BBC Books
Beautiful Chaos

Author Gary Russell Cover image
ISBN 1 846 07563 6
Published 2008

Synopsis: The world's population is slowly being converted to a new path, a new way of thinking. Something is coming to Earth, an ancient force from the Dark Times. Something powerful, angry, and all-consuming...


A Review by Steven King 24/10/09

There has been a recent trend with many of the New Series Adventures, and that trend is emphasizing how poorly the characters have been written on New Who. Don't get me wrong, they haven't necessarily been poorly performed, but it seems to me that with Freema Agyeman and Catherine Tate, the strength of the characters are in the actors, not necessarily the writing. There are exceptions to this rule; generally Russell T. Davies understand his creations and knows how to write them (well, some of the time), and Paul Cornell turned in a wonderful story with Martha, and Steven Moffatt did a good story with Donna, but for the most part these characters have suffered from a lack of characterization in other scripts, forcing the actors to bring any depth to the part themselves. Many of the writers seemed to treat Martha as Rose 2: The Unrequited, and Donna as, well, a large sight gag with catch phrases added in from time to time. Thus, when it was time for novels written starring these characters, these deficiencies became glaring. Most of the novels with Martha don't seem to give her much more to do than react. Take any companion from the worst of the Target novelizations, and you could substitute them for Martha and have the same book. But Donna has suffered the worst. The Doctor Trap, an otherwise decent read, had some of the worst characterization of Donna that I have seen. If the author of The Doctor Trap had created his own character instead of using Donna, he may have gotten away with it, but the Donna on the page in no way resembles the Donna from the show. It is with all this in mind that I say that Gary Russell has, with Beautiful Chaos, done a decent, nay, excellent job of providing depth to Donna. In fact, he does the same with Donna's family.

There has been debate in the Doctor Who community over how much time should be devoted to the companion's family. Spending multiple episodes on Mickey and Jackie in series one, showing how those left behind when Rose went off with the Doctor, was something new in Doctor Who. I'll say that again, Russell T. Davies added something new to Doctor Who. In a show with a 40 year history, this is an accomplishment. However, this is something that RTD is skilled in: character moments. And while Mickey and Jackie are both loved and hated, they were at least a tool to see something new and there was genuine character growth. I personally wish we had seen more scenes being critical of Rose, for I personally found her to be a shallow and often selfish character. But that's neither here nor there at the moment. There were attempts to imitate this with Martha's family, but she wasn't a companion long enough to see real growth and change with her family, most of that change occurred in a questionable series finale. But with Donna's family, apart from her wonderful grandfather (is it the script or Bernard Cribbins that make the character work so well?) Donna and her mother are rather hit and miss. In fact, more than Martha and more than Rose, there was so much wasted potential in their characters (wasted potential being a theme for Series Four, in my opinion). Partners in Crime did some good setup, but so much of the season and the development seemed a vehicle for the Really Big Amazing Stuff at the end of the season. We sacrificed stories and characters so we could get Rose and the Doctor back together... sort of.

What Gary Russell does in Beautiful Chaos is fill in the gaps, and these were gaps that desperately needed to be filled. In this new age of Doctor Who, character has became as important as the stories of old, and even in the episodes that are weak, we need good characters. What is shameful is that it took a novel to get inside the Noble family and expose the heartache and pain that lurked beneath the surface of each character, and that this novel is essentially a flashback to something that happened shortly after Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead. It has a post-Journey's End framing narration, before heading back to an incident involving the Mandragora Helix. But while the old-series fan in me gets all giddy about the return of an entity from one of my favorite Tom Baker stories, the writer and artist in me loves getting to see the Noble family, and that is something I never thought I would say. Gary Russell is picking up the characterizations from Turn Left and going deeper, showing how Donna has grown, making Sylvia Noble more sympathetic (and infuriating), and showing Wilf's weakness. This is a hurting, broken family because it is a family haunted by death. This isn't the vague and mysterious death that follows and haunts the Doctor (according to the new series), but a very real and painful death. The death of both Wilf's wife and Donna's dad in the span of a year. These are the rocks upon which the Noble family shattered. Wilf had to bury his pain to be strong for his daughter (despite still hurting), Donna lost her father, and what girl doesn't have a special relationship with a father who is loving and gentle; Sylvia lost her mother and her husband, and she sees her father as fragile and broken, and her daughter as irresponsible and courting death. The Doctor, therefore, represents everything she fears: more death in her family.

