THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

All UNIT stories
Virgin Publishing
Who Killed Kennedy

Authors James Stevens and David Bishop Cover image
ISBN 0 426 20467 0
Published 1996

Synopsis: Investigative journalist James Stevens probes the inner working of the conspiracy known only as UNIT...


Reviews

A Review by Graeme Burk 5/6/00

This is an odd contradiction of a novel-a book so continuity laden that non-fans would never read it, but so conscious of period detail that the average fan probably won't appreciate it nearly as much as they should.

While parts of Who Killed Kennedy didn't ring true (would a 1970 article exposing UNIT really have two paragraphs devoted to the disappearance of Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright in 1963?), for the most part there's a verisimilitude achieved in this novel that is very impressive. I love the context of the early '70's that David Bishop has wrapped his story (and indeed the Pertwee Doctor Who stories), so much so that I'm very glad he decided to disagree with Lance Parkin on UNIT dating and go his separate way.

The feel and flavour of the era of '69-'71-- of the governments that existed at the time, the energy crisis, the way newspapers and television was put together, etc-- permeates the book and I think it helps to achieve a realistic wrapping, as it were, around the Doctor Who stories we've become so familiar with.

Bishop's created a bevvy of intersting characters in the midst of it all-- James Stevens is very effective, and Private Cleary's letters are a brilliant touch. The Doctor Who characters thrown into the mix -- Dodo is haunting, and brilliantly portrayed, and I loved the cameos by Liz Shaw and the Brigadier in particular -- are just icing on the cake.

It all disintegrates around the last 1/4 of the book, unfortunately, when all the carefully constructed verismilitude goes out the window, and we wind up in a straightfoward plot-driven novellette. The twist on the ending-- while effective (and I didn't spot it)-- is something of a disappointment, too.

It's odd, but this book probably more than any other NA or MA I've read has made me so sad that Virgin's time publishing Doctor Who was cut short. I really liked a lot of the bolsterings to the Doctor Who "universe" that Virgin had made. This novel exploration of just how UNIT's activities were kept out of the public eye is intriguing, and, rather than detracting, like so much retconning does, it adds a great deal to my appreciation of the Pertwee era. This book really made me wish Virgin could keep on mapping out this intriguing vision for the Whoniverse (both on Gallifrey and on earth in the '70's)

For the most part, Who Killed Kennedy achieves its stated goal of making readers look at '70's Doctor Who in a different way. The sloppy ending aside, I found this book really suceeded in this. Indeed, I've had a real urge to watch Spearhead From Space and The Silurians again after reading it, because the descriptions of the events depicted in these stories described "from the outside" were so compelling. More than that, it's a really unique contribution to the Doctor Who fictional universe and a story which I couldn't put down. It's well worth people's attention. 8/10


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 29/11/01

I avoided this when it came out in April 1996. It came at a time when my DW book buying was at an all time low. I had given up on the New Adventures about a year before (I have since read quite a few around this time, notably Just War). I was still getting the odd Missing Adventure, but they seemed to be lacklustre for the most part. This book seemed like yet another potential disappointment. I wasn’t too struck on the Pertwee Years anyway back then – I gave it a miss.

5 whole years later I was going through a list of all the books with a mate, Stephen – which ones he thought it worth my while to read etc etc. Along came Who Killed Kennedy – and he totally raved about it. This surprised me, because the book has been largely forgotten about, especially by me! He leant it me, and I decided to read it.

What an astonishing novel! So unlike anything else I had ever read under the DW banner. Its’ a diary from James Stevens, a reporter (in reality David Bishop). It proceeds from about 1969 as Stevens gets wind of some fantastic events. Everything is secret though, records closed or deleted. A certain paramilitary organization joins the fray, whose activities are hushed up. Being a reporter, he is astonished at the level of security that UNIT has. The lack of paperwork, the fantastic tales that go along with what they help to resolve. He notes a band of spies, all with the code name Doctor. The influence of one of these Doctors, a certain well dressed dandy, becomes more and more prominent. He has to unearth the truth. That’s the gist of it really, but it doesn’t describe the sheer involvement felt when reading his researches.

He reports all the instances when UNITs name, and Lethbridge-Stewart specifically, are revealed. And so it reads like a History of the Brigadiers’ army – from the perspective of an outsider. We recognize the events of course. The Mars Project being Ambassadors of Death, Black Thursday being Spearhead From Space etc etc.

