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Companion Piece

Telos Novella #13
Greg Bobak

"No one expects the Holy Inquisition!"
-- from the foreword by the Rev. Colin Midlane

I'll admit, right off the bat, that I was not looking forward to this novella. Robert Perry and Mike Tucker (or "Perry Tucker," according to the spine) quite impressed me with stories like "Illegal Alien" and the short story "Question Mark Pyjamas," but slowly developed the John Peel habit of writing books not to tell good stories but to undermine others. By the time their PDA arc had finished with the atrocious "Loving the Alien" and they'd smirkingly dismissed the NAs as alternate universe stories in Gary Russell fashion, I'd pretty much given up on them. The prospect of a McCoy story with a new companion, then, just made me wonder what they were aiming to destroy next. Fortunately, this attitude never manifested itself in Companion Piece, and though I was pleasantly surprised by its quality relative to the majority of the authors' output, my reaction remains simple: what the *hell* was that?!

The foreword is another fine offering from Telos. I'm not sure who the Reverend Colin Midlane is or, more to the point, where Telos and/or the authors found him, but he writes a brilliant essay which actually discusses the novella all the way through. By organizing an intelligent discussion of the relationship between Doctor Who and religion, Midlane moves past the typical forewords found in the range and offers something truly thought-provoking. Are there Christ-figures in alien societies? What's the Doctor's moral justification? Do the Cybermen have souls? It's also very refreshing to read a religious figure who openly admits the potential failings of religion.

This is one of the most unique Doctor Who texts that has ever been composed. No story has ever tackled religion in so explicit a fashion - indeed, religious figures generally only turn up in historicals or novels like Managra. Sure, stories like The Abominable Snowmen or Planet of the Spiders tackled Buddhism, but an examination of the future of organized religion is totally new to the series.

Perry and Tucker clearly have a cynical opinion of the Roman Catholic Church, as evidenced by their portrayal of the Church on an intergalactic stage. Another Babylonian Captivity of sorts has transpired, as three different individuals lay claim to the throne of St. Peter. The "official" Rome is now a monstrous spaceship, while the Church has readopted its punitive body in the form of the Holy Inquisition. This Church is clearly an oppressive entity, with individuals left to their own discretion as to the dispensation of religious authority. There are legitimately devout, peaceable characters on display, of course - the story is not a condemnation by any means - but for the most part, we see a Church run absolutely rampant over the universe.

The main problem with this scenario, though, is that it comes off as hilariously silly. This is in no way an *intelligent* treatment of the future of Catholicism, though it is a great deal of fun. Not that this wasn't intentional - I refuse to accept that Perry/Tucker could have written lines like "Pope John Paul has made it an article of faith that dolphins are fish" with a straight face - but though it makes you giggle, Companion Piece doesn't really make you think. It's also filled with a great deal of fannish nonsense: the Pope has declared all Time Lords witches? Huh? The attempts to link the novella to the authors' previous works (the sentient dolphins, etc.) come across a bit better, mostly because I like gaining the sense from the books that they take place in a consistent universe. Unfortunately, Perry/Tucker books have their own universe that the rest of the books stay away from, but that's another discussion...

The Doctor is off and on in this novella as well. He's certainly not the NA McCoy, but he's hardly the season 24 version either, which renders him decidedly average. Indeed, without the brief scenes of his juggling ability, it's hard to tell which Doctor this even is. The scene in which he's almost burned is cringeworthy, as the reader is treated to the ten-thousandth iteration of the "...after all the alien aggressors he had outsmarted, it was all to end here" interior monologue nonsense.

The focal point of the book, of course, is the new companion Cat Broome, who could also be called Ace II. Some of her dialogue is absolutely diabolical, especially in the opening scene ("Special delivery from Cat and the Doctor" indeed), and it's frankly hard to understand why the Doctor would voluntarily travel with this girl. She smokes, she doesn't listen, she's bitchy, and she's so smug it's unbelievable. Of course, as with all outwardly-defiant female characters, she's also prone to long spells of quiet introspection regarding her questionable past. Yes, much of that is there to set up the ending, but I don't see where it was necessary for Cat to have been the Doctor's companion in order for the story to work.

