Virgin Books
Beige Planet Mars
A Benny Adventure

Authors Lance Parkin &
Mark Clapham
Cover image
ISBN 0426 20529 4
Published 1998

Synopsis: On the 500th anniversary of Mars' colonisation, Bernice is distracted by a murder and an old betrayal. She soon finds that the past may be catching up with her.


A Review by Finn Clark 30/1/99

Beige Planet Mars disappointed me. It's wittily written and there's nothing obviously wrong with it, but nothing in there is even half as strong and evocative as the cover. Given that it's Lance Parkin, I expected more.

Essentially there are three phases. There's the not-very-much-happening phase in which everyone swans around in a civilised fashion, in and around a very nice hotel. Some vague attempts at detective work are attempted, but in such an incompetent way that one starts being reminded more of Wodehouse than anything else. Sadly this isn't really a comedy.

Then there's the sub-Bond phase, in which some action takes place. It's executed well enough, but the first phase didn't really build up to it. It's not gripping, nail-biting tension; it's just there. People run around and there's a threat of something horrible happening. Then it's all resolved. The end.

Which brings us to phase three, the end itself. This is surprisingly disquieting for such a light-hearted book, though it includes a wonderfully funny reconciliation between some main characters. It's not quite unhappy ending, but it's certainly far from upbeat. I'm sure this is deliberate on the part of the authors, but it doesn't quite gel with the rest of their reading experience.

Other matters. Beige Planet Mars is definitely set in the Whoniverse, so firmly in fact that it becomes rather distracting when the authors draw its Virgin status to our attention. (As an example, more than once characters are interrupted before they can complete the word "Dalek"). Given the unsubtle Who references that Terrance Dicks got away with in Mean Streets, is it possible that Virgin is being a little paranoid about the BBC's legal ire?

The character interaction is lots of fun. There's a perverted Pakhar, a couple of shiftless layabouts and other sparkling delights. There's also an interesting right-wing slant, which I personally found refreshing.

Unfortunately there are also five glaring problems with the book's internal logic, which I can't discuss here because I'd ruin all the twists. Let's just say that the Big Secret Behind Everything didn't convince me...

At the end of the day, there's not much wrong with this book. It's an amusing way to spend a few hours, but it's also arguably disjointed and frequently aimless. I often got impatient with the main characters to get on with the serious business of investigating and following up clues during the main civilised-hotel phase. Perhaps the authors are deliberately playing against the Benny book cliches, but this is an in-joke you're only going to appreciate if you've already ploughed your way through the previous fifteen novels. That's not the case for me.

Flicking through my DWM back issues, I note with dismay that Dave Owen reckons this is an above-average Benny NA. It's not actually bad, but it's not particularly memorable either...

SPOILERS for the ending

Basically, the premise is that ever since the time of Carter and Brezhnev, a president who wanted to launch the nukes would first have to kill someone they loved. (To be precise, you had to cut out their heart with a knife). As a result of this system, a leader called Tellassar didn't use Mars's planetary defenses against the Daleks when they attacked in 2545.

This strikes me as an extremely unlikely system. If it really was used under Carter and Brezhnev then I guess I'll have to eat my words, but see below for a few problems.

  1. Under this system, your leader might wimp out and not use their all-destroying Dalek-killing arsenal against an army of invading Daleks. This could be seen as a flaw.
  2. Page 174 says the victim never knew about having the codes surgically implanted in their chest, but page 233 talks about killing him "while looking into his eyes, knowing he would let me do it." I spy a contradiction. I also spy a comfortable assumption that the victim won't get uncooperative at the crucial moment.
  3. After the war, the military left the missiles primed and the activation codes inside the victim! You what? Surely they'd carry out some code-removing surgery, or else just blow out the guy's brains and incinerate the corpse?
  4. The all-powerful Artificial Intelligence seems to come equipped with a handy stock of adventure serial cliches. "This order cannot be countermanded... oh, unless you give a higher priority order (which of course cannot be countermanded). At this point you're completely screwed unless you happen to think of destroying a rather small and fragile palmtop..."
  5. Once inside the underwater defense base, Benny's first move is to check that none of the missiles' nuclear warheads have been stolen. She goes right into a missile's nose cone and has a poke around; we are even told that it would be a simple procedure to remove the exploding bits. Later, however, when the world trembles beneath the threat of nuclear doom, no one thinks of popping back to remove those very same warheads.

    No, wait. I tell a lie. Someone mentions this point on page 199. The answer seems to be that if the launch codes have already been sent, then trying to sabotage the missiles on the ground will get you killed by defense drones. (This is of course so much worse than rotting at the bottom of the sea while the rest of the world dies in a nuclear holocaust). Anyway we've just seen Benny and Seez poking around inside the missiles without ill effect, so it would seem that everything's safe unless someone pressed The Button in the last five minutes.

