THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC Books
Combat Rock

Author Mick Lewis Cover image
ISBN# 0 563 538?? ?
Published 2002
Featuring The second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria

Synopsis: When 400-year-old tribal mummies inexplicably return to life and begin murdering tourists on an exotic alien island, the Doctor's initial urge to investigate lands himself, Jamie and Victoria right in the middle of a jungle holocaust. It could well be the end of the river for the TARDIS companions as they find themselves involved in a horrific jungle conflict between desperate guerrilla tribesmen and merciless colonial forces. Cannibalism could be the least of their worries as evil stirs the pot and the dead reach for the living...


Reviews

A Review by Rob Matthews 17/7/02

I assumed the title of this book referred to an island or other locale featured in the story. No. Turns out it's Combat Rock as in 'Jailhouse Rock' or summat like that. It's a celebration. Of brutal fisticuffs, of cannibalism, of sex with whores and of slaughter. This is a Doctor Who book that revels in carnage. It would be easy to argue that with a mindset like that, it's not really a Doctor Who book at all. But I'm not the type to dismiss a work of fiction just because it makes me uncomfortable - I read Bret Easton Ellis, for God's sake -, and since I'm one of those people who always claims that the Doctor Who format has the potential to be about anything and everything, I'd be a dirty great hypocrite if I took that line. I've defended - in fact championed - the Saward era for its responsible portrayal of arbitrary violence, for showing that it hurts, and I don't think the sole purpose of Doctor Who is comfort.

Of course, this book makes the Saward era look like the Muppet Show. But Mick Lewis is clearly eminently qualified to write about this sort of thing and he's a talented writer whose prose comes to life off the page. There's a seething intelligence and passion behind his writing, and to tell the truth I actually find the work of Terrance 'Ho ho, let's rape Peri' Dicks more offensive than this.

Still, Combat Rock... perhaps it's because I don't like heavy metal or splatter movies. This isn't the kind of book I could really say I enjoyed. I get the feeling that the author sees Pan as some kind of rock'n'roll antihero. But I don't think he is. He's a bastard. He's a bully and a murderer. Then again, I might be underestimating the author. Maybe he's just portraying Pan the way Pan sees himself and he's done it so well that I've got the wrong end of the stick.

But... if you compare that with the portrayal of Drew. Drew's a sneering little scumbag who tends to chuckle at other people's misfortunes rather than actually cause them, at least most of the time. But objectively, looking at him in terms of his actions he's nowhere near as bad as Pan is. Yet Drew is described as 'ratlike', 'scrawny' etc, whereas Pan is described in heroic, admiring terms, for having big muscles and strolling casually through battle. It's like his physicality defines his worth.

That's what makes me dislike this while admiring it. It's on the side of mindless testosterone, and doesn't present compassion as a viable alternative. Mainly this is because the central figure of compassion in the story, the Doctor, is not given the close narrative attention that Pan gets; It's a Second Doctor novel, that's one of the main reasons why I bought it. Despite the grisliness of the subect matter, I thought when I purchased it that placing the story in the Troughton era would be a pretty good idea - it's really not that big a leap from Ice Warriors attacking polar bases or Abominable Snowmen attacking Tibetan monasteries to zombies attacking secluded outposts of civilisation.

But - and it's almost a cliche now - Troughton's Doc is amazingly difficult to capture on page. While Lewis gets all the mannerisms and giddy aunts right, he doesn't get under the character's skin -

(a phrase that could be taken literally in a book like this)

- and the book would probably have been more suited to the Eighth Doctor range, where the central characterisation is generally deeper and more consistent because that incarnation has been created almost wholly on paper. Here, Jamie and Victoria are worked into the story very well - the one a warrior, the other well versed in arrogant colonialism -, but the Doctor isn't a strong enough presence to counterbalance things, and bloodlust far outweighs the decent human values Pan treats as a joke. Not that there's a law against pessimism, and that approach can work - as it sometimes did with the beleagured Fifth Doctor -, but here the Doctor is neither unexpectedly powerful nor overwhelmed and impotent. He's really just passing through, and for me that's a flaw.

The Doctor's final confrontation with the Krallik stands out as convincingly Troughtonesque, however, especially the business with the curtains. But the narrative voice doesn't associate itself with the Doctor, it doesn't know him. Pan it knows intimately, it's got one hand on his dick all the way through.

The story's well structured, more so than Rags, and the planet Jenggel is conceived in great detail, in terms of both its wildlife and its political situation. The novel has a large cast of supporting characters and they're all fleshed out well, all very distinctive. I'd put Lewis up there with Miles and Magrs as one of those must-buy Doctor Who authors, and he's written a very, very good book. I don't like it, but that's a relatively petty point.


A Review by Finn Clark 18/7/02

If you don't count Heart of TARDIS, then Combat Rock is only the second Troughton PDA in three years (and worse, the other one was Dying in the Sun). We've waited a long time for this. I loved Rags, which was the redeeming feature of a pretty dire 2001 PDA line-up, but somehow I felt nervous about Combat Rock. Mick Lewis writing for Troughton sounded wrong.

You see, Troughton, Jamie and Victoria had an innocence unique in Doctor Who; no other team of regulars had their utter childlike unworldliness. You wanted to take them home and cuddle them. I'm not normally one to stand on a chair and scream "that's not Who!" but I might if I discovered a horrible, sordid piece of filth in Season Five. Rags was a nihilistic, angry scream that left the UNIT family's innocence battered and bleeding in an alley - and I loved it. But before starting this, I had trepidations.

