OH MY SODDING GOD…
…that was my first reaction to The Taking of Planet Five. Whilst I was reading this book I felt as though I had had my brain surgically removed, shoved in a blender, whipped up with some vodka and poured back inside with a very small straw. The resulting experience almost left me comatose, awash in a world that made no sense at all with no chance of escape. But then I actually thought about what I was reading and saw past the near impenetrable prose and absence of characterisation and started to see some pretty cool things going on. It actually took me over two weeks to finish this book (my standard read being two days for a Doctor Who book) and that is quite telling, for the bad aspects of this book left me wanting to abandon it at the first opportunity and the good stuff left me like the Fendhal Predator, wanting to devour everything!
Hmm that is just about the most schizophrenic sentence I have ever written but this a pretty schizophrenic book all told, it tries and tries to impress so hard that it cannot help but succeed in some respects but the sheer earnestness of the writers’ boundary pushing left me thinking of dear old Joseph Lidster over at Big Finish, authors that are not without talent but don’t know how to restrain themselves and write a wholly satisfying story. Once I reached scenes of characters exploring their art for splatter collage (that’s emptying the insides of somebody’s head and making pretty pictures with it) I was shaking my head with despair.
The most amazing thing about my mighty eighth Doctor marathon is how much I am enjoying the continuity driven arc plots that are building up. For one thing I am reading these in order so I am able to pick lots of detail that actually allows this convoluted Time War make sense (it just confused me when I first read about it) and for another it is blatantly obvious that much of standalone output from the Stephen Cole edited era is absolute rubbish and the writers only seem to raise the bar when trying to impress via this twisted arc. Lawrence Miles is the instigator of this massive undertaking, introducing most of the ideas in Alien Bodies (a book without a plot), extrapolates them in Interference (once again forgetting about a plot) and now they are baring fruition in The Taking of Planet Five (just like nature abhors a vacuum clearly Lawrence Miles’ ideas abhor as plot because this is another ideas heavy story with a skimpy narrative). I heavily criticized Alien Bodies for its revisionist Gallifrey and its future War (much of my annoyance was how the author could introduce these concepts and just talk about them, refusing us first hand experience of the intriguing concepts) and I would now like to eat my words (enjoy this moment Morris!). Clearly there is some mileage in this idea, a beefy future featuring Time Lords who rape and torture their TARDISes into fighting their battles and the ideas bound Celestis evolving super weapons to attack their Enemy. It is a much nastier, grittier, riveting timeline than we are used to, this isn’t Doctor Who and the Zarbi anymore…we’re talking people who free Death itself to destroy their own people and prevent even more powerful creatures from being attracted into our universe and devouring it. The ideas are skull splitting, I felt my fictional world of Doctor Who expanding as I was reading the book, half scared that I wasn’t really reading Doctor Who anymore and half glad of the format stretching wonder.
It is really unfortunate that writers Bucher-Jones and Clapham (both pretty weak writers on their own) don’t bother to make this book accessible to a non-fan. Not only is the book driven by ideas you really need to have read about before but also the prose itself is fighting its audience. The book is bound up in horrifically long sentences, full of nonsense-science, which seem to go on forever without making an actual point. The book refuses to cohere into a satisfying narrative for a long time, splitting off on bizarre tangents throughout, with about seven plotlines running concurrently, refusing to evolve because the book would be over if they did. Whilst this is going on ideas are being pumped into you en masse, as though the book comes with a free meme hypodermic needle. It really is a fucked up experience, individual set pieces shooting you up with adrenalin, distracting you from the fact that the authors are stalling you from finding out the main focus of the book until the last possible moment. The climax manages to be satisfying, not only because you finally understand what the hell the book has been about, but because something of relevance happens! Hurrah!
