BBC Books

Author Craig Hinton Cover image
ISBN 0 563 48617 1
Published 2004
Featuring The sixth Doctor and Peri

Synopsis: In the 101st century, television signals from twentieth century Earth are all the rage. And to save money, actors are increasingly being replaced by Synthespians. But who could possibly be behind this plot to introduce a plastic menace into society?


Plastic heaven! by Joe Ford 20/9/04

OH MY FRILLY GOD! WHAT IS CRAIG HINTON ON? Baby Autons? Psychotic toothbrushes? Exploding breasts?!!!! Has this man broken into a chemist and swallowed down their entire supply of mind-altering drugs and then sat down to write a Doctor Who novel? I say this because it is one of the few books I have read where I am at a loss to explain how I felt about it except that it was ODDEST book ever!

It's also the best book Craig Hinton has ever written. I have never made a secret of the fact that his books are diabolical, horrendously written and lazily plotted, full of non-characters who spout cliched dialogue. Want to experience true pain? Forget cutting off your scrotum and swallowing it and go read GodEngine. Or worse... The Quantum Archangel, which competed with Warmonger for worst PDA ever. It seemed bizarre to me that a man who has spent so many hours reading and critiquing Doctor Who should be so out of touch with what its readers expect.

With Synthespians™ the man has taken a new approach to his work, jettisoning any sense of realism and seriousness and dived in at the deep end with a book so deliciously tacky it will no doubt leave certain members of fandom in a right tizzy (I know someone who would LOATHE this book). He has cut away the technobabble, the continuity (well not quite but we'll talk about that later), the torturous prose and concentrated on the one thing that Doctor Who has thrived on over forty years of adventuring and has ensured its legacy has not been forgotten but revived with a passion...


For the sheer pleasure of laughing out loud during a Doctor Who book this would win hands down. Sometimes I laughed with the book, other times at the book but the outrageous subject matter and frivolous storyline means that you are always having a laugh no matter how far this descends into high camp (move over Paul Magrs!) and trust me it goes further than any Doctor Who book has ever dared. Thank God.

I have long been a believer that Doctor Who has a format that allows it to take a shot at any kind of story, every genre and subject. But Doctor Who as a daytime soap? It boggles the mind doesn't it? The book doesn't just obsess with the glitzy consumerist market but I gives it a big fat sloppy snog and then throws the Doctor and Peri and bunch of wayward Autons in it and lets chaos ensue. Craig has (cleverly?) managed to match the feel of cheap 80's consumerism by telling a shallow, melodramatic tale that mirrors what it is taking the piss out of. The resulting tale is charmingly bold, high camp Doctor Who proving BBC books are much braver than their Virgin counterparts who would have rejected this outright (as would any sane publisher given the pitch!).

The story revolves around Reef Station One, a society in the 101st Century that is utterly in love with television from Earth of the Twentieth Century. Re-runs of Dusty the Fearless Monster Killer (ahem) and The Secret Files (double ahem) and Space Journey Traveller (argh! A Voyager parody!) are especially popular. But businessman extraordinaire Walther J Matheson is planning the merger of a lifetime... a partnership with a telepathic colonising alien force who is on the lookout for a new home...

Okay I want to get the bad stuff out of the way first because I genuinely want to say some nice words about a Craig Hinton book. This is not a professionally written novel with adequate editorial censoring (try saying that three times fast!). I cannot imagine what the look on Justin Richards face was when he first read the story but given the result I can guess he just said go for it, shock the buggers! The story crosses the line on several occasions, dialogue dripping with tack, homicidal billboards coming to life, facelifts that turn you into husband killers, Peri screaming out "You don't know anything about me bitch!"... there is no restraint in the book at all which is where much of the fun lies but from a professional level it is excruciatingly overwritten.

The actual prose is full of internal monologues... people have entire conversations in their heads asking dozens of rhetorical questions as though that is the norm. Much of the book is not revealed to us through action or plot but rather characters telling us what the situation is in their heads. The first half is especially guilty in this regard, pages and pages of descriptions of Reef Station One and its latest televisual attractions and little in the way of actual story. It is shocking to think in the first one hundred pages the most danger the Doctor gets into is going to the cinema! The second half picks up steam brilliantly but the first 140 odd pages are incredibly slow, you may start to wonder if this is just holiday for the travellers!

Equally shallow is the ending, which after some incredible build up with the awe-inspiring threat of a terrible massacre the story just sort of stops. I shan't spoil the ingenious way (hah!) the Doctor saves the day but let's just say it isn't one of his more memorable schemes. It's a real (shrug) "who cares?" sort of a climax which is a shame after such a fun ride.

