Here's an odd thing. The first time I read Gareth Roberts's Season 17 MAs, back in the mid-nineties, this one was probably my least favourite of them. It had a plot! What I loved about these books was their note-perfect recreation of a sparkling era of the TV show, to the point where I was reading them on a scene-by-scene basis and vaguely resenting anything that pulled me out of that.
These days Gareth Roberts's dazzling evocation of Tom and Lalla seems less remarkable, which perhaps indicates one way in which the BBC Books have surpassed Virgin. The books got more playful, more experimental. (Then after the 2002 cutback they got much less playful again, but that's a whole other bucket of cold water.) Tomb of Valdemar or Festival of Death stand up to anything Gareth Roberts wrote, while also being astonishing novels in their own right. I still enjoyed The English Way of Death, but in comparison it seems almost staid. One pays more attention to its story these days.
Sadly I enjoyed Gareth Roberts more in 1996. Ah well. It's the price of progress.
Unlike The Romance of Crime and The Well-Mannered War, this book isn't just a random runaround with a plot that's little more than an excuse for comedy scenes with the Season 17 regulars. In fact Zodaal is so nasty that the laughs fade in his presence... at least until the end, when he's reunited with his sense of humour. (I'm not speaking metaphorically, by the way.) His methods and his employees have none of the goofiness of other Roberts villains like the Nisbett brothers, Crispin from Tragedy Day, etc. To be honest, I'm not sure this works. There's no reason why murder, cannibalism and zombies can't be a laugh a minute, but there's no real attempt to use them for black comedy. No, we simply have a funny book that occasionally lurches into slightly jarring scenes of brutality.
Mind you, the result is one of Gareth Roberts's more effective villains. I have a lot of time for the heavies of The Highest Science, but they don't have to sustain a whole book solo like Zodaal.
The other characters are funny, but they're all the same *kind* of funny. If you like that joke, you'll like this book. Gareth's other MAs had random grab-bags of characters, taking the piss in a hundred different directions at once, but this novel is set in 1930 and is spoofing "teddibly proper" upper middle class English manners and emotionally repressed (but unfailingly polite) halfwits. It's barely a stone's throw from Wodehouse territory. We meet Felicia Chater and Colonel Radlett, two planks whose idea of good marriage involves separate beds, a little breakfast conversation when unavoidable and a spouse with the decency to stay out of the way. Naturally they fall in love with comic effect (albeit not with each other).
There's Percy Closed, a "more English than the English" eccentric who's been hard at work and is justly proud of his grip on society's rules. You know, the important ones. Never ask for a second bowl of soup, that kind of thing. Oh, and Zodaal blackmails England's foremost geologist into helping him destroy the world by threatening to vandalise the man's rose garden.
Oddly, I think my favourite character in the book is the Stackhouse of the prologue. He's not around long, but unlike the others he manages to be an entertaining English stereotype who's not just Bertie Wooster with half an extra brain cell.
Here's an odd thing: this book has zombies, but not just any zombies. Nope, they're specifically the versions from the Return of the Living Dead trilogy. They talk, think and eat brains. They're vulnerable to electrocution. They're animated by green gas, except that here it's Zodaal's radmium vapour instead of 2-4-5 Trioxin. (One might rationalise 2-4-5 Trioxin as a degenerated version of Zodaal's radmium that's barely self-aware and has simply gone on the rampage, infecting everything it touches instead of having the intelligence to be more selective about it.)
Overall, I wasn't swept away by this book. I enjoyed it, but it has a hint of those jarring tone shifts that so marred Gareth's NAs. However that aside, The English Way of Death is a bubbling piece of cheerful nonsense with one of Gareth's happiest endings. (Too often the man seems to be trying to be Jim Mortimore.) Not everything is explained (e.g. who created the time corridor in the first place) and the bad guy isn't beaten very convincingly, but you could do much worse. It even has internal illustrations by the late Phil Bevan! Good fact. Recommended, I suppose.
