to this book that was published in Doctor Who Magazine and subsequently excluded from the finished volume. It focuses on Major Carlson’s early investigations into the string of murders. It feels very rough, as though it was an early draft, and doesn’t add anything vital to the story, but it may be worth a look. You can find the full text here.

This book chooses to focus more on Doctor Who lore than on past continuity; however there are still a number of continuity references. The Doctor mentions Susan, in that she loved the works of William Blake, although I haven’t managed to pin down a particular story in which this is stated. There are numerous references to the lore established in State of Decay. Bernice makes several references to past adventures with the Doctor (Love and War, et al.) and especially to her own personal family history, as introduced in Love and War. She dates those events to 2450, which contradicts The Highest Science, though this may just be an error. There is a reference to the creation of the Eye of Harmony via a black hole (The Three Doctors); here it is stated that Rassilon deliberately caused Omega’s accident to cover up his own mistakes. The Doctor has a new Sonic Screwdriver (his original being lost in The Visitation, and confirmed as still lost in The Highest Science), although he will lose it again before Lungbarrow. The Time Path Indicator is mentioned (The Chase, et al). Several UNIT personnel get mentioned, including Brigadier Bambera (Battlefield), though they do not actually appear here. The Doctor finds Ogron bones (Day of the Daleks) and Terileptil bones (The Visitation). He mentions meeting Kublai Khan (Marco Polo) and Houdini (Planet of the Spiders, Smoke and Mirrors, et al). He mentions the Pythia (Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible).

Overall: Not so great, this one. It does have some good points, but they’re overshadowed by its problems. I’m glad to have it behind me, and I hope the next book picks up a bit.

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Next time: We’ll be reading Deceit by Peter Darvill-Evans, which features the return of Ace! See you there.

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Novel Review: The Highest Science

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!

Highest Science 1

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.

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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.

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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.

The Highest Science

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Novel Review: Transit

I’m not going to be finished with the next audio review in time to post it today, so instead, here’s Tuesday’s novel review a day early, and we’ll get to the audios tomorrow.

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we continue the Virgin New Adventures (VNAs) with Transit, by Ben Aaronovitch. Published 3 December 1992, this novel features the Seventh Doctor and Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, accompanied by guest companion Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, and is set in the year 2109. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has  not read this novel!

Transit 1

In the year 2109, the Earth’s colonies throughout the solar system are connected by the Sol Transit System, or STS, a system of train “tunnels” through the fabric of reality itself.  Travel is fast, nearly instantaneous; and the ambitious human race is about to open its first interstellar addition to the system.  The first Star Tunnel, or “Stunnel” for short, will go to the colony at Arcturus, 26 light years away.  Something goes drastically wrong, however, when something unknown pushes its way out of the stunnel and into the body of the system itself, vaporizing everyone on the platforms for the opening ceremony.

Lunar University (or “Lunarversity”) student Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart—a distant descendant of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart from an illicit relationship in his early military days in Africa—gets briefly involved with a group of special maintenance workers on the Stunnel project, and develops a hasty but passionate relationship with Zak, or Blondie as he prefers to be called, the youngest member of the crew.  Related events lead her to be at King’s Cross station when the entity from the stunnel passes through, destroying everyone; but she is saved by the sudden appearance of the Seventh Doctor and the TARDIS.  The TARDIS itself, with Bernice Summerfield still inside, are hurled to the end of the line, somewhere in another station.  Stuck with few options, the Doctor falls in with Kadiatu, who connects him to a family friend, a woman named Francine, who is—famously—a completely blind veteran of the war on Mars between the humans and the Ice Warriors some twenty years earlier, and also an accomplished underworld boss.  Unknown to the Doctor, Kadiatu knows exactly who he is.

Benny finds herself in a slum near the last station in the solar system, on Pluto, and falls in with two prostitutes, Roberta and Zamina.  (By coincidence, Blondie is also from this slum, and is well known to both girls.)  Benny quickly uses the girls, as well as a local gang, to seize power and then spark a riot that sends destruction careening through the slum.  Roberta is killed in the fighting, and Benny escapes.  Meanwhile, the Doctor knows a thing or two about Kadiatu, as well—he realizes that she has been genetically engineered, probably as a soldier.  He discovers her rather complete files on him, and learns that she is very close to discovering time travel, a few centuries early for humanity.  He considers deleting the files, but decides against it, fearing the repercussions.  He also realizes—though she didn’t tell him—that she is a descendant of his old friend.  When she awakens, he helps her solve a minor problem she is dealing with, and in return, recruits her to help him recover Benny and put an end to the crisis in the STS.

