Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Celestial Chessmaster

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 2.03

Title: Dreams of Empire
Author: Justin Richards
Team TARDIS: Second Doctor, Jamie, Victoria
Adversary: General Cruger, the VETACs
Original Release Date: August 1998
Range and Number: Past Doctor Adventures #14

Synopsis - (from TARDIS Wikia)
1998 BBC Books Edition -  The history books were clear: the once-proud Haddron Empire, fatally weakened by civil war, was finally brought to its knees by a catastrophic explosion. But, then again, history books can lie...

Landing in what seems to be a medieval castle, the Doctor and his friends discover that the final act of a drama that has torn apart a stellar empire is being played out around them.

Who is the man behind the mask, and how are his chess games linked to life and death in his fortress prison? What is the secret of the suits of armour which line the banqueting hall? Who is on the battle cruiser that is getting closer all the time, and what will they want when they finally arrive? The pieces are all in place, and the TARDIS crew soon find themselves under siege. With both deadly robot troops and human traitors to defeat, it seems the future of the entire empire hangs in the balance...

2013 BBC Books Edition -
On a barren asteroid, the once-mighty Haddron Empire is on the brink of collapse, torn apart by civil war. The one man who might have saved it languishes
 in prison, his enemies planning his death and his friends plotting his escape. The Second Doctor arrives as the last act of this deadly drama is being played out – and with both terrifying killers and cunning traitors to defeat, the future hangs in the balance.

My Review -
(Helps to have a synopsis or two, doesn’t it?)

If you read the last book review I did for “Librarian in the TARDIS,” you know that I started to have second thoughts about including novels in this project. At first, I thought that maybe I was taking on too much and the books were too complicated to review (at least, compared to the audio/visual media I was reviewing elsewhere). With books, you really have to focus on the characters you know and recall how they act and sound in your imagination. And when you have something so vivid in your mind for the Doctor and his companions (characters you already have a reference for from TV and audio plays), sometimes you shortchange the one-off characters that only exist within the pages of the novel you’re reading. Sometimes, these one-offs become, well, cardboard (as I referenced early and often in my previous book review). So, was I doing a disservice to these stories by expecting them to be as fantastic as anything Big Finish or the television stories presented? Was I being too harsh, too critical, too (dare I say) entitled?

But then I picked up “Dreams of Empire.” And my fears for the future of the project were soundly put to rest. Truly - “Ten Little Aliens” really was that mediocre (I've since read another First Doctor novel that I wish I’d reviewed instead because it was so good.  In fact, I still might review it just as a stand-alone post.  It’s “The Time-Travellers,” in case you’re interested).

The premise of “Dreams of Empire” alone is intriguing. In the specially-written-for-the-50th-Anniversary Introduction, author Justin Richards talks about how the idea for this novel came as a result of watching a documentary about Julius Caesar and thinking a string of “What ifs?” pertaining to the Roman Empire. What if Rome had stayed a Republic? What if Julius Caesar had been defeated after crossing the Rubicon? Well, they couldn't have executed Caesar as a war criminal because he was so popular, but what if they’d simply imprisoned him? Of course, as a good Doctor Who fan, you can’t ignore these changes in time without considering how they’ll affect the rest of established history. This is probably why, instead of setting the story in the Roman Empire of Earth, this is set in the midst of a civil war on an alien planet with comparable events to Roman times (even some comparable characters - see if you can guess who the Expy for Julius Caesar is).

“Dreams of Empire” is more a political thriller than anything, but still distinctive as a Doctor Who story. Richards is careful to portray the Second Doctor as close as possible by referencing his mannerisms and frenetic personality (and I can’t help but imagine every intonation of “Splendid!” in Patrick Troughton’s voice - even with that little happy clap that is so reminiscent of the Second Doctor). Team TARDIS’s opening scenes (which came much earlier than in “Ten Little Aliens”) served to set me firmly in the story with this Doctor and these companions - with the Doctor forgetting how many sandwiches he’s pocketed from the plate Victoria offers him because he’s so caught up in working over the TARDIS console. Not to mention Victoria’s quiet patience with the Doctor over the way he responds to her thoughtfulness in making lunch. Though Jamie does say “Thank you” to Victoria when the Doctor pretty much ignores her gracious act. In fact - *puts on shipping goggles* - there are a lot of wonderful moments between these two in this story, giving some credence to the Jamie/Victoria ship (nope, those goggles weren't going anywhere anytime soon ^_^).

Jamie and Victoria really step up and have a lot of great moments in this story.  They both have major parts to play in the narrative while the Doctor is off doing his own thing. One thing I've enjoyed about Jamie and Victoria is that they tend to take a more active role as companions.  Either from their own initiative or because the Doctor tells them to, the Second Doctor's companions often end up with a lot more to do in the story and that's just fun (and it definitely brings the "Team" into "Team TARDIS").

There is one scene in this book that I just love and I want to recount it a bit here - Prion (who is Consul Trayx's adviser and bodyguard) takes Jamie and Victoria away from the most dangerous part of the fighting. Jamie is suspicious of Prion because Prion does everything so perfectly, but Victoria seems to have a fondness for the man (which seems to irritate Jamie all the more - bless). Turns out, Prion is actually an automaton (his real name is Prion Seven), which is why he looks and acts so perfect. This revelation makes Jamie feel better about the situation, but Victoria feels like she’s been deceived. It’s just one of those moments that lets Jamie and Victoria’s personalities shine through the prose and reminds you that, yes, these are the same characters you remember from the show.

I would be very remiss if I didn't mention the chess motif that winds itself throughout the narrative (but not in an obvious or heavy-handed way. It fits quite well in the story).  Admittedly, I know very little about chess.  My knowledge of the game is limited to the names of the pieces and and the kinds of moves they can make, but other than that, I stink at it. But that didn't keep me from enjoying the use of chess in the story - not to mention the overhanging threat of who the real chessmaster is. I can't go into it too much without spoiling everything, but it was a nice little touch (the three sections of the novel were named after the three traditional stages of a game of chess - that was something new I learned from reading this book. Doctor Who is an educational show, after all!)

The action ramps up towards the end, which certainly brings to mind the ramp-up in action in the last episode of a Classic Doctor Who serial.  I love it when the novels still hearken back to the format of the TV show.  There have been New Series novels that I felt could have fit the format of a New Who two-parter with just a little tweakage here and there, which makes it easy to picture this story as a TV story.  That doesn't take anything away from the unique characteristics of the book format (because there are things you can do in books that you could never do on TV, nor would you want to), but it's just nice to feel like all these stories are still part of one big universe.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable read and a wonderful addition to the 50th Anniversary celebrations.  I can see why this was included in this reprint line - a definite treasure for the Doctor Who family.

PS - Contrary to my subject line, the Celestial Toymaker has nothing to do with this story. I just thought "Chess --> Chessmaster" and "Space --> Stars --> Celestial" - HEY! This could work! (it was either that or "War Games")

Next Time, On Librarian in the TARDIS - 
Review 3.01 - If it's Pertwee, then he must be Earthbound.  Except... when he's not. But everything's better with princesses!

Previously -
Review 2.02 - A Reunion of Friends

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