Thursday, 15 November 2012

Book Review 6: Time of Your Life, written by Steve Lyons (1995)

Released: March 1995

Story Summary (BIG SPOILERS!):

The Time Lords have sent the Sixth Doctor on a mission, but that’s the last thing he feels like doing right now. In the wake of his recent trial and the sudden loss of his friend Peri, the Doctor secludes himself amongst the shadows of the planet Torrok, mourning the loss of his companion, and cursing the Time Lords for their treatment of him. He resolves to change his ways, to never interfere with time ever again. However, an unexpected meeting with a native girl called Angela will change his life again for good...

Angela seeks to lose her loneliness and depression for good by accompanying the Doctor on his future travels, much to his reluctance. However, the Time Lords direct the TARDIS to a derelict spaceship closing on a large TV Broadcasting Space Station, and the Doctor and Angela become separated. As the Doctor hopelessly searches for the purpose of his mission aboard the Space Station, he is swept and caught up in some of its various horrifically violent, dangerous and tasteless Television programmes, at times even forced to fight for his life. Meanwhile, an organic alien, but digital viral intelligence kills Angela and sets about invading the TV Space Station with the aim to absorb as much digital data as possible. The Doctor discovers that the Space Station has two dimensionally transcendental sphere capsules, which are being unethically manipulated to impose two combative TV programmes on the environments of other planets. However the arrival of the alien virus has made both of these capsules unstable, as well as murdering those who stand in the way of its digital feast upon the station’s computer systems. Suddenly the chaos rapidly spirals out of control with people dying in their hundreds and the station simultaneously in danger of imploding and falling into the nearest Sun.

The Doctor manages to shut down the unstable Spheres and sends what little survivors are left down to the planet Torrok, where they unexpectedly find themselves having to fight the unruly and violent dropouts (known as Watchers) of the local population. The Virus is finally tricked by the Doctor into letting him escape and siphons part of itself into an Android in an attempt to bond with the intelligence in his TARDIS. However, upon being betrayed it fights with the Doctor to the death. The Android is successfully destroyed and the Doctor arrives upon Torrok to discover to his surprise that the Space Station survivors have championed over and negotiated with the Watchers to help start a more positive and proactive future for Torrok. The Doctor himself finally accepts that he still needs to interfere after all to save lives where it’s needed, and to help continue the fight against evil once more. He takes on a friend he made at the Space Station, called Grant, to join him and travel in the TARDIS. The future beckons...

Story Placement

After The Trial of a Time Lord (TV Serial) and Killing Ground (Virgin Missing Adventure).

(Time of Your Life indicates that it happens directly after the Doctor returns the future Mel back to his future self, however whether any adventures occur between The Trial of a Time Lord and that action is unknown at present.)

Favourite Lines

The Doctor – “ This morning I was on a hermitage, concerned about my increasing propensity towards violence. Tonight, for the first time, I bludgeon a foe to death with the TARDIS hat stand. Things aren’t getting any better”.

The Doctor – “Normal service will be resumed”.


When Colin Baker was unfairly, ignorantly, callously and scandalously fired from Doctor Who on BBC Television in 1986, it didn’t just leave a wound in the heath and stability of the show (as did the recent large fallout between producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, who promptly went AWOL soon after), which had already been gradually in decline over the last few years; but it also left a huge chasm in the fictional story of the programme itself. Like nature it seems, Doctor Who fans also abhor a vacuum, and imagined new adventures of their own for the 6th Doctor that occurred prior to the first TV appearance of the 7th Doctor in Time and the Rani, and have continued to do so to the present day. However, some of these Who fans later became professional writers themselves, for both books and Television, including the now recognisable and famous names of Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell, Steven Moffat, Russell T. Davies, Robert Shearman and Gareth Roberts. So when Virgin Publishing acquired a licence to make original Doctor Who fiction in the early 1990s, both for current and past Doctors, this large gap in the fictional story of the 6th Doctor was one that many writers leapt at the chance to write for. The first of these new books to explore it was Time of Your Life by Steve Lyons.

