THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Evil of the Daleks Happy Endings
Virgin Books
Birthright

Author Nigel Robinson Cover taken from the excellent Broadsword home page
ISBN# 0 426 20393 3
Published 1993
Cover Peter Elson

Synopsis: The Doctor diappears inside the TARDIS, which promply dies. Benny finds herself stranded in Edwardian London, crossing swords with Jared Khan, the immortal leader of the New Dawn secret society. Ace finds herself in the far future where an insect race is trying to cross the great divide of time and space to escape their dying planet, helped by an enigmatic hermit, Muldwych. Khan tries to invade the TARDIS and Bernice finds more than she bargained for without the Doctor's help.


Reviews


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 3/8/02

Birthright is so superior to Nigel Robinson's previous outing, Timewyrm: Apocalypse, that I found myself wondering if the little mistakes that cropped up were a deliberate attempt to reassure the reader that both books were written by the same author. There's very little padding, the plot actually does show up before page one hundred and fifty, and Robinson manages to weave, not one, but two interesting settings into the mix. The secondary characters are engaging, while the story plays to the strengths of both Benny and Ace. In short, it's not what I would describe as an utterly fantastic or mind-blowing book, but it's still about a hundred times better than Apocalypse.

The story is split into two main settings; Benny lands in early 20th Century London, while Ace is flung onto a desert planet in the distant future. (The Doctor has vanished, presumably gone to the same vacation spots that William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton frequented when their characters would disappear in the middle of a serial.) The Benny section is quite good. Ace's portion is satisfactory, but slightly lacking, and fortunately shorter. The two settings are effectively drawn, with special mention going to the London sections. It's not a hugely detailed depiction, but the author manages to do a lot of very impressive work with the few brushstrokes that he does create. The characters in that section aren't especially deep, but they work well in their simplicity. They're slightly underdeveloped characters that I would like to have seen more of, rather than merely faceless zeros whose deaths I eagerly anticipate. Credit to Robinson for making quite a bit out of fairly little; apparently years of editing the prose stylings of Terrance Dicks Novelisations-O-Matic paid off after all.

Unlike Robinson's previous effort, there is very little padding present here. The plot is fairly straightforward, but is never simplistic. The laws of storytelling aren't going to be irreversible altered because of this book, but as a fast and fun pulp paperback, it works. The double setting gives us a slightly larger scale to work with and that makes the story feel the tiniest bit larger than it really is. It's effective though and adds a nicely structured twist to the plot.

There were several minor details that let this book down slightly. A few awkwardly written sections of prose betray the fact that Robinson has done much more editing of other people's work than has actually written himself. The flaws are relatively insignificant, but can be distracting in places. A few sections are indeed written with a lot of flair, but there are one or two glaring portions that contain all the subtlety of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen cover.

Despite this book feeling more mature than Apocalypse, it still reads as though it was aimed at a younger audience than most of the surrounding NAs. Prostitutes, grizzly murders, and seedy night-life are all present, yet much of the time they're written in as near to a PG-rated style as possible. This isn't a problem; indeed, I quite enjoyed this book, it just feels a little mixed up at times. Robinson's first book for the series was a mere 201 pages, and was hopelessly padded out to that length. This book's page-count isn't much longer, weighing in at just 216 pages, but manages not to waste a single one.


Doctorless Who and the Really Big Bugs by Jason A. Miller 26/11/02

Birthright is an unusual little book. It checks in at a bantamweight 216 pages, made up of short chapters and choppy sentences. The first New Adventure to omit the Doctor entirely (apart from brief passages at the beginning and end), it's the second and final NA penned by Nigel Robinson, former editor of the DW novelizations range. It's part of a brief 2-book detour (not an arc) bookended by Iceberg, introduces a potential recurring character; and shows the Doctor at his darkest and most manipulative. Nine years later, does Birthright still hold up?

I really enjoyed Birthright when it was published, reading it twice. I enjoyed the way that the Doctor's fingerprints were allowed to remain all over the action, even when he was offscreen. I enjoyed the new character Muldwych, who seems to have an intimate connection with the Doctor. He wears the same blue Roman ring favored by the first Doctor, and much of his dialogue is recycled from the TV episodes. The two characters share one charming scene together. I also enjoyed the way the first hundred pages were set in a cartoon version of gaslit Victorian London (in 1909) and anchored by new companion Benny, who in 1993 was still a novelty act. The book noticably drags when the location shifts to an alien rock quarry where Ace tries to galvanize a bunch of poorly-acted human freedom fighters, but the action returns to London fairly quickly.

