Monday, April 22, 2013

Recycled Christie Cardboard IN SPACE!! (tastes like recycled cardboard too)

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 1.03 

Title: Ten Little Aliens
Author: Steven Cole
Team TARDIS: First Doctor, Ben, Polly
Adversary: The Ten-Strong
Original Release Date: June 2002
Range and Number: Past Doctor Adventures #54

Synopsis (from Goodreads) -
Deep in the heart of a hollowed-out moon the First Doctor finds a chilling secret: ten alien corpses, frozen in time at the moment of their death. They are the empire's most wanted terrorists, and their discovery could end a war devastating the galaxy. But is the same force that killed them still lurking in the dark? And what are its plans for the people of Earth?

My Review:
So far, I've enjoyed this blogging project.  In the interest of full disclosure - I went ahead a little bit and already have the first two posts for the Second Doctor's era written up and ready to go (minus a little bit of copy editing and formatting) and I'm halfway through listening to the audio adventure I selected for the Third Doctor.  Seeking out the lesser-attended-to Doctor Who stories has been a treat and a joy and I can't wait to share my thoughts on those stories with my loyal readers (all seven of you).

In my real-life, big-kid career, I am a librarian (as evidenced by the title of this blogging project - thank you Captain Obvious).  It is part of my job to read as many books as time permits and evaluate them on certain criteria.  To be truthful, I'm a little more aggressive in my book reviewing habits.  It just comes with the territory.  I have so many to read and if I start something I don't like, I have no problem with putting it aside and going on to something else.  In a few cases, I almost take offense to a book that I don't like.  It's weird, but I'm almost like "How dare you be so horrible and waste my time!" (completely bizarre, I know).  Whereas with my TV, movie, and audio story reviewing, I am much more in fangirl-flail mode because... actually, I don't know if there is a "because" for that stuff.  I do get into some nitty-gritty in terms of story and characters - just probably not as deeply as I do with the printed word.  I guess it's because I actually have to pay attention to books because I'm probably going to have to tell somebody about this at some point and it would be nice to be able to at least act like I know what I'm talking about.  

When I decided to include novels in my review project, it was mostly so I would finally force myself to sit down and choose some Doctor Who books to read.  I've enjoyed the books based on New Who that I've read (even "The Story of Martha" - it wasn't that bad.  Someone just needs to come along and finish it, that's all).  But I hadn't read any books based around the Classic Doctors and I thought that was a crying shame.  But between Target Novelizations and Past Doctor Adventures and Eighth Doctor Adventures and New Adventures and who-knows-what-else is out there - it's hard to know where to start off with it.  Rather than randomly draw book titles out of a hat and try to track down a bunch of stuff that, in all likelihood, is out of print, I decided I would read the 50th Anniversary reprints that I was probably going to buy anyway and call it good.  These stories were specifically chosen for this commemorative year, so they all should be pretty decent, right?

Well... not exactly.  And it pains me that it's the first one I tackled that I absolutely did not care for.

The first thing that really got my hackles up was how long it took for Team TARDIS to show up.  The first chapter or so (and these are long chapters) was focused on these ten... soldiers? Explorers? Miners? (Ben called them "Space Marines" at one point, which was a good a description as any for what I had to work with). I never got the feel for them.  And they are all pretty much cardboard copies of each other.  There is very little to distinguish one of these characters from another.  I don't even know whether they're male or female since they all refer to each other by their last names.  The most character description I got was a list of records that look like they came from some sort of personnel file.  This list was partway through chapter two (I think) and included physical descriptions, rank and experience of each character.  But something was included at the end of each record and the way this was present grated on my nerves - the last question looks like it was posed to the person whose file this was.  The question was something along the lines of "What do you think of the Shirr?" (the Shirr being the aliens on this planet/moon/asteroid/thing/I-don't-even-care-anymore).  And every single question was answered pretty much the same way - "the Shirr are evil, sub-human, deadly creatures that don't deserve to live." Granted, there was some variation in the wording of these answers in an attempt at giving these people personality, but already I just don't give a flying squirrel in a coconut tree about them.  Not a great introduction to the characters that are supposed to be the one-off supporting cast that makes the Doctor and his companions look good.

By the time we get a scene with Team TARDIS - this time, with the rather interesting combination of the First Doctor, Ben and Polly - I am begging for characters in this story that I can latch onto and love.  Luckily, I've recently been discovering some of Ben and Polly's stories for the first time and they are quite the lovely pair (and I gladly bring out the shipping goggles for this and no, there is no shame).  Sadly, the very first scene with Team TARDIS is woefully short (but oh so welcome) and we're back to The Land of Tough-Guy Cardboard Cutouts.  This whole thing reminded me of the time I tried to watch Battlestar Galactica and I just couldn't be bothered to care about any of those snarky, cynical, overly-dramatic bastards.  Truly, I wanted to go back and read more about Polly’s daffodil-yellow spacesuit because that sounds lovely (probably wouldn't look so lovely, but anything can be good if left to the imagination).

One of the biggest challenges with writing Doctor Who is that - apart from the central Team TARDIS - your cast of characters changes with each story.  Oh, there are some that have some reusability (Jack Harkness, River Song, Winston Churchill, Dorium Maldovar - and here I realize those are all Steven Moffat creations or at least from the Moffat era of Who), but for the most part you have to create a whole new cast of characters for the Doctor and company to interact with.  And you also have to present them in such a way that the audience cares about them too - whether they become the Doctor’s allies or if they are up to no good.  Sometimes this works (I’m still hoping for a reappearance of Liz X) and sometimes it doesn’t (the entire Ganger crew can be safely locked in the cupboard somewhere and completely forgotten about).