Now comes the fun stuff... Craig Hinton has finally found his funny bone and written us a book full of great, great jokes. Nobody is saved from his mocking tongue and the book takes utter delight is camping up every soap opera, manufacturer and (ahem) American that ever lived! The book relishes its chance to push Doctor Who into plastic territory, giving the villains a chance to blow camp kisses, the hero proclaims that being kidnapped is a bit jolly and his busty assistant stars in a soap that will see her dead before the end of act one. The dialogue is terrific; a gay delight, as the bitch fights get louder and more dramatic.

Despite the fact that the characters are as superficial as the Autons invading them, there are some really memorable chappies taking part. Peri gets a new best friend in Claudia who she can go on a mad shopping spree with and still get home in time to discover her Dad dead on the kitchen floor. She's feisty and resourceful and provides a nice foil for the regulars. Marc is a welcome beefcake, an ex soap star who gets caught up in the machinations thanks to befriending the Doctor. His embarrassment as the Doctor is phenomenally rude to all and sundry is hysterical! Matheson is a good baddie; so far up his own arse he can't see the wood for the trees. Somehow it is more satisfying seeing the bad guys who are convinced of their infallibility fall from grace. And you have a pair of super-cool divas in Dominique Delacroix and Joan Bruderbakker who have a great line in bitchy put-downs. Somehow this cast of breezy 2D characters excel in the atmosphere of pure camp Hinton brews up.

I love the sixth Doctor and this book would be in a much sorrier state without him charging around reminding everybody of how facile and ridiculous they all are. His brusque attitude that was so condemned in the 80's is one of the reasons I was wetting myself throughout, he spends much of the book arrogantly slagging off everyone and thing and for once you are behind him one hundred percent. I loved it when he was reading the script of the latest Executive Desires episode and kept pointing out how implausible everything was (especially the revelation that one character's brother is also her father!). I loved it when he went to the cinema and criticized every aspect of the film and walked out proclaiming it was "Marvellous!" I loved it when he fiercely argued with Matheson about his nutcase scheme to scam the Nestene Consciousness. And his reaction to the homicidal television sets... if the fifth Doctor had fronted this book it would have been a disaster because the Doctor doesn't get a whole lot to do (considering how relaxed the plot is) but the sixth Doctor has enough personality to fill the book to the brim with witty arrogance and his mere presence fighting the ultimate enemy... daytime television is a hoot and a giggle!

Peri too is captured brilliantly; Craig seems to be the only author to remember that she was actually a spoilt little brat who moaned a whole bunch! And yet here she gets to let her hair down... go shopping, clubbing, flirting... she fits in perfect in this facsimile 1980's USA, so much so she almost considers settling down. It's a great joy to see the two travellers portrayed as the intergalactic bickerers that they were but also as an effective team and good friends too. More please...

For those of you expecting a chilling Auton Invasion don't bother to pick up the book as their involvement is largely played for laughs. Despite some horrific deaths by their hand ray guns and an appearance of the giant squid octopus thingy from the Target cover of The Auton Invasion, they are used mostly as an excuse to murder people and have everyday household objects come to life and go psycho. There is a smattering of depth involved when their history is explained and their motives for invading the Station is revealed. But even that is all set up for the last page... still the imagery is scary enough, grinning fake actors suddenly turning murderous...

Ahh yes, the issue of continuity! It all starts off so well with not a glimpse of a past reference but it soon the odd name and planet starts to pop in. Its almost as if Craig was bursting with impatience when writing a Doctor Who book without a Channing here or a Cyberman there and eventually let it rush out of him. Mind, with the EDAs so tight on continuity it's nice to see fans who get off on such references still getting their fix. The last page is either a nice touch or an unnecessary irritation and I would pick the former simply because it gives the book a real place in season twenty-two.

How to sum up Synthespians™? Undoubtedly corny and silly but then if you expect anything else from a book with a cover and title like that you get what you deserve. Finn Clark made a very perceptive comment in his Colony of Lies review last year, saying that every year there are one or two filler stories that get washed in with the classics and Synthespians™ is certainly the cheesiest bit of belly button fluff I have ever read. However it is good-humoured, genuinely readable and has a fabulous sixth Doctor.

If this is the quality of a passable Doctor Who book in 2004 then we are in good shape. Brave and hysterical, I really rather liked it.

A Review™ by Phil Fenerty /9/04

Synthespians™ has a topical resonance about it. Not merely the choice of monster employed in the story, but the sub-plot contained within the novel, describing the eagerly awaited return to the screen of a much-loved TV series.

Executive Desires (the series in question) is, of course, everything that Doctor Who is not. Vacuous, shallow, pandering to the lowest common denominator, it portrays a world where image is regarded over substance, where money shouts rather than talks, and where moral and ethical dilemmas are best forgotten in a frantic desire to out-match one's neighbour. Executive Desires shows a world where everything, even the performers, is disposable.

