THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Daleks' Master Plan
The Ark in Space
The Leisure Hive
BBC Books
Placebo Effect

Author Gary Russell Cover  image
ISBN 0 563 40587 2
Published 1998

Synopsis: The Doctor and Sam arrive on a planet in the year 3999 and are embroiled in a plot that involves deceit, deception, and a possible silent invasion surrounding the upcoming Galactic Olympic games.


Reviews

A Review by Michael Hickerson 18/8/98

One thing you can usually count on from a Gary Russell Doctor Who novel -- it's going to be entertaining.

Placebo Effect is no exception.

In fact, Russell's latest Who novel shows the same flashes of brilliance that Legacy and Scales of Injustice gave us. It's one of the most enjoyable BBC books Doctor Who novels I've read to date and easily in the top five of the eighth Doctor series.

Why?

Because Russell does what he does best--brings back old aliens from the glory days of the series and re-examines them. In Placebo Effect we get two of the series more interesting races--the Wirrn and the Foamasi--back for a return visit. And just as his first novel Legacy added depth to the Ice Warriors, so does Placebo Effect give those two races some interesting background. We get to see a bit of the working of the Foamasi society as well as some information on the various Lodges at work. We also get a new, more unsettling view of the Wirrn. Russell is able to have these monsters become more unnerving and interesting on the printed page.

But, having great characters without a good story would be rather pointless and Russell succeeds rather well here also. Russell allows the novel to unfold at a good pace, building toward a blistering finish as the Doctor stumbles across the insidious Wirrn plot. Along the way are double and triple crosses and, in typical Russell style, a whole lot of horrific deaths.

All of these elements add up to one of the more enjoyable of the BBC eighth Doctor adventures and one of the best original pieces of Who fiction I've read in quite some time. Gary Russell deserves high marks for this wonderful novel and I can only hope that his dream of having a book about the Nimons comes true very soon. He's one of the few authors I can think of who would make that book worth reading...


Tedious and Awful by Robert Smith? 13/11/98

The single most boring piece of fiction I have ever had the misfortune to read. Not actually bad, but it's so mind-numbingly tedious that I rate it the worst eighth Doctor novel yet.

I've always maintained that Doctor Who can survive being bad, but it can't survive being boring. I've never had this view so strongly reinforced as I did when suffering through Placebo Effect. At least with a bad book there's a sort of perverse enjoyment, as things spiral downhill so rapidly that you can't help enjoying the ride in some twisted way. Frustratingly (unlike a lot of other truly bad Eighth Doctor books), Placebo Effect doesn't even offer this small comfort.

I should perhaps mention at this point that while I've had my problems with Gary Russell novels in the past, boredom hasn't been one of them. I've enjoyed every single book he's written, to one degree or another, but Placebo Effect is so dire I can find very little redeeming about it.

The core of these problems are the book's "original" characters (I use the word lightly). They are simply so uninvolving and badly characterised that there's nothing whatsoever to hook the reader. There are a bunch of cliched characters, going through cliched motions -- and worst of all, we get subjected to their thought processes. Of all the bad things about this book, this was the worst. Very little of it ever rung even slightly true. What makes it worse is when people have been replaced by Foamasi or taken over by Wirrrn. The sheer mind-numbing pain of having to read the thought processes of the characters around them as they take forever to work out what should be obvious even to these thickos is too insane for words. I could handle this if it only happened occasionally, or was spiced up with good writing elsewhere. It doesn't and it isn't.

The first part of the book isn't great, mainly because nothing very much actually happens; but compared to what follows it's probably the best part. Stacy and Ssard work all right, even though they're there for absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Yes, they get the Doctor to Micawber's World, but the TARDIS could have done that randomly and we'd have saved ourselves a quarter of the novel. What's worse is that they just simply disappear. There are no farewells or leaving scenes, they just drop out of the action at the end of chapter 4. In fact, I kept waiting for them to turn up once more, because I couldn't believe that they'd just drop out of the action like that.