This time around, however, I'm afraid that Birthright's technical faults grabbed my attention more than the story. Benny, whose character was never really firmly defined from year to year, has some horrible moments -- she aids in the theft of jewelry from the person of an unconscious assault victim, and is seen to exult at the death of a foe later on. While I still enjoyed the story's fast pacing, the writing style of a 216-page book feels more like an outline of a novel than a book in its own right. Passages which should convey tension or drama feel more like Post-It notes describing what the author intends to write later. At one point Benny burgles an antiquarian bookshop and encounters the insectoid alien menace. This scene ideally could have gone on for more than one page.

A room is described as "a massive chamber the size of a small church". I'm not sure how that works. Another character sees the square outline of the TARDIS in the grass and instantly recognizes "the shape of a tall blue box". I'm not sure how that works, either.

Other elements of the book -- the Doctor's offstage manipulations, the strange motivations of Muldwych -- were interesting, tantalizing hints in 1993, but have yellowed with disuse. Muldwych is basically a one-off character (he did have a cameo in Happy Endings, albeit not in the scene written by Robinson), and it's a shame we never found out what Robinson intended for him. The most common notion seems to be that he's a future Doctor (or at least a Doctor from an alternate Universe), but it's not as if it matters at this point.

Birthright remains an interesting time capsule into what Doctor Who looked like in print in 1993. Unfortunately, even though all the elements for success are there, it's something less than a complete story in its own right.


Simple but effective by Joe Ford 17/5/03

After the lexical nightmare that was Heart of TARDIS I returned to my bookshelf with a sore head wanting to read something light and crisp. Fortunately I found Birthright which fulfils both of these requirements and tells a stonking good story as well. So good was this book (which incidentally I haven't read in ten years!) I finished it in two and half hours (being a little shorter than most NA's at 200 pages).

The story is quite exquisitely split into two fragments, Benny and Ace. They each get a section on their own and then meet up at the end. What's this? But where's the Doctor, the central figure of the series? Missing in action I believe is the term but his manipulative hand is felt throughout this book despite the fact he only appears in two or three scenes. This is a brave experiment, letting the companions hog the duvet but it works extremely well here providing a wealth of good character scenes for both Ace and Benny and giving the already tired looking seventh Doctor a rest for a month. I'm not a huge fan of the NA Doctor, he could at times be superb but more often his callous attitude and manipulation left me a little cold. His absence here was a nice change.

It helps that Benny and Ace are such entertaining characters in Nigel Robinson's capable hands. Is this seriously the same guy who took his typewriter and forced us to endure Timewyrm: Apocalypse? That unmemorable text consisting of poor prose, sinful characterisation and horrible continuity did not bode well for this novel. And yet here he gives both Ace and Benny a new lease of life. Benny comes across as intelligent, capable and downright funny! Her cockney accent is laughably bad and her treatment of the 'locals' understandably patronising. Ace too who has annoyed us of late by being nothing but a Scott from Earthshock clone, needlessly butch and annoyingly wooden. What we needed was what we got here, she is assured and brave and truly regretting her actions when she needlessly doubts the Doctor or hurts Benny.

I loved the atmosphere of the Benny plot. Victorian London is a particular favourite period of mine and seemingly effortlessly Nigel Robinson manages to conjure up that wonderful Sherlock Homesian atmosphere of foggy streets, cockney locals and northern whores. The killer plot is old but the story races on at such a pace you don't have time to notice. Benny has some lovely moments with Russian born Mischa, in England to discover the killer of his daughter. I loved her initial reaction of him (a dirty old man!) and how the story twists to turn him into a tragic, if cowardly figure. All the stuff with Charlie the pauper was sweet too, Nigel carving charming characters out of relatively little description. The cover tells you all you need to know about this plot, it's moody, striking and instantly likable.

The Ace plot is a little more simplistic but then it only has half the time to achieve the same as Benny's. It's still enjoyable though, the world of Antykhon quite effectively coming to life (or rather dying). Lots of fast paced action and a few good twists later and the two plots meet up for the explosive finale.

