THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC Books
The Face-Eater

Author Simon Messingham Cover image
ISBN 0 563 55569 6
Published 1999

Synopsis: The Doctor and Sam arrive on Proxima II to discover that the natives are being killed in horrific ways. Are the rumours of the sinister Face-Eater from proximan mythology really true?


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 24/1/99

I didn't expect much from The Face-Eater. All reports I'd heard suggested that this was another formulaic runaround of which we've seen far too many in the 8DAs. However, I am pleased to report that everyone is wrong.

Simon Messingham has already proved in Strange England and Zeta Major that he's an intelligent writer with far more sophistication than some people give him credit for. Viewed as simplistic action-adventure, The Face-Eater is a let-down.

That's because it's not action-adventure. It's a horror novel.

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King talks about the four Tarot cards into which almost all horror monsters can be classified -- the Werewolf, the Vampire, the Ghost and the Thing Without a Name. The Face-Eater fits so beautifully with the Vampire that one starts to wonder whether Simon Messingham is deliberately trying to give that oldest of monsters his own Who spin. On reflection, I think he is. The list of similarities is just too glaring to be a coincidence -- blood-drinking, bat-like, light-fearing...

Here, I feel The Face-Eater is a deliberate attempt to play with Stephen King's Vampire Tarot card without actually using the V-word. What really reinforces my belief that this is a horror novel is the final sequence, where Simon Messingham steps up a gear and starts moving into Lovecraftian horror territory. He doesn't drop silly names, but for a while we enter HPL's universe of unmentionable monstrosities. Sadly there has to be an SF explanation (and, still worse, a Doctor Who resolution) but make no mistake. Simon Messingham is playing with horror, its monsters and its conventions.

What about the Doctor and Sam?

The Doctor is okay. Sam... oh, what's the use? I just can't summon up the energy any more.

Next month sees the arrival of Fitz, followed a few books later by the departure of Sam. I won't be sorry, and I rather think Simon Messingham won't be either. When she's at her best, Ms Jones is a strong but tortured young woman in whom one can believe utterly. Here she isn't even that. She comes out all right in the end, but when one notes that this version of Sam hates James Bond movies because he's a cryptocapitalist male chauvinist pig...

She gets the wrong end of the stick. She's gratuitously offensive to complete strangers. She screws things up. Somehow one doesn't mind, however, because this isn't a real person any more. It's almost a Sam Jones pastiche. I don't hate her, but I'm afraid her character is coming across as very, very tired.

To sum up, this is another very different direction for Simon Messingham. It's less ambitious than his two previous books, though arguably more focused. It shares certain characteristics with the formulaic 8DAs (small cast, basic plotting) and only the genre twist really saves it. If horror doesn't interest you, then you'll probably find this to be a disappointment.

I, however, think it's an interesting and quite cleverly written horror novel that for once doesn't rely on buckets of blood.


Nice Setting, Shame about the Story by Robert Smith? 3/5/99

I'll admit right away that I'm not a big fan of the horror story. I can enjoy a good creeping horror along with the best of them, but in my opinion horror stories are often an excuse for poor writing and a collection of 'shock' set pieces that substitute for an actual story. So The Face-Eater isn't really my cup of tea.

Which is a bit of a pity, because I can appreciate a lot of the work that went into the scene-setting and characterisation. Messingham's always had a bit of a problem with characters in his novels, which he manages to make up for with the opening chapters here. I don't think he's quite got it right, but he's certainly put in effort to flesh out the population of his novel.

Ben Fuller and Helen Percival in particular benefit from this, although I have to say that I found Percival a little too much of a cliche. We've seen this type of character so many times before that I'm now at the point where I'd like a bit of subtlety or subtext to her. Leary works well, mainly because we hear so much about him. In fact, I think he works far better as a character when we don't see him. I think I might have enjoyed the book a lot more if he'd been kept as a sort of legendary figure who never appeared.