For those of us lucky(?) to have lived through the eighties, Craig Hinton has portrayed a world which acts as a reminder of those garish days - Dallas, Dynasty, bad dress sense, tacky music and all. The story is set on Reef Station One, in a part of the galaxy which receives faint traces of TV signal broadcast from Earth in the late twentieth century. The inhabitants have embraced the culture: the rich and famous live in LA-style residences, using the Ewings and Carringtons as role-models; the poorer factions of society are content to live in Coronation Street, even down to the corner-of-the-road local pub.

Whilst parodies of some of the current crop of TV series grate a little, it is good to see Professor X return in his Ninth (or is that Tenth?) incarnation, dressed (as Mr Hinton has admitted) in the manner Colin Baker would have chosen for himself when he took up the role of Doctor Who.

Of the guest stars in the novel, Claudia shines through. She is resourceful, brave and (behind the poor little rich girl facade) intelligent. She bonds well with both Peri and the Doctor, and could quite possibly have made a good on-going companion. With one exception, the other protagonists are less-well rounded, and even when they are (or appear to be) in danger, there is an element of "so-what" involved.

Synthespians™ is a book of two halves, even though there is no explicit division. The first part sets up the adventure, showing us Reef Station One from various viewpoints: trophy wives, disgruntled daughters, the Doctor and Peri. Indeed, it is Peri who, being a refugee from the 1980's, is most at home here, and fulfils the role of companion envisaged by the first production team: someone with whom we can relate, and through whose eyes we can watch proceedings. Her treatment is sympathetic, and when - at the novel's conclusion - she has to decide whether to stay behind or not, we can comprehend the enormity of her decision.

The book's second half is the "action phase". The Doctor, having seen the power behind Reef Station One (rather than deducing it) moves into position. In a very Seventh Doctor manner, he manipulates events (partly "off-screen") so that the final showdown proceeds according to his script, rather than Matheson's.

Walter J. Matheson III - principal villain of the piece. From his first appearance in the prologue, strutting across TV screens as a neo-Victor Kiam (only this time, liking the Universe so much he wants to buy it!), Matheson is an odious, unlikeable, power-hungry businessman. Of the main players in the book, he is the most developed, although not in a good way. His business methods are ruthless. His companies control vast swathes of life on Reef Station One, starting with broadcast media and including transport, communications, medical, beauty treatments. And it is the latter, the Skin Deep™ treatment, which formed the inspiration for the book.

Skin Deep™ allows not just rejuvenation, but control, and those who opt for it find their actions are not their own any more. This leads to a sickening piece of description, as we learn just how badly one of the characters has been changed by the process. Just think Stepford Wives (another topical resonance!) and it isn't too far off the mark. Whilst Skin Deep (or, at least, a real-world equivalent) had been the inspiration for the book, more is not made of the process, and this is a pity.

Given the clues dotted liberally throughout "Part 1" of the novel, astute readers will not be surprised by the identity of Matheson's business partners. In fact, they make perfect sense in the context of a story dealing with shallow, facile soap operas, in that their real nature is often concealed under a superficial covering - much like the soap divas so brilliantly satirised in the book.

The novel's climax offers some startlingly graphic horrors. These are in line with what could be expected from previous adventures the monsters have appeared in. The printed word allows far greater rein for invoking terror than TV, as the programme had to tone down the graphic nature of some of the events to cater for a family audience. Whilst the climax does not stand as a Stephen King-style horror, there are graphic and potentially disturbing descriptions drawn very effectively.

Strangely, Synthespians™ gives us some events (mainly through the middle sections of the novel) from the Doctor's point of view. In the Virgin New Adventures writer's guide, this was a no-no, the intention was that we viewed the Doctor as a mysterious outsider and were not party to his thought processes. This rule has been relaxed in some of the recent BBC releases, and some of the mystery behind the character is stripped away by this. A return to looking at the Doctor "from a distance" would be preferred.

Mr Hinton thankfully refrains from the continuity overload he has been accused of in the past. In the main, these are restricted to previous encounters between the Doctor and his enemy, although there is a gratuitous reference to Mavic Chen in Epilogue 1, and the whole of Epilogue 2 (which links the Big Finish audios to Season 23), whilst entertaining in its own right, is superfluous in many ways. And there's a link to the comic strip The Stockbridge Horror which only long-term die-hard fans might pick up on.

There is, however, a great in-joke on page 53.

Synthespians™ is probably Craig Hinton's most enjoyable book to date (although a re-read of The Crystal Bucephalus might be in order to determine which of the two is his BEST work). Once the plot starts to become apparent, the pace of the novel picks up and it is hard to put the book down. Definitely worth reading if in the mood for 80's nostalgia or the return of an old foe!

