...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Day 2274: DOCTOR WHO: The Nightmare of Black Island


It is POSSIBLE that you may have heard that the BBC are to revive their OLD SERIES of DOCTOR WHO.

Well, in order to him get back in the MOOD, I have told Daddy Richard that he must read the last three Doctor Who books staring Dr Who and Rose, before the Doctor's new lady friend Ms Martha arrives!

So here we go…
Mike Tucker, in addition to providing a lot of the special effects model work for Doctor Who on the television, is the author of several previous BBC books, most of them featuring Sylvester McCoy's seventh Doctor and his friend Ace, as played by Sophie Aldred. And you can safely say that as an author he makes a great special effects guy.

No, that's not entirely fair. He's perfectly capable of writing a decent turn of phrase, his most telling faults being the bulldozing of the New Adventures continuity in favour of his own (less interesting) Ace story arc – never nice behaviour in a shared universe – and an inability to avoid egregious sci-fi cliché. ("Terminator"-style time paradoxes, giant ants, invasion from another dimension, a cameo from James Dean… and that was all in one novel!)

On the other hand, his good grasp of basic narrative and pace and his simple and colourful writing style make him well suited to the current BBC range, with its aim sighted more on the younger audience.

The titular Black Island, or Ynys Du, is a coastal village in Wales, where the locals cower in their homes after dark because that is when the monsters come out. This is the perfect opening for an in-joke ("Who would come to Wales to give children nightmares?" wonders the Doctor. Personally, I thought the "Kklak" on the following page was much funnier.) But the real surprise is that the Doctor and Rose arrive in the TARDIS before Captain Jack can get there in the Torchwood-mobile.

There isn't, in fact, any Torchwood mention at all – in spite of this being practically in their lap – so loses points there, and also loses points for the utterly crass drop in of a reference to "The Invisible Detective" (written by Doctor Who range consultant Justin Richards, like you didn't know – or "please read my boss's books").

The opening scene (or pre-title sequence, as it comes before Chapter One) is both genuinely terrifying and strongly traditional Who, as a lonely fisher is haunted on the cliff path before a horrible monster appears to devour him!

Rose, however, dreams the incident, only to find she and the Doctor have materialised in the exact location of her dream. So far so spooky.

But within a chapter Rose and the Doctor are under attack from all manner of monsters as they try to get to the village, saved only by a (turn the cliché counter up to eleven) full on Godzilla versus Rodan (or insert as appropriate here) monster fight breaking out while they make their get away.

Then we are into rather more Scooby Doo territory as the village-under-siege locals from central casting (aggressive pub landlord™, worried mum™, hostile harbour master™, dithery vicar™) go quickly from suspicious of the Doctor to welcoming before the local nutty old woman™ fingers recently arrived retirement home of sinister industrialist™ Nathanial Morton. "Oh don't listen to her," say all the villagers, so of course she is spot on.

From here on, the story becomes a game of breaking in and out of the Crumbling Old Rectory™ where Morton and his associate have made their base. Unsurprisingly, Norton's secretary, Miss Payne, and his gang of masked surgeons turn out to be aliens. And yes, they are responsible for making the monsters.

Doctor Who's 2006 season, in stories like "School Reunion", "The Idiot's Lantern" and "Fear Her", featured roles for children more than has been usual in the series before, and in this, "The Nightmare of Black Island" fits in well, when we are introduced to Ali, ten-year-old daughter of aggressive pub landlord™ and worried mum™, and her little gang of friends. There is also the presence of "Jimmy" and a significant event for eight children some fifty years ago.

Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, the children turn out to be no less ciphers than their parents. The older boy who's not so brave; the younger boy who clearly fancies Ali a bit; and Ali herself is no more than Rose's Mini-Me. It's all very well to have Rose pressing down her fears to sneak around the spooky rectory, but then you get Ali doing pretty much the same. She is only ten; she could occasionally be allowed to scream.

Of course, the astute – or even the not so astute – observer will quickly put together the book's title, Rose's dream and Ali's difficulty getting to sleep and work out where the "nightmare" monsters are coming from. To be fair, the Doctor works things out quite sharply too, and it only takes a quick boat trip to the lighthouse on the eponymous isle to find the aliens' machinery that is behind it all. In fact it is so obvious, that Tucker feels the need to throw in some remarks about the machine also suppressing the villagers' natural curiosity lest anyone think that matters could have been worked out before the Doctor even arrived.

The aliens' actual objective is to use the power of the children's nightmares to re-create a new body for their god, which picks up on another theme of the 2006 series, dead things coming back, as well as the generally dim view of gods that the series has taken since it returned.

Alien stormtroopers as religious cultists could have been good for some interesting characterisation, but this lot are really just your usual conquer-the-galaxy, crush-the-lesser-species lot dressed up. In fact, only Payne gets any real character, or indeed lines, and she's just a ranty megalomaniac; the others remain faceless with or without their surgeon's masks – this despite a great reveal scene, very X-Files, and with another in-joke, but this time a good one, about cutting costs on prosthetic makeup for background characters.

In fact, even though it is only days since reading it, I'm finding it hard to remember any real character moments even for the series regulars, other than the Doctor being a bit wacky or Rose being very brave. The book is all incident with no story, just a progression of set piece special effects. As it were.

Obviously the aliens' plans go tits up. Actually, they would have gone awry anyway, as Payne has – a little carelessly you may think – failed to collect all of her deity's marbles and rather than the dark god Balor, she gets a rather cross beastie with no self-control. Fortunately the Doctor is on hand to put a stop to it and – after the obligatory King Kong™ moment atop the rectory – that is what he does. The Doctor's reverse-the-polarity solution may finally blow the dial off the cliché counter but it does have the benefit of being child's-eye-view-of-adults funny, as the beast is dispelled less by nightmares and more by the power of mundane worries.

There may not be any real surprises, but it makes for a decent little read. Not exactly cracking but at least the pages keep on turning. But if his thesis is that only children have the imagination to come up with a decent scary monster… well he makes his own point, doesn't he.


Seven days to go!

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