Terror of the Autons
The Dark Path
|Author||David A. McIntee|
|ISBN#||0 426 20421 2|
|Synopsis: It's the dawn of the space age, 1957, the good old US of A in the midst of the Cold War. But a particular army base has far more universal concerns, as an invading fleet has targetted Earth for conquest. But more is going on behind the scenes than even the Doctor is prepared for...|
The Ultimate B-Movie by Tammy Potash 20/8/00
I may be one of the few non-McIntee-haters. I don't see his writing as excessively adjective-laden, but then again I read Lovecraft. White Darkness and The Dark Path are extraordinarily good books. First Frontier isn't as good, but it's not Sanctuary, either. Just think of it as the ultimate 50's American SF movie, and you'll have fun. The in-jokes begin on page one, with the Nykortny base. This comes from Ian Marter's Target novelisation of The Invasion, in which he named a Russian base after the Brigadier, Nicholas Courtney.
McIntee does a good job capturing the paranoia of the time and place. Other books and episodes set in the US fail to convey any sense of it being different from England. (The novel of the telemovie and said telemovie itself are a sad case in point. You can't tell it's San Francisco other than they said so.) This book is the second part of his trilogy starring an infamous enemy of the Doctor's. Said enemy is working with the Tzun (no spoiler; they're named on the back cover), McIntee's creation of a race to actually represent the Greys of UFO lore. He has a knack for creating sympathetic aliens, rather than thugs like the Sontarans or Ogrons. I wouldn't mind McIntee doing a book in which he chronicles the 4th Doctor's encounter with them, alluded to in this book.
The original characters are done just as well as the regulars, perhaps better. With that, a carefully-thought out plot, and more than a few jokes to make you smile (neat cover too), you can't go wrong tracking this down.
A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 25/2/03
I originally read First Frontier within a year or so of its initial release. At the time, I thought it was a fun adventure that skillfully brought an old villain back to life while telling a fun story. My recent reread was not quite the same pleasant experience. Already knowing the plot twists and surprise revelations, I simply found myself getting bored waiting for everyone to just get on with it. A really great book can be read many times with the lack of surprises not diminishing the overall experience one bit. But First Frontier is not such a book. With its initial thrills and shocks already known, it simply doesn't have enough else to make itself interesting to read.
The setting should have helped things a bit. It's a story told during the 1950's in the Southwestern US, where vague reports of unidentified flying objects have been rumored and whispered about to this very day. It would seem an ideal place for a good Doctor Who story, but the book never quite pulls all the potential out of this set-up. We meet a few of the local townspeople, who should be a colorful collection of down-to-earth folk, but their appearances are too scattered to liven up the narrative. We encounter the numerous shadowy military and government types who are obligatory in such UFO-centric stories. They occasionally shine, but more often than not are just dull. When most of the action switches to Washington, DC, there simply isn't enough time left to establish this new location. The result is that the new setting fails to stimulate the plot. The Washington, DC of First Frontier feels less like a living, breathing city, and more like a collection of map references.
McIntee's prose style is something that I simply cannot get used to. Individual sentences are constantly extended beyond rhyme or reason. They're kept on life support by protracted clauses and random punctuation, only to wither and die long past their sell-by date. I was forced to reread numerous sentences or paragraphs multiple times before I could decipher their meaning. There's very little that's plainly incorrect, but there's a lot that's just confusing or awkward. And it's not as if this is a stream-of-consciousness style of novel. It's just an action-adventure with prose that impedes the reader's progress rather than allowing him or her to speed through the journey. First Frontier is definitely not a book that benefits from having the reader take his time.
One of the things I found most distracting was McIntee's tendency to introduce potentially interesting characters, but then to remove them from the action almost immediately. Rather than letting the story gradually build up around its characters, the book is constantly leaping from location to location, each with it's own supporting cast. No one is given the opportunity to develop, resulting in characters that, while they can't truly be described as one-dimensional, never become more than embryonic.
But this book's biggest stumbling block is the lackluster plot that all the characters are slowly stumbling through. There's so little for the Doctor to do, that he disappears for long stretches of time and nothing changes during his absence. In other Doctor-light New Adventures, at least one could feel the Doctor's presence even when he wasn't on center-stage. Not so here. But at least this gives us the chance to see the companions shine, right? Well, sort of. Benny and Ace are certainly there, and they're occasionally well characterized, but they, like everyone else, have nothing much to do.
I will say something positive about the book though, and that is that I did like the alien race created here. The Tzun have obviously been thought through very carefully, as there is quite a lot of detail about their various factions, denominations and beliefs. I appreciate an author who puts time and energy into inventing a believable alien race instead of just making them humans in rubber suits. The only quibble I have on this part of First Frontier was the fact that most of the Tzuns' philosophies are saved to the end, rather than having them sprinkled throughout the text. Keeping everything back meant that they seemed to suddenly gain a dimension at the end instead of appearing multi-layered at all times. But, still, the effort was there, and I did appreciate that.