Overall: Entertaining and fun.

A Review by Michael Hickerson 23/11/04

At times, it's difficult to figure out just what exactly Synthespians™ is supposed to be. Is it supposed to be a send-up up the popular television shows of the 80s? Is it supposed to be warning to fans about expecting too much for a returning TV favorite? Is it supposed to be an action/adventure story?

What you get is a novel that is all of these things and, unfortunately, ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy Synthespians™. I did enjoy it while reading it, but it's just after I was done, I didn't feel completely satisfied by the experience.

A large part of this dissatisfaction is thanks to the front cover, I accurately guessed who the recurring villain/monster in the story would be long before the novel actually gets around to that revelation. Not that author Craig Hinton doesn't do his best to keep you entertained up until that point -- the first 100 or so pages of this novel are a great deal of fun to read as Hinton satirizes everything that is or was 80s television. But, it's once you hit the 100 page mark that things start to go awry.

The novel stops being a satire and becomes a standard Who story with the sixth Doctor and Peri battling an old evil that has brought them to this place. Here is where a lot of the motivation of the story begins to break down. The villain of the novel has been defeated by the Doctor several times before and, yet, brings him into the plan so that it can gloat. Honestly, I kept expecting something more in terms of motivation. Or else to find another old villain behind all of this (until the last page of the novel, I fully expected the Ainley Master to crop up, cackling all the way).

Alas, none of that come to pass. Hinton does a pretty good job of tying together some things from the Colin Baker era and making you consider them in a new light. He gives a new spin and motivation to why the Doctor is put on trial in The Trial of a Time Lord, but it's certainly not any better reason than the Doctor's interference on Ravalox.

As I said before, Synthespians™ was a fine enough story for what it was -- bubblegum reading. You can't really dwell on it too much. It is fun, though I will admit that the last 50 or so pages weren't the most compelling or the most page-turning. The first half of the book is funny, witty and entertaining. Then we meet the main villain in a huge cliffhanger-like reveal and the fun factor drops considerably. Part of that is the means of dispatching said villain comes out far too early and easily for my liking. It's almost as if Hinton painted himself into a corner and didn't quite know how to get out of it, so he came up with the solution he does.

All in all, Synthespians™ is trying very hard to be more than it is. For the first half, it works brilliantly. But the second half isn't nearly the equal of the first and ends up making the entire experience less than it could be.

A Review by Finn Clark 17/12/04

I don't know why this book exists. I read it and everything, but I don't know what it's trying to achieve. It's not scary, dramatic, funny, satirical or anything else that I could detect. People bicker, go shopping and run around, sometimes while being chased by Autons. Never was I thrilled, moved or amused... just vaguely bored and waiting for the book to finish.

Admittedly this isn't a unique problem in Doctor Who books, especially lately, but it's particularly damaging in this case since the book feels so old hat. We've seen enough television-centric worlds in Who (Vengeance on Varos, Time of Your Life, Prime Time and more) for this to feel like the latest entry in a sub-genre, rather than anything genuinely new. This is the first time we've examined eighties American soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, but it doesn't feel as if Craig Hinton's saying anything about them. He's just wallowing in their camp factor (which is admittedly considerable).

The Nestenes return, but so poorly that you'll wish the "no old monsters" rule hadn't been lifted after all. Forewarned by the front cover, we wait for the bad guys to show up... and wait, and wait. Only on p150 does the Doctor realise that he's fighting the Autons. Yes, we know! Get with the program! What's worse, I'm starting to suspect that Autons don't work in novels. Mindless killers are boring, Channing-a-like leaders are merely bog-standard villains and the all-powerful Nestene Intelligence itself is so powerful that it can't take a significant story role since it would squish the plot like a bug. The Autons sucked in Business Unusual and here they suck too.

It doesn't help that far too quickly the Doctor finds a 'silver bullet' to disable any Auton at will. What's more, the book's most distinctive ideas aren't new. Plastic actors and mannequin soap stars appeared in Gareth Roberts's 7th Doctor and Mel comic strip, Plastic Millennium (1994 Winter Special). Craig's only vaguely creepy moment was done better by Alan Moore and Steve Lloyd in Business As Usual (DWM 40-43) - perhaps still Doctor Who's best Auton story. The Skin Deep process could have been interesting, but we no sooner learn what it is than the bad guys spontaneously reverse its effects!

As an aside, it seems that this period in the Doctor's life saw a bit of an Auton-glut. There's Synthespians™, Business Unusual and its sequel Instruments of Darkness (though the latter only counts if you squint a bit), the aforementioned Plastic Millennium and even Robert Holmes's aborted script for the original Season 23. Curious.

