Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Review: DEAD ROMANCE
















Post-Doctor New Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 1999

Dead Romance is pretty much perfect, really, isn’t it?

Okay, some context: Dead Romance was originally part of a series of on-going adventures for the New Adventures companion Bernice Summerfield, which continued after Virgin publishing lost the licence to produce further books featuring the Doctor. It was also later republished as part of the Faction Paradox range which spun off from some of author Lawrence Miles’ Eighth Doctor novel ideas.

However, this book doesn’t feature Bernice – rather, an initially unexplained through-the-looking-glass version of her called Christine, living in a seventies London where the world has ended. It takes place on a monumentally larger canvas than any of the Bernice New Adventures, and most other Doctor Who books. And is written in a far braver style, constructed round Christine Summerfield writing a journal of events, which back-tracks and excludes things and jumps about. A format Miles uses absolutely beautifully to contrast ideas, sustain tension, get us thinking one thing, then subvert it later.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as saying Lawrence Miles is my favourite Doctor Who author – that accolade (ahem) would go more to Cartmel or Aaronovitch, for the sheer joyous quality of the writing – but as soon as I read anything by him, I remember how much I love, love, love his books. It’s the imagination that does it, which puts everyone else to shame. I’m not sure why there’s a shortage, but no-one else seems capable of cramming in the sheer amount of fascinating, intriguing concepts that Miles can. His casual reinventions and subversions of established Doctor Who concepts - his books are packed with throwaway ideas other authors’d kill for – are just so exhilarating, and fire the imagination like no other.

The explicitly Doctor Who elements of Dead Romance are so much more powerful for not being tied down to constant name-dropping of Gallifrey, Rassilon, Shada, the Eye of Harmony (although all these things are mentioned) – it’s amazing in fact how much more impressive the ideas become when not linked to these over-familiar terms. I wish more people’d adopt this approach. Considering that people debate whether the man with the rosette in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street is the Master or not (!), just because he’s not explicitly named as such, it clearly does make things far more fluid and less mundanely explicit; I can think of plenty of books that could have done with some fuzziness, rather than a straightforward overload of continuity references.

Miles’ ability to make over-familiar ideas huge and grand and awe-inspiring is literally stunning; the Time Lords (‘Great Houses,’ as I was reading the Mad Norwegian version this time round) have never, ever been this massive and impressive before, and in all honestly, probably never will again. They stitch machines into their skin; alter their agents into bipedal tanks; walk through the sky into London; rip up the buildings with machines “the size of the Isle of Wight,” make their own cities out of the rubble, and turn the sky orange. All in an afternoon!

(It has to be said, a lot of Russell T Davies’ ideas regarding the Time War do seem to be lifted from Lawrence Miles – I have no idea whether this is coincidental, but not least the arrival of the Time Lords on earth in The End of Time, Part Two does come across as a bargain-basement version of what happens here. Fandom is very taken with the Time War concept (no wonder, as it amounts to the Doctor, the Master, Rassilon, and Davros bunged into a situation together), but unfortunately the idea of the Time Lords going to war – and its repercussions – has already been nailed with far more breadth and imagination in books like this and Alien Bodies. It is only in throwaway references to “the Couldhavebeen King and his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres,” “the Skaro Degradations” and “the Hordes of Travesty” that Davies alludes to a scope comparable to Miles’ ‘time war’.)

It seems to be a patented technique of Miles’ to expand on and make even the weakest of Doctor Who concepts fascinating (ie, the Krotons in Alien Bodies – who are still meant to be a bit rubbish, but nevertheless get an interesting backstory, and sense of scale), and come up with a mind-boggling array of involving concepts – but then to only suggest them: universes within bottles within bottles; machine men; clockwork/flesh machines.

I think also, unlike the vast majority of Doctor Who authors, he doesn’t render his ideas mundane by presenting them through straight sci-fi concepts: everything is couched in mythic, almost fairytale terms (enabled by Christine’s inexpert testimony); the time travellers use magic, machines are ‘stitched’ into skin, potions alter the earth’s population, the ‘sky opens up’ – rather than a space/time portal (etc) appearing. Which – as all the usual technobabble is bollocks anyway – I find far more satisfying, as well as ramping up the scale.

I’m not sure Doctor Who deserves anything this good. Certainly, very little else lives up to this book. It can only go downhill from here. Even with the Time Lords alone, Miles keeps them (very effectively) at a distance, and they truly become giants – then, in the Faction Paradox series (arguably playing with Lawrence Miles’ Lego set), Lance Parkin comes along and gives us an old man in a habit. Great, cheers.

Similarly, I haven’t read a great deal of the Benny New Adventures’ ‘Gods’ arc (though The Mary-Sue Extrusion is gorgeous!), but it almost seems absurd that they even bothered trying to follow up something this earth-shattering – both fictively, and in terms of the approach.

How can you go back from this to St Oscar’s and Justin Richards… Surely that’s all a bit mundane (not to say, superseded) now? I know Chris Cwej turns up again, but the events of Dead Romance are so huge (even just the ways in which he’s used by the Time Lords: he’s been ritually murdering young women, and is presumably on his way to becoming a bulldozer with a face, like Khiste), yet I’ve read that a Time Lord monk later turns up to help him regenerate. Wow. If that does justice to the concepts here then I’m Lauren Bacall.

Cwej seems far too expansive and interesting a character to turn up in a ‘normal’ book now. Dull Dellah and even (sorry!) dear old Bernice are going to seem a bit flat after Dead Romance came along and blew the series out of the water. (You can tell Miles must’ve pitched this out of nowhere, the way it’s presented as just another novel in the range. Maybe it’s a good thing Virgin didn’t try to jump on the bandwagon of Miles’ ideas though, seeing how spectacularly (or not) the BBC Eighth Doctor books fumbled the War in Heaven…)

I’m aware that it probably sounds like I’m blowing this novel out of all proportion, but even from a stringently critical viewpoint I really think it’s quite a stunning achievement. It’s full of surprising, shocking, and magical scenes which there’s no point in me recounting; all I can really do is urge you to track a copy down.

Unfortunately, although the twists of this narrative fit together staggeringly well, and the novel (yes, not just book) definitely holds up to repeated reading, perhaps inevitably it looses some of its grandeur when approached by someone knowing what transpires. (Although I admit I couldn’t quite remember how Christine fitted in with Cwej.) However, despite this, simply for the sublimeness of its concepts (from small details like the dragon ships, or the wormy, multi-jointed sphinxes – the New Adventure cover is gorgeous, and gets them exactly right, as far as I’m concerned – to the reimagining of the Time Lords as monumental, faceless magician-warriors), it is among the best story – in any medium – that Doctor Who has to offer.

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