BBC Books

Author Peter Darvill-Evans Cover image
ISBN# 0 563 53833 3
Published 2001
Featuring The Fourth Doctor and Nyssa

Synopsis: The fourth Doctor investigates a murder in 1278, aided by Nyssa of Traken... who fondly remembers the cricketing incarnation she last saw on Terminus.


A Review by Finn Clark 12/8/01

And lo, I say unto you... here be no spoilers.

I'd better kick off this review by declaring a personal interest. Most of Asylum is set in Oxford in 1273 AD... and I've lived near that city all my life. I buy my Doctor Who books there. I've visited it at least once a month for many years. What's more, I have a strong interest in history (I found the 23-page historical essay at the back of Asylum almost more interesting than the novel itself!) and so it was probably inevitable that I would be fascinated by the book's historical setting. I knew enough of both the period and the locale to keep recognising stuff and seeing new slants on things I'd always known in another way. To be honest, that was the book's strongest appeal for me.

Asylum has a modest plot, so relaxed that it doesn't even bother explaining all the questions it raises (though as The Burning showed us, a good novel doesn't necessarily need explanations). Roger Bacon's quite fun, but personally I felt that the most interesting character was the city of Oxford itself. Peter Darvill-Evans creates a lively, bustling world that's rich and complex, in itself a worthy focus for your attention. His original characters simply potter around within it and fulfil their functions. Some are amiable and sorta likeable, such as Alfric (though his name was close enough to Adric's to feel odd in a novel that also stars the Fourth Doctor and Nyssa).

But by all the heavens, Richard of Hockley is an annoying nerd. I wanted to give him a good kicking throughout. I don't care how authentic or historically accurate he might be, for this 21st-century reader he was just a pain in the arse.

The Doctor isn't Tom Baker at all, but that's only the start of my problems with him. You see, I'd been particularly hoping to see the contrast between the sombre twilight figure of Traken+Logopolis and his mercurial, ruthless younger self of Season Fifteen. (Or at least I'm assuming Asylum is set there. We can't tell from the back cover any more, so it could just as easily be set between Invasion of Time and Ribos Operation. I don't think it is, though.) Teaming up a Doctor with a companion he hasn't yet met is such a peculiar, counter-intuitive thing to do that it automatically gets our nerve-ends twitching. We scuttle suspiciously from under our rocks and sniff the air with our antennae. I wanted greater subtleties and tonal variations than normal and I didn't get 'em.

I can't even think of any reason why it had to be Tom Baker. I think Peter Davison's Doctor would have worked quite well in Asylum (and since they've just commissioned a Hartnell novel with Ben and Polly, don't give me the argument that there's no companionless gap for Davison).

Nyssa... well, she's not bad. She's recognisably the character created in Keeper of Traken, though I don't remember ever thinking of Sarah Sutton. Bringing back an ex-companion (in a PDA!?!) gives the writer the freedom to do whatever he likes with the character. There's a sense of danger. Nyssa is integral to the story of Asylum, both in terms of "it couldn't happen without her" and by the kind of person she is. It had to be her, not any other former companion.

One thing I appreciated is that Peter Darvill-Evans didn't go for the cheap trick of killing her husband, dooming her to a life of misery on an alien planet or any of the other gimmicks we've seen used to bring a little drama to other returning companions in the novels. (Yes, I realise she didn't marry anyone in her goodbye story.) Instead he gives Nyssa a successful and pleasant life after leaving the TARDIS, which pleased me and was particularly surprising given the grimness of Terminus. Of all the companions that might have been plunged even deeper into tragedy after leaving the Doctor, at greatest risk was perhaps Nyssa. Yes, things aren't perfect for her, but that's inevitable for a character in a novel. There's got to be something wrong so it can be set right.

Overall I found Asylum to be a charming and fascinating portrayal of the history of a city I know very well indeed. Some of the time it even had a Doctor Who subplot. It's consciously modest in its scope - I remember finishing the book and thinking "is that it?" - but for what it was, I enjoyed it. However I'm not sure what I'd have thought if I'd been brought up in another continent and less interested in history.

A Review by Richard Radcliffe 17/9/01

My policy of getting all 4th Doctor books was beginning to look decidedly shaky recently. Apart from the pretty good Eye of Heaven & Festival of Death, BBC Books had failed to produce anything memorable for the most popular incarnation of the Doctor. But faithful to the end Asylum was purchased simply because it was 4th Doctor!

