THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Dancing the Code
Timelash
Virgin Publishing
Speed of Flight

Author Paul Leonard Cover image
ISBN# 0 426 20487 5
Published 1996
Continuity After Dancing the Code

Synopsis: The TARDIS materializes on a planet that is literally at war with itself.


Reviews

A Review by Sean Gaffney 8/9/99

Well, finished Speed of Flight, and was... ambivalent.

This book was OK, but no great shakes. Paul was trying to do Ursula LeGuin, and it didn't quite come off.

Plot: Confusing. I know it was supposed to be revealed gradually, but not enough was revealed at all. The whole idea of the dead was never really explained (and was I the only one to be humming Gene through the book?), and several times the alienness of the world was given as a reason, without further explanation. Still, the pace gallops along. Actually, that's another problem; the book starts too fast - there's no time to build up, to get to know these people.

The Doctor: Fine, when he's there. Why do Pertwee authors feel it necessary to have him absent from half the book? What we see of him is fine, though.

Jo: Well, when she's Jo, she's fine too. Nice reaction to Mike's killing her - I can see why the relationship sorta died there.

Mike: Not especially necessary, in my opinion. There were no real reasons for Mike to be in the book, except that Paul wanted him in it. And he spent far too much time confused, IMO.

Others: Epreto was the only one that made an impression on me, and I'm not sure about his "repentance" in the end. The others really didn't gel in my mind. Unlike Damaged Goods, Speed of Flight didn't really seem to want you to know its minor characters.

Style: Pretty good.

Overall: Workmanlike, but no great shakes. Oh, well.

6/10.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 3/9/00

Difficult to pin down this one, but anyway I`ll try.

PLOT: On the planet Nooma, there is industrial revolution, survival has become almost a religion and the planet is at war with itself; literally.

THE DOCTOR: Recognisably Pertwee, but nothing special given that he doesn't feature enough, as he should do.

COMPANIONS: Jo Grant is Jo by numbers, there is nothing really for her to do. Mike Yates is present, though seemingly there just to kill Jo. Perhaps had it just been him and The Doctor, this would've been more interesting. As it stands it isn't.

OTHERS: The characters really are too minor to sustain any interest. Epreto is okay,but substandard.

OVERALL: It didn`t take me very long to read this and as such this is reflected in my review. Despite the confusing plot,it isn't a must read book, just average. Although by Paul Leonard's standards this is well below par. 3/10.


A Review by Finn Clark 10/4/05

Wow, that was different. I can honestly say that Speed of Flight was the biggest surprise I've had in rereading all of Virgin's NAs and MAs. It has an ingenious SF environment and a clever plot which does shocking things to Jo Grant and Mike Yates. As an example of hard sci-fi in Doctor Who, it's up there with Parasite and Lucifer Rising. On that level, I thought it was really impressive.

Yet I remembered absolutely none of it. I'm not just talking about the usual vagueness over details, but I didn't even know what kind of book to expect. Not a single page rang a bell for me as I read through dutifully. How is that possible? After much thought, I've decided that it's because the story is bollocks.

In fairness, in many ways this isn't a story-driven book. As an exploration of an alien environment, it's wonderful. There's some terrific world-building here, from the one-sixth gravity to the intricate life-cycle taking in four completely different alien life forms. Leonard does some cool things with the gravity in particular, giving us steampunk airships that the Victorians might have built. (The front cover is misleading, incidentally... this world isn't an industrial hellhole, but a primitive world tied into its strange biology with the technological fervour coming mainly from one lunatic. I'd have preferred a painting of the aliens, of whom I sometimes wanted a better mental image.)

Unfortunately the characters aren't up to much. Most of the locals are slaves to their biology and too airy-fairy to be compelling. The only exception is Epreto, the nearest thing this book has to a villain, but he has another problem. He's stupid. Not stupid as in "a bit foolish", but as in "couldn't be more boneheaded if he was fossilized". You'll shake your head in disbelief as this man blunders through his idiotic plan to screw everything in defiance of the eye-poppingly obvious. There's always cool stuff going on with the Dead, the Promotions and their interactions with the TARDIS crew... but then the plot serves up lines like "the Sky and the Land are now at war" and you realise that, yes, it's Two Alien Factions and this book is doomed.

The regulars aren't bad, though you'll raise your eyebrows at the introduction of Mike Yates as a TARDIS traveller. Jo Grant works better than in any other Paul Leonard book, ironically because she spends a significant amount of time being not-Jo. The contrast is effective.

Unfortunately I'd suggest that the UNIT family just isn't a good choice for a Paul Leonard novel. Leonard's other books have starred regulars better suited to his kind of grim earnestness... the 1st Doctor with Ian and Barbara, the 8DA regulars or the NAs' 7th Doctor with Benny, Chris and Roz. However the Letts-Dicks era has always felt to me as if it had a twinkle in its eye, and Leonard doesn't do "twinkly". Oh, he tries. His 3rd Doctor can be endearingly Doctorish, but this is fighting against a book that violently beats down light-heartedness. This is a worthy book in many ways, but it feels less true to its era than does nonsense like Catastrophea or The Ghosts of N-Space.

