Caught on Earth
|ISBN#||0 563 538?? ?|
|Featuring||The fourth Doctor, Sarah and Harry.|
|Synopsis: Harry is dead. Having left him abandoned and alone in pre-war Britain, the Doctor and Sarah try to solve the mystery of his death. But the only witness is in a lunatic asylum, driven mad by what he has seen. He tells of murder and mutilation, of living trees and long-dead legends, of wolfmen and war... And of a mysterious stranger known only as the Doctor.|
A Review by Finn Clark 30/9/03
Buoyed by happiness over the recent Russell T. Davies good news, last night I finally got around to reading Wolfsbane. Of course my review will disappear without trace in the avalanche of joyous TV-revival posts, as opposed to a couple of days ago (when it would have nearly been the only Who-related thing on Usenet) but for that I have only myself to blame...
The Earth Arc just grew. This may be a 4th Doctor PDA with Sarah and Harry, but it's also a McGann PDA that adds another chapter to that relatively unexplored century of his life when he wandered the Earth, amnesiac and alone. [Its last seven pages also tie into Timeless and the just-concluded Alternate Universe Arc, but it's such a bizarre random afterthought of an epilogue that I found it inoffensive. It doesn't really affect anything. 'Twill probably confuse the hell out of anyone reading the book in years to come, though.]
If anyone's interested in (re)reading the amended Earth Arc, here's how it goes:
1894 The Burning
1918 Casualties of War
1936 Wolfsbane < ---
1944 The Turing Test
"80"s Father Time
2001 Escape Velocity
I'd be interested in seeing how the insertion of Wolfsbane affects that arc. My guess is: "quite a lot". Rayner's 8th Doctor is more traditionally Doctorish than I remember from the enigmatic figure of Casualties of War and The Turing Test, and then there's the added WTF factor of having the Season Twelve crew dropping in for a major guest spot. [Though there's something rather appropriate about that, given that The Ancestor Cell closed off the Dust regeneration and the unhappening of Planet of the Spiders. Thus in Wolfsbane the 8DA Doctor finds himself associating with a post-Spiders 4th Doctor instead of the Pertwee incarnation who'd been haunting him throughout the Cole-Buffini era.]
I'll start by discussing the regulars: the 4th and 8th Doctors, Sarah and Harry. What's more, that mini-list also ranks them in ascending order of how well they're evoked in this book!
The 4th Doctor is... okay. He's never bad, but he's not particularly vivid either. Admittedly this is the more subdued version from the 4th Doctor's first few stories, but you wouldn't read this book for its conjuration of the Ghost of Tom. He's moody, he's taciturn and he leaves much of the action to his companions.
The 8th Doctor is better. One gets the impression that Rayner is particularly interested in this version of the character - amnesia, dislocation, a touch of steel and a certain sense of incompleteness. Apparently Justin Richards is considering further McGann PDAs set during the Earth Arc and I rather like the idea. I'd certainly prefer it to the ongoing 8DAs! Here he has a bit of an edge about him, partly because the book's structure means we learn halfway through that not all his actions will be for the best. There's (yet) another reminder that "oh woe and lackaday, wasn't it so horrid to blow up Gallifrey", but given the book's placement I couldn't bring myself to object.
Even three years later in a PDA, there's still something fresh and interesting about the Earth Arc Doctor. Maybe it's just the absence of Fitz? My only real problem with this side of the book is that we occasionally jumped from Doctor to Doctor without enough warning, making me reset my mental images in mid-section.
However despite the presence of two Doctors, the book's real heroes are its human companions: Sarah and Harry. Most of the narrative is from their points of view, an effect which is heightened by both Doctors being distant, enigmatic and not infrequently absent. They're basically guest stars. Most of the action is left to the companions and those acquit themselves well. There wasn't much to Sarah Jane's character on television beyond what Liz Sladen brought to the party, but here she's always solidly three-dimensional and we get well underneath her skin. It's less successful than Jac Rayner's similar evocations of Anji (EarthWorld) and Bernice Summerfield (The Squire's Crystal, The Glass Prison), but that's a high standard to live up to and this is certainly a much better Sarah than we've seen in many other novels.
Jac's Sarah is good... but her Harry is fantastic! I remember laughing myself silly at the comedy hero of Ian Marter's Harry Sullivan's War, and here I did the same. Harry Sullivan is wonderful! He's a P.G. Wodehouse character aboard the TARDIS, Jeeves and Wooster by way of UNIT and the Royal Navy. Jac Rayner takes this further than I remember from the TV stories, occasionally writing Harry's scenes as if channelling the spirit of Wodehouse himself, but if it produces a character this entertaining I can't complain. He even talks like Bertie Wooster! ("I say, old thing!" "Dashed awkward, what?") At one point I meant to write this entire review in Harry's voice, a notion which fell by the wayside but makes me chuckle as I think of it now. Dear old Harry. You'll end this book as much in love with him as is clearly Jac Rayner herself.
