THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Janus Conjunction
BBC Books
Coldheart

Author Trevor Baxendale Cover image
ISBN 0 563 55595 5
Published 2000

Synopsis: Beneath the burning surface of Eskon lies vast frozen lakes and a civilised community. The Doctor and Compassion must lead a danger-frought subterranean expedition to prevent a disaster that could destroy the very essence of Eskon.


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 5/4/00

Some of you might have read my review of Trevor Baxendale's last book, The Janus Conjunction. I didn't like it. So it's as a confessed Baxendale anti-fan that I say that in my opinion Coldheart was really good.

It's ultra-traditional, but that's hardly a crime. In fact it rather reminded me of Perry and Tucker's Storm Harvest, another adventure of excitement and violence. The setting is very different, of course, and a major selling point. Trevor Baxendale clearly loves his big SF high-concept environments, but thankfully this one's far better realised than the Janus system. There's no dodgy science here. Instead we have a thoroughly convincing Dune-like desert planet with a mind-boggling underworld and a culture that draws you in completely. We've had some rather good alien races in Doctor Who, but surprisingly few top-notch alien planets. This is one of the best.

The characters aren't anything special, but they play their parts perfectly well. The storyline feels well-worn and familiar, but this becomes a game in itself - Spot The Influences. Look, it's The Mutants! Or is it Frontios? Eventually the book graduates beyond such comparisons and that's the important thing.

I'm starting to think that the books haven't changed as much as we think. These last five 8DAs since Frontier Worlds have been as ultra-traditional as any run from the Sam Jones era, unashamed adventure and retro as hell. The only difference is Fitz and Compassion, though it has to be said that this is a hell of a difference. The books really feel as if they're going somewhere.

Which brings me to the regulars. They're... interesting.

Compassion is great, though the changes she's going through mean she couldn't be dull if she tried. There's real tension about what's going on there. The Doctor is even better, with lots to do and some really cool Doctorish moments. For once I actually engaged with him as a character instead of just watching the goofy guy do dumb stuff, though admittedly this took me a while. This is a step forward.

But Fitz... well, let's just say there are two of him. Once he gets involved in the action, he's great. This comes in the second half of the book. This is the Fitz we know and love, the reluctant hero who struggles through against the odds. He even gets involved with another girl, though it's relatively understated this time. (This makes four in five books. Hmmm.)

However the first part of the book contains the worst Fitz portrayal we've ever seen.

And you thought Sam Jones was annoying. By page six, I wanted to kill Trevor Baxendale. Painful crap jokes, general uselessness and "ho ho ho what a laugh" comedy antics had me swearing out loud. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed Fitz could be written this badly. He's as thick as pigshit. He's only useful by accident.

Oh, and the regulars have an unfortunate habit of ending chapters with cringeworthy macho dialogue.

"We've got work to do!"

"There's something terribly wrong here and it needs putting right!"

"And it must be dealt with!"

But I got over this. The book got under way and my blood pressure returned to normal. Eventually I thought this was a well-executed book, with little that was actually new but much that was admirable.


A Review by Sean Gaffney 25/5/00

This was a very hard book to review for various reasons, not the least of which was that it took me so long to get through it. And yet it wasn't exactly boring... well, lemme try and do the usual rundown.

Say this for Coldheart, it's relentlessly trad. Every single character, every single plot, every paragraph where the Doctor or Fitz rails against keeping free beings in poverty screams of classic Doctor Who, and only the most hardcore 'any book with Compassion is rad' fan could say otherwise. But is the book enjoyable? I'm not exactly a huge trad fan, after all...

PLOT: Quite clever, actually. Yes, it's incredibly predictable, but the book is written so matter-of-factly that you go along with it anyway. The plight of the Slimers, the political wrangling, the Spulver Worm... it's The Mutants writ large. I should be more annoyed by its lack of originality, but I'm not.

THE DOCTOR: Wonderfully well-written, and he manages to avoid making any incredibly moronic mistakes such as in Yquatine. I was very wary of seeing this portrayal, as I hated the Eighth Doctor in Baxendale's Queen of Eros short story, but luckily this isn't tortured angst Doc as much as bounce around the room and see what happens Doc.

