Chris Boucher has gained a reputation as an excellent scriptwriter but an awful novelist, with his debut Who novel Last Man Running generally regarded as a mess. It was thus with some trepidation that I picked up this novel, but to my surprise it’s not that bad at all. It’s by no means a perfect book, but it is for the most part an enjoyable read – maybe Boucher’s reputation as a scriptwriter was so high that Last Man Running initially seemed a huge let down on first publication?
Boucher understandably sticks with ‘his’ team of the Fourth Doctor and Leela – both are convincing recreations of their television counterparts, and as Leela’s creator it should go without saying that Boucher handles her well. The Doctor is still a very reluctant teacher at the beginning of the novel, and it’s difficult not to read some of Tom Baker’s own doubts about the character of Leela into the opening scenes when the Doctor leaves her in the TARDIS so he can wander off on his own. Naturally enough Leela soon becomes central to the action herself, and against the backdrop of the Doctor’s teaching of the value of science over religion both characters come to value the others strengths.
The story itself starts off in a fairly simplistic manner, with the Doctor and Leela beset by a varied mass of alien monsters on a jungle world, whilst elsewhere a squad of investigators hunting down a renegade are similarly under threat. This is all very straight ahead simple action, but the teasing clues as to the nature of the planet and the bizarre nature of the evolution of the local inhabitants keeps up the interest, while the squad of investigators bring to mind the class divided mining crew from Boucher’s Robots of Death as they bicker among themselves. Where the novel does come a bit unstuck is in the pacing, as following a quite leisurely opening hundred pages things get a bit bogged down when the alien weapons development machine behind the monsters creation is revealed. The actual device itself is suitably weird, but the more you think about the weapons testing program the less it makes sense – just how big a threat is an army of Leela clones compared to a few nuclear bombs? – and Boucher tries too hard to wrong-foot the reader with one too many revelatory villain unmaskings. One real missed opportunity is the fact that in the final third of the novel it is revealed that all this is actually linked to an interplanetary revolution, and despite a few cutaways we never really learn enough about the outcome of this revolt – I’d have gladly swapped the element of surprise gained by leaving this as a late revelation in return for the book widening it’s scope and showing us the full picture.
Still, despite a few awkward moments Last Man Running remains a mostly pleasant experience. There’s no truly groundbreaking ideas or great prose style here, but this is an enjoyable enough Fourth Doctor adventure. Worth another look.
Not many writers of the television series had as a strike rate as Chris Boucher: two great stories and a classic in “Robots Of Death”. A writer with a strong pedigree in Doctor Who and who excels in plotting, Boucher’s addition to the PDA series seems an exciting prospect. Now, after finally reading this novel six years after its release, I am left rather perplexed and a not little annoyed. For Chris Boucher has written a book big on ideas but flat in execution.
A security force arrives on a planet in search for a renegade. They get lost in a monster infested jungle with only Leela’s warrior instincts preventing them becoming lunch. Well, most of them. The jungle is all part of a huge alien artefact designed to find and clone the ultimate warrior, with which the renegade wants to start a war between two neighbouring human colonies. Before long, a traitor will be uncovered and a political conspiracy appears, rounding out all the element you need for an exciting, comfortable story.
“Last Man Running” aims to be a fast action, tightly written survival of the fittest action movie melded with the politics and claustrophobia of Caves of Androzani and with a classic Agatha Christie twist at the end. But it fails. The story is full of stereotypes, but instead of running with the reader’s expectations, Boucher deliberately distorts them. It is easy to understand Boucher trying to push the envelope, but this is one story that would have been a huge success if played straight.
For instance, I was expecting the characters slowly get bumped off and thus causing the mystery of the renegade to be increasingly tenser. Yet for all these survival overtones, only two of the seven actually come to a sticky end in the jungle, while the survivors get locked up for the second half the book. This means that the final identity of the renegade becomes trivial. In fact, Boucher gives it away about halfway through the book, which makes his subsequent introduction of red herrings superfluous.
This is one of the few Doctor Who books that could have done with a /higher/ death toll, in only for the sake of the plot, or at least for the sake of removing some very beige characters. It is hard to be sympathetic with Kley and her ragtag band of investigators, and it soon becomes clear that many seem to overstay their welcome. Their individual characters are shown mostly in their banter, in the same way that Boucher successfully coloured even the most shortlived of the robot fodder crew in “Robots of Death”. But in that story the mannerisms and enthusiasm of the actors allowed the characters to live and breathe, even if it was not for particularly long. Here the banter becomes repetitive. That Rinandor and Pertanor realise their mutual attraction to each other very early on is fine, but their continual lovers’ doublespeak soon wears thin. Meanwhile Kley, Monly, Fermindor, Belay and Sozerdor, are either constantly bleating or trying to play out very minor power struggles. I was soon left hoping that they would become some monster’s teatime snack.
