THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Virgin Books
St Anthony's Fire

Author Mark Gatiss Cover taken from the excellent Broadsword home page
ISBN# 0 426 20423 9
Published 1994
Cover Paul Campbell

Synopsis: The Doctor and Bernice visit Beltrushia, a planet famed for its beautiful ring system. However, they soon find themselves caught up in a war between native lizards. However, the threat to Beltrushia is far greater than a civil war; St Anthony's Fire is coming to claim them all.


Reviews

Even the Doctor Won't Drink Tigerbone Tea by Tammy Potash 26/7/00

"Yong rubbed wearily at an eyelid. It wasn't his own, of course, merely someone's eyelid that he kept in a box to rub in times of stress."
I've said it before; religion in Dr. Who more often than not leads to trouble. So does trying to take a vacation or letting Benny decide where you ought to go next. All three elements come into play in St Anthony's Fire.

Along with a truly repulsive religion which is the direct cause of most of the problems in the book, Mark Gatiss presents a truly alien society in the warring Cutch and Ismetch tribes of Betrushia. These are composed of lizard-people, and there are good descriptive details that emphasize this. "Beneath the fabric his scales itched and little rivulets of moisture were insinuating themselves into the bony grooves which ran parallel to his spine." Both groups are baffled and disgusted by the Doctor and Benny, as in their experience mammals shouldn't be able to talk, and bipedal mammals that do talk are said to bring doom. (They're right, but only because of the religion which is coming to pay them a nasty visit.) Neither group is as alien in its thoughts or behaviour as Paul Leonard's Venusians, however; the opening scenes feel like nothing so much as a WWI or II movie. We've got people hiding in trenches, medical men trying valiantly in terrible conditions, frantic calls to headquarters, and so forth.

Meanwhile, poor Ace has fallen victim to the religious nutballs. These guys make the Inquistion almost seem like nice guys. Unbelievers are tortured then vaporized. Converts are brainwashed and treated like dirt, while at the upper echelons of power, Yong and his underling revel in decadence and disgusting things like those cited above. As if that weren't enough, they won't even give the Betrushians a chance to be converted; because they don't look human the whole planet is to be vaporized. thanks to their actions the entire planetary system is in danger of being torn apart by the Keth, a menace with an origin similar to the Mara that was being held in check until the Chapter of St Anthony happened along.

The cover gives a nice depiction of the Betrushians, though the Doctor is drawn horribly. This is a recurring problem with the Virgin NA covers, however; Timewyrm: Genesys is one of the few that doesn't make me cringe, along with The Also People. This may be one of the reasons why the NAs so rarely feature the Doctor on the cover. It is also one of the few covers to depict an incident from the novel, rather than just indicative of things, such as the covers for System Shock or First Frontier.

Gatiss's previous book was Nightshade, in which he ably demonstrated his ability to understand and write for the 7th Doctor and Ace. This is New Ace, but his treatment is really not that different. The three regulars are never together after the initial attempt at a vacation; all must draw on their own resources, which they are more than capable of.

Lots of action and excellent writing, with attention to both plot and the good-sized cast of original characters. Track it down and enjoy.


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 5/3/03

St Anthony's Fire is another one that I read shortly after its release, but which I later remembered virtually nothing about. Thinking back on this story years later, the most that I could recall was something about a guy torturing a cat, and that there were some sort of gigantic spaceships involved. So imagine my surprise when I began to reread this story recently, I found myself quite enjoying the beginning. Unfortunately, this euphoria was not to last. As the inoffensively entertaining opening began to wear off, I saw less and less to be thrilled by. By the time I reached the end, I was actively willing the story to end, so that I could move onto something else. I fully expect that five years from now, if pressed to recall something from this story, the only thing I will be able to add to my list of two vague items above is that there is an absolutely ridiculous religious satire in the novel that I had thankfully wiped from my mind on my initial perusal.