FITZ: Also well-written. Yes, he meets another girl, but this one has 'tragic romance' written all over it, and it's more of a mentor thing in any case. Plus we get to see Fitz be impassioned and care while actually being given reasons why he's doing so. Fitz as a character is developing so much better than Sam it's unbelievable. Speaking of which...

COMPASSION: In the first part of the book, I was unimpressed, and felt Compassion was 'backsliding' to her 7of9-ish character we saw pre- Avalon. But once she and the Doctor go back to the ice mine, she really comes into her own, with long analyses of what she is, and how much of that is influenced by the Doctor. The Ancestor Cell is coming far too fast for me... I love Compassion's arc.

VILLAIN: Well, Revan seems to fit the mould, being the standard mutated human turned mad by uncaring government-type. We also get Tor Grymna, a far more sympathetic evil tyrant type, and the ever popular worm from another planet. However...

OTHERS: The weak part of the book, as none of the other characters really made much of an impression on me. Brevus gets a large role, but doesn't do much beyond being stalwart, the other Council leaders are cliches, and Florence exists to be tragic for Fitz. Shame.

STYLE: Well, on the one hand this was a big flaw because the cliffhangers were certainly put-downable. I took a long time finishing this book, mostly as I felt no real compunction to see what happened next. On the other hand, the dropped textual one-liners were really well done, and made me laugh more than once. It was odd to see them, especially in a book this reassuringly straightforward (you'd expect it more from Dave Stone), but they didn't jar.

OVERALL: Hmm... good book, but not a gripping page-turner. Nothing really wrong with it, aside from bland non-regulars, but nothing really soaring either, aside from very well-written regulars.

7/10.


A Review by Mike Morris 29/5/00

After the rather tumultuous events of recent books, I get the feeling that BBC Books are stopping for a bit of a rest. The Fall of Yquatine may have had large portions of it dealing with Compassion, but essentially it was very much a trad book. And so, it should be said, is Coldheart. But - and this is the big but - Coldheart is a different kettle of fish to The Fall of Yquatine. It's a damn sight less ambitious, a lot more accomplished, and ultimately a good deal more satisfying.

The basic ideas are a world of fire and ice, a race who are apprently nice but a lot more rotten to the core than they first appear, genetic mutation, and a tragic figure who discovers the errors of his ways too late. The Doctor comes in, shakes everything up, there's a nice big body count and a new beginning. Yep, I'm reading a Doctor Who book all right. You can call this shamelessly derivative if you like, but to be frank that doesn't matter. These were the elements which attracted me to the series to begin with, so if they're all included in a stylish package I'm not complaining.

There's also a number of incidental touches that lift Coldheart ever-so-slightly above the level of an average runaround. The regulars are first in the list, the Doctor in particular.

This is a wonderful Doctor. He's energetic, he's honest, he's understanding, he's funny. At times he crosses the line into the old "idiot" portrayal, but this is more than made up for by the relentless energy with which he throws himself into the problems he encounters. This potrayal is helped no end by the filmic, visual style of the book, which make the Doctor of the telemovie (remember him?) easy to imagine in the role.

Compassion, by contrast, is a bit more subdued here. And yet, and yet... her portrayal doesn't have the sheer moments of genius that Yquatine showed, but it somehow seems more sustainable. For the first time, Compassion feels like part of the Doctor-Fitz team, rather than a wonderful sideshow. There's a lovely, lovely moment when she attempts to save an Eskon's life... I'll say no more, but this is promising.

And Fitz... the evolution this character has undergone is spectacular. Not surprising of couse, given that he's been brainwashed by the Chinese, become a Nazi, and then spent a few centuries in a shadow dimension of late, but nonetheless he's changed a lot. It's a shame that the author feels it necessary to explicitly state this - erm - "Doctorification" of Fitz about half-a-dozen times (a fault that a lot of the BBC boys seem to share), because it's amply demonstrated in the narrative. In particular, Fitz's protectiveness towards Florence is a lovely sideline to the plot.

