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Book Review – Doctor Who: The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter

Who-WheelofIceTitle: Doctor Who: The Wheel of Ice
Author: Stephen Baxter
Publisher: Ace Books
Genre: Science Fiction

Although this was published in 2012, it is a story of the second Doctor with companions Zoe and Jammie. The story is reminiscent of the Doctor Who adventure in which Zoe first appears, The Wheel in Space, which aired in 1968. The recordings of it, unfortunately, were ‘misplaced’ by the BBC and it now exists only in fragments. It, too, takes place in the future, in space, and features the rare element ‘bernalium.’

In Baxter’s tale of the Doctor, the TARDIS detects a ‘Relative Continuum Displacement Zone’ and interrupts their journey in order for the Doctor to investigate. They materialize in the rings of Saturn where a mining colony is harvesting one of the gas giant’s icy moons for bernalium. This is annomalous. Beranalium is almost unknown in our solar system. Why such a concentration of it exists here and why there are indications of time travel are the mysteries the Doctor must solve.

The second Doctor was my first, the one I first watched on TV, and I could picture him and his companions in this story. If I had not already been familiar with them, I doubt Baxter’s characterizations in this book would have been sufficient, though. This may have been intentional. If you did not already know these characters, you would not be reading this book, and any development the author tried to do, might conflict with your already established mental images of them.

The other characters were also sketched just enough to get an idea of who they were. Perhaps the one developed most was MMAC, an artificial intelligence embodied in a large construction machine. I found the idea of this gentle android with a heavy Scottish accent endearing. His backstory about having been raised to believe he was human was intriguing.

The villain in this story is a beautiful but otherwise loathsome corporate lackey, whose only goal is the efficient extraction of bernalium. She’s a bit one-dimensional and not easily believable, but she suffices for the sake of the story.

The setting is, I think typical of Stephen Baxter, at least judging from the few books I’ve read of his. It goes into detail about aerospace type science elements of the story, especially about Saturn’s rings and moons, in this case. There are other similarities with his other science fiction, too.

I’ve read a few books by Baxter, and I’ve always found his prose it a bit, well, ‘stiff’ for my taste. I also noticed the inclusion of something called skinsuits, clear, lightweight spacesuits, which I’ve seen in at least one of his other books. I imagine them to be something like cellophane but with amazing thermal properties. They don’t make sense to me, so much so that I find them distracting from the story.

Other than that, I found this to be a well-done Doctor Who tale. It held my interest and I found the read enjoyable. But then, I’m a fan of the Doctor. He’s a kind of anti-action hero in that violence is never his first and best solution to a problem. I find this refreshing.

I recommend the book to all Whovians, especially those who remember the second Doctor.

Book Review – Doctor Who: Borrowed Time by Naomi A. Alderman

This is a story of investment banking, the white-collar rat race, fraud, debt, the subjectivity of value, and the dangers of compound interest… sort of. It’s not about money or stocks, though. It’s about time — using it, managing it, borrowing it, trading it, and paying it back — with interest, compounded hourly.

An alien time trader has come to Earth and is loaning harried bank employees the time they feel they need to conduct research, prepare reports, do presentations, and everything else necessary to climb the corporate ladder while still having some time for themselves and their families. The snag is that the time must be paid back, and under the fine print terms of the contact, some people find themselves owing more than a lifetime. The 11th Doctor, Amy, and Rory must expose the dangers of borrowing on the future because if they don’t, humanity may not have one.

This novel has a serious and timely underlying theme, although the story itself is not to be taken seriously. I seriously love books like this. There are far too few of them. When Doctor Who is done well, though, it can provoke thought about a serious idea and still be fun. This story does that well enough. I won’t say it’s not without some flaws. I thought the characterizations were just a bit off. The Doctor was perhaps a bit too eccentric and Rory a bit too goofy, and the bank employees, well, they were unbelievably oblivious to the strange things going on around them.  But, all in all, I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick and easy read and a great way to spend an evening or two between Doctor Who episodes. I recommend it to all Doctor Who fans and other lovers of positive science fiction.

