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The Stealers of Dreams

Doctor Who: The BBC Ninth Doctor Adventures #6
Finn Clark

The Stealers of Dreams certainly isn't a waste of time. Like (oops) The Space Age, it has a fascinating central concept, but this time Steve Lyons has spiced it up with ideas and twists. I was grabbed immediately by this soul-crushingly petty world without dreams, fiction or even lies. The novel doesn't have a villain as such, but surprisingly that doesn't matter since in a sense its entire futuristic society is the bad guy. It's not a traditional fascist dystopia, but subtler and more stultifying. Chapter One is little more than the TARDIS crew being thrown out of a restaurant, but it still left me wanting to see Rose grabbing a butcher's knife and going on a murderous bloody rampage.

It's clever and even playful, in its own humourlessly grim way. Unfortunately Steve Lyons is one of Doctor Who's most frustrating writers in that he can follow a book of sheer brilliance with another that's appalling. The Witch Hunters, Conundrum and The Crooked World are novels that any author could be proud of... and what's more, they're fantastic in different ways! Steve Lyons isn't just a one-trick pony. He can be hilarious, as was also displayed in The Completely Useless Encyclopedia and his short story Wish Upon A Star Beast for Perfect Timing. He can be clever. He can be moving.

Unfortunately he's also capable of beating a story to death with its own themes. The Stealers of Dreams doesn't go that far, but it's neither fun nor emotionally involving. It's hard to care about what happens to these people. If you don't count Cal Tyko at the Big White House then there are two important supporting characters: Domnic and Inspector Waller. Domnic is dull. He doesn't even deserve a happy ending. Yes, it's important to the plot that he's a socially challenged nerd, but we'd have still reacted with horror had he become the next Grant Markham. I preferred Inspector Waller, who is at least dynamic and interesting, but despite lots of good stuff Lyons never managed the final step of making me care about her. Maybe it's because I couldn't stop seeing her as Judge Dredd.

No one really does anything constructive except the TARDIS crew, to be honest. That's one problem with insisting on Doctor-centric books... if you're not careful, you're liable to end up with a passive supporting cast who never really come alive because they haven't been given worthwhile story roles.

This wouldn't matter so much if the TARDIS crew were strongly drawn, but they're only okay. There's nothing wrong with them. They don't suddenly become the 3rd Doctor and Jo or anything like that, but I never imagined John Barrowman's Captain Jack Harkness for a moment and I only got occasional flashes of Piper and Eccleston. In fairness Steve Lyons didn't have much information about Jack when writing this book, as is indicated in the author's acknowledgements, but if so then why did BBC Books use the bloody character? It's not as if he's not even on the front cover!

Despite a certain sterility, I enjoyed the book. It's clever. It's hard to dislike a novel with a theme that raises existential questions about game shows. Its prose isn't flavoursome, but it's not as if that was a Lyons speciality even in his full-length novels.

These new series adventures have two problems not of their making. The first is that I suspect a lot of us subconsciously don't *want* to like them. It's like the way we gave Slipback and Davison's two-parters a hard time back in the eighties. They felt like cut-price Who, a second-best substitute for the real thing. These books' second problem is that all of their best excuses have been burnt in their beds by the Telos novellas. We've seen writing that's better and more adventurous than this within an even shorter word count, without the safety blanket of a phenomenally successful TV series.

As an aside, it's amusing to note that the inevitable Selachian references just say "armoured walking sharks" while the new series continuity references use actual names.

In an odd way, despite being one of the New Kiddie Adventures this is a book for fanboys. It depicts a world of thoughtcrime where all of us would be locked away for being what we are. In that sense it's even more focused on us than was Time of Your Life, whose fanboy commentary was just part of a general attack on the television industry. The two books are similar in many ways, although the big difference is that The Stealers of Dreams is celebrating a triumphant new era of Doctor Who instead of dissecting a dysfunctional one.

