THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Virgin Books
Toy Soldiers

Author Paul Leonard Cover taken from the excellent Broadsword home page
ISBN# 0 426 20452 2
Published 1995
Cover Peter Elson

Synopsis: As Europe recovers from the ravages of the First World War, the Doctor discovers a fourteen hundred year old war with horrifying consequences. The teddy bears have come for our children.


Reviews

A Review by Brenda Sulley 15/8/99

Being, er, with child gives me a lot of time to catch up on my reading, and one of the first books I picked up recently was the Doctor Who New Adventure Toy Soldiers. It had a catchy theme -- following World War I, in the remains of Europe, kids are being captured to serve as soldiers on a distant planet. Unfortunately, reading this one was like fighting in World War I. I kept waiting for the end of the story to happen.

I don't like novels where the Doctor is a bit player. These are Doctor Who books, and plain and simple, I want to see him and his companions. Since Roslyn and Chris Cwej are so new, they suffer the same fate Benny did back when she joined... her first jam-packed book followed by three or four novels with nothing to do. Roz and Chris are sent around to find out bits of information that it takes them far too long to put together. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Benny are separated, and Benny is brainwashed by the aliens (known as the Q'ell) into a fighting lieutenant where the memories of her earlier travels keep failing her. There is no real major plot device that allows her to get her memory back, though... it's just another coincidence, really.

We spend an awful lot of time with some European families and their situations, when all we really need is a couple of paragraphs to show how upset they are. The Doctor and Benny's appearance is told from the perspective of the humans; another failure. If this were a televised adventure, we wouldn't have seen hide nor hair of the Doctor until at least the last few minutes of the first episode. Not at all like the series was.

What's more, a neat plot device about teddy bears being manufactured for all the kidnapped children (locators for extraplanetary transmat beams) turns into a wasted one. There's very little follow-up on this topic.

I was really looking forward to this concept, and I think that with a lot more awareness it could have been turned into a Doctor Who novel. What we got was a science fiction story (and not a very good one, at that!) that somehow involved a few characters we know. It's happening more and more in the New Adventures, with less and less of the character we know and love (and the reason we started watching the show in the first place!) and it's about time that changed.


A Review by Sean Gaffney 19/8/99

You know, it's now been three books in a row that I've been disappointed in. ME! The happy guy, who gave Sanctuary through Sky Pirates! 9s or 10s. But, well, Toy Soldiers...I had a few problems. Let me elaborate:

First, the good stuff.

This book reads fast. At 244 pages, it's short, but I still read it in 3 days, which is quick considering I try to have a life, too. (No shouting from the peanut gallery.) It starts up and just doesn't stop.

The overall style is Leonardy, with good prose and stuff.

Um.

It's not a bad book, it's just.

Look. Number One. The Doctor. Now, I've seen him on the sidelines in a lot of NAs, but this is ridiculous. The amount of time the Doctor spends in this book makes Warlock look like The Five Doctors. I know we're going with dark and mysterious, and I like this characterization of the doctor. But this doesn't mean that you write him out. At the climax, I felt that I was watching the Doctor through a fish-eye lens. Not good.

Number Two. The characterization of the children. Well, I started out with sympathy for Josef, but that's about it. Gabrielle was sulking and Manda was just obnoxious. Thus, when they become sympathetic later, I found it hard to get worked up. Gabrielle's death was very poorly handled for a major character!

Number Three. This book reminded me of criticism I encountered when defending Time of Your Life, the 6th Doctor MA. Same sort of feel to the book, of soulless characters going through the motions. But Time of Your Life gave you the time to care, and when Angela died, you did care. When Gabrielle died, I went, "Oh." The Sixth Doctor in Time of Your Life is trying to find himself, and the book is a metaphor for the Doctor's life till then.

Toy Soldiers, on the other hand, is a metaphor for war. War is bad. Cool. I agree. But...

Look, I'm having trouble with this. Toy Soldiers disappointed me, but I can't really find reasons. I've heard the term "soulless" used to discuss Warhead, Theatre of War, and especially Time of Your Life. I liked all three of these. But Toy Soldiers left me feeling empty. Its messages were clear as good old glass, and therefore it reminded me of propaganda.

Sigh. Still, it moved along, and the prose is good. I have trouble giving low ratings, so...

6/10. Should have been more, especially after the brilliant Dancing the Code.