The guest characters are a bit faceless, with the exception of Tor Grymna, who's an intriguing character if a bit cliched. His ultimate repentance is lovely, even if it is tinged with futility. In fact the book as a whole trips a nice line between futility and hope, and just about pulls it off.

And yet, and yet... I'm actually changing my mind about Coldheart as I write this review. The paragraphs I've written above don't make this book sound unambitious. And yet it is. I think maybe it's the prose style, which is relentlessly visual, giving the impression that this is an author who's still subconsciously novelizing an untelevised script. Some of the visual images - the Eskon city springs to mind - are simply spectacular. At other times, though, we're treated into prosaically-written passages of pretty dull, unnecessary action that might be crucial on television but could be happily edited out in a novel.

Yes, I think that's what it is. The wonderful character insights, the dreamlike visual images, the lovely coda at the end... they're relegated to incidental touches, lost in the solid-but-not-exactly-exciting plot. Maybe this is wise; after all, this is only Trevor Baxendale's second novel, and perhpas he's trying to ease himself in. But I think that he's at his best when telling us about the characters, or the magical, mythical world he's got in his head. I'm not saying the plot is bad, or even dull; it's fine. But I think that maybe Trevor Baxendale's better than that, and doesn't need the elements of the standard runaround to make his book a good one. In fact, it's these elements more than any other that hold Coldheart back.

In it's own way, Coldheart is close to being a masterpiece. It sets out to do nothing more than entertain the reader for an afternoon, and it does this very effectively. Whether this is sufficient ambition for a Doctor Who book is another argument, and one I'm not sure which side I'd be on if I started it. But I'm pretty sure that it's not sufficient ambition for Trevor Baxendale, and hopefully he'll set out to do a bit more in his next book.

This one is, in the final analysis, an eminently missable "filler" book. It's a good one, and you won't be sorry if you buy it. But the overriding feeling isn't of boredom, or the world of the generic Who novel - it's of an author who is underestimating his capabilities and underreaching himself.

Maybe next time.


On the function of Coldheart as the defining trad novel in the EDAs by Robert Smith? 15/6/00

I'd like to begin this lecture by welcoming you all to the trad authors annual convention. If you'll check your schedules, you'll see that activities this week include a Chris Bulis workshop, where we'll see how the cut-and-paste function can be used to great effect in your novel-writing career. This workshop will, naturally, be done online and we regret that Mr Bulis is unlikely to appear in person.

A highlight, I'm sure, will be the Terrance Dicks memorial banquet on Friday, where we'll present the prizes for the least original description of the sound the TARDIS makes when it materialises, the Peter Grimwade award for the most gratuitous use of UNIT continuity in a fifth Doctor story -- don't look so worried, Mark Morris, we all know you've won it -- and the John Peel award for the book that best characterises the eighth Doctor as one of his predecessors (please note that extra time has been scheduled for this award due to the large number of nominees).

Today's lecture, however, will be a seminal analysis of what makes a novel trad. Now, this may seem a little pointless to some of you -- sit down back there, Robert Perry, there'll be time for questions at the end -- since you wouldn't have been invited here if you weren't all illustrious members of the trad author society. However, it has come to our attention that some have claimed that there's no easily discernible "trad agenda". I intend to demonstrate that at last we have the defining trad book on our hands.

Whichever one of you is Trevor Baxendale should be congratulated for your sterling efforts towards trad awareness in the EDAs. I'm aware that this is hardly an area that needs it, and Ms Buffini, who will be presenting tomorrow's symposium, has already secured the lifetime award in this category, but of late there has been some talk that the EDAs have become too rad.

/pause for laughter to subside

Yes, yes, an oldie, but a goodie, I'm sure you'll agree. And there's nothing wrong with that, nothing at all -- oh, thank you, Peter, that's very witty, I'll have to use that one next time I'm about to visit the lavatory.