The 6th Doctor and Peri are... okay. Putting Peri into such a strongly American context works wonderfully and Craig even ties in bits of Peri continuity from other books, e.g. Shell Shock. Unfortunately the latter didn't work for me. Child abuse feels like an inappropriate subject for a book like this, inserted only as a hat-tip to continuity and as jarring as Terrance Dicks's fondness for rape references. (Peri isn't even the only woman to get some child abuse in her backstory... see p47.) As for the Doctor... well, he's fine, but I think Craig missed a trick when it came to the inspired notion of the 6th Doctor as critic and reviewer. He voices critical opinions, yes, but in practice it's little more than ranting. Imagine the comic potential of the 6th Doctor going into lacerating detail like a Robert Smith?... ooooh, that could have been worth the cover price alone.

There's continuity, though thankfully less than The Quantum Archangel. Somehow Craig gets away with it, perhaps because the whole novel is so camp and shallow that a wink to the audience feels entirely appropriate. However it's not always accurate. The Primal Wars are (probably) dated about 1,600,000 years too early on p83, though the reference is easy to handwave. I liked the chosen setting, though... making it more-or-less contemporaneous with The Crystal Bucephalus allows a little more richness of future history than usual.

There are knowing winks of a kind I normally hate... television shows like Dusty the Fearless Monster Killer, The Secret Files and Space Journey: Traveller (on its seventh and final season, naturally). Oddly these work too. Reef Station One is so saturated with 20th-century television that those shows must be deliberate rip-offs, the original copyright holders being eight thousand years dead.

In one sense, Synthespians™ feels like a joke on Craig's critics. The Crystal Bucephalus and GodEngine were described as soap-opera-ish, so here he does it literally! However ironically Synthespians™ isn't a particularly soapy novel... it has a cast that's drawn entirely from Dynasty and its ilk, but melodramatic relationship twists are conspicuous by their absence. (As if to make up for this, the script page pastiches are as over-the-top in this department as anyone could want.) However the Dynasty influence is palpable and baleful. This book is camp (not in itself a bad thing), but it's also Craig's shallowest. Drama gives way to mere stroppiness, for instance on p106 when any sane person might be expected to show a little fear.

Admittedly I'm not generally wild about Craig's books, but I couldn't even enjoy Synthespians™ in a "turn off your brain" camp way. It's not the parody it could have been. It's a lame outing for the Autons and it doesn't have any tension, character drama or anything else to keep me interested. It's smoothly written and its pages drift past innocuously, but I couldn't possibly recommend it.

A review in the form of a question by Rob Matthews 25/1/05

Why is Craig Hinton the very last writer in the world who should be writing a satire of unconvincing, hyperbolic chronically self-referential shallow rubbish?


Of course, there's a certain ambiguity as to how that question could be answered; one could very well make the case that no Who writer could be better suited to the task. Indeed, there isn't a DW scribe alive or dead who's more thoroughly navigated the terrain of unconvincing, hyperbolic chronically self-referential rubbish than Hinton, and as the man who planted his flag at the summit of Mount Bullshit, it could be argued that ol' Quintilly has earned the right to dig in and chuck as many great fistfuls of crap at us as us he likes.

The problem there is that I don't particularly like being pelted with crap. And really, having someone point out, tongue-in-cheek like, that the spatters of poo he's chucking are all brown and claggy doesn't actually make the experience any more pleasurable.

Synthespians™ has received some unaccountably indulgent reviews, and for the sake of fandom in general it's gotta stop. We're better than this, for goodness' sake.

Analogy time: I recall some trumpet-blowing TV show on the BBC once which proudly displayed a bunch of clips from the beeb's classic dramas of yore in front of some poor drafted-in audience who'd probably been shuffled into the studio as consolation for just missing out on tickets for The Generation Game. Amidst the snippets from I Claudius, The Onedin line and that queeny thing with Glenda Jackson, some smartarse from the televisual vaults had decided to represent Who via a silly clip from Revenge of the Cybermen - one which was edited, at that, to remove what few scraps of wit existed in the story in the first place. Of course, the audience had a good laugh at the silly silver men with handles on their heads, and the bowdlerised perfunctory dialogue that had survived into the snippet itself. It was clear enough what the intention was here - the makers of that show obviously wanted to show that Doctor Who wasn't in fact all that; that any popularity it retained resulted from misplaced nostalgia or perhaps plain stupidity - in short, that it was shit. This was a few years ago, not too long after Doctor Who had won some viewer-voted BBC award as favourite programme, and I suspect that the poor representation of our show was a result of some in-house backlash.

