THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC Books
The Taint

Author Mike Collier Cover image
ISBN 0 563 55568 8
Published 1999

Synopsis: In 1963, the Doctor and Sam become involved in psychological experiments performed on sufferes of mental illness. The Doctor discovers a computerised alien survival programme hidden in the brains of the afflicted.


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 26/3/99

It is the opinion of this reviewer that the two 8DAs written by first-time authors, Longest Day and The Janus Conjunction, were also the two dullest. The Eight Doctors and John Peel's Dalek novels may not have been great literature, but at least they zipped along merrily in an enthusiastic comic- book way. Michael Collier and Trevor Baxendale showed themselves capable of greater things in their debut books, but sadly this did not translate to reader interest.

Now we have Michael Collier's second novel, The Taint. It's got an absolutely brilliant cover, but what about the contents?

They're better -- much better. The quantum leap between this book and the last is staggering; Mr Collier is to be congratulated. It's still not a particularly interesting book, but that's far more than could be said for Longest Day...

The Taint's strong point are its characters. The regulars were rather well written in Longest Day, particularly Sam (who single-handedly carried much of the story) and they're just as good here. Michael Collier even gets to introduce a new companion (which isn't a spoiler since it's on the back cover) and does the job very well. Fitz Kreiner is a bit like Jason Kane, only with weirder insecurities, a vigorous fantasy life and far less success in the bedroom department. He wasn't quite what I'd expected, having read the BBC's character breakdown, but I think the authors are going to have fun with him. He certainly sparks off Sam very well, particularly in the early chapters.

I have one small concern. Fitz is a practiced liar and con-artist, which is all well and good. There's a lovely scene at one point where he watches the Doctor's bluffing technique and starts mentally criticising it, but I think there's a danger here of the writers going to town on such scenes in the future. There's obvious fun to be had in playing off the deviously amoral Fitz against the more upright Doctor (as with Glitz and the Doctor in The Mysterious Planet, perhaps), but let's not forget that this is also the Doctor who could look you in the eye and pick your pocket in the TVM. There's already a tendency to write the eighth Doctor as an innocent. I wouldn't want to see comedy Fitz scenes going so far that they turn McGann's Doctor into a Davison clone of such naivete that one worries about letting him out on the streets...

Back to The Taint. The story's main problem is... well, the story. Longest Day at least had planetary doom and temporal chaos. The Taint just has some mad people in a stately home. That's more or less it. It's well written for what it is, but it's small-scale and carefully controlled throughout. One can appreciate, but one isn't really gripped.

Like last month's offering, The Face-Eater, it borrows ideas from the horror genre. It's less successful in doing so, however, largely I think because its imagery lends itself less naturally to science fiction. The Taint borrows from the sub-genre of demonic possession and 'Spawn of Satan' stories (The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby) but unfortunately this is a Doctor Who book. Michael Collier can play games with language as much as he likes, but at the end of the day we're never even going to consider the possibility that our merry loonies really are possessed by the Devil. The real explanation is ingenious and effective, with one peculiarly horrible ramification that I admire enormously, but it would be far more powerful IMO with a whiff of the supernatural. In the end, the reader remains detached.

At one point the Doctor does something very stupid, but otherwise there's nothing wrong with this book. It's got some very good moments, but it doesn't have any real excitement either.


Just Woeful by Robert Smith? 11/6/99

I found Collier's previous book to be full of interesting ideas, but the author lacked the skill to carry many of them off. Longest Day was bad, make no mistake, but it was bad because it aimed too high and fell flat. The Taint is also bad. Very bad. But it's bad in almost completely the opposite way. I'm highly amused by this, because there was a time when I thought nothing would make me look back with fondness at Longest Day. Ah, nostalgia!

The writing has improved magnificently. It's still not great, but it's quite an improvement on Longest Day. Unfortunately, for every step gained in the writing, one is lost in the story. I also thought that the interactions between the Doctor and Sam (sparse though they were) were one of the highlights of Longest Day. Unfortunately, while the regulars spend more time together here, there's no such spark between them.

I'm guessing that a lot of fans will probably like this story. On the surface, it has a lot going for it: it's a very traditional Doctor Who setting, with traditional lacklustre villains, traditional supporting cast, many of whom are faceless and merge into one another, and a goofy Doctor.

