THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC Books
Vanderdeken's Children

Author Christopher Bulis Cover image
ISBN 0 563 40590 2
Published 1998

Synopsis: Two empires find themselves in conflict over an enormous hyperstitial object. Past and future threaten to collide and the future of everything could be in doubt.


Reviews

Van-What! by Daniel Coggins 19/8/98

The output of the BBC book's New Adventures are getting better. Sam, having learnt her lesson in Seeing I, is now more like Jo Grant than Ace. Vanderdeken's Children is a genuinely thought-provoking book, involving lots of complicated yet easily understandable stuff about time and closed loops. The only problem is that the thought-provoking stuff is hidden beneath a plot revelation, so keeping with the Guide's 'no spoilers' rule ruins all chances of discussion of this.

The Doctor is great throughout, posing as a Federation Moderator. And (drum roll and fanfare please..) reveals his own name. No one can pronounce it, leading them to just call him Doctor. Unfortunately it is hidden under a dash, so the reader doesn't find it out.

Vanderdeken's Children is deserving of a double-read
1) because the complicated hows and what-nots aren't visible first read,
2) because it's a great book. Not superb, but great.

If this was a televised adventure it would
1) have awful model work and
2) be one of the best Who's.

Don't just buy it, order it in the nearest bookshop just to confuse the person behind the counter. Altogether now... Van-what! (btw- Vanderdeken was the captain of the Flying Dutchman. Or so says the Doctor towards the end.)


Bulis On Form by Robert Smith? 14/12/98

Chris Bulis has a reputation for traditional adventures with decent enough plotting and prose, but shallow and unmemorable characters. Fortunately in Vanderdeken's Children, he's chosen to concentrate on an area where he excels and given us a really clever and involving story, where the characters are mostly incidental.

I can't rave enough about what he's done here, because it really is well constructed. What works even better is that Bulis' style is straightforward enough that it really aids the complexity of the events, presenting them with no fuss and no deception. A more complex approach in this regard would simply have lost readers, I think.

There's not much to say about characterisation that hasn't been said many times before. None of Bulis's characters are at all interesting or memorable, but they're not terrible either. For the most part, this isn't too detrimental to the story, since the investigation going on around them is enough to keep things moving along. The only time this is a problem is with Rexton, who really needs to be a much better developed character than the one we get here. There's nothing that's actually done wrong, but he's definitely lacking something, given how important he turns out to be.

The regulars don't come off too badly, either. Sam is bland, but not annoying (although there's an amusing scene where she regresses to a ten year old with few noticeable differences!). I never got much sense that this is the older Sam, though. What seems to have happened (judging by this and Placebo Effect) is that some of the more annoying teenager characteristics have been removed (for which I am terribly grateful, believe me), but nothing much seems to have been put in their place. I'm not asking for a hardened Dalek-killer (although at least that would be interesting), but just a little character that isn't annoying. Is that too much to ask? As bland-and-faceless-generic-companion, she works, but she doesn't shine. Perhaps I shuld count my blessings, though.

The Doctor is also decent enough, without being wonderful. His investigative skills are put to good use here; it's a poor substitute for characterisation, but it's better than nothing. Sadly, this automatically gives Bulis an advantage over many other EDA authors in terms of characterisation of the eighth Doctor. It's a sad day when I have to write those words. I have to say that Sam would be fine if the Doctor were a more interesting character. Unfortunately, circumstances seem to have lumbered us with two completely nondescript regulars. I've said in the past that the seventh Doctor was writer-proof (in that most writers couldn't really get him wrong). Sadly, I think the same can be applied to the eighth Doctor, except in this case it's that most writers can't do anything whatsoever with him. What's really frustrating about this is that I liked the eighth Doctor.

I was expecting to hate the activity on-ship (with the Mrs Bucket in space plot) when I first started realising what was going on, but I was quite pleasantly surprised. It does break up the action quite effectively and isn't brought in too often, so I think this works really well.

The 'closed-loop' idea is a great one and my only complaint is that it didn't actually happen. There's a sequence where the ghost of one character manages to alter the pre-determined sequence of events, leading the Doctor to realise that the future isn't set. Unfortunately, absolutely nothing is done with this and every subsequent event reinforces the idea that the future is exactly pre-determined. Consequently, I have to wonder just why this sub-plot was included. In fact, I think that if this attempt had been made and had failed, the book would have been even stronger. If the Doctor had realised that there was absolutely no cheating the pre-determined future, I think this would have really aided the revelation about exactly what that future becomes right at the end.

Minor things: I feel that the bit near the end where the Doctor simply evacuates people in the TARDIS is a bit of a weak solution. Far better, I think, would have been to have left the TARDIS on the ship and escaped via more conventional (and hence more exciting) means. However, I really enjoyed the way the artifact was described and the impressive way it's sheer size and menace was conveyed.

I'm not entirely sure that I caught the other side of the sticky labels on the controls. I can understand why they were there, but I don't know why the other labels were nonsense. However, given that the rest of the stuff is very well thought-out and explained, I'm sure that it's just my reading of the text, not a fault in Bulis's presentation.

That's about it for Vanderdeken's Children. It's one of Bulis's better novels and shows that when he's good he can actually be quite good. The story is impressively constructed and told. Characterisation could still use some work, but doesn't really impair things. Recommended.


