THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Mind Robber
Alternate History Cycle
Head Games
Virgin Books
Conundrum
The Alternate History Cycle Part Four

Author Steve Lyons Cover taken from the excellent Broadsword home page
ISBN# 0 426 20408 5
Published 1994
Cover Jeff Cummins

Synopsis: A killer stalks the village of Arandale, combatted by superheroes, private eyes, white witches, supernatural investigators, the Adventure Kids and John and Gillian, the grandchildren of "Dr Who". The Doctor eventually discovers that the mysterious enemy has trapped them in the Land of Fiction, where the new master wants the Doctor to take his place.


Reviews

A Review by Joseph Nunweek 24/5/98

"But you can't just do nothing. You're Dr Who!"
"I can assure you, I'm not."

Of all the Doctor Who NA's, this would win my vote as the strangest. Because of the relentless in-jokes and slightly warped sense of humor that appear throughout the book, this is one of my favourites.

But this book is far more than the silly parody some fans make it out to be. It is part of an otherwise completely serious trilogy in five parts, and as such needs to be serious enough to blend in. The Doctor, Ace and Benny are strongly characterized, as they need to be in a part of the series where their tensions are coming to a head. Benny finds her loyalties torn between her fellow companion and the Doctor, after Ace shares her true opinions of the mysterious Time Lord.

Much of the story is literally written by the new Master Of The Land Of Fiction. More than a mere hack writer, the Master manages to pull off some good writing, especially Norman, Karen, and Rosemary. At times it is all very cheesy, but that is deliberate.

The humor is great. From a very funny Famous Five parody subplot to appearances by John, Gillian and those dreaded TVComic monsters... the Trods, there is at least one hilarious reference in Conundrum for everyone. There are many more references, as well as crackling dialogue annd a surreal climax.

All these make for superb reading. But bafflingly, the book is often described as silly, corny and the seven letter word consisting of an obcenity and the word 'fan'.

How's that for a conundrum?


A Review by Keith Bennett 22/7/99

The bickering TARDIS crew lands in a small English town where a stalking murderer is dwelling. Stranger events start to happen, however, when Benny meets an elderly man who used to be a super hero, and Ace encounters a cliched private detective. They soon find out that they are in the Land Of Fiction from the Second Doctor story Mind Robber, and it has a new, rather more clinical owner.

Perhaps "bickering" is a rather gentle word. The Doctor, Bernice and, of course, Ace most of all, are at each others' throats here, and this would all make for extremely tiresome reading if it wasn't for the entertaining story and the delightful way Steve Lyons, in his debut Doctor Who novel, writes it.

Lyons takes the part of the Master Of Fiction in the narrative, and it's with this style that he injects a quirky humour that lasts throught the book. By the time we start reading about four children who call themselves The Adventure Kids, in an obvious parody of Enid Blyton's The Famous Five, we know we are in for something refreshingly different. There are wonderful in-jokes throughout (it's hard to beat the "this time I want the real McCoy" one), yet they don't seem overly indulgent, given the type of story this is.

As stated, one drawback, as usual, are the central characters themselves. Having read books after Conundrum by now, I know that No Future finally sooths the tensions, but at the time, this all seemed awfully dismal and directionless, as if Virgin had completely stuffed the TARDIS crew up (which I believe they did). One might have hoped that, with the fighting worse than ever, maybe an improvement could have been made in this story. Well, Bernice settles somewhat more with the Doctor (although she's still troubled by what he did in the conclusions to Blood Heat and The Pit), but the real problem is with irritating, boring old Ace. She opens her feelings up to Benny, then the stupid archeologist goes and tells the Doctor, all in the name of trying to settle the friction, and Ace goes off her tree! Mind you, at this stage, beating Dorothy at noughts and crosses would have been enough to set her off.

The final words Ace says, or rather snaps, at the Doctor in the book are "you stupid bastard", after again picking out every mistake he's made while ignoring all the good things he's done, leaving the Doctor, again, looking sad confused and weak. This confronation is almost unreadable.

Why? Because it seems like we've all read it a thousand times before. How long can writers drag on a character like what Ace has become? Get a life, girl! Oooh, I feel like yawning RIGHT in your face.