Blondie’s crew, led by a former—and highly augmented—soldier called Old Sam, begins to search the now-closed system for the source of the problem, using a modified maintenance train they call Fat Mama.  They are assaulted by a group of mutated individuals, and barely escape with their lives and heavy damage to the train, though one crewmember—Dogface—is critically wounded and whisked off to a hospital.  They report in to their supervisor, the System’s manager, Ming, often called “Ming the Merciless”.  Meanwhile the Doctor and Kadiatu make their way to the slum on Pluto, where the fighting has ended and the relief workers have arrived.  There they find the TARDIS; it struck the wall of the station with enough force to embed it deeply in the wall, with the door unfortunately facing the wrong way.  Benny arrives at the station, and tries to kill the Doctor; it becomes clear that she is possessed by the transit system entity.  He is saved by Old Sam and Blondie; Benny flees, collecting Zamina as she does, and joins a refugee group headed for Mars.  During the fight, Kadiatu discovers—and is disturbed by—her own preternatural fighting skills, which she does not understand; a flashback shows that she herself is not her parents’ natural child, but was found by her father on a military mission, organized by Francine.  She was genetically engineered by the Imogen corporation as a supersoldier of incalculable ability; however her father couldn’t bring himself to kill the infant warrior, and adopted her instead, vowing to overcome her creation with a good upbringing and psychology.  She knows none of this, however.

The Doctor takes Blondie and Kadiatu to his house in Kent, where the couple’s relationship deepens.  The Doctor realizes that the STS hasn’t been invaded by an outside intelligence; rather, because it is structured in the form of a complex neural network, it has evolved its own intelligence.  He builds a device to communicate with the system, and finds that while he is correct, he only has part of the story.  The system, though certainly intelligent, was invaded by a competing intelligence—a virus of sorts—from another dimension, which breached the system where reality was thin along the Stunnel’s path.  The Doctor decides to help the system expunge the virus.  He contacts Ming and her fellow executives and offers to help—and none too soon, because something in the system is preparing to open the Stunnel again.

Benny and Zamina are placed with a family on Mars, but Benny quickly kills them.  She heads out, intending to get to STS control and advance the virus’s plan—but she manages to resist the virus’s control long enough to send Zamina away with a warning for the Doctor.  The Doctor gets the message, and takes Kadiatu to Mars via the tunnels, finding that Benny has fled in a vehicle out onto the wilder parts of the surface.  She leads them to a dormant Ice Warrior nest, where she tries to shoot the Doctor; Kadiatu kills her.  The Doctor is furious, until he realizes it’s not the real Benny; it’s a mutant made to look and sound like her.  She was a decoy; they are forced to race back, having lost time on this distraction—and moreover, the Ice Warriors asleep in the nest will eventually awaken, not knowing their war with Earth is over.

Waiting to be picked up, Kadiatu compares notes with the Doctor about her family history, and then reveals something disturbing—she has dreams about an old woman, whom the Doctor identifies as the Pythia of Gallifrey’s past, giving a curse against childbirth.  Francine arrives in a modified jet and picks them up, but is shot down by an automated system that misinterprets her intentions.  She lands safely somehow, though the plane is destroyed.  A chance encounter with one of the rescue crew that collects them makes the Doctor realize that he may be far too well known to humans now, and he considers deleting knowledge of himself from human records.

Benny makes her way to STS control and sets the reactors to overload, pouring power into the Stunnel’s grid, preparing to open the gates on both ends.  The Doctor and Kadiatu arrive, but find that it’s another false Benny.  The Doctor sends the maintenance crew’s drones to build a machine to draw power from the TARDIS, and then he heads to the Stunnel station by freesurfing the tunnels—that is, traveling them on a board, without a train.  Inside the tunnels, he picks up an unidentified, disembodied hitchhiker, telepathically entering his mind.  At the other end, he finds a battle in progress, between the entity’s mutants and the human security forces, with Blondie and Old Sam there holding the line as well.  Blondie dies in the process, horrifying Kadiatu.  Benny—the real Benny this time—is there as well.  As the Doctor arrives, the gateway opens, and the full entity emerges, possessing Benny; it seems the version that was already inhabiting her was only an agent of sorts.  As it claims no name, the Doctor calls it “Fred”.  However, before it can act, the machine connected to the TARDIS fires a powerful burst of artron energy through the tunnel, channeled through the Doctor, striking Fred and driving it back into the tunnels and into its own dimension, taking Benny with it.   As the Stunnel starts to collapse, the Doctor follows it in, trying to rescue Benny; Kadiatu follows him.

