12 November 2015

Book Review | Doctor Who: Dreams of Empire (50th Anniversary Edition) by Justin Richards

On a barren asteroid, the once-mighty Haddron Empire is on the brink of collapse, torn apart by civil war. The one man who might have saved it languishes in prison, his enemies planning his death and his friends plotting his escape. The Doctor arrives as the last act of this deadly drama is being played out – and with both terrifying killers and cunning traitors to defeat, the future hangs in the balance.

An adventure featuring the Doctor as played by Patrick Troughton and his companions Jamie and Victoria.

Whilst Dreams of Empire’s advocates may wax lyrical about author Justin Richards’ marvellous characterisation and subtle subtext, its detractors fervently attack his gaudy depiction of the TARDIS crew, predictable plot twists and dumbed-down chess metaphors. Having now read the book a couple of times, I find myself leaning towards agreeing with the latter group - albeit with one or two important caveats.

The first is that I don’t find Richards’ depiction of this particular TARDIS crew embroidered in any way; his Doctor in particular is instantly recognisable as Patrick Troughton’s. Yes, amidst these pages he’s often to be found running aimlessly from pillar to post spouting, “Oh my giddy aunt!” or any number of other Troughton aphorisms, but isn’t that what Troughton’s Doctor did? It’s one thing to say that nobody can successfully capture Troughton’s Doctor in print, but quite another to lambaste a largely faithful depiction that doesn’t happen to fit with how one might have romanticised Troughton’s portrayal since the event.

Jamie and Victoria, similarly, are captured accurately on the page by Richards, though whether this is for better or for worse really depends on the individual reader. In my view, Jamie is one of the most memorable and distinctive of all the Doctor’s companions, and so here - as ever - it’s a delight to read about him heroically stumbling through an adventure. Victoria, conversely, I had very little time for on television, and so the same applies to Richards’ depiction of her character. Fair dues, he could have tried to take her somewhere new and do something interesting with her, but when you are working within a tight net and have to put all the toys back in the box afterwards, you are limited as to what you can accomplish. As it turned out, the most that Richards could do was to focus on some of Victoria’s concerns about the sort of life that she has unwittingly found herself leading, nicely foreshadowing the events of Fury from the Deep.

Narratively, however, Dreams of Empire disappoints. The chess theme is perhaps a little too obvious for most adult reader’s tastes, particularly when compared to a seminal serial like The Curse of Fenric, which handles the imagery much more thoughtfully. Moreover, whilst a robotic army of VETACs trying to free the deposed Emperor of the Haddron Empire from his internment had something in the way of potential, ultimately the supporting cast of characters were just not compelling enough to really draw me into Richards’ deftly-crafted web of political intrigue. Of them all, only the burned mask-wearing Hans Kesar stood out for me, and that was only because of his patent similarly to a certain Sith that I could mention (and, if I were to be kind, because of one beautifully-written mirror scene). This is probably one of the main reasons why views on this book have been so discordant - it’s not that Dreams of Empire is a poor novel by any means; it’s just that unless the reader is able to engage with the vast array of supporting characters right away, then Richards’ plot is going to wash completely over them. 

And so in all, I don’t think that Dreams of Empire is quite as bad as some would have you believe, but on the other hand it’s also far from being the diamond-studded gem that Richards’ eager acolytes opine that it is, and as such it’s a little disenchanting to see it representing Troughton’s Doctor in BBC Books’ 50th anniversary series instead of what would surely have been a highly sought-after reprint of The Dark Path or even a straight-up belter the like of TheFinal Sanction. A prolific author Richards may be, but Dreams of Empire is the perfect example of why this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

First published on http://www.doctorwhoreviews.co.uk

The 50th anniversary edition of Doctor Who: Dreams of Empire is available to download for just £4.99 from iTunes or Amazon’s Kindle Store. The cheapest paperback retailer today is Amazon, who are selling copies for £7.99 with free delivery on book orders over £10.00.

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09 November 2015

Book Review | Back Story: A Memoir by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s hard-won crown as champion of tweediness, along with his largely unremarkable upbringing, make Back Story: A Memoir something of a novelty in the otherwise misery-sodden world of celebrity autobiographies. Much like the man himself whenever he appears on television, this life story belongs to a world that’s gone, if it ever really existed at all. Not even a surfeit of complaints about a bad back can make it blend in amongst today’s juiciest rape and heroin misery memoirs.

