BBC Books
Superior Beings

Author Nick Walters Cover image
ISBN# 0 563 53830 9
Published 2001
Featuring The Fifth Doctor and Peri

Synopsis: The Doctor finds himself caught up in the machinations of vulpine hunters who prefer the taste of human flesh to any other.


A Review by Finn Clark 15/8/01

Grrr howl, no spoilers, bark woof woof.

God, what a dull title. Appropriate and fitting once you've read the book, but until then as exciting as as a wet weekend in Scarborough with your aunt's knitting circle.

I liked this. Nick Walters has written two-and-a-half books previously that were sort of okay, but this was fun. It's the villains that did it for me, I think. Decent bad guys are so rare that when at last you meet some good old-fashioned vicious bastards, you can't help clapping wildly and cheering them on. Unlike last month's Asylum, this is also a book with plenty of ideas driving it along. SF high concepts, blood, guts and sexy women... these are good story ingredients! Ironically the Valethske are so powerful and murderous that they almost become a handicap plotting-wise. There isn't much a non-Valethske can do to resist them. The Doctor has a fair bash at it, but he doesn't have much to do with the final resolution. Ah well. I liked it anyway.

There's also some nudity and sexuality. Quite a bit, in fact. I'm not a particular fan of such elements since the forced inclusion of Mature Readers ingredients can easily make a work look tiresomely immature, but in fact it works here. I think I only rolled my eyes in exasperation once, which is a pretty good strike rate compared to the number of times I was forced to admit that yes, this sexual reference had proved to be an important and integral part of the story being told.

The Doctor didn't seem particularly Davison, but at least he gets plenty to do. However Peri is very strong, both in characterisation and balls (as in Planet of Fire). She even sounds American! This book is set very near the beginning of their relationship and trades heavily on that, with doubt from both sides about the other's intentions and some pretty fiery differences of opinion before the end. This is probably Peri's best novel to date; it's certainly her best portrayal in a novel, though that's not the same thing.

My final point is that Nick Walters is trying to write a novel, not just a roller-coaster. Characters grow, being forced to face their prejudices and learn something from their traumas. You've got the usual blood, guts and death-defying heroism, but actual character development too. This deserves notice and praise.

Overall, I was quite impressed. Superior Beings is a rather neat story that manages simultaneously to be blood-and-thunder adventure, a not unthoughtful novel and high-concept SF. I'd have loved to see this as a movie, though you wouldn't be able to take the kiddies.

A Review by Dave Roy 23/9/01

Superior Beings could have been so good. It has an interesting "monster," nice interplay between the Doctor and Peri (a pairing that I'd like to see more of), and an interesting concept.

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be much point to the whole thing. It's a very violent novel, but there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for that, other than to show bloody violence. The Velethske are an interesting race, but they deserved a better book. The "Superior Beings" of the title originally seems to be referring to the Eknuri, but then they turn out to be nothing much of interest. Then it turns out that it might be referring to something else (no spoilers), but that turns out to be anti-climactic.

The main story doesn't even seem to begin for at least 150 pages, if not longer. The prelude to this main story does nothing except establish how vicious the Velethske are. Humans and humanoids are nothing but prey to them. Fine, Nick, we got the point after the first 10 iterations of it. Could we move on now? Thank you.

I do have to say that the Doctor and Peri are characterized very well, though. I saw a review somewhere that said that anybody who has watched Caves of Androzani would not recognize these characters. I don't quite agree. Yes, Peri is a bit whiny, but she was in Planet of Fire, too. Even in Caves she was. Here, she does whine a little bit, but she's also strong, carrying on when a lot of weaker people would have just given up.

Peri's jealousy of Aline is well-portrayed. Here is a girl who has just joined up with the Doctor (you get the idea that this book takes place shortly after Planet of Fire), who's still new to this adventuring thing and has only the Doctor as a lifeline to any kind of normalcy. It's only natural that she would be jealous of Aline moving in on this. I found it completely understandable.