The book does begin relatively strong. There's a war-torn planet in a distant star-system engaged in a genocidal war to the death between two sets of virtually identical aliens. So far, so good -- not exactly groundbreaking stuff here, but it's told enthusiastically enough to bring my interest along for the ride. The battle sequences are told with a good bit of flair and revolve around giant reptiles reenacting the trench scenes from Paths of Glory. But this does bring us to the first place where the book starts to fall apart. Gatiss goes to a lot of trouble to describe how physically alien these creatures are, and the descriptions of these reptilian people go a long way towards redeeming the book. But the visual aspects to their alienness are as far as the book develops them, as the way these creatures talk and act make them human for all intents and purposes. They even use human figures of speech in their everyday conversation. It almost feels as though Gatiss had finished writing the novel with humans in the lead role, but then went back and made a few cursory changes to the narrative in order to make the monsters seem otherworldly. There is just too little effort shown though; these aliens just aren't alien.

Anyway, as one could guess, the Doctor and Benny (Ace has been left to vacation on another planet) soon arrive and become entangled in the local politics. Not to get into spoiler territory, but the arrival of what the back-cover blurb describes as "an unknown force" seems to render inconsequential a lot of the earlier running around. It's this unknown force that brings the bulk of the unfortunate religious aspect to the story, which drives St Anthony's Fire down from being merely an uninspired, unoriginal runaround to the depths of serious Deep Hurting.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a good bit of satire, but unfortunately the religious/fundamentalist theme to this story is the least subtle thing this side of that master of understatement, The Green Death. It's as subtle as a bright pink poodle. As subtle as being hit by a bus. As subtle as Jim Carrey dressed as a bishop and preaching out of his bottom. In short, subtlety is not this book's strong point. The religious persons shown here are all varying shades of evil; some are evil in greedy ways, others are evil in self-preservationist ways, while still others are sadistic purely for the reasons of being sadistic. The only religious characters who aren't actively evil are just stupid. I'm would not consider myself a deeply religious person, but this sort of boneheaded sledgehammer moralizing just strikes me as being vapid and lazy. It's trying to say something profound, but because of its shallow nature, it ends up saying absolutely nothing at all.

The conclusion to the story is simply unsatisfying on almost all levels. Instead of having the religious satire taken to its logical conclusion of fundamentalism being rejected in favor of some good old-fashioned peace and understanding (or at least something that at least seems aware of the themes that were running through the novel), we get an ending where the forces of the evil religion are defeated by a load of technobabble and people pushing buttons and pulling levels. The story itself relies on too many information dumps where huge portions of the plot are spelled out by people making long speeches. It's a pity because there are elements of the plot that were quite interesting, and would have been more effective if introduced in a more engaging way.

To be fair, I did like several of the (non-satiric) characters in the novel, and what Gatiss does with Ace I found to be genuinely shocking and disturbing, in a good way. The Ace subplot is probably something I should have guessed in advance of its revelation, but the author had me completely fooled. Still, these positives can't save a story that simply doesn't seem to be fully thought through. The only nice thing left to say about this book is that the cover is quite a good painting, even if the Doctor looks more like a Cardassian than a Time Lord. Definitely not a memorable or engaging book here.


A Review by Finn Clark 18/2/04

Oh dear. And it started so well...

St Anthony's Fire is one of the lesser NAs, rather forgettable even in 1994 and completely off the radar today. It's not bad, but it's not good either. I enjoyed much of it, but it's one of those books that's always struggling to overcome its problems - the biggest of which is the plot.

It starts off as a 'Two Warring Alien Factions' story on the planet Betrushia. Yikes! In those days we were less battle-hardened, but since then we've learned from the mistakes of Escape Velocity, King of Terror, The Space Age and more. Two Warring Alien Factions = bad sign. Gee, who will win? We don't care! However, believe it or not, the Betrushia sections are actually the book's best. Gatiss has other plot elements up his sleeve (the Chapter of St Anthony, the yellow vomit monster) and the book takes a downward lurch whenever one of 'em appears. Nothing is integrated with what went before. It's as if a new story starts each time. Plot threads are chopped or dropped as the new threat takes centre stage, pushing all else aside. By the end, the book's overstayed its welcome by a good forty pages and turned into a Star Trek episode.

I can see why many people didn't care about the Betrushia chapters. It's a religious war between the Cutch and the Ismetch! Well, strike me pink. Normally I couldn't care less about two lizard tribes shooting the hell out of each other... but fortunately Mark Gatiss gives us Grek. Grek's a dude. He's an Ismetch commander and a competent, sensible, level-headed guy. I liked him! Okay, we don't care about the war... but Grek doesn't either. He thinks it's all bollocks and just wants to stop fighting and go home. I can see where he's coming from! Admittedly his subordinates are a bit thick, but Grek carries his book. He kept me interested and reading.