The Doctor finds himself in a world of subjective reality, malleable to the wills of those inside it.  He shapes reality into a form he can navigate, and leaves messages for Kadiatu to follow.  He also finds that the artron energy—representing the TARDIS itself—takes the form of two cats, one green, one silver.  He battles his way through to a confrontation with Fred.  Fred admits that it has concealed its true purpose until now; it can’t act with impunity in the real world, but here, it has more power; and it saw the potential in the Doctor, and wanted to take him to augment its own power.  To that end, it kidnapped Benny, planning to lure the Doctor here so it could acquire his mind.  Kadiatu arrives manifesting as a leopard, and attacks Fred; the Doctor transfers the hitchhiker from his own mind to Benny’s, forcing Fred out, and Kadiatu devours Fred.  The hitchhiker then vacates Benny’s mind and takes form—it is the Transit entity, and now, without any opposition, it feels comfortable vacating the system and remaining here in this dimension, where it can reach its full potential.  The Doctor, Benny, and Kadiatu return to reality just as the gateway collapses..

The crisis is resolved; but before leaving Earth again, the Doctor visits the Stone Mountain data repository on the moon, which contains the sum total of human knowledge.  He has deduced that its AI management software has become sentient, and threatens to expose it to humanity—who are paranoid about such things—if it doesn’t accommodate him.  He persuades it to delete all records of his own existence on Earth, and he personally destroys what hard copies are available; and in return, he gives it pointers on how to live with humanity.  It names itself FLORANCE, and immediately begins establishing a presence on Earth, before revealing itself.  The Doctor returns to the station on Pluto, and has the maintenance crew cut the TARDIS free of the wall, and takes a very shaken Benny with him when he leaves.  He sends Old Sam to make peace with the newly awakened Ice Warriors, and sees that Kadiatu gets a job with STS.  He offers her a chance to come with him, but she refuses—but warns him that she’ll give him a head start, then come after him.  Later, she completes her time machine, and then destroys all her research, before setting off after the Doctor—but where her allegiance lies, remains to be seen.

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I had been looking forward to this book for some time, chiefly because of the character of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart; I knew that she was a descendant of the Brigadier, but that was all I knew. While Kadiatu is a fascinating character, I still had trouble getting into this book. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and honestly I’m still not sure. It’s certainly a good read, and once I was able to get started, I finished it quickly, in about a day and a half of scattered reading. I think perhaps I had trouble because the book feels—to borrow one of its own words—interstitial, like it’s between greater things. (Not that I know if what follows is better—I haven’t started the next book at the time of this writing…) It spends a fair amount of time referring back to the events of the last book, Love and War, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it gives the feeling of mooning over a lost love, especially with Ace having left in that book. Ace is fantastic, I agree completely with that—but these books, I think, have serious difficulty with moving on. To that end, there’s a scene where the Doctor finds a stash of Nitro-9 in the house on Allen Road, and mourns over Ace a bit; and at the end, when he needs guardians in the virtual dimension occupied by the Transit entity, he manifests them as a horde of Aces, all with cans of Nitro-9. It’s clever, but it feels awkward. In addition, Benny is relegated to a background character here; she spends most of the story—all of it, really—possessed by the Transit entity (or not, actually—to explain would be a major spoiler, so just bear with me), and gets little dialog or screen time on her own. This is her first adventure traveling with the Doctor, and she leaves it with the conviction that she is essentially a pet to him—not a good way to get things rolling, Doctor.

Enough negatives; on to the positives! Kadiatu IS a fascinating character, and well worth the read. She has secrets layered upon secrets, and I am certain we don’t yet have them all. She reminds me of Jenny from The Doctor’s Daughter, in that she is born for military action, but also has secrets in her upbringing; and her exit scene at the end is almost a perfect match for Jenny’s, with the added bonus that we know from her later appearances that she doesn’t immediately crash into a moon and die. I look forward to further appearances. She is surrounded by a great supporting cast, with almost everyone getting at least a better-than-average amount of character development, even the throwaway villains (that is, the mutated hit squads created by the major villain). Junior maintenance worker and Kadiatu love interest Zak, aka Blondie, is a bit of a Mary Sue (or whatever the male equivalent is) without really needing to be, as he isn’t the main character and only rarely serves as the viewpoint character, and yet he’s endearing anyway, and I was truly upset at the way his arc ends. Old Sam, a maintenance worker with a serious military background, quickly became my favorite supporting character; and he gets one of the final scenes in the book, a moment of great import, pertaining to the Ice Warriors. Those classic-series adversaries (I won’t say villains, because they usually aren’t villainous) don’t appear at all, but they have a tangential bearing on the story, and their presence is felt in the background. The Transit system manager, Mind “the Merciless”, is nothing like she appears at first, and gets a surprisingly good backstory which doesn’t directly change anything, but makes her a much better character.

