THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Death and Diplomacy
Oblivion
Virgin Books
Sky Pirates!

Author Dave Stone Cover image
ISBN# 0 426 20446 8
Published 1995
Cover Jeff Cummins

Synopsis: All aboard me hearties, as the Doctor, Benny and new companions Chris and Roz join the crew of the Schirron Dream in a battle with the vicious Sloathes. Is anyone who they appear to be?


Reviews

A Review by Will Jones 21/7/98

In the good Doctor's wackiest adventure since the range began, penned by first-time NA writer Dave Stone, he encounters a hideous race, the Sloathes, and with new companions Chris and Roz is forced to go to totally genocidal war.

In this over-verbose, confusing, complex and ever-so-slightly bizarre book, the Doctor embarks upon an extremely hard-to-follow adventure. Stone's style is never less than impenetrable, the first ten pages gave me the same feeling as when I read something by Shakespeare for the first time. It's unfortunate, because underneath this outer coating is a cracking tale witha great plot, superb characteristation, more exposure of the "darker side" of the Doctor and enough twists to keep a liqourice factory in business.

But Stone is his own worst enemy, confusing and obfuscating things so much that one wonders what drugs he was on while writing the book. It's also one of the longest books in the range, coming in at about 3 and a half hundred pages of bizarre garble (or should I say an innovative writing style -- no probably not).

You may well think that I hated this book. I didn't. I thought that they go to one too many planets and that the space battle at the end (I don't think that gives much away) is utterly confusing but that's about it as far as plot criticisms go. It turns from a racing adventure into a slow-paced search without jeopardising the plot, and once again shows a Doctor Who can go from suspicious outsider to mission commander in about three seconds. The Doctor also has developed a streak of humour -- ie his transformation of Cwej from lizard to human.

On the subject of humour, Dave is probably either a very funny guy or a boring bloke who wants to be a stand-up comic as the book pulses with comedy. From Benny's book of twentieth-century jokes to the repeated asides, at times it feels more like Discworld than Doctor Who and certainly this is a totally different style to the preceding book, Original Sin. To sum up, this is an entertaining book that drowns itself in its own style. Average but not overly recommended. 5/10


A Review by Sean Gaffney 16/8/99

You know, it occured to me about 150 pages into Sky Pirates! that this book is not what it seems.....

You see, that master of manipulation, that treacherous, two-faced, you never know what he's thinking guy, he's tricked us again.

No, not The Doctor. Dave Stone.

Sky Pirates!, deep down, is a serious book.

Now I know that a great deal of it is funny, and that Terry and Douglas have both had serious themes in their humour books. But Dave Stone addresses a constant question that will set NA readers on their ears and ensure debate, namely: How powerful is the Doctor, anyway?

A number of times in this book, various people, especially Bernice, think about the Doctor and his capabilities, and then their minds appear to shift away from the topic. Indeed, Bernice mentions at one point that things must be serious because she is able to dwell on the Doctor's thought processes. Plus, there's the matter of the Doctor being a God, again.

Plus there is the denoument, with the Doctor's other self, other other self, and apparent immunity to being vaporised, despite having a problem with falling off towers.

This book disguises itself as a comedy. But it ain't. Wow, fooled ya, huh?

The rest: this is excellently written, if a little florid. The humour is locigal, for a change. (Hey, maybe the disworld can be explined the same way.) All the characters are well written, and it's jam-packed - another megalong NA.

So, altogether - 9/10. But it's not what you think.


The Ultimate Fan Book by Robert Thomas 26/1/01

The first thing that strikes the reader on having a quick flick through this book is that Dave Stone has really stamped his personality on this book. However the shocking thing about this book is that on the blurb it says he has written three other books. Shocking because this book feels like it was written by a fan who thought he would try his luck and submit an idea to see if it got published.

This is not discriminatory in any way - I've done it and I would guess a couple of other people have but would not admit to it. Only mine was c**p and I only realised where I went wrong after they sent it back with some notes. However after reading this book I came away thinking how great it was that someone did it and produced a story like this.

The thing that Dave Stone has done best is use things like parallel universes and present them in a way that is NOT dull. If the sloathes had been thought of by anyone else I think they would have been very dull. The way the setting (parallel universe) is presented is very original. However the thing that really works against the reader is the style. I agree with the reviewer above, it is pretty much hard going and feels as if Dave is telling a joke but is worried about weather we will get it or not. However this is the only really bad aspect of the book.