The regulars are lost awash a cast of hundreds (okay slight exaggeration, maybe twenty) but still manage to have a few choice moments despite this. It is nice to think that the Doctor’s legacy has stretched forward in time to the Future War and these battle hardened Time Lords read stories of his adventures in the form of lurid and speculative fiction. Thinking with his nob as usual, Fitz wonders if he’ll ever have Compassion but thinks this will only occur when she has a personality transplant and he gets drunk. The ice maiden is really the only character in the book who makes any real impression, finally coming out of her muted shell and kicking ass in a way only Compassion can. Anyone who says the Virgin companions could kick the arse of the BBC ones I take issue, Compassion could brush aside Ace, Benny, Roz and Chris with a flick of the wrist. This is Compassion’s book through and through and she is described as being Remote in every sense of the word; independent, unpleasant, cynical and amoral. Somebody actually asks her if her name is ironic. Her communion with the war TARDISes is a real eye opener and an appetite whetter for what is to come. Thank Christ we have got rid of Sam and dragged some cool companions into these books.
It is not fair to say that the Bucher-Jones/Clapham collaboration is just a wank job over Lawrence Miles’ ideas (Miles himself said this was one of his favourites because it bothered to do something decent with his ideas) because there are plenty of fresh concepts the writers think up. The Museum of Things that Don’t Exist is a great, whacky idea to start the book on, I would have liked to have explored its exhibits more. Then you have the War TARDISes, machines built to swallow moons and drain stars of energy, the UR boxes, signalling to the vortex that everything is normal in time whilst the Times Lords invade a period and make changes and the wonderful idea of Compassion being spat out twelve million years into the future (a twist I never saw coming!). I don’t want to dismiss the authors’ efforts because they are clearly sweating blood to impress and I would rather have too much ambition in a novel than not enough.
Not to mention it is a really funny book in places… The Doctor is like a tornado in one of his energetic moods. When the Doctor and Compassion discuss the parallel canon, Fitz compares that to them comparing the merits of pointed sticks. The Doctor, Fitz and Compassion play guess who the Enemy is with hilarious results. The reason so many Time Lords are so narrow minded and dull witted is because the responsibility of infinite power is so great, they are trying to avoid becoming corrupt like the Master, etc. The Doctor’s assistants are described as bipedal sheep who follow him around and contribute nothing. Apparently the 1970’s is the peak years for alien invasions, a weekend could not pass by without some three-headed bastard demanding the brains of Earth’s poodles. Well I laughed.
This is a bold experiment in a time when the books were finally exploring exciting new ground, I’m sure with some tighter editing this would have been a lot more accessible but it wouldn’t feel half as risky or as unique. It isn’t entirely successful because it makes the reader work far to hard for its rewards, but the best parts are very good indeed. Even if it did give me a headache.
I almost hate to admit it, in the light of what some other reviewers have written about this book, but “Taking of Planet 5” is not a bad book, in the sense that Neil Penswick’s “The Pit” was not a bad Virgin NA. Like “The Pit,” this book has not a few features of interest—it’s haunting and nightmarish in the manner of its presiding influence, H.P. Lovecraft—but what makes it interesting to me has apparently made it indigestible and overdone in the eyes of many readers.
It doesn’t make a great deal of overall sense at a first reading. My first reaction was “huh?,” followed quickly by “ugh.” After re-reading it recently, however, a few things fell into place. “Taking of Planet 5” is a recondite, otiose book, written for readers who understand (or who are willing to chase up) the background context to its apparently incomprehensible plot (and know the meanings of words like “recondite” and “otiose”). The most incomprehensible bits have to do with the physics (or pataphysics, as Alfred Jarry might have put it) surrounding the whole memeovore/ Mictlan plot thread. Getting around this is pretty simple really, if you’re willing—read everything H.P. Lovecraft wrote about the “Old Ones” (“At the Mountains of Madness” especially), read “Alien Bodies,” “Unnatural History” and “Interference,” watch “Image of the Fendhal,” then get your hands on everything you can regarding Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, (and anything by Richard Feynman), and chase it down with John S. Bell’s writings on non-local reality and quantum entanglement. It won’t hurt to skim-read some stuff about Alain Aspect’s work on entanglement, either. Stick it all into The Mixmaster in Your Head, and all becomes clear. Or less unclear, anyway.
