THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Telos Publishing
Ghost Ship

Author Keith Topping
Published 2002
ISBN 1-903889-08-1 (standard hardback, 10)
1-903889-09-X (deluxe hardback, 25)
FeaturingThe Fourth Doctor

Published by Telos Publishing Ltd.
c/o 5a Church Road, Shortlands, Bromley, Kent, BR2 0HP, England.
Synopsis: The TARDIS lands in the most haunted place on Earth, the luxury ocean liner the Queen Mary on its way from Southampton to New York in the year 1963. But why do ghosts from the past, the present and, perhaps even the future, seek out the Doctor? What appalling secret is hidden in Cabin 672? And will the Doctor be able to preserve his sanity as he struggles to save the lives of the passengers against mighty forces which even he does not fully understand?


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 21/8/02

If Ghost Ship wasn't a ghost story, I'd probably be giving it the most almighty kicking. This book isn't particularly concerned with plot, characterisation, Whoishness or anything else that normally goes into a work of Who-related fiction. The Doctor (the Fourth Doctor!) is a passive character, his most memorable action being a failed attempt to bugger off in the TARDIS halfway through. It's not even a particularly successful ghost story, being mostly not atmospheric and certainly never scary. There's little sense of period, with the ship rarely feeling grounded in its historical period (the sixties) and instead feeling more Edwardian than anything else. The book's form is that of a Victorian ghost story, so I suppose it was always going to have a hard time feeling even remotely contemporary.

And yet... I love ghost stories. Above all, they're mood pieces. Forget characterisation and hang the plot. Despite everything, I did find things to like in Ghost Ship.

The book's biggest problem is its portrayal of the Doctor, which is the worst I've seen anywhere, ever. Forget the usual complaint of "I couldn't imagine Tom Baker saying these lines". I couldn't imagine Tom Baker being physically capable even of thinking this, or of getting halfway through it before wandering off to play with his yo-yo. I suppose you might say that there's a plot reason for him acting peculiarly, except that he's like that at the start of the story even before the TARDIS lands. For an example of what I mean, look at page 66. After committing a minor social faux-pas, the Doctor "hastily gave [a human female] a hot and embarrassed denial". Huh? Tom Baker? Naaah. Blithe unconcern and an inappropriately gleeful facial expression, more like.

Here's an experiment... imagine Tom saying, "I'm so terribly sorry," after he's been tactless to someone. Now study the little Tom in your head. He's grinning, isn't he? Or perhaps throwing the line away as he gets on with something else and ignores the apologee. Now try to imagine him delivering the line in a "hot and embarrassed" fashion. I don't know about you, but I can't.

And it's all like that! Soon I could only survive by going into denial about the fact that this lonely, introspective bundle of nerves was theoretically the Fourth Doctor. Ironically I might have bought it this been another incarnation... any other. Tom's Doctor was so utterly unselfconscious, but the others had just a little more self-awareness and could, perhaps, have written the reflective prose we see here. But as it was, I had to cut myself free from Doctor Who. Thus the gratuitous continuity references irritated me beyond all reason, more even than such nonsense normally does. Consider this. Ghost Ship is a Doctor Who book set in 1963, yet so far are we from anything recognisably Whoish that this seems like an irrelevance.

Using the Fourth Doctor did help in one sense, though. When Keith Topping makes a boo-boo by using the wrong word (p16: "dematerialising", p21: "incongruous") or giving us a distractingly clunky simile, one can imagine Tom's Doctor being absent-minded enough to do this.

The book's structure - I refuse to use the word "plot" - is brain-wrenchingly peculiar. Characters are introduced for a three-page monologue on socialism before disappearing, never to return. In fact, I'm now wondering if the book's debates are more important than the characters. With the exception of Simpkins (whose function is to be a terrified victim and vehicle of exposition) each major character is used for a long discussion of something abstruse. There's a debate on socialism, another about English poets and a third which compares science and religion. I can't help seeing this as significant, given that this is an elegaic book which specialises in disorientating and confusing the reader. It's not thrilling or scary, but it does eventually succeed in evoking a sort of abstract spookiness.

You see, somewhere around page 80 (of 104) I did eventually find myself reacting to the book. I'd been perplexed about what was going on, bombarded by meaningless events and made to think about the oddest assortment of ideas... and at last I was intrigued.

