The Future History Cycle
The Well-Mannered War
The Highest Science
The Future History Cycle Part Three
|ISBN#||0 426 20377 1|
|Synopsis: A Fortean Flicker brings the Doctor, Benny, a group of humans and the turtle-liked warmongering Chelonians to the world of Sakkrat, home of an ancient empire and its long-lost discovery The Highest Science. However the arch-criminal Sheldukher has also come to Sakkrat in search of the Highest Science and the Doctor and Benny discover that nothing may be what it seems.|
A Review by Keith Bennett 11/6/99
The Doctor picks up a Fortean flicker, a "chaotic force of coincidence that can snowball unpredictably, breaking the links in the chain of casualty" working somewhere in the cosmos, and tracks it to the planet Vaagon, where he finds several, varied beings...
This debut by Gareth Roberts is a breath of fresh air, bringing together a good, old-fashioned science fiction story, laced with humour, action and several fasincating characters.
The Chelonians are marvellous. Reptillian (like tortoises) and overwhelmingly proud, Roberts seems to use them as a witty commentary on Earth's own society. "Chelonian does not kill chelonian" and "no chelonian runs from danger" are a couple of laws of the race, but as their situation goes from bad to worse (and they are just side issues to the main story), their taboos get broken one by one, the leading Chelonians continuously trying to justify the means by the ends.
Two of the highlights involving this race come when General Fakrid is dying and he breathes to Jinkwa, his second in command, that he is... actually... his... mother, Darth Vader style (they're all male and lay eggs). Then later, with Jinkwa in charge and everything looking grim, he decides there is one option left. One of his offsiders gasps, "You can't mean... Strategy Z!"
Hysterically funny, and Roberts' tongue is so obviously in his cheek.
Sheldukker, "the most wanted criminal in the galaxy", is also a nice change. Rather than the raving madman, or smugly gloating sadist, he is, on most occasions, a calm, almost laid back villain.
All this might tend to make the other factors look a bit pale. Indeed the ending has the Doctor freezing the Chelonians and humans in time, and finding it too dangerous to do anything but leave them there until he things of a way about the problem one day! What about the poor humans??
There are other complexities to the story, and Gareth Roberts brings it all together in an extremely entertaining and amusing way, with the Doctor and Bernice, eventually (after Ben Arronovitch stuffed Benny up in his mind-numbing Transit) proving to be a likeable team. (8/10)
A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 13/5/02
The Highest Science certainly begins with a lot of potential. Interesting clues about the plot are dropped early on, and were effective enough at piquing my interest to make me curious about what was going to happen next. Unfortunately, the book failed to deliver and a promising start led to a complete misfire. The fact that this story began with such an interesting premise makes the incoherent mess that follows seem that much more unfair.
The Highest Science attempts to do quite a number of things at once, and manages to fail at just about all of them. Parts of the story seem light-hearted and camp, but it's campiness without being fun, which just makes the whole thing just look silly. The villains are over the top, stopping just short of twirling their mustaches and tying Benny to a railway line. As has been stated many times before, there's a fine line between parodying bad action-adventure cliches, and merely rewriting those same cliches over again. Unfortunately, this book fell into the latter and not the former of those categories.
The plot had a certain amount of potential when the book started, but the amount of padding severely hurts the overall effect. Characters get lost, wander around, become distracted by random events, etc., etc. Entire stretches occur in which not a single thing advances the story. In some books, this isn't necessarily a problem, as padding can reveal interesting character moments, or amusing conversations, but there is none of that to be found here. One can almost see the author getting bored with the story as one continues along. Plot threads are dropped and then never recovered. The prose becomes rushed, and hurried. Story-telling is replaced by padding. It's corridor-running, but in book form and without much in the way of entertaining dialog.
In other parts of the book, the author goes for a militaristic style and isn't entirely successful here either. The introduction of a new race of military-driven aliens would have been much more interesting had the creatures actually displayed any original characteristics at all other their physical appearance. They're the same boring, conquer-the-universe-at-all-costs monsters that we've seen over and over again. They have a few good moments, but for the most part I was utterly bored every time they took the stage.