This is a very funny book - the jokes are put in here to counteract how serious the story works which works well. However most of the jokes at the start I had heared before and they got better as they went along. However a slight let down is the actual pirate aspect of the book - only two of them and apart from the quest for the treasure not a lot of pirate things happen.

From what I gather this is the second book to feature Roz and Chris. It does characterise them well, however as this is only the fourth book with them I've read I still have a blank spot for them. Is the panic attacks that Roz had atypical or just something I haven't read before? However judging from thee books I've read Chris batting average with the chicks is 2/4. The Doctor and Bernice work quite as a double act and go through some varried emotions throughout the book.

I disagree with view that they go to too many planets as the sub-plot for Roz and Chris makes sure this does not happen. However there are some unanswered questions I would like to be answered:-

Overall a good book slightly let down by a hard to access writting style - but ultimately worth the read.

However I would like to know if this is just Dave Stones style or if he was breaking his style in and improved. I have read every Second Doctor book bar Heart Of Tardis - I'd like to know if the style is similar to this, if it is it will be the first 2nd Doctor book I miss because I don't think I could force myself through a book like this again.


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 20/7/03

Having heard a lot about Sky Pirates! over the years, but never having previously read the book myself, I admit to having had certain expectations going into it. This one certainly seems to be a love-it or hate-it novel; at least, that was the impression that I got from various on-line discussions. So, it was a bit of a surprise when I actually got around to reading it and found myself being quite bored with long stretches of it. Of all the things I was expecting, boredom wasn't one of them.

Yes, "boredom" adequately describes my reaction to the first hundred or so pages of Sky Pirates!. Now, I have to keep in mind that while reading those opening sections, I was far too busy with a number of unavoidable activities, and the time I had during the day for reading was drastically reduced. But with this as my current book, I never felt that I was missing anything. I never felt the overriding need to sneak more time from some other activity in order to get through a few more pages. I only had time to read one short chapter an evening, and I really never felt the need to read any more than that.

For a book that is based upon a treasure hunt of sorts, it takes a considerable amount of time for the characters to actually get around to it. Until the voyage actually begins, the book consists of a whole lot of throat clearing. There are a lot of pointless interludes, random observations, and passages that aren't nearly as funny as they're supposed to be. Some of the jokes are indeed hilarious. Some of them are just tiresome. Despite the deliberate wackiness, the plot points are built up in a relatively logical manner (once one works through all of the distractions); the only problem is it just takes too long to get to each one.

Fortunately, my interest gradually increased as the book moved further along. Once Stone gets around to actually telling the story, he puts a lot of fun things into it. Of particular note are the alien Sloathes, a species who talk like how one would expect Yoda to sound if that little, green, Grover-voiced guy had been born with a touch of Tourette's syndrome. They're utterly hilarious, and it's no wonder that I heard much about these creatures years before I actually read the book.

But, in addition to the comedy, there's quite a dark story being told in here. It almost feels like a Jim Mortimore novel at times; it includes an all-powerful alien menace (putting millions upon millions of people in danger), a manipulative, amoral Doctor, and an ethical decision affecting the lives of every population within a certain astronomical region. Not exactly the sort of thing I was expecting given the goofy illustration of Sylvester McCoy on the cover.

I'm not quite sure how to sum up Sky Pirates!. "Uneven" would probably be the word I'd attempt using to describe my overall reaction. Despite the tiresome beginning, I did end up enjoying the book. But there are too many little awkward pieces (including "funny" pieces that aren't, well, funny) for me to truly say that I thought it was a very good novel. Looking around at other reviews, it seems to be held as common wisdom that this book could have done with some serious editing, taking it down from its larger-than-average 337 pages to a more reasonable 250-275. I can't say that I'd disagree with that view. While fifty pages may not seem like a lot, if the story hadn't taken so long to get to where it was going, I probably would have felt more of a desire to pay attention during the middle and end.


A Review by Finn Clark 27/9/04

This book was more outrageous in 1995. Compared with Virgin's largely mainstream SF fare, its excesses seemed extraordinary... but these days it seems almost tame to an audience who've read Mad Dogs and Englishmen, The Crooked World and (more importantly) ten other Dave Stone novels to date starring the Doctor or Benny. Its plot is now more obviously a guided tour through the author's gag book. Familiarity means that its jokes don't explode from the page quite as they used to.