I left this story feeling that it’s planting seeds for the future. Often that’s a dangerous prospect—you as the author don’t know if you will have the opportunity to go back and harvest what you’ve planted, and you don’t know if any other author will continue with what you’ve done. We don’t know those things here, either; but Ben Aaronovitch certainly planted a lot of seeds for future use. He gave us the Human-Ice Warrior war on Mars, also known as the Thousand Day War, which ended with human control of Mars, and which will be expanded on in later stories such as GodEngine. He created the Sol Transit System (STS) , which, though not mentioned in any other works to date, is clearly instrumental in the expansion phase of human history. He created an early form of human time travel. He created an offshoot of the Brigadier’s family, and of course he gave us the recurring character of Kadiatu. He gave Benny a book that even she cannot read, and then doesn’t really go back to that thread; possibly something for the future? Some of these, of course, have been picked up in other works; some have not. Still, it will be interesting to see how these connections play out.

The Doctor is certainly more decisive here than he has been in recent stories. He does, as I mentioned, brood over Ace a few times, but never for long, and never in a way that would interfere with his activities. We do see something very rare early in the book: We see the Doctor get drunk. It’s not a pretty sight, but at least there is no singing…no, wait, that’s not true; he sings Happy Birthday…to the universe. It has to be seen to be believed.

There’s a definite cyberpunk theme to this novel which is curiously rare in Doctor Who. Despite the fact that the story depends on it, it doesn’t take over the story, but manages to fit casually into the story’s world without being too intrusive—a rare feat indeed, as cyberpunk elements usually tend to define their stories. I wouldn’t want this to be a common thing in Doctor Who, but I’m glad to see it happen occasionally; when the series began, no one had any inkling of such a thing, but if it wants to stay relevant to modern audiences (not to mention modern technology), this sort of thing almost has to be acknowledged sometimes.

Continuity References: The House on Allen Road last appeared in Cat’s Cradle: Warhead. The Doctor makes multiple references to Survival and The Curse of Fenric, especially in connection with Ace. He mentions building a boom-box (Silver Nemesis) and having visited “all three Atlantises” (The Underwater Menace, The Daemons, The Time Monster, which famously gave three different explanations for the destruction of Atlantis). Battlefield is referenced in the form of an opera based on the events of that serial, though it’s not a very clear reference. (The TARDIS wiki states that “[t]he unknown future incarnation of the Doctor that first appeared in Marc Platt’s novelisation of Battlefield reappears here in a cyberspace encounter with a supporting character”, but I don’t recall this happening in the book; I only recall the operatic reference to that story, and have not read the novelization of Battlefield so as to know what I’m looking for there. The wiki page for the novelization was singularly unhelpful in that regard.) The Doctor calls the entity “Fred”; this references his intended nickname for Romana in The Ribos Operation, as well as a Robot Yeti in The Web of Fear. The intelligent computer FLORANCE will appear again in Sleepy and Seeing I. Kadiatu will appear next in Set Piece, and several other stories thereafter. The TARDIS’s infection appears again, having begun in Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark, though with very little explanation given in either story; here it manifests as a green cat to match the TARDIS’s silver cat. That thread has yet to be resolved. Benny mentions the Silurians (Doctor Who and the Silurians, et al), who in her time are a known and accepted species with a bit of a lingering grudge against humans. She (or rather, a duplicate of her) mentions the Hoothi (Love and War). The Doctor mentions the events of Earthshock, if only tangentially. He remembers an Australian beach (The Enemy of the World). He mentions the Panopticon and the great seal of Rassilon (The Deadly Assassin, et al). He mentions various stories from his third-Doctor era with UNIT, including Planet of the Spiders; the flashback about Kadiatu’s ancestors also mentions a few, including Robot. Kadiatu dreams of the Pythia (Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible) despite having no direct connection to Gallifrey. Benny references the Butler Institute and the environmental crisis (Cat’s Cradle: Warhead).

Overall: After a slow start for me personally, the book turned out pretty good in the end. It’s not, I think, one of the pivotal stories of the series; but it’s getting us there. It was by no means perfect, but it’s a fair, mostly solid entry, and I enjoyed it.

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Next time: We’ll be reading The Highest Science, by Gareth Roberts, another novel adapted later into audio form by Big Finish Productions! See you there.