I needn't have worried. Combat Rock is just as bloody as Rags, but far more Whoish in tone. This is mostly a good thing, but it does make its idiosyncratic plotting more apparent. I'll explain.

My first surprise was that the TARDIS crew slotted perfectly into the story around them. It's an extreme environment of gory violence and prostitution, but the former was never going to be a problem (Season Five attracted criticism for its gratuitous violence at the time) and the latter is defused brilliantly with humour. To my surprise, Combat Rock was funny! The misadventures of the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria hit the kind of notes you'd see in a black-and-white Carry On movie rather than something more sordid and inappropriate. Don't laugh - this kind of material has been mishandled like that before in the novels.

I hasten to add that my Carry On reference isn't a slight, but a compliment (unlike for instance Byzantium!). Those early films didn't regard sex as innately funny, but instead derived much humour from dumping their naive male characters in salacious situations and watching them flee in terror. (No, really! In Carry On Cruising, even Sid James can't escape fast enough when Dilys Laye gets predatory.) Here the reactions of Jamie and Victoria to the situations around them are priceless. I was giggling happily, at least until the blood and guts started. It's an approach that's respectful to the characters while easing their black-and-white sensibilities into Mick Lewis's extreme material.

I can't believe I'm discussing Carry On films in a Mick Lewis review. Er, back to Combat Rock.

It's set on a planet that's basically the jungle tourist experience transplanted into space. I had one or two problems with this (would you really still have spear-carrying primitives when they got here by spacecraft?) but it's evoked so vigorously that I soon forgot such niggles. The narrative is full of wonderful descriptive touches, some that even I recognised as wickedly accurate. There's racism and prejudice regarding imperialists versus natives, with Victoria's Victorian attitudes stirred into the mix. The writing is great - so vivid, in fact, that it brings alive material that might otherwise have descended into over-familiar cliche. At root, Combat Rock is basically a story of colonialists versus rebels. If I never see another rebel it'll be too soon... but here you'll forget that we've seen this situation before. Mick Lewis gives this well-worn story element at least two more dimensions than usual and reinvents it. It's cool!

These natives aren't mere savages, but individuals with their own motivations and intelligence. However that doesn't mean they're not savages too. The fiery women are lots of fun - in fact, all the characters play their parts well (except perhaps Drew, whom I think faded into the background a little more than he should have). Troughton's Doctor, famously difficult to capture, isn't brilliant but neither is he bad. Bafflingly, this appears to be a difficult trick for novelists to pull off. He doesn't burn a hole in the page, but he potters through the book accurately enough without ever raising my hackles and so by default this becomes one of his better novel portrayals.

However the characters aren't the important bit. The star of this book is its setting - the jungle, the creatures who live in it and the whole experience of wandering through or living in its tropical chaos.

But the plot... this isn't a plot-driven book. Rags got away with it by being so single-mindedly bleak and different, but in a more Whoish book the lack of plot becomes more obvious. It's more of a travelogue, with a Heart of Darkness vibe. I enjoyed it, but the middle section does drift a bit and I wouldn't mind seeing Mick Lewis try something more plot-heavy next time (if he could do it without compromising the rest of his writing).

I adored Rags for being so in-yer-face and uncompromising. Combat Rock is more conventional and thus didn't light my fire quite so brightly, but it's funnier, more charming and contains some excellent writing. It's very gory, but it's also a Troughton PDA that feels Troughtonish. These days, that's a rare and precious thing. (And best of all, it's not another base under siege!)


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 6/9/02

It had been absolutely ages since I read a Doctor Who book (well about 3-4 months actually, but that's still a long time for me). Thus on my shelf there was a glut of recent books still in pristine condition, all waiting to live in my pocket for a week - travelling to work on the train or bus.

Of these recent book releases it was Combat Rock which leaped out. I was extremely impressed by Mick Lewis' Rags. That book exploded with brilliant writing and magnificent set pieces. This one promised a more traditional Who adventure, but it surely would contain the excitement and energy that epitomized Rags.

Thankfully it does, but the previewers were right too - this is a more traditional DW adventure. It brought to mind the old Exploration Fictional Classics from the likes of Conan-Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs at first. This was an Expedition, of which the 2nd Doctor, Victoria and Jamie were along for the ride. I'm a big fan of such a genre, going into the unknown, seeking out wondrous new lands and tackling strange beasts along the way. As the book progresses it takes on more Horror genre characteristics, but it is always more focused on Adventure (admittedly with more gore than usual).

The setting for the book is mostly Papul, an island on a distant world Jenggel, lush with Jungle. It is an exotic setting and Lewis wastes no time in depositing our heroes there. He describes well the tribal practices of those who live there, how they could easily slip back a few years to their cannibalistic and headhunting practices. Lewis also brings in local missionaries, Mumi legends, occult practices and Guerilla Warfare. Papul is being influenced too by the Indoni (a nod to the Earth equivalent series of islands, Indonesia) - a Colonial force out to exert civilization through barbarous means. The guerilla forces of Papul strive to resist this invading army.

