THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Frontier in Space
Planet of the Daleks
The Green Death
BBC Books
Catastrophea

Author Terrance Dicks Cover taken from the excellent Doctor Who books page
ISBN# 0 563 40584 8
Published 1998
Continuity Between
Planet of the Daleks and The Green Death

Synopsis: The Doctor and Jo arrive on the planet Kastopheria, a planet rich in natural resources, where the quickly become involved in keeping the delicate peace between the civilized races who wish to exploit the planet's resources and the native population.


Reviews

A Review by Robert Smith? 11/7/98

Terrance Dicks has taken an era he knows inside out and managed to craft a well-written, fast-paced, original story that also feels exactly at home. Furthermore, he makes it all look so effortless that it's often difficult to remember exactly how good he's actually being.

The third Doctor and Jo are 100% spot on. There's no forcing of the characters here, no role that the plot requires them to play that they have to slip out of character for. The Doctor gets to be as all-knowing, arrogant, rude and as human as he always was. Jo is dim-witted at times, needing the plot to be explained to her (and hence the reader) and yet has that touch of complexity and believability that the character onscreen had which made her more than just the bimbo she was supposed to be. The Draconians are also well-used. They appear for both comic relief and a believable threat and most importantly, they aren't overused. In short, in every conceivable way except appearing via cathode rays, this is exactly a third Doctor and Jo television adventure from 1973 that reminds you exactly what it was about Doctor Who that attracted you in the first place.

Terrance is so good at this that Catastrophea really ought to be held up as the standard for other Past Doctor Books writers to aspire to.

The plot is simple, without being simplistic. There's enough going on to keep the book moving for its entire length. Events move along believably and there's no idiot-plotting required. Padding simply isn't an option here.

I only have a few niggles and they're relatively minor, hardly spoiling my enjoyment at all. The scene where Jo and the Doctor are first attacked by Rekar could have worked just as well without Jo pointing out that Rekar intended to rape her. This bit feels just a tad tacked-on, as though Terrance were intending to make the book a little bit more grown-up. I don't think he needs to.

Second, the whole conversation with Rik is just far too obvious. Terrance has demonstrated his love of Casablanca before, but having a whole section repeated verbatim is just silly. I think it would have been far better to just have Rik's cafe and leave it at that (or possibly include only the line that "Sooner or later, everybody comes to Rik's" and cut the rest). Third, he re-used the "wheezing-groaning" joke from Blood Harvest!

However, these are only three minor points in an otherwise flawless book. It isn't a cutting edge work of literature, but for being what it intends to be, it succeeds like nothing else. And that's a quality that's much harder to come by than most people think. Terrance has only proved the old axiom that the sign of an expert is doing something well and making it look easy to the outsider. Thoroughly, absolutely recommended.


A Review by Finn Clark 11/6/99

Even by the standards of Doctor Who authors, Terrance Dicks is rather a puzzle. A television professional who's been around for about as long as there's been television, he has nonetheless been writing for Virgin (and now BBC Books) since the very beginn ing. An old-time Who professional, he nevertheless hadn't worked on the TV programme since The Five Doctors back in 1983 (and that had been by special invitation). In many ways, he's the anti-Ben Aaronovitch. Ben made a name for himself in the Cartmel era, but then outraged the trad fans with Transit, his first novel for the new Virgin line. Even now, Transit is hated with a passion that is hard to justify objectively.

Terrance Dicks, on the other hand, made a name for himself in the Virgin era (with Exodus, Blood Harvest and Shakedown), then outraged the trad Virgin fans with The Eight Doctors, his first novel for the new BBC Books line. Even now, The Eight Doctors i s hated with a passion that is hard to justify objectively. It's not the worst book I've ever read, or anywhere near it. It's a frivolous and light-hearted little romp through Doctor Who's own history, with some neat scenes (and some less neat scenes) that is really just The Five Doctors, only not written for television. Naturally, it incenses the trad Virgin fans exactly as Transit enraged the trad TV fans, by seeming to spit in the face of all their beloved conventions. This is a book that rejects theme, plot and deep characterisation in favour of good-natured nostalgia told in the style of the television series.

Of course, Ben Aaronovitch's second novel, The Also People, was generally agreed to be a great improvement and was acclaimed almost universally. To follow The Eight Doctors, Terrance has produced Catastrophea.

I've read a bit about Catastrophea. Dave Owen thinks it's shallow and derivative, which is true (but rather like criticising the sea for being wet). What I hadn't been led to expect is that Catastrophea is very, very funny.

