I thought Illegal Alien was great. Matrix is astoundingly better. Following on from their excellent Blitzed London Cyber-yarn, Mike Tucker and Robert Perry give us an even darker story of murderous misdeeds in Victorian London with an added twist; the murderer is the Doctor.
What makes Matrix so great is its imagery. The opening chapter sets the mood. A cowled figure in a cave of catacombs creating clay figures to cause chaos. The next chapter; we see a lonely Doctor sitting quietly on a beech before ascending a derelict lighthouse after the said clay figure rises from the sea in pursuit of him.
Also in the opening episode (the book is broken up into 6 episodes making it feel like something of an epic for McCoy’s Doctor and therefore important) we see a battlefield of dead Ace’s in uniforms too big for her, an empty junkyard at 76 Totter’s Lane and a scared Ian and Barbara, living alone together in fear of the Jacksprites.
Yes, it sounds like Matrix is playing with continuity and indeed it is. In fact the book somewhat relies on the reader knowing much Dr Who history. For someone picking the book up casually, it may seem like something of a mess. To a hardened fan, however, it’s utterly enjoyable and very satisfying.
At first, the novel may seem a little haphazard and appears to be taking many liberties with its structure, but after its completion, it’s difficult to imagine just how the premise of the story could have been set up any easier. After all, by seeing this alternative London, the stakes are certainly raised and a greater degree of tension arises. To merely suggest that London will be doomed would seem very escapable. By showing us a frightened Ian and Barbara, characters we know, the writers unnerve us and we feel that the end is very probably nigh.
When the TARDIS arrives in Victorian London, the story relaxes a little more into an easier pace with a more linear structure. This is not to say that the imagery suffers though. Indeed, no other book could give us such unsettling and harrowing images as an insane Doctor being pecked to near-death by cockerels, Ace strangling a bitter old woman to death as her cheetah spirit takes hold, the freak show of Jacques Malacroix, the drunken hostel owner’s attempted rape on Ace, the Doctor crying “Who am I?” from the city’s highest monument and the final apocalyptic battle on the church tower.
The revelation of the book’s villain is also a pleasant and less obvious surprise, although having re-read Matrix, the clues are all there. Uniquely in Matrix, we feel that McCoy’s Doctor has been genuinely affected by the deeds of his other self, and we feel that perhaps a darker force is actually lurking within our trusted hero.
The real let-down is Matrix’s structure. The first two episodes are a little clumsy in places with some very obvious exposition and the last one flies along at so tremendous a pace that the reader is given little time to digest anything approaching an explanation. What on Earth is the Dark Matrix? I sure as hell don’t know. Although the remaining 3 episodes are also extremely fast paced, in comparison with the latter they appear quite slow and formulaic.
What Matrix lacks in plot though, it makes up for in character. The sombre Seventh Doctor and the headstrong Ace are perfectly written, and Joseph Liebermann, whose long journey is written almost in the form of pre-titles sequences throughout the book, becomes the most memorable character ever to meet the Seventh Doctor, at least in the BBC world. The scenes with the pair of them fixing clocks are some of the most delightful I have ever read. The Doctor’s reply to Liebermann’s age is an air-punching moment of utter eccentricity.
Matrix works not because it cleverly weaves it way through Dr Who continuity, with allusions to An Unearthly Child, Survival, Illegal Alien, and countless others, but because of the perturbing imagery it leaves embedded in the heads of its readers. Jed, the Idiot Boy of 33 years, the strange funeral of the Ripper’s sixth victim and above all else, the sudden moment in which the Doctor turns on Ace with a glass shard, announcing himself as the Ripper.
Matrix is a frightening and atmospheric read of the darkest kind. It may lack a certain cohesion and structure but its sheer weirdness forgives it these qualms. With a narrative featuring conjoined twins, a city being ravaged by clay giants, a chicken man and an ultimately spider-like ringmaster, Matrix ensures that it leaves the reader felling repulsed, revolted and above all else riveted. A macabre classic.
This has to be the most New Adventures-y PDA I have ever read and despite my earlier reservations it is because of their trademarks that it works so damn well (torturing the Doctor and Ace). On just about every level this is the most accomplished of the Robert Perry and Mike Tucker novels, taking on just about every complaint I have ever made about their work and improving it. The writing is sharp, the plot inspired and the characterisation consistent and potent. Illegal Alien is just a distant memory now.
I can understand why readers would be resistant to a book that dwells on the evil inside the Doctor. For forty years he has long been a beacon of light, a hero and who are Perry and Tucker to suggest that underneath his pacifistic veneer lies a cruel and cowardly bastard? Okay that is simplifying matters but as the last few pages of Matrix reveal the Doctor does still have some of his dark side inside him, watching his nemesis fall to his death and doing nothing to avoid it.