None of the characters manage to rise above the status of one-dimensional, and this sadly includes the regulars. The Doctor exists purely as some sort of generic collection of mannerisms, and Benny spends so much time in a drug-induced stupor that we never really get much in the way of development. Most annoying of all, near the end of the book, even Benny remarks on how out of character she is behaving because of the strange drugs she was accidentally taking. It's an excuse, and a lame one at that.
All in all, I can't say that I enjoyed much of anything in The Highest Science. One or two occasions of humour actually work, but not enough to out-weight the plodding nature of the story. The ending of the book is one of the biggest cop-outs ever observed in a Doctor Who tale, and it's a wonder that it ever got past the editor. Ripping off the climax to Timelash is not the way to go in Doctor Who story-telling. From the hideous cover that features a claymation Seventh Doctor (who seems to be contemplating flipping the bird to the audience) to the awkward nature of much of the prose, this is not one of the NAs that I will be rereading in a hurry.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 10/12/03
It's no big surprise that Gareth Roberts is a big Tom Baker fan. So it shouldn't be a big surprise that even when he writes for other Doctor, there will be times when he'll become Big Tommy B-ish.
Case in point, The Highest Science.
The Doctor comes across as a bizarre amalgamation of Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy. So, he's a clown, a wise-ass, a man of mystery and a chess player (but an improvisational chess player). It's one of the best 7th Doctor book characterizations ever. This Doctor is always fascinating to follow around.
And what about Bernice Summerfield? She's not a Lalla Ward Romana clone as I thought might develop (to match the Baker-esque moments of the Doc). In fact, she's like Sarah Jane Smith without the screaming. Bernice comes off as a very traditional companion figure. Bland, but quite enjoyable.
The Highest Science features the debut of the Chelonians. Well developed, if a bit old fashioned (notice a developing trend here...), the Chelonians owe a lot to the Sontarans in their creation, and although Roberts comes really close to having them slip into parody, they don't.
The plot is convoluted, with nods to Douglas Adams and foreshadowing some Loz Miles concepts -- a fake cosmic power and numerous legends being used to trap a violent criminal, random events occurring through time manipulation, a clockwork doctor fighting a force of chaos. It develops along nicely, with a couple nice surprises along the way. In the end, The Highest Science is everything that makes Who fun and entertaining: a solid story filled with interesting characters.
A Review by Brian May 5/5/04
"Instead of his usual behind the scenes stage management of pawns and other pieces, he was confronted by an array of unpredictable variables. What was worse, he could not be sure of his opponent's motives or what their outcome might be." (pp.163-164)
In other words, this is a traditional Doctor Who adventure. After the Virgin bombardment of "rad" stories such as Warhead and Transit, it's a step back to the cosy, old-fashioned style of story. There's a TARDIS crew separation, a bunch of evil aliens in the way, and a master criminal to outwit. And, as the above quote reinforces, the character of the Doctor is like that of the old days, as well. No manipulation, no puppetry. The seventh incarnation is like that of season 24 - arriving, encountering and reacting, just as previous Doctors did.
The Highest Science's traditional elements make for a refreshing change, even if this means it's a little more straightforward than what we've been used to in recent books. It's a good blend of action and mystery, with a quest-style adventure, complete with ancient legends, a mysterious city and a holy grail at the end of it all. Although hardly original, this novel succeeds because of Gareth Roberts's brisk, engaging prose and his subversion of the whole sub-genre (I'll come to this later).
Roberts manages to give convincing backstories to the various characters. The three festival-goers come from an intriguing subculture - the various genres of music, and the fact that they usurp and surpass each other as the most popular and influential in regular cycles, is quite amusing. I'm also glad music lovers of the future have their own bands and artists - it's a refreshing change from 20th century performers being the focus of their tastes (cf. Revelation of the Daleks, The Pit). But the three characters - Sendei, Molassi and Rodomonte - are not very interesting, and despite the conflicts between them, all the scenes with them are basically padding - to fill some time and give Bernice something to do while she's separated from the Doctor. They're also very rapidly despatched, indicating that the author doesn't know what to do with them (or that they've outlived their usefulness). Molassi's interpretations of Zagrat's music - all those pretty lady and clever boy "prophesies" - are mildly interesting but overall, these characters and their situations are merely pagefillers.
