Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Dying Days by Lance Parkin

(Warning! Warning! There are a quartet of very popular new Adventures that I had a reaction akin to a tropical skin rash and The Dying Days is the last of them. The others, if you are interested were Timewyrm; Revelation, Warlock and Return of the Living Dad. Odd that these are authors whose work I would often put with the best of the best but I guess everybody has there off days. Anyway if you don’t want your favourite Doctor Who book torn to pieces before your eyes please avert your eyes now)

Top Doc: So Virgin got to have a spin at producing an eighth Doctor so we can spend an age speculating what they would have done with the character had they been able to keep hold of the Doctor Who licence. Whilst I would go on to have problems with how the BBC used the character for the phase of the EDAs it would appear his true character would be as elusive for the best of the Virgin writers. This is one of the blandest renditions of any Doctor’s in print, he is generic in practically every way and I could not reconcile this depiction with what we saw in the TV Movie. Even if this is set after the EDAs like Parkin suggests in his ebook notes on the BBC website, there is none of the giddy childlike wonder or thoughtful sensitivity that Paul McGann brought to the part. Oddly enough considering this is an alien invasion of Earth the Doctor does absolutely nothing of worth until the finale, he is completely impotent, observing events, shouting a few threats, going underground and then dying. Given that Parkin gave us possibly the most nuanced and dramatic use of the seventh Doctor in the New Adventures in Just War I cannot imagine what happened here.

You couldn’t even rely on the Doctor to be unreliable. He bursts into the house on Allen Road, full of cuddles and gossip. Behind the 7th Doctor’s his tricks, plans and dark expressions there was a little man who thought the universe ought to be a friendlier place. He didn’t have sex appeal or boyish charm. The Doctor once and a while needed protecting from the universe he protected. He finds the idea that a man wanting to see him just because he is attractive absurd. This Doctor rushed into danger without a plan or a scheme. Before he changed the Doctor seemed to know everything about everything. He had no regrets. Why would he? For 1200 years and in every corner of time and space he had helped others to hold back death; he’d helped them go forward in all their beliefs. Then by their own achievements, their own heroism, their own sacrifices, his companions – his friends – had proved his actions right. He could think of no better epitaph. He is half lemming, on his mothers side.

Proving things would have been as overblown and as melodramatic as they could have be with the 7th Doctor, the 8th Doctor, believed dead, bursts back into action with a speech that feels horribly self congratulatory. I hate it when the show bigs up the Doctor as something bigger than the series itself – all those speeches about how fabulous he is in the New Series (especially that one in Voyage of the Damned straight at the camera) and it is particularly loathsome here, especially given his new nickname ‘I am the Eighth Man Bound.’ Oh ¤¤¤¤ off. I don’t need to be told that the Doctor is fabulous, I need to be shown. I nearly threw the book in the bath. I don’t want to sound like a party pooper but in some ways I am glad this sort of nonsense was not followed through.

Boozy Babe: Better, because Bernice is so well set up as a character but again there is nothing here that will blow your socks off. Bernice has convinced a publishing company there is a market for her memoirs. For 33 years she has slept alone so why did she feel lonely waking up with no one beside now Jason has gone. She is shocked to discover the Doctor has no clue what is going on. She has been offered the chair of archaeology at St Oscar’s University on the planet Dellah. Rather wonderfully she dresses up in the clothes as depicted on the Love and War cover.

Foreboding: As the passing of the torch between the series this book serves its purpose. The 7th Doctor is gone. The 8th Doctor is off to get embroiled in a Time War with the BBC and Bernice is about to embark on a War of Gods with Virgin.

Twists: The helicopter crashing down into the garden on Allen Road is a superb way of getting our attention and getting the Doctor and Benny involved in the action – the book should have been full of moments like this. The new TARDIS control room was always the original, the Doctor had just gotten used to the white one (this is slightly contradicted in Lungbarrow where the first Doctor walks into the TARDIS and it is the white control room). The book starts off with a gripping back story of Mars Probe 13 retuning with a dead crew, bodies split open and their eyes missing with Christian sending back mad religious ravings on the journey back to Earth – this sort of vicious psychological horror would have been much preferable to the story that unfolds, suggesting this was all a hoax. I loved the five minute delay with the shuttle – it is a great tension building exercise. The landing site was changed just before the launch and the astronauts were ordered away from the unpopulated areas right into the heart of an area jam packed with Martian buildings. They desecrate and steal from a Marshal’s tomb and the people of Great Britain face summary execution. The Prime Minister being shot is a great shock moment. It is revealed that the Martians were heading for Earth a day and a half before the astronauts set foot on Mars. The Martian spaceship does a spectacular passing over London. Ice Warriors hiss because they are gasping for nitrogen out of their natural atmosphere. For 20 years the British Secret Service has been covering up that any fit man can walk on the surface of Mars. The geeks breaking the government code makes for a good moment. For a Martian breathing Terran air is like drowning in soup. A human being shot by a sonic weapon would suffer entirely internal injuries – every bone in their body would shatter. One of the better moments in the second half of the book comes when the Ice Warriors attack the house on Allen Road, Benny proves very resourceful by chucking a kettle of boiling water at one and covering another in vodka and setting it alight! The Red Death is a sentient gas programmed to hunt the Doctor and it won’t stop killing until he was dead.

