At 250 pages, this is a relatively short DW book (most BBC ones come out at about 300), but there's no sign of it being rushed, cramped or even particularly tightly written. This may point to the padding evident in most other Past Doctor and Eighth Doctor books. Indeed, there are passages in "Deep Blue" which don't seem to add much to what has gone before, so it could have afforded to be trimmed still more. This doesn't mean, however, that the story drags. Far from it: it's exciting stuff.
The opening hook, a classic Doctor Who prologue (a group of extras encounter deadly threat before the Doctor arrives), is strong and exciting, though pretty gory (as is the whole book). Much time is taken up describing the homelives and backgrounds of these people who are about to die - and indeed as with so many other DW novels it is a sure sign when the author spins off into a 300 word biography of a new character that he's about to be picked off in a particularly nasty fashion - but the Deadly Threat is unusual enough to get past this stylistic irritation.
By a slightly annoying coincidence, the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough arrive at the seaside for a holiday (linking with the events of "The Awakening") just as Mike Yates is sent down to investigate a UFO sighting in the same area. Inevitably they all get mixed up with the deaths from the Deadly Threat, and the rest of UNIT is called in. There's some nice character stuff with Mike, the Brigadier and UNIT meeting the future Doctor (the Third is off on a jaunt in the TARDIS, this being the interval between Jo leaving and Sarah Jane arriving), and Turlough worrying about meeting his maths teacher in his own past. This isn't too rife with pointless continuity, but rather some genuine attempt at fleshing out characters. Meanwhile Tegan, full of angst and irritation about the Doctor and the events of "Warriors of the Deep", falls back into Earth life and it looks for a while that she's going to start a relationship here. The development of all the characters is excellent, and it's very easy to hear the actor's voices speaking the lines, particularly Tegan and the Brig. The only slight letdown is the Doctor, whose lines somehow don't quite ring with Davison's tones all the way. This may be to do with the way his characterisation is less extreme than other Doctors', however - the reason he is often (unfairly) called "bland".
As the Deadly Threat continues, it widens far more than most Who storylines, wreaking wholesale destruction through a huge area before it can be stopped. This is an unusually realistic development for a DW story, and more "Day of the Triffids" than "Day of the Daleks". As the struggling survivors fight for their lives (which is more the focus than the fight for a solution), there is a real sense that this could be The One as far as the end of the human race is concerned. The TARDIS crew are split up, and each of them repeatedly faces a very real danger from the Deadly Threat (which I'm determined not to name). Turlough in particular gets to do a lot of running away, which is perfect for his character, and much more interesting than a TV chase because we know how he's feeling. There are no prise-off-the-air-vent solutions here, with escapes and captures both rooted firmly in the possible. Tegan meanwhile faces another sort of danger, and gets some great stuff to do. I'd love to see Janet Fielding tackling this story, she could do a lot with it. The Doctor, though, stays relatively in the background (although for good reason) for quite a lot of the time.
Finally, of course, the menace is defeated, although at great cost. The damage wreaked across the country - including untold deaths - is not undone, and there's no explanation of how it will be covered up. It's a bit of a shame that the solution turns out to be so quick and easy (the reason I suppose for the 'missing' 50 pages) after the slow, deliberate buildup, the horror, and the real sense of unstoppability the Deadly Threat is given. The trouble is that once you write yourself into such an exciting corner, you have to do something a bit 'cheating' to get out of it. Although the solution isn't a cheat, it *is* a bit simple.
Overall, this is a great book. There's a lot of blood and gore, and some repetitive sequences, but the monster is wonderful and the detail very impressive. Despite the emphasis on horror, characterisation is kept up and built upon, subplots are carefully balances, and everyone gets something to do. There are a few grammatical clangers (now almost traditional in the range) and some errors which imply it's been proof read by a spelling checker only, but the story itself - and the telling - is gripping. Not quite up there with "Illegal Alien", but certainly one of the better Past Doctor novels.