A Review by Dominick Cericola 19/3/00

As I've said in my reviews of Leonard's other Who novels, this man seems to subscribe to the "Jim Mortimore School of Mood". I've read a fair amount of the NAs (I am in process of re-reading them, as I have since acquired most of the initial run), yet no one ever points out his ability to make Doctor Who seem like an Emily Bronte-scripted fanfic! Mind you, this isn't entirely bad, as it is necessary to the story, but geez, lighten up already, huh? Let's all chip in and buy poor Mr. Leonard a case of jellybabies! *G*

Enough silliness, let's get on with the review itself...

I read Toy Soldiers, then read his EDA, Genocide, about five months later. Of the two, I liked Toy Soldiers better. And here's why:

First off, let's focus on The Doctor.. Granted, he is given the Andrew Cartmel-treatment, leaving his Companions to do the legwork, like pawns on a chessboard. Yet, when he is the spotlight, The Doctor shines, offering a sense of Hope, that there is the possibility of a Happy Ending, perhaps more than one... Yet, we also see a side of The Doctor that only a small percentage of the writers can pull off -- we are privy to his own inner "demons", the doubts that he harbors, as he tries to make the Universe a better place to exist in. I am unsure of Mr. Leonard's religious affiliation (or if he even has one), but I always seem to see The Doctor cast as an unintentional Saviour whenever he is writing for him. But, as I said, perhaps this is just me. I hope someday to get to meet Paul Leonard, so I can ask him this question.

Then, there are The Companions, the real stars of this drama... Let's start with Benny.. *WHEW!* Remember all that angst I spoke of earlier? Poor Benny is exposed to the majority of it, as she plunged into the answer to the mystery surrounding the missing children! Unfortunately for her, the answer involves her being thrust into a private War with both sides composed of brainwashed, kidnapped Earth children -- fighting a War in which they truly have no place in! This is brutal stuff, gang, and even with the conclusion, Benny (as well as The Doctor) will have many scars on her Psyche!

And, of course, Roz and Chris.. They go through a rough time as well, but it is more of a personal thing than a ton of carnage or angst.. The biggest obstacle they have to overcome is the views and beliefs of the time period they are in -- Europe, 1918. Roz has to deal with racial stereotypes as well as gender boundaries. She and her partner manage to overcome all of the cultural ignorance of the time, applying 30th Century Adjudicator techniques to help in their search for clues pertaining to the missing children.

In the end, we are given a cold, hard look at the price we pay for War. How it takes its toll on the Players and as well as those on the Sidelines. No one is immune to the horrors of War, yet sadly, no one ever remembers this until too late.. Despite it's oftimes preachy nature, Leonard succeeds in giving us a tale that besides entertaining, will encourage many to find other ways to deal with Issues around us. Cheers!


A Review by Graeme Burk 12/7/00

Well, thank goodness I stuck around with the NAs after reading the downright depressing Head Games. Toy Soldiers is a good solid adventure. It's a refreshing change to see an NA that's interested in just telling a good yarn, as opposed to dolloping tons of cosmic angst and overindulgent character analysis. And I do think that Toy Soldiers has a really lively and engaging story, with lots of interesting characters who you really care about. If I do have a complaint, it's that I think the themes within the story about war became kind of bland and unoriginal about 2/3 of the way in (as though Paul Leonard had to remind himself: "oh yeah, we're still talking about war, yeah right"). But the characters keep me from looking at that too often -- Josef and Ingrid in particular are superlative, and Gabrielle was well done too.

That one of these characters is superflously dispatched with is where the novel goes most wrong. We build up an empathy with this character for the entire book and it's cruel to the reader, who has built up an interest in seeing the growth that character has gone through through, to just kill them spuriously. Yes, war is hell, but even so, you don't throw away your supporting character with 50 pages to go without a decent farewell. Since Leonard actually ends up using another character at the end of the story to express the same things, it seems Leonard himself understands this, which makes it all the more confusing.

Toy Soldiers also has less of the Doctor in its pages than any NA this side of Cartmel and David Banks, but this doesn't really bother me as much as with others. I do think the Doctor could have been a bit more involved (it's not like Iceberg, which is really designed to be a story told from the point of view from a non-regular character who eventually encounters the Doctor). But, all the same, the companions carry the book quite nicely. After a rough start, I'm starting to really like Roz and Chris.

