Russell, Gary

AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:

3 out of 5

(7 books)

Doctor Who

The novelisation of the 1996 TV movie in which the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) regenerates into the Eighth (Paul McGann).  Whilst trying to return the remains of his nemesis and sometime friend the Master to Gallifrey, the Doctor is unexpectedly forced to land on Earth just before New Years' 1999.  He is then badly wounded in a gang shootout and it soon becomes clear that the Master's death is not so final as the Doctor imagined either.

The Doctor Who movie is, frankly, not particularly loved by Who fans.  It lacks the essential Britishness of the classic TV show due to an attempt to relaunch the series for an American audience, it introduces pointless and irritating changes to the titular character (the stuff about him being half-human, for example) and was plagued by mid-nineties TV movie special effects.  The one thing that everyone did seem to love, however, was McGann's brief but inspiring turn as the Time Lord.

Reading this novelisation, I have to say that it is far more enjoyable than I remember the movie itself being.  The special effects obviously aren't an issue and Russell manages to recapture some of the feel of the original TV show in the minds of the characters and in the narration.  This means that, aside from the half-human stuff which the Whoniverse has since quietly ignored, this book reads as a perfectly acceptable adventure for the Doctor.

Don't get me wrong, it's not the strongest Who story by any stretch; which is very disappointing in a book which contains the Daleks, the Master and a regeneration.  However, it's still an enjoyable first outing for the Eighth Doctor.

3 out of 5

 

Doctor Who: Beautiful Chaos

An original adventure featuring the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and his companion Donna.  The Doctor and Donna return to Chiswick to catch up with the latter's family and, whilst there, discover that a mysterious and sinister event is happening to the stars in the sky.  With help from Donna's granddad Wilf and his lady friend Hetty, they have to track down the source of the stellar disruption before is takes control of humanity.

With this book Russell has managed a rare thing; given us an adventure for the Doctor in which the characterisations and stakes feel as real and important as they do on the TV show.  Donna is a hard companion for authors to get to grips with (too many just make her an endless repetition of "Oi!"s) but here she's every bit as adventurous and complex as Catherine Tate plays her (even if there are a lot of "Oi!"s too) and made all the better by the inclusion of her family.  Sylvia Noble is an irredeemably mean-spirited bitch and Russell captures that perfectly but it is his characterisation of Wilfred Mott where the author really knocks it out of the park.  There's genuinely emotional content to the interactions between these core characters and Russell cleverly bookends the main story with retrospectives from Wilf's point of view after Donna's memories of the Doctor have been erased.

On top of all this is the return of an antagonist from Tom Baker's stint as the Doctor, adding a stronger feeling that this is an important chapter in the larger tale of the errant Time Lord.

4 out of 5

 

Doctor Who: Business Unusual

A Past Doctor Adventure set after the 'Trial of a Time Lord' series and featuring the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker).  Whilst spending some time alone in 1989 Brighton, the Doctor begins to realise that coincidences are mounting up in order to push him into investigating the mysterious tech company SeneNet.  It starts with the disappearance of his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart but ultimately leads him into contact with the one person in all of time and space he wants to avoid; his companion from the future Melanie Bush.

The introduction to this book has the author saying that he knows Colin Baker and decided to try to write the sort of story that the actor would have enjoyed starring in before his unceremonious sacking by the BBC.  What follows feels very much true to that mission statement but has both positive and negative results.  The positive is that the version of the Sixth Doctor we get here is the somewhat more charming, less abrasive and more self-aware version that Baker was slowly developing the character into.  It makes a sometimes hard-to-love incarnation far more accessible than he was in his early days (much like how the First Doctor developed, really).  The negative aspect is that this book totally fails to capitalise on the potential offered by its medium.  What we get instead is an Earth-bound, 1980s-set story featuring characters and antagonists that could feasibly have appeared in the onscreen adventures of the Doctor without taking up the whole production budget.  This leaves the book feeling somewhat small and limited in a way it needn't have been.