The characters may be ciphers, but they're certainly not faceless and unmemorable. They're gleefully stereotyped gag opportunities, milked for all they're worth and then some. The Draconians are a hoot. My favourite people in the book are a couple of walk-on constables. The Doctor and Jo are a pair of stand-up comics. This book reads like a dream. No book has ever drawn me through so effortlessly. I glided through, never even thinking about putting it down until the final page turned and the thing was over. When people call John Peel fluffy undemanding fun, they're wrong. THIS is fluffy undemanding fun. To be blunt, it's not much better objectively than The Eight Doctors, except that it's got a coherent plot instead of a bunch of cameo set-pieces like The Chase. However, it doesn't come out sniggering to itself and dropping its pants at the trad Virgin fans. I would have thought it impossible not to like this book. You might decide that it's not up to much afterwards, but it's great fun while it lasts.

The regulars are awesome. NO ONE does Jon and Jo better. I read their introductory pages and glow in admiration. In a few sketchy pages, Terrance evokes an entire era with effortless brilliance. This era is not, of course, Jon Pertwee's years on television, but the third Doctor of Terrance's own novelisations. This is the Target Doctor resurrected and a joy to read. About as deep as a kiddie's paddling pool, of course, but Terrance knows exactly which buttons to press. This Doctor is a roaring snob, always on his dignity and capable of getting very embarrassed. He is as right-wing as they come, of course, but it wouldn't be fair to accuse him of only being rude to the spectacularly thick earnest revolutionaries. This is the third Doctor we know and love, spectacularly and devastatingly rude to all and sundry.

Every so often, the lack of depth makes one a little uneasy. At times, one begins to feel that Terrance is playing killers for laughs and so implying that there's something intrinsically humorous about violence. For much of the book, there doesn't seem to be a theme at all. Is it really about anything, one asks oneself. But in the end, the answer is yes. I can honestly say that I enjoyed reading this book more than any other BBC Book to date (although Vampire Science runs it a close second).

One quick fanboy point (which isn't a spoiler since the Draconians are on the cover, natch). The positioning of this book is extremely good. Together with Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks, this book could be said to comprise a loose trilogy, which pleases me. Of course, Catastrophea rightly belongs alongside the Target novelisations, so perhaps it might be better to say that it makes a trilogy with Macolm Hulke's The Space War and Terrance's own The Planet of the Daleks...

Supplement 8/5/02:

It's true that Terrance Dicks has his formulae and works happily within them, but he's far from being the cookie-cutter trad machine of his reputation. Shakedown is original, while on the other hand Blood Harvest is fanwanky even by Terrance's standards. And now there's Catastrophea, which is (a) almost continuity-free, and (b) manages to sustain a single plot for the length of an entire book without budding off any disconnected subplots whatsoever. It's wonderful! It's a miracle of self-discipline! It's... uh, it's very slow-moving.

Things start promisingly. We land on Catastrophea (strictly speaking Kastopheria) and meet lots of entertaining locals - the "I say, old chap" Governor and General, plus some dappy teenage rebels. There are zombified native People whom one knows will mean trouble. The Doctor gets mistaken for a famous revolutionary called El Llama. What next???

Answer: nothing, alas. That set-up I've just described keeps Uncle Terry happy for half the book. I'll repeat that. Half the frigging book. It's not even as if of the charactes qualify as more than comic relief, with the bigwigs being amiable buffoons and the rebels being more stupid than anyone in the entire universe, ever. Words cannot describe the imbecility of these people. They have three squabbling leaders, who between them cover every possible way in which a teenage rebel can be stupid. There's a dreamy hippy, a student radical and a hot-headed man of violence. I'm not kidding - for chapter after chapter, they are 180 degrees wrong about everything. You want to smack their heads together. It's obviously deliberate; Terrance must have had a ball writing these idiots.

And then there's Rik's. Everyone comes to Rik's. I don't think I'd seen Casablanca when I first read this back in 1998, so I wouldn't have realised that Rik's dialogue in his first scene is entirely comprised of Casablanca quotes. Dear God. Kill me now.

But... but, despite all this, I liked Catastrophea. The Doctor and Jo are gloriously written and the centre of attention throughout. The Doctor's meant to be the hero of these books, and here he is. He's pompous, patronising, elitist, abusive and absolutely hilarious. The scene in which he's sitting down to dinner with General Walton is a scream. On p19 he gets a line that made me laugh out loud. Catastrophea's first half is more like a sitcom, in which the Doctor and Jo have a series of wacky misunderstandings with the vicar's wife and her cucumber sandwiches.

