THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Invasion of Time
The Ribos Operation
The Scarlet Empress
BBC Books
Tomb of Valdemar

Author Simon Messingham Cover image
ISBN# 0 563 55591 2
Published 2000
Continuity Between The Ribos Operation and
The Pirate Planet

Synopsis: Millennia ago, the Old Ones defeated the great god Valdemar and entombed him beneath the acid skies of Ashkella. The Doctor and Romana become embroiled in an attempt to rediscover Valdemar - and his release may alter the entire fabric of the universe.


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 16/2/00

I'm going to begin with an old prediction. In September 1998, I wrote in my review of The Scarlet Empress:

"I believe that The Scarlet Empress will trigger a change in Doctor Who fiction. It will come slowly and the old school will not stop writing, but a new wave has been started. Perhaps only the odd book, here and there... but Doctor Who will be a lot richer for it. Stranger, too."

Until now, the only author to follow in the tradition of Paul Magrs was... well, Paul Magrs. However these things take time. The wheels of publishing grind exceedingly slow, so at last the post-Magrs age has brought forth Simon Messingham.

Surprised? You could have knocked me down with a feather. Simon's previous books are diverse almost to a fault, none bearing the slightest similarity to any of the others, but still nothing in his track record had prepared me for this. I approached it with no expectations, only pulling it off the shelf because, well, it was Doctor Who and I knew I'd have to read it eventually. Little did I know...

In my humble opinion, Tomb of Valdemar is not just the best PDA yet published, but probably the only one that manages to be significant. Good or bad, every PDA until now had been an easily forgotten ripple on the ocean of Who. They slot between televised adventures. We know how they'll turn out. It's the nature of the beast. Most authors accepted this and settled for writing enjoyable adventures; some were good and a few were superb, but in retrospect it's astonishing that Tomb of Valdemar is the line's first Proper Novel. (To be fair, Steve Lyons has come close.)

This is a PDA for people who only read the 8DAs. Bloody hell, it's actually about something! It's got a theme! Tomb of Valdemar takes the books' discussion on the nature of storytelling and takes it a great deal further than any of them. This is a tale within a tale, complete with a self-aware narrator that in the hands of a lesser writer would have had me clawing my eyes out. Here I loved it. And if you're a Magrs-hater, be reassured that Tomb of Valdemar isn't a stylish pile of plotless wank. This is a story told around the campfire, bristling with narrative energy, insane megalomaniacs and Unmentionable Evil From the Dawn of Time.

As a story it's great. Even a died-in-the-wool trad fan could hardly object to it. However it's also wonderfully stylish, every word dripping with magic and character. It's a book set firmly in the future, riddled with SF trappings, yet it also pulls off the Paul Magrs trick of sneakily writing a imagery-laden fairy tale at the same time. It's my personal conviction that churned-out hackwork is by its very nature unfaithful to the spirit of Doctor Who. On television, even the programme's mediocre episodes sparkled with wit and magic, finding unexpected delights in the tiniest details. Very few books have even tried to recreate that feeling in me, the reader, but Tomb of Valdemar does. In case I haven't made myself clear yet, I think it's glorious.

The Doctor is terrific. Tom Baker's performance is hellishly difficult to nail down on the page, but Messingham's rendition so far is probably second only to Gareth Roberts.

Romana's damn good too, though the plot puts her in situations that one probably wouldn't have seen on TV. But this matters little against one of the book's greatest virtues - Simon Messingham dresses Romana in an assortment of flimsy, skimpy or downright transparent outfits that certainly perked up this reader's interest. :-)

And what of the gap in which it's set? For this alone I was ready to hate it. When David McIntee set his Shadow of Weng-Chiang between Stones of Blood and Androids of Tara, it damn near wrecked the book for me. I wasn't interested in the goings-on therein. It wasn't the Doctor's business! He was meant to be getting on with finding the Key to Time! But here it works, actually adding to the story instead of detracting from it. I stand in awe.

It has Lovecraft references, which normally make me want to have the authors hunted down and killed. To my amazement, I loved them. Instead of just namechecking the monsters, Messingham actually plays with Lovecraft's ideas and concepts. How refreshing! I'd recommend this to HPL fans far more readily than the rather dubious graverobbing of White Darkness or All-Consuming Fire.

This isn't just a pretty good PDA. It's a hunk o' grooviness that kicks the arse of anything published under the Who imprint for well over a year, a piece of my favourite mythology that I could happily reread as a book in its own right. As Doctor Who it's magnificent, yet by the end it's managed to surprise you by breaking Doctor Who's narrative conventions. It's not playing by the usual PDA rules. Like I said, this is a novel.

Okay, I've calmed down now. You've got the message. Finn really likes Tomb of Valdemar. Disregard about 70% of what I've said as dribbling hyperbole, but even so I can't imagine anyone regarding Tomb of Valdemar as less than a fun and imaginative adventure with great characterisation of the regulars and a few neat surprises.


A Review by Sean Gaffney 5/4/00

Lately I've been more of an Eighth Doctor guy. Picked up a few Past Doc stories, but was never really able to finish the, either because they were too dull, too annoying, or I just wasn't in the mood. I hadn't planned to pick up Tomb of Valdemar either. But then Finn Clark's review proclaimed it the greatest thing since sliced Fitz, and so I decided to pick up a copy. What the hey, Romana I's one of my favorites. So, how did it measure up?

Well, it's not quite as good as Finn says, in my opinion. But it's still damn good. Head and shoulders above most previous Past Doc books, with a fascinating present-tense style that kept my brain spinning, and it even manages to get away with getting inside the Fourth Doctor's thoughts (the one fault of the other fabulous Past Doc book, Eye of Heaven).

PLOT: Well, the actual plot is a fairly standard Lovecraftian take the Cthulhu and run type thing, with plenty of running, getting captured, escaping, learning vital bits of plot, etc, all in the best Graham Williams tradition. The OTHER plot, though, the story being told and its wraparound effects, is very well handled, dropping little bits of mystery in and saving the big finish for the end.

