Ten Little Aliens
|ISBN#||0 563 538?? ?|
|Featuring||The First Doctor, Ben and Polly|
|Synopsis: Deep in the heart of a hollowed-out planetoid ten alien corpses are discovered, frozen in time at the moment of violent, bloody death. The bodies are those of the empire's most wanted terrorists, and their discovery could end a war of attrition devastating the galaxy. When the Doctor arrives on the planetoid with Ben and Polly, he soon scents a net tightening about them. And as soldiers begin to disappear one by one, paranoia spreads; is the real enemy out there in the darkness, or somewhere among them?|
A Review by Finn Clark 4/7/02
Perhaps the most impressive of the many impressive things about this book is how it transcends some well-worn story elements that could easily have dragged it into the suck swamp. Ten Little Aliens is another gritty, macho Doctor Who story about soldiers. Gee, we've never seen that before... except that in this case we really haven't. Only good writing saves this, pure and simple. And believe me, it had to be good - not just workmanlike or okay.
These soldiers are elite marines, largely humourless and not without grudge-bearing chip-on-shoulder dysfunctional behaviour. The warning bells in my head were practically deafening. However the narrative never loses confidence in its ability to keep you interested in these people and pretty soon they become gripping. It helps that they're extremely good at what they do. Nothing's more off-putting in a fictional character than incompetence and uselessness, but these marines never succumb to idiot plotting or convenient brainlessness. That helps a lot.
They're kinda reminiscent of the marines in James Cameron's Aliens, in fact - right down to that movie's headcams, which are recreated here in a Find Your Own Fate fantasy gamebook section that comes out of nowhere about 200 pages in. To my surprise, this worked well too. In me it induced a slightly breathless sense of jumping from viewpoint to viewpoint while never getting a complete look at what was going on and possibly missing important information. (I'm thinking of the bit from Cameron's film where the Aliens tear into the marines while Ripley and Gorman are stuck back in the APC watching fragmented camera shots.) I won't say that ordinary prose couldn't recreate that feeling in a reader, but 'twould have to work damn hard to do so.
As an aside, previous Doctor Who stories have imitated Aliens - particularly Dragonfire and a couple of particularly dire McCoy comic strips by Dan Abnett. However those flea-ridden pooches tried to copy the tension of the Aliens' assault, whereas here (though it's probably unintentional) we have a spot-on recreation of a completely different aspect o' that excellent film.
The Find Your Fate section isn't quite what you might expect, though. Adventure gamebooks were told in the second person and let you direct the action, whereas this is first person plural with multiple viewpoints. For once the point of the exercise is characterisation, with the reader merely an observer (though obviously an interactive one).
That's not the only unconventional trick in this book, though. I also liked the E-RAG training team summary near the beginning - yeah, it's blatant info-dumping, but it works. It's even considerately grey-boxed to make it easy to find if flipping back later for reference. That was useful.
Every Steve Cole book has been better than its predecessor, though admittedly for a while that wasn't saying much. By now he's raised his game almost as much as Simon Messingham. Ten Little Aliens shares with the rest of his output an apparent belief that Doctor Who began and ended with Caves of Androzani and Eric Saward, but the writing's so good that it overcomes this and becomes compelling. The plot's also a stonker, eliminating those "running around, getting captured and escaping" formula elements that dogged his work even as late as Vanishing Point. There's clever stuff here, presenting a mystery and keeping you guessing even about what kind of mystery it'll turn out to be.
The regulars are fine and Hartnell is even specifically a last-gasp version of himself, just about ready for regeneration. Virgin didn't think there was a gap for First Doctor adventures with Ben and Polly, but this is shoehorned in before The Tenth Planet and works perfectly well there. Mind you, I can't imagine old Billy managing to cough up that chunk o' technobabble on page 192.
Damn it, the nearest I can come to a niggle is to point out that you don't itch an itch, but scratch it. (Even then, I guess it's just two characters happening to get their grammar wrong in exactly the same way. And the first time it happened, I thought it was kinda neat.) This a good book which I'd definitely recommend. It's got a clever plot, effective puzzles and some good tension. Even the deaths don't feel like plot convenience, as they can so easily in stories like this.
I liked the cats versus dogs thing, too.
Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 2/12/02
June's a great month: we have a book from the author of Space Age, the book that completely failed to live up in any way to its wonderful blurb, and now we move onto the author of Vanishing Point, winner of the crappiest book this reviewer has read before he encountered Byzantium! award. With these thoughts, we now turn to Ten Little Aliens.
In this latest novelisation of a Space: Above and Beyond episode, we find Shane and the Wild Cards are going on a training mission on an asteroid where they find the Chigs have laid a trap for them... okay, so this isn't Space: Above and Beyond, and there are only so many ways you can do the future military training mission gone wrong scenario, but the analogy had to be made.
Despite the somewhat unimaginative plot concept, the overall quality of the writing is very good and there are some different narrative techniques here. First, we get an info-dump that gives us the basics of each character in a way that doesn't try to present itself as anything other than an info-dump. Although I have no idea why the character details are sometimes in one column and sometimes in two column formats.
The other interesting format challenge is that Stephen Cole suddenly gives us a Twist-A-Plot adventure in the middle of the book. I have to award points for creativity here, but trying to read it fully was irritating, and I had to keep track of what I read so I could be sure everything was covered.
Character-wise, we get the typical assortment of tough military types with random character flaw that makes them human. As ever when presented with a large ensemble cast, some characters are going to be developed more than others. The problem here is, like the plot, we'd been there, done that. The General has a dark secret, so what? Person from Earth is trying to break from his supposedly-superior roots, yawn. Tough macho man cracks under pressure, what else is new? The only really interesting character, for me, was Frog, and that was largely because she lost her flaws!
Pitted up against this, we have the first Doctor, Ben and Polly. Stephen Cole does the first Doctor brilliantly, complete with lapel tapping, trying to deal with his own increasing frailty and the bursts of energy and intelligence that mark him as the Doctor. As for Ben and Polly, I always imagined them as older than they are written here. They are captured well, but it seemed like Stephen Cole was trying to intimate something by constantly referring to their ages that never quite came across.
Then there are the Chigs. I mean, the Schirr. Their menace is constantly emphasised throughout the book, and yet when they appeared (properly) they came across as rather ineffectual and easy to overthrow. It's just as well they don't turn up before they do. On the other hand, if they have the capability to do the sort of stasis fields they create, they should have won far sooner.
The main points this book has going for it are some intriguing storytelling methods, but other than that a lot of it is same-old, same-old. Still a decent read (especially compared with Vanishing Point), and worth a look for the TARDIS crew, so Ten Little Aliens fares better than many other reads.
Hercule Hartnell! by Joe Ford 1/9/03
A smashing little tale this with a good dose of genuine suspense and a good clear narrative. But before I start to talk about this particular story I have to clear something up that has been bothering me for some time. Steve Cole is an extremely underated writer, there I've said it stop reading this now if you choose! I'm not saying his books are perfect, Parallel 59 dragged in its middle sections, The Ancestor Cell was jumbled and Vanishing Point played to Doctor Who's traditions a little too much for my liking. All I want to say is that when I read one of his books I get the impression a lot of hard work has gone into it. His prose and characterisation are quite splendid and I think people forget just how hard it must have been to be the editor of the books (I mean you just cannot please EVERYONE, can you?). Plus both his scripts for the Benny plays were terrific. So there. Thumbs up to a mis-represented writer.
Anyway onto Ten Little Aliens, a book that opens in the unusual fashion of placing a hell of a lot of page space on initially unlikable non regulars. I often enjoy the more cynical characters and this book has a handful of rude, arrogant, self obsessed and butch wankers for me to loathe. Fortunately Steve Cole has conceived these characters very well and gradually strips away their false exteriors throughout the book and we get to know most of them quite intimately and in the blink of an eye those same characters you have been wishing would meet a nasty end you're suddenly routing for them to the last page!
Haunt, Frog, Shade and Roba come across best I feel, the first three particularly have a lot of secrets that reveal much about their characters. Haunt is totally convincing as a military leader, her 'demonstration' of the suit combat is chilling and her determination to keep as many people alive is palpable. Shade works as a sympathetic character especially since he is not squeaky clean himself. His story of how he recieved his scars on his face is very good character building stuff. And Frog with her croaky voice and bulging eyes... she shines in a novel that refuses to make her a victim.