Sam and The Way Forward are fairly dire and very little of interest involves them. There are a few moments when Sam refers back to the events of Seeing I, but I continually got the impression that we were still reading about young Sam. Namechecking the events of the past does not automatically translate into demonstrating that character growth has taken place.

The Way Forward stuff actually provides the only moments of relief I got in the entire book. While most of the novel is just tedious, there's a three page section that has to be seen to be believed where Sam and a religious guy engage in a debate over Evolution vs. Creationism. Furthermore - and I swear I'm not making this up - the arguments are so loopy that they actually include ideas lifted wholesale from rec.arts.drwho's very own Jill Deel. I've heard some sound Creationist arguments in my time, but oddly none of them came from religious flamewars on rec.arts.drwho. Sam doesn't fare much better, but I wasn't really expecting much. What's truly surreal about this entire sequence is the way it comes out of left field and piles loopy argument upon pseudo-scientific nonsense... making it read exactly the same way as the infamous retcon in War of the Daleks.

Only at this point did I feel the book sliding into enjoyable badness. For three pages I was actually entertained and my will to live revived slightly. Disappointingly, the sheer awfulness evaporates shortly afterwards and we return to the mind-numbing tedium again.

The continuity didn't really bother me that much, possibly because it was a break from having to suffer through the "original" characters. Unfortunately, it's like a quick fix. It raises a brief flicker of Whoish recognition and then fades again, providing no sustenance whatsoever. Oh, and at one point Sam claims that twenty thousand years have passed since her time. I can only conclude that, like the equally mind-numbing Short Trips before it, Placebo Effect is not intended for readers who have mastered the art of subtraction.

I've left the biggest problem until last: the Doctor. Before I started reading this book, I was quite looking forward to Gary's interpretation of the eighth Doctor. I enjoyed his novelisation of the film, but it was written in something of a vacuum. Placebo Effect was the chance for the original writer of eighth Doctor novels to turn his hand to the character in more depth.

So why didn't we get that? Instead we get yet another bland and generic version of Doctor Identikit. Oh, there are a few mannerisms from the telemovie thrown in when the Doctor's looking a bit too much like a previous one, but that's all they are. There's no exploration of the character, no quirky scenes for us to marvel at, nothing of interest at all. One of the interesting things about the eighth Doctor from the telemovie is hurriedly retconned away, as though the author were embarrassed about the character he was writing for.

With a difficult companion like Sam and a Doctor who doesn't translate very well in print, I think the BBC Books have their work cut out for them. We've seen a few bright spots where this setup can work, but it needs careful and well-thought-out writing. Lose even a bit of that and both characters collapse into either nothingness or irritation. The eighth Doctor is a subtle and complex character, but you'd never know it month after month because he's apparently just too subtle for most writers of the range. While some commendable (and some not-so-commendable) efforts have been made to get Sam's character to work, I can't help but feeling the main problem has been overlooked. Without the Doctor, these novels are dead and I don't think anyone wants that. Unfortunately, Placebo Effect is a prime example of why the books don't deserve to survive.

In fairness, I should point out the things I liked. There was the loopy debate, which entertained me no end. I liked Stacy and Ssard, although the lack of resolution weakened this for me. I also liked the way Sam realised the Doctor had never once mentioned them to her. Some of the continuity wasn't too annoying. I liked the spelling of Wirrrn (although the painful introduction nearly had me gagging in disbelief). Um, that's it.

In summary, I found this book just awful in its tedium. I struggled to turn each page with the awful prose, disgraceful characterisation and lacklustre plot. In total I enjoyed about 3 pages out of 300, which by my reckoning is about 1% of the novel (I fear my mathematical ability here has just destroyed any chance I had of working for the BBC). Painful and boring and not even in an entertainingly bad way. Avoid, avoid, avoid.