But then come the Chapter of St Anthony, led by the Two Stooges (Magna Yong and his stunted sidekick De Hooch). They're bloodthirsty! They're sadistic! They torture kittens! Presumably I was meant to be horrified, but alas that was just funny. These jokers ain't even remotely threatening, instead being squabbling bitchy pain-obsessed nutters and the embodiment of high camp. If this was a TV episode, Magna Yong would be played by Julian Clary. What's more, they're goddamn stupid. Admittedly some of the Cutch and Ismetch were short of brains too, but Yong and De Hooch couldn't outwit a toasted cheese sandwich. By the time we reach p211, even Mark Gatiss has decided to play Magna Yong explicitly for laughs.

Mind you, I had to admire the political incorrectness that accompanies De Hooch. You'll never see so much dwarf-battering outside a Troma movie.

And then comes the Star Trek ending, in which our heroes rewire starships to defeat some technobabble. This just goes on and on. There's a comedy confrontation between De Hooch and Magna Yong, but otherwise it's just more of the capture-escape that's been dragging on throughout the book.

Some might suggest that there's a theme of faith (Cutch-Ismetch are fighting a religious war and the Chapter of St Anthony are religious loonies) but if so it's hardly sophisticated. "All faith is bunk and all religion leads to bloodshed," would be the message. Well, that was deep. However religion isn't even a particularly big deal for the main characters, most of whom are motivated by other factors (pragmatism, greed, ambition, revenge). This book simply isn't coherent enough to be an anti-religious polemic on any level above the most trivially simplistic.

In fairness the regulars are good. The NA Doctor and Benny are always fun but even New Ace is handled well. She's shoved offstage for most of the book (good move!), but even after returning to the narrative she gets stuff to do and some decent motivation. This isn't Psycho Ace but a calmer, more sensible character that one can actually enjoy reading about.

There's some interesting future history, though I cringed at the reference on p157 to the Doctor's "specially adapted, vacuum-resistant, propulsion-powered cricket ball which had got him out of that spot with the Urbankans". The year is 2148 and the Chapter of St Anthony's Fire has been on its genocidal crusade for about a century (p187) since Hong Kong took over China. Apparently it formed after the dissolution of the High Catholick Church (sic), which combined all the Earth's faiths with the idea of creating peace (p180). That failed, duh. Meanwhile Holland sank into the sea and its people moved to a land which rose from the Atlantic following seismic shifts (p259) - the New Dutch Republic. [By the way, this can't be related to Stewart Ransom's New Atlantis from Colony of Lies, since that was in the Pacific.]

There's even a reference to Urrozdinee (p195), the sprawling city based on EuroDisney which ate the remains of Paris and appeared in Mark Gatiss's story for Marvel's 1995 Yearbook. (That's from 2134.)

Overall, this isn't a dazzling book. The plot is rather random while the characterisation sometimes gets clunky. Nevertheless I enjoyed reading it and even ended up thinking better of it than I had before. It's no classic but it's no disaster either. Mark Gatiss's BBC Books (The Roundheads, Last of the Gadarene) were highly variable Terrance-a-like romps through the show's past, but this feels like something upon which effort has been expended. It's far from perfect, but it tries.


A Review by Brian May 5/6/07

St Anthony's Fire is a very bland and forgettable book, especially disappointing given Mark Gatiss is the author. After the sublime Nightshade, I think we were all expecting something better from him.

But I can't be totally harsh: I did like bits of it. Some of the sections on Betrushia were atmospheric - the storms were very evocative, as were the various flights in the dirigibles - although that might be because when I first read the book, part of it was on a plane during bad weather, so it's highly likely I melded my own experience into the proceedings. But because of some clunky, verbose prose, most of it isn't enjoyable at all. The early pages that oversee the exposition of plot and characters, plus the Doctor and Bernice's arrival, are difficult to read. Indeed some of the paragraphs had me (unfortunately) thinking back to the beginning of Blood Heat. The countless battles between the Ismetch and Cutch, Benny and Liso's attempts to escape in the gyrocopter and the interminable string of captures, escapes and showdowns that are crammed into the climax are also examples of the long winded, almost exhausting wordplay. Gatiss is a good writer, it's just that he can't do exciting, gripping action set pieces - which is in fact the only fault with Nightshade, but at least there's only one such incident and it constitutes a tiny fraction of the novel. Littering a second book with what's a prosaic weakness isn't the best move for an author.

