THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Trial of a Timelord
The Pit
Illegal Alien
Storm Harvest
Prime Time
BBC Books
Matrix

Author Robert Perry and
Michael Tucker
Cover provided by Patrick Furlong.
ISBN# 0 563 40596 1
Published 1998
Continuity After
Illegal Alien

Synopsis: A faceless enemy is pursuing the Doctor, erasing his history--an enemy that knows his every move. Leaving Ace in safe hands as he attempts to find out who this enemy is, the TARDIS is drawn to London in 1888...


Reviews

Dark Descriptions by Tim Roll-Pickering 26/9/98

Matrix is the latest book by Robert Perry and Mike Tucker, set immediately after their previous book, the below average Illegal Alien. They have clearly considered that book's strengths and weaknesses, thus producing one of the better BBC books so far.

Whilst Illegal Alien was a pastiche of much of the seventh Doctor's time on television, Matrix contains many elements for '90s Who -- the scenes set in an alternate universe are incredibly similar to Timewyrm: Exodus, whilst Victorian London and Ace all on her own are recognisable in far too many of the Virgin NAs. Other elements are also familiar as the story develops towards it's apocalyptic climax.

Were it not for the nature of the story's setting -- London at the time of the Ripper murders -- this story could easily have appeared in Season 27, had it hit our screens back in 1990. The setting is small enough, the story is based more on character than action and the BBC costume and design departments have frequently proven their ability to reproduce this period. Perry and Tucker successfully describe everything without bogging down the story, and it's easy to imagine Sylvester and Sophie pouring their usual energy into their parts.

Unfortunately, there is a major downside to the whole story, and it comes at the climax, when the true foe is revealed. His background is weak, his fate uncertain, and there's a 'blink and you'll miss it' resolution (an unfortunate similarity to several Virgin NAs). And the title itself has exactly the same problem as 'The Wolves of Fenric', but unlike that one, it hasn't been changed. The cover is just plain weird, and really should have Ace on it, given her major role in the storyline. A definite improvement on Illegal Alien, though, and I look forward to Perry and Tucker's next book. 7/10


A Review by Michael Hickerson 30/11/98

Robert Perry and Michael Tucker's last effort, Illegal Alien left me completely cold, I felt a bit of uncertainty as I picked up their latest offering, Matrix.

But I've got to admit that the first hundred pages were crisp, intelligently written and thoroughly enjoyable. However, the second hundred pages are tedious, dull and reptitive failing to advance the plot and making the entire book until the dramatic revelation of just who the villain of the story is.

In short, it's a major disappointment.

Which is a shame really since they bring up some really nice ideas. Such as seeing the usually controlled, self-assured, maniuplative seventh Doctor facing an enemy that is unknown to him and instills him with fear. Or seeing an world where time has been skewered and how it affects some old familiar faces.

It's just once the Doctor traces down the source of the evil in Victorian London and sends the TARDIS back in time to deal with it that the entire narrative emphasis derails. The Doctor disppears, the TARDIS is taken from them, and Ace is left to fend for herself. Before you know it, she's suspected of murder and the Doctor is no where to be seen and there's an evil force at work in the city. All three plots muddle along at a snail's pace for the middle section until they awkwardly slam together in the final stages of the novel.

Part of the problem is that Perry and Tucker re-examine things that were done much better in the best of the Virgin NAs and MAs. (To name them here might give away vital plot points and I don't want to do that).

Read the first hundred page or so and then skip forward to page 200 and keep going from there. Otherwise, avoid Matrix and save the money for Infinity Doctors.


A Review by Finn Clark 15/6/99

I've long since given up trying to predict what BBC Books will give us next. Perhaps you thought they'd run out of surprises? Wrong. For their latest trick, the BBC have given us a novel so evocative of the worst of Virgin that one starts to wonder if they're doing it deliberately. (The answer, I think, is yes... but there's more to it than that).

This book reminds me of The Pit and Man in the Velvet Mask - which is a sentence I hoped I'd never have to write. It's a confusing, aimless novel set in Earth's history which may or may not involve parallel universes but certainly has lashings of horrible pointless cruelty. It supposedly stars the seventh Doctor, but it shows us a side of him we never saw on TV. This Doctor is unsettled, angst-ridden, distracted or just plain missing. You don't know what's going on. It's not always easy even to CARE. It's better than the two Virgin books I mentioned, but that's not saying very much.

