|ISBN#||0 563 53859 7|
|Featuring||The sixth Doctor and Peri|
|Synopsis: The Nineteen-Eighties; as we enter the Age of the Personal Computer, the newborn 'Internet' spreads across America, and the computer invasion enters our homes. Across the technological frontier, an incredible war begins between the criminals and their savvy opponents. A brilliant young programmer, a beautiful college student, and a mysterious hacker known only as 'The Doctor' join forces to combat an electronic threat fallen into the hands of a notorious computer outlaw.|
A Review by Rob Matthews 13/3/03
It's not often that I find myself looking forward to a new Doctor Who story months in advance - in fact generally I have no idea what's on the horizon with the books. But I've been waiting impatiently for this one ever since I heard Kate Orman was writing a Sixth Doctor novel, well over a year ago. And it was heartening to hear that, unlike her pal Paul Cornell, she didn't hold the technicolour whirlwind in utter contempt, and in fact actually liked him. I can't recall a Sixth Doctor novel that hasn't in some way betrayed Colin Baker's performance or perpetuated the common misunderstanding of his Doctor as a greedy, violent git. Who, in The Eight Sterotypes in particular, was also portrayed as thick as pigshit. To hear that one of the most talented Who authors was going to take him under her wing sounded like good news.
Upon finally getting my hands on the book, however, I settled myself down a bit - sort of the way you do when a new Star Wars movie comes out and you suddenly realise that the next two hours can't possibly live up to those years of expectation. Judging the book very much by its cover, it seemed the Doctor wouldn't really be the 'star' of the novel. The back cover blurb suggested that events would be dealt with at one remove, with the book masquerading as a factual, historical work a la Adventuress of Henrietta Street, and the main characters therefore also seen at one remove.
So I scaled back my expectations and began reading.
The book turns out to be an SF technothriller of sorts, though with more emphasis on character than on the (incomplete) plot. It's narrated - in suspiciously omniscient form here and there - by a journalist. You suspect from the outset, then, that not everything that's going on in the story will be made clear, at least not in the way it usually is in Doctor Who, since no 'real' book of this sort would give credence to all the stuff the Doctor comes out with about technology from other worlds and so on. The 'outsider's' perspective is one I haven't found that successful in previous Who fiction, since typically it either becomes compromised and implausible (as in Adventuress), or it stunts the development of the story (as readers of Doctor Who fiction we don't have any problem with aliens or supra-advanced technology as story elements, so it's obstructive to have a narrator who from first page to last won't accept them). And both those things are true here, sad to say. The story is compromised, and the narrative voice is often implausible.
But... not to degrees that I found too irritating, since Orman's writing is as graceful as ever, and the plot is in any case fairly straightforward and really no more than a catalyst for character exploration. If I can be glib: this is more about alienation than aliens.
Still, it's not exactly top-drawer Kate Orman. It's well ahead of the pack in terms of writing style, of course, but I wasn't really sure what to make of it. It comes across like a kind of loopy Californian thriller, like War Games if War Games had been retro-prescient and on acid (oh, when I say War Games, I mean that dated eighties movie with Matthew Broderick, not the Pat Troughton Doctor Who story). If it's making some kind statement about the internet, I'm not at all sure what that statement is. Orman's done her research as thoroughly as usual, but it's all computer geek stuff, and not as interesting for me as when she'd done her research on, say, the Aztecs or the Ancient Egyptians. Thenm again, I guess I shouldn't be criticising a writer based on her past triumphs. That's one big left-handed albatross she has hanging round her neck.
Easier to get to grips with, anyway, is the statement the book makes about Sarah Swan - that statement being, in essence, 'What a bitch!' Swan makes a strong villain; believable and human, yet entirely boo-hissable too - I was reminded a little of the villain from Cat's Cradle: Warhead. Like I say, characterisation is the dominant strength of this book.
And on that subject, the big issue here, of course, is the Sixth Doctor and Peri. Orman writes a mean Seventh Doctor, she slobbers a little too much over the Eighth... What has she done with Mouthy & Mammaries?
Well, first of all she gets things off on the wrong foot by making a cardinal PDA error. All writers who take on the Sixth Doctor have a choice between throwing together a cod-psychological explanation for The Coat, or getting him out of the damn thing altogether. She plumps for the latter, as did Terrance Dicks in Players.
