THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC Books
Grave Matter

Author Justin Richards Cover taken from the excellent Doctor Who books home page
ISBN# 0 563 55598 X
Published 2000
Continuity Between Vengeance on Varos and
Mark of the Rani

Synopsis: When a wealthy local buys a group of islands, no one is suspicious. When the deaths begin, they seem to be attributable to natural causes. Retired civil servants returning and the strange behaviour of chickens barely raise a flicker. Things only start going noticably wrong when two strangers arrive...


Reviews

A Review by Sean Gaffney 29/5/00

It's funny that I should turn this review out so quickly, because by all reports that's exactly what Justin did when writing the book. A classic case of last-minute hole-filling, something Justin's had experience with before with the Shock books. Still, doesn't mean it has to LOOK rushed and harried...

And for the most part it doesn't, though it gets off to a slow start. Grave Matter doesn't try to be anything more than it is, a Hammer Horror-ish Who plot with elements of scientists running amuck and tampering in God's domain. (How ironically topical.) And of course, it wouldn't be Justin if it didn't have one or two totally gobsmacking plot twists.

PLOT: As I said, straightforward. The Doctor and Peri land in a situation, try to figure out bits of it, get caught up in the villainous schemes, and eventually the Doctor saves the day while Peri gets possessed. Along the way, though, there are a few nice twists that made me drop my jaw a bit, such as Peri's conversation with Madge near the end.

THE DOCTOR: Variable, to be honest. He starts out incredibly GeneriDoc, with little Colin bits being grafted on to remind us who we're watching. (The 'old men' comment to Mike is a prime example, and made me wince.) But once we get to Sheldon's Folly and the Doctor finds out what's going on, there's no question at all about who we're dealing with, and ColDoc's characterization becomes impeccable.

PERI: No problems here, very much the Peri of the TV series with a little added texture. She whines, she stumbles... but she's not annoying, as Peri could sometimes be, so that's a plus.

VILLAIN: The Denarians, I guess. Spores from beyond, they pretty much fulfill their function. Logan's a nice evil mastermind till we learn the truth, and Dave Madsen is... well, pathetic, really.

OTHERS: Not a lot to speak of here. Sir Edward is really the only three-dimensional one. Even Janet and Christopher don't get a lot to do beyond the bounds of their character outline.

STYLE: Well, it's hardly The Turn of the Screw, but it trundles along nicely. This book reads very fast, which is a plus as it helps you avoid noticing the scars where it's been quickly pasted together. And I also liked the 'Or Is It...?" type ending as well.

OVERALL: It might disappoint people coming right after the amazingly different Verdigris, but Grave Matter does what it was written hurriedly to do: provide a decent, exciting Doctor Who story. Recommended.

8/10.


A Review by Finn Clark 4/6/00

There's an perception that the horror genre begins and ends with the slasher movie, which is unfortunate as slasher movies (uninteresting enough in themselves) become coma-inducing when transferred to the printed page. Admittedly blood and guts can sometimes be effective in prose. Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite have proved that. But it's a hell of a trick to pull off and far more often readers are sent to sleep instead.

The BBC books are more flexible with genre than the Virgin ones were, which has resulted in a mini-wave of Doctor Who horror over the past three years. Unfortunately almost all of these ended up weltering in gore. Personally I rather enjoyed them anyway, but some people regard books like The Bodysnatchers, Deep Blue and The Face-Eater as valium in printed form.

So three cheers for Justin Richards. With The Medusa Effect (Benny NA) and now again with Grave Matter, he's quietly showed us that horror has a larger bag of tricks than the slashmeisters would suppose. The Medusa Effect was a rather accomplished ghost story, or at least it was before going off the rails in Act Three. Grave Matter is something else again. I think the word I'm looking for is "nice".

This is a delightfully old-fashioned story. The pace is stately (less complimentary adjectives could be used), but for once it's not the fault of a novel floundering for something to happen. This is a supremely confident book from a writer who knows exactly what he's doing and isn't afraid to let the Doctor and Peri spend whole chapters chatting in the pub or having tea with old ladies. There's gentle comedy and a wonderfully civilised air to the narrative. Justin Richards has written more original Doctor Who novels than anyone else and you can tell.

