First Frontier
BBC Books
Bullet Time

Author David A. McIntee Cover image
ISBN# 0 563 538?? ?
Published 2001
Featuring The seventh Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith

Synopsis: Investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith is on the trail of corruption in Hong Kong, but she finds a lot more than she bargained for... along with an old friend.


A Review by Finn Clark 15/10/01

Zzzzork. Mmm, sorry? Oh, no spoilers.

Well, that was... boring. Sorry, but there you have it. I've often enjoyed McIntee books in the past, even the much-derided Lords of the Storm, but I'm afraid this one had me nodding off. A cool gunfight perked up my interest for a few pages, but otherwise I was completely un-gripped. Maybe it's a personal thing? Unlike others I also hated Shadow of Weng-Chiang, which I seem to remember as being set in the Orient too. I think. Maybe I just can't get into that world through the eyes of McIntee.

The sad thing is that this book has good ingredients. Hong Kong was painted well [1], giving the impression that the author really has a handle on Far East culture and its people. It's far, far better than his version of pre-revolutionary Russia in Wages of Sin, for instance. I liked the mini-theses on politics and galactic interspecies relationships. The plot has plenty of revelations and ideas. I guess my main problem is the original characters, who bored the pants off me. Only Hong Yi Chang managed not to be dull, and that was unfortunately by being so woodenly drawn as to be almost painful.

Admittedly this isn't usually an insuperable problem in Doctor Who books. We're accustomed to cardboard casts filling in the gaps around the Doctor's adventures... but here, the Doctor's mostly an offscreen presence. He's not the hero but almost the antagonist, an Ernst Stavro Blofeld or perhaps the Kingpin from Marvel Comics. Sarah Jane Smith comes closer to filling the heroic role, but she's still a bit of a walk-on part. Much of the book drags on without an audience identification figure for us to support. Thus drawbacks in characterisation are accentuated and made less palatable.

There's also UNIT, of course. IMO this is not a good thing. An updated, modern-era UNIT has cropped up in quite a few novels now, which is surprising since authors have been unable to resist making them efficient, professional soldiering outfits which don't really belong in Doctor Who. There's not a trace of charm or individuality to be seen. For lack of any other raison d'etre in the books, they've often become a post-X-Files shadowy organisation with internal factions and unclear motives. Even if we overlook The Pit (and please let's) then this approach is now a good five years old. Remember Who Killed Kennedy and Scales of Injustice? They've become a bunch of faceless soldiers who aren't even likeable any more. (Except the Brigadier, who must now be treated with the kind of reverence that is normally shown only to God-Emperors.)

The Seventh Doctor's manipulative character and methods are put under the spotlight in a manner that's actually interesting. Unfortunately any hope of subtlety is smashed like porcelain under a sledgehammer when Sarah starts quoting Terrance Dicks, but I eventually managed to forgive this.

Sarah herself fares well, though I don't buy the ending at all. IMO it's lazy. What's more, I'm pretty sure we know her future too accurately for the author's ambiguity to work as intended. Though having said that, if Sarah wasn't Sarah then the epilogue would be absolutely beautiful.

There was however a curious resonance I didn't expect - one with the comic strips. McIntee has screwed up comics continuity before in his novels (Mission Impractical) and at first glance Bullet Time appears to contradict the McCoy-Sarah comic strip Train-Flight (DWM 159-161). However on second thoughts I decided the two can be reconciled without tortuous retconning. It would explain much if Sarah's attitude at the beginning of that story was a result of her recent adventures with the Seventh Doctor in Hong Kong... but she can't talk to him about it because for him, it hasn't happened yet. One could in fact see a trilogy of McCoy-Sarah stories: Ground Zero, Bullet Time and Train-Flight. For her, they happen in that order. For him, they're exactly the other way around. After finishing Bullet Time I went straight on to read Train-Flight and found a spooky little resonance - its first page has a brief mention of Ace, currently treading on butterflies in the Cretaceous period...

Overall, I can't recommend this book. However it's quite possible that it bored me for entirely personal reasons and if you liked Shadow of Weng-Chiang then feel free to completely disregard this review.

