Sunday, 8 July 2012

Shining Darkness written by Mark Michalowski

Plot: The Doctor and Donna are separated from each other in Andromeda galaxy and caught in the middle of a race war…

Mockney Dude: ‘I’m the Doctor’ ‘That’s not a name, it’s a title’ ‘Well as long as I get the job done isn’t it enough?’ Splitting up the Doctor and Donna is a great idea because initially she gets to do all the Doctory bits with the villains and he gets to do all the Doctory bits with the good guys and then halfway through the book they get to swap places. It’s a chance to see both characters at their best amongst ally and enemy. The Doctor brought Donna to the Andromeda galaxy for the very reason that he was out of his depth, he wanted to take her somewhere where his ignorance matched hers. Donna wonders what the Doctor would do in her situation and ponders if he has ever sat any of his companions down and taught them ‘Breaking out of Locked Rooms for Beginners.’ He shows real compassion for Mother when she reveals about her shady past and the lengths she went to to escape it. Threatening Donna is the quickest way of ensuring that this is the Doctor’s fight. He’s rather attached to his head and is (fairly) certain that if it is cut off another one wont grow back. The Doctor knows that if you stop thinking of somebody as being like you then it means that you start treating them differently and that usually means treating them worse. He points out the one flaw in all megalomaniacs plans when they are trying to subjugate others: ‘When you’re done and look around you’ll find that the universe isn’t any better after all!’ The Doctor hates people who turn individuals into types. For one awful moment he genuinely thinks that Donna is dead.

Tempestuous Temp: I think its tragic that Donna only appeared in four Doctor Who novels (she was similarly neglected in the comic strip whereas Martha had a wealth of stories in both medias) but in a way I can almost understand why they chose this option rather than keeping her on because she’s almost too good in this format and practically overshadows the Doctor. Its fortunate that the Donna tetralogy came along when the NSAs where really picking their feet up and producing works that could easily sit side by side with the paperback ranges that preceded them and The Doctor Trap, Ghosts of India, Beautiful Chaos and Shining Darkness are all great reads with a great role for Donna. I find that the Doctors/companions that transfer most successfully into print are those that had an awful lot of personality on screen (the First, Third, Sixth and Tenth Doctors, Ian and Barbara, Jamie and Zoe, Leela, Romana and Peri work really well in the books) and the ones that tend interpret blandly are those whose performances were a little more subtle (the Fifth and Ninth Doctors especially). Donna definitely falls into the former category and in the hands of Michalowski (who has never been accused of subtlety!) she springs from the page as a fully formed character, hilariously funny, armed with acerbic wit, ready to tackle anything that is thrown at her and almost fulfilling the Doctor’s role for large chunks of the book. Its an extremely vivid depiction (compare and contrast with the yawnsome handling of Amy Pond in the books) and throughout you can hear Catherine Tate saying the lines (‘Go on, Sister Wendy, what is it?’).

Within moments Donna is being bossy, funny, picking fights and tossing pop culture references at anyone who gets in her way (‘That supposed to be some kind of insult? ‘Cos where I come from, sunshine, that wouldn’t get you on Trisha, never mind Jeremy Kyle!’). She nearly coughs up a furball when somebody calls her the Doctor’s pet. Donna genuinely loves art and had a copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at home but she thinks that you have to earn the title and not just slap random things together and call it art. She thinks of herself as an Ambassador for Earth (Lord help us!) and spells her name TROUBLE. The Doctor describes her as a priceless treasure when she is stolen along with the exhibit. She has never been this far away from the Doctor before on a world that feels so alien. These robots creeped her out because they looked too much like living things. If they look more like robots then she might be more comfortable around them – the novel goes on to explore her prejudices in a very creative way. For Donna psychological abuse is being kidnapped and locked up without a television. She shows great compassion for one of the bimbots when its spine is snapped and is determined to point out that it is murder when Ogmunee shoots it. As a child Donna was teased relentlessly about the colour of her hair and so becoming a Goddess for that very reason almost makes up for it! For one silly moment she wished that her mum (who always told her to stop being so sensitive) was her to see her being treated to deification. There’s a very telling moment where Mesanth compares Donna’s non reaction to her kicking a door to her more emotional reaction to the destruction of the bimbot on Karris – Donna’s emotions very much depend on appearances. The Doctor grins at her down-to-Earthness and how she often misses the bigger picture but gets the details right. Donna is not a racist because she judges by appearance and not race (‘Its only natural to see something that doesn’t look human and doesn’t act human and assume it doesn’t think human’). She acknowledges that her shortcomings aren’t how things should be and that we are only as ignorant as we choose to be. Donna is a quick thinker when she is in danger and thinks up the awesome plan of everybody squeezing into an escape pod, Mother wrenching it free of its defective release mechanism and ride atop as they fly away from the exploding spaceship! Travelling with the Doctor scares the willies out of Donna but she’s learnt to question what is normal with hi and to question her core beliefs in a way that she feels has made her a better person.

