THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Telos Publishing
Shell Shock

Author Simon A. Forward
Published 2003
ISBN 1-903899-16-2 (standard hardback)
1-903899-17-0 (deluxe hardback)
FeaturingThe Sixth Doctor and Peri

Published by Telos Publishing Ltd.
c/o 5a Church Road, Shortlands, Bromley, Kent, BR2 0HP, England.
Synopsis: The Doctor is stranded on an alien beach with only intelligent crabs and a madman for company.


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 8/7/03

I've been ambivalent about Telos novellas in the past, probably in large part because they've mostly been adventures. Exciting adventures are the lifeblood of Doctor Who - but I don't think they're well suited for the Telos novellas, which always gave me the impression of aiming for something more literary. Mysterious murders, sinister villains, evil plots to destroy the universe... such Flash Gordon nonsense can be a lot of fun, but it's hardly highbrow. A full-length novel has enough room for such things, but clutter up a novella with 'em and you'll tend to squeeze out the more interesting stuff.

Shell Shock isn't a spectacular piece of writing, but I give it much credit for feeling neither like a jumped-up Short Trips story nor a cut-down BBC Book. It's a novella to its fingertips, more like a John Wyndham story than anything else I can think of offhand. That's high praise, by the way. To be honest its faults and virtues (quiet atmosphere, gentle charm, not much meat to it) are much like those of Simon A. Forward's Tom-and-Leela PDA, Drift, but they gel far better in the novella format. Drift was nice but inconsequential. With Shell Shock, that's practically the whole point.

The setting works. We don't see an entire planet, but one small beach and the sea. I could visualise that! It's simple and good. The characters are nice too... the crabs are excellent, especially Scrounger, and Ranger is quite effective. He's hard to get a handle on, almost as if you're seeing the selected highlights with his key scenes cut out, but the result is an enigmatic character who keeps you wondering up to his big revelation at the end. (The scrambled time scheme adds another layer to this.) Despite what I said above, adventure elements creep in... however Shell Shock never feels like an adventure, but rather One Man And His Crab with odd glimpses of an adventure that unfolded elsewhere some time ago.

There's no villain. I think that's important. There's Meathook, yes, but I don't think we ever even learn what Meathook is. From our point of view, it hardly matters. It could just as easily have been storms or hungry fish whittling down our heroes, the crabs, instead.

The regulars are interesting. The 6th Doctor gets precious little bluster, instead getting to interact with crabs in a manner that rather charmed me. As for Peri... well, we've all heard by now about Shell Shock's treatment of her. Apparently it was a popular online theory back in the nineties, as demonstrated (perhaps) in certain scenes in Planet of Fire or the dysfunctional Season 22 Doctor-Peri relationship. I can't say I was familiar with this, but I accepted it. Had it been grafted on to any other companion I'd have probably gone through the roof, but Shell Shock makes a reasonable case for it to fit the Peri we know.

Telos's semi-detached position vis-a-vis mainstream continuity probably helped, though. These revelations, not to mention a certain How Will They Get Out Of That plot development, felt less shocking & intrusive and one could simply keep reading.

However I would like to suggest that Peri is fast becoming another Ace. Both were almost-realistic TV companions (for the "almost", see Peri's accent or Ace's sanitised expletives) who appeared in almost all of one Doctor's TV stories... but are in large part defined by their non-TV adventures. Both got lengthy runs in DWM's comic strip with a non-TV companion (Benny or Frobisher). Both famously "died". Neither got a proper on-screen departure. Ace's story has been complicated by the Virgin NAs, the BBC Perry-Tucker PDAs, DWM's comics (both NA-compatible and Gillatt-era), assorted audio stories and even the Target novelisations (e.g. Curse of Fenric). Peri has appeared in fewer books, but she's well up there in the revisionism stakes. We've had Bad Therapy, the Peri-&-Frobisher comic strips (complicated by Mission Impractical), Philip Martin's Mindwarp novelisation, Colin Baker's mind-expanding Age of Chaos (starring Peri's Krontep granddaughter!) and now Shell Shock. Give the girl a break!

Shell Shock isn't perfect. In particular I didn't quite follow who was on who's side, who's really the enemy and whether a certain whatsit was one side's Frankenstein experiment gone wrong or the enemy up to no good. But as I said, it doesn't matter. This isn't an adventure, but more of a footnote to someone else's adventure. I don't need to know whether the enemy are still out there or not. Shell Shock is well served by dropping the usual well-worn adventure formulae. Instead it's a study of its people and its setting... and some high-tech crabs, of course.

I enjoyed Guy N. Smith's foreword, but please, I beg you, don't let it lure you into reading his horror novels. Believe me: not good. However his foreword suggests a decent guy who'd be good for an interesting chat or two down the pub.

Overall, Shell Shock is a pleasant book that's chiefly remarkable for practically inventing the Doctor Who novella. Its writing isn't noticeably better than that in, say, Wonderland or Rip Tide, but it's much more what I think Telos should be doing with Doctor Who. More like this, please. I guess not everyone will love the Peri stuff - but you gotta love those crabs.


