|ISBN#||0 563 53826 0|
|Featuring||The Third Doctor, Jo and the Brigadier|
|Synopsis: The Doctor finds himself part of the audience at a punk rock gig, where the followers are being incited to violence.|
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 1/4/01
Rags is a 3rd Doctor, Jo and UNIT story. It actually fits into that period of the show's history quite well, even though at times it seems the author is taking the mickey out of some aspects of that era. The Daemons, that favourite of all the cast, comes to mind. There is the same emphasis on supernatural elements combined with a rural setting. The Doctor drives Bessie through the leafy lanes of rural England, dazzling all with his Dandy image. That is really the only comforting image to be derived from this book though!
The author writes Horror books apparently. This becomes obvious from the first chapter, when we are introduced to a small boy who comes across a book hidden behind the dusty shelves of his local library. It is no ordinary book (these things never are) and the Horror elements of the book are put firmly to the fore.
What follows is the goriest, most horrific of any DW book ever. The author does not shirk from images conjured up from the darkest nightmares. The cattle truck of the travelling band is a particularly frightening construct, and your worst nightmares are described in blood-curdling detail. It is clear too that the author is a big fan of the Punk culture, and its anarchist messages. He cleverly brings to prominence the rawness, brutality and energy of that brand of music, combining it with the evil inherent to the story. The combination is a striking one.
This is essentially a horror novel, with Who characters grafted on. The Doctor, Jo and UNIT are present in the book - but not with the same level of prominence as usual. The Doctor takes himself away from the bulk of the first half action in fact, leaving Jo with the travelling roadshow. This is the "distant" Doctor - intent on his own unearthing of the facts in his lab, in old churches and libraries - whilst others do the dirty work. Jo is almost superfluous to the book - she is only included because of the book's setting in the Who universe. Similarly with UNIT - they monitor events, without really doing very much about them - letting the anarchy loose, so to speak.
DW can tell a Horror story better than most. It is not a genre that it has shirked from, in any incarnation of the show - but I don't think it has ever embraced it to this extreme before. Mick Lewis is an extremely good writer. His descriptive prose is there to be devoured. His images are indeed horrific, but it doesn't half keep the readers on the edge of their seats.
This is adult Doctor Who - it should have an 18 Certificate on the cover. Its also very involved and downright brilliant. Not at all for the faint-hearted. You have been warned! 9/10.
A Review by Finn Clark 7/4/01
Rags, by the way, is the title of last month's PDA from Mick Lewis. Y'know, in case you'd missed the deafening roar of hype and pre-publicity. This review might be a bit stream-of-consciousness. But that's appropriate.
This is Punk Who. This is also a modern horror novel in every way, not the usual written-down version that we get in the Who books (repetitive gore and continuity references) but an ambitious torrent of imagery that makes no concessions to easy reading. Mick Lewis is the new Paul Magrs. The difference between the two is genre, which is the main reason Mick Lewis hasn't been lauded to the skies by a legion of devoted fans.
Let's get a few things clear before we start. A horror novel isn't primarily about plot, characterisation or indeed anything else but trying to scare the wiggins out of its readers. It's a lot like fantasy, another genre which delights in impossibilities for their own sake. If you're not plugged into the notion of a horror novel, then scenes with no raison d'etre but to be weird and unsettling will leave you cold.
Rags has been called Fearmonger-lite, but I suspect that's on a purely plot level. (Says he, not having listened to Fearmonger.) Admittedly in the middle section of Rags, almost nothing happens. The regulars spend most of their time bystanding. The reader is assaulted by semi-comprehensible delirium, incident and violence.
But it's stupendously stylish. It's a shock coming to Rags from... well, almost anything. This is how a novel should read. Aggressively subjective, every sentence is bursting with opinions and points of view. This could never be accused of being a novelisation of anything. There's nothing dispassionate about this narrative. It's visceral and bloody, even managing the remarkable feat of being shocking to a jaded 2001 Who reader.