As Stevens gets more and more involved we come across deeper, more sinister organizations. C19 and the Glasshouse are behind the efforts to ward Stevens off the scent. But he persists, to alarming consequences. The truth is out there, but he can’t seem to get close to it.

I have been watching the Pertwee Years with increased enjoyment recently. It was the perfect preview to this novel. In effect this novel could never have been written without it, and you need the background knowledge of UNIT, especially the Pertwee Years, to make sense of it all. Thankfully I have just been given a huge injection of the 3rd Doctor era, so I was alright!

I usually hate books that delve into Doctor Who continuity in a mammoth way, joining the dots as I like to call it. But this is not a continuity fest. It is an outsider's view on UNIT, as presented in a fascinating and unique way. The inclusion of many of the Doctors’ friends and acquaintances is a vital part of the novel, part of the discovery of the truth, for Stevens. Nothing is out of place.

It is also a breeze to read, if you are familiar with the source material. The chapters fairly race by as you find yourself being pulled into this Web of Intrigue. You are anxious to discover what comes upon this reporter next. As you cross off the UNIT stories so you look forward to the next, and wonder if this will be the one that turns him over.

The Kennedy connection is an interesting one. UNIT form the core of the book, Kennedy being tagged onto the beginning and end really. Nonetheless the stuff about Kennedy’s assassination is just as interesting as the Doctor Who stuff, and nicely woven into the books narrative.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It succeeds in taking the mythology of Doctor Who, the UNIT part mostly, and creating something that is much better than the source. 10/10


The view from without by Tim Roll-Pickering 3/12/02

How does the general public react to the succession of alien invasions? What are they told are the reasons behind events such as the plague in Doctor Who and the Silurians or the chaos at Devil's End in The Daemons? What do they know about the threats to Earth? How are civilians who get caught up in the Doctor's adventures kept 'on message'? And what effect do these events have upon contemporary politics?

These are questions that have occasionally been speculated about by various fans over the years but never really satisfactorily answered by either the series or the earlier novels and novelisations. However this one-off special offers a very different perspective on the early part of the Jon Pertwee years as we get to see them through the eyes of James Stevens as he seeks to expose the truth behind UNIT, encountering heavy intimidation from the sinister security ministry C19 along the way, whilst being manipulated by an unseen source. Written like a good conspiracy non-fiction story, even to the point of co-crediting James Stevens on the cover and frontispiece as well as producing a back cover blurb that is distinctly different from the normal run of Doctor Who novels, the only thing that spoils the effect is 'The Real Author Speaks' section at the very back. Otherwise this reads far more like a a conspiracy expose.

One of the most controversial areas is the inevitable problem of UNIT dating. It is virtually impossible to come up with an explanation even for the handful of dates given in dialogue all contradicting one another, let alone all the additional clues, so David Bishop has opted to set the stories around the time they were broadcast, tying in with Prime Minister Harold Wilson's early pledges about the 'white heat of technology' and showing how various exposes of events in the series lead to damaging effects on the government, potentially contributing to its election defeat. However even in this book there are some clues that the dating is not what it seems - James Stevens describes meeting his real mother 'in her mid forties' before he comes to London, yet the oldest she could be in 40 according to the maths. Similarly Private Cleary's date of birth is given as November 23rd 1948, yet in a letter written in May 1971 he says he is 27 when he should be 22. There's also some confusion about whether James Stevens' exact birthday is November 22nd or November 23rd, whilst his house transforms from being in a terrace to not being one! At the end he states he may have got some dates wrong so maybe UNIT dating isn't as 'solved' as some would wish...

The book is set in an extremely downbeat world, with UNIT appearing highly sinister from the outside whilst the fates of many of the characters are unenviable. Dodo reappears in this story but it is not all laughter and fun for her as she gets put through the grinder. This is a far cry from the cosy Pertwee novelisations on the 1970s but instead an investigation of the truth. Although at the time of original publication The X-Files was already doing this heavily, Who Killed Kennedy contains a lot of originality and in no way feels like a shameless rip-off of a going trend. Through the use of both James Stevens' personal narrative and Cleary's letters to his mother the reader is made to really understand what is going through the minds of both characters as they struggle to cope with the extraordinary series of events they must face.

