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Doctor Who and the Taint

Doctor Who: The BBC Eighth Doctor Adventures #19
Joe Ford

The evolution of horror books in Doctor Who is quite fascinating and it helps to put the The Taint in context when you have a good look at the horror books that preceded this and the ones which follow it too. There aren’t many Doctor Who books which rival the sheer awfulness of those early Virgin horror novels, Strange England, Falls the Shadow, Timewyrm: Revelation…books that seemed to revel in nastiness for its own sake. There was a terrifying sense that freed from the limits of the television censors the books could take the show to graphic extremes. With no restraint, these books read like teenage nightmares, bad things happening because they can. Clearly there was still a lot to be learnt about how horror worked in the Doctor Who format (although I have to admit Mark Gatiss had a pretty damn good attempt in Nightshade, a genuinely creepy tale of the past coming back to kill you…) and they still hadn’t quite got it right come the early BBC books. But you can see a slow progression of quality…Deep Blue is like a NA throwback, nice prose but little that actually scares but then Tomb of Valdemar came along with its impressive foreboding atmosphere and grotesque characters. The Banquo Legacy followed and genuinely convinces you of a zombie roaming the English countryside and then The Burning takes us back to the classic Doctor Who scenario of the sleepy village beset by supernatural terror. Things were clearly on the up. Come the latter EDAs we are reading horror novels that would stand proud next to the latest Stephen King (pah!) and James Herbert. You’ve got body horror (Eater of Wasps), psychological horror (City of the Dead), bestial horror (Adventuress of Henrietta Street), temporal horror (Anachrophobia) and supernatural horror (The Deadstone Memorial) and believe me they all work a treat. The horror was integrated into the books for a reason, be it to explore the characters (particularly the Doctor and his forgotten memories), to warn against the dangers of unlicensed time travel or to appeal to our sympathies as nice characters (such as Rigby and Cal) are put through hell.

The Taint is a much lesser book than any of those five, written in the troubled early days of the EDAs. It commits the cardinal sin of a horror book, one which even those horrid NA’s even managed to avoid, it is simply not scary. And it is not through want of trying, Michael Collier is clearly sweating blood to get you in a cold sweat, filling his book with freaky scenes of demonic psychos threatening, hurting and terrifying the residents of Roley’s manor house. Collier forgets the most important rule of horror, the expression of the unknown. The latest War of the Worlds remake might lack a satisfying ending but the unknown motives for the invaders devastating destruction on the planet certainly left me shaking in my seat. Rather than exploit the potential horror of possession Collier includes long, laborious, technobabble explanations for every horrific moment and it guts the tension in every scene. What’s even worse is that half the time I couldn’t even work out what the Doctor and Roley were talking about; such was the level of technobabble they spouted. The troubling thing is I can see how this sort of book could work, with a little editorial tweaking, some heavier characterisation and less technical nonsense you could produce a truly haunting novel set in a mental asylum and call it, oh I don’t know…The Sleep of Reason.

It’s a shame that the tone of the novel is so wrong because there are a number of elements that work quite well. Certainly some of the characterisation is good, especially the unusual relationship between Nurse Bulwell and Dr Roley which is damn uncomfortable to read about in some passages. They read like a pair of kids half the time, one desperately in love, the other using that affection to get his own way and the patients they are caring for seem something of an afterthought. Bulwell is a real nasty piece of work and she seemed to enjoy her work torturing the patients a little too much.

Collier conjours up the sixties rather well too, and does well to point out how long it has been since the Doctor and Sam have been on Earth. Considering how Earth-based the later EDAs would become it is quite a shock to think how rare this sort of book was in the early days. And when the book escapes from the confines of Roley’s stately home it really comes alive, Collier using Sam well to explore just how different the sixties is to the faster, colourful, materialistic nineties. Unfortunately these scenes are few and far between, the story far more interested in the fairly boring Azoth plot.

Fitz is, of course, Collier’s ace card and the real reason to read this book. It’s just a shame that he should be introduced in such a lousy story but alternatively it is easy to see why he was such a hit, especially compared to the Doctor and Sam who are at their most generic throughout. The thing I love most about Fitz is that he is such a loser, we know and he knows it and yet he still tries it on with any bit of skirt that crosses his path and pretends he has secrets despite the fact he is as transparent as glass. You can’t help but feel for the guy, especially when Sam keeps putting him down and criticizing his lifestyle (which admittedly isn’t that hot) and his simple down to earth attitude makes him so much more real than either of the other two regulars. This scruffy, wimpy nobody would go on to become one of the greatest companions in Doctor Who’s history, he would appear in some of the best Doctor Who novels ever published and remain loyal to the Doctor until his very last appearance. And it all starts here…

I didn’t find myself getting very close to any of the patients gathered at Roley’s estate. The reason The Sleep of Reason worked so well was because Martin Day bothered to make his characters seem very real, with very normal, very natural problems (cheating husbands, suicidal teens). It wasn’t hard to feel for them because they were just like us but the loonies gathered here are so abnormal they might as well be a bunch of aliens. Lucy acts like she is on drugs all the time and the Captain walks around in something of a dreamy daze, even Fitz’s poor old mother acts less like a doddery old pensioner and more like a nutball. There are a number of Alien Bodies-style flashbacks into their pasts, showing us the point in which they succumbed to the alien menace that haunts them but these sections are written in such a laboured, prosaic manner it was hard to understand what the hell was going on. Was Lucy a whore? I thought that was what was being implied but it is never made very clear.