The Chelonians however, are a brilliantly realised alien race - the pictures of them on the cover add to this. They're a combination of Sontarans, Draconians and Daleks - warlike; imbued with a high sense of honour; and rampantly xenophobic, killing humans just because they're different. Their amazement that humans kill other humans (and one of their flimsy excuses for culling them) is a steal from The Power of the Daleks, but Roberts manages to get away with this, basically due to the excellent way he's depicted them. Fakrid and Jinkwa are the only two given any depth and analysis, but they're an interesting contrast. Although hardly endearing, Fakrid is the old soldier, to whom honour means everything, while Jinkwa is the upstart, who cannot handle power once he receives it.
But it's Sheldukher and his team that are the best realised of the characters (with the exception of Postine, who merely fulfils the henchperson muscle role). Sheldukher is built up as the master criminal, legendary and notorious, so it's quite fun to see him as a nondescript, average sort of man. But he's a right bastard, isn't he? Paranoid, sadistic and amoral. The way he ages Rosheen and Klift proves this, and those scenes are quite disturbing. Rosheen is given the greatest angle of reader empathy, but then there's that terrific moment when the Doctor, upon finding out who she is, turns his back on her. The Cell is excellently realised - it's repulsive while at the same time inducing pity. Its pain is awful to comprehend, and its death is something the reader wishes for as well, just so it's out of its misery.
The "eight twelves" are the incidental characters they're meant to be - Roberts avoids going too deep into their personas, although Vanessa's a brave and plucky girl, while that Witcher is a proper wanker - his death wasn't too unpredictable! The Doctor and Bernice come across well, though not spectacularly - the latter is largely sidelined in the red herring subplot, while her addiction to the bubbleshake isn't as dramatically milked as it could have been. The Doctor mentions the importance of treating her, but it's given no sense of urgency and played down too much. As mentioned already, the seventh Doctor is more the innocent traveller in this, but sometimes the characterisation is more akin to Patrick Troughton. In his tirades against the Chelonians while being held prisoner, the dialogue seems more suited to the Time Lord's second incarnation.
I've referred to the red herring in the plotting; I've also noted how Roberts subverts the quest adventure. Well, the ending is the ultimate red herring, and Roberts successfully manages to pull the rug from beneath the readers' feet. It's a proper deus ex machina, with the demise of the villain having been engineered from the beginning (a la The Hand of Fear, The Five Doctors), albeit in a more convincing way than these televised stories. But the build-up, with the Doctor and company making their way through the ruins of the temple, is rather flat. The beings they meet, the Monumental Guardian and the two Constructs, are hardly scintillating encounters. In hindsight this all makes sense, as it's not really a treasure hunt but a lure, but while it's happening there's a definite lack of edginess or mystery.
Nevertheless the idea of the Fortean flicker is inspired, allowing the perfect excuse for so many coincidences (although the one at the very end pushes it a bit.) Roberts writes well, and has injected lots of humour into the book, with some memorable quotes, and that "You can't mean... Strategy Z?" is so ludicrously bad it's just got to be deliberate!
The Highest Science is good fun and intelligently written, with its traditional feel imbuing it with a sense of charm. Despite some superfluous characters and scenes, it's highly enjoyable. 7.5/10
A Review by Finn Clark 13/9/04
Gareth Roberts is best-known for his MAs, three in Season Seventeen and one in Season Two, and rightly so. Those books are joyful romps that have always made me laugh (though their popularity among fandom seems to have diminished over the years), but his NAs are strange half-breeds: neither fish nor fowl. At times they're very dark, with political cynicism and a Mortimore-esque body count, but somehow they're also trying to bubble with Gareth's gift for comedy. The result is often an uneven tone that serves neither the darkness and the gags.
I think Gareth's NAs got worse as they went on. Zamper is dull. Tragedy Day is great fun for the first 200 pages, then falls apart so spectacularly that it becomes barely readable. Even The Highest Science isn't without its problems, but despite a "two bees in a jar" plot I thought it was entertaining and a genuinely strong book.
First and foremost, it made me laugh! This book isn't an out-and-out comedy, but it has a consistently ironic tone and some killer gags. I defy anyone to read Mr Peploe's story on p13 without chuckling, while p61 has my all-time favourite comedy scene in an NA. ("The Doctor decided it was almost like real life, in a glamorized sort of way.") There are British cultural references, but somehow Gareth Roberts manages to make you laugh instead of swear when he parodies a line from a classic movie. It's like the pisstake chapter titles in Donald Cotton's Target novelisations, inspiring Virgin authors to try to do the same but with somewhat tragic effect. Donald Cotton is funny and his imitators weren't. Simple as that. So is Gareth Roberts.