However I still like it, over and above my natural fondness for this author. It has freshness. Somehow it's not yet "Dave Stone going through his routine". Some of his later books (e.g. The Slow Empire, The Infernal Nexus) feel like just another trip to Davestoneland, an excuse to trot out the usual schtick instead of actually exploring an environment. Not here. There's something specific about the System; a sense that one's learning about a real (albeit wacky) place instead of just a string of gags. One gets an impression of really reading about cultures, worlds and races.

Admittedly the book achieves this partly through an overlong middle act with a magical quest structure, but I still appreciate the effort. The Slow Empire could have been a thousand per cent better with a bit more of this, for instance.

The characterisation is good, especially of the regulars. Benny, Chris and Roz are strongly drawn, which is doubly impressive when you remember that two of those three had only just been introduced in Original Sin. Many companions (even the likes of Benny) were shonky for a while after coming aboard the TARDIS. Admittedly Andy Lane created strong and straightforward characters in Chris and Roz, but Dave Stone still deserves praise for writing them so vividly with little to work on.

However all else pales when compared with Stone's 7th Doctor. Even to a readership long-accustomed to Stone's "more alien than you can comprehend" routine, this is one hell of a portrayal. In fact he's too powerful to be the hero of an SF adventure series. The Doctor isn't the protagonist of Sky Pirates!. Nope, instead he's the goofy clown and all-powerful demigod who quietly tags along behind the party and manipulates reality when nobody's looking. No one stands the slightest vestige of a chance against him, not even the world-devouring survivor of an unhappened reality. It's fantastic. I loved reading it. But you couldn't keep this up on a permanent basis, since the only realistic opposition for Dave Stone's Doctor would probably be himself.

The incidental characters are good too. Nathan Li Shao would have been Jason Kane (or one of his descendants) had this book post-dated Death and Diplomacy, but I don't mind that. Leetha t'Zhan is a laugh. But best of all are the Sloathes, possibly the funniest, most vivid bad guys we've seen in the books to date. The books don't have much of a track record for creating memorable aliens, but Sky Pirates! struck gold. Whenever the book's quest narrative threatens to start flagging, just wheel on the Sloathes and we're reading happily again.

Oh yes, the plot. This is a long book, but its middle section often comes across as little more than a travelogue. It literally is a quest; Li Shao and his crew are looking for the Eyes of the Schirron. However the book's voice and prose are so flavoursome that I kept happily reading even when things didn't seem to be going anywhere.

You see (and this is the big one)... this book really is funny. I laughed! For that, I'll forgive a lot. Oh, and we even get Roger Langridge illustrations!

Overall, this is one of Dave Stone's more substantial offerings. There's a solid reason for all the weirdness, not to mention a solar system that's huge and wild enough to accommodate Stone's wackiest ideas without strain. The over-the-top vocabulary is fun, though it helps if you know the word "orrery". In its own demented way, this is probably the nearest Virgin ever got to something like The Scarlet Empress. This isn't a novel to race through for its plot, but a sensory experience to be savoured. Have fun!


A Review by Brian May 25/9/07

Whew, what an effort! It took me about a month to re-read Sky Pirates! and I came away with mixed feelings.

At times it's brilliant, at times hilarious, at times deadly serious, often frustrating and infuriating, and there's the odd moment or two when it's unreadable rubbish. Dave Stone's vision of the Doctor Who world is by all means imaginative, but I fail to understand why he objects to the comparisons with Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, because they're so obviously there. The humour, absurdism and overall zaniness owe a lot to these authors, with a generous side-helping of Red Dwarf. It just smacks of preciousness on the part of the author, so openly inviting readers to identify his very overt inspirations and then rebutting them.

But nonetheless this is a fun story. It's a sweeping epic, a quest-adventure like those of season 1, with a wonderfully inspired backdrop. The concept of the System and the Wanderers are the stuff of hard sci-fi but they come to life with ease; if Jim Mortimore had a sense of humour, this might be the result! It's a very bold tale, a stylistic departure from the New Adventures that simultaneously remains faithful to the spirit of the series. Behind the absurdist facade there's the usual doom and gloom, a high body count and many serious undertones.

