...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Day 2278: DOCTOR WHO: The Price of Paradise


I am actually QUITE IMPRESSED: Daddy Richard has managed to finish all of the Doctor Who books that I gave him to read! To be fair, I DID have to lock him in the bathroom and feed him slices of cheese pushed under the door. Still that gave me and Daddy Alex time to watch the new series of THE APPRENTICE, with Mr Sir Alan and a new tribe of alien space lizards. I think one of them might have been a SLITHEEN!

Here are Daddy Richard’s thoughts on the final print adventure of Dr Who and Rose…
Like Mike Tucker, who wrote "The Nightmare of Black Isle", Colin Brake is new to the BBC's current range of Doctor Who adventures in book form, though, also like Mike Tucker, he has previously written for the BBC's spin off novels, in Colin's case holding the perhaps-dubious honour of writing "Escape Velocity" for the eighth Doctor, the climax-that-wasn't-a-climax at the end of the "Trapped on Earth" arc. In his "about the author" blurb at the end, he remarks that he was thwarted in his aim of taking over from Andrew Cartmel as script editor of Doctor Who in 1990. Instead, he got the same gig for '90s sci-fi-esque romp and Docklands run-around "Bugs". No, I'm still not grateful that the series was axed.

This is a plain and simple little eco-parable, about the benefits of living in harmony with nature and cleaning up after yourself.

The Doctor and Rose answer a distress call from a huma expedition led by the emotionally repressed Professor Shulough, and land on the beautiful planet of Laylora. The natives, kindly, gentle pre-colonial American tribespeople analogues, live in a balance with their world but are troubled by recent failings of crops, ground tremors in the world and the disappearance of three of their young people. Not to mention the local mythical monsters who have started wandering around. And that’s before the humans fell on them.

There are no more than two twists, both heavily telegraphed: those local monsters, the Witiku, are really – gasp – the natives transformed; the disasters besetting the planet are all caused by – gosh – the presence of the intruding humans. And that's telegraphed by the book's title! Once the Doctor has worked these things out his only difficulty is to round everyone up and ship them out.

So it's all a bit, well, thin.

As a paean to a simpler way of life it avoids almost all mention of any of the messier aspects of such a lifestyle: the only hint is the mention of "killing pits" for trapping wild pigs, not the we see any, much less any slaughtering and butchering. Goodness, no, it's all gathering the berries for a nice cup of jinnera, the local tea/coffee/horlicks analogue. And nobody ever, ever goes to the toilet!

There are a few little bits of character to fill out the pages. The Doctor ferrets out the Professor’s past to unravel her emotional withdrawal. Rose makes fiends with Rez, a local teenager who is a bit different because he's actually a human who arrived on the planet as a baby in a life pod. Raw recruits out of the academy Jonn Hespell and Ania Baker fall in love. Rather strangely, Jae Collins get set up as a bit of a wild card, with a dubious background and cool demeanour… only to be abruptly bumped off early on. Perhaps that dubious background was only there to make us think "It's okay that he died."

The natives, apart from Rez – who, it turns out, doesn't count according to Laylora's rules – are almost entirely a crowd of extras to fill out the background. The exceptions are Mother Jaelette who gets to be, er, motherly, and Brother Hugan who gets to be, er, the local mad cleric. Sister Kaylan looks like she might be a character early on, but in fact only gets to be a bit pouty about the way Rez reacts to Rose.

The Laylorans' religion is not much fleshed out. They worship their planet as a goddess (Laylora obviously) and possibly their sun as the god Saxik. Mainly because that is what primitive tribespeople do. It's stated that in the old days they used to practice human sacrifice… although that probably means Layloran sacrifice, unless the planet was in the habit of dropping human victims on them. Maybe it was, maybe the sacrifices were the old way of dealing with the planets over-reaction to their presence. We never find out why the old religion fell out of fashion. Maybe humans stopped falling on them.

There was plenty of potential backstory there to dig into, but unfortunately we didn’t. The natives were just, well, natives. I had wondered whether we were going to get some "Kinda"-esque reveal that they were really a post-technological society, that their extraordinary balance with their planet was engineered and that they had made their own paradise, abandoning their buildings for tepees and settling in to their carefully designed Eden.