Time of Your Life tries to examine a Sixth Doctor directly after the events of The Trial of a Time Lord, and explores how he reacts to them, as well as the immediate after effects they have upon his character in the short term. As we rarely get an insight into the Doctor’s intimate thoughts and feelings, Time of Your Life presents us with a special opportunity not only to get a sense of how he thinks, but also to delve deep into the character with him, holding up his perceived flaws and mistakes to the light. However, the book also presents a much appreciated opportunity to provide some real character development payoff for the Sixth Doctor after The Trial of a Time Lord, so in that sense Time of Your Life really is a missing adventure, showing how the character could come to terms with what came before, and slowly begin his journey to a better and brighter future; a future which would bring out the best of him, and the future that we never got to see on Television. However, I’m getting ahead of myself, but suffice to say it wouldn’t be till Big Finish came and really rejuvenated and renovated the Sixth Doctor many years later, that audiences would really get to experience the best of him. Back to Time of Your Life though, Steve Lyons neatly has the Sixth Doctor contextualising and reacting to his Television adventures in the same way that he reacted to his regeneration trauma in The Twin Dilemma.

The Doctor’s reaction to the events of The Trial of a Time Lord, and perhaps in a more general extent his actions and behaviour since The Twin Dilemma in retrospect, is a combination of regret, sadness and quiet alarm. Sadness at the loss of of his friend Peri, regret for not treating her as well as he should have done, and for not being as considerate and aware of others as he should. Most of all though, the Doctor is still deep down in shock at the truths revealed during his recent trial, the indirect consequences of his actions and arrogant behaviour, the unnecessary deaths and suffering of innocents and perhaps most of all, the thought that the continuation of this path could at some point turn him into such a callous, unfeeling, bitter and evil person such as the Valeyard. Over time, this shock has turned to anger – angry with himself for not seeing the error of his ways sooner, anger at the continued hypocrisy of the Time Lords who are still using and manipulating him for their own ends, and anger at his own sheer helplessness. If he continues to meddle in space/time events, then he fears he will be cementing his seemingly inevitable future to become the Valeyard. However, if he does nothing, he still has to watch others suffer anyway. Like in The Twin Dilemma he has decided to become a loner and a hermit, only this time he means it, and goes about it with much greater resolve and determination than previously. On Torrok, the first planet the TARDIS takes him, the Doctor separates himself from the ongoing events of his surroundings and hides away, resisting the wishes of the Time Lords and cursing them for their continued interference in his life.

This development in the Sixth Doctor’s character arc is not only understandable and believable, but it also fits with everything we know about the character up to now and his behaviour during his short Television adventures. The Doctor isn’t just trying to prevent the becoming of the Valeyard, he’s also trying to make peace with his own demons, and hopefully try to mend his ways. It’s not very often, prior to Big Finish audios, and the resurrection of Doctor Who on Television in 2005 that we get to see such a naked insight into the Doctor’s character and psyche, and the experience is both refreshing and fascinating for the reader. Also in a cruel twist of fate written by Steve Lyons, it is perhaps precisely the Doctor’s inaction during the first half of the story that allows the disaster at the Meson Broadcasting Service Space Station to escalate to the catastrophe and massacre that it does. However, that’s one of the main points to Lyons’ story, as the Doctor needed to go through his ‘trial by fire’ in order to come to his senses about who he really was deep down, and that he still needs to be the hero when others are in desperate need and that he shouldn’t stand by while there is great suffering and evil to be fought.

There also seems to be a sizeable metatextual element to Time of Your Life. The original Television series in late 1986, was as I mentioned at the start of the review in a very vulnerable state, and of course with the benefit of hindsight, we know that by then the damage had already been done, and that in the eyes of contemporary TV audiences and BBC executives, Doctor Who was living on borrowed time. Time of Your Life seems to be asking the Meta question of whether the Doctor should still be part of the future cultural landscape, and more importantly should Doctor Who continue at all. Steve Lyons’ answer is a resounding yes, of course, but interestingly with the fictional collapse of a huge Television company, maybe isn’t necessarily saying it should have to be on Television. It’s hardly an insightful statement for 1995, I know, given that the original Television show had already been axed by 1989, and I could be reading too much into this, but it’s interesting that by this point Doctor Who had come more to terms with its transition from BBC Television programme to multimedia cultural franchise, arguably started by the blossoming of the Target book range in the 1970s and 1980s; and while temporarily losing its shelf life as a TV Show it had successfully established itself as a cultural work of fiction with a near endless shelf life, just like the immortal fictional franchises of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond; and Time of Your Life is perhaps another reiteration of the Doctor Who franchise and fandom’s final acceptance of this.