One other bad thing about this book, though, is the Doctor's almost complete ineffectiveness. He really doesn't have anything to do with the resolution. The only thing he does do is make sure that Peri stays alive (and he doesn't even do that, in the end... it's someone else). Why do the BBC books continually have a Doctor who doesn't do anything? Isn't he supposed to be the hero of the book?

I don't think you'll regret reading it, but only if you're a Fifth Doctor fan. Dominion, Walters' first novel, was decent. His second, Fall of Yquatine, was wonderful. And then there's this. Is there such a thing as Junior Jinx?

Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 3/10/01

Despite just having read The Year of Intelligent Tigers, there's something about Superior Beings that annoys me. Why is it that often when there's a race that looks like an animal they act like that animal? For example, the Valethske look like humanoid jackals, and yes, they hunt and kill prey much like jackals. Oh for the days of the Chelonians. How many turtles going around blowing things up do you know of?

The main word that comes to mind when thinking of Superior Beings is 'pedestrian'. There was nothing in here that really drew me in, made me want to turn the page, but neither was there anything that made me want to put the book down and not worry about not picking it up again. Nick Walters, previously known for his Eighth Doctor books, provides a story that fails to stand out in any real way.

The story starts with the Eknuri, genetically modified humans who are superior to other humans. They are then captured by the Valethske, who are more physically superior than anything else. And the Valethske are hunting for an even superior species. Can't say the book doesn't live up to its title in that regard. Although the Doctor comes across as superior to all of them.

The Doctor spends most of the book running around trying to ensure there's a happy ending. There isn't a lot of Fifth Doctor characterisation in there, but what there is mainly involves the Doctor looking hurt. There's more to Peter Davison performance than just his vulnerability, but this is what most authors pick on.

Peri is given more to do, and shows more strength than most companions are allowed to. She's also naked more often than Ace in Timewyrm: Genesys. In fact, I think this book features the most nudity I've seen in a Doctor Who novel yet.

There's only two other characters that Nick Walters develops. Hunt Marshal Veek gets to be the token non-typical Valethske, while still being a jackal. Her scenes were interesting, in that her non-typicalness gave the Valethske a more rounded characterisation. This also had the effect of showing how generic the others were, unfortunately.

The other character was Aline. The big point about her was that she had an Encounter. The only problem here is that the Encounter is made out to be a big thing, and yet isn't really followed up on in any satisfactory way. It might be that it wasn't supposed to be a major point, but it came across as one. Other than that, she caused a contrast to Peri, and helped out with the exposition, a change from the Doctor doing all the work.

Superior Beings is a mediocre novel, and will probably only be remembered for its nudity.

Aren't some people overreacting? by Steve Crow 12/10/01

I wasn't going to write in about Superior Beings. It's a kinda bland, boring book, with a bland boring Doctor and bland boring bad guys. But I'm getting tired of folks gripe about the nudity in the recent books. One or two scenes referring to a naked character do not "the most nudity I've seen in a Doctor Who novel yet" (Superior Beings) or "the author really emphasizes that Nyssa is naked throughout it" (Asylum). If you want a novel with lots of naked folks in it, read City of the Dead. Or see my review about how an author really really emphasizes people are naked throughout it.

Well, that out of the way I suppose I'd better write a review. Superior Beings isn't anything to really catch your attention. Peri has a little bit of characterization, but the Eknuri are pretty much flat. And they don't really seem that superior anyway. The Valethske are interesting enough, being basically amoral from a human viewpoint, but with a perfectly valid worldview of their own. It's not a very nice one, but at least it makes for a change from "evil" aliens. It's interesting to see the Doctor occasionally point this out, although he tends to side with not doing evil even if you feel it's "good."

The main problem I found was that none of this really seemed that innovative or original. Race of beings obsessed with hunting for their gods while extending their lifespans, check. (See Underworld). Planet which is really a sentient entity of its own, check. Lots of people dying, check. Only the Doctor and his companion walking away at the end, check (Horror of Fang Rock, albeit with one survivor). Although the latter is what bothers me a bit. Some characters (the last female Eknuri and the military commander among others) seem to get killed off rather gratuitously. They serve their relatively minor plot purpose, and then get killed off just to establish what bad-asses the Valethske are. Even Peri's love interest (I use the term loosely) serves the same purpose. The fact that they're mostly typical Doctor Who stereotypes (particularly the commander) makes this a bit more noticeable. You don't really care that most of these people are dying.