A Review by Finn Clark 27/2/99

Many people like the books of Gary Russell, but those people do not include me. I see why people enjoy them and have never actually disliked his books (except Business Unusual) but for me Gary exemplifies the heights of craftsmanship in the art of writing that one can achieve without actually being a writer. I read a Gary Russell book. I put it down. I forget it within moments. Hours of my life have just disappeared and I can't work out why. He can have some super ideas (Invasion of the Cat-People) and can tell some great jokes, but...

Actually, I tell a lie. I really liked Scales of Injustice, which fed off the best bits in Who Killed Kennedy and actually achieved some good atmosphere alongside the fankwank. But getting back to Placebo Effect...

For good or ill, it fits into the BBC Books range. On the shallow level of The Eight Doctors or War of the Daleks, it is a perfectly fair runaround and is considerably more entertaining than either of those. In its unexceptionable competence it's more like Kursaal or Option Lock, I suppose, though it is also the most light-hearted of all the 8DAs to date and is welcome on that score. There are some lovely jokes in there (which I won't spoil for you) and there's some pleasantly inoffensive satire of the Royal Family and the EU, which is diverting even if you disagree with the points Gary's making. The tone is consistently one step removed from outright flippancy, while the prose is downright chatty in a way that smacks of Internet influence (for instance giving asides in brackets, as I'm doing right now). In fact, the jovial, undramatic tone is one of my problems with this book...

It could have been so different. It stars the Wirrrn and the Foamasi (which isn't a spoiler, since Gary mentions them in his introduction), both of whom could easily have resulted in a much darker book. The Foamasi are still the Mafia as we saw in The Leisure Hive (which is theoretically entering Goodfellas territory), while the Wirrrn are likened by Gary himself to H.R. Giger's famous Aliens. Both of these sources have the potential to be horrifying, scary or just plain disgusting, but little of that comes through. Some of the Wirrrn stuff is slightly unnerving, for a moment or two. The Foamasi are cosily unthreatening and somehow it all adds up to a safe and comfortable ride which carries its readers through placidly without ever worrying them. There's one scene involving Sam and some tunnels which should be scary but is actually almost funny. Perhaps that's deliberate?

But I suppose the book successfully achieves what it's trying to be and I shouldn't really be criticising it for not being something else. Every so often there's a clumsy bit which one just skips, jumping a page or two in the confident knowledge that you're not missing anything of even the slightest importance (descriptions of Sam and the TARDIS, great whopping long discussions on science and religion that I'll return to later) but other than that I can't find any actual flaws.

As for the fankwank... Well, it's as shameless as usual. We get references to Doctor Who comics of all eras: TV Comic, the World Distributors annuals, DWM (a lot) and most obviously, Gary's own strip in the Radio Times. Remember its two companions, the human Stacy and the Ice Warrior Ssard? They're getting married. Yes, you did read that right. There's a reference to a World Distributors text story too, as well as copious links to the Virgin line (Gary's own Legacy, obviously) and... Oh, why bother? It's like a Ben Elton book. Gary gets away with stuff that would be outrageously over the top from anyone else, just because he's Gary.

One effect of the cross-fertilisation of imagery, interestingly, is to enhance one's visualisation of the story. If one meets a creature from the comic strips, for instance, for a while thereafter one "sees" the narrative in the mind's eye in a completely different way...

Really, there isn't much to criticise in the plot. It does the job. It's there. But what about the regulars? The Doctor is okay. Sam, however...

Sam is a twat. She is competent (most of the time) and at one point Gary does acknowledge that this book is set after Seeing I, but for a while I was convinced that Gary was deliberately taking the you-know-what out of her. She improves in the second half of the book, but this is a Sam with a tendency for little speeches, who can't poke the obvious holes in a rather dodgy Creationist argument. This, in fact, was my main problem with the teenage idealist originally presented in the first outline. Teenagers can believe in all the good causes they like, but they don't have the knowledge and experience that they'll acquire when they're older. A self-righteous teenager will generally come across as a big mouth without any intelligence behind the opinions, which is unfortunately the trap that Sam has fallen into more than once in the BBC Books.

Ah well. She's still developing fast and hopefully the second companion in January (?) will add some spice to the mix. I'm rather looking forward to seeing the various interactions between the Doctor, Sam and Fitz...

In conclusion, then, I suppose I'd recommend this book. It's not really about anything, but it's fun and in places funny. It's above-average Gary Russell fare, which in itself will be enough for many people.


Funny and Exciting, but Unimaginative by Daniel Coggins 26/7/99

After the superb 'high' of Seeing I, almost anything else would seem to be a low (apart from a sequel to Alien Bodies :-)). We're fortunate, then that Placebo Effect is no Longest Day. It's genuinely exciting, fastmoving, politically incorrect/correct in fast succession and seeks to canonise the DWM comic strip. One small problem remains. The Wirrrn(?!?) are completely boring with no shock, shock, horror, at discovering that a character is a Wirrn. The Foamasi are uncomfortably TOO gangster like, shuffling around and making the whole thing feel like a "gangsta" movie. Sam is 'OK' but nowhere near as well portrayed as in Seeing I. The Doctor isn't really the Eighth Doctor, but more so every Doctor in quick succession.

The Duchess of Auckland is the stories saving grace, an appalling mismash of the worst Fergie/Diana cliches/jokes. And extremely funny as well, making horrific faux pas and getting away with it. Sam nicks a Meep cuddly toy, and whacks the TARDIS' (getting more alive ((and like the TARDIS out of Alien Bodies)) every story) holographic display of Earth in the microwave. The only real benefits from her new older-ness are how she entertains grand plans of mending the TARDIS, nicking the Doctor's sonic screwdriver (he promised to make her one, but forgot) but forgetting how to use it, putting them both in a fair ol' stew. And the boyfriend of whom I've forgotten the name is much better than the one from Longest Day. In short.. goodish.


.............................................. by Robert Thomas 21/4/01

When I buy and read a book, whether it's Doctor Who or anything else the one thing I want is for it to force a reaction out of me. Engage me, grab my attention, bore me, make me smile, make me sad, make me laugh, make me mad, disappoint me, take me somewhere I've never been somewhere and if it's somewhere I have been take me there in style.

Placebo Effect got absolutely nothing out of me. Not a lot happens in this book. Yes there are old Monsters in here, comic strip companions and an old enemy. But still nothing happens. It reads like a very long prologue and stops before it gets itself started.

I can only recommend this to people who have a lot of time on their hands and completists.


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 5/6/01

In my review for Seeing I, I stated that I was happy at the increase in quality and that I was left wanting to read more in the series like it. As the book immediately following, Placebo Effect was not exactly what I had in mind. Don't get me wrong now, I did not think that this was a particularly horrible book - just an average one that's let down by one or two poorly thought out parts.

As is revealed in the introduction to the book, this is the long-awaited story that features the return of not one but two old Doctor Who villains. Perhaps "long-awaited" is not quite the correct way to phrase the return of the Wirrrn (Gary Russell insists on using the novelisation spelling) and the Foamasi, but I was quite curious to see how they would turn out. To my great surprise, I found myself quite enjoying them in this setting. As the book is set during the Olympics in the year 3999, I was half-hoping that we would be treated to the sight of the Foamasi running around in track-suits getting ready to compete in the 100m hurdles. Alas this was not the case.