This book should theoretically have been dreadful. Someone who certainly isn't Tom Baker's Doctor lands on a ship that's floating somewhere and wanders around in a nervous state, having intellectual discussions and jumping at his own shadow. I'm still wondering whether it's only my love of ghost stories which has led me to see any redeeming features at all. On reflection, I don't think it's much cop. However, almost despite myself, I eventually found it eccentrically spooky.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 11/9/02

I read with great interest the releases from Telos Publishing about this book. Keith Toppings reasons why he wrote it, I found fascinating. The Queen Mary - the most haunted ship on the ocean - was to be the setting. The 4th Doctor would narrate the book, that would ensure a Doctor-centric book then. I read the letter that Topping wrote as a teaser for the novel (not actually in the novel), and I was even more intrigued. I love Ghost Stories. Keith Topping mentions the influences:- Victorian Gothic Movement, and the superb Ghost Story Writer MR James. My appetite was whetted and I couldn't wait till Aug 22nd till it arrived on the shelf of the local Sci-Fi/Fantasy Shop. I was absolutely convinced that I would lap this horror story up in no time at all, and Telos Novellas would justify with the story the 10 cover price. Here was a book I was sure would match the impressive binding and presentation of these mini-books.

The Novella format is ideally suited to such a story. MR James Classic Ghost Stories were so effective for their brevity. They didn't stick around for too long, exaggerating the horrific point. But yet they were full of setting and atmosphere. James put into a few words what many take a whole novel to get to. That Keith Topping even attempted something like the Master Storyteller was bold. It is a genre that DW has rarely touched upon, and it should have done - because this book is gripping and effective.

Presenting the book from the 4th Doctor's perspective is inevitably going to lead to many fans judging the author. Has he captured the true essence of the 4th Doctor's character? I believe he has for the most part. I would love to hear this Novella read by Tom Baker himself - I imagined him reciting it anyway. 99% of the time I was comfortable with the representation of the 4th Doctor. The odd line wasn't quite right, but we're talking about the most eccentric of Time Lords here. His character is as bizarre as they come, and it is often difficult to pinpoint ALL the nuances. The 4th Doctor of Ghost Ship is more melancholy, we're warned of that before the book starts, and this allows for greater introspection into the Doctors thoughts and feelings. I enjoyed this insight, and I felt Keith Topping captured the character overall very well.

It was also wonderful that the Doctor was involved so much. He narrates the novella, and therefore every single scene has him in it. This is refreshing after the largely Doctor-less Novellas that so far have been published. The greatest character in any DW book, audio or TV production is the Doctor - whichever incarnation it is. Hopefully Telos will continue with this Doctor emphasis - it is central to DW's continued success.

The book is less a structured story than a series of experiences and liaisons. As the Doctor arrives on the Queen Mary he is full of unease. This is accentuated by some frightening scenes where the Doctor encounters various spectres. He also gets to know some of the "alive" participants on board. These are identifiable characters, the kind associated with Ship-bound journeys. All are pretty good, but it is Bryce (the rich businessman from a poor background) who is the best written. It is the ship that comes across as the greatest Character though. The ghostly happenings make the Queen Mary a truly spooky place - and Keith Topping largely succeeds in scaring the bejesus out of his readers.

There were moments of the book when a chill did ride up my spine. There were times when I gripped the book (thank goodness it's a hardback!), and ended up white-knuckled as a result! The prose takes hold of you, and you are caught up in the mystery and horror. The book really benefits from the personal approach that the 4th Doctors thoughts brings to it. You really feel you are there, with the Doctor, experiencing all these strange phenomenon. The claustrophobia of the enclosed environment is well portrayed too - this is a really isolated setting.

All these Novellas have been Prefaced by a significant other. This really adds something else to this range of books, that pulls it away from the usual fiction of DW. It's a great idea, and the thoughts of others are always welcome. I raced through Ghost Ship, fascinated by it all. It's an extremely effective ghost story. Fabulous book all round. 9/10


A Review by Liam Copsey 14/9/02

I am a self confessed Doctor Who 'spendaholic'. I love splashing out on new and lavish products and these deluxe novellas are too much to resist.

I adored Time and Relative, opening up a Susan that I never knew existed, Citadel of Dreams created a wonderful and believable world even if the story wasn't that superb and Nightdreamers was pure whimsical entertainment that I cherished. Then Ghost Ship popped through my door one day...

Firstly I assumed that this would be totally lacking in originality (I make such assumptions at the drop of a hat, it’s a bad habit) and secondly I am not the greatest lover of ghost stories, which isn’t a good start means Ghost Ship is a ghost story. But after reading an extract of Ghost Ship off a web site my view changed and I was really quite interested as to what Keith Topping's tale (has a ring, doesn't it?) had to offer.