I think the sixth Doctor is slightly off-centre, but what's really amazing is that it really works anyway. Justin's sixth Doctor is gentle and compassionate, brash at times but also endearing. It's rather sweet. We didn't see this on TV in Season Twenty-Two, but one's left thinking that this is the fault of Eric Saward and co. I'm officially impressed.

Having said that, it seems that the sixth Doctor is well suited to the novel. Subtler ones like Troughton, Davison and McGann have been horribly ill-written, but the sixth Doctor has come out wonderfully even at the hands of less accomplished writers. Only David McIntee has failed to capture him, and I suppose he has the excuse that he was portraying the comics' sixth Doctor rather than the one on TV. We talk of writer-proof companions, but here I think we have a writer-proof Doctor.

This is a gentle, antiquated horror story. At times it touches on John Wyndham, while at others it becomes almost Victorian in feel. They bain't keen on strangers round 'ere, sir, not to mention the updating of Bluebeard in his castle. The result is a familiar and comfortable read, not particularly scary but always enjoyable. This is the kind of horror that Doctor Who did on television.

Having said that, Justin tries all kinds of different effects before eventually plumping for more traditional horror. In retrospect it's surprising how many little tricks there are in this book, right down to the cover which spells out "horror" slowly and carefully for all those dimwits who didn't recognise it in previous books. I mean, honestly. A grave with a hand coming out of it? How much more blatant can you get? The effect is unfortunately comic, resembling Thing from the Addams Family, but you can see what they're trying to say.

This is a delightfully old-fashioned story of nice people, nasty goings-on and a heroic Doctor. I thought it was lovely.


Playful by Robert Smith? 21/6/00

A group of typically English villagers, a remote location cut off from the outside world, creeping horror, the re-animation of the dead, science gone horribly wrong, an alien legacy, stern old men and women foretelling doom, distrust of strangers, a possessed companion and a Doctor who immerses himself in wiring, makes bad jokes and solves the problem through a mixture of innovation and chemistry.

Yep, this is a Doctor Who novel, all right.

It's interesting to learn that The Banquo Legacy, released merely one month after this, was Justin's written-in-a-hurry novel for this year. Grave Matter has all the DW cliches so firmly in place, you'd think he could just distill a bunch of former novels together and churn this out in a few days (though for all I know, maybe he did).

Fortunately, Grave Matter is aware that it's veering dangerously close to the Doctor Who potboiler, so it's provided just enough touches to keep it fresh. It feels like someone's dusted off an old Terrance Dicks script, added a few references to email, mobile phones and genetic engineering, and just let it run on its own. Somehow this works, because even though the reader can see the joins showing, the author knows that we know. And we know that he knows that we know. The age of the interactive novel is at hand. Welcome to the twenty-first century.

And, I must admit, it works rather well. I like playing this game and had fun spotting all the touches. The initial setup is a great example of this. We know that the Doctor and Peri aren't in the nineteenth century, so bright and clear are the clues. And yet, when the revelation comes, the joke is still funny, perhaps more so because we've been led enjoyable to its resolution.

The horror game is just as playful. There are zombies and murderous seagulls and crazy old men in the woods, but they're all presented with a coy smile that teases us into playing along. And we do. Just as surely as we know that the Doctor will get injected with no side effects whatsoever, we're fully aware that the final scene of the book will be a creepy suggestion of more to come, perhaps in next year's book-in-three-weeks middle third of the Grave trilogy. That it happens in four and a half lines (unlike System Shock's whole page epilogue, for example) only shows just how much Justin has been refining his skills.

The Doctor works well enough, although he's the sixth-but-generic Doctor, previously seen in Players, rather than the portrayal we got on TV. That's a little disappointing, but this version works well enough as the Doctor stereotype that's required here. Peri is quite good, though, especially as she fears the growing possession, after climbing up a ventilation shaft and being pursued on a fool's errand by zombies and enhanced animals alike. You could bottle this stuff and inject it into Trevor Baxendale and he could churn out EDAs indefinitely! (On second thoughts, perhaps we shouldn't mention that too loudly, lest anyone get any ideas)

The other characters are all painted with Justin's trademark skill. They don't have to be the deepest of characters to be successful here and yet again Justin comes up with exactly what's necessary and no more. I loved Janet's way of communicating with the Doctor once possessed and the twist with Peri's phone call to Madge actually surprised me. Yet again we see the master plotter at work and we're invited to marvel at the skill.

