BBC Books
The Stealers of Dreams

Author Steve Lyons Cover image
ISBN 0 563 48638 4
Published 2005

Synopsis: In the far future, the Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack find a world on which fiction has been outlawed. A world where it's a crime to tell stories, a crime to lie, a crime to hope, and a crime to dream. But now somebody is challenging the status quo. A pirate TV station urges people to fight back. And the Doctor wants to help - until he sees how easily dreams can turn into nightmares. With one of his companions stalked by shadows and the other committed to an asylum, the Doctor is forced to admit that fiction can be dangerous after all. Though perhaps it is not as deadly as the truth...


A Review by Finn Clark 20/1/06

The Stealers of Dreams certainly isn't a waste of time. Like (oops) The Space Age, it has a fascinating central concept, but this time Steve Lyons has spiced it up with ideas and twists. I was grabbed immediately by this soul-crushingly petty world without dreams, fiction or even lies. The novel doesn't have a villain as such, but surprisingly that doesn't matter since in a sense its entire futuristic society is the bad guy. It's not a traditional fascist dystopia, but subtler and more stultifying. Chapter One is little more than the TARDIS crew being thrown out of a restaurant, but it still left me wanting to see Rose grabbing a butcher's knife and going on a murderous bloody rampage.

It's clever and even playful, in its own humourlessly grim way. Unfortunately Steve Lyons is one of Doctor Who's most frustrating writers in that he can follow a book of sheer brilliance with another that's appalling. The Witch Hunters, Conundrum and The Crooked World are novels that any author could be proud of... and what's more, they're fantastic in different ways! Steve Lyons isn't just a one-trick pony. He can be hilarious, as was also displayed in The Completely Useless Encyclopedia and his short story Wish Upon A Star Beast for Perfect Timing. He can be clever. He can be moving.

Unfortunately he's also capable of beating a story to death with its own themes. The Stealers of Dreams doesn't go that far, but it's neither fun nor emotionally involving. It's hard to care about what happens to these people. If you don't count Cal Tyko at the Big White House then there are two important supporting characters: Domnic and Inspector Waller. Domnic is dull. He doesn't even deserve a happy ending. Yes, it's important to the plot that he's a socially challenged nerd, but we'd have still reacted with horror had he become the next Grant Markham. I preferred Inspector Waller, who is at least dynamic and interesting, but despite lots of good stuff Lyons never managed the final step of making me care about her. Maybe it's because I couldn't stop seeing her as Judge Dredd.

No one really does anything constructive except the TARDIS crew, to be honest. That's one problem with insisting on Doctor-centric books... if you're not careful, you're liable to end up with a passive supporting cast who never really come alive because they haven't been given worthwhile story roles.

This wouldn't matter so much if the TARDIS crew were strongly drawn, but they're only okay. There's nothing wrong with them. They don't suddenly become the 3rd Doctor and Jo or anything like that, but I never imagined John Barrowman's Captain Jack Harkness for a moment and I only got occasional flashes of Piper and Eccleston. In fairness Steve Lyons didn't have much information about Jack when writing this book, as is indicated in the author's acknowledgements, but if so then why did BBC Books use the bloody character? It's not as if he's not even on the front cover!

Despite a certain sterility, I enjoyed the book. It's clever. It's hard to dislike a novel with a theme that raises existential questions about game shows. Its prose isn't flavoursome, but it's not as if that was a Lyons speciality even in his full-length novels.

These new series adventures have two problems not of their making. The first is that I suspect a lot of us subconsciously don't want to like them. It's like the way we gave Slipback and Davison's two-parters a hard time back in the eighties. They felt like cut-price Who, a second-best substitute for the real thing. These books' second problem is that all of their best excuses have been burnt in their beds by the Telos novellas. We've seen writing that's better and more adventurous than this within an even shorter word count, without the safety blanket of a phenomenally successful TV series.

As an aside, it's amusing to note that the inevitable Selachian references just say "armoured walking sharks" while the new series continuity references use actual names.

In an odd way, despite being one of the New Kiddie Adventures this is a book for fanboys. It depicts a world of thoughtcrime where all of us would be locked away for being what we are. In that sense it's even more focused on us than was Time of Your Life, whose fanboy commentary was just part of a general attack on the television industry. The two books are similar in many ways, although the big difference is that The Stealers of Dreams is celebrating a triumphant new era of Doctor Who instead of dissecting a dysfunctional one.