I mention the characterisation right off, because this sort of book really needs it done well to pull off its effect. Unfortunately, while the main characters are well enough developed, the minor ones didn't grab me at all. And this doesn't make for particularly exciting reading when some minor characters I have no emotional investment in are killed mysteriously.

I think the title damages this book as well. I much prefer "Terra Firma" (the original title of the book) to "The Face-Eater". Partly because there isn't actually much face-eating going on (despite what the back of the book says) and also because the setting is so well portrayed that the book could have led with this and let the horror actually creep up on the reader. As it is, I'm already expecting some sort of horrible face-eating monster so it isn't that surprising when such a thing turns up.

I'm still not really sure what the deal was with the monster. It doesn't actually eat faces (it seems to be the rock in the cave that does that) and it can only attack you when you trust it and it's dark. Also, it seems to only be able to assume the form of people it has killed... except that it manages to assume the form of the husband and child of one of its victims. I thought for sure that this was a clue that the creature had been brought with them from Earth... but it wasn't. Maybe I missed something about its definition, but it seems that the monster kept being re-defined and its powers changing on the author's whim. It's like calling up generic horror monster number 37, with a built in motivation-free card, so it can do whatever the author wants it to.

The setting of Proxima City (and the surrounding areas) is really well done. There's a definite sense of isolation (which makes it even stranger that the Doctor and Sam's appearance isn't really questioned beyond a few token attempts) and a real feeling of a struggling culture trying to get a foothold on an alien world.

It's a pity that the book doesn't stick with the character-led format of the first third of the book. I think it could really have sustained such a thing and been a far better novel. Unfortunately, the remainder of the book wants to be a television episode of creeping horror. The problem with this is very simple: lighting.

That is, television has a real benefit in its favour when approaching these sorts of things. The medium allows careful direction and lighting and mood music to set the scene. Watching a Hinchcliffe story with the lights turned off can send real shivers down the spine. Reading a Terrance Dicks novelisation of the same story on the bus doesn't quite have the same effect.

I'm not saying it's impossible to write a good Doctor Who horror story in novel form - clearly it isn't, because it's been done before (Falls the Shadow, for example). I think it's worth bearing in mind, however, that the rules have changed and you really can't write it as you would a TV story. If The Face-Eater had been a proper novel, I think it could have really worked. Unfortunately, it relies too heavy on the creeping menace idea and little else.

The Doctor comes across all right here, for the most part. I really liked the idea that he'd been substituted, although it's a little difficult to tell. He does something that should be very unDoctorish (which is supposed to be a clue), but it really doesn't seem that different to other actions of the eighth Doctor we've seen. That's not really Messingham's fault, however. On the whole he's a bit bland and seems to totally miss the idea that there might even be a possibility for Percival to pose a threat at the end. This is a bit of a shame: I'd have preferred it if he'd thought about it, but knew he didn't have time to deal with it and sent Sam along. Not much would really have changed, except the feeling that this Doctor not only can't deal with more than one problem at once, he can't even consider such a thing a possibility. Oh, and I don't care how much realism these books want to strive for, I do not want to know about the Doctor needing to go to the bathroom. Thank you.

Sam is pretty much as usual here. She gets a love interest who gets killed off, she angsts a lot and she gets to say "Go on then. Show me what a man you are" to a slobbering monster (okay, so he looks like a man at this point, but they both know he isn't). Fun for the whole family.

I'm in two minds about the nanites, however. On the one hand I'm glad that there was some sort of follow-up to Beltempest. That's good. On the other hand, I'm not very impressed by the follow-up we got. At the beginning of the book, Sam is immortal, just as she was in Beltempest. She can be harmed but never, ever killed. And then, um, she isn't. The nanites just leave her body for no reason whatsoever. Excuse me? There's no line about the Doctor giving her some magical medicine, or the TARDIS healing her or anything. They just go. Well, there goes the entire premise to Beltempest then. Sorry Eldred Saketh, I know the author said you were immortal, but he didn't really mean it. In the movie of Sam's life, she's going to be played by John Cleese: "He turned me into an immortal! Oh, I got better..."