Another worrying aspect of the novel that seems to be skipped over far too lightly is that the Doctor commits murder five times over at the end of this book and nobody in audience seemed to care very much at the time. However, a few books later when he pulls out a gun a shoots somebody it was as though he had committed a sin akin to murdering the Pope. I can hear the excuses coming already, that the five victims were beyond saving, that they would have committed more devastation had he let them survive…but that doesn’t alter the point that the Doctor knowingly murders them. And as Fitz quite rightly points out, how does he know they aren’t themselves anymore? It seems bizarre that Fitz should become so close to the man who killed his poor old mum.

All told this was not a pleasurable experience. It is a book that what’s you to understand what is going on far more than it wants to frighten you and it features some very sloppy writing and editing. There are a few shining moments where it threatens to break out into greatness (such as Sam witnessing the beast wrecking havoc on the outside world) but it gets too bogged down in its explanations.

What ever happened to good old scary Doctor Who? They used to make it look so easy on the telly.

Robert Smith?

In brief: Woeful. Fitz manages to carry things for a fair stretch of the book, but aside from that there's very little here to enjoy.

I found Collier's previous book to be full of interesting ideas, but the author lacked the skill to carry many of them off. Longest Day was bad, make no mistake, but it was bad because it aimed too high and fell flat. The Taint is also bad. Very bad. But it's bad in almost completely the opposite way. I'm highly amused by this, because there was a time when I thought nothing would make me look back with fondness at Longest Day. Ah, nostalgia!

The writing has improved magnificently. It's still not great, but it's quite an improvement on Longest Day. Unfortunately, for every step gained in the writing, one is lost in the story. I also thought that the interactions between the Doctor and Sam (sparse though they were) were one of the highlights of Longest Day. Unfortunately, while the regulars spend more time together here, there's no such spark between them.

I'm guessing that a lot of fans will probably like this story. On the surface, it has a lot going for it: it's a very traditional Doctor Who setting, with traditional lacklustre villains, traditional supporting cast, many of whom are faceless and merge into one another, and a goofy Doctor.

Yes, yes, so it's yet another EDA. I haven't read The Janus Conjunction, but it appears that the EDAs have been on a mission to present a worse and worse book every month since The Scarlet Empress. Despite the obvious difficulties this presents.

Maybe it's me, but this book reads very much as though it's just going through the motions, with no real point. There's a house full of vaguely interesting characters, which later on gets placed under siege. There are a couple of villains, one of whom kills the other for no readily apparent reason. The Doctor spends most of the story investigating something seemingly unrelated which fortunately turns out to be immensely valuable, although only after most of the cast have died.

Oh yes, and it's set in 1963. If it weren't for Fitz and some of the quality of the writing, I'd swear that this was churned out by a Whovian AI.

Fitz, at least, saves most of the scenes he's in. He's a great character, and seems so much more real than either the Doctor or Sam (both in the sense of being someone you'd actually want to spend time with and as a developed fictional character). All this, however, is nothing compared to the heinous crime committed at the beginning of the novel: we get no physical description of him!

I'm serious. Who in their right minds thought this would be a good idea? All we know from The Taint is that Fitz has dark, unkempt hair (which is naturally described by him pushing a hand through it) and a big nose. Throughout the whole book, I honestly thought this was some sort of joke and was waiting for the end where we'd get a description (presumably in the scene where he joins the Doctor and Sam, but we don't get that either). This might, almost, be forgivable, if it was simply that Collier wasn't into descriptions - except that we get a loving paragraph of description of the Doctor on page 9. C'mon people, priorities here!

Anyway, aside from that, Fitz works well enough, but he's the only redeeming feature. The Doctor does goofy stuff, Sam's highly irritating, even when she gets possessed, yadda yadda. I'm now of the firm belief that there's a very long form somewhere in the BBC offices that Steve Cole just hands out to authors: "The Doctor does _______ (insert silly and unbelievable thing here). Sam gets possessed, tortured, severely injured. The Doctor risks everyone else, inadvertently causing several innocent people to die, in order to save her. Some stuff happens (see 1976 Hinchcliffe era for inspiration).

More people get possessed. The Doctor runs around pointlessly for most of the book, having no real idea what's going on, before miraculously coming up with a solution in the last chapter. Sam whines."

