Monday, March 31, 2008

NEWBIE REVIEW #4: Theatre of War

Justin Richards is quite a wonderfully controversial DW writer as they go. He is possibly the only person who can honestly say that he is loathed among a swathe of nerdd-dom for not being Peter Darvill-Evans (Stephen Cole was, but a great number of other things as well) and his writing is quite diverse. He does a lot of different planets, a lot of historicals, tragedies, straight adventure... erm, possible comedy (I haven't read all of his stuff, I don't know, maybe he could pull it off). The only running themes through his work is a fairly Saward-esque disposition to death and somewhat uneasy characterisation.

I first encountered him... whenever I wrote this:

Okay, before I start the review proper there's something quite important to know: this book constitutes my first and, to date, sole Seventh Doctor experience. Of course, I've heard a lot about McCoy's Doctor, but so far I haven't seen him in action or even read much. I don't really know Ace or Benny, and haven't seen none of 'the dark Doctor' or 'Time's Champion'. So what did I think?

Well... I don't think this is the best book for judging the Seventh Doctor, actually, because he doesn't have much of an impact on the plot as I gather he usually does. Ace sorts out a couple of robots with Nitro-9, Benny nuts it all out through research, and a bunch of secondary characters kill each other. The Doc sort of hangs around providing an idea or two, before the plan is worked out (but not by him, if I remember) and not really doing anything to stop it. After hearing that, you might find it a bit odd that this book is 300-something pages long, but there is a lot here. It just happens that it's not much to do with the Doctor.

This is Justin Richard's first novel (which may account for some of the rougher patches) and is quite impressive as such. It also introduces some fellow named Irving Braxiatel, who's apparently quite important. Essentially it revolves around quite a big mystery plot that, in trad DW style, explains all the wierd stuff goin' down at the very last moment. A bit of a shame then that I worked it out with a hundred pages to go, but up until then the plot had a lot of atmos.

The plot is excellent, really. Benny meets a fascinating scientist named Gilmanuk and immediately begins working at joining him on an archaeological expedition to the dead planet of Menaxus. She doesn't realise that by doing so, however, she's getting involved in the complicated politics of the Heletian Empire and their bloody war with the Rippereans, and will soon be marooned on a planet where the mud is coming alive and killing people, and phantom actors appear when they're least expected.

I just loved the detail in the conception of the Heletian culture - a culture that revolves, anthropologically speaking, around the theatre and it's realisation. I also loved the archaeological theme running - each chapter begins with numbered 'source material' from the manual for a gun to one of Professor Klasvik's comments on a student's essay. It is wonderful stuff. It's a shame, then, that the first half of the book is slightly marred by the very inconsistent characterisations - why does Klasvik go from mocking Gilmanuk to listening to his every word? How can Gilmanuk command these space marines who take no ***** from anyone? Are Fortalexa and Bannahilk actually friends or not? With the first part of the book centered on the expedition becoming stranding the small cast of characters is very important - but due to the way they are written we don't really get to know them, so this bit loses a lot of it's power.

The bits that focus on the plot are the best - most notably when the Doctor tries to get to the bottom of things on Heletia and when Benny is looking through the Braxiatel Collection. Justin is definitely good at crafting plots and these bits work in spite of two even less-consistently crafted characters - the Exec and Marlock, the rulers of Heletia who were so skittish I simply forgot about getting a handle on them and just learnt to expect the unexpected.

(A side-note: does anyone else who's read this book think that the Exec and Marlock were based on the historical figures of Xerxes and Mardonius - or are the vaguely similar politics and name just a gigantic co-incidence?)

As I've said, though, this book is a little over-length and it's due to the fact that, IMO, Justin Richards gets a teensy-weensy bit self-indulgent with pointless details. The back-history of the development of Terran theatre throughout the 3rd Millenia as given to Ace by Benny isn't just unbelievable - it adds nothing to the plot. Likewise the revelation that the Doctor wrote the play the Good Soldiers which is treated as a major plot point when it's discovered but is actually completely meaningless. I found out that this book was written after Tomb of the Cybermen was discovered and that Justin was referencing the idea of a 'lost classic' not actually being as good as it's remembered. Maybe it seemed clever at the time, but now it feels like padding in a story that really doesn't need it.

It's a funny little book this one - it's got lots of stuff I like but plenty I didn't like as well. But Braxiatel and Gilmanuk are good characters and I liked the sprawling, slightly-space opera-ish plot and the theatrical-bent was very fun. I'll have to give this 7/10.

A good start to the NAs for sure!

By this stage I had learnt a thing or too about researching books and writing in the human language. Quite pleased with that.

Firstly: this was before I learnt the fact that the Seventh Doctor isn't actually in any way a chess-playing grand-planning genious, but was actually a dimunitive Scotsman pretending to be Patrick Troughton, who happened to be working under a chess-playing grand-planning madman named Andrew Cartmel, who liked the ideas of stories that would reveal that the Doctor is GOD! Frigging loony or what? As such I was a bit taken aback by the Doctor being played for a sap throughout the entire story, apart from that one bit where he performs a Shakespearian monologue that means NO ONE SHALL DIE TONIGHT, saving countless hundreds from slaughter. After I watched his TV run I soon understood that this makes perfect sense, and it's the other NAs that are somewhat out of whack.

Secondly: the characterisation is unbelievably bad. I stand by that with my life. The only way to make sense of the end of the story is to assume that The Excel and Marlock suffered from bi-polar schizophrenia AND multiple-personality syndrome.

For the first time in these reviews, I agree with the original score. 7/10 is good for this book. It's a good debut novel. It's just good, in fact, so there's nothing funny to actually be said about it. End of post.


Youth of Australia said...

Never read the book, and I was put off by the cover - spooky, wide-eyed NA Ace turns to statue with snot on her fingers - but I read the prelude in DWM, where the NA authors wrote a teaser specially for the mag.

I did like that, since it was the Doctor promising Ace a nice vacation spot. I mean, he was TALKING to ACE. Actually TELLING HER what he was going to do and ASKING what SHE thought of it.

Unlike the rest of the NAs where he doesn't dare say two words to her because she'll go apeshit at him, and so gives her the silent treatment which makes her hate him all.

For once they were friends. Like they always were on TV.

Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

I have to say that this book DOES feel closer to the TV show than any other NA I've read, particularly with regard to the characters.

The NAs are a bit flawed in that respect, I think. It's so rare for the Doctor to just want to do something fun. Everything seems to be some scheme or another. I guess it's the whole 'Time's Champion' vibe that they were going for but doesn't feel that much at home with the rest of the series.

That's why I probably prefer the EDAs. They have the 'boundary-pushing' style stories of the NAs, but they also have ones that are just Doctor Who, and I like that variety.

Youth of Australia said...

That might be why I love Strange England, which revels in the fact they just arrive somewhere pleasant. At random. With no agenda. Like the way I want it...