The fifth Doctor is presented fairly strongly, in my opinion. Granted, he doesn't do much, and his presence here is pretty much irrelevant. Still, in this novel I find him less a "weak" character than a character who simply is in a situation that he can't influence. It's an odd distinction, but a valid one: read the book and see for yourself.

The novel wraps itself up with a big bang, the Doctor & Co. make their escape, and things are pretty much back to normal. Oh, there's another mini-crisis of "Will she or won't she?" regarding whether the female companion in the novel will leave, check and check again (Quantum Archangel, anyone?), and it's resolved just as conveniently and with no big surprises there.

Overall, Superior Beings tosses out a few interesting concepts, but it's a very straightforward and predictable story. It's a fairly enjoyable fifth Doctor novel, but it's not one where he actually impacts the plot much. I would recommend it, barely.

Fantastic setup, mediocre payoff by Robert Smith? 13/12/01

Halfway through this book I was grinning like an idiot. All the talk of the demise of the PDAs has been greatly exaggerated. Nick Walters was going from strength to strength - this was even better than the underrated Fall of Yquatine. Here we had actual interesting characters, a confident writing style, a gripping potboiler of a plot. In Finn Clark's Head to Head on rec.arts.drwho, I claimed that this was the book which assured Nick Walters as the breakout talent of the BBC novels.

And then I read the second half.

It's not that Superior Beings is bad. Not at all. The pace certainly doesn't drop, for which I was grateful. It doesn't even nosedive as badly as it might. But the second half certainly can't live up to the promise of the first -- and that's a real shame.

After a fairly inconsequential TARDIS scene (which doesn't justify the amount of space devoted to it on the back cover), the action kicks in to high gear. In quick succession, we're introduced to a variety of quite interesting characters, all of whom actually feel like real people - and then the Valethske appear. This reminded me quite a bit of the structure of Year of Intelligent Tigers, with idyllic events shattered by the arrival of intelligent animal hunters. However, it's much more frenetically paced and we're deep into the action before we've really had a chance to stop and think.

The pacing is heavy on characterisation and often low on action - whole scenes go by with characters looking for fruit, or thinking to themselves while walking through fields... yet these scenes don't drag in the slightest. We're highly invested in these characters, because we come to know them in a very intimate way. It's not an unusual technique, but it's been a long time since we've seen it done this well in a Doctor Who novel.

All the setups are fascinating ones: Aline is great, almost on the edge of collapse and recovering from a mysterious Encounter that's referred to so often that we're thoroughly intrigued and can't wait to find out all the details of it. Taiana is an intriguing mystery. She's obviously much more powerful than she appears and the way she takes the events mostly in her stride sets her up as the quiet one of the first half who will become a major player in the second. When Melrose breaks down and leaves the group, you just know it's going to turn out to be vitally important later on. Freed from her commander, Meharg takes on a more relaxed attitude to the military, which is definitely going to play into events to come. Ruvis is a fascinating anomaly in the Valethske, who is far more cunning and intelligent than the rest of the hunters and will almost certainly be the true nemesis behind the Valethske mission that the Doctor has to face. The Valethske are clearly being manipulated to believe in their great mission by outside forces, because every time any of them other than Veek points out how ridiculous it is, something forces them to accept it.

And yet, not one of the above expectations is fulfilled. As soon as Aline enters the big plant, then characterisation crashes and burns. We stop seeing anything from Aline's POV (or indeed much of her at all) and everyone is summarily killed off, for no real reason other than to demonstrate the viciousness of the Valethske, in case we missed it the first five hundred times.

I'm honestly not sure if this was deliberate or not. Written out like this, it seems like Walters was trying to break the rules and subvert our expectations. However, to do that, you have to replace our expectations by something even more interesting... but not a single one of these characters gets to do anything of interest or importance in the second half. This is incredibly frustrating, because by this point I'd invested a lot in the characters, only to have it all taken away. There might be reasons for this, but the pointlessness doesn't seem to fit. Characters fulfil some minor plot function and are then conveniently killed.