[1936 is also the perfect setting for him. As the book itself notes, this is P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie country rather than Harry's somewhat fish-out-of-water origins with a semi-secret paramilitary organisation in the gritty 1970s. His double act with George Stanton is a delight.]
As for the book itself... it's good. It's not great, but it's enjoyable. The most pleasant surprise for me was the relatively low-key treatment of its werewolf material. Having bought it expecting Kursaal 2: The Return, I found to my delight a whole bunch of strange and inexplicable events going on. Lycanthropy is just a part of it. One particularly effective piece of imagery is the thirsty earth, which becomes downright creepy in a scene with Sarah and a graveyard at night. You'll know it when you see it. There's much more to the story than "eek, werewolves!", which I appreciated.
There's only one real problem, and it's a strange one. Remember I mentioned a certain P.G. Wodehouse-ness? It's a delight when it's appropriate... but often it's not. Everything feels very civilised. An air of detached wit hangs over the book, which sometimes reads oddly in a story of death, werewolves, horror and blood. The narrative voice often has a twinkle in its eye, which heightens the comedy but makes the dramatic bits less exciting. For example, every single one of the book's big revelations can be spotted in advance. Sometimes it's only a couple of pages in advance, but it still feels more like the narrative getting ready for a punchline than trying to astonish and shock.
Admittedly there's plenty of trauma and emotion, but it's not dramatic trauma. It's just Sarah being distressed because she's thinking about death or something. That's not story, that's characterisation. Wolfsbane has many fine qualities, but even its best friends couldn't accuse it of being thrilling.
[Ooooh, I nearly forgot to mention the story's big gimmick. See the back cover for details. Three of the last six PDAs have now done this plot twist, albeit in different ways, and I think that's enough. No more, please. However I didn't mind it here, since it's clearly a "how will they get out of that" rather than a "you bastards!" situation. Sadly its resolution isn't particularly interesting, but at least it's better than what we got in Loving The Alien. All things considered, it's probably exactly what it had to be.]
Wolfsbane's villains are just funny, but its werewolf is a genuinely involving character. That's one of the big plus points of the book, giving it much-needed weight and making it live in my memory. Also despite everything I've said about the narrative voice, this is a book of mystery, magic, blood and foreknowledge of death, so a serious story is being told. You'll laugh at the scenes of George and Harry, but darker things are going on too.
There's something oddly lightweight about Wolfsbane, but I definitely enjoyed it. Two good books in one year! Heavens above! Would it be stretching our luck to hope for three?
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 13/10/03
When Justin Richards announced that he was going to reset the BBC 8th Doctor book range in 2000, he managed to come up with an idea so brilliantly simple, that it must rank as one of best ideas Doctor Who has ever witnessed. He came up with an idea to strand the 8th Doctor on Earth during the 20th century. The Doctor would live through that century, with no memories, the TARDIS slowly gaining its familiar shape, and companions reappearing in 2000. It wiped the slate clean for the 6 authors who were privileged to run with this idea.
What resulted was the best running arc I believe Doctor Who has ever produced with 4 magnificent stories, and 2 pretty good ones. The idea was too good though to limit it to a 6 month period - I knew authors would take the amnesiac 8th Doctor of the 20th century, and conjure adventures around him. I believed it would occur when the 8th Dr joined the ranks of previous Doctors. Jacqueline Rayner has managed to bring that forward by writing this as a joint 4th and 8th Dr book, where 2 stories run together, impacting on the other, when both Doctors are the stars of their different time streams.
I adored the Caught on Earth saga, and I really think Jac Rayner feels the same. She's been inspired by it, resulting in her best book by miles. This stands alongside Burning, Father Time and their partners - this is totally brilliant book. Wolfsbane is also a wonderfully traditional Doctor Who story, exactly the sort I want to read - and exactly the sort of book that raises Doctor Who above all other science fiction/fantasy.
The setting is brilliant. Nov/Dec 1936 England. It immediately brings to the fore those crisp mornings, where the trees produce their final colours before the winter sleep. Nature is alive in this book, more than any other Doctor Who story I can think of (Seeds of Doom is close though). The weather is not presented as typical of this time of year, but this is all part of the mysterious goings on around the village.