The book's actual links to the Kennedy assassination come towards the end and do feel a little weak given that there is no attempt to explain the conspiracy alleged in the film JFK or to try to explain the whole magic bullet theory, unless I've missed a fourth shot and beyond being fired. However it is good to see a plausible attempt to tie the series into the Kennedy assassination given the proximity of the first transmission to the event and this is more substantial than the throwaway lines in either Silver Nemesis or the novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks. The book also does well in tying into the television series by placing James Stevens on the other end of phonelines or in group scenes seen on television. Although his description of a scene in The Mind of Evil is very antagonistic towards the Pertwee Doctor's character, jumping on the Pertwee bashing bandwagon a little too bluntly, in general these touches work and enhance the story no end.

It is a pity that Who Killed Kennedy has not been followed by more special one-off books. This works well as a completely independent story even though there are references to other New and Missing Adventures such as Millenial Rites. Above all this is a highly readable book that shows a wonderful new perspective on the UNIT stories whilst at the same time offering an original plot. Highly recommended. 9/10


A Review by Finn Clark 3/2/03

Fans like to categorise things, and anything that falls through the gaps tends to get forgotten. The Ghosts of N-Space gets wheeled out for a bash every so often, but who even remembers the novelisation of The Paradise of Death? Similarly Who Killed Kennedy has become the novel that fandom forgot, which is a shame since it's better than any Virgin MA ever. I can only think of a couple that even run it close.

Admittedly it's hardly a fluffy read. The protagonist, James Stephens, is a bastard for the first hundred pages. He treats his wife like dirt, fabricates great chunks of his news stories, etc. The conspiracy theory angle is also so thoroughly done that it can become oppressive, freaking you out with this world of paranoia and sinister threats. It's not afraid to do nasty things to its characters (one in particular being notorious in fandom, though I won't mention it here). Its world is convincingly violent and at times rather seedy. It's also a magnificent fictional achievement.

It's worth taking the time to list some of the things David Bishop achieved in Who Killed Kennedy. He wrote a novel that's simply steeped in Who lore, awash up to its gills, yet it never feels predictable or a gratuitous continuity-fest. The reason for this is that he's showing us the flip side of the stories we think we know, juxtaposing them against the real England of the late sixties and early seventies. Who Killed Kennedy contains more authentic period detail than you'd find in most historicals. It works in UNIT, BBC3, the events of the early UNIT stories, etc. but always grounds 'em in enough real-world detail that it never crosses your mind to think of them as TV stories. They feel real. That's a hell of an achievement in itself.

Who Killed Kennedy was also the first novel to question UNIT. The Virgin NAs and MAs used UNIT but always on the TV series' terms, i.e. as unquestioned good guys in whose headquarters the Doctor could take refuge, have endless cups of tea and spar with the Brigadier. It was only after Who Killed Kennedy that we started seeing some darker takes, as in Relative Dementias, Dominion and maybe Alien Bodies. However Who Killed Kennedy makes us rethink our cosy assumptions without actually sullying our heroes. David Bishop's UNIT still saves the day... it's just that he's been doing some hard thinking about how such an organisation would operate in the real world.

(It's a shame the narrative stops half-way through Season Nine, though... I'd have loved to see its take on Invasion of the Dinosaurs.)

The novel has a fine balancing act to follow between the TV stories and the books. It's tough, but I think the right choice was made. Making a big deal out of novel continuity might have confused irregular readers and made the book less iconic, especially when reread years later, so we only learn about the TV stories. And in any case, Virgin only published two MAs set in Pertwee's exile (Eye of the Giant and Scales of Injustice) and both came out alongside or shortly after this one. However careful reading will show that David Bishop hasn't ignored the novels at all - he mentions Ashley Chapel, Ruby Duvall and the events of Scales of Injustice, including a significant role for the blond, tanned man who would (see Business Unusual) become known as Mr Jones.

There are one or two slight discrepancies with the continuity from later books, though nothing irreconcilable. Isobel Watkins has lost her boyfriend thanks to C19 on page 66, yet shortly afterwards in Scales of Injustice she's married. Similarly page 272 claims that C19 is still going in 1996, albeit "a shadowy presence at the edge of society", but Instruments of Darkness reckons it closed down in 1991 or 1992.

I was amused by page 163 showing Liz Shaw to be a pipe-smoker, though. (Apparently this comes from the BBV PROBE video series.) And is it just me or is that the 7th Doctor on page 236?