I said this is Punk Who and it is, completely and utterly. Punk suffuses every chapter and every point of view, but eventually the book becomes a deconstruction of punk's mindless anger and violence. It's explicitly part of the plot and implicitly part of the narrative voice. In retrospect it's odd that Doctor Who never before addressed punk, which in many ways is its bedfellow. It's violent and anarchic, but there's an alienation and hostility in punk that Who never subscribed to.
The Doctor faces a conflict between anarchy and authority (the Brigadier). Jo does the same. It feels particularly odd to see the UNIT crew in the punk era, since Barry Letts was if nothing else a thoroughgoing hippy. Peace, love, Buddhism and mellow flower power was the order of the day under Pertwee, with the edginess, anarchy and stylish violence being left to his successor under Hinchcliffe. But it creates a thought-provoking contrast, if nothing else. Pertwee versus Punk is as extreme a clash as could be imagined. Tom Baker or Troughton would have probably joined in.
It doesn't feel much like Doctor Who. There's a glorious wrong-footing for continuity geeks  about which I'm still undecided - synchronocity or cleverness? Mick Lewis doesn't seem to have heard of Legacy of the Daleks, which might be an argument that for this book it either won't happen or simply hasn't happened yet.
It takes a while, but eventually the regulars become the main characters. Their relationships with the attitudes of punk are explored. Kingsley Amis unpacked the notion of idea-as-hero in SF, but here we have idea-as-hero (or perhaps theme) in horror. It's what we've got instead of a tightly packed plot.
This book is an Experience. It's hallucinogenic and in-yer-face. I confidently predict that many will hate it (or at least fail to get it and be turned off) but it's the work of an extremely talented writer at the top of his game, making no concessions whatsoever to the Dick And Jane crowd.
 - calling the Opposition politician Jeremy (see The Green Death)... and then killing him!
I wore Rags by Cainim Truax 9/5/01
I grew up a poor child during the eighties. My family couldn't afford the nice close, cars, food, etc.. that it seemed so many of my peers families could. My father was (and is) a hard working factory man and it never struck me as fair that I had to grow up with so little. I grew up in the eighties hating the rich.
I, however, never turned to violence. I wonder how little it would have taken to push me over the edge. Probably not much. Perhaps just a banner to walk behind, or a band to inspire me. Luckily my inspiration was my parents who taught me to be happy with what I have not to resent what I do not.
What does this have to do with Rags, a creepy Third Doctor and Jo book, that I just finished? Read it, you'll see.
This is a book where the Doctor doesn't really win. Sure he defeats the monsters but the feelings that it represented remain. This book is a cautionary tale of what it means to be mariginilized and what the cost might be on society. We must be careful it suggests or we might receive the anarchy that some of us so desperately crave.
This book made me sad and a little bit angry at the way people are but in the end there is a little hope, represented by the Doctor. Folks I suggest we try to keep this Pandora's box closed.
7 Doctors (out of 8)
Two out of Five by Jamas Enright 3/6/01
This book is a horror novel. It also involves working class versus ruling class, authority versus punks and hippies, and a touring band. And, of course, there's the Doctor, Jo and UNIT. But there is contention as to whether this is a Doctor Who novel. By the way, for continuists out there, this book gets placed just before The Sea Devils.
This novel didn't really work for me for a number of personal reasons. I'm very jaded towards horror stories, I never got into punk music, and haven't gotten into the working versus ruling class struggle. So this story gave me the same kind of problems as I had with Space Age not knowing what Mods or Rockers were.
Jo is very much a cipher, the reader's way into the world of the Unwashed and the Unforgiven. Since I'm not into that culture, I found it hard to be interested by what happened to her. I found myself siding more with Yates and his outside perspective.
The Brigadier is also a cipher, just a representation for militia forces arrayed against the lowly working class, the lowliest of which are part of the people following the band tour. Again Yates is a more interesting part of the military, but at least what happens to the Brigadier is more believable than what happens to Jo, in that the path he goes down in characterisation is more in line with him than the path Jo takes. In her case, her transformation comes across as forced. In many ways not even the Doctor is the hero here, but more someone to give Rags a justification through scientific explanation.