The problem with Matrix is that very little happens. The goodies are largely inactive - as indeed are the baddies! Instead we just have lots of confusing chapters that don't seem to go anywhere, starring characters of unclear motivation and presentation. The reader has no idea what our heroes should be trying to do, and nor do the heroes. A scene that sums up this problem comes when a policeman tries to arrest Ace. This could have been really dramatic, making Ace choose whether or not to sacrifice herself, but in the end the decision is taken out of her hands! The bad guy deals with it himself and Ace is left a passive onlooker!

This book isn't deep, just Virginesque. If it weren't for Ace, this book would fit perfectly into the late Darvill-Evans era. Scenes are written from the viewpoint of unknown characters, referred to only as "him". This is deliberately disorientating.

Of course if you're going to reject the conventional adventure formula then you need something to put in its place. At least The Pit managed to evoke a genuinely epic scale amidst the horror. Man in the Velvet Mask gave us a world of pointless sadism, richly detailed and utterly repellent. What does Matrix do?

Not much, to be blunt. This novel does not sing with poetry. Admittedly it acknowledges the rich history of London, as is right and proper for authors who've clearly been reading their Peter Ackroyd. They even name a character after him! It is also rooted deeply in the history of Doctor Who itself, tying together all kinds of strands to make a rich and slightly peculiar tapestry that might perhaps baffle a non-fan. This is an important point I'll return to later. The atmosphere does sometimes get creepy, reminding this reader slightly of James Herbert, and it should hardly need saying that it taxes the brain. Reading this book is an Experience.

Most obviously, however, Matrix uses Jack the Ripper. Oh, whoopie-doo. Didn't Birthright use the Ripper murders too? The Pit certainly did. Jack the Ripper is fast becoming the Atlantis of the Who novels - a popular mystery fated to be explained over and over again by successive generations of authors. One sometimes starts to wonder if Jack the Ripper escaped into the Land of Fiction in order to insinuate himself into as many 20th century works of fiction as possible. I've read Alan Moore's From Hell (and I suspect Perry and Tucker have too). We've seen Ripper crossovers with Batman, Judge Dredd, John Constantine, Sherlock Holmes and for all I know Luke Skywalker and Biggles. What's so great about Jack, I ask? So he's the father of modern serial killers. Gee. Let's give him his own feast day; just don't make us read any more books about him. This particular interpretation isn't actually bad; in fact it's original and imaginative, but I would sooner let sleeping corpses lie. Please, let's all ow poor eviscerated Mary Ann Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly to rest in peace.

"Why is everybody obsessed with Jack the Ripper?" asks a character on page 179. I asked the same question...

But having said all that, Matrix is far more than just a throwback to Virgin. I said that it pulls together threads from all of Doctor Who's history, but it does so especially with the McCoy era. Ace is unquestionably the TV version, continued from Survival, and when the Doctor finally returns properly to the book then it's such a breath of fresh air. This is the living, breathing character we know and love, and his appearance gives the story a healthy kick up the backside. He's just so much more INTERESTING to read about than the confusing randomness of Tucker and Perry's devising.

On top of that are a host of TVM references: an obsession with clocks, an amnesiac hero, a cameo from McGann and something else I can't mention because it's a spoiler. Matrix gathers together these disparate adventures of the seventh Doctor and ties them together with a bow on top. This isn't just a homage to the Virgin stories, but a improvisation upon them. Perry and Tucker cheerfully steal themes and ideas from the entire Darvill-Evans era, raiding the Timewyrm saga and the Future History Cycle right through to the Alternate Universe stories. Their audacity is breathtaking. What Peter Darvill-Evans took three years to do, Perry and Tucker gaily skim in 280 pages. I can't go into details because that would spoil the story, but you'll know it when you see it...

