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This is the official blog of Phoenix Roleplaying, a multi-genre simming site, created in August 2010.

Run by the players, we hope to achieve great things.

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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Psychic Convention (Book Review: 'Doctor Who: Instruments of Darkness')



As I continue through the “Eleven Faces” series, I’ve had to expand from stories I haven’t seen (as I’ve seen pretty much all the complete classic ones) into the expanded universe, which I’ll call EU from here on in, of Doctor Who. This review is of one of the original tie-in novels, published during the “wilderness years”, when the show was not on TV.

There are four essential groups of 1989-2005 original novels (and the odd novelisation of something else) starring the Doctor, all paperbacks:
  • The New Adventures (NA): 61 novels published by Virgin Publishing from 1991 to 1997[1], nearly all starring the Seventh Doctor.
  • The Missing Adventures (MA): Also by Virgin Publishing, these 33 novels released from 1994 to 1997 , plus the stand-alone Who Killed Kennedy? from 1996, which is generally counted among them. These cover the first six Doctors.
  • Eighth Doctor Adventures (EDA): BBC Books’ 73 book series covering further adventures of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, running from 1997 to 2005. 
  • Past Doctor Adventures (PDA): BBC Books’ 1997-2005 series featuring the first seven Doctors (mostly). 75 novels were released.
The BBC ended their classic novel series when the current run of the show began to focus on novels in that setting, but have recently restarted it with a Second Doctor novel and a new novelisation of the not-transmitted Season 17 story “Shada”.

These novels, aimed at an adult audience, expand the continuity in many ways (some of them controversial, such as Time Lord reproduction). There is no official statement on canonicity of any EU work and fans are allowed to pick what bits they want from them, in essence[2]. They have also added a large number of additional companions who have become popular among the fandom and appeared in other EU works, such as the Big Finish audios – most notably companion to the Seventh Doctor archaeologist Bernice “Benny” Summerfield, who not only got her own novel series, but also her own audio one.

Acquisition notes

I acquired the Gary Russell[3] 2001 novel Instruments of Darkness, the 48th PDA, in 2006 at a Doctor Who event in a London department store. Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) was there and I purchased a novel starring his Doctor for him to sign. Lovely gentleman, by the way.

I’ve finally gotten round to reading it…

Where we’re at

Instruments of Darkness is a Sixth Doctor tale set nearer to the end of the incarnation. The Doctor and Melanie “Mel” Bush (a fitness fanatic with a propensity to scream a lot) have been travelling together for a while. Before the Mel met the Doctor for the first time[4], he travelled with two other companions, one of whom, Evelyn Smythe makes her sole PDA appearance here – she had previously featured in Big Finish.

This tale is a sequel to The Scales of Injustice and Business Unusual, the latter by Russell as well, featuring a number of the same characters.

The plot  

I’ll quote the blurb in full. Seems best really.

The leaders on planet Earth think that the Magnate is a mysterious 'shadow Government' that controls the world. It isn't. The leaders believe the Network to be a ramshackle, paranoid outfit of European anarchists who will eventually blow themselves up. They won't. The leaders believe that if there are humans who can control things with their minds - ESPnets - they're few and far between, and not worth worrying about. They're wrong. The leaders believe that one minute after midnight on 31 December 1993, a new year, full of promise, will begin. They're wrong.

The Doctor and Mel arrive on Earth just days before New Year. An old friend has been kidnapped and taken to France. And two murderous enemies are setting up a new life in the Peak District. Which of these threats should the Doctor deal with first? And why is his old travelling companion Evelyn Smythe using her knowledge of the future to make a fortune from chocolate cake recipes?!

What works


  • The opening of this novel, involving a mysterious albino turning up at various points in American history and with a few deaths along the way, sets up a nice air of mystery that slowly becomes clear along the course of the 287 pages. It’s clear from the get-go this is a grown-up tale (with an attempted rape in the first chapter).
  • The Sixth Doctor (who just needs a decent script) shines in this tale, with his wordiness and general pomposity coming across nicely.
  • In addition, so does Evelyn. Evelyn is a non-traditional companion, in that she’s an old lady and retired professor, who can operate with the Sixth Doctor as his intellectual equal, unlike Peri and Mel, the screamers of this era. She gets some brilliant stuff here and a wonderful bit on the problems of knowing the future.
  • There’s a rather great James Bond reference in the book, as well as a general atmosphere of ‘heart attacks’ and spy action.
  • You don’t need to have read the previous two novels to understood this one.


What doesn’t
 
This is a tale involving extrasensory perception (ESP) and mind stuff like that… I have a problem suspending my disbelief when it comes to things like that. Yes, I know this is a show with time travel and things bigger on the inside.
  • Also this is a continuity-heavy novel, with lots of references to the previous books and other EU stuff like C19, a former British alien defence agency. One character is implied to be an old companion who oddly enough features in another work I’ll be reviewing. Not one for the casual fan this.
  • It’s hard to follow the plot at times and to keep track of some of the characters. It also seems a bit oddly paced and the climax lacks tension. 
  • There is more than one historical error – possibly deliberate – such as Eurostar operating in 1993, when in our world it opened in 1994. This irked me a little. 
  • Finally, what’s this whole thing with albinos and mysterious powers? The only thing really special about them, as TV Tropes points out, is a greater risk of skin cancer.
Conclusion

Competent, but not brilliant. There are better – and arguably worse – PDAs out there.

6/10

[1]The rights went to the BBC after the 1996 TV movie, but Virgin were allowed to publish the remaining ones in the series.
[2]Especially as one lot of EU can contradict another.
[3]Editor of Doctor Who Magazine from 1991-1995 and Big Finish producer until 2006, he is now a script editor on the main show, although that role is less prominent than it used to be. An actor as well as writer, he has done quite a lot of books.
[4]He met her for the first time in “Trial of a Time Lord”, but that was further ahead in her personal time stream.

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