BBC Books
The King of Terror

Author Keith Topping Cover image
ISBN# 0 563 53802 3
Published 2000
Continuity Between The Awakening
and Frontios

Synopsis: The Brigadier asks the Doctor to investigate a multimedia company's Los Angeles headquarters. But their infiltration is disrupted by the murderous games of terrorists seeking the fulfillment of age-old prophecies.


A Review by Finn Clark 14/11/00

I had absolutely no expectations for this book. The title's dull (more of a title-oid, really) and the author's name was a complete blank in my memory. Reading Devil Goblins from Neptune can do that to you. So on starting my reading experience I was surprised to find that I was reading some really, really good stuff... but unfortunately that wasn't the only surprise I had before the end.

It's schizoid, basically. I'll start by reviewing the beginning.

This book starts beautifully, displaying craftsmanship that made me slow down just for the pleasure of wallowing in the words. For a while I thought we had a new star on our hands. I don't know if it's inspiration or just Keith taking extra time over it, but King of Terror begins wonderfully.

Then it changes. The plot starts kicking in, though not very fast. We meet Jules and Vincent - sorry, that should read Paynter and Barrington. Don't know what came over me there! They may not be hit men, but they're slick gun-toting professionals with a sideline in cultural stereotyping along the lines of Pulp Fiction's "you know what they call a Big Mac in France?" I thought they were great fun. Paynter and Barrington visit Los Angeles and discuss it a lot. I understand most of this is an extended reference to a Certain Doctor Who Convention, which would probably have bugged the shit out of me if I'd been able to spot these references. As I couldn't, I enjoyed it hugely. This is one of the best double-acts I've seen in Doctor Who fiction for some time. Lovely characterisation, lovely dialogue.

The regulars turn up and meet UNIT, which is all very enjoyable and nostalgic. Strangely, what it made me nostalgic for was Deep Blue. Thanks to BBC Books, it seems that the fifth Doctor, Tegan and Turlough have been established in my brain as traditional partners of the Brigadier and UNIT. How peculiar. King of Terror makes a sort of companion piece with Deep Blue, or perhaps even a trilogy with Mawdryn Undead.

And then it changes again. The writing becomes only workmanlike and the book starts depending on its plot, which is a shame as I didn't think the plot was particularly well constructed. The resolution largely depends on men with guns and high-tech gadgets. Turlough is sidelined in a way that feels simultaneously inappropriate and old hat. Tegan gets her own little subplot, but alas it feels vaguely wrong. I didn't buy it. And the Doctor gets almost nothing to do. This isn't really a book about the Doctor so much as it's about UNIT and its people. If it wasn't for the Brigadier (whose portrayal is a highlight of the book and always rock-solid), I think this might have struggled to feel like Doctor Who.

It was around this point that I started thinking inappropriate thoughts. Some time I plan to do a systematic reread of all the near-future UNIT books, which I expect will make no sense. We've had Evil UNIT, Good UNIT, Trad UNIT, Renamed UNIT... Take King of Terror, Dominion, The Pit, Head Games and Lawrence Miles's UNISYC, then explain how they all tie together. (For bonus points, include the hint in DWM's Mark of Mandragora that UNIT might become the FHD.)

Particularly bizarre, however, are the hints that Keith Topping's subconscious was becoming vaguely alarmed at the downward direction the book had taken. The Doctor actually comments on how little he's been given to do, while Tegan's misadventures are described as a crass comedy subplot "that's impressing precisely no one." I believe this is technically known as a "signal from Fred", a comic alarm signal from the author's subconscious in which the text starts making critical comments on itself. "This doesn't make sense." "This sounds like a bad movie." [Attr. Damon Knight.]

Good things: There's a halfway decent effort at creating a new ongoing villain for the books, which I applaud. By and large, the books have been utterly shite at creating decent bad guys. Sustained character analysis, yes. Interesting scary f*ckers, no.

Bad things: Johnny Chester was a mistake, I think. He's got nothing to do with the story and distracted me. The little alternate-universe details are also annoying. One realises that it's just the author having fun with the fact that the Whoniverse isn't our real world, but the simple process of stopping to work that out is a minor derailment of one's suspension of disbelief.

As you can see I've picked nits in the book's later sections, but overall I'd recommend this. Even at its lowest point (the resolution) it's fun and readable, while some bits of it are wonderful. Even without my favourite sections, it would still be a cut above many of the PDAs.

Supplement 9/3/03:

Bwahahahaha! Man oh man, I don't think I've ever laughed so hard at a Doctor Who book. I'm so glad I chose to reread this. Where to start...