Not satisfied with that, Perry and Tucker even contradict Virgin, ambiguously reintroducing the new surname they gave Ace in Short Trips. This is clearly a girl who collects surnames - Gale for the BBC, McShane in the NAs and Sorinova-McShane in Happy Endings, courtesy of the epilogue to the Curse of Fenric novelisation. Jon Blum's theory is that Gale is a nom-de-guerre, because it's a rather silly coincidence otherwise. Presumably Kathleen Dudman later became Gale, and Ace adopted this name as a tribute to her. She'd still rather be Kathleen's daughter than her mum and dad's...

In the end this is quite an interesting book. I've been extremely rude about it in this review, but at the end of the day it does surprising things with audacity and more than a little brass neck. The ending really worked for me (thanks mainly to the Doctor) and it's certainly a million miles from the formulaic Illegal Alien. It's not what I'd call a fun read, but it's probably worth your time if you're prepared to stick at it. I wouldn't want to see a trend of similar books, but as an occasional one-off it's to be applauded. Strange and different. Yet another PDA completely unlike the rest of the line. With reservations I'd recommend it, but it won't be to everyone's taste.


The Ultimate Fooey by Jason A. Miller 4/7/99

It's inevitable that when a television franchise spends part of four decades on the air and then continues with a couple hundred feature-length novels, there's going to be some navel-gazing. Such introspection was pro forma in the early 1980s when Eric Saward script-edited the program, and pervaded the final two years of Sylvester McCoy's TV run.

Appearing in just twelve TV features, McCoy's seventh Doctor owned the early book market, starring in the first 61 New Adventure novels. It took Rupert Murdoch to kill him off, but he's back for the occasional Past Doctor BBC story, where the introspection continues.

Matrix treads familiar ground. It aspires to be gothic horror, the subgenre in which DW found arguably its greatest success. The novel revisits many issues brought up over the TV show's final four BBC seasons, and feels similar to a lot of Virgin NAs and MAs (Revelation and Birthright the two most obvious, though of course there are others, such as Millennial Rites and Time Of Your Life).

It's also not very good.

Gothic horror, as Doctor Who understands the term, is about mood. No surprise, then, Matrix is a very moody novel. The opening scene is DW's grandest cliche -- a faceless, cowled, robe figure conjures up Something Monstery in a Dank Stone Labyrinth. Next up, the Doctor and Ace are assaulted by clay monsters (Theatre of War) in an empty lighthouse (Horror of Fang Rock). Later on, we meet two former companions, whose Doctor-less lives are full of monsters and malaise (many, many bad novels).

What Matrix wants to be, and almost is, is a complete deconstruction of the Doctor himself. Deprived of his history, his companion, even his name, we're left with a present gone awry, and sent back to the hellish past (here, Jack the Ripper's Whitechapel) where it all went wrong. Ace is put through the repeated torments usually reserved for returning companions, not current ones. The Doctor must put his own identity back together himself (with help from a Mysterious Stranger plucked from Christian mythology), and defeat the Id Beast which stalks 1888.

There's a six-part episode structure which ill-serves the novel. There are five arbitrary cliffhangers and 40 chapters, some of which, curiously, end in an "Out of the fire, back into the frying pan" fashion. Perhaps the two authors wrote this book in alternating chapters -- impossible endings followed up by improbable resolutions. The upside is that, without the short chapters, the book would be a lot harder to read.

For all that, Matrix truly is interesting at first. Robert Perry and Mike Tucker (the latter of whom appears to be staking a claim as a sole defender of the character of Ace) set up the mood with short, choppy sentences and short chapters that cover a lot of early ground. But after a hundred pages, one realizes that, like a 7th Doctor magic trick (Greatest Show in the Galaxy), there are just too many balls up in the air, and the ending lets most of them drop freely out of camera range. Maybe a more coherent, nicer ending, would have made Matrix more rewarding. But after the last page, unlike other 'Deconstructing Doctor" novels such as Revelation, Birthright, and even The Eight Doctors, this cosmos-without-the-Doctor scenario, scarcely bears thinking about.


Wrongs Darker Than Night by Richard Radcliffe 19/2/01

DW has produced more than its fair share of dark, gothic fantasies. It has extensively borrowed from Hammer Horror and its like. Matrix could well be the definitive dark, gothic fantasy created by Who Fiction.