Yes, yes, so it's yet another EDA. I haven't read The Janus Conjunction, but it appears that the EDAs have been on a mission to present a worse and worse book every month since The Scarlet Empress. Despite the obvious difficulties this presents.

Maybe it's me, but this book reads very much as though it's just going through the motions, with no real point. There's a house full of vaguely interesting characters, which later on gets placed under siege. There are a couple of villains, one of whom kills the other for no readily apparent reason. The Doctor spends most of the story investigating something seemingly unrelated which fortunately turns out to be immensely valuable, although only after most of the cast have died. Oh yes, and it's set in 1963. If it weren't for Fitz and some of the quality of the writing, I'd swear that this was churned out by a Whovian AI.

Fitz, at least, saves most of the scenes he's in. He's a great character, and seems so much more real than either the Doctor or Sam (both in the sense of being someone you'd actually want to spend time with and as a developed fictional character). All this, however, is nothing compared to the heinous crime committed at the beginning of the novel: we get no physical description of him!

I'm serious. Who in their right minds thought this would be a good idea? All we know from The Taint is that Fitz has dark, unkempt hair (which is naturally described by him pushing a hand through it) and a big nose. Throughout the whole book, I honestly thought this was some sort of joke and was waiting for the end where we'd get a description (presumably in the scene where he joins the Doctor and Sam, but we don't get that either). This might, almost, be forgivable, if it was simply that Collier wasn't into descriptions - except that we get a loving paragraph of description of the Doctor on page 9. C'mon people, priorities here!

Anyway, aside from that, Fitz works well enough, but he's the only redeeming feature. The Doctor does goofy stuff, Sam's highly irritating, even when she gets possessed, yadda yadda. I'm now of the firm belief that there's a very long form somewhere in the BBC offices that Steve Cole just hands out to authors: "The Doctor does _______ (insert silly and unbelievable thing here). Sam gets possessed, tortured, severely injured. The Doctor risks everyone else, inadvertently causing several innocent people to die, in order to save her. Some stuff happens (see 1976 Hinchcliffe era for inspiration). More people get possessed. The Doctor runs around pointlessly for most of the book, having no real idea what's going on, before miraculously coming up with a solution in the last chapter. Sam whines."

As to the supporting cast, only Roley and Maria worked for me. Roley's irritating, but he's supposed to be (and his "Crikey Moses" outbursts are as annoying as Cockaigne's "Oh poo!" exclamations were in Kursaal). Maria Bulwell is just plain unlikable, but again she's supposed to be. I'm not entirely sure what the point was for the only two developed characters in the supporting cast, but there you have it. At least Nurse Bulwell adds a bit of spark to the proceedings.

As for Roley's patients, they're all a pretty faceless bunch. Mrs Kreiner we only know from the name. Russell and Taylor are indistinguishable - okay, one's a teenage Antichrist and one's a disturbed lunatic, but after a while you can't remember which was supposed to be which and the text really doesn't seem to help you along. Not that it matters that much. Watson feels as though his character would be improved immensely were he to be played by Richard Briers, ala the Chief Caretaker.

That said, I did like the fact that Fitz's mother was related to the story and used as a hook to get him into the action. However, I liked it more because of the reactions we got from Fitz (especially his realisation at the end that it wasn't the Doctor's fault).

In summary, The Taint is a depressing waste of an introductory story. Fitz provides the only bright spot, giving me some hope for future TARDIS crew interactions, but unfortunately the story that's told around his introduction is incredibly lacking in any interest whatsoever. If you thought Doctor Who was never right after season 5's base-under-siege theme, then this might be the book for you. Not for me, though.