Sarah-Jane opens the book in a sequence that actually occurs later - and it sufficiently whets the appetite. When the 4th Doctor appears, it's that Bohemian eccentric, the alien mysterious Doctor of his early seasons - the best characterization the Doctor has ever had. Jac Rayner captures this perfectly - none moreso when Harry is left behind thanks to an erratic TARDIS.
Sarah-Jane was just so delightful on TV, it's a joy to read her again here - in probably her best book. The scene in the graveyard is particularly good - the real horror of having someone you care for in such a frightening situation. Harry Sullivan is superbly depicted too. The bumbling, likeable chap was always underrated as a companion, but it's wonderful to see him dominate the book here. As he befriends the 8th Doctor in the earlier timestream, so I wished there were more PDAs with Harry Sullivan in.
The 8th Doctor is the model that Justin Richards firmly established in The Burning. He's been on Earth for nearly 40 years by this time. It's perfect characterization having him own a cottage, near the village. As he investigates the strange goings on, I couldn't help but feel he gives the early 4th Doctor a run for his money for brilliant characterization. There just has to be more stories out there of this Doctor, at this time of this incarnation. I look forward to them eagerly.
The other character flesh out the book nicely. Local squire-type George was wonderfully slipshod in his feelings. Emmy, the German, mysterious. Only Arthurian reject Godric was remotely weak - but then the Grail had to arrive in the story someway.
As the 4th Doctor and Sarah-Jane investigate the events of a fortnight before, involving the 8th Doctor and Harry, so the picture begins to form. So the story develops, with its thick, intensely dark Doctor Who atmosphere. Every page is descriptively excellent, every character has a place and a purpose. It's just a magnificent book in every way. 10/10
Two for the price of one! by Joe Ford 6/11/03
I have always had something of a precarious relationship with the Past Doctor Adventures ever since Justin Richards took over as editor. His EDA's have suitably wowed me but the sister range has been lacking something for a long time. Maybe it is because these are just nostalgic dips into eras that have already been suitably explored on the telly. Maybe it's the severe lack of standalone nature of the books, if an 8th Doctor book sucks there are usually some continuity references or some plot relevance harking back to a previous book to keep you reading, if a PDA sucks it just sucks. And maybe it is that they have just been totally underwhelming. In the past three years the only PDA's that have blown me away have been Shadow in the Glass, Relative Dementias, Ten Little Aliens, Amorality Tale and Blue Box. And trust me there have been some real duds (Warmonger, Heritage and Loving the Alien rank amongst the worst Who fiction published).
So it is my pleasure to announce that this is one of the best missing or past Doctor books I have ever read. Unfortunately for the sister range this is actually more of an 8th Doctor adventure so much of the credit lies there. As usual.
When I saw the beautiful cover online I knew this was going to be something special. The TARDIS silhouetted against the moon, the trees dripping with wolfsbane and the wolf, hiding behind a dune of sand all combine to make one of the most vivid and atmospheric covers the range has seen. Good work.
This is a serious contender for best PDA of the year, battling the honours with Kate Orman's Blue Box. They are such different stories (and vastly different authors) there is no grounds for comparison. Kate writes elegantly, poetically but practically. Her work can be a little cold and sterile (but effectively so... this is not a dig at one of the best Who authors). Jac Rayner however writes simplistically (this was a remarkably quick read) but evocatively. When I read her work I get the impression she has thought about each sentence and tried to capture the mood and emotions the story requires with as few words as possible. Wolfsbane confirms this being a mere 244 pages long but achieving a very great deal. If you buy this book you will have a horror pastiche, a clumsy romance, a murder mystery and a race against time puzzle. Not bad huh?
What did EarthWorld, The Squires Crystal and The Glass Prison have in common? Perfectly captured protagonists! Anji and Benny were lavishly written by Jac, given the opportunity to begin the former's travels in print and end the latter's she managed to me eager to read more about Anj and desperate for more books for Benny. Truthfully Jac concentrates on one major character at the expense of the others but it works, her wonderful treatment of Harry Sullivan in Wolfsbane is a delight to read. I love Harry, Ian Marter is one of the unsung heroes of the show if you ask me... positively charming and real cute to boot. He was an ideal companion, completely useless and always needing rescue and yet obsessively protective of fellow companion Sarah.
Harry takes centre stage and proves just how well he can hold up a book on his own. Jac obviously shares my devotion of him and concentrates a large portion of the book getting inside his head and revealing his true self. Yes, Harry could be used for comedy moments, his complete inability to cope with Emmeline's advances kept me in stitches but he was also an intelligent and sensitive guy with some real bottle. The sequence we realise he is (half) in love with Sarah is astonishing, that page and a half was a gorgeous piece of writing that capitalises on the chance to look at established companions in a new light.