In one respect, this book is great! It's not a good vehicle for Davison and his companions, but its portrayal of post-seventies UNIT is the best I've read. Unlike some others, it's not some depressing account of how they've turned to evil and everyone who ever worked there hates themselves and wants to commit suicide. Instead we meet a distinctive bunch of professional world-savers who have a job to do and get on with it. Paynter and Barrington are wonderfully entertaining and down-to-earth; it's a shame about the Mary-Sueing with Paynter because it hurts what in all other respects is a terrific character. I also adored Natalie Wooldridge and her relationship with the Brigadier. (Her reaction to meeting the Doctor is a scream.)

The Brigadier is used well too. He's treated as a hero, yes, but not as a whiter-than-white emblem of decency, honesty, courage and truth. Keith Topping is having much fun milking his unreconstructed attitudes for comedy value; this is not a politically correct leader of men. I laughed like a loon.

In fact we're doubly fortunate that this wasn't a more conventional UNIT portrayal, since this is their story. Forget the TARDIS crew! Turlough spends the entire book being tortured. You think I'm kidding? Tegan, amazingly, fares even worse. The Doctor stands on the sidelines, analysing his own character like a man answering his reviewers. To all intents and purposes, this is a UNIT novel that happens to include some fleeting guest appearances from the Season 21 regulars.

Turlough gets one particularly odd scene. Let loose in Los Angeles for the first time, naturally he visits a bar and drinks eight pints of beer in a scene that also involves women and football. (Byzantium! gave us a similarly uncharacteristic portrayal of Ian Chesterton.) If you can't see the comedy there, this book is not for you. (Check out p232 and Turlough's "respect" for an even bigger laugh.)

So the TARDIS crew aren't up to much. That's only the beginning! Nor, sadly, is the plot. It's a "Two Warring Alien Factions" story and those never work. The bad guys are boring. The plot is resolved by aliens kicking hell out of each other while the theoretical protagonists stand on the sidelines. The cover blurb claims that "Los Angeles becomes a warzone in which humanity is merely a helpless bystander," but you could add "the Doctor and UNIT" to that sentence too. Even Control is more interesting than the book's nominal villains, despite the fact that these days he's only wheeled on for irrelevant bottom-billed cameos.

It's like certain Gary Russell novels. The plot isn't worth your time, but it's fun to read anyway because of the character interactions. Well, basically everyone in UNIT. I also liked the way in which UNIT LA keeps up the understaffed traditions of UNIT San Francisco (see Vampire Science) by employing precisely three people: Mel Tyrone, Natalie Wooldridge and David Milligan. (Tyrone is a dude, by the way.)

On rereading I didn't mind nonsense like Johnny Chester's scene, incidentally. Since the plot isn't worth worrying about, why not include a pointless character moment? However those alternate-universe Beatles were too much; I'll accept fictional prime ministers and presidents, but George, Billy, Klaus and Ringo were annoying. (And besides, we've seen references to the real Beatles in Gary Russell's novels; see the names of Liz Shaw's guinea pigs, for a start.)

And then there's the unintentional comedy.

Captain Geoff Paynter. He's a great character, but what a Mary-Sue! He's a rough diamond but everyone loves him! And then there's his unconvincing romance with Tegan... I'm sorry, but I laughed aloud at p183. It's like the punchline of a bad joke, or a self-spoof. Dumbness ensues, followed by a Message From Fred on p231: "This is stupid," Paynter said. "It's a crass romantic comedy subplot that's impressing precisely no one." Funniest. Line. Ever.

The Doctor gets something similar on p257: "Would all of this still have happened if I hadn't been here?" That's right, Keith, he wanted more plot involvement! (Though I do wonder what would have happened in 1999 if the Doctor hadn't shown up for Dominion, King of Terror, Millennium Shock, Millennial Rites, etc. Imagine the Voracians kicking the shit out of the Jax and the Canavitchi while Ashley Chapel turns everyone into elves and goblins.)

I understand large chunks of the Paynter-Barrington observations will be familiar to any Gallifrey-goers. I've never attended that convention, so I didn't care. Much about this book is iffy, but coming back to it a second time meant that I knew what to ignore and so found it highly entertaining. A hoot.

Ought To Be Called King of Errors by Tammy Potash 24/1/01

OK, the good stuff first: characters. All characters in this book are done very well, from the UNIT guys to the aliens to the regulars, especilly Turlough. The Fifth Doctor is presented a bit nebulously, but other than that, it's fine.