There's a wee bit of a problem with the dating going on. The Doctor takes one look at the Professor Shulough's crashed spaceship, the Humphry Bogart (in case you hadn't got the vague African Queen references) and remarks that it must be the late twenty-fourth century, so the year 23-someting.

But the Professor also refers to the SS Armstrong, spaceship of the lost explorer Maurit Guillan, being found at the edge of Draconian space, meaning that the story must be set after first-contact with the Draconians in 2520 ("Frontier in Space"). Space soldier Kendle talks of "betting the Empire", which according to what the Doctor tells Jo in "The Mutants" was really only getting started in "Colony in Space", dated 2472.

Then, to make matters worse, the Humphry Bogart is powered by – and the SS Armstrong's hold had been full of – trisilicate, an important mineral the Doctor tells us. Trisilicate, found only on Mars and – it turns out – Peladon, is a much-valued resource in the time of the Galactic Federation, which is usually dated to the post-Empire period, maybe the thirty-ninth or fortieth centuries.

In fact, the important mineral of the early Empire period is Duralinium, used for construction as mentioned in "Colony in Space" and referenced in "The Nightmare of Black Island".

Astonishingly enough, trisilicate turns out to be abundant on Laylora too. It's supposed to be a power source, though it's never made clear how. To all appearances, Colin treats the stuff like some sort of clean burning super-coal. That is to say, it lies around in chunks and you power up the engines by just dropping a few lumps in.

On the other hand, it is stable enough to be worn as jewellery without ill effect, dropped casually in heaps and even shot with laser weapons without exploding. All of which is rather surprising for something that is supposed to provide more energy than a fusion reactor.

(Look, if pressed to make up an explanation, I'd probably plump for some sort of extra-dimensional structure to the crystal, trapping energy in hyperspace – which would be consistent with the hyperspace drives that starships of the era use.)

Where I do have a problem with his made up science is that he's picked out a "micro fusion" generator as a nasty source of pollution. This is a book aimed mainly at kids so if you are going to use real-world science terms then you ought to know what they mean, so that you don't use a powerful tool to misinform them. To the best of our current knowledge, fusion – the nuclear process that powers the sun – is a clean source of energy. If you can actually make it work, you put Hydrogen in one end and get helium and energy out the other. Or you put water in the top end and get helium, oxygen and energy out the other. If there is a pollutant it is in the form of excess neutrons being released. What you do not get is toxic yellow bile.

(My guess would be that Colin has read of the Doctor using a "micro fusion grenade" in "The Also People" and assumed that "micro fusion" means "particularly nasty" when in fact it actually means "miniature H-Bomb". This is on a par with Mike Tucker using the term Warp Core – as heard all the time in "Star Trek" to mean "the central part of our engines" – as the name of a weapon. If you've heard it somewhere else, boys, it's not just cool words: it probably means something.)

By all means describe a fission reactor as polluting, because that leaves you with radioactive waste products that indeed would be harmful to flush out the back of your ship. Or just make up a word – after all your nice clean technology is based on another made up word, even if it was made up by someone else for a story thirty years ago.

While we're on the subject of dodgy science – and I'm just going to gloss over the whole were-Witiku thing because that's obviously "magic", not even a nod to the energy for the transformation coming from the trisilicate jewellery – the entire premise of the book is that Laylora is in such perfect balance that the presence of one alien boy upsets everything and causes earthquakes, storms and possibly the end of the world. And it gets worse as he grows up.

Well, in the first place as Rez grows up – where exactly does his body get the fuel and materials to grow from? Essentially, he is just reorganising a very tiny part of Laylora into the form of his own body. He lives as a member of the tribe, he doesn't change any of their practices and does his bit in living in harmony. So how can he possibly be damaging the planet?

Obviously, nothing of Rez will be actual alien matter any more anyway, after fifteen years of his body replacing itself, although the skin, sweat, hair and waste shed when he was a baby will all still remain in the environment. Though that should have long since been broken down into its constituent elements, and recycled though the Layloran insects and plants.

In fact, the elements that Rez is composed of, mainly hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, will all be abundant in the planet anyway. If they weren't he would be unable to gain nutrition from the food or breath the air. So how exactly does Laylora tell which bits of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen belong to the planet and which don't?