I read The English Way of Death while in the mood for a pleasant, possibly slightly ironic adventure featuring the Fourth Doctor and Romana. I wasn’t disappointed. Although it would be correct to note that The English Way of Death doesn't tell a story impossible to tell on screen, and doesn’t attempt to use the novel format to push back the frontiers of Doctor Who storytelling, it would be to miss the point. The English Way of Death is a novel that sets out, in its telling of a 'new' Fourth Doctor story, to recreate the character and tone of a certain era of Doctor Who, gently poking fun, tipping a cap, and winking, as it goes. In a way it is a tribute - Roberts is acknowledging how much fun the era was, and in paying tribute, adding his own contribution to that era. It is also, in its relationship with that era, a little like the "slightly affectionate mocking of a favourite but somewhat seedy relative". This says it all, really.
Seedy is a good word here, because it touches on the guilty-pleasure quality to reading this sort of Doctor Who novel: we know it's a little sad to read novelistic recreations of a decade-old era of a now-deceased TV show, but we do it anyway. Why? Because when done well, tongue-slightly-in-cheek, these recreations can be immense fun. And The English Way of Death is immense fun. A good example:
Romana entered the control room of the TARDIS, rested and refreshed after the recent strains on her abilities, when she, the Doctor and K9 had been pitted against the undead villainess Xais. She was looking forward to finding out where the TARDIS would take them next.
Roberts writes things as he imagines them, in straightforward, unglamorous prose – the imagining is the important bit, not, ultimately, the writing. But at certain moments, as in the above passage, the simplicity is of such a sublimely farcical nature that the whole thing becomes irresistibly readable.
The Doctor is brought to life in glorious style - Roberts clearly relishes the ventriloquistic process, of evoking, with a twinkle in the eye, every nuance of the character. Occasionally, Roberts seems to out-Baker Tom Baker himself, and at that point you blink and hurry on; but most of the time things run smoothly, and the reader, by the end, is left wanting more. Equally enjoyable are Romana and K9, just as fun as the Doctor, if not more so. And the pairing of Romana and K9 with the Colonel (a brilliant comic creation) was inspired. Percy Closed and the Colonel were (for me) the most enjoyable secondary characters, memorable in a way that other characters - caricatured to the point where they were virtually insubstantial – weren’t.
Last, and perhaps least important to it all - after the characters, set-pieces, and comedy - is the plot, which concerned a time-corridor, travellers from the future using Earth as a retreat for old-people, and a mad, humourless (chortle) alien who wants to destroy the Earth by shaking it a lot. As you've no doubt guessed, the Doctor is reluctantly drawn into this dastardly chain of events, and by the end of episode 4 has sorted things out. The final chapter, just to make sure the message is clear, is called 'As We Were' and has the time-travelling team "slipping through the front door into the dazzling June day." Excellent.
"You know [Romana] when you turned up just then, I got an idea of what it must feel like when I appear and rescue everyone."
"Except you don't always get it right, either, do you, Doctor?" she replied tartly.
"To get something that wrong takes talent. Well done."
Now this is a Missing Adventure that really captures the feel of the era it supposedly takes place in: between "Creature from the Pit" and "The Horns of Nimon." Actually, I have to say that this story blows those out of the water.
The fourth Doctor, along with his companions, the second Romana and the second K9, arrive in 1930s London, ostensibly so the Doctor can return some library books and have a little rest. However, the TARDIS picks up a transtemporal signal somewhere in the area, so of course Romana has to go and investigate. K9 fumes at being left behind in the TARDIS.
Of course, things get a lot more complicated from there. The Doctor witnesses, and fails to prevent, the kidnapping of a renowned geophysicist. Said scientist is taken to a warehouse, where he is forced to build an earthquake-inducing machine for a rather gaunt-looking millionaire cookie baron -- and his army of enslaved undead.
Romana runs across the source of the time signal, which is being used by a bunch of twenty-fifth century retirees as a one-way line to "a simpler, peaceful time." Unfortunately, this time corridor is unstable, and even has a derelict spacecraft lodged inside it. Add to this half-crazed solicitor, a murderess-heiress-turned-hired-gun, a lady novelist and a brash army colonel and you have enough characters to go chasing through the countryside in search of a resolution to the story.
Actually, in spite of the convolutions, the story hangs together quite well. The dialogue is crisp and witty, reminiscent of Tom Baker at his best (strangely enough, considering the period of the series that this is supposedly set in, which was hardly a classic era of Doctor Who at all). The plot is somewhat familiar to longtime Whovians, with just enough twists and turns to keep the reader entertained. I may just have to go back and read Roberts' earlier effort, The Romance of Crime.