THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Virgin Books
Strange England

Author Simon Messingham Cover taken from the excellent Broadsword home page
ISBN# 0 426 20419 0
Published 1994
Cover Paul Campbell

Synopsis: The TARDIS lands in the gardens of an idyllic Victorian country house. But all is not as it seems, as the bizarre occupants of the house shortly begin suffering even more bizarre fates. Just who is the mysterious Quack and what role has the Doctor inadvertantly played in the destruction?


Reviews

A Review by Anthony Haynes 28/1/99

Strange England as a work for Doctor Who is a very entertaining read. It flows well, the descriptions of the scenery is magnificent. I appreciate the writing style and the story is told very effectively.

However, this book is very sinister. The story opens in the typical English countryside that makes Doctor Who story telling so endearing. The Doctor and his two companions meet a young girl.....at this point you think this is a typical story, but it is not.

The central theme of this story seems to be pain. This story unleashes pain on every conceivable character in this book. The author takes into account that real pain is measured by the physical, emotional, and scarring effects that is has on a person. The supporting characters, The Doctor, and his companions are taking on a realistic journey of pain, and as the reader you are taken with them. Now, I don't want to say that this book is gruesome in a glorified manner. It does not inflict pain to make the book's horror value rise. The story is told to bring the reader a believable sense of what is happening to all the characters involved. The author is very effective in putting a great deal of tension into the events, without making the reader put the book down in sickened horror.

One of the harder aspects of writing Who, is writing for the Doctor himself. The author has a good feel and writing style for our hero and the companions flow right along with him. The "triple threat" of the Doctor, Ace, and Benny are arguably one the strongest teams in the written history. Benny was not seen on the show at all, but the writing of her character through the years has made her just as strong as any companion seen on television.

The story has a great deal of surprises and is not a waste of time to read.

Rating 7/10


A Review by Eric Troup 6/9/00

Before actually getting into the review itself, I feel I should describe my perspective a bit. I'm rather new to the Doctor Who universe. My experience is limited to hearing most of the Big FInish audios, reading several Fourth-Doctor Target novels, and seeing a number of Fourth-Doctor episodes on TV. Also, I've heard Slipback and Ghosts of N-Space.

I'm blind, so for me, since I'm the only person in my household who has any interest in Doctor Who whatsoever, the TV shows are difficult to follow because there are, in many episodes, long moments with no dialogue. That's why I've been so drawn to the Big Finish audios and the books. Strange England is my first exposure to the longer Doctor Who novel, and although I found it marginally enjoyable, I'm hoping this isn't regarded as one of the best.

For me, this novel took to long to get where it was going. It wasn't the amount of pages that bothered me; rather, it was the fact that so many weird things were happening to Ace, the Doctor and Bernice, as well as the other inhabitants of the house, that by the time answers were forthcoming, I'd just thrown my hands up in frustration. The plot was too reminiscent to those awful holodeck episodes from Star Trek, particularly Next Generation. I accept the fact that the TARDIS is a very enigmatic device, and I suppose after reading the explanation most of the things that happen made sense in one way or another, but ... it just left me wanting to finish the bok and move on to something else. I enjoy the fact that the TV episodes and novelizations I've read are gripping stories which are intelligent, thought-provoking, suspenseful and easy to follow. Strange England had bits of all of these things, but as a whole was few of them. For instance, when the Victoria-insect-creature attacked Charlotte and Benny, that was one of the most gripping, frightening things I'd read in a long time. I was in the moment while reading that scene; it actually caused chills to run down my spine, something rare for me when reading a book. Yet, there were too many moments when I found myself frustrated at not understanding what was going on, and while it's true that the characters involved were also frustrated at not knowing what was happening, to me, that only works in a novel for a relatively short period of time.

I will hand it to Mr. Messingham, though -- his descriptions of scenery were quite good, and his characterization of the Doctor and Ace, viewed through my limited exposure to those characters, seemed pretty on the mark. I'm turning into quite the Ace fan, actually, and find Bernice Summerfield extremely intriguing.

