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The Great Virgin New Adventures Review: No Future & Tragedy Day

Continuing our coverage of the Virgin New Adventures range, published in the early 1990s, No Future sees another arc come to a close and we learn who is behind the recent events in the Doctor’s life. One character I was expecting, the others I wasn’t. And Tragedy Day sees the Seventh Doctor, Ace and Bernice finally getting along! Oh, the relief, it’s only taken over ten-books, but we’ve finally gotten there!

No Future

Written By Paul Cornell

Over the course of the range, I’ve read so far, I’ve come to really enjoy Paul Cornell’s writing. I really liked Timewyrm: Revelation and Love & War. Revelation wrapped up the Timewyrm saga in a surprisingly dark yet stylish way, so I was really looking forward to No Future and was expecting it to be as dark and stylish as Revelation was, despite the cover looking rather drab this time around. It’s taken me ages to register that its Ace and Bernice at a bar! The Doctor dancing with Death this is not.

By his own words, Cornell describes No Future as “A shoddy collection of in-jokes and continuity references,” and he isn’t wrong. Sometimes this isn’t a bad thing, there is a lot to enjoy from in-jokes and stories being made around them. But I always found writers like Craig Hinton were better at doing stuff like that, Cornell seems to work best when he creates something wholly original, look at how amazing his future book, Human Nature was, that was made into a television serial. I don’t think anyone would be rushing to adapt this one. Around the time of No Future‘s publication, Doctor Who was celebrating its thirtieth anniversary but rather than creating something new and fun, No Future seems to ignore the character writing and unique imagery that Cornell can usually conjure up. Had this book been on its own, not part of an arc, then perhaps I would be more forgiving. It is quite fun, but wrapping up the recent plot and giving one character some resolution she needed, there are a lot of elements here that feel bodged.

Cover art for No Future
Cover art for No Future

For people who are familiar with this range of novels or had been reading them back in the day, then perhaps the big reveal of villain 1 shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. And one wonders why it took the Doctor so long to work it out. But maybe because he had only featured in two-William Hartnell television adventures, then the Meddling Monk had been somewhat forgotten by the fans and it seems, the Doctor himself. The strength of the Monk is that he hasn’t been overused throughout Doctor Who, even though he didn’t have much to do here except taking revenge on the Doctor, which isn’t really a very original motivation for a baddie.

The second returning baddie is certainly one I’m not sure people remember. Let’s go back to The Invasion of Time, its 1978 and the Sontarans have just invaded Gallifrey, except, what was the name of those tin-foil things and then later, slightly overweight men in tight lycra-jump-suits that shouldn’t be forced on anyone? The Vardans? That’s right, the returning villains are the Vardans. Now, while I wasn’t expecting it to be some big monster like the Daleks or the Cybermen, I was very underwhelmed by the return of the Vardans. Couldn’t Cornell put in a better creature? Sure he does give them some backstory and explains how they can travel around looking like rattling tin-foil but they are such an underwhelming villain that nothing Cornell does makes them any-less of an absolute joke.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about No Future, apart from the Vardans, is that it doesn’t know what it’s doing. Set in the late 1970s, there is some political commentary as well as a look at the emerging punk-rock culture. But most of it is quite uninteresting and went in-one-ear-and-out-the-other. The most interesting part is that about anarchy, something the group, Black Star, is all about the control that comes with that. There should be a terrific story in that sentence above, I don’t think Doctor Who has ever done anything like that where it explores the power people have over one-another when a terrorist act is committed, a random act of violence which is inflicted on another. Maybe that’s too dark for Who, but the Virgin New Adventures were famously adult and dark, so maybe they could have done something with that?

Instead, No Future seems content to focus its time on a shoddy plot about invading aliens, a Monk out for revenge and spies. Even the inclusion of the Brigadier and Benton can save this one, even if you can hear Nicholas Courtney and John Levene saying the lines.

What Cornell does well is his handling of Ace. Though I am sick of her attitude towards the Doctor and Bernice and you have to wonder why they haven’t just left her somewhere, Ace does get a lot better here and her bad attitude gets nicely rounded out, the Ace at the end of the book feeling really different to the Ace we have the beginning. Bernice likewise has some good moments but she feels entirely secondary to the events unfolding in the story. Given how Paul Cornell created her character, he doesn’t give her much to do. And given how strongly he wrote for her in Love & War, his treatment of her character here is more than a little poor.

No Future feels like it is trying to do something meaningful for the Doctor and Ace. In many ways, this would have worked as a finale for Ace’s character, though Tragedy Day does bring her back to the Ace we all know and love, No Future would have been a decent conclusion for her character. It’s a shame then that it feels like the writing team got a little carried away with trying to make it a nice celebratory novel, which ends up feeling completely not like that at all.

Despite it sounding like all I’ve done is criticise it, No Future is a book that’s hard to really dislike. Some of the in-jokes do land nicely and it’s great to see the Brigadier and co back in a way that treats them better than Blood Heat did. No Future is also a nice conclusion to the use of arcs in this book, although there are loose arcs to come, they don’t get as involved as this recent one did. In many ways, you’ve felt this range of books regenerating itself a few times already and as this book paves the way into standalone books for a while, its a nice goodbye to the previous way of storytelling.