Lewis also brings in some great supporting characters. Local Guide Wemus with his wise ways and thirst for adventure. Wina and Santi - 2 pretty local girls with differing backgrounds, add sexual tension to proceedings. Indoni Chief Sabit is incredibly ruthless in putting down rebellion. He has a mass network of lackeys to do this dirty work - and the Doctor's party seems to meet them all in time.

These lackeys are the most memorable of all the characters. Lewis gives us the worst group of psychopaths imaginable, places them together, and lets them loose on everybody and everything. This is where the major Violence comes in, as Chainsaws, Knives, super-duper Rifles, all reap their carnage. This group of Pan's people (even scarier than the Top of the Pops dancers, and far less sexy) keep popping up throughout the book - and you just know they are going to get their just desserts in horrific circumstances by the end.

There's also the main characters. 2nd Doctor, Jamie and Victoria were a close-knit team, and Lewis makes much of that in the opening chapters. They are then split up, each forced to contend with their respective parties, each struggling to make sense of it all, and survive. Jamie was a fighter anyway, he fits in better than the other 2. As he becomes part of the local militia, he questions why he is involved at all. His loyalty for the Doctor and Victoria is strong. Victoria, closeted by her strict Victorian upbringing, is exposed to some extreme situations - she has the worst of it - and you wonder if she would ever recover from the trauma. The Doctor is the wonderfully inquisitive champion of the underdog we know and admire. But whose the greater aggressor? He isn't the big problem solver here, rather he is involved in the conflict, chipping in with suggestions from the sidelines. Some of Troughton's exclamations are out of place in the carnage, but they are quite humorous all the same. It's a fine TARDIS team, and all are represented accurately and well during the course of the book.

There are a huge amount of characters to get to know during the course of the book. It was often difficult to separate the individuals within each faction from one another. Characters are introduced, then appear later - I was skimming back and forth trying to remember where each fitted in. A lesser cast would have worked better I feel.

The Papul invasion by the Indoni is a wonderfully rich foundation to build the story on however. The jungles that house the action are dripping with mystery. When I read the prose I was there, sweating it out, fearful of bumping into some horror. It left me eager to pick the book up time and time again - I couldn't wait for the next bit of freetime on my journeyings. I was keen to read more, find out how all these people fared, and what was the next obstacle to overcome. My first book back to Who Fiction, after the short lay-off, was proving to be fabulous.

Lewis doesn't shirk in his descriptions of the terror of the Jungle. These are a Violent people, living in a harsh environment, and he shows it. We know that from Rags Mick Lewis does not hold back in his violence. It's not out of place though, and it's quite charming to see the way the Doctor reacts to it, and tries to shield his Companions from it all. It's as graphic in its gore as Rags, and it's up there with the more adult books. The difference from Rags lies in the story - it's a traditional search and find, with clearly defined monsters and villains.

I voted Mick Lewis the best Writer of Who Fiction in DWM's 2001 Survey - I liked Rags that much. It's early days for 2002, but he already is in with a shout of that vote again this year. Combat Rock is a brilliant book all round. 9/10


Kentucky fried Doc...no, never mind... by Joe Ford 15/9/02

I must say it has taken me much longer to read this book than any other since The Adventuress of Henrietta Street but that is not a slur against its quality. No, there are several reasons, personal reasons keeping me very busy, the sheer audacity of the content and wanting to make the intensely visceral experience last as long as possible.

Rags was a phenomenon. Needlessly gory, hopelessly full of hate and just a long string of violence with only a quick spit of a plot. It was, however, extremely well written, more vivid than any Doctor Who book in long memory and an experiment that was brave beyond words. I came away extremely conflicted as to whether I should have enjoyed as much as I did and I suppose that should be counted a success, the author having played on my love of good prose, my hatred of needless gore and my LOVE of the Pertwee era.

Combat Rock didn't leave half as queasy. For one it has a rock solid plot to wrap around the more graphic scenes (that's every second page!) so while it was just as disgusting in places the easy to follow plot and well defined motivations softened the blow a little. After finishing this I actually thought I had read a good NOVEL and not just a bundle of hate.

Secondly it uses the Second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria team perfectly. I, much like Finn Clark, wondered how on earth Mick Lewis would write for this wonderful, childlike team. I feared he would treat them as viscously as he did Jo in Rags and if he had I would not have been best pleased. But no, Mr Lewis clearly knows his stuff and captures this bizzarrely lovable team very well. You see, even though we are treated to lots more brutal deaths, undignifying torture and stomach poisoning images we see much of the action through THEIR eyes and it makes the horror of the situation ten times worse. Especially dear sweet Victoria, who isn't used to being assaulted, forced to sleep amongst sweaty men and almost raped. Her horrified reactions were particuarly vivid.

It was the Doctor who I was most disapointed with in this novel and certainly not because he isn't captured perfectly, because he is, but because he is sidelined for too much of the action. Oh he is on all the travels, sure, with his typically embarassed and saddened reactions to the drama but he only really comes into his own in the last few chapters. While this made the end of the book more gripping and actually utilised the Troughton era more faithfully than ever (ie, Doc 2 horrified that he is helpless for much of the story and coming through in the end with the answers) it would have been nice to see more of this mischievious clown Lewis writes so well for. Jamie's adventures were just great, from the desperate violence to his loss at understanding Santi to his horror in the Cannibal camp, everything just felt RIGHT.

