...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, December 07, 2007

Day 2513: DOCTOR WHO: Sick Building

Sunday Wibbly-Wobbly Void Beyond Time:

Daddy's time-travelling review continues…

This is a half-decent read. By which I mean that about halfway in it suddenly becomes almost decent. The opening chapters take far too long to get anywhere and the ending – which can only be described as "Fury from the Deep" crossed with "Aliens of London" – leaves a lot to be desired, but somewhere in the middle there are some good chapters that find the Doctor, Martha, some recent acquaintances and their robot furniture all trapped and trying to escape from the titular building. More of this would have been better.

The premise of the book is that a hideous unstoppable planet-devouring space monster, the Voracious Craw, has come to Tiermann's World – population three – and the Doctor and Martha have nipped in to warn the inhabitants that their Dream Home is next on the menu.

There are a lot of very interesting ideas going on here.

The Craw itself is interesting, showing a grasp of scale that is often overlooked in sci-fi: it's the size of a country, so it will destroy the planet – or at least eat the entire surface – but it will also take time to get around to doing it all. It's quite rare to see something that falls in between human-sized and instant planetary destruction. It also, in spite of the dramatic cover art, looks nothing like a giant sandworm. Someone's been reading too much Dune.

On the other hand, the cover depiction of the Dream Home – a melange of buildings from, it seems, the Lloyds Building to Norman Bates House on the Hill – looks more interesting than the one described in the text which is virtually all underground. Its one above surface story would have been reflected in the mooted title of "The Wicked Bungalow" (apparently vetoed by Russell T Davis himself on the grounds that it would damage the brand, though I can't see why myself).

The House is supposedly the very last word in luxury, and that ought to be an interesting idea too. How would a "perfect" home work and adapt itself to its inhabitants? And what would it do for the Doctor or Martha?

Tiermann himself is a vain genius who made a fortune from the invention of "servo-furnishings" and then turned his back on humanity, retreating to his self-designed Dream Home and dragging his wife and son along into exile with him. Mrs Tiermann has retreated into herself, living a life of pill popping and sighs. Their son has been raised without any human contact at all. On the face of it, these ought to be interesting people too.

And finally there are Tiermann's great creations: the servo-furnishings. It's a great made-up word, and you wonder what it would mean in practice.

What it means in the book is just robots. There's some confusion, possibly in the writing, as to just how anthropomorphic the robots are, as they are often described with eyes, heads, hands and legs. Fair enough for a robot butler, less so for a robot sun-lounger. To its credit, the book treats them, quite properly, as just differently shaped people. Two of them, Barbara and Toaster, join the Doctor's little gang for a while, and they have something approaching personalities, but the others are all sadly a bit… functional.

And this is the problem with most of the other interesting ideas: they aren't – and this is surprising for Paul Magrs who likes to toy with his food – explored. They are just there to do what it says on the tin.

So Professor Tiermann is a shouty monomaniac. We spend so much time setting up his backstory that we never have time to see what he's really like as a person. His wife is so wan she fades into the background. And the son… has a bit of a crush on Martha that goes nowhere.

The most interesting idea ought to be the Voracious Craw, but it's just a bigger badder predator. The Doctor describes the Craw as "thick" because its brain – the size of a Volkswagon Beetle – is tiny compared to its body. Well, yes, but that's still a brain the size of a Volkswagon Beetle, which is a lot more brain by volume than even the Doctor has got unless his head is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. I realise that the allusion is to the dinosaurs, but the dinosaurs that had tiny brains really did have tiny brains – smaller than our human ones. That's just not the case here. The Craw should be think in spite of its brain size, not because its body is proportionately much, much bigger.

(Anyway, the real problem is that anything that big would suffer severe communications problems along its nervous system; basically, it would need a whole lot of subsidiary brains to handle things locally)

With the Craw supposedly bearing down on them, and heavily foreshadowed that its very presence sends electronics crazy, it's obvious where all this is going.

But it takes forever to get there. There's a nature ramble though the snowy forests of Tiermann's World. Then the Doctor picks a fight with Tiermann, which admittedly is the sort of thing the Doctor often does, but usually to try and distract a villain from their plans of conquest, not to annoy a man he's trying to persuade to escape. Having done so, he tries to sneak out of the Dream Home, resulting in damage to the shields and an irate Tiermann banishing him to the lower levels. That's where the discarded servo-furnishings go and where the Doctor meet Barbara and Toaster. Again, an interesting idea: how do you deal with sentient furniture once you're done with it? And how does the furniture feel about it. Except we never even think to explore it. Instead he is introduced to the house's master computer, the Domovi, who allows him to return to the surface. Tiermann has a rant about how he's going to leave the Domovi behind at which point, finally, we get to what we all expected and the house turns against them.

The good chapters, then, are the ones where the Doctor and his disparate gang struggle to escape the various attempts by the Domovi to make them stay and play happy families forever. These are enlivened by Douglas Adams-esque imagery, as household robots, be it the butler/drinks cabinet or the kitchen staff or the flying vacuum cleaners, all take different pot shots. The underground rooms of the Dream House also remember the chocolate factory of Willy Wonker in their bizarre whimsy: the perils of the zero gravity dust room, particularly spring to mind.

In fact, they all manage to escape rather too quickly. It seems like the most interesting and inventive part of the story unfortunately just ran out. The conclusion, leading to a rather obvious double-cross, and a "twist" reveal about Mrs T that… well, it's only surprising in as far as it doesn't go the whole hog and say she was a robot all along.

And then the Doctor works out a way to stop the unstoppable Craw.

The peril is good and the ideas are there, but it's all treated just so lackadaisically. The plot has a beginning, a lot of exposition, an exciting middle and then an end. Perhaps it's strange, but I think it could have benefited from a much less linear structure – starting with the Doctor and Martha already in the house.

A great many living people die – admittedly most of them are robots, but the book is at some pains to suggest that they count as people too. On the whole, you are left with the feeling that the Doctor could have helped a great deal more if he'd landed the TARDIS right at the Dream Home rather than half a day's walk away. The delay that this causes, and the further delay caused by his unnecessary spat with Professor Tiermann cost a lot of people their lives, for all that he waxes lyrical about having saved the real inhabitants of the planet – the flora and fauna that ironically even the taken-for-granted servo-furnishings have been taking for granted.

There was a good novella in here somewhere, but this is overstuffed with padding to fill out the page count. One of those circumstances when less would have been more.

No comments: