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Empire of Death

Doctor Who: The BBC Past Doctor Adventures #65
Joe Ford

It only occurred to me during Empire of Death that Nyssa is easily the most exploitable companion when it comes to writing a Past Doctor Adventure. There is no other assistant with such a list of undealt with issues. Thanks to the limited abilities of script editor Eric Saward the numerous tragedies in Nyssa’s life have been left practically ignored. This seems a waste since those events were of an extreme dramatic nature and could have led into a powerful drama. The death of her step mother, her father, her entire planet…and worse to have the man who killed her father walking around in his body. It’s just too much for one person to take. Dealing with these emotional scars was more than overdue. Thank God for David Bishop.

This novel is something of a dream come true for me. I have made no secret of my dislike of the fifth Doctor’s era on television, chiefly because of an ineffectual Doctor and some very unlikable companions (the whinge-a-minute Tegan, sulky schoolboy Adric and the camp traitor Turlough). However I have a lot of time for Nyssa (as exemplified in my review of her character) because she was the most restrained and had the most potential of all of them despite much of it being unrealised. Bishop sets about rectifying this long overdue mistake and rather than pushing Nyssa to the sidelines (a popular trait) he pushes her right into the limelight and gives her character a thorough examination.

And the results are fascinating and a firm slap in the face for reviewers like Terrance Keenan who recently dismissed her as boring. Dealt with as dramatically as she is here Nyssa makes for an ideal companion, troubled, inquisitive, intelligent, brave and finally coming to terms with the heartache that she has been running from for years.

Bishop has a penchant for selecting practically ignored combinations of characters (such as using Dodo in Who Killed Kennedy and the third Doctor and Sarah in Amorality Tale) and whipping them into shape. This story would be regarded as an absolute classic had it appeared as the opener to season Twenty.

Bishop adopts a pleasurable narrative device as we see much of the book from Nyssa’s point of view via her diary, which she has just started to try and organise her thoughts. Ruling out any comparisons with Bernice’s diary extracts, this is written in a much more professional, businesslike fashion, none of the pop culture references and frivolities, just hard as nails emotions. I loved these sections with every fibre of my being; Bishop nailed Nyssa so perfectly you could practically hear Sarah Sutton saying the lines. During these brief glances into the mind of the orphaned Trakenite we see just how badly she really is dealing with all the tragedy, Adric’s death proving further upheaval and the loss of Tegan even more so. It deals very sensitively with her feelings of loneliness and her awkwardness with travelling alone with the Doctor. All this is great stuff, real character development, perfectly fitting into its chosen era and genuinely enhancing the character. It rounds of Nyssa as one of my favourites, bar none.

There are some ghastly shocks throughout the book for Nyssa that I shant elaborate on for spoiler reasons but needless to say we are given a great deal of background for the character and not all of it is pretty.

This is another superbly written book by David Bishop who is fast on his way to becoming my most reliable of authors. He achieved three amazing things with this book that once again proved to me just how awful many of these PDAs are (in comparison).

One, he made the fifth Doctor a fascinating character without sacrificing who he was on screen. This is still the friendly uncle you love but don’t want to hang around with but Bishop wisely concentrates on all the aspects of Davison’s characterisation that works. He wears his half moon specs (somehow I always love that…must be Frontios), rubs shoulders with the aristocracy, remains breathlessly heroic throughout. What’s more Bishop injects him with vigour for life that is quite infectious, heartily tucking into his kippers, bluffing his way into Queen Victoria’s affections, desperate to throw himself into action…

But it was his affection for Nyssa that shined through here more than anything else. There is one scene where he forces her to confront her past head on that quite took my breath away, the power of that scene alone proves what an electrifying combination these two make. He is so honest with her, to a point where he might seem callous but he is just trying to get her to open out. The Doctor always had a weakness of orphans (Vicki, Victoria, even Adric) and there is an intimacy there that feels stronger than his usual warmth for his companions, something akin to what he felt for Susan. It made his fears for her life in this book all the more gripping.

Two, Bishop manages to explore the world of Victorian Britain without it ever feeling like old hat. Astonishing really when you think how many Doctor Who books are set in this glorious period, one of my all time favourites I hasten to add.

And how else to give this a new angle but to go straight to the top, to Queen Victoria herself. A risky venture and one that is pulled off with great aplomb when you hear the gloriously authentic sounding dialogue and courtly behaviour. The Queen is delightfully strong willed and humourless and her feelings of loss are quite believable. When the Doctor is assigned a permanent position under her Majesty’s rule I knew I was in love with this book. It is as much about the Queen as it is about Nyssa, their mirroring emotions and nobility causing me to examine both characters for similarities. Things threatened to derail in the last third as the Queen actually gets in on the action but even that proves quite dynamic and realistic given the background of the novel.

I loved all the scenes at Windsor though, lots of gorgeous descriptions of the surroundings and of the conduct of the day. Strange that no novel has ever dared to team up the Doctor and the Queen before because it makes for a highly engaging relationship.

Three, it manages to be a genuinely scary book with some rather unpleasant passages. The very premise of the book is quite disgusting, the reason the portal to the afterlife is opened in the first proving extremely discomforting. Hardly a surprise there…Bishop takes regular delight in rubbing our faces in the shit of society and seeing how much it repulses us.

The very idea of the dearly departed returning to haunt is disturbing and for many characters in the book even more so. It is rather uncomfortable to see Adric back in action especially since the Doctor and Nyssa are still coming to terms with his death. The book forces the characters to confront the nature of the ‘ghosts’ deaths, a shock revelation in the prologue causing considerable upset for several characters.

As James recounts his life in The Lock however you get a true glimpse at how utterly barbaric the Victorians really could be. Pioneers of invention true but also astonishingly crude when it comes to the ills of the mind. Suspending a boy over a mercury pool until the evil inside of him bleeds out is unthinkably cruel.

As the book ploughs on things become more and more unpleasant for the characters, the passages as concerned with the psychological horror as well as the body horror. Poor Nyssa is put through hell.

I haven’t even mentioned the well-defined secondary characters or the atmospheric setting of Lanark yet. Many of the characters are treated to Bishop’s trademark depth, especially the military types who usually populate these sorts of books with no character whatsoever. I thought Vollmer and Ponseby were both wonderful, not to mention Doulton. James Lees was the best though, the medium through people abused to hear the voices of their loved ones. He makes for a scary and tragic character; I was quite pleased as to his fate.

For those of you who hated The Domino Effect (so that is everyone but me then) this will be an excellent return to form for the writer.

Finn Clark

"I believe that The Scarlet Empress will trigger a change in Doctor Who fiction. It will come slowly and the old school will not stop writing, but a new wave has been started. Perhaps only the odd book, here and there... but Doctor Who will be a lot richer for it. Stranger, too."

That was in my review of The Scarlet Empress. A perusal of the next few years' BBC Books would seem to prove me wrong, but in fact I was more correct than I could have guessed.

Virgin's NAs touched on the magic vs. science debate, but they were always SF at heart. The early BBC Books were no different, with werewolves and vampires in Vampire Science and Kursaal being the nearest they got to fantasy, but in 1998 Paul Magrs introduced a new paradigm. SF didn't vanish overnight, but almost every landmark 8DA since then has been magical/fantastical in some way. Interference and The Ancestor Cell chased up the War and Faction Paradox (the other big Cole-era theme), but see the following list of 8DAs:

The Scarlet Empress
Unnatural History
Autumn Mist
The Blue Angel
Shadows of Avalon
City of the Dead
Grimm Reality
The Adventuress of Henrietta Street
Mad Dogs and Englishmen
The Crooked World
Camera Obscura

This kind of thinking even influenced 'straight' Who novels. There's a rejection of technobabble. Books like The Burning and Casualties of War simply didn't bother explaining their supernatural-looking entities.
Until recently this was an 8DA-only phenomenon, but last year it spread to the PDAs. Empire of Death is the third PDA in a row to include supernatural elements (either real or apparent), after Wolfsbane and Deadly Reunion. Unfortunately, like Ghosts of N-Space before it, this book demonstrates that there are places where Doctor Who shouldn't go.
The novels have often tackled religion, but the afterlife is a whole other kettle of fish. Much of Empire of Death is like an M.R. James ghost story written by Terrance Dicks, dabbling its feet in a huge, huge subject but unable to go all the way because it's still a Doctor Who book. We have spiritual possession and conversations with the dead... and then the Doctor and Nyssa blast any possible atmosphere with technobabble scenes in the TARDIS and dimensional whifflegab. David Bishop couldn't win. To give us a literal afterlife would be horrifically wrong, but mundane explanations produce a book that's hollow.

On top of that, the book's boring. I enjoyed the last fifty pages or so, by which time it's degenerated into the usual Whoish runaround, but until then it's a ghost story without atmosphere. The prose has as much style as Amorality Tale and The Domino Effect, i.e. none at all. When you're writing a book like this that cries out for atmosphere and a few chills down the reader's spine, that's a big problem.

Its TARDIS crew doesn't help. The 5th Doctor and Nyssa are the Doctor and companion most widely regarded as boring, and this book seems determined to reinforce the stereotype. Nyssa's 'Observations and Analysis: A Journal' is a plodding monstrosity, though admittedly little more so than the chapters around it. The title is the giveaway. Anyone else would have called it a diary, but not Nyssa. Sure enough, her chosen prose style is bland and monotonous, never using a short word when she can use three technical ones instead. I grew up watching the 5th Doctor and Nyssa, but this book dented even my affection for them.