The book is excellently structured too with some nice comedy in the first two light chapters. You just know as soon as the Doctor accepts a trip to next island that things are going to be nasty there and the amount of anticipation captured in me was exciting. It's horror after horror from then on and I suggest you abandon the book unless you have a strong stomach (Nastily, I read certain parts out to my boyfriend before bed some nights and he was utterly disgusted. He couldn't believe it was a Doctor Who book I was reading). Then the twist fuelled final chapters round of the book in style and there were several revelations that I adored. I love unexpected moments!

Three chapters in I was mightily confused as to who the secondary characters all were but by the end of the book my confusion was gone and I had gotten to know them all fairly well. Even the less defined characters (Wina, Sabit) had excellent moments. Of course, this being Mick Lewis many of them didn't make it to the end and while all the deaths were horrifying, some were more justified than others. Just saying that proves just how nasty some of his characters were.

I'm sure this will be better received than Rags, Mick Lewis is clearly a talented man and has honed the skills that impressed me so much in his debut novel to create a superior book. At the end of the day this IS a horror novel and should be read as such. I think its yet another testiment to the versatility of Doctor Who that this can appear in the same range as say, Verdigris or Palace of the Red Sun. The prose is excellent and really captures the horror and beauty of the wild really well. I connected with many of the characters and I was truly impressed with his ability to think up more and more inventive deaths. It's a rich, vivid work that is as much about atmosphere as it about plot.

After quite a stretch of failures (let's say Independence Day to Byzantium! with only a couple of bright spots in between) the PDA's are finally getting their act together. With Ten Little Aliens, Amorality Tale and this we have had a few winners so let's hope they can keep up the average. With Kate Orman on the way (writing a sixth Doctor book! Yay!) things are looking up for the first time in quite a while.

Supplement, 4/5/05:

Here is a chance to join the second Doctor on an adventure out in the wilderness of Jegenell, a dangerous, revolting rainforest concealing rabid guerrillas, psychotic hit men, stomach rumbling cannibals and all manner of nasty beasts. It is a great setting for the book and far more vivid than the English countryside, far more suitable for Mick Lewis' uncompromising prose. There is the constant impression that the travellers are walking around inside something alive, with constant uncomfortable references to the forest swallowing them up and disturbing groans and cries emanating from the heart of foliage. Lewis lavishes as much care on his setting as he does his characters and I am willing to bet that the average reader will forget some of the characters names and motivations after a few weeks but the squealing, pulsing jungle will stay with them for ages.

I found this a much more fluid and enjoyable read the second time around. I was not trying to compare it to Rags as much, which is an unfortunate side effect of being a returning writer after such an attention-grabbing debut (cf. Festival of Death/Anachrophobia, City of the Dead/Camera Obscura). Unfortunately Lewis reuses some his themes that were so striking in Rags such as class war, horrific violence and dead mummers being the catalyst for the nightmarish eruption of gore, which makes comparisons to his earlier book inescapable. However there is much to set Combat Rock apart, the book is far more disciplined and structured, although it might not seem so at first. The first half of the book reads like an author making it all up as he goes along but the twist-fuelled finale reveals a far more prepared novelist than the unsystematic Mick Lewis of Rags. It is just as powerful and shocking as his debut and in many ways far more professional, the scares driven by the atmosphere the spine-tingling ideas (such as the cannibalistic lair) rather than the in-your-face horror of human violence.

As a study of colonisation it is hardly as subtle as it might be what with the evil President Sabit sending his psychotic goons into the forest to burn alive anybody who might threaten the Indoni control of the Papul. Saying that, it is far more colourful and exciting than previous attempts to explore the theme (who can forget the unrelenting greyness of Colony in Space?) and the revolting lengths Sabit goes to to keep the planet in his grasp at least gives the reader somebody to hate amongst all the cruelty. And the book does at least give us a good look at each side of this conflict in some detail with both the Indoni and the Papul fighting each other with the greatest weapon of all, fear of death. With the travellers at the mercy of the horrors of the jungle and caught between the control war of both homicidal factions there is a genuine sense of danger involved.

I was chuckling heartily as the Doctor assembled his motley crew to explore the island of Batu thinking to myself they would all make good fodder. And low and behold most of them fulfil this function perfectly before we ever get to know them in any great depth. I rather liked the childish banter between Keppenis and Wemus, even in the face of the OPG and Wina and Santi are good for a bitch fight or two. Drew is suitably loathsome and I found myself liking Tigus more and more as the book progressed. Lewis doesn't overly characterise any of them, mostly because he only includes them so he can rip apart and dismember them and it would just be a waste of page space getting us close to these people he wants to slaughter.

It is the regulars who shine which is just as it should be and Lewis manages to reign in his urge to pervert the innocent second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria, which is just as it should be. To twist these playful characters out of shape as he did with the third Doctor and Jo in Rags would only prompt further unworthy contrasts and suggest the writer isn't capable of characterising Doctor Who regulars at all. Instead Lewis instils his book with an acid thread of humour, which helps with the inclusion of these three and proves the author understands Doctor Who just fine.

Jamie is the source of most of the book's humour and it was thanks to Lewis that I realised just how true that was of the TV series too. Good 'ol Jamie, the thicko Scots lad... always getting into mischief and helping the Doctor to save the day. He's a great character, with bravery and cowardice in equal measures. And he translates surprisingly well to the page too, with Lewis capturing Fraser Hines' eye for the ladies and boyish charm really well. It is especially important to have fun characters in a book like this; if they were all like the mercenaries it would be a humourless slog.

