As we continue our look back/review of The Virgin New Adventures that continued the series’ legacy throughout the Wilderness Years, look back at Gareth Roberts first Doctor Who piece as well as what could possibly be one of the worst Doctor Who stories of all time, the dreaded, The Pit. Readers beware, I might be so fair this time around!
THE HIGHEST SCIENCE – WRITTEN BY GARETH ROBERTS
In more recent times, Roberts has gotten into some serious trouble with some of his more, shall we say, political views, on social media. These views have meant he has been removed from future Doctor Who publications for the foreseeable future and as such, it’s hard to imagine a time when he delivered what is considered to be some of the best Doctor Who novels ever written.
Well, I say some of the best, The Highest Science certainly isn’t, it tries to be and it isn’t a bad book, but it isn’t as strong as some of his other works like The Romance of Crime, The English Way of Death and The Plotters. But it must have had something in it, as Big Finish did adapt it for their Novel Range a few years ago. I remember listening to that one and I actually did enjoy it, though if it hadn’t been a novel, I expect it would have been a story from their Short Trips range as there isn’t really a lot going on in this book. It feels a very short read, despite being the average length of a Virgin Novel.
Before reading this book, I’d heard a bit about it, both people who loved it and people who didn’t and in the end, I ended up somewhere in the middle, I didn’t like it but I certainly didn’t hate it. The Highest Science follows the Doctor and Bernice, on her first proper trip as Transit didn’t treat all that well as they land on the planet Sakkrat, a planet that has something of a legendary status in the cosmos. But they aren’t the only arrivals, there is a motley crew as well as a Chelonian Assault force. If you don’t know who or what the Chelonian’s are, think along the lines of walking-talking and very angry tortoises. The Doctor is following a temporal fluctuation caused by the mythical Fortean Flicker that has teleported all these people to the planet. Throw in a group of humans who just want to go home, drug addiction, amnesia and an alien conspiracy that might or might not be what it seems, things begin to fall apart on the planet of Sakkrat very quickly.
Roberts gives the Seventh Doctor a twist though, he isn’t as scheming as he has been depicted in all of the previous novels. He does work out the main problem before everyone else but not too far away from the ending of the book. It’s also good that he gets to think on his feet here, not having had the time to plan everything beforehand, despite him constantly being knocked out by the Chelonians.
Bernice has a rough time here though, and for some reason, that seems to be a running theme through these novels. Love & War didn’t end very well for anyone and Transit saw her taken over by a malevolent entity for much of the story. Transit is supposed to be her first proper trip in the TARDIS and here she finds herself mostly being incapacitated by Bubbleshake addiction. She seems to be handled in the same way some of the Fifth Doctor’s companions were treated when there were three travellers. But that was justified by the fact that there were far too many companions for the writers to handle. Here though, as the sole companion, they don’t have that excuse, but the writers still seem to insist on writing her out of the action as quickly as possible. It’s a strange move considering she’s the main companion for much of this range.
Roberts also seems to hinge much of the story on a series of dues ex machina events with spaceships and transporters arriving at just the right time and it doesn’t allow any of the characters to show off any level of intelligence at all. And we’ve got groups of characters of seem to know each other with no explanation given. Of course, all this can luckily be explained away as the Fortean Flicker has something to do with the idea of coincidences but it isn’t the best idea in the world to hinge a lot of the events in your book on something like that, without explaining it properly. But as the book goes on it explains that the Flicker was once operational but is now not. So this aspect of the book really makes no sense at all.
If the planet the Doctor and Bernice find themselves on is supposed to be abandoned, there sure are a lot of supporting characters around. There are mad Chelonians, the General Fakrid and his First Pilot, Jinkwa. A group of human tourists, Vaness, Hazel and Witcher. Music fans, Rodomonte, Sendei and Molassi. And then there is the only supporting character that I remember from this book, the real villain, Sheldukher and his accompaniment of Rosheen, Klift, Posteen, and the Cell. It goes to show how good I thought this book was if I can only remember one character besides the Doctor and Bernice.
