Saturday, 8 September 2012

DOCTOR WHO: "Timewyrm: Genesis" – Richard's Review

Time and the Daleks can be cruel masters.

It was the Daleks that made John Peel's reputation, novelising "The Daleks' Master Plan" for the Target range – as two separate entries, no less – on top of making "The Chase" seem exciting, both long before the TV stories or their soundtracks were available in any legal format. And after writing "Timewyrm: Genesys", he would supply extra-long (i.e. about New Adventure-length) versions of the long-lost "The Power of the Daleks" and "The Evil of the Daleks".

Even then, his writing was filled with continuity links and nods that had not been in the originals, what would later become known as retcons and fanwank, but it was the 'Eighties and that sort of thing was what the buying fanbase wanted.

Those early books won him fan support and, more importantly, the enduring love of the Nation estate, to the extent that he was able to bring with him the coveted right to create new Dalek adventures when the BBC grabbed back the novels.

But therein lay his downfall, for the "new" Dalek adventures that he wrote were the widely-mocked "War of the Daleks" and the frankly-derisory "Legacy of the Daleks"*.

In brief, it turns out that Peel is okay at writing up other people's work for them, but if you want a story then you need Terry Nation. And if you want a good story, you're better off with Whitaker.

But between his arrival on the scene and these tragic discoveries, came the launch of the New Adventures and, at the time, at the height of his popularity, John Peel was absolutely the obvious person to invite to be first up to bat. And he falls back on his one trick of writing up someone else's adventure with added continuity references to please the fans.

Of course, in this case the "someone else's story" is the legend of Gilgamesh, a story that predates and to an extent prefigures the stories of the Biblical book of Genesis (in a "do you see what he did there" sort of way). The setting may have been chosen for him, of course – the four Timewyrm novels obviously setting out to do a cycle through past, near contemporary/sideways, future and... well, we'll get to that.

The surprise is just how small the story is. With the best will in the world, not a lot happens. They go to Kish, they go to Utnapishtim's hideaway, they go back to Kish. And that's it.

The setting for the novel is the cradle of human civilisation, the beginning of the greatest story ever told and the opportunity to write a Biblical epic in the Cecil B De Mille sense. But it's told in no more detail than could have been staged in Riverside Studios with painted backdrops.

Underpinning the story is – supposedly – the grand tragedy of the fall of a civilisation, brought down by one woman's jealousy of the Time Lords. And yet we only get this in perfunctory exposition from other survivors late on in the book. The prologue, where you would have thought such things would go to establish the humanity of it all, is written to preserve an air of mystery about what is going on, quite in contrast to the way every other development in the plot is laid out baldly in front of you. It almost seems wilfully perverse. Or possibly a product of someone convinced that the secret of storytelling is keeping the reveal of the Daleks until the first cliffhanger...

Give Shakespeare a wooden stage and he'll conjure the fields of France. Give Robert Holmes two sets, a supply of green bubble-wrap and Tom Baker, and he'll imply the whole of human history, the fall of Earth and an intergalactic war. Peel pretty much manages the reverse.

It's fair enough to start small, intimate, and grow, but what the book lacks is any sense of escalation; there is no feeling that events are spiralling out of control. None of the characters develop or change or even discover some key that will grant them victory.

Gilgamesh starts supremely confident of his ability to slay or screw anyone he meets. He's convinced that he's the most important person in the world. And by the end of the book... he's convinced that he's the most important person in the world. The Hero's Journey this is not. There are some deeply mixed messages about cultural relativism. Are we supposed to think that Gilgamesh is the hero, or a bit of a spoiled brat, or a monster? Because he is portrayed as all three often interchangeably. Peel seems to think that it's a bit funny, this violent stupid thug being king of the world. He certainly seems to be lionising him, even as he describes him raping the women of his court. It's quite hard to get around Gilgamesh the comedy rapist. Coupled with the teenage breast obsession it could all make the book a bit creepy if it wasn't so flatly written.