The Doctor and Victoria take more of a back step but both are treated fairly well. The second Doctor seems especially impotent in a world full of guns and violence and that enhances the feeling of danger no end. Victoria is surprisingly resilient to the horrors around her and far less useless than she was on the telly.

Pan and his gang are revoltingly horrible but at least Lewis doesn't try and pretend otherwise. What Lewis understands that Terrance Dicks doesn't is that if you are going to write book that features mercenaries bragging about rape and whores you have to make them mean, dirty bastards and the book has to match their vile behaviour page by page. Slitting throats, eating brains and heads on spikes are the stuff of Combat Rock which makes rape and prostitution not acceptable exactly but more fitting than say pink fluffy bunnies (that would fit in a Dicks book perfectly!).

It is and isn't your typical Doctor Who book. Obviously the content is far more graphic and vile and will probably get your average traditionalist in a right fizzy tizzy. But in other respects, the basic outline of the story (two opposing factions fighting over territory, the Doctor caught in the middle but on no-one's side) and how the story is structured (with a cliffhanger at every turn and the Doctor confronting the villain at the climax) is perfectly normal.

People won't like it but I found it thoroughly refreshing. I like how Justin Richards is trying new things; in a time where Doctor Who stories are ten a penny Combat Rock manages to stand out as one of the more interesting attempts. I'm not quite sure what it says about my psychological stability but I really enjoyed this book, scoffing down grey matter and all.


Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 9/12/02

The sights! The sounds! The smells! Ah, the imagery! Combat Rock has atmosphere in spades, crafting a whole jungle around you in a way that makes you see the trees, hear the water, and see the birds being eaten by large nasty animals. Oh yes, there can be no doubt we are surrounded by jungle, facing dark skinned savages, corrupt governments and deranged mercenaries. Mick Lewis can, in essence, turn a good phrase, using the right words to conjure up just the right picture in the mind's eye. That's just one of this book's good points.

Another one is the characters. We have here several packs of characters, and yet there was not a moment that I didn't know who was who, and in every section I knew exactly which group we were dealing with just from when the first name was used. Many other authors could do with this ability, and that alone earns several marks from me.

We have Wina, the significant-other-insertion (as opposed to a self-insertion), and there is no doubt about Mick Lewis' feelings here (I won't hold the conclusion of her part of the story against him). There's Wemus, the local guide who is just trying to make his living, and Kepennis his friend. There's Tigus, the guerilla who's forced into violence. And the entire pack of Wild Dogs. I did like how Mick Lewis went from Dog to Dog, giving us an insight into each one's mind, as this helped a lot to keep them distinguished. The focus there is on Pan, to whom the reader must give a little respect, but remains a bastard throughout (and you don't see who the her is coming at all).

Then there are the regulars. Victoria is interesting contrasted with the naked men and their penis gourds, but does not play much of a role. Jamie is also kept to the side a little, used mainly as an observer to see what the guerillas have to deal with. As for the Doctor... once again we have the character of the Second Doctor being hard to portray. I thought Mick Lewis was doing well in the beginning, but there is a difference between impishness and childishness and what we get here is mainly the latter.

Of course, there is one major aspect I haven't mentioned, namely the plot. This is where Combat Rock falls down in that there isn't really any plot to speak of. We have the characters going from one situation to the next, travelling around the jungle but there really isn't any sense of purpose behind it all, with people travelling simply for the sake of moving around. I also thought more was to be made of the victims of the snakes, but nothing was followed up on. And it seemed nothing more than plot convenience of having to do something with her while keeping her alive that made Victoria be the person picked by Sabit to be the observer. Oh, and one big problem: the TARDIS translation circuits don't seem to work on the local speech, which was most disturbing. (Okay, they don't need to, but it did strike me as odd.)

Plot and main leads aside, this book is great, lovely images and actual differentiable people. But the scariest thing I found was reading the Acknowledgment section and finding out just how much wasn't made up.


The horror, the horror... by David Massingham 15/11/03

Most of the reviews of Combat Rock featured above have focused on the positives of the novel before mentioning the negatives. This is a symptom of the general reaction to this story -- a terrifically vivid tale of high violence, which manages to come out on top seemingly through the sheer creative drive of the author. I'm not about to argue with that consensus; Combat Rock is a book that is good more often than bad. For me, however, Mick Lewis only just achieved this. Thus, this review is arse-backwards -- I'll slam the negatives, and then admire the positives.

This is, as mentioned, quite a violent little tale, and like others I was hesitant about the selection of Jamie, Victoria and the Second Doctor for Combat Rock. Now that I've finished the book, I've decided that the companions worked well, but the Doctor did not. Let's leave aside how well Mick Lewis captured this elusive character. It's the material he gives him that's the problem. With the exception of one minor act on page 274, the Doctor does NOTHING. The story would have unfolded the exact same way without him. For that matter, Victoria's story, though sometimes interesting, also has no effect on the plot. Jamie -- he influences a group of characters into taking a particular course of action in the final pages of the novel, but otherwise the story could have done without him. Combat Rock barely needs the TARDIS crew, and if they hadn't have been there, events probably wouldn't have changed that much at all. Yes, it is interesting reading about some of Victoria and Jamie's exploits (unfortunately the same can't be said for the Doctor's ineffectual wanderings throughout the book)... but it is extremely frustrating getting to page 200 and wondering when the plot is going to start.