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Novel Review: Love and War

We’re back, with another Doctor Who novel review! This week, we’re reading Love and War by Paul Cornell, published in October 1992 as the ninth entry in the Virgin New Adventures (VNA) series. In this story, we say goodbye to longtime companion Ace McShane, and welcome new and noteworthy companion Bernice Summerfield, who will eventually headline a series of New Adventures novels of her own. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

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Ace attends the funeral of her old friend Julian in Perivale.  Afterward, the Doctor takes her to the planet Heaven in the year 2570.  The bucolic planet lies on the border between the human and Draconian empires, and is neutral territory, serving as a cemetery world for both races in their long and sporadic wars against each other and against the Daleks.  While the Doctor visits the governmental library in Joycetown in search of a lost manuscript, The Papers of Felsecar, Ace gets involved with a group of Travellers, a nomadic bunch that has lived on Heaven for some years now.  She quickly falls for Jan, one of the travellers, and he shares her interest, although he is in an open relationship with another Traveller, Roisa—who is in turn in another open relationship with yet another Traveller, Máire.  Ace meets other colorful characters: Christopher, the sexless priest of the Travellers, who has peculiar powers thanks to a government experiment; and a guest of the Travellers: archaeologist Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, who is conducting a dig at some ancient ruins left behind by the now-extinct Heavenites.  Meanwhile, Roisa steps on a filament of a strange fungus.

In Joycetown, Phaedrus—priest of the death-obsessed Vacuum Church—conducts a ritual sacrifice of an old friend.  The friend’s dying corpse is taken over by, and converted into, a fungus—and the fungus is intelligent.  It has orders for Phaedrus… later, he encounters Roisa, and warns her of terrible things to come.

The Doctor’s efforts to find the manuscript are unsuccessful, and he is balked by a nervous librarian.  He meets with Miller, the head of the local military detachment, and takes him into his confidence, warning him of the real reason for his visit; Miller keeps it to himself, but is convinced to help the Doctor.  Miller tells him about a mysterious sphere in space, which was spotted briefly before vanishing.  The Doctor meets Benny, and she shows him a buried Heavenite observatory with a strange telescope and a decayed body inside—the first Heavenite remains found.  The Doctor is disturbed by what he sees there.  He accompanies Benny to Joycetown, but they are attacked en route; Benny shoots off the attacker’s arm, but the assailant is not deterred, and escapes.  The arm is infected with white fungal filaments.

Ace joins the Travellers in “Puterspace”, a virtual reality environment that links to the Empire’s electronic networks, and which the Travellers use in lieu of drugs to join their minds for rituals and conferences.  With Jan, she encounters a being calling himself the Trickster; and she learns more of Jan and Christopher’s history.  The two men are old friends; both volunteered for military experimentation during their service.  The experiments took away Christopher’s sexuality, but gave him strong psychic powers; Jan was mostly unaffected, but gained the ability to generate fire on command.  As the Travellers gather, Roisa begs the Travellers to leave the planet and leave her behind.  They are attacked in Puterspace by a strange sphere, but Christopher sacrifices himself to let the others escape.  In the real world, the others bury Christopher’s now-empty body, and grieve for him.  Ace spends the night with Jan; later, she dreams of the Doctor bargaining with Death for her life, with Death refusing the deal.  In the morning, the Doctor meets her, and is disturbed to find that she slept with Jan; she assumes he is jealous of her desire for a separate life.  During the visit, he shows her a tesseract, a Gallifreyan hypercube, and plays a trick where it disappears between dimensions.  He enlists her help in locating the book; she meets the librarian, who seems afraid, but drops a hint as to where to look in the library computers.  Meanwhile, a guard named Kale meets with Miller and reports a (fabricated) attack by Sontarans, and requests to go to the orbital station to scan the planet for incursions.  Miller allows it, but notices that Kale’s arm is in a sling.

The Doctor talks with Jan about Ace, and then enters Puterspace.  He is attacked by Vacuum Church assassins; Christopher appears and rescues him.  Christopher reveals that his powers allowed him to copy his mind into Puterspace as software before he died; he is working out a way to control his own dead body as well, via the Puterspace jack in its brain.  However, before the Doctor can leave, Phaedrus enters Puterspace and catches him in a software trap, forcing him to relive painful memories of his third incarnation’s death.  Ace arrives to rescue him, but is caught in the trap herself, and it shifts to her memories of Perivale.  There she learns from the Doctor that the real enemy is a fungal race called the Hoothi, which absorbs its victims and gains their memories and minds.  Ace sees her dead friend Julian there, and the Doctor realizes the Hoothi have replicated her house from his memories, not from Ace’s, indicating that after his death, the Hoothi absorbed him.  The Doctor briefly liberates Julian’s mind, and Julian in turn restores Christopher’s program; Julian is reintegrated into the group mind by Phaedrus, but Ace liberates them by reversing the trap onto Phaedrus and making him relive his worst memory—in which he euthanized his own mother.  With the Doctor, she escapes Puterspace.  While they recover, Roisa gives the Doctor a drink from a Heavenite goblet that was once stolen from the Vacuum Church.