And what a finale, where the Doctor's involvement becomes clear, the TARDIS is superb in a shocking twist and the characters all meet up to help save the day. Yes I am simplifying things slightly but that is only because this book reminds in all the best ways of those target novels old Terry used to pen years ago. As a kid I would take the book into my room and absorb the wonderfully exciting stories contain within the pages. I got the same feeling of excitement and adventure reading this. The thought that nothing existed outside of this book whilst I was reading it and finding out what happened was the most important thing at the time. That's a lovely feeling to recapture and I hope you readers have done so too a some point.

Thoroughly enjoyable and easy to read, this is a superb New Adventure that I may pick up again at some point.


A Review by Finn Clark 19/5/03

The world and its dog seems to have been rereading this recently. Ah well. Never shy of jumping on any passing bandwagon, here I go...

Birthright has charm, but it feels a tad insubstantial. Perhaps it's the length? It's longer than Timewyrm: Apocalypse (Nigel Robinson's previous NA), but at a mere 216 pages it feels less heavyweight than most Virgin novels. The pages slip past easily and reveal a straightforward, likeable mystery.

It has big ideas, mind you. Muldwych, Jared Khan, the planet Antykhon and their various real or alternate identities are all fun to discover. What's more, the book's still good when you know its revelations in advance. (If anything the Antykhon scenes improved.) Muldwych's true identity is theoretically left ambiguous, but the second epilogue wouldn't leave you in much doubt of Nigel Robinson's intentions even if you hadn't read the further hints in Happy Endings.

Most obviously, this is a book without the Doctor... except that it isn't. Birthright was published at the height of the Virgin Doctor's "scary manipulative bastard" phase and his shadow hangs so heavily over its pages that one hardly notices his absence. Benny's solo section doesn't feel like a Benny book before its time, but more like an extended subplot. We got those all the time in the NAs, quite often on another planet, timezone or plane of reality. Birthright is only a stone's throw from the likes of Cartmel's War trilogy, in which Ace, Benny, Roz, etc. carry most of the action and the Doctor is more of a puppetmaster than an actor. Perhaps that's why Birthright feels slight? With its focus and main character kept firmly offstage, Benny and Ace never quite become the book's heroes but are always just the Doctor's companions. Everything in the book feels like the B-plot, not the A.

The prose flows along nicely, though it's not without clunkers. Benny's prison experiences are probably the weakest section. Also the characterisation is mostly good; Bellingham is a bit one-dimensional, but Benny is particularly impressive given that Birthright was published less than a year after Love and War. She never rings false and gets some great lines. All things considered it's unsurprising that Birthright was chosen for adaptation into the fourth Big Finish Benny audio; even its storyline is the sort of straightforward, high-concept stuff that would adapt well to a simpler medium.

If anyone's interested, Big Finish's audio version stars Colin Baker as Popov and links into their previous audio, Walking to Babylon, with a communication from John Lafayette. (He came from 1901, which is only eight years prior to Birthright.)

Peter Elson's cover painting is lovely and really helps the reader. We've seen any number of alien insects in the novels, but that illustration helps to make the Charrl seem particularly vivid. (See Happy Endings for what eventually became of them.) New Ace is tolerable, the book's epic sweep of time is impressive and Jared Khan will stay in your thoughts long after you've finished reading. The low page count is probably a virtue; padding out the story to 280 pages would have made it heavier and stodgier. It's a swift, pleasant read - but it still evokes its worlds of 1909 London and far-future Antykhon as atmospherically as one would expect from a longer novel. In its own quiet way, this is one of the more underrated Virgin NAs.


A Review by Brian May 7/9/04

Birthright is a short, briskly paced book, divided into sub-sections of mostly high quality.

The first part of the story is an enthralling read, with Benny on her own in Edwardian London in a series of enjoyable escapades. Nigel Robinson does an excellent job with her, especially capturing her personality, sense of humour and inner monologues. It's fun to have her as a heroine, following her around the historical setting. She's initially in the dark, dumped into the scenario, but slowly gathers clues and makes friends, with much capture, escape and rescue in between. On a negative side, the scenes in Holloway prison are a bit too nasty for my liking, with some unpleasant and sadistic moments that don't really belong in an adventure like this. (Similarly, the anatomical descriptions of the murders are a bit too extreme.)

