Regular readers will know that Vampire Science has been an elusive book to get hold of. Whilst I've been hammering ebay for the past four months collecting together a complete run of Eighth Doctor novels I just couldn't win a copy of this. At one point I even threatened to read and review the synopsis instead. The best explanation I could find beforehand, at the forums of Outpost Gallifrey, is that it has the distinction of being one of the few early books worth reading - which doesn't bode well for my reading matter of the next few months. Having felt myself compelled to read the book over the past four days I can see what they mean. I couldn't put it down.
Something about the cover suggested the plot would be about The Doctor chasing vampires about Washington, what with the wings and the presidential seal and all. It turns out that's just to signify that the story is set in America again although I think there may be other themes which I'll look at later. The Doctor is instead in his familiar stomping ground of San Francisco trying to stop them from eating anyone else.
The series has done vampires before, on tv in State of Decay and in the Virgin New Adventures. Nicely it's not implicit whether they're supposed to be supernatural but they are extraterrestrial. At it's core this is about a skirmish between two ancient races, with The Doctor representing the timelords. In the first few chapters, he and Sam are in 1976 with the direct approach of a staking through the heart. The crux of the story is that he goes on to try the unconventional approach of trying to cure them of their vampiric tendencies and the need to hunt, he's championing life, even if it is undead.
What's refreshing about that is that he's not fighting the monster but the situation that their state of being engenders. The plot theoretically fails to move forward in places because he's more pro-active with people than situations, fighting the good fight with words and benign actions. He takes Joanna Harris, the leader of the vampires to the funeral of one of her victims (or meals) so that she can see the effects of what she does. It's chilling because we can see that she's unphased; but The Doctor just wants a glimmer and that's what he gets.
Understandably it all feels rather like an episode of the first season Angel when everyone would rally around and go off and hunt some vampires. Buffy The Vampire Slayer is name checked towards the end as a pop culture reference but there are moments throughout which earely evoke that later spin-off. There are very few locations and one is a night club where the vampires hang out. Curiously, another is actually called Angel Labs. And one of the supporting vamps is named Spike and it's impossible not to read his few lines without hearing James Marster's cockney accent.
Much like that series in its later years we don't see the events happening on a wider canvas, we don't really find out how it affects the typical man on the sidewalk. We have a small selection of characters and none feel like filler; all have an importance within the structure of the book.
Joanna Harris is the strongest of the characters in the book. A nine hundred old Vampire, she's tired of the hunt and is looking for a blood substitute. Just when he thinks she's on his side she keeps disappointing him just when he thinks he's got her licked, somewhat like Angel's Darla (especially when you consider what happens to her towards the end of the book). If her cohorts within the vampire group feel slightly generic it is so as not to detract from Harris's uniqueness. Items like Slake need to be pure evil so that she can have that shading. Similarly the coroner, Dr Shackle, worn down after months of talk from Harris is willing to become a vampire so that he can get away from the pointless existence she's convinced him he has.
Much as I love The Brig, it's refreshing to have a different UNIT agent on hand. Adrienne Kramer is not merely a substitute either. Originally created by author Jonathan Blum for Time Rift, an amateur video adventure featuring The Seventh Doctor and Ace, she doesn't entirely trust The Doctor because of his manipulative actions during that largely unseen adventure (not having seen the video doesn't spoil things though). She's not sure that he can actually save the day and is only willing to take his lead if he can give her a convincing reason. Now and then she takes the law into her own hands but interestingly is proved to be right.
Central to the novel though, are the experiences of Carolyn McConnell. We meet her first during that 1976 adventure and there is some great business as The Doctor explains to her some of the mysteries of the universe. He gives her an alert if she suspects that any more vamps are going to show up and it's because of her call that he reappears in 1997. In a series of stunning scenes we get to see how a set of experiences over just a few hours one night can effect the course of a life as it reaches out across the decades. It's all a bit much for her partner James who takes the realistic human action of running away as quickly as he can (and you can't blame him especially after being kidnapped by them).
[The book was originally to feature Grace from the TV movie but rights issues prevailed. The authors have published the original first chapter online and you can absolutely what was lost and gain through the changes. It's a real shame though because she's a great character. The synopsis for that novel is here.]
Although there are action sequences, it's more of a character piece about who The Doctor is and how is ideology and choices effect those around him. Yet again we're comparing all the differences between this new Doctor and his predecessor. It's not surprising considering each of the four novels I've read so far have been written as the first story of the series. It's like the opening episodes of new tv series, feeling around looking for what the show is about. Doctor Who does the same whenever it hits a new format. This is the first to actually hammer a new mission for this New Doctor. He's life's champion, with the will to save the breathing even at the cost of his own life.