The best Harry moments reveal his gentlemanly nature. His very British inability to cope with events that spiral down and down into ultra weirdness is wonderful. Werewolves and Holy Grails and such like, all too absurd for a rational man to believe in, what? The way he is drawn to this mysterious stranger who calls himself the Doctor is heart-warming, we know who the curly haired eccentric is but Harry spends the entire book trying to figure him out and fails and yet trusts him anyway. The way he walks blindly into danger knowing he's doing the right thing, his gradual loss of faith that the Doctor and Sarah won't return for him, his hysterical "Right ho!" every time he hears something weird... clearly a lot of time has been put into getting Harry right and it pays off. He was a lot of fun to read about.
And what of his mysterious companion, this other Doctor who claims to know nothing of Skaro or UNIT? The real joy of Wolfsbane is that it is really an 8th Doctor book in disguise. His period trapped on Earth without his memories and a distinct lack of friends was one of the most enjoyable periods (let's say arc although I am beginning to detest the word) of Doctor Who. It revealed much about this magical character that even without time-travel, companions, old monsters he could still seek out evil and destroy it. Jac captures the melancholic mood of those six books very well, this lonely, lost Time Lord provides the book with its heart. To hear that his 'astounding stories' have been rejected, that he is just travelling from place to place looking for a home really brings a lump to the throat. Even though the 8th Doctor has come a long way since those desperate times it is impossible to forget his one hundred years of isolation. The moment Emmeline shares her despair that she has no family, no memory and he cries with her is heart breaking.
Harry and the Doc share the main plot, horror and blood and wolves in the night. It reminded me very strongly of the film Sleepy Hollow because it shares the same undercurrents of tasteless horror and macabre jokes. Needless to say it works a treat and leads me to wonder why, when the fourth Doctor's popular three year introduction was basically one long horror pastiche, there haven't been more tales of this nature. It gives Wolfsbane a distinct identity and manages to pull of some terrific shocks. Sarah and the Doctor (4th) attempting to piece together the mystery of how Harry Sullivan died whilst we actually experience that plot for ourselves allows Jac to play with us delightfully. She can reveal titbits here and there, leading us one way when she is dragging us into another.
The scary bits actually work, a miracle really because I haven't read a Doctor Who book that REALLY scared me since Damaged Goods (discounting Anachrophobia which is the scariest Doctor Who book ever!). Ever thought about being buried alive? Or being dragged underwater by mutant ivy? Or lost your mind in an insane asylum full of lost hope? Jac draws on both visceral and psychological horror effectively, the book never made me scared to turn the light off but there were some horrific images lingering in my head after I put the book on the bedside table.
I can't really say much about the 4th Doctor and Sarah because they weren't around all that much. Their irresistible chemistry is there and their obvious feelings for Harry shine through. Sarah got most of the page space and the lengths she goes to prove Harry is not dead are horrifying to say the least! Jac has Sarah exclaim her words with lots of !!!!!'s, brilliantly pulling off Elisabeth Sladen's enthusiasm in the role, Lis could sometimes overplay dialogue wonderfully and Jac reminds us just whose interpretation of the character we are reading about. There were a few moments of the 4th Doctor's humour, escaping from the asylum was a particular treat but his lack of involvement again throws the book more the EDA category.
The climax is suitably grand with some stylish events that would never be possible to realise on a BBC budget. The ominous threat builds throughout the book and the revelation of who the murderer is actually disappoints a little. Just remember Sleepy Hollow... However the book doesn't actually finish shocking you when you think it does and look out for a brilliantly vague ending that ties up impossibly, unbelievably with Timeless, the previous 8th Doctor book. It is a glorious reward for following the books so diligently.
I should mention the werewolf angle which the book hinges on. Excellent. I have seen half a dozen werewolf themed films and lots of episodes of Buffy with wolves on the brain and still Wolfsbane felt like a fresh take on the idea. There were some extremely discomforting scenes from the POV of a werewolf that vividly described the change, the instincts and the death involved. The draw of the moon was highly atmospheric. And chapter six (Night of the Long Claws) is up there with those precious few chapters that surpass the book around them and become a mini masterpiece in their own right. Such an evocative piece of work.
As you can tell I very much enjoyed this book. Just read the first line, a sure sign you're in for an effective read. It crossed ranges superbly and teamed up two of my favourite Who characters, it made me laugh out loud loads of times (Harry had to admit if the Queen ever hit him he would certainly not hit her back!) thanks to some charming character humour and the ending just blown me away with its audacity.
Quite simply a joy.
Next up: Terrance and Barry rehash the Pertwee era. Could this be a downswing for the PDA's?