Further into the book (say, about chapter ten) things start to get interesting.  Stone statues reminiscent of Weeping Angels begin terrorizing the group (they actually are referred to as angels).  Polly and Ben wonder why they don’t just get into the TARDIS and leave - which is a fun little nugget to have the companions wonder, since fans have been wondering that off and on for years (Answer: Because then there wouldn’t be a story. Duh).

When the military crew start disappearing/dying, that’s when the characterization starts taking hold.  They aren’t the cardboard cutouts that we started out with, but they've only upgraded to colorful posterboard. Marshal Haunt, for example, has a whole backstory that we only get when she’s on her deathbed - except she didn't really die, but I didn't realize that until much later when she's suddenly barking orders at somebody and I'm thrown for a complete and utter loop on that one. Frog gets some character development - and the rest of the crew drop their tough-guy demeanors and starts to be a bit more... sympathetic, maybe?  Still not enough to make me like them at all - it’s a matter of “Too Little, Too Late.”

The Doctor isn’t given enough “screen time” (as it were) to have much of an impact for me. He comes in now and again to remind the reader that he’s still there and this is still a Doctor Who story (sort of like the early William Hartnell years).  This bugs me a great deal and I’ll tell you why - by the time Ben and Polly have joined Team TARDIS, the First Doctor is a more proactive presence in the TV stories (ironic since this is supposed to be around the time Hartnell’s health was starting to fail).  Had his companions been Ian, Barbara and Susan (or even Vicki) in this story, I would have justified his limited presence in the story because those companions tended to get a larger piece of the action.  Quite frankly, the Doctor was a bit of a coward early on.  But something happens to the Doctor somewhere around “The Time Meddler” and he starts becoming more like the heroic and curious Doctor that we’re familiar with today. So, to have him be this detached and irascible and, quite frankly, absent character in a story that’s supposed to be set close to his regeneration into Patrick Troughton... yeah, it’s a little off-putting.

(Listen to “The Smugglers” or watch “The War Machines” - you’ll know what I’m talking about).

Thank goodness for Ben and Polly because they save this story from being complete crap and helped me limp through to the end.  They bring some humanity into the situation when the soldiers are either being all “RAWR! Let’s kill the alien bastards!” or “OH NOES the aliens infected me and now I have to crawl in a hole and die! *emo-angst*” (seriously - can we get ANY kind of balance with these people?)  But Ben and Polly are there to give the reader at least two characters that don't read like military stereotypes in a James Cameron film.  They both want to get out of this situation and are doing everything they can to solve this mystery.  Just like any tried-and-true companions of the Doctor would do.  It's sort of like when you watch a Doctor Who episode and you can tell the one-off cast just isn't clicking and it seems like some don't even want to be there, but the Doctor and the companions are giving it all they've got (this happens a lot in Classic Who - especially in the 1980s, which is a decade of Who that I have a lot of affection for).  It seems a lot like literary!Ben and literary!Polly are giving it every last effort they can muster, but these other people can't be bothered - just give them their paychecks and let them go.

Around chapter 13 is where I was starting to think this story was going to pull itself out of the mire and make something of itself.  There were some nuggets of character-development going on, the plot was thickening, the Doctor was allowed to have a presence and figure things out, Ben and Polly were carrying the action and carrying it well.  I thought "Oh good, I can finish this - no problem."  (Also - the First Doctor is given a line very reminiscent of “reverse the polarity.”  The exact line is “A simple matter of reversing certain polarities.”  It was a nice little call-forward that I really liked.  So there is that for you).

And then... the story became "Choose Your Own Adventure."  And it was at this point that I went "OH HELL NO!!"

I am NOT a fan of CYOA - I'm just not.  If I knew that was coming, I would have chosen another First Doctor story to review.  I hate it that much.  CYOA stuff always annoyed me because I don’t like jumping around a book as I’m reading it.  It was never a favorite of mine and here you’ve thrown it right in the middle of a perfectly straightforward (albeit confusing as hell) linear narrative.  If it wasn’t for the fact I’d promised to read all of these in their entirety for this project, I’d have said “Screw this!” and gone on to “Dreams of Empire.”  It was that off-putting.

I’m hoping that this is all a product of this being the first book from the Past Doctor Adventures line I’ve read and I need to get used to the way these stories are structured and told.  I’ve read books based on New Who and enjoyed them to varying degrees - never outright hating any, though. Just some are better than others - sort of like how I deal with my Who in general (which I have discussed from time to time on this blog).  I'm sure there are books in the this line that are good - I just need to find them.

Bottom Line: I’ve heard mixed opinions on the New Adventures novels - some people love the books and some people hate them and some people don’t care either way.  So far, I’m not terribly impressed.  I hate to be a Debbie Downer because there is very little Doctor Who that draws my ire, but this one did it.  This story was a disappointment.  Not even the wonderful combination of Ben and Polly could save this one, even though they tried.  And that’s too bad. I want to love these stories because they were specifically chosen for this special commemorative line of books and I kind of figured The Powers That Be would choose quality stories - but they failed miserably with this one (hey, if I don’t like something, I’m not going to pretend that I did).  I might even have to put this down to the levels of “Love and Monsters” bad because - ugh. No. Just... no.

And the Agatha Christie references in the book and chapter titles made zero sense.  That's all you need to know about that.

(Geez, that was a horrible start to the novels I'm reviewing.  Please, please, please let "Dreams of Empire" be better!")

Next Time on Librarian in the TARDIS -

Previously -

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