The Clockwise Man
The Monsters Inside
Winner Takes All
The Clockwise Man/The Monsters Inside/Winner Takes All
|Synopsis: The ninth Doctor and Rose's first foray into print... and alien worlds.|
Brought to Book by Mike Morris 19/9/05
It seems natural enough to review the first three 9DAs as a unit, for a number of reasons - not least that they were released at the same time. And while there's not a great deal to say about each book individually - they're best described as fluff of varying quality - as a collective First Step Into A Larger Universe (dammit, wrong franchise) there's certainly a few observations to make.
These aren't 8DAs, or NAs, or anything else particularly comparable to what came before. Those books were specifically aimed at fans; these certainly aren't. Of course, it seems obvious enough to say that these books are aimed at a mass audience - but then it seemed obvious enough to say that the new series was aimed at a mass audience too, but the point still appeared to be lost on some people.
What I'm getting at is where these books are coming from. They're aimed at youngish children - I'm not sure what the official line is on the age group, but they would strike me as pre-teen - and therefore any attempts to compare them to their predecessors are misguided. There are relatively few 8DAs or NAs that could even come close to playing to a wider audience than Doctor Who fans, and those that do would require an explanation here or there (I only realised how many continuity references there are in Lawrence Miles' books when a friend expressed an interest in reading them; skimming through Alien Bodies and Interference with a fresh eye, there's practically a reference every three paragraphs).
In other words; just as the new series is a New Series, these are New Books.
So where should books like this go for precedence? The series itself is the obvious answer, but not a very enlightening one. Beyond that... well, the new series is a good example of how to approach this sort of thing. It has taken only the core of the old series and the rest has come from diverse sources, including reams of populist SF and drama - Buffy the Blah Blah Blah being an obvious example (although in a subtle way that doesn't mark it out as a Buffy rip-off). As Buffy is now the main touchstone of modern SF, for better or worse, that's only natural.
So by the same token, the natural place for the books to start - well, not start exactly, they start with Doctor Who, but the first place for them to visit - is Harry Potter. Because Harry Potter is the modern-day exemplar of perfect children's fiction. That is simply a fact.
Not that I'm particularly keen on it, or anything. In fact, the sheer insane popularity of Potter is something that I find rather confusing, since I don't find them to be anything other than decent kid's books. All right, I'll rephrase; they're extremely good kid's books, but formulaic ones, and I find it hard to see why they're so damn popular with adults. But... but, well, they are (I should clarify that I've read the first four Harry Potter books, after which they seemed to be getting flabby and padded, and I really wasn't prepared to make that much investment in something so throwaway).
Actually, Harry Potter books are very impressive in a number of ways. They're written invisibly, which is one of their main plus-points; the prose is almost not there at all. You never come out of a Harry Potter book thinking "cor, that was a brilliant sentence," but you do come out of it remembering visuals and ideas. The prose is never an impediment, you never have to struggle to imagine anything, you never feel like you're wading through badly written sentences, the reader simply doesn't have to work. Anyone who thinks it's easy to write this way should try it; even in adult fiction, it's quite a trick. When writing children's books, it's what sorts the men from the boys. Children aren't forgiving of meandering prose, awkward sentences, or stodgy writing. As Finn Clark noted, writing for children is harder. And JK Rowling is brilliant at it.
As well as that, the Potterverse (sorry) is a perfectly defined, perfectly understandable place. This makes it comfortable and familiar, even in the first couple of books when the reader didn't know this place inside out. It's actually a rather nasty right-wing little-England type universe, sure, but the reader knows exactly where they are; good is good, bad is bad, and characters are even sorted by a magic hat so that we know which they are, for ever and ever (and yes, it's as obscene as it sounds). The characters themselves are... "stereotypes" is a harsh word, perhaps - "instantly recognisable" is perhaps a fairer term. You can describe all the Harry Potter characters in a single word, and while these stereotypes are undercut as the books progress, children can still identify with them immediately, they know exactly who they are right away.
Of course, Doctor Who books are a different kettle of fish entirely (just as Doctor Who is a completely different show to Buffy). By definition they lack many of the identifying characteristics that Harry Potter can fall back on - the setting, the structure of a school term, the large cast of characters, the fact that the central characters themselves are children. They have to rely on the deeper things that make Potter successful. If you were to list these things they might run along these lines; clarity, certainty, surety, innocence, consistency, unfussiness, pacing, plotting, lightness, transparency.
So what of the first three 9DAs?