The Draconians are funky, though it's a bit of a cheat putting them on the front cover since they hardly appear until very late on. Nevertheless they steal the show on every appearance and their plan for evil is too funny for words.

Constables Sanders and Sidney... are they lifted from Ealing comedies or something? George Sanders and Sid James? They're a priceless double act, no matter that they hardly appear.

Even Terrance thinks this one's a bit trad ("but that seemed to be the brief"). It's timewarped, exactly as it might have been written thirty years ago - right down to all its in-jokes being based on classic black-and-white movies. Well, except the "wheezing, groaning noise" stand-up routine, of course. There's a fairly slight plot that would be merely a subplot in most Terrance Dicks novels, but the characters' interactions are what drives this book. They're stereotypes, yes, but they're also good-natured and likeable. I found it charming.


A Review by Rueben Herfindahl 9/8/99

It was with rather mixed feelings that I approached Catastrophea. I had quite enjoyed the only Dicks NA that I had read (Timewyrm: Exodus) but loathed The Eight Doctors. However the temptation was too great, the 3rd Doctor, and Jo Grant are perhaps my favorite Doctor companon team.

The back cover blurb sets the story directly after Planet of the Daleks and before The Green Death. There are two Virgin MA's set up in this same gap (Paul Leonard's Dancing the Code, and Speed of Flight), but both are earth bound adventures so Catastrophea easially fits in with their continuity.

Dicks captures the feel of the 3rd Doctor's era very well. The Doctor lands on a planet called Kastropheria and is immediately mistaken for a revolutionary leader by the local group of revolutionaries (very much based on 60's sterotypical hippies). The authorities also mistake him for the same leader and he is caught up in plantatary affairs. The planet's native population (known only as the people) is a large brutish and suprisingly docile. The colonists on the planet are very cruel to them, and the people just put up with it. The true source of the people's docile nature is eventually reveled to be a crystal, which when powdered is an addictive drug. There are of course drug smugglers on the planet trying to steal the crystals from the people. Add to this mix a rouge bunch of Draconians trying to start a war with the earth authorities on the planet and you have the basic setup for the story. The Docotr gets jailed, is released, gets jailed again, escapes... Classic 3rd Doctor stuff. It even has a nice quick resolution. Dicks does such a good job capturing the feel of the era that it seems to have been more an unused storyline, than a novel written 20 years after the fact.

You can tell Dicks had fun writing this one. He makes some nice corrections to earlier cliches his target books created. One of the soldiers describes the TARDIS depared with a wheezing, graoning sound. To which his captain wonders if he was drunk. He also has the Doctor make a reference to the "Red Indian" (as the first Doctor did), but corrects the first Doctors un-PC statement by ammending it with a "of which he was neither".

The bottom line: Just because The Eight Doctors was a load of horse dung, doesn't mean you should assume Dicks has lost his talent to tell a good yarn. Nothing new and groundbreaking, just a entertaining read.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 24/12/03

Such an unfortunate title. Like the New Adventure The Pit, which was the pits - it is open to ridicule and scorn. Oh what a catastrophe is the cry from all sides. I can see their point really. It just doesn't have any oomph, any "now that's excellent Doctor Who" like so many other books have. It is simply a run of the mill story, from an author who has given us so much more.

Terrance Dicks was the master of the TARGET novelization, but only when he was doing the likes of Spearhead From Space and Web of Fear. Entries such as The Space Pirates and Kinda, clearly did not catch his interest too much, and we have an average novelization. It should come as no surprise then that his original novels have been mixed in quality. Players, Exodus - great books. Catastrophea is not.

Which is a shame because Terrance Dicks should know the Pertwee years better than anyone. Last of the Gadarene should have been a Dicks book (that is a massive compliment to Mark Gatiss by the way). But thus far all Dicks has given us from the time he was script editor - the most powerful individual in the story process - is Catastrophea. Hopefully Dicks has such a book in him, like Gadarene. Hopefully he will continue to entertain us with his novels - he can write masterful stories.

One of the Past Doctor books that does not invoke a golden era, and not one either that gives us anything very interesting or new. 5/10


Delightful! by Joe Ford 25/8/04

Dave Owen of Doctor Who magazine hated it. Lars Pearson of I Who hated it. David Darlington of TV Zone hated it. Robert Smith? Of DWRG loved it... hang on a minute! It gives me great pleasure to announce that after my second read of Catastrophea I am at a loss to explain why so many people dislike this agreeable book. I realise that even I squandered its reputation in my PDA quick guide but I am not above admitting I was wrong.

