THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC Books
Amorality Tale

Author David Bishop Cover image
ISBN# 0 563 538?? ?
Published 2002
Featuring The Third Doctor and Sarah

Synopsis: The Doctor and Sarah encounter the smog that killed thousands of people in London in December 1952 as well as East End mobsters.


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 27/6/02

Wahay! That was great!

For quite a while, I thought this book was going to be a big let-down for me. The reason is simple and probably unique to very odd people (like myself). It's Terrance Dicks. I've read or reread all his Who-related books to date over the past few months, and one of his favourite tropes is gangsters. Blood Harvest. Mean Streets. There you'll find 'em, crooks and thugs... but with a heart of gold, every last one of them. Yeah, right. If Uncle Terry's books weren't so relentlessly shallow and bouncy on every level, it would almost be offensive.

Amorality Tale gave me Terrance Dicks flashbacks. Gangsters in an early 20th century historical setting. Short sentences and big print. This is a simple, direct book that goes quickly from scene to scene without worrying overmuch about flowery prose. The gangsters seemed more violent than I was accustomed to from Terrance, but otherwise I couldn't find much to grab my attention.

Oh, and in future books could the Third Doctor use "Venusian Aikido"? Not "Venusian Aiki-Do". Perhaps I'm biased because I used to do aikido myself, but boy was that annoying.

Then came the "far more terrifying threat" referred to on the back cover, with a bog-standard name and a bog-standard (and occasionally stupid) modus operandi. If anything, my expectations sank. It was all workmanlike enough, but there was no spark to keep me going. It was a little like a Hartnell historical, not the original TV stories but the rather grim, humourless versions churned out more recently by the books (e.g. Bunker Soldiers).

But then the chaos started and I started having fun.

Amorality Tale gives us some truly evil bastards, then sends them to war. I thought they were great! David Bishop doesn't do a Dicks and turn them into good guys. This is like a Martin Scorsese film, but set in fifties London and starring Doctor Who. It's violent, brutal and extremely effective. They also make good foils for the Doctor and Sarah, who come out of this extremely well. (The latter was an especially pleasant surprise, since without Liz Sladen the books' Sarah Jane has often struggled to achieve even two dimensions.)

There's real pain. You care about these people and their suffering. The historical period is well evoked, despite the simplicity of the prose. I've seen complaints that the violence is extreme... here and there I suppose it is, but personally I'd have felt slightly offended if it wasn't. To write about these people without showing us what they do would be to sugar-coat them and turn them into Terrance Dicks comedy characters. What's more, it's a compliment to David Bishop's writing that he wrung that reaction from us hardened Doctor Who readers. We've read enough wannabe Hinchcliffe horror stories to become rather blase about gruesome gore and severed body parts (Kursaal, Deep Blue, etc.).

Even the most thuggish of characters get quiet moments that bring them alive. This isn't a particularly sophisticated book, but it's a well-crafted one that speaks from the heart. Traditional, but in a good way.


A Review by Stevie Good 15/8/02

Amorality Tale was a special novel for me, due to the fact that I used to go to school in old street, and we used to play in the church mentioned in the book. I dont think that we were supposed to enter the premesis, but, as kids do, we did, and I found its stony walls and crumbling inner rooms quite haunting. The novel brought this all back to me, and can probably explain some of the strange sensations I got, when I visited it as a teenager.

The rest of the book rolls on in a fair enough way, and I actually found it very enjoyable, if a bit lacking in action until the very end. I revisited the church earlier this year (15 years on) and found it had changed drastically, I was also the victim of hurled abuse, from a tramp who happened to be sitting, drunk, outside. Oh well, perhaps he is part of the latest update in the aliens return to earth, perhaps for that matter so am I. Creepy.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 5/9/02

David Bishop is an excellent writer, one of the best in the entire Who Range. Considering all the Doctor Who writers that adorn my shelf, that's quite a statement. But I have now read 2 of his books (he only has 2 out), and they are both excellent reads.

The prose is terrifically involving. It's easy to read, and the story is simple to follow. Everything moves logically, and there is no turning back to the start of the book to see where "such and such a character" entered the story. The characters are introduced well, and all are distinguished from one another. There's no merging of the fields, like you get with many novels that have a lot of people in them.