As I began to read something obvious was staring me straight in the face. This was definitely not, as I was told it was, the fourth Doctor. In fact it doesn’t really fit any of the Doctors' personas. I mean he was just so damn miserable! He didn’t have his usual witty answers to people’s questions. He just wasn’t the Doctor we all know and love, if you read it you’ll know what I mean.

As Citadel of Dreams crams the book to the brim with ideas and happenings, Ghost Ship does the opposite by the fact that not a lot really happens. All that happens is that he meets about five or six people that really don’t matter to the evolving story, has these ‘ghosts’ torment him, and he finally goes into Cabin 672 where he discovers the spider in the web, so to speak, and it is there the story resolves. Be that in a very easy way, just like opening a sweet wrapper, and doesn’t round the story off in a satisfactory manner, it's just too brisk.

Although it can be spooky in places and the ghosts are well realized on the page this just doesn’t fell like typical Who. I am not saying that that this is always a bad thing but one thing that I do expect is that the Doctor should feel like the Doctor it should be, let alone any Doctor!

After spending 25 of my English pounds on such a small amount of writing (okay you do get the three signatures) wouldn’t of been so bad is it was quality writing like Time and Relative. But the fact is it wasn’t and quality binding, signatures, bookmark cannot make up for this.

Although it does look nice on the shelf…


Does What It Says On The Tin by Robert Thomas 2/12/02

A new range and a new type of story, this was my first trip into the world of Telos and I wasn't sure what to expect. Just like the books but shorter I was informed, I had very little interest in having a look until I realized that it also sounded like a description of the novelisations that got me into Who on print. Anyway on with the review....

As promised this is a very intimate story, one that suits its length. The majority of the book is taken up with The Doctor and the affects that recent and current events are having on him. As this book is so Doctor heavy (a good thing in my opinion) most of the reviews I've read have centered around The Doctor. After reading the book its pretty pointless to even bother, yes he's not the Tom we all know but its pivotal to the plot that he isn't. What is good is that at the start we see an introspective Doctor which is believable but when the story kicks in he stays that way - because it's pivotal to the plot. One thing about telling the story from The Doctor's point of view is his view of the time zone the story takes place in, the 1960's but from The Doctors point of view it feels almost Victorian. Bearing in mind how little difference in time this is to The Doctor it feels right and is very impressive.

As it's the 4th Doctor's book the rest of the characters are kept mainly to the minimum. Despite this all of them manage to make an impact. The writing is very impressive and while I can see how good the book is in quality I can't say the same for enjoying it. It's a very strong book and as my first dip into the range I'm looking forward to the next one but it missed something that I can't quite put my finger on.


Ghost Writing by Robert Smith? 28/1/03

By far the biggest problem with this book is having the Doctor - especially the fourth Doctor - as a first person narrator. Virgin had a very sensible rule about not doing this and the one time it's been tried before (the fourth Doctor gets a chapter like this in Eye of Heaven), just proved why such a rule existed in the first place. Frankly, if you're not a mysterious 750 year old alien with two hearts, you're not going to have much success pretending to be one, no matter how many Buffy reference guides you've written.

And that's before we get to the fact that the fourth Doctor we're presented with here bears almost no resemblance to any we've ever seen in any other medium. He's incredibly flowery in his language, and not in a way that makes you think of Tom Baker. He apologises for being a bad writer (too... many... jokes...). On page 26 he describes the TARDIS as dematerialising, when it is quite plainly materialising. He not only makes sexual faux pas, he gets flustered when he does. Whoever this character is, it isn't any fourth Doctor I've ever seen.

Then there's the setting. I read Kim Newman's Time and Relative in the height of summer and yet it's evocation of cold and snow sent shivers down my spine. Here, there are lots of descriptions of being at sea, yet the overall feeling is like watching somebody trying desperately to film a static set in the Television Centre by lurching the camera every so often. And the attempts at horror did nothing for me, almost entirely due to the first person narrative.

There's also a heavy reliance upon The Deadly Assassin, which feels very out of place. Just as Time and Relative would have been vastly improved by not having all the Gallifrey stuff intruding on it, so too would Ghost Ship do better without its extraneous continuity. It's no King of Terror, true, but it still drags. Not only does it feel like it's there as a crutch for a story that couldn't stand on its own, it makes you realise just how superior the original story was in the first place.