Anyway, returning to the latest Baxendale opus, we have here Coldheart, an excellent example of exactly the sort of thing we should all be striving towards. If you'll follow along the flow chart I've outlined on this transparency, I'll demonstrate just how we can all make our books tradder than ever by following the Baxendale lead.

Let's look at the setting. A harsh, almost impossible climate, meaning our civilisation of three stock characters -- I'll return to that in a moment -- and thousands of nameless extras can struggle gamely to eke out a meagre existence. A good one this. Fire and Ice. It's simple, it's effective, it could be filmed at any of several quarries within 30km of the BBC Television Centre. We have a winner.

Story elements are perhaps the most important element of any novel and it's important to give the punters something they'll enjoy. An entire civilisation living in a studio set? They'll lap it up. A group that's been outcast because of some hideous deformity, despite the fact that many of their numbers are good at heart and are only led by a reckless trouble-maker, who himself is not really evil? Bring it on. A huge, monstrous entity lurking under the ground, adversely affecting the entire civilisation above it? This stuff is gold, people, it's gold.

Characters? They're easy. Political leaders, of course. Best to make one of them power-hungry and ruthless (with a great secret that will prove to be his undoing, naturally) and the others can be doddering old men of inaction. We'll need sympathetic outcasts, naturally. Just the one should suffice. The uglier the better and Trevor's come up with another winner here. Slimers. It doesn't get any better than this.

And don't forget, we'll need this society to appear quite benign on the surface, but to hide a shocking secret. And a mine! Don't forget mines. You can never go wrong with mines, that's what Terry Nation told me.

/pause for a moment of respectful silence

Ah, but I hear you say -- yes, you, Gatiss, I heard that -- what about the regulars. You might disagree, but we're living in the golden age of trad. When I was a lad, you couldn't move for NAs and their seventh Doctor and their personifications of death and their angst and their moral ambiguities and their complexities of characterisation. Many of us were rudely confined to the MAs. But now we're everywhere. We're lucky; we've got the eighth Doctor now. Depth? Complexity? Reader interest? Even the rad authors can't seem to manage any of that with him. I'm telling you, we're living the dream.

Now the companions are more of a problem. We suffered a significant blow when we lost the use of Sam Jones at the hands of Lawrence Miles --

/pause for general hissing and booing

Fitz is a problem, and in my previous paper I described just how insidious this companion is. He's got depth, he's almost writer-proof and he's got a slow and careful character arc through these books that makes him disturbingly effective whenever anyone actually uses him.

/pause

Yes, well, we're pretty safe there, for the most part. But I'd like to mention, as I point out in my paper, just how clever Baxendale has been. He's taken this character arc and reduced it to its simplest and most inane reduction and reproduced precisely that and nothing else. Yes, Fitz is becoming a bit like the Doctor! It's brilliant and it quietly undoes the modicum of work done in previous novels featuring Fitz. So well done, yet again, Trev.

Sadly, Coldheart fails to be the definitive trad novel only because of its scheduling position. Yes, this book uses Compassion and frankly she's far too interesting for the EDAs. However, Trevor struggles bravely with this, and successfully reduces the complex and morally uncertain character developed in the previous two books to a much more simplified one, who falls off cliffs and ponders the death of a humanoid like a Dave McIntee character, who's having a particularly shallow day. It's not wholly successful, I'll grant you, but it's a valiant attempt.

In summary, let me reiterate that Coldheart almost single-handedly defines the trad agenda. It's quite logical when you think about it, really. They're Doctor Who fans. They like reading about it, they like watching it. So we should all be trying to do exactly what Coldheart achieves so effortlessly: take well-established elements from the series, shuffle carefully (but not too carefully) and then deal out a brand new novel, with 40% new material.

Are there any questions? Ah, Mr Tucker, yes it actually does have the words "this is another in the series of original adventures for the Eighth Doctor" on the back cover. We're putting together a team of very experienced lawyers for the defence, yes. Yes, that's right, they'll be the same ones who handled the War of the Daleks case and who got Steve Cole off after Short Trips, so we don't expect any problems in that area.

