It’s an interesting trend that unlike films, Doctor Who stories aren’t often classified by what’s gone before. When the original Die Hard reinvigorated the action drama by placing an ordinary bloke in an extraordinary situation almost every film that came after was described in relation to it. So Speed became ‘Die Hard on a bus’, Speed 2 was ’Die Hard on a Boat’, Under Siege was ’Die Hard on a Boat’ (again) Executive Decision was ‘Die Hard on a Plane’ and Die Hard with a Vengeance was ‘Die Hard in New York’ (or something). Doctor Who tends to follow predefined genre descriptions such as base under siege, historical, celebrity historical, quasi-historical, sometimes hard science, sometimes fantasy, often horror but more often than not, alien invasion (and in the case of the new series ‘the double banker’).
All of which is a shame, because it would make the describing of horror novels like The Face-Eater all the easier, because its essentially ‘Horror of Fang Rock in a city’. The first Earth colony, Proxima II, is slowly being destroyed from within and out by the minions of an entity native to the planet that can pretend to be anyone (so not this kind of face-eater) and it’s up to the Doctor, Sam and a smattering of action heroes to destroy it whilst fighting against crooked authority and a riotous population in the midst of revolution.
Which doesn’t sound like a particularly promising premise and indeed the annoying cover and bland blurb on the back of the novel suggest this is another crawl through a familiar plot and situations with our time lord friend scurrying about building a shape-shifter detector as the bodies mount up with Sam getting into a sulk because he’s not caring enough about the new friends she’s made. Except as often the case in these situations, the execution from Simon Messingham drags it out of that potential quagmire to deliver a taught, pulpy drama that, whilst being mostly filler in terms of the long term Eighth Doctor arc, is never less than thrilling.
Messingham’s not one who’s afraid to experiment with the story telling structure.
Messingham’s not one who’s afraid to experiment with the story telling structure. The novel is split into two halves which roughly correlated with a two parter from the new series, a setup then a payoff. Each of the chapters in the opening section is told from the point of view of a different character which become more or less important as the plot continues, sometimes providing a Lost-style flashback to underscore their motivations.
Usually, I’d be the first to grumble when our traveling companions don’t make an appearance until a fifth of the book has gone and in a different setting this approach could be judged a touch pretentious, but the new cast members are so well drawn it’s pleasure to be in their company and for once, taking time early to establish the setting and situation pays off later by simplifying the action, saving the more traditionally related closing section from tumbling into the confusion that’s marred earlier novels.
Amongst others we’re introduced to Ben Fuller, a police chief who is investigating a series of murders, fighting against his colleagues who clearly don’t understand him. He’s the kind of figure that Clive Owen‘s spent his career playing, and Messingham’s descriptions bring to mind both Sin City and later Children of Men. In turn, I had Daniel Craig in mind for Leary, the Bondian murder suspect who becomes Sam's companion in the latter half of the novel, who's not all that he seems.
There are moments throughout as Percival uses the situation to increase security within the colony that seem like they could only have been written in the post-9/11 world (in that way that new Battlestar Galactica does so well).
The colony is led by Helen Percival, whose precisely the kind of figurehead you don’t need in a crisis and if this book were to be published now, especially in its latter stages, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she was a direct satire of both George Bush and Tony Blair, especially when, after making a bunch of bizarre decisions that exacerbate the crisis she explains to the people, ‘I acted only for the good of the colony. Only for what I know to be right.’ Shivers. There are moments throughout as Percival uses the situation to increase security within the colony that seem like they could only have been written in the post-9/11 world (in that way that new Battlestar Galactica does so well). and I had to keep checking the publication date, 1999, just to make sure. Perhaps it's simply that all of these kinds of stories have their architypical themes.
Both the Doctor and Sam get their individual chapters too and in both they’re back to be being the likeable characters that populated the novels instead of the stereotypical impostors that marred Beltempest. Adding some much needed continuity though, Sam is still getting over the after effects of her ordeal in that book, an internal battle continuing between herself and the micro-organisms that were part of her transformation. Throughout the book, she finds herself in a range of near life threatening scrapes and they drag her back to health far quicker than normal. It’s the kind subtle plot arc which has been the stock in trade of this ‘era’ and works well. As is often the case, she spends most of the novel working independently from the timelord and she’s headstrong and independent and a young woman again trusting that her friend is doing the right thing to solve the crisis wherever he is.
This Doctor’s participation in the story is far simpler than usual -- although there are the usual moments of capture and hoodwinking authority he spends most of his time in the hills with nature and a naturalist looking at the problem from a wider scope than the procedural plot that Sam, at one point, metafictionally realises she’s stuck with. As it should be though, some of the best moments in the novel are with him, my favourite scene being when he’s apparently being interrogated by the man who everyone expects is behind the murders when in fact it’s very much the other way around (a scene laced with fan pleasing references of the kind that Russell T revels in) and the scatological revelation that follows: ’There was just one for thing to do. A very important thing. Even a Time Lord couldn’t hold his bladder forever.’ I suddenly felt like Brian from Big Brother on discovering that fit girls do it too…
I suddenly felt like Brian from Big Brother on discovering that fit girls do it too…
And so the story tumbles on with surprises and revelations, Messingham’s writing style just detailed enough to keep the action lucid but never over explaining anything. A less aware author, for example, would have spent whole chapters describing the Proximians, the meercat-a-like life forms whose habitat is slowly being wrecked by the colony, charting their genus and lifestyle, irrelevantly examining everything from their mating habits to their language. Instead, the author essentially singles one out as being more inquisitive than the others, gives him the label ‘Cheeky Monkey’ and everything we need to know about their culture is filtered through them and the Doctor's appreciation of their culture which saves a lot of time. Simon’s not really interested in creating a piece of art here, just a thumping good read which is greater than the sum of its derivative parts, and I thank him for that.
Next time: The Taint, another work from Michael Collier, whose first book, The Longest Day nearly ruined the first mini-arc of the EDA’s by confusing the set-up at its climax. It can’t be as bad as that -- can it?