[NOTE: according to the author, 'twas written to suggest either the 2nd or 7th. I assumed the latter, if only because he'd steered his TARDIS here correctly, but Troughton would be rather nice. It would be recent for him, as opposed to leaving it for a few hundred years until you have a spare moment. As for being there in the first place: (a) it could be a lucky accident, or (b) it could be in his unscreened post-War Games period of steerable TARDISes, Two Doctor-style missions and deliberate looking-up of old companions (Jamie, Victoria, the Brigadier, John & Gillian). That fits quite well, actually.]

The Kennedy assassination always had a strange, unacknowledged relationship with Doctor Who. We all know when JFK was shot. With hindsight, one might say this book had to be written... we're just lucky it turned out so damn good.


Uncovering UNIT by Joe Ford 6/12/03

What an inspired piece of work, so much better than any other Virgin Missing Adventure you have to wonder why they could not reach this level of genius every month. Occasionally something special would crop up (The Plotters) but nothing as deliciously complicated, as continuity busting, as dramatic and gritty as this.

Reading this after David Bishop's other work (The sweet and charming Amorality Tale and the bold The Domino Effect) only confirms what I always thought about the writer, he understands Doctor Who very well and knows how to use the show to his advantage. He has a fluent, snappy writing style and adores shocking you with moments of sadistic violence. His writing voice is like a signature, reading a David Bishop book you know who has written it, there is no thoughtful prose or moral dilemmas, just well plotted, hard as nails drama that is aimed straight at your heart.

Why was this so good then? Well the very premise is one that should be admired for its audacity. Basically the book follows reporter James Stevens throughout the early seventies, a man obsessed with his work and uncovering the secrets hidden in the government. He becomes aware of a secret Intelligence service known as UNIT as more and more terrorist actions are taken against the UK, dummies massacring people in the street, a plague at a London train station, the loss of Mars Probe seven... and sets out to expose this UNIT and their frightening ability to cover up these incidents. The public have a right to know they are being manipulated and James is determined to be the one who writes the full scoop on this UNIT and their mysterious scientific advisor known as the Doctor...

What a brave, brilliant idea to have a book focussing on the public's reaction to the bizarre happenings during the Pertwee era. It is a lot of fun to see how easily the media rationalise the Auton invasion, the Silurian Plague, etc, and it is also nice to see just how many casualties there were during these adventures... a point that is skipped over in most of them after the menace has been fought. What David Bishop manages to do is to see many of the early Pertwee stories in a different light, videos that we have watched again and again now have a new angle to explore. What a clever man, I have already re-watched Inferno and The Mind of Evil since reading this book.

But even cleverer than that is his ability to slip his character into those TV stories. Go watch Spearhead from Space, James Stevens is immersed in the media crowd that corners the Brig and Liz. And then watch The Silurians, when the Brig picks up the phone and says "The daily what? How did you get this number?" ...well that's him too! You even see him in the flesh examining the Keller machine in The Mind of Evil! You have to admire the man for his audacity, to find all this possible appearances must have taken some work but it pays of handsomely... I was grinning like an idiot.

I was going to make this review a love letter to Gary Russell, a lesson in how to teach him to ease of the continuity that suffocate his works or at least take note of David Bishop in how to get it right. Dodo, Watkins, Sutton, Petra, Black Thursday, Wenley Moor, Mars Probe, Stalhman, Liz, Jo, plastic daffodils, the Keller Machine, Magister, Ogrons... the links to previous Doctor Who episodes are relentless but amazingly this does not matter because the book was designed to slip into these stories and have a nose around. That is the very purpose of the book, rather than just slipping in references to old Who episodes for the hell of it (Gary!) this book takes established continuity and embellishes it, improves it. I shall certainly never lookat any of these stories in the same light again.

And anyway it is one of the greatest mysteries about Doctor Who; it is fun to speculate just what happened to the companions and friends of the Doctor after he has left them. Dodo is a good case for this, packed of to the country in The War Machines and never to be seen again, David takes advantage of her ambiguous exit and weaves her effortlessly into his text, having had her brain-washed and living in total poverty it seems only natural this elfin and sweet young lady could provide a touching romantic interest in James Stevens. And what about Lis Shaw whose appearance in this book leaves hanging the question as to whether she is scared of C19 and ashamed of her links to UNIT. It is nice to see that Greg Sutton and Petra Williams got together and disheartening to find out how much ridicule Isobel Watkins received after she tried to publish her photos of the Cybermen. It is like a happy reunion catching up with all these characters and because they slip in and out of the book during the course of Stevens' investigation it never seems too much. And Bishop avoids getting too mushy and indulgent with these old characters, most of them are painted in quite harsh colours.