Gatiss's strengths, at least from Nightshade, are characterisation and emotions. It's a pity then that St Anthony's Fire is devoid of any emotional impact and the characters are so dull. Of the Betrushians there's only Liso who makes any kind of impression, while the cult leader Yong is treated way too flippantly. All the perverted sadism that should make for a frightening and repellent figure is lost in all the wisecracks that might have suited trendy film directors in the 1990s, but is not really appropriate here. But at least he's not an offensive caricature like De Hooch. The Parva is a fat, ugly dwarf, and totally evil - and, thanks to his presentation, he is evil because he's a fat, ugly dwarf! Practically every description of his physical features and his movements are emphasised to such a degree - and given such a negative attribution - that Gatiss is poking fun at the way he looks more than anything else. The backstory which explains why he's so unpleasant appears far too late to redeem such a cruel stereotype.

The Doctor is nothing more than generic, which is another disappointment after the marvellous rendition we saw in Nightshade (which worked, paradoxically, because it was so out of character to what we expected at the time). Ace is also pretty dull, while her separation from the Doctor and Benny is so contrived it's ludicrous. For plot reasons she has to be on Massatoris while her companions are on Betrushia, but simply having her say "I need time to think" (p.37) so transparently reveals the author's desperation in trying to break-up the TARDIS crew and his resulting inability to convincingly achieve this. Her internal monologue on p.221 that attempts to incorporate her character shift into a broader continuity is just as implausible. It's also obvious Ace is the unidentified woman who finds herself in the cult, but I have the strong feeling Gatiss wanted us to know this from the onset, so I'm actually going to compliment the author on this. Also on the positives, Benny's characterisation is very solid and has short bursts of brilliance: her interactions with Liso are nice, while her taking control of the mothership's bridge is Benny through and through.

While the danger of cults is effectively communicated, the "lessons" that war is hell and that sometimes you need to co-operate with your foes in order to defeat a greater, common enemy are rather preachy. On the whole, the message and the medium are both flat. It pains me to be unable to recommend Mark Gatiss's follow-up to the glorious Nightshade. He restored his reputation with later efforts but St Anthony's Fire is best forgotten. 2.5/10


A Review by Matthew Clarke 23/10/11

Mark Gatiss is really not a good writer at all. He seems to either come up with unimaginatively traditional Doctor Who stories like Nightshade or else 'everything but the bathroom sink' jumbles like Victory of the Daleks. St Anthony's Fire, is very much in the former, like his previous New Adventure.

The biggest problem with St Anthony's Fire, apart from the very standard Whoish plot, is the all-out assault on religion. This novel seems to suggest that everybody who has faith is a deluded fool and all religion causes terrible atrocities. The Betrushian religion is built on a misunderstanding about an alien race's activity and leads to genocide. The Chapter of St Anthony's Fire kidnap people, brainwash them, force them to endure terrible suffering for no reason and commit genocide. There is not the slightest suggestion in the book that some religions might 1) be true, 2) be believed by intelligent people, 3) not commit terrible atrocities, or 4) do acts of kindness and benevolence. Obviously, there are lots of oppressive religious groups in the world, but the kind of one-sided attack on religion in this novel is clumsy and unpleasant.

Even as a critique of religion, St Anthony's Fire fails because it does not portray any appealing side to religion. An intelligent critique of religious belief and activity has to address the fact that religion does appeal to people. The Chapter of St Anthony (how they came to centre their religion on a minor saint makes no real sense) are so horrible and brutal that nobody would ever want to join them. Hence, they have to brainwash their converts. Yong, the Chapter's leader, is a cartoonish character who tortures kittens. He is a sort of religious version of Fu Manchu.

Gatiss is okay at writing for the Seventh Doctor, Bernice and Ace. The problem is that he does not do anything interesting with the regulars. Ace only joins the Chapter because she has been brainwashed, so nothing much new is revealed about her through it. We get an old-fashioned companions separated from each other and the Doctor routine, just like the old days. The resolution of the book is uninteresting too. We get a very Star Trekkish technobabble-based solution to the problem.

Just wait until Mark Gatiss becomes the next producer of Doctor Who.