There's a laughable discussion about class early on, that also forms the book's obligatory Mary-Sue. There's a part of me that's surprised the Doctor didn't discover Ian Chesterton aboard the ship, fresh from Byzantium! I'm eagerly awaiting the day when we get a laddish, working class character named Teith Kopping in one of these books, just to complete the set. What relevance this has to the rest of the novella escapes me entirely. Still, at least we're clear of the misogyny that's plagued Keith's last few books, so there's some progress to be had here.

But, those flaws aside (and they're pretty major ones), I enjoyed the book. For a start, the shorter page count means it wasted less of my time than a novel like this would have. That's not meant to be facetious either; the class discussion might be a bit out of place, but it's over and done with quickly, not drawn out or forced into entirely inappropriate characters, like in Byzantium! The novella length forces the authors to work their stories harder than usual and for that I am eternally grateful.

Furthermore, while the central character might not be the fourth Doctor we know, he does have a distinctive style that bubbles along pleasantly enough. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter are nice and for once don't feel out of place. And I have to admit, the identity of the passenger in Cabin 672 is brilliant. Kudos to the extremely clever lead-in to this. I'm officially impressed.

The showdown is largely verbal, which would probably have worked a lot better in the third person, but isn't a disaster. I'd have preferred something a bit more climactic, but the lead up is effective enough. The book is then literally wrapped up in a paragraph, which I have mixed feelings about, although the twist works well enough. I think there could have been a bit more resolution perhaps, but it's okay. I appreciate the effort, at any rate.

Ghost Ship has lots of problems, central to which is the first person narrative, which is a shocking mistake. To its credit, it works hard to overcome this and provides enough to make it through, but I can't help feeling that this would have been an infinitely superior novella if it had abandoned the attempt show the point of view of a mad alien genius, played by a mad genius of an actor, when the author is clearly neither. Ultimately, it's a nice little read, but it could have been a great deal more. And that's a shame.


A Review by John Seavey 12/2/03

So far, I've definitely been impressed with the Telos line of novellas; while they haven't quite yet lived up to the idea of "big name sci-fi authors alternating with well-known Who authors" (I'm still waiting for my Michael Moorcock Who novella), they have done some excellent novellas and given Doctor Who authors some space to experiment. I think that each author who's written for the range has tried to write the best story they could, and really given it their all.

So it's with great sadness that I state my belief that Ghost Ship is the first real miss the Telos series has had.

Credit Keith Topping for trying -- he's certainly stretched the envelope with a first-person Fourth Doctor novella set on a haunted ship. It's something we've never seen before, and had it succeeded, it'd have been praised as a bold and admirable experiment. I can still praise it for that, but have to qualify such praise with "he got the Fourth Doctor completely wrong", "the whole thing is a rambling, padded mess", and "it fails even in the area of creating atmosphere." So it doesn't sound like much praise, then.

First, the character of the Fourth Doctor. I don't know where it is, but it's not in this novella. The character narrating this novella is not Tom Baker's Doctor; it is not the Doctor at all. It is not any character we recognize. This in itself does not destroy the story, excepting the fact that it is, after all, supposed to be a Doctor Who story -- having a character remotely resembling the Doctor would probably be nice. As it is, you want to mentally edit out all the references to the TARDIS and presume this is someone else speaking. Since you can't, you merely grit your teeth and endure the book.

The plot... well, I've commented in other reviews that the nice thing about a novella is that there's less padding than in some of the Who novels; unfortunately, this is not the case in Ghost Ship. The Doctor learns within the first few pages that the center of the disturbances is in room 672... from there, we get the Doctor going to room 672, leaving without opening the door, having a chat with an industrialist that is relevant to neither plot nor theme, going up to the deck and watching the clouds, going back to his TARDIS and trying to leave because he's frightened (as I said, this is clearly not the Doctor, not any Doctor we know), wandering back out, chatting about literature with a young woman, wandering the halls some more, finding out the young woman's just committed suicide, punching the walls in the TARDIS for a while, trying to leave again, going up on the deck and screaming loudly at the clouds for a while, going back down to room 672, going into room 673 just to see if anything interesting is going on in there, passing out for a brief while, and finally going into room 672 and solving the whole problem in the space of a few pages. I could easily see this working as a parody of a Doctor Who run-around, but unfortunately, it's just the genuine article.

Finally, there's the question of the atmosphere. I've read several books in the Who line recently that are light on plot and characterization, but that salvage themselves by creating an excellent sense of atmosphere (Ten Little Aliens and Combat Rock both come to mind.) Ghost Ship, however, tries to create its atmosphere through the old adage of "tell, don't show", repeatedly having the narrator (who claims to be the Doctor, but I'm not falling for that one) tell us how spooky and scary it is, and how scared he's getting. It's supposed to make us terrified that there's something out there that can scare even the Doctor... instead, it makes us believe that it's not scary and it's not the Doctor all at once. Horribly flat.