So all in all, Gary Russell effectively raises both Sylvia and Donna above being the charicatures they were in the show and makes them into genuine characters. This is a great feat. Wonderful. What about the story?

While being well-paced and well-written, I'm sorry to say that the story itself is perfectly average. With New Who's tendency (especially on the part of RTD) to repeat itself, I couldn't help but see elements in this novel that I had seen on the show. The return of the Mandragora Helix has a bit of a Sontaran Strategem feel to it. The story of Dara Morgan borrows from how the Master created Harold Saxon. In fact, the whole M-TEK aspect of the plot is quite reminescent of how Cybus industries created the Cybermen and how the Archangel network enabled humanity to accept Mr. Saxon. Perhaps these are merely sci-fi tropes that are repeated so often as to be included in any given book at any given time. Perhaps they are a reflection of a social consciousness and love-hate relationship with identity theft and modern technology. Or perhaps, intentionally or unintentionally, Gary Russell is borrowing from the show. It is interesting how in the 1970s the third Doctor fought off an alien invasion every week. Now, as the first decade of the millennium draws to a close we have aliens manipulating our technology and essentially invading from within. This idea was probably best (and most casually) seen in The Story of Martha in which we find an alien race that doesn't invade, but slowly takes over the world economy through business. At least, it was interesting until the Master showed up and killed them. A good idea, quickly quashed by the need to advance the story and end the book. Yet another wasted opportunity.

When you get down to it, the portrayal of the Mandragora Helix leaves me wondering if another alien threat would have been better. Yes, more books will be sold if we bring back a villain, but much as the alien plot in The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky fit the Zygons more than the Sontarans, I don't know that using technology to enslave humanity fits with an alien that derives its power from belief in astrology and the zodiac. Reasons were given in the story, but it could have been any other alien and it wouldn't have been any different.

A great many of the Doctor Who books I have read have been boring or forgettable (or books that you desperately want to forget). Despite the criticisms of the overall story, particularly its choice in villain, I don't believe this book to be one of the boring, forgettable ones. Quite the contrary, I rather enjoyed it. It wasn't particularly challenging, but it was good for an afternoon of escape. So, if you are looking for an entertaining Doctor Who book, one that at the very least is a fun ride, then you could do far worse than Beautiful Chaos.

A Review by Joe Ford 25/11/09

I am noticing something of a theme with the latest Doctor Who books. With their reduced word count, less graphic and more sensitive nature, they are a world apart from the BBC paperbacks which preceded them. If I'm honest, there were some writers for the PDAs and EDAs that I did not think were up to the task of telling a decent Doctor Who story but now I'm starting to wonder if they were just in the wrong format. Colin Brake, Mike Tucker and Gary Russell never really clicked for me when it came to their softbacks but seem to have found their niche in NSAs. Maybe it is because the lower word count produces a tighter book or it could be because these are the authors who are pushing the boundaries of what the NSAs can achieve. Tucker introduced some real horror to the range in The Nightmare of Black Island, Brake juggled several plot threads in his sedate Price of Paradise and here Gary Russell has delved into some pretty heavy characterisation.

There are the usual hallmarks of a Gary Russell book here; focus on a companion he clearly loves, contemporary thriller elements, continuity, the odd gay character but in a range that can forget it is still supposed to be entertaining adults from time to time these are all strengths. Let's look at all of these in turn...

I don't think we should underestimate what Catherine Tate and Russell T Davies managed to achieve with Donna Noble. She was the umpteenth Doctor Who companion in a long line of mostly successful allies the Doctor has travelled with and in particular following on from the insanely popular Ace, Rose Tyler and Martha Jones she had her work cut out for her. Donna managed to be as close a friend as these girls whilst being completely unique. She was that little bit older, she was smart, she was sassy, she was rude and funny and blunt, she was selfless and she was loyal. Donna broke the mould because she was a truly independent character, willing to speak her mind at all times, not just when the plot demanded it. She had a memorable entrance into the TARDIS and an even more memorable exit. Throughout her year on the show she kept on surprising, her parenting skills in The Doctor's Daughter, the destruction of her fake life in Forest of the Dead, her sacrifice in Turn Left. Catherine Tate transcended her comedy roots and gave one stellar performance after another, climaxing in some star turns in the last three episodes.

