Monday, 29 March 2010
The Geek Factor #2: On novels
The first time I did a list on here, I said I wouldn’t make a habit of it – yet here we are. There’s far more Doctor Who that I feel strongly enough about to review than which I can do so, at least while maintaining a semblance of a social life, so, indulge me.
Ever since the series returned in 2005 and plunged me back into fannish obsessiveness, I’ve been rereading old favourites and catching up on novels I missed out on the first time round. Since several of these books are either totally underrated, or split opinion, Marmite-like, for what it’s worth I thought I’d add my ten cents.
Genre snobbery annoys me, and, as I tend to be a bit closety about the extent of my geekiness in ‘real life,’ I often find myself putting Doctor Who novels down, even to myself. So I’d like to say, bollocks to snobbery - I genuinely think the following are simply excellent novels, exhibiting some brilliant writing, regardless of their sci-fi TV tie-in status.
So, in no particular order…
Post-Doctor New Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 1999
Regardless of what you think of his self-appointed role as Doctor Who’s answer to Charlie Brooker, Miles’ novels are incredible. This is probably his best, showcasing his stunningly inventive imagination, in a clever and devastating story. Its ‘unofficial’ status (as a spin-off from the New Adventures proper) gives it an amazing edge, allowing familiar Doctor Who concepts to be reenergised.
New Adventure novel written by Ben Aaronovitch, 1992
Given this novel’s uncompromising nature its poor reputation is dispiritingly predictable, but it is a mature and beautifully written realisation of Doctor Who beyond the confines of the ‘kids’ TV’ label. Stark and terse, and full of effective cyberpunk worldbuilding.
THE ALSO PEOPLE
New Adventure novel written by Ben Aaronovitch, 1995
Utterly different to Transit, but equally gorgeous, demonstrating Aaronovitch’s versatility. Set on a huge scale, the utopian atmosphere is involving and compellingly unusual for Doctor Who, but this is balanced by a sense of intimacy and focus on character.
OF THE CITY OF THE SAVED…
Faction Paradox spin-off novel written by Philip Purser-Hallard, 2004
Although from a spin-off range, this is one of the best ever Doctor Who-related stories - densely written and epic in the truest sense, taking place on an enormous canvas.
THE LEFT-HANDED HUMMINGBIRD
New Adventure novel written by Kate Orman, 1993
Possibly the best New Adventure - certainly definitive, in that it encapsulates beautifully descriptive adult prose, often experimental literary devices, violence, and a wealth of big ideas. Improbably but effortlessly includes hippies, drugs, Aztecs, torture, and the Titanic.
THE DEATH OF ART
New Adventure novel written by Simon Bucher-Jones, 1996
Completely underrated; a wonderfully dark, grotesque, complex and richly imaginative novel. Although the ending is slightly unsatisfying, Bucher-Jones revels in a grand guignol atmosphere and joyfully weaves together a large cast of (often changeable) characters and multiple factions.
CAT’S CRADLE: WARHEAD
New Adventure novel written by Andrew Cartmel, 1992
The whole of Cartmel’s ‘War trilogy’ – Warhead, Warlock, Warchild - is devastatingly well written. The foregrounding of realistic characters couches the Doctor Who elements in an almost unheard of level of realism, and creates a powerfully effective and truly adult Doctor Who novel.
THE MYTH MAKERS
Novelisation by Donald Cotton, 1985
Very sharp, witty, and clever reimagining of an already excellent TV story. Narrated by Homer and rich in genuinely effective wordplay, this has to be one of the funniest takes on Doctor Who, by a long way.
CHRISTMAS ON A RATIONAL PLANET
New Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 1996
Miles’ first novel is already bursting with invention and a combination of big, creative ideas, humour, and absurdity which many other authors would kill for. Not perfect, but verging on genius.