The choice of Doctor and Companion is an interesting one. The traditional Pertwee Novels adopt UNIT and/or Jo - the best of these being Last of the Gadarene. But this is not traditional 3rd Doctor. UNIT is nowhere to be seen, and this fits into that Time Warrior bracket of Pseudo-Historical. The history is modern, admittedly, but I doubt many of the readers of this book will be able to remember 1952 and the Great Smog over London.

Jon Pertwees Doctor is brought to life superbly. Opening a shop in the East End filled with clocks and all kinds of timepieces is a brilliant idea. Pertwee as Watchmender seems totally right. All the inflections and mannerisms associated with this Doctor are apparent - this is spot on and brought a nostalgic glow around me as I read.

Sarah-Jane is equally impressively brought to life. Put right into the middle of East End gangland she is the strong, but feminine woman that epitomized the best companion of all. She is as much a star of the book as the Doctor - and I was hugely pleased with that.

The rest of the characters are excellent. Tommy Ramsey is the archetypal Gang Leader, but better written than these characters usually are. Straight from prison he looks to reassert his control of the East End. His collection of cohorts come through the inevitable cliches that are apparent in such an organization. Jack Cooper, Brick and Harris could have been boring, but they are not at all. Callum, the leader of the rival gang, is well concealed too, until his true nature comes to the fore. There's some nice extra touches too. Ma Ramsey, Tommy's Mum, is a likeable woman despite aiding the gangsters and her religious beliefs. Mary, local woman with 3 kids by 3 different chaps, who befriends Sarah-Jane, is also sensitively written. The best though is Father Xavier Simmons. The book opens with this American, and the book is tremendous whenever he's in it, which is a lot (especially in the first half). Bishop is a master of characterization, and all (even the gangsters) are shown to be 3-Dimensional and as fearful as each other when the real danger surfaces.

The story is a traditional one. Aliens invading, whatever the year is staple DW material. But the setting and the different time are what makes the book special. It's the evocation of that era, and the characters that inhabit that era, that give the book a flavour quite different and welcome. Like Wages of Sin, this is an area the 3rd Doctor should have gone to more. But then I really like Pseudo-Historicals, so I might even be totally biased!

Fitting a story around an historical event is also staple DW material. With the historical drama unfolding in an era that is recognizable, the effect is that bit more frightening. That such a thing as the Smog of London could happen so recently (relatively), is also terrifying. Bishop exaggerates this for the effect of the story, but the Smog over London of 1952 was very real, and very frightening too. Bishop accurately describes the fear of the populace at that time, mixing it with Science Fiction elements superbly well. This is not a book that cuts the corners depicting horrors. They are there, and the emotional reaction to such trauma is particularly well represented.

Like Bishop's previous work Who Killed Kennedy, this is a real page turner. The just less than 300 page count fairly sped past. As the story grew and developed so I was entranced with the whole thing. A fabulous book, with every ingredient for brilliant Who right in place. 10/10


Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 11/11/02

Of all the things Amorality Tale does, it commits what I consider to be a great sin, that of unoriginality. This isn't Amorality Tales' fault, per se, but when there have been so many stories done in the Doctor Who universe, there's bound to be repetition of ideas on a very crude level. As such, time and time again we have seen that almost every single important event in the Earth's history that the Doctor has been involved with, there has been alien involvement, in fact an alien cause for the important event. Very few historicals now are truly historical, and I look forward to the stories that are.

All that said, Amorality Tale is an entertaining read. The image of a city wreathed in fog creates a claustrophobic feel that David Bishop evokes to great effect (although there is some inconsistency in how in one scene Sarah can barely see her hand in front of her face, then later can see part way down a street). The fog is very much the threat of the book, but how can someone fight a fog? We are told that thousands of people will die, so already we have the idea that the fog be a big killer, which increases the level of anticipation (although again another inconsistency arises where the fog supposedly becomes poisonous, yet the characters wander about without any problems... on the other hand, this isn't the first time the TARDIS has overestimated the danger of London atmosphere, see The Daleks' Master Plan, episode 7).

The Doctor has a particular agenda in this story. He knows that thousands of people will die, but his main concern is stopping the aliens. This isn't to say that he doesn't care, but he is very much aware of the bigger picture and that is what drives him. Sarah Jane, on the other hand, gets involved with those people, and is the reader's view into the human side of the story. It's through her that we care about Mary and her children, about Frank and Rose, and through her into the world of Tommy Ramsey. Despite that, she still retains a distance as she, and we, know that she isn't a true part of the events that are unfolding.