What a good choice that turned out to be! I like Historical books. The Doctor is investigating an anomaly in Time, and he arrives at the house of Nyssa (years on from her travels with the Doctor). They both go back to the subject of the anomaly – Roger Bacon, a Franciscan Monk, 1278, Oxford England.

I easily pictured the 4th Doctor roaming through the friary cloisters. No doubt due to Tom Bakers’ autobiographical insights into his monastic background. Nyssa was perfectly at home in the ramparts and pretty gardens of noble aristocracy. Yes, the author grasped the essence of the 2 main characters well.

The story, a detective one, is fascinating in places. The Doctor and Nyssas’ arrival in Oxford becoming a street show, Roger Bacon's conservatory on an island on a river. Who did it, and why, dominated the book from start to finish. It really got me thinking who did the dastardly deed. The monks lives were described well, not too much detail, but enough to pique your interest, and provide an interesting setting.

There are also some flaws in there though. The dashing Richard is dull. His affection for Nyssa is boring in the extreme. There are not nearly enough scenes around Oxford itself, the castle and Friary dominating the book. The Doctor also seems a little indecisive too in places (collect Bacon's writings or not, for example) – that’s not Tom Bakers’ Doctor.

I wasn’t too bothered by the 4th Doctor meeting Nyssa before their time together (you know what I mean) either. They are apart for the lions’ share of the book anyway. Nyssa was a superficial, but nice addition to a book dominated elsewhere by the Friary and the 4th Doctor. I found the scene with the Doctor and Nyssa at the end of the book a real highlight though. A tender and affectionate portrayal of 2 great characters.

It is not perfect – but it is a very good 4th Doctor book. And for that I am most satisfied. I thought the Historical Fact bit at the back of the book was a great insight – everytime the Doctor goes into the past there should be one of these. 8/10

Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 21/9/01

At around 220 pages this is a fairly short story by BBC Books standards (the only other one comparable recently is Endgame). It just looks bigger because there's a 30 page essay included at the end for free.

The story is very much a murder mystery by numbers set in the thirteenth century. It is relatively straightforward, and I correctly identified the murderer before half-way, so the rest of the book was mainly waiting for everyone else to plod through clues and catch-up. It's all very well to say 'yes, but the Doctor doesn't know', but from his comments at the end the Doctor did know early on as well but doesn't say anything, to keep the book going as far as I can guess.

Asylum is a historical that revolves around Roger Bacon, who is produced as the truly great mind prior to the Industrial Revolution. Whilst I don't have a problem with the book revolving around him, I do have a problem with this motivation. I have just one thing to say: Leonardo da Vinci.

The Doctor himself is running by the numbers too. He is there, but doesn't really do incredibly much. In many ways, as the Fourth Doctor, he is very out of character, taking a very reserved attitude towards his involvement. Even the rather elderly First Doctor could have kept up with events, and he's about as opposite to the Fourth Doctor as you get.

One of the big things about Asylum is the inclusion of post-Terminus Nyssa. I, for one, could not see any real reason for her being involved other than perhaps Peter Darvill-Evans really wanted to write for her. While she does get a lot of scenes, most of them have her just sitting around wanting to do nothing but sit around. Indeed, apart from her arrival and departure, she spends the entire novel in the castle when the action is in town. With this set-up (Fourth Doctor plus Nyssa) this should have been so much more.

My favourite character of Asylum is the knight, Richard. He is very well written, and I liked the way he kept persevering in the face of abject rejection. However, with what happens to him at the end I doubt that Peter Darvill-Evans has the same respect for the character, and deals with him in an entirely back-handed way, which did a lot for not sustaining my interest in the generic story. The other characters were fairly one-dimensional, with only Roger Bacon being barely more than that.

But what Peter Darvill-Evans does well, and what really saves this book, is the atmosphere that he creates. Despite his apologetic essay, Asylum is extremely believable in terms of the town and the people who lived there. It was this evocative story-telling that kept me turning the page.

Asylum contains a generic story, an out-of-character Doctor and an irrelevant Nyssa. But the story-telling keeps this book from being worse than it shouldn't have been, but nearly was. It could be worse, but ultimately isn't.

A Review by Dave Roy 25/9/01

Peter Darvill-Evans has done a lot of research into 13th century Oxford. It shows throughout this book. It makes Oxford an interesting place, and somewhere you'd love to visit (or, in this case, study). He's got the latent, and sometimes overt, anti-semitism down, the politics between the church and the government, and lots of other historical detail.