The book's characters are a curate's egg, but overall it's pretty good. I'm not normally a fan of the Chelonians, but they're great here. Admittedly they have the IQ of over-boiled cabbage, but their interactions with the Doctor are a hoot and I was charmed by the one who wanted to be a florist. I liked Sheldukher too, who miraculously manages to avoid being a Hannibal Lecter retread and is kinda fun to read about. His criminal associates even manage a little depth, with the Cell and Rosheen getting some genuine emotion. I cared about both o' those, despite the fact that neither of them should theoretically be a sympathetic character.
Unfortunately we also have the eight-twelves and the space-heads. The eight-twelves are likeable, but their sole plot purpose is to be victims. They get nothing to do. What's worse, the resolution of their story undercuts an entertaining book with a depressing ending, which felt so inappropriate that I can't believe it didn't end up being retconned in Happy Endings. In fact, maybe it did and I missed it.
(NOTE: it did and I did. Happy Endings (pp3-6) opens with Romana tracing the Fortean Flicker, finding the eight-twelves trapped in the stasis field and rescuing them all. With thanks for the correction to John Seavey.)
Then we have the boring loser space-heads: Molassi, Sendei and Rodomonte. For a while I thought Rodomonte was the middle name of Chris Cwej, which would have been kinda cool. Continuity in futuristic names! Unfortunately I was wrong; I was thinking of Rodonante.
I have plot quibbles. How do the Chelonians know that the eight-twelves are called eight-twelves? The Fortean Flicker concept is largely wasted (compare with Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun), being almost more important for a retcon in Happy Endings! And have I grumbled enough yet about that unnecessary downer ending? Probably not. In some books it would be appropriate, but this is not such a book.
There's an unusual attitude to death. It's casual but ironic, like Jim Mortimore on a giggle fit. Sometimes it made me laugh. Sometimes it felt sad. And sometimes it felt gratuitous, as if Gareth had decided to kill the cast one by one and was knocking them off at random whenever possible.
I called this a "two bees in a jar" plot, so I should probably define terms. Simply put, this book has no villain. Presumably there's an entity who's dragged all these unrelated people through time to the planet Sakkrat... or is there? Nope, what you see is what you get. Admittedly the Chelonians and Sheldukher aren't nice guys, but they're not the villains. They're as clueless as anyone else. They simply have a worse attitude about it. Notwithstanding the Highest Science which Sheldukher came looking for, in practice this novel is 250 pages of random antagonists running around Sakkrat blindly trying to kill each other. It's like watching bees fight in a jar. It's entertaining in a sadistic sort of way, but you can't say it's going anywhere.
Despite such quibbles, though, I still think this is Gareth Roberts's best NA. It's as entertaining as the best bits of Tragedy Day while largely avoiding the lowpoints of his other NAs. It suffers from that uneven tone I was talking about, but to a lesser extent than plenty of Gareth's other books. Truly funny Doctor Who books are rare enough to be special - and for my money this is one of them.
Enter the Chelonians by Joe Ford 24/9/06
Gareth Roberts, what a worker. He has had to write half a dozen novels (including a NDA), the TARDISodes, the interactive adventure and several comic strips before he gets a spot on the new series. I didn't see Cornell working that hard! Seriously though Gareth Roberts is a name I haven't had much time for over the years and I feel I owe the man an apology as clearly his own brand of Doctor Who is far more worthy than I gave credit. I don't think he writes particularly good novels but he does write excellent nostalgia, especially if you enjoy the lighter side of the show. His season seventeen MAs are unrivalled in popularity, Only Human was a spectacular hit for the hardbacks but personally my favourite is The Plotters, easily Roberts' most intelligent and witty book. His New Adventures were slightly different, his brand of fluffy comedy not really suiting their darker, boundary-pushing format (there's an oxymoron if ever you heard one!).
