THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Harry Sullivan's War
Millennial Rites
Millennium Shock
Virgin Publishing
System Shock

Author Justin Richards Cover taken from the excellent Doctor Who books home page
ISBN# 0 426 20445 X
Published 1995
Continuity Between The Seeds of Doom and
The Masque of Mandragora

Synopsis: On 1998 Earth, the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry discover an alien invader that seeks to conquer Earth using an advanced computer network.


Reviews

A Review by Tammy Potash 22/7/00

It's probably a good thing that this was never aired as a TV episode, because it would have freaked people out worse than Terror of the Autons did. Will my telephone explode? Will my car start driving itself?

As with Option Lock, Justin Richards skitters dangerously close to writing Dr. Who as Tom Clancy. The techno-thriller is an unfamiliar direction for a Who novel to take, and it is done quite well, with enough action for a James Bond film and some neat little links to Millennial Rites and Business Unusual. When Millenium Shock came out, I was stunned as the possibility of a sequel to System Shock had not occurred to me. It's suggested very subtly by the epilogue, far more so than the ending for Grave Matter.

With System Shock and Option Lock, Grave Matter, Theatre of War and Dreams of Empire, Richards proves his ability to write well for any combination of Doctor and companions, a versatility matched only by Paul Cornell. Here we have the 4th Doctor and Sarah in a very unfamiliar setting; the high-tech world of 1998. Special care and attention are given to a twenty-years older (than the TV version) Harry Sullivan, who is given a much better treatment than he ever got on the telly. This is what the abysmally written Harry Sullivan's War ought to have been.

The Doctor is up against the Voracians, direct opposites of the Cybermen. Though it is thankfully not depicted, I found myself wondering how the squeamish aliens would be deal with the disgusting necessity of excretory functions, since they do eat, however reluctantly. Their business-jargon filled speech goes a long way to providing their characterization. They are like the Cybermen in one respect though; they are utterly unprepared for the illogical, creative, chaotic Doctor. Watch as he uses a yoyo as a weapon, and his defeat of Voractyll is a triumph and a delight. Other Doctors will face menacing software, (Seeing I, Transit, Sleepy) but none will delight you as this book will.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 27/10/00

This is definitely Doctor Who for the nineties. A techno-thriller borrowing heavily from the likes of James Bond, BUGS and The Invasion (in terms of using technology anyway). But is System Shock any good?

PLOT: A lot hinges on your understanding of modern technology, but nonetheless it's a great read, which sees The Doctor and company attempting to halt the plans of the Voracians.

THE DOCTOR: Justin Richards proves time after time that he can write for virtually any Doctor/Companion and this is no exception. He`s true to form, but nothing new is explored, although this is no bad thing given the pace of the novel.

COMPANIONS: Watching Sarah Jane cope with technology in 1998 is fascinating, and it also proves that shes a lot tougher; I had no problems with the cover, which showed her armed with a gun. Harry Sullivan is back and portrayed competently. He is a joy to read.

VILLAINS: Basing the Voracians on snakes, is a clever idea and the cover reinforces the fact that they are truly horrifying, yet clever with it. Their motivations are believable and they add greatly to the book.

OVERALL: Technophobia seems to be the ongoing theme, and it works well exploring the man versus machine ideas in a similair way to The Ice Warriors some years previously. This is easily one of the best MAs and is very hard to put down. 9/10.


A Review by Finn Clark 27/2/03

This was only Justin Richards's second Who novel (after Theatre of War) and I think it shows in the characterisation. Something's slightly off. There's some good material here, especially with the women - e.g. Eleanor Jenkins or the Duchess of Glastonbury - but it felt a little bolted on. This isn't a character-driven novel, but instead a macho techno-thriller (there's a character called Gibson) with hostages, gunfights and lots of slightly quaint jargon. Did we really once say "Information Superhighway"?

On that level, it's fine. There's plenty of ingenuity (I liked the Voracians' origins) and the characterisation level only really hurts the book when it comes to the Doctor. He gets a few funny moments, but Tom Baker he ain't. Ah well. Many authors have struggled with that particular challenge and we've seen far worse.

The book's real entertainment value comes with its bad guys. The Voracians are evil management consultants, clearly inspired by the real-life work experiences of its author. This is Doctor Who's equivalent of The Office. These people call a hat a "cranial accessory" and their jargon-laden dialogue provides the book's comedy highlights. (I particularly enjoyed seeing the Voracians handle a hostage situation.) Admittedly Lawrence Miles made a similar joke in Interference with the Remote, but it's good enough to stand repetition. And of course dear old Harry Sullivan can't understand one word of this management-babble.

And there's more! Endless meaningless meetings, lethal office equipment... you can tell Justin was getting something out of his system with this novel. It's like Spearhead from Space but with electronics instead of plastic. The moral of the story: don't trust that photocopier! (Or mobile phone, or fax machine...) I, Who also claims that the Voracian leader Stabfield's body language is similar to that of Bill Gates, but on that I couldn't possibly comment.