So we have a decent cast of characters... what of the story? To be fair with its Aliens and Agatha Christie rip offs it is understandable that the story oozes tension. Cole makes sure the asteriod is as cramped and uncomfortable as possible and that enough terrors are lurking about to terrify even the most hardened of military stereotypes. His actions scenes have quite a punch especially as he has enough characters to break off into groups and have lots of seperate horrifying scrapes happening at once. I love the chapters as he lurches from one death defying fight to another, breathless action seen from lots of fascinating viewpoints.
To be fair this isn't a patch on Ten Little Indians but then that's one of Agatha Chisties masterpieces... this has far too many nods towards her styles (and that of James Cameron) to be truly original. However what he manages to do very successfully is build an unfolding plot around a sheltered location with lots of good twists and turns without it ever seeming repetitive or dull. I spotted quite a few hints and clues jotted about, some things were mentioned a little too much to be simply filler but on the whole he managed to surprise me quite a few times. The "is there a traitor in our midst" revelation is very effective.
And just who would you force into this group of sweaty, viscous group of troopers? Why William Hartnell of course! It's a stroke of genuis actually as you can really hear the great man saying some of this dialogue. I love how Cole makes him determined and intelligent and never forgets he is near the end of his life. I love how he stands firm even when people are shoving him about and questioning his integrity. I love how he remains insufferably polite despite all the tension. It's one of the better attempts at capturing Hartnell's strengths without having him fluff lines and go "hmm" all the time. Anyway the first Doctor makes such a wonderful Christie-type hero, spotting the clues and pieceing them together.
Ben and Polly are such an engaging team it is surprising they are not used more. Their obvious attraction for each other is always exploited well in their novels and it adds another layer to their already interesting characters. Steve Cole bothers to add some history to them, Polly onced worked in a second hand shop, stories of Ben on his ship waiting to find a desert island to swim to... it's all good stuff and highly reccomended to other authors venturing into PDA's, a little companion tweaking is always welcome.
The last few chapters are wonderful, a real feeling of desperation pervades the climax. I love it when the resolution is left to the last few pages, at this point all the remaining characters have been tortured in so many disturbing ways you are willing there to be a happy ending.
To sum this book up in word word I'd say professional. To sum it up in a sentence I'd say a tense, action packed read with lots of clever SF twists and complex characterisations. It comes highly reccomended to anyone who has lost all faith in the PDA's.
Plus I even enjoyed the choose your own adventure story, as Finn Clark mentions, a dizzying mixture of perceptions. The action comes thick and fast and the book had become page turning stuff because I was flicking back and forth like a good 'un!
One Little Potboiler by Robert Smith? 5/10/03
This has a lot of ingredients that should make this book fail: a macho cast who refer to each other almost exclusively by last name, an extended opening featuring said cast who don't endear themselves to the reader at all and Steve Cole's name on the cover.
But everybody's favourite whipping boy is slowly evolving into a pretty decent novelist, because this is actually a pretty good book. Maybe it's the fact that first Doctor PDAs can do no wrong (even Byzantium! isn't horrible), maybe it's the funky formatting tricks, or maybe it's the attempt to be something bigger than it is, but it works.
The guest cast actually improve greatly, which is a pretty nifty feat. The early characterisation is horrible, but it does its job so that by the end we almost care about some of them. That's not an insult, BTW. We're not supposed to like this bunch, but we are supposed to get to know them and this we really do.
Limiting the numbers helps enormously, especially as more and more of them get killed off. There are a few things that don't sit right, though. Denni gets far too much screentime for her to be killed off so early, so it's not nearly the surprise it should be that she turns up later on. Creben goes on about his big secret for a while, which clearly paints him as the red herring. Unfortunately, this big secret is simply forgotten about by the end, leaving a very loose plot thread. The fact that the Kill Droids are given such a big setup and then turn out to be harmless all along is also a bit of a cheat.
The first scene in the TARDIS with the Doctor, Ben and Polly is horrible. Not just a bit slow or repetitive, but utterly godawful. And worse, there's absolutely no point to it. The book could -- indeed should -- have had their next scene as its first TARDIS scene and it would have lost nothing. Steve Cole's always had trouble getting his books started (witness the embarrassingly awkward opening to Gods of the Underworld; on second thoughts, don't) so some ruthless editing is called for, I think. Oh, and since when is the TARDIS console five-sided, as page 21 states? It's "hexagonal", not "pentagonal", guys. Who proof-reads these things?
