...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Day 2569: DOCTOR WHO: The Pirate Loop, by Mr Simon


Torchwood's back! So here's Daddy with some proper Doctor Who:

First, a confession. Simon is a friend. That's why my name is included in the acknowledgements, much undeserved. Beyond consultation on one or two little points of science and continuity I didn't contribute nearly so much at all, unlike Alex who proof-read, argued points extensively and is certainly responsible for placing the Chapter One cliff-hanger (which is therefore obviously the best).

And for some reason Alex was very nervous about how I was going to react to the finished book. Which really was quite silly.

Because, obviously, it's brilliant.

"Brilliant" is ever so very much the word of choice for the Tenth Doctor. Much as everything was "fantastic" for the Eccleston incarnation, Tennant is always boggling with delight and finding things "just brilliant". So when Martha finds it ridiculously funny to hear of the lost Starship Brilliant, we completely empathise with her. And so, after one of those – excuse me – brilliant openings where you come in at the end of a different adventure, Martha persuades the Doctor to take her to discover whatever happened to make it disappear.

Anyone still feeling depressed after the near total slaughter of the Starship Titanic at Christmas needs to go out and buy this book at once. While still managing to touch many of the same dark places, "The Pirate Loop" manages to finish with a triumphant success, rather than mere dispirited survival.

Sure, you're going to find yourself on board a wrecked Starship full of upper-class passengers, heroic-looking crew and dire peril, and sure there's going to be a TARDIS crash and hull breaches and dastardliness, but really this is nothing like Russell T Davies' Christmas disaster. Er movie.

A Pirate Loop is, in case you don't know, a Time Loop full of pirates. Oh, all right, it's also a single earring made of gold and worn so that if you end up dead your pirate mates can sell it to buy you a funeral, and there's a rather sly gag about them that probably deserves more prominence, but instead is just joyfully slipped in to get if you notice it.

And these pirates are, it goes without saying, Badgers. Oh, the discussions about homo sapiens sapiens meles meles meles we had. Personally, I say that since they're genetically engineered then they're human. Well, human-ish, anyway. Homo meliform Guerriensi, something like that. They're totally lovable; murderous, but totally loveable – basically naughty children who've never been taught any better and this is, at heart a book about how the Doctor gives them the chance to learn. And you can't knock a teaching exercise that relies on everlasting cheese and pineapple on sticks.

In many ways, Simon catches the spirit of Douglas Adams in a way that Russell's more conscious lift of "Starship Titanic" does not.

Rather than trying for Douggie Adams style jokes, in the way for example that Jonathan Morris has tried, it's about capturing the essence, the bouquet of Adams.

This is a book that is – and I mean this in entirely the best way – ineffably silly.

The ship's robots insist on being as polite as possible. The passengers, though posh, are charmingly alien – described as "family of Mr Tickle," you immediately know what they look like without any tedious comparison with some Earth animal (and in fact anything that looks like it comes from Earth in this book probably does, and it's a plot point). And there's that Time Loop that insists on tidying everything up. And on doing it discreetly. Even the view – of the Ogidi Galaxy – is vaguely Adams-esque.

But more than anything it's in the use of almost-but-not-entirely-implausible science that Simon catches this mood. It's almost impossible not to think of the Starship Brilliant's new reality-bending experimental drive system without expecting it to avoid all of that tedious mucking about in hyperspace. And the way that all these things interact to direct the way that the Time Loop works – because it is being directed by the polite ship it keeps bringing everyone back to life, but only when no one is looking – is an idea as (sorry again) brilliant as the Somebody Else's Problem field or the Babelfish.

One thing Alex talked me out of having a frothing fit over was interstitial scrambled egg. And you know, in this fictional environment I think I can live with it. There's an internal analogy: when the Starship Brilliant is damaged it is designed to fill up the gaps with strawberry jam; when the Time Vortex is damaged, it is designed to fill in the gaps with scrambled egg.

I suppose that it ought to be obvious, but increasing I think that the secret of writing a good BBC Doctor Who novel is to get the Doctor and Martha right. If you can read them off the page and it sounds like David Tennant and Freema Agyeman are talking inside your head then almost inevitably the rest will follow. Yet it is much harder to catch these multi-faceted characters than at first it appears: Martha is ironic but not world-weary, she likes to see the funny side but also expects responsibility, and she wants to make things better almost more than the Doctor does. Tennant's Doctor is really quite complicated, capable of naïve humour and great anger, and sometimes almost seems to have no conception of memory – a clever flag that there are so many things that he is trying not to remember. All of this comes over at different moments in "The Pirate Loop", and it still sounds like the right cadences of the actors' delivery.

The other main characters all come across well, though perhaps the human crew are – understandably – a little sketchy, while the passengers who aren't Mrs Wingsworth are virtually silhouettes. But Mrs Wingsworth is a gem, and the three hero badgers are all well-rounded and interesting and credible as intelligent fourteen-year-olds. Alex has told me several times that he now wants a series of adventures with Archie and Mrs Wingsworth as the Doctor's companions. In fact all of the badgers, once we get to see more of them, are equally real and well-written.

Combining creativity and daftness at this level is way beyond what the new series does, though ironically the Who that I am most reminded of is the Cartmel era's zany graphic-novel approach. In some ways this is closer to the intelligent script mixed with psychedelia of something like "The Happiness Patrol" than the BBC's current live-action cartoon. And it would work rather well as three 25-minute episodes too.

The first third of the book is full of charming whimsy, with Martha and the Doctor separated in separate time zones thanks to (a) aforementioned scrambled egg or (b) crashed into a time loop malarkey. This allows you to try and puzzle out what is going on by showing you the situation from two rather different perspectives. We are also introduced to most of the main cast: Gabriel the robot; Mrs Wingsworth representing the passengers; and the pirates, of whom only three have managed to get aboard – Dash, Joss and Archie. Humour, drama and irony are all generated by the duality of the Doctor and Martha's discoveries, but you couldn't keep that up forever, and thankfully Simon doesn't try, reuniting our heroes after what would make a gripping end to a first episode.

The centre of the book shifts to a new challenge as the Doctor urgently needs to get to the bridge and there we meet the crew of human beautiful people. I probably have to mention that names like Georgina Wet-Eleven are a bit more "Year Five Billion" than fortieth century*, but never mind that, because this is where the heart of the novel comes: our teenage pirates have started to learn manners. It should be pointed out that Mrs Wingsworth also comes to learn some of her flaws and strengths too, though mainly not until later – here she's still thinking she's superior to the badgers, in spite of some sly commentary from the Doctor. But the scenes on the bridge, where the badger pirates have clearly "turned good" are a joy. Particularly once the Doctor has taken the upper hand. And, most importantly, it's from one of the pirates, Archie, that the Doctor gets the really magnificently clever idea of what he's going to do next.

[* though I loved, absolutely loved that "pirates" gets treated as a motif of the year nearly 4000 – remember, we've already had "The Resurrection Casket" and "The Infinite Quest" playing the pirate card and set in this just-before-The-Daleks'-Master-Plan time zone.]

In the final part of the book, it appears that the Doctor has made one heck of a colossal blunder. This is the darkest, and most disturbing part of the story – reminiscent, with its time-twisting and saving people you were lead to believe were dead, of the third (and superior) Harry Potter (and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as if you didn't know). Embarrassingly, I must confess I didn't work it out until we were aboard the pirates' pirate ship. I won’t spoil all of the conclusion, though; only to say that for a story set in a Time Loop it is remarkably open-ended.

Mind you, I'm still not sure that mini-pizzas and blinis are one and the same thing!

Here's to the never-ending canapés.

Unashamedly: brilliant.

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