Tears of the Oracle
Virgin Books
Theatre of War

Author Justin Richards Cover taken from the excellent Broadsword home page
ISBN# 0 426 20414 X
Published 1994
Cover Jeff Cummins

Synopsis: The Doctor and Ace finds themselves on the dead planet, Menaxus, which is being excavated by an archeological team led by Lannic. Lannic hails from Heletia, a nearby warring planet obsessed with stage plays. They discover the Dream Machine, a holographic device which creates virtual plays. While Bernice investigates the disappearance of the Menaxan civilisation at the Braxiatel library, the Doctor and Ace use the Dream Machine to try and avert war. But is all really as it seems?


The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Plotting by Jason A. Miller 18/6/99

It's difficult to write a review five years after a book's release. If the book's Doctor hasn't appeared in a story in over two years, and a companion hasn't been a regular in over three, just how can one rate how well the author has captured them?

Fortunately, Theatre of War is a Doctor Who watershed, a glorious look back at the old days of Who -- by reading a book which is itself a look back at the old days of Who. Justin Richards, ever more a big wheel in the Doctor Who fiction universe, was here writing his first novel. The release marked both the third anniversary of the very first Virgin New Adventure, and one of the very last times that there was just one Doctor Who book per month -- the MAs debuted two month later, and all of a sudden, we're surrounded by EDAs and PDAs and NAs and duelling audio releases and a poorly-written non fiction book every month.

At 316 pages, Theatre is an indulgent first novel encompassing standard dogfight space opera, dramaturgy, lots of Shakesperean references, and Hammer movie archaelogy. Not much editing here -- two characters literally walk around an entire planet during one scene, and in another, the Doctor and Ace sit through another planet's whole diurnal cycle.

But it's good indulgence. Here's Benny before the wacky surrealism of later NAs. Here's a plot with both old-fashioned monsters and enough Bidmeadian twists and plot puzzles to bring cheers of "Yes!" to anyone who appreciates Doctor Who's rhythm. Of course, sometimes Richards strays too far. Two or three male characters exhibit gratuitous sexual aggressiveness inappropriate to the book (even if their deaths are meant to be socially relevant). There are plot holes and bald patches. and a key character's exit halfway through leaves a heavy furrow behind him).

But then, the numerous Shakespeare in-jokes display an ambition that most Doctor Who books frankly no longer possess. The "document" excerpts which introduce each chapter are brilliant pastiches, and the play within a play is fascinating in its own right. The notion of the "lost classics" not being as good as their reputation is dear to the heart of any Doctor Who fan who finally did see The Tenth Planet, and Richards shows a sympathy that lacks elsewhere in fandom. So the indulgence is all fun. Like Part Four of Castrovalva, Theatre of War's plot revels in its own Escherian twists -- ambition is always to be praised in Doctor Who. To reread Theatre of War is to celebrate what Doctor Who was like in 1974, and 1984, and 1994, and thanks to the success of books like this, what it will be in 2004.

A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 2/12/02

Theatre of War was a book that presented me with a dilemma. I wanted to read it slowly, to absorb all of the rich detail that Justin Richards provided me with. But I had a real hard time doing this, because I had an equal and opposite desire to race through the book quickly, so I could see exactly how the plot unfolded.

The outline for this story must have been very detailed indeed. The book is very much driven by its plot, and the twists and turns are all quite welcome. Some of the directions I anticipated, but many of them took me completely by surprise. I love plot twists that are surprising but logical, and Theatre of war definitely delivers those.

Not only is the plot exciting and captivating, but there are loads of small little things that combine to make this a special book. I loved all of the extracts from made-up references books. I adored the clever play within a play passages with their meta-textual jokes about various Doctor Who stories, existent and missing. And seeing Benny in archeology mode was fantastic and something that had been lacking in previous books. It seems strange to think that it took this long to get a book that made such perfect use of Benny's diary, her background in archeology and her past in general.

The story makes good use of its many characters and settings. The archeological dig was a great place for Benny to develop and yet again she has the ability to drive a story forward all by herself. The secondary characters aren't terribly deep, but they all have a quality of believability. It's only near the end that one or two of them turn stereotypical, and by that point it's a forgivable sin.

There was only one real problem that I had with the plot. While the majority of the hints to the central mystery are carefully hidden, there is a huge clue in the introduction that is so massive that it reveals the way the plot is going to unfold over the next two hundred pages. Now, to be fair to the book, given some of themes that had been running through the story, this was no doubt done on purpose with the hope that the reader wouldn't really pick up on the clue. And even with the mystery somewhat deflated, I was still enthralled watching Benny and the Doctor work their way to the "how" and "why", even if I had already figured out the "what".