[1] - admittedly a Hong Kong reader posted on rec.arts.drwho to say that the flavour of the place was less strong than he'd hoped. He had a few nitpicks, but almost all of 'em would have sailed over the heads of anyone who hadn't actually lived in the place. For further details, look up a post called "My take on Bullet Time (mild spoilers)" that was posted on 21 September 2001 04:45.

Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 22/1/02

This isn't a Doctor Who novel insomuch that it's a Companion novel, that of Sarah Jane Smith. The Doctor's in it, but is very much acting behind the scenes, very much in line with the latter Virgin novels. It also features UNIT, Triads, cops, corruption and aliens, in varying degrees and mixtures.

The setting of the book is Hong Kong just before being handed back to the Chinese at the end of 1997. Despite this, little in the book depends on this point, and this story could easily have taken place elsewhere and when. This is owed more to the story being generic rather than timeless. The plot does have a lot to it, but becomes a mish-mash of various ideas that struggle to work together, and in the end rely a lot on the author being able to pull resolutions and explanations out of nowhere so the story can move to the next trumped up event. Certainly there are some new ideas here, but there are so many plot points moving that nothing manages to stand out. That said, I do like Chapter Seventeen. However, watch out for page 67.

There is one event that will make this book be remembered, if it is true (and I'm still a little dubious that it is as it contradicts, for a start, another BBC book Millennium Shock), but I can't say anything further...

With all these plots going on, we get a smorgasbord of characters. If you don't particularly like one character, wait a while and a new one will come along. I found myself mixing up Tse Hung and Yue Hwa until I made a determined effort to work out who was who, similarly with Siao and Sing. Yi Chung and Clark were well written and likeable, Major Barry and Tom Ryder were well written but irritating. Special mention goes to Clark who started a Lieutenant but became a Captain a few scenes later showing the need for another run through with the editor (who would also have hopefully caught many of the spelling errors).

There are indications that the aliens have a rich cultural structure, although they were not fleshed out more than making them alien. They are not named as a race, but I'm fairly certain they're not the Tzun. Perhaps David McIntee plans to use them again?

Sarah Jane Smith is extremely well done, very much a matured version of the character we saw on screen. Bullet Time being more of an ensemble cast novel, Sarah Jane doesn't get the solo spotlight, but she certainly comes through in the scenes she is in as believable, even down to her interaction with the Virgin Dark Doctor.

The Doctor himself is, as I've pointed out, entirely in Dark Doctor mode, and this story can certainly can be placed during a gap in The Room With No Doors. In that respect David McIntee gets him spot on. However, I do doubt that the Doctor would have juggled events as he does, but in the way he acts any outcome can be largely placed at the Doctor's feet for keeping too much information to himself, although this side of the events is not really brought up.

Aside from the one event I can't mention, Bullet Time is largely hit-and-miss, with nothing in particular to recommend it. There is a lot of plot and a lot of characters, but all merely competently handled, with no major surprises. An average book, but you could do a lot worse than read this.

Surprisingly mature by Robert Smith? 6/2/02

I think this is the book that we always knew David McIntee could write, but simply hasn't bothered to since about the time of Sanctuary. It's unencumbered by much continuity - and the few places where that does rear its ugly head just go to prove why dropping it is such a good idea. It's got a Doctor that McIntee is actually interested in examining, unlike the majority of PDAs. What's more, it actually makes Sarah work, which I think is a first for novel form.

The Doctor's role as the leader of the Triad isn't overdone - and in best seventh Doctor tradition, he doesn't actually appear that often, but when he does his scenes are gripping and full of moral ambiguity. Not only does this remind us why the NAs worked as well as they did, it also shows why the other seventh Doctor PDAs haven't succeeded at all. Treading these uncharted PDA waters really helps to make this book work.

Sarah is great, although I think she doesn't appear nearly as much as she should. I can understand McIntee's need to focus on the Triads, especially given the mega-cool surprise revelation that occurs late in the day, but I think there's a bit too much faffing about with UNIT characters we don't have any reason to care about. This makes the middle of the book pretty boring, which is a bit of a shame.

Still, what we do get of Sarah is quite interesting. She really feels like a 40-something ex-companion, rather than other former companions who've come back nothing like their earlier selves. I think things might have worked out a lot better if Sarah had been offered and accepted the Cortez offer earlier on (without knowing exactly what it was about) and relieved us of the terminally boring internal monologues of Major Barry.

