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Sometime Never

Doctor Who: The BBC Eighth Doctor Adventures #67
Joe Ford

Reasons to enjoy Sometime Never...

* The ingenious way of linking together so many of the Eighth Doctor books (and some of the past Doctor ones too!). How the book finally reveals the Council of Eight and how far their influence spreads, the time agents in Eater of Wasps, the Doctor's heart in Adventuress, the companion deaths in Heritage, Loving the Alien and Wolfsbane, the climax of Anachrophobia, the Wraiths from The Slow Empire, the alternative universe arc...it is remarkably epic how Sometime Never... pulls the range into sharp focus and reveals a reason behind so many other books, some I had long forgotten about. This how to conduct a truly epic storyline.

* The excellent plotting of Octan, blasted to pieces at the end only to be scattered through time to have his pieces discovered to be re-assembled so he can warn his younger self of his stupid actions. Loved this twist! The conclusion of the book is OBVIOUS when you realise the skeleton is Octan, obvious about third into the book but well hidden because it isn't revealed as being Octan until the end!

* The set pieces. Honestly! There are loads of brilliant scenes that would delight on screen! The human/monkey hybrid causing the avalanche, the time freeze of the Institute, the ageing to death of Curator Pearl, the 'running on the spot' scene, the crystal skeleton coming alive and stalking through the institute, the end of the universe, the confrontation between Octan, the Doctor and Sabbath and his messy death, the menger Sponge breaking to nothingness...

* The Council of Eights motives. For once here is a enemy who are just trying to survive. Existing thanks to the gaping absence Gallifrey has caused, they are desperately trying to survive in the Vortex by manipulating the Earth's timeline to suit their purposes. I love an enemy who has more depth than just wanting to take over the universe and these master manipulators and desperately frightened crystal folk are one of the best.

* Octan's plan. Moving past the bizarre concept of predicting a timelines events causing energy to be stored and used, Octan's prediction of the destruction of ALL of the Earth's history to build up enough energy to push his race into the Vortex and have enough to survive and thrive as the Masters of Time is astonishingly epic and on a scale most Doctor Who stories would die for. For a range of books that has been upping its 'destruction of all time!' concepts more and more this is surely the ultimate expression. And how the destruction of Earth hinges on the fact that the STAR KILLER will have enough energy to work, energy derived from a very intimate moment between the Doctor, Octan and Sabbath, on which of these two Sabbath will kill, provides an EXCELLENT reason for the heavy concentration on the Doctor/Sabbath relationship over the last few years . Every book in the range is built up to that one moment, Sabbath's decision is a truly climatic end to his adventures with the Doctor and without a doubt proves he had a genuine place in the series.

* The ingenious way to explain how the Doctor could have survived the destruction of Gallifrey. I hate to say I told you so but a lot people hated this explanation after years and years of moaning that we didn't have one! Whilst I am not averse to the idea of Justin Richards re-writing continuity (especially as ingeniously as this) for his own purposes I am of the opinion that the last scene definitely takes place in an alternative universe and that the explanation of the Doctor's survival will be dealt with in The Gallifrey Chronicles. I have always felt that the Doctor's continued survival was because he has been to so many times and places in his nine lives that he is deeply intertwined with the universal timeline that he survives on the condition that the universe survives. Soul and Zezanne in the Jonah becoming the Doctor and Susan in the TARDIS is certainly imaginative and surely to goodness nobody saw THAT coming.

* The numerous whacky and mind expanding scientifically absurd ideas. How do you create a structure in the time vortex? How do you slow time to a halt? Or explain away the end of the universe? The answers to these question are given some time to make sense...they could be utterly loopy but I found most of them rather fun. Surely this is a strength of Doctor Who? To entertain with BIG SF ideas?

* The Doctor's characterisation. He is portrayed rather well here, dashing about urgently, aware that events are coming to a head. He is patronising to Fitz, surprisingly generous to Trix, angry that he cannot ENJOY his adventures anymore and simply sit down with strangers and have a laugh because there are always more important, life saving things to do. He confronts both Sabbath and Octan with humour and authority despite being tired of all their games. He unleashes the multiverse and thus restores chaos and unpredictability back into the universe. He's a hero in every sense of the term. He even loses someone very close to him. Even the Doctor doesn't escape the carnage unscathed.

* Some genuinely funny moments to alleviate all the drama. "Someone with the improbable name of Heriato Sponge!", the Doctor adjusting the lights in Fleetwards lecture, the hilarious ribbing of Fitz in the early scenes, the Doctor's reaction to Sabbath's incredibly long speech of apology ("That's a very long way of saying I was wrong and you was right."), Trix dropping Anji in even more parental hell...