There is one really great element to this book and, to my surprise, it relates to the inclusion of Mel Bush, who is probably the worst-ever onscreen companion (Russell uses the phrase 'underrated' in his intro, but I don't feel that was ever earned).  Curiously, we never saw on TV how the Doctor and Mel started travelling together; her first appearance being one in which she's pulled back from a future in which she's already travelling with the Doctor.  Here, in an attempt to avoid the future in which he becomes the Valeyard, the Doctor is desperately trying to avoid having any contact with Mel.  There's a surprising amount of depth to their growing friendship here and you can tell it's actively paining the Doctor to restrain his impulse to invite Mel into his life wholesale.  As a result, I found myself really pleased when he does finally take the plunge, despite not actually liking Mel as a companion.  Kudos to Mr. Russell for that.
Also worthy of praise is the way in which the author manages to keep the true antagonists, long-running Who villains, secret for more than half the book.  All too often the return of a classic villain is headlined up front as a selling point, but here Russell gives us some clues that are in such plain sight that they're easily overlooked and we then share the Doctor's metaphorical forehead slap when the pieces come together.

3 out of 5

 

Doctor Who: The Glamour Chase

An Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) adventure featuring his companions Amy and Rory.  Arriving in 1936 the TARDIS travellers discover a small village where an archaeological dig presages the unravelling of a great mystery.  It seems that the locals have been disappearing and some of those that remain may be more than they seem as two alien races vie for control of a substance known as the Glamour.

My biggest problem with this book is the Weave.  Sorry if this constitutes too big a spoiler (stop reading if you're really worried), but a race of alien shape-changers made out of wool is just too silly even for Moffat-era Who.  Seriously.  Aliens made out of wool.  And their big fear is that they might get soggy.  It's all so ridiculous that it makes it all but impossible to take any of the rest of the book seriously.

However, it's not as if the rest of the book would blow your mind even without the woolly aliens.  The mystery at the beginning of the book is compelling, but the revelation of what's going on is far too convoluted, to the point that I genuinely stopped caring in the last third.

This book does have a redeeming feature and it's the reason I've scored it a three instead of a two; Rory Williams.  Much as Russell did with Donna in 'Beautiful Chaos', the author totally nails an often misunderstood and misused companion.  In fact, he even goes so far as to show us depth to Rory that never even comes across in the TV series.  Here it is Rory's knowledge, skills and compassion as a professional nurse that come to the fore as we see him helping a man with PTSD in ways that not even the Doctor would have been able to.  All too often Rory is treated as just the third wheel between the Doctor and Amy, but here we get to see him as a fully-developed and important character in and of himself.

3 out of 5

 

Doctor Who: The Glamour Chronicles - Big Bang Generation

An original adventure featuring the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi).  As an archeological expedition on Aztec Moon uncovers the mysterious Pyramid Eternia, the Doctor finds himself roped in by an old friend to prevent the universe from being destroyed in Sydney in 2015.

See my review of Una McCormack's 'Royal Blood' for the full rant, but it has to be said straight off that the claim that The Glamour Chronicles are a trilogy or are even related stories is a total misnomer.  Once again the Glamour is ill-defined and bears no connection to its appearance in that other book, nor to Russell's own 'The Glamour Chase', for that matter.

At first I loved the key premise behind this book; reuniting the Doctor with fan-favourite companion Professor Bernice Summerfield.  Whilst I've not read any of the New Adventures stories which feature her, dating back to the dark days of the 90s when Doctor Who was still cancelled, I really liked the idea of having an old non-TV companion interact with one of the newer Doctors.  Unfortunately the whole thing is handled fairly hamfistedly.  Usually Russell is great at blending in references for the fans, but here we get Bernice and her crew of miscreants hammered in wholesale.  We're given all too much information about Benny, Peter, Jack and Ruth, as if the author is trying to tell us their entire backstory all at once.  To be honest, we didn't need as much info as we got in order for the characters to serve their function in the story and, from what I understand, the backstories summarised here actually spoil large chunks of the Big Finish audio adventures that these characters come from, robbing them of any mystery which would make you want to seek out their other tales.  As for Bernice herself, as I say, I don't know her of old, but her constant bantering seemed completely at odds with the Doctor Russell pairs her with (Capaldi's incarnation is on record as being totally against bantering).  There were a couple of nice moments where Benny compares this new Doctor to 'her' Doctor (the Seventh), particularly pointing out their shared Scottishness, but they weren't enough to save what should've been this book's best element from feeling sour and mishandled.