If the books are really going to spend time undoing the events of the previous novel, I'd much rather they did so with a modicum of respect for what has gone before. Having the Doctor curing her at the beginning of the novel through Higher Technology [TM] would have been far preferable and not undone any power of the previous book.

Anyway, that's The Face-Eater all over. It starts of well and thoughtfully and seems to go downhill after the author stops caring about characterisation. A wonderful setting can't really make up for the lack of horror or a ill-defined monster. If you're a horror fan, you might enjoy this a lot more than I did. I didn't hate it, but it didn't really engage me either. Oh well.


A Review by Graeme Burk 23/8/99

This book was a rarity among Who books -- a book so entertaining that I actually continued to read it (and finish it) after the commute home from work when I do most of my reading. The writing is throroughly engaging -- particularly the first 2/3 where every chapter was from the point of view of one specific character. It's a great Who-y horror story, full of well developed characters (Helen Percival particularly), good Sam moments (which is a pretty amazing feat in and of itself) and a well-developed setting. I know others have faulted the plotting, but not me. I thought it was solidly done, and the twists were good. This for me is how I like Doctor Who fiction -- reconstructive, rather than deconstructive; emphasising the strengths of the format -- and playing with it -- rather than decrying the weaknesses; and best combining a "ooo, wouldn't that be great on the telly" sense with, "fuck that was damn good novel writing" 10/10


The Page-Turner by Andrew McCaffrey 12/7/01

The Face-Eater is not terribly original or innovative and does not take the reader anywhere that Doctor Who hasn't (metaphorically) gone before. It doesn't blaze any new trails like Alien Bodies, it doesn't redefine a companion like Seeing I, nor does it push the envelope towards a beautiful breaking-point in the way that The Scarlet Empress did. It is, however, mesmerizing and spellbinding, and I sped through this in about half the time it usually takes me to read a BBC Doctor Who book because I simply couldn't put the book down.

The plot skips along quickly and isn't overly complicated while not being totally straightforward either. This is actually used to great effect by Simon Messingham. When the action slows down, interesting character development takes place as well as some fascinating reflections on the setting. In case you didn't know, this book is set on the planet that is the home to the first Earth colony outside the solar system. There are some excellent passages concerning how isolated these people are, how much they sacrificed to come this far and just what exactly is at stake in this situation.

The Doctor is relegated to the sidelines through most of the story, though for the small amount of time that he is present he has some appropriate lines and great scenes. There are some good moments for him here, the best being when he is tied to a chair and literally spends hours trying to convince his captor that he isn't a shape-shifter. The premise is simple enough, but the scene is wonderfully written and shows that Messingham really has the hang of this Doctor in a way that very few other EDA authors have demonstrated.

Sam, on the other hand, for the first portion of the book, is at her most annoying - worse than she's ever been. She whines, she moans and she complains. She's mean and she's witlessly sarcastic to people who she has no reason to be mean and witlessly sarcastic to. In short, it's everything we've come to know and loathe about her since she joined the Doctor. Fortunately, she tones it down in the middle and end of the book so that she actually becomes somewhat tolerable. I suspect that Messingham wanted to make her over-the-top in her assertiveness to compensate for the events of the previous book but was forced by reason of her love interest in this story to mellow her out a little. It would be far beyond the realms of possibility to believe that anyone could gain an admirer if he or she was continually carrying on in the manner Sam was at the start of this book.

Fortunately, what saves the opening of the book from being a complete Sam-infested failure is the great mystery that Messingham has set up. There's a suspected psychopath on the loose and people are mysteriously being killed. They're all fairly standard Doctor Who elements, but the execution is so superb that it all feels very fresh and new.