This is wrong. Don't misunderstand me, I hate that bloody coat as much as anyone, and I dearly wish they'd chosen a cool black outfit when Baker was given the part. Still, the fact is that the coat was what he wore, and it's not plausible to suggest that he kept changing out of the horrible thing between televised stories. For one thing, it's difficult to imagine Peri persuading him out of his 'clown outfit' under any circumstances, least of all because it's too conspicuous. For another, I think if the Sixth Doctor had removed the thing from his person for any extended length of time, Peri would have drenched it in kerosene and done the necessary. So, I was surprised to see an accomplished Doctor Who writer like Orman make this rookie mistake. Even if we do see it hanging in the closet with a very in-character item stuffed into one pocket. Methinks Banto Zane would have a smirk...
Where does she go from there? Well, she portrays the Doc6/Peri relationship as more complicated than some would have us believe. A lot of fans and authors think of the pair as a bullying oaf and a shrill whiner, fundamentally mismatched and not at all friendly. That's never been my own interpretation, since when I watch those episodes the bickering always feels tacked on, unconvincing (except, perhaps, in Revelation of the Daleks, and even there it's counterbalanced by the Doctor's concern for Peri's wellbeing throughout the second episode). But at the same time, they weren't best buddies like the Doctor and Sarah, or the Doctor and Romana. Here, Orman nicely describes their silly arguments as being like those of an old married couple, which sounds about right to me. She acknowledges a certain unease between them, though, and calls attention both to Peri's sense of duty and the Doctor's offputting alienness; he cares for her, but doesn't know how to show it - or perhaps more accurately, is too alien to be aware he needs to show it.
Orman's 'ocean' metaphor (the TARDIS as a boat, the universe as the sea, Salmon and Swans drifting by) is sustained nicely, and close enough to the truth of their relationship that you don't feel too distanced by the voice of the ostensible narrator, who is describing their situation accurately in spirit, if not in detail.
I always think of the Sixth Doctor as a man on the lookout for something worthwhile to do with himself, and we get the sense here that he's on one of many missions. The book runs the risk of of harking back (or is that forward) to the proactive Seventh Doctor, with the Sixth here pulling strings in the background for the first few chapters. But it would be overly picky to suggest that, just because Doc7 was notably organised, any of his predecessors should be portrayed as precisely the opposite - think of what Doc4 does in Invasion of Time. Plus there's a sense of having entered a 'typical' Who story halfway through, and it's rather difficult to judge the Doctor's activities on the bigger scale.
Oh yeah - there's a surprise revelation in the book which I admit I didn't guess, but which ultimately seemed neither here nor there. However, Swan's reaction to it demonstrates a lot about her character, and - one could legitimately surmise - the character of our much of our society, small-minded and mean-spirited.
Hm. A good place to end this little splash around the shallows, methinks. The book offers a decent, responsible take on the Sixth Doctor (who, in answer to a certain someone's sarky question, was indeed marvellous, actually, and remains so). But it's really Sarah Swan who shines here. The way ice shines, hard and cold.
Doctor Who: Road Trip! by Joe Ford 20/5/03
What a tight little novel this is, it strikes all the right notes at the right times and leaves you with a big smile on your face once you've turned the last page. Leave it to Kate Orman to take what I consider to be one of the coldest subjects imaginable, computers, and give it so much depth. She manages to fill the book with an incredible cast of characters and a zippy plot that never stops surprising. This is the second PDA of 2003 and it looks as though that range is going to be much, much better this year.
People must be aware of my love of the sixth Doctor/Peri relationship. In my eyes it is one of the most interesting relationships in the show. Not just because it's so antagonistic but because of those moments where they let their guards down and show just how much they actually care for each other. Little hugs here, a tap of the nose there, a huge smile for a compliment, both Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker worked against the scripts and gave us a gradual yet sparkling relationship. I was so eager to see what Kate would do with this pair and to my delight she has captured the four voices brilliantly, by four I mean the abusive way they speak to each other and the thoughtful way they think of each other.
Peri is beautifully voiced, pathetic and useless in places but so desperately wanting to help. I adored the sequences where she re-considered her life with the Doctor and her final decision is developed naturally throughout the book. Indeed, where she decides I was grinning insanely as she suddenly jumps upon the main reason why she wants to stay with him. It is heart-warming and true to the characters, I was extremely impressed at how Kate managed to weave this around the central plot.
