The Doctor Who Ratings Guide: By Fans, For Fans

Virgin Books
Walking to Babylon
A Benny Adventure

Author Kate Orman Cover image
ISBN# 0 426 20521 9
Published 1998
Cover Mark Salwowski

Synopsis: An illegal time travel experiment threatens to destroy ancient Babylon. Only Bernice can travel back to avert the destruction of history.


A Review by Matt Michael 16/5/98

Kate Orman has gained a reputation for being the first (and only!) lady of the New Adventures, and her books are generally highly regarded, so I was looking forward to this, her first attempt at a non-Doctor Who novel.

And what a novel! So far, The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield fall into two (equally valid) categories -- the farcical Benny-goes-on-holiday-and-gets-pissed stories (a la Ship of Fools), or the introspective, character-driven novels (Beyond the Sun). Walking to Babylon falls strongly into the latter camp, as Orman presents us with a tense struggle to save the future and prevent a war between the People and the Time L..., I mean the "dominant power in the Milky Way".

Bernice gets her fair share of angst as she falls in with displaced (and beautifully characterised) Edwardian archaeologist John Lafayette, a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown after being catapulted several thousand years into the past. Lafayette is utterly believable, and Orman masterfully (mistressfully?) contrasts his refined Victorian morals with the looser world of Babylon, full of warriors and whores. Babylon itself comes across remarkably vividly, far more so than in John Peel's Timewyrm: Genesys, largely due to some rounded characters such as Ninan.

Likewise, the Worldsphere has never been this real since The Also People. The People, always a believable and faintly disturbing race (they call their mainframe "God"), come across excellently, particularly the renegades in Babylon; God, and his angelic messenger, Clarence, who gets to do some soul-searching of his own during the course of the book.

But this is very much Bernice's novel. Following a glut of stories in which she is sidelined or somehow detracted from, we have the real Bernice back. After Paul Cornell, Kate Orman probably writes for Benny best, and here we have a fully rounded, very human character -- a flawed but genuine heroine rather than the wisecracking drunk of some NAs. Benny has clearly learned from her time with the Doctor, as the climax of the book proves. But while her manipulations may be less successful, they are far more human than the seventh Doctor's.

A superb book, and I sincerely hope that Orman considers writing further adventures of Bernice Summerfield. 9/10

A Gushing Review by Robert Smith? 11/8/98

From the opening (and astounding) prologue, it's very clear that this book is something special. The war with You-Know-Who is clever and thoroughly believable and the way the plot dances and twirls around this idea is fabulous. Everyone's motivation is completely believable and there is a real sense of threat if the consequences play themselves out.

I for one am extremely pleased to see Time Travel make a return to the New Adventures. And the method of its return is utterly wonderful, providing amazing visual imagery (come to think of it, there's so much visual association with this book that it really should be a grand, sweeping film).

Bernice is fabulously written. She's so much in character that it hurts. Everything she does is somehow so fragile and human, yet she manages to inspire hope in the human species by her very existence. Her romance with Lafayette is incredible -- and moreso for the way it ends, which turned a stock-standard NA-ism (Benny's lovers must be gone before the end of the book) into something poignant and slightly sad that is still somehow completely and utterly right. Lafayette's gift is initially convenient, but is discussed and rationalised so reasonably that you wonder if more people don't have exactly the same gift without knowing it.

God, Clarence and the People are very well done. I was worried that I'd start to grow bored of the action back on the Worldsphere, but Orman never allows this to happen. What could have been a Star Trek B-plot turns out to be equally as wonderful as the 'main' action in Babylon.

The Babylon action itself is a little relaxed and down-to-earth, but this definitely works in the book's favour, as it turns a Big Idea into a painfully human problem, where it's the little things that really hit home. Telling large parts of the story from Benny's memoirs works beautifully and is a very refreshing change from the usual diary (there's even a cheeky reference to Benny writing her diary right in the middle of a sticky situation). This also fits in marvellously with the whole storytelling theme that pervades the book and gives it a resonance deeper than most.

In summary, I cannot rave enough about Walking to Babylon. It's a very mature book, with wonderful writing, gorgeous characters and a great story. Almost completely flawless, it's an absolute must-read, demonstrating yet again how utterly sublime the New Adventures can be when they try.