Anyone else? Yes, Natalie? Ah, no, he takes a different approach to yours and I argue that it's a more effective one, despite your, erm... earnest... attempt. You see, the real brilliance of Coldheart is that, on the whole, it's actually a fairly enjoyable novel. Relentlessly dedicated to the cause, of course, but it takes its elements and delivers something that's fairly readable and broadly enjoyable.

I'd like to thank you all for attending this talk. There will be a short recess, after which we'll be hearing an exciting talk, in which one of our number details his efforts at successfully infiltrating the DWM survey and establishing himself as the returning officer.


Divided Loyalties Has A Rival by Thomas Jefferson 12/7/00

I've prided myself so far on having read all of the 'current' Doctor Who books (NAs and EDAs). I've read every word of every one of them -- some have been fantastic, of course, some have been not so good. Some, to be honest, have been a struggle but I've always managed to finish them.

Page 132 of Coldheart almost ruined my perfect record.

Okay, this book was a slog from the beginning. As others have already suggested, it's not exactly the best written book there's ever been. The characters are dull, the plot seems to be going nowhere (or at least nowhere that I can't predict) and there are no flashes of wit or dexterity to keep you interested. A lot of effort has been put in to make the Doctor resolutely Paul McGann, but, frankly, I can think of twenty different criteria that I desire more than whether or not the lead character resembles the guy who played him on TV. But I was sticking it out, even though I could see it was also very long (the same page numbers and typeface as Unnatural History).

Then on page 132, one of the characters says to a guy called Grymna: "what about your son, Ckeho?" Now, this happens at the end of a long sequence that has been discussing this self-same Ckeho, and the previous fifty or so pages have firmly established, in such a thorough way that even someone from Manchester could understand, that Grymna has a son and his name is Ckeho. So why the hell does this Grymna guy need to be reminded that his son's name is Ckeho?

It's the sort of terrible expositionary dialogue that you get in bad TV dramas, where the writer has to juggle a lot of characters and so needs to get across to the audience the different relationships. Yet, this is happening in a novel (you know, that form where the writer can actually tell the audience what's going on) with a cast of barely ten.

I put down the book and thought about this for a long time. And the only explanation I can come up with for why Trevor Baxendale felt the need to remind Grymna of the name of his son is because this is one of those 'corridors of power' scenes, where important people talk importantly about important things. And Mr. Baxendale thinks that to truly get the essence of one of these scenes he needs to have everybody talk in this way.

Monty Python took the piss out of this thirty years ago in their Dennis Moore sketch ("Ladies, may I introduce to you the man who prophesied that a German monarch would soon embroil this country in continental affairs"). But all this ribaldry seems to have flown over Mr. Baxendale's head. He's got a scene that could have come from The Borgias, or Elizabeth I or whatever - the big nobs scheming, basically - and he wants his characters to talk in that same style, to make it authentic. To make, in essence, his book read like crappy TV drama. It fair boggles the mind.

The temptation not to pick up the book again was strong. It wasn't too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that the book would feature a second half as poor as the first. No Justin Richards-like twists were promised. No fantastic new characters to fall in love with were threatened. All in all a book that was perfectly capable of being ignored. But two factors made me continue: 1, I had nothing else to read and 2, Dammit I'd paid 5.99 for this and money invested is not something you can just put down to bad luck. So, after a few days to recover from page 132, I finished the f*cking thing.

This is a bad book which ever way you slice it. After only two attempts Baxendale's imagination seems to have been stretched to its limits, as this shares virtually the same premise as The Janus Conjunction: Good guys living in desperate but comfortable conditions; cast-out bad guys resentful of that and wanting to destroy them. Monsters thrown into the mix. Baxendale fancies himself as a bit of a horror writer, so there's lots of gratuitous and unnecessary descriptions of people's slimy skin falling off. Seeing as there's only about eight sets (mine, caves, market, slimer's camp, Grymna's room, state room, transport), this could also be put onto the small screen with no difficulty. Whatever happened to 'too broad and deep for the small screen'? More to the point, whatever happened to authors with imagination?