Speaking of which, the Cortez stuff does seem to come out of left field after the bulk of the book is over. Despite all the scenes with UNIT personnel (who apparently think in the internal voice of a forties detective who doesn't like the jungle much), this still feels like it comes out of left field because the book was running about 50 pages short. I'd have preferred the two plots to dovetail a bit more, but it's not a huge failing.

Naturally, there are lots of cool 'splosions and gunfights and the like, which McIntee couldn't write badly if he tried. I'm tempted to think that the main reason this novel is set in Hong Kong is so that there's a good excuse for lots of shootouts - but I'm not complaining, because this author is really writing to his strengths. The only disquieting part is something that's a little too close to the events of September 11th for comfort. Doctor Who has never sat particularly well with the real world, making this very uncomfortable reading (but unavoidable, as it was published before then).

It seems a bit churlish to criticise the continuity in a fairly continuity-free book, but I'm going to anyway. Page 67 is appalling. It feels like we got momentarily sucked into the continuity-drenched McIntee novels of old and just goes to show why that sort of thing simply doesn't work. Furthermore, there's a continual habit of writing scenes, especially action scenes, with the words "As he phrased in his report later" which completely destroys any tension about whether the character in question is going to survive. This is bad enough when it's used to describe the interior of the Tzun ship, but it's unforgivable when it occurs in the middle of a gunfight.

Aside from those grumbles, though, not referencing the Tzun is a stroke of genius. The mention of the Ph'Sor in particular makes it clear that it is them, for anyone paying attention, but this really adds to the atmosphere and the alienness, as seen through the eyes of the humans. There's some obvious setup for a future novel, with all the stuff about the hikers being returned safely as potential future agents, that's almost a throwaway resolution to the novel's initial setup. I would have liked a little more closure within this novel, but that's only a minor complaint.

Spoilers for the ending follow. Don't read this bit unless you've read the novel.

The ending is surprisingly affecting. It's almost a cliche by now that the appearance of an old companion is going to mean their death, so much so that Asylum managed to successfully turn it on its head only two books previously. And taken in summary, it's pretty silly - we know for sure that Sarah is still around later, with significant scenes in 1998 and 1999 in System and Millennium Shock, not to mention her 1998 speech to the Nobel academy in Christmas on a Rational Planet... but all this is irrelevant, because Bullet Time has left the ambiguity open enough to incorporate this stuff and not have her dead, while still getting the emotional payoff it wants. The whole ending scene and epilogue is astonishingly well written because of this. I don't buy the end of her career for a minute, though, which is a bit of a shame, because this is a decent idea in principle.

Bullet Time succeeds in part because it continually underplays its hand. McIntee's action scenes shine and there's great use of the NA Doctor. There are a couple of fumbles, some of the UNIT stuff is deathly boring and there's a sudden about-turn with the Cortez stuff, but there's also some emotionally affecting writing and a great surprise revelation. A winner.

A Review by John Seavey 9/3/02

Bullet Time can best be described as "interesting". There are some clever ideas in there about the way different people describe different narratives (McIntee was apparently going for a Rashomon effect, but didn't have the courage to really wholeheartedly contradict himself anywhere except the end); there are some interesting ideas about humanity's relations with aliens (the Cortez Project actually made some excellent points, if you ignore the fact that really, they'd be about as effective against actual aliens as a candyfloss umbrella, just like the Aztecs were against Cortez); and the way the Doctor is handled is truly the stand-out of the book, with us just getting glimpses of him, usually through the eyes of others, and always in a way that makes one want to turn the pages to find out what's going to happen next....however...

Its prose is the usual McIntee porridge -- bland, indistinct excepting a few lumps here and there, and sitting in your stomach like a rock three hours later. So it's worth one read to get all the cool plot stuff, and then let it go, because you certainly won't be reading it again for its enchanting wit.

A Review by Brian May 22/6/07

What a mindless, self-indulgent piece of pap! There's hardly an original idea in Bullet Time. David A. McIntee recycles practically every concept from his earlier work, or else he's pilfering from elsewhere - or both. It's The Face of the Enemy set in Hong Kong, with the author's fondness for James Bond glaringly present. The prologue, in which Tom Ryder rescues Sarah Jane Smith, with some amazing stunts, is a near perfect re-creation of the films' pre-title sequences. The setting cries out for a reference to The Man With the Golden Gun - and McIntee obliges. The Tzun from First Frontier make a return appearance and hey, surely you~'d think the Master would turn up somewhere. Well, he doesn't - but don't worry, McIntee can't resist the temptation to name-check him, upon the reading of which I groaned. And is General Kyle (p.233) meant to be Marianne from The Face of the Enemy? Have mercy on us!

