...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Day 2276: DOCTOR WHO: The Art of Destruction


As I said before, I have told Daddy Richard that he has got to finish all the Doctor Who books before Saturday or I will not let him watch "Smith and Jones". (Although I WOULD let him REALLY!) He is therefore cracking on, and has now read the next-to-last of them.

Here is what he thought:
I have to confess to some disappointment. After Steve Cole's previous Doctor Who book, "The Feast of the Drowned" I had high expectations for this one and I'm sorry to say that they weren't met.

Although there are a scattering of good ideas, the sheer events of the story rather get in the way of the plot.

Where the previous book provided an intriguing mystery that built gradually to a desperate struggle, this one ramps up the peril so quickly that there is no time to get into the story before everyone is running for their lives from unstoppable implacable foes.

There are some similarities: "Feast" was a story of water-based monsters and was set in and around the waters of the Thames; "Art" is build around a gold-based monster, the Magma-form Guardians that emerge from the lava tubes of Ghanaian volcano Mount Tarsus.

(The fact that events are triggered by a character named Solomon does in fact mean that this is the gold of Solomon's mines.)

When the magma-form touches a living creature, it turns the creature into a golden statue which later comes to life as a hideous golden mutant parody of its former self, monsters the Doctor refers to as golems, unthinking servants animated from mud, or in this case magma.

With the first victim, unfortunate agricultural technician Kanjuchi, this process is a terrifying and horrific transformation, but all too quickly Steve is throwing golden vultures, golden bats, golden driver ants*, not to mention various golden people, and eventually golden hyenas, golden scorpions and golden spiders (oh and golden fungus) at us, a never-ending stream of perils that leaves you breathless but undermines the horror.

(*actually, although he makes a big thing of the driver ants emerging, they only reappear briefly as an end-of-chapter threat that just goes away again. As though Steve thought of something really cool early on and then forgot to do anything with it.)

And of course he makes the same mistake as last time – he has Rose caught and transformed by the magma-form, immediately proving that the process will be reversible, and robbing it of any threat value. The fact that the Doctor's cure arises from the miracle-fungus being developed in the agricultural unit is neither surprising nor an amusing reference to "The Green Death", it's just old.

But golden death is not the only threat to stalk the volcanic tunnels: that would be too simple. So for the first half of the book there are armed rebels on their way to steel the agri-unit's food production, aided by double-dealing insider Adiel who has her own agenda to in fact lead the rebels into a trap and destroy them. This leads to our heroes being caught between these minor baddies and the magma-forms in various different combinations.

Then a hideous alien turns up, only to be revealed as an extra-terrestrial art-dealer in an ugly suit. And then (with the perils still escalating beyond ludicrous into stratospheric) the site is invaded by giant space worms. Or Wurms, as they are called.

This, it turns out, is why the magma-form has been converting anything that moves into a golem – the Guardians have been placed here (apparently) to protect a storehouse of art treasures left behind by a race called the Valnaxi who once fought a long and ruinous war against the Wurms to defend their homeworld but who in the end lost.

So the second half of the novel turns the entire volcano into a war zone as the battle rages between golems and Wurms, quickly wiping out the now-not-interesting-enough rebels.

There are side plots: Solomon's desire to help his old village; project director Fynn's obsession with saving the world at any cost; Adiel's motivation to either destroy the rebels or ruin Fynn's reputation or to find the truth about what happened to her parents (Fynn used them as fertiliser). But rather than emerging in order to add development to the characters as we come to know them, they have to be squeezed into the brief pauses between running away from magma-forms/golems/rebels/space worms.

There's another problem with the book if you happen to be a Doctor Who fan. It is set in 2116 in a world where little has changed since 2007: the world is desperately short of food, Africa is still downtrodden, people are surprised and disbelieving at the idea of aliens. All fine if this were a stand-alone novel, but this is set in the Doctor Who universe, a place where the twenty-first century sees mankind encountering aliens, be they Cybermen or Ice Warriors, and conquering famine through first the Suncatcher developed by second Doctor lookie-likey Ramon Salamander ("The Enemy of the World") and then achieving full weather control through the use of the Gravitron from 2050 ("The Moonbase").

