THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC Books
Spiral Scratch

Author Gary Russell Cover image
ISBN# 0 56348 626 0
Published 2005
Featuring The sixth Doctor and Mel

Synopsis: Throughout history, every history of every possible universe, in fact, you can find the Lamprey family. But they're not what they seem, and now the different universes are dying and the Lampreys appear to be responsible. On an innocent trip to a library, the Doctor discovers that the multiverse is descending into chaos, and gradually every Doctor, from every time and every space is drawn in as well. Are there enough Doctors out there to stop the end of the universe?


Reviews

Goodbye! by Joe Ford 29/8/05

The omens were not good. In one of the few rare times I agree whole heartedly with Finn Clark the line up of PDAs this year was the least inspiring in years with names cropping up that have produced some of the all-time worst Doctor Who books I have ever read. Whilst Gary Russell is not quite Boucheresque or even Lettsian bad if I am totally honest I have never really enjoyed any of his books before, with the possible exception of Divided Loyalties which is the literary equivalent of Time and the Rani, so bad it's bloody fantastic. When Spiral Scratch's cover was first posted online I was tempted to ring Black Sheep up and sue them for damage to my retina. It was a striking abhorrence. And finally the blurb seemed to suggest this story was proud to flaunt the fact that it deal with alternative realities, which are about as popular as sleeping with Granddad these days (unless of course you enjoy that...), thanks to the confidence-shattering alternative universe arc that destroyed people's faith in the EDAs.

So how comes I gobbled this book down in less than a day, not able to put it down, absolutely riveted to the pages into the very last line? It comes as much of a shock to me as it does to you to admit there has only been one book I have enjoyed more than Spiral Scratch this year (The Gallifrey Chronicles, obviously) and speaking of entertainment it blows Match of the Day, To the Slaughter, the three NDAs and (obviously) Island of Death into the second division. I always knew Gary Russell had a great Doctor Who book in him somewhere and finally, so close to the PDAs' end, he has proven me right.

You could (if you were that sort of person) call this The Last Resort II: Simpler and More Fun! This resembles that Paul Leonard novel in a variety of ways; the troubled alternative realities slipping into each other, the multiple Doctors and the cross eyed insanity that comes with such temporal shenanigans... but this is far less angsty and melodramatic... obviously Gary Russell hasn't been hypnotised by Jim Mortimore lately (unlike Leonard) and the book is much easier to read. For such a complicated nonlinear narrative (and trust me it is complicated... you have characters leaking into each other's scenes, several sudden fresh plots springing out of nowhere and scenes with loads of Doctors and Mels having conversations together!) it is astonishing how much this book actually makes sense and even more amazing how bubbly and frothy Russell manages to keep it. Whereas The Last Resort was content with tying you in knots and offering perhaps 50% payoff for its loosely-wrapped plotlines Spiral Scratch genuinely ties everything up satisfactorily... if two plots meet unexpectedly, say Mel meets up with an alternative Doctor, then later in the book you will see that book from the alternative Doctor's point of view... it all comes together nicely. Nothing is left unexplained and the book ends on an unpredictable climax, which sees the blame for this whole sorry mess with the multiverse, fall on an unexpected source.

I have never made any secret that the sixth Doctor is my all-time favourite Doctor (and Eccleston did nothing to make me change that opinion, sadly) and this is the second time in a row I have been horrified at the chosen author to represent his era. However, just like Mr Hinton, Mr Russell captures everything I love about this Doctor to a tee. Whilst I'm on the subject of praise (come on, it's better than me moaning all over the place) the best thing Gary Russell has ever done for the Doctor Who universe is allow Colin Baker the chance to shine in scripts that were worthy of his Doctor (the second best thing would be allowing McGann to continue his association with the show of course!) and it would appear his close association with Baker has paid off in spades. This is the sixth Doctor, brought alive in print as perfectly as I can recall. He makes an excellent book Doctor; loud, cuddly, rude, fun, insulting and witty! And that is just the regular version of him!

