Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Book Review 5: The Eight Doctors, written by Terrance Dicks (1997)

Released: June 1997

Story Summary (BIG SPOILERS!):

The recently-regenerated 8th Doctor is taken unawares by a trap laid by the recently-deceased Master, which results in him completely losing his memory and identity. Encouraged by the mysterious voice of long-dead Time Lord ruler, Lord Rassilon, the Doctor pilots the TARDIS to visit each of his previous selves in the hope that he can reclaim his memory and return to normal. On the way he gives words of wisdom to his earlier selves, helps them defeat old foes, saves some of them from danger, meets some old friends, and even helps to save Gallifrey from a political crisis of its own making.
The Doctor also accidentally arrives back at Coal Hill, only in 1997, where he meets young student Sam Jones, who is in danger from a particularly vicious bully and drug dealer called Baz. Once the Doctor recovers all his memory, he returns to save Sam from trouble before he moves on. Sam decides to join the newly restored Doctor in his travels, and depart to experience new adventures in space and time.

Story Placement

Between The TV Movie (TV Serial) and Vampire Science (BBC Book).
(1st Doctor: During An Unearthly Child; 2nd Doctor: During The War Games; 3rd Doctor: Immediately after The Sea Devils; 4th Doctor: Immediately after State of Decay; 5th Doctor: Immediately after The Five Doctors; 6th Doctor: During Parts 13-14 of The Trial of a Time Lord; 7th Doctor: Probably concurrent to The Room with No Doors (Virgin New Adventures book), and after Bullet Time (BBC Book PDA) as this has to take place before Lungbarrow (Virgin New Adventures book) during which the TARDIS interior is altered.)


It was a new Doctor, and the beginning of the BBC’s first official Doctor Who book range, and yet at times The Eight Doctors just beggars belief. Now, it goes without saying that Terrance Dicks has written some fantastic Doctor Who, both in print as well as more obviously for the Television show itself, but sadly this book isn’t one of them.

