...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Day 2500: DOCTOR WHO: Forever Autumn


With a bit of LUCK my NEXT diary might be a bit SPECIAL.

But first, what with it being Bonfire Night, and with Halloween last week, what better time for a SPOOKY Ghost Story? Instead, Daddy Richard has been reading more Doctor Who. There really is no telling some people, you know.

Here's his review. Trick or Treaters beware: some of the sweeties may contain spoilers…
Mark Morris has written a Halloween story for Doctor Who. It begins with three local boys in witch-haunted New England digging up a book of spells and foolishly reading out the incantation. A green mist soon rises from the ground under the blackened tree that gives their town its name and monsters follow.

What surprised me most often was discovering how far into the book I was, since so little actually happened. For all the haunted mists there is very little atmosphere, and certainly little sense of growing terror. Quite the reverse, the townsfolk's obtuse resistance to noticing that something is going on often counts to undermine any sense of fear. Dropping in the occasional, usually telegraphed, moment does not amount to building up the suspense.

Nor did I get an enormous sense of America out of this – diners and stores instead of cafes and shops aside, Blackwood Falls could have been Littletown-on-Twee as easily as Nowheresville, Maine. The occasional hint of classic "Psycho" – my, what is that in your cellar, Miss Etta? – did not make up for that either.

Once again we have heroic kids along to help, this time sparky twelve-year-old Rick Pirelli and his moody teenage brother Chris, though Rick's friends nerdish Thad and jockish Scott don't really contribute much. I have to say, I'm getting a bit bored of children saving the day, and – worthy exception Tim Latimer aside – it certainly looked like the TV series had done so too, perhaps hiving off that strand for the CBBC-targeted Sarah Jane Adventures.

There's some comeuppance, though, when the climax inevitably sees the town children transformed into monsters by their Halloween costumes, a plan designed to provide the fear and blood that the monsters need to power their ship (why are arcane spaceships never powered by a surfeit of jolliness and candy canes?) though we boldly gloss over whether there are in fact any casualties at all. The Doctor, predictably, defeats the baddies with a combination of the old "tricking them to use the thing that destroys them" and a "reverse the polarity".

Aside from that, I have two quite big problems with "Forever Autumn".

My first is the monsters: the Hervoken. They use magic, like the Carrionites, they fought a war against the Carrionites, they were banished to the dark places by the Eternals along with the Carrionites, Martha even asks "It's not the Carrionites, again, is it?"… is there any reason at all for them not to be the Carrionites?

The first description we get of the villains talks of their long talons, their stick-like necks, their too-wide, grinning heads… sound at all familiar?

Well, of course, you are wrong because in fact they are Pumpkin-head people but rarely have I read a better example of why you shouldn't try and tease out the defining characteristic of your monster. If we'd started with horrible stalking Jack Pumpkin-head figures and we say that they are Jack Pumpkin-head figures then it might have been easier to accept them as contemporaries of the Carrionites. By trying not to come right out with it, Mark has given the reader the idea that they are supposed to recognise these beings before the locals do, inadvertently adding to the idea that he is basically writing a Carrionite story but couldn't bear to let his own monster name go.

I'm a big fan of the "if it might as well be" school of thought that says there is no point in over-complicating things by duplicating a perfectly good monster. One of the reasons, I think, that all of those attempts in the sixties to recreate the success of the Daleks fall over is because we've already got the Daleks. We don't need Mechanoids or Chumblies or War Machines to do the same job. It's not until the Cybermen come along with their own, different, unique selling point that we get another classic monster.

This "one monster to the tune of another" wastes time: instead of using the opportunity to expand on and explore new ideas about a foe familiar to the reader, you just cover the same ground with only the names changed.

One race, users of "magic" at the dawn of the universe, banished by the Eternals is fine. Two, begs the question why not three or ten or a hundred. In fact, the way that the Hervoken's magic spell book, the insipidly sub-Necronomicon named Necris, is bound by salt (like the Fendhal) or iron (like Bok in the Daemons) suggests that maybe the author was moving towards Lawrence Miles-esque territory of the early Universe being a whole realm of magic before the Time Lords put a stop to that sort of thing. But this is never explored, and you are just left with the sour taste that this is merely paraphrasing "The Shakespeare Code".

My second problem is how Mark handles the dreaded gay issue.

Aside from the Pirelli family – and Etta the obligatory local seer/witch woman – there are two incidental characters in the book to receive any development: Dr Clarke, the old town MD who, since his wide died, has turned to drink; and Jim Tozier, proprietor of the local costume shop who, since his gay life partner died, has turned to thinking of moving out to be with his sisters family. Gee, that's nice, I thought, a genuine no apologies gay character in a Doctor Who novel. Who then turns into an evil killer clown. Ah.

Compared with Dr Clarke, who is also affected by the Hervoken magic – he has his mouth magically taken away and is hospitalised – you can maybe see why I was a bit miffed. (And add to that the climax where all the kids that turn into monsters are wearing costumes from Tozier's store … gee who's going to get burned at the stake for that, I wonder?)

Although it's quite clearly an alien intelligence possessing his body, and not just saying "the gay man goes evil!" it is still a bit unpleasant to choose the one gay character pretty much ever to be the one person to become a key agent of the Hervoken.

The evil clown chases Martha and young Rick across town until Martha outwits him and hits him over the head with the Hervoken spell book. This, handily, breaks the spell and she and Rich are able to peel the clown mask off Mr Tozier's face. (With hilarious Scooby Doo quote fitted as standard.) My heart rose again, as I though that my now lowered expectations were about to be subverted – freed of the spell, now Jim could join the good guys and play an obviously redemptive role in defeating the Hervoken. Except no, he simply drops right out of the plot at that point. For all we know, Martha and Rick just left him on the sidewalk to bleed to death from a sub-dermal haematoma.

So, basically, we're introduced to a man, told a bit about his life, including that he has lost his male lover, he is possessed by evil and defeated. And that's all the writer is interested in telling us about him. Hell, even Dr Clarke gets a quick reference when Martha wants to know if he got his mouth back when the monsters were defeated! It's not exactly as affirming as the revelation that Dumbledore is a gayer, is it?

It's pretty well written, captures the Doctor and Martha (possibly the cartoon "Infinite Quest" versions of them) and keeps the pages turning. But it isn't a particularly good Halloween story because it's just not really scary enough. Nor is it a particularly good Doctor Who story, because if you just takes it as read that magic works (but the Doctor can beat it) then what is there to learn from events that can be, essentially, arbitrary?

And what's with the title, being a reference to the song from Jeff Wayne's Musical "War of the Worlds"?

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