A point could be made that the Doctor Who aspect could be removed and not a lot of events would be changed. Whilst that may be valid, on the other hand I like the idea that Doctor Who, even the Pertwee era, could have enough flexibility in it to allow this as a perfectly acceptable Who story. There wont be any contesting of that point from me.
More emphasis is given to Nick, Sin, Jimmy and Rod, and how they experience what happens. Also, Kane is more of the protagonist than the Doctor, though his role is more hidden. Although as soon as his relevance to previous narrative was revealed, I was guessing that at the end his role would be more pivotal than the Doctor's.
The advantage of using new characters, as always, is to give the author a chance to do something with them than with the Doctor and co. This does, however, mean that one can tell something nasty is going to happen, especially in a horror novel, so I couldn't bring myself to really care about some transitory characters. (I believe this is the point Paul Magrs was making in The Blue Angel but the way he did that was more irksome than that point.)
Whilst not everyone's cup of tea, if you like a horror novel, and something to challenge the Doctor Who season characterisation, give Rags a go. While it didn't work for me, it might for you.
A Review by Mike Morris 2/8/01
This will be short.
I didn't like Rags. You aren't supposed to.
Bloody. Visceral. A succession of bloody imagery without any real order. A book about anarchy and violence expresses itself as an anarchic, violent book, and so the meaninglessness has meaning.
Punk wasn't political, just marvellously, powerfully angry; The Sex Pistols were antichrists, not anarchists.
A fantastic and stylish exploration of uncomfortable themes; never has violence in Who been so focused on rage, frenzy, and most of all sensuality. I'm glad this was published, but I hope we don't see anything else like it for a long time.
A Review by John Seavey 12/8/01
Well, I obviously took quite a long hiatus to get to the end of this one; unfortunately, I think some of this was engendered by the novel itself. I found myself agreeing with both sides of the debate over this novel; on the one hand, I agreed that it was an intruiging experiment in bringing elements from a different genre to the world of Doctor Who, while on the other hand, I agreed that it was repetitive and slow. On the whole, I'd have to say that its structural flaws outweigh its innovations in approach.
The biggest problem with Rags is that it doesn't progress forwards, rather it simply trawls along sideways until it reaches a certain point. Very little happens in the novel; to sum up the plot would be to repeat over and over, "The band and its followers move to a new town. People get killed. The band and its followers move to a new town. People get killed. The band..." until finally, the band and its followers move to the last town, and the Doctor lectures the evil creature until its followers turn on it and seal it up in a big rock. Needless to say, plotwise, this is not sparkling work.
Stylistically, it borrows heavily from the "splatterpunk" sub-genre of horror, which uses vivid and evocative images of violence, gore, and repulsiveness to create a horror reaction that isn't so much terror as it is reflexive revulsion; the scenes of the singer spewing maggots from his mouth, or the descriptions of the policemen being torn apart by the band's followers are perfect examples. Unfortunately, though, with nothing else but these images to sustain the narrative, the sheer repetitiveness destroys their power. (The same is also true for the descriptions of the band's music; there is an inherent difficulty in conveying music in a print medium, and ultimately, reading "They played a hateful tune" in umpteen variations grew tiresome by the end.)
In addition, the book suffers from "EDA Syndrome" the Doctor does sod-all through the course of the narrative, and spends large portions of it imprisoned and filled with self-doubt. Seen it, done it, been there, bought the T-shirt.
I had high hopes at the beginning of Rags... the author does have a vivid prose style, and some scenes still stand out in the mind. Ultimately, though, the story is a hollow shell, and while it looks interesting, there's nothing there to lend it weight.
A Review by Dave Roy 11/10/01
This is a very difficult review to write. I can see that the book is well written. The idea of an alien feeding on the social rage inside a society is actually rather interesting. The Doctor, while not really doing a lot in the book, is instrumental in the resolution, so there isn't even that complaint to make against it.