THE DOCTOR: An excellent job by Simon of balancing Tom Baker's portrayal. In fact, I'd wager this is very much like what it would have looked like on TV - plenty of serious dialogue, and lots of shouting, but with the actor adding lots of one-liners when confronting the villain to reassure the youngsters. Fun.

ROMANA: Probably the best part of the book; this is a really good novel for her. Having just joined the Doctor, she's still not ready to trust him yet - and yet by the end of the novel, she's done just that innumerable times. Her reaction to Huvan is also very much in keeping with the Ice Queen's demeanor, and she even shows quite a bit of mettle in standing up to him. Lovely stuff.

K-9: N/A, as he spends the novel in the TARDIS. Prolly wouldn't have worked very well in this book anyway.

HUVAN: Boy, is he easily visualized. Adric at his most repulsive couldn't equal the incredibly vivid description of Huvan, a Doctor Who fan caricature waiting to happen. It doesn't happen, though, as instead he tries to find love in Romana. He doesn't, but learns to grow up instead, and by the end of the novel can manage to accomplish a bit of what he was unable to before.

VILLAINS: One of the two weaknesses of the book, these deliberately cardboard wackadoos are exactly that: too cardboard to really invest anything in. Neville makes Soldeed look like Sir Humphrey Appleby, and Hopkins is just a sadistic loser. Their fate was mildly amusing, but rather vague. Speaking of which...

STYLE: No, I'm not complaining about the present tense. That worked fine for me. And it wasn't the story withing story self-referential Magrs-ish stuff, either. Loved that. It was the book's diffuse and confusing ending. Yes, I know it made sense if you REALLY paid attention, but to those of us reading the books on the fly, one is left with a big sense of "Huh?".

OVERALL: A really gripping read, managing to make up for its few faults with a well-paced style and brilliantly played regulars. Very nice. 8/10... no, 8.5/10 for the sheer balls of making a Scooby-Doo reference that obvious in the text. :-D


A Review by Mike Morris 26/4/00

PDA's. Hmmm. I was very taken with them early on in the days of BBC Books - maybe because the EDA's weren't particularly arresting back then, and not wildly different in their style anyway. But, as the Eighth Doctor range has matured, the PDA's seem to have been left behind a bit. Where the EDA's are trying to be startling, and different, and do interesting things with the concept of Doctor Who, the PDA's were stuck in the same old era "tributes".

That's one reading of it. The other is that the EDA's are flashy, gimmicky, and very much a case of style over substance, and the PDA's are solid unpretentious fare. Your choice; but if you're in favour of the second argument, Tomb of Valdemar is a nice weapon to have in your arsenal.

It's a startling book. Startling because of its content, because of its ambition, because of the way it combines a back-to-basics attitude to Who with a new reading of familiar situations. And yes, it's also startlingly good (the last sentence I say with reservations - I'll get back to those later).

What I found best about Tomb of Valdemar is its attitude (or lack thereof) to that old bugbear, continuity. Continuity's a big thing these days. If the fans are the Time Lords, setting up a whole load of rules and preserving them as sacrosanct, and Gary Russell's a sort of Castellan Kellner (fetches and carries to make us happy), whereas Miles and Magrs are a kind of Faction Paradox, then Simon Messingham has become the Doctor. Continuity? He doesn't care, he just does his own thing. And how wonderful it is.

There isn't any. Really. And it's wonderful, just as the way the TV series piled contradiction upon contradiction and left the fans to sort out the gaps was wonderful, and stimulating, and challenging. Simon Messingham creates a whole new era of Earth history, adds a new insight into Romana's future, and creates an all-powerful race of beings. Why? For the good of the book. The result is that Tomb of Valdemar is a mature book, a proper book. It's a novel.

And, as a book, what we basically have is every SF cliche under the sun redeployed, redefined, and not resolved in the way we expect. There's the device of people getting picked off in underground caves, and getting transmogrified and whatnot, but there isn't a nasty alien baddy down there and they haven't become infected with a virus. We've also got the ultimate in technobabble... it's - wait for it - its the Higher Dimensions! I leaped for joy. Good old Higher Dimensions, that wonderful reason for weird stuff happening (translates as - "I'm not allowed to say it's magic"). And then the best just got better, because it turns out that the Higher Dimensions concept is cleverly used, explains key points in the plot, and Messingham actually seems to have a grasp of the basics of superstring theory. I'm speechless, amazed, stunned.

There's a lot of ideas here. I'd wager that not one of them is original. But that doesn't matter, because they're all blended so beautifully, and there's no attempt to hide their influences. The earth society is clearly based on the politic climate after the English Civil War. How do I know? Because it's called the New Protectorate, which gives the game away a bit. One of the bad guys is clearly based on Matthew Hopkins, the infamous witchfinder-general of the 17th century. The tip-offs are his name (Hopkins), his description (finder-general) and his job (he hunts witches). The result of this transparency is that spotting the precedents is almost as fun as reading the text, and the whole thing feels like a great piece of genre-culling, rather like The Matrix did in the cinema of late.

About the text. It's extremely good, although it's written in the present tense, which I'm not wildly fond of. Still, it does mean that the action sequences are good. The regulars are well-characterised - the Doctor is beautifully drawn (Gareth Roberts aside, the Fourth Doctor's proved rather more difficult to capture on the printed page than one might expect), and Romana's character is nicely fleshed out. That said, we spend a bit more time inside character's heads than I'd like; some points about their motivation are rather hammered home.

Also (and I feel horrible, spoiling the tone of my review like this) there's a cheap little trick used every now and then to describe the novel's themes and style. The story's narrator is occasionally questioned by her audience, and takes time to explain that yes, the oblique storytelling style is necessary, or that there's not much action because this is a character-driven book. I'm sorry, but this is a horrible blemish on an otherwise excellent bit of storytelling. I shouldn't need to be told that the book's character-driven, or that the characters involved are all archetypes - that should be evident from the text (and in this case it invariably is, anyway). Maybe the author thought this was clever/funny/post-modern. Its not. It's irritating and childish, and was a very, very bad idea.

But ultimately, Tomb of Valdemar is worthy of the highest praise. Because it aims high. Because it relies on content, rather than pushing fan's buttons. Because it's self-contained, and yet a continuing story. Because it's the kind of novel that a non-fan could read, and understand, and maybe even enjoy. And as such it's a mature read, and an excellent template for what a Doctor Who book should be.