A Review by Brett Walther 7/3/04
Isn't it funny how the circumstances in which you read Doctor Who can sometimes temper your opinion of that particular book?
Even if a novel is substandard drivel, it can be an enjoyable read simply because you've finished exams, or got a promotion, or what have you.
As I flicked through the pages of Wolfsbane, stretched out on a lounge chair under the dazzling Florida sun over March Break, I thought that in spite of the contents, I would enjoy it tremendously.
Unfortunately, this was not the case.
This was perhaps more surprising, given that I was anticipating this book more than any other that lined the shelf while I was packing my bags. Jacqueline Rayner's previous EarthWorld was a scream. A return to the Eighth Doctor's Caught on Earth sequences was inspired. I was getting a tan while immersing myself in Doctor Who, for god's sake. What went wrong?
I realize now that - like Sarah Jane in the novel - I had fallen into a freshly dug grave (or in this case, one of the multitude of plot holes in Wolfsbane) and simply grew tired of trying to dig myself out by explaining things away on my own.
Wolfsbane suffers primarily from a complete lack of scientific credibility. Don't get me wrong'I have always brushed off the need for scientific accuracy in Who - but in Wolfsbane, fantasy and legend eclipse science and reason to the extent that the entire thing becomes impossible to take seriously. At first I loved the Arthurian themes and werewolf folklore, assuming that the Doctor would arrive on the scene and give a cursory explanation of the science behind the mysterious phenomena. Unfortunately, both the Fourth and Eighth Doctors seem to accept magical happenings as being a result of... Magic. Werewolves aren't the result of an alien infection or anything of that vein. Rather, they're loosely explained as being "part of the land" with a similarly unexplained aversion to silver. There are dryads, too, by the way. According to the Doctor, these tree-fairies have always existed - they've just developed the handy habit of wiping people's memories of their encounters with them.
Whereas Rayner's characterization of Anji and Fitz were the highlights of EarthWorld, her grip on the supporting cast of Wolfsbane is weak. Although she's got Sarah Jane and Harry down, the villains of the piece - an aristocratic mother and son who believe themselves to be the reincarnations of Morgan Le Fay and Mordred - are simply pathetic. Morgan Le Fay/Hester Stanton plays a tiny role, despite being pivotal in triggering the plot, and is dealt with far too easily. (Namely, she plunges into a crevasse after Harry points a cup in her direction.)
Alright, so that cup just happens to be the Holy Grail. But the Grail is the ultimate deus ex machina, and instead of investigating some of its legendary attributes or attempting to make it interesting in any way aside from being a handy anti-would-be-sorceress weapon, it sinks back into the Earth. This is amateur fiction, folks, and poor fiction at that.
And what's crawled up the Fourth Doctor's ass? He is a complete bitch in this story, showing very little remorse over the rather lame "oops, I've taken off without making sure Harry's climbed back on board" plot device. (Echoes of Vicki's abandonment in The Chase, anyone?) He's brooding and bad-tempered, and impossible to reconcile with the Doctor who has apparently just left Nerva Beacon in Revenge of the Cybermen.
It's also startling to realize upon finishing Wolfsbane how very little actually happens in it. The plot is silly - again going back to my earlier point about a lack of scientific credibility - concerning a sorceress's attempt to awaken the land to do her bidding by having a werewolf shed blood. We never get an idea of where Hester gets the idea that she actually is the reincarnation of Morgan Le Fay - the Doctor dismisses that idea fairly early on - and it is left to the Doctor to surmise what she's going to do with the powers of nature once she's succeeded in her plan. He suggests that she'll turn plants against animals and cause a few earthquakes under Parliament, for starters, but since Stanton never gets to speak - she has startlingly little dialogue for the principal villain - this is just the Doctor thinking out loud.
Rather than offering us insight into the villain's motivations and ultimate goals, Rayner dumps in endless passages describing the lush vegetation; a result of land "coming to life". Not only are these sections incredibly dull, with the Doctor and company trying to gain entry into the overgrown forest to confront Stanton, they also brought to mind embarrassing images of Jo Grant fighting off vines in The Daemons. Which at least brought a smile to my face for a fleeting second...
Oh well. At least I've got a tan.
Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 8/9/04
The biggest problem I found with this book was that I couldn't tell what it was trying to be (and I'm not sure Jacqueline Rayner knew either). It's a rum mixture (if I may be excused such an archaic phrase) of wolves, magic, Artherian legend and old-fashioned spirits and myth. One or the other is usually enough, so when they are combined something gets a little lost in the translation.