* Trix, I like her. She's capable, resourceful and bitchy. She might slip on a new face every five minutes but she is still engaging. I loved her scenes with the two Princes, a rare moment of sensitivity for the businesslike blond.

Things to dislike about Sometime Never...

* The prose. Never Justin Richard's strong point and this book has an incredibly direct, visual feel. After the delights of Simon Forward's delicious (Sorry Mick!) prose it does appear rather childish and under whelming in comparison. However this book would be near impenetrable had it been densely written with pages and pages of descriptive prose to get in the way of all the tieing up of loose ends.

* Fitz. As loyal as ever, it is the Doctor's bizarrely cold reaction to the man that jars. Okay so he has the universe to save but the poor guy is trying his best! The Doctor barely acknowledges his presence and mocks him when he does. Halflife and its character repair work couldn't come a moment too soon.

* Why the hell does Trix dress up as Crystal Divine? Justin short of a twist or two? Surely not!

* The scene with the Master in the TARDIS at the end leading into Scream of the Shalka, utterly ruined by the new series. Now it makes no sense at all.

* Some shallow characterisation, Patterson (oh no wait that's deliberate, it's Octan!), Miss Devine (oh no wait that's deliberate too...that's Trix!)...erm, scrap this one! The kids were pretty vague but they were both hiding twists of their identity too! Is anyone who they should be? Fleetward...and he was pretty good! OKAY SCRAP THIS NEGATIVE POINT UNLESS YOU WANT TO COUNT THE ZILLION IDENTITY REVELATIONS AS POOR...

Oh all right Miranda and Zezanne were used terribly badly, the twist of them arriving and leaving the book are good but they could have been anyone really. Despite a truly moving scene between the Doctor and Miranda this is a terrible misuse of one of the best guest characters to appear in any Doctor Who book!

* The cod-grandiose Council of Eight dialogue. I did like them but their constant talk of timelines and Octan's devilish plan is tiresome, they don't have any individuality really, I couldn't tell one from another!

Andrew McCaffrey

I'm actually shocked by how much I disliked SOMETIME NEVER... There are some decent set pieces. Some boring set pieces. Things unfold because the author decides that what needs to happen. There's some corridor-running. Worse, there's some technobabble-laden corridor-running. But overall, the whole exercise just lacks oomph. Not only is it a poor resolution to a, frankly, terrible story-arc, it's not even a decent book in its own right.

First of all, can I state how tired I am of the whole "a butterfly's flight changing the course of a hurricane" thing? Yes, I liked Ray Bradbury's "A Sound Of Thunder", but I am absolutely sick to death of encountering and revisiting these references in time travel fiction over and over again. Maybe this is a sign that I need to vary the fiction I read. But, look, this sort of stuff was clever the first million times I saw it; can't we just grab hold of some other idea to beat to death?

Getting to the book's specifics, this is a story where The Universe and/or History Itself is threatened. Again. Yes, in resolving a story-arc in which each uninteresting story concerned threats to Everything, we are presented with a story in which there is an enormous threat. To Everything. You can only go to that well so many times, and I think this aspect of the story-arc overstayed its welcome at about, oh, the third or fourth time out. Yet there we go again. A universe populated by utterly uninteresting characters is again faced with absolute, total, and certain destruction. There's something wrong in a book where I, the reader, find myself cheering on the collapse of everything only because I wanted to see something (anything!) interesting happen.

The resolution to the story-arc is vaguely logical, but totally uninteresting. The back of the book tells us of the Council of Eight. And now that I've read about them, I'm disheartened to report that they are exactly as boring and stereotypical as their initial description would suggest. They're mysterious. They have a mysterious plan. They live in a mysterious fortress which is mysteriously cut off from the rest of the universe. There's very little that's original here and, thus, all attempts at forging a creepy or fearful atmosphere fail. And what original material exists is utterly lacking in soul. The plot unfolds dryly, with no passion or imagination.

For a book about predictability, predetermination and events unfolding logically, SOMETIME NEVER... strangely feels random as hell. And worse than that, it feels awfully contrived. Villains delay attacks long enough for the Doctor to explain the plot to the dumb humans. Exposition is given by having two characters explain things to each other that each is already aware of. This is not what you expect from an author whose resume is as long as Justin Richards' is. Richards has written much better than this before. Richards has written much better than this in situations where he's slapping something together at the last minute to fill the book schedule. What's the excuse here when the book was presumably planned out literally years ago?