The 7th Doctor and Ace arrive in Earth 1963 and meet some old companions of the Doctor. This is an alternative reality though, and they travel back to the nexus point - the 1880's. A familiar environ for the Doctor, yet London seems more dark and gloomy than ever before, thanks to Tucker and Perry's masterful evocative writing.

The Doctor quite clearly is not himself. He and Ace separate, and the novel really takes off as the two wander London's streets. The 7th Doctor was always enigmatic, always mysterious, but he has never been it to this extreme. Ace's toughness is tested to the limit in this environment - this is a terrific novel for her as well. The real villain of the piece is a shocker. A very welcome return for a classic villain.

The whole book is very descriptive, totally gothic. This is Horror Doctor Who at its most graphic, imaginative and realistic. Brilliant. 10/10


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 14/8/01

Matrix is one of those books you`ll either love or hate. What the highlights of the book are, will be few and far between. By far the best thing is the atmosphere, which is creepy and gothic. Splitting the Seventh Doctor and Ace also works well, as does the build up. Unfortunately what that leads to is ultimately disappointing, as the return of a certain villain fails to deliver any of the promises the book makes. This is readable at best, but nothing more or less than that.


Victorian terror... by Joe Ford 19/9/04

This has to be the most New Adventures-y PDA I have ever read and despite my earlier reservations it is because of their trademarks that it works so damn well (torturing the Doctor and Ace). On just about every level this is the most accomplished of the Robert Perry and Mike Tucker novels, taking on just about every complaint I have ever made about their work and improving it. The writing is sharp, the plot inspired and the characterisation consistent and potent. Illegal Alien is just a distant memory now.

I can understand why readers would be resistant to a book that dwells on the evil inside the Doctor. For forty years he has long been a beacon of light, a hero and who are Perry and Tucker to suggest that underneath his pacifistic veneer lies a cruel and cowardly bastard? Okay that is simplifying matters but as the last few pages of Matrix reveal the Doctor does still have some of his dark side inside him, watching his nemesis fall to his death and doing nothing to avoid it.

Personally I enjoy the thought that the Doctor is just as fallible as the rest of us when it comes to succumbing to his dark side. After all the evil he has vanquished in the universe surely his conscience must twinge a little? Death surrounds him at every turn; his adventures are full of them, many of which would not occur had he not showed up. Exposed to filth like the Daleks and Cybermen his homicidal tendencies emerge and there is no other solution but to murder them. Its an interesting idea and one that the writers capitalise on to disturb the reader, when the Doctor turns on Ace and threatens to kill her it might well be the most frightening moment in the series.

The seventh Doctor is the ideal protagonist to put under the microscope and explore his darkness because he is (for me) capable of being the scariest of the lot. It might have something to do with Sylvester McCoy's performance, when he isn't embarrassing us all goofing around he can be disturbingly restrained, his growling, Scottish purr a hypnotic nightmare. Or it could be Andrew Cartmel's decision to inject a little shadow into his character, the Doctor wiping out the Dalek race, manipulating his companion to face her fears and taking on the biggest badasses with little more than his thunderous will (the Gods of Ragnarok, Fenric). The eternal thinker, planning his adventures way in advance and ignoring casualties in the face of the greater good.

So seeing him outwitted in the early stages of Matrix is terrifying. As an unseen force penetrates the TARDIS, the Doctor's own sanctuary and taunts him out, I was aghast at the possibilities of the enemy that could shake up the most powerful of Doctors. We hang on to Ace who is as lost as we are, an ideal method of allowing us to sympathise with her.

Clever ideas are afoot as the two travellers arrive in 1960s' London where the Doctor's adventures began all those years ago. But things are not as they seem, American foot soldiers patrol the streets, gangs of razor-fisted psychos are on the rampage and old companions Ian and Barbara have never heard of the Doctor (or Susan Foreman). History has been screwed and this nightmare version of events we (fans) know so well is disorienting. As the Doctor investigates the anomaly it appears events began to change from accepted history in 1888 when the infamous Jack the Ripper claimed one victim more than he should have, spinning off a wave of followers for the serial killer who slowly claimed the capital city...