Personally I enjoy the thought that the Doctor is just as fallible as the rest of us when it comes to succumbing to his dark side. After all the evil he has vanquished in the universe surely his conscience must twinge a little? Death surrounds him at every turn; his adventures are full of them, many of which would not occur had he not showed up. Exposed to filth like the Daleks and Cybermen his homicidal tendencies emerge and there is no other solution but to murder them. Its an interesting idea and one that the writers capitalise on to disturb the reader, when the Doctor turns on Ace and threatens to kill her it might well be the most frightening moment in the series.
The seventh Doctor is the ideal protagonist to put under the microscope and explore his darkness because he is (for me) capable of being the scariest of the lot. It might have something to do with Sylvester McCoy's performance, when he isn't embarrassing us all goofing around he can be disturbingly restrained, his growling, Scottish purr a hypnotic nightmare. Or it could be Andrew Cartmel's decision to inject a little shadow into his character, the Doctor wiping out the Dalek race, manipulating his companion to face her fears and taking on the biggest badasses with little more than his thunderous will (the Gods of Ragnarok, Fenric). The eternal thinker, planning his adventures way in advance and ignoring casualties in the face of the greater good.
So seeing him outwitted in the early stages of Matrix is terrifying. As an unseen force penetrates the TARDIS, the Doctor's own sanctuary and taunts him out, I was aghast at the possibilities of the enemy that could shake up the most powerful of Doctors. We hang on to Ace who is as lost as we are, an ideal method of allowing us to sympathise with her.
Clever ideas are afoot as the two travellers arrive in 1960s' London where the Doctor's adventures began all those years ago. But things are not as they seem, American foot soldiers patrol the streets, gangs of razor-fisted psychos are on the rampage and old companions Ian and Barbara have never heard of the Doctor (or Susan Foreman). History has been screwed and this nightmare version of events we (fans) know so well is disorienting. As the Doctor investigates the anomaly it appears events began to change from accepted history in 1888 when the infamous Jack the Ripper claimed one victim more than he should have, spinning off a wave of followers for the serial killer who slowly claimed the capital city...
As far as I am concerned the Doctor can visit Victorian London every day if it is as well written as this. I realise the fascination with that period has began to wear thin with some crowds (Talons, The Ultimate Foe, Ghost Light, All Consuming Fire, Birthright, The Bodysnatchers, Camera Obscura) but I love the atmosphere it conjours up... foggy back streets, filthy peasants, horrific murders, top hat and tails... frankly it is easy to dream up a frightening story in this period given the archetypes laid down by films and books.
Ingeniously we have the Doctor and Ace split up (a common occurrence in these Perry/Tucker books) and face the terrors of Victorian London independent of each other. The middle hundred pages of the book have been harshly criticized as filling out the book unnecessarily but for me they were the highlight. We have often experienced the monstrous run-around with monsters routine and the idea of alternate realities (the first third) and the Doctor coming to grips with his adversary (the last third) but the middle section deals with the Doctor and Ace trapped in one time and forced to make a life for themselves.
Ace's adventures are genuinely gripping; I loved every page of her life on the run. It's the suspense of all the events that kept me so hooked, as soon as Ace is taken in by a drunken perv but cannot pay her board you know they will come to blows. Similarly, her fight with her psychotic mistress who attacks her daily was inevitable. It is when she comes face to face with her dark side, the Cheetah personality from Survival, that things get really interesting. She struggles to keep it under control but is eventually exposed and caged up to perform in a circus freak show. Here she makes some rather wonderful friends...
The circus freaks are given a healthy dose of characterisation and it nice to see secondary characters given this much page space. Everyone, from Tiny Ron (who is used to lure the Cheetah personality from Ace), Ackroyd (who resourcefully sneaks her away from the Circus), De Vries (the mute giant who sacrifices his life to save the others) and Malacroix (the French circus owner who holds the freaks in his power, politically at least) spring from the page memorably. But best of all is Jed, the retarded boy who is one snap away from losing his head and killing everybody. The writers achieve much sympathy for Jed because he is always on the edge of understanding what is happening, all he wants to do is collect pretty things. How he is abused by all quarters is deplorable but understandable for the time and the writing is razor sharp when we are let inside Jed's mind. The characters in Matrix all had a purpose, there are no extraneous characters cluttering up the book.
When it is revealed that the Valeyard is responsible for the Doctor's descent into madness I was punching the air with delight. I have long waited for the story that concluded the Doctor's Trial and see him face his darker, later regeneration again. Suddenly everything snaps into focus, the only person who could affect the Doctor so terribly is himself. Earlier imagery is given marvellous explanations, the twelve ghostly figures writhing around the Valeyard are the distorted, evil versions of the Doctor's incarnations and the amorphous shadows that have lingered in the background are the dark side of the Matrix, explaining the title. More so than the return of the Valeyard, these dark, twisted concepts superbly bring a sense of continuity and terror to the book.