I worried for a while that this book might contradict Imperial Moon, set in 1878, but on reflection I don't think Bulis had the 5th Doctor meet Queen Victoria. There's foreshadowing of Frontios and Caves of Androzani that left me completely cold, though 'twould have felt less obtrusive in a richer novel.

Reading this book is like eating cardboard. It's completely humourless, again just like David Bishop's previous books. A smile or two would have made this a much easier read. The characters are all recognisable stereotypes, occasionally getting a little depth but never really making you care about 'em. The pages go past smoothly enough, but in an unengaging way that'll make you wonder why you're not reading M.R. James instead. If the Russell T. Davies series hadn't been commissioned, in ten years we'd have been calling this the kind of book that killed Doctor Who.

Dave Ward

My first David Bishop book. My first 5th Doctor BBC Book. A lot is riding on this crucial experience. How did I feel after reading? A bit like Dawn French in a pool of Terry's Chocolate Orange.

Too lazy to write my own synopsis, here is the blurb of the book itself;

"In 1855, a boy discovers he can speak with the voices of the dead. He grows up to become one of England's most celebrated spiritualists.

In 1863 the British Empire is effectively without a leader. Queen Victoria is inconsolable with grief following the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert. The monarch's last hope is a secret seance.

The Doctor and Nyssa are also coming to terms with loss following the death of Adric and Tegan's sudden departure. Trying to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851, the time travellers are shocked when Adric's ghost appears in the TARDIS, beckoning them to the Other Side.

What is hidden in a drowned village guarded by the British Army? Is there life after death and can it be reached by those still alive? And why is the Doctor so terrified of facing his own ghosts?"

The book achieves points straight off the mark for giving Nyssa a chance to shine. A lot of the narration is taken from a journal of hers, and it gives the reader a great more insight nito the character. Bishop does a surprisingly good job of writing as a female narrator - a writer who narrates a tale as a member of the opposite sex, and pulls it off, is a rare thing. Applause for that man.

The 5th Doctor himself is also created well, though I never really saw an image in my head of the 5th Doctor saying and doing what he does here. Maybe it's because we see him from Nyssa's point-of-view. But, he isn't so off the mark that it hinders your enjoyment while reading in any way, shape or form.

The plot is very thought-provoking, in my opinion (which happens to be very humble), a great achievement for modern Who books. I often savoured the story, also, rather than wishing I were at the end already so that I could proudly proclaim I had devoured another piece of the Who world.

All in all, I'd have to say that it's definitely a worthwhile read.

Lawrence Conquest

I didn’t expect much from this novel. Amorality Tale was abysmal derivative tosh, and while The Domino Effect was an improvement it was still fairly heavily flawed. As such it comes as a pleasant surprise to find that David Bishop has actually produced an enjoyable and readable Doctor Who novel this time around.

For the most part Empire of Death pitches itself as a supernatural novel, based around the supposed talents of James Lees (who may be familiar to readers of Alan Moore’s ‘From Hell’). There’s always a fine line to tread with the supernatural in Doctor Who, and for the most part Empire of Death steers clear of stepping over the edge, although a couple of early instances of the Doctor gaily talking about such anti-scientific nonsense as ‘lifeforce’ and ‘spirits’ tends to grate. With ghostly appearances from Adric and Tremas however (among others) its always clear that a less spiritual explanation to the situation will be revealed by the story’s end (though after the Doctor’s ‘talking with the dead’ routine in Camera Obscura I guess anything’s possible), and the deliberate pacing and nagging question of just what is submerged under the River Clyde gives the novel much of it’s dramatic tension. The final revelation just about works, although certain areas require a rather high suspension of disbelief (as does the involvement of Queen Victoria throughout), and the telegraphed Heroic Sacrifice moment is a bit bungled (just how does leaving 37 armed troops killing everyone that comes near them ‘show something of mankind’s nobility to those on the other side’?). It’s fair to say that once the ultimate threat has been revealed the novel loses much of it’s appeal as it shifts from its effective supernatural mode to a more workmanlike action finale, though the alternative with an undead Adric doesn’t bear thinking about…

Characterisation is strong throughout, and this is as good a portrayal of the 5th Doctor and Nyssa as I have seen. The ‘latent psychic ability’ of Nyssa touches on the same areas already explored by Big Finish, but while it looks for a time as though Nyssa’s backstory is going to have some fairly major revision, there’s ultimately nothing here that totally contradicts Primevil et al. Provided one can swallow the level of Queen Victoria’s involvement the supporting characters are all well defined and believable, though the bereavement angle is hammered home with unnecessary heavy-handedness on occasion.

It’s a shame the inhabitants of the ‘afterlife’ aren’t developed a bit more as this area is noticeably lacking, but all in all this is an enjoyable ghost story, and much better than many of the stories the 5th Doctor got on television.