Great Ideas: Mother is our main robot character and is described as looking like a high speed collision between a truck and a steel mill (you can check her out yourself on the splendid cover!). She was created as a product of war but tried to damage herself so she would be of no use to them, literally attempting to commit suicide so she wouldn’t have to kill. Through Mother we experience a robot with feelings and the emotional/thematic crux of the story. Promechanicals are friendly types that harp on about robotic rights. The Cult of the Shining Darkness on the other hand are a bunch who refuse to believe that machines intelligences are sentient They consider anything non organic to simply be a collection of spare parts. The Shining Darkness is a time when they fear that the machines will rise up against organics and slaughter them all. The people of Jaffee collect religions like ornaments and they often have two or three mutually incompatible ones going at the same time! They are too smart and rational to actually believe in any of them and so consider the pinnacle of sophistication to believe in something utterly without any proof. It was easy to believe in things where there was evidence but took a special sort of person to devote themselves to something when there isn’t a scrap of corroboration. They especially love the idea of Heaven because you could make it as fabulous or as strange as you wanted and no one could prove you wrong! Sacred artefacts are great because you can lose them and then spend ages going on quests trying to find them again. These sequences are simply divine, like we have tripped into the Hitchhikers Guide with a wonderfully silly parody of religious zealots who can change their faith on a whim. Like Adams at his best there is a serious meaning here amongst the fluff. Unfortunately the artefact that was left on Jaffee by the cult was tossed in the junk cupboard when a more interesting religion came along! Junk is a planetoid where you can unload all your obsolete technology and it is crushed and catapulted into the sun. For the surface think of the opening scenes of Wall-E with towers of junk. Crusher (he crushes the junk up) and Chuck (he tosses it into the sun) make an impressively macho entrance like two killer Transformers but they turn out to be a pair of bitching mincers who let their squabbles interfere with their work! Weiou with his cartoon display emotions and excitable manner is another gorgeous invention. Given the right resources machinekind can reproduce at a much greater rate than organics (‘But they haven’t’ points out the Doctor). The Cult have an ideal hidey hole inside a black hole where they can plot and put their plan into action. There’s a really exciting sequence where the Sword of Justice is on a collision course with the Torch and Donna’s only escape route (the TARDIS) has been blown into space! ‘Every home should have one’ says one character about the robots and it evokes a feel of how black women were treated in the 50s. Li’ian is revealed to be Cult member and in an unexpected moment shoots who we thought was our central villain, Garaman, right between the eyes! Her plan is to take control of all the mechanicals via the Mechanet and use them as an army to subdue organics and ensure that their warped view of reality endures. They want everybody to be frightened of machines so they will wipe them out. Boonie placed an antimatter bomb inside Mother as a final solution to stop the cult if all else fails. I really like how the Doctor comments that even though their plans have been scuppered they cannot wipe out the Cult because it’s a state of mind and not an organisation. As much as I hate the BNP if we managed to snuff out their political party there will still be racists out there. The Doctor sums up this books moral: ‘People being people. That’s normal.’

Funny Bits:
  • ‘I have to find a friend!’ ‘You’ll be wanting the companion district then…’
  • ‘A bit Scooby Doo, isn’t it?’ – if only he would go on to be this smart in Judgement of the Judoon where that is literally the case!
  • ‘Earthons!’ ‘We’re called humans’ ‘How confusing!’ – I love the way that Michalowski is constantly taking the piss out of science fiction conventions in this book. Donna also names the Solar System and the Sun (‘how quaint!’) and suggests that because they are invaded all the time that humanity are ‘major players!’
  • There is a forty year old childlike man…is the author taking the mickey out of the fact that every NSA has to contain a child of some kind as an identification figure?
  • ‘You never hear of the second rate ones going mad though, do you? Its always the geniuses.’
  • Donna winging her way into becoming a deity is as priceless as you can imagine! Michalowski has really though about how Catherine Tate would bring this scene to life and its all in there; dramatic pauses, mouth hanging open and sudden bursts of emotion! What a shame The Ginger Goddess never made it to the screen! The Doctor: ‘I think she’s getting ready for panto season.’
  • The Mechanet: ‘Generally its just full of nerds and losers complaining that machinekind isn’t what it used to be or circulating rumours about an organic agenda’ Naughty, naughty Michalowski! Hahaha! Even Weiou has been looking at specialist sites that make his display blush!
  • Weiou: ‘Explosions always make me feel bilious!’ and ‘So we’re all dead and this is the final upload?’

Notes: ‘Don’t use Huon particles for anything, do you?’ the Doctor asks as Donna is beamed away.

Result: Nothing made of circuits and cogs could really feel, could it? Why is it when Star Trek tries to humanise machines it comes across as a preachy sermon but when Doctor Who tackles exactly the same theme its more of a charming fairytale? I’m putting it down to Shining Darkness having a fantastic sense of humour so that despite having a very serious point to make it is always a joy to read regardless. Michalowski packs his book full of silly, quirky, funny touches and whips up a crazy, colourful corner of the universe for the Doctor and Donna to have a spin around. Within its chucklesome exterior is a very serious message and a touching exploration of prejudice proving that the NSAs can tackle important themes and yet still keep things light and readable. By making the victims of hate crimes robots the author can tackle the subject of racism in a censored and creative way. I love all the idiosyncratic robotic creatures that we meet along the way and the author has the voices of the Doctor and Donna so perfect its as though he had created the characters himself. Donna in particular is expertly handled and learns some valuable lessons from this adventure. It’s a genuinely lovely piece of work that wouldn’t be at all out of place next to Mad Dogs and Englishmen and The Tomorrow Windows in the EDA range. I got through this in record time and I don’t think there was a point where a smile left my face, this is a book which evokes pure sunshine: 9/10

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