Grave Matter is fun, in an incredibly cliched way. It plays with those cliches, but it doesn't break them -- and nor should it. It leads the reader along magnificently, toying with us and making us feel far more involved than we could really expect from something as standard as this. It's a PDA in every measurable way, but that's no bad thing. It reminds us why we enjoyed Doctor Who so much in the first place and tells us that sometimes cliches really are cliches because they work. (And yes, I did just paraphrase Terrance Dicks and you're meant to know that!)


A Review by John Seavey 3/11/00

Another Justin Richards "Novel Written to Fulfill Contractual Obligations", but his gift for plotting makes it worth the time I spent on it.

This is Justin Richards on autopilot; the plot is clever enough, the prose is decent, but you can feel that his heart's not in it. Mind you, Justin Richards on autopilot is still Justin Richards, and I've very rarely disliked anything he's written, but I kind of forgot about this one within minutes of having finished it. Good to read if you're stuck somewhere and want a book, but don't expect a System Shock or a Demontage.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 24/4/01

The 6th Doctor and Peri are one of my favourite companion/Doctor teams. It is one that has been grossly unrepresented in the original Books and Audios. Thus far Peri has appeared with the 6th Doctor in 4 out of the 10 books, and 1 out of the 6 Big Finish Audios. Considering she appeared in 9 of the 11 TV stories of the 6th Doctor era, things are very out of balance. Whilst I appreciate that Evelyn has brought much to the audios (particularly Spectre and Marian) and even Frobisher was great in Holy Terror – Peri should be in more. Grave Matter and Players therefore are very welcome. It’s the 6th Doctor and Peri in intelligent, traditional Doctor Who adventures.

Grave Matter is an enjoyable tale. From start to finish its plus points are numerous. Here’s the stuff I like:-

  1. The fog shrined landscape of Dorsill, superbly depicted.
  2. A community cut off from the outside world. Hardly original – rarely done better though.
  3. The Doctor and Peri are both larger than life. Authentically re-created.
  4. The story is intelligent and easy to follow. A real page turner.
  5. The Doctor is central to all. As he should he saves the day too.
  6. The characters on Dorsill feel “real”, they are identifiable.

Of course it borrows from other sources. Hinchcliffe’s era did the same. It became the show's glory years. Nothing wrong with that. Justin Richards has shown with this book, Banquo and Burning – he revels in a dark, Hammer-horror type environment. All 3 of these books are beautifully written. Shocks abound, the characters leap off the page. His stories are enthralling and captivating. Doctor Who at its very best.

Grave Matter does not disappoint in any department. It is great Doctor Who. 10/10


Piffle by David Massingham 16/10/03

It's nice every now and again to sit down with a book that has no consequence whatsoever. Sometimes, such novels can strike the reader as terrific, griping reads; stories that please the imagination throughout their entire length. Unfortunately, in my experience, the reception of such books often comes down to the circumstances surrounding the reading of it. What other books have you read recently? What kind of mood are you in? These variables can strongly affect how you take in a story -- the same can be said for movies, television, and a host of other media.

I only bring this up because I think I should have enjoyed Grave Matter a lot more than I did. Don't get me wrong -- there's no hate here. I kind of enjoyed this story. The problem is, all the elements were in place for a story better than Grave Matter turned out to be. We had the sleepy village. We had the mysterious intruders. There's the walking dead, a creepy atmosphere, and bizarre characters. Add it all up, and what do you get?

Well, fluff, really. Zip. Piffle.