Meanwhile, the political machinations on the security team’s own colonies are dropped into the book about two thirds of the way through. While explaining the renegade’s actions, it seems tacked on rather than the Act 3 twist I feel Boucher was trying to effect. Maybe Boucher might have been better served by introducing this set of characters earlier in the piece and letting the plot simmer away in the background.
Other small details also irk. The differences between the two human colonies on the First and Second planets of the system seem clichéd. The toodies (people from the Second Planet) thinking larger people are sexier, and also believe that Shakespeare is a religious text that is blasphemous to speak aloud. And everyone on both planets love their bloodsports, forever tuned into the televisions, ignoring which way the political winds are blowing. All of these have been used many times in sci-fi over the years, and do nothing to make Boucher’s world distinct.
Thankfully, with the security team all locked up about halfway through, the Doctor and Leela are left to explore the artefact and play mind games with the renegade. Here the story starts to pick up, and the Doctor’s realisation that the machine seems to have determined Leela as the ultimate warrior is one of the best handled parts of the book. Their relationship grows throughout, as mutual respect grows. The two regulars are in good form throughout, which you would expect from the writer who fashioned their on screen relationship in the first place.
Another success is the artefact itself, and the renegade’s lack of control over it. The machine is still trying to work out what an ultimate warrior actually involves, having already destroy the race that created it long ago attempting to work that one out. After Leela overcomes all the monsters the machine pitches at her, it creates a small army of Leelas, but never quite gets them right. As a result, the real Leela is simply quicker and cleverer than her copies and soon begins dispatching them too.
But this realisation also destroys the climax of the plot. It’s quickly obvious that the machine is never going to create a super army. It is also clear that an army of knife-wielding Leelas can’t really start and win an interplanetary war, thus the threat to humanity becomes negligible. Instead we get a jokey gun battle, with Kley and her crew running back home to lock up the conspirators.
With such a good premise, it seems amazing that the book is weak. On one hand Boucher turns his plot into patchwork, and doesn’t deliver the promises the plot suggests. Instead we get a muddle through a jungle and a forest, a muddle through higher technology and a villain who doesn’t know what he’s doing. I happily read it, but not without some rolling of eyes.
One of the greatest crimes the Who novels of the 90s have been accused of is, with a few notable exceptions, failing to capture that essential atmosphere of the TV show from which they're derived, so how better to do it than bringing an experienced sctiptwriter back? Much of the reason for luring Chris Boucher back to the Who fold after over 20 years is the quality of his previous scripts. For that reason alone his debut as a Who novelist is undoubtedly one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the year. After all, how could the man behind those three mid term Baker classics and many of Blake's finest moments fail?
It's sad to say that it won't live up to expectations. It's Boucher by numbers, merging elements of all his previous scripts - the setting of The Face of Evil crossbred with the murder mystery of Robots of Death and engineered evolutionary theme of Image of the Fendahl. Boucher seems to have put all his creativity into creating the society of the guest characters - they're recognizable as humans but the mores, names and slang make it clear they're removed from our own experience. It's also rendered more convincing by feeding the reader information a little at a time - there aren't any blatant expositionary chunks of background to slow the pace. Unfortunately, the characters lack any real individuality to distinguish themselves - it's hard to care about characters who we don't get to know in any depth, rendering them faceless ciphers drafted in to order. The lack of gender distinction in the names (eg Rinandor, Pertanor) is also a hindrance. The regulars, however, are well served. For the second time this year Leela is the dominant character in a novel, well served after Virgin's neglect. It's not as in depth as Eye of Heaven but Leela's experiences and abilities are well to the fore in a situation in which the Doctor struggles. There's an interesting element of mistrust in this Doctor-companion relationship, comparable to the Doctor-Ace relationship as developed post Love and War.
Unfortunately a rather pedestrian plot highlights the flaws of the guest characters. A murder mystery depends on the sympathy and interest of the reader and it's diffucult to sustain either with interchangable names and characters. It's hard to care when the only sympathetic characters are ones we know will survive, despite the appearance of the situation.
The overwhelming impression is that Boucher wrote as if he were writing a script rather than a novel. What might have worked had there been reasonable guest performances and decent production values falls flat on the printed page. Ultimately there's no more depth to this jungle planet than could be realised in a studio. The spectre of the TV studio is evoked a little too well to translate media.