There isn't really any plot. If, like me, you find yourself halfway through and wondering when the narrative is gonna kick in, I'm here to tell you -- it won't. The are some bare shavings of a story, but mostly, Combat Rock is a collection of ideas, set-pieces, themes, and larger than life characters. There are some good ideas, some alright characters and some great set-pieces, but not much more. One suspects this may be the point. Perhaps Combat Rock was concieved as an essay on the nihilism of war, the strength of traditions, the hopelessness of love, the evils/advantages of christianity, the power of the political machine, the freakiness of serial killers who look like clowns... maybe all of the above. Nonetheless, I believe that Mick Lewis is a talented enough author to weave throughout these disparent themes a stronger story than he did, and I suspect this book would have been the better for it. Might I add that what little plot there is (the mystery of the Mumis and the Krallik), is wrapped up in a fairly inplausible fashion.

Perhaps it was this lack of a strong narrative that caused my initial reluctance to jump head-first into the world of Combat Rock. I've been reading this book, very slowly, over three and half weeks. For a 280 page novel, this is quite a long time for me. Despite the writer's vivid prose, this yarn just wouldn't pull me in until the last sixty odd pages. This may be due to the plot, but the characters surely had a part to play. With the exceptions of Wemus and Wayan (the latter features in about seven pages in total), there were no incidental characters I sympathised with. Most of them I didn't really like. Wina and Kepennis have their moments, but none of my sympathies lay with them. The problem is, there are sooo many characters, that it was hard to track of them -- it doesn't help that many of their names begin with W. Similarly, the villages and outposts are numerous and often interchangable. The narrative voice jumps from one village to another (sometimes in a seemingly random manner), telling a fragment of the story and then jumping back to another theme. For example, the village of Agat appears in about six seperate passages in the book, each passage no longer than three pages. These passages are spread over three fifths of the novel.

Okay, now I'll get to the positives of the book. Mick Lewis, as many have stated, has quite a talent for created an evocative atmosphere. Combat Rock is simply oozing the steamy, fetid feel of an alien jungle. The writer has clearly put a lot of thought into the weird flora and fauna of this location, and much of the book is devoted to forcing the reader to feel as if they are really trekking through a wild and untamed landscape. As a result, this novel manages to truly create an entire world, from the trees up to the political climate and the surrounding planets and their influences. On this note, Lewis is to be congratulated for painting such a vivid portrait of a planet in turmoil.

Special mention should go the Dogs of War, a group of grotesque and unbalanced murderers. All seven of them, even the ones that have no real bearing on the threadbare story (um, that would make five of them), are given enough characteristics so that it is a suprise that Lewis felt the need to populate this novel with other faces. The Dogs of War are worthy of a novel unto themselves, and although such a novel would be unpleasant to read (not one of them has any redeeming features), it may come across as a bit more focussed than Combat Rock itself. Most of the writer's time is devoted to the horrible Pan, a soulless, whore-lovin' killer; this man comes across as one of the most disgusting villains to appear in a Doctor Who adventure.

The expedition nature of the book works largely in its favour. It helps to give the book a sort of a goal -- the destination you are sure they are heading to -- and of course indicates that there would be a number of obsticles in the main party's way. Lewis is even thoughtful enough to include that old stand-by, the rickety rope bridge.

I feel I should mention two of the side characters. Wayan, as previously mentioned, is a great minor character who in three pages ellicites more compassion from this reader than most of the other characters. His confrontation with the Krallik is tense and fueled with emotion. Father Peiter is an interesting guest character as well, who, like Wayan, gets little time devoted to him. Seeing Agat fall through his eyes makes the massacre all the more potent and deadly. His fate is quite shocking and one of the more effective passages of Combat Rock.

As I said at the start of this review, Combat Rock is generally better than it is bad, but the flaws are substantial enough to bring it down quite severely. I'm sure many people will love it, but for this trooper, a little more focus and plot would have gone a long way. All the same, for some odd reason my desire to read Rags has yet to diminish. As well as that, I would be more than curious to give Mr Lewis' next novel a go.

That said, his shameless reference to Heart of Darkness on page 274 is quite unforgivable.

6.5 out of 10


Combat plotting by Robert Smith? 23/11/03

Like Rags before it, Combat Rock is vivid, gross, visceral and a refreshing change to just about everything else on display. Unfortunately it's effect is somewhat diluted simply by being too similar to Rags. This sort of thing was shocking the first time around, but there's no quicker way to dull the teeth of a new and radical author than by doing much the same trick that so outraged everyone last time around.

There's a certain amusement to be had from depositing the Season 5 TARDIS crew into this adventure. Unfortunately, that's about the only redeeming grace of using them. While Jamie does get a bit of a subplot that isn't terribly interesting, Victoria's major function is to wander into a room to witness something that ends up having utterly zero consequences and the Doctor is simply atrocious. Yes, he does pull off a couple of tricks at the end to perfunctorily save the day, but until that moment he's as wet and wishy-washy as my laundry.

I'm more than happy to have the regulars being out of place among penis gourds and prostitutes, as there's potential for a lot of humour, or an interesting comparison of the televised TARDIS crew in a setting that's not particularly outrageous in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, the problems with this are twofold. First, they simply have nothing to do, which doesn't seem to be to be an obligatory side effect of what the author is trying to achieve.

