Sunday, 21 August 2011

Book Review 4: Apollo 23, written by Justin Richards (2010)

Released: April 2010
Story Summary (BIG SPOILERS!):
A strange asphyxiated death and a stray astronaut in a burger bar lead the Doctor and Amy to uncover a secret American Moonbase, who are having trouble with a malfunctioning quantum displacement system – a secret technology used to transport crew and supplies between the Earth and the Moon. However, when the Doctor discovers sabotage, he is separated from Amy, who is now trapped on the Moonbase alone.
Investigating by herself, Amy discovers that alien minds are slowly taking over the minds of the crew via a brainwashing machine, operated by the already taken over Professor Jackson. Amy is eventually captured and ‘blanked’ by Jackson’s machine, but rescued by a free Major Carlisle and the returning Doctor, find out that the victims of the brainwashing process all have their minds backed up in an elaborate water data storage system. After Amy restores herself, by drinking the water containing her own mind and personality, the Doctor sets into motion an idea to restore all the other human minds by venting the water-stored data backups through the fire extinguisher system.
The aliens though, who we learn are Talerians, transmat themselves into the Moonbase, once they discover their first plan has been foiled. The Talerians themselves are pale and fragile creatures with viscous insides, very vulnerable to damage, and desire to inhabit humans for their more robust bodies. After the Doctor frees Professor Jackson from his own personal Talerian invader, Jackson creates an air vacuum in the base, which kills and sucks out the remaining Talerian forces.

Story Placement
Between Victory of the Daleks (TV Serial) and Night of the Humans (BBC Book).

Apollo 23 is the first Doctor Who story I’ve reviewed that leaves me with a large feeling of ambivalence. It’s certainly not a good thing when looking for exciting adventure and mystery, but it’s not a particularly bad book either. There are many understandable reasons for this, including tight deadlines, and the fact that this had to be written before any of Matt Smith’s first episodes were transmitted.
There’s certainly good features to recommend, in particular the good characterisation of the regulars. For a book written in late 2009, it’s a surprise and a welcome joy to discover how close the character of the 11th Doctor is to what we saw on-screen, as well as how brilliantly Justin Richards has captured Matt Smith’s delightfully offbeat and quirky performance. My favourite part of the book by far, was the nice joke set up around the moment when a car park attendant signs the Doctor’s Psychic paper. Amy reassures him by turning the paper round, only the next time he uses it, the message is amusingly the wrong way round as well. Amy though, is a bit generic as a companion, but considering that Amy’s character took longer to develop on-screen than the new Doctor’s, that is to be expected. However, there was one thing that jarred for me, which was Justin Richards’ specific reference that Amy liked Earl Grey tea, and was rather particular in how she liked it too. Considering Steven Moffat’s jokes around Amy hating the Doctor’s bow tie, this development by Richards did seem rather extraordinary and more than a bit contradictory with Amy’s more hip character.
Far more generic than Amy though, is the story of Apollo 23. It’s basically The Body Snatchers (or Invasion of the Body Snatchers if you only know the 1978 film) on the Moon, only without the wild paranoia or the horror. It’s a nice idea, but not one that has the material to last a plot the size of a novel, or if it was made for TV, the plot of a 90-minute serial, or at least not convincingly anyway. It had me hooked with a really good setup at the beginning with various mysterious happenings, and it’s great to visit the Moon again, as well as an actual Moonbase, but as soon as the Doctor discovers that the Moonbase is being sabotaged, he is quickly whisked back to Earth, leaving Amy alone to solve the mystery. This is only a quarter of the way through the book, and yet here begins an expert exercise in padding. It doesn’t take long for Amy and by extension the reader, to get the gist of what’s been going on, but meanwhile the Doctor is just left pottering down on Earth, until the right position in the book for him to return back to the Moon, albeit, in a lovely Seeds of Death-inspired twist, aboard a magnificent Saturn V space rocket. None of this feels especially dull, as Justin Richards, with his big experience with Who novels paces the story just right. The long traditional plot twist of the Doctor being separated from his companion is well executed here and Richards tries to keep the reader’s attention through a string of well-judged set pieces, but ultimately I still couldn’t shake off the feeling that this was just passing the time till the inevitable confrontation on the Moon that occurred towards the end of the book. All in all this was still quite a good novel, all considered, but then it took a decided turn for the worse.
After a simplistic, but brilliant idea for the Doctor to expel the alien intruders from their stolen human bodies by releasing all the data backup of the colonist’s human personalities in the fire extinguisher water supply, the writer feels obliged to write in a second comeback by the aliens. I can understand the reasons for this, to have a more certain defeat, but the aliens themselves, the Talerians are quite pathetic in the flesh. This is entirely the point, as they required more robust bodies to live and survive in, but unless they expect to come into aggressive situations such as this, surely the planet they evolved on would be fine to house them without any problems. Then again, as the book also seems to imply, the Talerians are just yet another empire-building species who want to take over the Earth. The real let down though, is that the Talerians are also rather pathetic in character too. Even aside from their Earth-conquering stereotype, they just growl, and waddle up and down corridors like a 2010 answer to the Myrka from the Warriors of the Deep TV serial, and when the book reaches its intended page count, they are just killed off without a second thought. Then happy ending. The end. That whole penultimate scene feels just so lazily written, with the main villain in particular, the lead Talerian in control of Professor Jackson’s body, just endlessly spouting vacuous dialogue. It’s such a shame that Apollo 23 ends really callously and poorly, given how much effort Justin Richards has clearly taken making the beginning of the novel full of mystery and suspense.
Of course it doesn’t help that a lot of Justin Richards’ writing throughout the novel is so functional too. Again, it’s not particularly dull, but there’s no real creative description or flair, so it comes across as a bit lifeless. Many of the futuristic gadgets used on the Moonbase, including the quantum displacement system, sometimes feel almost too futuristic for 2010 too, even when recalling Torchwood; and often, like the water data storage system, turn up just in time for their use in the plot. In addition, most of the plot developments often come across as rather predictable, which with the padding as well, adds to this feeling of Apollo 23 being a rather generic novel. I don’t blame Justin Richards though, as with the tight deadline, and the rush to make this without the same knowledge that viewers of the 2010 Doctor Who TV series would gain, I’m sure this isn’t a true example of his work and ability. In fact, he’s already produced sterling efforts for the pre-2005 8th Doctor novel series, but I’ll come back to that another day.
The overall impression of Apollo 23 then is that it’s generally a ‘filler’ story that helps to get the 11th Doctor’s book range up and running. There are a few nice character moments, and the adventure certainly feels very at home amongst Doctor Who’s 2010 TV episodes, but in the long run, it won’t matter if you take it, or leave it.

