The Taint.

Books  I wasn’t a very big fan of Michael Collier’s previous book.  Actually that’s understating things, I really, really hated Longest Day.  In the midst of the flowery descriptions such important things as plot and character got lost, like some house keys down the back of a settee, which meant as the opening act of the Lost Sam Arc it was a disaster the range didn’t really get over until Seeing I.  So it’s a surprise and pleasure to say that The Taint is something of an improvement.  It’s not perfect, but this is a rattling good romp laced with humour and excitement and shocks.

This time Collier offers a far simpler story.  It’s 1963 and a parapsychologist has gathered together a selection of test subjects after noticing specific similarities in their delusions; the Doctor’s interest is peaked and it becomes apparent that some alien has been using their respective families as test subjects for a computer programme which is part of a plan to banish trans-dimensional demons from the Earth.  Slowly the test subjects begin to gain superhuman abilities and it’s up to the Doctor to try and cure them or find a way to stop them.  Well, alright, simpler than Longest Day anyway.

If anything, it’s the plotting that lets Collier down again - despite some longish exposition scenes it’s not always clear who’s doing what to whom and why and sometimes you feel as though you might have skipped some pages.  The introduction of the main villain isn’t particularly well handled; I think the author had in mind to have the kind of subtle cutaway that’s the stock in trade of films and tv but it’s a good before pages before it’s clear what he looks like (in other words, he‘s cut back too far on his tendency to describe everything).  Similarly, despite the utilisation of some first-person interjections relating their manias its difficult to really follow who all the patients are and the significance of some of the staff of the hospital until they’re close to death…

It is a particularly creepy book, once again investigating body horror with Sam being the butt of an experiment.  When other fans have wondered why these novels aren’t being reprinted to cash in on the success of the new series I’d cite this as an example as the bodies pile up and there’s brain surgery here there and everywhere.  It’s a master class in the power of the suggestion and some of the demises are really, really nasty.  In addition, some of Sam’s intradimensional visions of demons would frighten the bejesus out of small children.  This volume is not for a family audience which is a problem when you consider who the programme is predominantly being made for now.

Once again, Collier’s in the position of introducing something and this time it’s a new companion.  Fritz Kreiner is like Ben from the Troughton era done properly, an unreconstructed man of the 60s having to deal with the modern attitudes of Sam and The Doctor and presumably the future; done well, this’ll be Life on Mars if Gene Hunt had traveled to the future and met Sam Tyler not the other way around.  I’m not sure I have a handle on what he looks like yet - some of the time, Withnail sprang to mind but I’m sure he’s less gothic, more handsome than that.

I’m usually dead against the breaking of the one time lord and a plus one (usually female) rule -- the more people there are in the Tardis, the more the writer has to find for them to do and sometimes this can make the storytelling pretty choppy -- the worse example of this was during the Davison era but I also don’t think that Big Finish have really worked out what do with C’Rizz in the Eighth Doctor audios post-Divergant universe.  There’s not enough in here to suggest how he’ll work in future novels although some interesting dynamics are already developing; there some wonderful screwball comedy between him and Sam and his relationship with the Doctor is slightly abrasive.  Since I know Fitz is to be with the crew until the very end of the series, that’s bound to soften.

The novel is probably at its best in its opening fifty odd pages, as Sam encounters a city, so familiar from her future but unfamiliar because it’s thirty years before she was born.  Yet again a spin-off portrays something which hadn’t even been considered for televised Doctor Who which is a shame because it’s a very rich seam.  There’s a real atmosphere to Collier’s descriptions of the streets of London as Fitz takes Sam on her first date in ages -- it’s the opening scenes of The War Machines writ large, but crucially it doesn‘t overwhelm the narrative.  It‘s an interesting character point though that she understands that she can’t interfere too much and indeed to some extent considers this past as alien as any of the other world’s she’s visited and or settled on.

Another delight is the characterization of the Doctor whose inquiring nature and sense of fun have returned after his somewhat sanguine demeanor in the previous novel.  Some of the best moments are when he’s trying to bluff his way into and out of situations but also when he’s trying to do the heroic thing even when it’ll cause people to die.  There’s a telling moment when his habit of dropping to temporal orbit in the Tardis has been used to solve a problem, taking weeks to create a cure for example, and how difficult he finds it to bend the rules now: ‘Had that transition from master planner to born-again novice of the universe so stopped him of his guile that he was left impotent to save those nearest to him?’

Well done then to Collier for turning in a novel which for all it’s less than lucid plotting makes up for it with some wonderful character moments and action sequences.  It’s just a shame about that cover which once again only vaguely represents what’s going on inside the book and would certainly have stopped me from buying the book when it was published in 1999.  I mean what would have been wrong with simply putting a picture of the new companion on there or for that matter Paul McGann (other then the fact there are only about four pictures of him in the wig and costume)?

Next Time: Demontage, which is the kind of title that can only be said in a gravelly voice.

No comments: