THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

All-Consuming Fire
Virgin Publishing
Evolution

Author John Peel Cover taken from the excellent Doctor Who books home page
ISBN# 0 426 20422 0
Published 1994
Continuity Between The Brain of Morbius and
The Seeds of Doom

Synopsis: The Doctor takes Sarah Jane to meet one of her heroes, Rudyard Kipling. But when the TARDIS materializes, they discover a series of deadly experiments are being carried out to interfere with human evolution.


Reviews

John Peel Should Stick to Daleks by Tammy Potash 29/6/00

Evolution has a very nice cover, especially the rendering of Sarah. Unfortunately that may be the best thing about this book.

The Doctor is not written properly. On at least three occasions he sounded more like C. Baker than T. Baker, with the mannerisms to match! And he's constantly eating! His propensity for alcohol is also way out of charcater; Third Doctor, maybe? Peel's obviously up on things that happened to the 4th Doctor (Sarah dwells on them a little too often for my taste), but he hasn't a clue as to how he acts/talks.

Sarah's better, but some of the slang that comes out of her mouth sounds positively American... hmmm. Perhaps this was origianlly meant to be an MA featuring the 6th Doctor and Peri?

The first four pages with the Doctor and Sarah could have been omitted altogether. The scene should start with the Doctor asking Sarah where/when she wants to go, not lead up to that point (boringly).

Meeting Conan Doyle is fine, but the whole teenage Rudyard Kipling bit is both a dumb idea and a dull one. Doyle is portrayed well, though I know nothing of the man's charcter historically. All the original characters are written fairly well, but it seems to take forever to get things really rolling. It's obvious Peel's read his share of Sherlock Holmes, and delights in dragging in references to it, including an air rifle. Maybe that's why the pacing is so slow; it's written sort of as a Holmes pastiche?

What does that leave? Oh yes, the plot. Evil factory owner and friend create genetically-altered slaves for fun and profit. The Doctor puts a stop to it. Doyle gets lots of ideas for his writing. So does Kipling. That's it. This could probably have been made into an episode at the time, but I'm kinda glad it wasn't. For completists only.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 25/9/00

The second MA from perhaps notoriously the good and bad John Peel brings us Evolution, a pseudo-historical.

PLOT: Basically The Doctor and Sarah meet a young Rudyard Kipling and uncover experiments involving both children and animals. The biggest problem with the plot is the pace; everything happens too slowly, and being a mystery it needs to keep moving.

THE DOCTOR: Inconsistent. He all too frequently calls his companion Sarah Jane, something more akin to the Third Doctor, and his threats of violence seem out of place altogether.

COMPANION: When she is written well, and it is more consistently than The Doctor, then it sounds like Elisabeth Sladen is speaking the lines as it should do.

OTHERS: Colonel Ross stands out, although this is more because of the fact that he manages to bring out real anger in The Doctor, complete with threats of violence. Breckenbridge is also noteworthy; his use of child slave labour obviously earmarks him as the villain of the novel and his motivations are interesting.

OVERALL: A more ambitious plot would have helped as would stronger characterisation. It's nothing special though. 4/10.


The Fourth Doctor's Finest Moment In Print by Robert Thomas 23/10/00

From the title you can probably guess that I do not agree with the previous reviews. As far as I am concerned this book is top notch, a 10 out of 10, great and whatever similar terms you can think of.

First let s start with The Doctor, this book is set in the part of the series where Tom Baker was at his most moody. Peel has recreated this aspect perfectly. His condemnation of certain characters in this book is in line with previous characterisation.

Sarah is also on top form in here. Her verbal sparing with The Doctor is as good as ever. Her interplay with the characters of this book is marvellous and I wish other authors would take note.

The story is not to complicated and it is easy to guess who the villain is. Which makes it more interesting. The plot involves the genetic creation of dogs and mermaids, this is seen on the cover and blurb so is not a spoiler.

The inclusion of Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling is inspired. The idea that The Doctor is the inspiration for his moody irritable creations is great. The aspect of Kipling as a boy adds comedy to a serious story which is well needed.

Colonel Ross and Abercrombie are the best characters of this book and one of the better double acts of the book. Indeed the actions of Ross and his reasoning is also inspirational. I do hope they return some day.

The outcome though is excellent the scene at the end of the book with Sarah and the mermaids is priceless. The perfect outcome to a perfect book.


A Review by Finn Clark 12/5/04

I used to think this was John Peel's best book. Unfortunately it's an irritating load of old cobblers... but it may be Peel's best book anyway. To say for sure I'd have to reread Timewyrm: Genesys and right now I'm not feeling that brave.

There are good points here, but also enough bad ones to put it on a par with having itching powder poured down your neck. It's juvenile and smutty, immediately dressing Sarah in a revealing swimsuit and thereafter wasting no opportunity to snigger and nudge you in the ribs. It uses continuity like a bludgeon. Its characterisation of the 4th Doctor and Sarah is bad enough to make you swear at the pages. And believe it or not, it's almost as fanwanky as his two Dalek 8DAs.

