It’s been a few years now since I was a regular reader of the old-style BBC Books Doctor Who novels, and quite a while since I even picked up one of them for a casual read. Back when I was in my mid-teens I was a voracious reader of the range, devouring the two books they used to bring out every month usually in one weekend. So when I happened to pick out Last of the Gaderene while browsing my local library’s science-fiction section a few days ago, it was partly the call of nostalgia, wanting to have another crack at one of the BBC’s “Past Doctor Adventures”.
Not just nostalgia though, as this isn’t simply any old Doctor Who novel. It’s written by Mark Gatiss, who of course has now gone on to write for the television series proper, something that could surely only have seemed the unlikeliest of pipe dreams five years ago, in 2000, when this novel was released. Being able to read it now, from a retrospective viewpoint of knowing all about the new series and what it contained, it’s interesting to be able to compare and contrast Gatiss’s presentation of Doctor Who here with his television episode The Unquiet Dead.
Gatiss himself has admitted in the past that bodily possession is a recurring theme in his work, quoting Alan Bennett’s phrase that “we all of us have only a few beans to rattle in the tin.” It has to be said though that the novel’s titular villains do bear some similarity to the Gelth of The Unquiet Dead, even beyond sharing the same first letter of their names. They enter humans orally, and find it difficult to maintain possession of the crumbling bodies for any great length of time, although victims of the Gaderene are rather luckier – or perhaps not, depending on your point of view – in that they don’t have to be dead to be possessed, and several of their “swine” as the aliens put it do survive at the end of the novel.
It’s also difficult – or at least, it was for me – not to see the Gaderene’s figurehead in the book, a malevolent female character with a Gaderene inside her body possessing her, named Bliss – as Annette Badland’s Margaret Blaine, the Slitheen female featured in Aliens of London, World War Three and Boom Town. The two characters do seem very similar, although of course Gatiss had nothing to do with Margaret in the new series. It is interesting how Doctor Who throws up these little coincidences from time to time, however.
A not so little coincidence – a whopping big one, to be frank – that Gatiss can be held responsible for is the rather unlikely idea that one of the main supporting characters just happens to keep a Spitfire in working condition in his back garden. This comes in handy at the story’s conclusion, but even though the character is a Wing Commander who flew the plane in the war, the idea didn’t seem particularly well sold and was far too neat a slice of good fortune for my liking.
Aside from that, however, there’s little to complain about. Gatiss is a well-known fan of this particular era of Doctor Who, and it shows through very clearly in the way he writes for all of the regulars who we know so well, the Third Doctor, Jo, the UNIT crowd and so forth. He writers especially well for The Master, having a real feel for the kind of dialogue Roger Delgado was so very good at delivering in the part. Even though I’ve never been a great fan of the bearded villain myself, and I do find it a little repetitive how he keeps cropping up in this era of the show, his appearance towards the latter stages of the book did at least feel like the sort of thing the production team of the time might have suddenly thrown into the story.
It makes a nice change for an alien incursion to be happening in East Anglia too, a nice little day out for the UNIT troops and an area of the English countryside Doctor Who curiously seems not to have explored a very great deal in any medium. Gatiss clearly had a whale of a time writing the book, and even manages to slip in a League of Gentleman gag when someone in the village is asked near the beginning of the novel if they’re local.
Overall, this is an enjoyable tale, nothing very deep or taxing to read but a hugely entertaining piece of Jon Pertwee era fluff. Gatiss has written better than this, but in terms of Doctor Who novels to pass the time or feed your nostalgia, you’ll rarely find a better one from the BBC’s ranges, especially one so adept at evoking the spirit of the television stories between which it is set.
There are two schools of though when approaching hypothetically ‘missing’ Doctor Who stories – one is that a novel should try as much as possible to sum up the flavour of the era it is set in and provide a story that provides comforting nostalgia for the reader, the other is that the author should take the characters and settings of a previous era and attempt something new with them. Last of the Gaderene is undoubtedly in the first category, and with Gatiss’ rose-tinted backwards-looking Forward and chapter titles such as ‘Escape to Danger’ no-one can be under any illusion that this is anything other a pure dose of nostalgia, a pastiche disguised as an original novel.