Shame about the story, though. If this had been a history book, it would have been great. However, this is supposed to be an exciting Dr. Who adventure, and it falls a bit flat when it tries to fulfill that purpose. There is little mystery in the Name of the Rose style plot. The Doctor is generic, with even few of the mannerisms of the Fourth Doctor. That's surprising, because usually authors' generic Doctors have only the cliched mannerisms of the Doctor they're trying to portray.

The worst part about this book, though, is Nyssa. There is little point in having her meet the Doctor before he has officially met her in his timeline. Not much is made of that at all. There is no special relationship between the Doctor and her which would require this odd bending of the timestreams, and nothing comes out of it. It is nothing but an excuse to do a character study on Nyssa. Why couldn't Darvill-Evans have had the Sixth Doctor meet her? It would have had the same effect on the narrative. And raise your hand if you buy the "I'll remember to forget you" hand-wave to "explain" why the Doctor doesn't just say "Why hello, Nyssa, haven't seen you since the 13th century" when he lands on Traken.

The pathetic introduction of Nyssa is also disappointing. Darvill-Evans must have been reading some of the talk on the Net about how some fans fantasize about her. That's the only excuse I can think of for Nyssa's opening scene, where the author really emphasizes that Nyssa is naked throughout it, or swimming.

Then, when she gets to 13th Century England, she doesn't do anything! She sits in isolation, trying hard to remove herself from the world, until forced to do something at the end (how convenient). It may have made an interesting character study if: 1) it hadn't been written so tediously; and 2) it hadn't been meshed very badly with a murder mystery plot. In capable hands, the character study may even have been captivating. That being said, my image of Nyssa says to me that she would never reach this point of despondency to begin with. She is a strong character, who volunteered to stay among the futuristic version of lepers to help them find a cure for the disease, even though she may catch the disease as well. I can see her needing a break, especially after all of the stuff that Darvill-Evans describes that she's gone through. What I can't see is her attempted total withdrawal from everything. It just doesn't suit her.

The shortness of the book only demonstrates more that something more needed to be done. There's so much lavish description of Oxford showing off the author's research, that it's obvious if he'd taken any of that out, the book would have been too short for publication. In short, read it if you have any historical interest in England or in Oxford specifically with only a mild interest in Doctor Who. If you're a fan of the 4th Doctor or Nyssa, stay away. No matter what the cover says, you won't find them in here.

Quite Charming by Robert Smith? 2/10/01

Peter Darvill-Evans once again confounds my expectations. Independence Day showed every sign of major suckage potential, yet mysteriously failed to be the disaster it should have been. Asylum didn't have quite as bad an expectation, but it's easily as much of an improvement on Independence Day as that book was on Deceit. At this rate, I predict that we'll have a new Simon Messingham in about seven or eight books' time.

Asylum really shouldn't work as well as it does. There's a murder mystery which is entertaining enough, but the identity of the murderer is so obvious that you'd think the shocking twist is going to be that he didn't do it after all. The Doctor isn't really on. Nyssa spends almost the entire novel sitting in a garden, which should be absolutely unforgivable, but for some reason isn't.

There are two ways in which this book really shines and they're enough to make up for its more obvious faults. The first is in the details of thirteenth century Oxford. I've never been to Oxford and certainly not in the thirteenth century, but I found this a delight. There's lots of description, which can be both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing, because it really tries (and succeeds) to evoke the period in which it's set, yet the curse of grounding the story to a halt for yet more details of who worked where and ate what isn't really an issue here, since a) the pace is fairly stately to begin with and b) the aforementioned mystery isn't strong enough to hold the book up on its own.

The second way in which the book excels is its odd pairing of a pre-Traken fourth Doctor and a post-Terminus Nyssa. Which is weird, because they don't actually spend that much time together in the novel. The first immediate bonus is that continuity is kept to an absolute minimum, because these character's simply can't say anything to each other about their pasts or futures. The allows the book to get on with telling its own story, which I really appreciate.

Others have suggested that this pairing is inappropriate and the story would have worked with Nyssa and (say) the sixth Doctor, but I can't agree. I think it's vitally important we have the Doctor-Companion pair we get (see below). How often can one say that about any PDA?

