Vanderdeken's Children.

Books  Back after my personal hiatus from reviewing these novels and already The Doctor and Sam and the Tardis find themselves in the crossfire of two warring ships whilst investigating another Mysterious Alien Vessel.  Eventually the time travelers become embroiled in the dispute over the MAV, taking a trip with both factions into its heart to discover its secrets.  This is another of the many Eighth Doctor novels in which he finds himself battling against a big scientific time-related concept which threatens to destroy the universe.  Or whatever.  And at no point during its two hundred and eighty one pages did it feel like something, new, fresh or in the end exciting.  It's simply one of those books with a great opening, good ending and a flippy-floppy middle.

The problem with the book is that it can't really decide what it wants to be and at no point, despite the Tardis on the front cover, does it feel like a Doctor Who novel.  On the one hand it's the novelisation of an Irwin Allen disaster film set in space -- one of the rival vessels is a passenger cruise liner and the myriad characters on board are straight out of The Poseidon Adventure: put upon husband Lester Plecht could be Ernest Borgnine and his with Rhonda is surely Shelley Winters; there's even a small child who has lost his parents.  But the captains of the vessels and the ghostly figures they meet on the MAV are straight out of Asimov, one of the early shorts from Amazing Stories and all a bit generic and colourless.  And none of it really gels and in fact in places, the apparent B-plot of the Plechts overshadows everything else and is in the end more interesting because it's about people rather than plot points.  Plus it's all so horrifyingly generic -- even the mysterious ship seems like something straight out of a hundred other sci-fi adventures, particularly The Black Hole.

More importantly the novel makes the common mistake of concentrating on the larger story at the expense of The Doctor and Sam who after the admittedly excellent opening, become two of a crowd of characters.  Whole chapters drift past here in which the companions only fleetingly appear, almost as though author Christopher Bulis has remembered whose name, other than his own, will be on the cover.  Much of the time The Doctor is an exposition machine, explaining the nature of the ship to the accompanying humans, and all too often it knocks the drama out of the story.  The best Doctor Who adventures are about the timelord being surprised as he discovers what's gone wrong.  Here, he seems to know everything as soon as he steps onto the MAV for the first time and the rest of the book is simply the reader and the human characters getting up to speed.

It's symptomatic of the book that the one great concept that effects the main characters isn't taken advantage of and ushered off within pages.  There's a scene in which part of the anomaly at the heart of the alien ship causes Sam to regress within her own personal timeline to the age of ten so that she forgets The Doctor and her teenager years.  There's a beguiling moment in which she finds that she can still trust this man with a calming voice telling her that everything will be ok.  Rather than leaving her in this condition for the rest of the novel and giving the timelord something personal to fight for, she's righted relatively quickly and a conversation ensues amongst the accompanying crew about whether this could be used to prolong life, knocking the magic out of it.  On the whole, Sam is pretty well characterized although there are some uncomfortable moments when The Doctor is dithering about making big decision and Sam convinces him to proceed which is either a reaction to the events of Seeing I or a miscalculation of their relationship as though The Doctor is making his companion a scapegoat if his plan goes wrong.  I'm not sure.

But I'm not sure about a lot of things with this novel.  Confusingly as I write this I've reread the title and it actually says Vanderdeken's Children when I've just spent the past week or so misreading it Vandaniken's Children and wondering what any of the story has to do late night documentaries about finding alien artifacts in Egypt.  Luckily this is the kind of book in which the characters take time out towards the end to explain why the author chose the title, but the fact I didn't notice the mistake until about two minutes ago says a lot about why the average Doctor Who story has a title like The Time Corridor of Death/Doom.  It's also the kind of book that has an illustration of a keypad in the opening few pages that only becomes relevant on page 65 and even then doesn't seem relevant enough to need an illustration.

I understand that not all of these books are going to be premise shattering stories like Alien Bodies or neat nostalgia trips like Placebo Effect.  I just think that if you're investing time in something it needs to repay your concentration and under these circumstances, Vanderdeken's Children (or whatever its called) falls short.

The Scarlet Empress next ...

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