[Say what you like about Terrance Dicks or Barry Letts, but they couldn't stop twinkling if you pulled their wings off and said you didn't believe in fairies.]

The story may be weak concerning the incidental characters, but what happens to Mike and Jo is impressive. It's utterly Leonard, but that's no bad thing. Unfortunately I can imagine many readers applying a mental discount since the regulars have script immunity. We can't predict the nature of the reset button, but we know it's coming... which is unfortunate since this book's best bits involve the companions and their human reactions to what's around them. If you gave this to a Doctor Who novice who'd never heard of Mike and Jo, I'm sure it would pack a hell of a punch.

In many ways, this is a classy piece of work. It's an intricate piece of hard science-fiction that does huge, dramatic things with the regulars. Unfortunately for various reasons, as Doctor Who it falls flat.


A Review by Brian May 4/5/06

Speed of Flight is a book that definitely benefits from a second reading. My first evaluation of it was "okay, but a bit wordy." However, picking it up again I found this was not the case at all. Maybe it's because I was familiar with the story's structure and ideas, so it was easier to take in. But anyway, I'm now of the opinion that Paul Leonard's third Missing Adventure is one of the series' best ever.

It's up there with Jim Mortimore's work when it comes to hard science-fiction but, shock horror, it's actually readable! The Artifact from Parasite is an astoundingly weird and wonderful place, but the book is a nightmare of extended and incomprehensible prose. The system of planets, moons and artificial bridges from Lucifer Rising are similarly astounding and thankfully Mortimore had Andy Lane to rein in his verbal excesses. But, with the world of Nooma, Leonard gives us a similarly alien environment, in an easy-to-read format! In my opinion it's the closest a Doctor Who book has come to feeling like Ursula Le Guin. The ambiguous nature of gender - among the "men", i.e. Epreto's kind, there are only men; when Xa is Promoted he becomes female - reminded me of her marvellous book The Left Hand of Darkness, as did the primal, practically sexual urge to fight for Promotion (both concepts reminiscent of the act of kemmer). There is also a strong fantasy element in the Tolkein vein while the ideas of transcendence and transformation, as men turn into winged beings, are very Biblical. Oh, and of course, there's Chicken Little!

Leonard's descriptions are detailed but to the point, lucid and at times just plain gorgeous. The different buildings, lands, environments and life cycles of Nooma are captivatingly brought to the page and also happen to be fascinating. The description never goes overboard, not even in the action oriented battles in the Sky, nor the lengthy prologue (this is perhaps the part of the book that's better second time round - I take back what I said about it when I reviewed Genocide last year). It's also interesting that the naieen are never described in full. We know they are winged beings, but that's it - and I rather like it! It leaves more to the reader's imagination; it's up to us to picture them as angels, birds or simply humans with wings. Xaai's predicament, her attempts to remember her past and her escape from the Temple, along with her sensual reactions to flight I thought were notably evocative, as I did the book's closing moments as Epreto ponders his redemption.

Epreto is one of Who's best ever anti-villains. I immediately thought of him as a cross between Alexander the Great and Brunel - an unusual combination indeed. He's arrogant, cruel and ruthless, yet he invokes a sort of sympathy from the reader. Perhaps it's because he's a passionate man. He's a fanatic, he plans mass murder - none of this can be justified in any circumstance, but there's a certain nobility too. Xaai is remarkably captured, no pun intended, and the reader suffers along with her pain, frustration and yearning. She's the book's most tragic figure, although she does seem, Master-style, to miraculously escape death a few too many times. And ironically enough, I felt it would have been more fitting had she remained dead at the very end. However the very nature of this world, in which the dead can be revived, really leaves the author no alternative: Mike has to be resurrected for the fundamental purpose of continuity, and there's no real reason Xaai shouldn't be. However we do read a tragic, final death - that of Aapurian, another sympathetically drawn character.

Leonard has written a near-perfect third Doctor. In fact, I can't find anything to fault his portrayal. His actions and words are very Jon Pertwee, and you can imagine those fold-up wings as a perfect accessory for the Time Lord's "man of action" third incarnation, especially when freed of budgetary restraints. Mike gets his trip in the TARDIS the televised series never allowed him to have, although he and Jo aren't as good as Leonard wrote them in Dancing the Code. There's something lacking here, making it quite advantageous that they're both out of character for the best part of the novel, what with their possession and being "dead".

A few gripes: one concerns the revelation that Nooma is in fact a failed experiment carried out by an amoral galactic corporation. Not the revelation itself - it's quite good - but the Doctor seems to learn about it when consulting the Compendium, only revealing the full story to the other characters - and the readers - near the end. The fact that he knows what's been going on relatively early, and keeps it to himself lessens the tension and sense of climax. The attempt to put the TARDIS in the pod in order to reach the Sky is the one section in the book that's tiring to read. It seems like it was written to fill a page count, and is even more of a letdown when the attempt fails and the Doctor just uses the TARDIS anyway.

But overall Speed of Flight is a delight, depicting a beautifully realised and truly alien world. It's magical and wondrous; one of the best examples of how imaginative Doctor Who could be when the sky - excuse another pun! - is the limit, not a meagre BBC budget. 9/10