I am a not a very patient reader and usually get extremely frustrated with novels written in the first person narrative. The Turing Test worked around that by giving three voices to tell the story and giving those voices an extremely strong personality. Blue Box has one narrator throughout, Chick Peters and it is to Kate's credit that she has managed to tell the story from one perspective and I hardly even noticed. The story was so entertaining I was constantly grinning at Chick's (well I guess Kate's would be more accurate) little observations. Throughout we get little snippets of his past, indeed one scene where the gang are resting in their campervan atop a scenic lookout was beautifully written, Chick's stargazing is almost palpable. His personality is certainly strong enough to hold up the novel and there are even a number of terrific character surprises along the way, expertly hidden by Ms Orman.
The reason I like Blake's Seven so much is the thought of a band of rebels against the system, an atmosphere Blue Box manages to emulate well. The 'gang' (let's see we have the Doctor, Peri, Chick and boyish computer hacker Bob) are superbly defined and their road trip across the Eastern coast is full of lovely character snippets. It's that lovely feeling of a tight group working together you can only get with good writing help immeasurably by the wonderful locations we get to visit. Kate Orman fascination with the US borders on the obsessive, this being her third BBC book set in yank-land but to her strength this feels nothing like Vampire Science or Unnatural History (thank God!). The real strength of location comes from the fact that so much of America is stunningly beautiful and seeing it through Orman's graceful eyes it appears even more so. Nevertheless the 'road trip' element works a treat, this is a fast paced adventure that benefits from not sticking in one place for too long.
Ooh, Sarah Swan is a right old bitch. Another terrific character who isn't quite as smart as she thinks she is. She makes a different kind of Doctor Who baddie because her delusions of grandeur aren't world domination but computer domination. Her strength lies in her abilities but her weakness lies in her emotion, as the Doctor winds her up by being that bit cleverer I was laughing my head off! During the well staged climax all that build up helps to make her really SCARY.
I appreciate a well thought out plot and this well structured mystery works a treat if you can gobble it down in one (like me) or two reads. It flows nicely, the developments pushing the book to a new location and building a strong sense of urgency. You think Kate has given you the answers too soon, explaining many of the pieces of the plot about one third in but the twists keep coming until you're finally shouting "uh-oh!"
That's not to say there isn't any humour, indeed like the best of the books (and the series) this novel is crammed with lots of well observed jokes. The orange socks had me in stitches! And later developments afford a a very funny scene ender between Chick and Peri. None of the laughs come at the expense of the characters, indeed most of the time it serves to make them more real (the repeated "Aw shoot!" is great).
Is this book superior to The Year of Intelligent Tigers, Kate's last work? Erm, possibly not. It's not quite as character driven as that piece but this book is much more accessible, cuter, with a better pace and momentum. If there was one thing Blue Box shares with it's predecessor it's the excellent depiction of the current Doctor. With this and the superlative Jubilee we've had two superb Colin Baker themed stories. The sixth Doctor through Chick's eyes is a marvellous creation, larger than life, thoughtful and abrasive. I thought he was everything you see on screen (and in the audios) and more. His scenes with the stargazing Chick gave me goose pimples it was so good and some description (about how he filled the room with constant movement, everybody HAD to look at him) were spot on. The reason he wanted to save the world this time was extremely touching.
In short she's gone and done it again! This book was definitely worth the wait, a terrific read with something for everybody. If, like me you know absolutely sod all about computers, don't worry about embarking on Blue Box as the complicated techno-speak is all brought down to a wonderfully human level that even I could understand! Indeed a cat and mouse scene with the Doctor and Sarah in the computer was as gripping as any car chase or cat fight!
Sterling work. Write us another Kate.
A Review by John Seavey 24/5/03
The tremendous advantage of setting a story in the past is that you can drop hints about the future and make them as accurate or as inaccurate as needed, given the knowledge of the characters involved; the even more tremendous advantage of setting it in the recent past is that, having personal memory of the period, you can make it authentic while still taking advantages of the "time travel" conceit that powers Doctor Who. Blue Box does exactly that by setting its story in the early 1980s, giving author Kate Orman the chance to evoke quite precisely the early period of computer evolution while showing just how far we've come in twenty-one years. To be honest, next to the vivid portrayal of early hacker culture and capabilities, the plot was relatively unimportant -- unimportant, but not uninteresting.
The Eridani computer functions as the MacGuffin of the plot -- it's a suitably world-threatening device that we understand that everyone concerned wants it, and wants it badly enough to do seriously dangerous things to get it. However, it's really nothing we haven't seen before. "Alien technology perverting the course of human history" is an old saw in Doctor Who, even if it is handled well here. What's important is the people who want it and the ways they're trying to get ahold of it, and that's where Blue Box shines.