The most important bit of background material is, of course, the Lovecraft story. Parts of “At the Mountains of Madness” arguably bear a significant relation to the (projected) continuity of the “Compassion arc,” but more on that later. (And going back and reading ‘Mountains of Madness’ was not a bad idea on my part—this story is one of the high points of early twentieth-century short fiction, and I unreservedly commend it to you). Roughly, “The Taking of Planet 5” concerns a misguided attack by the “Future War” Time Lords on prehistoric Earth. The Time Lords have been led to believe that the inhabitants of Earth at this stage are H.P. Lovecraft’s (fictitious) Old Ones, a complex and sophisticated race of ambulatory trees/sea anemones. A Time Lord hit squad is force-regenerated to resemble these Old Ones physically, in order to form a bridgehead on Earth to mount a mission to abduct the Fendhal creature from the time-looped “Planet 5,” while Celestis operatives One and Two arrive on the scene for reasons too complicated to really go into here. The twist is that, like the Cold in ‘Interference,’ there is no Fendhal—Planet 5’s ultimate denizen, evolved during the planet’s forced chronic hysteresis, is a “memeovore,” the Uncertainty Principle incarnate. Simple, eh? Arnold Schrodinger’s animal hospital did an awful lot of trade during this period in the franchise’s history.
The Celestis, and their pocket-universe home of Mictlan are about the most horrific things I’ve encountered in thirty-odd years of viewing and watching “Doctor Who,” by the way. Mictlan gets a minor write-up by Lawrence Miles in “Alien Bodies,” (it’s represented as a nightmare version of the Jasmine Allan housing estate from “The Bill”), but Clapham and Bucher-Jones really go to town here. Mictlan is depicted as, literally Hell—with the requisite dissected babies, endless fires, rivers of blood, Lords of various demonic things, and so on. This is quite strong stuff, and makes Mictlan’s ultimate fate in the book all the more fitting. The Celestis are genuinely terrifying foes for the Doctor, and their peremptory excision from the franchise seems a little misguided in retrospect. I suppose there was nothing else to be done with them after “Alien Bodies” and “Planet 5,” but one longs to see them involved in the current ‘Time Out of Joint’ story arc. Or maybe it’s the Sontarans (a race apparently, and highly oddly, considered as the Enemy at one stage).
The Eighth Doctor comes across as a little faceless here—yes, it’s back to “War of the Daleks” territory. He gets to run around in a state of confusion/desperation for most of the tale, although his first meeting with the force-regenerated Time Lord attack squad is quite well done. (Anyone remember that the Second Doctor was “force regenerated” himself?). For better or for worse (and it’s usually better, the authors’ later comments about the character notwithstanding) Compassion carries the bulk of the action in “Planet 5”. This is Compassion’s story, although its ultimate impact has been marginalized by the hasty closure of its story arc.
It’s not hard to wonder glibly where the Future War/Compassion arcs might have led…maybe to The Enemy being revealed as a race of sentient TARDISes with Compassion as their “mother.” Let’s not forget that “Alien Bodies” described the Enemy as humanoid, dressed in parodies of Time Lords’ costumes out of sheer contempt (and that “Interference,” no matter what anarchitecture “Ancestor Cell” engaged in, infers that the Enemy “originated” on Earth—which could suggest that the Enemy’s formative experiences occurred there). Still, all of this wanky retcon on my part indicates that there was something fundamentally duff about the arc in the first place—we’re all still engaged in these worthless Jesuitical arguments about how many Type 103s can dance on the head of a pin, despite the huge improvement in the franchise after the scrapping of the Compassion arc.
Maybe I’m off on a no-brainer here, but the implications are, if not clear, then at least consistent. I hope that someday, sometime, we’ll hear from Compassion again in the franchise (and from “Henrietta Street’s” Man with the Blue Rosette, given that he’s one of four “elementals” who survived the events of “The Ancestor Cell”). But Bucher-Jones and Clapham have stated elsewhere that this intricate piece of inter-textual signposting was all a red herring anyway. Hmmm. The co-authors doth protest too much, methinks. (Speaking of the Man with the Rosette, did anyone else pick up on the Gallifreyan President’s cameo with Homunculette? This President wears black, is incredibly aged with a wispy beard, and thinks nothing of rolling dissident Time Lords into the biomaterial recycling plants. I’d say his career began as a Magistrate).