Not that it isn’t enjoyable as such – in fact any fans of the Pertwee era will have great difficulty disliking this book as it’s absolutely perfect in it’s recreation of the UNIT ‘family’, but if you are looking for any original ideas you’ve come to the wrong place. Reading this novel is a bit like sifting through a purée of Who’s greatest bits – Gatiss seems to have ground the entire Pertwee-era into a mix, and then poured it back out again into a slightly new mould. The actual plot - concerning the Doctor foiling an alien invasion (invading because – yep – their planet is ‘dying’) runs like clockwork along it’s familiar routine. The Master turns up and – in a shocking departure from convention (that’s irony by the way), suddenly realises that the aliens he’s been helping to invade are going to turn on him too. At no point in this novel will ANYTHING surprise you, and Gatiss’ deliberate aping of the basic Dicksian Target prose style means that while the pages fly by it could never be described as a well-written novel.
Where Gatiss succeeds is in upping the scope of the action, as the novel is stuffed full of fantastic action set-pieces (the Doctor piloting a plane, the Brig verses a gigantic monster, attacking hordes of zombies) that the 1970’s production team simply could not have attempted on television. Gatiss has increased the scale of the canvas he’s working on, in effect making this seem like a Hollywood version of the Pertwee-era Who, but there has been no similar broadening of his imagination.
Last of the Gaderene is a well-dressed corpse of a novel – it looks lovely from the outside, but the closer you look at it the more you realise that Gatiss has simply dug up the body of the Pertwee era and given it a quick dusting down. If you like the 3rd Doctor you simply cannot fail to enjoy this book, but everything about it is so second-hand that it’s about as satisfying as eating an already digested meal.
Gaaaah! What is this monstrosity? Mark Gatiss is capable of treasures as smashing as Nightshade (easily one of the best NAs of all time!), the highly entertaining PROBE series (you haven’t seen scary Doctor Who until you’ve slipped The Zero Imperative into your video recorder) and even his signature show, the totally insane but wickedly funny League of Gentlemen that just gets better and better the more you watch it. And yet this PDA lacks any of the zest and energy he injects into those projects, on the Doctor Who scale (or even on the storytelling in general scale) it redefines the word mundane simply because there is no effort here.
Cleverly the book helps to provoke some discussion on the PDAs in general. Some people believe they are a complete waster of space (Lawrence Miles has never hidden his dislike for the range or his dislike for anything and everything in general that he hasn’t written and believes he could write better), that filling up space between televised stories is just an excuse for fans (of which most Doctor Who writers are) to have THEIR say on how the series should have been run. These fans are usually more invested in the EDAs and their linear storytelling with a running story to follow. And then there is the other category, those who appreciate a chance to see some interesting experiments with different eras (the bloodthirsty Combat Rock featuring the twee 2nd Doctor, Jaime and Victoria for example) and enjoy the healthy sense of nostalgia dipping back into eras they have long forgotten. I’m pretty much in both categories
For me, Last of the Gaderene reveals the real danger of the PDAs because it so accurately captures the era it is set in but fails to do anything innovative with it. Everything you imagine from the Pertwee era is here--the third Doctor (obviously), Jo, UNIT (the three handed team of the Brig, Benton and Yates), lots of action, the Master, a nasty alien menace setting up on Earth and an anticlimactic ending. The story is like a puzzle that has been made of various jagged pieces of Pertwee stories, The Daemons, The Green Death and The Claws of Axos especially. But the trouble is it’s almost a complete re-tread of those stories, stories we have already seen with sod all new to make a read worthwhile. I fail to understand the logic of this especially when the hugely experimental Rags and Verdigris proved there is a lot of mileage in the third Doctors era, the chance to explore the feelings of the characters (and set just before The Green Death there was a real chance to delve into the Doctor’s dismissed exile and Jo’s feelings of borderm within UNIT much more effectively than the token characterisation we get here) is squandered on a terribly bland alien invasion story. I can imagine dear Rob Matthews reading this and fighting the urge to rip it to pieces halfway through, given his the Pertwee era is his all time FAVOURITE (note the heavy sarcasm!).