It's difficult for me to get hold of these books, so I'm pretty much reading them in the order in which I acquire them. Therefore, continuity may contribute somewhat to my lack of enjoyment of the book. Even so, though, I'm hoping this isn't the book a fan would hold up for me to read as an example of the brilliance that is the Doctor Who novel. On my scale of 1 to 5, 5 being best, I give this book a 3.


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 8/2/03

If I didn't know better, I'd swear that Simon Messingham's only experience of Doctor Who came through the collected works of Marc Platt. Indeed, Strange England at times feels like a greatest hits tour of some of Platt's previous efforts. This gives the story a very unoriginal feeling to it, yet it adds a much-needed layer of oddness and surrealism to a story that has a very simple heart.

The book begins innocently enough. The Doctor, Ace and Benny land during what appears to be a typical English summer's day. The birds are singing; the foliage is lush and green. It seems like an ideal place for this TARDIS crew to settle down and have a nice picnic for three hundred pages or so. Of course, it won't come as a huge surprise when very early on it turns out that Things Aren't Quite What They Seem. A strange, unearthly insect stalks the characters. The inhabitants of the house appear to be human, but their behavior doesn't seem quite right to the TARDIS crew. The entire environment quickly descends into insanity, with illogical events surprising both the regulars and the people who live there.

The characters are highly varied in their execution. A few of them are one-dimensional, and there's a villain with such a cliched disposition (he's stark raving mad) that one wonders if he was supposed to be some sort of hilarious meta-textual joke gone bad. Yet, strangely enough, I did enjoy reading that character's rantings, as Messingham manages to take a fairly cardboard concept and make it interesting. His own characters, Messingham mostly succeeds at drawing, with only one or two who become tiresome. But the Doctor, Benny and Ace are a completely different story. They get split up fairly early on, which is an absurdly good thing because whenever they're together they turn into the most one-dimensional characters imaginable. It's quite an odd effect really. At the beginning of the story, they are absolutely awful together, bouncing silly and banal dialog off of each other. But as soon as they're apart, they become almost realistic. When interacting with Messingham's secondary characters they have an individual nature and are recognizable. Yet as soon as the end of the story begins to roll around, the three are reunited and the awfulness of their interacting in the beginning is back. It's as if Messingham understood the characters enough to have them mingle with normal people, but not enough to have to play their characteristics off of each other.

As I said, the final product we see here is what would happen if you put Marc Platt and some fairly bland padding into a Markov chain generator. Scraps of inspiration and portions that seem familiar are spaced out by material that just doesn't draw the disparate pieces together. To begin with, there's a mysterious and peculiar house sitting in an environment where the time-stream seems to be racing around in odd ways. Various nouns and verbs receive capitalization, just so we know how important they are: House, Control, Assimilator, etc. Many of the concepts and themes kept reminding me of Ghost Light and Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible. Although I don't wish to get into spoiler territory, I'll just say that the eventual explanation for the odd happenings should seem very familiar to fans of Marc Platt.

The writing itself is fairly variable, though overall it's not bad at all. While I've already commented on the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, I found that the prose itself was fairly decent, if nothing to jump up and down about. The story does attempt to counterpoint some incredibly idyllic scenes with ones that are extremely gritty and occasionally quite violent. Indeed, I found myself wincing during a few sections, although nothing felt unduly gratuitous.

As the story progresses, Messingham keeps upping the amount of surreal imagery and bizarre situations. While this kept the story interesting, there is a real danger here for any writer. Make the story seem too unrealistic or strange, and the audience simply won't care what happens to the characters because it can lead to a feeling of insignificance (i.e., at some point we just stop caring because we're subconsciously waiting for the "it was all a dream" type of revelation). Messingham did fall foul of this on a small number of occasions, but more often than not he stayed on the right side of that line.

