THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Highest Science
The Well-Mannered War
Virgin Books
Zamper

Author Gareth Roberts Cover taken from the excellent Broadsword home page
ISBN# 0 426 20450 6
Published 1995
Cover Tony Masero

Synopsis: On the planet Zamper, groups of humans and Chelonians compete for the secrets of Zamper's warship construction. However, the price of life can mean more to some than they think...


Reviews

Zamper, aka The Gareth Roberts problem... by Sean Gaffney 12/8/99

Well, here we go again. The kinder, gentler Doctor is back. I shouldn't really have suspected anything different, after all, Gareth was writing...

Gareth Roberts seems to serve a weird purpose in the NAs. After a number of books in a row featuring the "dark Doctor" of all the fan's endearments, it's up to Gareth's books to remind us, "Hey, he's still fallible and wacky and endearing. Don't panic."

The problem is that this frequently means a loss of tension. The Doctor and companions are getting along, nobody has to worry about betrayal... I know that a lot of people would like to see the NAs return to this, but they've come too far for that to be feasible to me. Kate and Paul have "wacky, he's our Doctor" moments, but they remind us that he is different at the same time. Likewise, Kate and Daniel O'Mahony have the Doctor more guilt-ridden than a whole passel of Lytton-trusters.

Gareth doesn't do this. He writes for the TV Doctor. I suppose I should enjoy the rest, but I don't. Gareth can write dark (vis Decalog 2), let's see more of it.

Oh, yeah. I still liked the general feel of the book. Good book. Not sure if it's a good NA.

*NOTE* I loved The Romance of Crime, and hope Gareth writes for the 4th Doc more often. It really suits him better.


Not Gareth Roberts' best by Tim Roll-Pickering 18/12/02

Gareth Roberts' earlier works such as The Highest Science and The Romance of Crime were both highly promising, so it is unfortunate that Zamper should turn out to be so dreary. It tries to be several different things at once but unfortunately fails in this mixture since the elements jar so clearly.

Roberts' love for the Graham Williams era of Doctor Who is well known, so it comes as little surprise that once again he produces a novel with a small cast set in space environment that is told with tongue firmly in cheek. But whilst this approach works well for his Missing Adventures, it jars heavily with the more grim and gritty nature of the New Adventures. In itself this need not be too great a problem since the range is notable for its diversity, but with Roberts also trying to produce some of the in depth characterisation and angst of the New Adventures the different sources clash with one another.

To add to the problems, the plot of Zamper is not particularly inspiring, whilst the action is limited. As a result a lot of the book is taken up with overlong descriptions and exchanges between characters that do nothing to bring it to life. The notion of the 'Zamps' seeking to evolve out and take over the universe is clearly inspired by the works of Douglas Adams, but it lacks the delicate handling required, whilst the attempt to give the Chelonians depth and explore their culture further falls down due to the use of the cliché of an elderly leader who is tired of war and willing to conciliate with the traditional foe, whilst his youthful subordinate is a hothead full of action. However Hezzka is given some good lines and is probably the best handled characters in the entire book, making his death especially sad. Virtually all the other characters are poorly developed clichés, most of whom are clearly intended as cannon fodder, whilst of the regulars the Doctor is once more a remote and detached figure, whilst 'Forrester' and 'Cwej' (for some reason they are always referred to in the narrative by their surnames) are minimally explored in what is only their third novel. Benny gets some good moments with Hezzka but generally seems to be characterised only through her sarcasm, which can be weak when there is nothing else to reinforce it.

By the time the novel reaches its conclusion it is increasingly difficult to keep track of just what is going on or to care why. Fortunately Zamper only lasts 250 pages and doesn't actually reach the point whereby it is simpler just to give up on the novel, but it is not a particularly inspiring book and definitely does not represent Gareth Roberts at his best. 3/10


My shortest review ever! by Joe Ford 14/7/03

I was so unimpressed by this book I can't even be bothered to go into any depth as to why it stunk. This is a book with a plot that moves so slowly by page one hundred you are reaching for the bread knife just to make the pain end. The prose is more simplistic than Terrance Dicks' Target novels, there was not one passage that made me impressed. The Doctor, Benny, Roz and Chris are all wasted, seemingly having no character at all. The latter two fare worst of all, doing nothing for the first third of the book. The secondary characters annoy after very few paragraphs, the only one I had hopes for was Jophitter but even he had a terrible ending. The Chelonians are one of the worst (and boring) races ever to appear in Doctor Who, offering no tension, humour or threat in any respects.

All this and a really crap last few chapters. The Zamps were just pathetic.

In short, absolute pants, a book that almost confirms my old anti-NA approach. A book that makes Heritage shine (Christ!!!).