Qataka/Ishtar spends most of the story holding all the cards, smugly confident that her vaguely-described master plan is on the brink of victory. Her motivation falls mainly into the school of "she's a megalomaniac, deal with it": she's supposedly driven by a desire for immortality, possibly having heard of the Time Lords and that they possess it, but having evolved into a cyber-snake/woman she seems to have gone on a power bender. Her actions are much more about taking over the minds of everyone in the world than prolonging her own life. Nor is it clear how she sustains her "immortal" existence: sometimes she feeds on pain or "negative" emotions, sometimes "life force", sometimes she needs actual brains to eat. So we kind of come back to she's bad because she's bad.

Conversely, it appears that the Doctor could have – or at least thought he could have – defeated her on their first encounter had Ace not intervened to "rescue" him. And frankly, you believe him. Fresh from taking down genuine gods in "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" and "The Curse of Fenric", this fake Ishtar never seems up to threatening him.

Ace is sent on a mission to find Noah-analogue Utnapishtim explicitly to keep her out of the Doctor's way, and yet he still contrives that he only reaches his confrontation with Ishtar in time for Ace to get back; he might as well say "pad for fifty pages, could you?" And her side trip seems as though it only appears in the plot because it's another part of the Gilgamesh legend, while coming across more as collecting a plot coupon – a computer virus to defeat the baddie – than a natural development of the story.

All this charmless ticking through plot points rather than developing and expanding the story means that end, where Ishtar becomes the prophesied Timewyrm, is both crushingly inevitable and still pulled out of her hat. The sudden double-turnaround as she takes over the TARDIS itself, then falls for the Doctor's Brer Rabbit Briar Patch bluff, but then turns it back on him by integrating the ejected TARDIS circuits into her own cybernetic frame to achieve her evolution could have been great – ruthless opponents each raising their game to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – but instead it feels like a tacked on "phew, that was close" moment. Almost as though he'd finished his story and then been told, "oh, and bring the villain back for the next one"; almost but for the way that the set-up suggests that it was the point all along. If the story had been more full of these reversals, it might have felt like a more epic confrontation between the Doctor and an equal, rather than the second-rate opponent that Ishtar appears. If anyone needs a knock to their confidence, it's the seventh Doctor, but alas it'll be a while before the New Adventures realise that.

Peel's style is, at best functional, occasionally veering into the utterly clunky, as with the line: "these annoying premonitions were starting to annoy him". And although he captures something of the seventh Doctor and Ace, it's by no means a detailed portrait.

Nevertheless, there's enough charm and charisma in the performances of Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred (who generously allowed their images to be used for the covers, and Sophie kindly wrote a foreword to this) that when Peel does hit the right note, their on-screen characters come shining through. And maybe that's enough.

Because somehow the book isn't utterly dire. Like his mentor Terry Nation, the plot may be totally formulaic and linear but it still manages to feel enough like Doctor Who – nothing as sophisticated as "Survival"; possibly a middling Graham Williams era story or something by the Bristol Boys Bob and Dave – and you are left still wanting to read the next book. Or at least not robbed of all will to do so.

This is a lukewarm start to the New Adventures. If they'd all been like this then... well, we wouldn't be writing this blog. But better things are on the horizon.

*"War of the Daleks" – possibly the absolute apotheosis of the fanwank novel; squeezing out by a whisker "The Quantum Archangel" from the master of the form, the late and much-missed Craig Hinton (of whom more later in this series) – suggests that the 'Eighties televised Dalek stories (i.e. the ones not written by Nation) never happened, or at best were faked.

"Legacy of the Daleks" – a story so over-excited by unnecessarily answering the questions: "What happened to Susan after the Dalek Invasion of Earth?" and "How did the Delgado Master end up on Tersurus?" that it looks like "Curse of the Fatal Death" is spoofing it directly – largely forgets that the Daleks are supposed to be in it.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

DOCTOR WHO: "Timewyrm: Genesys" – Question Marks

By John Peel

Who's in it?

The Doctor and Ace.

Guest stars: Gilgamesh, legendary king of Uruk and Enkidu his hairy half-man first advisor, who turns out to be a Neanderthal; En-Gula, aged thirteen, a bare-breasted priestess of Ishtar; Avram the songsmith, he's going to end up writing the epic of Gilgamesh, isn't he.

Also starring: Ninani, fourteen-year-old princess of Kish; King Agga, her father; Dumuzi, high priest of and mainly possessed by Ishtar; Ennatum and Gudea, two of Gilgamesh's councillors who, unhappy with his rule, arrange for him to be ambushed while scouting Kish; Utnapishtim, legendary Noah figure who turns out to be an alien refugee; Urshanabi, one of Utnapishtim's crew.

