Keith Topping



Retrospective: Keith Topping by John Seavey 1/6/04

While reading the collected works of Keith Topping (The Devil Goblins From Neptune, The Hollow Men, The King of Terror, Byzantium!, Ghost Ship), I occasionally attempted to picture the target audience they were being written for. I took it as an article of faith that it wasn't me, since I found them somewhat difficult going, but over time, I think I built up an accurate picture of the ideal Keith Topping reader.

First and foremost, they must be interested in football (what we Americans call soccer.) This is, pretty much, the defining characteristic Topping brings to his books; when I think of Keith Topping in terms of Doctor Who, I immediately leap to football. It's really the thematic underpinning to everything he's written -- no book is complete without at least one football fan dropping some reference to one team or another. Even Ghost Ship, set on a steam liner and being told (ostensibly) entirely from the perspective of the Doctor, manages to sneak a quick look at the football scores for the period in which it's set.

Second, they must be somewhat working-class, and have a complex and somewhat misogynistic relationship with the opposite sex. I believe the British use the term "laddish" to describe the kind of characters that populate Topping's books, and they all share a few characteristics. They're fond of women, but not interested in them as people. They're all products of working-class society, and proud of it. They're all hard men, who talk in a sort of 'Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels' British tough guy dialect. They aren't always sympathetic, but that could be as much a product of this reader's dislike of them as it is the author's. And, of course, they love to talk about all of the above qualities in themselves, frequently for long periods of time.

Of course, that brings us to the third quality of the Topping reader; they mustn't be too concerned with staying true to the established characterization of a given character. Topping seems very insistent upon putting in working-class, laddish young men into his books, and when one isn't readily available for whatever reason (such as the book being set in ancient Byzantium), he falls back upon the ready trick of taking an existing character, such as Ian Chesterton or Mike Yates, and turning them into a Topping protagonist. So Mike Yates is suddenly a hard-drinking womanizer with a fanatical interest in pop music, and Ian suddenly develops a need to use Cockney rhyming slang and threaten people with "a ruddy good biff on the conk". (And the less said about the Doctor, the better.)

The pop music thing is also important, as well. Topping frequently drifts onto the topic of music, and his chapter titles are almost without exception named after the lyrics and titles of obscure songs. Which is interesting, I'll grant, but when it leaks out into the story, it's a little less so.

That "leakage" is another thing that our hypothetical Topping fan should be indulgent of; Topping is not an author whose books have ever been labeled with the phrase "tautly-plotted thriller." Instead, he has a conversational style, frequently digressing into whatever topics he currently finds interesting, be it fanwank (what's the real meaning of "constellation" to Gallifreyans?) or history (Byzantium! is as much a series of extended essays on early Christianity as it is a Doctor Who novel.) His plots tend to meander along, eventually drifting towards a conclusion through the sheer accretion of story elements as anything else.

And, of course, our Topping fan needs to be fairly well aware of Topping's own other works. It's important to know for The King of Terror, for example, that Topping also co-wrote The Devil Goblins From Neptune... as that is pretty much the only reason for the frequent mentions of the Waro, and without that knowledge you'd be very lost. Likewise, you should also know that Johnny Chess is the stage name of John Chesterton, son of Ian and Barbara, and that he married and divorced Tegan after she stopped traveling with the Doctor. I'm not sure where you're supposed to get that information from, but it'll certainly help you to know it. (Oh, and Control is supposed to be a Time Lord. Again, that's not in the books, but Topping's been fairly vocal about it.)

The above does seem to produce a somewhat narrow view of the sort of person capable of enjoying Keith Topping's books, and certainly I think very few people find them an unalloyed pleasure. However, it'd be a mistake to assume that just because you're not the perfect Keith Topping fan, you can't find anything worth reading in his books. He's got some excellent turns of phrase, and his conversational style does pull you along if you're in the mood for it. But I still think that he'd be better suited to writing a non-Doctor Who novel for his next outing. His world of working-class toughs, slinky women, and plenty of football always seems to sit ill at ease next to Doctor Who, like a vicar sharing a twelve-hour coach flight with a punk music band. It's always undoubtedly interesting, but it's equally undoubtedly awkward, uncomfortable, and it leaves you feeling bruised and bloody.