The time-hopping story of con artists, assassins and Ancients of the Universe is an awkward and confusing mess which serves as little more than a stage for Bernice's gang to have long scenes of 'witty' dialogue.  I did like that the story genuinely does have a real danger to the whole universe, but both its explanation and resolution are deeply unsatisfying.

2 out of 5

 

Doctor Who: The Scales Of Injustice

Originally released as part of Virgin's Missing Adventures, this book was released by the BBC as part of the Monster Collection.  Here, when it becomes clear that the Silurians have returned, Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor sneaks away from UNIT in an attempt to avoid a repeat of their disasterous first encounter.  Meanwhile his companion Liz gets caught up in the investigation of a conspiracy within the British Government which leads to a secret organisation working against UNIT.

Did you wonder why Liz Shaw just disappeared from the TV series after Pertwee's first season?  Have you ever wondered how the Brigadier ended up getting divorced?  Are you the kind of Doctor Who fan who wants to know why Mike Yates got promoted to Captain by John Benton didn't?  If your answer to any of these questions is an emphatic 'Yes!', then you're probably quite a tedious person.  Honestly, this book seems to have been written primarily as an answer to questions no-one really cared about or to make connections (specifically between 'The Silurians', 'The Sea Devils' and 'Warriors of the Deep') which didn't really need to be made.  Sure, it's a nice bit of continuity, but it's not worth dedicating an entire book to.

It's not that this is a bad book at all, it's just that it's a very bland one.  The real USP should've been the return of the Silurians but they're handled here almost exactly the same way that they were handled in the three stories mentioned above.  Even their reintroduction in the revived series follows exactly the same premise; humans scared of Silurians, Silurians scared of humans, wouldn't it be better if we could all get along, oh well not happening now.  I had hoped for a bit more of an exploration of the Earth Reptiles instead of just a rehashing of what we already know.

For all that I made fun of it above, one of the better elements of this book is the exploration of the characters and backgrounds of the familiar UNIT faces.  I just wish it had been better integrated into the story, rather than feeling almost like a checklist of stuff that needed clearing up.  I particularly liked the fact that Liz Shaw is given a fair shake here because I felt she was a bit hard-done-by in the TV show which didn't seem to know what to do with a companion as intelligent as the Doctor and quickly replaced her with a ditz with a pretty face.

3 out of 5

 

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Last Sontaran

The seventh SJA junior novelisation, adapting a story from Series 2 originally written by Phil Ford.  Sarah Jane and her young companions Luke, Clyde and Maria investigate a report of strange lights in the sky near a radio telescope.  What they discover is a stranded Sontaran warrior hellbent on destroying Earth to avenge the Sontaran defeat at the hands of the Doctor.

This book is exactly what the SJA television series was: Doctor Who but toned down for younger audiences.  This novelisation is aimed at the pre-teen/early teen market and is as straightforward and uncomplicated as it needs to be for that audience.  It does deal with some mature concepts, in particular the effects of separated parents on the children, but in a way that is accessible to and aimed at younger readers.

That's not to say that there isn't stuff for older readers to enjoy, just that they're not really the readers this book is pitching itself towards.  For me the best element (and the reason I bought it at all) was seeing a Sontaran set adrift following events in the main Doctor Who series (a two-parter from Series 4, if you're unfamiliar).  It serves as a nice coda for that Who story and also shows Sarah Jane's role in fending off the alien incursions that the Doctor misses.

3 out of 5

Collaborations & Anthologies:

Doctor Who: Heroes And Monsters Collection (here)

Doctor Who: Twelve Doctors Of Christmas (here)

The Doctor Who Storybook 2009 (here)

Read more...

Doctor Who (here)