Sarah Swan, the villain of the piece, is quite possibly one of the best-drawn character portraits we've ever seen in Doctor Who. She's not an evil megalomaniac (well, not until the end when things are getting way out of control), she's not a madwoman (well, not until the end, again), she's the sort of petty tyrant, control freak, and revenge-monger that anyone who's frequented the Net has run into on one occasion or another. She's not nice, she's not sympathetic, and she's the sort of person you just want to slap if you ever meet, but she's fully-realized and excellently developed over the course of the novel. She's also not the cliched "one step ahead of the heroes" villain... most of the twists involve the Doctor out-maneuvering her, and her increasing desperation to stay on top of things. She's a villain who just cannot accept that she's out of her league.
The other characters are well-done, too. Chick Peters gets a lot of development "hidden in the shadows", and Bob Salmon comes off as a great pseudo-companion. (One quibble: When did Bob previously meet the Doctor? He seems to recognize the Sixth Doctor on sight, but doesn't know Peri at all -- since Peri was the Sixth Doctor's first companion, and she's still with him here, this suggests that he must have had a Vampire Science-esque adventure while his companion was doing something inconsequential.) And Ian Mond... well, it's a trifle unfortunate that a relatively major part was given to a fan namecheck; like M. Night Shaymalan or Quentin Tarantino, these cameos pull the reader out of the story a bit and might be better off with very small parts. Of course, after Vampire Science, I can't complain too loudly about fan namechecks.
The regulars are well-done here, too, with the Doctor seeming to revel in playing with our antique, human technology. (If the stakes are as high as he says, I do wonder why he doesn't use something more advanced, though. As it is, by using contemporary technology, he does seem to be levelling the playing field with Swan a bit. Still, since his whole goal is to keep anachronistic technology out of human hands, he must have decided it wasn't worth the risk.)
The point where the novel shines, though, is in its careful, loving descriptions of hacking and hacker culture. Every plot point hinges on some clever use of computers, and it's fascinating to get glimpses of how the hackers of the time could make the systems sit up and beg. I'm of the optimistic and hopefully not too naive opinion that these days, security has caught up a bit with hackers -- the period described here was a sort of Wild West time, before anyone realized the damage that could be done -- but it's still amazing to read about this stuff. The style chosen fits perfectly with the material, too -- Chick Peters' journalistic writing reminds me a lot of the unnamed (but always, in my mind, Bernice Summerfield) historian who set down The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. Considering that a lot of my non-fiction bookshelves contain history books, this was right up my alley.
In sum, I loved Blue Box, with all the fervor of an 80s nostalgia freak; I recommend it as probably Kate's best book since Set Piece.
A Review by Finn Clark 25/7/03
Blue Box is a well written novel. Much here is impressive; the pastiched computer-thriller genre is captured to a tee and the book has its own distinctive voice. The characterisation is good. This book has been sent out into the world with its hair brushed, its shoes shined and its trousers pressed.
My only problem with it is that it's slightly dull.
(Actually that's not quite true; I have another complaint, though it's a lesser one. A character here is called Ian Mond, which was incredibly disappointing. I thought Kate had shed all such self-indulgent nonsense with Year of Intelligent Tigers? I have no beef with the real Ian Mond, who's a great guy, but... I mean, really. Namechecking. But that's a minor gripe, no matter how distracting it is for readers who've heard of the fella.)
Of course when I use the word "dull", don't misunderstand me. Blue Box isn't another Space Age or Time's Crucible; in fact it's quite interesting in its own low-key way. It's just not exciting or scary. Instead it's a deliberately paced novel with a carefully controlled plot and a regrettable lack of spaceships, decapitations or cannibalistic slime monsters. (I've always found traditional literature sadly deficient in this regard too.) Unless you have a near-infinite capacity for being thrilled by computers, modems and phone lines then you might find the second half drags a bit. However it's always painstakingly written and it's excellent for what it is.
After all if you're in the mood to appreciate its good points, they're pretty darned impressive. The book's voice is refreshingly different, a pastiche of computer thrillers with lashings of authentic 1981 jargon and the strongest American flavour we've seen in the books to date. (Which is ironic, since obviously Kate Orman isn't American and Blue Box is a solo effort instead of having Jon's name also on the spine.) I enjoyed the fictional author's careful falsifications, such as changing Peri's surname or saying that "her slight figure was convincingly boyish". The computerese is fun too, with wide-eyed 1981 predictions about the year 2000 (entertainingly wide of the mark, of course) but also some more thoughtful assessments of the industry with hindsight courtesy of the Doctor.