Of his three I would say The Highest Science is his best. Even though it does share some of the problems of the other NAs up to this point it is far more enjoyable than any one of them (except Nightshade but that's just the Gatiss fan in me!). Here you have a book which is packed full of imagination and clever ideas, great jokes, interesting characters and a fantastic, fantastic Doctor. Whilst it lacks a plot, a satisfying conclusion and an intelligent narrative (thus far an NA trait) these factors more than compensate. For this reason the first fifty pages are easily the best, where Roberts is introducing his concepts, trying to make us laugh, kick-starting the story, I was flicking through this pages laughing and oogling at the man's creativity.
Oh yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Without a doubt the best interpretation of the seventh Doctor in print to this point, a fabulously naughty and impish little man who contains great knowledge, awes at wonders, laughs at jokes but still has immense gravity when the situation calls for it. I absolutely fell in love with the Doctor here and could see McCoy dishing out every single line. Brilliant. There are some lovely observations about him: The question mark jumper is the Doctor's deprecatory sense of humour extending to his personality. He is more relaxed outside of the TARDIS as though his ship unnerves him. His favourite time of day is dawn: a time of optimism before you realise today is going to be exactly the same as yesterday. Described as the weirdo in the hat! After a civilised chat with a Chelonian the Doctor is reminded of the hope that still exists in the universe. Sceptical, and a little naive. It is easy to forget the rest of the universe, especially the human part of it, does not operate on the same basis of the Doctor's clean-cut standards. He beats the rest of the universe hands down at being unpredictable. It was worth trudging through all his frowns to see just one of his smiles. Brilliantly, he longs for a good old-fashioned invasion after so many temporal distortions.
And he's funny too; check out these gags and tell me that the seventh Doctor can't be witty!
"You can't build a tracking device that doesn't beep, can you?"It is clear from this book alone that Bernice complements him far more than Ace, bringing out his protective side (as a companion should) but also his humour and his intelligence. Bernice is one again treated to a mind wipe (and they said the eighth Doctor was remiss!) and spends a great deal of the middle sections stumbling around not really knowing what is going on or who she is, almost as if the writers could not be bothered to figure out how to write for her. A shame because when Roberts does write a coherent Benny she is as witty and as inelegant as she comes! According to the Doctor she is genuine pleasure to know, a rare compliment I don't recall him ever telling Ace.
"I can't imagine the High Council authorising the use of a TARDIS to investigate something so spurious. Particularly when they could be watching paint dry on the Panopticon walls!"
"'Bernice, someone's shooting at you!' 'Oh really?'"
"'Hermaphrodites! Hang about, an old flame of mine kept tortoises, and he definitely had one of each." "Oh really, how fascinating" remarked the Doctor "He was hermaphrodite too?"
"He (the Doctor) had never favoured telepathy as a means of communication; something about rolling words on his tongue (particularly ones with rrs in) appealed much to him.
"A second hand salesman with delusions of grandeur, I've faced worse."
"'It doesn't like you Doctor!' 'This is ridiculous, I'm the only one wearing a tie!'"
"I once had to convince a deranged dishwasher that it didn't want to take over the universe."
The severe lack of plot gets irritating after a while and it becomes obvious that the characters are just running on the spot until the conclusion; basically the Chelonians, humans, mercenaries are all brought to Sakkrat and squabble for 200 odd pages. Nothing of much relevance happens to advance the plot in that time and it becomes clear that the Fortean Flicker is just an excuse to bring in diversions to stop the story climaxing after 50 pages. Worse is the fact that the book seems to be leading up to a huge twist regarding The Highest Science that will mark the book's importance but unfortunately it all fizzles out when the huge twists is... that the planet Sakkrat isn't the planet Sakkrat at all, it's the planet Hogsumm instead and the whole thing has been a huge deception. No big answers, not even as to why this deception was necessary or when the Cell was so important. Thought Match of the Day's ending was annoying? You ain't seen nothing yet.
But I don't want to come down too hard on The Highest Science as I did enjoy it a lot. There were some lovely moments along the way that make the journey really worthwhile. Fakrid's babies being born stillborn is heartbreaking, the adult nature of these books finally blossoming into some strong storytelling. Sheldukher's story, his parent's death and his attempts to fill the boredom that left him with painful, violent, funny, explosive, gratifying things is really disturbing. The Cell's attempts to commit suicide reach a dramatic crescendo when it builds the ship's furnace reaction to critical. Ozaran's "unthinkable" act, disobeying an officer's instruction and turning from his suicide attack to blow up units nineteen and forty is excellent, just what these aggressive tortoises need!