Bizarrely the secondary characters in this book have received much praise and I cannot fathom why--they are nothing but stereotypes trapped within their confines. With a book set in a quiet village what sort of characters would you expect to populate it? An old-fashioned World War hero? A caring elderly woman who looks after him? A mischievous kid who gets into all sorts of trouble? A man who was set to have a huge career but was forced to hang about in the village because of his family? His hopeless brother? Oh spit! As each new character was introduced I was shaking my head with despair, Gatiss makes an attempt to give them a personality and a past but when all is said and done cheap cliches are cheap cliches. Introduce the big alien menace (or rather the new fangled corporation) and they all go through the motions until they are brainwashed and then they are just mindless zombies anyway.
If Mark Gatiss was trying to write a standard Pertwee story then where was the morally ambiguous villains? One thing you could always count on with Doctor Who in the early seventies was a thoughtful bad guy, one with a good motive for the latest invasion. I could not give a damn about the Gaderene and felt little or no connection to them throughout the book even during the hastily written sections set on their home planet from their point of view. They are portrayed as regular nasties, brainwashing/killing/building airports and while there are some scenes of the villagers succumbing to their powers the eventual revelation of their true appearance is as disappointing as their motive (dying home planet--yaaaaaawn!).
So with no interest in the setting, the characters or the villains can the regulars salvage this book? Do me a favour! The UNIT presence is purely arbitrary and Mike Yates and Benton hardly get anything to do aside from jump into action at the appropriate moments. Its not like they were one-dimensional thugs on screen is it? Ahem. The Brigadier is out and about but again is given nothing but surface characterisation, here is a chance to delve into the mind of one of the most endearing characters in the show and instead Gatiss wastes time cutting scenes from the series and pasting them into his book (the Brig searching for the Doctor whilst he is off joyriding on some alien planet, their regular fight when the Brig wants to leap into action--even a truly awful moment where the Brig says “No Mike. I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself”--diabolical!). THIS is the boring, pally UNIT all those Pertwee era haters go on about!
Was the third Doctor really this dull? I always thought of him as a brusque, arrogant sort of man who lit up the screen (and page) with his wicked sense of humour and fancy gadgets (and clothes!). Gatiss seems to have the mannerisms perfect with lots of neck rubbing and cloak tugging but forgets to inject the man with any personality. If any character was going through the motions it is the Doctor and for a Doctor Who book that is unforgivable. He seems to treat the entire story as though he would rather be doing something else, like he knows he will win and doesn’t have to bother that much. He fights a few thugs, throws a few sexist barbs at Jo, patronises the Brigadier and defeats the bad guys but the book lacks the urgency Pertwee used to bring to these things. There was one page, one glorious page where Gatiss has the Doctor thinking about the initial months of his exile which beautifully reveals how frightened he was of being trapped on Earth but this snippet of crystal characterisation aside the third Doctor is not really present in this book--he’s so bleaugh it could have been a fifth Doctor book.
Jo’s okay, just okay though with a few moments where she thinks about leaving the Doctor but any examination of her feelings is pushed aside in favour of the silly invasion plot. I never felt Jo was in any real danger though, even when she was confronted with a slack jawed slimy swamp monster and honestly isn’t that what she’s best for?
This is undoubtedly the work of a good writer because the prose itself is good enough with individual scenes captured with some glorious descriptions (there is one fabulous scene involving a bee being squashed). The only reason I progressed through the early, deathly dull chapters was thanks to Gatiss’ confident writing voice. At times the book adopted a Terrance Dicks/Target (can we distinguish the two these days?) style which Gatiss himself acknowledged in the foreword was his aim so hurrah huzzah for him. Unfortunately I expect something a little more demanding in my early twenties and if rumours that the book series will be adopting a spanking new teen-feel, the bland Harry Potter style adventuring (which this book resembles in tone if not content) there will be one unhappy Joe.