Much fun can be had by putting System Shock in the context of the other books. Page 229 is good for a cheap laugh... no, Harry, they're not likely to disbelieve your alien revelations. Not when the Ice Warriors invaded Britain last year in The Dying Days, caused worldwide panic and crowned their leader King of England. Harry isn't in his late forties (p61) but his fifties, according to Harry Sullivan's War. Oh, and weren't there lots of evil high-tech companies around now? As well as I2 (System Shock), we have Ashley Chapel Logistics (Millennial Rites), Silver Bullet Solutions (Millennial Shock), InterCom (King of Terror), the Butler Institute (Cat's Cradle: Warhead)...

Random observation: a few authors like setting their books in a common era (e.g. Steve Lyons) but Justin Richards has taken this to unprecedented levels. So far he has three favourite periods:

1st - contemporary (1996-2001)... The Sands of Time, System Shock, Option Lock, Millennium Shock, , The Shadow in the Glass, Time Zero.

2nd - Benny-contemporary, i.e. the 26th century... Demontage, Dragon's Wrath, The Medusa Effect, Tears of the Oracle, The Joy Device, The Doomsday Manuscript.

3rd - for no obvious reason, the 1890s... The Burning and Time Zero are both set in 1894, The Sands of Time in 1896 and The Banquo Legacy in 1898.

The cover's ugly, and I must have missed the scene where Sarah gains a couple of cup sizes. (Amazingly, an earlier version of the cover was even worse! It showed Sarah as an apron-wearing waitress, apparently looking like something out of 'Allo 'Allo.) System Shock isn't a great book, but it's a solidly acceptable one that will probably resonate with office slaves everywhere. One of the more action-based Who novels to date, and there's nothing wrong with that.


A Review by Brian May 6/4/09

System Shock is an entertaining techno-thriller, having everything you'd expect from Justin Richards: excellent writing, great plot and good characterisations.

Computers are the centrepiece of this novel. Richards looks at how rapidly technology advances and how our dependency on it increases in parallel - and how easily both could be compromised. There's a cautionary tone not unlike the 1960s tales The War Machines and The Ice Warriors, and films like Colossus: The Forbin Project and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course these stories' concerns look rather daft today - but so might System Shock's in thirty or forty years' time. Indeed, some of the terminology has dated already. "Information superhighway" and "InterNet" may have been zeitgeist buzzwords in 1995 but look incredibly archaic nowadays (they even did in 1998, the year of this book's setting!). But hopefully the accepted role of computers in today's society - whether the "today" of 1995, 1998 or 2009 - won't make too much of this novel look obsolete in years to come.

Richards has always been a great character author, although not without the occasional misstep. The Doctor and Sarah suffer at the very beginning; during their first scene in the pub, their words and actions are just very wrong. But after this they're fine; the former particularly as the novel progresses. Tom Baker's performances are always difficult to capture accurately, but I was more than convinced come the second half, especially the witticisms and one-liners. I've always adored Harry Sullivan, but there's something not quite right about him in these pages. Maybe it's because Ian Marter died at the young age of 42 that I cannot picture Harry as older and greying. The charming clueless duffer that made the television character so endearing is all here, but his bewilderment at modern day computers is too much like Sarah's understandable 1970s reaction. Surely he'd have a contemporary (i.e. nineties) grasp of computers in his job, even if it was rudimentary?

With other characters, Richards has given us his usual range of believable people, not with spectacular depth but always solidly realistic - Westwood, Lewis and Gibson I particularly liked for this, while Miss Jenson is one of those nominally inconsequential, one-scene people you're totally convinced by, given how endearing they're made in their miniscule page time. The continual mystery regarding the identity of the COBRA insider is excellently conveyed, keeping the reader hooked, but I found the revelation a letdown. There is, I think, a typical Richards clue on p.18 (I'll leave it to you to see if you can pick it up!), but the way the Doctor unmasks him is a bit of a cheat - identifying his face from the VR surgical sequence, something we readers weren't able to do!

Detail is another of the author's strengths, and that's well evident in the marvellous descriptions of various software and computing processes. Excessive technobabble is avoided, and the plot is allowed to unfold and gather momentum with a great tension building stealth. The three disasters that occur early on (in Chapter 06: System Crashes) and the gradual spread of Voractyll through the global networks are fine examples of this. Richards usually uses repetition to an advantage; here we get the different perspectives of the view of the Hubway grounds. They have no real bearing on the story. They're just there, but work to differentiate the characters. However, elsewhere things do get a bit samey: the Doctor's obstacle course through a number of homicidal electrical apparatus is both exciting and humorous, but Sarah's ordeal in later pages is too similar, cheapening the effect. This leads to one of System Shock's weakest points: its length. At over 300 pages it's too long. The last few chapters drag quite a bit; a few too many talkfests at the mobile control centre; a lot of capture, escape and running around; and a rather tacked on showdown aboard the mothership. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of great stuff as well - the "face-off" between the two Voractylls is brilliant - but nevertheless there's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing that could have been trimmed.

For his second Doctor Who novel, Justin Richards maintains his skill at telling a good story and telling it well. It's an interesting contemporaneous concern about the dependence we place upon computers. It has great villains/aliens who carry out their plans in a simultaneously wry and hilarious poke at the corporate mentality. It's got a great sense of escalation, with a good mix of action and suspense; unfortunately, it outstays its welcome. It lacks the wow factor of his debut, Theatre of War and given The Sands of Time would follow it pales in comparison even more. But even if this is a lesser work than these, with such an author you're always guaranteed a good read. 7.5/10