I've not gone into the other problems with the book, most of which involve one-dimensional secondary characters, because at this point I'm beginning to feel like I'm kicking a puppy. It's clear from every paragraph that Topping put his heart and soul into this story, and that he really gave it his best effort and tried something new and different, something that really stretched his capabilities as a writer. It's just sad to say that he stretched beyond them.


A Review by Andrew Mccaffrey 31/5/04

Going into Ghost Ship, I had rather low expectations. I'd read a lot of reviews slagging off everything from the plot to the characterization of the Fourth Doctor. Its ranking on Shannon Patrick Sullivan's charts placed it near the very bottom, and, although I had never read anything from this author before, Keith Topping's reputation for fiction writing isn't exactly stellar. To my utter shock and amazement, I really enjoyed it anyway.

By far, the most ubiquitous criticism is that it's told in first-person narration from the point of view of the Fourth Doctor. And yet, at first glance, the character appears to be totally unlike any performance we'd ever seen Tom Baker give. He's nervous, unsure of himself, panicky, and awkward. At one point, he even runs off back to the TARDIS hell-bent on making a quick getaway. For the first ten or twenty pages, I didn't believe it in the slightest.

But further on from that, I began thinking. The book is set in the void between The Deadly Assassin and The Face of Evil, where the Doctor spent some unknown amount of time wandering through space and time alone. Is it possible that his already dark character could have dipped deeper? I began pondering some other moments that we had already seen of the Fourth Doctor's life. The graying, brooding figure we saw in his final season (particularly in Logopolis). The almost callous man who Sarah admonishes in Pyramids of Mars for not seeming human. Yes, I decided. Yes, I could buy this as a continuation of the character, pushed a tad bit farther than we'd seen before, and without the usual humor that balanced out this part of him. It made me think and reflect on a character whose main source of development ended decades ago, which isn't a simple trick.

Though to be fair to critics of this characterization, what I couldn't buy was the actual language that he used. First of all, it's difficult to imagine the Fourth Doctor actually sitting down to write something like his memoirs without getting fed up and wanting to save the universe or pop in on Da Vinci or something. But going further, I just can't see his prose being this flowery or this filled with clever similes and metaphors. Don't get me wrong; it's good, it just doesn't seem like the sort of thing that he would say.

As for the rest of the novella, well, it's basically a ghost story (no big shocker, given the title), and as a ghost story it relies almost exclusively on the author's ability to evoke an appropriately creepy tone. Of other reviews, I've noticed that those who loathed the book didn't see any plausible atmosphere created, while those that liked the book did see that. Place me in the second column then. I found the book quite chilling.

The plot is secondary to establishing the mood. We meet characters and see their conversations, more for the sake of developing them and their role in the ambiance than for any particular plot reasons. This can appear either as necessary scene setting or mindless padding, depending on your point of view. By the time we meet the bulk of the secondary characters, I was already absorbed in the flow of the story and accepted this in the manner in which I assume it was intended.

Ghost Ship has too much going against it to be really popular. If you don't like the characterization of the Fourth Doctor, you'll hate the book. If you don't like the atmosphere Topping attempts to create, you'll hate the book. Personally, I thought it was very good indeed, but I realize I'm never going to be in the majority on this. I'd recommend giving it a try though, even if you do end up detesting it. It's short and it's well paced, so you won't be wasting too much time; I read it in one quick sitting and enjoyed it enormously.


Ghastly shit by Phil Ince 4/11/05

Poor Keith Topping completely misses the story inside this tale.

What if there is an afterlife? Is there such a thing as a soul? Are there consequences after death of the way a life has been lived?

Now there's something to be afraid of.

Instead, Topping has written a novelisation of a late-60s Hammer horror in which Baker was the star. Blood runs down walls, skulls laugh and scream, every lame cliche of teen horror movies is present. Cardboard stalks the galleys and corridors of the Queen Mary in the stiff shape of stereotypes.

The 4th Doctor is travelling alone, immediately following The Deadly Assassin, apparantly "wracked with guilt." Disasterously toneless, the Doctor's first person narration repeatedly and entirely unconvincingly describes himself as afraid and yet with no clear explanation as to why. After all this man has seen and done, there isn't the slightest persuasive rationale for his terror.

Topping declares his belief that Ghost Ship is his best (cue laughter) "work". He may very well be right. It remains, however, atrocious.