The Final Sanction
The Murder Game
Power of the Daleks and The Highlanders
Synopsis: The TARDIS materializes aboard a luxury liner where a murder
mystery game is occuring--and Ben is the next target.
A Review by Joseph Nunweek 20/4/98
The Murder Game is not a challenging book. It isn't a classic and must-read book like Venusian Lullaby, nor a book with fascinating characterization and development like Devil Goblins of Neptune. No, The Murder Game is simply an average book that doesn't aim above itself, but is happy to be a nice read that is faithful to the Troughton era.
The entire story feels like it could be another missing season four story: much of the action involves running down corridors, and most of the story takes place in a claustrophobic space station, not unlike The Tenth Planet's Antarctic Station, or the Gravity Control Station in The Moonbase. The bad guys are conceived well, but fail to really grow on you. They spend the story killing people, being menacing, and just acting evil. The supporting actors are pretty flat - normal mystery stock - although Thomas the hologram was a neat addition. It seems strange that the author of Conundrum would write a story like this. With the exception of a Professor X reference, it bears little resemblance to his past work.
The story has fun touches, though. The idea of a computer programme designed to hunt a specific person down is imaginative and frightening. And of course, the story gives the origins of the sonic screwdriver - or rather the creation of a prototype.
The Doctor is great, and has a few very funny scenes (at one point, he is in drag for the RPG) but also has those serious scenes where you can almost imagine Troughton giving the lines. Ben and Polly? Average. Polly does little, and Ben who has a much larger part didn't really stand out to me. The attempt to put some romantic tension into their relationship more or less failed, I'm afraid.
The verdict: An enjoyable adventure. Poor characters, and the story is a bit lightweight, but still worth it.
A Review by Will Jones 10/9/98
In the Second Doctor's BBC Books debut we find an extremely traditional Doctor Who story, one I could imagine being written by one of the staff in 1966.
The setup here is extremely familiar to fans of the series. A murder. A small bunch of suspects (eleven living people, including the Doctor, Polly and Ben). A limited amount of sets, using lifts and corridors again and again. Something that could easily have been achieved on the Beeb's budget. And, of course, a crackingly involving plot.
Steve Lyons, whose Head Games was one of the best New Adventures in the Virgin range, has not excelled it here but Murder Game is far from disappointing. Like most Doctor Who fans I tend to expect a Second Doctor storyline to involve Jamie McCrimmon, and when I saw that it was set before his arrival I was a little disappointed. However, Steve does excellent things with this Doctor's most "normal" companions, and by the end I was pleased to be able to read comprehensible English rather than the usual Scots caricature. Ben and Polly are well-caught and come across as entertaining people, with more of the novel devoted to their exploits than normal.
There are drawbacks to the novel, however. When the layer of racial history is removed, the Selachians have little to distinguish them from the adversaries Lyons makes frequent references to, the Daleks and the Cybermen, especially when wearing their water-filled suits. Also, the last 20 or so pages, though involving, feel a bit tacked-on, with Ben and Polly thrown into ever more dangerous situations seemingly by chance. The Selachian ship is a good idea, though, and most of the characters are well-drawn -- this seems to be Steve's gift.
Not, perhaps, as great as some, and certainly not as good as the best Virgin books, but pretty darn acceptable.
A Fun Read by Robert Smith? 19/9/98
Ben and Polly are both dealt with very well in this book. There are hints about a relationship, something fans have often speculated about, but something which the actors themselves have denied was ever occurring. The Murder Game deals with both of these speculations and rather well, in my opinion. The two characters are both fleshed out for prose, given plenty to do and much of it separated from the other. Polly in particular gets to show off her intelligence, often in contrast to the lack of her knowledge (such as trying to work a modern day computer where her lack of knowledge doesn't stop her trying to puzzle out its mysteries). Ben gets an almost-romance, providing him with some emotional depth.
Though hardly an original idea, I really liked the idea of the murders being masked by a game about murder. Fortunately, this only lasts about half the book and things move on before it can get tiresome. The second half of the book isn't quite as interesting, but the Selachians are an interesting idea for a villian. In many ways they reminded me of the Waro (from the previous BBC Past Adventure), but done right. I also really liked the idea of their appearance, very sixties Who!