Thankfully, for most of the time, we can concentrate on the fun story, even mostly ignore the continual New Adventures habit of jumping from scene to scene far too quickly, and be grateful for one of the most original and interesting Doctor Who novels written. 7/10


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 2/11/02

While reading Conundrum, I honestly couldn't tell who had the most fun -- the reader or the writer. Most of the jokes that Steve Lyons comes up with are of the type that instantly provides us with an image of the author racing through pulp and dime novels gleefully looking for conventions to subvert. One imagines that he also rewatched and reread several earlier Doctor Who adventures, as there are one or two knowing winks to standard formulas.

What starts off as a relatively typical murder/mystery/vampire story (they're more common than you think), thankfully, becomes a much more bizarre tale. "Thankfully", because a) the original story isn't all the great to begin with and b) the tale that follows makes the beginning portions of the book much more interesting and (more importantly) funny in retrospect. The humor is very clever and is never anything less than charming. It makes the entire story engaging and engrossing. In many places the plot is secondary to the fun, but since it is undoubtedly effective, there's no problem with that.

There's something about Steve Lyon's prose that I find really appealing. It's not especially poetic, but there is a certain flair to the writing. It has the quality that makes it appear to have been effortless to write; whether this is true, I don't have any way of knowing, but it's certainly effortless to read. The characters are all deliberately a bit vague and stereotypical, but this is obviously done on purpose and Lyons plays a lot with the audience expectations.

One of the more enjoyable NAs in the series, Conundrum has held up very well since its publication. A handful of later books would attempt a similar breaking down of the fourth wall, but none of them would be as entertaining. A great book, and one that kept me guessing all the way through.


A Review by Finn Clark 17/3/03

I remembered Conundrum as a laugh riot, one of the funniest things I'd ever read. I suppose it is when compared with Virgin's other Doctor Who novels, from which the only other comedic work not by Gareth Roberts or Dave Stone would be Happy Endings. However to my surprise I didn't actually find myself laughing very often at Conundrum. It has some great jokes, but this ain't a comedy.

I still think it's fantastic, though.

It looks less revolutionary today, of course. In this post-Magrs era, the modest reality-twisting in this Land of Fiction seems almost staid. Lyons himself outdid it by several orders of magnitude in The Crooked World. But the Doctor's last line is still a killer and the interactive narrator is something we haven't seen since. The chatty narrative voice is simultaneously the Doctor's deadly enemy and the source of some of the book's best jokes. That by itself helps to make the book special.

There's plenty of continuity with other novels and the Alternate Universe Cycle. We see the growing rift between the Doctor, Ace and Benny which would lead into No Future. We get heavy hints to the identity of the arc's bad guy, including a glimpse of his lair. We get back-references to Blood Heat and The Pit. And amazingly, it works! This ain't gratuitous name-dropping, but character development from the days when the books were singing from the same hymn sheet.

The Doctor and Benny work well, but the biggest surprise was New Ace. She's fun! Her direct approach to problems can be good for a laugh, though it helped a lot that she wasn't in a grim futuristic setting of blood, death, pain and battle-hardened soldiers. Instead she's in an English village and thus has fewer opportunities to showcase her more annoying tendencies.

The incidental characters are a pretty mixed bunch, but the book has a cast-iron excuse for absolutely everything it does. Conundrum is often funny in the same way as The Eight Doctors or Warmonger... but deliberately. It has adventure cliches a-go-go, with comic-book superheroes, Enid Blyton kiddies, hard-boiled detectives and the like. There's an odd balancing act going on; sometimes these old saws are treated with respect and gentle realism (Norman Power), until every so often the narrative spots a good gag to be mined from taking the piss out of their crapness. But it works. Even when it's not making you laugh, Conundrum is always clever and interesting. A novel based on this concept could easily have been a one-note throwaway, worth one read but no more, but even on rereading it still holds you right to the end.

There's fun and confusion alike for anyone paying attention to the character names. Ace spends much time with someone called Mel. (Y'what? The sequel, Head Games, starred the real Mel... and also decided that the Writer's name was Jason! In fairness though, Death and Diplomacy was six months away at that point.) Conundrum's Adventure Kids are Gary, Tracey, Tim and Michelle, which might ring a couple of bells for anyone who remembers the 1978-79 Famous Five series on ITV. Among the child actors playing Julian, Dick, Anne and George (short for Georgina) were Michelle Gallagher and Gary Russell. Yes, that Gary.