However, once the TARDIS arrives on the asteroid, things really pick up. Having Ben and Polly with the first Doctor works an absolute treat. I'm also impressed at how much work wasn't done to try and shoehorn this into a suitable gap. There's enough of a handwave if you need it and otherwise the book just gets on with the story. I like that. There are too many Past Doctor Adventures now for it to be that believable, so I really like the way the BBC books have embraced the idea that the story is more important than the setting.
Polly's daffodil yellow spacesuit is hilarious. It's such a striking visual image and one that feels so perfect that it's quite odd to try and slot into the Black and White Hartnell era. The two pseudo-romances for the companions feel a bit PDA-generic, although I did like that Ben was really attracted to Frog.
The Agatha Christie motif tries hard, but in the end its major contribution is the chapter titles and not much more. Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of the plotting, but Hercule Poirot it ain't. I think this book is clear proof that if you want to write a book in the style of Agatha Christie, the secret is not to be Steve Cole. I'd much rather see him emulate someone closer to his own style and give us an Eric Saward homage set slap bang in season 22. Seriously. However, it does give the book a sense that it's trying to rise above its own material and that helps, even as it fails.
The bits of funky formatting are also cool. There should be a lot more of this in the BBC Books. Back in Virgin's day we had internal illustrations, all manner of different fonts and so on. The BBC Books have come some way since Revolution Man, but not nearly far enough. I really like the E-Zine. It's a bit corny, but it works and it gives us an easy visual place to go back to sort out who's who. Then there are the little numbered sections within each chapter. I'm not quite sure what they're there for, but they break things up nicely. Although on page 39, section X is missing, which is unfortunate.
My favourite part of the novel is the choose your own adventure chapter. It's utterly, utterly fabulous. I love the fact that it doesn't feel contrived at all (which I would have thought was near impossible), with a very good plot reason for it. And by this point, it really aids the characterisation to see inside the heads of all the main cast.
Oh, and I absolutely adore the scene where the Doctor stops Polly peeking into his mind, although it would have been even better if it had just been the Doctor chuckling, without explicitly pointing out what he was doing. The fact that we then proceed to flip around inside everyone's mind except for the Doctor's -- without the book explicitly drawing attention to this -- works very nicely.
Unfortunately, the book paints itself into a corner from which it simply cannot escape. The Agatha Christie style means the book needs a surprise twist, yet all the work done on characterisation means that Haunt is completely unbelievable as the villain. The book struggles and struggles to convince you that she's turned traitor, but it simply can't. It's not believable for a second and worse, it really damages the book. It's such a core problem that the book crumbles around it as the reader's disbelief plummets back to earth. We really needed Denni to be the sole villain and Haunt to die a heroic death or something. Shoehorning her into second-villain status sacrifices believability for exciting plot-twist and that's a sacrifice that should never be made.
Speaking of Haunt, does it strike anyone else as odd that she's only 39? The book keeps making the point that she's this grizzled old veteran, but 39 seems far too young. I'm not sure if that was done to make some point about war ageing you quicker than normal or something, but if that were the case then why are the rest of the still-being-trained-at-the-beginning-cast around 30, instead of 20? It almost feels like a typo, that she should be 49 or so.
Ten Little Aliens has a few shaky bits, but once it gets into gear it really starts moving. Most of the bad stuff is early on, although the revelation at the end is sheer nonsense which turns an excellent book into merely a good one. That said, there's a great deal here to enjoy, especially the choose your own adventure chapter. The Hartnell PDAs notch up another winner.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 17/12/03
I was drawn to this book because of the Agatha Christie connection. And Then There Was One remains the only novel I have read in one go. I picked it up, and read it, putting it down only when it was finished. I'm a pretty slow reader, and for this to happen, we're are talking about a pretty outstanding book. It remains one of my favourite books I have ever read.
So hopefully this was to be the DW take on that stunning book. Stephen Cole however takes inspiration from the title, and the fact there are 10 of each race - and that's about it really. Gone is the closed confined space of a island retreat. Here we are on an asteroid. Thus we get lots and lots and lots of tunnels. DW is no stranger to such places, but it got tiresome pretty quickly.