What Gary has done with Beautiful Chaos is take those snippets we saw of her real life and those glimpses into her feelings of the Doctor and her family and add some real depth and strength to the character. That's no mean feat after the character has departed the show. The family scenes in Beautiful Chaos (and there are quite a few) are packed full of some surprisingly complex characterisation, proving that this is one multifaceted group of people. What was never actually spoken in the series (for obvious reasons) was the death of Donna's father but with this finally revealed it makes the estranged feelings between Donna and Sylvia much more interesting. You might watch series four and think that Sylvia Noble is a right bitch (it's a powerhouse performance by Jacqueline King) but it is clear here that her life has fallen to piece following the death of her husband and she is trying desperately to hold on to the family member she has left. What with Wilf and his dicky ticker and Donna swanning off around the "world", it is extremely touching to hear Slyvia admit she is scared of losing everybody. Slyvia sees the Doctor as a threat to her family, both Wilf and Donna are enamoured with him but she just sees a grinning lunatic who walks into their life with life-threatening destruction behind him. Racnoss and Adipose and Sontarans, truly dangerous creatures that could pull her world apart even more. Beautiful Chaos says a lot about her character.

Add Wilf to the mix and his new dolly bird, Netty, and you have a list of very strong characters powering your book. Again I don't know if it was Bernard Cribbins' touching performances or the strength of the writing, but I just adored Wilf and his alien-spotting, protective, patriotic ways. He gets a fair share of the action here too and is portrayed as beautifully as ever. His threats to the Doctor to keep Donna safe, his pride at discovering a new star, his willingness to face the alien enemy despite his age, his touching relationship with Henrietta... it's all healthy development for the character who beams off the page as he did on screen.

But it is Donna who shines brightest and this book has the same bittersweet tang that Journey's End left me with. Bookended with scenes set after she was returned to her family with her memory wiped but sandwiched with a tale that sees her more heroic, resourceful and mouthy than ever, this is a book that makes you yearn for more adventures with the plucky redhead and to erase that cruel ending for her character forever. I loved it when Donna finally had it out with her mum, her reaction when she had to fork out 100 quid for a taxi, her destruction of Veena's dress as she crawls about, cars exploding, her bravery in facing up to Netty's disease and her letter at the end which (given her memory loss) is extremely poignant.

I can't remember the last Doctor Who book that was this domesticated (probably The Deadstone Memorial) and the Doctor's discomfort to all of this awkward "family" stuff is amusing. The final scene where Wilf raises a thermos and invites him to return when there isn't an invasion, just to see his family, proves how much the Doctor has turned this family's life upside down. How much he has affected them.

Whilst the characterisation is so strong, the plot suffers slightly as a result but only in the fact that it is delayed somewhat to leave room for all the developments in the Noble family. Laced into the first half of the book are (apparently) disconnected scenes of people around the world coming under the control of a malign influence. What impressed me was how Gary conjured up characters with small details and not broad strokes of characterisation. These disparate threads pull together in the second half and an old enemy is revealed as the puppeteer. The revelation of villain does answer one huge question that was hanging over the Sarah Jane Adventures series two and it is a enemy that promised to return. Their method of invasion this time is much more insidious than last time, using technology as opposed to belief. The Doctor's solution to their invasion plan is ingenious; using what I thought was a dead-end plot thread to inspired use. It is not the best Doctor Who invasion I have seen (and it does have a feeling of Instruments of Darkness about it) but it is well thought through, exciting in spots and has a memorable. Thumbs up.

If there was a range that needed more continuity, it is the NSAs. The first twelve odd books felt as though they were completely disconnected from the series with barely a mention of the old series and only references the new series when it returned to Earth. As they have ploughed on, we have had more knitting together of old and new series, with even the Zygons showing up to have another stab at invasion. Gary mixes old and new continuity to good effect, the inclusion of the Noble family and an old Tom Baker enemy, making Beautiful Chaos firmly grounded within the overall story of Doctor Who.

There were some decision made that pleased me very much. The inclusion of a gay character, the sensitive treatment of Alzheimer's, the structure of the book with each chapter chronicling a day, the mention of the IRA, al-Qaeda, etc. Small details in the grand scheme of things but facts which point towards a more grown-up audience. Mix this in with the strength of the characterisation and you have one of the more adult books the range has produced. Gary's prose has always been light and readable and aside from the odd moment where everybody is cringe-inducingly loved up I found it the best written of all of his books to date.

Going into Beautiful Chaos I wasn't sure what I was going to get. It's a mature piece which should appeal to old and new fans alike. It revels in the wonder of Donna Noble and quite right too. There is some fine dialogue, a surprise return of an old foe and a touching ending. What more could you ask for?