Spiral Scratch treats you to several possible sixth Doctors too, all quite fascinating (especially scar-face) but (like Mel) I would rather keep ours. Considering this is well into the depths of his incarnation he has finally become the Doctor Colin Baker wanted, somebody you would love to travel the universe with, unpredictable and yet still approachable. I loved it when he ingratiated himself at Helen's party, I loved his childish squabbling with Mel (especially when he totally steals her thunder at the party!) and I loved when he turned on the true villain of the piece and unleashed a barrage of theatrical threats (when he wants to bop him on the nose! Genius!). His sacrifice at the climax is very touching and leads to an amazing final chapter, one that I never thought any author would get away with. It certainly makes this book far more important than it was and tops off a nourishing read.

Nobody is unaware of Mel's flaws are they? The One Doctor took the piss out of her florid (Pip'n'Jane) vernacular, Business Unusual painted an extremely unflattering picture of her suburban middle-class paradise that created such a bubbly fitness freak and Instruments of Darkness compares her one-dimensional background against Evelyn's far more interesting past. What is clear is that a very few authors (Hinton and Russell again, mostly) are determined to fill out her time on the show and give her some jolly good adventures in print and audio (although I would strongly dispute that she didn't have good adventures on the telly!).

Spiral Scratch comfortably takes place long after their meeting in Business Unusual and they are extremely relaxed around each other, having lots of fun travelling together and pretty much drunk on each other's company. I have always thought (given their excellent chemistry in their two stories together) that Colin and Bonnie would have made a great team and with scripts like this I am certain it would have worked. It is like coming home to good friends; Mel is still chirpy but tempered with a little cynicism after travelling together so long to temper that bubbliness a bit (and she even gets to be a real bitch in several hilarious scenes) and Gary even manages to exploit the parallel universe idea to reveal something about Mel that we never knew. It is a great moment because when Mel is confronted with the uncomfortable news you suddenly realise she is a fully-fleshed character rather than a cipher. Good work.

The book is blessed with a cornucopia of fantastic ideas. The Spiral, the Carsus Library, Rummas' thieving habits, the Lamprey, the alternative universe spillages, the several fascinating alternative worlds we visit (I loved the Roman-influenced 2005), the insterstial trap... I could go on all day! It's almost as though Russell is making up for the lack of imagination last month and blasts the reader with one mind-boggling concept after another. I was often ahead of him (I kinda guessed what the Lamprey was looking for), occasionally behind him (I read over the bit about the trap for the Lamprey three times to make sense of it) but was always impressed by the amount of thought that had gone into this book to keep you on your toes. Russell makes wiping out a multiverse of realities sound like throwing a bad book in the bin, that's how big the scale of this book gets.

A book written by Gary Russell... what is the first thing you would expect? CONTINUITY! I don't know if Justin Richards whispered something in his ear but it is cut down to the absolute minimum here and only used when it is absolutely necessary. The result is a book which stands on its own merits rather than feeling like a thrown together collection of past Doctor Who elements. Although I have to admit there are a few rewarding moments jotted about, a hilarious moment where Mel reads one of Benny's books (the Doctor, yet to meet Benny, says its written by some grumpy Professor on the Braxiatel Collection with an anti-Time Lord stance! Hah!) and a quick mention of the Hallums (Mel's mother's family recently explored in the Big Finish audio Catch-1782) is a very welcome, rewarding use of continuity. The book is far more concerned with making its own continuity to be bothered with any other, exemplified by the last few pages.

Brilliant, bold and completely around the twist, Spiral Scratch epitomises the sixth Doctor. Blessed with a sense of fun and lots of imagination, this is a story that is worthy of being the sixth Doctor's last novel. Gary Russell has finally managed to deliver a great book and not before time!

You might be confused by this, you might hate it, but I love it. And wait until you read that last line...


A Review by Finn Clark 19/3/06

NO SPOILERS

I'd prepared some lovely invective. I mean, really. Let me quote the first paragraph of the back cover blurb.

"Carsus: the largest repository of knowledge in the universe - in any universe, for there is an infinite number of potential universes; or rather, there should be. So why are there now just 117,863? And why, every so often, does another one just wink out of existence?"