It’s strange then to learn that upon its initial release, this was a book that was well-received. Maybe its a case of the years not being particularly kind as I found it to be so-so. I do remember the climatic battle towards the end, and Bernice dodging missiles fired at the ruined temple of Sakkrat by the mad Chelonians but otherwise, much of this book went in-one-ear-and-out-the-other. Gareth Roberts would later become known for his quick-witted writing and indeed, books like The Romance of Crime and The English Way of Death, hold up much better today. The Highest Science isn’t bad for a first outing but it certainly doesn’t hold together particularly well as the novel rattles along. At least Roberts didn’t write this one to outstay its welcome.
THE PIT – WRITTEN BY NEIL PENSWICK
Right, here we go.
The Pit. What can I say about The Pit without being too horrible? Well, under no circumstances would I wish to insult the writer but this is a story that is too difficult and rambling to be enjoyable. Penswick can certainly write, he submitted an unused script for the show that would have featured in a series had the show continued into the 1990s, but this is just a story that is far too boring for its own good.
So what did I like? Well, I liked all the tie-ins to Gallifrey and the mythos of the planet and the Doctor’s role in it. I like that it ties into State of Decay, a Fourth Doctor story that I find hugely enjoyable and the vampire legends that make up much of that outing. It’s just unfortunate that Penswick doesn’t include more of this as this book is set long before Gallifrey becomes the Gallifrey we know today. These are the earliest of Gallifrian’s, just starting out and it is such a shame that there isn’t more attention paid to this as I would have really liked that aspect of this story more. Penswick also doesn’t make it clear as to whether these are the same breed of Vampires as the Yssagaroth, a term that would be later confirmed in the Eighth Doctor two-part novel, Interference or if they are related to the Great Vampires from State of Decay. Perhaps though the biggest villain here is the Gallifrian general, Kopyion Liall a Mahajetsu, who vows at the end of the novel to kill the Doctor should he ever see him again. He never does though, so we don’t have to worry too much about a follow up to this novel.
But besides Kopyion, I found it hard to get to grips with Penswick’s handling of the other characters, including the Doctor and Bernice. Now, to me, a Doctor Who book can be absolutely terrible, so long as the writer has a good handle on the main characters. So long as they feel like the Doctor and his companion, I can forgive the bad prose somewhat. Here though, the Doctor and Bernice feel somewhat shallow, like just what we see on the outside, there is no emotional depth given to them whatsoever. Maybe though that is a by-product of this story which is, luckily, quite short, though its difficult nature meant it took me a long time to read it. Normally, I can sit down and quite happily either finish a book or get the vast majority of it out of the way in an afternoon.
Then we’ve got two shapeshifters who have stolen the most powerful nuclear device to have ever been invented and their telepathic slaves. A group of androids who have been sent to recover the device, one of whom becomes Bernice’s escort through the book, there’s General Kopyoin and all his dirty-little-secrets. There’s a Major John Carlson who is on a murder investigation and a relic hunter, Mann who both have big plots here. Then there’s also a cult on Earth, UNIT and most surprisingly, the teaming up of the Doctor and the poet, William Blake. But like The Highest Science, the many characters prove to be the books biggest downfall as there is never enough time to spend on each one. Blake serves no purpose at all and should never have been included and as we learn early on in the book that this part of space will be destroyed at some point, towards the end of the novel, none of the other characters really matter anyway.
What was good though was that it does shed some light on the TARDIS breakdown that has been happening gradually since the beginning of the Cat’s Cradle arc and what I really liked was that has the TARDIS was breaking down, so is the Doctor thanks to their telepathic link. The Doctor very nearly doesn’t win here, and in fact, is in no way responsible for the victory at the end. It’s a plot thread that we’ll see resolved in the next book, Deceit.
But poor Bernice Summerfield. For a character who would go on to become one of the most beloved spin-off characters of all time, it’s strange to think of her character as the floundering mess she is at the moment. It almost feels like the writers had no idea what to do with after Ace had left and so leave her out of most of the action. But Bernice seems to be written like Ace, she has a tendency to use violence, get bored and sulk, despite the fact she is supposed to be an archaeologist. It’s a shame to see her character in such a state here, but Big Finish, and indeed these novels would go on to treat her right over the years, its just a shame that a companion we still hardly know at this point in her publication history isn’t getting the love and attention she deserves.
So actually, I did have some good points to talk about with The Pit. It’s such a shame then that the bad points negate the good in this book. It’s one that I’m glad I’ve finished and I’m happy to put behind me and never, ever read again.