Thumbs up. More like this, please.


Complex and challenging (and this is a good thing) by Robert Smith? 31/7/00

Simon Messingham has officially taken Steve Lyons' place as the least predictable author. Honestly, could anyone have predicted this, based on his previous output? What's more, the quality of his books just keeps improving. There's as much an improvement over [the quite good] Zeta Major here as there was between Strange England and Zeta Major (I leave The Face-Eater out of this rigorous analysis, since it was a last-minute commission). Yes, it's that good.

This is a rather dense novel, written in the present tense, containing stories within stories, self-referential metajokes, an ending so bizarre that I'm still not sure if I've figured it out and an appalling Scooby Doo joke, that looks suspiciously like the novel's raison d'etre.

The story, once you unravel the obfuscation, is quite good. Comparisons with The Scarlet Empress are unavoidable, I think, but Tomb succeeds in having a reasonably interesting story underpinning the telling. Miranda is a great choice to tell the story (we'll leave aside the true identity of the storyteller for the moment), as it allows the tale to be fanciful and elaborate for a reason. I like an attempt to tie in the bizarre stuff with the regular DW universe (succeeding once again over TSE, in my opinion). It's not quite as literary as TSE and you can tell which of the two authors teaches writing and has original fiction to his name and which one wrote Strange England, but it's a decent attempt. (And despite some of the comparisons, it's also nothing at all like TSE, so don't let that put you off if you hate Magrs' work.)

The Doctor is improved by being seen a step or so back, through Miranda's eyes. The fourth Doctor isn't the easiest Doctor to capture in novel format, but there's a valiant attempt here. He has a lot to do, for one thing, which is always pleasing. There are a few recycled lines, yes, but he also gets a few good jokes and some moments where you can almost hear Tom Baker reading the script (which I'm sure he would have adored). I really liked his re-reading of the scrolls being the clue to his working out part of the mystery. It's quite clear that there's no point in us seeing it, for the contents would be the High Literature equivalent of technobabble, so this is an effective solution.

Romana works quite well indeed. I really liked the references back to the Sontaran invasion, which is something I've always been surprised Romana never mentioned. She's just inexperienced enough to be believable. It would be a bit of a shame that she gets removed from part of the action towards the end, except that the meta-story more than makes up for this.

The story is also rather well linked to its season. The quest for the key is mentioned often enough to make it seem quite urgent, yet we understand perfectly the reasons for trying to stop Neville. It's an extremely rare thing for a PDA to actually fit thematically with its season (witness the bright and cheery Season 21 adventures, for example) and not doing so is usually forgivable... but season sixteen demands it and I think it's one place where the authors need to adapt to the existing structure. The secret to doing so is in the inventiveness; The Shadow of Weng Chiang tried the obvious route, but forgot all about the tone and urgency of the quest. Here, we get something that's a true PDA, yet also far more of a novel than yet another runaround/alien invasion of Earth/horror story/fan theory.

Neville and Hopkins are quite well done. Neville has just enough insecurities and paranoia to be a surprisingly effective villain. Hopkins shows up a bit late in the day, but he's been mentioned often enough and there are just enough hints to make his appearance shocking, yet clever. Having him set up in opposition to Neville leads us to expect that he'd be one of the good guys, so his true nature comes across as something of a surprise. Their final fate is a little contrived, but satisfying enough.

Messingham has taken the wonderfully repulsive characters from Zeta Major and inserted them here... but he's also given us some sympathetic ones as well, which improves the novel no end. Miranda is great and, despite her role in events, remains unscathed in our eyes. Part of that is almost certainly because of the way the story is told, but that only adds to the power of things, I think. Her early fears of the worst are a clever way of building to a surprising cliffhanger resolution, but that whole sequence works wonderfully. Her handwaving of the technicalities, on the basis that she's an author, is marvellous.

However, the standout character in the novel has to be Huvan. Messingham has excelled himself here, with every word Huvan utters being sublimely evocative of the most annoying of teenagers. It's hilarious and terrifying at the same time (and his poetry is incredible). He's an amazing character. The only slight fault I found was the mention of the dog with the name very similar to the one Huvan takes on later, which started connections running in my mind until I figured out who he probably was. Without that, I probably wouldn't have thought to start doing so... but maybe that was the point. You can never tell with these sneaky literature types.

The setting might be the best character of all. I always thought the setting of The Face-Eater was its highlight and the setting here is similarly well evoked. Messingham has sensibly taken all the best elements from his previous novels and discarded the things that weren't up to scratch (so that the ending actually works here, we sympathise with some of the characters, the regulars are mostly on form etc) and produced a well-rounded and enjoyable novel.

Of course, he also explicitly tells us that the setting is another character, as well as pointing out other things, like the roles each character is performing at the end (although I agree that the Doctor has some claim to being the fool, but I don't think he's quite so simple to slot into just one; it's close, but it's not quite right). Others have complained that this reduces the book somewhat, but as someone without an English degree who just wants to follow along, I have to say I appreciated them. I think the explanations help the story along (although they might have been patently obvious to some people, which I agree would be frustrating) and I get the sense that Messingham actually wants us to understand his tale. Another victory over the Magrs approach, then.

It's rare to see an author come this far with their own work. Some will iron out the kinks between first and second novels and then gradually improve, but Messingham is onto his fourth novel now and each has been significantly better than the last. Even the writing course that you can just tell he took before Zeta Major isn't showing any more.

The meta-story is quite good as well, with tricks a-plenty. Some things are meant to be guessed, as I mentioned above, others shocked the hell out of me. My favourite has to be what happens to the story-teller two thirds of the way through the novel. I have to say, I didn't see that one coming at all... The ending is fantastic, IMO. Confusing, yes, but I think there are enough clues there to help us figure at least part of it out. I'm a little surprised that the author missed some of the obvious commentary at the beginning about K9 not being in the story, but on second thoughts I think we've done the behind-the-scenes-production-in-jokes to death now.