The majority of the book plows ahead confidently, never being too flashy or too hideous. However, there are one or two points where the book skids to a complete halt leaving the reader to wonder just what was going on. The most glaring example of this is an evolution versus creationist argument that suddenly comes from nowhere to blind-side the reader. I'm really not sure what the point of including this was. The background of everyone involved in the debate had already been explained and gone over repeatedly, so there wasn't anything new revealed with that. The religious overtones have already been set up, so we're just getting more repetition rather than further insight. And worst of all is that the argument itself relies on the fact that neither side knows very much about the other's viewpoint, or even about the details of their own. So we're just left with a rather superficial and silly argument about evolution that adds nothing and goes nowhere. I doubt that the intention was to show both sides as shallow, yet that's exactly the impression that one is left with. This really should have been cut from the book.

In the previous book, Sam spent most of her three-year separation from the Doctor growing up and learning about the universe and herself. Unfortunately, very little of her maturing seems to have stuck with her, as for the majority of it she seems to be more of a generic companion than the Sam who left in the TARDIS in Seeing I. There are one or two places where the new Sam can be recognized, but for a majority of the story this is not the case. This is a real shame, as the Sam that rejoined the Doctor in the previous story was well on the way to becoming an interesting character that was more than just a few cheesy catch-phrases.

The descriptions of the Wirrrn taking over peoples of different species are far and away the best part of this book. The Wirrrn and their human agent are genuinely frightening, taking the best elements from the series and bringing them to life again. Unfortunately they hardly appear in the story at all, often disappearing for chapters at a time. The book would have been far better with more of these passages and it's rather telling that the Doctor doesn't even know about the Wirrrn's presence until thirty pages from the very end of the book. The conclusion to the Wirrrn section of the book (which one assumes is the main plot) is therefore rushed though and ultimately feels very unsatisfying. One wishes that Russell had taken more time in crafting this portion of the book, as there was a lot of wasted potential here.

Overall, this is a fairly flawed work that's enjoyable in some places and tedious in others. A lot of the right elements are there for this to be a far better book that it is. With some generous editing and more effort, this could have been a really good story.


You Can't Have Enough by Sean Twist 17/7/02

As I pulled myself off the couch, the wine bottles clanking to the floor, I decided I needed a purpose. Stepping over the stunned cat (who really should have been able to dodge that wine bottle -- he's had enough experience), I staggered over to my bookshelf.

Pushing the stuffed Wombles to the floor, I stared blearily at the collection of books there. Pretty colours, all. All fairly pristine. All fairly unread. These were, then, the BBC Doctor Who novels.

It was time. I would read them all. My life would then have purpose.

I tried to remember the last book I'd read. Was it something about moons of dreamstone? No, something about eyes. No, no, I's. It was about I's. So the next book would be.... ah. Placebo Effect.

Ooh, there was a giant bug on the cover! And an Olympic medal. Through my personal haze, I thought it would make a cool T-shirt for an Eighties new wave band.

Nine hours later, I put the book down. The cat wandered over, glaring menancingly at the wine bottle in my left hand. "None for you, sweetums," I said. "Daddy's thinking."

The story of Placebo Effect -- something about the Wirrrrrrrrrrn (just how many bloody 'r's are there?) trying to infect Olympic athletes with their genetic material via fake steroids, was clever, I thought. The fact that the Wirrrn were hardly in the book seemed incidental. We had the Foamasi, who I vaguely remembered from The Leisure Hive, remembering Tom Baker being torn apart more. I did remember I liked saying Foamasi, so it was fun to see them again. And say them again. 'Foamasi Foamasi Foamasi."

And then there was Sam. In my foggy memory, I remembered I was supposed to hate Sam, because rec.arts.drwho told me to. But I never have. I love Sam. And I loved her more here in Placebo Effect, because she was the sort of woman I'd like to marry: strong, confident, and breathing.

Here, she handles most of the action, being a little Doctor Juniorette. She even swipes the sonic screwdriver, which makes her ace in my books. (No, Ace was someone else, and she wasn't Sam. Ace was brunette, first of all. Sam isn't brunette. I think.) Placebo had some great Sam.

As for the Doctor... I'm beginning to suspect he drinks. At one point, he says he can see the future in people's time waves or something. When I say that, I'm told to go to bed. How does he get away with it? It isn't fair.