And, of course, your average planet has literally tonnes of alien matter fall on all the time, in the form of space dust, meteors and matter blasted off the surface of its local star. This falling dust is how planets form in the first place.

You could make a case – although Colin doesn't – that the Laylorans are kept in an exact number by the balancing processes of the planet – one born if and only if another has died – and Rez has thrown that number out of whack. Though of course, there is quite some difference between the environmental impact of a baby and an adult and an elder. And anyway, Laylora doesn’t seem to have a problem replacing a small native with a large Witiku at the drop of a jinnera bean.

But all of that is to overlook the sheer scale of the planet compared to the tribe.

Earth has a surface area of over five-hundred million square kilometres. Or five-hundred trillion (five-hundred million million) square metres. In comparison, your skin has a surface area of probably about two square metres. Asleep, lying down no more than half out you would be on the ground and standing up, even less of you would be in actual contact with the planet’s surface. You are an unnoticeable dot.

Laylora is probably a little smaller than Earth: the gravity is described as a little less than Earth normal and the nights appear to be short suggesting a rapid rotation. But it can't be that much smaller or it would be impossible for the Earth-like-but-just-that-bit-better conditions to apply, after all it is human explorers who described it as a "paradise".

Actually, that does raise another point – how much of Laylora is paradise? We only see a tiny area – Rose estimates that the crashed ship the natives' village and the ruined temple are all equidistant about five kilometres apart. Which also means that the humans were incredibly lucky to land so close to the one other human on the surface of the planet, though that sort of coincidence is always happening in Doctor Who. But presumably when Guillan's expedition found the planet fifty years ago – before human intrusion, so when it wasn't all grumpy – they were able to scan it and arrive at the conclusion that it was all rather nice. In which case how exactly does that work? Earth has lots of different climates and environments all caused by the geography of the planet. Even if you were to carefully terraform the entire world to be tropical islands, you would still have some dramatic variations in outcome from the poles to the temperate zones to the equator.

(George Lucas, of course, has exactly the same problem – dessert world and ice world you can sort of get away with, one is too hot and the other is too cold, but deciduous forest world?)

Anyway, if we can eliminate any physical reason why the planet is "alergic" to humans, what is the cause of its distress?

It seems that what really irritates the goddess-planet must be Rez's soul. Or if you prefer the "electro-psychic field generated by a human" (which is the same gobbledygook dressed up differently). Humans are a fallen species and as such are not to be re-admitted to Eden. Ultimately Rez is kicked out of the only home he's ever known for no more than being who he is.

And never mind the science, for a Doctor Who story that's a bit rubbish.

There's also the question of quite when to set these three book within the timeline of the series. There aren't any particularly useful clues.

The logical inference is that – like the books set in the 2005 season – the first three are in a gap early in the year (say between "Tooth and Claw" and "School Reunion") and the second three are set in a gap in the latter half of the season.

In "The Art of Destruction", Rose took a moment to say she'd seen enough of Hell recently, which might suggest that it comes after "The Satan Pit". Or it might just refer to the fact she's in the middle of a huge and terrible battlefield with a war going on around her.

Here, Rose recalls Mickey, remarks on Rez's Mickey-ness, but irritatingly doesn't think about Mickey being lost in a parallel universe, so we cannot really tell if this is supposed to be before or after "The Age of Steel". Nor can we take any clue from Rose fancying Rez – even when Mickey was still around that never stopped her.

She also remembers her "recent adventures in Ancient Rome", clearly a reference to "The Stone Rose". But what constitutes "recent"? This would seem to indicate – against all expectations – that all six books take place quite close together, perhaps in the same early season gap.

But then late on she quotes "you can trust me on this," and thinks of her father (obviously she means the Pete from Pete's World, but we also know that Rose is a bit confused about him being/not being her dad). So this story at least does have to be set after "The Age of Steel" after all.

If we assume that the Beast is actually right about Rose "dying in battle, so very soon" (even if she doesn't actually die), or at least that He is referring to "Doomsday" then we should also assume that the Doctor and Rose don't have many adventures between "The Satan Pit" and "Army of Ghosts" apart from "Fear Her" (which, with its "there's a storm coming" ending might actually lead straight in).

So, the best placement is probably between "The Idiot's Lantern" and "The Impossible Planet".


Three days to go!

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