And then there's the fact of more than one Doctor. This was basically to allow for more than one story featuring the Doctor to occur with some overlapping elements, but multi-Doctor stories have always been seen as more of a fan thing than because the story demanded it, and I can't say that this is any exception. The last time this had happened was Heart of TARDIS, and I found myself wishing that Jac Rayner had paid more attention to what that did. Not so much in terms of telling a multi-Doctor story, but simply in terms of switching from one narrative sequence to the other. The asterisk device for indicting the breaks between Doctor segment would have made things a lot clearer.
Not to say from all this that this is a bad story. Jacqueline Rayner doesn't tell those, but she does seem to have problems with filling a larger page count. Contrast her shorter Benny stories with her longer BBC works. This book goes for the shorter length as opposed to the standard 280 pages, but still it seems like this story could have been tightened further.
I do feel the need to question the ending chapter. Yes, this does tie into the ongoing current Eighth Doctor adventures, but was there any need to? But certainly have to give props for showing that it is possible to do a Past Eighth Doctor Adventure.
The character of the Eighth Doctor works fine (as long as one can remember what he was like back then), but the character of the Fourth Doctor seems a little off. This is how he acts at the end of his time, not the beginning of it. Sarah Jane Smith doesn't fare to well either, coming off a little more than slightly manic. Harry Sullivan is about the only one to really shine, this being more his novel than any of the other characters.
Of the supporting cast, only Emmeline Neuberger and Godric are given any focus. Emmeline is handled in such a way that, I think, we are supposed to be on her side. Certainly we don't see much of the other side for comparison, but she comes across as 'mistreated minority', so the major signs are there for us to feel the proper emotions. Godric, I'm not sure about. He's present, yes, but I can't really say if he's well or badly characterised. He's just there.
In the end, Wolfsbane comes across as a typical Jacqueline Rayner BBC book, in that it obviously wants to be a good book, but can't quite get itself sorted out to be one. The sudden tie-in at the end is a little jarring, but on the whole a competent work.
A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 23/9/04
Now this is more like it. Wolfsbane is one half whimsical fun and one half gothic horror. It's a great action-adventure, paced strongly enough that it never becomes dull or tedious. It's a straightforward story told with a lot of wit. It's not the perfect Doctor Who novel, but it's one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.
Wolfsbane is told in two parts simultaneously. In the beginning, the Fourth Doctor and Sarah accidentally become separated from everyone's favorite bumbler, Harry Sullivan. Harry wanders off into adventures of his own, quickly teaming up with the amnesiac Eighth Doctor in the middle of his Earth Arc. Meanwhile, the Fourth Doctor and Sarah land a few weeks into the future trying to find a clue as to the whereabouts of their friend. Generally speaking, Harry is the star of the first subplot, while Sarah gets the spotlight in the second. Both strands concentrate on the same plot, as apparent werewolves terrorize the obligatory sleepy English village and its obligatory sleepy English sheep.
The two companions get the lion's share of the attention and they're both extremely well portrayed. Sarah seemed much more alive than she did in the last PDA/MA I read that featured her (okay, that was Evolution, but still...), appearing both capable, human, and certainly recognizable as her television counterpart. But (and I'm not the first to point this out) the real revelation is Harry Sullivan. I always liked this character and here, with virtually an entire half a book told from his point of view, he absolutely shines. This is great! His reactions are fun without being over the top and his thought patterns are magnificently entertaining. This book deserves praise simply for Harry Sullivan's contribution alone.
Few of the other characters come alive quite like the companions do, although I found Emmeline's story touching. The eventual villains just barely manage to avoid falling over the cliff of cliche, but even at their worst, they're still endearing.
This sort of narrative structure where the story takes place in two coupled time zones is not wholly original to this book. But it's a fun gimmick as well as rare in Doctor Who novels and therefore a welcome addition. Rayner plays with her narrative; for instance, at the beginning of Sarah's subplot we're given some giant clues as to what will happen at the end of Harry's story. The result is a success. My only real quibble with this is that the changeovers tend to jar. She has a habit of jumping from scene to scene quite haphazardly, and it can be difficult at first to figure out which time zone a given sequence is taking place in.
The other slight distraction I found is that the two halves of the story are told in different styles, although the more I think about them in this way, the more I'm seeing how the two parts informed each other. For the most part, the Harry Sullivan subplot is a fun action-adventure thriller, where well-meaning Harry plays Nigel Bruce to the Eighth Doctor's Basil Rathbone. The werewolf portions are mostly the stuff of horror films and pulp novels. On the other hand, the Sarah Jane Smith subplot deals more with the psychological aspects of the werewolf menace as well as getting a little deeper into Sarah's head. One feels lightweight and fluffy, while the other goes for a more gritty approach, which can be a little disconcerting when alternating in rapid succession. (For an example of what I'm talking about, look at the opposing ways in which the book approaches food and physical distresses. There's a descriptive passage where Sarah, who hasn't eaten for a while, hungrily longs for any sustenance. And in a later scene she almost freezes to death. But on the other hand, the only similar scene in Harry Sullivan's adventure is where the sideburned one encounters a situation where he must think hard to remember which fork to use at a formal dinner.)