Book Review – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

The cast of delightful characters in this book includes a software developer, a forgetful time traveler, an electric monk, a couple of ghosts (one used to be human), and a ‘holistic detective’ who claims he isn’t psychic. It also includes several smiles and a place or two where laughing out loud is required.

I pulled my old first paperback edition off my shelves a couple days ago (noting the whopping $4.50 cover price) because I just finished reading Shada by Gareth Roberts, which was a novelization for an unaired script written by Douglas Adams for the Doctor Who TV series. Something about Shada reminded me of this book. And it should have. Professor Chronotis, appears in both. In Shada, he is clearly an absentminded Time Lord. In Dirk Gently’s Holistics Detective Agency, he still is — except the term ‘Time Lord’ isn’t used because this is not a Doctor Who story. Although it is, except it does not include the Doctor, so it really isn’t. In a way, it could be seen as a sequel to Shada with Professor Chronotis as the common character between them. Rereading this novel after Shada, provided answers to questions I had before, like who Chronotis is, where he got his time machine (now obviously a TARDIS), why he has lived so long, and what it was he enigmatically retired from before taking his post at Cambridge.

There are still a couple of things that leave me scratching my head — like what exactly did they do to stop the alien ghost from altering the course of Earth history? My only complaint about the novel is that there isn’t more of it. I would have loved to see some of the scenes expanded, especially a bit more on the ‘electric monk’ and the scenes where Chronotis, Richard, and Dirk are travelling in the time machine not called a TARDIS, exploring the alien ghost’s ancient spaceship, and bringing him back in time to ‘correct’ his mistake. (I know that all may seem confusing, but I try not to put plot spoilers in these pseudo reviews.)

So, my recommendation for people who have previously read this book is to reread it after reading Shada. If you haven’t read this book, read Shada first, then this one, and then read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. That’s what I plan to do tonight.

(My recommendations presume some familiarity with Doctor Who. If you are not familiar with Doctor Who, you have much catching up to do.)

Related Posts:
Book Review of Shada by Gareth Roberts
The Unique Perspective of Doctor Who

Book Review – Shada by Gareth Roberts (and Douglas Adams)

The Lost Doctor Who Adventure by Douglas Adams

The fourth Doctor, Romana, and K-9 answer a call from Chronotis, an aging and befuddled Time Lord, who is living out his retirement as a Cambridge professor. Unfortunately, Chronotis has forgotten why he called, although it soon becomes clear that it is for the Doctor to save the universe (again).

This time, the threat comes from Skagra, an overly ambitious fellow from the vacation planet of Dronid. He wants to be God, or the closest thing possible. To achieve this goal, he needs to absorb the mind of the legendary Gallifreyan criminal Salyavin who had the ability to replace or augment the minds of others with own. Salyavin, though, was reportedly placed in stasis and imprisoned thousands of years ago on the now lost and forgotten prison planet of Shada. The key to finding Shada is the book The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, which Professor Chronotis stole from the Time Lords’ archives and subsequently misplaced.

Got it? Good. Because that’s about as much of the plot as I’m going to try to summarize.

The story was originally written as a TV script by Douglas Adams, the late, great author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galxay, and novelized by Gareth Roberts, a writer of other Doctor Who novels and TV scripts.

To me, the beginning sounds like Adams. See if you don’t agree.

 ‘At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways — with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking, Wait a second. That means there’s a situation vacant.’

 Now I don’t know if Adams came up with this opening or if Roberts did, but it has a lot of Douglas Adams’ irreverent wit and whimsy. And so does the rest of the book. Now, I won’t say it reads exactly like a Douglas Adams book because it doesn’t. There are bits that do, probably because Adams wrote them as part of the script, but in other parts, the imagination is noticeably more constrained. It’s still quite good, enjoyable, and it hangs together very well. The melding of Roberts and Adams is virtually seamless.

The portrayal of the Doctor is exceptional, often sounding more like the later Doctors from the new series than the fourth Doctor from the 1970s/1980s. I don’t consider this a bad thing. (Don’t get me wrong, all of the Doctors were fun, but the new series has more polish.)