As far as I am concerned the Doctor can visit Victorian London every day if it is as well written as this. I realise the fascination with that period has began to wear thin with some crowds (Talons, The Ultimate Foe, Ghost Light, All Consuming Fire, Birthright, The Bodysnatchers, Camera Obscura) but I love the atmosphere it conjours up... foggy back streets, filthy peasants, horrific murders, top hat and tails... frankly it is easy to dream up a frightening story in this period given the archetypes laid down by films and books.

Ingeniously we have the Doctor and Ace split up (a common occurrence in these Perry/Tucker books) and face the terrors of Victorian London independent of each other. The middle hundred pages of the book have been harshly criticized as filling out the book unnecessarily but for me they were the highlight. We have often experienced the monstrous run-around with monsters routine and the idea of alternate realities (the first third) and the Doctor coming to grips with his adversary (the last third) but the middle section deals with the Doctor and Ace trapped in one time and forced to make a life for themselves.

Ace's adventures are genuinely gripping; I loved every page of her life on the run. It's the suspense of all the events that kept me so hooked, as soon as Ace is taken in by a drunken perv but cannot pay her board you know they will come to blows. Similarly, her fight with her psychotic mistress who attacks her daily was inevitable. It is when she comes face to face with her dark side, the Cheetah personality from Survival, that things get really interesting. She struggles to keep it under control but is eventually exposed and caged up to perform in a circus freak show. Here she makes some rather wonderful friends...

The circus freaks are given a healthy dose of characterisation and it nice to see secondary characters given this much page space. Everyone, from Tiny Ron (who is used to lure the Cheetah personality from Ace), Ackroyd (who resourcefully sneaks her away from the Circus), De Vries (the mute giant who sacrifices his life to save the others) and Malacroix (the French circus owner who holds the freaks in his power, politically at least) spring from the page memorably. But best of all is Jed, the retarded boy who is one snap away from losing his head and killing everybody. The writers achieve much sympathy for Jed because he is always on the edge of understanding what is happening, all he wants to do is collect pretty things. How he is abused by all quarters is deplorable but understandable for the time and the writing is razor sharp when we are let inside Jed's mind. The characters in Matrix all had a purpose, there are no extraneous characters cluttering up the book.

When it is revealed that the Valeyard is responsible for the Doctor's descent into madness I was punching the air with delight. I have long waited for the story that concluded the Doctor's Trial and see him face his darker, later regeneration again. Suddenly everything snaps into focus, the only person who could affect the Doctor so terribly is himself. Earlier imagery is given marvellous explanations, the twelve ghostly figures writhing around the Valeyard are the distorted, evil versions of the Doctor's incarnations and the amorphous shadows that have lingered in the background are the dark side of the Matrix, explaining the title. More so than the return of the Valeyard, these dark, twisted concepts superbly bring a sense of continuity and terror to the book.

As ever with these hero/villain stories the climax takes place at a great height and see them tussling for dear life. It's a great shame that the Valeyard was killed off because his twisted branch of evil remains as chilling as it was during the sixth Doctor's era and it's always nice to be reminded that the Doctor has these thoughts at the back of his mind, on a leash. The Doctor's parting line to his darker self "Goodbye... Doctor" is unexpectedly powerful.

Matrix is a superb book, powered by terrifying imagery and strong characterisation. The Doctor and Ace shine through with their individual strengths and remain a potent source of storytelling despite the efforts of the New Adventures to undermine them. This is Doctor Who at its best, frightening the hell out of people and telling an atmospheric yarn in the process.


A Review by Brian May 20/3/05

Whoa! That was Dark! With a capital D!! Actually, with a capital ARK, as well!

DARK!!!

Matrix is a heady mix of Kafka, Lovecraft and Dickens - it's a gloomy combination of the macabre and grotesque, laden with religious imagery and nihilistic desolation. It's the book that Neil Penswick's The Pit wanted to be, and the Victorian horror that Mark Morris's The Bodysnatchers should have been. It's not cheery Doctor Who - it's very morose, unpleasant, even ghastly in places.