The Doctor quite wonderfully sums up the book in one paragraph:

"You've got repressive colonists, brutal company guards, freelance mercenaries, drug smugglers and an assortment of intergalactic cutthroats. And to control them you've got only overworked and exhausted police and an inadequately resourced military force. Stirring the whole thing up with well-meant interference, you've got do gooders, eco-warriors, a variety of eccentric missionaries and social activists, and a whole ragbag of juvenile revolutionaries. All of them struggling over a planet whose people don't seem to take the slightest interest in their own fate, can't be bothered to defend themselves, and occasionally run amok and kill everyone in sight. Oh and in case all this wasn't enough- an imminent Draconian invasion!"
I remember Terrance pointing out in the Seeds of Death commentary that he was pleased that the story had a good number of problems for the Doctor to sort out because that was what made a good story. He seems to have taken his own advice here and provided thousands of issues to be resolved in Catastrophea and in doing has created probably his best original novel for the Virgin or the BBC book lines. Two thirds into the book and the situation on this precarious planet seemed to be going from bad to worse with no signs of tying anything up and was wondering how on Earth Terrance was going to satisfactorily finish the book without resorting to cheap plot tricks. I love how he throws all these issues into the air and leaves the reader lost amongst the madness.

I agree with Finn Clark wholeheartedly when he says this book is funny. It's a laugh riot throughout primarily because Terrance is SO good at capturing Jon Pertwee's third Doctor in print. He should of course, being the script editor of his television era but even so none of that magic has dulled after all these years... reading Catastrophea is like stepping back through time and having a outer space Doctor Who story played out just for you!

It's hilarious the way the Doctor keeps trying extradite himself from the planet and its problems but no matter how much he protests his innocence everyone believe him to be El Llama, the great terrorist revolutionary! I was roaring with laughter when he finally convinces the military of who he really is and then the terrorists leap to his rescue and prove he is El Llama! It is interesting to see the Doctor so eager to leave a planet and its problems but later on you see he has point, there is quite a death toll and the Doctor is responsible for some of them. He influences the action just by being there, each side using him as an excuse to fight.

He is a gentleman throughout though, no matter who is mistreating him. I love how polite he is even when he has battered them with his Venusian Karate or is backing off from a hairy cult member who wants to rub him down with oils! It is wonderful to see the most political of all Doctor's trying to cope with the explosive planet, events are spiralling out of control regularly and seeing him improvise each situation at a time and save as many lives as possible sees the Doctor at his all time best. Coping with chaos is his forte and here he is standing on a bomb that is about to explode.

At the forefront is his relationship with Jo, which he admits to himself is coming to a close. It felt so right that no matter how awful things got the Doctor still thought about Jo's safety above all else. Jo herself is well characterised, bolshie and bossy just as she was come season ten. Jo should want to get involved with all the action and we, like the Doctor, watch with glowing pride to realise how she has been affected by his heroic attitude and see her fighting her own battles. This story feels so right sitting next to The Green Death where she finally rushes off without the Doctor to battle a cause that is close to her heart.

This is not a powerful character drama though, no matter how well the regulars fare. It's just not that sort of book, it's a witty, colourful adventure full of action and smashing dialogue that reads so smoothly I read it in one long gulp. Unlike the much praised Last of the Gaderene, Catastrophea reminds me of the magic of the Pertwee era, glorious fun and sparkling storylines that constantly surprise and delight with a brilliant eccentric and his bimbo assistant fighting evils and saving the day. This is Target territory written to perfection, about as deep as a puddle but capable of sucking you in and gripping throughout. I even felt that "cor wow" factor I used to as a kid! I wouldn't want every book to be this simplistic to read but if this is the type of novel the BBC line will be aiming at the kids picking up the NDAs then I feel confident they will be enjoyed by all.

At the heart of the story is the mystery of the People, the golden skinned giants who the colonist have beaten into submission and use as slaves. Why don't they fight back when they are abused and beaten? What is the connection between them and the addictive drug Skar that the smugglers are so desperate to get their hands on? Why are some of the People viscously attacking without provocation? It's an intriguing mystery the sort Terrance is so good at and wisely he reserves the answer until late in the book leaving the reader hungrily gobbling up the page count to find out. I was utterly hooked by the time the Doctor is standing in the temple of the People and forced to decide their fate, it's a shallower version of the Genesis of the Daleks "Do I have the right" speech which is dramatically decided for him when Dove, a nutcase smuggler intrudes with his pistol and throws the planet into chaos.