The Doctor and Peri are well portrayed. I was pleased that their bickering hadn't been airbrushed out (there's a place for that and it's called Big Finish) but at the same time Kate delves deep into Peri's motivations and feelings for the Doctor. I appreciated that, though I did notice that Peri isn't the natural companion for a story like this. You'd think the 6th Doctor and Mel would work better in a tale of computer hackers... but I suppose that's been done (Business Unusual, Millennial Rites). Peri's fifth-wheel-ness is part of the point here. And besides, if the Doctor had Mel at his side then he wouldn't need Bob!
Random observation: isn't that a Caxtarid on page 111? (See Return of the Living Dad and Room With No Doors.)
All things considered I enjoyed Blue Box, even its second half. Avoid it if you live for trashy pulp, but I thought it was fresh and interesting. In 2002 the PDAs were less flashy than the newbie 8DAs, but for my money they were more coherent and often better novels; Blue Box has kicked off 2003 by continuing that trend.
Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 20/10/03
First of all, there will probably be a lot of comparison between Blue Box and Who Killed Kennedy, so let's deal with that right away. The story is about the journalist trying to uncover a big story that could threaten to destroy the whole world, and encounters the Doctor along the way. Um, which am I talking about again? Anyway, as a narrative device it isn't really all that uncommon, but hasn't graced the pages of Doctor Who all that often, but it is well used here. It allows the story to be conveyed in a way that let's us concentrate on the matters to hand without needing to know that the Doctor comes from Gallifrey and that aliens are real (which isn't to say that Blue Box doesn't have its own aliens to deal with).
I've always had an interest in the early days of the computer industry, and here was a story set in that time period, although dealing with phone phreaking more than the start of Apple or Microsoft (although notably the people in this book use Apples over the larger Big Blue enterprise). I was half fearing this might be another System Shock/Millennium Shock deal with something invading the net, but instead, whilst the net was a large component of the story, this was a part of the world in which the story was set rather than the source of the alien threat (such as it was). And it's nice to see, finally, a story where the computer side is actually sensibly presented. Yes, possibly the characters can do a little more net-hacking than might be completely feasible, but then there's always some conceit in that area.
The Doctor/companion pair here is the Sixth Doctor with Peri. Whilst the Doctor could really have been any (although the bombastic side of the Sixth Doctor is really portrayed well here, even in spite of the fact that a lot of the time the story involves the Doctor sitting in front of a keyboard), one can't but help wish that Mel had been the companion instead. Or perhaps that would have been too easy/obvious? On the other hand, we have a Mel substitute in the form of Bob, whose backstory first encounter with the Doctor is very similar to Mel's first introduction to him. Nice character, although his parents are possibly a little more understand than most would be...
Other major characters include Chick Peters, although I'm not sure if his backstory is more timely or just another instance of political correctness. At least it isn't handled badly, like it so easily could have been, and becomes just another facet of an already engaging character. And then there's Sarah Swan, the villain of the piece (as such), who does come across a little more over the top that we might need. Really that brilliant and cruel to those degrees? Oh well, at least we know something entertaining would happen whenever she was around.
Blue Box is another great read from the pen of Kate Orman (with, no doubt, a sprinkling of Jon Blum). If you're interested in seeing the early computer industry in action, or just looking for another book with an involving plot-line and well written characters, this book works well in either case.
A Review by Dave Roy 10/7/04
Kate Orman is one of the premiere Doctor Who writers today, along with Lance Parkin. When I pick up a book with her name on it, especially a Doctor Who book, I know it's going to be special. She can adapt her style to whatever story she wants to tell. However, she's always written for the "new" Doctor, never a Past Doctor. So when I heard that she was writing a Sixth Doctor book, I was intrigued. When I was finally able to get it, I snapped it up. Blue Box demonstrates once again that Orman has a way with characterization that makes the author-wannabe in me cry. She's captured the regulars almost to a T. The problem is that the book... well, it's a bit dull, actually.