This book just was not enjoyable to me, and it wasn't interesting enough to overcome that. It's Dr. Who meets Punk Rock on acid. It's a very violent book, and it doesn't pull any punches in the description of said violence. It's almost over the top in that aspect. It certainly didn't offend me, but it did become a bit old-hat and stopped affecting me. I remember in a review of Showgirls, Roger Ebert (or maybe it was Siskel) said that there were so many naked breasts in it that, after a time, you stopped even noticing them. It was much the same way with the violence in this novel. Page after page is filled with it. It gets the point across, but it was just a little too much for me.
The Doctor is characterized pretty well, but I had a little problem with Jo. She seemed even more secondary than usual, existing only to be taken over by the entity. She didn't really add much to the plot. I know that happens often in televised Who, but it shouldn't in the books. It wouldn't be quite so noticeable if this was more of a trad book, like Last of the Gadarene, but it a book that is so different from the series, it really stands out.
One thing I did like to see was the lack of the reset button. All of these killings really happened. UNIT soldiers did actually kill British civilians. British civilians really did kill UNIT soldiers. It almost begs for a bit more of an ending than Lewis gives it. However, I would bet that it was intentionally left like that, and I don't really have a problem with it. It's just noteworthy.
Ultimately, I would have to say I didn't like this book. It is well-written, though. It is certainly a horror novel, and if you're into that sort of thing, you will probably like it. Personally, I didn't like it and found it a real struggle to get through. But I can see the quality underneath, and thus can't give it the 1 star rating I might have otherwise. Give it a 3 out of 5.
Woah! by Robert Smith? 6/11/01
I don't think it's actually possible to like this book... or if you did, you'd be greatly missing the point. The words "bloody", "visceral" and "violent" have been thrown around with great abandon in reference to Mick's first Doctor Who novel, but for once the hype is quite, quite accurate. This is a deeply unlikable book, make no mistake.
But thoroughly refreshing! Rags makes a point about the Doctor Who novels that's hard to miss. While reading this novel, I was simultaneously fighting the urge to hack my own limbs off for the fun of it and swelling with pride to think that the Doctor Who format is so amazing versatile that it can support something like this. Everything we've always claimed is true - Doctor Who really is only limited by the imaginations of those writing for it. That the series can have the scope to support books like this should put a lot of authors to shame.
Okay, bad example.
If anything, Rags feels a little hampered by being an actual Doctor Who novel. I mean, it's got continuity references and everything, which just seems impossibly mundane when compared to the events portrayed within. And the Brigadier's plan to put a super-secret inside man within the anarchists to keep an eye on Jo Grant and report back to him... is sadly spoiled when he sends Mike Yates in a bad moustache. This so ridiculous that you just know the Brigadier must have a second agent on the inside - except that he doesn't and this really was the plan. I don't know if this is some sort of post-modern comment on the efficiency of the UNIT family, but it's just laughable. (And Verdigris got there first, with far more effective results.)
The Doctor is surprisingly well portrayed, but he has to spend the last third of the novel gurning away inside the CSO cattle truck as the extradimensional battle wages on. He's sidelined so ridiculously that the novel inadvertently inverts its own point - by removing the Doctor from the action so deliberately, the novel sends as clear a message as I can think of that the Doctor would otherwise be able to deal with the problem (and he does as soon as he gets out). That makes this far more of a Doctor Who novel than I suspect was intended and I'm not sure the book is the richer for it.
Rather than having the novel distract the Doctor with pretty colours and shiny objects in the technobabble truck, I'd have preferred to see the actual collision of the DW universe with real-world violence that the author seems to be aiming for. Still, I suppose Mick shouldn't feel too bad - Lawrence Miles had the same aim and the same non-solution in Interference, so he's in good company.