However, the main metatextual element of Time of Your Life seems to be a critique of Eric Saward’s script editorship of the Television show, or at least the 1984-1986 part of it. So while the Sixth Doctor is holding his own personal character flaws to the light, Steve Lyons is doing the same with aspects of the Eric Saward era of Doctor Who, although his conclusions aren’t necessarily what you might expect. This brings me onto my first big criticism of the book, in that I found it be quite gratuitously violent and gruesome at times. Of course, any critique of the Eric Saward period of Doctor Who is going to mention violence at some point, but ironically I never found the Saward-scripted episodes of Doctor Who to be too violent, in fact being just the right side of what could be appropriately broadcast for a mass audience, but Lyons deliberately evolves and heightens this to an illogical extreme. So much so, that by the last third of the book, Time of Your Life at times feels like Doctor Who meets Saw, with Steve Lyons seeming to particularly relish killing off a multitude of his characters in as many horrible and gory deaths as possible, which would certainly give squeamish readers, more than a tinge of nausea. So while the concept of Doctor Who turning into a slasher/gory horror film may be a novel one, I would say it’s not really an agreeable one.

Another element of mid-1980s Doctor Who that features in the book is the Doctor being relegated into the background along with the rest of the characters for the central part of the story. While it gives the lesser characters a chance to have their moment, Steve Lyons once again ramps this element to the extreme, badly plotting his narrative so that for a lot of the second act, it slows down to a very casual stroll, and the background characters are oddly made the main focus of the book for a while, with sizeable chunks of padding where every sub-character is explained to us and examined to the nth degree. While I commend Steve Lyons for trying to develop all his characters, quite a few of them are merely knowing references or satire to elements of the TV industry, and really only deserve a couple of scenes at best, and offer nothing to the reader afterwards beyond yet another opportunity for Lyons to create a nasty death for them later on. I suppose it wouldn’t be so tiresome if 90% of the characters in the story weren’t unlikeable, pretentious, criminal, narcissistic or completely self-serving types, which again mostly end up as cannon fodder for Lyons to play with in the final acts. While it’s an important part of the Doctor’s character arc in the story to see the negative effects of his reluctance to act, the plot of the second act should really have advanced earlier than it did. So in summary, Steve Lyons doesn’t just examine Eric Saward’s vision of Doctor Who and acknowledge it as a legitimate direction for the Television show to take, but seems to wholeheartedly endorse it, and even exaggerates its effects to suit his own tastes, to the detriment of the storytelling itself. However, there are other layers to Lyons’ story than just a reappraisal of Eric Saward.

The most important part of the narrative is of course the central storyline itself. I love the idea of the Doctor retreating into a silent rebellion against the Time Lords in order to take stock of not just the tumultuous events of the character’s recent past, but also to try and work out how to move on. It allows the unmissable opportunity for the wonderful introspective character development Steve Lyons puts the Sixth Doctor through during the story. However, it also allows for a very different kind of story, one that tests the Doctor to his personal limits, both emotionally and morally. The tragedy of Peri has made the Doctor become much more introspective and closed to others, avoiding any personal connections or ties that he might then endanger or hurt by association. However, his moral sensibilities are still as sensitive as ever, so he can’t help but succumb to Angela’s persistent cries to join him after claiming to be an abandoned and parentless youth, desperate for companionship and escape from her miserable existence on Torrok. However, Lyons is always able to keep us on our toes, particularly with clever, albeit brutal plot twists, the first being the death of Angela, who had up until that point looked like being a possible future companion. In fact it’s pretty clear that Lyons cunningly wrote the character such that we, the audience would inevitably like and feel for her, just before being floored by the event of her sudden and early death.