A Review by Henry Potts 14/7/03

I seem to have given several books poor reviews of late. I'm not really a grumpy person. I much prefer to write good reviews, so thank heavens for Simon A. Forward and Telos!

While I enjoyed Drift, it suffered from first novel syndrome: strong imagery floated over erratic pacing. Shell Shock takes a few pages to get into its stride (not something you can really afford in a novella format), but it is an engrossing story once it gets there. One of the strongest Who books of the year so far, it is in its thematic richness that Shell Shock stands out as it explores memory and self, relationships and responsibility.

Shell Shock is, at heart, a great story. It is not a story about the Doctor, but a story in which he has a crucial role. It is not a story about Peri, but one that casts an interesting light on her character. It does everything my recent "Enlightenment" article argued that past Doctor stories can do!

Forward does a 'Jim Mortimore' on Peri, or perhaps it is more a "Swamp Thing" allusion. It is a very different approach to the recent Blue Box and I am not entirely convinced by it, but it certainly gives the book some impact. Nor should Forward's Doctor be overlooked as the author shows us a very human, yet still alien, 6th Doctor. However, Shell Shock is more a story about the crabs and their mentor. Forward uses a hard SF idea to explore his themes, an engaging prose style allowing the reader to connect with an alien setting, while twists in the plot continue to surprise all the way to the epilogue. The Dr Who context provides a way in to the narrative, while Forward reflects the experiences of the supporting cast in those of the TARDIS crew.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 29/7/03

Telos have produced some wonderful books since they took on the Novella format. I expected good things from this series, but to find that they superseded that expectation, was wonderful. They look great, are well worth the 10, and the first 7 were diverse and entertaining. It's a shame then I have to report a failure in this range - because I really didn't expect one, especially considering its life expectancy is so short. Thus far only Citadel of Dreams and Nightdreamers hadn't quite measured up, but they were still reasonably good. Shell Shock is just poor, and I found it a real struggle to get through its 100 pages.

That it features one of my favourite Doctor/Companion teams makes the pill even harder to swallow - but I must face facts and express my disappointment.

It's all about a colony of crabs. A foreword by Guy N Smith, who is best known for his horror crab books (haven't read them), provides a solid beginning - but it's the story itself that lets the side down. The 6th Doctor has had a rennaissance in recent years - becoming arguably the most popular incarnation of the post TV era (certainly of the audio series). Big Finish, with their uniform excellence, didn't prepare me well for a bad 6th Dr story - I simply had forgotten what one was like!

As the Doctor gets involved with the colony, I was just left feeling non-plussed about the crabs. They are apparently intelligent, but these clever claws just seemed silly to me. I pictured the Doctor, accompanied by his scuttling, tiny friends - I couldn't take it seriously. And the way this book is written, it needs to be taken seriously.

There's also the matter of the human characters. Ranger is supposed to lead the crabs, and therefore is pivotal, but he sits in a cave moping about things. Ranger is one of the worst ever accomplices for the Doctor, and seeing as the Doctor and Peri are away from each other for virtually the whole book, there is just no interesting or entertaining interplay between characters at all. The Doctor joins the crab community and Ranger (boring), Peri gets joined with some strange sea-creature, forcing the reader through some dull revelations about her past. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the Doctor and companion to spend some time together during the course of the adventure, and the supporting cast to be more alive.

I'm never that comfortable with this whole business of companion skeletons in the closet either. Virtually every companion has now been disassembled by authors, who seek to provide deeper and broader personalities than that we saw on screen. I suppose it was inevitable that Peri should be targeted in this way - but it left a sour feeling for this reader. An unnecessary bit of sensationalism/harsh reality, in a world that used to provide an escape from such things. I know these things shouldn't be shoved under the carpet, and faced up to, but does every companions fictional life have to be traumatized?

The seaside setting that Shell Shock provides is the book's only saving grace. Simon Forward is excellent in his descriptions of this location. The coves, beaches, caves and harsh sea felt real - and I felt amongst them all. Trouble is the crabs and the giant sponge come along again, and spoil it all.

I really try to be as positive as I can be with reviews, I really do - but I just didn't enjoy this book very much at all. I was willing it to turn a corner into something more entertaining, something with more interest - but slowly (I don't think a book this size has taken me this long to read) the pages dwindled, and I was left with that empty feeling of having wasted my time.

If you like intelligent crabs, I think you'll like this - but they just don't interest me that much. What results is the worst Telos novella, letting this series down - let's hope this middle book of 15 is only a glitch. 4/10


A Review by John Seavey 13/9/03

I don't know why, but I have a hard time expressing any sort of feeling for Shell Shock. I enjoyed it, don't get me wrong; the ideas were clever, the expression of them well-written, and the revelations about the various characters contained within (both the well-publicized one about Peri, and the various ones about the characters Forward created for the novella) well-expressed and well-founded. As I was reading it, I was utterly engaged by the story, and I pretty much gulped it down.