Speaking of which, there are a number of sublime (and a few excruciating) in-jokes that spice up the action for the die-hard fan. The linking of Ben's profession with the originally mooted idea of the second Doctor as a gruff sea captain is a touch of near-genius, in my opinion, although the events leading up to the "cinder" joke are a little contrived. Nevertheless, such humour is appreciated and not overdone, and I think the book would have been poorer without the jokes.
The only real disappointment I got was from the ending which seems to fizzle out ever so slightly. It's not quite as straightforward as that, because everything's certainly tied up adequately, but I just got the sense that there could have been something else to give it a bit of an oomph.
The Murder Game isn't the most wonderful book ever written, but it's an enjoyable little Doctor Who adventure with some nice character work. And I like it.
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 21/6/01
Featuring the Second Doctor, Ben and Polly, The Murder Game is something of a mixed bag. Plus points here go to the creation of the books villains, The Selachians, who are not too dissimilar from The Pescatons and could very well warrant a place amongst the Big Finish audios. The titular murder presents the reader with a wide range of suspects and in Agatha Christie style, it occurs in a hotel in space. It then isn`t long before the Selachians invade complete with computer virus. This makes it all the more enjoyable, because The Murder Game reads like a Troughton adventure. Characterisation is strong, concentrating on Ben and this is the book's selling point. Let down only by a slow start, The Murder Game makes for great reading.
A Review by Keith Bennett 20/9/01
This is how to do them. This is how to write an original Doctor Who novel. Steve Lyons here has found the ideal balance between depth and entertainment.
The setting of a space station fits reasonably well into the second Doctor's reign, and the story, which veers from a murder mystery to a full-on, action-packed thrillfest, is enjoyable throughout.
This is, really, Ben and Polly's story. While Polly is a bit... well... wimpy, they both shine really as Lyons brings out their characters with a deft touch that never once falls into soap opera territory as they wonder about their feelings for each other, and also Ben's feelings for one of the other female characters, Terri. In fact, the Doctor himself seems to be rather in the background during all this, despite the fact he's still in the story a lot. He just seems to be outshone by everything else around him.
The rest of the characters are reasonable, although a few of them merge together so it's hard to remember them individually, while the Selachians are an interesting alien race to a degree, but it's obviously hard to think of new ways to portray evil beings who want to destroy everything. I do, however, really like the weapon that everyone seems to be after - quite original.
The book, overall, is an enthralling, exciting and fast paced read, the perfect blend of action and depth to make it one of the best Past Doctor Adventures ever written.
Mills and Boon by Joe Ford 5/9/02
Nobody was going to end up a burnt cinder floating around in Spain if he could help it, a line that is so unexpectadly funny I choked on my coffee. And there are dozens of such moments, brilliant kisses to the past (and sometimes to the future with mentions of UNIT) that spring so delightfully from the action, serving no purpose but to amuse.
And THAT is one of Steve Lyons greatest talents, his refusal to give up until he has entertained you to fullest limit he can. He managed to provide a thought provoking historical adventure in The Witch Hunters and a clever zany comedy in the recent The Crooked World and this is his take on the murder mystery genre and his skill is once again in evidence.
For a start he has captured the regulars to a tee. Pat Troughton's Doctor here just leaps of the page, he is so true to his screen persona, and very funny to boot. He is just so marvellously AFRAID of everything, whimpering and moaning to himself and sending himself up at any time. And yet he has a deeply serious side as well that asserts itself when the situation becomes deadly. It would be a toss up between this and Dreams of Empire for the best presentation of the second Doctor and although there is no hysterical and perfect lines like 'He made a face like he was chewing a marble!' which | still think describes Troughton to a tee!, there were more times here when my mind nodded its head and thought 'That IS Troughton!'
As for Polly and Ben, they work very well in this sort of danger round every corner enviroment. Their internal feelings prove to be very interesting indeed especially when it appears that they go far deeper than friendship, a hint only glimpsed at in the series. Through them Steve Lyons makes some very astute comments on the sixties such as the culture clash between their two classes (which was very much in evident at the time) and also the very funny bit where Polly exclaims "Groovy!" and then realising she is in the future and modifies it to "It's very nice" was just perfect. Although the romance angle did work very well, especially the remarkable restraint Mr Lyons made to not openly admit it but just show us through their very mixed up feelings what impressed me even more was the danger he so vividly explored through them. There were at least two or three times when both characters thought they were going to die and given the never ending dangers they were facing I didn't care that I knew that they left in The Faceless Ones, I thought they were going to drop dead too.