  6. The general and stark un-likelihood of the villain's plans. I mean, come on, dressing up as a giant lizard to go and take out some part of a man's anatomy, killing him in the process, thus ensuring that lots of people see lots of suspicious things, the police get involved and clues are left and allow the heroes to track your plans and close in on you. Rather than, since you are an unbelievably rich corp, drugging the guy, taking him in for surgery and removing the codes, and then putting him back and telling him he had an appendicitis or some such and putting off your foes?!?!

It's all in the details by Robert Smith? 4/3/99

I must say, I was thoroughly entertained by Beige Planet Mars from beginning to end. There are very few bits that fall at all flat and nothing goes wrong. But above all, the jokes are marvellous. There are lots of nods to the Bernice line as a whole. What's great about this is that the book adheres to most of them anyway, so it's not about the authors having a go at the other books. The sequence with the Bernice fanboy early on is just hilarious and slightly disturbing to a Bernice fanboy like myself.

Benny is wonderful, as usual, and gets a great part to play. Seeing her on Mars is quite natural, even if we haven't actually seen her there before (no, I didn't believe this either). The Mars that we get is really well developed, as a sort of tax haven for the elderly and there's a great sense of the planet (appropriately enough). This really helps, since the cast is fairly small. There's still a sense of scope and wider consequences and the details of Mars in the 26th century have been lovingly sketched. When someone threatens to destroy the entire planet, for once you actually believe them.

I'm also quite impressed by the handling of Jason. I didn't think I'd ever have the tolerance for Jason again after the awful Oblivion, but here he's dealt with in a very believable and likable way. Speaking of Oblivion, what also impressed me is the way the plot strands from that book were used as a starting point and then taken in new (and better) directions. I have to admit, if it were me, I probably would have just ignored it!

Seez and Soaz are also fun. I thought I'd get them confused, but the authors are clearly adept enough at this sort of thing to keep them just on the right side of distinguishable (take note other authors who shall not be named here!) I'm not quite sure I believe the ending is exactly plausible, but as a piece of fun it works well enough, so I'm prepared to sacrifice plausibility for that.

I must confess, I'm a sucker for mystery books where I don't guess whodunnit and I totally missed it here. However, all is not exactly what it seems and for once the 'villains' actually have some decent motivation. A far cry from Doctor Who, then.

On that note, this is very much a Doctor Who novel without the Doctor, of the sort that I personally prefer to see in the Benny universe but which has, Mean Streets aside, in the past been limited to Braxiatel and some non-mentions of Earth Reptiles. Characters mentioning "Da-" and being cut off is a very funny thing indeed, which the authors obviously know, since they keep doing it. The fourth Doctor, Romana and K9 also make a cameo appearance!

It's in the details that this book really shines and if there's one thing Lance Parkin knows how to do well, it's the details. What's even better is that Mark Clapham seems to compliment Lance really well so the book doesn't go pear-shaped towards the end (an unfortunate Parkin trademark). It's great to see collaborative efforts truly complimenting each other in books like this. I think I'd much rather see six books a year of this standard than twelve of a lesser standard.

As I said, the ending is surprisingly good for a Parkin novel. CATCH is a wonderful character and the threat to the planet is a very real one. Benny's confrontation with the Yorks is great, especially for the way it turns her (and our) expectations on their head. It took me two readings of the section that explains what CATCH actually did to save the day, but it was worth going back for.

Other details I loved: the Yorks' personal valet (or whatever he actually is) who shows up towards the end is great and well written, especially by not dwelling too much on the character. Alexseev is apparently played by Peter Davison. The way the plot from 20 years ago is gradually brought out and the reasons behind the betrayal works beautifully. The way this book foreshadows Where Angels Fear and also links to The Infinity Doctors. I'm a little confused about the seemingly-important minor character who appears early on and then disappears entirely, but I suspect that I'm supposed to be!

All in all, I thought this book was wonderful. It's a book that probably couldn't be told in any other line (at least not nearly so well), relying so much on the conventions of the Bernice line, but also celebrating the 35th Anniversary of Doctor Who. Easily the best New Adventure since Walking to Babylon. Which, incidentally, is no small compliment, given the quality of books in that run. Highly recommended.

A Review by Richard Salter 25/7/99

Now this was lots more fun. A rollicking good read all in all. But once again, the curse of Parkin was upon it. Much like Just War and The Dying Days, I was struck by how little complexity there was to the plot. While there were one or two nice revelations, I never felt much twisting going on, nor the kind of conflict that produces really intense drama. But it's solid, mercifully free of holes and contains some great characters. Only Seez and Soaz caused me problems, mostly because I couldn't tell them apart! There are also some wonderful little bits and pieces dotted around the place, not least of them the alien porn from Bex, which was cripplingly funny. Aside from a few Mills and Boony moments, Benny was spot on and lots of fun. Only the surprisingly straightforward plot and a slightly rushed ending made me feel disappointed.