This book gives you something to think about, unlike the first batch of 9DAs, and has worthwhile things to say about the nature of reality, illusion and fiction. It's also in a batch of 9DAs with a more interesting author line-up than the previous three and the "same shallow end of the gene pool" catcalls they inspired. Steve Lyons doesn't have the "out of the blue" factor of Gareth Roberts, but before this he'd only written The Crooked World since Justin Richards took over from Steve Cole in 2000. One gets the sense this time that the commissioning net was spread wider than someone's local pub.

There are lots of good things one can say about The Stealers of Dreams, but unfortunately it's far from being the breakout book which the 9DAs needed. Its prose is unchallenging, its characters are uninvolving and it's hard to imagine it winning over those fans who were left unimpressed by the first three 9DAs. It's another competent if flawed book that's probably still better than most TV tie-in stuff, even if detractors like me don't like to admit it. If I were feeling harsh, I'd call it an interesting failure.

Eddy Wolverson

‘The Stealers of Dreams’ reads very differently to the other Ninth Doctor Adventures published so far. It is certainly the most adult of the range so far in terms of the subject matter. Steve Lyons, somewhat predictably, has created another novel about the relationship between fact and fiction…

It took me a while to get into the story - the first few chapters have a very ‘seen it all before’ feel as the TARDIS lands on an Earth Colony of the future to find an dystopian society torn straight out of the pages of an Orwellian nightmare. Fiction is prohibited. Lies are prohibited. Those who break the law and dream, tell stories or lie end up going ‘fantasy crazy’ and being shipped off to the Big White House for ‘treatment.’

Lyons handles the two companions very well, in particular Captain Jack who gets a good slice of the action and really shines in this novel. I also liked how when Rose comes ‘under the influence’ of her fantasies she fantasises about having adventures the Doctor, about breaking into the asylum and fighting monsters – I think it says a lot about her character and about how she feels about the Doctor. I also thought it was a nice touch having her phone her mother (a la ‘The End of the World’) to help her focus on what is real and what is fiction, and actually ends up being berated for splitting up with Mickey (which continuity-wise, would place this story somewhere after ‘Boom Town’ and before ‘Bad Wolf.’)

In contrast, I did think that Lyon’s portrayal of the Doctor was a little too generic. Although the shining blue eyes and manic grin were there, a lot of that ‘Eccleston-ness’ seemed to be lacking, especially in the dialogue. However, the two major supporting characters – Inspector Waller, the cop, and Dominic, the ‘fiction geek’ were both well rounded and interesting characters, and I particularly enjoyed their respective scenes with the Doctor. Somehow they seemed to bring a lit bit more ‘Ninth Doctor’ out of him, especially towards the end of the novel when he used them both to piece it all together and as usual, save the world.

What ultimately saves this novel from utter failure are the twists – the first of which the blurb proudly advertises - “…the Doctor is forced to admit that fiction can be dangerous after all.” Rather than just storm in and put this colony to rights, the Doctor and his companions slowly begin to realise that for some reason, on this world, fiction is dangerous and that the colonists (and even Rose) actually do go ‘fantasy crazy.’ As usual, it doesn’t take the Time Lord long to work out the science behind the phenomenon and inspire the colonists to cast off their totalitarian laws and synthesise ‘a cure’ for their unique problem. However, for such a good idea to be wrapped up so neatly at the end feels a bit wasteful. The second twist, regarded Hal Gryden and his pirate TV station ‘Static’ is a little more obvious as there are lots of clues, but nevertheless the book ultimately benefits from these twists and turns, particularly in the latter half.

On the whole, I did enjoy ‘The Stealers of Dreams,’ but even despite the plot twists it felt like it a story that had been told many times before, and sadly almost every element in the story had been done before at some time or another in the show’s history. If you are looking for something fresh and new to tie-in with the new series I’d pick up a copy of ‘Winner Takes All’ or ‘Only Human,’ but if you’re looking for something slightly darker that has a more familiar feel, give ‘The Stealers of Dreams’ a try.