Special guest villain: Qataka of Anu, masquerading as the Goddess Ishtar who evolves into the Timewyrm in the conclusion.

Where in Time and Space?

Earth, Mesopotamia, c2700 BC (also the planet Anu, far side of the Universe).

What happens?

The Doctor finds an old hologram of himself warning about the Timewyrm. He sets the coordinates to track it down, and the TARDIS arrives in a grove outside the Mesopotamian city of Kish in time to rescue Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu from an ambush by the Kishites. Ace's use of Nitro Nine explosive leads Gilgamesh to name her Aya Goddess of the Dawn, and the Doctor plays along claiming to be Ea, god of wisdom.

The Doctor is intrigued to see copper circuitry being fitted to the outer walls of Kish and goes to investigate, heading for the temple of Ishtar while Ace, Gilgamesh and Enkidu hang out in a local bar ostensibly looking for gossip, but mainly so that Gilgamesh can get drunk. Ace, however, meets Avram and he tells her that the goddess Ishtar is in Kish in person, and that she is killing people. So Ace heads swiftly to the temple to rescue the Doctor.

The Doctor, having penetrated the temple, realised something was wrong during a conversation with Dumuzi, roped En-Gula into to guiding him into the inner sanctum and allowed himself to be captured (using his respiratory bypass to avoid being sedated by the priestesses), is deeply annoyed to be rescued. But with the temple on fire, he has to leave with the others, including En-Gula and Avram, as Gilgamesh fights his way out of Kish.

They return to Gilgamesh's city of Uruk to regroup and plan, and to have a feast and show off Mr Peel's research. Ace spots that Gudea is acting guilty, and Gilgamesh hints he knows it too, so Ennatum has Gudea poisoned, and having completed his sub-plot is not seen again. At the feast, Avram sings a song he's made up about Utnapishtim. The Doctor guesses that two alien presences are probably related, so sends Ace, Gilgamesh and Avram off to find Utnapishtim and warn him about Ishtar. (Though this is probably a wild goose chase to keep Gilgamesh out of harm's way, and hence avoid damaging recorded history.)

The Doctor returns to Kish and on En-Gula's advice, seeks the aid of Princess Ninani, only to be caught by her father, King Agga. The King tells the Doctor that Ishtar has a box (in fact an atom bomb) with which she will destroy civilisation if she is harmed. He has the Doctor and party locked up. Ninani, however, releases them and they enter the temple. The Doctor confronts Ishtar, who he discovers to be a cybernetic half-woman half-serpent who controls people by injecting their brains with her probe circuits. Like you do.

Ace arrives in the nick once more, accompanied by Utnapishtim and Urshanabi on flying skimmers from their spaceship. A fight ensues, at the end of which Ishtar injects one of her probes into Ace's head. However, Utnapishtim had prepared them all for this eventuality, and had placed a computer virus in each of their minds which infects Ishtar and will destroy her.

Knowing that this will cause her bomb to detonate, the Doctor hurries them all back to the TARDIS where he extracts the probe from Ace's head and connects it to the TARDIS telepathic circuits in order to create the illusion that Ishtar's mind is still alive and thus gain enough time to disarm the bomb.

Unfortunately, Ishtar is able to transfer her consciousness to the TARDIS itself and takes control of the ship. The Doctor tricks her into moving her mind into the secondary console room and ejects her into the vortex.

Using the disassembled bomb, the Doctor repowers Utnapishtim's crashed ship, and gives them the coordinates of a habitable planet they can colonise. With peace agreed between Uruk and Kish too, at least for now, Ace and the Doctor leave. But as they go, they detect, at last, the Timewyrm bearing down on them in the vortex. It turns out to be Ishtar, who has integrated with the TARDIS components and evolved into something new. The Doctor tries to destroy her by by Time-Ramming both 'TARDISes' into one another, but she flees, and he vows to pursue her and set right what he has done.


Moderate to heavy going.