The point is, anyway, that though this was not wholly a misrepresentation of our little show - which could, let's face it, be pretty rubbishy on occasion -, it was certainly a biased one; in a compilation supposedly celebrating the beeb's output at its best, no-one had gone to any effort to pick one of Who's finest moments, and in fact appeared to have deliberately selected one of the show's poorest. And by suggesting that the series as a whole was as pathetic as Revenge of the Cybermen, the implication was that this must be what those geeky fans enjoy so much, and that they must therefore be idiots.

Well, by the same bargain, I wouldn't like some poor sod of a teenager to see the - I'm assuming - very good new series, wander into Borders looking for a change from Harry Potter, spot that there are a few Doctor Who books sitting there on the shelves, and walk away from the shop with this atrocity in his hand.

I mean really, how embarrassing.

And neither would I like a cross-section of fan reviews of this story to suggest that it's the sort of thing we're willing to put up with. Our standards are not - should not - be that low. This isn't meant to be a cruel review - for one thing I'm not into nastiness for it's own sake (which may explain a great deal about why I never found the Dynasty-like 'Why, you bitch' nonsense at all amusing), and for another I'm aware that Hinton is one of those Who authors who may well browse sites like this, and I wouldn't want to be plain abusive. But the fact is that I found this book wholly puerile and outright offensive to my intelligence, and - as us fans sometimes tend to forget because we're so used to doing it - we are actually paying to read these novels, and have a perfect right to express our opinions when we don't like 'em, no matter how stroppy the likes of Hinton or Jon Blum might get with Finn Clark on Jade Pagoda. There have been plenty of reviews of the 'not that good, but kind of pleasant if you switch off your brain and seventy per cent of your nervous system and read a few issues of Heat magazine first' ilk, but they're as fundamentally mistaken about the content here as the author himself. And I really must say that whatever novel it is Craig Hinton thinks he has written, this ain't it.

Subconsciously, perhaps, he is aware of just where this book fits into the Who canon. References abound in the text to such all-time clunkers as Warmonger, The Web Planet, Trial of a Time Lord and Dying in the Sun, like some kind of expectation-lowering virus.

Synthespians™ can sit in the stocks with the worst of 'em. You might have gathered that already. But the thing is, it's not even reasonably good, or pleasurable, enjoyable, enjoyably bad, faintly likeable campery, despicable tract or... well, anything at all really. That's really the most disturbing thing about it. It's as soulless as a plastic-wrapped vacuum, as passionately expressive as an Auton's face, as witty and animated as Channing. If it wasn't irritating, it wouldn't be anything at all. In fact the only vaguely amusing moment in the entire thing comes right at the end, in a postscript where the author tells us that he'd decided to hold back on the continuity issues for once - just one page after depicting a Time Lord from the Big Finish audios gratuitously orchestrating the Doctor's trial from season 23. I guess the one likeable thing about the book is its basic intention - to have some good-humoured fun. Sadly it fails even in this.

Finn Clark, gawd bless his levelheadedness, has made a couple of points above and elsewhere that resonated with my own experience of this book, so I'd like to expand upon them slightly. Firstly, he mentioned that the television-themed story has become something of a Doctor Who subgenre, kicked off on TV itself by season 22's Vengeance on Varos and subsequently explored in Who books like Time of Your Life, Prime Time and Synthespians™ itself. Something I'd like to further point out about this strain of Doctor Who story is how basically unsuccessful it's been. Can't speak for Prime Time, mind, because I've never gotten round to it, but for me Varos, Time of Your Life and Synthespians™ have each suffered from trying to gaffer tape together the demands of telling a convincing story and constructing a plausible world with those of creating a cohesive and perceptive satire on a particular form of media. Hence Vengeance on Varos was able to paint in a convincingly grim picture of a cruel and debased society - the more convincing for its random flares of nastiness actually -, but wasn't able to to take anything but the most superficial swipe at television itself (by far the most incisive of Doctor Who's television-themed tales, incidentally, is Lawrence Miles' Interference, which took a quantum leap away from the 'clunky allegory' mode).

Synthespians™ has the opposite problem to that of Varos; it's predominantly a riff - one can hardly call it a satire - on tacky and formulaic TV shows, or soaps from the eighties, or irritating nostalgia fads, or something, but finds itself unable to put together the essential foundation of a remotely convincing narrative world. Reef Station One is a poor conceit that just doesn't fly - in essence an Earth colony of the far future where society has been reconstructed from whatever the inhabitants could find on UK Gold. Believe me, it's exactly as convincing as it sounds.

Sorry to poop the party, but even if this thing's aiming merely for whimsy... even that has to be convincing on some level.