The secondary characters serve their purpose well but don't really go beyond skin deep. Terrance does imbue them with a lot of humour though and I was chuckling away at the many Holmesian double acts he populates the book with. The two dippy policemen are a lark as are the argumentative Walton and Charteris who are running the planet but cannot decide on a single thing! The twist about Allena was obvious from the word go but that doesn't stop her from being the best written non regular, drug addicted and desperate for more she provides the climax with the poignancy it lacked. I was very fond of Captain-Lord Samzyre, the Draconian leader who keeps jumping to the wrong conclusions much to the annoyance of his subordinate Sergeant Korr. He was such a prat you had to feel for him when he died.

What I love is the return of all the danger and thrills of the Target novels that eludes most Virgin and BBC authors who want to impress with taking Doctor Who into 90's/00's with deep real life character issues. Red ants that crawl all over dead bodies and eat them up, river voles that hunt in packs and greedily swallow up anyone unfortunate enough to be tossed in the river, mad golden skinned zombies who rampage in bars, politically challenged Draconians who are so desperate to fight for the planet they land a suicide party to be killed so they can be outraged and attack... it's all so brilliantly imaginative and exciting!

Even the ending, which avoids the obvious bloodshed and goes for a quieter, diplomatic solution works well given the horrific action that has already taken place. It's quite thoughtful for a book that has left subtlety at the door on page one.

I loved this and truly cannot understand the bile directed at it. It's a little trad to be sure, but it's highly inventive, thrilling for its duration and captures its regulars to absolute perfection.

Grand literature it ain't... a bloody good read it is! So a big bear hug for Terrance for reminding me why the Third Doctor rocked!


A Review by Steve White 20/3/14

Catastrophea marks the first appearance of Terrance Dicks to the Past Doctor range. Uncle Terry was script editor on the show back in the 3rd Doctor's era, and was also responsible for the novelizations of many classic era Doctor Who. His original novels are either loved or loathed by the fans. Needless to say, I was excited about the prospect of a 3rd Doctor story written by someone who was involved in the show at the time, and who obviously understands the Doctor more than most. Mr Dicks has a very simple writing style, so it is easy to see why some fans dislike his work. Personally, I like my stories simple and uncomplicated, so he immediately starts hitting the right notes for me.

The main plot of Catastrophea is that the Doctor and Jo land on the planet Kastopheria which is more commonly referred to as Catastrophea as it is a melting pot of a corrupt company, police, drug smugglers, do-gooders and a native race of giants. They soon get involved in local politics, and the arrival of the Draconians threatens to push the tension to all-out war.

What I like about Terrance Dicks' writing style is that it all flows. You go from A to B to C in that order, and there is usually only one thread going on at any one time. Whilst it makes for a less complex book, it also makes for an easy entertaining read.

The 3rd Doctor, as you'd expect from Mr Dicks, is very well done. He has the arrogance and tall tales, and also shows a use of martial arts and pressure points to subdue attackers. Jo is also true to her TV form and, whilst she doesn't get a lot to do, she still does the companion role well. Given Uncle Terry's history with this era of the show this really isn't surprising, and it makes for an excellent read.

Catastrophea has various factions and as such there are quite a lot of supporting characters. These do fall into the stereotypical category more often than not, but it actually fits quite well with the simplistic nature of the story. You have trigger-happy military, pencil-pushing administrators, drug/booze-fuelled smugglers, and do-gooder hippy types of which most are that description to a T. Some show slightly differing tendencies, but in the main you know what you're getting. The faction of note are the original inhabitants of Catastrophea, golden-skinned giants who quite happily work as slaves but on the odd occasion go mental and kill. I found the plight and history of this race very interesting.

It's also worth mentioning the Draconians, who are only mentioned in passing during the first two thirds of the book as planning to invade and stopping traffic to the planet. Obviously the Doctor has history with them (Frontier in Space) and Jon Pertwee even said they were his favorite monsters from his time in the show. In the final third, they appear on Catastrophea and help resolve the plight of the natives.

Catastrophea isn't a stand-out novel by any stretch of the imagination, but it does tell an entertaining story in a simple fashion, which is actually a refreshing change given some of the previous Past Doctor Adventures (Eye of Heaven and The Hollow Men) require a fair bit of concentration to read. I really enjoyed this novel, and there is nothing really to hate about it. Perfect bit of holiday reading.

9/10