One of the highlights for me was watching the commander of the colony going slowly insane as the story progresses. From the very start she's nervous and unsure of her command. There is a conspiracy, she is convinced, that is intent on usurping her authority and destroying the civilization that she has worked so hard to build. Her paranoia gains more control of her mind and eventually she is reduced to setting up trip wires around her office with pieces of string tied around containers of pens in an attempt to find a fictitious intruder (who she imagines is a disgruntled worker out to sabotage her colony and can be identified by wearing, appropriately, a red arm band). The slow progression from slightly neurotic leader to full-blown lunatic is well handled and intriguing. Excellent, well-written stuff.

This is definitely a good book and comes highly recommended despite the painful Sam moments at the beginning. It's not earth-shattering or groundbreaking, but it accomplishes what it set out to do and that is to tell a wildly entertaining story.


Creepy Fun by Sean Twist 4/10/02

"Leary had gone to work with the fireaxe."

With a line like that, how can any novel go wrong?

After the sadistic bloodfest that was Beltempest, The Face Eater came as a wonderful surprise. I hadn't been moved to shout with glee from the rooftops after reading Simon Messingham's previous Strange England (back in the halcyon Virgin New Adventure days, for you all kiddies out there), so approached this novel with the grim determination one usually gets after reading Jim Mortimore. So when this book suddenly appeared to be a much needed breath of fresh air, I was merrily surprised. I even considered climbing onto my roof, but I don't trust the television aerial.

The Face Eater is a captivating horror story that really deserves to be onscreen. Somewhere. Hopefully with popcorn. The Face Eater is essentially a science fiction story of the 'Haunted Planet' mythos, but soon begins to shift into something darker. Messingham skillfully creates a global threat that works by feeding on people's innermost fears. Nice bit of inversion there. It gives the horror a far more personal feel, while still maintaining the wonderful ludicrousness of a monster called a 'Face Eater'. I mean, how wonderful is that?

Messingham takes a very well aimed shots at politicians in this book, and good for him. Helen Percival seems to be a very roughly hidden caricature of old Iron Maggie Thatcher, and is bathed with the appropriate authorial acid.

As for the Doctor and Sam, they remain a joy in this book. Maybe it was just the need to drink myself blind after reading Beltempest, but seeing the TARDIS crew actually enjoying one another and worrying what the other is up to was a balm. It could be argued that the Sam who was ready to drop the Doctor like a bad habit in Beltempest seems to have disappeared here, but I'm not complaining.

As for Sam herself, Messingham makes reference to the events in Beltempest that rather changed our sweet Shoreditch girl without letting it swamp his own story. It was nice to see this amount of continuity between the novels again, without them seeming to occur in a vacuum. I like continuity. It makes my life feel worthwhile, somehow.

The book is filled with nice, wonderful Who bits, many so clever I won't ruin them here. There are nods to previous television serials, namely The Enemy of The World and Meglos -- which doesn't really ruin everything for the new reader, since Messingham assumes you'll figure a few things out on your own.

Is it gory? Oh yes. Is it disturbing? Yes again. There a few nice bits of horror here that may offend some, but I prefer my Who a little creepy.

And this is what The Face Eater is. Creepy fun.


A Review by Brett Walther 9/6/03

The first half of Simon Messingham's The Face-Eater, under the banner of the "Identity Parade", is by far the better. Each chapter focuses on a different colonist, allowing minor characters their moment in the spotlight, and an opportunity to become somewhat more than your average cardboard supporting character. It also gives the plight of the Earth colonists on the first settlement outside of the solar system much more impact, as although the book is set over a hundred years in the future, the characters aren't too dissimilar from people of our time.

The second half, however, is a supreme disappointment.

The greatest problem with this novel is the titular creature. What's the point of the Doctor going on about how this is "the most powerful enemy he's ever encountered", if the Face Eater is so easily dispatched? All it takes is for the Doctor to talk sternly to this all-powerful and ancient creature, and it... destroys itself? And apart from being referred to as all-powerful and ancient, what exactly IS this Face Eater? It must surely go down as one of the most poorly defined villains encountered by the Eighth Doctor. For some reason, it's part-machine, part-organic, AND shape-shifting AND vampiric AND a gestalt entity... It's like Messingham has thrown some random "monster traits" into a blender and thrown it on liquefy. We get no real impression of the creature at all, and for what sets out to be a good ol' monster story, this is a real let-down.