The bad stuff: everything else. Okinawa is consistently spelled incorrectly. Someone's got to teach Topping that it is NOT acceptable to describe someone's appearance by saying he looks like Cary Grant with shorter ears. It's lazy, it's sloppy, if you've never seen the person being referred to it's meaningless, and physical description should state something essential about the character, like in Lord of the Flies. Piggy has asthma, is tubby, and wears glasses. What color hair he has, or his ear length, is utterly irrelevant. After System Shock, Last of the Gadarene, and The Sunmakers, I'm tired of aliens in the boardroom. Please find something else. The fanwank count is right up with Divided Loyalties. Sometimes it's neat, like the reference to Cold Fusion. Mostly it isn't; there are way too many tie-ins to the abysmal Devil Goblins of Neptune, and oddly, none to Deep Blue. Johnny Chess should have been excised from the book. I'm tired of the alternate universe thing with the Beatles' replacement cast memeber and such. And I'm assuming the author was joking when he said the Brigadier has met NINE Doctors so far, but I'm open to emails on this. Lars Pearson is going to have quite a bit to put in the Ass-Whuppings section for this book.

It's better than Independence Day, especially from a first-time solo novelist, but nowhere near as good as Festival of Death; now there's a first novel that's a polished gem. I'm still waiting for a BBC 5th Doctor book that's as good as Goth Opera or Crystal Bucephalus, or Cold Fusion.

A Review by John Seavey 19/6/01

In a word: Errrrrr...

In several words, Topping tries to pull off a serious stunt, here, taking the "aliens in the boardroom" plot, which is almost more of a sub-genre than a cliche of Doctor Who by now, and strip it down to its bare minimum, counting on sheer style to keep us from noticing how little plot there is. It almost succeeds, too...clears the canyon, but perhaps skins its knees and scuffs its jacket here and there.

The book can more or less be divided into "things that worked" and "things that didn't." Things That Worked: Turlough's escape from his torturers; Paynter and Barrington's "squaddie eye view" of UNIT; the characterization of the Brigadier; characters' general reactions to odd, small moments, like Johnny Chess's guest appearance, or the UFO; the discussion at the end of what humanity will be remembered for; and, in general, the style of the book.

Things That Didn't: Turlough's torture (why do writers in the books always feel the need to torture the Doctor and his companions?); the plot, which is almost non-existent and has a deus ex machina ending that comes right out of Topping's arse; the cliched "first they fight, then they kiss" scenes between Paynter and Tegan; the American dialogue en masse; the six or seven mentions of the Waro when they're not in the sodding book; Control, who I just don't get... is this some in-joke Topping has going with someone?... and the first two pages of dialogue, which are so purple as to choke one.

On the whole, the book is very good unless you start to think about what's actually happening in it; then you rapidly realize that the plot can be summarized in about two sentences. :)

Next up, The Quantum Archangel, which I'm about five pages into and already dreading... haven't really enjoyed Hinton's first three books, and this looks to be no exception.

Deep Blue II by Robert Smith? 8/11/01

The King of Terror, surprisingly, is not the worst Doctor Who book I have ever read. But that's not for want of trying.

What the hell is this? Who thought this had any redeemable features whatsoever, let alone allowed it to escape from solitary confinement and be leashed upon the unsuspecting public? Justin Richards, you might have single-handedly redeemed the EDAs, you might have had a number of very reasonable and interesting directions for the poor maligned line, you might be a fine writer yourself who understands plot construction and characterisation, but what on earth were you thinking when you let this slip through the safety net?

The King of Terror starts off badly. I mean, doing-something-incredibly-boring-like- walking-through-an-airport-and-then- describing-it-in-a-novel badly. The first 50 pages are an incredibly painful continuity-filled travelogue of the author's visit to a Los Angeles Doctor Who convention. Okay, the events are masquerading under the flimsy disguise of two soldiers reminiscing about being the third extra on the left in episode 3 of Robot, but we get great chunks of characters walking through the airport, sitting in cafes, visiting the hotel where I'm sure the convention was held. Two more chapters and they'd have been getting drunk in the bar while ogling Wendy Padbury, mark my words.

And yet... these 50 pages are the best written of the novel. I thought it couldn't sink any further than this, and yet this was the novel's writing peak. Okay Paynter and Barrington are mildly interesting when they're not retroactively mary-sueing their way into seventies Doctor Who stories. And when one of them dies, it's a genuinely well-written scene. The prologue with the God-Emperor himself (also known as the Brigadier) is a little bit interesting until the Waro get mentioned for no apparent reason whatsoever and I was contractually obligated to fling the book across the room. And... nope, that's it for the good stuff.

The regulars. For the love of Terrance Dicks, the regulars. Tegan has a romance that's so unconvincing that even the character involved tells us. Huh? Keith, listen to your word processor when it starts commenting on the plot, that's probably a very good sign. The Doctor does, um, what exactly? Nothing of interest, anyway. Turlough gets gruesomely tortured to within an inch of his life and then gets to murder his torturer and conveniently let off scot-free. I thought that was very considerate of the author to intervene in the story like that in case something dreadful happened, like actual consequences or something.