Tommy Ramsey is an opposite to the Doctor. He cares for the people around him, but goes about protecting them in entirely different ways, and is very much about the ends justifying the means, especially violent means. His role in the 'morality tale' aspect of Amorality Tale is obvious, but of that whole side of this story it's not important (as least, didn't seem so to me) to know who represents what to keeping up with, nor enjoy, the story.

Of the other characters, there's Jack who likes to destroy things with fire. Not the most engaging character, but his final moment is nice. Brick ('His name is Arthur') is pretty much a cliché, but still works. Father Simmons took a lot of work to work, but still had problems in the end, I felt. The aliens themselves were nicely different, but I had trouble believing in them at the end.

At the end of the day, Amorality Tale is a decent read, but I felt had some problems that took away some enjoyment of the story.


Bloody english weather!by Joe Ford 7/4/03

Let's get straight to the point, this book is a neglected gem, undeservedly forgotten by the hordes. This is surely the best PDA we've had in ages and since it's release only one book has come close to being half as entertaining (Relative Dementias). I read it after Fear of the Dark and I'm afraid it knocks spots of that enjoyable romp. It has everything a good PDA needs, a strong cast of characters, a simple but engaging story, an experimental nature and a superbly realised monster. A lot of writers could do well to learn from David Bishop.

It is the characters that make Amorality Tale and I found it incredible how quick I came to sympathise with them. Tommy Ramsey is the most developed character and lights up the story whenever he appears and most of his stooges are fairly memorable too. I really like Brick, the gentle giant who works as a muscle for Tommy but only wants to care for his pigeons. Even smaller characters like Rose and Frank Kelly who are only around for about three or four scenes but are described with such brilliant simplicity I was left devastated by their fate. That is Bishops' greatest strength he is not so arrogant to keep all his characters alive and his large cast of characters are chopped down in the most unexpected and dramatic of times. He is not above appealing to sympathies with children and priests and throwing their awful fates in our faces. There are too many "that's not fair" moments in this book that prove the writer really has gotten you to like his characters.

In a touch of brilliance Bishop chooses to use the neglected third Doctor/Sarah combination and it adds to the freshness of the book. It is immediately arresting to not have Jo around but it makes the story much more interesting to see the third Doctor play against the more rounded Sarah. It's so close to Planet of the Spiders and you can feel it weighing on the Doctor's shoulders. This older, more contemplative as far more interesting to read about than the walking wardrobe of seasons nine and ten. As the fog closes around London and the people start to die you can feel his desperation and his almost resigned fate to leave them to die. His rare scenes with Sarah are fascinating, he barely acknowledges her or her feelings until she says she wants to stop what is destined to happen. It says a lot about his role in the scheme of things at how quietly appalled he is with himself.

And what a Sarah! The Sarah of season eleven was a different woman to the one who travelled about with the loony bohemian. She was tougher, intelligent and full of fiery pluck. Bishop has caught everything I love about Lis Sladen's initial portrayal. I love how she double deals her way into the Ramsey gang and stands up to Tommy despite the fact that she's "only a girl". It is her quiet scenes with the gangster that make the book, their relationship almost borders on romantic and I fully understood why Tommy was instantly attracted to her cheeky attitude. It is through Sarah's eyes that we see the real horror of the situation, the death of a friend, gentle giant Brick's devastation as he breaks down... her admission that she initially thought the historical record of the event was just statistics on a page rings painfully true until she sees it all first hand.

Much like Bishop's Test of Nerve the menace seeps into the story slowly, apparently coming from one direction but suddenly all is revealed in a terrific twist. The Xhinn are beautifully portrayed, mostly through dialogue but their threats come across effectively and strikingly alien. The way they manipulate events is astonishingly cruel and their scenes with the Doctor are excellent, his horror at their attitude comes across palpably. His final solution to the problem shocks and his reaction at the lengths he has gone to help means we never forget just how deadly these creatures are.

But the book belongs the character troubles... the troubled Xavier Simmons who is having to question his faith as his congregation are slaughtered, Tommy Ramsey who just wants the streets safe again, Valentine the bent copper who lives a pathetic life of drink and guilt, Mary who just wants her children to survive the terrible smog, Rose and Frank Kelly who have had hated each other ever since they were married... aside from the SF trappings the story is a tragedy and a particularly effective one for Doctor Who.