"Consistency" certainly wouldn't apply. The focus and vitality of the new series has rather shown the 9DAs up, I feel, as being a damn sight less purposeful. The books all make transparent attempts to appeal to, y'know, the kids, but they do it in radically different (and variably effective) ways. Unlike the TV show, they don't have a distinct identity; they feel like spin-offs. Pleasant enough spin-offs, yes; but they aren't tearing up the landscape of children's fiction as they could.
The Monsters Inside is perhaps a good place to start, as it's an impressive summary of everything the first three 9DAs have done wrong. It does have a unique selling-point, though - an alien planet! The new series has pointedly failed to go into space, but has contented itself with name-dropping the weird and wonderful worlds we've visited. This is a decision I find questionable to say the least, but it did give the books a chance to really make a unique name for themselves - they could have been the books where the Doctor and Rose are out there in the universe. The Monsters Inside scoops the TV series by giving us Rose's first visit to an alien planet. People, this is sheer gold. Imagine you're a kid, and you hear that the Doctor Who books have alien planets in them! Dammit, I'm dragging my parents to Waterstone's immediately!
Sadly, I'm now starting to think of Steve Cole as being closer to Andy Cole (An English soccer player - foreign and non-sporting readers will just have to take this on trust). His energy is remarkable, he keeps on trying, and he's scored the occasional hit; but his misses tend to be a damn sight more plentiful and infinitely more spectacular.
With The Monsters Inside he gives us a few pages worth of alien worlds, and then the rest of the book takes place in science laboratories. The worlds themselves are completely generic, and the whole book sorely lacks the sense of wonder that Harry Potter can achieve so well. Andy writes about alien worlds as if he's sick to death of them, underscoring everything with flippancy and knowingness, and makes it all seem so bloody dull. Worse, it's atrociously, shockingly, appallingly written - there are run-on sentences everywhere, in fact I seem to remember finding a sentence with six clauses on the first page. The characters are resoundingly faceless - Cole includes a few teenagers, presumably as a point of identification, but they're so relentlessly uninteresting that this falls completely flat on its face. In any book, all this would be shocking. In the First Alien Planet book, it's unforgivable, and makes me wonder why Steve Cole was seen as the ideal choice for such a novel. Of the first three authors, Jacqueline Rayner has imagination and a sharp descriptive edge and seemed like a better bet. Some other authors would have been better still, the first guy who springs to mind being Paul Magrs - who wouldn't be thrilled by EcclesDoc and Rose going somewhere as wonderful as Hyspero? Failing that, authors like Paul Leonard, Jonathan Morris and even Trevor Baxendale have created textured alien worlds in the past, and would have done a better job. Although really, a battery-farmed chicken with a felt-tip pen would have done better than Andy did.
Andy's concession to the new market appears to be the use of dreadful mockney prose - no, really - which reads like an annoying teacher trying to pretend he's, y'know, down with the yoof culture on the street. The plot is... er, well, there isn't one, there's just people running around from one dull planet to another. And even when he's given the opportunity to expand on a new creation from the original series, he makes the creatures almost exactly the same as those we've already seen. The Monsters Inside is, quite simply, one of the most painfully embarrassing Doctor Who books I have ever read. I made the assumption that To The Slaughter was so poor because Andy was putting more effort into his 9DA, but either he's putting the effort into non-Who fiction or he's had a talent bypass. Either way, this reads like the work of an author who just doesn't give a shit. I'll stop talking about The Monsters Inside now, or I'll just end up screaming abuse at my computer screen; but I'm stating here and now that I will never, ever buy anything with that man's name on the cover ever again.
Thankfully, the other two books are more successful. The Clockwise Man is a mixed bag, a blend of smashing ideas and a rather contrived whodunit structure; and Winner Takes All is something of a delight, feeling like the book that best understands the age-bracket it's aimed at.
The Clockwise Man is a strange beast; a mixture of Justin Richard's peerless ability to construct a story, and the feeling that he's frequently playing it safe. Finn Clark's comment about the well-known 1920s nostalgia youth market isn't entirely fair, in my opinion, even if it is bloody funny - my experience suggests that kids will immerse themselves in any world provided it's interesting enough - but there is a core of truth to it. There's a feeling with The Clockwise Man that Justin is deliberately returning to a Doctor Who era and that he's treating these surroundings as comfortable and familiar. Which, to someone who has never seen the old series, they're not. One of the better attributes of The Unquiet Dead was the joy of being in the past - such as the lingering shot of Rose's footprint, or her obvious delight at the period costume. This doesn't really happen in The Clockwise Man, although occasionally there are asides which suggest that Justin is trying to do just that.