Otherwise, the Benny section of the book is a pleasure to read. The atmosphere is terrific, capturing the contemporary feel of London quite convincingly. The murder of women, the Springheel Jack legend and the presence of a mysterious cult somewhat recall The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but thankfully Birthright proceeds in a different direction, making it an acknowledgment of that story without being a rip-off. The decrepit, dying TARDIS on the embankment is an evocative image. Misha is a great ally, while Jared Khan is perhaps rather cliched. He's obviously the villain right from the first description of him, but is still a charismatic and interesting man. The interludes that describe his following the Doctor through history are excellent - there's obviously more to Khan that meets the eye, and Robinson gives us these tantalising little episodes that reveal more, but does so gradually, calling for reader patience and persistence.

On the subject of the Doctor, he's conspicuous by his absence, and his influence is as ubiquitous as ever. The shadowy manipulator of recent stories is put to the forefront here. He's once again a puppeteer - he holds a substantial account at the exclusive Coutts Bank; he's a member of Prime Minister Asquith's club; he seems to have organised everything well in advance of his disappearance. His actions are questioned in moments reminiscent of Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric. There are some on pp.35-36, but the most poignant of all are Benny's musings during chapter 8, during Margaret Waterfield's funeral, with some excellent accusations such as "...how far in advance did you order those flowers, Doctor?", and "just how many funerals have you bothered to turn up to?"

There are some interesting thoughts that arise from the above. For instance, the status of companions after they join the Doctor - and after they leave his company - illustrated with the example of Victoria. The events of The Evil of the Daleks ended with Edward Waterfield's death and Victoria joining the TARDIS crew. In Birthright we discover the Doctor's intricate cover-up, which "explains" the absence of both father and daughter. Of course, some companions returned to their homes and life went on as usual. But what about the ones that didn't come home? The usual trio of Katarina, Sara and Adric are brought up, but there's also Vicki, Steven and Peri who, from the perspectives of their friends and families, have simply disappeared forever.

Robinson raises these subjects with some finesse, making the Doctor a darker, more manipulative character than ever. It's not just a rollicking adventure.

The action switches to Ace's adventure on the Charrl world. I always used to think of this section as boring, but on my latest re-reading of the book, have been proved wrong. (It's much shorter than the Benny section; this is probably why it's tolerable. Any longer and this might not have been so.) It's quite entertaining, as she leads a motley assortment of survivors. The fact that the planet she's on is a future Earth is a concept that's been done to death, but still, did prove an effective surprise when revealed. The Charrl are quite good - again, a noble alien race is not original in the annals of science fiction, but Ch'tizz is an interesting character. She breaks a promise for the sake of her species' survival, but it's evident she has not done this lightly, and she feels a sense of shame and dishonour as a result.

The character of Muldwych is also interesting, although his ambiguous identity is rather annoyingly over-emphasised by Robinson. But his suspect motives make up for this, as does his obsession with acquiring the TARDIS. The second epilogue is another nice, character-based moment.

The next shift is the showdown with Benny and Khan inside the "mind" of the TARDIS. Just as we were enjoying a nice, traditional sort of Doctor Who adventure, Robinson suddenly becomes "rad" - not a problem in itself, I'm not a strong defender of one style of writing over the other - but what he does is so unoriginal. While the concept of Khan trying to become the TARDIS is fascinating, the surreal encounters Benny goes through are just bland and have been done before in the NAs. There's the psychedelic climax to Cat's Cradle: Warhead; the further name checking of deceased companions is an echo of what occurs in Timewyrm: Revelation (and indeed, that novel is one huge mind trip from beginning to end!) It's also an attempt to pay homage to televised adventures like The Deadly Assassin. But, in a nutshell, it's not really enjoyable. It's a letdown after the great atmosphere of the earlier parts of the book.

However, this section of the book is mercifully very short - only 18 pages. But it's still a disappointment after the great atmosphere of what came before, especially the scenes in London. However the return to "normalcy", and the ensuing resolution to the story, are other saving graces.

There's a lot to enjoy in Birthright - I love the separation of the regulars, in particular the focus on Benny and her relationship to the Doctor. Just like Ace before, she realises just what a manipulator he is, and lets him know upon his return to the TARDIS (the entire exchange between the two on pp.210-211 is superb). It's also proof that you can have a decent Doctor Who story without the Doctor being present.

It's a satisfying, well written adventure. The only disappointing fragment makes up only a small part of a fun read, with some great sequences and characterisations. 8/10\