The Doctor goes through a heck of a psychological, mental and emotional battering, and to top it all off he has his identity stolen. Once again, Ace is left on her own, and the narrative, for the most part, empathises with her, and her reactions to the surrounding environments and situations. And, I must say, Robert Perry and Mike Tucker have written a pretty good rendition; they've made her a likable person and one the reader actually cares about. Her Cheetah conditioning from Survival is used very well; continuitywise this takes place not long after, and it's woven into the story as an important plot device - not simply a reference to the televised series, thank heaven. The incorporation of Ian and Barbara in the alternative 1960s London is also well handled; they're used to great effect to emphasise the nightmarish scenario. (It could have been very fanwanky, ala The Face of the Enemy - thankfully it's anything but. Although the writers get a black mark for the casual mention of Henry Gordon Jago later on.) All these scenes are disturbing and eerie, reinforcing the presence of interference in the past. The basic scenario isn't original (likewise Terrance Dicks's Timewyrm: Exodus) but at least Perry and Tucker use their imaginations and give us something slightly different than the usual Nazi-occupied Britain.

The Victorian London setting, which makes up the majority of the story, is another bunch of cliches, but value-added with some good ideas. Jack the Ripper has been mentioned before in Doctor Who, in the same time and place (The Talons of Weng-Chiang), but in what's nothing more than a throwaway line. A "successor" to the Ripper, Springheel Jack, plays a slightly more substantial role in the Edwardian era story Birthright. However, here, he's the focus of the adventure; and his presence is felt in a horrific, omnipresent way.

The creepiest moment in the book (and one of the creepiest ever) is the Doctor's attack on Ace. Some of the most frightening scenes in Doctor Who occur when it seems that the Doctor has gone bad, either through possession (The Invisible Enemy) or corruption (The Invasion of Time) or both (Mindwarp). But this scene on the Thames is positively gut-wrenching.

The rest of the Victorian based scenes have a similarly oppressive nastiness. And again the writers know what they're doing is hardly original, but whether it's homage or plagiarism, it's done in the best possible way. We've got friendly Cockneys congregating in a tavern and a kind-hearted landlady who's one of the few people to defend the outsider. Miss Treddle is obviously Miss Havisham, although a hundred times worse. Add to this a hellfire preacher, an idiot savant, a cruel circus master and his troupe of freaks, and it's definitely not what you'd call cosy.

On the subject of the freaks, the readers, of course, know that they're actually people, but the writers also emphasise the way their difference is exploited to fascinate and disgust "normal" people. The speech Malacroix makes to the circus visitors on pp.167-168 is very uncomfortable reading. The unpleasantness continues with the visions that Jed, Malacroix and Ackroyd undergo when they come into contact with the TARDIS telepathic circuits. Then there are all the descriptions of the Doctor's enemy, the wraiths and the crypt; the dead Aces on the battlefield; and the scenes inside the TARDIS after the Doctor and Ace escape their encounter at the lighthouse, written with a beautiful Gothic style that really drives home the dark side to the Doctor's ship, and how it's not always a safe haven but can instead be a place to fear.

Yes, bright, cheery stuff indeed!

Okay, spoiler alert time. You can't really discuss Matrix without referring to the final confrontation. So, if somehow you haven't read any other reviews of this, and you want to remain in the dark, stop reading now.

The Valeyard.

You know, I wasn't really surprised by this. In fact, it's obvious very early on. Nevertheless, the authors build up to the revelation very stylishly. I was on tenterhooks while reading pages 232-236. But I thought he was out of bounds for writers of BBC books? (although I'm not sure when the guidelines were introduced). Anyhow, the final sections of the book are very good; the Dark Matrix is an interesting idea, with a good backstory and there's a satisfyingly dramatic climax and resolution.

The characterisations are not the best part of the book, but Ace and the Doctor are excellent, even though the latter is out of character, quite literally, for much of the time. And his relationship with his darker self is astoundingly done - you can really believe he could eventually become the Valeyard. Of the others, Ackroyd is a wonderful "nice guy" and Malacroix a sinister villain, who meets with an appropriate and deserved grisly fate. Liebermann is a rip-off of Jared Khan from Birthright, especially the apocryphal descriptions of his long journey, but I liked him anyway, and the unresolved ambiguity as to his identity.

Matrix is one of the best attempts at horror in Doctor Who fiction. A combination of cliches and other ideas, both from Who and beyond, are moulded into something incredibly exciting and readable, thanks to great writing, terrific atmosphere and some truly disturbing, horrific moments. It's a winner. 9/10