THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Harry Sullivan's War
System Shock
BBC Books
Millennium Shock

Author Justin Richards Cover taken from the excellent Doctor Who books page
ISBN# 0 563 55586 6
Published 1999
Continuity Between The Deadly Assassin and
The Face of Evil

Synopsis: Under cover of the Millennium Bug, the Voracians try to stage another invasion of Earth. The Doctor is alone... until he meets some old friends.


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 9/6/99

What is there left to say about Justin Richards? Plotmeister supreme and word-churner extraordinaire, this man writes more Doctor Who in a year than most of his peers manage in their entire lives. He's writing the next Benny book. His 8DA, Demontage, was released only two months before this Millennium Shock. And then there's Dreams of Empire, plus his upcoming audio...

How does he do it? And more importantly, has it affected his writing?

In many ways, Millennium Shock is a Justin Richards's Greatest Hits. It's a sequel to System Shock, a book I found utterly unmemorable. To my surprise, this turned out to be a good thing.

When System Shock's plot gets recapped for the benefit of first-time readers, its details completely surprised me. I didn't remember anything about the bad guys, or their nasty little ways. I didn't remember what they'd been trying to do. I didn't remember how the Doctor had beaten them last time. There's untapped potential in writing sequels to dull stories; Justin Richards has shown the way!

But that's not all. There's a hefty slice of Option Lock here too. Justin knows what he does and is doing it again, running through the formula.

All this sounds as if I'm getting ready to knock Justin Richards and I freely admit that I don't approach his books with any great expectations. I probably won't buy his Benny novel. He writes clever, solid plots and trundles through them like a craftsman, not an artist. He has his level of quality, which he neither rises above nor falls below. He's not bad. Sometimes he's quite good. Further than that I wouldn't go.

In some ways, this book is the epitome of that. It's a techno thriller, much like I'd imagine a modern-day Bond novel to be like. (Is it a coincidence that one character is called Gardner?) It's fast-paced, authentic and executed with a cold efficiency that's not going to win any fans in the touchy-feely brigade. The nitty-gritty is perfect, so precise that you can almost taste it. There's lots of hardware, both computer-wise and military. It's quite exciting, in a clinical way.

It's also got absolutely nothing to do with the Hinchcliffe era; the hard-boiled guns and soldiers approach is far more reminiscent of Mind of Evil and season seven. (The Doctor, on the other hand, is perhaps a little too Graham Williams.)

I have now said everything bad that could possibly be said about Millennium Shock. I've just had a reread of Shelf Life and quite frankly I found its verdict spectacularly patronising. Judged on its own terms, it's thoroughly competent. If you like this sort of thing then you'll find it a rewarding read, but there are also a couple of little gems which raise it above even that respectable level.

Gem number one. Justin Richards has a speciality - plot twists. His plotting isn't character-based, but it's generally convoluted and he has an amazing strike rate in genuinely surprising the reader. This book has perhaps fewer twists than usual, but one of them's a doozy. Sometimes a surprise doesn't really mean anything, sometimes it's pretty good and sometimes it means... well, everything. I loved the big twist in this one. It's a special moment.

Gem number two. Justin Richards isn't noted for his beautiful, poetic moments and for most of its duration Millennium Shock doesn't look set to break the mould. The climax, however, contains one genuinely lovely scene. For a moment the headlong action pauses and we see a beautiful moment of philosophical reflection. I really, really liked it.

So on balance, I'd say this is a thoroughly competent book 95% of the time which occasionally raises its game to become something really worth reading. The Doctor comes off well, since the fourth (unlike the second) in many ways often wasn't much more than the sum of his mannerisms. I didn't expect much from this, but in the end I was very impressed indeed.

Supplement 5/3/03:

I reread this back-to-back with its prequel, System Shock, and alas I can't recommend the experience. They're good books, but they're also action-based techno-thrillers and the human brain can only take so much gun-toting. I still enjoyed it, but less than if I'd read it on its own.

There are significant differences between the two books, though. The most obvious is the added political dimension. To System Shock's basic elements Justin Richards has added secret services, the army, Russian nukes and the like. It ain't just about Voracians now. A subtler difference is the fact that this is a 1999 book that's also set in 1999. System Shock was published in 1995 but set in 1998, so contained those little "let's predict the future" touches one always finds in near-future SF. The result was a slight distancing effect due to the differences (e.g. interactive TVs), but Millennium Shock feels more real.