A Gary Russell PDA about infinite alternate universes, published by BBC Books in the Year of the Eccleston. It hurts to type the words. That's a combination to drive even the most hopeless completist away from the books. As I said in an email last year, it's as if BBC Books were shoving a crucifix in my face and screaming, "Away, foul fiend, we don't want your filthy money." In 2005 the Doctor Who novels threw away the opportunity of a lifetime by "playing safe" (or as it's more accurately known, "slitting their own throats") and targeting old-school forty-something fanboys.

However my rant died when I realised that no one cares. 'Twould be the fanboy equivalent of elucidating the design flaws of the penny farthing.

  1. BBC Books don't care what I think. I don't think this point needs elaboration.
  2. The new generation of novel-reading Eccleston-era fans like us don't care what I think, because BBC Books completely ignored them. I don't know what those fans are reading now, but it's not new full-length Doctor Who novels.
  3. The Gary Russell fanboys at whom this book is targeted don't care, if only because I have trouble comprehending that such readers even exist and so they probably think the same about me.
  4. You don't care what I think, since this is a sad and rightly forgotten entry in a novel series that deserved everything it got.
  5. Theoretically I suppose there's a chance that Gary Russell cares what I think, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.
Hell, even I don't care! It's an alternate universe book. I know you're all sick of hearing me say this, but it still bears repeating... parallel universes suck. Their effect on an ongoing SF series is akin to that of a lethal flesh-eating bacterium that liquifies all organic life in a three hundred mile radius and triggers the collapse of planetary civilisation. Spiral Scratch is less offensive than many, but only the cancellation of the books impelled me to pick up the last few PDAs and find that out for myself. In addition it features an infinity of parallel universes but also an Earth-Prime that is presumably in some sense the "real one". Huh? How's that work? You'll be amused to learn that Gary doesn't even try to explain that one.

However if you can shut your eyes to its problems, the surprise is that Spiral Scratch is quite good. It's messy and rambling, but it's telling a story about characters instead of executing a plot that happens to have some character-shaped holes in it. I like that. Say what you like about Gary Russell, but I can think of a few novels with characters less alive and involved than the people he creates here. What's more, the book's climax is easily his best to date, with events that should be shocking and emotional. (I say "should be" because to me it felt a tad artificial and contrived, but I'll be generous and assume that my alternate universe prejudices were affecting my reactions somewhat.)

There's a monster reminiscent of the Process from Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible and the Chronovores from The Time Monster. Furthermore, as in Divided Loyalties (and Business Unusual, and Scales of Injustice...), Gary's planting his flag on a cornerstone of continuity. This time I can't find it in myself to be indignant, but I must point out that the book's conclusion will baffle beyond measure anyone who can't recognise a single line of dialogue from a TV story broadcast two decades ago. You can laugh at me if you like, but even after everything else that BBC Books perpetrated in the Year of the Eccleston I'm still a little shocked at that one.

About the TARDIS crew I'm ambivalent. On the one hand, I like Gary's ideas. His alternate 6th Doctors and Mels are interesting. It also feels vaguely appropriate for Colin's Doctor to be mixed up in these kinds of time shenanigans, given what that was happening around then in Trial of a Time Lord, The Eight Doctors, Millennial Rites, The Quantum Archangel and more. On the other hand, Gary's portrayal of them is bizarrely wrongheaded. I was startled, since Gary had previously put a lot of effort into getting this TARDIS crew right in Business Unusual and Instruments of Darkness. I'd go so far as to suggest that those two aforesaid 6DAs had good characterisation of the regulars instead of a plot. Here the Doctor's okay, but his relationship with Mel is wrong and Mel herself is terrible. Bonnie Langford's character on TV was indefatiguably bouncy and nice. Spiral Scratch's Mel (all versions) is a catty, unlikeable whinger that made me wonder if Gary had fallen out with Bonnie or something.

The prose is exactly what you'd expect: breezy, fast-moving and thus rather efficient in its own brain-damaged way. I've seen comments made about the line "laughing the hearty laugh of someone who eats regularly", but my favourite is on page ten. "Both were dressed only in thick furred gloves and boots, but otherwise they were completely naked." For those who haven't their coffee yet this morning, it's the combination of "only" and "otherwise" that had me laughing aloud at that one.