Tomb of Valdemar is an excellent novel (where I use neither of those words lightly). There's a lot to take in and I'm not sure I have on one reading. It's a complex and challenging book, which is extremely refreshing. It's also very good indeed. The books were starting to feel a bit samey and predictable, as though they could mould Doctor Who into one particular type of story. Every so often, it's great to have something like this come along and show us that the series can be so much more than that. Highly recommended.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 7/10/00

Simon Messingham`s second PDA is markedly different from his previous offering and definitely superior. Why? Read on...

PLOT: Pretty much a standard runaround, with lots of captures and escapes. What stands out is the way in which the story is told, making for a refreshing change.

THE DOCTOR: Near perfect. His character reflects his television persona, being both serious and offbeat at the same time.

COMPANION: With the possible exception of Heart Of TARDIS, this book is Romana`s, being an ice queen when she needs to be, particularly when dealing with Huvan.

OTHERS: Well Huvan is the only other who really stands out, being too reminiscent of Whizzkid from The Greatest Show In The Galaxy combined with Adric at their worst. There is also of course Miranda whose primary role as storyteller serves her purpose well.

VILLAINS: Unfortunately a weakness in the book, largely because they are so forgettable.

OVERALL: For the challenging plot, the way it is told and the characters themselves, and for being considerably better than Zeta Major and Strange England 7/10.


Zit Remedy by Jason A. Miller 9/10/00

Over in the Eighth Doctor range, readers have been treated to a pair of decent, winning books to kick off the 2000 slate of releases. Parallel 59 and Shadows of Avalon both reward the fanbase with strong stories and decent portrayals of the regulars. If the Eighth Doctor line is where the "action" is, in terms of the ongoing story arc, and new companions who breathe life to the series, then things are pretty O.K. over there.

Not, however, in the Past Doctor range. Things are more than O.K. this year -- things are splendid! If Last of the Gadarene was a charmingly nostalgic Target novelization's eye view of the post-Roger Delgado Pertwee/UNIT era, then Tomb of Valdemar is a suitably grim and quirky emulation -- nay, heroic duplication -- of the post-Hinchcliffe, pre-Douglas Adams, attempts at gothic horror during the Tom Baker years.

The Fourth Doctor, like the Second, is a very visual character, and most books have failed to bring him to life. Some books (System Shock) bring Tom Baker to life by repeating old, favored, lines of dialogue. Others (Managra) go outside the lines and create an almost-new Doctor. Valdemar (and don't be put off the spate of similar-sounding titles that muddle the books this year, from Avalon Gadarene to Valdemar to Yquatine and then, presumably, all the way back to Mandragora and Androzani...) does something new -- it effortlessly revives all the real hallmarks of the T.Baker years that we'd forgotten existed. Such as Tom's penchant for shouting out villains' surnames. Or in the way he'd invariably regain consciousness by mumbling a line of dialogue from an earlier 1970s story. Or the way Tom would act around the script, rattling off jokes when inappropriate, and lapsing into a trance when the camera wasn't focussed on him.

But beyond mere pastiche or nostalgia-trip, Valdemar succeeds where Blue Angel didn't, by constructing a clear frame story to suport the Doctor plot, to spin a Year 2000 perspective on what we're seeing. The uberstory involving the old-woman narrator, and the scruffy little man named Ponch (to American readers, who make up more than half of the books audience, that's not the Erik Estrada character from "CHiPs", but rather something entirely else), offers both post-modern takes on the art of storytelling, and calls into question just how accurate the events on the planet Ashkellia are being recounted. Does the story really change depending on who the audience is?

This side of the book is, frankly not as enjoyable as the underlying story. After all, the BBC books do this sort of thing every other month. Honestly, the only approach to writing for the Beeb these days is to ignore the story, and instead ruminate about the nature of Who stories and Who novels and Who authors and Who fandom... Reading these books is like watching TV with my mom. Like Magrs and Messingham and 50 others I could name (if I happened to have the author's telephone directory about my person), she doesn't watch what's on the TV ... she watches me watching, and asks a thousand distracting questions about what's going on. At least Messingham writes in short, clear sentences. And one day, I promise, Mom, there will be a Doctor Who book without any subtext, without any postmodernism, without any in-jokes. That book will probably suck, but at least we'll have the moral victory.

Like Messingham's other Past Doctor book, Zeta Major, this is a grim Universe, with wicked societies divided along religious lines. Characters are brutal to each other and die in increasingly brutal ways. Valdemar himself, the mythical creature whose pursuit forms the bulk of the understory, is a mirror who reflects the characters' various aims (much like the Melkur), but where the truly vicious characters die in vicious ways (I would never want to be a fictional character meeting Messingham in a dark alley, that's for certain), two characters do find redemption here. And hey, that's two more than in Zeta Major!

The character of Huvan, the grown man forced to live as a teenager, is truly a repulsive thing. Bad skin, and driven to insanity by two decades of writing bad poetry. Messingham has little sympathy for the poor kid, and if one can make a case for "self-loathing" as a recurring theme through these "post-modern" Doctor Who novels, then Huvan clearly stands for J. Average Sad-Teen-Aged-Fanboy writing fanfic back in the day. This is where the understory, so true to 1977 TV conventions, falls off the pace a bit. The overt sexual overtones seem a little contrived (after all, this is a Romana 1 story, not a Peri Brown story). Could anyone imagine Mary Tamm acting her way through the final rejection sequence? Still, Huvan's complexion clears up in the end, so there's hope for the fanbase after all.

But enough of paragraph upon paragraph of objections. At heart, Valdemar's a great lost classic from Season 16. Tom Baker is brought to life as convincingly as he's ever been. The extrapolations from Romana 1's character bear thinking about. The story's a good one, and if you can handle a little bit of mean-spiritedness, the end of the book more than pays off for the rest of the bloodbath.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 7/12/01

How misled can one possibly be?! Previews had told us to expect a wonderful tale. The Tomb of Valdemar – what a great title. Nice cover too. Romana Number One was in it. The most popular Doctor too. Looking at the release schedule this was the one that leaped out – a must buy.

And then I started to read it. Written from the perspective of an old woman in a hunters tavern it begins with the old premise of “Gather round and listen to this magical tale of faraway lands, and magical goings-on”. I read the first 50 pages and scratched my head. It must get better surely. I read the next 50…..it didn’t get any better.