However I've no clue what Steve Lyons was doing with Jack Corrigan. DC Comics have a character, the Spectre, whose human identity is a cop called Jim Corrigan, so I was waiting throughout for a revelation regarding Matthew Shade. Nope. Steve got me there. I can't believe it's just a coincidence, so did something get cut at the editorial stage?

Conundrum is a surprisingly meaty novel, with angst and character stuff going on alongside the meta-fictional gags. It's a mystery, on more than one level... but it's a tribute to the author that it's still a great read when you know the twists in advance. Read it.


Puzzles... by Joe Ford 22/4/03

I have not read this book in over nine years, in which time the Doctor has lost Ace, lost Benny (only to get her own series), gained Roz and Chris only to lose one horribly and let the other one go, regenerated, found that awful Sam, discovered that rogue with a heart Fitz, lost Sam, stumbled across that old cow Compassion who inadvertently turned into a TARDIS, lost the pair of them and his memory, found Fitz and again and discovered Anji. Wow, nine years man, can do a whole lot to a book range.

But I digress, this is a Steve Lyons book so we know what to expect. A simple clear cut narrative, lots of emotion, good laughs and effective and efficient prose. Erm, wrong. This is Steve's debut, where we should have no pre-conceptions of him as a writer and just see what he gives us. And boy it is vastly different to anything he tried out later on.

My overall impression of Conundrum the second time around is that is a very clever book, frighteningly so with a few flaws that drag it down. Reading the book from cover to cover is a great experience and the games Steve plays with the narrative and construction of the book are masterful. There are just too many ways you can make a book about a book being written (the one you are reading) fun and Steve does a great job with that. For the first half of the book the little asides by the Writer (to us) are nothing but teases but enrich the story no end. It is when the characters stop doing what the Writer expects and he has to start making up new plots to correct those mistakes... now that is bloody clever! Even better in the last third of the book is the wonderful games the Doctor and the Writer play with each other each re-writing the story to suit them, one to trap the other and the other to escape. I lost track of the amount of times I was smirking at myself as Steve constantly trips the readers expectations. All of this 'meanwhile' and 'later on' which pushes other novels on ignoring what happened in between, in this book nothing DOES happened in between! The Writer just wanted to push it forward a few hours! The book may appear to have taken place over three days but for the Doc and co it's just a few hours!

Even better is how he uses Ace in this. Let's face it at this point we all hated Ace with her guns and body suit and attitude to match. Like Tegan before her she seems to spend her entire life whinging at the Doctor and there is no reason why she should be travelling with him. This opaque return of her character lies dormant for about five books until Steve acknowledges it in Conundrum. In what is one of the better Ace scenes in the book she opens out to Benny and we finally hear why she is hanging around. To his credit it sounds plausible. Unfortunately thanks to this development we spend the rest of the book with Ace-angst regretting telling Benny and once again kicking out at everyone. Her ungrateful "You bastard!" to the Doctor is quite unjustified. She's just such a cow. Quite brilliantly though, Steve gets around this too by having her pick up the books Dragonfire, Love and War and Deceit... her life on paper (trying to convince her she is fictional) and tells her "You are no longer of interest. Your audience is bored"... hehehe! Very clever.

While life is Arandale is painted in detail by Steve, the characters were left maddeningly vague. I suppose that was the point though, the Writer was just using them to fill a function, tell a story and their pasts were hardly important. I just feel if we had a little more detail I would have felt for them more as the village body count increased.

At least the murder mystery was genuinely that, a good mystery. I had completely forgotten who the killer was and was trying to piece together all the clues to work out who it was. Steve generates a good deal of momentum around this mystery and I was frantically turning pages in the last third to find out who it was. What a disappointment, I was expecting something a lot cleverer than that. Still it worked in context of the story so I shouldn't moan.

The one thing the book lacked most was humour. His later work (and pretty similar in all things puzzling) The Crooked World managed to juggle a clever plot and some great belly laughs but while I was constantly fascinated by this book's complexity and twists I didn't get much giggles from it. And when dealing with a super hero and villain straight out of comic books and a group of children called The Adventure Kids I would have thought laughs would have been plentiful.

Still I won't complain because Steve's prose was wonderful, very confident for a first time novelist and the book flows extremely well. Indeed there were points where I had to put the book down but complained when I had to do so. I was very involved with the story but never confused, his lightness of touch with his writing means the complicated storyline never gets bogged down with ridiculously long explanations.