The Doctor and Ace lead the Travellers in a raid on the library.  There they are intercepted by Vacuum acolytes, who have been absorbed by the Hoothi.  Ace kills them with Nitro-9, setting the library ablaze in the process, but not before they infect the librarian—but just before he converts to fungus, he unlocks the computer, allowing them to find out where the manuscript is hidden.  They find that it was last released to Bernice Summerfield.  On the way out, they meet Miller, and he learns that the Sontaran invasion was a lie; and Kale has been infected by the Hoothi spores.  Kale, it seems, is the assailant who attacked the Doctor and Benny; his arm in a sling is fake, concealing a cache of the spores.  He has now infected the entire orbital station crew, and removed the station from action, leaving the planet defenseless until help arrives—in a week.

The Doctor again tries to get Ace to give up her romance with Jan, but to no avail.  He retrieves the manuscript from Benny, and finds his own handwriting in it, though presumably from a future incarnation.  It acts as a Rosetta Stone of sorts, allowing him to translate Heavenite writing left behind in the observatory.  Ace confers with Benny, and they discuss their respective and checkered pasts; Benny admits that she faked her credentials years ago, and is not really a professor.  She travels in search of the truth about her missing father, who may be among the dead buried on Heaven.  Ace spends the night with Jan, who tells her his secret name, Aradrath, meaning “one big fire”.  During the night, mysterious figures release spores into the Traveller camp, infecting some of the Travellers.  Christopher also appears, having regained control of his body after a fashion, and collects most of the spores, which will not harm him; he also warns Ace that remaining with Jan will require a sacrifice.

The observatory writing leads the Doctor and Benny to the graveyards, where they find that every body is infected with the spores, and indeed, have not decayed—all part of the Hoothi plan. He gets Benny’s team to rush and dig up the observatory, as it is intstrumental to his plan.  The Hoothi, via Kale, try to crash the orbital station onto the dig, but the Doctor threatens Phaedrus to divert it; the Hoothi need Phaedrus alive for now, and they destroy the station before it can crash.  The Doctor returns to the camp, and levels with everyone about the Hoothi: They are an ancient, fungal race, which absorbs and utilizes the living and the dead alike in efforts to conquer the galaxy.  They were believed to have fled after failing once to conquer Gallifrey; but now they have returned.  They exist in sub-hive minds as part of the greater group mind, and each sub-group travels in a massive organic sphere, composed of the remains of absorbed creatures.  Centuries ago, they farmed the Heavenites for raw material, until they eventually claimed the entire world; the observatory was left to guard against their return.  Now they are returning, and their long game will pay off; they arranged to have Heaven made into a cemetery world, filling it with a vast army of the dead, which they are coming to claim for use in their conquest.  They can see and hear through their living victims, and can control the victims’ actions, or take over at any time.  The spores cannot be cured.

The now-liberated observatory contains a special telescope that can penetrate the Hoothi sphere’s ability to conceal itself.  Roisa, knowing she is infected, goes to blow up the Vacuum Church in a suicide bombing, but can’t pull the trigger; Phaedrus forces her to meet the Hoothi that is located in the basement.  Jan realizes what has happened, and takes matters into his own hands; he takes some of the others and steals a shuttle, intending to set it as a passive projectile in orbit to destroy the Hoothi sphere.  Ace and Máire follow him and sneak aboard.  When he discovers Ace, he asks her to marry him if they survive.  She agrees, and everyone but Jan waits in the shuttle’s escape pods.  Jan will activate the final course of the shuttle, and then enter a pod himself, and launch the pods.  However, when the ship appears, everyone except Jan, Máire, and Ace explodes into fungus; and even Jan is clearly infected, as he can’t fire the engines.  He ejects Ace, Máire, and one of the others.  Ace loses her mind briefly from grief; but the Doctor’s hypercube appears in her hand, containing impressions of Jan, which pull her back to sanity.  Máire’s pod crashes into the Vacuum Church, doing much damage, but not destroying the church, Phaedrus, or the Hoothi.