This, the shrewd amongst you may have already inferred from my tone, is not a bad thing. In fact, like just about everything that the man has ever put his name to (except, perhaps, the majority of his history essays while studying at Cambridge and, obviously, Ambassadors), Back Story is an unqualified triumph; an expected comedic delight that, to boot, also offers some intriguing insight into the man so often confused with his Peep Show character.

Whilst Mitchell may take undue delight in calling a spade a spade (a carrot a splandeb and an apple a dugnid…), his book is innovative in its format, which eschews linear convention in favour of wandering around London and remarking upon structures that have been the stage to important scenes in his life, before launching into anecdotes about them. A great gimmick in of itself, this literal and literary walk down Memory Lane offers the reader an illusion of familiarity and informality that its rivals lack, but without losing the broadly progressive thread of the story altogether.

   “‘Oi, there’s that bloke off the telly!’
        I smiled and, as far as was possible with an arm weighed down by beer and ready meals, I waved.
       ‘Twat!’ one of them shouted.”

Mitchell’s prose, whilst sometimes a bit cap-happy for such an outspoken linguistic pedant, is laced with acerbic humour, making even the most tawdry of events – such as being recognised by some builders in the quote above – entertaining, as well as enlightening. His description of the mind-boggling level of worry and self-recrimination that goes into his fear of / desire for public recognition, for instance, feels incredibly refreshing and honest compared to the usual trite extremes so often trotted out in these things.

More enjoyable still are Mitchell’s trademark comic tirades - “That’s how far we’ve come in the last ten years: televisions used to work without telephone lines and now they don’t. Well done everyone...” and the like - which I find especially amusing as they generally unravel exactly the sort of absurdities that rankle me on a daily basis. Even when he’s outright wrong and he knows it - his mooted reclassification of public toilets into “gent-fuckers” and “lady-fuckers”, a system clearly rife for abuse, being a pertinent example - his wry arguments are so eloquently cloaked in quiet outrage that you still half think he really means it.

“No one, I thought bitterly, can have had a higher percentage of their life’s snogs appear in the paper than me.”

Throughout the book Mitchell maintains an admirable silence on personal matters - crushes and obsessions are alluded to at times, but there’s no namin’ or shamin’ beyond mentions of a relationship with a woman that he refers to only as ‘Meryl Streep’ and his spouse, Victoria. I welcome this as I didn’t buy this book (well, borrow; I’m quite the library user these days. It’s free, y’know) to read about his love life - I read it for laughs, and I couldn’t have been more satisfied on this front.

“Getting laughs for your material and your performance isn’t just twice as good as one or the other. It is roughly 3.2 times as a good.”

Yet surprisingly, where the book really excels is in Mitchell’s digressions into more serious spiritual and political matters. A fellow agnostic, in just a few paragraphs he manages to encapsulate exactly why atheists and religious zealots manage to be just as annoying as each other, for example. With the same barbed vehemence, he then exposes and destroys many of the cruel lunchtime practices that I recall from my own primary school days; it’s an almost cathartic read, at times.

A good, strong cup of tea in a café full of creamy lattes and antioxidant smoothies, Back Story is a must for anyone who wants to like porridge but can’t. It’s the story of a boy who wanted to be good and to conform, only to find that those traits set him apart from his peers. It’s the tale of a jobbing writer without a pen; an actor looking for stage; a lonely guy who wasted his three wishes on his career, only to have his “sneering genie” silenced out of leftfield in the final act. There’s more to this El Dude Brother than being one of the Men with Ven – he’s a “man of consequence”, and Back Story is the evidence to justify that claim.

Back Story is available to download from iTunes and Amazon’s Kindle Store for £4.99. Alternatively, you can get the paperback from Amazon for £8.99 with free delivery if you buy another book at the same time for £1.01 or more, or for free from East Riding Libraries on a short-term loan. You just go in, scan the book in a little machine (like at Tesco), and walk out with it. No currency changes hands at all. You don’t even have to give your card details.

Peep Show returns for its ninth and final series on Wednesday night at 10pm on Channel 4. It’s going to be messy...

05 November 2015

Book Review | Doctor Who: Ten Little Aliens (50th Anniversary Edition) by Stephen Cole

Deep in the heart of a hollowed-out moon the Doctor finds a chilling secret: ten alien corpses, frozen in time at the moment of their death. They are the empire’s most wanted terrorists, and their discovery could end a war devastating the galaxy. But is the same force that killed them still lurking in the dark? And what are its plans for the people of Earth?

An adventure featuring the Doctor as played by William Hartnell and his companions Ben and Polly.