I'm sorry, I should let this go, but I can't. Why set up the central question of just what mysterious Encounter Aline had if you're not going to answer that question? It's true that the fact that she had it has a plot function, but that's no excuse for cheating the reader. Why leave Taiana alive for so long when she does absolutely nothing whatsoever? Why does Melrose accomplish nothing at all? Why set up Ruvis only to kill him off at the very first opportunity? Most damning of all, why sow the seeds of doubt about the manipulation of the Valethske mission if you're not going to do anything with it?

In fact, my real suspicion is that Nick Walters is a far better writer than he realises and in trying to write an action potboiler, he's shown that he's more suited to character pieces. It's tough to do a series of quiet character studies when the characters in question keep getting eaten, though.

In the second half of my review, I was going to discuss the spot-on characterisation of the Doctor and Peri, opine about the way I think you really shouldn't have characters knowing all about the Doctor in advance (did the Psi Powers arc teach us nothing?), despite the fact that it very nearly works here, discuss the plot itself, which is quite tight on account of everything else having been sacrificed in its honour, talk about the Valethske in some detail, especially Veek, and muse about the Paul Leonard-inherited propensity to create a variety of fascinating and quite alien aliens. But time was short (or something), so instead I've decided to kill all those topics and just end everything in as perfunctory a way as possible. But trust me, it would have been pretty good.

A Review by Brian May 15/12/04

Superior Beings is an interesting book, but don't expect this until 50 or 60 pages have passed. To its detriment, the opening section is tedious. The setting, a party held by the hedonistic, physically perfect Eknuri, entertaining a woman who's recovering from a mysterious "Encounter", is mind numbingly dire. Things begin to get interesting after the attack by the savage hunters that are the Valethske; the fifth Doctor and Peri catapulted into the adventure as the latter is taken prisoner. It's up to the Doctor to follow and rescue her.

This is where the novel really takes off. But can it maintain the interest after such a flat opening? Nick Walters manages to achieve this by consistently maintaining a strong feel of action, tension and suspense, which are the story's greatest strengths. The Valethske are a fearsome enemy, a point hammered home by Walters in the situations the protagonists find themselves in. An old faithful Doctor Who cliché, separation from the TARDIS, is achieved in an elementary but effective way. A locked bulkhead is the cause, the simplicity of the obstacle creating a perfect "so near and yet so far" scenario. The Doctor being forced to leave his craft aboard a ship of awakening, vicious carnivores and then try to figure out some way of getting it back is a terrifically realised predicament. The Doctor being limited to reviving only a few of the beings kept asleep in the creatures' larder, due to the limited supply of oxygen masks, creates an agonising dilemma. Who do you revive? Who don't you revive? Indeed, the Doctor says "This is one of the most painful decisions I'll ever have to live with." The dramatic effect of this is reinforced by the fate of Seryn, one of those the Doctor leaves behind, who dies in horrible circumstances only a few pages later.

The suspense carries into the quiet moments - the "interlude" on the Garden in particular. For a few pages the Doctor, Peri and co. take a breather, exploring this strange and idyllic world - but all the while there's the knowledge that the Valethske aren't far away. Indeed, their respite is short-lived as the creatures arrive and quickly recapture those they don't brutally kill. Then there's the grim, hellish atmosphere of the pit in which Peri finds herself imprisoned. This, and her being put to work shovelling dirt in these surroundings all add to the uncompromising nature of the story.

The Valethske are an interesting race of monsters, but the majority of them are given no real personality, for want of a better word. The exception is Veek, who's the best character in the whole story, and not just as a religious dissenter. Her longing to return home reveals a vulnerability, frailty, and even sensuality - but she's still a cunning, formidable individual. Her shift to uneasy ally is a great piece of character development. The Doctor's interactions with her are also worthy of mentioning - Veek justifies her actions as instinctive to her people, while the Doctor continually condemns them, even well into their alliance.