The author gives us a brief character profile of each of the 10 soldiers. This was constantly being referred to by me throughout the book, and I began to match personalities with potential actors/actresses on the big screen. I never do this, but the way the book was presented seemed to promote it. It turned out to be highly enjoyable
Here's the cast I assemble:-
Mimi Rogers in the role of Haunt.
Yee Jee Tso became Shel.
Helena Bonham Carter = Frog
Halle Berry was Denni
Ewan McGregor was Shade
Owen Wilson was Joiks
Alexander Siddig was Tovel
Nicole de Boer was Lindey
Michael Clarke Duncan was Roba
Alan Cumming was Creben
The alien race - the 10 of the title - kept disappearing. There were 10, then 9 ---- inevitably there has to be none. Christie's influence for sure - but not the same intensity and eagerness to turn the page, again and again and again. It's maybe a little unfair to compare Stephen Cole to Agatha Christie - I expect only Who book fans have heard of Mr Cole after all. But the book is sold on the basis of the Christie similarity - so I'll stick with my disappointments.
The story moves along from rocky corridor to rocky corridor. There's no change of scenery. An effort is made to liven things up with a Choose Your Own Adventure set up around page 200. It doesn't work - but I never really did like these kinds of books anyway.
With such a vast array of characters, the emphasis is on character building. Most of the 10 soldiers come alive, thanks to some very good writing. Trouble is they are all soldiers, and the personality traits associated with this profession are not top of my list of interesting ones.
The first Doctor is represented well. Ben and Polly have plenty to do, even if Polly's dipsiness is over-emphasized at times, and Ben kind of merges in with the other military types. But the 3 don't get lost amongst the rest - and that is definitely a plus point.
The book was fun for the game of putting actors to characters - I might try that one again. But that's about all I can take from my experience of reading Ten Little Aliens. I didn't enjoy as much as I wanted, and I was glad to move on to my next PDA. 6/10
Dark Progeny by Jason A. Miller 22/12/03
All right, book, I don't like you, and you don't like me, but ...
This is just another outer-space action runaround. It features a bunch of starship troopers from Earth colonies (inaptly named "Toronto" and "New Jersey") in the unspecified future. There's a very brief continuity link to The Caves of Androzani, just so we have a TV story cleary set in the same Nth Century as Ten Little Aliens. Basically, a bunch of instantly forgettable Space Marines (nine humans and a stealth android a la "Alien" and "Aliens") traipse around an asteroid. Many of them die, but until we find out who the killer is, the dead just don't stay dead.
There's a market for this kind of book, clearly. It's slow and dreary and it's impossible for any of character to generate emotional traction with the audience. In books past, Steve Cole adopted the baffling policy of naming his characters after nouns. In Vanishing Point his main character was a detective named Dark; in Parallel 59, there was a guy named Dam, who burst. Here, we have not just Shade, but Haunt as well. The guy named Roba is clearly named after the two annoying aliens from The Dominators (Rago and Toba). There is at least the neat visual trick of introducing all the characters in a chapter with a grey background and numerous fonts, which of course makes it easier to remember who's who. The guy named Creben is the most interesting character in the intro, as he's clearly more enlightened regarding the alien menace than his shipmates. That's why it's a major surprise that he's not the first character killed! Unfortunately, he's never interesting again, and that's indicative of the overall malaise surrounding the secondary cast.
However, just because the book is dull doesn't mean it lacks merit. It gives us a Doctor/companion pairing never before seen in the books: the First Doctor, Ben and Polly. The Doctor, as in The Man in the Velvet Mask, is dying of old age, and that's the character trait Cole runs with. There are a couple of startling bursts of insight, most notably when Polly peers into the Doctor's mind (with a bit of Nth-century technology) and finds a marvelous bit of prose. Though the Doctor's body is aging graphically, his mind remains useful.
The only time Cole gets the Doctor wrong is the climax. In his final speech, Hartnell lectures one of the surviving Earth marines who hasn't learned that diplomacy, not scorched-earth retaliation, is a better solution to war. This, four pages after Hartnell orders the vicious death of one of the terrorists. Cole's message is timely; his delivery, however, is throw-the-book-across-the-room dreadful.