I started off the previous paragraph as a complaint, but the more I think about it, the more appealing I'm finding Rayner's delivery. She's really played up the strengths of both characters and gave each an aspect of the story most suited for them. She approaches the basic werewolf tale from two angles and gets the most out of each. It's something that I didn't appreciate while I was actually reading the book, but it's something I've now been dwelling on afterwards. The styles may have clashed somewhat, but now that I think about it, I feel it was worth it. The pieces that the two subplots have in common do go some way towards smoothing out the rough patches.
Apart from that, I found this a really fun adventure. The descriptions are quite good, and Rayner's prose is certainly compelling. It isn't the greatest writing ever seen in a Who novel, but I'd place it above the average. The ending I found a bit confusing (and I'm not sure I quite understood one aspect of it), but it was nothing that marred my overall enjoyment.
Jason's Bane by Jason A. Miller 18/5/19
I really don't understand the point of this book. The above reviews are also mostly positive, and I confess to not quite understanding that, either.
Wolfsbane is a mishmash of ideas, some good, some not. As with Jac Rayner's debut novel, EarthWorld, there's an odd mixture of plot concepts and an uneven tone throughout. The best of the writing convinces you that, with the proper editorial hand, Rayner could have written some remarkable books. But the rest of it reminds you that the EDAs and PDAs had very weak, if any at all, editorial control. Wolfsbane is a perfect example of what happens when a talented author makes a number of critical errors and nobody stands athwart the manuscript crying "Stop!"
Here's the 25-word pitch that probably got this book commissioned: Harry gets separated from the TARDIS and battles Arthurian legend with the 8th Doctor; the 4th Doctor and Sarah find Harry's grave and fight werewolves.
No matter how well an author can spin prose, there's a lot to unpack in that 25-word summary. While I enjoyed much of the prose, I spent a lot of time mentally fighting the choices that Rayner made in fleshing those 25 words into 250 pages. In fact, I spent more time fighting the choices than I did enjoying dialogue, prose, images and individual scenes. There might exist a universe where such a 25-word pitch produced a great book, but this book departs from that possible path very early on.
The original sin occurs when the TARDIS, en route to Scotland after Revenge of the Cybermen, gets pulled off course and lands in the wrong place -- Somerset, November 1936. Harry slips out to investigate, believing himself to already be at Loch Ness and somehow gets left behind when the TARDIS takes off again. You simply cannot envision any scenario in which the Season 12-era 4th Doctor and Sarah would ever allow this to happen. When it does happen, the 4th Doctor's reaction is so detached and unconcerned that you can't imagine Tom Baker, at a table read in 1975, allowing this to get through the Acton rehearsal rooms, let alone past the doors of studio TC3.
Within an improbably short number of paragraphs, the 4th Doctor brings the TARDIS back two weeks later, and he and Sarah find Harry's grave. That's another plot contrivance that the reasonable reader (me) would immediately reject. We know Harry doesn't die in print, because he appeared in two more TV serials set after this story, so there's not a whole lot of tension involved in the revelation that he's "dead".
In his own time stream, Harry teams up with the amnesiac 8th Doctor. So this is a multi-Doctor book. If you're going to write one of those, I think it's fair to say that the author must earn that right. Terrance Dicks and Bob Holmes each got to write a multi-Doctor serial for TV, but you let those guys, former script editors, do whatever they want. In the books, Wolfsbane is literally the very next PDA after The Colony of Lies; back-to-back multi-Doctor books is like eating one too many sweets out a box of chocolate and finding out that they're both filled with coconut.
While Rayner wisely separates out the Doctors so that neither is aware of the other's presence, she unfortunately doesn't write either Doctor particularly well. The 4th Doctor is difficult to capture in print, because Tom Baker was such a visual actor; his goggle-eyed stares, unusual ways of entering doors and switching moods in mid-scene don't lend themselves to the static printed page. But if you're going to set yourself to write for the 4th Doctor, at least give it an honest try. Rayner buries her 4th Doctor deep into the background, in a way that harms the integrity of the book, especially when there's a missing companion who needs to be pursued with greater vigor. He's rarely the center of any scene and barely has any dialogue. Again, imagine Tom Baker being asked to record the audiobook for this. He'd say no, stare at you with his goggle eyes, and then stumble out through the door, making you aware of his sudden absence. All things he doesn't do in Wolfsbane.
