...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, August 28, 2006

Day 2062: DOCTOR WHO: Mostly Garmless


In Dr Who’s EXCITING adventure on "Terminus", he meets a great big huge fluffy monster called THE GARM (also known, for reasons that are OBVIOUS to anyone who knows the plot of "Terminus" as THE BIG BANG DOG).

My daddies have been listening to David Tennant read the final story of Dr Who's recent adventures in book form. This book is called "The Resurrection Casket" and this features a great big huge fluffy monster called KEVIN. No relation.

Oh dear, it would appear that Steve Cole’s “Feast of the Drowned” was the fluke and we are back to the rather more mundane, even obvious for range editor Justin Richards’ latest.

With a vague notion of commissioning "past present and future" novels for the three-at-a-time release format that the BBC have adopted for their ninth and tenth Doctor tie in range, this then notionally constitutes the "future" setting of the three. Not that it really shows, as the story adopts all the forms of a "pirate" yarn, merely shipping them off to some notional future and substituting spaceship for sailing ship etc. Yes, Justin has recreated "The Space Pirates".

The conceit is reinforced by having the local spatial anomaly (which I would have liked better if it hadn’t been called the "space" name of "the ZEG") prevent the use of electrical based technology, including the TARDIS. Justin claims that this is to present familiar challenges that people have to overcome without the familiar technology. It really isn’t, though – electricity doesn’t work but steam power does so just replace all the usual (unexplained but they work) electrical technology with (also unexplained but they work) steam-powered alternatives. It is quite the most boringly literal interpretation of “steam punk” that you could come across.

(Dave Stone did something very similar, substituting familiar technology for self-winding clockwork in his New Adventure "Death and Diplomacy" published in 1996. Of course, for Dave this was a typically elaborate joke.)

"ZEG", incidentally, stands for "zone of electromagnetic gravitation" suggesting the author either knows more about grand unified theory than anyone alive or maybe is just bunging words together at random to get the acronym that he wants.

When Justin introduces such a novel and inventive idea (even if it's not his own idea) but then completely fails to explore it, you are left with the sinking feeling that it is only there to prevent the Doctor and Rose just leaving in the TARDIS.

So, instead of following the interesting idea, we get "Treasure Island" in space with the serial numbers filed off. Like that's never been done before. Is it really necessary to point out the hero is the lad Jim, or that the pirates are being cursed with the Black Spot, sorry, Black Shadow?

Actually, it's not Jim it's Jimm, and Bob is Bobb: a painful attempt to make the names more "spacey" that fortunately doesn’t come across on audio and I would have been spared if Justin himself hadn’t mentioned it in the brief interview with the author bit at the end of disc two.

So, the Doctor and Rose find themselves on Starfall trapped in the ZEG and embroiled in the affair of the lost treasure of pirate captain Hamlek Glint. All very well so far, and you might expect a fairly rip-roaring boys own adventure quest to follow (or at the very least something not dissimilar to Christopher Bullis “The Ultimate Treasure”). But instead Justin opts to spend a great deal of time setting up an immensely tedious back story that doesn’t so much telegraph the story’s twists as hires a skywriter to announce them to the world in mile high lettering.

Robbie the Cabin Boy (more “Cap’n Pugwash” than “Treasure Island”, there actually) is the only human member of Glint’s otherwise all-robot crew (Alex points out there’s a Robbie the not-Robot joke buried in there). And by an amazing coincidence, Jimm’s uncle Bobb has a replica of Glint’s treasure as part of his collection of Glint memorabilia. Super-wealthy Glint obsessive Drel McCavity (yes, he is only called that for the dentist joke) has a wife who has mysteriously disappeared and a mysterious chest that he insists on keeping with him at all times: what could it contain? Jimm’s collection of Glint action figures identify the robot pirates and their weaknesses, that couldn’t possibly be handy to know later, could it? The ostensible "mystery" element of the story – who is bumping people off with the curse of the Black Shadow – is severely undermined by having a list of suspects that consists of McCavity and… that is all.