A lot more interesting than Another Girl, Another Planet. 7.5/10

A Review by Rob Matthews 5/5/03

Tsk. I expected quite a bit more from this book. Not just because of that striking cover image, more because I thought it would be Lance Parkin's Big Mars book, in the way that The Infinity Doctors was his Big Gallifrey book, or The Dying Days was his Big Alien Invasion of Earth book. I mean, I know Infinity Doctors and Dying Days weren't perfect, but at least I got the sense that they wanted to be, there was something a bit stately and expansive about them.

As for Mark Clapham... well, I wasn't over-keen on Hope but it wasn't an outright stinker. This, I thought, could go either way. And it does go either way. Succesively, in fact. Beige Planet Mars offers a few promising opening chapters before descending with remarkable abruptness into complete and utter crap. Apologies to Messrs Parkin and Clapham for being so blunt - I always feel guilty about slating these books given that I'm the most incompetent fiction writer on the planet -, but there it is.

The first few chapters set up 'present day' Mars (that's present day for Benny) and its history pretty nicely - useful in that respect to have archaeologists and historians as central characters. The idea of Mars ending up as a slightly tacky adjunct to Earth is good, and the running gag with everyone being interrupted before they can finish the word 'Dalek' is a nice touch. Trinity seems like she might be an interesting character but quickly recedes into the background in frankly suspicious fashion. There's nothing in these chapters that rocks my world, but they feel like solid groundwork for the book.

The quality nosedive starts when Jason Kane turns up, and it really is like someone's flicked a switch from Good to Awful. And somehow I doubt that's a sophisticated stylistic comment on Jason's capacity to fuck things up. Benny's behaviour becomes unutterably childish (all that stuff where she slaps him about and knees him in the balls) and we have to suffer page after page of attempted sexual tension that has to be seen to be disbelieved. It's horrendous. So horrendous that when we finally get to read a bit of Jason's self-penned alien pornography (oh, don't even ask) it seems almost erotic by comparison. I'm tempted to believe that the authors are taking the piss out of the preceding pages, I'd really like to hope so, but even if they were it wouldn't be an excuse for producing such horrible pages in the first place. Benny still has feelings for Jason, I get it, but I really think this would have been better evoked through understatement rather than endless slobber and a detailed anatomy of the symptoms.

From here on I think the problem is simply low aims. I'm making a couple of assumptions about author input here, but, weighing it up, it seems Lance Parkin is trying for his (now trademark) James Bond rubbish while Mark Clapham is attempting to write an episode of Hollyoaks.

Hollyoaks, incidentally, being a dire UK soap aimed at teens, twentysomethings and people with hangovers, and characterised by unending juvenile references to sex and bizarre, failed attempts at humour. Beige Planet Mars has both the latter in spades. If I tell you there's a scene in which Jason is fellated by a hamster you'll get some idea of what I mean. The hopefully-comic double act of Seez and Soaz grates too, especially since ParkinClapham seems to have overlooked the fact that comedic double acts tend to be clearly distinguishable from one another - Laurel & Hardy, Litefoot & Jago, Richard & Judy -, and don't have identical characteristics and near-identical names. There's a frankly stupid scene at the end too, where the protagonists get into a scuffle and Jason and Benny end up kissing. Stupid because these people resort to fisticuffs far too easily just for a cheap laugh that isn't even funny, and because it's so overtly contrived to be wacky that it just really got my back up.

And the dated pop culture references... why the hell would people be talking about Dana Scully and Oasis four hundred-odd years from now?! That would be like you or I having a crush on Marie Antoinette (or whatever the male equivalent). Again it's going for cheap laughs at the expense of any believability.

The sub-Bond plot is deathly dull too - a boring yuppie couple trying to prevent a company takeover? -, and fails in the storytelling stakes because when CATCH begins to wreak havoc on Mars there's no sense at all that something immense and catastrophic is going on. No characters we know are affected and there's very little description of what's actually going on across Mars - something we might expect given that the a whole bloody planet is supposedly being engulfed in chaos. All we get are a couple of reports from CATCH and a bit of stormy weather. Compare this to the pandemonium in the final chapters of Love and War or Rags and you'll see what I mean. The narrative voice is far too detached.

What's worse for a book like this, the alleged twist is easily guessable. The second it was revealed Tessallar was actually female I knew who she'd turn out to be - not surprising, given that there's only one possible suspect.

Well, I don't want to harp on any further. This book isn't exactly bad, it's just not very good. Not recommended.