On the plus side, though, is the way that Justin Richards really can write for children. He's the closest any Doctor Who writer can come to invisible prose, and he has the ability to make simple ideas seem fascinating. Here, the recurrence of the clockwork technology is just fantastic, the sort of thing that really makes me want to take the back off my watch and look at all the cogs and gears. He uses Big Ben wonderfully, both as an atmospheric setting and a well-known landmark (although there's strangely little mention made of Aliens of London - perhaps The Clockwise Man is supposed to take place before that story).
Richards' attempt to make a connection with younger readers is to include a child character, and this is actually rather successful. He is a: the cutest kid in the world and b: completely, utterly vulnerable, and hence gives the average pre-teen the feeling that they're not actually the youngest person at the party. Part of the reason that children's books contain children's characters is because, otherwise, the books either don't engage with children or feel like they're talking down to them. By including a very young child, The Clockwise Man neatly circumvents this problem. However, the stuff about the Tsar isn't particularly successful - which is a shame, as there's no reason that it couldn't be, but it does feel tacked on rather than something at the very core of the book.
And so, Winner Takes All probably takes the prize as being the most successful of the novels to date. It feels closest in spirit to the new TV series, and manages to inhabit the realm of the younger reader without employing an obvious gimmick - it does it simply by dint of its computer-game subplot. Playstations are something that adults just don't like (that's the perception, anyway), so by unfussily inhabiting the world of gamers the book marks itself out as speaking a younger language. Clever. The plot itself flirts with the ridiculous and just about comes out intact, and includes a genuine pseudo-companion who's slightly younger than Rose and can act as a point of identification. It's still undeniably fluff, and throwaway fluff at that; but it's slick, confident, and surprisingly moving on occasion. The language remains briskly teenage, but it doesn't feel forced. And some of the work done with Jackie and Mickey is interesting. It's an impressive piece of work.
Okay, so I liked two out of three. So why am I disappointed overall?
Well, it's like this. For years I had harboured a notion that, if the NAs/8DAs somehow acquired a mass audience, people would discover that there was a lot to get excited about there. Okay, so they were inconsistent. But Rob Matthews got very close to the mark when he noted that the books are great fiction, and I almost agree with him. For a decade or so, the books were the prime medium, the main canon of Doctor Who (although this was never universally agreed upon - and I suspect it's this simple fact which meant that they never replaced the TV series for me fully. They never seemed quite as important, somehow). With (I'm assuming) a queue of authors who are desperate to write for the 9DAs, I really expected that these books could show just what Doctor Who authors could do. I actually thought they might form a range of really outstanding children's books, that would go beyond just-another-TV-spin-off and have people talking about them in the same way they talk about Harry bloody Potter.
But no. I've been telling people for a long time that Doctor Who books are really, genuinely, very very good. But these are spin-offs, no more or less.
Perhaps the best way to articulate it is this: the new TV series has obviously set out its stall to become the best television series in the world. Fine, some people may believe it's not - but at least it's showing that ambition. That makes it exciting, and important, and wide-reaching, and bursting with energy. But the books... does anyone really feel they set out to be the best kid's books in the world? No. They feel... throwaway.
And that's the problem. These books don't even try to be as good as Harry Potter. They should. They've made the mistake of dumbing themselves down because of the young audience, but there was really no need to do so - my sister read The Adventuress of Henrietta Street when she was thirteen. Kids are smarter than we think, really. There were various superficial ways the books could have been more ambitious - an interlinked trilogy, for example, would have marked them out as something that a child could get their teeth into - but ultimately the problem is that they're lacking in what makes great children's fiction. Clarity. Sincerity. Surety. Genuine emotion. Structure. Lightness.
Speaking of my sister (and if you're reading this, Aoífe, don't let it go to your head) she's read another Doctor Who book and, discussing it with her afterwards, she agreed that it was exciting, sad, and thoughtful. She thought it was a really, really good children's book, almost a perfect children's book. I was shocked, because I hadn't considered it in those terms before; but I didn't have to think about it too long before I realised she was right - indeed, that it's the only Doctor Who book I'd ever read that could claim to be an outstanding work of children's fiction.
That book is Human Nature.
And that's the sort of book the 9DAs should be trying to produce, because then they really might be the best range of children's books in the world. And they shouldn't settle for anything less. And nor should we.
After all, the TV series hasn't.