It's fairly unoriginal, and despite a lot of seemingly highbrow concepts and questions, it doesn't really carry the weight that it wants to. There is an enormous amount of padding between the set-up and the resolution, though fortunately much of that padding is fairly interesting. On the other hand, there's much of it that comes across as faintly boring. I did like the fact that it dared to ask quite a few questions about some of our basic assumptions about the Doctor and his adventures; the downside being that not all of the examinations were fully explored. But, I would argue that despite its flaws, Strange England is worth reading, even if it isn't quite as clever as it thinks it is.


Starts Out Well But Deteriorates Into Drivel by Isaac Wilcott 28/6/03

Years ago, when I was first reading through the New Adventures in order, I came to Strange England (after the frightfully silly waste of time that was Blood Harvest) and couldn't get past page 2. After multiple false starts, I let it sit on the shelf for a month or so in a thoroughly unread state. I was eager to move on to First Frontier, but didn't want to plow through this one to get there. So I eventually gritted my teeth and passed over Messingham's book. After finishing McIntee's (which, sadly, wasn't very good) I was unsure if I wanted to go on to Falls the Shadow (I didn't have St. Anthony's Fire) or go back and have another try at Strange England. In the end I decided to go forward.

Years later, having now read through to the end of the series with only a few of them left unread, I picked up this book and began reading. I thankfully got past page 2 -- page 3 caught my interest immediately and I read the first third with great enthusiasm.

It's very similar in tone and content to Falls the Shadow, which it turns out is a far superior book. I'm glad I skipped this one, because it would've made O'Mahony's novel seem repetitive. I question the wisdom of having put two "haunted house"/"splurge of weirdness" books so close together in the range, but due to scheduling it was probably unavoidable. And the setting is not the only similarity: here, Ace gets killed and is mysteriously resurrected; in O'Mahony's book, Benny gets killed and is mysteriously resurrected. And there are also lots of Capitalized Nouns in both books, as well as white voids, surreal landscapes, aggressive vegetation, raving lunatics, murderous sociopaths, misguided scientists, and so on.

One minor annoyance about Messingham's writing is that he makes the common error of having too many of the characters' names begin with the same letter. I had great difficulty following the scenes that featured Ace, Archie, Aikland, and Arthur, each of whom would intersperse words and actions in quick succession. This made these already difficult scenes even slower.

The first third of the book presents many intriguing ideas and events -- two things really stick in my mind from this section: (1) the opening scene where the girl is invaded by an insect and how the Doctor and Benny try to deal with it while being confronted with the odd people living in the House; and (2) where the Doctor dreams about the Story of the Rock. This parable was deeply disturbing and extremely well written -- laden with arcane, unknowable doom, it's very Lovecraftian in atmosphere.

However, after the first third, the book deteriorates into a tiresome series of chases, fights, torments, monsters, and weirdness. My recommendation to those who've not yet read this novel is to read up to page 118, then stop. Ignore the rest of the book. Make up your own ending. Use your imagination. You won't be disappointed, but you will if you read the rest of it.

And I must say Paul Campbell's cover illustration is great, even if it doesn't exactly match the Quack's description in the book.


A Review by Finn Clark 16/5/04

I'm a fan of Simon Messingham's PDAs, particularly Tomb of Valdemar, but Strange England takes fifty pages to drag itself up from the level of bad fanfic. Chapters one and two are dreadful, which particularly hurts since the book wants to be a horror story. Horror may not be the most intellectual genre, but it needs more deft handling than this. The scene on pages 4-6 is so poor that I didn't realise at first that it was trying to be scary, while the "ooooh, spooky" lines on p12 and p34 are simply risible. The characters are telegraphed, the prose is clunky and the Doctor is tiresome.

Soon the text starts sending Signals from Fred. A cliche is flagged as such on p116, while a convenient farm implement is described on p144 as leaning against a wall "like a prop from a play".