The central story about the invasion of the Meson Broadcasting Space Station by an intelligent, living and organic computer virus is a fairly standard generic Doctor Who plot, albeit a very modern one, even in 2012, seventeen years later. It’s a testament to Steve Lyons’ skill as a horror writer (as that seems to be what a lot of Time of Your Life is) that it’s introduced and developed so effectively and atmospherically. From the creature’s arrival halfway through the book (which sort of shows you how padded some of the book’s first half was), it holds a real meaningful threat that pervades the story from then on, gradually building until at one point near the book’s climax it appears unstoppable, which is a textbook Doctor Who writing technique. Then there’s the twist that actually the virus is an organic digital intelligence that merely wants to learn, and then also become the supreme logical intelligence in the Universe, much like Drathro in The Trial of a Time Lord. It’s only from that point on that we realise how mundane a villain it was all along, and indeed the Doctor overcomes it a lot easier than first envisioned, however it’s still a fascinating variation on an age-old Sci-fi classic, the robot with delusions of grandeur.

There’s also Steve Lyons’ final brilliant, but bleak twist, where the survivors of the TV Space Station disaster are transported to Torrok, only to find themselves having to fight for their lives against the local dropouts, the Watchers. Once again we’re treated to violence, but this time it feels a lot more justified and proactive, rather than gratuitous. In fact, the only two comforting moments of the whole book is firstly the fact that the survivors managed to rescue Torrok from its dystopia and look forward to better future; and secondly the Doctor finally accepting  who he is as a person, and starts towards a better life himself.

The final layer I’ve yet to mention is perhaps the obvious satire of the Television industry. There’s a vain and precious newsreader, a drunken has-been actor; a selfish, shallow, cheating and promiscuous retired actress; enthusiastic obsessive fans of an axed Sci-fi show called Timeriders (you can guess what that satirises); a proud, self-serving executive secretary, weak and pedantic bureaucrats; a domineering TV producer; and even a mock Mary Whitehouse-like TV standards critic. However, while many of these caricatures have a grain of truth in them, Steve Lyons’ satire, unlike that of 1980s Doctor Who writer Philip Martin, who Lyons is clearly trying to emulate, is misjudged and misdirected. Just as Eric Saward’s Doctor Who seemed to feature a cruel and harsh universe, where even the good guys had strong character flaws and moral ambiguities, so too does Steve Lyons’. However, Lyons’ satire is so cynical and negative that it could even be construed as a direct criticism upon the Television industry and its perceived future evolution. Everyone involved with it is so self-absorbed or has some other big moral vacancy that it seems to be portrayed as completely corrupt and self-destructive, with various conspiracies and power struggles abound purely for personal gain or short-term success, and everything that TV touches is turned into a soulless and lifeless wasteland where its viewers are unquestioning reclusive vegetables who know no better.

Philip Martin’s Vengeance on Varos attempted a similar kind of satire, where he imagined a future of a population endlessly fed on a TV diet of the violence, manipulation and torture of others for entertainment, predicting the future prominence and popularity of ‘reality television’. However, his satire showed a more balanced, complex and morally ambiguous population, one controlled at the behest of both selfish corporations and a few power mad individuals; however, most importantly had varying degrees of conscience and with the Doctor’s influence moved on to become better people. Lyons tries to achieve a similar kind of satire with Time of Your Life, but his attempt is so heavy handed and off-target to be taken seriously.

To interpret then, to an extent Steve Lyons seems to be saying that Television has, or will eventually evolve into a state where it promotes a society with no morals, feeds its audience with a seemingly endless supply of visual junk food, while simultaneously endlessly pushing the boundaries of good taste and violence to extremes; is operated and worked by people who care for nothing except their own personal wealth and success, and will seek it any cost; and ultimately destroys both itself and society in the end. Now of course, most satires have an element of exaggeration to their depictions, but the satire is so one-sided, unambiguous and devastating that it’s hard not to see it as anything other than reactionary. Of course, hindsight has shown that Television did indeed during the 1980s find the lines in taste that it would not cross, and has mostly settled comfortably within them, and in some cases even retreating back from it in the cases of prime time programmes; leaving it for the most part to cinema to try to challenge and redefine what those lines should continue to be. Irritatingly, since the turn of the century, and maybe a little before, a lot of television has been made that could successively be argued to be merely visual junk food, but on the whole this has been down to cost cutting to protect more worthy programming rather than a general disregard for quality Television. Of course there are many vain, self-obsessed and self-important actors, directors and other high ranking media officials; however society, other media, and more importantly democracy and free speech have helped keep their egos in check. There have also been corrupt media officials revealed too, but in an age where we demand more of our leaders, government and high society figures, the truth of wrongdoing will eventually be revealed and the perpetrators disgraced, even if not prosecuted, and once again reality and the common good will reassert itself.