Second, this simply isn't a twenty-first century tale. Instead, it's a wannabe Boy's Own Adventure taking place in the deepest darkest Jenggel. Er, jungle. Unfortunately, this sort of thing isn't politically correct any more, so the author has simply transplanted everything lock stock and barrel to an alien setting and left it at that.

What's worse is that I don't buy one of the book's major conceits for a second. It's been established in just about every Doctor Who story ever that the Doctor and companions can understand the local language. This might be a rather unlikely concept, but it's our unlikely concept and you just have to swing with it, or give us a good reason why it doesn't apply. Or any reason at all. Because Combat Rock has the Doctor completely unable to understand the Papul language, whereas he can understand the Indoni dialect with no problem. Not just once, but continually throughout the novel.

What's worse is that there's simply no reason for this, aside from the desperate need to maintain the Boy's Own conceits. The end result of all this is that the TARDIS crew feel shoehorned into an entirely unrelated adventure, with a search and replace function swapping "Indonesia" with "Jenggel" and "plot" with "set pieces".

As for the tale unfolding independently around them, it's a reasonable story of cannibals and the politics of oppression, although the mercenaries get appallingly short shrift. Which is a pity, as they're far more interesting than their reduced appearance suggests. It's a shame that there are far too many characters introduced, often quite late in the book, when more exploration of some of the existing characters would give a much better payoff. As it is, Pan, Clown and Wayan are the interesting characters of this book's enormous cast. Unfortunately, only Pan gets any real depth, with the latter appearing in no more than seven pages of the book. But there's some extremely evocative writing here when the author puts his mind to it, bringing some characters and scenes to life with a few elegant strokes. It's a shame that the rest of it is so unfocussed; I'd love to see what Mick Lewis was capable of if he really got his act together.

The Indoni torturer is a prime example of everything that's both right and wrong about this book. There's a really big deal made about Victoria's choice to go into the torture room, where she witnesses the brutality and the really shocking effect of the augmented torturer. But nothing comes of this and later the torturer is idly killed off, contributing nothing whatsoever to the plot. The descriptions and the concepts are fabulous, but it's yet another random element thrown in with the expectation that enough frightening elements will miraculously turn this into a working horror story without needing to bother too much with the 'story' bit. It's this kind of wasted potential that makes Combat Rock a much bigger failure than it should be: you can see the talent oozing out of the page, but it's clearly the author hasn't quite grasped what he should be doing with it.

The book is also bottom-heavy. We have pages and pages of journeys down rivers, people eating eyeballs, rope bridges, monsters lurking in swamps, random violence and whorin', none of which really go anywhere. But then the ending flies thick and fast, with revelation piled on revelation in such a way that after a while you realise it's supposed to distract you from the inherent weaknesses of the story.

Take the reanimation of the Mumis for example. In the end, we finally discover just how this seemingly impossible feat was achieved - but the book hasn't bothered to mention that this feat really was impossible until now. Instead it felt as though it were just another property of the planet and/or the Mumis themselves. So little was made of it that it's not clear we were supposed to be wondering about it until the end. Which rather defeats the purpose of the revelation in question.

Unfortunately, the most accurate description of Combat Rock is "middle of the road". And I'm sure that's far more galling than it simply being a failure. Books like this should aim high and either soar or fall flat, but they shouldn't end up leaving the reader mentally shrugging. There's a really awesome book that could have been written here, with only a few structural changes. Combining that with Lewis's undeniable talent for evocative writing and you'd have a fantastic novel that touched people and made its points in ways that couldn't be dismissed. That's the not the novel we got here, which is readable enough and passes the time, but definitely won't set the world alight. And that's a real shame.


"You've been used by a toadstool!" by Jason A. Miller 5/1/04

This is a book about cannibals. It's about savagery and terrorism, blood and grist and roughly five thousand corpses. On the rain-forest archipelago of the planet Jenggel, the primitive natives of the island Papul are returning to their cannibalistic ways, after the mummified corpses of their ancient tribal leaders return to life. On the "pleasure island" of Batu, seven punk-rock hit men are gathering, on orders from Jenggel's President, to kill a lot of people and thus justify the President's naked power grab. In the opening teaser (which is never connected up to the rest of the book), a soldier impliedly murders a woman and her baby, and that's pretty much the lightest moment on offer. Author Lewis gives us a detailed setting: we learn the names of all the islands, and their major cities; we learn how the inhabitants of each island are different from one another. There are discourses on commerce, trade, and leisure. I started reading all this while on a business trip in Puerto Rico, so the tourist in me was satisfied. Lewis is the anarchist of the Doctor Who range. His previous book, Rags was about a punk rock band whose music kills. That one I bought in a graveyard, in the World Trade Center Borders in the summer of 2001. Combat Rock is about what you'd expect from the author of Rags: 100% downbeat from start to finish, with no sympathy or mercy spared for anybody. Lewis's lone moment of generosity comes from sparing the lives of two members of the guest cast.

Once you desensitize, and let the blood and gore wash gently over you, there are interesting things to be learned about the Second Doctor and his Season 5 companions, Jamie and Victoria. Victoria, whose TV portrayal was all about compassion and screaming, is revealed to be a bit of a Victorian-era rebel. She has an interesting relationship with a loyal native soldier, before the inevitable happens to him. Jamie is more hormone-dominated in Combat Rock than he ever was on TV, but he does pull off a very clever gambit in the final chapter, to escape becoming the dinner course at a cannibal's house.