Rarely have I found a book so hard going. The narrative was haphazard, the structure distorted. The inhabitants of the TOMB clichéd and dull. The 4th Doctor and Romana were unrecognizable from the wonderful team of the Key to Time Season.

This was all wrong. My favourite Doctor in a book that was atrocious. Stupidly I carried on. After 170 pages of sheer disbelief in what I was reading I just had to stop. There are too many great books out there to spend time reading drivel like this. 3/10


A Review by Terrence Keenan 22/2/02

Where to begin this review?

Tomb of Valdemar is proof that you can tell a Doctor Who story through Thomas Pynchon-esque/magic realist/deconstructionist/Beat on drugs styles of storytelling while not having it come off as a smarmy, self-indulgent diabolical mess.

To be honest, there are a lot of tricks/techniques in Tomb that normally make me want to vomit green slime:
Ripoff of Ctulu mythos - check.
Self aware narrator - check.
Bad injoke - check.
Metatext shenanigans - check.

But, like Heart of TARDIS and unlike Verdigris, it works in Tomb of Valdemar. It works because Simon Messingham has done two things: wrap all his ideas around a solid, Who-esque story and allow the reader to have some empathy for the characters, or at least enough of them to keep the reader involved.

The only other Messingham book I¹ve ever read was The Face Eater, which was completely different, but a good solid read with lots of characterization and a very interesting setting, only let down by a mushy ending.

Tomb of Valdemar keeps all the strong points of Face, but manages to eliminate the promblems as well.

The Doctor and Romana are wonderful and spot on. The Doctor gets lots to do, and has that wonderful playful sarcasm in his lines that made Tom Baker such a joy to watch. Romana is still in Ice Queen mode, still inexperienced and wonderfully superior and haughty.

As for the other characters, I thought Neville and Hopkins were solid one-notes. Two bastards who deserved each other, and their fate? Sheer poetic justice straight from Dante Aligheri. Miranda Pelham fills the every-person role, as well as narrator, and does her job well. I really felt for her as the story progressed. Huvan, however, is the star of the show. A very different sort of DW character (although you can see nods of Adric and Whizz Kid -- noticed by other reviewers -- in him) he is equally repulsive and pitiful, king and pawn. Messingham does a wonderful balancing act with Huvan, and the payoff for him at the end is just about perfect.

The meta-story is excellent. Paul Magrs should take note of this. And all of the commentary on how and why the story is told in the way it is made me jump for joy. Why it works for me is that it doesn't really come off as Messingham jumping into his own tale to use a literary preemptive strike to deflect criticism of what he's doing -- one of my beefs with Magrs doing the same thing. There are some nice twists in the meta-story, especially at the very end. I won't reveal it, but it pays off perfectly. It was something that had me think "No, Messingham won't have the balls to do that." But he did it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I'll end this by saying that you should go out and find Tomb of Valdemar, read it. Give yourself a day to rest, then give it a second go. It's even better the second time around.

10 out of 10


The Medium and the Message by Andrew Wixon 19/11/02

I've been reading original Doctor Who novels since... ooh, well, if we're going to include The Earthlink Dilemma (and I see no reason not to) then it'd be 1986. Some have been good, others haven't, but on the whole I've always felt that even the best of them have lacked a certain something present in the TV series - a playfulness, a sly impudence, an invitation to the audience to join in the fun of a special, private joke. In contrast most of the novels have been terribly earnest or at least played things straight. What put this into focus for me was the Tomb of Valdemar, which takes a bold and rather brave approach to printed DW.

Simon Messingham's key trick is to frame the main story (a detour during the Key to Time quest) as a tale told by a mysterious woman to an audience in a bar. This gives him all sorts of freedoms to play with the conventions of the traditional DW novel. The most striking of these is that virtually the whole thing is written in the present tense (rather than 'The Doctor walked out of the TARDIS and smiled' it's 'The Doctor walks out of the TARDIS and smiles'). To be honest this isn't especially significant, but it's a constant reminder that we're not working to the usual rules here.

Much more interesting and entertaining are the ways the author uses this conceit - a lengthy slab of technobabble is avoided by having the main listener to the tale wander outside while it's being delivered. And on numerous occasions he wrily anticipates the reader's objections to the tale - someone listening complains about the odd tense, the rather incongruous appearance in the story of a genetically-augmented gunslinger is excused by the storyteller's fondness for him, and so on. The storyteller even ventures into the inner thoughts of the Doctor and Romana in a way the real-life DW author is generally discouraged from doing.

Tomb of Valdemar is really just an exercise in this sort of narrative experimentalism, as the actual story within the story isn't that special: a tale of misfits and terrible secrets and dark deeds at the dawn of time - an odd mixture of HP Lovecraft, Hieronymous Bosch and Gareth Roberts. Nothing especially new here, although to be fair the theme is obvious and clearly stated. All experience is subjective, shaped by our own beliefs, a concept which here is literalised in a very DW-ish way - and which also ties in well with the unreliability of the narrative, given its second-hand nature.

Tomb of Valdemar isn't a glowing success by any means: it falls down very badly near the end, both in the main plot and the framing story. The rather neat idea that neither Valdemar or his/her tomb are going to appear (or even exist) is abandoned in favour of an impenetrable climax. True to form Messingham tries to dodge this by agreeing that the end doesn't make sense - but that doesn't excuse it! The framing story too has many more questions than answers, though I suppose that could just be me being dim again.

I'm willing to forgive it a lot, though, for its originality and wit, if nothing else. Other novels have told better Doctor Who stories, but very few have done so in such a Doctor Who-ish way.


Gothic Baker and Tamm by Joe Ford 9/12/03

The opening chapter of Tomb of Valdemar is so rotten I prepared myself for a right stinker of a novel. Everything about those first eight pages disgusted me, the loose, tripping prose, the dull characterisation, the story within a story (an idea so old I was shocked to see it attempted here) and the groan-inducing final joke. If there was ever an opening that would put you off reading a book, Tomb of Valdemar would win hands down.