As to the supporting cast, only Roley and Maria worked for me. Roley's irritating, but he's supposed to be (and his "Crikey Moses" outbursts are as annoying as Cockaigne's "Oh poo!" exclamations were in Kursaal). Maria Bulwell is just plain unlikable, but again she's supposed to be. I'm not entirely sure what the point was for the only two developed characters in the supporting cast, but there you have it. At least Nurse Bulwell adds a bit of spark to the proceedings. As for Roley's patients, they're all a pretty faceless bunch. Mrs Kreiner we only from the name. Russell and Taylor are indistinguishable - okay, one's a teenage Antichrist and one's a disturbed lunatic, but after a while you can't remember which was supposed to be which and the text really doesn't seem to help you along. Not that it matters that much. Watson feels as though his character would be improved immensely were he to be played by Richard Briers, ala the Chief Caretaker.

That said, I did like the fact that Fitz's mother was related to the story and used as a hook to get him into the action. However, I liked it more because of the reactions we got from Fitz (especially his realisation at the end that it wasn't the Doctor's fault).

In summary, The Taint is a depressing waste of an introductory story. Fitz provides the only bright spot, giving me some hope for future TARDIS crew interactions, but unfortunately the story that's told around his introduction is incredibly lacking in any interest whatsoever. If you thought Doctor Who was never right after season 5's base-under-siege theme, then this might be the book for you. Not for me, though.

Brian Copeland

This is a novel of very mixed emotions. The Taint, by Michael Collier, is a novel where really very little is at stake. It mostly takes place in an asylum type house. There aren't 22 worlds about to blow up, no future about to be seriously altered....its almost inconsequential.

Actually if you look at the pattern of the EDA's, it is so formula it almost hurts. I mean Doctor Who isn't Star Trek...it doesn't have to follow a mould where you already know how the book is going to end. Doctor Who doesn't have to fall into this fast food genre. But...it is heading there (or as many have said, it is already there).

Some very interesting elements, however, were introduced. At this asylum, we have several guests, who all have at one time, shared the same dream. And this dream is repeated over and over again. A dream of a cave, and an angel, and some little demons floating about. A race memory? A sentient drug trying to take over humanity (oops, sorry that has already been used before)? I was really interested in this novel until the villains show up and make a stand.

The characters that are suffering these dreams are interesting only in the fact that they have completely different lives (so it seems), but all share the same horrific mental illness.

One of the victims is Mrs. Kreiner...an elderly woman who is a little off her mark. But because of her illness, we are indirectly introduced to Fitz, the newest companion to join the Doctor. I have to say this, even without a description, I think he is a great character.

When Sam (from the 1990's) is walking around with Fitz, we get to see inside the thoughts of these two characters. Sam is looking around at the 1960's for the first time, remarking how much is the same and how much is different at Tottenham Court, and New Oxford street, etc. She is almost in awe. Fitz however, is thinking that Sam has a great ass. I mean, he is such a stereotypical cool-dude male of the sixties, with his love of Bond, and looking cool above all else...he is so fresh. Exactly what Doctor Who needs now, with Sam cluttering up the place.

One really cool side note about the above paragraph; recently I was on my honeymoon, and spent the time in London. It was our first time there, and we were on the same streets as mentioned in the story, as part of the 'looking around' that Sam was doing. She remarked that Virgin records wasn't there at Tottenham Court, and just months ago I was there myself. It made her experiences all the more real for me, and I really appreciated that. I know for people who live in London, this is nothing new, but for a Canadian it is. Anyway, back to business....

Fitz's chauvinistic nature really foils Sam's holier than thou attitude, and since I hate Sam so much....well Fitz is a real breath of fresh air.

The villains, Azoth and the other guy (can't remember, most of the characters unfortunately were of this forgettable variety) were bland to say the least...I just didn't get into them as villains....I didn't feel threatened by them, they just went through the usual villain pace.

The Doctor was okay....he seemed really distant throughout the novel, and of course dropped everything (again) to help Sam (again). At least this time he didn't go back into time to save her.

Sam was....Sam.

Doctor Roley was an excellent character. He really thought what he was doing was right, all in the name of research. Even though people were losing their sanity, and then their lives, he felt that was justified because of all the other people he would eventually be able to help. Nurse Maria was a bitch. But guess what, it works. I hated her from the minute she called Mrs Kreiner a kraut, and enjoyed her dying. Do you smell bacon? And she really worked because of this. I was often more concerned and interested in what Bullwell and Roley would say and do than I was about the villains or the Doctor.

This novel really could have worked if only a few things were taken care of. IF the actions of the Doctor made more sense during the novel....IF the villain was actually a real threat....IF the victims at the asylum were much bipolar in their personalities between the times of the dream and their natural state...IF they were developed more, so we actually really cared about them...well that's a lot of IF's, but the novel could really have been scary and have meant something if these IF's were taken care of.

But instead, we had running-up-and-down corridors, the usual Sam gets hurt and tortured, and the Doctor clowns around. Its a shame really because The Taint could have been fabulous.

Fitz was the real shiner here, however, and its a pity he had such a crappy story to start with...even Adric had a better start.

At least we didn't have the Repeat Word Syndrome (TM) too many times. It was nice to see (or rather, not see).

I have to give Collier credit however. I enjoyed The Longest Day, even though apparently I am the only one, and this novel did have a lot of potential. His writing style is competent, but his characterization needs some work. I predict that his next novel (if he doesn't already have one) will be a hit.