However, what shows up Lyons are two things. Firstly, the fact that it was written in the mid-1990s, and not the 1980s, in a time when British TV had already started to retreat from its established 1980s boundaries in taste and violence; and despite the BBC taking nearly another decade before it recovered from its funding and identity crises, quality was still an important value in programme making, with the outbreak of popularity for reality television still a few years away, although daytime and family-friendly viewing was probably an exception, just as it still occasionally is now. The second point that shows up Lyons are the obvious comparisons with the fictional Timeriders programme and Doctor Who; not just that it was axed, seemingly for good, but also that there are hints of a conspiracy by some of high ranking TV staff to get rid of it, as well as shedding a negative light on the programme’s fans, also partly blaming them for Doctor Who’s TV demise in the late 1980s. So in this context, a significant part of Steve Lyons’ satire could conceivably be a reactionary lash out against the cancellation of Doctor Who, the people who tried to bring it about, and even the BBC itself, as part of a paranoid view of the makers of 1990s British Television as cultural vandals, now dominated by shallow capitalist ethics, endlessly dumbing down in the search of the next ratings hit.

For myself, I think the cancellation of Doctor Who in 1989 was down to a multitude of factors. Firstly the decline in the quality of the show in the mid-1980s due to the inexperience of Eric Saward, and both his and John Nathan-Turner’s somewhat narrow definition of what the TV programme should be, perhaps slightly accentuated later on by the added inexperience of Pip & Jane Baker also, which slowly damaged the programme’s popularity and artistic integrity. Secondly, the unimaginative and clueless BBC bosses who completely misunderstood what the programme really was, what made it work, and what its appeal was; compounding any possible recovery for the show by shunting it into difficult timeslots, not to mention the cold and dismissive attitude towards John Nathan-Turner and Colin Baker. Some of those said executives even had a strong dislike for the show itself. Thirdly, to a lesser extent, the obsessive and narrow-minded possessiveness of some fans during that time, who ignored Doctor Who’s previous state as a show for a mass audience, and publically rejected any attempts by John Nathan-Turner (or anyone else for that matter) to change and rejuvenate Doctor Who until it was far too late, creating unnecessary negative press which helped excuse the BBC, particularly Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell, from their poor treatment towards the series at the time. So I have some sympathy for Steve Lyons’ view, but not much particularly considering how cynical and delusional it is. Sure the BBC was in trouble during the 1990s, playing it relatively safe with programming, and started to outsource its production to much smaller independent TV and film companies to cut costs, while ITV stole the limelight with a flurry of ground-breaking and popular dramas, but the BBC always strived for quality. The main difference was that it decided to concentrate more on sitcoms, entertainment shows, wildlife documentaries and the occasional period drama. There really was no conspiracy in Doctor Who’s demise as a TV show in 1989. Peter Cregeen merely misunderstood how the show worked, and why it really was working at the time. Even in 1985, when it wasn’t working, it was Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell’s dislike for the programme that encouraged them to attempt to cancel it.