Rags has a bigger problem, though and that's the music. Mick Lewis has a great line in visceral violence, but he can't seem to convey the idea of music on the page terribly well. We're treated to endless scenes that tail off with "And the band played on..." without evoking much in the way of what they were actually playing. This isn't an impossible task either - Kate Orman manages it far better in The Year of Intelligent Tigers. Rags is very good at showing us people's reactions to the music, but not so hot at using the music itself to get a similar reaction from the audience. That might be intentional, but it still makes for rather boring reading. And boring definitely isn't somewhere Rags wants to go, I'm sure.
Aside from that, though, it's tough-as-nails, backs-to-the-wall stuff all the way. I think this must break some of the records for swearing in Doctor Who, but after a while I stopped keeping count and just went with the flow. (Just call me Jo Grant.) The first attack is by far the most effective, which might be because it's more surprising that way, but the rest of the violence can't quite measure up to the power of that first reaction. On the other hand, it also makes the cover really spooky. Powerful stuff.
Overall, Rags is a hell of a rollercoaster ride. It's not actually enjoyable in any sense, but there's plenty of worthy points the novel makes and I really appreciate the diversity to the line that it brings. It's a perfect evocation of the seventies, for a generation on the cusp of finally abandoning nostalgia for that decade. This couldn't be anything other than a third Doctor and Jo PDA, despite my earlier complaints and you can't say that about many of these books. I won't recommend it, as I don't want the lawsuits for the ensuing damage... ah, but what the hell. Anarchy rules, man. Read this - if you dare.
Bloody hell... by Joe Ford 17/5/04
A bloody, visceral, slaughterhouse of a novel and one that manages to be one of the best of the year by a long, long shot. It achieves everything I want from a book, it has a rock solid plot, some vivid characters, it made me think hard about the issues it was dealing with and most importantly of all it made my stomach turn time and time again and what more can you ask from a horror novel? Thanks to the beautiful, perfectly paced and chosen prose the violence and horror in this book transcends the usual 'shrug it off' affect from your average Doctor Who novel and well and truly frightened me. Scenes of endless murders sickened me to the gut and left me desperately searching for the next page such was the reaction it was having.
It is affecting in a way we fans are not used and this could be a reason why a huge number of you rejected it.
Let's face it Doctor Who was never about dealing with adult issues and yet here in a book that I would hold up as an example of the book series at its best is dismemberment, throwing up maggots, lesbian snogging, violence induced boners, throat slitting, rapes... it's one giant mixing bowl full of the scummiest of ideas and it really works. Now I know I might seem like a hypocrite when I condem a book like Warlock because of its handling of similar themes (drug abuse, rape, bestiality) but the reason Rags gets away with it is because it is all down to a supernatural force. All the nasty down to earth stuff that happens here is because of the influence of an evil alien, Warlock just dealt with humans being sick without reason and that is inexcusable. Yes, I know these things happen and it's terrible but I don't want to be reminded of them thank you very much. Rags enjoys throwing these things in your face but never forgets to remind us they are evil and being affected because of evil. That I can handle.
Besides I think it is about bloody time somebody wrote a third Doctor story that broke the mould. Verdigris was a fun attempt at doing so and funnily enough is another book that comes in for a lot of fan spite but Rags takes matters to such extremes it is the ultimate mould breaker for the era. And unlike Warmonger which was mould breaking in all the wrong ways (it felt totally and utterly wrong to see the Doctor and Peri so out of character) Rags enjoys a perfect evocation of the seventies just not any version we saw on Pertwee Who. There WERE class issues back then, there were punks and hippies and down and outs, there was dreadful violence and pain... it was about time somebody reminded us that the seventies was not all rosy coloured aliens and morals. Frankly I enjoyed this book from page one, I could see how it was giving us an unflinching look at events rather than the cotton wool insulated versions we are used to and it was nice for a writer to remain so unpretentious throughout.