So, all in all, Placebo Effect is a fun read. Lots of strong, non bruntette Sam, the Doctor enthuses about room decor, and the TARDIS can now apparently speak through humming. What more can any sane man ask for in a book?

I put Placebo Effect back on the shelf, peering quizzically at the one beside it.

Vanderdorken's Children?

Whatever could that be about?

My hand reached out, shaking.


A Review by Terrence Keenan 3/3/03

When your only experience of Gary "Big Fish" Russell is the "classic" Divided Loyalties, one hopes that any other offerings can be an improvement.

Alas, Placebo Effect is not.

The key word here, is boring. Placebo Effect is Boring, boring, boring, and also, um, boring.

The big problem is that the Big Fish has too much going on. In the 280 pages, there's the Wirrrn, Fomasi politics, Micawber's World business, a ninny of a Royal Personage, a religious cult, a so-bad-it's-brilliant religious debate, and possibly the most inane series of plot twists ever.

Did Ian Levine write the outline for this one?

Anyhoo, Sam is tolerable. The Doctor is straight from the TV movie. The rest of the cast, save for "love interest" Kyle Dale, are one-dimensional. And then there's the fanwank... not on the level of Divided Loyalties or The Quantum Archangel, but two characters from the comics get the story rolling, and about only a quarter of the TV stories are referenced, with the usual sledgehammer subtlety.

You know, despite the complete disaster of the writing, plot, characters of Divided Loyalties, it was a page turner. Placebo Effect is a page-dragger.

Avoid.


A Placebo Effect Diary by Brett Walther 16/5/03

p.1
I know Placebo Effect is almost universally despised, but I'll give it a go regardless. I wrote to Gary Russell once and he sent me a very sweet email back, so I owe it to him.

p.60
Ooh, I hate Sam. Why does she get so ridiculously elated about Stacy's wedding? The cheese factor here is off the scale. She doesn't even know this person, yet she's as all tittering and giddy as if they'd known each other their whole lives and spent hours poring over bridal mags... Is the reader supposed to know who Stacy or her Ice Warrior fiance are? (By the way, this couple has got about as much chemistry in the book as the Sixth Doctor and Peri...)

p.70
Really starting to get worried. We've just been introduced to main character number 172 (and still counting)... Plus, these ones (the royal court of New Zealand) are possibly the most annoying yet. I know that's intentional, but still... What's worse is that these characters are being introduced, and then not referred to again for another fifty pages. I keep having to go back and skim their introductory scenes...

p.122
Not only do we have to deal with every other sentence bearing an irritating (and completely unnecessary) continuity reference, there are a startling number of lines that bear a startling similarity to infamous lines from the TV series. Take Reverend Lukas' confession to Sam: "I sense an aura around you, an emission of general goodness that the Goddess would appreciate." Shades of Zaroff's cringe inducing line from the only surviving episode of The Underwater Menace? Frankly, it was bad enough the first time. Check out a re-hash of Benton's "between the now... and now" line from The Time Monster on p.217. (Avoid p.149 entirely unless you actually think "Doctor? Doctor who?" hasn't been done to death.)

p.123
Where is this creation vs. evolution debate coming from? (And why is it spanning page after page...) Besides, what's the point of this debate, when the Doctor resolves it with a throwaway comment on p.154!

p.130-something
The bit where Sam preaches to Kyle about racism because he's made a comment that all Meeps look the same has to be re-read to be believed. Oh, shut up you miserable cow! A line from Austin Powers 2 springs to mind... "WHY WON'T YOU DIE!"

p.141
Russell mentions (for the hundredth time) something to the effect of "Sam realized how much she matured on Ha'olam". Funny, isn't it, how we're told this ad nauseum, yet she still acts like an annoying brat throughout?

p.156
Wasn't there an Ice Warrior and Stacy chick in this book? What happened to them? Is this the same book?