But now that I'm done, I don't feel that I have much to talk about in regards to my thoughts on the book. It almost feels too complete to talk about; any insights I might have on Shell Shock feel like they were naturally highlighted and explained by the story itself. Forward has a smooth, readable, but very chilly style, so it's not like I can engage with it on that level... ultimately, while I really did like the book and recommend it, I just can't say it lends itself to reviewing.


Shockingly good by Robert Smith? 11/5/04

First off, let me just say how much I love the title.

Back in the day, I wrote:

"I can't wait for a second novel from Simon Forward that doesn't have some of these problems, because Drift demonstrates that there's some great potential here."
...and that's precisely what we get. A book that doesn't have the problems of Drift -- too many characters, some mismatched ideas and the occasional tendency to beat us over the head -- but manages to capitalise on its strengths: strong prose, good characterisation and a slow, thoughtful buildup.

Shell Shock is very good indeed. It's a more stately-paced novella than we usually get -- due in large part to the dialogue-free sections -- but ultimately this works in the book's favour. This sort of thing would be deathly in a full-length novel, but works extremely well here. One of the more impressive things about these novellas is the extent to which their length has helped them. I don't mind paying more money for fewer pages if each of those pages is going to be that much more worthwhile.

Another benefit of the slower pace and shorter length is the prose. Drift had some decent prose, but the leitmotif just got in the way ("cold inferno", indeed!) Shell Shock has some really mature writing and uses it to convey theme rather than simply motif, which works fabulously. Let me say again how clever that title is.

The crabs are great fun and the best thing about them is that the novella only focusses on a couple of them, despite the high crustacean castlist. That and the fact that they don't speak. I really admire the restraint in this regard: I was quite fearful they were going to and later on there's almost good reason why they might have, so this is even more impressive. The Doctor's relationship with them is very good indeed, although he's not quite as developed a character as Ranger or Peri. Ranger is just heartbreaking: at first he's just a figure of mystery or simply there as part of the setup so the Doctor will actually have some dialogue. The flashbacks are quite good, peeling away more layers of the story and his character in a fairly natural way. Introducing them as "Did you hear the one about...?" is particularly effective.

But then the revelation about his nighttime activities is incredibly disturbing, in a way that stays with you long after you've finished with the book. It's been a long time since I've read a Doctor Who book with a twist that was this... well, shocking. Oh, and the identity of the third person on the beach is another masterstroke, setting in motion the solution to a problem that was always going to be tricky to get around, but is handled with considerable aplomb.

Then there's Peri, the most perfect companion ever imagined for a book with this theme. Tough on the outside, incredibly vulnerable within. She doesn't get as much screentime as the Doctor's sequences, but that's probably for the best. Any more and her section would feel overdrawn. As it is, it's near perfect.

I have to congratulate the author for resisting the temptation to sink into melodrama with this. In the hands of a lesser writer, the revelations about Peri's past would be an end of chapter climax, intended to have us gasping in surprise and turn the plot in some new direction. Here, they're presented very matter-of-factly and come quite early on. I think that's for the best when dealing with a subject like this. What's more, it doesn't feel gratuitous the way companion backstories sometimes -- okay, often -- do. Not least because there's actual onscreen evidence for it in Planet of Fire. But the way in which this story revisits that one -- "she has all the mettle and spunk it takes to defy some guy who calls himself the Master" -- is an astonishingly good use of continuity. And describing the strangulation in The Twin Dilemma using the words "paternal hands lock around her throat" is scarily contextualised and not a little disturbing.

The only bit I'm not sure about is the life form adopting Peri as its own personal God... but seeing as that doesn't actually occur in the book, only the blurb at the back, I'm prepared to be forgiving. On the other hand, page 91 says "You swore an oath, solider!" When I eventually present my case to the world court for the removal of automated spell checkers, this is going in the first volume of evidence. No human proofreader would have missed that. Bit of a spell shock there.

The only bit I wasn't quite sure about was the ending, when the Doctor reconstructs Peri's memories. The prose gets just a bit too confusing here: did the Doctor return them all or not? Page 100 seems to say no, but the next page seems to say yes. On the other hand, perhaps part of the point is that it's not for us to know, that some things are too personal, even for fictional characters. Or perhaps not.

The actual ending though -- the last two pages -- is fabulous. Especially the lead-in it gets, with the last lines about the Doctor "leaving, as usual, everything else behind him." There's some truly magnificent writing here. In one of the rarest occurrences in the known universe, we have a Doctor Who book that's actually better at the end that in was at the beginning... and that's no slight at all to the beginning.

Shell Shock is a thoughtful piece, more interested in its characters than trying to dazzle us with big ideas... and is all the stronger for it. It's not an all-action romp -- and thank goodness really, it's about time we had some characterisation again, it's been how many years since the NAs? Solid stuff, in all the best ways. Have I mentioned how much I -- Oh, I did.