Which brings me to the man of the hour, James Stevens. Whoever decided this should be written in first person narrative deserves a big kiss as it makes the book. Allowing us to see inside Stevens' head first hand helps us to build an excellent idea of his character. He manages to see conspiracies everywhere and as a result the book takes on a dark, oppressive tone that is quite impossible to put down. James is never written as a saint, he is a reporter, which means he's out for the dirt and will ruin your life for a good story and acts like a complete bastard at times. But he is still the hero of the piece and you never doubt his good intentions once he thinks UNIT is a genuine threat to the world.

Another of David Bishop's favourite aspects turns up here and that is abusing his characters in an almost pleasurable way. Stevens goes to hell and back during this novel and it is possible to see Bishop taking an almost perverse joy in making the guy's life more and more miserable. Losing his wife after being set up with another woman is one thing, the numerous beatings he gets is another but to let him find true love with Dodo and to have her killed by the man Stevens released and then to have his work ridiculed on live telly straight after leaves Stevens ready to put a gun to his head and end it all. It is torturous stuff for Stevens and because we are reading every thought in his head it is for the audience too. You feel close to Stevens because of the pain he is put through, because you know he is wrong about UNIT and the suffering he is going through trying to prove they are bad business is for nothing. The moment HE realises this is tear-jerking stuff.

The book reminds me strong of James Herbert's Creed, a good little chiller that also has a reporter as its protagonist and is also written in first person. That book was longer, more interested in atmosphere than genuine surprises and this book wins out in the sheer verve of its ending which breaks all the rules of how far Doctor Who can dare to go.

For a good while I was convinced that it would be the Doctor who killed Kennedy. I was also convinced that the title of the book was all wrong because although the book opens with a dramatic sequence in the White House Kennedy plays no real part in the book. The real shock comes when the book flowers open to reveal just how far the Master is willing to go to destroy the Earth, we know about his brainwashing techniques and Private Cleary (who throughout the course of the book we get to read some of his letters home to his mother as he joins UNIT) but I never guessed he would send the guy back in time to stop the assassination. Such amazing storytelling, this is the stuff of classic Who as Stevens is forced to shoot the President just to make sure history is put on the right track. Sheer genius and an ending most authors would die for, the moment he looked through the sights to shoot I had goose pimples all down my spine.

However the Kennedy assassination is just the icing on the cake. This along with The Face of the Enemy (and Eye of Heaven and The Last Resort) goes to prove how good Doctor Who books can be without the Doctor, how well evolved the Who universe is to have a story set within its confines without screaming marketing ploy. If they are going to be this good I for one suggest Justin Richards starts commissioning more for the BBC line, perhaps one that isn't set in the Pertwee era.

Who Killed Kennedy is a masterpiece, a book that grips you throughout. I took it to work with me everyday and read all through my lunch breaks, such was my addiction to its engaging storytelling. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good thriller and anyone who loves their Who a little bit more dangerous than usual.

Brilliant stuff.


JFK, UNIT, And The Doctor by Matthew Kresal 24/8/08

The assassination of JFK remains one of the greatest unsolved murders of all time. Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction series of all time and arguably the most popular. They seem like two separate things that couldn't possibly be connected. But to believe that is to be proved wrong. For author David Bishop has brought the assassination of JFK and the Doctor Who UNIT stories together to present: Who Killed Kennedy.

What separates Who Killed Kennedy from the other Doctor Who novels is the fact that the Doctor is not the main character. In fact, the Doctor barely features at all. Instead, the novel features on fictional reporter James Stevens who serves as the narrator. Stevens is a believable character who starts out as an innocent reporter investigating the appearance of a strange man at a country hospital (Spearhead From Space) and soon finds himself crossing the path of the mysterious group called UNIT.

The story itself has very little to do with the JFK assassination. Instead, the majority of the novel is spent covering the several years Stevens spending investigating UNIT. Little details from the UNIT stories pop up here and there including the cover stories given to hide each alien invasion. But the tension of the book comes from how much Stevens knows... or thinks he knows. There is a mysterious man helping him who seems to know all about UNIT and what it's really up to. In the end, it all leads to the Doctor, his arch-enemy the Master, a brainwashed UNIT private, and to a tragic day in Dallas.