An enjoyable book at the time, following The Left Handed Hummingbird it proved the range had not lost its marbles (alas No Future was to follow but we're on pretty good territory after that!), and stands up well to another read thanks to Steve's clever ideas and ingenious storytelling.


A Review by Brian May 3/5/10

Conundrum is one of the very few Doctor Who novels, from any range, that I can read over and over again. My latest was about the fourth time, and even after so many visits it doesn't disappoint, nor has the atmosphere diminished.

It's one of the first Who meta-novels and it's one of the best. The fiction of fiction is deconstructed in a variety of smart and amusing ways. The toying with narrative, the presence of the Writer, the self-awareness of Who staples like minor characters, chapter-ending cliffhangers, continuity errors and deus ex machina resolutions all make for cluey writing and enjoyable reading. Like all Virgin novelists, Steve Lyons wears his gushing fannishness on his sleeve, but unlike a good many others he communicates his postmodern knowledge and personal indulgences with a good deal of wit. Of course, there are a few examples when he does go overboard; we could have done without the Gods of Ragnarok and the ersatz Daleks, along with the Nightshade and Professor X cross-referencing, while the list of novels on p.247 is definitely one meta-step too far. However this very same section features some poignant self-reflections (and self-criticism?) on one of the New Adventures' most despised facets of the time, New Ace. There are also some good in-jokes along the way; the "real McCoy" line is great, better than the original televised instance (Dragonfire), the presence of John and Gillian is bizarrely appropriate, and who wouldn't want to watch The Mind Robber a hundred times? (Indeed, we all probably have!)

Depending on how many times you've read it, i.e. how up to speed you are as to what's really going on, the prevalent sinister mood and tension are always there. The first clue this is the Land of Fiction is on page 1, with many more scattered throughout. Come denouement time at the end of chapter 10 you may have worked it out already, you might be unsure but suspicious, or you could be completely nonplussed; whichever, it's still a startling revelation. The Doctor directly addressing the Writer for the first time (p.180) is another great shock moment. The book is one of the many sequels published during the non-television years - and frankly some should never have been commissioned - but Conundrum is a rare exception. The Mind Robber is one of the best Doctor Who stories ever (and not just in my opinion, read the other reviews for it on this site; not a single negative one!) and the idea of a sequel would normally have fanboys like myself cringing, but thankfully this effort is wonderful. The very nature of fiction, and therefore the Land, means the tricks and conceits of such a story work better in print. The battle between the Doctor and the Master in chapter 15 may be re-hashed from the television serial, but reading the to-ing and fro-ing as each party vies for control is very satisfying, more so than watching it. The "jump-cut" from the end of chapter 14 to the beginning of 15, and the Doctor examining the printer and what he reads (pp.209-210) can only work on the written page.

For such a story, it's tempting to flesh out the minor stories and incidental characters as little as possible. After all, the latter are cliches and cardboard cutouts because they're supposed to be, yet Lyons still makes the effort to inject them with a nice semblance of humanity, or at the very least some basic realism. Norman Power is the best example, which makes Benny's reaction to his "death" so good. The individual stories and sub-plots are all quite fun reading, independent of the larger Land of Fiction plot. Naturally they're all absorbed into the wider narrative in due time, but Lyons avoids the temptation to leave loose ends untied; he ensures the murder mystery is solved.

The Doctor is captured well, with all the quiet brooding that befits him during this era, and the Time Lord's ability to shield his thoughts is the Writer's excuse for not getting inside his head. Ace and Bernice are similarly authentic in character, especially so their internal musings. (I know the Writer has access to these, but should he have been allowed to do so? Perhaps it's just something Lyons couldn't avoid.) The relations between the TARDIS crew are at their all-time nadir, which is good for dramatic impetus and the surrounding continuity, i.e. the Alternate History Cycle, which Conundrum fits into with great ease. In the previous two stories, The Dimension Riders and The Left-Handed Hummingbird, good though they both are (especially the latter), there's the feel that the story arc is awkwardly inserted. Here, readers are given their first true clue as to who or what is being held prisoner in the orb, once again on the first page; Ace's dreams of the woman in the red dress and the closed door in the TARDIS pique the interest; and there's a good lead-in to the next book, in which a final confrontation is precipitated. A pity it turned out to be No Future, but that's another story...

Conundrum is a great sequel to a highly regarded television adventure. It doesn't disgrace its source material at all, but in fact enhances it. It's clever, entertaining and has aged well. 8.5/10