THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC Books
The Wages of Sin

Author David A. McIntee Cover taken from the excellent Doctor Who books page
ISBN# 0 563 55567 X
Published 1999
Continuity Between The Three Doctors and
Carnival of Monsters

Synopsis: The Doctor tests his restored knowledge of time travel by journeying back in time to the brink of the Russian revolution. The Doctor and Liz find themselves in Tsar Nicolas's court, while Jo falls under the sinister spell of Rasputin himself.


Reviews

A Review by Finn Clark 4/4/99

This is a thoroughly competent book. A sub-genre of the BBC Books seems to be evolving, in which (generally) established authors make a virtue of low word count to turn in a strong, spare, dramatic story with barely a word wasted. The Wages of Sin is such a book; others include Steve Lyons's Hartnell novels and Paul Leonard's Genocide. In each of them one might sometimes feel that the storytelling has become a little too lean, but in general it can't be denied that these are books with powerful stories to tell and a directness in the telling.

Brevity isn't always a virtue, I hasten to add. If your book is short because your thin plot and cardboard characters won't stretch to anything longer, then I humbly beg that you take your wares elsewhere. Doctor Who doesn't need you. However, The Wages of Sin definitely isn't a poor thing like that.

The setting is Russia, in the last gasps of Tsarist rule before the Revolution swept the Bolsheviks into power. An extraordinary mix of the medieval and the ambitiously modern, this was a country that had only liberated its own peasants from serfdom fifty-five years previously. They hadn't just been ruled by the Tsar -- they'd been owned by him. If you're unfamiliar with the country, then think of the Russian-derived culture in The Ribos Operation. It's a dangerous time, when superstition and devout religious faith rub shoulders with dictatorship and the First World War.

My main problem with The Wages of Sin is that this vast, sprawling picture has been inevitably simplified to squeeze into 250 pages. There's a richness in the historical period which I feel Dangermouse could have perhaps made more of. The book has a slight tendency to become just people and politics -- but this is a minor niggle. No doubt a reader knowing nothing of the period wouldn't have such complaints.

As Doctor Who, it also works well. The regulars are portrayed well, especially since this is a team we never saw on television. Putting the third Doctor with both Liz and Jo could have seemed odd, but in fact I had no problem whatsoever imagining Pertwee having the time of his life with two beautiful woman in attendance...

The Wages of Sin is a simple story, efficiently told. I don't know how effective it would have been stretched to 90,000 words, but at this length it works.


Flawed but fun by Robert Smith? 28/7/99

Let's get the most obvious and serious problems out of the way first. The regulars are awful. They're just flat-out wrong. Not only in representation, but in their very setting for this book. Okay, I take that back. Jo manages to come through unscathed and there are worse crimes than having a boring Doctor.

Unfortunately, in both concept and execution, Liz really fails. First of all, my overriding question is: Why? Okay, I'm not totally against the idea of teaming up a former companion with the current crew. Yes, it's a pretty silly idea to pad out the numbers for the novel format, but if carried off with care and attention, I think it has some potential (Justin Richards does something vaguely similar to great effect in System Shock). Unfortunately, the required care just isn't present here. We get only the briefest of explanations in flashback, which really doesn't hold up. I'm prepared to be persuaded that Liz might possibly have rejoined the Doctor for a quick adventure. I'm still waiting for that persuasion, because I just don't buy it from this book.

There's also the fact that Liz has managed to escape travelling in the TARDIS in all her appearances thus far, including the books. I quite liked this, because it gave her a refreshingly different spin. That's also gone with this book. A minor nit, to be sure, and one I'd overlook if I felt for a moment that her appearance here had been in any way worthwhile.

Then there's the characterisation. Very little of the Liz Shaw here seemed to coincide with the well-developed character of Season Seven or the other Past Doctor Adventures featuring her. I can accept that she might have changed in attitude or outlook since leaving the Doctor - but again we get no explanation for this. We're supposed to buy Liz and Jo having a close relationship, but we don't get nearly enough setup for it. One minute they've just barely met, the next Liz is treating her like her closest friend. Call me particular, but I'd have liked a hint of, well, anything between these two states. And would Liz *really* hiss "You little fool" at anyone, let alone Jo?