Funny Bits: The best thing about The Dying Days is its glimpses of humour which broke through my scowls occasionally…
Who Killed Kennedy had gotten close to compromising UNIT – James Stevens had gone to ground but David Bishop was still in London.
The Doctor, Benny and Bambera being tricked into the alleyway made me chuckle.
Ralph Cornish and his boyfriend?
UNIT defeated invasions by the Drahvins and the Bandrils, basically the ones that were beneath the Doctor’s dignity.
To get Net access Bernice tells the café owner the details of Star Trek X

Embarrassing Bits:
* Reading this review so far you might be convinced that I really liked The Dying Days! Oops! My biggest problem with the book is its approach to an alien invasion. It’s boring. It’s the slowest, least ambitious take over of the planet we have ever witnessed. All of the details have been ironed out before the Ice Warriors get here so they just hover their spaceship over London and hang about there for
several days, doing so little that the human race goes about its business. Then after the Doctor has been surgically removed from the plot (more on that later) we rejoin the story after the invasion has begun and see everything from the resistance trenches. That’s right folks…the invasion actually happens off the page! We never see the Martians attacking, subjugating the human race or doing anything beyond snarling threats. I kept feeling as though I was missing the point of this invasion and wondering when the threat was going to feel real. It never happened. And oddly the Doctor merely disables the Martian warship leaving its destruction to the Royal Air Force. Parkin would have another crack at an alien invasion and would write one that was more visually and intellectually interesting in The Gallifrey Chronicles in about 50 pages.

* The 8th Doctor and Bernice do not have any chemistry. There I said it. Shoot me down in flames. She fancies him, he has no idea what is going on, that’s about all you could say about both of their characters as they trip their way through this novel. They are not witty enough to be diverting or clever enough to be engaging. They just react to the plot in very functional ways. Frankly, for all the good they do it might have been better if Bernice had grabbed the Doctor at the beginning of the story and threw him on the bed and shagged his brains out whilst the human race looked after themselves.

* Xnzaal’s coronation has to be seen to be believed – that was when I finally thought this story had tipped over into farce! When he threatened to take on Jesus Christ in a duel I nearly spat my coffee out!

* What the hell was all that stuff with the Doctor’s death all about? I mean come on…thank God this wasn’t how the Doctor died as it would have been really embarrassing. In a moment of melodrama completely separated to the main plot the Martians release the Red Death to hunt the Doctor down. The Time Lord trips over corpses to save a cat and winds up sacrificing himself. It’s just really odd, and I found myself giggling a bit.

* I realise this is an unfair comment to make because the books came first but there is so much of this book that has been copied and done better in the new series. The politics in this book reminds me of Aliens of London, except that was funnier. The spaceship over London was nicked in its entirety in The Christmas Invasion but somehow it feels meatier on the television. Indeed with this being the introductory story for a Doctor who appears to be dying and who jumps back to life in the last third to save the Earth from an alien invasion by confronting the leader of aliens on his ship that is hovering over London…there is a lot that feels like The Christmas Invasion. This sort of material, visual and dramatic, is ripe for television but feels shallow and underwhelming in print. Doctor Who books have always aimed higher; even when they are less than enthralling there is usually an ambitious idea in there that could not be produced on the television budget. The Dying Days feels like Doctor Who on the telly, which is probably why it was so well received in the wilderness years but now, in the midst of the shows awesome comeback, it feels tired, traditional and frankly quite dull.

Result: Ouch, a real slap in the face for those of us who expect complex things from these novels, The Dying Days is a blockbusting TV script that (oddly for a novel) avoids showing us anything that might break the budget. Featuring the 8th Doctor, Bernice Summerfield Brigadiers Lethbridge Stewart and Bambera and the Ice Warriors, this is an obvious crowd pleaser which doesn’t tackle any of these characters with any depth as the novels usually would. The first third generates some interest with some nice build up and action but the invasion is sidelined and the Doctor and Benny barely penetrate the action. Nothing especially surprising happens throughout, the Ice Warriors arrive, they snarl some threats and they are destroyed. Lance Parkin writes smoothly and adds lots of continuity touches and laughs but with a plot as dumb as this he is fighting a losing battle to keep my interest. What’s really surprising is how boring the material not featuring the Doctor is, I would have thought watching the human race trying to cope with an alien invasion would be astonishing but here it is a real struggle to care about. All of the best material here has been stolen by the TV series and done with far more panache. As a closing story for the Doctor Who New Adventures it exhibits nothing of that series’ ambition or verve and feels more safe and predictable than the TV Movie itself. A real let down: 4/10

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