Prior to Jonathan Morris debut novel the ‘Williams-era’ TARDIS team of the 4th Doctor, Romana and K-9 was firmly in the hands of Gareth Roberts. However, while Roberts could provide heart-warmingly accurate portrayals of the regulars and had a good line in humour, the one thing his novels always seemed a little short on was plot. With Festival of Death Jonathan Morris manages to tie the humorous larger than life regulars of the era to a fiendishly complex plot, and the result is a wonderfully enjoyable debut novel.
The storyline itself is not hugely original, with the central concept of exploring and returning from the shores of death being familiar from such Hollywood fare as Flatliners; a manically depressed computer that initially seems to have been lifted from The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy but ultimtealy turns out to be more HAL than Marvin; and yet another Lovecraftian other dimensional entity that wants to destroy all life – well, they all do don’t they – but the familiarities don’t really seem to matter all that much. The real pleasure here isn’t so much the storyline per se, but in how Morris tells it.
The masterstroke of Festival of Death is that it presents the story backwards, with the Doctor and Romana arriving just after they’ve already left, so find themselves having to go back in time to find out what happened. To make matters even more confusing, this doesn’t just happen once but on several occasions, so at any given time during the story there are a number of Doctors and Romana’s wandering around and interacting with each other, and it’s watching this complex jigsaw puzzle of plotting come together that provides the novels real enjoyment. Throughout all this complicated chaos Morris manages to keep thing light and readable due to the witty and amusing banter of the regulars, though there’s the added bonus of a particularly nasty ending for the villain of the piece.
Festival of Death isn’t entirely perfect – if you ignore the construction and start concentrating on the story it starts to look more and more derivative and threadbare (‘psychothermic energy’ indeed), and occasionally Morris’ humour drifts too close to Douglas Adams pastiche (with a pair of comedy policemen being one joke that falls completely flat), but this is still a fantastic debut novel, and a recommended read.
'But everything must have a beginning'.
'Some events do not have a first cause. They only exist because they exist," said the Doctor. 'I think, therefore I am thinking. Famous for being famous."
Doctor Who: Festival of Death is that fourth Doctor and Romana book you've been eagerly awaiting to introduce your best girlfriend. It's also for converting that guy who used to be a Doctor Who TV fan but never read a novel. Heck, it may even be enought to convince a Star Trek fan, or two, to check out the BBC Books' ongoing Doctor Who novel line. And if you're a fan of the show? Well, it's a nostalgia trip like you wouldn't believe.
When the fourth Doctor and Romana arrive at a theme park where visitors have been transformed into zombies and set about killing people, the Doctor's nicely surprised to find himself being thanked for a rescue he hasn't committed yet. All of this seems great, with the Doctor set to go on the adventure where he saved the planet from certain destruction. Unfortunately, he discovers that he died in the process...
Writer Jonathan Morris offers a tale that captures the days when Tom Baker and Lalla Ward were the show's lead actors in a book that reads as if it it were a teleplay of the show itself. In this sense, Festival of Death does for the Fourth Doctor what Last of the Gadrene did for the Third. It captures the "Tom and Lalla" days so wonderfully you'll be worried about that bully down the road and whether your term paper is finished. I felt very young again, being a fan from "back in the day" and, as I'm American, was a bit scared the book would break for a moment for a PBS pledge drive. It's just that perfect a picture of that era. Gareth Roberts himself might find a few kind words to say about Mr. Morris.
Also, the novel has a keen edge and superb characters, fitting nicely within the time period this book is supposed to represent. There's a suicidal computer straight out of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a power-mad starship captain, an alien messiah, a power mad theme-park executive, a bumbling reporter, a drugged out hippie lizard, a bunch of Skullguards and even a robot dog possessed by an evil being (The name of said dog is withheld for purposes of avoiding more deliberate spoilers, but you can hazard a guess), all of which make you feel like you're watching 1970s scifi again.