The Doctor is okay, if nothing special. I'm surprised, actually, because McIntee usually does quite well with the Doctors, but he seems to be having an off month on this score. He's very much into name-dropping and knowing people from gentlemen's clubs... except that he's doing this in 1916 and by a remarkable coincidence he just happens to know someone who knows the Brigadier's relative (which he gets from one brief mention from the Brigadier, conveyed via Jo). I'm really not sure what was going on here. It just seemed like a whole group of coincidences were strung together to force the Doctor to be accepted by the right people. I honestly don't see why this was necessary, it reads like more trouble than it's worth. It's not as though the Doctor really ever has that much trouble insinuating himself into the right situations anyway, so it just seems rather pointless here.

I did like Jo... which was a bit of a pity since she all but disappears for the middle half of the book. There's one brief scene with her in it (obviously a filmed insert) just to remind us that she's still waiting around to fulfil her plot function. Ho hum. We also get the obligatory ripped-from-The-Aztecs scene, just in case you forgot this was a historical. Yawn.

The internal monologues are still causing problems for this author. I really think the book would work much better if we just saw characters' speech and actions without having them go over in excruciating detail just why they were thinking what we knew they'd be thinking anyway. Fair enough if this added anything to the story, but it's the fact that it so rarely does that makes this frustrating.

Now that I've dwelt with the bad stuff, let me point out the good things. Okay, thing. There's only one, really, but it's such a good one that it managed to single-handedly save the book for me. Rasputin.

For once, McIntee really shines on the characterisation score. Rasputin comes across wonderfully, with a real sense of personality. You can tell that the author absolutely loved writing for this character; I just wish we'd see some of this passion elsewhere in McIntee's writing. Rasputin is wonderfully three-dimensional, which manages to outdo the rest of the bunch by at least two dimensions. The whole ending sequence with Rasputin is just unputdownable. It's brought to life extremely vividly, so you can forgive a lot of the rest of the book for the strong ending.

I also liked the action scenes, because McIntee can write action like no one else. Unfortunately, this meant that most of the book felt very disjointed for me. We had an exciting action sequence, then a lot of boring stuff that just seemed to be time-wasting until the next exciting action sequence could pop up out of the blue (and frequently they do). This is like a James Bond film, in the sense that you can see that they spent millions of dollars on the brilliant action scenes, filmed them way in advance... and then hastily wrote a sketchy story around the set pieces in about three days.

That's about it for The Wages of Sin. It's got too many problems to be as good as it wants to be, but the ending manages to save it. The action scenes are nicely done, but characterisation ranges from the awful (Liz) to the boring (Doctor, most of the supporting cast) to the excellent (Rasputin; I'd include Jo in this, except for her long periods of absence). That said, it breezes by not too offensively, so I'd recommend it as a quick afternoon read that shouldn't tax your brain too much.


The Pages of Sin by Jason A. Miller 20/9/99

At a bantamweight 250 pages, David A. McIntee has finally churned out the svelte book we've been waiting for since his 1993 knockout debut effort White Darkness. This hard-hitting look at the death of Rasputin pulls no punches, and we're left with a winning historical novel.

That's right, a pure historical. Oh, it doesn't seem that way at first -- this book opens in Tunguska in 1908, a scene familiar to those who've read the right DW novels and seen the right X-Files episode (interestingly, McIntee was also the first DW writer to reference X-Files in his fiction). But happily, the novel stays focussed in and around palace intrigue in 1916 St. Petersburg. There is romance, religion gone awry, and, as this is nominally a 3rd Doctor novel, a Bondian subplot.

Since it's short and has large print and wide margins, Wages of Sin is mostly about one G. E. Rasputin and his effect on the ladies of the TARDIS. He and the Doctor share just one brief, mute exchange, through a sheet of ice (and it's a marvelous visual). The Mad Monk instead flirts with Jo and verbally fences with Liz.

The choice of companions is unique -- Elizabeth Shaw returns from Cambridge after Season 10, but shares little if any page time with the Doctor. Or perhaps this is not peculiar; Caroline John and Jon Pertwee had a similar lack of chemistry during their lone year together. Liz, and Jo, are well-portrayed and used here. Jo falls for Rasputin, but isn't made out as a dimwit; McIntee appears to have sympathy for her point of view and even the Doctor condones it. And Liz's scientific ruminations mirror the dry, lecture-prone writing, but that's preferable to Liz's other first-ever journey through time (Eye of the Giant), in which all she wants to do is wash her hair.

The lone fault of the DW historical is that we already know what happens, and the Doctor figure usually isn't there when it does. This time, he's run halfway to Finland with a proto-Duggan supporting character, and misses out on most of Rasputin's exquisite 30-page death sequence. Jo and Liz are the actors here. Thankfully Pertwee is very faithfully rendered while he's on the page.