You can normally guarantee a few surprises going into a Doctor Who novel. With the cover and blurb usually content to hint at the contents rather than give the game away from the outset, these surprises can be pleasant, (ah - so Grimm Reality isn't the twee fantasy it appears), or unpleasant, (what happened to that fantastic retro sci fi promised by the blurb on The Space Age?), but a story normally saves at least some revelations for the reader. Not so for Deep Blue. It teams up the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Turlough with the all action 70's era UNIT against an alien invasion. And look - just in case you hadn't already read the blurb - there's a picture of one of the wee beasties on the back cover. And that's basically it. There's nothing spectacularly wrong with the contents, and the writing is of a generally high standard throughout, - it's just so predictable that there's little additional drama to be gained by actually opening the book and reading it.
Morris's previous Who novel 'The Bodysnatchers' left me pretty cold, but I was unsure as to whether that was due to the quality of the writing, or the fact that it was a sequel to both Terror of the Zygons and Talons of Weng-Chiang, neither of which I had actually seen on publication in 1997. Despite the return of the Brigadier and co. Deep Blue is thankfully devoid of the sequelitis of Morris's earlier novel, though the story is so familiar that it feels like a distillation of Who's greatest hits at times., (even the structure is uber-traditional, with the story divided into four ersatz TV episode). With the Brig, Yates, Benton, Tegan and Turlough Morris has a large cast of regulars to juggle, but he manages to divide the action equally. In keeping with the rigid 'set between two TV stories' policy of the time, both Turlough and Tegan ruminate on past adventures while foreshadowing latter events. This is all done very professionally, but at times it feels as though Morris is more concerned with preserving the tapestry of Who than actually adding anything to it.
A fun, easy to read novel, but decidedly lacking in depth - maybe Shallow Blue would have been a more appropriate title?
The idea that good storytelling involves re-telling an old idea well is not exactly new. The classics of western literature are littered with such texts...Virgil's "Aeneid," for instance, Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," Ovid's "Metamorphoses," and almost the entire plays of Shakespeare are grand recycling bins of old archetypes, scenarios, and conclusions. More recently, Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" reassembled a vast array of Norse and Celtic mythology into a unified whole (and the rip-offs keep coming). Then again, for every "Morte d'Arthur," there are 50 versions of "Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell:" flat, imitative works that slavishly reassemble stock incidents and characters to little real effect.
"Doctor Who" is no exception to this. The accepted "canon" of "Who" classics incorporates a good deal of shameless intertextuality, which is used to startlingly new effect. I'm sure we can all rattle off a half-dozen examples of this without thinking too hard, from the TV series, the Virgin NAs, the 8DAs, and so on. It seems to me that an inherent problem in the PDA series is the piling of intertextuality on top of intertextuality, context on continuity, in a process which ultimately makes many PDAs seem flat and predictable simply because it's all been done before. Every outcome has been mapped out by the forces of staid convention, and every book in the range risks being More of the Same.
"Deep Blue" is a representative example of this process. On the face of it, it's a well-crafted novel that gets you in and makes you want to keep reading it, finish it, and put it back down. Period. It doesn't live on in your imagination by a cruel reinforcement of ongoing existential angst, as "Interference" for example did for me, or provide a deepening/darkening of a well-loved era of the show's history, which is surely one of the most positive features of the best PDAs.
"Deep Blue" is fast food for the frontal lobe, and nothing more. On a deeper level, it's disappointing, as many PDAs are. Mark Morris has more or less rehashed key elements and influences of his earlier 8DA "The Bodysnatchers," transplanted them to the Fifth Doctor's era, and let the story run on autopilot. "The Bodysnatchers" itself drew heavily on "Terror of the Zygons" and the whole genre of the "body horror" story, with its emphasis on dehumanising transformations, unpleasant physical changes, and so on. "Deep Blue" is a body horror tale with a vengeance...but it all somehow seems to fall a bit flat.