A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 28/7/03

Two things about the cover of Zamper made me wince when I arrived at this story on my NA read-through. The first was the picture of the Chelonian. The Chelonians are from a previous NA, The Highest Science, and were one of the poorer creations of the entire range. The second was the name Gareth Roberts staring at me mockingly from the front. I read both of Roberts' previous NAs and found them to be unmemorable, unlikable and turgid reads. I dreaded reaching for this novel. (The third odd thing about the cover is, of course, those slugs climbing down the cave wall. Is it just me, or do they look incredibly rude?)

So, it was to my utter shock that I found myself really enjoying the beginning of the book. The story revolves around a planet called Zamper whose sole industry revolves around the creation of shockingly powerful spacecrafts. In usual Doctor Who tradition, the planet's population consists entirely of five or six people, while the work of building starships rests on the backs of some rather ugly little alien slug things. This work has been going on for five centuries, and no one seems to know exactly who created this world, or how the apparently mindless slugs are able to generate these highly advanced technologies. It should be noted that not all of the questions raised are eventually answered.

As I said, I found the beginning of the story to be quite absorbing. The various mysteries are set up quite nicely with intriguing clues dropped here and there. The cast is extremely small, but gives the book a rather cozy feeling at first. I should note that while "cozy" isn't an adjective I would be normally be happy in describing a book as, compared to what I was expecting, "cozy" was great. Even the Chelonians who I thought were absolutely horrific in their previous outing didn't annoy me. In fact, I was quite amused and entertained by their antics.

Unfortunately, as the book progressed, my interest waned. Zamper has a rather small page count (clocking in at barely two-hundred and fifty), but it really would have worked better with about a hundred less. This is a short novella stretched out to the size of a novel. The middle hundred or so pages consist of people wandering through corridors, crawling through caves, sitting around in hotel rooms and other scenes of no excitement.

The ending of the story is the final nail in the coffin. The Doctor's plan to save the day is absolutely ridiculous. Roberts can't figure out what to do with certain characters, so he kills off most of them off-screen. It feels as though he knew he had a poor ending to his story in mind, so he kept padding out the middle sections hoping that by the time he got to the end, he'd have thought of something better.

Well, he didn't. At least, I don't think he did. If the ending that he came up with was actually better than another one he thought of, then I cannot imagine how unbelievably poor that one would have been. If I had stopped reading Zamper at about the one-hundred-page mark, I probably would have considered this as Roberts finally putting out a decent and enjoyable book after two major clunkers. Unfortunately, having survived the middle padding and the final decent into muddled incoherence, I would not be able to say that. I understand that Roberts' Missing Adventures were far superior to his attempts at writing for the Seventh Doctor. I certainly hope this is true. I could not recommend Zamper to anyone because of its bungling of its own potential and its sad collapse into boring corridor-running and cardboard-characterization. Yet, it's the Roberts NA that I enjoyed the most. That, to me, speaks volumes.


A Review by Finn Clark 10/9/04

Wow, Gareth Roberts put on his Jim Mortimore head! Zamper is structured like Mortimore's Artefact novels. None of the characters' actions really matter and the 'plot' is all about unravelling an SF enigma. Everyone dies one by one in bleak vignettes about the pointlessness of death, for no particular reason.

Unfortunately Gareth Roberts is better at being Gareth Roberts than he is at being Jim Mortimore. Zamper isn't terrible, but it's unmemorable and dull. Gareth's so obviously trying to "Write An NA" that he never finds the fun that brought alive his MAs. The result is something that's neither fish nor fowl. Am I supposed to care about these characters or laugh at them? I'd have been happy with either, but unfortunately Zamper's humans are merely two-dimensional losers who never do anything worth reading about. They're too caricatured to be interesting, but not caricatured enough to be funny.

Smith is sympathetic, but after a couple of decent early scenes she ends up following the Doctor around like a pseudo-companion before doing something completely pointless on p224. No, this book's real heroes ain't the humans. Let's face it: two-legged lifeforms are parasites of no interest to anyone.

The only people who matter in Zamper are the Chelonians.

On one level, this is dumber than a box of farts. These 60th-century Chelonians want to buy warships, carve out a new galactic empire and crush all humans... so in other words, they're identical to every other crap race of militaristic megalomaniacs. I liked the Chelonians in ,a href=highest.htm>The Highest Science, but after that I never saw their appeal. What makes them distinctive, eh? They're high-tech turtles, and, um... No, the real secret of the Chelonians is that they've had centre-stage in three books by Gareth Roberts. Gareth clearly loves the big green buggers and it's hard not to respond to his enthusiasm. They get jolly songs and a great gag on p190, but more importantly they're doing something. In this book, that's rarer than you'd think. Admittedly it's so they can embark upon a campaign of genocide and interstellar war, but hey, everyone needs a hobby.