The characterisation is smoother, especially the 4th Doctor. He was greatly improved and lots of fun. As is becoming traditional in novels set between Deadly Assassin and Face of Evil (see also Asylum), he meets up with a former companion twenty years on - this time Harry Sullivan, still perplexed by long words but always ready to lend a hand when it's time for action. Even on his deathbed, the dear fellow will still basically be a well-meaning schoolboy. He may not be the sharpest tool in the box (though surprisingly he's rather efficient in his MI5 role), but there's something terribly endearing about Harry.

The Voracians are up to their usual tricks, but their "electronic Autons" side has been downplayed in favour of portraying 'em as techno-vampires. That worked well, actually. Cutter is even more Bill Gates-like than System Shock's Stabfield, mind you.

The continuity is a mixed bag. An older Sarah Jane Smith is still alive and writing (sorry, Bullet Time), though participating much less than was originally intended. Much of her role was given to Harry's maid, Sylvia, since Sarah was also a major player in Interference. However by introducing two fictional UK Prime Ministers, Terry Brooks (1999) and Philip Cotton (2000), Millennium Shock appears to mess up Interference book 1 p141 (the list reads: "Heath, Thorpe, Williams, Thatcher, Major, Blair, Clarke"). In fact one can assume that Blair died in The Dying Days and that Clarke was a makeshift replacement until a general election could be called, but the result is five or six Prime Ministers in as many years. Ah well.

Back to Millennium Shock... Terry Brooks is basically Tony Blair, but even dafter. He doesn't appear much, but he's a hoot when he does. System Shock and Millennium Shock are both at their best when lampooning real life (e.g. the quirks of OCR software). My only real gripe is that in a novel o' political intrigue, there are two characters called Cutter and Cotton. I can't be the only reader who mixed up those two.

This novel has bits I really liked (e.g. Fred) and one of Justin's best plot twists. That was funky. At the end of the day, it's another techno-thriller with action and men with guns... but it's also a good example of the genre. (It was also written in three and a half weeks to fill a sudden gap in the schedules, which explains why Justin made it a sequel. It saved time to reuse old characters and aliens.) Read it by all means... just not in a double-header with System Shock.


A Review by Henry Potts 9/8/99

After a bit of a wobble with Demontage, Richards has come back with a solid novel in Millennium Shock.

The basic plot is obvious from the beginning -- from the name alone even -- but don't be fooled into thinking you know all of what is going to happen. Richards throws in his usual plot twists and the opening sections turn out to be rather more complicated than you might at first imagine.

There are a few missteps along the way, a few parts clumsily handled, but I enjoyed it much more than System Shock.

It's a solidly trad novel. Richards' Tom Baker is intense and full of life without descending into the high farce of a Gareth Roberts' novel. 8/10


Millennial Rites by Jason A. Miller 27/11/99

Thanks to Doctor Who, we have seen Atlantis end on three different occasions. We have learned that multiple Doctors end up in the same place, wackiness ensues. We have also learned that December 31, 1999, will prove Robert Frost correct -- the world will end in fire and ice. Separately, and simultaneously, all at once.

No review of Millennium Shock, the 3rd Justin Richards book this year (at least) is complete without a brief survey of 3 other DW titles. Obviously there's the author's own System Shock, to which this book's the sequel. I'm not a big fan of System -- I think it's his weakest book, mostly cause it's lacking in the joyous Bidmeadian cleverness which marks all this others (as Jon Blum calls them, "puzzle-boxes").

In Craig Hinton's Millennial Rites, the world briefly turns into a comic-book nightmare at Y2K, due to a rampant computer virus and a misguided woman retreaded from a TV episode. Hinton and Richards are friends, and there are some nice nods to that book in this one. Since Rites undoes itself at the end, it doesn't need to be heavily acknowledged. Neither does the 1996 TV-Movie, which also ends the world at Y2K and also undoes itself in a blood-sweatingly tortuous manner.

What have we learned so far? When the Doctor visits Earth on Y2K, it's confusion that ensues along with the wackiness. Millennium Shock is nothing we haven't seen before. It's got at least 3 computer viruses, a lot of military and paramilitary officials, and an alien race defined solely (and repeatedly) by serpentine head gestures and an aversion to food. The plot is predictable and ends predictably.