A Review by Finn Clark 4/3/99

One doesn't read Christopher Bulis for depth of characterisation. Let's be fair, Bulis has an unfortunate tendency to write wooden characters in cliched situations. His alien societies are generally workmanlike at best, giving the strong impression that they were constructed to fulfil their roles in the plot rather than the other way around. His best book, The Sorceror's Apprentice, cleverly exploited these very limitations by creating a world that was deliberately populated by wooden characters in cliched situations. The ideas and sense of fun in that particular novel were a joy.

Vanderdeken's Children is no Sorceror's Apprentice, but it's possibly his second-best book.

First of all, I love the cover. It's a "proper" SF wrap-around cover, with a spaceship so big that it won't fit on just the front. This is cool. This makes the Doctor Who books look more like "proper" SF. I want to see more like this (although, ironically, the front viewed on its own isn't that impressive).

The book starts extremely well, giving a mental picture of the TVM console room that's one of the best I've read in the BBC Books so far. Sam isn't very irritating. The Doctor isn't blazingly McGann, but he does the job well enough. The various factions one meets do tend to blur into each other a bit, but their portrayal isn't offensively bad. One genuinely starts to care about one or two of the characters, a real bonus in a Bulis book. What really gets this novel going, though, is the ideas.

Sorceror's Apprentice worked because of the central concept. It's the same here. Bulis gives us a big dose of mystery and danger, never letting his characters sit back and relax. The space hulk is reasonably menacing and the problems Bulis throws at us are strong and involving. This book stands or falls by its plot, which is largely good. I did get a little confused towards the end, where a little more clarity might have helped the big ideas to have come through better, but on the whole one keeps re ading happily while there's still mysteries unsolved.

Other matters... I didn't notice any continuity references or in-jokes, thank God, which gets Bulis a big thumbs-up for a start. Also the title's explanation is lovely. To sum up, I'd recommend this book to almost anyone. Don't look for brilliance, but Vanderdeken's Children is a fair plod that's certainly better than his last four books.


A Tale of Two Halves by David Karlin 13/6/99

I've got a confession to make. As you read this review, you're going to guess it anyway, so I might as well come cleanly out of the closet - I love sci-fi / horror hybrids. Naturally, the Hinchcliffe era has always been the touchstone, but I must admit to a predisposition for this much maligned genre in all its many forms. I suspect this bias may taint the ensuing review......

I approached Vanderdeken's Children with high expectations. The first half of the novel built upon a delicious premise (hardly original, but an intriguing blend of Event Horizon and Iain M Banks' Excession) as Bulis exacted palpable tension from the mysterious nature of the derelict at the centre of an interstellar stand-off. Soon, the Doctor is leading an expedition into the bowels of the sinister space hulk, while experiencing the uncomfortable sensation that they are being watched..... It may not add significantly to the BBC range as a whole, but not every book need be Alien Bodies - there is plenty of room for solid thrillers / chillers. And Bulis' 'haunted house in space' scenario is genuinely chilling - right up until the moment the explanations begin. Sadly, the latter half of the novel, in which the nature of the derelict and its horrific inhabitants becomes clear, left me decidedly cold. Not so much Event Horizon as The Abyss.........

The characterisation reflects this general unevenness. While the regulars are pretty well crafted, the supporting cast suffer quite badly. Rexton, despite his significance to the plot's workings, never progresses from the one-dimensional, as a result remaining rather nondescript. Lyset, in a move representative of the novel as a whole, quickly peters out into blandness after a promising start.

Had the novel contented itself with an existence as a thrilling slice of horror hokum, this lack of character originality would not have so detrimental. Indeed, there are occasional signs early on that the narrative is self consciously ironic (a delightfully knowing exchange between the Doctor and Sam upon the TARDIS' arrival in yet another cargo hold...). As it is, Bulis has greater aspirations; ambitions he sadly never threatens to fulfil......

By no means a worthless entry into the BBC canon, Vanderdeken's Children slips into that frustrating cache of novels that could have been so much better. Great title though........


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 21/6/01

Vanderdeken's Children comes as a refreshing breath of air after the last few books that have been sacrificing plot for characterization (or just plain sacrificing both for nothing). Don't get me wrong now, I'd prefer to have both in a story, but if we're only going to get one at a time in this series, it is nice to mix them up every now and then.

This is the hardest Science-Fiction story that the Doctor Who series has had in a while. Derelict spacecrafts, time paradoxes, hyperspace tunnels, and echoes from the future all feature heavily. The Doctor and Sam get to play Sherlock Holmes and Watson while helping two different human factions uncover the mystery of an abandoned alien ship that's apparently home to some familiar ghosts. The plot is genuinely interesting and I was kept on the edge of my seat waiting to see how it would unfold.

The characterization is uniformly shallow with one or two sections where it descends into tedium. I couldn't see how the subplot concerning the husband, wife and the other woman made any difference to the story. I realize that they were also experiencing the same sort of future echoes that the rest of the passengers were and I thought it was a good idea to show some of the other effects of the time loop. But while it made for a diversion from the main action, it was not an interesting one, and in my opinion it should have either been strengthened or cut from the book entirely. Every time that section came up, I inwardly groaned at the cliched dialogue and the stereotypical "tough wife and passive husband" relationship.

But as this was mainly a plot driven story, the characterization didn't distract from it all that much. There are a few places at the end where the explanation about the future time lines seemed to fall apart. I was especially annoyed at the eventual explanation for what the origin of the ship was. However, overall this was a very good book and I highly recommend it for fans of the book series or for people who are unfamiliar to the Doctor Who format. The book seems specially designed for beginners to the line and starts off with a short and unobtrusive introduction to the main characters, the TARDIS and the series particulars.