Gareth Roberts clearly does not want to go down the same depressing roads as most of the other writers and is hell bent on letting us see the Doctor enjoying his travels and for that we can only give him a fat sloppy kiss. The Doctor is an absolute joy in this book and it would make a good template for other writers who might want to see why the seventh Doctor can be so unique and yet utterly enjoyable. I feel as though I should be harder on this book but to be honest I found so much of it a delight to read I am feeling uncharacteristically generous. It is this sort of book that lead to the evolution of classics like The Plotters, Mad Dogs and Englishmen and The Tomorrow Windows.
Fluffy and flawed but hugely enjoyable.
A Review by Jean-Marcel Casey 29/3/10
I'm not exactly a complete newcomer to Virgin's New Adventures, but I only managed to collect about fifteen of them in the 1990s and have only read a few others since then. Recently, I came by a rather large batch of the series as well as many of the BBC eighth Doctor books (I've read a mere single one of those since their inception!) and thus I have an exciting trove of hitherto untapped Doctor Who tales to lose myself in. Yes, it's very thrilling! What's more, I've always thought that Doctor Who had huge possibilities within the novel form, because this concept that we are so fond of, humbly created so long ago by folks at the BBC, is almost limitless in its scope and potential, and the ability for writers to explore material that is, to paraphrase Virgin's old adage, "too broad and deep for the small screen" is huge. I'm not only talking about epic conflicts and the conflagration of solar systems here, but real character drama, which I feel much more comfortable with in literature than on television, where it seldom really feels like it belongs and often comes off seeming more trite and shallow than it ought to do.
I decided to begin my 2010 Virgin explorations with Gareth Roberts's The Highest Science, since I thought I'd go more or less in chronological order, and this was the earliest novel I'd obtained which I hadn't yet read. No other reason, really, and I knew I wouldn't be bowled over by a complex plot, and didn't really expect stellar writing, either. I'd listened to Gareth Roberts's The One Doctor Big Finish play, as well as something else whose name is currently escaping me, so I also figured I'd be in for considerable doses of humour, and the question in my mind was, would I be able to laugh along, or would this stuff find me wincing and groaning? I have to make a confession here, and that is that these days I like Doctor Who to be played rather straight, without glibness or undue flippancy or postmodern digs. Humorous elements are certainly welcome, but they ought not to drive the narrative or utterly consume the plot and characters with bad repartee and painful witicisms. When I was a youngster, I thought Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the subsequent books were great entertainment, funny and endearing and fine science fiction stories to boot, but these days I think "The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul" is Adams's best book, because the levity just feels more natural and right in a modern-day setting full of people and places that are familiar, and often deserve to be trashed and ridiculed. Comedy science fiction rarely seems to work out for me because it feels too much like a spoof, and while Adams can still make me grin and chuckle, I think his influence has been a little unfortunate, both because of this perceived spoofism and because, to put it simply and bluntly, few people are actually as funny as he was.
The reason for this tangent about Douglas Adams should be obvious by now. The Highest Science feels like sub-Adams. It's no wonder that most of Roberts' other Virgin Who publications have been written to coincide with The fourth Doctor and season 17, since this was the period of the show's run during which Adams was script editor, and it's a period that Roberts clearly loves to death. There are even a couple of direct Hitchhiker's Guide references thrown into the book; the bit where Jinkwa the Chelonian refers to "the cacophanies of Traal" is the one which immediately springs to mind.
Talking of the Chelonians, aren't they more than a little like the Vogons? Stupidly aggressive, shouting a lot, seeming to be the butt of everyone else's jokes even though they're intended to be a deadly menace to all characters, even themselves. Oh, they're supposed to be some kind of military society, but they sure seem inept and I can't imagine these Chelonians actually mounting a successful campaign. They're only on Sakkrat an extra few days and General Fakrid's hormones are already going all out of wack and he's losing his mind and nobody thought to bring along extra supplements or whatever he needs? Military campaigns aren't like walking the dog; they overextend almost all the time; surely this should have been a prepared-for contingency. Nevertheless, the Chelonians are admittedly amusing and the book was somewhat brightened by their presence.