A Review by Graeme Burk 7/9/99

The Taint -- Another great novel. Fitz is given the best introduction to a companion since Bernice. Rather like Bernice, we see Fitz beginning with his flaws and as we see him go beyond them we develop empathy with the character. (I fear though that he's turning out more like Sarah Jane in that his debut is going to eclipse his potential in the next dozen stories). While I was lukewarm about Longest Day (I certainly didn't hate it, unlike many), I liked Mike Collier's depiction of the Doctor and Sam in it, and he excels himself here. I think the 1963 setting also helped-- grounding it in a near-reality that curbed the excesses of the previous novel but at the same time enhanced the horror. It gets a bit lost at the 3/4 mark, but the powerful climax and epilogue more than make up for it. 9.5/10


"A New Body At Last. A New Body. At Last." by Jason A. Miller 16/9/99

After the second day, it rained. And it was morning, the third day, and I walked to work in the deluge and the rain contrived to flood my bag and waterlog Mike Collier's waterlogged second novel. As the book began to dry, the pages warped and the spine bulged fit to burst, stopping short of splitting like an extraneous character's head. After the first two days of reading, the physical act became a very difficult thing to do.

And that fate is a fitting metaphor for The Taint, really. Here's a book that starts off small, and sunny. We quickly meet our new companion, with the unfortunate name of Fitz Kreiner, and he's a good one. A real breath of fresh air, even if he does have halitosis. For Fitz is world-weary and cynical in a funny way, and he acts in an endearingly unpredictable fashion. He and Sam bounce off each other portentously in a successful early date sequence.

But then The Taint falls victim to its plot, which is, he mumbled, something about a robot sent to Earth to rid humankind of a plague of invisible, harmless aura-sucking beetles. Grossity ensues. Heads explode. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll hurl.

To be fair, Taint has some marvelous televisual images that far surpass the relentless gore and stupidity of Collier's debut Longest Day, the worst 8th Doctor story to date. There's a childlike psychotic vamp very reminiscent of "Buffy"'s Juliet Landau. Since this is a "siege" book with a small cast, you already know everyone's doomed, so the payoff is all in the elaborate stalking and death sequences (one of which takes nearly 60 pages to resolve!). And like most post-Platt 1990's Who, it all takes place in a Weird House, when it's not taking place in a Papier Mache Underground Cave.

Like Longest Day, Taint is never a fun or rewarding read, except where the regulars are involved. Where the first book succeeded only in the limited interactions of the Doctor and Sam, this sophomore outing succeeds in how newbie Fitz interacts not only with Sam and the Doctor, but, remarkably, by himself. While any Sam Jones monologue in the line reads like a third-rate Usenet rant in a off-topic political thread, Fitz's thoughts are rambling, lascivious, doleful, and funny. I'd like to see where this character can go -- and unlike another strong starter, Chris Cwej, I'd like to see where this character can go, unburdened by token angst and doom.


A Review by Michael Arndell 27/11/99

I loved Longest Day, so I was looking forward to this book. The Doctor and Sam aren't written as well this time around, but Collier really excells with his characterisation of Fitz. Fitz is fantastic, getting me excited about the BBC adventures in the same way that Bernice did for the New Adventures. There are some very funny sequences in this book involving his womanising and drunkeness, especially in contrast with Sam.

But this book is chiefly a horror novel, and horror is a particular love of mine. There is a vague feeling of dread that slowly builds up throughout the novel, horror deriving more from the dysfunction of the patients and their interactions. It also has some lovely imagery - a repeated theme is looking out through frames or windows at a barely glimpsed other world of possibilities. The alien plot is a little convoluted, but this doesn't matter when the tone of the overall story is so evocative.


A Review by Dominick Cericola 22/4/00

When I first heard that Michael Collier (known for the lackluster, bland even, first book of the Missing Sam arc, Longest Day) was handling the introductary novel for new companion, Fitz Kreiner, I was hesitant to pick it up. Still, despite any misgivings I may have had, I was willing to give him a second chance. Besides, no matter how bad it was, it was still the new Companion's introductory novel -- the same reason I kept The Eight Doctors.

All feelings of doubt and disappointment were dispelled withing the first two chapters. Everyone was in character, even if Sam came off as a bit edgy at points.

Of particular note was The Doctor's depiction. Here, we have a Doctor who, while infallible, still has certain instances happen around him, completely out of his hands -- for me, this worked, made him seen less like a Superman-type of character, more like a Doc Savage-type. This is a Doctor who has 900 plus years of memories, some good, some bad, all adding up to make him who he is. He has begun to mull over the actions of his seventh Incarnation, yet in no way does he doubt himself -- realizing that it is Experience, nonetheless.