Ironically, by that point the writing has improved. Even if you didn't read the back cover, you'd know this was its author's first novel. Authors tend to develop from book to book, not least Simon Messingham himself, but I can't think of another Who novel that has such a steep learning curve within its pages. The horror gets a few effective moments. Victoria (no, not Miss Waterfield) has a few sinister scenes and two people in the House even manage to become characters. (That's not a backhanded insult, since it's a plot point that Charlotte, Garvey et al can't react like normal people. By this point the book's problems are story-related rather than the line-by-line writing.

As an Alice-like fantasy, the House is not without interest. Unfortunately the real world scenes (1873) are as cartoonish and over-the-top as everything else. Still worse, just when the House-bound story starts building some momentum... whammo, the Doctor and his friends disappear in the TARDIS for a third act of virtual reality, meaningless action, an Arnie one-liner and hackneyed "my will is greater than your will" rubbish. The book calms down for a reflective final chapter, which I liked, but even so this ending would have derailed even a good novel. Strange England goes down like the Titanic.

The Doctor improves after a dodgy start ("rarely had she seen him so paralysed with indecision") and Benny is fine, but this book's version of New Ace may be unique. She gets a line on p75 that feels like the usual macho bullshit ("must be tired, I let them live"), but we're meant to take it literally. Virgin gave us a parade of infinite Aces... one month a psycho slapper, next month a Profound Realisation of what she'd become, then back to the killer again! Peter Darvill-Evans had hoped to create an Ace without teenage angst, but betrayal, Spacefleet and Dalek-killing predictably had the opposite effect. That was in early 1993. Over a year later, Messingham presented a New Ace that I don't remember seeing elsewhere. She's Psycho Ace at last without the angst. She's left behind her anger, but that just makes her a calm killer. (There's even a manifesto for Strange England's New Ace on p185.)

The book's problems continue. Its plot involves Gallifrey, TARDISes, the Matrix, etc., which is as usual the kiss of death. It makes the book feel stale, though with hindsight I can't believe that Gary Russell didn't add Galah into the Deca for Divided Loyalties. There are also too many similar names: Ace, Aickland, Arthur, Benny, Billy, Bert... One might argue that this symbolises the House's unreality, except that all those names are from the real world!

This book has enough badness to make you feel embarrassed for its author. He's done good work for BBC Books, but it's no surprise that he never worked again for Virgin. It starts terribly, improves from chapter to chapter and then throws it all away with a bleagh of an ending that dies on the page. I enjoyed the middle of this book, which could be described as a low-rent amalgamation of Ghost Light and Alice in Wonderland, but its last act is bollocks and its first fifty pages are laughable.


Give me a break... by Joe Ford 29/7/05

How on Earth do books like this get to be published?

It surprises me that Simon Messingham was given a chance to write again by the BBC if this was the evidence of what he could deliver. I am pleased that he was as his writing has clearly improved immeasurably and his later works include the fantastically creepy Tomb of Valdemar and the surprising and dramatic Indestructible Man but this really is a pitiful first attempt.

Where was the editor? Even Justin Richards would turn his nose up at this tripe and he published Warmonger!

So let me get this straight... this Time Lady friend of the Doctor wanted to withdraw into the safety of her TARDIS in an artificially created environment which is an expression of pure beauty. Alas she forgets that evil exists besides beauty and thanks to some weak points in the program a horrid Doctor from Victorian England manages to infiltrate it and turn the programme into some sort of living Hell. It's just rubbish isn't it? Pure, indulgent rubbish which trades logic and decent plotting for an excuse to have lots of gory action scenes for no real reason. This is the first of a seven-story stretch of Virgin New Adventures that suck beyond belief (with a brief pause for Set Piece) and Strange England is practically a portent for the nonsense that was to follow.