But you see, this book has a special ability, and that is the principal of brain disengagement. If you think too much about the irritating plot holes, the boring characters and the bad quips, you'll tie yourself in knots of frustration and not finish the book. I think the mark of a fan, or a nerd, if you like, is when you get your hands on some bad piece of writing that belongs to your favourite franchise, you read through it, finishing the damn thing, knowing all the while that it's a junky filler and yet wanting to keep going because it's a part of what you love; that being, in this instance, the Doctor Who universe. This is exactly what happened to me, and it's amusing, since in my job and for my own pleasure I come by a huge number of books and skim through many of them, and I usually know within a few pages whether I'll have any interest in actually persevering with a piece of literature. I can't explain why I finished The Highest Science, other than to say that it was a Doctor Who book, and the first one I'd read in probably four years.
It's actually the characters of the Doctor and to a lesser extent Bernice that earned my approval here. As much as Roberts may love Doctor number four, he made the seventh's dialogue seem very true to his screen persona and I could certainly envisage McCoy rapping out all these lines. Bernice was a new companion at this point and doesn't fare as well, but it helped that I was already somewhat familiar with her character and usually think of her as voiced by Lisa Bowerman as in Big Finish's tales. She's suitably sarcastic and a bit breathless; though she's "out of it" for quite a bit of the novel she's certainly more in character than she was in Transit. Unfortunately, while the Doctor's dialogue is mostly spot on, there's some irritating glibness on display in describing him and even delving a little into his thought processes. His reason for not fully endorsing telepathy (because you can't roll words with lots of rs in them off the tongue when you're not actually speaking) is pretty silly and seemed more a jab at Sylv's performance than at the character himself.
Interestingly, in one scene, Roberts encapsulates both the best and the worst of his portrayal of the seventh Doctor. This is when the Doctor is on Sheldukher's ship, and Rosheen is aged decades and weakened by Sheldukher's implant. Instinctively, the Doctor feels solicitous and goes to help her, even though he must know that, since she's on Sheldukher's ship, she can't exactly be a harmless innocent and is likely to be a criminal of some kind. This certainly seems true to his character; though the Doctor may have had moments where he appears aloof and a little indifferent, most of the time he can be counted upon to assist those who are clearly in need without stint or prejudice (unless they're Daleks or Ice Warriors, perhaps!). The two of them start up a conversation and seem quite companionable until Rosheen tells the Doctor her name, at which point he says something along the lines of "Oh no! It's you! You massacred a thousand planets!" and turns his back on her contemptuously. While I can certainly imagine the Doctor acting in such a dismissive fashion, I'm also pretty damn sure that he of all people ought to know that history is written by the victors in any conflict, and since he's never met Sheldukher or any of his partners before, he has no reason to believe everything he's explicitly heard or read about them.
Sheldukher himself isn't very interesting. One of my fellow reviewers here pointed out that it was nice to see a villain who was sinister but free of the usual megalomaniac ranting and was rather calm and collected as opposed to shouting and frothing. All well and good, I say, but when he believes his goal is within reach, Shelduhker is about as manic and feverish as he really ought to be. This isn't a problem for me at all, but he's certainly still a "camp" creation, and I'd argue, one of the worst kind. All this "Rumours of my breath are greatly exaggerated", and "This weapon is very handy for destroying constellations" stuff is so jarring in every sense to this particular, admittedly perhaps finicky reader. What's more, the notion of blowing up whole constellations with some big gun of twenty-fourth century design is ludicrous enough and out of keeping with perceived Terran future history. Roberts simply has a propensity for whipping the reader with extraneous throwaway lines that feel like an author's parody rather than words from the mouth of a legitimate creation given depth and personality. Some gravitas in dealing with the dissolution of entire clusters of stars really isn't too much to ask for!
Someone here described Andrew Cartmel's Warhead as possessing a "dreamlike feel", and that was interesting for me to read because that novel feels very realistic and clear to me, whereas The Highest Science actually does bear the hallmarks of a goofy dream about Doctor Who. There's plenty of illogic to go around, and Roberts acknowledges some of this by creating the phenomenon of the fortean flicker to explain away the entire premise of the story. The flicker itself is a pretty rubbish idea, clearly designed to let the writer get away with just about anything he fancies. Actually, I had an entertaining mental picture of Gareth Roberts sitting down to watch Ghost Light one day and grumbling perplexedly about how the story didn't make any sense and was full of "random stuff", and that if this was the kind of thing the fellows at Virgin wanted for a new Doctor Who novel he could just dash one off for a lark. "I'll give 'em random stuff!", Roberts crows, putting a bunch of papers and sundry objects into a big box, shaking it and turning it up-side down! The very nature of the story is that a bunch of things with nothing in common get all mixed together without rhyme or reason. What conceit! It doesn't excuse sloppy writing, though, or the bizarre actions of characters, and the book lacks any real atmosphere that would make lapses of logic (as in a Lucio Fulci film) excusable.