Of course, I knew this going in. This had the appearance of a filler novel, just an exciting little runaround to pass an hour or three. But there seemed so much less to Grave Matter than the usual pot-boilers. It is, essentially, a mish-mash of Doctor Who cliches, sewn together in Justin Richards' dank, dark basement with all the care of blind hedgehog. In a bag (sorry, been watching Blackadder). The Denarian, the villains of the piece, are pretty uninteresting, coming across as the generic threat to humanity of the week -- no love or passion went into them. We get a definite feeling of "been there, done that".

Which is fine. It's all fine -- the Doctor is suitably heroic, with enough sixth Doctor mannerisms to distinguish him from the pack. Peri gets some nice moments, particularly towards the end. The action scenes are written well enough, I suppose, though these sorts of things seldom come across well in writing. There's some nice scenes finding out about Sir Edward's backbround in his cottage -- those scenes grabbed me more than most. Logan Packwood's all right, too, I suppose.

I knew this is what I would get. I knew that I would pretty much forget all of the characters from the book a week or two after I'd finished it. I suspected that there would be only the slightest of plots in here, its existence purely there to justify a series of set-pieces. The problem is, I thought this type of thing suited the mood I was in, I thought it was what I wanted.

It wasn't. It didn't offend me -- I can't imagine Grave Matter offending anyone, it's simply too slight. It was entertaining enough, but it simply wasn't that exciting.

6.5 out of 10


A Review by Joe Ford 5/7/04

Essentially Grave Matter is the sort of thing the PDAs should be doing all the time but... well don't. It is an extremely good story that in the traditional Doctor Who fashion goes round the houses to reach its conclusion but in doing so manages to tell an exciting adventure. It takes a not always liked Doctor and companion and repairs some of the damage by planting them in a story that has them come out favourably and tells the type of story that the particular era they come from never really tried. As a result even when the ingredients to the story seem old fashioned they come across as spanking new, polished by an author who knows how to play about with his audience. Grave Matter is a top ranking PDA in my book and further proof that dear old Justin Richards could tackle any genre if he put his mind to it.

Finn Clark is so right, he points out that the BBC books range is far more likely to play about with the horror genre, since they have been on the scene we have seen more and more spine-chilling adventures. These come in all shapes and sizes, Vampire Science (a modern tale of vampires in the US), Tomb of Valdemar (an SF tale with lashing of traditional gothic atmosphere), The Bodysnatchers (a Victorian grave robbing tale with shape changing aliens) and so on. Most of these attempts have been successful (except maybe Deep Blue which piles on the cliches but adds nothing to its seaside drama) and Grave Matter is probably the ultimate exploration of the genre yet. Just look at that cover, ghostly apparitions of the Doctor and Peri, a hand crawling out of a grave, a church silhouetted by a foggy moon... by far the most spine chilling part of this fulsome cover is Colin Baker and his mad, staring eyes... brrr...

It almost feels as though Justin sat down and wrote a checklist of things to include in his horror story. An isolated town. Foggy moorland. A burial. Grave robbing. Bizarre local behaviour connected to the "evil". Zombies. Mad scientists. Mutilated corpses. Savage animals. Viscous fight scenes. It sounds like a huge whipping bowl of various horror novels/movies doesn't it? And it is to Justin's credit that he manages to take on these hoary old cliches and whip them into something fresh and exciting. And just how does he manage this magical transformation? By adding a few modern touches like mobile phones and genetic experiments? No. By isolating the action to one small island and playing about with what year it is taking place in? No (although that was a nice bit of mis-direction). The real trick is (and this is where people may stop reading) is to use the sixth Doctor and Peri.

Honestly! It is a trick worth repeating! It doesn't always work to put recognisable characters in an unrecognisable situation but the real charm of this story is seeing sassy Peri and the "fat, shouty multicoloured one" (courtesy of my mother) in a Hinchiffe adventure, cliches and all! Seeing this story through their eyes, a story that on screen would have rocked with JNT's eye for atmosphere, is like having a dream come true. Their dynamic friendship is put to good use, for once it appears there is nobody to trust but each other and the opportunity for arguing is practically nil when the plot thickens at every stage and they have use their wits to escape it alive.