Believability stumbles, for example, when the book suddenly realises it has to explain why someone would have a human chauffeur in a world where placky automatons do all the grunt work. The explanation is less than convincing, reading like the clunking afterthought to a 'whoops!' it so clearly is. And as was the case with Hinton's other books, there's barely even the most basic sense of psychological credibility - at one point, amidst what should be an absolutely terrifying onslaught of murderous plastic products, when any sane person would be going crazy with fear or fighting desperately for their lives, Claudia's primary concern is that she's had some 'closure' with her mother-in-law issues. Those are the only sore thumb examples I can think of, actually - apart from the obvious mobile phone cop-out that even the apologists have noted. But, as mentioned, the very foundations of the narrative world are wobbly, and that affects everything in the book - people in the far future acting like they're in a bad eighties soap? It makes each and every one of the 'native' characters look rather backward and silly. And they're just so dull too. The points of logic and motivation that are at least believable are nevertheless too banal to make any impression one way or the other. Humdrum ciphers doing nothing very special within the constraints of an unwieldy conceit. Certainly Claudia's antagonism towards Joan doesn't lead to any soap-style shenanigans. It's just sketched in, and that's it. So, again, we can tick off the possibilty that this is meant to be a spoof of soap opera per se, since nothing in the mechanics of the plot suggests that.

But you don't have to go to any great analytical depths to discover what fatal flaw torpedoes this book. It is, simply, the basic inability of its writer to follow through on his apparent intentions. Case in point: Joe Ford suggests that Dominique Delacroix and Joan Bruderbakker are 'a pair of super-cool divas ... who have a great line in bitchy put-downs.' Sorry to pick on yer Joey but, like... where?! There's not a single line of theirs that I can recall, certainly nothing in the realm of 'I'd wring your neck if you had one'-style catty wit. What 'bitchiness' there is is anodyne and generic, reading more like a placefiller for the snipey humour and clever wordplay that Hinton was ultimately too poor a writer to come up with.

Likewise with Joe's suggestion that 'the dialogue is (...) a gay delight, as the bitch fights get louder and more dramatic' - in fact they just become increasingly shrill and resoundingly one-note, relying on an assumption that campiness and tarty women insulting each other is innately funny and expecting us to chuckle dutifully at shared memories of Dynasty et al. Well, I'm sure if a Jennifer Saunders sort had co-authored the novel all this stuff would indeed have been laugh-out-loud hilarious. But I repeat, Hinton never actually does the things he thinks he's doing. In reality the dialogue barely scrapes 'adequate.'

And speaking of which... 'Joan'? Does Hinton really feel we're too thick to get the Joan Collins connection without a prompt? Perhaps so. He does after all at one point have one of his characters explain to us that 'Synthespians' derives from 'synthetic thespians'. Cheers for that, Craig.

Ironically the most successful character in here is Peri. 'Ironically' because in one sense you could see her as a failure - inasmuch as she's absolutely nothing like the ditzy whiner we saw on screen in the season where this adventure is supposed to be set. Hinton, a renowned continuity hound, has taken all the PDAs and - for all I know - Big Finish adventures that feature Ms Brown and crafted what's almost a divergent version of the character; a self-reliant strong-willed space adventurer who's commanded armies in her time (yes folks, Hinton thinks Warmonger actually happened). I've long thought it a mistake to keep churning out new Fifth Doctor-Peri stories which blatantly don't fit with what we saw on screen, and the result is this: Perpugilliam Brown, first victim of the PDAs. That's not to say alt.Peri doesn't work as far as this story goes, though. In fact she may be the only thing that works here. Perhaps because she's the closest thing there is in the text to a real person.

The tone of the novel, something you'd think would be just there, easily identifiable even in a bad book, is bizarrely nonexistent. For the vast bulk of its length there's no convincing vein of comedy, horror, satire, drama, or anything. And this absence of content becomes most strikingly apparent in the latter part of the story, when we're given a series of vignettes detailing plastic product-induced violent death. These scenes aim squarely for a blackly comic Alfred Hitchcock Presents sort of tone, and though they succeed relatively well in isolation, they also strike a jarring note. This is because they really only serve to highlight the complete lack of consistent personality in the (seemingly endless) preceeding pages. Coming from nowhere, what purports to be sardonic venom seems little more than a desperate pose.

A further example of the author's crippling inability to show rather than tell comes with the Doctor's role in the preceedings. Working with a perfectly serviceable 'stubborn and irascible but essentially loveable' model of the Sixth Doctor, Hinton casts our hero as arch cultural critic but is then quite unable to have him say anything remotely clever or incisive. Finn Clark touched upon this in his own review but, if anything, was overly generous in his assessment of its failure - the author hasn't really 'missed a trick' in not giving the Doctor more penetrating insights; rather, he was just not up to the task of putting those insights into his mouth. The only clear attempt I noticed to illustrate the idea of a cultured and thoughtful Doctor was the character's reflection that Reef Station One's society was 'founded upon a Proustian ideal: nostalgia.' But this is bollocks - Proust's nostalgia is about real things and subjective experiences, and certainly has nothing to do with the Stuart Maconie-style consumerist phantasmagoria that characterises the 'Wasn't Dynasty's shiteness great?' school of pdeuso-nostalgic thought.