Oh, and that weird reference at the end utterly baffled me. It wasn't until I started wandering around the Internet that I found out it was a tie-in to SCREAM OF THE SHALKA. Um, couldn't we have had a reference to something that was actually good? What is the bloody point referencing a dull story in the middle of another dull story? Boredom raised to the power of banal. Oh, and what was up with that bizarre AN UNEARTHLY CHILD thing? I mean... What?! Why?!

If not for the fact that the Internet has informed me that future stories in this book series are more standalone (and indeed will eventually be replaced by Ninth Doctor Adventures), I think I would be giving up now. It's depressing to think that this is the book that the series had been leading up to. This whole arc has been a series of failures at both the individual book level (save for some worthy exceptions such as the brilliant EMOTIONAL CHEMISTRY) and of the overall meta-story. Thank God it's over. And let's hope that the powers that be have learned from their mistakes. Here's to the future.

Marcus Salisbury

It’s all pretty simple, really, the recipe for confusion—start off a story arc before it begins, with the introduction of the main ‘heavy’ in a weird-enough-already tale (the quite under-rated ‘Slow Empire’), then engage the services of enfant terrible Lawrence Miles to muddy the waters with a truly incomprehensible tome (‘Henrietta Street’). Reboot things with ‘Time Zero,’ and commence a ‘mini’-arc that, while vastly entertaining at times (‘Infinity Race’ and, if one makes the effort, ‘Last Resort’) goes exactly nowhere.

With the release of ‘Timeless’, though, things finally started to make a bit of sense, and ‘Emotional Chemistry’ will surely go down as an absolute 8DA classic. ‘Sometime Never’ rounds off this winning trifecta in fine style, and is one of the must-read 8DAs. It’s up there with ‘Alien Bodies,’ ‘Interference,’ ‘The Burning’ and ‘Father Time’, and is a must-have addition to Your Doctor Who Library. Finally, at long last, the 8DAs are consistently showing what they can do.

How, after years worth of linked novels and convoluted master-plans, do you save the 8DAs from collapsing under the weight of continuity? Justin Richards has done it masterfully in ‘Sometime Never’, and while a few loose ends are waving in the breeze by the end of the book, plot threads from the days of Sam Jones back (and forward) to ‘Wolfsbane’ and ‘Father Time’ are at last sorted. This is a book to read and re-read, and live with for a while. The 8DAs may be on the way out, but they’re going out in style.

The plot of ‘Sometime Never’ is fairly simple, but there’s a hefty dose of ‘Time Zero’s’ obsession with matters quantum here, and also a continuation of the plot threads of ‘Timeless’. Without reading those two at least, readers may be fairly lost to begin with. In brief, and sans le spoiler, we finally get to meet Sabbath’s employers, now named as ‘the Council of Eight’. These folk live in the Time Vortex, and have been using Sabbath to facilitate their own, single, version of events. (By collapsing waveforms to ensure events happen to ensure events happen so events happen and so on to the Big Crunch at the end of the Universe. There, see?) It’s no secret that Sabbath gets his comeuppance in suitably 18th-century Gothic fashion, and that the Doctor has some pretty harrowing events to contend with.

With the exception of Lance Parkin and (maybe) Stephen Cole (see ‘Parallel 59’ and ‘Timeless’ if you don’t believe me), nobody has handled the character of the 8DA Doctor as well as Justin Richards. I know this is something of a sweeping statement, but Richards’ ‘The Burning’ really reset the mould for the character—it’s almost the 8DA Doctor’s Bible, so to speak. The Doctor in ‘Sometime Never’ is a brilliantly-drawn character, who has come a long way from the faceless prat of the earliest 8DAs.

I realise that the 8DAs generally incite some fans to swell up and turn purple in the face, but the slow, painstaking realisation of the Doctor’s character has taken some talented writers years to achieve. Hats off to Justin Richards—in the face of some pretty trenchant criticism at times, he’s pulled off quite a coup with the 8DA Doctor in this book. He also brings off a fine piece of alternate universe irony at the book’s conclusion, to do with one of the Council of Eight and a ‘starkiller’ device. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I’m on about, but for those who haven’t read it—it’ll bring a lump to even the most cynical of ‘Who’ fans’ throats. Or maybe I was just in the right mood. In any case, Soul’s fate is one of the most poignant moments in the 8DA range, given both its abruptness and its build-up. What a wonderful ending.