Okay so maybe there is a little character adjustment going on. The Doctor is hardly as nasty as he was on screen and in this tale of horrors roaming a peaceful island his beaming face and outrageous personality shines all the brighter. He gets to play about with children and gossip with the locals and face the enemy with a song in his heart. Justin is not above mocking this triumphant character (particularly his weight when he cannot escape through the ducting because of his girth) and gives him the opportunity to unravel the mystery of the story at a steady pace and face all the monsters with a defiant outlook. He gets to play hero without any of the questionable violence his character is pinned down for getting in the way. If only all the PDA writers could put so much effort into capturing the Doctor so well we would probably be in better shape right now.

But Peri is even better. Peri is a person! No seriously, she isn't just a whinging bratty American whose sole purpose in life is to make the Doctor's life miserable, she is a genuine, three dimensional character with aspirations and feelings. Who knew? Written with a sense of independence and intelligence Perpugilliam Brown comes across really well. Her scenes with the Doctor are still icy at times but now are laced with good humour. She gets to do lots of clever stuff, diving into action chasing grave robbers, facing off mad locals, rushing off to save the day by contacting the police and being attacked by zombies, sharks and foxes. Seeing the island turn nasty through Peri's innocent eyes is shocking and urgent, you genuinely feel for her as she is fighting for her life (surely a first for some of you Peri-haters?).

There is a rumour that this story isn't really a horror story at all but just dips into the genre for further Richards misdirection. True in the end the horror of the situation turns out to be extra-terrestrial manipulated by science (silly humans attempting to prolong their frail lives by injecting powerful alien DNA) but the idea of using an entire island of innocent people to test this theory on is HORRIFYING in the extreme. And seeing the story through the eyes of these everyday people, infected without realising, the horror of the story emerges.

Personally my scariest moment has nothing to do with savage animals or lumbering corpses but a far more intimate moment. Dave Madsen's realisation that he has been infected might seem like poetic justice (after all he is responsible for everybody else's infection) but when he returns home and attempts to slit his wrists the story suddenly touches on some real life nastiness. Of course infected he cannot die but that doesn't stop him trying and this time he attempts to blow his brains out. But still he gets up... it's just HORRIBLE! Ugh! The sheer desperation of this man trying to die is scary enough but the dawning realisation that no matter how much he mutilates himself he will still survive is horrifying. All this is frightening build up for his spectacular attack on the Doctor and Peri, brains exposed and all.

The pace of the story is lovely; Justin slowly builds his story on firm foundations, affecting a disquiet atmosphere from the first half and twisting it into an action nightmare for the second half. We get just close enough to the people on Dorsill to care when the action moves over to Sheldon's Folly and we discover why they all behave so strangely. From then on it is constant attacks right up until the climax, a page turning mix of horror and comedy (trust me there are some really funny moments in the climax) that sees the Doctor and Peri at their improvisational best.

Chapter Thirteen is a standout for the book; it has long remained one of my favourite chapters in any Doctor Who book. It consists mostly of Peri, desperate and alone attempting to escape the folly and find a boat so she can reach Dorsill and send out a message of help. It violent and horrific, she is attacked by owls, foxes, Liz, Madsen and even a bloody shark! The action is non-stop and it climaxes on the best twist of the book, one that might seem obvious in retrospect (like all good Justin Richards books) but strikes you round the face at the time. This chapter shows determined Peri at her frightened best. If only she had material like this on the telly!

Go read Grave Matter, for such a traditional story it will surprise you how very enjoyable it is. It might take a while to get going, actionwise but it's clear Justin is building a clever tale that is out to surprise you later. The setting is ideal, sunny in the daytime and foggy at night, perfect to tip you off balance and hide all sorts of horrors.

I found it riveting and was pleased at how well my favourite Doctor was captured. Oh and Peri proves she is more than a pair of breasts too!

Page turning stuff.


A Review by Brian May 26/1/05

In Grave Matter, Justin Richards gives us a traditional Doctor Who staple of danger in an isolated location - the English village - mixed with a liberal helping of zombie and horror film chestnuts. With Richards you're always guaranteed an entertaining read, and this book is no different. It's one of his simplest stories: it's not as gorgeous as Theatre of War, neither is it as low-key but richly textured as Dreams of Empire. It's not as cleverly convoluted as The Sands of Time, nor does it have the fascinating techno-thrills of System Shock. But the word "simple" is not intended as an insult; the straightforwardness of the story is intentional and welcome. Given that Richards had to write it quickly to fill a gap in the schedule, this is probably why there's less complexity than usual for him, but it's still nice to enjoy an old-fashioned adventure for its own sake.