The attention to detail is fine. There's a dandy explanation as to how no poison surfaced in Rasputin's corpse, in spite of the copious amounts Yusopov (or Youssopov, &c. -- McIntee has a smorgasboard of transliterations to choose from with all the factual characters) fed him. There's no postscript, unfortunately -- a longer novel may have taken us to Yusupov's failed 1960s US lawsuit condemning a CBS TV portrayal of the actual assassination. Or would have used the fickle memory of the blind old man as a framing tale. But in Wages of Sin, we get nothing but fact, nothing fanciful or silly, and it's a marvelous change of pace from what's going on over in the other line of books.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 17/8/01

Being a political spy thriller, albeit on a small scale, David McIntee's The Wages Of Sin makes for an illuminating read. This is largely down to the use of the characters in particular Rasputin and his multi layered personality. It's a book that fits the Pertwee era too, in James Bond style complete with train rides as part of the action sequences, something which McIntee excels in. The teaming of Liz Shaw and Jo Grant is inspired and well handled, although some of Liz`s dialogue jars a bit. In short this is nothing too taxing, but is certainly enough to be entertaining.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 19/9/01

This book shows categorically that it doesn’t have to be the first Doctor who has a monopoly on Historical stories. They work equally well with other Doctors and Companions, and should be featured more in the BBC Books series.

The Doctor takes Jo and Liz back to 1916 Russia and the time of mad monk Rasputin. The combination of Liz and Jo works very well. There is no reason at all why the 2 should ever not be together, and it gives some interesting suggestions as to where Liz went after the Doctor. Once a companion was written out of the TV series it was unlikely they would return, this mostly due to the Actor/Actress’s wishes. The books have no such limitation, and Jo and Liz together feels right and works well.

The Historical setting also is well realized. St Petersburg comes alive with nicely descriptive passages. McIntee is a good author. He doesn’t complicate things too much and gets on telling a straightforward story. His characterizations are usually spot on, and this book is no different. The 3rd Doctor, Liz and Jo are written splendidly, and dominate the action.

The book is adorned with some fine supporting characters. The intellectual Kuznetzov, scheming Prince Felix, the noble Empress and the irrepressible Rasputin. It is the latter who intrigues the most. His attraction for the women of the piece shows him to be a bit of a leach, but that was how his Historical personae has come to be known. It is not his only characteristic though. Other characteristics about him force Jo and Liz however to think again how History has written him, creating an living, breathing man from History.

Rasputin's death provides the book with a dramatic, yet darkly comedic conclusion. The way McIntee skilfully moves the pieces around the board, resulting in mass mayhem is riveting reading. The 3rd Doctor forced to let History take its barbaric road.

Enjoyable and engrossing book with superb characterization all round. 8/10


A Review by Brian May 31/3/04

I started reading this book with a certain degree of trepidation. An historical adventure by David A McIntee! In fact, I thought "Oh no, what have I got myself in for?" To say that Mr McIntee likes to go into detail is definitely an understatement! His last effort at such a tale, Sanctuary, was a snooze-fest - the whole book was describing things to the nth degree that he forgot about the story. He can get a bit like that with other tales as well - First Frontier is an interesting book subject-wise, but the descriptions of everything are like wading through treacle. The first few chapters of The Wages of Sin are similar. I'm turning the pages slowly, sighing and resigning myself to a long haul.

But then, a pleasant surprise! After the first five or six chapters, things pick up and an entertaining story is unfolding. This is not to imply that McIntee has lost his "skill" for epic description, it's just that there's a lot less of it beyond this point. The action scenes with the Doctor and Kit beside the train (pp.77-79) are ponderous (one thing Who authors never seem to learn, action sequences - especially in a Pertwee story - are better seen and not read!), while Felix's visit to the Cathedral (pp.186-188) is rather wordy and unengaging. But fortunately that's all - the final chase as Kuznetzov is pursued is intercut with Felix's attempts to murder Rasputin - this back and forth movement serves the tension of the latter scenes, while making the former bearable to read.

It's inconsequential and small in the grand scheme of Who story arcs and narratives, but there's a guaranteed few hours of page turning to be enjoyed. The location and feel of pre-Revolutionary Russia is well realised. There's the usual loss of the TARDIS and the Doctor and his companions are suspected of being spies. There's a fair amount of intrigue, conniving and plotting, all concerned with popping off the mad monk. It all leads up to quite an enthralling climax, much like the William Hartnell MA, The Plotters, a likewise "small" story whose events slowly evolve into the threat of a drastic change in human history. Here it's the simple matter of Rasputin's death by poisoning, which Jo inadvertently prevents.

