What a load of tripe! I remembered The Murder Game as being merely unmemorable, but this reread made it look career-killingly bad. The tragedy is that there's some decent Steve Lyons material towards the end, with issues being addressed and big things happening to a character or two, but unfortunately the first 200 pages were so dreadful that any last vestiges of interest had long since been bludgeoned to death. I watched non-characters run around pointlessly and couldn't bring myself to care.
The Murder Game is precisely the sort of "okay I suppose" book that *isn't* okay, or even tolerable. It probably looked quite good in synopsis and most of its annoyances are minor, but one big thing sinks it - the characterisation. This is Bulis-level. I'm not exaggerating. You could stick Bulis's name on the cover and no one would realise. Most of the book goes on and on about some cardboard cutouts and their role-playing games on a space hotel. None of them are interesting. None of them are three-dimensional. Only one of them even manages to stand out from the others, and that only by being the most irritating kind of cliche (e.g. Henry Mace). Half the book gives us have two dozen real and assumed names shared between a dozen placeholders (I refuse to call them characters) that you can't even tell apart from each other. It's a relief when they start to die.
Even the regulars are painful, Troughton coming off better than his companions. Polly gets some gruesome "How do I feel about Ben, it couldn't be love?" thought processes that will make you want to throw puppies off railway bridges. Meanwhile this Ben Jackson is an ineffectual nerd, afflicted with a romance you'll be flicking over as fast as possible. I couldn't believe in it, not for a moment. It's on a par with the 1968 Dr Who annual. This characterisation is so bad that when he called Polly "Duchess" near the end, I found it jarring to be reminded of the *real* Ben Jackson, as seen on TV.
Oh, and I can't overlook the realisations of these profound, nay, Nabokovian characters. See page 106. "I won't be organising another. To make light of death, to turn all this into entertainment... it's amoral. The real thing's too horrific!" I reeled. Steve Lyons's idea of a light touch would stun an elephant.
The Whoish elements are irritating. Yet again we have a steerable TARDIS shoehorned into the sixties era, which always makes me cringe. Steve Lyons isn't the only offender in this regard, but he's made rather a habit of it. See also The Witch Hunters. There are also fannish in-jokes... "suspicious-looking" things from Alpha Centauri and references to the Inferno eyepatch story and one of the characterisations considered for Pat Troughton instead of the cosmic hobo. Oh, and there's a "floating around in Spain" gag that's virtually the novel's raison d'etre. For each of these Steve Lyons deserves to catch a particularly embarrassing social disease.
There are plot problems. At the beginning the Doctor receives a distress signal sent to him personally on a frequency that won't enter general use for another three centuries. Ooooh, that's interesting... except that this clue never leads anywhere. Huh? More incredibly, at one point the Selachians give Polly unrestricted, unmonitored access to their computer systems for two hours. How stupid can you get? They think she's a computer whiz! Had Polly been Zoe, the adventure would have ended there and then.
The book picks up towards the end as the Selachians arrive and throw their weight around. Admittedly they're monotonous one-note cliches [militaristic monomaniacs who kill their allies and shout "human plankton" at inferior races, i.e. all non-Selachians], but anything would have been better than more screen time devoted to this book's placeholders. As the stakes rise, the book's situations, concepts and moral issues became more imaginative. Steve Lyons usually plots a good ending, giving us real climactic drama instead of the usual body count and shriek of technobabble. Sure enough The Murder Game is no exception. I might almost have been impressed, if only I'd been able to care about the characters.
[Though having said that, much of this original-looking material is actually recycled from Steve Lyons's 6th Doctor MAs. We'd never met the Selachians before but we learned a lot about them in Killing Ground, in which the Cybermen were piloting one of their warcraft. Meanwhile the big secret the Selachians came for is cut-and-pasted from the same author's Time of Your Life, so exactly that one almost wonders if Krllxk in 2191 was suppposed to have descended from this book's similar threat in 2136.]
On first reading, The Murder Game seems okay in a Christopher Bulis murder mystery kind of way. Many people liked it. Its story is well constructed, even putting a little meat on its bones towards the end. Had this book been blessed with better prose and characterisation, it might almost have been good. But I really hope this was one of those early PDAs which had been rejected MA proposals, since it would cheer me up to think that *someone* thought this wasn't worth publishing.
Here is a Doctor Who novel that almost works: it utilizes a period rarely explored (the period between the Doctor's first regeneration and when he, Polly Wright and Ben Jackson encountered Jamie McCrimmon in eighteenth-century Scotland), it delves into the relationship between two companions (Ben and Polly) that TV viewers probably would have liked to have seen together, and it shows the TARDIS crew in an unusual situation, even for them...role-playing in a murder mystery game, albeit aboard a orbiting hotel.
Of course, this book is not without its problems. The first and certainly not the least is the writer. Steve Lyons manages to take an interesting premise, here as in the New Adventures book Head Games, and make it as dull as Dalek poetry. [Note to readers of The Also People: The original machine-language version, darlings!] At least this novel does not have the dreary, meandering interludes that Head Games does. And again, it does go into the relationships among the TARDIS crew, particularly between Ben and the newly-regenerated Doctor whom he does not entirely like nor trust as yet.
The other participants in the mystery game seem picked straight out of a Murder She Wrote Central Casting: the hotel manager, the husband-and-wife mystery writer team, the wealthy and decadent socialites, yadda yadda yadda. The only intriguing characterý is, fittingly, the hotel's interactive hologram maitre d'hotel, configured as a vampire from a previous game and, to his artificial chagrin, never switched back to his default configurtion.
Naturally, as anything having to do with our favorite Time Lord, the plot begans to go awry as one of the players is discovered dead...for real. Then it's time to split up, run pointlessly around the space station, and wait for the nasty shark-like aliens to show up and demand the inevitable Superweapon That Will Kill Millions and We Must Not Let Fall Into the Wrong Hands...yes, we've heard it all before.
There are, to be fair, a few cute moments here and there: historical records revealings Ben and Polly's descendants....well, that would be telling. The Doctor apparently involved in some organization he has never heard of (yet) called UNIT. Someone dressing in a patchwork coat and yellow pants, and the Doctor remarking to himself that no matter how bad his fashion sense might be, he would not be caught dead in that outfit....
We can only dream....