Option Lock.

Books  I've been looking forward to Option Lock. There hasn't been a novel by Justin Richards that I haven't liked and I think I'm one of the few who adores his audio Time of the Daleks. This was obviously written before he took over as general editor of the book line and the work points up his strengths; his understanding that some of the great Doctor Who stories are about the Time Lord and his companion on a thrilling yarn. His first Ninth Doctor novel, The Clockwise Men was for my money the best of that bunch and although this doesn't quite reach the heights of Vampire Science or Alien Bodies it's certainly in the top five EDAs (if I'm keeping a record of this).

Harry Potter fans take note. This is another novel that surrounds the mystery of a Philosopher's Stone. The Doctor and Sam turn up in 1998 (which was when this book was published) and stumble into a stately home filled with secrets. Something is wrong, inconsistent, but neither can put their finger on what but as events begin to unravel it transpires for the reader that what might have been a low-key ghostly mystery is actually about a plan with global implications, the Stone being the catalyst. So far the best of the novels have been set on the real Earth and this continues the tradition. It's the Yeti @ Tooting Beck syndrome probably but Jon Pertwee knew what he was talking about. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying there is an alien threat but it's certainly the stealthiest approach seen in the series, even if the outcome is rather spectacular.

Particularly surprising are the narrative's sudden trips into Tom Clancy territory as the world is brought to the brink of massive nuclear war. The US President and his advisor sit and stand about the White House debating whether the Russians have really launched a first strike. It's as though scenes from The West Wing or Failsafe had been edited into Pyramids of Mars. To Justin's credit this doesn't jar as the characterization of the men of war and politics feels right. They know they're fallible and they're scared to death. Perhaps in places the action skirts close to James Bond territory, but not to it's detriment.

Of the other characters I really enjoyed the work of Mr Pickering who has something of the Harry Sullivan about him. He's probably the first male character I wouldn't have minded continuing with some adventures in the TARDIS. And there's also Sargent who's a real Duggan if ever I saw one. Watch out for the moment when he realizes that he's been had and The Doctor might not have his best interests at heart after all.

What's particularly gratifying is the interaction between The Doctor and Sam. I commented in my substandard Kursaal review that the only times that book genuinely coalesced was during their scenes together. They're hardly apart here and the story simply flies. For once there is real chemistry between them, a friendship which feels lived in. I'm reminded of that moment in The Parting of the Ways when Ninth comments to Rose that she'd never thought of asking to leave. Moments here have that intensity. But above all, there is the sense of fun. One scene plays out the old film cliché of a couple hitch hiking and the girl presenting her … assets … only for some unsuspecting lonely male truck driver to find himself with her partner along for the ride as well. Seen it before, but here it's still funny because it is so unexpected. My favourite moment? When The Doctor stops in the middle of the action and descibes what happened when he met Pythagoras and watched as the mathematician discovered that his work wasn't just theoretical and could effect the real world. It's quiet but has an excellent pay-off at the end of the novel.

There are some niggles. Where was UNIT whilst all this was happening, especially with all the talk of the UN. And how clever is Sam? At one point having been out in time for goodness knows how long she s suddenly able to chide The Doctor for not knowing the name of some top ranking US official, you know the kind which Jon Stewart might mention on The Daily Show when he's trying to be particularly obscure. Is this supposed to be a reference back to Alien Bodies and the nature of Sam and the question of whether she's been created as the perfect companion?

Speaking of Alien Bodies, I don't think I'd considered how much trouble that novel's caused. The books around it are obviously being written with a younger readership in mind and as Option Lock demonstrates this can lead to an enjoyable romp. The problem is it lacks the sophistication of Lawrence Miles' work, particularly in relation to the action's effects on The Doctor and Sam. This review may not be longer because there isn't much more to say. Suddenly a whole new universe was opened up and the expectation would be that next few novels would be about discovering the possibilities. Instead we've been menaced by giant wolf men and a glowing rock. I wonder if the contemporary readership were as disappointed. Perhaps Longest Day with yield more excitement in that regard and some really wild things.

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