This does bring to mind a salient point. Some have noted their disappointment that less was done with the fact this is Roz and Chris' first trip to the earth's history and was unimpressed with the lack of wonderment. I think I know why this is the case. Paul Leonard almost exclusively focuses on telling the story from Roz's point of view. This is partially to build up the oh-so-obvious Roz's xenophobia vs. historical white racism theme of the story. But, the fact is, because it's told from Roz's point of view, she's very much the Accidental Tourist to history -- she doesn't give a damn about when she is, she's just pissed off it doesn't have the accoutrements and technology of home. There are lots of references to Chris' wonderment to being in history, but because it's told from Roz's POV, you don't get a sense of that excitement. This emphasises for me why I dislike multiple companion teams so much in the NAs. One character always gets dropped or diminished in their role -- in Toy Soldiers this is done with Chris, in Head Games it's Roz, in Original Sin it's Benny -- and I dislike this because I think it diffuses the narrative and characterization too much.

In spite of some large structural flaws, Toy Soldiers is a very entertaining NA. From the Barry Letts-esque opening (front line soldiers suddenly experiencing monsters that look all wrong) to the convincing alien landscape (one of the better ones done in the range) there's a lot to cheer in this book. It also has one of the NAs best covers, too. 8/10.


Forgotten despair by Tim Roll-Pickering 8/1/03

One of the most forgotten books of all, Toy Soldiers successfully manages to feature an allegorical setting whilst at the same time showing its very roots. Initially set in a Europe recovering from the First World War it tells the story of how children are being kidnapped and spirited away to fight in an eternal war. No mere rip-off of The War Games, this is a highly intelligent novel that examines its themes with real depth.

One of the strongest themes is the suspicion and hostility towards outsiders that recurs throughout, most obviously in the way in which Roz finds herself treated and only slowly realises that racism is commonplace. No attempt is made to romanticise the period and instead it is shown all too clearly as a civilisation coming to terms with its most devastating war yet. It is a world sorely needing hope and yet those in whom hope lies, the children, are being taken. Despair is a constant theme, with the ending of Chapter 6 being especially effective and it would have made a stunning cliffhanger on television. Throughout the course of the novel Leonard introduces us to a number of highly likeable and sympathetic characters many of whom don't make it to the final page.

The Q'ell are far less developed with the result that many of the scenes on the planet Q'ell comes across as weak and a lot betray their origins. Although Leonard tries to instil some interest in Benny's fight against her conditioning, it is all too clear that this is the weaker part of the novel and it is only the children who join up with the Doctor and Benny who generate much interest at all. By contrast the scenes set in France and Britain are infinitely more fascinating as Roz and Chris try to come to terms with Earth in the early twentieth century and realise that the transport and medical technologies they take for granted are a long time away. Wisely these scenes are written straight with no attempt at humour and the result just goes to show the despair of the two Adjudicators as they come to terms with the potential of being trapped.

Although Toy Soldiers is competently written and features a good structure and settings, it is not a novel that really stands out. All too often the despair is too prevalent with little sign of hope, even though the book itself is relatively short and highly readable. As a result it is easy to understand why this book has become so forgotten. 5/10


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 1/8/03

Toy Soldiers, to be brief, is a collection of some absolutely brilliant set pieces tied together in a plot that is merely adequate. Paul Leonard definitely knows how to write a good sentence. He has a great ability to construct an emotional and heart-tugging scene. He even creates some extremely worthy characters. But the talent to put all those excellent pieces together in a coherent story is something that has at times escaped him during the course of his writing career. Fortunately, in this instance, it isn't enough to derail the project. The finished product is a little bit less than the sum of its parts, but I'm not going to complain too much when the author uses such quality parts.

In post-WWI Europe, most of the young men are dead. But something is happening to those that are left; children are being kidnapped, and the only clue is that each child was given a teddy bear by a mysterious stranger shortly before vanishing. The Doctor, Benny, Chris and Roz are, of course, investigating the disappearances. Chris and Roz stay in Europe looking for the responsible parties. The Doctor and Benny soon find themselves trapped on a planet called Q'ell, where the children are being forced to fight and die alongside aliens in a war that seems to serve no purpose.

The regular characters are extremely well portrayed here. They all have their place and their function, but there is room enough for the characters to move around. Roz and Chris pair off each other entertainingly within the larger group, while the Seventh Doctor and Benny remain practically writer-proof. Leonard is the first author since Andy Lane in Original Sin to make effective use of the two Adjudicators, and it's great to see them back on form.