This book gives you something to think about, unlike the first batch of 9DAs, and has worthwhile things to say about the nature of reality, illusion and fiction. It's also in a batch of 9DAs with a more interesting author line-up than the previous three and the "same shallow end of the gene pool" catcalls they inspired. Steve Lyons doesn't have the "out of the blue" factor of Gareth Roberts, but before this he'd only written The Crooked World since Justin Richards took over from Steve Cole in 2000. One gets the sense this time that the commissioning net was spread wider than someone's local pub.

There are lots of good things one can say about The Stealers of Dreams, but unfortunately it's far from being the breakout book which the 9DAs needed. Its prose is unchallenging, its characters are uninvolving and it's hard to imagine it winning over those fans who were left unimpressed by the first three 9DAs. It's another competent, if flawed, book that's probably still better than most TV tie-in stuff, even if detractors like me don't like to admit it. If I were feeling harsh, I'd call it an interesting failure.

Don't dream... by Joe Ford 26/1/06

Now there's a title that tops even Island of Death! And fortunately there is a book beneath that title which is well worth reading too, which is where the similarities to Barry Letts' book ends. Steve Lyons has long been as an author I have admired; his fiction is almost always highly entertaining, thought-provoking and well written. He has written two of the best BBC books yet in my opinion, the psychological historical The Witch Hunters and the imaginative and heartbreaking The Crooked World. Whilst The Stealers of Dreams doesn't reach those heights, this is another intelligent and thought-provoking drama from Lyons.

I have only read two of the second batch of the NDAs (the other being the phenomenal Only Human) but already they seem much more confident and assured than the first batch. It feels as though the editor has learnt what works and what doesn't and how far you can go in fiction aimed at younger kids. I am delighted that this sort of book is being written for a younger market, there is nothing here that talks down to them or patronises their intelligence and indeed The Stealers of Dreams trusts them to understand some pretty heavy concepts. The book is effortlessly readable but layered so an adult can take much from it too. The in-jokes and satire is there if you get it but if you don't it is just part of the story.

I am so glad they have added Captain Jack to the mix of regulars; it makes things far more interesting than just the Doctor and Rose. As engaging as they are, it is so much better to have somebody between them, stirring up their relationship and seeing through a fresh pair of eyes the complex relationship their share. Plus he's good for a giggle, is very resourceful and adds a touch of adult humour to the TARDIS crew, which is always welcome.

People might be mistaken into thinking Steve Lyons has run out of ideas (indeed a regular poster on OG had pretty much made up their mind before the book had even been released... how do people do that?) because this book runs with the theme of ideas and imagination being explored and he has already looked at the danger of fiction (the wickedly oddball Conundrum) and the idea of breaking out of stereotypes and having dreams (the aforementioned Crooked World) but The Stealers of Dreams is very different from either of those two. Considering its NDA status it is surprisingly the most adult of the three, lacking the wacky humour of the first two and offering up a genuinely frightening totalitarian environment where dreams and lies are outlawed. There are no grey areas; if you are suspected of spreading fiction you are arrested and taken to the white coats to have your brain operated on. The Doctor, Rose and Jack land in this closed-off colony and immediately start causing mischief, telling stories, lies and getting involved in the secret underground fiction groups. The three of them are caught in the unwavering iron fist of the colony, Rose starts seeing things, Jack is rolled into theatre and the Doctor is stuck trying his damndest to stop himself from slipping up in the presence of dreams-hater uber-copper Waller. I love that feeling of oppression, Lyons is so good at making the regulars feel trapped (he achieved a similar knife-edge tension in The Witch Hunters) and the resulting book is one that is entertaining and uncomfortable, a potent mix.

There were lots of lovely touches that added to the story's charm, such as the dig at the current state of TV (this colony only watches reality TV and documentaries, it could bloody well be set on Earth in 2005 then!), the unsubtle mention of secret fan groups that refuse to let fiction die (remind you of Doctor Who fans after the 1989 cancellation?) and the thought of one god-like man who has the power to bring it all back (Russell T Davies receiving hero worship in his own books!). Lyons explores his terrifying idea with some marvellous concepts too such as the Game of Life board game (get married and have kids before your dreams catch up with you!), the Static channel (which broadcasts illegal drama shows... oo-er!) and the disbanding of the government (because they tell too many lies, promising things to people they can never deliver!).