The Doctor is... okay. He's a little generic, but I suspect that might even be deliberate. I honestly couldn't place this fourth Doctor and that really adds to the unsettling feeling the book has already imposed with this odd TARDIS crew. He's fairly blase about leaving Nyssa to her own devices, which is one reason the fourth Doctor is important here. That's a little disturbing, but certainly within character. With Nyssa out of the action, the Doctor gets a lot to do, solving the mystery and not even bothering to pretend to be a monk, which is quite amusing. I don't have any real complaints in this regard - it was never his book anyway.

It's with Nyssa that the book really shines. We get actual character exploration... and in a PDA, no less! I do believe this might be a first. This older Nyssa is a great character, mixing world weariness and fears for her safety in a dangerous universe with much of the innocence that defined the character on TV. It doesn't matter at all that she spends most of the novel sitting in gardens and reflecting - because we're getting to see what makes her tick and how her travels with the Doctor have changed her for better and worse.

This really comes together at the end, when she tells the Doctor he'll have to take extra care not to get her killed and he says "I don't make a habit of letting my companions die." This is utterly crucial to the book's central theme. So much so that you simply couldn't have a post-Earthshock Doctor here (the later Doctors have left companions to fend for themselves true, but not out of sheer optimistic belief that everything would be all right, as the fourth Doctor has here). Only a companion who had experienced the loss of another could work as well and Tegan just wouldn't react in the same way (and no, you don't get the same effect or latitude for Doctor shuffling if you tried to use Steven). Even an earlier Doctor wouldn't have worked here, since Nyssa absolutely needs to know exactly who she's dealing with. That makes this an utterly unavoidable Doctor-Companion pairing. I'm officially impressed.

Asylum's length is also just right. The story ends exactly where it should and sensibly stops right there, rather than trying to pad itself out for another 50 pages. This is long overdue in these sorts of books (see Tempest for an example of a murder-mystery novella with a reasonably decent story that adds 100 pages of padding to keep the page count up).

I would have been happy enough with a 226 page book, but the author throws in a 22 page essay at the end. That's right, 22 pages. When I first picked up Asylum, I thought this was either a joke, or a desperate attempt to pad out the pages to the BBC's exacting standard. While I was reading the book, I thought the appendix would be redundant, given the satisfying amount of detail already presented. However, not only does it dovetail nicely with the book, but it really shows just how much research Darvill-Evans has done... and it's quite clear that he's been content to keep most of it for the essay, despite the level of detail within the story. I never felt that the author was including research for its own sake in the story, so he gets to do it in the appendix.

And what a well-written appendix it is too. I mean, when you think of Deceit, you think of a story involving dubious lesbians, gratuitous violence and the reinvention of Ace without any sort of plan as to where she was going. (Or maybe that's just me.) But there's that brilliant essay in the back, where Darvill-Evans outlines his Manifesto for the New Adventures, complete with compelling reasons why there shouldn't be any Missing Adventures. And, sad to say, Asylum is the exception that proves his rule, showing just how much most PDAs can't get away with.

I quite liked Asylum, but I loved that essay. Peter Darvill-Evans shouldn't be writing novels, he should be publishing book-length essays instead. The level of detail is fascinating and the tangents are amusing and informative (and the history of both my first name and surname is included for free!). This is fantastic stuff, written like a dream and the author's bombastic style really coming to the fore. Peter Darvill-Evans just might be our version of Harlan Ellison. Who'd have thunk it?

What's more, there's the whole language issue with the TARDIS translation circuits. Not only do the Doctor and Nyssa default to different languages, they can switch at will. I read this in the book and I rolled my eyes in disbelief. And yet, in the essay at the back, there's a wonderful justification for this, without even trying, that makes everything all right. I really appreciate the thought that has gone into this book.

My one major complaint is that the murder mystery is a little too obvious. It's not as bad as it could be, but I think the plot could have been greatly improved with another level of thinking. We already know that the aliens have placed someone near to Roger Bacon, so it's not too tough to figure out the likely candidate. I think that if he weren't the murderer and someone else was for more earthly reasons, the book could have worked a lot better. Saying that the alien developed a taste for killing doesn't really cut it. The other alternative would be to swing everything around and have Oswald's revelation be delayed so that it ties up the murder mystery with a second suspicious figure. This could have really turned a good book into a great one and it's such a shame that the book's one failing is the one that's so much on the surface.