To this end The Doctor's become a bit of a messianic figure. At one stage its pointed out to him that he's a much more touchy feely character and he really is. Throughout the book he's embracing, hugging, touching people on the arm and putting his hands around their shoulders. He's more of a comforter than he's ever been before. But in a wider sense there is the expectation that if they're trouble brewing he'll show up and save the day and whoever you are in the process. Whole passages are given over to showing the effects he has on people around him, even to the extent of putting the feeling into words. It's the literary equivalent of that speech in Big Finish's Zagreus about him being out there somewhere saving the world or even the universe. He fundamentally wants to save lives in all their forms, with the side belief that all life is worth saving. At the end of the book he even brings the undead back to life.
The book cleverly turn this on its head, making that opinion The Doctor's fatal flaw. There is an excellent moment, similar to that scene between Ninth and Rose in The Unquiet Dead, in which he argues the point with Sam. She's been bitten by one of them and wants to kill them all but he still fundamentally believes that they can be saved. His inaction eventually leads to more deaths; The Doctor finds that his perfect vision of the universe doesn't entire match the reality of the world he lives in. He's flawed. Would the Seventh have made that mistake?
Speaking of Sam, (or 'Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam Sam' as The Doctor puts it on one the pages - you try saying that out loud!) this is the first time since the glimmer we had in The Eight Doctors that we've been able to spend with her. Strangely after two hundred and fifty odd pages, my opinion hasn't changed. I still sort of like her. She's very much the proto-Rose although with the added menace of thinking she's more intelligent than she actually is. There's a significant time gap between this and the Dick's novel so we don't get to see the initial bonding between her and The Doctor. She's obviously had a few unseen adventures with him because there is already much talk of going in and saving the day.
Unlike Rose (or Charley Pollard, the audio companion for that matter) there is a seed of doubt to her that she's aboard the TARDIS because she can't bare to go back to school. There are times during the book when she fulfills the traditional companion role of getting hurt or captured but at others she's superfluous. In places we don't hear her own arguments - we hear the opinions of other characters in a slightly different way. She's not as strong a character as you'd want her to be and I can totally understand the unpopularity she seems to have amongst some fans. There's a great scene in which Kramer talks about the Seventh Doctor's treatment of Ace, all of that character building and we entirelly begin to question what The Doctor's agenda is taking all of these girls of roughly the same age and type around the universe. The way she describes things, it becomes slightly creepy.
Much as I loved The Dying Days, there were so many issues involved within and without its pages, so many leaps of faith for anyone like me who hadn't read the New Adventures I was bewildered. I like being bewildered, which is why I liked that book, but sometimes it's just nice to have a straight down the line bit of story telling which doesn't have another agenda. Perhaps it's why many fans will pick City of Death over Ghost Light when they're looking for something to watch even though they're both classics. On reflection that might not be the best comparison.
I'm not sure how these collaborations fit together but there is a single authors voice in here. Given Blum's involvement after reading Model Train Set, I was expecting something slightly more enigmatic but everything is very literal. When information is withheld its part of the storytelling not for poetic reasons. Inevitably my favourite descriptions are of the TARDIS. He and Kate Orman love this new cavernous interior with all its many details. The aforementioned train set is mentioned (although that story was written later) and we find that a mini which is the hero's transport during the adventure (a Bessie for this new age) is parked in the console room. My favourite is the butterfly collection - the specimens are alive and flying about the space, again demonstrating how The Doctor's thirst for knowledge should never be to the detriment of life itself.
Unlike The Dying Days this doesn't feel at all like it could be an episode of the new series even though it's still absolutely new. It takes the pace of the tv movie but offers the added addition of a decent plot. That said some of who the Eighth Doctor is continues to parallel the Ninth and he gives a speech guaranteed to raise the eyebrows of anyone who remember what he said to the Daleks at the start of The Parting of the Ways:
"I'm a Time Lord ... from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous ... I'm a former President of the High Council of Time Lords, Keeper of the Legacy of Rassilon, Defender of the Laws of Time and Protector of Gallifrey. I'm called the Bringer of Darkness, the Oncoming Storm, and the Evergreen Man."
You know what? That last line frightened the life out of me again. Perhaps he should get it printed up on business cards.
As you can see from the length of this review I really, really liked Vampire Science. After the disappointment of The Eight Doctors I was afraid that none of the BBC Books would be as good as The Dying Days. It's less sophisticated, but as I said before, in a good way. Wrapping The Doctor's fate up with the main villain presents us with many heart stopping moments when you wonder if he will survive in his present form. The book's enthralling even when there's not all that much happening, simply because we like being around the characters. But we aren't given any easy answers. Although The Doctor saves the day he fails in what he set out to achieve. He starts to realize that not everyone shares his goal of being life's champion.