And even though it's retrospective, the book's nicely innovative too. This time out, the author has taken the characters out of chronological time as the Doctor, Romana and K9 arrive just in time to be thanked for saving the day. Whoops. The TARDIS crew's gotta then travel back in time-again and again-to play out the entire tale, crossing their own timestreams to avert disaster. Oh, and it's a glorious ride with Romana constantly reminding the Doctor of the Second, oops, "First" Law of Time Travel. There's even a nice bit interpreting Nietzsche's notion of eternal reoccurrence in the story of Gallura, last born of the Aboretans, and the villian's... well, his demise is the harshest end any Doctor Who villain has ever come to. You'll find out...
Didn't I mention that the Doctor discovers he has died? That's right! Even after all the hoopla over the Third Doctor's paradoxical death on Dust in Lawrence Miles' Interference, Morris actually kills off the Fourth Doctor. Believe it. Not only that, but the Doctor willingly accepts his own end and travels back in time to make sure it will happen so that Time itself is saved.
'Just leave me alone'. The Doctor closed his eyes and leaned on the console. His voice cracked under the strain. 'Leave me alone. Both of you.'
But don't worry. The Doctor always wins in the end. Doesn't he? Well, you did read the spoilers warnings, right? He can't die, right? The Doctor always pulls through! Perhaps he will win in the end. "This time"...
In brief: Fantastic. We've been waiting a while for something this good to turn up. A long-awaited breath of fresh air.
[Note: Finn is right. Don't read the back cover until page 108, if you want the fullest experience from this wonderful book. I didn't and believe me, it's worth it.]
Spoilers follow. And if you haven't read the book, not only should you not be reading the spoilers, you should drop whatever it is you're doing and go find it at once. And clean up your room.
In quick succession we've had a new editor, The Burning and now Festival of Death. And all three appear to have broken the curse of the BBC Books: yes, this time the advance hype is actually true.
Festival of Death is very good indeed. It's good in a great many ways, from plot, characterisation, humour and a straightforward style that saves the book from the disaster it might otherwise have been.
First and foremost is the plot, of course. This book positively powers along and you can see at once why Justin Richards picked this one up off the slushpile (and, on a broader note, if novels of this quality have been sitting on the slushpile, it's a crime that we haven't gotten more of them before). I thought I had this book pegged at the end of the first segment. At first I thought that Steve had merely reversed cause and effect, with the rest of the book being a fairly straightforward telling of events whose conclusion we already know. And I think I would have found that book quite enjoyable.
However, the book that we did get merely uses that as a starting point and just keeps cranking up the enjoyment factor from there on. This is a book which mixes cause and effect magnificently, producing a tangled web that's sheer joy to behold. Throughout the entire book I was actively paying attention, just waiting for the author to slip up. And a couple of times I thought I had him, too. But no, *everything* is dealt with.
Make no mistake, this is a magnificent achievement. I turned my nitpicking facilities up to maximum and the book *still* impressed me. What's more, the style adds greatly to this, actually inviting the attentive reader to follow along, rather than trying to hide any joins through obfuscation. I'm seriously impressed.
However, as even Justin Richards knows, a book doesn't run on plot alone. It's been said that this book suffers because its incidental characters aren't particularly deep. I disagree. It's true that most of them aren't, but not once did I find that to be a problem. With a plot steamrolling over everything, I found the incidental characters to be appropriate in their less-than-three-dimensionality. Metcalf is probably the most extreme example, but he's sheer comic relief and so the characterisation doesn't need to be particularly deep. Compare him to Helen Percival in The Face-Eater. She was similarly incompetent, but was also an important character who drove a great deal of the novel. There, you can't help but wonder about her competency because she's such an important character. Not so with Metcalf -- or Rochfort, for that matter.
Paddox gets the most development of the incidental characters, which is unusual in DW fiction, since he's also the villain. It's true that this appears to come only in the last 20 pages or so, but that's not actually the case if you're paying enough attention. In fact, I'd argue that the book's twistiness works to help the characterisation: if you're paying attention because of the former, then the various hints about Paddox's motivation make the latter far more clear than they would be otherwise.