Matt, my bestest friend, says he did not have any problems with the book but it wasn't Doctor Who. We have this argument every time we speak. Can Doctor Who exist in a universe where mass slaughter can be glorified on such a scale? I honestly think that anybody who says Doctor Who has its limits is rather foolish (sorry Matt), they are censoring what is the only show with a limitless formula, which is one of Doctor Who's greatest strengths. Should Doctor Who exist in a universe where Arc of Infinity survives? Well yes, unfortunately it can no matter how much I wish it weren't it can even stoop to these depths. Rags is a horror story, something the show excels at and this is one of the best ever stabs at it in the Doctor Who universe. Whilst the story enjoys a higher than usual death count and disgusting concepts it is still an alien invasion story involving UNIT in which the frilly, dandyish Doctor saves the day. This is Doctor Who, just for a twisted audience for which I am proud to consider myself a member.
Why do we read horror books? To enjoy the deaths of innocent people? To see just how many takes on the word evil can be expanded upon? For the pure atmosphere of it? I don't know about you but I read horror because I like to be scared, I enjoy how the a writer can make me afraid to be sitting in my own bed next to the man I love. It rarely happens, only a few horror books have really made me sweat beneath the sheets when I turn the lights out and Rags can be counted amongst their number. Horrible things happen in this book, far too much to count, I wanted to give Simon a taster of what it was like so flicked open to any page and read a few lines. The first was when the lead singer pukes maggots over the crowd and then snogs Sin, maggots crawling between her lips afterwards. The second was when the two policemen went home and killed their wives and kids. The third was the flashback to Kane's childhood where the boys were shoving worms and slugs into his mouth. It makes me wince just to write it (and understandably Simon mentioned he would never, EVER be reading the book) and these are just three of hundreds of icky moments to savour.
At first I thought the book was just going to be death, death, death, Beltempest style with no rhyme or reason but about two thirds through I could see a damn solid plot emerging from all the set pieces. Whilst the book remains predictable in terms of when the violence will erupt, during the "SCUM SCUM SCUM" rock concerts, the nature of the deaths become more frightening and elaborate as the book ploughs towards its conclusion. I loved it when the regular characters (Jo, the Brig) started succumbing to the violence and when the class riot was at its all time most strained I was biting my nails waiting for it all to erupt. But weaving throughout this tale of class-hate and possession is a rather disturbing tale of fate for poor Kane and reporter Charmagne, two who are linked to the evil Ragman and pulled towards the grand finale to take their place but not before learning just how they are the Ragman's kin.
It works especially well with Kane, possibly the most sympathetic character of the lot despite the fact that he is just horrible, pissing on graves, disturbing theatre performances, spitting on vicars... he is so likable because you can see a good man trying to get out. It is a soulless thought when everybody has given up on you and left you to rot and his discovery of his ancestry to the evil that is tearing up the countryside leaves you despairing for the man who could sink no lower. His 'death' at the climax comes a blessed relief.
The writing is astonishing, the locations lift from the page and transform into reality around you. I was sitting in a warm bath but was effortlessly transported to the windy, desolate moors of Dartmoor, cloudy, muggy, violence like an electric current in the air. He easily tops Jim Mortimore's breathtaking talent for capturing a scene, each moment has significance, each death has resonance, each character comes alive with fears and insecurities.. Blood spills from every page, as human beings are torn apart in the most horrendous fashions. You can feel their pain in their last moments of excruciating agony. You think I joke but never before has human misery and suffering taken on such presence, a force of its own. That's real horror folks, the sort that poisons your stomach and soils your pants...
So of course you would naturally dump the fluffy third Doctor and dippy Jo into this scenario. This is one of the main reasons this books works so well because both characters are taken down such terrible paths we get to see them at their all time weakest and it proves a lot more gripping than seeing them at their best. Never before has the third Doctor seemed so utterly redundant, he is still the arrogant dandy but now people spit in his face, rough him up, ignore his warnings... he is somewhat pathetic and never more so than when he is trapped in the cattle truck. Forced through a landscape of loathsome images the Doctor's heroic identity is stripped down layer by layer, to the point where he even doubts whether he is who he is, that his adventures were all just the dreams of a wishful dreamer. We see him huddled inside a police box, clutching his knees silently, a powerful image of the once proud Time Lord. It makes his recovery at the end and his spiteful condemnation of the Ragman all the more impressive. "You are scum," he says and you just imagine the intensity Pertwee would have brought to it.