Fitz is his usual writer-proof self, and while one dreads what will become of him in the Fitz-phobic Lance Parkin’s ‘Gallifrey Chronicles,’ he gets plenty to do here. The jury’s still out on newcomer Trix McMillan, however—she’s still off being a clone of the Leonard Nimoy character in the original ‘Mission: Impossible’ series; all rubber masks and no real plausibility or motivation. This is a deliberate move on the part of the writers, of course—I’m starting to think that ‘Trix’ is not at all what she claims to be, and that the false noses and fake bosoms are decoys for some other evidence regarding her foreknowledge of Sabbath’s plans (in ‘Time Zero’) and easy access to the TARDIS (‘Time Zero’ through ‘Last Resort’). Stuff on a slightly more elemental (geddit?) level than a simple human identity crisis. We shall see, but I get a strong feeling that this character is being built up to facilitate something pretty big indeed in the final 8DAs.

Now for the downer, and what a downer it is—the black, disc-shaped ‘watching eye’ that’s been haunting our imaginations since ‘Henrietta Street.’ We’re not told what it is, but I got a few ideas from the BBC ‘Who’ homepage’s free screensaver. You know, the ‘Power of the Daleks’ one. Plus the fact that Sabbath’s ‘apes’ are described here as changing out of their ‘Sergeant Pepper’ uniforms into ‘leather jerkins’ with a sash over the shoulder. Ogrons, basically, or very close analogues.

That Sabbath’s employers were intended to be the Daleks is pretty much a given, and while the Council of Eight are well-portrayed, ‘Sometime Never’ loses a little of its urgency due to some maybe-Dalek inferences. It’s a shame the legal wrangling going on at the time wrote the Daleks out of the novel—many reviewers (including the current one) have commented that the Daleks had their day with those wretched John Peel Dalek 8DAs, but ‘Sometime Never’ might have reintroduced them in fine form. A sadly bollixed opportunity.

Never mind—they’ll be back in rejuvenated form in the new TV show. And while ‘Sometime Never’ is not quite the classic it could have been with the Daleks included, it’s still a brilliant 8DA and one of the must-reads of the range. Highly recommended, and one of Justin Richards’ best. There hasn’t been a bad 8DA for years now. I’ve probably said this before, but anyway—enjoy them while they last.

Lawrence Conquest

Sometime Never… is a highly appropriate title, as for many of us it seemed to sum up how long we would have to wait to finally find out some pretty fundamental answers to the questions opened up by The Ancestor Cell. That we have had to wait 31 books for such a basic questions as “Is this the same universe now the Time Lords have been erased, and who has replaced them?” is a shocking state of affairs, and have given the Justin Richards-era EDA’s all the pace of an asthmatic slug. Having waited so long to get some answers, I feel I am at the stage where I would accept any old guff just to put me out of my misery, but to be honest the majority of the ‘arc’ based material here is well handled. We get concrete answers on who Sabbaths employers are, what they wanted him to do with the Doctor, and Sabbath himself gets to exit the range on a high note.

Unfortunately beyond the soap-opera arc material, Sometime Never…is pretty poor. For the most part this novel is written in a very simplistic style, lots of short sentences and broad characterisation, which gives this the feeling of one of Richards speed-written schedule fillers. The plot is very heavily reminiscent of the abysmal The Time of the Daleks – equal parts running around in corridors (at least half the novel seems to consist of the regulars running around in circles after each other in the Institute of Anthropology) and nonsensical technobabble. There is some nice material with the intriguing concept of things ‘tending towards infinity’, but unfortunately the replacements for the Time Lords themselves are just as boring as the Time Lords ever were (crystal men in robes who bicker in meetings all day – whoopee), while the main villain’s plan of storing up and using predictive time ‘energy’ is pure hogwash as far as I can see. And while the uroboric ending at least offers to answer some tricky questions about how previous incarnations of the Doctor could exist in this universe, the fact that it’s stolen from the ending of Lungbarrow robs it of any real impact. There’s also an attempt to tie this novel in with the BBCi’s 9th Doctor, but the use of the Master here is completely at odds with his appearance in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, which is mildly offputting.

As for the regulars – once again I’m having problems with Trix. Who is she? What does she want? Once again we have Trix in another completely pointless disguise – again this is played as a shock reveal about halfway through the novel – but seeing as she does this every novel it’s completely devoid of effect. Once again, no intelligent reason is given for her decision to raid the dressing up box, don wig and make up and take on a false name and character – both Fitz and the Doctor meet up with Professor Fleetward in the novel, and neither of them feel the need to get disguised as a humpback called Ernest Winklegruber (or whatever) – so why does Trix? It’s just a blatantly obvious and over-used trick to try and get a twist into the plot. Just as the books used to be a predictable game of ‘wait until Sabbath is revealed’, now we’ll all be playing ‘which character is Trix’ every other month. Pathetic.