Despite this simplicity, Richards still displays his trademark skill. From the king of plot twists, there's only one here, and it occurs very early on. But by golly, it's quite a stunning one! It certainly got me - I almost jumped from my seat on p.47, feeling resigned to once again having been outwitted. (Trefoil's line "Were you a long time at sea, Doctor?" is also rather wonderful!) Richards throws in a few red herrings at the beginning and leads us up the path of making assumptions before pulling the rug. Of course, there are a few surprises later on; the odd character is not what he or she appears to be, but for the most part, it's fairly linear. The plot develops at a good pace, taking an occasional breather for a helpful piece of character focus.

The atmosphere is excellent. Fog-shrouded moors; a disfigured man appearing from nowhere (reminiscent of Revelation of the Daleks); the initial scenes in the village appropriately dark and mournful, with the Doctor and Peri strangers in an isolated community. Then there's a string of clichéd village characters - the gossipy old woman, the hearty pub landlord, a grizzled, pipe-smoking old fisherman, and a new arrival who doesn't talk to anyone and whom the villagers distrust. Although Richards is writing this with more than a tongue-in-cheek attitude, he still makes the effort to create believable individuals, in spite of their hackneyed literary origins. Most of the principals get at least a few paragraphs dedicated to them: Liz, her father, Dave Madsen and Janet in particular. Others who are not as closely explored by the author still exert a nice charm - Hilly and Mrs Tattleshall come across as nice but lonely people when they interact with the Doctor and Peri.

As for the regulars, they're presented wonderfully - another of Richards's strong points. The Doctor is very warm and heroic. Continuity wise, it's just about the right time - in Vengeance on Varos, the Time Lord's sixth incarnation still displayed attributes of instability, but in The Mark of the Rani, he became a more likable character. The sympathy he feels for Mrs Tattleshall is a touching moment, as is his interaction with the schoolchildren. Peri is terrific throughout - she gets to do intelligent things, think intelligent thoughts, and engage in proactive and helpful activities; she also carries an exciting action scene near the end. She's a far cry from the whining, annoying American ninny that typified the televised Peri (the earlier adventures especially). Indeed, she fares better than most female television companions - of course, the advantage of being fleshed out on the written page helps; so too does Richards's penchant for characterisation.

The story, as mentioned, is a tribute to the horror genre, especially zombie films. As with televised Who stories of the same ilk, there's a science fiction connection (The Daemons, Pyramids of Mars, Image of the Fendahl, The Awakening the best examples). However, unlike these adventures, Richards steers clear of alien invasion and/or devastation, focusing instead on a human threat, namely the push for scientific progress, in this case genetic research. This has led to the introduction to Earth of the Denarian, infectious alien bodies. Although they fulfil the role of the traditional alien menace, they're not a malicious, marauding alien invader - their purpose is simply to survive. So, while the fundamental threat is alien, a group of humans is to blame for their presence on Earth (despite the good intentions of curing disease and old age), and the havoc that is caused is simply that of an organism carrying out an instinctive function.

But for the most part, Richards entertains us with a rollicking, well-paced horror and suspense adventure, with some exciting set piece scenes, the best being in the graveyard as Bill Neville's body is reanimated in chapter 7. The typical climactic zombie rampage is carried out with stylish aplomb. For a horror story, Richards thankfully avoids the temptation to fill his prose with graphic violence. The only real distressing scenes are when Madsen tries to commit suicide several times - the attempt with the knife is a very uncomfortable read. And he also knows how to use subtlety to create an impact - Peri drinking the milk at the end of chapter 8, the final few lines in particular, pack a dramatic punch as effectively as any action oriented cliffhanger.

Even if it's not the book Justin Richards really wanted to write, it's still pretty good. All in all, an enjoyable read. 7.5/10