When the Doctor learns that Ace followed Jan, he is appalled, and immediately takes the TARDIS—with Benny—to the Hoothi sphere.  The Hoothi—or rather, three of the four in their subgroup—meet with him, and reveal that he himself is infected, having received a spore from the drink given to him by Roisa.  They will refrain from taking him over, and allow him to leave with Ace, if he destroys the planet’s military communication equipment so as to prevent the empire’s Spacefleet from arriving.  However, they infect Benny; but the Doctor secretly prevents the infection, feeding the Hoothi images from his mind to make them think they were successful.  As the Doctor and Benny leave, they see Jan’s body among the other captive forms.  The Hoothi sphere enters the atmosphere, and sends down subspheres and stairways to receive their infected dead, which burst to life from the ground all over the planet.  Along the way, the dead attack and kill many of the living, breaking down settlements and buildings.  The Doctor sends Benny to recover Ace, who has crashed in the forest.  Christopher joins them as well.  Phaedrus, considering his work complete, enters Puterspace still haunted by the death of his mother; Ace arrives and follows him in, seeking revenge for Jan’s death.  The Doctor, meanwhile, deactivates the comm equipment.  He goes to the Vacuum Church and enters Puterspace to rescue Ace; however, with Christopher’s help, he exploits the remnants of Jan’s consciousness inside the group mind, horrifying Ace.  Rather than try to save Jan, he persuades Jan to ignite his pyrokinetic power—and the sphere, filled with flammable gases, explodes, destroying the Hoothi inside and breaking their control over their army.  It was all a part of the Doctor’s plan, including leading Jan to confront the Hoothi, as he knew that Jan was infected; however, Ace cannot forgive the Doctor for manipulating sacrificing her lover to win this battle.

As the colony picks up the pieces, Ace returns to the church—but finds Phaedrus still alive in the basement.  Phaedrus kills himself, and is absorbed by the fourth Hoothi, which has been in the basement all along; it could still salvage the situation with enough blood—and Ace will provide that blood.  The captive Roisa pushes her toward the Hoothi.  However, Máire is still alive in the wreckage, and she shoots and kills Roisa.  Ace calls on the last of Julian’s mind inside the Hoothi, and makes him rebel momentarily; and he causes the Hoothi to explode and die.

The Doctor searches for Ace, and bears witness to Christopher’s final death, as he can no longer maintain his body.  He finds Ace and tries to apologize to her; but her love for him has turned to hatred after his actions, and she refuses to go with him.  She stays behind with Máire and the remaining Travellers, keeping only the hypercube—she even leaves her jacket with the Doctor, indicating her break from her life with him.  He returns with it to the TARDIS…where Benny agrees to join him.  After all, as she points out, he needs someone to remind him who he is, and to give him a reason to fight.

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This story represents a major turning point for the New Adventures: the departure of the final classic series companion. We’ve had hints for some time that Ace would leave the Doctor (and it’s been common knowledge among fans for a few decades, of course), including a false start at the end of Nightshade; here, she goes through with it. It happens predictably but spectacularly; we’ve known for some time that Ace’s one problem with the Doctor is the way that he manipulates people for his own purposes as Time’s Champion. Here, it finally costs her the life of someone dear to her, and it overwhelms her, leading her to erupt at the Doctor at the end of the book. She’s lost people before, of course, but never with the significance seen here, and it leaves a mark from which she will be a long time recovering. I like Ace—I always have—and I hate to see her go; but given that it had to happen eventually, I can’t think of a more appropriate way for it to happen. Note that I don’t call it a good way; it’s not good, but it’s appropriate, in that only something so terrible would be enough to truly break the bond between Ace and the Doctor.

Bernice Summerfield’s arrival is just as portentous in its own way. She won’t be with him for the duration of the New Adventures—there are other companions to come—but Benny, as she calls herself, will accomplish something that no one else could manage: She will become the star of the show. Specifically, when Virgin Books lost the license to produce stories featuring the Doctor, they chose to continue the New Adventures in modified form, with Bernice as the main character. This will eventually lead into her extensive role in Big Finish’s books and audio dramas, with Bernice’s stories actually preceding the Doctor’s at Big Finish. At the moment I don’t intend to include Bernice’s books in this series of New Adventures reviews; I intend to stop with Lance Parkin’s The Dying Days, the final VNA to feature the Doctor, before switching to another series of books. However, I may at some point continue with Bernice’s novels as well.

This is the first book to make the concept of Time’s Champion explicit. Here, Death is personified as an Eternal (a concept first introduced back in Enlightenment), and later books will establish that Time is also an Eternal; Death makes a reference here to the Doctor being Time’s Champion, its chosen representative. It’s in this role that he carries out his campaign against the various evils of the universe, but it’s also this role that sometimes requires him to sacrifice the few for the sake of the many. Ace has been with him in this until now—she is referred to as the steward of Time’s Champion—but she can’t bear it anymore. The Doctor, for his part, is sorry to let her go, and even tries to make it up to her; but in the end, he fails at this last task. His chesslike manipulative skills are in full force here; we even get an indication that an unspecified future incarnation still plays the game, as some future version leaves a note for the seventh Doctor.