The first two thirds were very like Terror of the Vervoids in structure and characters. Everybody has got a secret in this game and they are all trapped together in this isolated enviroment. The improvements this makes on the TV story is better dialogue and more formidable enemies. The plot is actually much more complicated than it seems but it never seems difficult to follow and after the torturous complexity of some recent books I've read that is a relief indeed. The prose is adequate, nothing fancy like Lance Parkin or character driven like Kate Orman, it's just a really solid story, told with simplicity and it's mostly gripping throughout. The fact that it twists from murder mystery to espionage thriller to base under siege monster to story without once seeming rushed of false is impressive indeed.
The secondary characters were good and although I guessed the motives of a few of them, many still left me in total shock. Thats the joy for me and books with numerous twists, I'm not one of these people who tries to figure out what the authors up to ten stages ahead I just let the book wash over me in a few days and marvel in their ability to thrill and surprise. It's so much more rewarding.
The Selachians proved much more interesting than I initially feared. I always enjoy a smypathetic muscle guy! Their constant reference "Plankton" to humans however really grated after a while!
To sum up, a good, solid book which passes a few hours with admirable ease. These older PDA's are proving to be very impressive indeed. Also of note is the amount of humour present, this, like the show always did, doesn't take itself too seriously at all. And that is something to be admired.
A Review by Finn Clark 10/2/04
What a load of tripe! I remembered The Murder Game as being merely unmemorable, but this reread made it look career-killingly bad. The tragedy is that there's some decent Steve Lyons material towards the end, with issues being addressed and big things happening to a character or two, but unfortunately the first 200 pages were so dreadful that any last vestiges of interest had long since been bludgeoned to death. I watched non-characters run around pointlessly and couldn't bring myself to care.
The Murder Game is precisely the sort of "okay I suppose" book that isn't okay, or even tolerable. It probably looked quite good in synopsis and most of its annoyances are minor, but one big thing sinks it - the characterisation. This is Bulis-level. I'm not exaggerating. You could stick Bulis's name on the cover and no one would realise. Most of the book goes on and on about some cardboard cutouts and their role-playing games on a space hotel. None of them are interesting. None of them are three-dimensional. Only one of them even manages to stand out from the others, and that only by being the most irritating kind of cliche (e.g. Henry Mace). Half the book gives us two dozen real and assumed names shared between a dozen placeholders (I refuse to call them characters) that you can't even tell apart from each other. It's a relief when they start to die.
Even the regulars are painful, Troughton coming off better than his companions. Polly gets some gruesome "How do I feel about Ben, it couldn't be love?" thought processes that will make you want to throw puppies off railway bridges. Meanwhile this Ben Jackson is an ineffectual nerd, afflicted with a romance you'll be flicking over as fast as possible. I couldn't believe in it, not for a moment. It's on a par with the 1968 Dr Who annual. This characterisation is so bad that when he called Polly "Duchess" near the end, I found it jarring to be reminded of the real Ben Jackson, as seen on TV.
Oh, and I can't overlook the realisations of these profound, nay, Nabokovian characters. See page 106. "I won't be organising another. To make light of death, to turn all this into entertainment... it's amoral. The real thing's too horrific!" I reeled. Steve Lyons's idea of a light touch would stun an elephant.
The Whoish elements are irritating. Yet again we have a steerable TARDIS shoehorned into the sixties era, which always makes me cringe. Steve Lyons isn't the only offender in this regard, but he's made rather a habit of it. See also The Witch Hunters. There are also fannish in-jokes... "suspicious-looking" things from Alpha Centauri and references to the Inferno eyepatch story and one of the characterisations considered for Pat Troughton instead of the cosmic hobo. Oh, and there's a "floating around in Spain" gag that's virtually the novel's raison d'etre. For each of these Steve Lyons deserves to catch a particularly embarrassing social disease.
There are plot problems. At the beginning the Doctor receives a distress signal sent to him personally on a frequency that won't enter general use for another three centuries. Ooooh, that's interesting... except that this clue never leads anywhere. Huh? More incredibly, at one point the Selachians give Polly unrestricted, unmonitored access to their computer systems for two hours. How stupid can you get? They think she's a computer whiz! Had Polly been Zoe, the adventure would have ended there and then.