People have moaned about the use of genuine history being woven into the story but their claims are quite ludicrous, suggesting it is an insult to the people who died at the time. I found the use of the killer smog intriguing and the genuine locations help add to the gritty realism of the book. Does this mean Shadow in the Glass is insulting to everyone who dies in the second world war? Or The Witch Hunters to those at Salem? Of course not.

The prose is terrific, Terrance Dicks in all but name. We are introduced to locations and character with sudden efficiency and the dialogue is excellent throughout. I especially like the melodramatic chapter endings which end with a disturbing statement at how the situation has got worse and then tails off like this... That is how to tell a gripping story! Where Bishop scores over Dicks is his chosen time period and his ability to shock us with sudden events. He's certainly a braver writer.

A joy to read, I finished this in two enjoyable settings. The upcoming David Bishop novel The Domino Effect will have to be something special to capture the same magic as this did.


Quaint by Robert Smith? 5/6/03

Amorality Tale promises gangsters, a Doctor who's already insinuated himself into the situation, moralising on time travel, killer smog and an even more terrifying threat. And, it has to be said, it pretty much delivers on these promises, with the exception of the last one.

There's a lot to like about this book. First and foremost is the pace, which keeps the action rollicking along. It's written in a straightforward style, but that doesn't hurt it at all. If it's a fast-paced adventure that could easily slot into its respective era, then this is the PDA for you.

All the gangster stuff in the first third makes this section far and away the best part of the novel. The Doctor and Sarah arrive two weeks before the action begins, simply so they can be insinuated into the plot when the book begins, but that's no great crime and helps the book to get moving quite nicely. The Doctor avoiding a gangster's punches is perfectly Pertwee. It's a bit of a shame that his shop gets burnt down so quickly, as it probably would have made a more evocative setting for a base of action than the TARDIS.

The idea of the killer smog is a great one, but not a whole lot is actually done with it. The smog turns up, but just seems to fade into the background in favour of killer policemen and snappy alien dialogue. Which is probably fair enough, as it's hard to have exciting action scenes with lurking smog, but it still feels a bit disappointing. Of all the things the book promises, the smog is by far its most attractive set-piece and consequently the most disappointingly realised.

It's a bit of a shame it has to be aliens behind it all along, although the idea of using humanity's pollution against itself is a nice one. The Xhinn are pretty boring and would have worked better being kept until later in the novel. We've seen these sorts of aliens a thousand times before. The only thing they do have to offer that's worthwhile is their mode of speech, all short sentences in groups of threes. That's a nice stylistic touch and often quite amusing as the Doctor's impassioned moralising continually gets shot down with a triple soundbite.

Tommy Ramsey and Brick are the only original characters with significant roles who get decent characterisation, but they're great. I like Brick best of all, but Tommy doesn't get reformed at the end, which I really appreciate. It's a little odd that Sarah confesses her time travelling ways to Tommy and then nothing is done with it, though. It also feels a bit odd when Bob Valentine shows up after a 200 page absence to reclaim his revenge when we'd long-forgotten he'd existed. A little more characterisation wouldn't have gone astray here.

Fr Xavier doesn't really work well, which is a shame given his importance. The bread is a dead giveaway and I'm not sure if it's supposed to be or not. On the other hand, the tangential characterisation of the minor characters is fantastic. Frank and Rose Kelly get some fabulous stuff for such minor characters and Mary and her daughters are similarly heartbreaking. We really feel the effects on the city by seeing through the eyes of these people. That said, Mary's fate is left frustratingly ambiguous. We simply don't know if she survived or not, which feels like a cheat given how much work was put into her earlier.

The Doctor and Sarah are spot-on, which is nice, although this also means the Doctor ends up saving the day by spending half the novel building a fancy gadget in the TARDIS. Yes, okay, ten out of ten for accuracy, but minus several million for lack of drama. I know these things are meant to emulate the TV style, but there comes a point when they also have to act as novels, at least in passing. You can even see the author struggling to give it all meaning by having the Doctor agonise about his use of the Time Bomb and his attempts to make it sound as though he might be lying. Here's a tip for next time: it would have worked a lot better if he had been.