Overall Richards comes across like a bad magician using shabby and obvious literary tricks to dazzle the reader – Trix’s usual identity shenanigans; a character’s name someone mishears is referred to incorrectly until 20 pages from the end (“I didn’t like to correct her” – yeah right!) – he even stoops to using the old ‘and then a shot rang out’ trick for a chapter ending (you know the one – the Doctor has a gun pointed at him, a shot rings out, the chapter ends, then next chapter you – yawn – find out that someone else was shot after all). I don’t know how long Richards had to write this, or if an original version fell through – but there is some shockingly lazy material here, and this is a huge drop in quality from his generally enjoyable previous 8th Doctor novels.

Ultimately though, we get what we asked for – an ending to the seemingly endless arc that started with the destruction of Gallifrey. Despite a couple of good ideas this is a mediocre book at best, but for many this will be welcomed and read with a sense of relief – no matter how bad it is.

Finn Clark

Well, well, well. Sometime Never..., the culmination of an 8DA story arc so crappy that it stained my bookshelves brown. Any attempt by your loved ones to read these books should be countered by lethal force. To put it mildly, my expectations weren't high.

Sometime Never... is really good.

For starters, it's not an alternate universe story. That was the whole point of Timeless, remember? Thus for the first time in over a year we can actually care about what's going on (!), instead of knowing nothing matters and that next month we'll be reading about a completely new universe that'll also inevitably unhappen. This made me happy. Parallel universe issues crept in towards the end and nearly derailed the book with their mere existence, but thankfully Justin Richards managed to overcome that hurdle.

Still more amazingly, this novel manages to weave in all kinds of ongoing story threads and turn that into a *good* thing. For the first time all the random shit of the past two years is made to feel deliberate... some of it may even have been deliberate, but it never felt that way. The Alternate Universe Arc tried to make each book build on what went before, but was handicapped by the fact that the only linkage was technobabble. You could read most of 'em in any order and they'd make just as much sense.

However here Justin Richards ties together books going back almost to the start of his time as editor and builds them into an epic. Forgotten story elements come together and the result is something special. It even ties in the recent PDAs! That impressed me. Since 1996 the BBC Books have been compared unfavourably with Virgin, but the scale of this novel's original mythology goes beyond anything Virgin ever gave us. It takes a while to get going, but eventually it's great. Even Sabbath becomes compelling again, after becoming a parody of himself by being a predictable stock villain in inconsequential books. The key difference is that Sometime Never... actually feels as if it's going somewhere, both with the character and with the 8DA story.

The only bits that felt wrong were the Sam Jones references. They felt mean-spirited to me, as if the author didn't care because he knew no one liked the character They make sense within the story being told, but I bet Justin wouldn't have done the same to Benny.

Unfortunately this book stars the 8th Doctor, Fitz and Trix, but even this problem is admirably overcome. Fitz and the Doctor are written with zest and fun, while at one point Trix reacts like a human being! I still want her out of the TARDIS (along with the other two, naturally), but after this book at least I don't want her boiled in oil. That's a big improvement.

Random observations:

(a) Lord Scrote?? Dunno about you lot, but where I come from "scrote" is a vulgar term of abuse. I'm sure you can work out the derivation for yourselves.

(b) "It's the Key to Time!" I thought at one point. In fact I was completely wrong, but it's still an interesting comparison. The biggest difference is that the crystal of the Key to Time was all about the number six, while Sometime Never... is obsessed with eight.

(c) Who's the political activist on p236? I identified the others...

There's even some fun mathematics! I was reinforced in my belief that the end of the universe is boring while if the Council of Eight ever return then I'll probably kill someone, but otherwise this is a far better conclusion to an interminable story arc than I'd dared to anticipate. Despite what I occasionally thought, it all makes sense if you think about it. There's something at the end which looks like a retcon but in fact offers one possible answer to a question that's been left dangling since since The Ancestor Cell. (Personally I prefer it to Lungbarrow.) At times this book feels like Sapphire and Steel, but in a good way.

This book has lots of continuity but is almost entirely free of fanwank. I haven't enjoyed an 8DA this much since... hmm, Time Zero. Writer-editors haven't had the best of track records in the Doctor Who books, but here Justin Richards shows us the potential benefits of the arrangement. This is the kind of arc-culmination which The Ancestor Cell so desperately needed to be, but wasn't. It's not a great work of literature on any high-falutin' level, since its prose, characterisation and so forth aren't significantly better than you'd expect from any half-decent 8DA. However its story blew me away.