Other than Paddox, the human character who seems to get the most development is Liesa. This only makes it more heartbreaking when you stop to think about why she wasn't in the first segment. Her inevitable demise really touched me (as it does the Doctor) and seeing her again later just made this more depressing.
Evadne and Hoopy have some effort put into them, but no more than is necessary. They work well enough and both get some amusing lines, but aren't standout otherwise. I don't mind this so much here, but I have to say that if Morris's second novel (which I dearly hope happens) contains characterisation like this, it could be in real trouble. I think this is the only place where the first-time author status shows through. Hopefully we'll see an improvement next time around. That said, ERIC is fabulous. He starts off annoying, but by the end of the novel he's amazing.
However, I thought the characterisation of the regulars was superb, possibly the highlight of the book. All three come across marvellously. I really like a strong focus on the regulars and Festival delivers magnificently. Too many of the books focus on the incidental characters, who are rarely written with the verve of the regular cast anyway. Here, it's the Doctor, Romana and K9 who have the limelight and they make use of it magnificently.
All three have great lines and compete with each other to steal the show. It's a pity K9 gets sidelined for a great deal of it, because otherwise I think he'd be the unqualified winner in this competition. He's great! It's interesting that there are two approaches to using K9, both in the TV series or the books: either he gets a lot to do and is continual fun (here, the Gareth Roberts MAs), or he gets a brief scene and is out of the picture for the rest of the novel (Tomb of Valdemar, Heart of TARDIS).
Incidentally, within the last twelve months we've had no less than four fourth Doctor PDAs, three of which also contained Romana and K9. The styles of all four are so different, that my neck actually snapped in half from the whiplash. Then again, if the range were full of books as good as Tomb of Valdemar, Heart of TARDIS and Festival of Death, I'd be a very happy camper.
I like the Doctor and Romana's fears about their upcoming deaths. Tom Baker's Doctor could be quite moody at times, so this comes over well with me. There are also amusing touches galore: the quoting of things at inopportune moments, the corrections of the laws of time (plus the fact that this is drawn attention to by the end), the "of course" exchange, K9 shooting a ceiling with an obvious crack in it. The latter walks the fine line of the meta-Who in-joke [copyright Virgin Publishing, 1991-1999], but for once this is actually funny. Indeed, this is a very amusing book on occasions, although it's interested in doing other things, so the humour isn't quite as prominent as it might have been.
The Arachnopods are hilarious, even if their catchphrase leaves a little to be desired (but only a little). They feel a bit more like comedy Vervoids than season 17 monsters, but they're lots of fun (and a bit scary too). I really like their method of dispatch.
Gallura's secret is an intriguing one, because I'd been expecting something far more cliched. Paddox's aims suddenly snap into place and it feels like the whole book comes together at the instant we find out the secret of the Arboretans. And Gallura's last line is sublime. I can understand why the epilogue follows this, but I really think the birth scene should have ended the book.
I'm amazed at how complete this novel feels. At first I thought comparisons with Eye of Heaven would be inevitable, but they're not. The first section also shows just how unfulfilling the ending of most DW novels tend to be, whereas the real ending here is haunting and touching. Real thought has gone into this book and I appreciate it enormously.
In summary, Festival of Death is just about perfect. It's a complex and involving book, and not just because of its plot. There are little touches all over the place that provide great reward for the reader and the characterisation of the regulars is fantastic. It's a book that really wants you to like it and tries to do everything it can to help you with that. And it succeeds wholeheartedly, in my opinion. It's not a book that should be skimmed through, but rather savoured and sipped like a rich wine. I loved it.