Okay, it's not Who-related fanwank... well, except for showing us how the Doctor acquired his Talons of Weng-Chiang costume. Thank goodness for John Peel, eh? I'd been lying awake at nights for years worrying about that. No, the real fanwank involves Arthur Conan Doyle, who must have written some of the world's best-loved adventure stories because he was inspired by appearing in a John Peel potboiler. As a character, Conan Doyle himself is okay. The annoying bit is seeing an already poor 4th Doctor doing limp turns as Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger for the sake of Conan Doyle fanwank. Peel even swipes the great detective's most famous lines for the Doctor's dialogue.

A hasty footnote on p260 acknowledges All-Consuming Fire, which three months previously had cut-and-pasted Sherlock Holmes into the Whoniverse, but you can almost hear John Peel's teeth grinding. (He also overlooks the fact that Challenger is as real in Andy Lane's novel as Holmes.) However despite all this, the Doctor still manages to seem better characterised than Sarah Jane Smith. That's right, even when saying of a bad guy, "I'll take delight in beating the replies out of him." [That's on p134, in case you don't believe that even John Peel could write dialogue for the Doctor as bad as that.]

The incidental characters are better than in Peel's 8DAs, which isn't difficult. The villains are strong; I particularly liked Ross and Abercrombie. However the portrayal of Victorian England is heavy-handed and Rudyard Kipling and his chums are insufferable. Okay, they're meant to irritate. That they do. However I suspect our annoyance levels were meant to be approximately "ho ho what silly boys", not "this book is inducing a brain haemorrhage". If someone ever builds a time machine just to travel back to the 19th century and murder Rudyard Kipling before he became famous, we'll know it was because they read this book.

The underlying story is quite good. I was charmed by the mermaids and the villain's evil plan is interesting. However all these good points kept getting undermined by literary needles under my fingernails... hey, it's the Hound of the Baskervilles! On p120 the Doctor finds the bad guy's booby-trapped trunk and doesn't even try to peep inside! Does the phrase "insatiable curiosity" ring any bells? AAAGGH!

On one level, this is a perfectly decent story of genetic manipulation and scary monsters in 1880. I like historicals and this one makes a fair attempt at capturing the period. I even enjoyed quite a lot of it... but reading the rest was like the death of a thousand cuts. It's a million times better than War of the Daleks, though.


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 27/8/04

John Peel seems to do better as a writer when he's fleshing out other people's ideas rather than attempting to birth something original. I recall his Dalek novelisations as being quite good. In Timewyrm: Genesys the storyline and characterizations are moderate to poor, but the depiction of Mesopotamia and the Timewyrm creature (I assume the Timewyrm was an editorial dictate rather than a John Peel creation) are successes. His Dalek-based Eighth Doctor Adventures are wholly original novels featuring an underdeveloped, embryonic Doctor encumbered with a one-dimensional companion and storylines of John Peel's own creation. They are, of course, utter disasters of fiction.

So, how does Evolution stack up? The team of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah is previously well established, so one can hope that regurgitating enough old dialog to paint a reasonably accurate portrayal is within Peel's abilities. The novel uses the historical figures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling as secondary characters. Naturally, they aren't innovations, so that's encouraging.

I was prepared to cut Evolution a lot of slack. Since I wasn't in the mood for anything dense or heavy, I figured a John Peel action-adventure might be just what I was seeking. For a time, I was correct. Despite the book's many obvious flaws, I willingly gave it the benefit of the doubt. But, at the end of the day, there's only so much slack one can cut, and before I reached the conclusion my limit was reached. I crossed the boundary about thirty pages before Doyle blurts out, "This is all getting far too preposterous for me." By the time I got there, I felt his pain.

Getting down to basics, the characterization of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah is actually quite strong when the two of them are bantering together. Peel has clearly spent some time studying how Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen performed off each other. But problems occur when the two characters are separated. Who are these people? His Fourth Doctor and Sarah are reasonably apt at throwing tame insults at the other, but when did they start threatening their adversaries (and innocent bystanders) with all manner of physical abuse? It continues a trend I've noticed in other Peel novels. He seems to equate strong and/or forceful characteristics with physical brutality. Strong people push weak people around. Therefore, the Fourth Doctor isn't just a masterful detective and righter of wrongs; he states on numerous occasions that he "takes great delight" in beating up villains. Sarah Jane Smith isn't just a strong-willed person who speaks her mind; she demonstrates these attributes by threatening to scratch out someone's eyes. It's disconcerting to say the least.

I think one of the bigger flaws is that there is little of substance behind the book's actions. The author borrows a lot of the style of early science fiction and detective stories, but it seems like a cheap faade on a structure with no real foundation. War of the Worlds, to take an example, contains a surface of science fiction action-adventure. Yet on another level it also has much to say on the subject of British colonialism. The original Sherlock Holmes stories demonstrated the power of logic and reason. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein warned Mankind not to meddle in God's domain. You can argue the merits of these messages, but the important thing to note is that there were underlying themes holding the action together. Just what on Earth is Evolution saying? It has a plot concerning genetic manipulation and the alternation of natural evolution. But what is it saying about these issues? Nothing that I can see. What is gained by having the Doctor perform a Sherlock Holmes impersonation in front of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Apart from working in a bunch of Sherlock Holmes in-jokes, nothing. Why is a young Rudyard Kipling even in this novel? Any annoying teenager could be substituted with no real alterations.