Nick Walters has written an excellent fifth Doctor. His above condemnation of Veek and the Valethske, plus his passionate and often insolent tirades against his captors are all true to Peter Davison's manner. However, training the gun on himself has been done before (from a publishing/broadcast perspective), in the telemovie. Once was funny - it was also enough. Like most good Who moments, repetition cheapens the effect. Peri is also well depicted; the constant Americanisms among her inner thoughts irritated me at first, but I understand the justification for their inclusion (short of liking them!) She also goes through some considerable physical and mental ordeals - some of which have been referred to above.

However, Walters begins to tread on risky ground at this point. He implies that this story takes place almost immediately after Planet of Fire; but what everyone needs to realise about Peri is that between her debut story and The Caves of Androzani, a very short time passes. The whole point is that she ventures into the unknown with the fifth Doctor, only for him to suddenly change, stranding her in space and time with an unstable stranger. Terrance Dicks, in his travesty of a novel, Warmonger, failed to appreciate this. However, in The Ultimate Treasure, Christopher Bulis did understand. Walters falls somewhere in between - by putting her in suspended animation for a century, he gets it both ways - it's a long adventure for her, but she doesn't age and has no recollection. Combining this with all her trials and escapades, Walters does push the envelope slightly.

The rest of the characters are lacklustre. All the Eknuri are dull - although it could be argued that they're meant to be, given their species' devotion to hedonism. But, Seryn aside, none of their deaths are particularly tragic. There's not much point to Melrose and Meharg, who are both killed off not long after they're revived. As for Aline - well, she's the biggest disappointment. Not in herself, but her Encounter that is built up for so long, only to be explained in an exasperatingly unsatisfactory way. Ambiguity works in some areas, but not when a secret is gradually built upon and then suddenly quashed by the writer, as it is here. And her final "absorption" at the end is no real surprise.

Superior Beings is also very violent. Being rampant carnivores, Walters justifies the nature of the Valethske by displaying as much of it as possible - but in doing so goes overboard. The aforementioned death of Seryn is an exception - its graphic moments are more implied than described and, as I have argued, the event serves to illustrate the no-win situation faced by the Doctor. But elsewhere there's lots of Valethske carnage which, all of it overtly gory and nasty. The plotting is also a bit weak - all the loose ends are tied up rather haphazardly, and the points Walters tries to make are a tad confused. Through the Valethske's Great Mission, Walters takes a none too subtle swipe at organised religion, religious mania and Holy Grail quests. Okay, simple enough. But he goes further: the Valethske think they are the superior beings by virtue of their instinctive and hunting prowess; the Eknuri by virtue of their physical perfection. The Khorlthochloi, supposedly superior to both by their transcendent nature, effectively reduced themselves to giant beetles. In short, Walters condemns ideologies of racial (and species) purity; nobody is superior. But this just seems to be tacked on somewhat, hidden amongst all the action and too sidelined to be a proper "message".

However, on the positive side, Walters has come up trumps with the concept of the Garden. It's a fascinating place - every moment as the Doctor and Peri explore this bizarre world is scintillating reading. From the Gardeners to the Tree, the "harvesting" of Aline and the ultimate secret that links to the Valethske mission, albeit rather predictably - this place is a wonderfully successful attempt to create a different world. Nothing in Who fiction has ever come as far as Jim Mortimore's Parasite, and I don't think anything ever will, but Walters has made a more than impressive effort. And the final moments of the book, on the desolate, barren cinder that the Garden becomes, is an incredibly downbeat ending, filled with haunting descriptions that condemn the pointlessness of its destruction, especially the last paragraph, as the TARDIS dematerialises, leaving the place to its new state of nothingness.

A funny thing happened as I wrote this review. I started out thinking it would be a highly critical, negative one. It had been a few weeks since I put the book down, but going back over it, I have been surprised. Superior Beings is a good read! Nick Walters has some highly inspired moments - the Garden is testament to this. However, it is overly violent; it does have a very boring beginning, and most of the characters are wasted. The plotting is confused, taking a back seat to the action. However, the action is well written, being gritty and unremitting. And, given a great fifth Doctor and Peri, there's a decent Doctor Who story to enjoy here. 7/10