Felix's continual attempts to poison Rasputin, with what he believes are still the poisoned glasses and scones, make for some tense reading. His fear and disbelief as the monk refuses to die is edgy, while the reader is also worrying, although mainly because of the changing history angle. Even as he continues to thrash about after being shot, it's rather heart pumping until it's made one hundred percent clear that he's dead - and in the end, it's all down to the Doctor, in an effectively dramatic and poignant moment.

However, the story has a major failing which affects the enjoyment quite drastically. McIntee is very hit and miss in his realisations of characters, although it doesn't appear this way on the surface. The portrayals of Liz and Jo, on a superficial level (i.e. mannerisms, speech etc) are mostly faithful to their television characters. The latter is still the well intentioned but hopeless scatterbrain - her switching of the poisoned items is the greatest example of this - and Liz gets to say "You little fool!" to her (which is very unfair, after all, Jo just saved her life!) Felix Yusupov is probably the best realised of the non-regulars; in fact, he's one of the best interpretations of an historical character in Doctor Who. McIntee creates an empathetic man, getting inside his mind and rationale, so you can understand his motivations, but never justifying them. Kit becomes a stereotypical sidekick, but he's immediately likable. The lesser characters are not given much depth, but all are credible and well written.

The treatment of Rasputin reveals some of the wider problems with the characterisations. It all hinges on Jo's perception and interpretation of him - she meets him, comes to like him and then suggests to the Doctor about sparing his life. True - as with Felix - his inner thoughts are presented believably, he has feelings, he still rues the death of his son - but the argument McIntee is trying to present; that he's not such a bad guy as the history books paint him, is unconvincing and contradictory. Jo meets him only twice - the first time she leaves in disgust after the sexual insinuations he makes; the second time Rasputin makes similar comments - albeit much more overt - she calls him a "dirty old man" and departs from him in much the same way she did before. Why does Jo have any sympathy or feeling for him at all? It's very poorly done and a further insult to her character.

Another bone of contention is the teaming up of Liz and Jo. It's one of the author's "what-if" fantasies and - like his Ian and Barbara/UNIT/Master combination in The Face of the Enemy - it just doesn't work. Liz is given a streak of female jealousy, perceiving Jo as the "new model" - this simply doesn't fit in with her character at all. Liz voluntarily returned to Cambridge, and is too intelligent to feel usurped or surpassed. According to the author, Liz thinks:

"She had expected her successor to be from the cream of British science; surely nothing else would be much use for the Doctor?" (p.26)
But consider the words of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in Terror of the Autons:
"What you need, as Miss Shaw herself so often remarked, is someone to pass you your test tubes and tell you how brilliant you are."
The Liz of this novel just isn't the Liz we remember.

What about the Doctor? McIntee implies that this is the first trip in the TARDIS after his exile is lifted in The Three Doctors. He rounds up Liz and Jo and journeys to Earth in the past?!? It's implied the destination was Liz's suggestion, but still, with the TARDIS under his helm again, Earth is the last planet he wants to see! If I had been stuck on one planet for yonks and was finally allowed to leave, my first port of call would be some world far, far away. Kit, as I mentioned, is a likeable character and the obligatory one adventure sidekick - but Pertwee's Doctor never needed a male sidekick! (You could maybe suggest Hal from The Time Warrior, but they interact very few times and never share any action scenes.) It's so out of character it's infuriating.

And all that stuff about Tunguska turns out to become a damp squib of a red herring. It's built up so much on the book's blurb - "But what happens when the history books lie?" - which anticipates some sort of external meddling in the past. But the whole thing boils down to Kuznetzov's claims that he saw it first, rather than Leonid Kulik - it's so incidental, and indeed inconsequential, that you wonder why the author included it at all. What purpose does it serve?

I've never been more ambivalent about a Doctor Who novel than I have been with The Wages of Sin. It's an enjoyable tale of intrigue, with terrific atmosphere and some great moments - the part in which Felix drives Liz through the Larva district is particularly graphic and sobering, a much better depiction of poverty and squalor than in any of the futuristic, cyberpunk New Adventures. But the story suffers from a horrible rendering of characters that is quite annoying and unfaithful to the series, which tends to spoil the fun. 6.5/10