Aside from making an unsubtle point about the future Time Lords’ being no better than the Celestis, and attempting to establish the Type 103 TARDISes as a persecuted species ripe for rebellion, “Taking of Planet 5” can safely assume its spot as the half-way point of the “Compassion arc” as it was originally intended to pan out. It’s best shelved in the Museum of Things That Don’t Exist, under “massively wasted opportunities”. (If it drives a few curious folk off to read Lovecraft and Heisenberg, it won’t have been an entirely wasted effort). The book’s major long-term contribution to Who-lore is more ironic than innovative—like the Fendhal itself, it represents an evolutionary blind alley in the franchise. On those terms, it still works brilliantly well, if you’re prepared to put in the (perhaps unnecessary and time-wasting) effort.
If one were taking the book Planet 5 anywhere it would be to a sympathetic science master. Whilst quantum physics, timeloops and universes of scale are fine as concepts, in Planet 5 they take the form of a Who story wrapped around a tutorial essay. One would not even presume to question the logic behind the authors' implications because, in the main, it demands more knowledge than is reasonable for the genre. The temptation to skim whole reams of scientific clarity (?) is strong and it is worth questioning whether making the reader appear stupid is the best means of effectively getting the target audience on your side.
Aside from that, though, Planet 5 is an interesting digression that borrows a good deal from recent mythology whilst making sure continuity is kept happy. So it is that a somewhat disturbing future history for the timelords is offset by the return of the Fendahl. The writing is pragmatic - at its best when it infuses some dry humour into the bag (the Celesti agents), but suffused mainly with straight prose and narrative drive. It is, perhaps, a tonic for some after the inventive excesses of its predecessor. It suffers, however, by the same measure, as all its five cleverly entwined plot diversions appear retreads of the familiar. An inordinate amount of the book is spent hunting monsters which, whilst Hinchcliffe in feel, becomes difficult to empathise with when played against the science.
Much has been made of the Lovecraft homage. This is one of the novel's strengths as it fits nicely into this post-war mayhem. The idea of a TARDIS torn between two time zones is excellent, as is the playing out of the realisation. Unfortunately, one feels that too much time is spent in the future and not in the past. Both eras are uncommonly brutal for Who in their depiction, but it would have been helpful if the authors had given the reader something concrete and 'known' from which to bounce off. This could have been realised with more focus on the expeditionary party. Motives and means are somewhat skewed in the future and the confusion over who is an alien; human et al adds merely background complication. It does not add much to progression.
As the first serious outing for Compassion 'the Companion' the authors manage to bring a great deal of sophistication into their portrayal. Much of the aforesaid humour is bounced off Compassion's acerbic and often hostile nature. In retrospect, more clarity could have been given to the so-called Compassion arc in this story than in the latter Parallel 59. Imagine how much more effective this book would have been if scheduled elsewhere.
Fitz truly has a heroic part to play in Planet 5. His rescue of the Doctor is delightful and captures the reluctant hero spirit of the character outline. In other parts, Fitz seems to get in the way, or force the writers to provide evidence of "wise-cracking good guy" which they do not handle so well. The Doctor equally has a problem with definition oscillating between a goofy version of Tom Baker and a driven interventionist. In Planet 5 he appears lost in the plot, desperately attempting to define himself in the midst of chaos. If this had been a post regeneration story the style might have worked, but it serves only to remind one that the Eighth Doctor is ill defined a couple of years on in the range.
One cannot view Planet 5 without viewing Alien Bodies. The two are similar in terms of 8DA continuity (as exposed by Miles) and in the characters and tricks that are deployed. Having said that, and despite feeling utterly bewildered by scientific fact and overloads of fiction, the book rescues itself by the denouement. This is one of the most exciting in the range. The sheer scope of imagination in the finale - the cinematic strength - helps deflect from some of the slower aspects.
A lot of Planet 5 is a text book (in many ways) but where it achieves it achieves strongly. It's failures are less dramatic, and therefore more forgivable.