Tragedy Day

Written By: Gareth Roberts

Like I said in my look at No Future, Tragedy Day marks a shift in the Virgin New Adventures‘ way of storytelling. Gone are connected stories like Birthright & Iceberg and the quad-trilogies like Timewyrm, Cat’s Cradle and the Alternate Universe arc. Instead, we’re back to a different story every book way of adventures. And given how Roberts’ first book, The Highest Science was fairly well received at the time, it’s not surprising that they gave him the task of kicking off this new era of Seventh Doctor stories were the Doctor and companions actually get along!

We all know that Roberts has gotten into some big trouble over the last few years because of his political views, though that doesn’t change that some of his books, mainly for the Virgin Missing Adventures range are pretty decent reads. Tragedy Day is much the same, a fairly decent read and like The Highest Science, sets out to be something a little different from the rest of the range. Though not necessarily a comedy, indeed some of the jokes didn’t stick at all, you can tell instantly this feels more like a ‘traditional’ Doctor Who story to what had come before in this novel range.

Cover art for Tragedy Day
Cover art for Tragedy Day

However, while this might feel like a traditional Doctor Who story, there are still some of the Virgin range influences and Roberts kills off characters like he’s Eric Saward on steroids. There are quite a few characters in this book and most of them get killed off in numerous explosions, gas attacks, assassins, anti-matter club dancefloors, dubiously named aliens called the Slaags and murderously violent policemen, something that still rings true in this day age, proving that some things never seem to change. Most of the book looks at how media can alter people’s perceptions and much of the action seems to take place at a television studio, despite all the deaths, which you don’t feel anything for the characters, there is a distinct air of black-comedy to the whole thing which does give the book a bit more of readability, even if the same level of black-humour that an author like Robert Holmes would have been able to create.

With not a lot of the jokes really landing, Roberts also throws in an assassin who is a man-sized spider, out to kill the Doctor. He wears a cowboy hat and speaks with a northern accent. Roberts seems to have a thing for giving his monsters a resemblance to creatures on Earth, the Chelonians looked like tortoises. But the spider doesn’t have the same charm as the Chelonians and his inclusion feels entirely secondary to the main plot. Speaking of the main plot, the villain of the piece is a waste of space too. Its certainly a surprise to find that its a child gone mad, but then he has a mental breakdown towards the end, which doesn’t add to the story, neither do you feel sympathy for him nor is it handled in a good way. Instead, it feels like the Doctor, Ace and Bernice are trying to stop a brat from having a temper-tantrum.

It’s a shame too because there are some good ideas on offer here. We’ve got the displaced Vijians, which feels like a commentary on colonialism that goes absolutely nowhere. There are the citizens of the city Empire City, who live in poverty and who wait in line for death because there is nothing better for them, something else which goes nowhere. There are the slaves of the Friars of Pangloss, people subjugated for so long that they haven’t realised that their mighty overlords have lost their power. And then there are the big-big baddies of this book, The Friars of Pangloss themselves who appear in the last thirty-something pages, do nothing and then get sent back to their own dimension in the most ridiculous way possible. Had these ideas been developed a little more, then perhaps Tragedy Day would have been a story to remember, instead, Roberts focuses his book in all the wrong places and on the wrong characters.

Where Tragedy Day shines though is in its world-building, so much so that one wonders if Roberts cared more about the world than he did about the characters and how they interact with the world around them. The book begins with a little flashback to the First Doctor and  Susan who visited this world in its infancy and took away a piece of red-glass, something which the natives thought had cursed them. Even though it lasts no more than three-pages, its virtually more interesting than the rest of the book. The book looks at the history of the planet since the Doctor and Susan visited and gives us a good feel for the world the TARDIS crew find themselves in now. At first glance, I thought that the titular ‘Tragedy Day’ was going to be something similar to The Purge. Maybe that would have worked better, every year or so, the people of this world get to do whatever they want. It’s an interesting read to see how the Doctor and Bernice travel through Empire City even if on page 127 Bernice remarks to Ace that all she and the Doctor have done is wander around and then booked into a hotel.

Despite reading this book in the glorious sunshine in a couple of days, it was a read I found hard-going, mainly because Roberts focuses his attentions on all the wrong places and things. Despite the fact that he’s clearly enjoyed the world building here, it’s not an interesting place for the characters to be, nor is it an interesting place for the reader to be. But I did like that the TARDIS team are finally getting on, we don’t get any tantrums from Ace and Bernice finally feels like she is settled down into TARDIS life. It’s nice that everyone is finally getting on and everyone gets a nice slice of the action, but that isn’t enough to get this book off the ground. Instead, its a book that tries to reach for the more successful looks at grim futures that Who has done in the past but misses in a somewhat spectacular fashion.

Next Time: Legacy and Theatre of War… 

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