The opening chapter of City at Worlds End really is lovely. It sent me back to being ten years old reading First Doctor target novels in my bedroom (The First Doctor’s books were my favourites) and discovering strange new places with that fantastic spirit of adventure and exploration, never really matched by any other Tardis crew than that seen here. The characterisation of the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan is spot on, and the strange but beautiful city is eerie in it’s silence and almost stillness. The first chapter closes with such a tremendously well built cliff hanger I could almost hear the theme running. Susan and Barbara buried alive and the Doctor and Ian’s strange discovery. Whatever have our friends wandered into this time?
The city of Arkhaven is the last populated place on this world. A terrible war has wiped out all other inhabitants and even in the city the population numbers not so high as may seem. The city’s problems are further exacerbated by the planets moon having been knocked onto a collision course with the planet by an asteroid collision. Luckily the Arkhavens had some time to prepare for the destruction of their world and have built a marvellous rocket to blast off of their doomed rock at the last moment and start life anew on another world. Unluckily the rocket may not be the great symbol of hope that it seems to be as it towers over the city. Likewise the friendly and helpful natives may not be quite as straight up as they seem.
The book does make use of some well worn Doctor Who conventions; the crew are separated, the Tardis is lost and both of the Tardis keys are misplaced (truly a careless day for our heroes!), but they are employed well and add to the familiarity of the teams exploits in some ways. All these things bind the Tardis crew to the city whilst the impending destruction of the planet draws unstoppably closer.
The plot itself is full of interesting ideas such as the heads of society deciding to deceive the population that the deserted portions of the city are still inhabited, and the path that this deception forces the conspirators down, the constant concern for morale and preventing panic, the activities of the civilisations super computer, Monitor, and the highly class based society. There are a number of ‘Oh my God!’ moments of revelation and throughout the book builds an atmosphere of hopelessness in the face of the looming obliteration of the planet.
The regulars continue to be well drawn (although I must protest at Barbara getting a rifle stock in the face – I actually flinched!) and also the inhabitants of the planet feature some interesting and sympathetic characters; particularly the Mayor of Arkhaven and Ben Lant.
City at World’s End is a book with a lot plotlines and mostly these are resolved in a satisfactory way. The exception could be the proud army of Prince Keldo, last of the Taklarians. Having popped up here and there during the course of the novel they finally take action close to the end and are abruptly wiped out. They seem to have little effect on the plot and serve only as evidence of the war which the inhabitants of Arkhaven make occasional reference to. They may be just one subplot too many. I must also take a moment to focus on the city’s name; Arkhaven. Truly a name contrived in such a method as may have been employed in the period.
In summary City at World’s End is not the finest Doctor Who novel I have so far read but it is certainly entertaining and well written. Recommended for the strong characterisation and interesting plot. It could also serve as a lesson to governments and leaders about the possible consequences when you start misleading your people, however noble your motives, though it may be too late for such a lesson on our own doomed rock.
Barbara laughed and winced, clutching her head. ‘Like Archimedes said about levers: give me a firm place to stand and I will move the Earth.’
Susan smiled. ‘Well, more or less. Although, as Grandfather pointed out to him, he hadn’t explained what he would use as a fulcrum.’
The TARDIS arrives in Arkhaven, where the citizens are preparing to leave the planet before it becomes uninhabitable. The Doctor wants to explore, but a meteor shower separates the travelers, leaving Barbara trapped underground, Susan hospitalized, and Ian and the Doctor trying to puzzle out the secrets being kept from the majority of Arkhaven’s population by the government.
I have to say it: City at World’s End is one of those stories that feels like it really could have been part of Season One or Two. You can even picture it being filmed in black and white with crude models of vehicles and spacecraft and matte paintings of a futuristic city, or you can equally well picture it in color with big budget computer animation and special effects. In either case, the story itself is clever, with several twists and turns as rival factions struggle for power over the fate of their civilization.
The characters also feel like Season One/Two characters. The Doctor is clever, curious, and charismatic. Ian is of course the man of action, desperately holding onto hope as he tries to rescue Barbara and then Susan later. Barbara also struggles to survive on little else but hope. Only Susan seems underused and poorly portrayed here, until the last quarter of the book where this becomes somewhat forgivable.
The supporting characters are adequately developed, just shy of being three-dimensional in most cases. The right actors could have made a big difference had this been a televised adventure. Mayor Draad and Captain Lant are the best developed, while the villains are significantly less believable. These villains all have clear goals and motivations, but seem predictable and stereotypical, from Prince Keldo to Bishop Fostel. Still, this is not out of place among the characters of The Aztecs and The Sensorites.
Overall, this book is a lot of fun, and easily read, much like Wolfsbane or Vampire Science. I give it seven out of ten.
In brief: Goodness me, I'd almost forgotten that Bulis could be good when he actually works at it. This is a solidly entertaining novel, well thought-out and nicely executed.
To be honest, I'd put off reading this book, simply because of the author's name on the cover. While we have to slog through the boring EDAs to get to the interesting ones, the PDAs can be skipped around with far more latitude. I thought this would be a drawn-out exercise in tedium. I'm very pleased to say that it's anything but that.
This is the first Chris Bulis book to reuse a Doctor and I have to say that I appreciate the extra time taken on this one. With a tendency to just churn them out and cycle through all the Doctors, it's a pleasant surprise to find that this book turns out to be rather good indeed. I remember now why I enjoyed State of Change so much -- when he tries, Bulis can actually be quite good.
Here, he's really played to his strengths. Vanderdeken's Children showed that he could handle a complex plot quite adeptly and here he tackles one that feels rather too full for the book. With multiple factions, political intrigue and a decent portrayal of a civilisation just barely managing to hold itself together, he's written a book that nicely juggles all these elements without feeling too full. And best of all, it comes together very satisfyingly at the end.
The regulars are quite well drawn. For a while I thought that Susan was a bit underdone, but this gets redeemed at the end. It's interesting seeing the original crew split up along gender lines like this and they all feel just right.
The others don't fare as well, but Bulis has stopped pretending that he can contribute anything worthwhile in this department. Indeed, the only character who threatens to actually be developed turns out to be an android in disguise anyway. I suspect someone with a sense of humour has been feeding reviews of these books into the Automatic Bulis Book Generator.
The ending is lots of fun, as the plot twists and turns quickly enough to keep us interested. Monitor seems a bit tacked-on until he manages to turn around and surprise us. There's a distinct lack of Chekov-Gun-like foreshadowing -- and I have to say that it works a treat. Had we been subjected to a clumsy paragraph describing the legal definition of a city, we'd have spotted the plot twist a mile off. Similarly, the behaviour of certain characters never needs to be anything other than natural all along and the revelations still work.
I've always thought the scale of Chekov's Gun was usually misinterpreted by most authors anyway. I think that goes a long way to explain why a lot of recent books have felt far more leaden than they should have. With so much Who output these days, it's hard not to see the patterns and second-guess where everything is going. It's to Bulis's credit that this didn't occur here. The plot matches Justin Richards for inventiveness.
City at World's End is enjoyable from start to finish. It's good, solid, entertaining fare that does everything right and doesn't make any major mistakes. You could definitely do a lot worse.