But the book is tolerable because of the 4th Doctor and Harry Sullivan. We've never seen this pairing before (Sarah's always been there), and they work together well. One wishes Harry could join the 8th Doctor over in the other range, even. Harry is a bit stumbly for a spy, but cheerful and resourceful. Remembering Ian Marter is also a great help -- the man who did so much with so little in so short a time. It is comforting to imagine Ian Marter alive in 1999.

Last time, Richards characterized Tom Baker by repeating many lines of dialogue from other stories. Here, the Doctor is more original. It's jarring to see him doing 1999 things like riding in cars and using cellular phones, but he does it in typical Tom Baker fashion and that is a good thing.

But with a lack of focus on real people, this never feels like 1999. There's also a cardinal authorial sin -- when a character is hit on the head or caught in a fire, and survives, he should then get to live through the rest of the story. It seems either manipulative or cruel when he doesn't. Shock fails that test -- but, to be fair, so do lots of other recent stories (Dominion does it at least twice). It also came out 6 months early at at time when most BBC books are woefully edited. So, in 1999 DW terms, this is either a very good book poorly done, or a very poor concept well-executed. See you on December 31st.


Shock Thriller by Robert Smith? 31/5/00

The Missing Adventures were less than a runaway success for Virgin, who didn't really have much confidence in the line, often using it as a place to send rejected NAs. Very few of them seemed to have anything to say and their success rate in capturing the eras they were set in was quite variable. The BBC, however, have been a lot kinder towards their Past Doctor Adventures. We've seen a nice mix of traditional and experimental and the sense that although these books might not necessarily have anywhere to actually go, nevertheless, they're comfortable and happy to produce novels of broadly consistent quality.

Oddly, I thought Millennium Shock and System Shock would have fitted in better had they exchanged publishers. System Shock remains my favourite Missing Adventure, being a level of quality above most of the MAs of its kind and confident and enjoyable enough to succeed where some of the braver Virgin MAs often failed. It would have fit quite comfortably in with the more assured PDA line. Millennium Shock isn't quite as good as its predecessor, nor some of the surrounding PDAs, but I'd wager it would have done quite comfortably had it been an MA. That's no insult, though. It's still a very enjoyable book, with a drive and energy to it that holds it in good stead.

I still can't quite believe that this was written in three weeks. It has flaws, yes, but they're reasonably minor and it certainly hold its own and often supersedes other PDAs which have far more time put into them. Justin Richards, you are the man.

I love the pacing of this book. Events have a comforting pre-Millennial feel and bring across the threat of the Y2K bug rather effectively. Sarah's article is fantastic and a great way of explaining the problem and just how devasting it could have been.

The Doctor's a bit wobbly, but I think the book really benefits from having him travelling solo. He seems a bit off all through the book, which is a bit of a shame, but ultimately not a disaster. Fortunately, the book is carried by MI5's most lovable agent, Harry Sullivan. I thought the use of the older Harry in System Shock was inspired, but here he's even better. He carries most of the story, but he's completely spot-on. Everything about him seems just perfect. Justin's talent at characterisation has always been undervalued, in my opinion. He might not have the flashiness of Orman or Cornell, but he still delivers solid and enjoyable characterisation of both the regulars and the incidental characters. I can forgive the Doctor being a bit off for Harry and the others.

By far my favourite character after Harry is George Gardner. He has just the right level of paranoia to be interesting. It's a shame he disappears for the middle part of the book. Given more time, I think Justin could have gotten the Doctor right and reworked the plot to keep George around. But, honestly, these are pretty minor niggles, given that the Doctor's still passable most of the time. I'm still in awe of this three-week achievement!

The Y2K events themselves are effectively portrayed. So effectively, perhaps, that it seems a little odd that everything gets back to normal relatively quickly afterwards. This is obviously a novel that's dated itself extraordinarily quickly, but somehow that just seems to fit in with the speed of it. I'm reminded of The Dying Days, another excellent novel, which was written mainly to be read in May 1997. Yes, it's almost laughably out of date now, but that doesn't stop it being a good book.