p.175
I think Gary's trying to draw a parallel between the Wirrrn as an assimilative hive mind and organized religion... The Church of the Way Forward is described as growing in number and making converts as they hop from planet to planet. On the other hand, this may just be me trying to seek some meaning behind the inclusion of the church in the narrative...

p.180
Hmm... This is shaping up to possess one of the most contrived storylines I've ever encountered in the EDA range. Why does Sam decide to investigate the Carrington Grande hotel, then pursue journalist Torin Chalfont? There isn't a reason, other than that there's nothing else for her to do... Similarly, why does the Doctor investigate SSS Headquarters earlier on? Coincidence abounds, with the Doctor and Sam happening to be in exactly the right place at just the right time, even though they had no reason to be there in the first place. Everything is SO contrived, completely disregarding characters' motivations.

p.207
Between the Foamasi impersonations and Wirrrn infestations, the plot is bursting at the seams with green aliens running about masquerading as humans. Even after the Doctor explains in impossible detail the step by step progression of the Foamasi scheme, my head is still spinning.

p.212
It turns out that SSS Commandant Ritchie has been acting as a double agent for a reason! Too bad we haven't been given a hint of his motivation until now. It turns out his wife and son have been kidnapped by the most undignified of Foamasi Lodges, and their safe return depended on his continued cooperation. Unfortunate that we find this out so late in the book -- Ritchie's already become so bland and uninteresting that we don't care anymore.

p.279
So ends one of the most painful books I've ever had the misfortune of reading. (I started the page countdown about two hundred pages ago, by the way...) Sorry Gary, but this one's only worth a

2/10


Under your skin... by Joe Ford 18/10/05

Sometimes I have a reaction akin to anaphylactic shock to Doctor Who merchandise and looking back I can never figure out why. The first time I saw Paradise Towers/I read The Last Resort/I listened to Winter for the Adept I thought they were the worst examples of their kind in their respective medias. But nothing could rival my sheer loathing for this book when I first explored its pages and I haven't the foggiest as to why. This really is not a loathsome book. It's not even a badly written one. When compared to some of the po-faced and angst ridden EDAs that have preceded it, its actually pretty damn readable...

...that's not to say it's perfect. There are some whopping great flaws but that is part and parcel of the early EDAs but there is a very important thing to remember about Placebo Effect that raises it over the likes of War of the Daleks, Kursaal, Legacy of the Daleks, The Bodysnatchers and Longest Day... Gary Russell has remembered that the Doctor Who universe is supposed to be fun! Honestly, you'd be surprised how many authors seem to enjoy dropping the Doctor and Sam into a funless universe, where nothing nice ever happens, the TARDIS team are tortured (physically and mentally) and the characters are all one-dimensional bullies. It is so nice to remember that there are good reasons for these young people to join up with the Doctor and see the universe.

So what do we get? A Foamasi dressing up in a female skin suit and shagging her way into a position of power. A cross-cultural wedding between an Ice Warrior and a human. A bunch of Foamasi sitting around a table discussing their politics like a gang of thugs from the Godfather. Okay, these are hardly the most spectacular examples of wit and imagination in the series but I appreciate the effort. I have read a whole bunch of Gary Russell novels, some better than others, but one thing is very clear. He is not interested in writing intense character studies that get under the skin of characters in a way they never could on the telly. Nope, he writes fluffy books that perfectly captures their respective eras (he gets season nineteen frighteningly right in Divided Loyalties) and allows them to have a bloody good time! And why not? With so many Doctor Who books out there we need writers like Gary and Paul Magrs who give the reader a soothing massage before the Lawrence Mileses of the universe rough us up again.