I also really liked the aliens, especially because we got so little about them (not even the names of their race). Like a good Justin Richards book, the first prologue should be reread immediately after the epilogue for maximum effect.

Overall, I really liked Asylum. It's thoughtful, detailed without being overdone and has some really interesting character exploration. The slightly-too-obvious murder mystery lets it down a bit, but only a bit. The setting is fabulous and the themes really work in conjunction with the unusual Doctor-Companion pairing. Plus, it's got the essay at the back for added bonus. Recommended.

Mismatched by Joe Ford 21/2/03

A have a few problems with this book which I have to adress at the begining of this review. Not major mistakes, but definitely problems it could have done without.

Firstly, the prolouge which hints at a strong SF novel in the historical format. All indications are that this race are travelling back in time to create the Elixir of Life so they can survive the plague and all the other nasties the future is about to bring. It's a nice idea for a story and one that should have been exploited but it's basically forgotten. Aside from a little TARDIS travelling there are no other science fiction elements in the book. A small nitpick but I firmly believe you should have a grasp on a book from its first chapter onwards and in Asylum the prolouge is highly misleading.

Secondly, the murder mystery. A favourite genre of mine when it's done well. Unfortunately the murderer is obvious here from the word go. I'm sure Mr Darvill Evans could have hidden the lead suspect a bit more but as it is he's out in the open doing suspicous things and the only character with something to lose. Reading the story I can see ways where he could have implicated Alfric and Oswald more or at least thrown in a few more likely characters. As it is the 'revelation' at the end is far from it.

Thirdly, ahem, the fourth Doctor and Nyssa. Why? Needlesly complicating continuity (which I don't care much for but when flouting the rules so outrageously as here...) and a little pointless since they only spend three or four scenes together in the whole book. Why couldn't this have been set between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity with the fifth Doctor (who would have suited the more emotive Doctor dialogue too)? Hell Nyssa has seen enough tragedy to be as upset at that point to want to escapoe the world? And blimey... the fourth Doctor is mighty subdued isn't he? I can't ever remember him being quite this respectful/sombre/in the background (delete as applicable).

Righty-ho. If you're reading this Mr Darvill-Evans I'd just like to say congratulations. For all these complaints are like petals in the wind as the book itself is bloody marvellous. And I mean marvellous.

This is a book that is so gorgeously written, so vividly depicted I only read about twenty pages at a time as I was regularly overhwelmed with the stunning simplicity that he tells his story. Oxford comes alive as though we are witnessing it on screen and the different factions and their beliefs were explored quite beautifully.

Not only that but there is some deft characterisation here to that other authors would do well to take note of. For example Richard is superbly drawn, a valliant knight born for battle but lovestruck everytime he claps eyes on Nyssa. Or Alfric, the proctor, devoted to his order but wrangling politics to keep the place afloat. With all the problems involved in this story that he manages to escape unscathed is a miracle. Even smaller characters like Oswald, stricken with grief over his dead lover and paranoid that he might be framed for his murder.

Nyssa, despite my misgivings about the point in her timeline is also gloriously handled. Her disgust towards the universe and all its evil was quite belivable and her cynical, at times unlikable new persona, always out for herself made fascinating reading. Her outburst at Richard is another example of Peter's fine writing, we understand Nyssa's frustration but we're still rooting for Richard all the way.

I love the detailed and poetic descrtiptions of the locations, many authors are content to describe the surrounding quickly and effeciently but the freshness and intensity of the locations here are quite astonishing. One scene opened with Nyssa waking in the castle and looking out at her glorious view, a view I whish I could see myself it was so well captured. Alfric's exploration of Roger's observatory was another scene that goes into great detail and again the effect is stunning.

Yes it's slow and it doesn't have that much going on but this isn't a high octine thriller or cowboys and indians in space, it's a thoughtful historical with a real heart. It thrives on subtle characterisation and brilliant dialogue. Its not quite what thew words say but how they're used. This is the result of an artist who paints a vivid world and absorbs you into it charmingly.

It wasn't perfect, the attempted tension filled ending was anything but and Nyssa's realisation was hardly spectacular but in the end I was so caught up in the atmosphere of it all I couldn't call it a failure. Not by a long chalk.

Asylum was an interesting experiment, one that only partially succeded but it was certainly a brave move to tell a story of this nature and for Mr Darvill-Evans to let the writing win you over rather than a gripping story.