Perhaps what is most striking about it is how bizarre Terrance Dicks’ logic is in writing such a story. His invented storyline for The Eight Doctors, isn’t odd in itself, in fact it recalls his own story The Five Doctors, and his celebrated writing style from his Target novelisations. However, the idea that you introduce new people to Doctor Who by writing a novel filled with enough TV episode-specific continuity to fill a mini-encyclopaedia, and then try to introduce a new Doctor in print by instead introducing all the previous (and probably better-known) Doctors and their respective characters is surely bordering on madness. Terrance Dicks enables this multi-Doctor extravaganza by contriving a rather trite trap laid by the recently deceased Master, after somewhat openly (and hypocritically) criticising some of the TV Movie’s contrived events. Furthermore, as this story has to serve as an introduction for a new companion, Sam Jones, Dicks also reluctantly contrives an accidental visit by the 8th Doctor to Totter’s Lane and London’s fictional Coal Hill region (maybe in Shoreditch possibly) in 1997 as first seen in the first TV episode, An Unearthly Child.
Even if we ignore the story’s crazy and frankly, messy development though, Terrance Dicks shoots himself in the foot by writing rather poor characterisation for the majority of the book. The new and ‘current’ 8th Doctor suffers the most, becoming amnesic yet again, and rather too soon in light of his immediately preceding regeneration and opening story, the TV Movie. Far more criminal though is the fact that Terrance Dicks writes him as the blandest and most generic Doctor ever, not even offering hints of possible character development. The brief character aspects he is given are one-dimensional, often gimmicky attributes which are only there to help him through the plot at convenient moments, like regaining his talent at Venusian Aikido, being able to drink several tankards of beer, or effortlessly taking up the role of a diplomatic politician. In fact Terrance Dicks seems to have tried to extrapolate a character for the 8th Doctor, purely from the fact that he’s somewhat dashing – the main cliché of the 8th Doctor taken from the TV Movie. Thankfully future books in the series would repair the damage done here and do a much better take on the 8th Doctor, taking him into various interesting areas.
Another big failure is in the characterisation of the past Doctors as well, which is also rather odd, considering that Terrance Dicks has had more experience writing most of them, than most other writers at this point. Only the 1st, 3rd and 5th Doctors actually resemble their TV personas, and even then, there seem to be discrepancies. The 3rd Doctor, rather incongruously threatens to kill his future self in order to escape back into Time and Space, and he really means it, which feels so out of character, you have to wonder if Terrance has done any research or is just falling back on the distorted memory of when he used to write the character for television. The 2nd Doctor is rather grumpy, the 4th is also quite generic, and the 7th is just a manic depressive (yes he did have bouts of depression now and again, but there’s a very lot more to him than that!). The worst past-Doctor characterisation though has to be the 6th Doctor, who is written by Terrance as always egotistical, gets angry a lot, and mainly wants to eat a lot. As characterisations go it’s scandalous. Outside the use of season 22 clichés, the fact that Terrance Dicks uses his portrayal of the sixth Doctor as a mean slur against Colin Baker just for being a bit overweight, is not only in bad taste, but also cruel (and hypocritical again – has Terrance looked in the mirror recently). The rest of the characters are very simplistic, occasionally bland, and usually full of clichés abound, including sadly, the new companion Sam Jones. From these weak beginnings, her character would struggle to have much impact on the BBC Book range, aside from Lawrence Miles’ Time-twisting tales, but that’s still to come.
As the 8th Doctor has lost his memory, the plot mainly consists of revisiting the Doctor’s past incarnations, so he can regain his memory bit-by-bit from each one of his past selves. Instead of 7 new and original short stories, Terrance Dicks overall decides to return back to old Doctor Who TV serials, three of which he originally wrote (The War Games, State of Decay and The Five Doctors), and one of which he wrote up as a novelisation (An Unearthly Child). Unfortunately, this method works more against him than for him. The 1st and 2nd Doctor segments are a shameless revision of some of the best script work in the programme. Here the 8th Doctor talks the 1st into being more kind, compassionate and selfless, and talks the 2nd into giving himself up to the Time Lords, which I feel cheapens some of the great writing in An Unearthly Child and The War Games, as well as the journeys those Doctors have to go through as characters. Thankfully Terrance Dicks chooses a much better tack for later stories that act as codas to the TV serials they relate to rather than direct intervention in them. The 3rd Doctor segment sees the Master on the run to his TARDIS immediately after The Sea Devils; the next shows the 4th Doctor and Romana encountering another hidden nest of Vampires after State of Decay; and in the 5th Doctor segment, the 8th Doctor visits his previous self back in the Eye of Orion, trying a second attempt at relaxation after the resolution of The Five Doctors, and being ambushed by some past monsters.
The sixth mini adventure is the best of these, where the 8th Doctor goes back to Gallifrey at the time of the last episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord, to help reveal the truth and scandal of it to his fellow Time Lords, expose the corrupted Time Lords at its heart and help restore Gallifreyan society and politics to a more democratic, organised and morally virtuous position. This is probably the first time in the book where the 8th Doctor has a real positive impact on story events, and stops being a walking, talking plot device, even if it doesn’t last for long. Terrance also gets the opportunity to correct a couple of small problems and fill in and elaborate on a few plot developments from The Trial of a Time Lord that went unexplained previously. In fact it’s probably the first and only time Terrance’s continuity feast does anything useful in the book. The 7th story segment is by comparison the weakest, showing the 7th Doctor revisiting Metebelis III on a whim and getting caught off-guard by a giant spider that survived the events of Planet of the Spiders. The 8th Doctor turns up in the nick to save his former self with a flash of the Master’s Tissue Compression Eliminator, which he conveniently picked up during the third mini adventure.
Terrance Dicks also brings back a host of old Time Lord characters for a couple of Gallifrey subplots. The first involves President Flavia monitoring the 8th Doctor’s odd revisits to his past incarnations from a far, aided by Castellan Spandrell, and the activities of disgruntled and ruthless Time Lord Ryoth, who tries to kill the 8th Doctor by sending a Raston Warrior Robot, Sontarans and a Drashig to the 5th Doctor in the Eye of Orion. The second involves the corrupt President Niroc, who oversaw the Ravalox/Earth atrocity as seen in The Trial of a Time Lord, and deposed Flavia after the events of The Five Doctors, being exposed by the 8th Doctor, who with the help of a temporarily revived Borusa, deposes him to elect a new High Council and correct the events of the Ravalox affair. Even Rassilon seems to play a large part in the story, conveniently aiding the Doctor to pilot the TARDIS back to see his former selves while still in his amnesic state, and seemly manipulating his meeting with Sam Jones. All this wallowing in Doctor Who’s past does produce a nice cosy blanket of nostalgia, but even by Terrance Dick’s past efforts, this feels particularly excessive. Digging up Flavia for the 6th Doctor’s segment is fair enough (although bringing back Borusa is dubious), but using her to represent Gallifrey in the ‘present’, shows up Terrance’s reluctance to do anything other than just be stuck in the past, completely ignoring the imaginative, legitimate and genuine developments in the story of the Time Lords as written in the Missing and New Adventures book ranges published by Virgin throughout the 1990s. Terrance Dicks even brings back the cheetah-infected Master to help explain the Master’s remains at the beginning of the TV Movie, which also completely ignores a lot of what the New Adventures did with the character.
And yet despite all these faults, The Eight Doctors is very readable. It may not challenge the grey cells very much, if at all, but it’s certainly a fun and pleasant read if nothing else. Like I mentioned at the start of the review, the book puts you in mind of the Target novelisations Terrance Dicks used to write so well. The Eight Doctors may sadly not be up to the same standards as most of those novelisations, with a contrived story, made up of short stories that are tacked on to the end of old narratives, often written rather generically and lacking character, feeling like padding, and with convenient plot devices at every turn. However, most of the stories are decent and entertaining tales that are far from being dull and empty passages of no consequence. The third, fifth and sixth Doctor segments in particular, are very entertaining tales that perfectly put the reader in mind of the period of Doctor Who that inspired them. Although, it’s hard to tell if Terrance Dicks is just lazily sticking to what he knows, because he doesn’t really want to write the novel, or is merely taking up a chance to once again relieve the glory days and pass comment on the general production history of Doctor Who up to this point. And there lies my main issue with the book. The Eight Doctors is a nice warm slice of cosy Doctor Who nostalgia, but it could have been so much more.
Score: 6/10

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