Still, consumerist phantasmagoria is really where this book's at. That big loud annoying 'TM' on the cover is something the author appears to fetishise throughout, like a hyper-zealous ad man. And really this feels like an ad man's book; an aggressively championed 'brand' that comes with all sorts of promises and pizzazz but that in practice is hollow, unsatisfying and doesn't deliver a thing. Much like the contrived never-was Farrah Fawcettland dream of 'nostalgia' from which it derives its terms, in fact. And what's worse is that it's so soulless, so unaware of what differentiates mere hype and pointlessly exchanged and re-exchanged cultural signifiers from quality, genuine insight or originality, that it seems truly incapable of understanding that difference. An analogy would be that awful woman who does the voiceover bits on (speaking of rubbish) Top of the Pops at present; crazily enthusiastic about everything, never more at home than when she's telling us just how 'exclyoosif' some bit of news is, and so thoroughly unable to differentiate one announcement from the next she'll inform us that 'Green Day's latest album is an attack on the Bush administration' in exactly the same intonation and at just the same pitch she'd use to reveal Dougie from McFly's favourite pizza topping.

Synthespians™ is kind of like that vapid harpy. Cultural detritus recycled and branded with a poor simulacra of enthusiasm, and chronically unable to see why this is even a problem, because the plastic baptism, the legitimacy of that TM, and its existence as a product, is all that really matters to it.

So maybe the book does have a personality after all; sadly it's that of Lindsey Naegle or Davina McCall.

Joe Ford's persuasive rave job convinced me to give Hinton one more chance. And Joe, I still love you to pieces, but IMO Synthespians™ is not so much FUN!!! as "fun". Or "Fun™" perhaps. I believe I've given him a fair shot, and Hinton has now definitively had his innings with me.

I know what you're wondering - Why's that idiot getting so het up about what's basically a piece of fluff?

Well, it's like this:

Because I feel incredibly passionately that if it succumbs to the crass, lazy recycled unintelligence of so much of the media around it, Doctor Who loses every damn thing that makes it special and worthwhile.

Four out of Five by Jamas Enright 4/3/05

I'll deal with the biggest problem in this book first, namely the fact that everyone knows who the big evil is after about twenty pages (assuming the cover hasn't already given the game away). (And for anyone who doesn't know the big evil and so hasn't guessed their involvement, they're hardly going to be surprised at the shock revelation. It's like suddenly saying 'Oh, look, it's the Krill' and expecting people to care.) The point being, a big deal is made of 'what is going on?' when there's absolutely no need for it. The flip side is that it gives the author a chance to fill page count by having people wander about. On the other hand, once the big evil was revealed, I doubted it would take the rest of the book to deal with it and suspected there would be an even bigger menace around, but again I underestimated Craig Hinton's ability to pad out the page count.

Right, that was the negative, so onto the rest of the review. This book was a first for a long time in that it was actually a light and pleasant read to get through (this includes the just read The Tomorrow Windows). So often I feel like I have to slog through these books, contemplating how much damage I would do to my walls if I threw the books at them, that I was extremely happy to find something that flowed so easily that I didn't mind (too much) hanging around for the big 'surprise'.

The plot isn't perfect and extremely contrived in a large number of obvious ways, but Craig Hinton keeps the pace up. Reef Station One is explored and the environment is explained enough to allow Hinton to have his cake (setting a story in 1980's LA) and eat it too (have the story be in the future) [I did say there were contrivances]. The main characters are all set up clearly, and there were no problems following who was whom (always a bonus, although it should be a default). Although Hinton is striving for a soap-drama atmosphere, I'm wondering if in the soaps (especially in the 1980s) did the women really call each other 'bitch' that often? Every female character gets to say it at least once in this book, and many say it far more often. Cultural standard or author excess? You decide.

(Speaking of author excess, in his acknowledgments, he states 'this time I've been sparing with the continuity'. Ha! Page 18 alone puts enough lie to that, let along the Doctor referencing each of his previous selves at least once, not to mention a few forward references...)

The Doctor is his typically Sixth self here (there's even a triple shout!), but Peri gets some character development here and a fuller backstory (although I'm not sure if there are dark secrets planted or not). The rest of the cast are fairly one- or two-dimensional (Hinton intentionally reflecting soaps or just bad writing?), but they still work in that way, so I'm not going to complain.

Synthespians™ is a nice light read after so much slog, so much to recommend it just for that, with only a few Hinton excessives to spoil it. But here's hoping the author doesn't live up to his threat and make his next book a sequel to The Crystal Bucephalus.