The authors' note at the end ruins the entire story, of course, but why is it even there in the first place? Are Perry and Tucker so lacking in confidence in their own abilities that they assume that their readers will automatically accuse them of plagiarism? The twist might be the same, but its implications are radically different between the two stories - let the story stand on its own merits, guys!

Companion Piece's saving grace is its wide range of ideas. The writing isn't particularly good (neither prose nor plotting), the characters are mostly cliched, and the whole thing is generally too rushed to work properly. The discussions of future Church culture, though, are enthralling, even if silly. It's just a shame the authors didn't dream up a better plot to surround those ideas.

Worth reading, but not very good.

Lawrence Conquest

I admit I’ve never been a huge fan of Robert Perry & Mike Tucker (or Perry Tucker as the spine amusingly states on Companion Piece), certainly not enough to give them the deluxe novella treatment – I enjoyed Illegal Alien a lot, but since then the material has generally been of average quality.

Companion Piece is, for the most part, an enjoyable and pleasant read – but I can’t see it setting the world on fire. The central ideas here are fine – exploring the impact of interstellar travel and alien encounters on organised religion (in this case a very hardcore Roman Catholicism), and although the execution is occasionally a little clumsy it’s mostly interesting stuff. On the downside its sometimes a little too easy to see pulp sf influence creeping through, with the authors taking their inspiration from stock situations however rather than thinking their background through – how else can one explain away why Christian settlers would use such sci-fi cliché tongue-twister names as Braak, kreekg, pa-artek and redaara? And why do the authors repeatedly draw attention to the colonists cathedral appearing to be ancient when it was only constructed a couple of decades ago, then fail to provide any explanation?

Of course, going by the title, this books main concern is new companion Cat. Things don’t start off too encouragingly, as it’s difficult to see what she’s bringing to the situation that you couldn’t have got from either Ace or Benny. Ultimately with Cat’s presence being the driving factor I began to suspect a different reasoning, and sure enough I was proved right (the authors seem to be worried that their plot twist is shared by Death Comes to Time – but it’s certainly not unique to that, even in Doctor Who).

Probably the biggest disappointment in Companion Piece is the ending, as it’s very abrupt and leaves huge tracts of the storyline unexplored – I was waiting to see what would happen to the Doctor and Cat in Rome, how would the Doctor combat the Roman Catholic Church – who – if anybody – would become the new Pope? The novella tells Cat’s story (up to the twist revelation at least), but the underlying adventure feels only half-resolved.

Nevertheless, overall this is a light and easy read, with a couple of amusing ‘spot the reference’ in-jokes for readers (having one of the talking dolphin’s from Storm Harvest as the Pope was amusing, but not as funny as the Cyber-Zarbi the novella opens with), and a pleasant enough way to spend an hour or two. I just wish there was more of it.

Julian White

I'm not one of those readers who has a particular problem with the Perry-Tucker output, so my first reaction to seeing this contribution to the Telos list was not a groan. However, having read the book, I'm no longer sure that that wouldn't have been the response.

The good news - it's short and it's also a quick read (not necessarily the same thing). It presents an interesting world - a snapshot of a future where humanity has spread from earth, taking with it all the usual problems. In this case these include the Roman Catholic Church, complete with the Holy Inquisition and Papal schisms (there are three claimants to the Throne of St Peter here, one of whom isn't human) with plenty of opportunity to draw parallels to the Rome/Avignon Pope/Antipope situation of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There's some interesting imagery of cathedrals and a spaceship that is 'a twisting gothic mass of decorative swirls, buttresses and gargoyles, picked out in gleaming gold and silver.' In many ways this is the best section of the book.

However there are also inconsistencies - I'm not sure that the inhabitants of the planet Haven are human, for example. There is an early reference to the indigenous population and the non-contact rule being broken by the Church because of famine on the backworlds. The matter of Christianity, aliens and souls is mentioned in passing but not resolved.

In fact that's my main complaint - very little in this book is resolved. It carries on up to a certain point and then just stops. I mean that - Doctor, companion, several surviving other characters aren't even out of danger and the book ends. There's a sort of interesting revelation which indicates how they are going to get out of the mess (and I managed not to see the thing coming, despite having read the authors' Note about it) but it's not covered in the book! I feel oddly cheated about that.