Similarly, the civilization of the native Proximans is criminally underexploited. What kind of society would create such a thing as the Face Eater in the first place? What circumstances brought about the Face Eater's decision to transform from a happy gestalt entity to a blood sucking bat, anyways?

Sam-haters will get their fix from The Face-Eater, however. Messingham seems to share readers' sentiment concerning this character, as he subjects Sam to being burned alive, viciously attacked by shape-shifters, and involved in a car accident that leaves her with a broken nose. (Before you get too excited, though, keep in mind that the medical resources of the 22nd century allow her to heal all too quickly...)

Helen Percival, the director of the colony -- and chief humanoid baddie, inevitably brings up images of Anne Robinson of "Weakest Link" fame. She's got the short cropped red hair, business suit and bad attitude, at any rate. All that's missing is the tacky set. Although she's given several opportunities to redeem herself throughout the book, she fails every time and becomes a prime candidate for the attentions of the Face Eater.

However, her fate is left up in the air, which is seriously frustrating. We leave her storyline just as she's trying to drum up support for her bid to reclaim control of the colony.

In fact, the fate of the whole colony, which is established as highly historically significant (as the first-ever human settlement outside of the solar system) is left uncertain. The Doctor leaves the colonists without a leader, without a purpose (the city they've been building has been left in ruins), and in a state of utter chaos. Instead of resolving the colony's volatile situation, we have a cheesy "feel good" ending in which the Doctor and Sam walk arm in arm back to the TARDIS. This is a cop-out, and is unforgivable.

A wasted opportunity.

5/10


Editor required! by Joe Ford 24/10/05

Did these early EDAs pass through an editor? Or were they rush written and sent straight to the printers? I don't want to add to that fabulous list of Stephen Cole bashers (founder members Finn Clark and Matthew Link... join now and you receive a WE HATE COLEY badge and filofax!) and just criticize the guy for the hell of it (okay maybe they have a point about some of his books on occasion...) but whilst I was perusing through the pages of The Face-Eater I couldn't help but think that the editor must have had some other things on his mind whilst he was tweaking this into a book worthy of the shelf.

It's just not very good, is it? You can almost understand why so many people were getting fucked off with the EDAs at the time and why the range never really caught fire like some of the others. Wading through its 280 pages is blandness personified; it's the colour beige in literary form. In fact it could well be the beigest Doctor Who book I have ever read.

Let's start with the characters, who are the only thing this book comes into any praise for. The Face-Eater is set on the first human colony on another planet during humanity's first big push into outer space. You would think to make this sort of monumental task work the colonists would be put through some sort of psyche test? These guys are all complete nutballs! The leader, Percival, is totally domineering, paranoid to the point of obsession and under the impression that everybody is out to screw up her command. She cares more about her reputation than the people she is supposed to protect! DeWinter is a complete psychotic who is waiting on the order to instil some discipline in the colony and charges in killing people at his leisure when he gets the opportunity. Ben Fuller has serious authority issues and openly defies Percival's orders because he can. Rupinder is a nervous wreck and mistrustful of everybody except those she has a crush on. Are these really the sort of people you want in charge of five thousand people?

The Doctor barely makes an impression at all. Just what is so hard about capturing the eighth Doctor in print? As soon as Justin Richards takes over the editorship of the books the eighth Doctor would be consistently fascinating right up until The Gallifrey Chronicles, so why do so many of these early EDAs fail to generate anything approaching a character for this guy? There are a few moments when we are reminded that this is the eighth Doctor; his fear of imprisonment (Seeing I), his need to keep hold of his identity (The Scarlet Empress) and his chattiness, but on the whole he doesn't exhibit much individuality. In all honestly he hardly read like the Doctor at all, his character merged with all the others in this book into one bland ensemble...