To complement the above juxtaposition, Stone has written an excellent seventh Doctor, incorporating all facets of the character from the comic tomfoolery of Sylvester McCoy's early years, the sinister intensity of season 26 and the early NAs, the schizophrenic mix of compassion and ruthlessness and, above all, the Time Lord's fundamental mystery. The pygmies' perspective of him is fascinating, especially his "other body" and "other other body" (p200,313), although the Brain of Morbius-inspired flashbacks in the latter sequence are a bit wanky if you ask me (and did we need that Claws of Axos "clip" of the Master in the TARDIS too?!?) Benny is written well, but Stone has done an excellent job with Roz and Chris in only their second complete story. If separating them from the others was an act of necessity to avoid a saturation of characters in one scenario, it doesn't look like one. They hold their subplot well and I'm glad Chris loses his cool, if only occasionally. I was disappointed by Li Shao and Leetha: all they say and do is too obvious. I much preferred the supporting characters: Kiru, Six, Yani and Sgloomi Po, the last of which is rather cute! The Sloathes are a wonderfully disgusting, if hardly original, bunch of aliens - inspired by way of Red Dwarf's polymorphs - and if this had been written post-1999 their eccentric speech would have been compared to the much maligned Jar Jar Binks. The Charon is one of the better realised of the ancient Time Lord secrets, and the Doctor's reaction to both its presence and the actions of his predecessors is fantastic.

So why did it take me so long to read it? Well, the length is one factor. Sky Pirates! simply cannot justify a 300-plus page count. In short, it crawls at an interminable pace. The Schirron Dream doesn't embark on its quest until p141. Although you'd expect a certain build-up - and in the story's favour the events on Sere are excellently captured - it's still far too late. Stone's prose is another matter for concern. At times it's excellent, with some amazing wordplay on show; many is the occasion when a thesaurus of descriptions is used. It often works, but for every time it does, there's also a time when it fails. There's a chronic overuse of the word "depend" and its suffixes (the "hang down" or "suspended" definition). And take the aforementioned world of Sere as another example: it's introduced and elucidated upon in two paragraphs (p94); the first is painfully treacly and verbose, the second is fluid and intelligible. Spaceships don't seem to be Stone's forte; Li Shao's first vessel and the Schirron Dream are both extensively outlined, and the devil really is in the detail! Then we're treated to the excellent realisation of the thing that isn't there (pp302-3); it's not there by means of some marvellously gripping prose. But we also have to suffer the seemingly endless descriptions of the Snata and its grisly lair, in a sequence that's a complete waste of time and paper. The one occasion in which the verbosity works is a marvellous send-up of technobabble (p190), with a great punchline.

Dave Stone certainly has a sense of humour, but, like his prose, it's variable, especially the difference between what he thinks is funny and what is actually funny. While there's more than the fair share of genuine humour, on just as many occasions Stone writes under the delusion he is funnier than he really is. There are all the footnotes which become tiresome quickly, and then there's all the Incredibly Bad Jokes, and of course the incredibly bad jokes. (The former are deliberately capitalised as quotations from Benny's book, the latter are genuinely bad!) Pointless appendices; endless over-exaggerations, including ridiculous names; and all the so-called gags about bodily functions are other examples. Call me idealistic, but I have the notion that while Who fans may still be big kids, we've grown out of sniggering at fart jokes. But Stone still seems to think we haven't.

I hate to end on a scathing note, but some things must be said. Sky Pirates! has lofty ambitions and meets many of them. There's a lot of good stuff here, but if it had been shorter and received proper editing, so an obviously talented author wasn't allowed to overindulge and overreach himself, it could have been magnificent. 7/10


"Cower before my most supreme ejaculations!" by Neil Clarke 15/6/09

Dave Stone's approach is quite marmite, isn't it? But Sky Pirates! was a real relief, after a run of wishy-washy mid-period NAs. Coming across something this vibrant and individual was like - oh, I don't know - getting home on a cold day to find a gang of furry animals had cleaned your house and made you a hot dinner (welcome, but slightly disturbing).

Though The Mary-Sue Extrusion might be the better book, benefiting from a tighter focus, this is an absolute blast. A big element of my enjoyment was the relief of getting to Chris and Roz (I'm a big fan, though sometimes it feels I'm the only one). The Chris and Roz NAs are "my" period, coming after a run of po-faced wannabe-serious, tedious SF runarounds; the series hit a particularly near-unbeatable run from Just War on (in my humble opinion).