And what's with the gleeful descriptions of every last piece of violence and torture that takes place in this book? There are places to work out your inner rage and they're not called Doctor Who novels. If I were Mark Strickson's testicles, I'd be worried. (For a variety of reasons.)

This book ties in with Escape Velocity, and what a pair they make. Of course, in The Keith of Topping aliens invade and nearly destroy the entire world. As witnessed by, you know, everyone. On television. And in Escape Monstrosity, set a mere year and half later, aliens invade and everyone is rather surprised to see that aliens exist. We're not talking about Lt Hemmings' first name changing here. If you're going to have your books tied in to one another, it helps not to contradict each other's entire plot, guys.

Oh, but I haven't mentioned the dumbest bit, yet. Okay, admittedly it's a tough pick in this travesty, but for my money it's the pre-Millennial apocalyptic doom. In a book published in October 2000. Not only is that a pretty loopy idea to begin with, not only does the Nostradamus stuff feel incredibly out of place and not only have five billion other works already covered the exact same material, only better and, um, actually before the Y2K non-event (including Millennium Shock in the same line of novels!), but we're all so thoroughly sick of it by now that even if you'd given us the brilliant TV series Millennium at its height, it would be dull. Words fail me. I can only presume that Keith wrote this novel sometime in 1999 and was so convinced that an apocalypse was imminent that it didn't matter what piece of hackwork he turned in, we'd all be dead before it was published. By a startling coincidence, I was hoping for the exact same thing.

And what's with the title? It's almost begging to be called The King of Error, so much so that I'm wondering if this whole book was some sort of perverse joke. It's such a non-title that it might as well have been called The Noun of Noun (see, this really is a Doctor Who story in case all the pointless continuity didn't convince you, although it's true that Doctor Who usually had interesting characters and plotting and entertainment value and witty dialogue and humour, but look, another continuity reference!) and be done with it.

If I ever track down the person on rec.arts.drwho who uttered those infamous words "On your own? Yeah. Sure" that Keith tells us inspired him to write the book, they're going to be very sorry indeed. You won't appreciate being proved more right than you could possibly envision when I'm finished with you, you complete and utter bastard.

There's a lesson to be learned from writing fifth Doctor and UNIT PDA's. Don't. This book retreads so many of the sins Deep Blue committed, not least of which are the fifteen billion continuity references. Okay, sure, mention the Waro on page 1 if you like if they're the principal villains of your novel and for no other reason. I'm so convinced that this should be rule number one of "the Doctor Who guide for lazy authors" that I have a sneaking suspicion Justin commissioned this so he could have an easy reference volume to everything that usually goes wrong in PDA submissions.

The King of Terror is an appalling novel. I hope the author got some pleasure out of writing it, because there wasn't much to be had reading it. It's full of gruesome violence, continuity references substituting for characterisation (see also Deep Blue and Divided Loyalties... and my condolences to fifth Doctor fans out there - you poor, poor people) and it just drags interminably. It's not just bad, it's boring too. Avoid this book like the travesty it is.

A Review by Richard Radcliffe 29/1/04

Having really enjoyed Deep Blue (the other novel that contains all these characters) I was quite looking forward to this one. The 5th Doctor hasn't spent that much time with the Brigadier and UNIT. Tegan and Turlough were one of the more crotchety TARDIS teams, and the mix promised to be an interesting one.

Keith Topping has filled his book with a vast amount of background and foreground for every character in the previous paragraph. There's the Doctor mulling over poor exam results in his youth, the Brigadier thinking Turlough is from Coventry, Tegan's father having an affair with a typist, Turlough having allergies galore. This is fanboy stuff gone mad. The book is riddled with it from beginning to end. Even characters not in the book are given a dubious future (Jo Grant). It is just too much, and you find yourself thinking back to the TV show and wondering whether this conflicts with existing data.

The actual story concerns an alien race named the Jex. They are trying to invade the Earth, and are doing it through a communications network - InterCom. Meanwhile the Canavitchi used to be slaves of the Jex, and now want to wipe them out. Earth is in the crossfire, and the Doctor and his companions have to save the day. Fact is though the story gets lost amongst all the characters pasts and futures.

If the authors will insist on filling the background and futures of our favourite companions, at least make it interesting. Judging from fan polls in magazines and on the net it seems fans do not want this kind of "joining the dots". They want a good, solid story that has the Doctor and his companions involved in a significant way. The characters enlarging naturally from the story. King of Terror is not a good story, it is too pretentious. In short it is not good Doctor Who. Combine this with the fact that the Doctor (the supposed star of the book) has very little to do - it's a poor read. Never mind. 5/10