And he understands Doctor Who cliches so well but actually manages to do something interesting with them (unlike the regularly-regurgitated works of Terrance Dicks). Here you have the mismatch of continuity that has plagued many an EDA to this point but it is utilised rather well. I don't know what to say about Gary's proposed Nimon versus Macra idea (you could call it Parasites!) but considering Placebo Effect features both the Foamasi and the Wirrn it is nowhere near as annoying as it should be. Both species have a good reason to be involved and are used fairly effectively, the former mostly to provide some comic relief and the latter for the scares. We discover a little more about each race and each have some fairly well written passages (there is a fabulous piece of writing where one character succumbs to the Wirrn Hive Mind... I love how he starts hearing voices and is slowly convinced the invasion of his mind is a wonderful thing...).

He gets the Doctor perfect too but considering he wrote the TV Movie novelisation that is to be expected. The eighth Doctor still isn't the most riveting of characters but that is down to his lack of direction and defining traits but that is more a fault of the novel range than this novel. It feels as though each author is trying something different, like throwing mud at a wall to see which piece sticks, so the editor can figure out what works. The relaxed, fluffy Doctor of Placebo Effect is nothing at all like the tortured Doctor of Seeing I but that is the sort of inconsistency I am getting used to. Gary knows how to get the generic Doctor perfect, a few witty lines, a lot of charisma, a pinch of curiosity and a whole bunch of subterfuge. He breezes through the book harmlessly and it is a miracle how loose and engaging he can be when not chasing Sam or dealing with one hundred universal issues. He smiles a lot, which is very telling.

Talking of Seeing I this is the first appearance of the brand new Sam Jones. Or not. Well possibly. I really cannot tell. There is a new sense of dynamism between her and the Doctor and she certainly is seething with confidence, which is great. And yet she is still preaching like a Jehovah's Witness on E, running away from people when she can't get her own way and full of teenagey angst (which is bizarre considering she isn't a teenager anymore!). Now she's worrying about her parents, if they are still missing her and if the Doctor will miss her if she ever decided to leave him. Most frighteningly she gets to indulge in a HUUUUUGE religious argument in the middle of this book, which is packed to the brim with preachy and unintelligent dialogue. It almost feels as if Seeing I was all for nought, but... I never, not once found Sam a chore in this book! There are only two explanations I can give for this striking abhorrence, either I have read so many of these bloody eighth Doctor and Sam books now that I am getting used to her OR Gary Russell writes for her in a very loose, humorous style that reminds us she really is a bit of a caricature and has some fun with that. I am opting for the latter, simply to spare my sanity. Sam is kinda fun these days, barely two-dimensional to be sure, but like the Doctor harmless enough and even quite jolly in places. Go figure.

There are some real laugh-out-loud bits in this book, just to balance out the absurdities that Gary gets away with. One character muses over the fact that twenty thousand years on and the human race still spend their lives queuing for everything. The hyperactive Pahkar is worth a giggle and I loved the totally British "What ho!" Foamasi. Even the Doctor gets on the laughs, sewing another dimension into his pockets! Now we know why he can pull out a hundred and one impossible things! And most brilliant of all The Duchess's speech to open up the Games has to be read to be believed, she manages to insult every sentient species in the universe in her opening paragraph.

Of course there are some irritations. The Wirrn take an age to get involved. The religious debate. Torin touches the Wirrn goo even after being told it could be extremely dangerous. There were a shocking number of typing errors too which was a continual distraction. And the biggest hurdle is the massive cast of characters Gary insists on including in each book, he would be much better off with a smaller cast and giving them some decent characterisation rather than spreading a little effort amongst so many. Nobody has much depth and thus their potential deaths are not really a problem.

But I refuse to finish this review on a sour note. Considering what a sour reputation this book has (where the hell do these reputations come from?) it was surprisingly fun and relaxing to read. I was never bored or wanted to throw the book at the wall in frustration (which I have with at least five EDAs so far!) and in some places I was even reminded what a joy Doctor Who can be. If only the plot could have been tightened up a bit this could have been something far more memorable. As it is it's a throwaway holiday novel but one with a lot of charm.