Books featuring William Hartnell’s Doctor always seem to be pleasantly surprising me. Perhaps my expectations are a tad low as I’m not all that fond of the Doctor’s original incarnation; I don’t know. But by the time that Stephen Cole’s Ten Little Aliens was originally published, I really should have known better.

The first Doctor Who book to be reprinted as part of BBC Books’ über-stylish 50th anniversary series in 2013, Ten Little Aliens is certainly an interesting, and I dare say very surprising, choice to represent the William Hartnell era. Conceptually it’s an astounding blend of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers; James Cameron’s movie Aliens; and even the bug-hunting Starship Troopers, the former BBC Books Doctor Who range editor having let his imagination run riot here. However, despite this veritable melting pot of ideas, none of which are obvious fits for the series’ black and white days, this novel demonstrates astonishing poise and assurance – Cole knows what he needs to do, and boy does he do it.

The first box to be ticked is characterisation, and in this regard I really have to take my hat off to the author. Early on the book, he subjects us to a wonderfully redolent A-T E-ZINE, which gives us a profile of each of the combatants that we will be spending the next few hundred pages with, really setting the tone for the machismo-fest that is to come. This didn’t inspire much confidence in me at first - after all, a bunch of coarse, unlikeable soldiers didn’t bode well so far as meaningful character journeys go… or so I thought. Much to my surprise, Cole’s ragtag bunch of commandos and psychos would turn out to be one of the most compelling sets of supporting characters that we’d had in a Doctor Who novel in a long time.

First off, we have Matthew Shade – a man with a burned face who, in a lovely tirade against convention, is every bit as burned on the inside. And then we have Frog - a monstrosity of a woman with bulging eyes and an artificial voice box who, again, is just as disturbed on the inside; at least initially. Most notable of all though is Marshal Haunt, their commander. Cole does a tremendous job of turning his readers against this deranged woman right from the outset by way of her frenzied and disproportionately venomous attack on Shade. But in doing so, he also piques their interest…

And into this cauldron of contempt Cole throws a perfectly-drawn TARDIS crew from the fag-end of the Hartnell era. I’ve always had a soft spot for both Ben and Polly, and so it’s a real pleasure to see them both not only portrayed so flawlessly but also given so much to do so. Cole even takes the time to flesh out their back stories a little; in particular, Polly’s strange attraction to Shade brings all sorts of memories of fusty charity shops and one-night stands bubbling to the surface. What I like so much about Cole’s depiction of this duo though is despite the emotionally-compromising situations that he puts them in (with Shade and Frog, respectively), what resonates more than anything else is the strength of their patent feelings for each other.
The moribund Doctor, likewise, is a marked success. Throughout he’s the wise old man with the plan - even Haunt shows him remarkable deference – yet, at the same time, he’s visibly flagging. Indeed, more so than any other late first Doctor novel in either the Virgin or BBC Books ranges, Ten Little Aliens is that one that alludes to the Doctor’s impending regeneration most frequently.

Moreover, the narrative itself is chilling, littered as it is with incredibly eerie, living stone angels and eat-you-from-the-inside-out alien terrorists, and set as it is within the confined interior of a grim asteroid. There is a lot of mystery too, and one or two revelations that genuinely shocked me.

Finally, not content with the above, in the last section of the book Cole experiments with what I can only describe as the old ‘choose your own adventure’ style of storytelling, which took me right back to childhood days of reading Transformers books of the same ilk. And, though I can’t say that I found these sections as compelling to read as some other parts of the novel – indeed, they were far more jarring – they do at least offer some insight into the character’s thoughts as we can experience the same terrifying events from each of their different perspectives (and in whatever order we like!)

And so when people talk about this book, they won’t talk about the Morphieans or the gore, or even Mike Tucker’s visually arresting cadre of Schirr terrorists depicted on the old 2002 paperback’s cover (pictured above). They’ll talk about the remarkable characters. About the hotchpotch of diverse ideas. About the unusual devices employed.

When all’s said and done, Ten Little Aliens is not going to be for everyone, but there is nothing else in the Whoniverse like it, and for that alone it deserves its place at the spearhead of the 50th anniversary series.

First published on http://www.doctorwhoreviews.co.uk

The 50th anniversary edition of Doctor Who: Ten Little Aliens is available to download for just £4.99 from iTunes or Amazon’s Kindle Store. The cheapest paperback retailer today is Amazon, who are selling copies for £7.99 with free delivery on book orders over £10.00.

Read retro Doctor Who reviews @