Festival of Death - the Holy Grail of PDA's? One could be forgiven for thinking so. Rarely has a book been broadcast with so many plaudits and bouquets. Not that this review is going to be a brickbat. But where is the balance? In many ways Festival of Death is comfortable. It sits happily in Season Seventeen, a probable four-parter with Ward and Baker on form. As a period piece it makes few diversions from the anticipated and rolls along with the hectic Who zaniness of an author who is a Gareth Roberts fan. This crazy bonhomie is bounced along with the much-vaunted vagaries of time and causality that, in a very real sense, bind the story together. It is understandable why a book that deals so obviously with the complexities of time travel would appeal to a vast swathe of the PDA book-buying public. Many would argue that this type of exploration has been long overdue and it would be churlish to say that Jonathan Morris does anything other than create a success by sticking slavishly to his non-existent flow diagram of events surrounding the Cerebus et al. However, perhaps by necessity, the need to get this element right in the novel leaves Morris little time for plot or character. Robert Smith? does not believe this important as the style of the book is more key. That is one way of looking at it. The other is that the novel suffers on high concept - the author has had a good idea for a type of novel and invents flimsy events and persona to hang around it.
As said elsewhere, the time travel impact is very tight. However, reading the novel reminds one of watching Star Trek Voyager episodes that deal with similar consequences - the outcome of the time interactions seems more interesting than what is going on. By the end of Festival of Death one feels as though the whole concept has been bashed around so much that it is a relief when it is all tied up and one can move on. It is not so much confusing as constricting.
Why is it constricting? Well, Ness Bishop in DWM gets it right (gasp) when she says that the plot is a retread of Nightmare of Eden and that the characters are Douglas Adams on an off day. To take the plot first - why is that fandom, usually so quick to pick up parallels with other stories, collectively decides to overlook how much of Festival is borrowed from Nightmare? Could it be that Morris is being given more leverage as the first who-ink writer to get his name in print? Is it that those fans of influence are the same ones who had influence on who-ink? Who knows? One thing is for sure. If Festival of Death had not had the time travel concept to-ing and fro-ing events into a jumble of event it would be very dull. What happens? Ships collide, a scientist committing genocide using Arboretans to fuel his 'living death' (and at the end creating his own), the Repulsion seeking existence (a wannabe Omega), and - oh - the Richards trademark of any number of walking dead. These elements oscillate between the nonsensical spirit of the time without the inventiveness. Which perhaps means that this is precisely what the PDA audience wants in their novels. Oh well.
As for characters, outside of the regular cast, does one care about any of them? ERIC the computer (reminiscent of another depressed android) is the only one who has a story in his own right (and that is not played for the mawkish emotion it deserves). The Paddox character is woefully underwritten, played more like Graham Crowden than a man who is trying to cheat fate is. His motives are human and his character is not. This could have neatly underpinned the futility of non-linear time jumping (as Romana endlessly teaches the Doctor) but instead he is treated as a figure of fun. There is no sympathy. And that is the crux of what is wrong with the characterisation in Festival of Death. A whole race wiped out? Really? Never mind, I loved that bit where the Doctor almost bumped into himself (ad nauseum). Did Liesa die? Never mind. He'll come back earlier to see her again so don't worry. And if one does not feel sympathy, at least we can laugh at the hilarious excesses of Metcalf or the Vanessa Feltz of intergalactic documentary making - Harken.
It is comedy, after all, which covers the cracks. To be honest there are a wealth of funny lines in the first half of the book (as if Morris is the natural born successor to Roberts). In the second half, however, the jokes are already tired and over done. There are only so many times that a looped lizard can raise a smile. Why is this? The setting is necessarily static and once you've wrung the comedy out of the situation it is difficult to keep it fresh. This is why Dave Stone comedy is ultimately more satisfying than Morris wisecracking one-liners.
As mentioned, this is not a brickbat. Morris handles The Doctor, Romana and K9 in the strongest way since Roberts hung up his Who pen. The Doctor is provided a modicum of brooding (pointing to Season Eighteen) and K9 is wonderful. Morris' writing is crisp with many nice touches of ancillary detail. In terms of 'first novel' (not to mention fifth or sixth in the case of other PDA authors) this outing is impressive for its depth of ambition and its feel for Who. It is not, however, the single best thing that has happened to the PDA's - however much fandom would have it.