What's done with Ben and Polly is interesting. Those companions were fresh, not only because were they played by two very appealing young actors, but because they were so very 1966 -- going to nightclubs, speaking in the vernacular of the era. It's still fun to watch Ben and Polly work their way through their debut story, The War Machines. Here, Ben is clearly a part of what we now believe 1966 was like (the author was born at least four years later). Ben is casually racist towards the one crewmember of Chinese descent; however, Polly calls him on it, and Ben backs down, a little. But Polly also runs around in a day-glo yellow spacesuit, and Ben, out of his depth with the taller, stronger soldiers of the Nth Century, gets to survive intact and prove his worth a few times over. This is not the definitive Ben/Polly book (I don't think there can ever be one, since there's so little background to work with) but it's not a bad way to lead you back to their TV episodes.
There are good passages in Ten Little Aliens, if you read your way through the whole thing. The graphic body horror actually puts it in the tradition of The Tenth Planet and The Faceless Ones, although obviously the gore is ramped up 10,000 times, to match the books' baseline splatter content. However, it's mostly without charm and, apart from new looks at the TV regulars, doesn't have a whole lot else to distinguish it from other Doctor Who books.
A Review by Dave Roy 3/8/04
Stephen Cole thanks Agatha Christie's daughter in the acknowledgements of the book, and well he should. While I have not read Ten Little Indians (or, as it's known now, And Then There Were None), I know enough about it to recognize a pastiche when I see one. The question is, is it a good one? While there is an entire 46 page experimental section that makes the reader work a bit too hard, it is overall an exciting and suspenseful mystery in space and well worth a read.
Ten Little Aliens is a classic "we're all trapped and people are starting to die!" suspense romp, and at times it shows too many of the cliches. Each character is given a potential reason for being the traitor and clues point first to one then another of the soldiers. It also has some Doctor Who cliches, as the Doctor and companions are first suspected to be the bad guys, but circumstances (and the Doctor's vastly superior mind getting ahead of everybody else) force them to enlist the Doctor's help in figuring out what is going on. The soldiers start out as stereotypical grunts (though elite ones) and don't usually move much beyond that point with a couple of exceptions.
The book works so well, though, that I didn't mind the cliches. The book started with the soldiers, and I had trouble getting into it, but when they reached the planetoid and things started happening, I forgave Cole a bit. He takes these cliches and turns them into something quite suspenseful and interesting. He gives the soldiers just enough character to make us feel a little bit when one of them dies. Of course, he has to do that or else the traitor part of the plot wouldn't work, as we wouldn't care who it was (or, alternately, we'd pick out the traitor because he/she is the only one with a personality). Cole really pours on the atmosphere, so much that you almost feel like you're in a cave, feeling the oppressive waves washing over you. It's almost enough to make you feel uncomfortable.
Cole manages to get the main characters dead-on, with only a quibble or two. The first quibble is that the Doctor doesn't really appear to be that close to his regeneration (this book takes place very close to the time where he regenerates into the Second Doctor, and he has previously shown the signs of this body's age). He certainly acts like an old man, not being able to do a lot physically and getting out of breath, but we don't really see the impending regeneration coming. Previous books set in this time period have hinted at this, which makes this book stand out. It's not a problem with the book itself, however, just a problem with where it is in the series. I loved Polly's canary yellow space suit, though it's convenient that the Doctor would have one that just fits her personality.
There is one aspect of the book that really brings it to a screeching halt, however interesting the concept is. At one point, all of the characters put on visors that hook them into the neural network, so they can keep in contact. The entire chapter becomes similar to a "choose your own adventure," except that it's a "choose whose viewpoint you want to follow." You end up reading all of the sections anyway (which is extremely clever on Cole's part, making sure it all ties together), but you're hopping from page to page, and I'm not sure I did get them all. This goes on for 46 pages, where each short section ends with something like "if you wish to see this from the Doctor's viewpoint, go to page 200." It makes the reader really work, and I found it really dragged the pace of the novel down. It's interesting because they can all get some sense of each other's thoughts, but ultimately I think it detracts from the book.
Other than that, though, Ten Little Aliens is a taut thriller with an exciting climax. The characters grow beyond their cliches to be interesting, and the plot will keep you going until the end. I guess the reason why cliches exist is because they started out really good, and can be good again when done right. Stephen Cole has done it, though he teeters on the edge a little bit. Check it out. Meanwhile, I'm late for my berth on the Orient Express.