Although this novel feels like a cobbled together bunch of disparate pieces placed together in hopes that the reader will find at least something to latch on to, you could almost accept it as pure mindless adventure, if only it wasn't quite so clumsy. It's full of annoying little things like Sarah spending valuable time trying to figure out who the book's villain is when the answer is obvious. Hint to Sarah: it's the only other character that it could possibly be! This is not a novel with multiple possible bad guys, where the protagonist must choose between suspects by careful application of logic and reason. This is a novel where there simply aren't enough characters around to attract suspicion. It's like if Hercule Poirot were trapped on the Orient Express with only one other passenger and still taking three hundred pages to figure out whodunit.

There are just too many instances of people doing things solely to drive the plot forward. It holds together competently on a quick read through, but flipping back I noticed plot threads I assumed would have been tied up by the end still were left dangling. Moral complexity and character exploration are not the book's strong features. Sarah takes a few paragraphs battling with the fiercely complex question of "Is Breckinridge a good guy... or a bad guy?" You'd imagine that she went to the Maxwell Smart School of Ethical Theory. One could read this as an undemanding book for children if it weren't for the bizarre (and unneeded) references to child molestation.

On page 62, one character laughingly states: "Well, every good story starts with 'Once upon a time...'". I couldn't help but flip back to the beginning to see if Evolution begins with that phrase. As I'm sure you've guessed, it doesn't. I've written mostly concerning the novel's flaws, but it's worth pointing out that I reasonably enjoyed reading much of it. But at a point, I simply couldn't ignore the problems anymore. Good pacing and reasonably entertaining action can't make up for a bookful of flaws.


A Review by Brian May 13/2/12

John Peel really wanted Evolution to be an homage to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era of Doctor Who, and also to his featured writers, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, hence the setting and themes. However, it fails to reach the lofty heights it aspires to. The plot is straightforward and traditionally simple, but this is the least of its problems.

The author has a tendency for fanwank, although I must admit that, upon re-reading, the use of the Rutan isn't all that bad; the alien's presence is fleeting and actually services the plot. The same cannot be said for the gimmicky use of the Doctor and Sarah's period costumes, taken from televised stories that both precede and follow this one. In fact, there's not much in this TARDIS crew that I like at all. They are terrible renditions: the odd "Oi" from Sarah gives her a slight verisimilitude, but overall she's incredibly out of character, particularly all the vulgarities she thinks and says; the low point is her threat to disfigure the barmaid Jen on p.94.

The fourth Doctor is one of the most difficult of the Time Lord's incarnations to transpose to print. This novel is the first official attempt, but despite this I can't summon up the generosity to cut the writer any slack; either you have a good grasp of your chosen Doctor or you haven't. And Peel certainly doesn't. As with Sarah, there are a few moments that ring true: when he smiles, or is being sombre or taciturn. But these are in the minority and we're mostly treated to the Doctor being uncharacteristically nasty, snapping away at nearly everybody. He's disposed to insults (p.46), sarcasm (p.157), threats of physical violence (pp.134, 231), and his speech to Doyle at the bottom of p.149, which Peel so wants to be a "dialogue triumph", is cruel and unfair to the poor young doctor. On top of all this, he sings! (p.186) I'm not sure if this was inspired by his recitation of poetry in Horror of Fang Rock, but liberties can be taken too far. (The author did the same with Ace in Timewyrm: Genesys; I'm still not sure which one's the worst!) It's indicated the Doctor is acting like he is after the events of The Brain of Morbius, although in truth it's more like his behaviour in the upcoming Seeds of Doom, in which he did indeed snap at people and was indeed violent, but that story is a different kettle of fish: it's a situation getting worse by the second, accentuated by the presence of Tom Baker himself, who made his character's idiosyncrasies believable due to the sheer versatility of his performance. Without the actor on hand, Peel's rendition is very wanting.

What about the other characters? Well, not much there either. Everyone's a walking, talking Victorian cliche. Alice, the timid, ready-to-faint china doll and most unlikely future-feminist ever; the tall, strapping, handsome aristocrats; crooked, shifty thieves; local yokels; urchin street kids. All present and correct. All personality-deficient and lifeless. The inclusion of two historical figures clutters things even more and it's unfortunate that neither are very good. The old chestnut of famous writers being inspired by their adventures with the Doctor makes another tired appearance and can be seen coming from miles away. Even the final confrontation and threat of altered history fail to grip. The intended atmosphere just isn't there.

The standard of writing is average, at best. By all means it's competent - I re-read it in just a few days (although I was on holiday so I had more time to devote to it) - but there's lots of Peel's tendency for repetition: we're told Sarah likes Alice twice on the one page (p.58); the use of the word "ground(s)" on p.98. But even if the prose was better than this, Evolution as it stands is still merely the sum of its parts, and not very interesting parts at that. 2.5/10