The aftermath is cute, rather than being spooky the way System Shock's was (although I'm very pleased to see that this novel follows directly from System Shock's wonderful last page). But that seems all right too, although it leaves things open for a third book in the Shock trilogy next time there's a gap in the schedules. I for one will be happily reading that when it comes. Millennium Shock is an enjoyable page-turner. If the Doctor's a bit off or a couple of the plot strands don't quite connect, that's more than forgivable, given its amazingly short production time. Harry is fabulous and the atmosphere is great. Recommended. Did I mention how impressed I was that -- Oh, I did.


The new Millenium! by Joe Ford 21/8/02

That Justin Richards, what a guy. When the going gets tough call Mr Richards in to write a quick novel to fill in your schedule gap. And like Shadow in the Glass he comes up trumps again. People say you need ages to finish a book properly, to go over plot, character, re-writes, blah, blah... but now I firmly believe if you're given a tight time constraint you can produce good, if not better reults. Much like the TV series itself which was often a very hurried production, less is most definately more.

I can't think of a 'trad' novel I've enjoyed this much since Eater of Wasps 14 months ago! Many of the well reputed PDA's have really done nothing for me (Psi-ence Fiction and Players for example) whereas the lesser known books such as Millenium Shock (and Palace of the Red Sun, Vergidris) I've enjoyed immensely. What is it that made this Justin Richards book so wonderful...?

Doctor Who is defined by many things in my eyes... its imagination, its characters, the cliffhangers, etc... but what especially love about Doctor Who are those 'moments'. Such as when the Cybermen walk down the steps of St Pauls cathedral or Colin Baker's astonished reaction to Peri's death or the first Doctor's fight with Barbara about changing history in The Aztecs. Moments that make my toes tingle and make me beam with pride that I am a fan of this wonderful show.

Millenium Shock, like the best of the book range (Crooked World, Seeing I) was chock-a-block full of these moments. The Doctor's first meeting with Gardner (It was in fact a dolly mixture), The Doctor and Harry exchanging Christmas gifts, the sudden realisation that Slyvia is in danger, Andi Cave revealing her true colours, the brilliant bluff to the prime Minsister and most wonderful of all The Doctor driving a tank across London on a cold January morning! Genius!

But to say Millenium Shock is worthy just thanks to these moments would be a discredit to Justin Richards who I have said for years is one of the best Doctor Who writers there is. Two things I noticed early on that impressed me somewhat. First off was his marvellous gift for characterisation through mannerisms and dialouge which came to the fore with such marvellous creations as George Gardner (the paranoid schizo who thinks everything he says and does with Harry is top secret) and Bryant (who keeps going "Hah!" or similar exclamations). Harry too impressed me a lot, not because he is clearly a perfectly realised older version than the Harry we knew on screen (because he is) but because Justin has captured perfectly that goofish charm and definate english-ness that made him such a delight. The fact that he gets embroiled in these things merely on the Doctor's requests and doesn't even consider refusing is very sweet and so in character.

The second thing that I liked was his concentration on little details that made the book so much more realistic. Sometimes this was just for atmosphere's sake (such as the silky rain, the hysterical use of ginger beer) and sometimes it was integral to the plot (like Dave's stringy cheese pizza). These aren't things that are going to win any prizes but when you spot them it just makes you realise how talented the authour actually is.

The Doctor was excellent. Funny and breathlessly heroic, (I know I say that alot but it's true he seems to zip around this book like a blue arsed fly!) he has such great chemistry with Harry too (another thing I noticed was how many times he said 'Harry' when talking to him which again was very like the television series). The aforementioned tank scene was a moment of Doctor brilliance!

The plot was complicated but always well explained. It was one of those books where the revelations and plot details seemed to flow naturally from the incidents and characters without feeling forced or rushed. In particular the whole issue with the Russian missiles and the rebels caught me completely by surprise despite a mention earlier in the book. And this is Justin Richards, twist maker extrodanaire... his characters are never what they seem and Slyvia, Cutter, Bryant, Cave and Cotton all surprised at one point. Particularly well done are Dave and Slyvia who are introduced early on but fairly ignored who turn out to integral to the main plot. Justin plays his reader like an organ, taking you along what looks like a predictable path but subverting your expectations in every way.

Did I mention that he wrote this in three weeks? Three weeks!!!!

Justin Richards, ladies and gentlemen, one of the greates talents Doctor Who has known (I'll take my cheque now Justin).