But what makes Who Killed Kennedy interesting is how it seeks to bring authenticity to the Doctor Who universe. While the UNIT stories were always grounded in some sort of reality, the novel brings focus to that by making the book feel not like a novel but like a conspiracy theorist's book. It is also a novel full of personal details and ideas that give it an air of authenticity that helps to bring some much needed reality to the story. Even in the finale set in Dealy Plaza, Bishop brings details of the assassination to life in new and exciting ways.

But the novel isn't perfect. It does have issues with the UNIT timeline which has always been controversial. It does very little to back up its dating scheme though and this hurts when trying to make it fit into the series. Also, while Bishop seems to have a good grasp of his own creations, he does have problems with bringing familiar UNIT characters to life. I also didn't like Stevens' relationship with Dodo. It didn't seem to work well in my opinion and seemed like an unnecessary add-on and its resolution isn't very well handled.

Yet, despite these faults, Who Killed Kennedy makes for an interesting Doctor Who-based read. More spin-off than anything, this novel brings an outsider into the UNIT stories and shows it from the point of view of an ordinary person. That, and an interesting answer to the crime of the century, make this a must-read for Doctor Who fans. It's a shame this book is now out of print and hard to find for it is an amazing look into the Doctor Who universe.


A Review by Aengus Fallon 17/4/11

I finished reading the sorely underrated Who Killed Kennedy by David Bishop earlier today. I thought that it was absolutely phenomenal and easily the best Doctor Who novel that I've ever read, even though the Doctor himself appears on at most ten or twelve pages. Clearly owing much to The X-Files (a show which, incidentally, I've never been able to get into), it was first published in April 1996 when the latter was at the height of its popularity and conspiracy theories were in vogue. However, it is not merely a cynical cash-in of a going trend but a brilliant novel full of uncharacteristically gritty realism. Besides Children of Earth and I, Davros, this is probably the grittiest Doctor Who universe story that I've ever come across.

As the name would suggest, it tackles one of the most famous conspiracy theories in history in the context of the Doctor Who universe. In spite of the title, however, it primarily focuses on the events of the UNIT era of the programme from the perspective of the public in general and a New Zealand investigative journalist named James Stevens in particular. It was controversial in its day for disregarding all onscreen evidence of UNIT dating (contradictory though it is) in favour of setting the stories against the background of the time in which they were made: the very late 1960s and early 1970s, spanning Spearhead in Space to Day of the Daleks. Personally, since I've always viewed the UNIT stories as taking place at the time of broadcast, it didn't bother me in the slightest. It does slightly retcon several TV stories and novels in the interest of the storyline though nothing too serious. Furthermore, I loved how it connected Doctor Who history to real history with references to the Silurian plague and the failure of the Inferno Project contributing to Labour's defeat in the 1970 general election. Real-life figures such as Alex MacIntosh and Malcolm Muggeridge put in appearance to boot.

It was fascinating to get an outsider's view of multiple stories from across the classic series, beginning with An Unearthly Child itself appropriately enough. For instance, in the UNIT dossier (Chapter Four), Stevens describes reports of a short Scottish man who calls himself the Doctor and a teenage girl named Ace turning up at an army base in Northumbria where the Ultima machine was stored in 1943 and, twenty years later, at Shoreditch in London, shortly after the disappearance of Susan Foreman and her teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright. While the novel is by necessity heavily reliant on continuity to the extent that it probably references more Doctor Who serials than any other non-reference book, it never struck as being intrusive or overwhelming unlike, for instance, much of Gary Russell's work.

The aforementioned Stevens is the protagonist and he makes for a very strong one. He starts off as a fairly unlikeable character with relatively little journalistic integrity - early in the book, he mentions that his personal motto is never let the facts get in the way of a good story - and neglects and mistreats his wife, emotionally if not physically. Over time, however, he grows more and more appealing as a character. Outside of several Torchwood novels, this is the only Doctor Who universe novel which I have read where the Doctor is not the main character. In fact, it is a good 80 or so pages before he even puts in an appearance. Oddly, that made the story more compelling as it made me consider the consequences of the Doctor's actions on the lives of ordinary people, something which the classic series never really dealt with in any great detail. That is one of its very few overall failings as far as I'm concerned and I'm glad that both Big Finish and the new series have done so in recent years. Stevens suffers terribly during the course of the novel but, as is the case in all good drama, grows as a character as a result. What more can you ask from a story like this? It certainly sets the bar very high for Doctor-lite stories.