The book picks up towards the end as the Selachians arrive and throw their weight around. Admittedly they're monotonous one-note cliches [militaristic monomaniacs who kill their allies and shout "human plankton" at inferior races, i.e. all non-Selachians], but anything would have been better than more screen time devoted to this book's placeholders. As the stakes rise, the book's situations, concepts and moral issues became more imaginative. Steve Lyons usually plots a good ending, giving us real climactic drama instead of the usual body count and shriek of technobabble. Sure enough The Murder Game is no exception. I might almost have been impressed, if only I'd been able to care about the characters.
[Though having said that, much of this original-looking material is actually recycled from Steve Lyons's 6th Doctor MAs. We'd never met the Selachians before but we learned a lot about them in Killing Ground, in which the Cybermen were piloting one of their warcraft. Meanwhile the big secret the Selachians came for is cut-and-pasted from the same author's Time of Your Life, so exactly that one almost wonders if Krllxk in 2191 was suppposed to have descended from this book's similar threat in 2136.]
On first reading, The Murder Game seems okay in a Christopher Bulis murder mystery kind of way. Many people liked it. Its story is well constructed, even putting a little meat on its bones towards the end. Had this book been blessed with better prose and characterisation, it might almost have been good. But I really hope this was one of those early PDAs which had been rejected MA proposals, since it would cheer me up to think that someone thought this wasn't worth publishing.
A Review by Brian May 31/5/04
The Murder Game is a fairly derivative tale of murder (well, obviously!), intrigue, double crossing, giant profiteering corporations and marauding shark-like aliens. It's filled with a bunch of cliched characters, all with something to hide, set against the backdrop of a dilapidated hotel in space. But it makes for an enjoyable, non-taxing read, thanks to Steve Lyons, whose prose is filled with an enjoyable wittiness. He makes sure something happens all the time, stopping the reader from getting bored and ensuring they keep turning the pages.
Lyons's greatest strength is an excellent rendering of the second Doctor, Ben and Polly line-up. They are all brought to the pages with an enthralling accuracy. For the Doctor, descriptions such as his "sheepishly childlike simper" and his "Oh crumbs" exclamation as the Selachians capture him are Patrick Troughton to a tee. Some of the comments he makes to Alison Hayes are faithful depictions of the way the second Doctor could deliver a string of subtly barbed words to the amoral or the corrupt.
For Ben, we go beyond the Cockney sailor of the small screen. He's as dependable and affable as ever, but it's great to get an insight into his thoughts - there's his perception of the Doctor as a "surrogate captain", but the most fascinating bit of introspection comes when he muses on how different Polly is from him, and upon returning to their proper times, she will return to her swinging set, while "Ben Jackson would return to barracks alone". It's quite a sad thought, although with all the adventuring they would share between now and The Faceless Ones, it's obvious they have some sort of future together (despite the actors' denials there was anything between the characters). Of course, Lyons writes all this with the benefit of hindsight, but he gives a sympathetic edge to a character to whom the televised stories didn't do much justice in terms of depth.
The other successful exploration of Ben is the sense of wonderment he feels as a traveller in time. He has landed in Earth's future, where he knows that the Ben Jackson from 1966 is dead. It's summed up beautifully in one sentence:
"He felt small and lonely and insignificant and, suddenly, he knew what the expression about someone walking over your grave meant." (pp .91-92)I really admire the care that Lyons takes to explore the emotional and philosophical consequences of travelling in the TARDIS. Polly's psyche is not as intricately, nor sympathetically, explored as Ben's, but she's still a faithful rendition of Anneke Wills's character. She's intelligent, compassionate and resourceful (like Polly from The Moonbase - no, not the coffee making part...)
As for the rest of the characters, they're not really that exciting, but I suspect that's deliberately so on Lyons's part. For the murder within a murder scenario, they're all very much Agatha Christie-like individuals, with nobody above suspicion, and not really meant to exist outside this situation. A good number of them are guilty of different things, whether being self-interested government agents, double crossers, collaborators or just plain cowards. Terri's budding relationship with Ben gives her slightly more depth, but her femme fatale betrayal of him is really no surprise. Ironically (but once again, deliberately so) Thomas, the computer hologram, has the most personality of the lot.