The Travellers are not your ordinary supporting characters. They’re inspired by—or are direct descendants of—what in America we would call Gypsies; I’m not sure what the preferred term would be in Europe, but I don’t mean any disrespect if I get it wrong here. There’s a larger group that appears in the background, but there are four major characters. Jan, Ace’s love interest, is exactly the type of firebrand that would attract her; he’s flamboyant, loyal, and driven, unlike her last love interest, Nightshade’s Robin Yeadon. (I never understood how the meek, bookish Robin managed to catch Ace’s eye; and apparently the Doctor felt the same, as he essentially forced Ace away from Robin, although I’ve seen hints that this will be significant for other reasons in the future.) Christopher, the group’s priest, is a mystical figure of sorts, which isn’t particularly unusual; but he continually turns up in unexpected places, with surprising abilities. In any other story, that would serve as a sort of deus ex machina; but here, it plays very well. Máire is the group’s priestess, and has the smallest of the four major roles; but she’s interesting for being on the end of Jan’s string of relationships here, as she is Roisa’s other lover; she’s a bit jealous, of course, but in the end her relationship drama plays into her role in the story’s resolution. She and Ace are on opposite ends of this string of relationships, and in the end, they find some solidarity in that fact, with both Jan and Roisa dead (which I think is not a particularly large spoiler, given that most people die in the average Doctor Who story). Roisa is in the middle of it all, and conceals a deadly secret for most of the story; she’s perhaps the most sad and tragic figure among the Travellers, and what’s worse is that she knows it—but still tries to save everyone around her.

Other supporting characters don’t figure as prominently. Miller, the imperial security lead, is decent, but has a fairly minimal role. Benny’s fellow archaeologists are essentially stock characters (though one of them is conspicuously named for Doctor Who author Paul Magrs; I wonder what the story is behind that).The librarian, Trench, is the same kind of nervous, cloistered, elderly academic that we’ve seen dozens of times; for a good comparison, see The Genocide Machine. Phaedrus is interesting, but horrifying, given his obsession with death; even when we get an explanation for it, it’s still depressing.

References: The Draconians and their war with Earth—and the subsequent Dalek wars—was first mentioned as far back as Frontier in Space. The Draconians in this book give us the first instance of the Doctor being called “The Oncoming Storm”, which features in the revived television series beginning with The Parting of the Ways. The fungal Hoothi aliens—the villains of this story—were first referenced in The Brain of Morbius, though without the extensive description given here. Abslom Daak is mentioned here by Máire, who is also a (former) Dalek Killer like Daak; he first appeared in the comic Abslom Daak…Dalek Killer. IMC, the Interplanetary Mining Corporation, has a presence on Heaven, and appears first in Colony in Space. The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe met Benny prior to this in The 100 Days of the Doctor (which had not been written yet, thus explaining behind the scenes why it’s not referenced here), although for Benny this is the first meeting; hence the Doctor doesn’t mention it to her. The Doctor refers again to Harry Houdini (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Smoke and Mirrors, other offscreen stories). The Doctor again reminisces about leaving Susan on Earth (The Dalek Invasion of Earth). Death comments that the Seventh Doctor, while as yet not regenerated, caused the death of the Sixth Doctor so that he could become Time’s Champion (Time and the Rani); however, as this occurs in Ace’s dream, it’s debatable whether it’s correct. There are a number of things in this story, as well, which will be picked up again in future stories, but I’ll leave those for when we get there, for the sake of spoilers.

This book is very nearly as good as Nightshade, in my opinion. If I have any complaint, it is this: Ace is still hung up on her past with her mother. While it’s completely believable that she would have this issue, several stories have had her resolving it. She’s grown so much in so many ways, but in this one area, she seems to be stuck in limbo indefinitely. It’s become repetitive over several stories, and stretches belief. The same could be said for the Doctor’s memories of Susan; several books in the nine we’ve read so far have had him obsessing over her to the point of delusion, and though he resolves it in every instance, each successive book seems to reset him to the starting point. I suspect that this is a product of the manner in which the books were commissioned and written by varying authors, who all worked from the same basic set of points; I imagine that each author had to submit his or her manuscript before the preceding book became available, and therefore had to wing it as far as such details were concerned. Still, it may be that we’ll get a shift in focus along with the change in companions.

love-and-war-3

Next time: We join the Doctor and Benny on twenty-second century Earth in Transit! See you there.

Although most of the Virgin New Adventures are now out of print, and therefore are difficult to locate with reliability, this novel (among several others) was adapted to audio drama format by Big Finish Productions, and may be purchased at the link below.

Love and War

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