The Doctor Syndrome by Neil Clarke 22/5/11

Frustratingly, I haven't read any Doctor Who novels in ages; not deliberately, just because of lack of time. Which, upsettingly, is why I left Doctor Who behind back in the nineties, because I felt I was missing out on so many other amazing books and films. So, since getting back into it, I've tried to alternate with 'real' novels (if you will), so I don't burn myself out on it, or feel like I'm denying myself more varied things too.

There's so much I want to enjoy though, Doctor Who-wise: at the moment, I still have a big proportion of a thirty-plus Oxfam novel haul to get through; I really want to reread the collected DWM strips to date; old DWMs I've eBayed from after I stopped buying them; and re-listen to several sixties audio soundtracks (I tend to listen to them at night, with the inherent danger of falling asleep and not giving them the attention they deserve).

It's the novels that seem most important though. The Virgin series especially - at their best - represents Doctor Who at its most 'right' for me. It upsets me, actually, how they are becoming more and more forgotten, that they'll never be reprinted and will gradually fall apart (which seems unfair considering they kept the series going, and their continued influence on the revived TV series; I really wish more could find their way online, for posterity).

In a way, I think that's why I write these reviews, to sort of commemorate the books I feel are worthwhile, cos they mean so much to me!

Therefore, it's really nice coming back to a book I read in the past but don't have a huge memory of.

Who Killed Kennedy, while an aberration in published Doctor Who fiction, is a fascinating one, following journalist James Stevens on an investigation that takes in the events and cover-ups of various UNIT-era stories. With even onscreen, irrefutably 'canon' stories like Love & Monsters viewing the Doctor's adventures from an oblique angle, it's easy to overlook how radical and unprecedented Who Killed Kennedy's outsider perspective was, and it's actually much more successful that you might be given to expect. (I like the idea of viewing this as a Third Doctor era 'Doctor-lite' story. In fact, the replaying of events from recent adventures from an everyman, outsider context is present, particularly, in both Love & Monsters and Turn Left.)

There's something about contextualising the outlandish events of Doctor Who within the default 'real world' setting it always returns to which I find really interesting. Having the events of The War Machines (C-day), Spearhead from Space (Black Thursday) et al mentioned alongside Asian flu, the fall of the Wilson government, or the death of Charles De Gaulle is therefore rather wonderful, especially as these sorts of things never really impinge on the Doctor's world.

Not only that, but seeing from the point of view of reporter James Stevens - and grounded in the context of a life involving drink, sex, affairs, and divorce - creates a persuasive dichotomy. (And isn't as jarring as it could easily be, perhaps because a realistic approach is brought even to characters like usually anonymous UNIT rookies like Private Cleary, whose letters bring to life a usually overlooked position. I always feel - especially given my appreciation for the NAs' adult approach - that although sex and swearing and other 'unsavoury' activities don't feature in televised Doctor Who, it's not that they don't exist in that world, just that we're not permitted to see them; a viewpoint which David Bishop realises nicely here.)

Obviously the NAs put sex and drugs into Doctor Who, but they were dealing with the on-going adventures of the then-current Doctor; having such realism applied to a past era is unusual, and surprisingly doesn't feel 'wrong'. Whereas - in the first of possibly many comparisons with Gary Russell's The Scales of Injustice - shoving some violence into a typical Third Doctor story just doesn't work, and shows how facile that approach is.

Subtle nods to Doctor Who tropes like Metropolitan magazine and a pre-digital BBC3 also show a relative subtlety unknown to the Gary Russells of this world, which help blur the boundaries between reality and the earth of Doctor Who. Even interviews with characters like Greg Sutton or Ralph Cornish don't feel overdone; I guess because in the context of a journalistic investigation, it makes sense they'd be tracked down, whereas Scales arbitrarily namedrops any and all characters imaginable.

I also particularly liked the justification of the British Mars missions from The Ambassadors of Death within an otherwise recognisable seventies England, linking Ralph Cornish to the leftovers of Tobias Vaughn's International Electromatics, and thus advanced Cyber-technology. Ooh, neat.