Now getting back to Time of Your Life, if Steve Lyons had chosen to instead satirise the Video Games industry, or even ‘video nasties’ instead then his criticisms would appear to be much more on target. The level of violence, gore and immorality is something that has consistently escalated in video games for at least a decade now. Sure the games in which this does happen are meant to be entirely fictional, just like Doctor Who, but unlike it, these games frequently aim to entertain and satisfy its audiences in an increasingly basest form, particularly as the level of detail and graphics possible to achieve become gradually more advanced, so too does the audience demand for future games to break through those boundaries of taste and gore, and for them to offer a more shocking experience. Sure a lot of these games are adult-rated, but will any lines ever be drawn to prevent an eventuality where a game goes too far, or will they still remain fairly independent to do carte blanche as long as they have an adult certification? The level of sex, violence and gore are frequently ahead of anything broadcast on TV, even if not always the cinema, only made more palatable by the fact that video games look far less real, but this is changing at a fair rate; and most extremely violent and gory films were often banned from having cinema releases at the time they were first distributed. As long as users can still differentiate between the fictional immoral world of their games and the real one then there’s theoretically no problem, but there’s good reason to be afraid that in the future that might not always be the case. As the TV experience of the Meson Broadcasting Service is as much virtual as it is physical then it wouldn’t have taken much rewriting to achieve this, but the fact that the satire concentrates on TV, merely underlines how reactionary it is.

Anyway, finally dragging myself away from my soapbox, despite the padding and misguided satire making Time of Your Life a very challenging read in places, it is certainly made more palatable by some of its characters. Sadly again, a lot of these are unrelatable and immoral characters with positions on the TV station, who while are very well developed, are ultimately just ciphers for his TV satire, and cannon fodder for Steve Lyons to play with over the last few chapters. However, there are some notable exceptions, the main one being Angela, the lonely and depressed girl that yearns for travel and adventure. After seeing the Doctor on Torrok, Angela follows and meets him from time to time, fascinated by this unusual stranger to her world. After a while she begs to go with him in the TARDIS, but is brutally killed on their first destination, just minutes after the Doctor leaves her to investigate the Meson Broadcasting Space Station. Angela is very easy to like and warm to at once, and it’s refreshing to see a complex portrayal of loneliness and depression, and further more as part of a relatable and immensely likeable character. So often I’ve seen depressed and lonely people written off in a negative way in fiction, so it’s good to find a progressive character where it isn’t, even if Angela isn’t around for very long. As sad as it is for Angela to go, it’s a neat twist by Lyons that helps develop the character arc the Doctor goes on, and how he eventually begins to accept who he is again.

Grant, the computer programmer who eventually becomes the Doctor’s companion in the story, is a likeable character too, albeit somewhat bland. Think of Adric, without the whinging or arrogance and you’ll be mostly there. I for one, will be curious to see if Grant develops into a much more interesting character during his subsequent novel adventure, Killing Ground. The other character which I really took to was Miriam Walker, the TV Standards critic. Sure, Miriam started out as a transparent and painfully obvious satire of Mary Whitehouse, enthusiastically pursuing a ban on any and every Television programme that she can find. However, in later appearances, her steely facade slowly crumbles to reveal a much warmer, vulnerable and delightful persona underneath. After reading about so many hateful people, it’s great to see Steve Lyons at least give a couple of his satirical characters a more enjoyable and fleshed out human side. He even gives Miriam Walker a few wonderful jokes too.

So on balance Time of Your Life  is a fascinating read, albeit an occasionally challenging one. There’s too much padding with irrelevant characters which slows down the plot significantly for a time, and his very negative, obvious and misjudged satire, as well as some excessive gore and violence sometimes leaves a fairly bad taste in the mouth. However, the major point and aspect of the book is also its saving grace. Steve Lyons gives a brilliant and thought-provoking character arc for the Sixth Doctor that encourages him and us to re-assess his past, and seek to find out and consider who he’ll be in the future; a future that we have never got to see before 1995. In fact this is probably the first time this particular Doctor has ever received anything like a proper character arc before, and for that reason alone it is an interesting read, as writers try to explore where this Doctor’s character could have gone for the first time, beyond the obvious gaps in the TV show’s continuity. Steve Lyons’ attempt at that exploration is one that tries to reconcile the character’s previous persona while trying to gently push him towards a more traditional and amiable persona in possible future adventures. Lyons importantly also sets about showing the character the positive elements of his old ways that still needs to be continued, that he still needs to be the hero he tried to be before, and that by completely rejecting his past self leads to terrible effects and consequences on future innocents. The Sixth Doctor starts off the story in a very bad and dark place, but by the end, there’s a hint of hope for him in the air, that maybe his future is not inevitable. Time of Your Life, far from being the end of the Sixth Doctor, is gently pointing us in the hopeful direction of his future new beginning.

Score: 8/10

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