Like it or not, Sam Jones, you've got a new face aboard the TARDIS -- and he isn't above admitting he fancies you! Yes, Fitz Kreiner likes Sam -- as much as any other young lady. In other words, he has an eye for the feminine form! But, his character doesn't stop just there. He's very human -- he smokes, enjoys a drink now and then, makes it a point to have as much fun as he can wherever he goes. And, despite what she says, it's apparant that deep down, Sam likes him -- 'tho not in the sense that he wishes..!

And, what of the Story? Easily summed up, let me just "WOW!" Collier turns in a lengthy novel, that by made me yawn not once. Edgy, tense, even scary at points -- all of those descriptions are accurate, but not limited to just those. There is a lot going on, from the principle characters, all the way down to the supporting cast. Collier does not use throwaway characters -- a trait I have to give him a very recommendable mark for!

So, should you pick this one up, what with all the lackluster opinions of the prior 8th Doctor adventures? Yes, by all means, do so -- they're getting better, an established Continuity is begin to form, and this novel plays off of it well. This is a great introductory Companion novel, as well as being a perfect place to give the EDAs a second chance. So, go already, pick it up..!


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 1/8/01

The pacing in The Taint is so much more even than in The Longest Day that it is difficult to believe that they were written by the same author. Where Michael Collier's debut novel had plodding sequences that stretched on and on into nothingness, his follow-up consists of many short and snappy scenes, each giving way to the next before they outstay their welcomeness. Unfortunately, while the story may flow better, we find that the plot contained within isn't all that much more interesting.

It should be no surprise to anyone that this story introduces a new companion to the Doctor's traveling crew. Throughout the entire book Fitz Kreiner is a breath of fresh air, not only for a relatively lackluster story, but also for a book series that was in danger of stalling on account of its two fairly unappealing central characters. He seems real and human in a way that the alien Doctor can't be and the no-dimensional Sam isn't.

The storyline is not terribly complicated. There's a spooky, old house inhabited by several mental patients who all believe that they are being possessed by the devil. There's a meddling psychiatrist who wishes to discover the common characteristic that binds them all together. Into this mix lands the Doctor who, of course, manages to get himself entangled in the situation almost immediately and discovers that the patients aren't actually being controlled by Satan (though we never really expected that they would be), but are in fact an off-shoot of an alien engaged in a war against a long-forgotten enemy. The story isn't terribly bad, nor is it overly engaging. In a similarity to Alien Bodies, each of the patients have part of their past story told in their own separate flashback chapter. These sections are by far the most interesting portions of the story. We are shown how their disability has affected them throughout their existence. It's very appealing writing and it's miles better than rest of the stuff in between. Unfortunately, very little of this wonderful character development makes its way back from the flashbacks into the main portion of the story. The individuals of the flashbacks are people with fears, insecurities, pains and stories. The patients of the main story are bland, faceless and easy for the reader to confuse.

Although I've spent most of the space here complaining about the books faults, I will be looking forward to Collier's next book. There aren't any major flaws present and it is a definite improvement over his previous work. If his next offering is as improved, then it should certainly be worth reading.


Non-horror! by Joe Ford 20/8/05

The evolution of horror books in Doctor Who is quite fascinating and it helps to put The Taint in context when you have a good look at the horror books that preceded this and the ones which follow it too. There aren't many Doctor Who books which rival the sheer awfulness of those early Virgin horror novels, Strange England, Falls the Shadow, Timewyrm: Revelation... books that seemed to revel in nastiness for its own sake. There was a terrifying sense that freed from the limits of the television censors the books could take the show to graphic extremes. With no restraint, these books read like teenage nightmares, bad things happening because they can. Clearly there was still a lot to be learnt about how horror worked in the Doctor Who format (although I have to admit Mark Gatiss had a pretty damn good attempt in Nightshade, a genuinely creepy tale of the past coming back to kill you...) and they still hadn't quite got it right come the early BBC books. But you can see a slow progression of quality... Deep Blue is like a NA throwback, nice prose but little that actually scares but then Tomb of Valdemar came along with its impressive foreboding atmosphere and grotesque characters. The Banquo Legacy followed and genuinely convinces you of a zombie roaming the English countryside and then The Burning takes us back to the classic Doctor Who scenario of the sleepy village beset by supernatural terror. Things were clearly on the up. Come the latter EDAs we are reading horror novels that would stand proud next to the latest Stephen King (pah!) and James Herbert. You've got body horror (Eater of Wasps), psychological horror (City of the Dead), bestial horror (Adventuress of Henrietta Street), temporal horror (Anachrophobia) and supernatural horror (The Deadstone Memorial) and believe me they all work a treat. The horror was integrated into the books for a reason, be it to explore the characters (particularly the Doctor and his forgotten memories), to warn against the dangers of unlicensed time travel or to appeal to our sympathies as nice characters (such as Rigby and Cal) are put through hell.