Study this book and you'll see that the Chelonians are the protagonists. The humans are window-dressing. The TARDIS crew arrive by accident and largely sit on the sidelines. Even the Doctor himself doesn't save the day, but travels to the Chelonian flagship and persuades them to save the day instead.

To enjoy Zamper in any way, you probably have to twig on some level that the Chelonians are the heroes. If you don't, you'll probably go loopy waiting for the humans to get moving. Sorry. They don't. Zamper's plot can be summarised as follows: "Everyone mooches for 200 pages while the Chelonians argue, then the villain pops up and everyone runs away for another fifty. People die. The end."

This probably doesn't sound promising and indeed Zamper isn't well regarded. It's Gareth Roberts's dullest book, which is doubly bad news since if you take away Gareth's sheer entertainment value then there's not always much left in his novels. Certainly none of his NAs seem to have much grip on plotting. However I kinda enjoyed it. General Hezzka and First Pilot Ivzid are fun and I wasn't worried about their status as evil human-hating monsters since all the humans on Zamper deserved to die anyway. (The "I don't care" factor undermines the attempts at Bleak Mortimore-ish Death towards the end, but let's face it. If we wanted more of that we'd just reread Beltempest.) Zamper may be a misfire, but Gareth's always readable on a certain level and with a little mental adjustment I managed to potter through happily enough.


A Review by Brian May 2/8/10

In 2006, when reviewing Gareth Roberts's MA The English Way of Death, I announced that I liked Zamper. Well, four years and another reading later, I intend to alter that statement. I won't retract it completely, for there are elements of the novel that are good, but overall I'm going to be a lot more harsh.

This author's strengths are his characters, with well-fleshed-out individuals, good double acts (he's quite the novel-equivalent of Robert Holmes), credible backstories, motivations and interactions. There are many examples here and they comprise the book's best moments; indeed, Mr Jottipher is such an archetypal Roberts character! He also brings back his memorable creation, the Chelonians, using them well. The majority of them are characters in their own right and their appearance would have been a disappointment had they simply been on another invading rampage. Giving them a setback works to enhance them, so they're not just another bunch of marauding monsters (a tip Steve Lyons could have picked up with his own Selachians).

The regulars get a mixed outing, however. The Doctor and Bernice are quite well done, as he's written for them before, but the latter's resentment at the former's perceived bond with Roz is very unrealistic, given the Adjudicator has been travelling with them for so short a time. Roberts could be trying to give Benny some female jealousy, but unsuccessfully and pointlessly so. On the subject of Roz, she and Chris also hold up well, given this is only their third book, their second as TARDIS crew. (Their separation from the others at the beginning, echoing that of Sky Pirates!, is an indication that four regulars are perhaps too many.) However, Chris being overpowered by Christie is laughably implausible. What I also found disturbing is the author's relish when it comes to punishing his amoral and/or villainous female characters, a tendency he's shown already (Rosheen in The Highest Science) and would soon repeat (Julia in The English Way of Death). Both Christie and the Secunda meet with horrible fates, while the sleazebag Taal is honoured with an emotionally compelling death scene, as if he was some self-sacrificing hero.

The overall ideas are also rather mixed. The background to Zamper is quite interesting, although don't expect the outraged and provocative condemnation of corporate ethics or the arms trade we'd get had this been written by someone like Lawrence Miles. Science-fiction, Doctor Who especially, is allowed to be as far-fetched as it likes, but the idea of telepathic, ship-building slugs does fall on the side of the ludicrous. No, that's too harsh a term; I'll replace it with just plain dull. What is definitely ludicrous, however, is the end, when said slugs evolve into a couple of well-spoken, wisecracking, sharp-toothed, homicidal tentacles. It verges on the ridiculous, their lame attempts at jokes not reflecting too well on the tone of the novel, which has the usual feel of a Roberts book, i.e. a light-hearted romp. But misplaced and poor humour aside, the levity isn't helped by the fact that this story is a bloodbath. Everybody save the TARDIS crew dies in the end, but Gareth still wants us to have a jolly good chuckle throughout all the killing and mayhem.

Action isn't the author's forte either and, given the last third is very much the frenzied runaround, that's another reason to change my initial views of Zamper and like it less. An assortment of great characters and a good backdrop fall apart almost completely - there are a few saving graces, such as the Doctor's interactions with Big Mother - but it's all quite forgettable, really. It's amazing what a re-reading can do. 4.5/10