Both Adjudicators are captured perfectly here, and are remarkably fully-formed, considering this is only their second appearance. I love how atypical the xenophobic Roz is, while collectively they're a great pair. Ben and Polly are a double act who could work equally well individually, whereas Chris and Roz's effectiveness comes from the contrastinging of his youthful naivety and enthusiasm with her jaded cynicism.

This is only the second time I've read this book - to be honest, I wasn't hugely looking forward to tackling it again - but it is so much better on the reread (it seemed quite a slog first time, though reading it alongside Madam Bovary - a slightly ungodly combination - might not have helped). I really appreciate its vibrant ambition now; in fact, the more I read, the more impressed I was. I have a preconception that humourous approaches are inherently taking the piss out of their subject - which of course this book is, but not in a damaging sense - so it's nice to just enjoy the humour and absurdity of it all. I expect Dave Stone to be very cynical, but that does him a bit of an injustice, because this isn't lazy writing. In fact, there's some really lovely prose, and his strong authorial voice helps make this a unique read.

Stone's verbose style, with its self-deprecation and mockery of the genre's cliches and limitations, is like a sleazier Terry Pratchett in its detail, delight in wordplay, obscure, archaic vocabulary, and broken English (the villainous Sloathes' speech: "Is dread and diabolical mutiny below the scuppers ahoy there matey?"). The frontispiece alone gives a good impression of his style: "A most Excellent and Perspicacious Luminiferous Aether Opera, Detailing the Strange and Very Exciting Adventures of The Doctor and His Trusty Companions amidst the Multifarious Perils of a System in the Foul Grip of the Hideous Sloathes!"

In a lot of DW books, situations feel familiar, or fit into certain sub-genres and categories... But this doesn't feel familiar. Here, we're in a clockwork System with a smiley sun, a bouncing rubber moon, and planets including a wobbly blob of water, a giant tree, and a jolly snowman (where we encounter waiter-penguins, and the repulsive Snata - an abhorravore that has evolved into a grotesque parody of Father Christmas, accompanied by crazed woodland animals in human-skin clothes who make perverse toys). There are also crocogators who breathe through stripy reeds, vampire chickens, and all manner of other insanity. However, though everything is shot through with Dave Stone's trademark sense of ridiculousness, it doesn't demean the plot; this is a big, epic story with high stakes.

I love environments you really feel immersed in; the System of this novel is very "colourful" (lots of brothels and drugs); big, bold and involving, and larger than life; it feels like a world with an existence beyond the confines of the book. I came to love the System because, for all it's outrageous weirdness (which is justified by not being part of the regular universe), it is grounded by recognisable styles or objects from an eclectic range of periods, like old-fashioned telephones and flintlocks, and so doesn't fall into the trap of being too "alien" to be interesting.

As an aside, being a big fan of Mad Larry, I was surprised how comparable the prodigious imagination of this novel was to Lawrence Miles' work (especially earlier stuff like Down, before he veered away from humour), considering Stone doesn't get anywhere near that kind of kudos or status.

Stone's take on the Seventh Doctor is rather wonderful too, encapsulating everything I love about the character: his capacity to move from imbecilic goofiness to melancholia, to calmly taking control and being all-knowing and goosebump-inducingly powerful. ("You have squandered any last chance of mercy I might have allowed you" brings to mind the Tenth Doctor's Family of Blood vengeance routine.)

He is also presented as hugely alien, unaffected by anything as trivial as local gravity; his hat never blows off, his suit remains preternaturally clean; food and objects appear around him at will (including a wind-dried amputated foot from his pocket); he can secrete electrostatically active substances from his pores; and the idea that he is something monstrous in human form is suggested. (While anyone who notices any of this is likely to lose their train of thought...) Even the presentation of the TARDIS interior must be one of the weirdest takes (burning kites and whistling spiders, indeed).

While I do understand how people find Stone's style off-putting, I skipped through the book in a few days, thoroughly enjoyed it, and am looking forward to Death and Diplomacy (which I don't think I've read, although I do remember something about Roz grabbing a nude Chris' cock, thinking it's a doorknob... Ah, the impressionableness of youth!).

In the days of DW as a regulated global hyper-mega-brand, it's refreshing to come across something so rampantly individual and unhinged, which couldn't be marketed to the lowest common demominator. Fab.

Sky Pirates! fibrillates. And coruscates.