Theatre of War introduces several things that would later play larger roles in the NA universe, Irving Braxiatel and his collection included. However, this also works as a carefully written and enjoyable standalone novel. Its action-adventure status is enhanced by both its close attention to detail and Justin Richards' ability to keep a book filled with surprises. If you want to know why the New Adventures were so popular and why they attracted such a loyal and devoted following, then you merely have to read this book to discover what thousands of other Doctor Who fans were enjoying every month.

(On the subject of the cover. If the Deceit cover featured giant rocks about to sneeze, then the Theatre of War cover shows what happens when giant rocks forget to pack their tissues. Eww.)

A Review by Terrence Keenan 14/3/03

It's Justin Richard's debut novel, if you didn't know. First thought; it doesn't read like a first novel. In fact there's a confidence to the writing that lets the reader know that the author knows what he's doing.

The story is riddled with ideas that would reappear in other JR novels of the future: Theatre, Shakespeare, politics, kick in the bum plot twists.

The novel is divided into the three act structure, with the first part taking place on Menaxus, the second being the escape to Heletia and the final act leading to the play, The Good Soldiers, which has been the MaGuffin of the story.

This novel also features a couple of debuts -- Down among the Dead Men, Bernice Summerfield's book; and Irving Braxiatel and the Braxiatel Collection, both having more of an impact in the Summerfield NAs. Irving's role is pretty much a cameo, but his presence is all over the story. Also, for the first time I could remember since Love and War, Bernice gets to be an archaeologist, instead of an alcoholic writer's crutch, and solves the big mystery of Menaxus and the dream machine.

JR -- Thank Goodness!!!!!!!! -- stays away from all the Time's Champion silliness and creates a likable 7th Doctor and even manages to make New Ace tolerable. The other characters are a bit lacking, but serve their purpose. The only other standout besides Braxiatel is Lannic, who leads the expedition to Menaxus and has an agenda of her own besides the theatre site.

I'm not going to reveal much of the plot. It's better going in as cold as possible. There are the usual JR plot twists, big and small, and lots of fun.

Theatre of War is a good, fun adventure and a solid debut novel. Although not as mind-blowing as The Left Handed Hummingbird, Theatre of War is a preview of the high consistency of Justin Richards's later novels.

A Review by Finn Clark 14/10/04

It's the first Big Finish Benny novel! All that background came from Theatre of War and I never knew! Wow, does this mean Irving Braxiatel lived on the KS-159 planetoid for fourteen centuries? (The Big Finish Benny era is circa 2600, while Theatre of War is 3985.) Everything from the Big Finish books is here... the Mansionhouse, the Avenue of Fountains, Brax's palatial study and the rest. Of course there's no Adrian Wall, Mister Crofton, Ms Jones, etc., but there are compensating features in the first meeting of Benny and Braxiatel.

(More precisely it's their first meeting from Benny's point of view, since Theatre of War comes long after the Benny books in Braxiatel's own timeline. Being aware of this, I was on the lookout for signs that Brax knew Benny already... but since he's such a buttoned-up chap, I went unrewarded. Not surprising, really. Those books hadn't been written yet.)

The book itself is a good'un. For a long time this was my favourite Justin Richards novel, partly for its characterisation. Justin has always been capable of intricate plotting, but Theatre of War also takes the time to create detailed worlds and interesting people. Some are likeable and others deliberately ain't. There's much to be said for Justin's next few Who books (System Shock, Sands of Time, Option Lock, Demontage, etc.), but I don't remember them for their characters. Here we get to read about folks like Klasvik (of the fatal academic pomposity) and the meekly honourable Gilmanuk. This is a solid team of characters, allowed plenty of build-up to get themselves established before the action. I liked that.

For a while it even feels like a Benny book, following up her holiday from the TARDIS in Legacy. (The Doctor and Ace first appear in a gratuitous "hey, we're still here!" cutaway on p50.) Benny visits Braxiatel and wangles herself a place on an expedition to Menaxus, where astonishingly everyone's favourite archeologist for once does some archeology! These early chapters are kinda like the build-up scenes in Aliens, except that academics rather than marines are preparing to board the lander and drop down to the Bad Planet. After that it becomes a ghost story, and then...

Okay, I won't spoil it.

I've praised the characters, so now I'll praise the story. It's a mystery tale that gives the game away on the first page, but that's hardly a fair criticism since it took me a second reading to notice. It's clever, ingenious and an impressively big story that sweeps through history and the fall of empires. The Heletian empire feels more heavyweight than we often get in Doctor Who, if only for the lengths certain parties will go to to topple it. The people at the top aren't the usual cardboard megalomaniacs, but serious bastards without a hint of self-mockery or authorial winking. The result is a story that believes in itself, if you know what I mean. When the bad guys fall, it's satisfying.