The Taint is a much lesser book than any of those five, written in the troubled early days of the EDAs. It commits the cardinal sin of a horror book, one which even those horrid NAs even managed to avoid, it is simply not scary. And it is not through want of trying, Michael Collier is clearly sweating blood to get you in a cold sweat, filling his book with freaky scenes of demonic psychos threatening, hurting and terrifying the residents of Roley's manor house. Collier forgets the most important rule of horror, the expression of the unknown. The latest War of the Worlds remake might lack a satisfying ending but the unknown motives for the invaders' devastating destruction on the planet certainly left me shaking in my seat. Rather than exploit the potential horror of possession, Collier includes long, laborious, technobabble explanations for every horrific moment and it guts the tension in every scene. What's even worse is that half the time I couldn't even work out what the Doctor and Roley were talking about; such was the level of technobabble they spouted. The troubling thing is I can see how this sort of book could work, with a little editorial tweaking, some heavier characterisation and less technical nonsense you could produce a truly haunting novel set in a mental asylum and call it, oh I don't know... The Sleep of Reason.

It's a shame that the tone of the novel is so wrong because there are a number of elements that work quite well. Certainly some of the characterisation is good, especially the unusual relationship between Nurse Bulwell and Dr Roley which is damn uncomfortable to read about in some passages. They read like a pair of kids half the time, one desperately in love, the other using that affection to get his own way and the patients they are caring for seem something of an afterthought. Bulwell is a real nasty piece of work and she seemed to enjoy her work torturing the patients a little too much.

Collier conjours up the sixties rather well too, and does well to point out how long it has been since the Doctor and Sam have been on Earth. Considering how Earth-based the later EDAs would become it is quite a shock to think how rare this sort of book was in the early days. And when the book escapes from the confines of Roley's stately home it really comes alive, Collier using Sam well to explore just how different the sixties is to the faster, colourful, materialistic nineties. Unfortunately these scenes are few and far between, the story far more interested in the fairly boring Azoth plot.

Fitz is, of course, Collier's ace card and the real reason to read this book. It's just a shame that he should be introduced in such a lousy story but alternatively it is easy to see why he was such a hit, especially compared to the Doctor and Sam who are at their most generic throughout. The thing I love most about Fitz is that he is such a loser, we know it and he knows it and yet he still tries it on with any bit of skirt that crosses his path and pretends he has secrets despite the fact he is as transparent as glass. You can't help but feel for the guy, especially when Sam keeps putting him down and criticizing his lifestyle (which admittedly isn't that hot) and his simple down-to-earth attitude makes him so much more real than either of the other two regulars. This scruffy, wimpy nobody would go on to become one of the greatest companions in Doctor Who's history, he would appear in some of the best Doctor Who novels ever published and remain loyal to the Doctor until his very last appearance. And it all starts here...

I didn't find myself getting very close to any of the patients gathered at Roley's estate. The reason The Sleep of Reason worked so well was because Martin Day bothered to make his characters seem very real, with very normal, very natural problems (cheating husbands, suicidal teens). It wasn't hard to feel for them because they were just like us but the loonies gathered here are so abnormal they might as well be a bunch of aliens. Lucy acts like she is on drugs all the time and the Captain walks around in something of a dreamy daze, even Fitz's poor old mother acts less like a doddery old pensioner and more like a nutball. There are a number of Alien Bodies-style flashbacks into their pasts, showing us the point in which they succumbed to the alien menace that haunts them but these sections are written in such a laboured, prosaic manner it was hard to understand what the hell was going on. Was Lucy a whore? I thought that was what was being implied but it is never made very clear.