In brief: A book with all its joins showing. It's desperately failing to be as good as Lawrence Miles and trying to push all our buttons at once.
The Taking of Planet 5 is a symbol of everything that's wrong with the EDAs at the moment. It's full of huge and interesting ideas, drowning in clever continuity and no reward whatsoever for the hapless reader.
It's got some very nice scenes, to be sure. My favourite is the scene with the Doctor pleading to be killed, which is very amusing indeed. The museum of things that doesn't exist is a fantastic way to begin the book and doubtless the submitted sample which got the novel sold to the BBC. The suggestion of who the enemy night be is hilarious. The civilisation that forgot circles is great. Many of the ideas have merit.
Sadly, it's here that the book falls apart. Every few pages brings another huge idea, but sadly the talent with which to turn these ideas into an entertaining story is severely lacking. Take the villains, for example. They're not a credible threat, because they're just an abstract entity, battling of a much higher plane than anyone could reasonably care about. As a novelisation of scientific papers, it's intriguing and fascinating. As a novel, it's a dismal failure. And I say this as someone with three degrees in science to his name. This book should have been the BBC Books' salvation. It should have taken the house that Lawrence built and shown us the way forward, that the books had vision, were going somewhere and could produce fantastic books when the arc got turned up. Sadly, while this book has vision aplenty and while the books do appear to be meandering somewhere, this book, like Unnatural History before it, shows why no one other than Lawrence Miles should be allowed to do this sort of stuff.
I mean, c'mon, using Lawrence Miles for your vision of Who has got to be a bit silly, really, hasn't it? I mean, it's not like he's exactly enthralled with the idea of a shared universe and he's not out to cut his successors any breaks. The man's a genius, no question, but his stuff is exactly the sort of thing only someone of his unique talent can pull off.
There's only one character in this book, including the regulars, that I cared about in any way whatsoever. Sadly the authors kill off Holsred for no apparent reason about halfway through and the only bright spark of the entire novel is gone. I'm convinced they were unaware of the extent of this character's appeal and were hoping we'd all be excited about bull TARDISes or something. Sigh.
The Doctor gets nothing to do, yet again. Fitz is similarly ignored. Fair enough, that's the house style, but Compassion's not very interesting either, especially given how much this should be her book. The future Time Lords are worse than dull, they're dull with painful ideas grafted on. Yeah, let's regenerate them into big insects for infiltration purposes. Why don't I claw my own eyes out while I'm at it? The future TARDISes are just as awful. Everything in the future-war stuff reminds me of Doctor Who given the Leekley treatment. It's one thing to have vision and ideas that carry the series forward. It's another to change things just because you can, especially -- and this is the important bit -- when every single one of those changes is demonstrably less interesting than the original.
The Fendahl? The Time Monster? Timelash? We're really scraping the bottom of the continuity barrel, aren't we, guys? This book was published concurrently with Divided Loyalties, which seems oddly appropriate. DL was ultra-trad fanwank pushed to its ridiculous extreme. The Taking of Planet 5 is ultra-rad big-ideas-can-substitute-for-talent pushed just as far in the other direction.
The future used to be interesting. After the past had been well and truly covered in the NAs, Alien Bodies came along and gave us shocking and intriguing snapshots of the future of the Whoniverse, complete with a credible reason as to why the Doctor accidentally got embroiled in it. Now the Doctor runs across the future Time Lords willy nilly, and we get painful slabs of exposition that consist of the authors leaping up and down going "Look, isn't this bit brill? No, don't worry about good writing or characterisation or giving the Doctor anything to do yet again, we've got some ideas you'll find so interesting we'll even publish a paper in the back of the book." Kill me now.
This book is screaming "Love me!" so desperately it hurts. Some very nice scenes, none of which last more than a page and are stuck between at least 30 pages of excruciating stuff. This should have been brilliant, it should have been the pivotal arc book that told us that the EDAs mean business and it should have had some sort of actually entertaining story to wrap around its stream-of-consciousness style. Sadly, it's all rather tragic to watch and leaves a particularly unpleasant aftertaste.