I misread p177 and so thought Ace was committing suicide when she fired a high-impact phason bolter, but that's my problem. More importantly, there's subtext to the notion of a lost play which everyone thinks is a masterpiece simply because it's lost. Within the narrative it's Osterling's The Good Soldiers, but this book was published in 1994 and so presumably written in 1993. Tomb of the Cybermen was returned to the BBC vaults from Hong Kong in 1992. That topical twist has lost its bite these days, but it's still interesting.

The regulars are good. At one point New Ace is a twat, getting into an unnecessary life-threatening situation simply because she doesn't trust the Doctor, but Benny carries the first eighty pages on her own. There's some interesting Earth history on p282, including another mention of the 22nd/23rd century Cyberwars which affect the dating of... hmmm, Tomb of the Cybermen. This is a good, solid book that satisfies in all departments and has been given added significance by Benny's post-Who adventures. Thoroughly enjoyable.

All The World's A Stage by Jacob Licklider 4/9/17

A theatre of war is the entire area affected by the fighting of the war and is the main pun in Justin Richards' debut Doctor Who novel. This time it is an actual theatre being the culmination of the war and the eventual ending of the war. Also, the novel is presented as a theatrical play with a three-act structure and portions of the novel being presented as script. Now, while that could be annoying for some, it wasn't used for the entire novel, which makes it seem that Richards isn't clever enough to present the story in that manner while keeping it interesting enough for the reader. It's a real shame, considering a lot of the ideas present in this novel are extremely interesting and a bit odd.

The plot involves the Doctor and Ace meeting up with an archeological dig on the planet Menaxus where they meet up with Benny and investigate the mysteries of the great theatre that remains in ruin after the civilization was destroyed overnight. There is also a machine that projects plays and the discovery of The Good Soldiers, which is a missing play whose discovery would be as if more missing episodes of Doctor Who were discovered, even with the reactions when the play is actually discovered. And then you get to the twist of the novel, which I'll get to in a bit, but first I think I should go over just how odd this story feels. Okay, so in Legacy Benny went off to Phaester Osiris on Mars with some Ice Warriors, apparently to return a few novels later, except she appears again. I feel like that is mainly Gary Russell's fault as, according to some information on the audio adaptation's extras, Virgin had always intended to keep Benny on without a leave of absence. This novel's plot is also close to a traditional six-part story of the classic series: the first two 'Acts' deal with the story on Menaxus and Benny at the Braxiatel Collection, where the final 'Act' involves confronting the Helatian empire and revealing Braxiatel's true plan along with the conclusion of the story. Yet the story feels very much like it wouldn't be done on TV, just because of how expansive Richards makes his set pieces. The theatre on Menaxus, even though in ruins, has the description of the largest ornate painting; the theatrical play's projected sets are vividly detailed about things; and there is the Braxiatel Collection, which is a replica at the palace of Versailles, except on a bigger scale. This allows the plot to seem almost bigger than it actually is.

Now let's go onto the characters, starting with the Doctor and Ace, who are almost sidelined for most of the novel as Benny works out the mystery. By the end, they get some great stuff, but the Doctor knows what's going on from the beginning and is manipulating the events, and Ace suffers from her more standoffish personality. Benny gets a lot more attention, as we get more of an exploration of her archeological side as she studies the ruins and researches information. We also see how she fits in with high society: not very well, as she is taken aback by the Braxiatel Collection and its manipulative head but doesn't really fit in with it. The story opens from her point of view, and whenever it cuts back to her, my interest in the novel suddenly rose. Richards really understands Benny's character as she has some great lines and actually figures out the oddities of the theatre. Now the villain of the piece is the Executive of the Helatian Empire, who is an extremely boring villain, as he is simply power mad with no real pizazz to the character. He is easily manipulated by the Doctor and Braxiatel into his own demise. Yes Braxiatel, Time Lord and owner of the Braxiatel Collection makes his first appearance in this novel and the big twist is that he is the one pulling all the strings and not the Doctor, who is trying to get everything to work out. Now this is an interesting dynamic, but it is barely explored; still, Braxiatel is an interesting character as he interacts with Benny throughout the novel. The supporting cast are all a bit one-note, but they have enough character to distinguish themselves from the others.

My biggest problems with the novel are its pacing and the ending. The pacing starts out strong, slows down a lot, but then speeds and slows at intervals as the plot progresses. The ending is also a problem, as Richards tries to put in a big twist which really doesn't amount to any change in the characters, but feels like a set up for other novels.

To summarize, Theatre of War has one of the most traditional but one of the most engaging plots going by a method that isn't broken so doesn't need to be fixed. It has some great characters, yet Ace and the Doctor are suffering from being in the background with an all right supporting cast save for Irving Braxiatel who seems like he may be a formidable opponent for the Doctor. Richards doesn't do as much as he could have to make the story stand out. I can definitely see why this story was picked to be adapted for an audio as it is interesting. 72/100