Lawrence Conquest

The 6th Ninth Doctor novel features the return of another familiar author, and for those who have read Steve Lyons previous work some of the themes will be familiar too. As with Head Games and The Crooked World this novel is concerned with the interaction of fiction with reality. Unlike those novels however, The Stealers of Dreams is a very restrained work, much less concerned with wild impossibilities intruding into the real world than with the reactions of the people affected.

The novel starts off in a fairly generic vein, with a situation that at first appears to be a little too familiar: a dystopian future where the population are mostly all mind-controlled drones (here, forbidden to think fictitious thoughts), while an underground resistance seeks to disrupt the status quo and free the imagination of the colonists. So far - so familiar, and at this point it’s fully expected that the Doctor will join the resistance, free the prisoners, overthrow the government, and be back on board the TARDIS before you can say “generic rebel story template”. Thankfully Lyons throws a few spanners in the works: there doesn’t seem to be any central authority for the Doctor to overthrow, and just possibly the colonists are restricting their fictional imaginations for a very good reason…

Considering both the limited page count and the Ninth Doctor’s lack of any televisual alien wanderings Lyons sensibly opts for a familiar world that is skewed just enough to be different from Earth, and his splitting of the storyline between the Doctor, Rose and Jack ensures that every member of the TARDIS crew gets a good amount to do. The main supporting characters come from either end of the spectrum: one a rebellious youth, the other a rather Judge Dredd-like female officer of the law determined to stamp out the illegal use of fiction. In common with a lot of ‘fiction come to life’ adventures (and a problem that stretches all the way back to The Mind Robber), once you realise that none of the bogeymen that the characters are afraid of are actually real it’s difficult for the novel to sustain any real tension: the drama in Rose being stalked by a horde of zombies who exist only in her own mind is slight, so Lyons has to create tension by getting her into more trouble while ‘under the influence’. Once you cotton on to the nature of the fictional hallucinations it’s also fairly easy to spot some of the twist revelations Lyons throws at the reader, and the final explanation for exactly why the colonists are under such a threat from their imaginations is rather disappointing, but from a characterisation point of view the novel is rich enough to keep the reader interested.

In many ways The Stealers of Dreams is the most adult of the 6 Ninth Doctor novels so far published, in that it relies less on rampaging monsters and more on the fear of characters literally ‘losing touch with reality’, but when compared to the likes of The Crooked World it all seems rather mundane. The Stealer of Dreams is well plotted, with good characterisation, and readable prose, but it’s also just a little bit dull.

Joe Ford

Now there’s a title that tops even Island of Death! And fortunately there is a book beneath that title which is well worth reading too, which is where the similarities to Barry Letts’ book ends. Steve Lyons has long been as an author I have admired; his fiction is almost always highly entertaining, thought provoking and well written. He has written two of the best BBC books yet in my opinion, the psychological historical The Witch Hunters and the imaginative and heartbreaking The Crooked World. Whilst The Stealers of Dreams doesn’t reach those heights this is another intelligent and thought provoking drama from Lyons.

I have only read two of the second batch of the NDAs (the other being the phenomenal Only Human) but already they seem much more confident and assured than the first batch. It feels as though the editor has learnt what works and what doesn’t and how far you can fiction aimed at younger kids. I am delighted that this sort of book is being written for a younger market, there is nothing here that talks down to them or patronises their intelligence and indeed The Stealers of Dreams trusts them to understand some pretty heavy concepts. The book is effortlessly readable but layered so an adult can take much from it too. The in jokes and satire is there if you get it but if you don’t it is just part of the story.

I am so glad they have added Captain Jack to the mix of regulars; it makes things far more interesting than just the Doctor and Rose. As engaging as they are it is so much better to have somebody between them, stirring up their relationship and seeing through a fresh pair of eyes the complex relationship their share. Plus he’s good for a giggle, is very resourceful and adds a touch of adult humour to the TARDIS crew, which is always welcome.