The Selachians however, are a very inspired creation. They come across as quite fearsome, with strength to be reckoned with - their takeover of the Galaxian is a great cliffhanger moment. Despite some clunky dialogue, they're an impressive race of monster, not unlike the Cybermen. It's feasible that there's more than one species of beings who would augment themselves and ensure their survival at the expense of their original forms. Ben's encounter with a mutilated Selachian reinforces this and is quite disturbing to read, too.
As I mentioned before, the story is well paced, and something's always happening. The titular activity comes across as a futuristic equivalent of those "How to Host a Murder" games, but thankfully the real murder mystery takes effect quickly. The build up of events before the Selachian attack is a slight precursor to the base under sieges stories of the Troughton era. There's a genuine feel of tension as the Galaxian proceeds to crash, while the action sequences are all enjoyable to read - there's lots of scrambling about underwater at the end, scenes which are never bogged down with too much detail. There are some serious parts - the assassination program is especially gripping and another disturbing feature, making you wonder if technology could actually achieve something as horrible as this in the future. The Selachians come across as quite sadistic when interrogating the prisoners on the Galaxian, while this scene also brings out the worst in humanity (Hornby's suggestion the creatures torture Dorothy Adler to get their information). The cliches of separated companions and attempts to reach the TARDIS before the obligatory explosion are all handled well, reinforcing that Lyons is not trying to write anything else than an enjoyable Doctor Who yarn. He's having fun, too.
He also keeps the continuity references to a minimum. It's mainly Ben's recollection of previous adventures (The War Machines, The Tenth Planet, The Power of the Daleks) inserted naturally into conversation. However the reference to The Moonbase, as Terri recounts to Ben, should have been left out, in my opinion (especially as, for the sailor, it hasn't happened yet, and in the televised adventure he shows no suspicions or foreknowledge). Of course, there's also the "cinders floating around in Spain" gag and the Doctor's reaction to Hornby's outrageous choice of clothes at the end - "he would never dress like that." Yes, they're both gratuitous and very overindulgent, but you can't help smirking at the same time.
But that's what Steve Lyons manages to achieve in The Murder Game. A fun runaround that rarely takes itself too seriously, but has a certain gravity when it needs to be. The characterisation of the regulars is magnificent, adding a great deal to the story. In short, it's inconsequential but fun. 7/10
A Review by Steve White 9/3/13
The Murder Game is the second Past Doctor Adventure released by BBC Books. It features the second Doctor, who never really gets as much exposure as the other Doctors, mainly due to a high number of his TV appearances being wiped, so it is always nice to read stories featuring him.
The book reads just like a 60s 6 parter. Whether this is a good thing or not is entirely up to the reader, but don't expect in-depth characterisations or challenging storylines. Personally, I quite like the simplistic novels; they hark back to a time when Doctor Who was just a really good story and wasn't reliant on timey-wimey concepts.
The first half of the novel really isn't surprising at all. The TARDIS crew get an SOS call to a desolate space hotel, but they arrive to find seemingly nothing wrong and the few guests that are there are taking part in a murder-mystery game. Naturally, this means real murders start taking place. This scenario has been done to death and it does feel like cliche after cliche, but it is surprisingly enjoyable. The story moves on from that premise with the introduction of a race of space sharks (the Selachians) and the second half of the book does get less predictable.
Characterwise, it's a mixed bag. The TARDIS crew are spot on, Ben and Polly are given a huge role, and their relationship is explored brilliantly. Likewise, there is no question that the Doctor is Patrick Troughton; Steve Lyons has him down to a tee. However, the supporting cast are barely even two dimensional, let alone three. This was obviously going to happen when you are dealing with that many characters, but a couple of them may as well have been called guest A and guest B. It's only a minor gripe though, as Ben and Polly are the stars of the book; the fact the guests seem semi-anonymous doesn't detract from the overall enjoyment.
As mentioned, the villains of the piece are the wonderful Selachians. Basically just sharks in water-filled armour. The idea is great; there must be plenty on worlds where the inhabitants are limited to the water, making space travel even more difficult. Sadly, they do come across as pantomime villains at times, which is a shame given their tremendous potential. I believe they feature in another novel, so I look forward to reading that.
For me The Murder Game was far more enjoyable than The Devil Goblins From Neptune and in my opinion should have led the range. Quite simply, it is a story which doesn't take much getting into and holds your interest throughout. That's not to say it isn't without its flaws - it could be a Target novel from an unbroadcast 60s story - but I was entertained throughout, which is why we read the novels in the first place.