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Aug 31, 2005

Alien Bodies

That last book was almost been enough to cause me to stop reading.  Not just because it was a poor book, but because it indicated that the series editors didn't have a clear idea of what they were doing, of the tone they were looking for.  The reason the new series has been such a success is because Russell T and the rest have a clear notion of what they want the series to be and where it's all leading.  After five books, only Vampire Science, the second seemed to have a clear notion of what this new series was about other than either apeing the original series or otherwise case rewriting what we already knew to be true.  Luckily I'd already read Lawrence Miles' Alien Bodies years ago and remember sort of enjoying it so I decided to give it one more.
Thank goodness.  Good book.  Really good.  It's a great, book, really excellent.  The prose is clear, logical and florid, by turns amusing and complex.  There are enough concepts and ideas to feed whole seasons of the television series; it cleverly manages to feel complete whilst dropping enough hints and withholding enough information for the reader to want to know more - and so importantly continue reading, eager to find out what happens next.

A group of alien races are invited to a future Earth and Borno to bid for an item which has the power to help win wars and is valuable enough for whole planets to offer their entire natural resources to try and acquire it.  This is the stock, base under siege storyline weaved into something which questions the premise of the series and rocks its lead character to his foundations - they're bidding for The Doctor's dead body, the condition he'll be in when he reaches his final end.

The titular 'base', The Unthinkable City is an interesting construct.  If it wasn't being used for guests to the auction of death, it would make the perfect get away for the super-rich, with its Brigadoon circuit hiding it away from prying eyes.  Don't let Paris Hilton see this all she'll be asking Daddy for some small change so she can open her own.  Parts of it are deranged - the security in vault were the relic is held which uses the intruders own bio-data against them being an stand-out example.  Some of the descriptions of those  defensive systems are horrible.  The guest's quarters are more clearly defined than others and I wonder why the Faction Paradox's place is particular defined.

One of the book's great successes are the bidders, the introduction of a series of new alien races, based on big concepts instead of rubber masks.  I think my favourite is The Shift, who spends much of the first part of the book talking IN BLOCK CAPITALS APPEARING IN WHATEVER TEXT MIGHT BE IN THE ENVIRONMENT AT THE TIME, including  television listing and crossword clues.  As the story moves on we find he's more sinister than that and as I said before, he's a bit player here when he might have been enough to sustain a whole story.  The future timelord, Homunculette runs a close second as the man The Doctor could have been had he taken another path.  His distress over the 'death' of his own TARDIS, Marie (yes she has a name) is very touching, and I hope we see more of these organic humanoid ships in the future - they're the ultimate chameleon circuit.  The clash of these races also generates some excellent humour; the uninvited Kroton's reaction to the robotic dancing girls is hilarious.

But what of the Faction Paradox.  In one of the spoilers I'm trying to hide at the back of my head I know they're going to be really important in future story arcs and there are hints of that here.  I don't know if this is by design they're actually the characters I found less appealing and most difficult to get a handle on.  Throughout the book Miles describes things which are literally unimaginable and I found the Paradox top of that list.

One of the methods the book uses to draw out information is take a break now and then to tell the back story of one of the auction bidders.  It an approach which reminds me of the moments in War of the Daleks when the narrative would break off and we'd read about a skirmish with The Draconians.  The idea there was to open things up, but generally they were an annoyance, appearing at inopportune moments like Davros' reveal.  Here they make perfect sense within the context as we find out each other character's reasons for being there.  Some are horrifying within the present context, such as the Homunculette turning up at a House of Commons which is squatted in by a gun runner after some alien invasion.  They're not slotted in at random - they usually answer a question which has cropped up or resolve a cliffhanger.  They even place earlier parts of the novel into a new context.  This is the first of the books which demands another read as moments mean something totally different in a new light.

Someone said recently that Doctor Who has always been about death.  The Doctor has faced death many times, but it's always been the mortality of others - Adric, Katarina, countless rebels on hundreds of worlds.  The only times he's really looked at his own end is that the times of his regeneration; that he talks about each of his selves as though they're separate people even though they're the same entity suggests he considers a regeneration to be a kind of death - this was particularly explicit in the last tv series.  After audaciously opening with what's basically a Short Trip for the Fourth Doctor, the book does something absolutely new - has the timelord actually come to terms with his own death, the moment when his life will finally end.  Although there is a seed of doubt as to how that will happen and even if the remains in the casket are him anyway, at the end of the book as far as he knows or cares he's burying himself, creating his own final resting place.  That he handles it as well as he does is probably due to his alieness.

He's made to question his place in the universe.  I've generally come to the view that The Doctor is like some intergalactic version of Quantum Leap's Sam Beckett, keeping the web of time together consciously or unconsciously.  He's more aware of this at some times more than others, but it helps to explain his more reckless tendencies.  The book hints that actually his death will only occur once the universe has finished with him, after all the wars have been settled, the timelines have steadied and the dimensions have calmed.  In the times when we see the future of the universe of the war between the timelords and 'the enemy' at no point is it explicit that he's not there.  It almost feels as though it's setting up the revelation of the new tv series that he'll be the last timelord standing, as though this vagabond is the only one who can be trusted.

Borneo_1This also solidifies the premise the everybody knows The Doctor, knows the stories.  That all these disparate races would turn up buy his remains is one thing, but there's the feeling that the idea of him has touched thousands more.  For some he must be like Keyzer Soze (from the film, The Usual Suspects) to paraphrase:  "And like that he was gone. Underground. Nobody has ever seen him since. He becomes a myth, a spook story the monsters tell their offspring at night. "Rat on your pop, and The Doctor will get you."  In others, like The Krotons, he's an everpresent threat, with a standing order of death on his head.

One of the book's biggest achievements is giving a point to companion, Sam Jones.  In a recent interview for Doctor Who Magazine, Russell T Davies says that Paul Abbott's proposed script for the new series would have described how 'Rose had been bred secretly by the Doctor as a psychic experiment to create the perfect companion'.  I'm wondering if that's exactly what's happening here - I've said before that Sam is a bit bland, basically a cog doing all the things a companion is supposed to do without displaying the traits of being a real person.  There are hints in here that she's been created to be exactly that, if not by The Doctor, some other sinister power.  When Sam breaks into the vaults to try and grab the relic, her bio-data clones know about the person she either nearly was or was meant to be if The Doctor hadn't picked her up.  Has she changed through his influence or something else?  The fact that I'm asking these questions, that Sam is suddenly interesting, is genius.  Incidentally, after a brief flirtation with Samantha Morton as she appears in Code 46, I've decided that Sam Jones is played by Scarlett Johansson (after seeing Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Island).

So yes, questions.  The book has far too many big ideas to be ignored and I'm sure there will be concepts which will be returned to by other writers if not Miles himself.  I don't ever remember the future of Gallifrey being given a context and a sense of place before (it's always appeared to be out of normal time) and to place it in the midst of a war with an enemy it doesn't know will have ramifications for the timeline and there's no doubt The Doctor is involved.  It's a shame that I know that this isn't the battle which appears in the tv series, although I saw a great idea from someone on a continuity discussion board that they are the same war just viewed from different points of view by different incarnations of The Doctor.  But that's a retcon for another time, I've had enough of those for now.  I'll just enjoy the fact that there are some great adventures ahead.


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