A Good Walk Spoiled by Jason A. Miller 2/9/99

There was a time, and it wasn't very long ago, when Doctor Who novels came out a book at a time, once a month and only one a month. There were no competing audio releases; sure, there was an occasional video-only sci-fi story starring actors from Doctor Who, but by and large, the books were everything. It was in this time that Kate Orman came to prominence as one of the Virgin New Adventures' best writers. And at that time, Walking to Babylon would have been widely hailed as a marvelous book.

And, indeed, Walking to Babylon is, mostly, marvelous. As with most DW stories, it benefits from a small cast, even as it's not a DW story -- it's a Bernice Summerfield book (and as of this August 1999 reading, even that line has undergone a massive reshuffle since WtB's initial release). But in 1999, a small, well-told tale, doesn't have the grab it once did. This is a time of "event" DW fiction, be it yet another new audio play, an audiobook read by a past Doctor, or another epic re-explaining the Doctor's origins (Even WtB was, unfortunately, drawn into the audio-play void not long ago, adapted and rewritten to capitalize on other media).

Happily, once you clear the hurdles and find the original book, it's a charming read. Even a solo novel from Kate is hard to find these days, but WtB is strongly in her tradition. Ancient Babylon is threatened by a recurring storyline from the Benny Books (originated in The Also People and continued down past the loss of the DW license). Bernice, as always in Kate's stories is a savvy, well-read archaelogist and hardly ever a hostage to camp, is dispatched to 570 BCE to foil an alien incursion of dubious intentions. Babylon is gentle and evocative of other locales Kate's visited, and Earth's distant past is never patronized.

What brings Babylon down, apart from the flood in which the book's existence seems to have gotten lost, is a pair of conceptual problems. First, and this is a problem also extant in SLEEPY, Return of the Living Dad, and Room With No Doors, is that the initial premise -- a rich one -- gets lost in a set of non-threatening plot twists about halfway through. The premise is replaced by characters not present at the outset, and the end result, playing with a different set of cards, is always less memorable.

Second is John Lafayette, the Edwardian translator mistakenly transported to Babylon, where he becomes an erstwhile romantic foil for Benny. The Benny/John pairing has things to say about sex, mores, and politics -- it's just that these statements once again catapult Benny into the preachy caricature she's been in far too many prior Virgin novels. Self-righteousness becomes no-one, and hardly replace the awe one should feel at getting to visit Babylon.

In the long run, or walk, this book is well worth reading. There's more Doctor Who, or Doctor Who surrogates, on the table than ever before, and most of them are unrewarding. Walking to Babylon, even without the Doctor, is one of the rare treats left for fans, and one only wishes it had come out five, or even three, years ago.

A Review by Sean Gaffney 18/11/99

By now, I should be filling out a form review for Kate's books...^_^

I'm rather glad I read Face of the Enemy in between Tempest and this. I think if I'd tried to go straight from Tempest to Walking to Babylon my head would have snapped off. Talk about your different styles...gah.

PLOT: Fairly basic, considering that it involves the People. Nevertheless, there are a few twists that end up whacking you over the head along the way.

BERNICE: This book is drenched in Bernice, more than almost any other Benny NA. About 2/3 of it is written as excerpts from her memoirs/diaries, and she's on almost every page. Luckily, she's written beautifully, with Kate managing to flesh out a bit more of her past, and even give her a temporary romance (though only temporary, and those of us in the Benny & Jason 2-gether 4-ever club sigh in relief.)

LAFAYETTE: Chris Schumacher is right, he did remind me a bit of William Blake in The Pit. But only because of the 'fish out of water' similarities. I thought it was very interesting showing John's development from total culture shock to calm acceptance, and the swiftness with which he was able to do that impressed me.

GOD: Once again, God proves to be one of the more likeable, grey and unknowable characters to come down the pike. Less of an obvious Doctor-substitute than Braxiatel has been, God gets to do what it does best in this: be God. It watches over, checks up on, gives nudges, investigates, takes the important decisions but leaves the bulk of the plan to Benny. More of God, please.

OTHERS: I really liked Ninan. Very nice portrayal of the capable Babylonian woman. The 'bad guys' - such as they were - were very interesting, especially as you tried to understand their motives in the context of the People.