I have been far too kind about the seventh Doctor, Benny and Ace in the past and it is books like this that show that they just don't work as a team. Whilst I have no problems with some tension existing between the regulars (indeed that has been one of the best elements the books have given to the Doctor Who universe, a far more interesting look at "family" life in the TARDIS) these three lack even the most basic chemistry that makes you want to read about them. Benny spends loads of scenes questioning whether the Doctor knows more about what is going on than he should (which he does, he just doesn't realise it!). The Doctor barely shows any concern for the missing Ace. And Ace herself fails to work as a character in any way, shape or form, coming across as a one dimensional bully, one who exists to kick the nearest puppy. The Doctor himself seems utterly faceless in Messingham's hands, a parody of all of the worst facets of the Virgin Doctor (he broods and commands when the situation needs it) but doesn't seem to have any sort of character, no humour, no quirks, no purpose... he's just there reacting to stuff that is happening. And worst of all is Benny who has rarely been this mis-characterised. Messingham seems to think that she is some sort of upper class priss in archaeologist's clothes... the sort who goes "I say!" and would rather get her beauty sleep than investigate a problem. She hops from one ridiculous action sequence to another, rarely being effective and flapping about, shouting a lot but not doing anything constructive. There are even a couple of "Oh I need a drink!" mentions just because that is what Benny does. Lazy, lazy characterisation.

I cringe when I go back and read some of these first-time Doctor Who authors Virgin experimented with. I fear this is why so many people gave up with the books, the stories themselves were usually okay but the prose itself is hopelessly amateurish. I can think of half a dozen names off hand... Andrew Hunt, John Peel, Neil Penswick, Peter Darvill-Evans, Daniel Blythe, Gary Russell... even Gareth Roberts and Mark Gatiss delivered some of their worst prose under the New Adventures banner. Whilst I am fully aware they struck upon some wonderful writers too (namely Kate Orman, Paul Cornell, Jim Mortimore... although all three of those managed to produce one total stinker each too!) there is no excuse for such a high ratio of bad writers.

Simon Messingham is a good example of a first time author. His plot reads like it was made up as it goes along, with random horrible things happening every few pages or so just for shock effect and never adequately explained. His characters read like one-dimensional ciphers which could be excused by the fact that none of them are real but there could be at least some attempt to convince the reader that they are. They start to experience new concepts and ideas and rather than these being genuinely emotional revelations, they simply realise they haven't thought about those things before and move on. No attempt to explore these ideas and emotions they are feeling, not when the plot would rather throw mutant bushes and giant crab robots at them. And whilst there is some leverage in the argument that these characters are supposed to act like poorly-defined characters, what is the excuse for the Doctor, Benny and Ace? And more to the point having one-dimensional characters does not mean you have to write the book in one-dimensional writing with laughably clipped sentences and embarrassingly melodramatic descriptions. I have read other reviews suggesting the writing improves as the book continues but I saw no noticeable sign of this.

Strange England fails to build up its mystery. It fails to give satisfactory answers. It fails to offer a rewarding climax. What is all this guff about turning a projection into a real person and the Time Lady Galah merging with her? How the hell does that work? And how about the irredeemably twee proposal between Charlotte and Aickland? Vomit city...

This is really just an excuse to inject some horror into the Doctor Who universe but it even fails on that level because the horrors never seem threatening or real enough. Giant insects that jump into your mouth? Killer trees? Homicidal prickle bushes? Give me a break guys. Besides, Strange England pathetically limps from one overdone horror to another, hoping that the overload of nastiness will overwhelm you. One really scary monster would have been enough, but this smacks of trying far too hard. Messingham refined this indulgence when he wrote Tomb of Valdemar, that book was sensible enough to keep the horrors in the shadows and build up a cold sweat atmosphere.

This book felt as though it wanted to be as bizarre as Conundrum. And as scary as Nightshade. There is a great book to be had concerning one-dimensional characters coming out of their shell but that book is called The Crooked World.

Embarrassing to read.