But what about Jo? Phew! What a change. From dizzy, clutzy hang on to insecure, bisexual dope head... it is Mick Lewis' treatment of Jo that I think had fans in such uproar. What people seem to forget is she is under the Ragman's influence although I would like the believe that these feeling are real, her sickness of the Doctor's patronising, of the Brigadier's embarrassing authority kick, of Mike Yates' mummy's boy image, all repressed under her respect for their positions and abilities. When you see some of the stuff she gets up to, threatening to blow Mike's cover, calling the Doctor a bastard, getting off with women... it is shocking stuff and great fun to read. Maybe she should be a little more assertive and wild; she's a real laugh this way. Barry Letts would have a heart attack.
I only read it in short chunks; such was the power of the prose and the intensity of the book that I wanted to savour each chapter. If only all Doctor Who books could be this well written and shocking, maybe we would still be getting one PDA a month that way.
Is it superior to Combat Rock, Lewis' other horror extravaganza? Yes, in all honesty it is, it has a stronger plot and better characters. Rags is a perfect example of what you can achieve if you destroy the boundaries that say Doctor Who can only be... it's like rolling around in mud completely naked, a totally filthy experience. And I loved it.
A Review by Brian May 14/3/06
Rags is one of the worst books I have ever had the misfortune to read. Its awfulness succeeds on a number of levels. Firstly, it's unoriginal and boring. It's another attempt to place the Pertwee/UNIT stories in the context of their chronological setting, which now seems to be the 1970s. The Devil Goblins From Neptune did this and, although not a Pertwee story, Paul Cornell's No Future incorporated UNIT into the events of the decade. But all Mick Lewis seems to have done is plagiarised ideas from these books and melded them into this. Cornell looked at the influence of punk, while Keith Topping and Martin Day had given us UNIT members going undercover disguised as hippies, as well as the whole "rock soundtrack" bit, i.e. the inclusion of the favourite bands of the author(s) into the story and/or narrative. Of course, they weren't the first to do this, but it's something I've always found very self-indulgent. And is it just me, or is the Doctor's encounter with the sheep in Cirbury meant to be a nod to Verdigris?
The characterisations are, for the most part, awful. The third Doctor is okay, although blandly generic, the Brigadier and Benton are passably functional, and Nick is the only non-regular that's remotely interesting. The rest are atrocious - the rendition of Jo is an insult. Like all writers who think that retroactively updating a past companion with the "adult sensibilities" adopted in the early 1990s, Lewis thinks it's clever and oh-so modern to have her use crude language and experience a soft-porn lesbian encounter. Well, it isn't. Yates is a laughable figure, but only because Lewis has intentionally written him this way, blindly following the current trend in Who circles to dislike the character.
The story itself is muddled and lacks subtlety. I assume Lewis is criticising the class system and the inequality it generates, but it's just too vague. By making Derek Pole such an incompetent idiot, he certainly doesn't think much of Class War! The repercussions of the Princess Mary incident aren't explored, when they should have been (and the ending is very sudden, a whole lot more being glossed over). The first half is repetitive to the point of tedium. The possession of the Brigadier and UNIT troops near the end is as ridiculous as Jo's, and that Corporal Robinson is hideous! An awful caricature of an embittered character becomes an awful character whose "they killed my parents" secret is so bad... well, it's as bad as everything else in this book! But what really takes the proverbial cake is the Doctor's psychological ordeal inside the nether-realm, or whatever it is. Being haunted by companions is so 90s, Mick! It was overdone even then, although the first few times made sense with all that Time's Champion stuff. Retconning such as this is as unconvincing as it is needless (and the ageing David Campbell contradicts Legacy of the Daleks). And we really didn't need that Planet of the Spiders premonition, either! And it's implied - and never refuted - that the Doctor is saved from his traumatic experience by the Time Lords. Very convenient, I must say; if they can do this, why haven't they done it more often? Sloppy, lazy, "get out of jail" writing!