Stevens' integration and presence in existing stories is also very elegant and constrained (Spearhead, Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Mind of Evil). This is perhaps because, as Bishop himself was a journalist, it feels as if the concept for an investigation of these events was inspired by the pre-existing presence of journalists in those stories, rather than shoehorning these links in later.

The cover-ups Stevens faces and the conspiracy thriller elements of the book also seem quite believable (or at least believably unpleasant), whereas, watching the stories in question, it's all too easy to scoff and deride the fact that their events are apparently forgotten next week.

It's also pleasing to have conspiracy thriller tropes applied to the usually morally black and white Doctor Who world, especially when the Doctor himself and the UNIT family are present in the background (and especially since they are made ambiguous themselves by distance).

Again, this is a less broad approach than in Scales, but it has similar ideas, with Bishop taking a more believable and genuinely unpleasant approach (rather than just throwing in the odd arbitrary decapitation). These conspiracy sections might be trashy to an extent - beatings and firebombings - but it is to the author's credit that, in keeping with this realistic perspective, they are also terrestrial, and don't veer toward slavering dogs infected with Inferno-ooze, Cyberised villains, or partially-Auton henchmen.

Given that this deals with the first prolonged period of alien activity apparently in the public eye (the UNIT era), tellingly, this book wouldn't work with regard to the second (the Davies era), because Russell T Davies repeatedly went out of his way to point out the whole world couldn't possibly avoid this invasion... Only for it to be mentioned once more down the line and then forgotten, with our suspension of disbelief in tatters. At least it does seem broadly conceivable that the events of The Web of Fear could be put down to some kind of tear gas attack.

I also particularly liked the idea of the Master's 'Victor Magister' persona being portrayed as a terrorist by the media after the events of The Daemons, used as a scapegoat for what, from the public POV we are seeing through Stevens' eyes, appears to be a spate of terrorist attacks. Having said that, I sort of wish the Master weren't any more directly involved with the story than this, as it does seem slightly predictable within a UNIT era novel.

However, this is balanced by possibly the bravest element of this book; its use of Dodo. Seeing even an unloved companion homeless and hopeless following her ignominious departure from the Doctor is quite horrifying. There is also added pathos given her treatment as a real person in The Man in the Velvet Mask while, like in that book, it's kind of sweet that she's allowed a starring role (especially outside of her era, and over Liz, say). It's also nice having an earlier companion linked to the mainly-UNIT-oriented situation here; as in the recent Death of the Doctor, making Doctor Who's twentieth century seem like a coherent whole. It does seem a shame however that, given this novel's proximity to The Man in the Velvet Mask in the schedules, more wasn't done to link them.)

It's to David Bishop's credit that a melange of elements including the Master, Dodo Chaplet, Liz Shaw, et al, feels cohesive, and not overly unrestrained.

Some of the journalistic wranglings and access to important and/or convenient contacts seems a bit too easy, but we'll let that one slide in the name of dramatic licence. The sections toward the end where Stevens is locked up, and comes face to face with the Master (nefariously posing as the Director of the Glasshouse), followed by his all-action escape, and live-television humiliation - while necessary in terms of genre conventions - does seem at odds with the realism previously built up, but I can also forgive this as central to the gradually building degradation and defamation the character is put through, resulting in not only the murder of 'the woman he loves' and their unborn child, but his arrest for said crime.

Stevens really does get put through the ringer in a way that wouldn't really be achievable with a companion. Although, look at Dodo; at least not during their time with the Doctor, then. Similarly though - as in The Man in the Velvet Mask - Dodo's fate was probably only sanctioned because of how unloved a character she is. (Can you imagine anything comparable happening to, say, Martha, these days?)

The Master's dastardly (and, let's face it, somewhat overcomplicated) plan - which I suppose is true to the character - also jars, though the major letdown is just how unrelated (and unnecessary) the Kennedy assassination seems. It feels very much shoehorned in, especially given the coincidence that Stevens happens to have always been interested in this, which remains nothing more than a coincidence, and doesn't have any particular significance aside from providing him with the requisite detailed knowledge back in 1963.

Overall, Who Killed Kennedy is an unexpectedly brave formula experiment. Though well done, there isn't quite enough invention for it to be brilliant, even though it takes an interesting perspective. That it avoids becoming a list recounting the events of various familiar stories is probably the book's greatest feat (though there is perhaps - if necessarily - a little too much of this). Most of all though, and not for the first time, this novel makes me wish a similarly experimental series of books were still being published...