Which is why I was so shocked to discover upon turning the final page that this was one of the best PDA/missing adventures I have ever read, an extremely dark and compelling fantasy that matures considerably and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt how strong a storyteller Simon Messingham actually is. It is certainly miles better than his recent EDA, The Infinity Race and that was okay enough.

Season sixteen is one of my favourites for a variety of reasons, chief among them the abundance of humour that lights up even the drabbest of stories (The Power of Kroll) so the thought of Messingham writing an (extremely) gothic horror more akin to the earlier Hinchcliffe years is quite audacious. We saw flashes of the early, dark Doctor during season sixteen but he was so bubbly and frothy on the whole but here we get to experience a much blacker look at his adventures. Certainly this story would be a joy to watch as a part of the Key to Time season, a diversion from the main arc like The Androids of Tara and a complete divergence from the tone of the season.

Despite my initial misgivings Simon does manage to do something quite clever with his unusual narrative style! This man just loves playing about with narrative doesn't he? The Face-Eater brilliantly spent its first eight or so chapters switching point of view with the principal characters, giving us a chance to get inside their heads before horrible things start happening to them. The Infinity Race switched perspectives all the time, the childish Bloom, the hysterical Fitz and Anji in extremely dry (read wet your pants funny) form. And why not? These are novels after all and narrative style is (after prose and characterisation) one of the few aspects you can have fun with.

The fact that Tomb of Valdemar is a story being told by an old woman to a group of savages over a few days of inclement weather adds to the gothic atmosphere to the piece. The imagery during the storytelling sequences, rough furs, crackling fires and biting snow plants you right in the story. It seems obvious that that this (apparently) superfluous plot is going to link to the story being told but I promise you you will never guess how, not until you've reached the amazing ending that will subvert your expectations and leave you with an insane grin on your face. Plus the surprise death of the old woman halfway through the story leaves you reeling, scared that this particular might not have a climax! How the native, Ponch picks up the narrative, revealing how much he has learnt from her, is sweet and touching.

And the story itself is such a joy you can see why he was so gripped. The narrative voice during the story is so good because at times the old woman/Ponch are making up the details as they go along, embellishing the bits they weren't actually present in. This leaves room for some wonderfully irrelevant (and hysterical) observations about characters and locations. If the story is inconsistent or not playing by the rules who cares? It's only a story... Ashkellia is brought to life with real vivacity. The planet is a harsh, bitter wasteland, acid storms beating at the surface. The Doctor and Romana are trapped on the space station above the surface, their isolation from the TARDIS creating an enticing sense of claustrophobia. The legend of Valdemar creates a terrific mystery and an oppressive atmosphere... just when will the Dark God wake up and claim his lands? Surrounded by bizarre and frightening characters the locations really create a discomforting tone. The station, almost organic, coming alive with the Doctor's administrations before decaying and the surface, angry, viscous, malevolent. Most planets in the Doctor Who canon have made me want to visit but few have scared me this much, so much so I would never wish a visit on my worst enemy.

Imagine writing a story for Tom's Doctor in season sixteen and leashing in his vivacious sense of humour. A story that refuses to make him the clown, to take responsibility for his actions, that dares to give him a label, a fixed role in the universe. Very brave and pulled off with style. The horrific material forces Messingham to write a worried, sensitive Doctor, one who is constantly improvising and having some disturbing internal battles with his conscience. This is the exact opposite of Terrance Dicks' Warmonger, which similarly forced the Doctor (in this case the fifth) in a role that did not match his television persona. It was hopelessly overdone and did the character a grave disservice; Tomb of Valdemar shows how to do it right, shades of the old, jokey fourth Doctor but with the weight of the world on his shoulders giving him much more edge.

This is certainly the Mary Tamm Romana Rob Matthews is in love with and if she had been written with this much verve I would probably be joining him. Her annoying tendencies are all present and correct, the sharp tongue, the sardonic streak, her naivete but they are all kept in check with a wonderful feeling of humanity that many writers fail to include (Dave Stone in particular). One sequence where she believes the Doctor is dead and numbed at the choices ahead of her, her mind begging her to contact the Time Lords to get her out of the horrible mess she is in is brilliant, revealing just how conflicted a character she actually was despite her outward arrogance. Her reaction to the spoilt brats, all the funnier because they are practically her mirror image (albeit with the conceit and overconfidence ten times worse), is priceless and her shameful mistreatment of Huvan, playing on his feelings to keep him in check is only redeemed by the last, uplifting chapter. Any writer who can make this character palatable is worth his weight in gold in my book!

The secondary characters are revolutionary because they are so stereotypical and shallow to begin with and yet each of them show tremendous growth throughout the story it is impossible to think of them as the same people they were at the beginning.

My personal favourite was Miranda Pelham, the old woman storyteller (or is she...?). A fantastic creation that during the first few chapters seems utterly bland and boring and yet flowers with astonishing maturity. As the twists surrounding her character pile up and we realise how much she has been pushed around, abused and tortured it is impossible not to sympathise with Miranda. She is such a humble character; openly admitting she is a coward and sells herself out merely to survive. I loved her bits with the Doctor who can see how much of a coward she actually is but never refuses to give up on her. How she draws on his kindness and generosity makes their friendship one to watch.

Huvan is similarly brilliant but he starts off on exactly the right foot. He is responsible for the book's scariest moments, especially the heart stopping moment he seems to be possessed by Valdemar, gunk oozing from his pustules. Huvan is scary because he is a child with a child's emotions and yet he has access to phenomenal powers. His childish crush on Romana is vomit inducing, his poetry even more so. But inside Huvan is just a frightened, lonely person who has been horrifically mistreated and that is why he is so compelling because his murderous, terrifying actions all the work of another mans greed. Huvan is just as manipulated as any of the characters in the book.

Rivalry can create wonderful drama, just look at the amazing Morgus/Sharaz Jek bitterness that Caves of Androzani is built around. The Hopkins/Neville squabble has a similar feel, so pathetic in its infantile nature and yet so powerful in sweeping so many characters into action. I loved Neville's melodramatic internal monologues, almost a caricature of all those overdone Who baddies. The book exists to tell the tale of these two men, one an obsessive loser, the other a bully and how their obsession with killing each other was their ultimate downfall. Their final fate, locked together in some sickening monster in constant conflict, is a perfect demonstration of how worthless such conflict is.

