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The Great Virgin New Adventures Review: Birthright & Iceberg

As we continue our reviews for the Virgin New Adventures, these two books see the birth of a familiar format for Modern era viewers, the ‘Doctor-lite’ and ‘Companion-lite’ stories. Also, we see the return of the Cybermen in a book from the Cyber-Leader himself, David Banks.

BIRTHRIGHT: WRITTEN BY NIGEL ROBINSON

Birthright continues the run of books where the Doctor is trying to go on holiday and who can really blame him? None of the companions like him or each other particularly, neither can they work through their own issues as both Ace and Bernice are continuing to struggle with their pasts. But the Doctor can’t get too comfortable either, because, in a few books time, his past is going to start catching up with him too.

Birthright is also the first book to really focus on Ace and Bernice and shows us that they are just as capable of sorting out an alien invasion as the Doctor is, even if it’s not around to help them. Robinson had previously written for the Timewyrm set of adventures, contributing with the third outing. It was a book that I wouldn’t call essential but I really enjoyed all the same. Birthright is a big improvement on the previous outing from Robinson and it really helps that it’s more of a character piece than it is a high-stakes action-adventure.

After experience a disastrous event thanks to the TARDIS, Bernice wakes up to find herself in 1909 London where she finds out there is a serial killer on the loose. Oh and she’s in the care of Margaret Waterfield, the aunt of the Second Doctor’s companion Victoria, which I thought was a nice addition to the story, though things don’t end well for poor Margaret. Does anyone involved in Doctor Who just really enjoy killing off Victoria’s family?

Cover art for Birthright
Cover art for Birthright

Like Bernice, Ace finds herself stranded. But it isn’t London 1909. Instead, she’s stuck on an alien planet, Antykhon.  She finds a human resistance fighting against the Charrl, insectoid creatures, who have conquered the planet. She also discovers an old hermit called Muldwych, who is helping the Charrl Queen to travel through time to infest another planet. All he needs is a component from the TARDIS and unfortunately for the Bernice, the TARDIS crash-landed with her in 1909 London.

While this holiday-series of books can feel a little lacklustre, I must admit that I did really enjoy Birthright, even though I wasn’t expecting too.  It didn’t take me long to really get into it either, normally, the Virgin books take a while to get going. Here though, Robinson gives us the main mystery from the get-go and the shorter book really benefits from this. What I also loved was that Robinson put the companions so front and centre. Unlike most of her previous adventures, Bernice isn’t forgotten or locked up. Here she has to solve the mystery and putting her in the spotlight allows for some great character moments. It isn’t hard to understand why Big Finish chose to adapt this book in the late 1990s as the Bernice audio-range kicked off.

Of course, this does mean that Ace doesn’t get as much of a look in but given how many of the previous books have dealt with her and her Space Fleet days, Birthright works as a much-needed break for the character, instead just giving us the Ace we all know and love, without any of the emotional baggage that her character came within the Virgin days.

The Charll and their Queen are great villains too, mainly because they don’t want to be villains they are just trying to save their race from going extinct. The world of Antykhon turned out to be hostile to their life and has killed so many of them that it will only be a few centuries before the Charll is extinct. This, in turn, has forced them to take Muldwych hostage and exchange his freedom for their survival by travelling through time. And given their actions in this book, it is a strange idea that Robinson hammers home a few times that the Charll was one of the best, noblest and peaceful creatures in existence.

There is a secondary villain here too, the Charll’s human contact, Jarod Khan, who is much more forgettable, though he works well in the plot itself. It doesn’t take much thought for Ace and Bernice to outwit him, despite him having a big backstory with the Doctor and having been able to live for centuries.

It appears that Muldwych will be making more appearances as the range goes on too and it’s heavily implied, though Robinson didn’t intend for it to be so, that Muldwych is a future incarnation of the Doctor, most likely the one who calls him Merlin, in a continuity nod to Battlefield. Stranger still though the Seventh Doctor does have knowledge of Muldwych, so maybe he isn’t the future incarnation of the Doctor. But who knows, with everything that’s just happened in The Timeless Children, maybe Muldwych is a forgotten incarnation of the Doctor. He certainly knows an awful lot about time-travel and the TARDIS. Who knows?

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Birthright but I actually couldn’t put it down. I appreciated seeing Bernice getting a lot of the action and plot to herself and it proved that she has just as much right to be there as Ace did. Robinson keeps the plot light enough and the book short enough that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Birthright isn’t an essential book in the range, but its a lot of fun anyway.