THE CABINET OF LIGHT
Telos novella written by Daniel O’Mahony, 2003
Beautifully experimental novella – the Doctor hardly features, and when he does he appears to be an unknown incarnation, but the story is all the stronger for its ambiguous relationship with ‘the canon’. Full of reinventions or lateral takes on existing elements from the series, this is a deceptively straightforward story enriched by excellent prose. It would also make a fantastic TV episode. Steven…?
Eighth Doctor Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 1997
Pretty much as perfect as the EDAs ever got – funny, devious, full of digressions and backstories, and casually brilliant new takes on normally staid Doctor Who mythology. Leaves the vast majority of the BBC novels in the dust.
THE MAN IN THE VELVET MASK
Missing Adventure novel written by Daniel O’Mahony, 1996
Another wildly underrated one; a First Doctor story which transcends the conventions of its on-screen period with a twisted milieu and pleasingly idiosyncratic style.
EYE OF HEAVEN
Past Doctor Adventure novel written by Jim Mortimer, 1998
Not as strong in terms of plot, but elevated by its non-chronological structure and rotating first-person narration (which, memorably, includes the Doctor). In terms of structure alone it is unlike much else in the various Doctor Who novel ranges, and it’s great to see Leela explored so thoroughly and made so credible.
Post-Doctor New Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 1997
A very funny play on pulp archetypes, featuring a journey into the centre of a planet where prehistoric beasts roam, with cartoon Nazis and a thirties-style action hero thrown in. What’s most impressive is that this concept is fully justified, and has a killer twist.
SO VILE A SIN
New Adventure novel written by Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman, 1997
The opening funeral scene is both hugely sad and a gorgeous piece of writing. Though (justifiably) disjointed in places, it is wide-ranging and has a surfeit rather than lack of detail and event. Forms a worthy – if inadvertent – epitaph for the New Adventures.
THE SCARLET EMPRESS
Eighth Doctor Adventure novel written by Paul Magrs, 1998
Gleefully illogical, but with an especially winning atmosphere that draws you in and makes you care what will happen, despite the plot seeming to operate on authorial whim alone. Though as daft as Magrs’ later efforts, it seems like a more complete and fully-realised excursion into his imagination.
Novelisation by Marc Platt, 1990
One of the late novelisations which formed a precedent for the NAs, fleshing out backstory and characterisation. Platt adapts Aaronovitch’s script so well that I always assumed the TV story must be as good as the rest of season twenty-six, and was sorely disappointed by comparison when I finally saw it.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DAD
New Adventure novel written by Kate Orman, 1996
The plot’s a runaround, but the characters are all beautifully drawn, and it’s nice to have a Doctor Who book almost devoted to the emotional states of its characters. Its range of alien refugees and continuity should seem overindulgent, but I’d love to revisit these characters, and the potential for tweeness is tempered by Orman’s trademark hero-punishment.
Missing Adventure novel written by Gareth Roberts, 1996
I’m not an enormous fan of Roberts’ Fourth Doctor-and-Romana II books, but this is an impeccably enjoyable evocation of the wonderful First Doctor, Ian and Barbara TARDIS crew. The Doctor having to explain to a dragged-up Vicki why King James I is so interested in her is a particular gem.
WALKING TO BABYLON
Post-Doctor New Adventure novel written by Kate Orman, 1998
Another excellent Bernice Summerfield-starring spin-off; Babylon is wonderfully evoked, as is Benny’s perceptively-written love affair.
Faction Paradox spin-off novel written by Daniel O’Mahony, 2008
More hugely impressive Faction Paradox. Dense, inventive, meticulously plotted, the well-drawn characters and period setting are extremely compelling. Another example of how far ‘the Whoniverse’ can be pushed. (And, no, there’s not meant to be an apostrophe.)
THE ADVENTURESS OF HENRIETTA STREET
Eighth Doctor Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 2001
Written as an almost dialogue-free historical text, this novel recasts the Doctor as a ‘fallen elemental’ demigod, fighting alongside eighteenth century prostitutes. Mythic, intriguing, and unlike anything else – what other Doctor Who novel would open with an extended bout of tantric sex?