Score: 6/10

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Audio Review 6: Hornets' Nest - 1.The Stuff of Nightmares, written by Paul Magrs (2009)

Released: September 2009
The Doctor – Tom Baker
Mike Yates – Richard Franklin
Mrs Wibbsey – Susan Jameson
Percy Noggins – Daniel Hill

Main Production Credits

Producer and Director – Kate Thomas
Writer – Paul Magrs
Script Editor & Executive Producer – Michael Stevens
Incidental Music – Simon Power
Audio Editor – Neil Gardner
Production Assistant – Lyndsey Melling
Studio Engineers – Simon Willey & Wolfgang Deinst

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):
The Doctor stumbles on a plot by an alien hornet species to invade the Earth through animated stuffed animals. As the stuffed animals only come alive at night, he tricks the alien hornets, and their stuffed animal vehicles to follow him back to his resident cottage, the Nest, whereupon he traps them there with a force field from the TARDIS’ dimensional stabilisers. During the night, when the stuffed animals reawaken, the Doctor has to subdue them with hypnotic suggestion to stop them attacking him. Feeling alone, the Doctor, through a specifically-worded advert, invites the retired Mike Yates to join him for company at his cottage, in which he has also employed a housekeeper called Mrs Wibbsey. The Doctor relates this adventure back to Mike, and starts to tell him of other encounters he has had with the alien Hornet creatures...

Story Placement
Between The Invasion of Time (TV Serial) and Demon Quest (BBC Audio series).

Favourite Lines
Mike Yates – “But then I heard that you changed, and changed again!”
The Doctor – “Did I? How annoying for all of us”

Percy Noggins – “My head is like a sieve! Have you heard that expression before?”
The Doctor – “I think I invented it”.

The Doctor – “I don’t do fear, you know. I can never take it completely seriously”.

Mike Yates – “A force shield.”
The Doctor – “Yes”.
Mike Yates – “How did I get in then?”
The Doctor – “Semi-permeable. Has to be. Otherwise the Milkman gets suspicious”.

Before I go into any critique, may I say how wonderful it is to have the legendary Tom Baker back in original Doctor Who adventures again! In the 28 years since Logopolis in 1981, Doctor Who went through numerous changes, was axed, then brought back...twice, and had branched off into numerous different mediums and formats, and gone through six more Doctors. In all the whirlwind of events, it seemed that we would never again enjoy the pleasures of experiencing one of best ever Doctors come alive in a brand new exciting adventure. I suppose, dare I say it, that some of you may have even forgotten quite how magnificent Tom Baker’s portrayal truly was in the intervening decades (not me). With the arrival of Hornets’ Nest though, and later the announcement of Tom Baker joining BIG Finish, thankfully, for now at least, such ideas are things of the past.
The Stuff of Nightmares, the first part of BBC Audio’s Hornets’ Nest series, is a decidedly unusual beast in many respects. The adventure is produced as three-quarters narration, akin to an audio book, but with one-quarter performed action. Having just listened to the first half of the second season of BIG Finish’s Lost Stories audio series, I was less thrown by this than other listeners seem to have been, although it still feels more like an audio book reading than a BIG Finish production, as there’s a distinct lack of sound design. As a result, the narration really stands out at you, which is just as well, because it is certainly Hornets’ Nest’s best feature as far as I can tell. The music is also rather minimal, and appears to be quite generic and functional, supporting the narration efficiently, but without much character in comparison to BIG Finish’s composer team.
Then there is the choice of characters and setting. Mike Yates wouldn’t be the natural choice for a returning companion, but I’m very glad they did. It certainly makes a change to have a male companion back in the spotlight for a change, and Mike Yates was always one of the greats, even if he was eclipsed by the unbeatably brilliant Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, and the kind gentlemanly Dr. Harry Sullivan. Another unexpected development is the Doctor’s earthbound base of operations in the rather quaint and cosy Nest cottage. It’s particularly surprising since its owner is one of the most restless and mad of Doctors. Nevertheless, this too is an inspired idea, and produces a wonderful and enticing image of Doctor Who mixed with rural Britain that I would love to see re-used for the show’s television escapades.
However, the most off-the-wall aspect of The Stuff of Nightmares is the story itself. The invasion of the Earth by animated stuffed animals is possibly one of the most ridiculous and outlandish storylines that I’ve ever heard of in Doctor Who, let alone the fact that they are also controlled by alien hornets. It’s so ridiculous, that the story feels like an expanded Monty Python sketch. As a result, I, like the Doctor, just can’t take it that seriously. The apparent mad silliness is highlighted by the Doctor in fact, when he points out that on one night he appeared to have been attacked by a stuffed team of creatures that resembled the cast of The Wind in the Willows. Even the lyrical puns unleashed by the writer when important figures are attacked by the beasts, sounds positively Two Ronnies-style.
The story isn’t particularly helped by the characterisation of the villains either. The alien Hornet creatures sadly appear to be one of the all-too many generic and featureless Doctor Who monsters out there who want to just invade and conquer for the pure sake of it. There are little distinctive characteristics at all, other than the obvious gimmick that they are Hornet-like in almost every respect, and can forge wasp-like hive-brains to help control the stuffed animals. There is an interesting character arc to them though – that the Doctor has interfered in their past affairs before; affairs that we are about to discover as we progress through the Hornets’ Nest series. Paul Magrs also finds it a bit difficult to quite get a handle on the right kind of dialogue for the characters to start off with, particularly when trying to replicate Tom Baker’s brilliant style of improvised dialogue he would do during his television episodes. As a result, a lot of the dialogue sounds a bit irregular and clunky at first. Well, except for Percy Noggins, who is so obviously a comedy character, that his dialogue sounds clunky and stilted almost all of the time.
Fortunately, Paul Magrs wins over the listener in other ways, in particular through his highly imaginative and well-written prose and narrative passages. I haven’t had much experience of Paul Magrs’ work, but it always makes a striking impression, displaying a magnificent visual imagination. He manages to instil an industrial factory plant with the same level of character and colourful description as a maddened baboon, and all delivered with a delightfully warm and knowing sense of humour, that suitably feels apt in comparison with the equally colourful and fun Graham Williams-era (1977-1980) of Doctor Who that his writing seems to subtly evoke. Of course, this is why The Stuff of Nightmares works well. Due to the fact that this particular audio series is mainly narration, it means that Paul Magrs’ creative descriptions help make the story come alive, and with Tom Baker’s sumptuous vocals, makes the result at times feel like sheer aural poetry.
Speaking of performances, Tom Baker is undoubtedly the star of show. Although he sounds a bit wooden for the first ten minutes, after a while, he doesn’t take long to get into the spirit of the production, and starts to shine by the end. Richard Franklin and Susan Jameson put in assured and near flawless performances throughout the audio from beginning to end. Richard Franklin in particular is surprisingly good, given that until very recently, his spell away from the Doctor Who world has surely been longer than even Tom Baker’s, even including The Killing Stone (2004 BBV audio). Daniel Hill is possibly something of a sad exception though, hamming up the part of Percy Noggins as much as possible, which along with his stilted lines makes him sound like a character from Psychoville. The Hornets don’t seem to be much better either. It could well be the case that this pantomime-style was intentionally added to the character, either via the director, or even Paul Magrs himself, but it certainly grated with this particular listener after a short while.
I must confess that I enjoyed The Stuff of Nightmares a lot. It may be a simplistic, silly, and absolutely bizarre story, but all in all it’s a pure joy to listen to. It feels like I’ve revisited the late 1970s with a piece that truly feels at home amongst the other weird and wonderful stories that were part of the Graham Williams’ seasons. We have pantomime characters and villains, some classic jokes and one-liners, and a strong leading performance from Tom Baker. Then there’s the brilliantly written narration from Paul Magrs which not only helps the adventure come alive for the listener, but also gives Tom Baker some great material that helps to remind me why I love his Doctor so much. The Stuff of Nightmares may not be the best of what Doctor Who, or even Paul Magrs has to offer, but is fantastic fun to listen to if nothing else. I urge you to try it.
Welcome back Tom! We’re overjoyed to have you back in Doctor Who. We can only wonder at what possible gems could be heading our way. I can’t wait!

Score: 7/10