Techno-thrillers are all the rage right now, but most of them are on the cutting edge, with fancy gadgets and computer power that makes something the size of a fingernail be able to run the world's computers. Blue Box isn't like that, though. It's the dawn of the computer age and the Internet, when only 200 computers were on the Net. The Doctor and Salmon do their hacking on an Apple II, for goodness sake! Orman has all the lingo down pat, pointing out how bulky the computers are, how slow they were ("Look. It's only uploading itself at 300 baud." "My God. We have only hours."). One of the benefits of setting the book in the past is that you can have the characters make a lot of "predictions" and you get to choose how far off-base they are. Orman seems to have a blast with this, with Salmon talking about how one day people will be ordering pizza online, and how you can't have the general public on the Net or it will go completely down the tubes (which actually seems contradictory, now that I think about it).
Orman's characterizations are wonderful, especially the Doctor and Peri's. Peri's having a crisis of conscience, wondering what her place with the Doctor really is. She's completely out of her element in this environment, not knowing anything about computers. It gets incredibly boring watching him hack away at the keyboard, and she jumps at any chance to actually do something. The book seems to take place right at the junction between Season 22 and 23, as they still bicker like a married couple but it's not as harsh as it was in their first season together. The second season seemed to have wiped most of it away, which was too abrupt a change. Here, they have their tiffs but you can see the underlying friendship beneath the whole thing.
The other characterizations are excellent as well. Swan has a lot of facets, and while she's completely amoral, Orman successfully gets inside her head so we can see what makes her tick. She loves power trips, and she'll crush you if you cross her, usually by completely messing with your online identity (phone records, government records, etc). The narrator, a computer journalist who is trying to follow the story, is suitably torn when he starts to realize that there's more to this story then he earlier believed. He still tries to remain impartial, but Swan ends up trying to destroy him as well. I was impressed, as I always am with an Orman book.
There are two major problems with the book, though. The first is the dullness. There's only so much excitement to be had out of people talking to each other on computers, threatening each other on computers, and breaking into people's computers. Orman tries to put some action into it, and there is the usual exciting climax, but much of the book consists of somebody typing away at somebody else. This can be effective in character studies or books about relationships, but in a Doctor Who book it just falls flat. Orman tries gamely with the characterizations, but I had to plow through the boring parts to get to the good ones.
One other major problem is something I have never seen from Orman before, and that's sloppiness. The book is told as if it's an expose by a journalist. Yet there are scenes that there is no way the narrator could have seen. Perhaps some of it is "fictionalized," but even if that's the case, there are some perspective changes that don't match the style. When Swan is cursing the reporter out in her mind on page 254, he keeps referring to himself in the third person. It was quite strange. Even worse then this, though, is the sloppiness as far as where people are in relation to the story. There's one sequence where the Doctor's supposed to be alone, and we know where Peri and Bob are (back at the reporter's apartment). Yet it then says "Behind the Doctor, Peri and Bob were wincing." While I can't place any other specific incidents of this, I did get that feeling a couple of other times as well. It's almost like she wasn't quite paying attention, or perhaps something changed and she forgot to go back and erase all of the tracks.
The characterizations are what bring this book up to the level that I'm putting it. If they weren't spot-on, this would easily be a 3-star book. Because of them, however, I'm bumping it up to four. It's still one of the weakest books I've seen from Orman, though. Here's hoping her next one will be up to her usual level.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 4/11/04
As a big fan of the 6th Doctor and Peri (even though I acknowledge the 6th Dr and Evelyn are a better combination) I decided to purchase this book. Kate Orman has always been a writer I have mixed feelings about. Some of her books are very good (Seeing I) but the majority were just not my kind of thing - too involved - too clever. Not to say they weren't good, just not that good for me. She was the premier writer for the later New Adventures, and they weren't my favourite collection of books on the whole.
So then it was all about the 6th Doctor and Peri for me. After a few chapters though I knew, once more, that another Kate Orman book was about to slip through my fingers. I just couldn't get into it, and found the whole story boring. At the centre were two characters I loved, but they were surrounded by gobbledygook. I refer to computer-speak - something that has eluded this mid-30s mind.
I remember computers from School, but they were in the corner, available for the select few. IT was a course on offer for O and A levels, but I never considered it, ever. My Mum wasn't that well off, and we never had a computer in the house.
I have never enjoyed computer games, even though I don't understand many people slamming them for frying young minds. I played football, cricket, golf and snooker in all my spare time - they're all games, same as those on a computer - no deterioration of the mind in any - just a different field of play.
I only starting using computers with my office job. I use them all the time. I use computers in leisure time, but only really as a magazine online (the usual top DW sites). But I really hate to read about all this technological jargon and technobabble.
