Monday, January 6, 2014

Alien Bodies

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Alien Bodies (BBC, 1997).

Tracking down a copy of Alien Bodies, an original Doctor Who novel by Lawrence Miles, might prove to be a little expensive, but man alive, is it ever worth it. Miles has, over time, become a complete curmudgeon, emerging from seclusion to complain a little bit about the modern series, and to complain a whole lot about the most recent editions, produced by Stephen Moffat - why did we ever complain about 1980s producer John Nathan-Turner being a publicity hound, with this fellow on TV about as often as his actors? - and, invariably, upon hearing of his latest cranky opinions, some fan will ask, not unreasonably, who is Miles and why anybody should care what he thinks? Well, he wrote two or three of the very best Doctor Who stories ever written, and that's why.

Foremost among them - I have another in the read-pile - is Alien Bodies, which, depending on when you ask me, could be tied for equal best-ever with "City of Death" and "Blink." This story's a work of genius: wild, brilliantly original ideas, a never-done-before plot, and constructed with sparkling, silly, knowing wit throughout. I love it to pieces. When I sold off nearly all of my late-90s BBC Books, I certainly held onto this one.

From 1991-96, while the TV series was off the air, Virgin Books had the license to publish Who novels. Many of these were really good, and many of the writers who would work for the show when it returned in '05 got their start in the line. Unfortunately, with the attempt at a new series starring Paul McGann - a TV-movie that didn't get the then-needed commitment of a US deal with co-production money - the BBC chose not to renew Virgin's license, and brought the novels in-house. The results were less than mixed - the books were mostly downright awful. Even established authors with a strong track record struggled under what seemed a mix of editorial interference, the most unlikeable, market-tested of all companions, and an inability to capture McGann's mercurial Eighth Doctor. (To be fair, they had little to go on, but Steve Parkhouse, more than ten years previously, had even less to go on when scripting his Sixth Doctor comics for Marvel, and he created a much, much more likable character than the TV people ever did.)

So it's really remarkable that Miles was able to take McGann's character, who only had about fifty-some minutes of screen time in a very disappointing ninety-some minute movie, and write a Doctor who is firmly and unmistakably McGann on every page. I've often said that, despite that blasted movie, McGann's Doctor is one of my favorites. That's in part for the promise of stories we never got to see, and in part for the ebullient and wonderful way he played the character so briefly, and in part for the terrific run of comics that featured the character and which were mostly about a trillion times better than the novels. The main reason, though, is how Miles writes him in this book. He's slightly befuddled, confused about the long game strategies that his previous self would often put into play, given to disarming smiles and honest charm, and not a conventional hero at all, but the most happily unpredictable and optimistic of them.

In Alien Bodies, not to give too much away, the Doctor runs into a very curious auction, where powers from very, very far in the future have assembled on a remote island on 22nd Century Earth to bid for a mysterious weapon. Among these are the Time Lords of the Doctor's far future, who are engaged in a losing war against a strange, unnamed Enemy. (This is not the "Time War" that has overshadowed the modern series; Miles had something far more interesting in mind for this.) The other participants include a time-traveling voodoo cult who worships the Grandfather of all Paradoxes, and an entity who has left corporeal space behind for the realm of concepts. And the Daleks are due to arrive to place a bid, but their envoy has been intercepted by another of the Doctor's old enemies, who, quite surprisingly, effortlessly destroys the Daleks and uses the opportunity to push its own agenda. Things start out bad, get worse when the very sentient TARDIS belonging to the Time Lords' future agent self-destructs, and that's before the Doctor learns just what in the universe these extremely dangerous lunatics are actually bidding on.

It's more than the flow of this book's plot that's completely unpredictable, it's the constant, creative ways that the Doctor gets out of wildly bizarre and impossible problems. Every time I read this book, I find new and wild ideas that I'd missed before, and I'm hugely impressed by the really strong sense that Miles wants to forge new trails and keep his version of Who from ever becoming stale or set in its ways. There's nothing typical or traditional about his vision for the series, and it is a blessed shame that he has had such a long disagreement with the modern series' architects to keep him from participating or contributing to it. Doctor Who works best with dangerous and left-field ideas like Miles generates here. Highly recommended.

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