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

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