The Doctor is vivid, unusual for the Patrick Troughton books, which generally have no idea what to do with his character. The definitive TV Troughton moment came in Tomb of the Cybermen, when he inflated the ego of the villainous Klieg by shouting increasingly frantic praise... only to pull back slyly and murmur "Now I know you're mad. I just wanted to make sure." There are several moments in Combat Rock similar to that ethos, although most of them are limited to the final three chapters -- earlier in the book, the Doctor is annoyingly passive, refusing to dive out of a boat to save a companion from monster-infested water. Once he finally confronts the psi-powered menace on Papul who's responsible for the bloodbath, he is in full Troughton form, uttering a line so wonderful I wish Troughton were still alive to record it: "You've been used by a toadstool!"

The plot is competently done. The bulk of the story is lite Conrad: a jungle trek on foot and by canoe, to meet the depraved toadstool-junkie Krallik. In that party are not one, but two, people, who are not what they seem. Most of the seemingly random bits of butchery (a missionary watching his star pupil come back to eat him, for example) do connect back to the overall plot, even if many of the characters don't get to meet the Doctor before dying horribly.

You will benefit from reading the author bio and acknowledgements first. Lewis tells us that most of the story is drawn from real-life Earth locales and events, and that at least two of the supporting cast are based on his friends.

If you have a high splatter quotient -- if you've been cheerfully desensitized to the sight of intestines and brains thanks to month after month of these Doctor Who books, and if you don't mind being seen toting a book with such a violent, charmless cover -- there's a good addition to the Doctor Who universe waiting to be read. Here's a book that takes risks: the lone continuity reference is Victoria noting that her hit-man captive is worse than the Daleks. And, because Combat Rock is so tightly woven, you actually believe her.


A Review by Dave Roy 27/2/04

I love cannibals. When the Robinsons invite us over for dinner, we never know whether it's to have dinner or for dinner. So far, it hasn't been an issue, thankfully. But you never know with that zany family!

I'm not sure I want to read about them, however. Combat Rock is full of them. Not just full of them, but full of graphic descriptions of them. There is so much blood and gore (and not just from cannibals) in this book that I was faintly sickened as I read it, and I have a strong stomach. What are our intrepid Dr. Who heroes doing in a monstrosity such as this? Not much, actually, which is another problem with this book.

I'll get the main problem with this book out of the way, because it's a question of taste and style. Rags was an interesting look at violence and how it affects us. It was a horror book, but it seemed to have a point to make about violence. Combat Rock, however, seems to be missing even that justification. It is an ugly book, but it doesn't seem to be an ugly book with a purpose. It's full of violence, with descriptions of people being incinerated, brains being eaten, shot with blood pumping, and dismemberment. The excessiveness of it hardened me to it after a while, but it was still extremely unpleasant to read. If you're squeamish at all, avoid this book like you would a Michael Bolton song.

When I say style, I mean the fact that Combat Rock doesn't fit in with the Second Doctor's era at all. The Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria seem horribly out of place in this book. I'm sure Lewis was trying to contrast the innocence of the era with the ugliness of reality, but it just doesn't work. I don't like seeing Victoria, a 19th century upper-crust young British woman, threatened with rape in the middle of the jungle. It's not something I want to read about. Jamie isn't as bad, considering the fact that he comes from a Scottish combat background to begin with. The Doctor feels lost in the middle of all this, though he does wonderfully in the final confrontation with Krallik

Another problem with the book is that it's full of extraneous characters. Lewis does nothing with the two female Indoni other than have them along for the ride and have them threatened by their captors. The mercenary team roaming the jungle does a lot of shooting, killing, burning, maiming and a little bit of whoring, but ultimately don't amount to much. Lewis attempts to give their leader, Pan, a bit of character by going into his background to explain why he treats women the way he does. Since he bored and disgusted me, you can just imagine what those sequences did for me.

Even a worse sin, however, is what Lewis does with the regulars. Mainly, nothing! They are along for the ride, but other than the Doctor's final confrontation with Krallik, they don't do anything. They get captured, and they go places. Jamie gets sent on a combat mission with the rebels and Victoria gets captured by the Indoni and sees how ugly they are, but neither of them actually does anything throughout their whole time on screen. Their characterization is ok (though the Doctor doesn't feel like Troughton despite a couple of "oh my giddy Aunt!" expressions), but they are extra. This story would hardly have changed if it were not a Dr. Who story. That's inexcusable in my book.

There is not a likable character in the bunch. There are two semi-likable tourists who are captured along with the Doctor's party, but we don't see much of them and then they are summarily killed (or at least one of them is, but the other one disappears, so it amounts to the same thing). I cared about what happened to the Doctor and his companions, but I already know they're going to be safe (they do have some TV stories after this to star in). I didn't care if anybody else lived or died, not even the missionaries.

I never thought I'd give a 1 star rating to any book that I had finished, because if I was able to finish it then there had to be something to keep me reading. But I have to do it here, because I cannot recommend this book at all. Maybe if you're a horror fan who likes blood and gore, you may like this one. Only the completist Dr. Who fan in me kept me going through this one.