Rags also fails on a more fundamental level: it's disgusting. It is filled with endless, bloodthirsty violence and an obsession with bodily functions that borders on the obscene. Okay, we know people in the Who universe have to go to the toilet! This particular television taboo was dealt with ages ago. But reading about, how shall I say it, the soiled nature of Kane's trousers twice in the space of thirty pages is just off-putting. Somewhere in the early cyperpunk NAs (Transit or Warhead maybe, I can't remember exactly) characters walked along urine-soaked subways/tunnels/somewhere or other - this I can put up with. It's a depiction of squalor that reflected already-grim scenarios, but it knew where to stop. There's far worse on p.90, with the Arnos Vale derelicts, featuring some of the most nauseating reading ever. Stomach churning realism like this is not necessary, thank you. It's nothing more than a puerile, scatological descent into bad taste. Very bad taste, especially when you add the countless appearances of maggots, worms, slugs and decaying corpses, not to mention all the band members' projectile vomiting. Of course you can't leave out the repetitive, extremely graphic violence in which people are brutally murdered in assortment of nasty ways. It's more than enough to put you off your dinner. In fact, if you're dieting, I wholeheartedly recommend this book! You won't want to touch food for days! I don't mean to sound like a prude - I've never been against violence, abhorrence and unpleasantness in Doctor Who, but within limits - limits well exceeded here.
Is there anything good about Rags? Well, the premise is actually
quite interesting. The notion of the ghastly book hidden in the library I
liked, so too Rod's disappearance on the tor at Glastonbury; it's perhaps
the only moment in which any subtlety is used: it's true horror. The same
cannot be said for anywhere else; it's horror in the slasher sense:
Lewis's attempts at a Lovecraft-style tale of terror are lost in the
explicit violence that saturates the proceedings, written with a
bloodthirsty relish. It really is quite disturbing. It's possibly the most
revolting Doctor Who story ever. 0.5/10
I've been thinking long and hard about this book. My review is one of the harshest criticisms against it and it's the only time I've given a mark of less than one out of ten. But I've also been thinking about some other Doctor Who novels I've given poor ratings: Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark, Deceit, War of the Daleks, The Eight Doctors, The Taint. And you know, I think I have to give Mick Lewis's Who debut a major re-evaluation - for I'd rather be stuck on a desert island or a long-haul flight with Rags than any of the above examples.
I'm not saying I suddenly love it, and I stick to my guns when I say it's one of the most repulsive books I've read. It's still disgusting and violent, but it's compelling! It's also well written - very well written. I remember acknowledging both these attributes when reading it, but I must have allowed my outrage to cloud my judgment. I've changed my mind about most of the characters, with a few exceptions. I still don't like what Lewis has done with Jo and Mike, but after some rethinking, people like Kane, Charmagne, Cassandra, Simon, Jeremy Willis and even Corporal Robinson are excellently depicted. It's still self-indulgent, and the Doctor's nether-realm ordeal is still pretty bad, but I wholeheartedly take back the accusation that it's boring.
I've also gained a greater appreciation of Rags as a political tome. After reading Cainim Truax's review I had to stop and think, especially when he says:
"I, however, never turned to violence. I wonder how little it would have taken to push me over the edge."It's a sobering thought. Just how far will some people go? Violent uprising is not necessarily right, but if people are pushed, perhaps they have no other way? The Ragman represents this extremity to the nth degree, and of course he's no better than the Establishment. So inequality begets violence - simple and obvious, really - but I still think the violent actions in this book push the good taste boundaries to an unfortunate extreme... and p.90 will always be utterly vile! The latest book I've reviewed, Michael Collier's awful The Taint, tried to be horrific and repellent and failed dismally. Rags succeeds admirably: too much for its own good at times, but it's a hundred times better written. I still can't say I like this book; I still can't justify the extremes it goes to; I still can^[' pass it; but I appreciate its message and its other positives a whole lot more - and it's an insult to give it a mark below the novels I've listed above. 4/10