...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Day 2323: DOCTOR WHO: Made of Steel


Ooh, it is no good trying to put my daddies off for a week, no matter how brilliant your trailer is!

Fortunately, they are able to call on the GRAND-DADDY of all Doctor Who writers, Mr Terrance Discs, who has written a Quick Read book. This is cool, and I have read it because I am very grown up and can read!

But now I am VERY CROSS! Those wicked Cybermen have… have… have… well I splutter with fluffy fury at the location of their secret base! It is worse than Mr Simon’s book!

Just for once, Daddy Alex has beaten Daddy Richard to the punch on this one, and here is what he thought:

At last, a new series book by Terrance Dicks, and you know what? It really works. I thought "Only Human" and "The Stealers of Dreams" from the new BBC Books were very good, too, but this book has one huge advantage: it isn’t huge. From the £1.99 Quick Reads series like last year’s rather good "I Am a Dalek", aimed at getting people reading who usually don’t, this reads as if it was effortless to write. After reading so many other people trying to pull off the same sort of thing, it patently isn’t! Now, I like my Who novels long and deep, or short and crisp, and Terrance doesn’t do ‘deep’. Straightforward, undemanding and entertaining, at 99 pages instead of 250 this is the perfect length to capture the feel of a TV episode, while the others are too long for what they’re trying to do but too unambitious to deliver anything ‘bigger’ and just plod on.

I’m hoping Richard will come along with a full-length review, as he’s done with a lot of the new novels – so I won’t nick his brilliant observations about the title or why the Cybermen bicker – but here’s a whistle-stop tour. The Doctor brings Martha back to her own place and time, only to find survivors of Cybermen from the battle of Canary Wharf in last year’s TV season finale "Doomsday". Guess the London landmark where they’re hiding out (I hooted)?

Much of it recalls old Doctor Who as much as new, but there are simple but elegant lampoons of both versions of the series, as well as amusing dismissals of "Primeval" and "Torchwood" (while the whole thing shows up "Cyberwoman" terribly. But then, so do most things). It’s not a great part for Martha, though she’s good when she’s in it and her history with the Cybermen adds to the story, but Terrance surprised me by absolutely nailing David Tennant’s speech and persona as the Doctor. The way he deals with a bullying military policeman had me punching the air, though describing them as “gorillas” is back to Terrance’s ’70s novels, along with the stock ‘ambitious woman’ characterisation. On the whole, though, it’s enormously refreshing, perhaps the most entertaining Who novel Terrance has written for about a decade and a half, and certainly the best of the new series novels so far. With the new series moving along at a hell of a lick on TV, perhaps the novels all need the discipline – hark at me! – of being much shorter.

One of my biggest disappointments with Doctor Who publishing last year, incidentally, was that – unlike the 2005 series – there was no script book. I like televised Who stories on my bookshelf, as well as on the telly. If they’re not publishing the scripts any more, they could hardly do better than get Terrance to briskly novelise them. After all, it’s worked before.

Ha ha! That surprised you, didn't it!

This is my CONDENSED version. I am MUCH better at CONDENSING than that Pink Dog – I have realised that the minimum possible number of words to do Daddy Alex justice is EXACTLY THE SAME NUMBER OF WORDS AS HE USED!

Here is what Daddy Richard thought, too:
A "Cyberwoman" is of course "Maid of Steel", but I don't think we need to dwell on that, other than briefly mentioning that Uncle Tel clears up the lingering snag about Cyber-Lisa not being dragged into the void with the rest of the Cybermen: the ones being "emergency upgraded" in Torchwood Tower were being made using local materials and so were not affected by the void.

(Logically, this means there's a Cyber-Yvonne Hartman around somewhere too, ready to act as a metal avenger, oh the spin off opportunities are endless…)

And, of course, locals upgraded to Lumic-form Cybermen are the villains here. No chance of bringing back our own Universe's Cybermen it would seem, at least not until the next redesign anyway.

Though for Cybermen they all appear to have rather more personality than usual; they seem almost chatty at times, argumentative even, as the Cyber-Engineer and the Cyber-Leader berate each other for their various "logical" failings. It would seem that – like Yvonne and Lisa – these emergency upgrades have some of their human personality still leaking through. Of course, given their ultra-competitive exchanges, their dissing of each other's attempts to complete the task set and the fact that Torchwood Tower is seen in the title sequence of another famous current TV show, it is clear that the Cybermen have actually converted Sir Alan Sugar's candidates to be the next Apprentice.

All this interaction actually makes this group a hell of a lot more interesting than the Cybermen have been in quite some time, certainly since their black and white heyday and maybe even since the "Tenth Planet". Usually they are used as stock monsters, faceless menaces who are, most importantly, all identical. At least until David Banks arrives in the eighties to give one of them a voice and sort of personality:

Tegan: "That's sadistic!"