Blue Box is full of it - creeping out of every paragraph. I just don't want to see the 6th Doctor in this kind of story. There seems to be plenty who like it just fine though. It's quite clear what sorts will like this book - I'm pleased for all you computer junkies out there - you'll love this!
One day they might write a Doctor Who book about cricket, or one set during the 14th Century - apart from most of Doctor Who itself those are my passions. Let's have another one about an English village, and the great British countryside. Oh what a traditional sort of chap I am! 5/10
A Review by Terrence Keenan 22/3/05
I've been meaning to get around to Kate Orman's 6th Doctor/Peri PDA for a while now, if only because she would be the last writer I would ever expect to take on the Technicolor blowhard and his all-American girl.
Blue Box is set in the early 80's US, during the "height" of the hacker's world. The Doctor and Peri arrive in Washington DC and set out to retreive a few alien components that have the potential for serious abuse in the fledgling internet and much more.
Orman, for some odd reason, decided to write the story in a weird mix of omniscient third person and first person (our narrator, Chick Peters), trying to give an overall journalistic/memoir feel to the novel. For the most part it works, although, it took me a while to warm up to it.
The general premise, of alien technology causing havoc among old fashioned human beings gets Big Ups from me, and something that Who in its many formats has always done well. Orman even keeps the aliens looking quite human, only belying their nature through their speech.
The big treat of Blue Box is what she does with the 6th Doctor. Wow. Orman was hit and miss with the 7th, atrocious with the 8th, but her 6th Doctor is brilliant. We see him from a distance, but all the traits are there, and Orman doesn't belittle him, nor worship him. It's the best part of the book.
Peri is also well written. We get insights from Peri as to how and why her and the Doctor bicker with each other. Well done and believable. Also well-handled is Peri's whining about being left out, getting into trouble and being dragged in, although Orman shows that Peri can still rise above and come through in the clutch. The only part that didn't work was a threat of Peri leaving the Doctor, if only because it seemed tossed out there at random.
The villain is Sarah Swan. I'm guessing that Kate Orman must have gotten her lunch money stolen from here every day at school, because she gives us yet another Big Bully Villain -- even called a bully by the narrator Chick in his description of Swan in the beginning of the novel. Swan is an obsessive control freak, and afraid of anyone who can challenge her in the internet domain, which the Doctor does continually. Thankfully, we're not meant to sympathise with Swan. Her fate at the end is interesting, and quite fitting for the character.
Bob and Ian are a pair of hackers caught up in events, with Ian forced to work with Swan and Bob teaming up with the Doctor and Peri. Both work well on the page.
Lastly is Chick, the "author" and journalist with a deep dark secret. Um, mostly, his role is to serve as the eyes and ears of the story. But, then there's a confrontation between him and Swan which I found annoying. Y'See, Chick is a Hermaphrodite, and this allows Orman to show how nasty Swan is by doing some cheap shot gay bashing and also ruin his career. Um, it annoyed me... a lot. We already hate Swan; do we need yet another reason to? Just gratuitous and... I'll stop here before I start raving and drooling.
Overall, Blue Box is the best book Orman has written since Set Piece. Worth the time reading.
Boys Don't Cry by Jason A. Miller 30/8/18
I let 15 years go by before I read Kate Orman's (to date) final Doctor Who novel, and I feel bad about it. I remember reading rec.arts.drwho in the early 1990s when Kate announced the commissioning of her first book, The Left-Handed Hummingbird and remember devouring her first several books within hours of buying them. She was the first, and, for almost a decade, the only female Doctor Who novelist, and her books were always Events. I have no excuse for not having read this thing back in 2003.
Blue Box is, unlike Kate's earlier work, not an Event. It's much milder than Kate's usual, lacking the timeline twisting of Hummer, the brutality of Set Piece and the out-there Lawrence Miles-esque shadings of Unnatural History. The book is confined to one time zone; the TARDIS does not appear, and the principal narrator is unaware that this is even science-fiction adventure. However, in spite of all that, I'd count it as one of the more successful Past Doctor Adventures, as I write this more than a decade after the line closed.
The year is 1981, and the place is the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. The locale-spanning of this book is limited to a cross-country Maryland road trip, and it's the only Doctor Who novel to include a scene set in a Chuck E. Cheese. If memory serves me right, Kate actually sneaks in a shout-out to the suburban DC hotel in which she would get married nearly two decades later. She lived in the area and knows her local geography. Interestingly, considering the time and the place (America in the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency and the height of the Cold War), this is a very non-political book.