The characters: The Doctor is in late, solitary mode, though there are some flashes back to the 'entertainer' of Season 24. The new companion is a bit of a cipher but there are reasons for that which become clear eventually. There's a heap of supporting, incidental characters who really don't last long enough. And a really nasty villain who gets exactly what he deserves, though the not-quite-innocent Philippo is just a weak man who doesn't deserve what happens to him! I was less struck with the Patriarch Julian, who comes across as being too good to be true (and not a little smug, as well).

A bit of a mixed bag, this - it's probably worth reading for some of the ideas but ultimately it's a tad unsatisfying.

Finn Clark

I had no clue what to expect here. To put it mildly Perry-Tucker aren't the most consistent writing team of all time, but somehow Companion Piece overturned my most modest expectations. Theologically it's interesting, but as a Doctor Who adventure it's trivial nonsense.

Take the new companion, Cat Broome. I groaned at her first line of dialogue and three pages later wanted to throw her out of an airlock. She's like Ace, but WORSE! Imagine Ace at her most cartoonish and cheeky-chirpy, wearing a donkey jacket and using phrases like "dozy pillock", "funky" and "saved your ass". That's Cat. Oh, and she's smug too. You could post this as an example of how not to write companions. And then, having established her as more annoying than the genetically engineered love child of Trix and Sam Jones, Perry-Tucker abandon it all and give her a completely new personality when talking to priests!

Heuhhhhh, I dunno. Cat is at the heart of Companion Piece, as is suggested by the title, and she undergoes changes and makes discoveries about herself that are important to the story. It's just a shame that whenever she appeared I had a powerful urge to skip over her pages in search of, well, anything else.

The writing feels clunky, from the ground up. I was astonished on p86 (out of 100) to find a threat to the Doctor's life that *wasn't* countered by a deus ex machina. I liked the characters from the prologue... but after those five pages they never return! Page 29 steals the real-life party piece of Sylvester McCoy, as seen on BBC1 with Terry Wogan for Children in Need. The first half the book is wasted on the kind of silly runaround we'd find in a World Distributors annual from the 70s. It's bollocks, basically. I've heard it said that the story here is less important than the thematic material, which I can't help but agree with... but bad is still bad.

And yet I really liked the religious stuff. The Reverend Colin Midlane's foreword blew me away, being a theologically literate sermon that quotes Remembrance of the Daleks and discusses the difference between the 7th Doctor and his predecessors. Awesome! Moving on to the book itself, I loved the way Perry-Tucker don't faff around with made-up religions (e.g. the Chapter of St Anthony's Fire) but instead go for the big one. Welcome to the Roman Catholic Church. Normally religious Doctor Who stories pussyfoot around with evasions and invented names, but this is the real deal - Christianity in the 28th century. Within these pages you'll get church doctrine in a pan-galactic setting, non-human popes and the question of whether non-humans have souls. Doctor Who has too often sneered about religion (e.g. the Curse of Fenric novelisation) and I found this more open-minded treatment refreshing.

The book's best characterisation is that of the Church itself. Its strictures are as silly as they've always been historically (p53, p75), sometimes to amusing effect. Similarly it seems that some of the Church's more surreal episodes will recur in the future, e.g. Antipopes, the Inquisition and merry accusations of "Antichrist". I found the book's second half interesting, not for the plot (such as it is) but for the theological discussions. They're rather enjoyable!

[WARNING: if you're the kind of person who flips forward to start with the afterwords and "About the Authors" sections... DON'T. There's an authors' note on p101 that will completely ruin the book if you accidentally read it first. Though it's interesting to note that Companion Piece is actually the third recent instance of what they're talking about rather than the second.]

This is very much a Perry-Tucker book. It refers to Loving the Alien and talking dolphins, at one point making us wonder exactly how far the authors might go. The Telos novellas can have a semi-detached relationship with regular continuity and Perry-Tucker have prior form in such matters (e.g. Dorothy Gale, their use of the Master). I wouldn't go so far as to refer to Patriarch Julian and Grand Inquisitor del Toro as good characters, but things improve when they show up. This is a really daft book at which I often hooted in disbelief but also found kinda interesting. Approach, but with caution.