People might be mistaken into thinking Steve Lyons has run out of ideas (indeed a regular poster on OG had pretty much made up their mind before the book had even been released…how do people do that?) because this book runs with the theme of ideas and imagination being explored and he has already looked at the danger of fiction (the wickedly oddball Conundrum) and the idea of breaking out of stereotypes and having dreams (the aforementioned Crooked World) but The Stealers of Dreams is very different from either of those two. Considering its NDA status it is surprisingly the most adult of the three, lacking the whacky humour of the first two and offering up a genuinely frightening totalitarian environment where dreams and lies are outlawed. There are no grey areas, if you are suspected of spreading fiction you are arrested and taken to the white coats to have your brain operated on. The Doctor, Rose and Jack land in this closed off colony and immediately start causing mischief, telling stories, lies and getting involved in the secret underground fiction groups. The three of them are caught in the unwavering iron fist of the colony, Rose starts seeing things, Jack is rolled into theatre and the Doctor is stuck trying his damndest to stop himself from slipping up in the presence of dreams-hater uber-copper Waller. I love that feeling of oppression, Lyons is so good at making the regulars feel trapped (he achieved a similar knife-edge tension in The Witch Hunters) and the resulting book is one that is entertaining and uncomfortable, a potent mix.

There were lots of lovely touches that added to the story’s charm, such as the dig at the current state of TV (this colony only watches reality TV and documentaries, it could bloody well be set on Earth in 2005 then!), the unsubtle mention of secret fans groups that refuse to let fiction die (remind you of Doctor Who fans after the 1989 cancellation?) and the thought of one god-like man who has the power to bring it all back (Russell T Davies receiving hero worship in his own books!). Lyons explores his terrifying idea with some marvellous concepts too such as the Game of Life board game (get married and have kids before your dreams catch up with you!), the Static channel (which broadcasts illegal drama shows…oo-er!) and the disbanding of the government (because they tell too many lies, promising things to people they can never deliver!).

This is another well-constructed book that managed to surprise me three times during the climax, three twists that I did not see coming despite a warning from David Darlington in his TV Zone review! The revelation about why the planet is so tightly wound up about fiction is obvious from about page 200 onwards but I think that was deliberate on Lyons part so he could sneak his other twists past you without you realising. The sneaky git.

It could have taken the easy route and just dealt with the harmful idea of taking dreams away from people but Lyons wants to challenge his readership so he twists that idea in entirely the other direction and shows you how dangerous too much fantasy can be, distorting your view of reality. This provoked another of my sporadic conversations with Simon (not like the one over pre-destination in Time Zero where we were so opposed to each other I was told to sleep on the sofa!), the fiction vs. reality debate at 6.30 in the morning! If the children reading this book are asking these sorts of questions to their parents and friends I would be so delighted, Doctor Who is the ideal medium to reach them with these powerful ideas and it pleases me so much to see it applied with such sophistication without reading like a lecture. Themes of identity come to the fore, are we really seeing what we think we’re seeing, are our lives real or just imagined…it is intriguing stuff.

Had this been a EDA or a PDA it would have been much darker, I’m fairly certain of that the dreams being explored wouldn’t be about zombies or heroes but more about things like rape and terrorism and we can thank the NDAs that we were spared that. I know we all enjoy the more adult nature of the NA/EDA/PDA ranges but their darker moments could take the series into places where I would rather they wouldn’t. I have already written an article discussing the place of rape, incest and paedophilia in Doctor Who and whilst (thanks in no small part to brainbox and good friend Mike Morris) I have come to accept their place in the series it doesn’t mean I have to like them. The Stealers of Dreams proves one side of my argument; you can push the limits, stretch the format and expose clever ideas to a much wider audience if you write a novel that is readable by anyone. This is every bit the challenge Warlock and Deadline are but without those nasty elements sneaking in (now who is trying to hide from reality in fiction…see even you precious reviewer isn’t immune!).

A fascinating tale, told with real imagination and intelligence. This is another NDA which ticks the right boxes and provides a page turning treat. At this rate I wont miss the EDAs or PDAs at all.