The companion pairing is the 6th Doctor and Peri. Interest in and appreciation for that pair has increased significantly since Big Finish added considerably to their dreary half-dozen or so TV adventures (which were mostly misbegotten installments under the harsh glare of the Eric Saward-era studio lights), but they're still the pair I'd be least likely to want to read about. Somewhat wisely, at least for my particular set of interests, Kate keeps them at a remove: Peri appears with a different last name and a different hair color; the Doctor doesn't appear at all for the first fifth of the novel, and, when he does appear, he's wearing a black suit (which, if memory continues to serve me right, was Colin's original pitch for the 6th Doctor's wardrobe), and he's filtered entirely through the narrator, never having any scenes told from his own perspective.
Kate does handle the Doctor very well, for what relatively little there is of him in the book. The Doctor chooses his words and syntax with care ("as though just pronouncing words was a pleasure in itself"), and follows Colin Baker's habit of inserting complex vocabulary words into the script (the big one here is "absquatulate", which, yes, was used correctly). His first words are "You were expecting something more advanced?", about a primitive computer lash-up, and I laughed out loud. While he doesn't repeat any word three times with increasing volume (a Colin trademark on TV), he does write out the word "Instinctive?" in all caps and underlines it twice, which shows that Kate has picked her Doctor and characterized him with the greatest of care. There's also a running subplot about why Peri stays with this abrasive Doctor, which is important for the book's Season 22 setting.
The narrator is a journalist named Chick Peters. The book is in fact presented as a non-fiction work penned by Peters. For a book set in the earliest days of the internet, the table of contents is coded like a BASIC program -- with a twist, as there are essentially 12 chapters, which will warm the cockles of the hearts of any Terrance Dicks enthusiasts out there who still read this message board, but the chapters are named 10 through 120 (but, in the middle, there's a Chapter 65). Chapter One (or "10") appears problematic because Chick sits on the "bonnet" of his car and looks at its "numberplate", and those aren't American idioms at all. But we soon learn that Chick is not American at all -- Chick is Australian (like the author), so when the book continues to refuse to use American terminology, we can excuse it. Chick even makes a meta-textual gag at the end about being an Australian writing an American-set book for a British publisher. Blue Box is as much Chick's confessional autobiography as it is the "non-fiction" accounting of a 6th Doctor/Peri adventure, although it takes a while for Chick's story to properly unfold, with the character's central mystery not becoming evident until the final quarter of the book.
Beyond Chick hailing from the same continent as the author, it's fair to say that the book's small guest-cast has a heavy Mary Sue wish-fulfillment element to it. Chick, a journalist who uncovers events early on, is quickly taken into the Doctor's confidence. Bob Salmon, the Doctor's hacker friend, is invited on board as a companion. Even the story's villain (whose villainy is very very mild in comparison to previous Kate Orman adversaries) is simply a woman who prefers to spend much of her time in cyberspace ("You did not cross Swan. You did not argue with her on the computer bulletin boards," we're told). Two other named characters (that I could count) are named for then-prominent internet fans, which was the style at the time (even if none of the namecheck characters are as interesting as Abner from Vampire Science).
As a steampunk-cyberpunk book, Blue Box captures the early-hacker world of 1981 in amber. There are lots of earnest discussions about the future of the internet ("It's not going to make the net a better place if everybody in the world climbs aboard," is one painfully prescient line) and discussions of hackers and cybersecurity. As someone who read this book 15 years late and on the wrong side of the hacked November 2016 U.S. presidential election, I wince knowingly and murmur "Touche'" at the author.
Considering Kate's earlier novels, this one is shockingly non-violent, if not gentle, with a surprisingly low body count. Kate works in lots of wry observational humor ("Brown brown brown. The national colour of the Seventies"); one minor character is described as "a scowl above a mustache", which is about all that needs to be said. There are some vulgarities that should have been removed after the first read-through (I never need to see the expression "raped ape" again, and neither do you), and the N-word also appears, which would never get past an editor today, even if, as here, there was absolutely no malice intended in its usage.
So what is Blue Box, a book whose title suggests the Doctor's time machine, which itself never appears? It's a small book, set in one time zone and one narrow geographical location. It's a cat-and-mouse game between two sets of hackers, battling for custody of an alien supercomputer that's fallen to Earth. It's a very small and intimate book, but it's written by an accomplished author with mostly expert command of her prose and characterization. I'm truly worry I waited 15 years to read it, and I'm equally sorry that, in the 15 years to follow, there hasn't been another new Kate Orman novel.