So many things about this book had me throwing up my hands in disgust. Ideas are put forward, seem interesting for a moment, then just fizzle out. Why does a Chelonian drink a can of bubbleshake, and how come the Doctor recognises it so quickly? Why does General Fakrid blame all his problems on the Doctor when he's barely met him? How come the two women from the train come by a laser gun and start blowing away Chelonians, while Mr. Witcher still thinks they're near London after a nuclear catastrophe? Isn't saying "the Cell can outthink all other life forms" a sort of abstract cop-out? It doesn't mean anything. All the thing ever does is complain! And to think, some faceless corporation went through all the trouble to concoct a legend and build some structures only to make them ruins, just to get a hold of that wailing suicide case? By the way, there's no room for a sense of wonder as the characters explore the ruins; they're about the most boring ruins of an ancient civilisation in written history. Why does Roberts describe the depicted figures as "caucasian"? Surely, as they're supposed to be alien though humanoid, the best way to describe them would be "white-skinned"?
I was also pretty disappointed with the three music fans, who served no purpose at all other than to get Bernice to the ruins and then get killed. The author's little attempts at creating backstory for irrelevant characters are flimsy and appear tagged on as an afterthought. That band Zagrat though sounds like just the sort of spacerock extravaganza I could totally get into! I entertained myself briefly by imagining that the band sounded like Hawkwind on a binge of particularly potent hallucinogens, but then wondered if Molassi was really the sort of person who could appreciate that sort of long-winded stuff. Ah well, he was just a follower anyway, and his suicide when he believed that one of his idols had sold out was a cheap shot that still made me chuckle a little.
The Highest Science even lacks a resolution that could inspire anything than a shrug and a sigh. What am I saying? What resolution? There are a few wires pulled, some glittery lights and an "Oh, I suppose that's all I can do for now... maybe I'll think of something else another time," from the Doctor. You think I'm kidding? I wish I were. If there were something untraditional and groundbreaking about The Highest Science, we could possibly excuse it a little more from being a crap story, but as I've already pointed out, the book reads like one of those dreams you have as an exuberant fan of the series during which you imagine you're travelling with the Doctor, or are him yourself. This is the sort of book I'd be embarrassed to talk about with most people, and while there are some fairly positive reviews here on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, I'm willing to bet that most of these people forgot the book pretty quickly. In other words, it's mediocre, even if you like "that sort of thing", and I really don't. To put it into perspective, I've started my next Virgin New Adventure, the often-maligned The Pit, and I can honestly say that I'm far more intrigued by that novel than I was with this one, during which I frequently checked to see just how many pages I still had to read before I could say that I'd finally done with the thing.
A Review by Jamie Beckwith 2/11/10
As the biggest armada ever assembled swooped in on Earth in The Pandorica Opens, of all the aliens I was most excited about seeing was the Chelonians. Alas we didn't end up seeing them onscreen (although they were definitely there along with Koquillion, the Bandrils and the Steel Octopus) but their mention was a welcome acknowledgement of their place in the Doctor Who universe and a tip of the hat to creator Gareth Roberts who now writes for the show himself, the lucky swine!
Chelonians of course are cyborg tortoises from space intent on wiping out the infestation of humans who encroach upon their territories, although there are some with a penchant for flower arranging. The Highest Science is a witty and confident novel and allows us our first real glimpse of Bernice as the new travelling companion. With a nice line in sarcasm and brave without resorting to bravado, she’s a welcome (gin and) tonic to the angst-driven plots of Ace in the novels up to that point.
A series of seemingly random and unconnected events are stirred into the pot, from a tube carriage displaced across time and space (reworked as a red double decker in Planet of the Dead) to the most infamous criminal in the galaxy searching for the secrets of the universe, making this a fun, entertaining and highly recommended read.