On a trivial level, I'm tickled that at last we have a multi-Doctor story in which the different Doctors are all the same incarnation! This book is vastly better than anyone could have expected and furthermore is almost quite good... but sadly that doesn't matter. No one cares. The damage to the line as a whole was already done before anyone actually read its contents.


Seven Out Of Ten by Jamas Enright 27/4/06

I have just been watching a talk by Michael Shermer, one point of which is 'you can tell what an opinion piece will be like just from who wrote it'. Does that mean this review of Spiral Scratch is just an exercise in writing 500 plus words, the outcome of which is already know? Surely I can be multi-dimensional, and have a cultured, unpredictable opinion that has nothing to do with the author or the subject matter?

But, on the other hand, this is a Gary Russell book! (So, it looks like the answer is 'no, I can't be multi-dimensional, etc...') In Instruments of Darkness, he spent the first chapter introducing a dozen or so characters that barely turn up again. Obviously, he's learned a few things since then, because now he's still introducing new characters by the middle of the book! At least they are distinctive enough to last the book.

But, oi, what a book it is. During the first half of the book, when Mr. Russell isn't introducing new characters, he's dipping into the Doctor and Mel, and showing them having a weird temporally confusing adventure. I've always thought that plots that use a future self saying 'do this' in order to get the characters to do something is a cheat (and there are several examples of this). While Mr. Russell does use this, he then elaborates and confounds the issue with parallel universes and alternative realities, until you get to the point where you are just screaming at the book, yelling at it to get to a bloody point!

(And looking at the blurb on the back, it mentions infinite potential universes, but why are they disappearing? Hang on, didn't we just take a year to tell a similar arc in the Eighth Doctor range? Do we need another such book so soon? (Then again, we did get Loving the Alien during the arc as well...))

But at least Gary Russell has a good grip on the Sixth Doctor (although he did obviously feel compelled to do the 'triple shout' bit) and Mel (although he did obviously feel compelled to give Mel some backstory which, well, really doesn't go anywhere after the big build up), and I could easily hear Bonnie Langford's voice (and I mean that in a good way) when reading the Mel lines. And, Gary Russell being Gary Russell, he dunks them deeply in lots and lots of continuity from all over the place, and even if you don't get the audio references, by gads you'll get that last reference (yes, it had to happen, but why this author?).

At the end of the day, as you look back on this book, I think we'll all be saying 'what the hell is up with that cover?' And 'thank smeg the Valeyard wasn't in it' (I think I can get away with saying that in this review). Still, although it's confusing and irritating, at least is isn't boring.


A Review by John Seavey 16/4/07

Gary Russell might not be a particularly good author, but at least he's consistent. This is another Russell book in which the villain wanders around being evil, the heroes wander around being good (and eating large meals), and somewhere around 250 pages into the book they bump into each other, the Doctor twigs to what the baddie's plan is on remarkably scant evidence, and then he defeats them. At least this one manages to be relatively entertaining.

However...

It also has two elements guaranteed to irritate fans everywhere. One is Gary Russell's continuing axe-grinding regarding "the audios and the books are separate continuities, so f**k off, book fans!", which is still ignorable, but no less irritating here than it was in Zagreus. Yes, Gary, you don't like having to tie your work to other people's. Too bad, that's what working in a shared universe is all about. If you don't like it, feel free to go do another 'Tomorrow People' audio, which doesn't have any worries about other people trying to write for it. (Or listen to it.)

The other is that this is the death and regeneration of the Sixth Doctor, and it should have been given to a better writer. If one wasn't willing and available, I was just fine leaving it as "silly accident, he hits his head on the TARDIS console, it just happened." Having a bad writer do the scene was not actually better than nothing. I really don't understand why Russell wants to do all these mythos-defining moments; it's like me wanting to play one-on-one with Michael Jordan to improve my basketball skills. I won't learn anything, but I'll manage to make myself look much worse than I actually am.

If you want to read Spiral Scratch, it's not actively bad, but Russell still remains a better producer than a writer.