There was an abundance of chilling moments that rank this amongst the best scare novels Doctor Who has produced (not quite as surreal as Anachrophobia but almost as good). The Doctor suddenly realising what a mistake he has made turning on the station, Romana confronted with the possessed Kampp, the extremely sinister Mr Redfearn all the more scary for being so damn camp!, Kampp and his obsession with cutting women... Messingham seems to have had fun filling the book with lots of icky moments and with this bunch of macabre characters and the disturbing locations they are extremely pronounced.

I really did enjoy this book, so much so I will have to agree with everyone else (and I hate to do that) and call it Messingham's best work to date. For such a throwaway period of the PDAs it is packed full of ideas and atmosphere, proper characters and a genuinely uplifting ending.

So good it could be an EDA.


A Tomb With a View by Marcus Salisbury 13/6/04

In brief, Tomb of Valdemar is one of the best PDAs I've had the pleasure of reading. (Despite having a cover illustration that neatly rips off the sleeve of the early '60s Decca recording of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle). Everything, or almost everything, about it is fantastic... the setting, the plot, the characters, and the wonderful story-within-a-story framing device which leaves you guessing until the end, or at least until the name of the villain's dead dog is revealed.

I've seen it written that Tomb of Valdemar is entirely consistent with the Who era it's set in - the Key to Time Season - but this is forcing the point a tad. The book is a little out of whack with the jokey "house style" forced on the Graham Williams/Anthony Read production team by the BBC in the late '70s. Instead, it's a haunting and horrific tale (as few PDAs are, let's face it) more consistent with the Hinchcliffe/ Holmes period than with Power of Kroll or the one with the mediaeval robots and the original Jabba the Hutt and the bloke with the humungous nose).

Tomb of Valdemar presents us with an inhospitable world (a la Karn, or the sandstorm planet of Robots of Death), horrific transformations (Ark in Space, Seeds of Doom), over made-up Bright Young Things ripe for harvest as monster fodder (again, Robots of Death), weird cults and occult goings-on (see Morbius and Image of the Fendhal), and a series of Holmesian double acts livening up the action (Neville and Hopkins; who end up as the ultimate double act, Romana and Huvan, Miranda Pelham and the Doctor, maybe-Miranda and Ponch, and so on), and a sinister, obsessive pair of psychotic villains (Neville and Hopkins again, with Paul Neville as described being a ringer for the late Tony Beckley of Seeds of Doom fame).

If I'm seeing comparisons all over the place, it's because Tomb of Valdemar worked for me on a lot of levels, and captures many elements that made the Fourth Doctor's era so bloody marvelous. When it's in Hinchcliffe mode, it's a brilliant piece. However, there's a nod to the Pirate Planet era in the form of the "gunslinger" assassin Mr. Redfearn, but this character was the only aspect of Valdemar that seemed a little forced. He turns up, he tries and fails to shoot the Doctor, and he gets blown to bits. So what? Maybe if he'd been given more to do apart from firing wild shots and drawling he might have made more of an impact. As is, the character seems a little misplaced.

The two main villains, Neville and Hopkins (sounds more like an estate agents' firm than a pair of interplanetary nutters) are, as you might imagine, totally cracked and, in Hopkins's case, really rather chilling. Neville is a "decadent necromancer" in the Aleister Crowley/Mr. Magister in The Daemons mode, out to resurrect the Old One Valdemar who he believes has been imprisoned on the Venus-like world of Ashkellia. Neville is bunkered down in a palace suspended miles above the surface of Ashkellia by a constant up-blast of superheated gas from within the planet (a fantastic piece of sci-fi whimsy, by the way). Hopkins is witchfinder-general for a (literally) puritanical New Protectorate on Earth. He lives in a cage and wears hair shirts under his iron-and-leather outfit, as the Puritans of Cromwell's time largely didn't. (The Puritans have generally been given a bad rap by history, but it's what you get for being succeeded by the son of a man you decapitated). Of the two, Hopkins is by far the more genuinely chilling. Neville, with his ranting and magic incantations and following of dumb young acolytes, is rather a pathetic figure - a Master wannabe, if you will. Their ultimate fate still leaves me feeling a bit queasy, as does the fate of the main villain in The Fly 2, which it sort-of resembles. Ditto the porcine, bovine and ovine fates of Neville's retinue of spoiled brats, although this was equally fitting. Hopkins is more believable simply because he embodies Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil", "the little man" as Death, the destroyer of worlds. Or something like that.

The Doctor himself is done very well indeed. The character's tactic of strategic prattling (to think aloud, to engage others in his thoughts, and to disorient adversaries) is captured brilliantly, as is his use of "the scarf" to escape the incongruous Mr. Redfearn's six-guns. His brashness is, for once, slightly off-mark (he misjudges the depth of Hopkins's megalomania and misses the importance of Huvan in Neville's plot). Yup, that's how I remember him. I still miss the fellow, really. That tumble at the end of Logopolis marked the end of Doctor Who in so many ways. (Especially the Saturday afternoon timeslot, but this isn't the place to kvetch about audience ratings). Tomb of Valdemar gives us a wonderful sketch of a brilliant character at the height of his powers, and it's worth reading the book simply to enjoy the Fourth Doctor in action once more.

Romana mark 1 is used well - a fine entry in the Perpugulliam Brown "Warmonger" Challenge for the fastest attempt at becoming the target of every potential sex offender on the planet. The main offender's name in Valdemar is Huvan, ultimately a very poignant character. He's been genetically and surgically modified by Neville to remain in perpetual adolescence (ouch), to act as a focus for the psychic energy needed to communicate with Valdemar. (Valdemar himself, as you might expect, is not what Neville cracks him up to be. But I digress). Romana's early vapidity and complacency is highlighted by her attraction to the Daft Young Things accompanying Neville to Ashkellia, and her condescending attitude to the Doctor. (Which does alter between The Ribos Operation and The Pirate Planet, so I suppose Messingham's more consistent than I wrote a while ago). In any event, Romana, like the Doctor, is skillfully recreated by Messingham. Huvan spends the first half of Valdemar writing positively Vogonic love odes to Romana, and the back half annihilating people in various explosive ways. He also appears in the book's framing story, although I really don't want to ruin the surprise for others by saying how so.

