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.