The Doctor:
  • receives a holographic message from his fourth self (ostensibly just after "The Invasion of Time" but in his Season 18 outfit). This sort of cameo, where the author writes in the Doctor he (and it's always a he) would rather be writing for, will become something of a cliché of the early New Adventures, and you get the sense that the editor eventually stamps on it. Not soon enough.
  • remembers using the time path indicator during "The Daleks' Master Plan" (coincidentally novelised by the same author) .
  • mentally regresses himself to his third incarnation (with "hilarious" running gag about calling Ace Liz, Jo or Sarah) in order to better manipulate the TARDIS' telepathic circuits.
  • appears to espouse mutually contradictory positions on cultural relativity.
  • begins the series robbed of all her memories by the Doctor's telepathic house cleaning; subsequently this is an excuse for a review of her televised stories from "Dragonfire" to "Survival".
  • while reminiscing, she manages to recall the horrors of "Paradise Towers" from two stories before she joined. I guess the Doctor added back too many memories.
We introduce the Timewyrm, who'll be around for the next three books too, a cosmic threat that the Time Lords have feared since the Dark Times, though she is little more than a novelty Cyberman with extra sadism circuits.

The Shadow of the Daleks?

Hardly anything, surprisingly.

The Dalek-shaped hole in the continuity becomes a looming presence in the New Adventures, particularly with the arrival of Benny, but you'd have expected more with Mr Peel's Dalek background than a couple of mentions of "The Daleks' Master Plan" (or, 'Buy my other books!').



The Doctor's dwelling on his dead companions, soon to become a cliché, comes across more as Peel advertising his earlier novelisations.

Ace is understandably pissed off at getting her memories wiped.

Nor is she especially chuffed to spend most of the adventure hanging out with Gilgamesh whose idea of a good time is fighting or raping. Yes, it uses the word "rape" quite a lot. Sorry.

How Many Killings?

Many, but all but one are "extras", mainly the many, many soldiers who are hacked to death by Gilgamesh.

Ishtar bumps off the crew of her fleeing spacecraft in the prologue. (We also hear about more victims of Ishtar with their brains sucked out.)

The only named character to die is the high priest Dumuzi, who is killed by Ishtar in one of those "villain proving how evil she is" moments.

Too Broad and Too Deep?

It's the back cover blurb of this novel that introduces the early NA mission statement: "Full-length science fiction novels; stories too broad and too deep for the small screen."

Peel mainly takes the series "more adult" remit in the "Torchwood" fashion to mean a lot more sex and violence, with a particularly unappealing fascination for early-teenage girls getting their breasts out. The descriptions of Gilgamesh and Enkidu chopping up the soldiers of Kish are pulpy and borderline pornographic too.

Gratuitous Kate Bush Song Titles?

Even this first New Adventure displays several of the sorts of pop culture references that helped to make them seem modern and refreshing even if not, in general, references to the most modern and refreshing bands.

Many of these chapter titles are of the old-fashioned melodramatic sort, but others might have been used by the likes of Paul Cornell in his punning moments: "Band On The Run"; "Spying Tonight"; "When You Wish Upon Ishtar" (no, really); though it's unclear whether "Guardians At The Gate Of Dawn" wants to be Pink Floyd, "The Wind in the Willows" or merely pretentious. Mr Peel's 'Gun' tendency before the tribes were named is perhaps most extreme in his choice for a postmodern moment: "'Back off, bitch!' Ace yelled, doing her best Sigourney Weaver impression."

Why Should I Read This?

Because this is where it all begins.

Because it's the continuing adventures of Doctor Who. Because it's a piece of history – in both senses. Because the introductions by Peter Darvill-Evans and Sophie Aldred set the scene for the series. Because it starts off the whole range, almost all of which are better than this and will be flattered by the comparison, and starts off a four-book arc, absolutely all of the rest of which are better than this. Because you don't want to miss Terrance Dicks' tour-de-force "Timewyrm: Exodus" or Paul Cornell's glorious debut novel "Timewyrm: Revelation". And because it's not that bad, if you can ignore all the sex, which is repellent not because it's 'adult' but because it's shallow, terribly written, and non-consensual in far too many ways.

Arguably "Time's Crucible", which could be said to start where "Survival" ends, forms a better bookend for the series with its twin and mirror, "Lungbarrow". But "Lungbarrow" is not the end of the New Adventures and "Time's Crucible" is not the start.

It all begins here.