By the 21-teens people are supposed to be routinely taking package holidays to other star systems and collecting menageries of alien animals ("Nightmare of Eden"). You might think that a new series author could happily ignore some old Tom Baker story, but Cole then bothers to reference the Kilbracken Technique from "The Invisible Enemy" which is even by the same author, Bob Baker.

For goodness sake we're only fifty years before the Dalek Invasion, and if there's one bit of history that even the Time War can't have wiped out then it's that!

Oh, and if I'm being critical, then putting your sample bat-golem inside a lead box means that you really can't x-ray the box to see how the little feller is developing.

The Wurms are probably the most successful part of the book. Described almost exactly as you would expect them to be if you had ever seen the computer game, they nonetheless have a deliciously icky biological technology that deserves a better explanation. And apparently they use Wirrrn shells as stretchers. On the other hand the "we don't understand art so we're going to destroy it all" motivation is rather less inspired. To have them destroying world in order to acquire art might have had a more kill-the-goose-that-lays-the-golden-eggs moral. As they are, they are just philistines. And philistines without any real characters, to boot.

On the other hand, alien art historian Faltato – David Starkey with a hundred legs – has entirely too much character, being a rather ill-judged comic relief in the middle of all the mutating into golems, dissolving skeletons and general slaughter. His extraordinary appearance – summarised by Rose as cactus-crab-hairbrush – is almost impossible to realise on the page and as such rather unsatisfying. Doctor Who on television has often made use of the very visual nature of the medium to realise some marvellously different monster forms. But that's harder on the page and so you can understand why the books have often had a tendency to have dog-like, cat-like, rhino-like aliens: you can get a picture of them instantly from a very slight description.

So at least with the Wurms you know what worms look like, even if these are bionic worms with attached weaponry. And they are great fun as they squish around, firing their cow-pat guns and ordering humans to ambulate or fold down (kneel!).

There are also some mildly pleasing (if heavily telegraphed) revelations in the closing chapters when it turns out that the Valnaxi have set the whole thing up as a trap. Although their race is dead, their spirits live on aboard the starship they've got hidden under the volcano. Yes, more dead things looking to return!

The revelation that Solomon has become caught up in the workings isn't a surprise either, obvious really from his non-death scene (where he unlike everybody else is taken rather than turned gold on the spot); and from the way the golems unexpectedly turn their attentions away from the surviving humans, something which allows the Wurms to gain the upper hand by using literal human shields.

The Valnaxi had planned to lure the Wurms to them so that they could sample their DNA and create new bodies for themselves, bodies that would allow them to return to their now-Wurm-infested homeworld and once there rediscover their muse and make new art.

At last, someone with a motivation you can care about. This should have been a larger part of the book, as the Doctor has the opportunity for a good moral confrontation. It is sadly cut short as they were only keeping him talking while his immunity to their magma-form wore off.

Sadly, by this point the war between Wurms and golems is over and the Wurms invade the starship. The Doctor though finds a handy "blast the plot into space" button and launches the ship, carrying the remaining Wurms and the Valnaxi into deep space never to return.

And luckily, the Wurms' own spaceship managed, er, to heavily fertilise the agri-project during its, er, "graphic" landing while Faltato takes the ship itself and the surviving art to make a new life for himself. So happy endings for anyone still alive after the slaughter of almost every living thing for miles around.

As Alex remarked to me, then, the story – like the car that Peter Davison's character in "Fear Stress & Anger" bought the other week – is a cut'n'shut: the front end is a serious body horror chase around lava tunnels with double- and triple-crossing going on in a fight for survival with dangerous rebels. The back end is a war movie between the golem army of undead artists and a battalion of evil space worms. And – again, like Peter Davison's car – it is liable to snap when it goes over the bumps.


Five days to go!

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