Coldheart is the sort of book that gives Trad a bad name. It might only fulfil the 'could have been on TV' aspects of this definition (Baxendale, thankfully, seems to have no desire to do sequels) but it's dull, vapid, banal, insulting, unimaginative, predictable and gives absolutely no hint that there is an ounce of talent in Baxendale's bones, beyond a capacity to get a book in on a deadline. The idea of Baxendale being commissioned again fills me with more horror than any of his gross-out prose. Are BBC Books really that desperate?


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 12/11/01

Somehow I enjoyed Trevor Baxendale's Coldheart and I'm not entirely sure why that happened. As I was reading it, I was mentally groaning at the weakness of the plot, the poor characterization and the obviously hasty rewrites to take the New Compassion into consideration. Yet I kept turning the pages, interested in what was going to happen next. It was derivative and unoriginal at every turn, and still it held my attention for the full two hundred and seventy-seven pages, which is quite a feat bearing in mind how thin the story is stretched.

The book has an annoying tendency to end virtually every chapter on a cliffhanger, and given that there are thirty chapters in the book, it means that the characters can't go for more than about ten pages or so without being shot at or grabbed by monsters. This really puts quite a bit of unneeded padding into the story, though it might have been this quick pace that made the book as entertaining as it is. Even though none of the sudden escapes, macho dialogue or improbable turnarounds ends up making any difference in the big picture, it does distract from the flimsiness of plot by slowing down the speed at which it is revealed.

This was such a visual book, that it's hard not to picture this as a novelisation of a television story that we never got to see. While this does result in some breathtaking visuals, it also provides too many awkward moments. Main portions of the plot are revealed by having two people explaining things to each other that they must surely already know. This sort of exposition is allowable in television or film, but it just seems silly to do this in a novel. In addition, there are far too many fight scenes that just don't work in written form. Between these and the numerous unnecessary descriptions of decaying, mutating flesh and mucus (it's not horror, it's just gross), I could have been happy with a book that had about fifty to a hundred less pages.

I can't really say too much about why I enjoyed this. I was not blind to its many flaws, yet despite them I was entertained by the overall story. It isn't especially thrilling or exciting, but it is an enjoyable, if terribly light, read. Just don't think about too much about the plot or the relationship that Fitz has with a camel. Both will make your head spin.


A Review by Steve White 26/8/16

Trevor Baxendale is one of those authors whose books sound like utter garbage from the cover blurb yet hook you right from the start and turn out to be rather good indeed. Baxendale's previous novel, The Janus Conjunction, was one of my favourites of the range so far and I didn't like the sound of it from the cover, and likewise with Coldheart.

The main plot of Coldheart is that a planet has an ice centre with an intense heat exterior. Water is therefore in high demand and the obvious solution is to mine the ice. The TARDIS crew arrive to discover a city in turmoil and on the brink of destruction, thanks to mutations to its populace caused by an alien parasite in the ice. It's all very traditional, and this is what makes it so enjoyable. Coldheart gets its claws into you very early on, and from then on it's really hard to put down.

The regulars are done well, with plenty of banter between them. Fitz gets the brunt of it, but he does refer to himself as "Captain", so he does deserve it. He also manages to pull again, this time a mute girl who looks like a camel. Still I've woken up next to worse. The Doctor is seemingly going through a hard time and putting himself more at risk than usual. This is mentioned at least twice, so what it's building to I don't know, but it's interesting nonetheless. Compassion goes from strength to strength, and I really like the link she is slowly building with the Doctor.

Baxendale has again created an interesting planet and inhabitants, and, whilst the majority are fairly stereotypical, they are not built up enough for you to really care. The only issue I had is that Tor Grymna and Revan are never given a chance to redeem themselves, with the future instead entrusted to the new blood.

Coldheart is another fine novel from Trevor Baxendale that treads the path many Doctor Who episodes have in the past and no doubt will in the future. Instead of being to its detriment, the novel is actually much better for it, and it stands as a great standalone novel for all Doctor Who fans.

9/10