I particularly liked how, in the beginning, we see the TARDIS crew exclusively from the standpoint of the secondary characters that they encounter. We are allowed to view them as strange, different people who radiate an aura of power. This is the sort of thing that Andrew Cartmel liked to do in his novels, but he usually made the Doctor seem like a force of nature, something to be in awe of. Here, there is a sense of that, but they feel more like guardian angels, albeit ones dressed in unfamiliar clothes and speaking of strange anachronistic things.

The discussions on war, killing, death and hate are, for the most part, quite interesting. Unfortunately, there are one or two places where Leonard crosses the line between subtle hinting, and sledgehammer moralizing. I really appreciated the sequence where Roz unknowingly mimicked a 20th century xenophobic woman. I didn't like it so much when the author pointed out how clever the comparison was. Still, the understated portions outweigh the heavy-handedness, so the batting average on this count is fairly good even if there are a few obvious missteps.

During the beginning of this book, the imagery and situations that Leonard was throwing at me gave me goose bumps while reading. Towards the end, some of the luster had faded, and while the ending was weak comparatively, it still made for a satisfactory conclusion. Overall, the book does overcome its flaws, and I wish that I hadn't waited so long to read this one.

(I do not seem to have good luck with the physical copies of this book I have owned. When I first bought the book back in the mid-90s, it wasn't until I got home from the bookstore that I realized I had purchased a incorrectly bound copy; opening the front cover revealed not the publishing information or blank filler, but page number 201. Pages 201 through to the end replaced the first forty pages of the book, and those first forty pages were not to be found anywhere within the covers. I promptly made a mental note to take the novel back to the shop and obtain a free replacement. Flash-forward to the year 2002, and I discovered that I had never got around to doing that. I bought myself a copy on-line that fortunately had all the pages, but on this one the margins were messed up, sometimes being too close to the outside, and, worse, sometimes being too close to the center to read the text properly. Oh well, on some days you just can't win.)


A Review by Finn Clark 9/8/04

As in Venusian Lullaby, powerful writing rescues what could have been a very ordinary story. Toy Soldiers could easily have felt manipulative and cheap. Senseless war! Slaughtered children! I can't pretend that this book is fun, but the integrity of Paul Leonard's writing makes it a sometimes harrowing experience that's a cut above most other Who novels.

Jim Mortimore gets top billing in the author's acknowledgements, which almost says it all. Even Paul Leonard can't quite keep his Mortimore-ish death toll from occasionally feeling gratuitous. However most of the book is devoted not to random carnage on another planet, but to our real world and the families of the missing children. The historical period (1918) helps, giving a thematically relevant backdrop of the most pointlessly bloody war in history and also letting the book ground itself with period detail. It feels real. There's honesty in the portrayal of the people caught up in this horror.

At times it's shocking. The cannibalism is practically a running motif with Leonard and Mortimore. There's a stand against amnesia, with an epilogue on pp240-3 which puts the 8DAs to shame. But most obviously, this book kills lots of children. It's sometimes strong stuff.

The TARDIS crew are well done. The 7th Doctor and Benny are pretty much as you'd expect, but Roz and Chris intrigued me. They keep forgetting that 1918 doesn't have maglev trains, replacement organ banks, etc. but somehow it's not annoying. You or I wouldn't ask for the TV Guide in the Stone Age, but the difference is that Roz and Chris are Adjudicators. Somehow their historical mis-steps don't make them look stupid, but as trained professionals who've spent their entire working lives operating by efficient police procedures. Even in an alien environment like this, they feel like cops.

Oh, and I loved Roz's perspective on racism. The fact that she herself is an anti-alien bigot adds depth to the scenes where she genuinely doesn't realise that people are reacting to her skin colour.

My only nitpick concerns p185. You knock out an Ogron by hitting the top of its head, not the back of its neck.

This is a wise, sad, compassionate book that at times moved me. It's not exciting, but it's not trying to be. It's also one of very few Doctor Who novels that would fall flat on television... not for lack of budget or special effects, but because of those two deadly words: "child actors"! Venusian Lullaby will probably always be my favourite Paul Leonard novel and I also admire Genocide and The Turing Test, but this comes close to being my second-favourite of his books. Impressive. Leonard does it again.


Not his best work... by Joe Ford 5/10/04

I think I've come to these New Adventures far, far too late. This is a competent book, effortlessly readable but it is not a patch on Paul Leonard's work with the EDAs. I realise I am something of an EDA apologist these days but if you want a Paul Leonard book that deals with the heartache of war then go read his superlative The Turing Test and if you want a book that deals with nutcase SF ideas then dive into The Last Resort. Toy Soldiers reads like a target novel in comparison to these, skimpy prose, shallow characters and barely a plot to hold it together.