Amorality Tale is a great read, even if it is a little underambitious. The characterisation is pretty good on the whole and truly excellent in places. The alien invasion plot takes up too much of the novel's length, but even this is saved by the funky dialogue. It does what it says on the tin and does it pretty well. You could do a lot worse.


"Woke Up This Morning" by Jason A. Miller 8/12/03

It's not a very good book, but Amorality Tale is actually one of the rare Past Doctor novels that would translate well to television. Set in December 1952, when the East End of London was choked by a killer smog that took 10,000 lives, David Bishop's tale is populated with gangsters and a man of God. Some creative casting turns the book into that science-fiction episode of "The Sopranos" that never got written, and all of a sudden this annoying little novel becomes a winner.

Think about it. Tommy Ramsey (it's spelled as "Ramsay" too) is the head gangster in the run-down East End -- which, in United States terms, is clearly the New Jersey, to central London's New York -- so he's obviously Tony Soprano. Cast him as James Gandolfini and you've got a deal. Meanwhile, his gang is being eyed lustily from the outside by a big-time gangster named McManus (or, depending on the page, MacManus) who does side deals with Ramsey's lieutenants and wears a camel-haired coat. That's Johnny Sack, played on TV by Vincent Curatola. Ramsey's bodyguard is named "Brick", the big guy with the sensitive heart. That's Big P, of course, so get Vincent Pastore on the phone. Bob Valentine, the drunken detective on the Ramsey payroll... well, he's either John Heard's detective from Season 1 of "The Sopranos", or the Bobby Valentine who used to manage the New York Mets. Meanwhile, Ramsey's doting mom may actually try to kill him. Sound familiar? The rest of Ramsey's mob is pretty faceless, but if you randomly read their dialogue with the voices of Tony Sirico and Joe Pantoliano, it's palatable.

Why go through this elaborate casting exercise? Well, to avoid the pain of all the downbeat badly-written death. We learn from the very beginning that the body count will reach five figures, so we learn not to get too attached to the many one-dimensional secondary characters we meet. But there is a neat trick to figure out just when they'll die. These cardboards are lovingly introduced with just a name (sometimes a first and a last name, even), and a comedic physical description. But that's all we learn... until the character's entire backstory is dumped on us in a three-paragraph splunge. When you see that splunge... duck! Someone is about to die horribly! It's the summer blockbuster tactic of not naming a supporting character... until the moment before his death, when his name is used four times.

Amorality Tale does well with its prose for about 100 pages. The Doctor and Sarah infiltrate themselves into the East End and watch Ramsey square off against an upstart kid named Callum. We know Callum doesn't belong, because he has pale skin and black eyes. We also know that the man of God, Xavier, doesn't belong -- he's a Catholic priest but his liturgy is entirely Pentecostal (on "The Sopranos", the Catholic priest was played by Paul Schulze, who also plays a good guy/bad guy on "24", so he fits in this cast too). Oh, and there's clearly something odd about the Bread of Life he's trying to sell. So those are the two mysteries. But on page 100, Callum's secret is revealed, and the novel falls apart with an annoying screech right there.

We're introduced to the inevitable alien race, given only a vague description as "creatures of light and darkness". What does that mean? Actually, they're also said to have "a hundred eyes". Yes, but there's a song that says the night has a thousand eyes! And a thousand eyes can't help but see. Top that one, will you?

The Pertwee years were characterized not by monsters, but by developed alien races. The Silurians, the Peladons, the Draconians... these were literate creatures, with a purpose. Event those aliens that wanted to conquer Earth -- Nestenes, Axons -- were given a twist (the Nestenes could manipulate plastic, and Axos came in friendship). The Xhinn, however, just want to grind up the humans into paste. Their "twist" is that they come in groups of three, and speak for pages at a time in single-sentence paragraphs. Boy, doesn't this eat up the word count 'til the cows come home.

By the book's final day, just about everyone is dead. I think only four named characters survive. There's an attempt at Pertwee-style morality when the villains are dispatched, or when Ramsey continues to kill after earning the Doctor's trust. Nothing ground-breaking. Finally, in the epilogue, a long-dead character comes back to life. O-kay. Thanks for playing. Time to store my copy of Amorality Tale in a bowling bag and spend a long weekend in the Pine Barrens with a Czechoslovakian interior decorator.