All in all, there are just too many pointless action sequences for me to care much about any of them. The fight sequences in First Frontier are those type that you can skip to the end, figure out which side won, and not have missed anything important. It's the typical sort of stuff. Guns blazing. Fists punching. Things exploding. Me yawning.
A Review by Finn Clark 3/5/04
SPOILERS... or, to be specific, the spoiler. There's a big twist in First Frontier which I couldn't avoid mentioning, so read no further if you don't want to know.
In 1994 I found this book boring. Ten years later I discovered things I liked about it, but I still couldn't really care about its characters or its story.
The characters are the biggest problem. First Frontier's humans are goons from the US army, being manipulated by everyone and played for chumps. They're stupid, unimaginative, rulebound and incapable of working out what's going on for themselves. They're losers. However unfortunately the non-humans, the Tzun, are also pretty tedious. Not only are they as straight-laced and unimaginative as the humans, but they're nearly as stupid. They have more technology, but they're dopes. This story is about losers being outwitted by losers, with both sides being played for chumps by the TARDIS crew and Major Kreer.
If you're looking for characters, there's Kreer and his assistant Stoker. That's about it, really. Nyby is sometimes allowed a personality and I quite liked Major Marion Davison (yes, Davison), but even Nyby is still a goon and Davison barely does anything but follow around the Doctor as a temporary companion. In fairness I suppose there wasn't much scope for making this a character-based piece, since the humans are clueless and the Tzun are nominally bad guys.
However worst of all was the ending. With nearly fifty pages to go, the bad guys give up and head for home! A certain person takes over as primo villain, but even so it's not exactly thrill-a-minute. Will the alien invaders defeat the Master or will they be destroyed? Why I should care? It's another Two Alien Factions story in fancy dress, with the humans and heroes relegated to the sidelines. Those last fifty pages are surreal, as if the Master is suddenly the hero and we're meant to cheer his evil. (Face of the Enemy tried a similar trick, but far more successfully.) The big Doctor-Master scene is predictable and dull. There are a few good scenes towards the end, but by that point I was flicking through the pages.
The TARDIS crew are good, though. The 7th Doctor is very Sylvester McCoy, more like the goofball TV version than in any other McIntee book. Sometimes it's almost disconcerting. Benny and New Ace are both good too, the latter being a huge improvement on the Ace of White Darkness. I liked that.
There's other good stuff too. The Master is great, as always, and he's specifically Ainley rather than Delgado. I also liked the Tzun's background. McIntee wanted to play with stories of alien abduction and X-Files-eque 'Greys' but also make his aliens look human. The easy option would have been to make them shapeshifters or disguised with holographic technology, but the different Tzun races here are much more interesting. Finally this is a McIntee historical (if 1957 counts as 'historical') with the usual high level of research and detail. That's all laudable.
Unfortunately McIntee seems to think he's writing Bond-esque action, though you'd never guess that from reading the bloody thing. It's as exciting and fast-paced as the same author's Lords of the Storm (i.e. not even slightly). There was potential for fun with the alien abduction angle and X-Files-ish atmosphere, but that falls flat too. It's hard for aliens to seem spooky when Tzun point-of-view cutaways mean you've just overheard them saying: "Ph'Sor specimen #337. Execute collection as per Precept 1765-3." There are a few alien-abduction scenes, one of them slightly amusing, but for the most part this isn't what the book's about. A shame. I reckon this material had potential.
I nearly choked on the in-jokes. "Kreer" is the name of a character played by Roger Delgado in an Avengers episode. Stoker smells like a King's Demons reference. Many soldiers are named after the creators of fifties SF films - Jack Finney and Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space) and Christian Nyby (credited for The Thing From Another World, though it was really directed by Howard Hawks). There's Lovecraft wank on p110 and a ,a href=dimension.htm>Dimensions in Time sideswipe on p54. And as for 'Nykortny' Cosmodrome... Stop, please, stop!
As a conclusion to McIntee's Master trilogy (but the first-written), it works surprisingly well. It resurrects the Tzun-Veltrochni stuff from The Dark Path (though in real life 'twas the other way around) and even has a Face of the Enemy reference on p107. I don't know what that was meant to be, but that's what it looks like. Unfortunately First Frontier is slap-bang in the middle of the train wreck that is the Master's post-Survival continuity, along with The Eight Doctors, Perry-Tucker, the TVM, the DWM comic strip and more. It's not McIntee's fault. He got here first. But it's not even good enough to pretend that the Master's lying on p264, since a certain plot development means this must follow Stop the Pigeon and Prime Time in the 7th Doctor's timeline. Ah well.
There's plenty to like in First Frontier, if you're in the right mood. The Master, the Virgin regulars and the period detail are all good. Unfortunately it's a stodgy tale that thinks it's an action movie and doesn't have much in the way of characters to hold your attention.