So what else does David A. McIntee like - and dislike? Well, he loves The Hunt for Red October what with all the moments aboard the Russian submarine - and later, an unsubtle reference with the U.S.S. Clancy. He finally gets to namecheck The X-Files; the 1950s setting prevented him from doing so in First Frontier, but the same theme/different decade update to the 1990s means that's no longer a problem. We've got The Manchurian Candidate, Open All Hours - even Oprah! - and a dig at Star Trek (p.211) which is directly ripped off from Red Dwarf (The Last Day), and Grant Naylor did it so much better. Yes, this is a pop culture extravaganza indeed!

However it's a fun read. I've called it pap, but I must concede it is enjoyable pap. The various narratives and multiple points of view are effective. A few individuals aside - Chiu for example, whose brief, quiet moments of exposition and introspection are beautifully written - the characters are all caricatures. There are shadowy UNIT top brass, crude military grunts, vodka-sodden Russian businessmen, Triad hoods, etc. But they're meant to be like this, simply fulfilling what the plot requires them to do, as in The Face of the Enemy. And where that book failed in its attempts to give small doses of depth to its players (Marianne Kyle being the notable example), Bullet Time overcomes this. Small touches like Tse Hung's sense of family honour and his relationship with his father work well, while Tom Ryder's chronic self-delusions are hilarious (the set-up in which it's revealed he didn't actually sleep with Sarah is very well crafted). The Doctor giving Siao a second chance is nice; it's a throwback to the puppeteer of season 26 and the early New Adventures, but thankfully gives him some mercy and benevolence, which is especially welcome after the rather frightening figure we were often witness to (Cat's Cradle: Warhead especially).

While the mercurial, barely-there Doctor is also true to the NAs, and his characterisation is quite good, the attempted continuity fails. From the Time Lord's point of view it's set at the end of the Virgin series, where such a character interpretation was well and truly over. But Sarah is a more problematic portrayal. While the author remains faithful to the "concept" of Sarah Jane Smith, the investigative journalist, he misses the mark entirely when it comes to the "person". She's not warm, nor is she endearing. She has none of the presence or charm Elisabeth Sladen gave us and therefore is not very interesting to follow around as the lead protagonist. I'm not particularly worried about the Pyramids of Mars/Mawdryn Undead dating conflict, while any problems her apparent death creates in the advent of the Big Finish series, School Reunion or the Sarah Jane Adventures are not the fault of the author; Bullet Time came first, so the rest have to follow. But I was not happy with how McIntee contradicts Interference, in which Sarah met the eighth Doctor in 1996. Bullet Time, one year later in Sarah's timeline, strongly implies she hasn't seen the Doctor in years (p.96); and this time Lawrence Miles got there first, so you'd think McIntee would at least respect the inter-continuity of the BBC Books.

Once again I'm going to make comparisons and contrasts with The Face of the Enemy, but the novel openly invites this. There's another spectacular action set piece involving helicopters crashing into buildings, which is great fun and gasp-inducing throughout. We have one glaring proofreading error (Clark changes from Lieutenant to Captain very quickly), as opposed to the multitude of them in Enemy. The feel of Hong Kong is convincingly captured, and I suspect the excellent cover artwork has a lot to do with it, while the contemporary atmosphere - anticipation and apprehension about the handover to China - is quite well realised.

So in closing: a self-indulgent runabout; a mass of recycling and pop culture references; a typically fanboyish teaming up of a Doctor and companion who never met in the televised series. Great bursts of action, deft prose, variable characterisations and an excellent pace - although the last 30 pages lose it a bit, dragging on and becoming heavy-handed. And the Tzun are never named, despite it being obviously them, which just smacks of pretence rather than the intended aura of mystery. There are problems, but I've always breezed through the novel quickly and got swept along. Overall I would not say Bullet Time is that great a book; but I will call it an acceptable diversion. 6.5/10