The plot is straight out of the let's-make-a-Doctor-Who-story guidebook. Something nasty and aquatic takes people over, turns them into monsters via the usual growing spikes on your face/bursting open/vomiting mucus everywhere rite of passage, runs riot in an orgy of death and destruction, and almost conquers the world (England, anyway) but for the actions of the Doctor and his allies. There, simple. It could be the plot of "Deep Blue," or "Fury From the Deep", or "Ark in Space" (OK, so the Wirrn aren't amphibious, they're big hornets), "Terror of the Zygons," or "The Curse of Fenric," or "The Bodysnatchers". Or whatever. The already overladen point I'm making here is that, somehow, while "Deep Blue" isn't the type of book you hurl across the room in sheer frustration, it's disappointing on a different level. The characters are kind-of believable, and kind-of likeable, and several meet grisly and in-your-face fates (such as the nice young policeman befriended by Tegan, and any number of innocent bystanders). The baddies, the Xaranti, are kind of like the Borg with crabs. The Xaranti "hive," led by its "queen" is driven by a need to "assimilate" new cultures and incorporate their biological and technological diversity to its own. I've heard that before somewhere. The scenes of Xaranti-induced urban desolation are vividly drawn in a "Duke Nukem" kind of way, as are the Xaranti hybrids themselves. They're kind-of spiders/bulls/crustaceans/humans, and the unpleasant details of the transformation process are not spared. The Xaranti "queen" is one of the most disappointing characters in the book, however. The obvious thing would have been for Morris to have written an "Aliens" type of "big mean bitch" queen, but the evil genius behind the Xaranti is merely a bulky blob of snot with multifarious faces a la Lawrence Miles's Cold. (More precisely, a la what happens when one gets a cold). The Xaranti are also old enemies of the Zygons, and fly around in a Morok ship. This is taking continuity to an unreasonably silly level. (Why the Moroks? Is it because they got the First Doctor to pose in a bathing suit?)
The Fifth Doctor is plausible, but bland. Then again, this is also true to life...the potential inherent in this character (and the skills of the actor playing him) went a little to waste under the hi-gloss, assembly-line style that characterised the series during the early '80s. The only writer to really attempt to define and deepen the Fifth Doctor was Christopher H. Bidmead (go and watch "Castrovalva" and "Frontios" and you'll see what I mean), and he was effectively removed from the game as of the beginning of Season 19. So the Fifth Doctor's being a mannered, over-stylised study in beige is no surprise: it's the way things were. Ditto for the big-mouthed Tegan and shifty Turlough, both of whom are given little to do. The Second Doctor is reputedly the most difficult to capture in print, but at least writers have something to work with. Morris deserves full marks for at least trying to write the Fifth Doctor...there isn't really much you can hang on the character once you get past the cricket outfit and celery stuff, unfortunately. A similar point could be made about the latest incarnation also, but I digress...
Morris deploys Mike Yates very well here. While his inclusion might seem a little incongruous, he gets to carry the bulk of the action. This character's hidden depths were conveyed well by Richard Franklin in the TV series, and it's good to see this disappointingly under-used getting an airing in a PDA. The usual UNIT suspects all get to poke their heads in, if only to satisfy the continuity Nazis (who are also supplicated, by the way, with a glib eleventh-hour explanation to the obvious question of "why didn't the Brigadier recognise the Fifth Doctor in "Mawdryn Undead").
A big plus is the novel's setting. Morris recreates the Wall's ice cream-and striped deckchairs world of the 1970s UK "pleasure beach" with skilful attention to detail. Points also go to the novel's incorporation of TV commercials and various other pop-culture elements...let's not forget that "Who" itself is intertwined, to a noticeable section of its audience, with the world of '70s telly in the UK.
Overall, however, "Deep Blue" is not one of my favourite PDAs. Maybe it's the generally hackneyed plot elements; maybe it's the torpid use of one of the blander periods in the show's history, or the under-use of the UNIT side of things. Too much continuity and too many conventional elements are brought into play, and the end result seems a little stale.