Which is a shame because there is some lovely imagery here; the thought of giant teddy bears kidnapping children is just the sort of whacko concept that the TV series thrived on. And the giant spider-like machines the children fight their war in are memorably depicted on the cover. If nothing else, the early Paul Leonard books know how to grab the audience with "cor wow!" ideas.

What is it with the New Adventures and their avoidance of the seventh Doctor? The last three I have read have hardly featured him at all (Birthright, Warlock and this) and yet still maintain he is the lead and have him turn up at the end and wave his magic wand and solve everything. I appreciate a little diversity in my books and I realise that it is refreshing to have a story told from the point of view of non-regulars (The Sleep of Reason works especially well in that regard) but it feels like the writers find it easier to write him out so they can stick to the New Adventures rule of not telling the story from his POV. If you glance over at the best of the New Adventures, The Also People, Blood Heat, Damaged Goods... the Doctor is an ever present and powerful force and he drives the books... he should - they're called Doctor Who books!

Needless to say the Doctor turns up for a quick scene with Benny early on and then buggers off until the climax. This wouldn't be so bad if he actually saved the day in a way that any of his fellow companions couldn't but he merely convinces the Recruiter that what he spends his life doing is a waste of time and he should turn his hand to something else! I don't know why he didn't just despatch one of his companions to have this chat with him and get on with something more interesting.

Also the mix of companions is a little off with Benny mind-wiped for most of the story and so lacking in her usual charm and style and Chris and Roz still frighteningly new at all this time travel lark. I am a huge fan of Roz and I appreciate the effort that has gone into her reactions to the racism of the time but aside from this culture clash there is little to distinguish her from Chris who is easily the most boring companion either book range ever created. His characterisation is all over the joint from one book to the next, confident and clever in one, naive and muscle brained in another... this is one of his average books, he is merely there doing a job with little personality or charisma shining through. Three companions is a struggle to write for but Leonard at least gives them all something to do, even if the book is split into two halves, the first dealing with Benny's adventures and the second with the other pair.

What I did find annoying was the lack of information concerning the war the children are being kidnapped for. After the initial set up of snatching the kiddies by using the teddies as a lure the book becomes utterly predictable with a load of war scenes from the POV of the kids but given no idea why they are fighting or who they are fighting or even where they are fighting! It's just one fight scene after another until the climax where the answers spill out. I don't like being kept in the dark for so long, especially when the answers aren't all that gripping anyway... and who says children are more creative than adults anyway? For the Recruiter to create the ultimate weapon he should sample all sorts of human minds... his plan seems flawed and overcomplicated whatever way you look at it. And since we don't see any of this fight with the Ceraci anyhoo it all seems a bit of a pointless book. The book quickly abandons its child war theme at the climax so we can be treated to an obligatory Earth in danger sequence, which is soon sabotaged, by Chris and Roz. The plot doesn't seem especially well thought out and the book is a completely different monster at the end than it was at the beginning and unfortunately it is the beginning that impressed me the most...

...especially Leonard's expert ability to grasp emotions in his secondary characters. The book opens with a number of kidnaps across the Earth and then settles down to deal with the grieving parents of the children missing in action. These gentle scenes with the Doctor and his companions thoughtfully handling the parents whilst trying to investigate are excellent, particularly those dealing with Amalie who puts her faith in Chris and Roz over her friends and family. The idea of losing a child is heartbreaking and when the book concentrates on human drama it is riveting, it is only when all the SF cliches sink in that it loses its momentum.

Leonard sets up an intriguing cover story for Benny, a factory worker who passes notes to the pieman (the Doctor) but soon abandons as she is dragged into the war effort. A shame, he is far better at capturing these Earth scenes than the ones on Q'ell.

The prose is juicy enough to make you forget the implausibilities and plot difficulties because the whole thing moves so damn fast. You'll get through it in a few hours if you read quickly, a day or two if you don't. He briskly sets up scenes and wastes no time digging inside characters heads for pages on end and yet manages to convey their emotions powerfully. It is a style he has honed to near perfection in his later books.

You only have to take a look at where Toy Soldiers is placed in the New Adventures canon... look at the books surrounding it... Shakedown, SLEEPY, Head Games, Zamper, Sky Pirates!... a mix of barely readable and utterly average books. Whilst it is a snappy little book, it fits in with this bunch perfectly, just passing time until the good stuff comes along.