As for the 8th Doctor... well, when the first run of EDAs came out, internet fandom dubbed his Doctor "the congenital idiot", and Wolfsbane delivers that idiocy in spades. If you wonder why Paul McGann in Night of the Doctor namechecked his Big Finish companions but not Sam, Fitz and Anji... well, it's because his Doctor was much, much better in Big Finish than in the books (not to mention McGann worked with one series but not the other). While the amnesiac 8th Doctor in Wolfsbane, about 40 years into the trapped-on-Earth Arc, helps untangle the book's two key plot threads -- werewolves and King Arthur -- he's also knocked literally comatose and sits out the entire climax. Then, when he wakes up, he unwittingly escorts a surviving character to a gruesome fate (from which the 4th Doctor later liberates them). Yeah. Thanks for that.
Earlier reviewers lavished much praise on Harry Sullivan in this book. Rayner does capture his essence well; she grounds his appearance in his memories of the preceding Season 12 TV adventures and does much with the character's innate bumbling, which is amusing. By the end of the book, though, Rayner tries to do right by the late Ian Marter by elevating Harry to mythological status, as he is chosen to wield the Holy Grail (yes, that one; see below) and use it to dispatch the villain... but, in typical Harry style, he manages to lose the Grail within a matter of mere sentences, and the villain dies kinda-sorta by accident. Oh, and Harry never once bothers to check back on the comatose 8th Doctor to make sure he survived; this omission allows the 8th Doctor to think that Harry is dead, which sets the 4th Doctor's later plot (in)actions in motion. It's nice that Rayner names a chapter after an episode from The Reign of Terror, which Marter novelized, but having Harry act like another type congenital idiot, even in his character's moment of greatest triumph, is less nice.
No book should make so many missteps that a review becomes a litany of how distasteful the main characters were. Unfortunately, Sarah Jane fares little better than Harry and the Doctors. A few years after Wolfsbane hit the shelves, Lis Sladen took the role of Sarah back on TV and helmed her own series for five seasons, stopped only by her untimely death. Print Sarah in Wolfsbane, while inquisitive and enterprising, falls asleep several times, gets buried alive twice and has to literally babble her way out of a tree after being abducted by a dryad. If all Russell T. Davies knew of Sarah Jane was this book, Lis Sladen would never have made it back to the series. Sarah's also seriously dissed by the book's principal guest star, a female werewolf who declines the chance to turn Sarah into one of her kind, because she doesn't like her. I'm not sure what that was about.
I finished this book not respecting or admiring any of the characters, and that's just not how it should have worked. I'm certain that Jac Rayner didn't set out to write a book in which Harry and Sarah came across so poorly.
The Arthurian legend stuff is a bit silly, but that's OK. The werewolf stuff, however, I think, borders on odious. On the one hand, the book is set on the eve of World War II, and many overt parallels are drawn between the Nazi treatment of Jews and of werewolves. This is powerful writing, the best of what Rayner is capable of doing. But, on the other hand, the same book also essentially uses the existence of the Holy Grail to make Doctor Who a platform for endorsing Christianity as "real", because the Grail is imbued with supernatural powers. I didn't appreciate that endorsement in Matrix, a PDA that featured a character from Christian mythology and presented him as "real", and I thought it an odd fit here in a book that's a meditation on the Holocaust. Secular Christmas specials on TV are fine, but having the Holy Grail exhibit substantial mystical powers (even before any of the other characters realize that it's a holy object) crosses a bright theological line. Either make the Grail an alien artifact, or ground its powers in the private beliefs of the bearer (a la the crucifixes and hammers-and-sickles in The Curse of Fenric), but don't make it an object of true divinity. That's not what sci fi is about.
Other bits of the book are quite good, of course, but that's all they are: stray bits. So many other authorial or editorial choices outside of those stray bits were serious misfires that had me in open revolt.
Worst of all is the ending sequence, and I'm going to give Rayner the benefit of the doubt and assume that the editor forced it in. At around the time Wolfsbane came out, the EDAs were going through their tortured and circuitous "multiverse" arc. Because Wolfsbane is half an EDA (albeit set during a previous arc), the final chapter includes a sequence of alternate endings, implying that the events of the book occurred simultaneously across several universes. One of those endings features an alternate-universe 4th Doctor murdering Sarah and Harry after they're bitten by werewolves. Granted, it's not the ending, but its also another silver knife in the heart of this book, preventing it from ever rising up to become anything but one of the most irksome BBC Books Doctor Who novels ever published.