All of which means that the first disc is almost over before we have bundled onto a ship (not the Hispaniola, so there’s a steam Hiss gag missed there) in search of the pirate Glint’s lost ship and his lost treasure, and the all robot crew are acting suspiciously (you’ll never guess why). Unlike the previous two adventures, the cliff-hanger at the end of the disc comes across as rather undramatic.

The centrepiece of Glint’s treasure is, naturally, the titular Resurrection Casket – apparently forming a central part of his legend as an unkillable pirate fiend. The problem with this is that, as the way the casket actually works is revealed at the end of the story, Glint cannot possibly have used it during his piratical career – so how can it be such a key part of the legend? It does, of course, turn out to be a "be careful what you wished for" and the fate of wicked McCavity is… well, even if we gloss over the old "his own weapon turned against him" shtick, we still have to say that his final comeuppance has been done before in Doctor Who, at least twice.

The characterisation of the Doctor and Rose comes across as sparky but all too often lifted directly from the television: particularly the point where the Doctor goes into "Climb Every Mountain" that as good as quotes the "No that’s 'the Lion King'," moment from "The Christmas Invasion".

Kevin the Garm - sorry, he's a beastly hairy monster controlled against his will by a device that ends up given to him and thus set he sets himself free by destroying it; now which story does that reference? So, Kevin the Garm is given a very sub sub-Douglas Adams personality of "only doing my job". David Tennant voices him charmingly, though.

Other characters are a bit on the two-dimensional side, though, which is normally less of a problem when Justin is writing his more plot-dense fiction. Here though it just underlines that all of the plot functions are entirely obvious. Alex tells me that there is one character entirely excised in the abridging – it is telling that he only realised that the character had gone missing when he was thinking "oh yes, someone died in this scene".

As with all of Justin's Doctor Who fiction, the living dead appear in this novel: the way that Glint appears is, I will concede, clever (although you should be able to work it out well ahead of the revelation); in contrast, the half-zombie robot Salvo Seven ought to have been incredibly creepy but instead is just slightly camp. (Not as camp as Cannon-K, but that’s probably down to David Tennant’s choice for the voice.)

There are much better ways of doing pirates on steam-ships in the future. For a start, don’t make them SPACE ships – have them stuck on a planet that requires them to use steam power, sure, but then sail about on the sea. Space travel ought to be IMPOSSIBLE under the conditions that exist here so don’t make it integral to your plot. Don’t invent ludicrous sounding space sharks when you can use real sharks. Don’t introduce a threat to the TARDIS (she cannot escape the ZEG) and then immediately thwart it by having her at the docks for space craft that can carry her out of the zone.

The biggest problem that the BBC books have is, I’m sorry to say, that Justin Richards in no use at all as an editor. Particularly when he’s editing himself. (I’m relived to see that for the upcoming fourth set of books for the first time he hasn’t commissioned a slot for himself.) The early BBC books for the eighth Doctor edited by Stephen Cole (yes, that Steve Cole) got a bit out of hand, but when Justin took over he killed the range dead by simultaneously erasing all the existing Doctor Who mythology and at the same time introducing a tortuous recent history involving the Doctor having lost his memory, Gallifrey having been maybe erased from history and a sub-Master-esque villain called Sabbath (entirely unrelated to the character of the same name created by Laurence Miles in "The Adventuress of Henrietta Street"). In the interview on disc two he has the cheek to talk about Doctor Who's "baggage"!

The current BBC publications are much more constrained by the existence of an actual television series than the eighth Doctor’s ongoing adventures were, which eliminates Justin's ability to alienate the readership by superimposing his own continuity over the one they were expecting. But it still seems very hit and miss whether the books will fit with the overall themes of the season in which they are ostensibly set. Also, he has a difficulty in telling the difference between child-like and childish.

Oh, and there was nothing in the audio version that could put a year to this adventure, making it the only story post "Rose" without a definite date.

1 comment:

Alex Wilcock said...

Mr Russell T Davies has several times made a point of saying that he won't be bringing back the Garm, as an example of a forgettable Doctor Who monster (including in an interview in the very latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine).

He's evidently not read Mr Richards' book. Some might not blame him...

Still, I liked Theatre of War and Grave Matter, before he decided books should start like Terry Nation and talk further down to people from there.