As ever with these hero/villain stories the climax takes place at a great height and see them tussling for dear life. It's a great shame that the Valeyard was killed off because his twisted branch of evil remains as chilling as it was during the sixth Doctor's era and it's always nice to be reminded that the Doctor has these thoughts at the back of his mind, on a leash. The Doctor's parting line to his darker self "Goodbye... Doctor" is unexpectedly powerful.
Matrix is a superb book, powered by terrifying imagery and strong characterisation. The Doctor and Ace shine through with their individual strengths and remain a potent source of storytelling despite the efforts of the New Adventures to undermine them. This is Doctor Who at its best, frightening the hell out of people and telling an atmospheric yarn in the process.
After the enjoyable Illegal Alien, Matrix makes for a rather disappointing continuation of Tucker and Perry’s self-styled ‘Season 27’. I don’t know whether the reversal of the authors’ names on the cover is indicative of a change of input for this story, or if it’s simply done to even out the credits, but compared to their previous novel this is a bit of a mess.
Although the Matrix itself doesn’t put in an appearance till the closing pages (and when it does the idea of the Dark Matrix is actually pretty good stuff) from the novels opening one could be forgiven for thinking that we’re already there. The novel is divided into a ‘6-parter’ format, and the entire first part seems to be as aimless as Deadly Assassin part 3, as it seems to consist of nothing more than a succession of varied assaults on the Doctor and Ace with no room given for any story or character growth. After a further diversion with an alternate Ian and Barbara (during which the Doctor annoyingly infers – twice – that Susan wasn’t his Granddaughter) the novel finally settles down into 1888 for a confrontation between the Doctor and Jack the Ripper. Things aren’t that simple though, as we soon find out that the twist is that Jack is the Doctor. While this is meant to be scary stuff, unfortunately the following scene of Ace being menaced by a cloak-twirling McCoy comes off as cheesy in the extreme. On a broader level, the whole idea of the Doctor getting involved in these real-life murders leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth – what next – Jeffrey Dahmer turns out to have been the Master in disguise?
Following this the novel makes the mistake of misplacing its leads. The Doctor himself spends a good half of the novel absent through amnesia (though this doesn’t explain why he acquires a German accent in the process), while following a recurrence of the Cheetah People virus Ace spends a good third stuck in a circus cage. Ace’s following scenes are rather too obviously based on Tod Browning’s excellent 1932 film ‘Freaks’, and the authors even rip of that films ending for circus owner Malacroix. The novels other main support is none other than the Wandering Jew of legend, but while this figure makes a nice counterpoint to the Doctor, his place in the story seems rather superfluous and tacked on. The resolution of the Doctors amnesia is also rather infuriating, as the very object that the Doctor had disposed of at the novels beginning as the instigator of his current troubles - the TARDIS telepathic circuits – then return at the novels close as his saviour, with no explanation for this complete about-turn in the devices properties.
While it rarely sinks to abysmal depths, Matrix is a rambling and unfocussed novel that ultimately fails to provide anything than a rather mediocre alternate timeline tale. I know all McCoy’s seasons contained at least one duffer, but I didn’t think the novels had to follow the format that closely…
A Seventh Doctor and Ace story, this must surely be the ultimate rebuff to those who thought the Virgin books were too dark. Compared to this, they were a bright summer's day.
The Doctor and Ace are being pursued by a dark entity, and pause to hide in 1963. There, they find history changed, and a brief cameo by Ian and Barbara. (Having reread 'The Face of the Enemy' recently, I'm still at a loss to understand why they seem so beloved of authors). Discovering the trouble lies in Victorian London, they go back to try and stop the diverging history, concerning Jack the Ripper.
The resultant mass of clich‚ may be imagined, foggy gaslights, prostitutes, and even a madwoman in the attic (wrong era, but in the context it's terrifying). Obviously the authors have picked up the basics of Victorian melodrama as well, as the ridiculously stilted style in the first chapter demonstrates. Mercifully, Ace is more than able to hold her own, in another deeply unpleasant side-effect of the entity's games, although I do wish authors would stop separating her from the Doctor at the drop of a hat. Although under the circumstances, it's no wonder she wants to put a little distance between them. An unfortunate chain of events lead her to be imprisoned in a circus with the other freaks, and anyone reading this will never look at the bright and colourful children's entertainment without a little shudder. Even the keeper suspects the lions have sold their souls to the steadily more insane ringmaster.
Among all the gloom, darkness and brutality, the character of Joseph Liebermann shines through, saving the Doctor and gradually allowing little glimpses of his mysterious existence. The only puzzlement is what exactly he has to do with the plot. All things considered, though, I would be more than happy to see him make a reappearance.
The biggest disappointment was who the Ripper actually turned out to be. There was a good reason why Virgin automatically rejected manuscripts featuring this adversary, and although there appears to be a rational reason for his reappearance, it's just a little too easy. Far more effective would have been a character the authors had created for themselves, but perhaps that would have missed the point of the book. For sheer style and brooding evil, 'Matrix' should be considered an important part of the Past Doctor's range.