Another worrying aspect of the novel that seems to be skipped over far too lightly is that the Doctor commits murder five times over at the end of this book and nobody in audience seemed to care very much at the time. However, a few books later when he pulls out a gun a shoots somebody it was as though he had committed a sin akin to murdering the Pope. I can hear the excuses coming already, that the five victims were beyond saving, that they would have committed more devastation had he let them survive... but that doesn't alter the point that the Doctor knowingly murders them. And as Fitz quite rightly points out, how does he know they aren't themselves anymore? It seems bizarre that Fitz should become so close to the man who killed his poor old mum.

All told this was not a pleasurable experience. It is a book that wants you to understand what is going on far more than it wants to frighten you and it features some very sloppy writing and editing. There are a few shining moments where it threatens to break out into greatness (such as Sam witnessing the beast wrecking havoc on the outside world) but it gets too bogged down in its explanations.

Whatever happened to good old scary Doctor Who? They used to make it look so easy on the telly.


A Review by Brian May 25/12/06

That was pretty bad. Woeful, in fact! It's a pity because I was one of the few who liked Michael Collier's first effort, Longest Day. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it showed an author with promise; however The Taint is a major comedown.

With its settings, events and themes, especially the overload of religious and sacrilegious imagery, it's an obvious attempt to be a horror tale in the vein of Lovecraft, The Omen, The Exorcist and the like. From a Who perspective, it's a poor fusion of The War Machines, Falls the Shadow and Option Lock. You can tell how much Collier wants us to be spooked, disturbed and disgusted, but he fails: even the attempted piece de resistance of grossness, the leeches, aren't that repulsive. The story is as boring as hell; bringing in the sci-fi mix later only makes it worse. It's no different to other Doctor Who horror stories, being resolved in science fiction terms - and more often than not these adventures have a less engaging climax. I could string off many "it's an alien race after all" examples, but because The Taint is so underwhelming to begin with - and given this particular alien race is so dull - the entire book is, well... tainted.

Characterisations are pretty much atrocious. Among the patients there's the exception of Watson and Lucy; these two have some personality and credible motivation, but they're still cut-price, bargain-basement, cheap copies of Gabriel and Tanith. But it's difficult to care about anyone else - and that goes for the Doctor and Sam, too. The former is blandly generic, which I suppose is better than being totally dull (you can tell I'm trying to give the author every possible break here!). And as for Sam... it's such a pity, given how magnificently Collier wrote her in Longest Day. She starts off well: I liked the idea of seeing her out on the town in Swinging Sixties London; her self-righteous, over-earnest streak is relaxed ("What the hell - it was a night off as well as a night out" - p.48), but, this aside, not much else is done with her. She soon resorts to generic, "author can't be bothered" Sam and then becomes possessed/infected/destabilised (INSERT/DELETE WHERE APPROPRIATE) Sam. This is the fourth novel in a row this has happened, and Collier's linking them all together (p.248) just seems to be an excuse. Or, seeing as he penned the first book of the Sam is Missing story arc, perhaps he thought he was writing the final instalment in the "Sam isn't Feeling Very Well" arc?

And then we come to Fitz Kreiner. Oh dear, what an unfortunate debut for a new companion! It's almost, but not quite, as bad a start that poor Sam had in The Eight Doctors. Thankfully Fitz is a much better character, Sam's equal and opposite: a lazy, under-achieving, self-centred, smoking, boozing, all-round loser - in short, terrific! But here he's portrayed extremely badly, and the vast potential inherent in the character is untapped. It's difficult to feel enthused about him, let alone anticipate him as a future member of the TARDIS crew (and perhaps his addition shouldn't have been announced on the back cover). It would be up to Justin Richards to flesh him out properly in Demontage, where thankfully he's done the proper justice.

I'm assuming The Taint was commissioned before the Big Finish series, or else it was never considered as part of the line. The whole story doesn't stand up to being a novel; I'm not saying it would have been any better as an audio play, but it could have been a fairly standard and average one; better that than a bad, boring and utterly forgettable book.

And what's all this "Doctor Who and" nonsense? That just makes it pretentious, as well as awful! 1/10