This is another well-constructed book that managed to surprise me three times during the climax, three twists that I did not see coming despite a warning from David Darlington in his TV Zone review! The revelation about why the planet is so tightly wound up about fiction is obvious from about page 200 onwards but I think that was deliberate on Lyons' part so he could sneak his other twists past you without you realising. The sneaky git.

It could have taken the easy route and just dealt with the harmful idea of taking dreams away from people but Lyons wants to challenge his readership so he twists that idea in entirely the other direction and shows you how dangerous too much fantasy can be, distorting your view of reality. This provoked another of my sporadic conversations with Simon (not like the one over pre-destination in Time Zero where we were so opposed to each other I was told to sleep on the sofa!), the fiction vs. reality debate at 6.30 in the morning! If the children reading this book are asking these sorts of questions to their parents and friends I would be so delighted, Doctor Who is the ideal medium to reach them with these powerful ideas and it pleases me so much to see it applied with such sophistication without reading like a lecture. Themes of identity come to the fore, are we really seeing what we think we're seeing, are our lives real or just imagined? It is intriguing stuff.

Had this been an EDA or a PDA it would have been much darker, I'm fairly certain of that the dreams being explored wouldn't be about zombies or heroes but more about things like rape and terrorism and we can thank the NDAs that we were spared that. I know we all enjoy the more adult nature of the NA/EDA/PDA ranges but their darker moments could take the series into places where I would rather they wouldn't. I have already written an article discussing the place of rape, incest and paedophilia in Doctor Who and whilst (thanks in no small part to brainbox and good friend Mike Morris) I have come to accept their place in the series it doesn't mean I have to like them. The Stealers of Dreams proves one side of my argument; you can push the limits, stretch the format and expose clever ideas to a much wider audience if you write a novel that is readable by anyone. This is every bit the challenge Warlock and Deadline are but without those nasty elements sneaking in (now who is trying to hide from reality in fiction? See, even your precious reviewer isn't immune!).

A fascinating tale, told with real imagination and intelligence. This is another NDA which ticks the right boxes and provides a page turning treat. At this rate I won't miss the EDAs or PDAs at all.

A Review by John Seavey 7/7/06

The Stealers of Dreams is a very good book. It's not "new Doctor Who" in the way Only Human most definitely was, because I don't think that's how Steve Lyons writes. He's never going to do arch, witty, pop-culture savvy, or any of the other adjectives I applied to Russell T Davies' vision of the series. But he does do what Steve Lyons does, which is to take a very simple premise and bring it through to a logical conclusion in a very honest fashion, with a minimum amount of the dramatic cheats and short-cuts writers often use when they get lazy. The Stealers of Dreams is, in essence, a very good throwback to the literary era of Doctor Who using the current TARDIS crew, and that's no small achievement under the current status quo for the books.

Again, one of the best things about the way Lyons writes is the way he builds his stories so honestly. The twists are so organic that it almost seems insulting to call them twists; they're just the way the story progresses because that's the way it has to progress, and any "twisting" comes from the difference between your expectations of how stories like this generally go and the way events naturally flow from Lyons' starting premise. A case in point is Jack meeting a mysterious tramp who reveals himself to be the secret leader of the revolution, Hal Gryden. It's a classic, indeed cliched scene where the charismatic and mysterious revolution leader turns out to have been shadowing the hero all along in order to test them, and you assume that's what's going on because that's what always goes on in Doctor Who stories. But Lyons isn't just writing "a Doctor Who story", he's writing a proper piece of thought-out plotting, and a cliche is only going to impact it tangentially.

Even the stuff foreshadowed by the book cover is subverted by Lyons' plotting. When you read that one of the Doctor's companions is going to be committed to an asylum, you assume it's going to be Rose, because in any story like this there has to be a scene where the audience-surrogate is forced to question whether the fictional universe is real, or if it's all just in their heads and they never left London (or wherever). But Lyons isn't interested in scenes just like any other book, and he turns the cliche on its head completely by having Jack, who is in his own odd way the most firmly-grounded character of the three, get committed. Sure, Jack lives a crazy life... but he's always lived that way, no TARDIS necessary.

The rest of the book contains much of what you generally expect from Lyons. A Selachian reference, dry humor (the Rorshach test on this world is a deadpan gem), a character who seems one-dimensional until you realize they've got a major secret rooted in their past to be revealed at the end, and the Doctor saving the day without pressing the reset button or killing everyone. The characters have to live out their consequences and it's this that makes Steve Lyons such a special writer. He doesn't believe in easy endings.