A Review by Brian May 12/9/05
First Frontier is a fascinating story - in spite of David A. McIntee's heavy handed and often verbose writing style. He's certainly not a bad writer, but at times the prose is heavy going and quite ponderous. It's not a light read; you can't get through it in just a few days. It's not recommended for reading during a flight, or any other long trip. It's a book you can't simply breeze through.
McIntee's main fault lies in over-description. Almost every detail of the various Tzun spacecraft suffers from this, as do some of their flights, and various action scenes. The hijacking of the Hercules is one, while Ace's attempt to defuse the nuclear warhead beneath the Washington Monument is excruciating - what could have been a wonderful race against time/countdown moment is ruined by an excess of drawn out technical information that the effort to digest and interpret the words kills any tension such a scene would normally create. The shootout aboard the Jessup is also drawn out, as is the ship colliding with the bridge on the Potomac (the incident and the aftermath); the dramatic effects fall short due to the excessive bulk of words.
The author never sinks to the depths of Penswick, Darvill-Evans or Stone. Far from it - he's superior to them all by a wide margin. But still he could have toned down the incredible reams of descriptiveness. For if you put this aside, this book is great. McIntee has chosen the USA in the 1950s as his backdrop - the height of the Cold War, the ensuing McCarthyist paranoia, and the space race, all of which are included in an inventive way. Roswell is also in the mix; this takes place a decade after, but the theme's the same: the ultimate conspiracy theory of the US government covering up the existence of aliens. (A staple feature of The X-Files, which was going strong at the time of this book's publication.)
The aliens in question here, the Tzun Confederacy, are one of the most amazingly conceived and well-realised species that have ever graced the universe of Doctor Who. They're remarkably conceptualised, what with their division into different types, their politics, history and so much more. Their code of honour is intriguing, taking the notions of conquest and assimilation further than the simple unwilling absorption carried out by such monsters as the Cybermen and Star Trek's Borg. These guys might want to take us over, but the relationship is very much give and take. If we had to be conquered by anyone, the Tzun would be my first preference. It is this standard that leads to their withdrawal from Earth and the cancellation of their invasion. This could very well have been a real copout ending - a haphazard, scrappy way of bringing the story to a close, but because the Tzun are so credibly depicted, this is not the case. And of course, for the sake of the plot, there's still the threat of the Master.
This story marks the renegade Time Lord's first appearance in the New Adventures - and his first since the original television series ended in 1989. It could have been disastrous, but McIntee pulls it off superbly. He has the advantage of writing the character with no visuals, i.e. no daft disguises or dodgy accents. Major Kreer is nicely enigmatic and sinister, and is practically an individual character in his own right. The build-up to unmasking him is nicely done; a few clues are slipped in here and there, and apart from an unnecessarily gratuitous one (the allusion to Terror of the Autons on p.141, which is an obvious giveaway), it's revelation by stealth, but enough information is provided for the knowledgeable reader.
McIntee makes the best use of the character - a man struggling to survive against his decaying body, which also brought out the best in the televised Master, The Keeper of Traken and Survival being the prime examples. He's a nasty, sadistic bastard; exactly as he should be! We see the effects of his Tissue Compression Eliminator - once from the point of view of observers, and once from the victim's perspective (and it's very grisly, too!). And although he does want to see the destruction of Earth, as per his many previous madcap schemes, here it's integrated into his wider plan of using and then betraying the Tzun.
Ace and Bernice are fantastic, especially during the long James Bond style subplot in which they spend a lot of time together. Thank goodness all the inter-companion angst (cf. Conundrum) is long dead and buried. Recent novels managed to avoid this by separating them for much of the time (All-Consuming Fire, Blood Harvest), but McIntee quite bravely forces the two women into each other's company and has them enjoy it! We see a deeper, more introspective side to Ace; someone hardened by her experiences and not just a petulant cynic (which gives her protective attitude to Manco the realism it needs). I can't find a problem with the portrayal of the seventh Doctor, but neither can I call it tremendous or spectacular or any similar superlative - it's just good (perhaps this is for the best!) The rest aren't much home to write about - Marion is likable in a throwaway sort of way, and Stoker is a passable betrayed henchman. The Tzun, whilst magnificent as a collective, aren't that memorable as individuals (and at times it's confusing as to who's who). The one real endearing and empathetic non-regular is Manco; the author deliberately gives him a family, a background and a personality, setting him up for a demise that's all the more tragic.
So to reiterate, First Frontier is a very interesting book, but also overlong. In television terms, it's a seven-part story that could have comfortably filled five. McIntee's penchant for detail is often overbearing and lessens the enjoyment. And there are a few too many in-jokes and continuity references. Nevertheless a great scenario, an intelligent use of the Master and an excellent Ace and Bernice combination, topped off with one of the best alien races ever encountered in Doctor Who, all ensure its worthiness. 8/10