STYLE: As I said, it was written predominately in Benny's diary entry first person format - luckily, Kate writes Benny well enough to carry it off. And it just flew by. I know people have been complaining about the middle being slow, but I didn't see that at all. It read VERY fast.

OVERALL: Another very, very well-written Kate Orman novel. It didn't make me stay up till 3 in the morning finishing it, as The Room with No Doors did. But who cares? I'd show this one to new authors as an example of how to write Benny. I give it the full ten, mostly as I can't find something bad to say about it. Thank God I'm the Happy Guy or I'd feel rather guilty...^_^


A Review by Finn Clark 18/11/04

The first time I read this, I wasn't impressed. "Pleasant but overrated," I thought. However since I was feeling in a charitable mood, I didn't write a review. This was a mistake, since reviewing it back then would have: (a) prevented me from suffering through this excruciating reread, and (b) saved this poor book from the treatment it's about to receive.

Robert Smith? has a saying... "Doctor Who can survive being bad, but it can't survive being boring". This isn't strictly speaking Who, being a Benny book instead, but otherwise that saying is a perfect fit. Walking to Babylon joins that select band of books like Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible which I've found outright painful despite the fact that they're skilfully crafted pieces of work. This book is well-written. It's civilised. It's intelligent. However I couldn't engage with its story.

First of all, it stars the People. Mummy, make it stop! I like the People in the hands of Iain M. Banks or Ben Aaronovitch, but this book gave me no reason to care about them. Without exception they're charmless utopia-mongers without an iota of the humanity we saw in The Also People. Admittedly the Benny books' People-overkill had prejudiced me against them beforehand, but throughout the book my attention wandered during Worldsphere scenes. Look, they're technologically advanced! Oh, and they're smug. Wake me up when something happens, eh?

Secondly, it stars the People. (This may look similar to my last point, but bear with me.) Choosing People to be this novel's bad guys didn't exactly fill me with fear. As villains go, it's scraping the bottom of the barrel with the Aubertides from Human Nature or Cavis and Gandar from The Shadows of Avalon. Admittedly these guys aren't the literary equivalent of claws down a blackboard, but they're about as threatening as your grandma's cream puffs. Technologically formidable, yes. Scary? Don't make me laugh. They're like girl guides who've gone off on a picnic without telling mummy. Admittedly they have an ambitious reason for doing so, but it's a silly reason that we know won't be realised.

Thirdly, it stars the People. Perhaps I've mentioned this objection already, but I feel so strongly about it that I think it's worth emphasising. Bloody People. (This wasn't the first time Kate had followed in Ben's footsteps, of course... the two authors' Virgin work was perhaps more closely linked than anyone's, even Paul Cornell and Terrance Dicks.)

Incidentally, I found this book's view of the People-Insect War inconsistent with the original. Kate trivialises it, making it sound so one-sided that I had trouble getting my head around the deaths, tragedies, war crimes, screwed-up Ships, regrettable incidents, etc. that Ben Aaronovitch mentioned.

Sigh. I guess I'd better talk about something else for a while.

Babylon is nice. The cover painting really helps, incidentally. Kate's first NAs had two of the worst covers Virgin ever inflicted on us, but this has atmosphere. Lafayette is a bit bland, but sufficiently uptight that I could buy him as a Victorian stuffed shirt. The storytelling is very relaxed... but for once this isn't a good thing. Theoretically Benny's in Babylon on a big, urgent mission from God. This isn't another Happy Endings or The Also People, where one's mentally curling up in front of the fire and slipping on one's bunny slippers. Instead it just comes across as lackadaisical.

In fairness, I liked Miriam. She's around for a few pages starting on p93. There's a stretch of about thirty or forty pages that I actually enjoyed, mostly because Miriam had kick-started my interest levels, but then the shagging came and bludgeoned me back into apathy again. (Gratuitous shagging in a Kate Orman novel? Who'd have thought it!?)

This book is 257 pages of triviality. Nothing in it matters and you're never in danger of thinking that it might. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Who-related books that ever bored me more (although in fairness I haven't yet reread any of the recent BBC Books). And it stars the sodding People...