There was a certain element of nostalgia for me reading a ‘new’ Doctor Who adventure set in the 1980s featuring the Doctor’s campy, robot dog, K-9. I enjoyed it very much. I would recommend this book to all fans of Douglas Adams and Doctor Who. If you are not a fan, what’s wrong with you?

Now, for a bit of background – Douglas Adams wrote the original Shada script for the final six-episode serial of the 1979-80 Doctor Who TV series. Filming was never completed due to a strike at the BBC. The bits that were filmed were eventually combined and released in 1992 as a 111 minute VHS tape, with Tom Baker, the fourth doctor, adding narrative to link it all together. You can see it on YouTube, although I warn you, it’s pretty rough and was never aired on television.

Book Review – Doctor Who – Peacemaker by James Swallow

My Rating: 5 Stars

This book would have made a very good episode of the “new” Doctor Who series. It is almost of parody of gunslinger type Westerns (of which I am not a fan) but with a Who twist. The characters of both the Doctor and Martha Jones are written true to the TV show. The Doctor with all his whimsical charm and Martha with her determined confidence face the Clad, an alien warrior race whose members embody themselves in weapons through which they inhabit their hosts.

Is this great literature? No. Does it have some stereotypical Western secondary characters? Yes. Are the Wild West accents annoying? At times. I think that’s the point, though. This book pokes fun at that type of thing by incorporating the clichés of the genre, and it does it well. The story is a fun, light read with a good plot but driven by the very well portrayed characters of the Doctor and his companion, Martha. Fans of the Doctor should enjoy this.

The Unique Perspective of Doctor Who

 With the next new episode of Doctor Who coming out at the end of this month on BBC America, I figured this was a good time to do a post on why I like Doctor Who because, based on the plot line, I really shouldn’t.

If you are not familiar with Doctor Who, and many Americans are not, I encourage you to check it out. It’s been around since 1963 and is the longest running science fiction T.V. show ever. Prior to the new series, which began in 2005 (and which I personally find absolutely brilliant), the episodes had an almost ‘homemade’ feel and the special effects were pretty basic. These are not the reasons it should not have appealed to me though.

The premise of the series is that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey and he travels in his TARDIS, a space-time vehicle with the outward appearance of a 1960s era British police call box (although it is much bigger on the inside). He almost always has human companions who he seems to truly care for (platonically).

I am not normally drawn to time travel based plots because I don’t think time travel is plausible in any practical sense. I also find the paradoxes involved difficult to fit into any coherent philosophical outlook and irreconcilable with my personal understanding of physics. Since I am unable to suspend disbelief in this particular area, I cannot normally get into time travel stories.

But I really like Doctor Who. Why?

It is the character of the Doctor I find compelling. There is his quixotic outlook toward injustice, his almost childlike sense of wonder, his enthusiasm for discovery, and, of course, his unique sense of fashion. The combination makes for a mildly eccentric and totally likeable character. But what I find most appealing about the Doctor is his perception of humanity.

In many, if not most science fiction stories, aliens come in two types insofar as their regard toward humanity goes; hostile and benign indifference. The Doctor is different. He does not see humans as worthy adversaries (e.g. Klingons), best ignored (e.g. Vulcans), or lunch (e.g. Alien). He finds us fascinating and, surprisingly, admirable and inspiring. Yes, we can certainly be barbaric, judgmental, superstitious, and paranoid but he also sees that we recognize these shortcomings and work to overcome them.

The way he looks at humanity as a whole across time and simultaneously as unique individuals provides the basis for his unique perspective. A few episodes, very few, suggest that the Doctor himself is “half human,” but it remains unclear if this is meant to describe his genetics or his attitude. Which of these it actually is hardly matters though with regard to his unique outlook. He sees us from the inside, as individuals inhabiting specific points in space-time, as well as from the outside, as an evolving species across the vast expanse of space-time, and he admires our desire and ability to progress and grow, both as individuals and as a species. Our need to understand the universe and ourselves, our capacity to reflect and question our assumptions, our instinct for compassion–these are the things that have allowed us to go from competing bands of odiferous vermin collectors heaving shards of flint at one another, to large, technologically advanced societies with (relatively) just laws, which strive to coexist. He seems certain that these traits will allow us to continue to learn, understand and evolve. I would like to believe he is right.

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