Sam on the other hand was very memorable. Mostly because I wanted to slit her throat throughout. This surely has to be the most irritating interpretation of her character in any book. She is rude, dismissive and patronising (especially when she deliberately winds up Percival for no reason at all). She thinks of herself as an anarcho-eco warrior (kill kill kill...). She is pleased to note that the spray can she is using to cause destruction is non CFC (die die die...). Oh and she thinks James Bond is cryptocapitalist male chauvinist pig (did I mention I wanted her to die? A shame she could not turn up in Trading Futures!). I have a feeling we are supposed to like Sam because she gets the hots for Fuller but her cute chemistry with him is not enough to make up for how brash and horrid she acts towards everyone else. Never mind the original characters, with regulars this boring/tedious why the hell would anybody want to hang around in the world of the EDAs? New worst Sam line: "If we're going to work together I don't need this 'mean, moody and male' crap!"

The book is so obviously a learning curve it hurts. Quality-wise it is wedged firmly between Strange England (Messingham's appalling debut NA novel) and The Tomb of Valdemar (his superb season sixteen chiller) with the author having learnt a few lessons from his earlier stinker but not enough to make a huge difference. This was the book where he realised what worked and what doesn't and much of this does not work. The lack of plot is astonishing; the book seemed to consist of long stretches of nothing happening with the occasional exciting bit thrown in as an afterthought. Worse, during these stages of nothing the characters stand around and think about what isn't happening... 70% of this novel consists of the colonists wondering what's going on and when it will be resolved.

And what is up with that setting? Mankind's first big push into space? Horrible monsters on the first planet they settle on? Surely this should be a dangerous, inhospitable environment, full of scary sights and inexplicable horrors. Instead we get a city that is so normal it might as well be Earth (I realise this is supposed to be Earth II but a little variation would be nice) and some mountains and a lake. Terry Nation would be spitting blood at the lack of danger in this setting! Look at Skaro with its lake of mutations or Desperus with its horrid Varga plants... Proxima II is known far and wide for its... Quartz Lake. Not exactly threatening is it?

So with a pair of regulars who are sucking life out of the book, a setting so insipid you cannot tell it is an alien world and characters that are so cliched you don't give a toss about them there must be something that kept me going...?

Well yeah, there were a few nice twists and turns in there. The character chapters are a nice idea devoting one chapter at the beginning to each of the main characters. Scenes from the killer's POV are excellent and the book could do with more of this sort of innovation. The Doctor is attacked by the Face Eater and has his identity sucked away (nasty). The later twist that the guy who has been wandering around for forty odd pages calling himself the Doctor is in fact the monster of the book is obvious in retrospect, but quite a shocker at the time. Even Fuller's death is surprising, because he was one of the few characters worth caring about. The best moment in the entire book, however, is when Percival tricks Sam and Leary into facing the population of Proxima II and then turns them into an angry mob and sets them on the pair! Hilarious! A pity she didn't succeed.

Messingham's writing style is all over the place. He has never been a very disciplined author, he likes shifting narratives from scene to scene but it feels more obvious here than in any of his other books. Occasionally he is writing the book as though he is chatting to an old friend, extremely informal and almost gossipy and occasionally he wants it to sound like a professional thriller, with snippets from secret documents and heavy description of action taking place. The occasional first person narration creeps in but it lacks lacks the humour of his other books these scenes wind up sounding a bit pretentious. With a stronger editor these niggles could be ironed out.

The Face-Eater's biggest problem though is that is doesn't have any scares. Not one. This is a book with the oldest premise in the book - the killer is amongst us - and it fails to do anything exciting with it at all. There is a big scary monster within its pages that wants to suck off your face (not like that) and wear it for its own use and instead of coming across as a terrifying invasion of privacy it feels like just another alien with a special power. What a waste. If there was ever a bunch of people who needed their personalities stripped clean so they could try again, it's the inhabitants of Proxima II.

Interminably boring and refusing to take any risks, this is a real drag to finish. See also Fear Itself for more terrors that await in outer space. In fact give this a miss and JUST read Fear Itself, it is an infinitely superior book.