ICEBERG: WRITTEN BY DAVID BANKS

Iceberg brings the ‘holiday-tetralogy’ to an end, this time with a ‘companion-lite’ adventure for the Seventh Doctor, as he finds his past beginning to catch up with him, squaring him off against a much more ruthless version of the Cybermen in a story written by the Cyber-Leader himself, David Banks.

Before Iceberg, I think Banks had only ever written a book on the history of the Cybermen for Doctor Who, trying to fix their complicated history and give it some much-needed order. One can’t help but think that Iceberg is the result of that book, as Banks covers events from The Tenth Planet, all the way to Silver Nemesis, in various passages, though much of the book takes inspiration from The Tenth Planet and Tomb of the Cybermen, not just in its cold location, but also the side-characters, one of whom is a relation of General Cutler, the horrible boss of the base the First Doctor originally met the Cybermen in.

What’s also important to remember is that the events of this book take place at the same time as the events of Birthright for Ace and Bernice. And its always fun to see what the writers thought the future was going to be. Iceberg is set in 2006, though it was 2006 that was a little more dystopian to 2006 we had in real life. In fact, the only thing that both 2006’s had in common was the Cybermen did, in fact, come back! Banks isn’t the first author to do something similar, but I think it offers an interesting insight into the state the world must have been in when a book was written!

Cover art for Iceberg
Cover art for Iceberg

The TARDIS, having split itself in two, one for Ace and Bernice and one for the Doctor, brings the Doctor to the Antarctic on board the cruise-liner SS Elysium. 2006 he finds himself in is in crisis as the magnetic field around the Earth is about to reverse, fortunately, there is a plan, a base, one familiar to the Doctor, is developing a machine that at the critical moment, will reverse the reversal and put everything right again. Unfortunately for them then that the Cybermen are waking up from years in the ice and are planning on taking over the planet. The Doctor and journalist Ruby Duvall have to join forces to stop the Cybermen and save the world.

The blurb for the book sounds terribly clichéd but is actually a lot of fun, even if it took me a while to get into the book without any familiar characters besides the Doctor. I’ve never been a big fan of ‘Doctor or Companion-lite’ stories, so I came to this book with a little trepidation. However, I shouldn’t have been worried, once the action shifts fully to the SS Elysium, the book really picks up, with Ruby, who proves herself an enjoyable stand-in-companion and it was actually quite refreshing to have a book that didn’t feature a TARDIS team who don’t like one another.

For modern fans, this book is rather reminiscent of Voyage of the Damned, with the boat finding itself host to a disaster of movie proportions. And I must give credit to Banks for making the Cybermen scary again here. There is one passage that has stuck with me after I finished reading it where Ruby is escaping in life and a Cyberman literally jumps from the top of the shaft onto the top of the lift and its hand explodes from the roof of the lift and tries to grab Ruby. It sounds less scary when I write it but the whole book felt like a Cyberman story that the television-show has always been too afraid to give us. I don’t think the Cybermen have ever been a credible threat since Earthshock, so it’s nice to see them blowing things up and killing people without mercy again.

And it was nice to see a Seventh Doctor who is actually enjoying himself, despite me not liking companion-lite stories. He only ever seems to be broody when Ace and Bernice are around, so it seems that whenever he is away from them, he seems to cheer up a lot.

Banks proves himself to have a lot of knowledge of the Cybermen and acquits himself well in writing prose. His Seventh Doctor feels like Sylvester McCoy and not a cheap knock-off version or a completely different version of the character like he has felt in many other of these books. I also really liked Ruby Duvall, who does turn up again in the future range with a book called Happy Endings. What makes Ruby’s character even greater is that the Doctor gives her an opportunity to travel with him, but because of the broken version of the TARDIS, the police-box dematerialises before she can get there.

Maybe that’s for the best though, Ace and Bernice still don’t like each other, so I’m not sure throwing another companion into the mix would have been the best idea. And most of the books don’t know what to do with Bernice, so I don’t imagine they’d have been able to handle yet another traveller.

Some readers and fans say that Iceberg is one of the more ignorable books of the range and while it’s true that you won’t miss out if you decide to ignore this one, you’ll be rewarded if you do give it a go. From scary Cybermen to a genuine-Seventh Doctor, to a fun new ‘companion’ in the form of Ruby, there is a lot to enjoy here. It’s a shame then that David Banks didn’t write for the range again.

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