Cyberleader: "No, sarcastic!"

Okay, maybe he's not quite that blatant about it. But the fact that he gets killed each time and still comes back suggests that all the Cyberleaders have the same personality. The new series goes even further, suggesting that the Cyberleader just downloads into the next available body.

All of which seems to miss the point of the original Cybermen which is that they were trying to be immortal and ended up as living dead. True, they operated on themselves to get rid of emotions, but they should still be different people. The idea that only our emotions make us different is profoundly depressing.

The Cybermen almost from The Moonbase onwards are actually much more like modern day Cylons – a limited number of personalities with a limitless army of basically robotic bodies. Usually with one key weakness that allows the Doctor to beat them this week.

They ought to be tortured Vampires, paying a horrible price for life eternal, but instead they are just another army of Zombies.

Terrance Dicks, of course, has long found the Cybermen to be deeply dull. They never appeared in the TV show when he was Script Editor (one blob in a snowstorm aside), though a face-off against the Daleks was proposed only to be nixed by Terry Nation – good thing too; sounds like a daft idea. Ahem. Uncle Tel's commentary for the Region 1 release of the Five Doctors is definitely worth a listen to anyway, but does include him expounding at length how he wished that his latter-day successor as Script Editor, Eric Saward, hadn't kept insisting on putting in more and more Cybermen.

So on the whole it's quite nice to encounter some Cybermen with differing agenda, and conflicting ideas about the logical way to fulfil their plan.

The story – the format makes it necessarily short, but it feels as full and fleshed out as a new series episode – revolves around a very small group of survivors from the War on Earth in "Doomsday". Clearly only intended to be low level grunts, they have escaped from Torchwood and set up base in, as Millennium implies, the Greenwich Big Tent. They've got hold of a short-range teleport from somewhere too (I blame the Torchwood lost property office) and are using it to steal random bits of technology.

The opening chapters of a sinister metallic form breaking into top secret establishments or classified research projects should be pleasingly familiar to, well, anyone who buys next month's DVD release of Tom Baker's first story: "Robot".

The Doctor and Martha arrive in the present day – just post a quick trip to the Upper Cretaceous… or possibly the Jurassic, since Terrance seems to have slightly not realised that apatosaurus and tyrannosaurus were separated by some 75 million years. Oh dear. Maybe it isn't the distant past but a dinosaur theme park. More on this story later – to allow Martha to return to the Royal Hope Hospital, and immediately the Cybermen detect the Doctor and move to seize him.

As this is her first trip back, we can probably assume that this is not long after "The Lazarus Experiment": Terrance refers to her "just one trip", saying it "somehow turned into many", but seems more likely that she's joined the TARDIS crew properly as the Doctor is not making excuses for not having returned her home yet.

Timing for the rest of the world remains as messed up as ever, with repeated references to the "recent" events of "Doomsday". This cannot take place before "Smith and Jones" (or by extension "The Lazarus Experiment" which takes place the following night) since Martha's work colleagues remember seeing the Doctor, and think she might have gone off with the "mystery man" in the trainers and suit.

So if we stick to the earlier guess that "Smith and Jones" takes place in late summer/early autumn 2007, then we can settle on this being about say October this year.

The question of why the Cybermen do not detect the Doctor’s presence in either "Smith and Jones" or "The Lazarus Experiment" can easily be explained by their only recently having completed their scanner.

The writing style is crisp and sharp, economical, the very shortness of the chapters having a chocolate box “just one more” feel that keeps the pages turning. And the style is refreshingly simple, with a seven-year-old pleasing body count, but also a biting hint of satire whether it’s the night watchman who doesn’t patrol the computer shop because technology should make things easier or someone finally finding a use for the Dome.

Most of the incidental characters do turn out to be from the “Terrance Dicks big book of stock characters” but as Alex remarks, he really does nail David Tennant’s Doctor, in a way that many of the other writers for BBC Books just don’t. And similarly, Terrance has grasped the idea of pace that the new series embodies in a way that the longer and more languid books haven’t managed.

The conclusion is nicely symmetrical too, harking back to that James Bond pre-title sequence adventure in Jurassic Park. Alex thinks this is a reference to Primeval, but I can only imagine the preposterous play-dough monster from “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” attacking the new series Cybermen. Which is very funny.

The only real disappointment – what with every other cliché under the sun present and correct – was the failure to have the stock twist ending reveal of another casket containing one last Cyberman that just twitches into motion…

Not just a “Quick Read” then, but also a cracking one. Recommended.

Next time… It may be the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, but this looks more like a straightforward Jack Bauer backwards than Douglas Adams. Sabotage, mortal peril and a race against time: the clock is ticking down from "42".

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