In conclusion... Hats off to Simon Messingham. I liked The Infinity Race, but this one's even better. This book has a brilliant plot framed ingeniously, fantastic "visuals" (the floating palace, for instance), and wonderful characters. Tomb of Valdemar is a PDA that broadens, deepens and extends the televised version of the franchise, and neatly distils everything that made the first half of the Fourth Doctor's tenure the era that the Great Viewing Public still remembers best. If only the BBC would only let Paul Magrs loose on the back half...


A Review by Brian May 26/9/05

Well, that was wonderful!! Tomb of Valdemar is one of the most enjoyable PDAs I've read. Alongside Christopher Bulis, Simon Messingham is proof that a weak first novel (Strange England) doesn't mean the author can't improve as they progress. This is arguably his strongest offering to date. It's well-written, highly readable, bristles with atmosphere and is very clever, with its subversions of narrative and reader expectation. It's a wonderful exploration of gothic horror themes. The most obvious influence, given the title, is Edgar Allen Poe, but we also have nods to Walpole, Radcliffe, Shelley and Lovecraft.

Let's start with the atmosphere. It's horrific and haunting; Messingham applies the gothic clichés splendidly. The palace is wonderfully realised, with its flickering shadows, bizarre architecture and altering perceptions. Kammp, the torture-loving butler is obligingly creepy; the decadent young aristocrats, Neville's experiments on Huvan and the machinations of the megalomaniac Magus, with his cult of followers and dreams of resurrecting a dark power from the dawn of time, all contribute to a wonderful romp. The most disturbing elements to be found in this story are not any of the horror themes at all - it's the New Protectorate. As science fiction readers we'd immediately equate it with the Federation of Blake's 7, but it's much closer to home when you look at it as a secular version of contemporary (at the time of writing) Earth regimes like the Taliban. Hopkins is a truly frightening character - fanatic, sadist and all round unpleasant man.

All the above makes for an enjoyable but standard story, with a few things to say about religious and political fanaticism, with all the gothic stuff thrown in for effect. However the real magic lies in the writing - the words flow smoothly, with an almost poetic feel, while the framed narrative brings to mind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I thought the use of present tense would be extremely irritating, but after the first few pages you get used to it, and very soon you wouldn't have it any other way! The moments inside characters' heads, especially the principals Neville, Pelham, Hopkins, Huvan and Ponch, are wonderful examples of the author unloading information onto the reader in a believable, unforced way - we're eavesdropping on their thoughts, and at times it even feels like we're thinking them. And the odd "editorial" moments, as the narrator Pelham commentates on events, rather than just describing them, are fantastic (eg pp.82-83).

There's one more literary reference I'm going to link this novel with, and it's rather an unusual one - Tom Stoppard's play The Real Inspector Hound. In it Stoppard sets himself above criticism by lampooning theatre critics themselves. I'm only going to apply one piece of linguistic/media studies jargon here, and that's metatextuality. Messingham knows today's Doctor Who audience are a demanding lot. He's aware that, once the book is published, reviewers will have their critical knives out - thanks to the Internet that includes us part-timers as well as the professionals. On p.27 Pelham, as the narrator, justifies the use of present tense to her complaining audience (both the men in the tavern and the readers). And, in an incredibly clever and incredibly funny move, Messingham provides a pre-prepared Discontinuity Guide goof list (p.267) to save us the trouble! But he also falls back on the safety net of a narrator (Pelham) who's taking dramatic liberties to fill in gaps and bring things to a close. In short, the story has its plot holes; the author knows this; we know this; the author knows that we know that he knows, and so on. And in my humble opinion, that's pure genius!

The final sections of the story are also similar to those of The Real Inspector Hound, in which the theatre critics get caught up in the events of the play they are watching. In this book Ponch, who up till now has just been a listener, similarly becomes involved. The final chapter, as he makes his way to the citadel, is another example of the haunting, beautiful wordplay that fills this story. The unanswered questions - who is operating the guild sleds? - why do they collect the skins and just leave them to rot? - was the old woman Romana, and is this how she finally dies? - all get your brain working. Even that which you think is obvious - Ponch being Huvan reborn in a "new skin", remains open-ended, although given the rest of the story, the ambiguity is fascinating, not infuriating, as it normally would be.

I have one major gripe - the likening of the vaccine to vomit (pp.145-146). It's very gross, mainly because I happened to be eating when I read it! Another is the characterisation of the Doctor. It's just not right. I couldn't really transpose Tom Baker into the proceedings. There's one glorious exception - "I was right... I mean, I'm invariably right but this time I was really right" (p.254) is Baker to a tee. There are other moments, but they're mainly ripped off from televised stories, such as the two Ark in Space paraphrases (p. 226; 262). But Romana is excellent - it's Mary Tamm through and through. There are a few continuity references too many, but Romana's recollections of the Sontaran occupation from The Invasion of Time are great - giving a bigger picture of what happened beyond the limited events of the small screen. And K9 is sidelined in a more inventive way than in season 17 and 18 stories!

Tomb of Valdemar is a pleasure to read, and it will stay in your mind a long time. 9/10


A Review by Eric Jason 26/12/07

I wanted to put my two cents worth on this novel by Simon Messingham. The premise was great with the whole Lovecraft-themed old ones and the higher dimensions. I even liked the placement of the story right at the start of the key to time. Here is what I didn't like:

  1. Poor characterization of the Doctor. The author went overboard with the bumbling Doctor. I find it very hard to believe that he would re-awaken the city of the old ones without thinking of the consequences of doing it.
  2. Poor characterization of Romana. She is such a hanger on. She does nothing but serve as a love interest to Huvan.
  3. Dreadful narrative. It jumped around and really talked down to the reader. I swear it reads like a kindergarten book.
  4. Stupid ending. Romana=Miranda Pelham? Please how does this make sense.
  5. The whole Ponch story line. The interludes on the primitive planet are completely worthless.
Overall grade 5/10 and I am being way too generous.