God what a bore I am, criticising this harmless book so nastily when it all it wants to do is give you good old dose of Pertwee adventuring. Unfortunately the Pertwee era for me is The Silurians, Inferno, The Mind of Evil, The Daemons, Day of the Daleks, Carnival of Monsters, The Green Death, The Time Warrior--confident, stylish storylines with intriguing enemies to fight and engaging characters to cheer on.
Last of the Gaderene isn’t any of these things, it’s a sugar sweet nostalgia boost for those sick of the more demanding experiments being tried out. Its easily the weakest third Doctor book.
This is everything Rags was set out to slaughter.
There is a breakfast cereal in the UK called "Ready Brek". Aeons ago, when winter nights seemed longer and there was never enough money to do anything else than to sit, with curtains closed, watching the TV, particularly English advertisements ran for the product. It would be wet and windy outside and a caring, anachronistic Mother would place a bowl of steaming Ready Brek in front of a recalcitrant child. The child would eat, and suddenly a pencil drawn glow would suffuse around him and he would be ready to go on. In a way, Last of the Gaderene is the PDA equivalent of Ready Brek. Even though they still run Ads for Ready Brek they never seem to capture the same magic as those minute slots sandwiched between Coronation Street and Benny Hill. The glow from Ready Brek and the glow from Last of the Gaderene warm for being the epitome of Nostalgia. If Gatiss tried to graft Nostalgia on to the Seventh Doctor and Ace in Nightshade, in Gaderene he knowingly places himself in safer territory by taking the end of the Pertwee Golden Years and painstakingly recreating them, even adding a missing sense of closure. Familiar elements scribbled out in a familiar way. If time had been kinder Gatiss would have been a regular writer for Terrance Dicks.
To take the Ready Brek analogy further, as a child I had endless winter bowls of this sugary gruel. However much you poured the hot milk into the stodge, there were always little pockets where the dry mix had not taken - and these cat's tongue moments of taste were more appreciated, seemed to be the real reason for eating the winter warmer. The warm, hot tummy glow was fine, but you wouldn't eat bowl after bowl if it were all you would get. In Gadarene, however much Gatiss mercilessly borrows elements from Nightshade in an isolated-village-community-under- threat- from unknown alien-entity way, the first half - with its saturation of League of Gentlemen village stereotypes (minus satire) - is the dry pocket of Ready Brek. The second half is the predictable warm glow.
Once in a while there is value in Nostalgia. It adjusts the average fan worldview to recall what it was they religiously tuned in for every Saturday teatime. The canvass remains small. Books like Gadarene, though, are one-off's - in both a positive and negative sense. Positive in that it can actually hold claim to realistically and sensibly slotting between Planet of the Daleks and The Green Death - of being part of the canon. Negative in that, if all PDAs were simply new stories treading familiar ground the range would tire. Like visiting old friends where it is nice once in a while but you would not want to live with them as you would soon run out of things to say.
Gadarene is a Doctor Who "book" in as much as Target novelisations were Doctor Who books. It is not really a novel, but I doubt that Gatiss intended it to be anything other than some form of quasi-celebration of a now archaic written form. It feels, much like Dicks' efforts, as if it was rattled off in a month with boundless enthusiasm and lots of love. And it works because of that - and it seems popular with the fanbase for it.
However, if you drill down to what is described in plot and character there is nothing substantial. The plot aspect, because it borrows from the tenets of the past, is not necessarily a criticism. If you are recreating a certain story style then alien invasion, strange goings on at an airbase and villagers possessed by embryos is par for the course. Add a dash of the Brig, The Doctor and Jo and you have your word count. Characterization, however, is a little more troublesome. The villagers do have their own small-minded foibles and idiosyncrasies but we touch their lives only in sketch form. Just when you feel that you are about to go beyond the surface, Gatiss introduces another villager, whether that be the kindly Mrs. Toovey, the troublesome teenager Noah or the local bully. On the baddie front (and yes they are "baddies" in the strictest sense) Bliss is no more than a dark eyed mouthpiece for the elders and her Legions, even those with ranks, are there to be pummeled in force or pummel in reply. Not one, not even Whistler and his final daring-do and reconciliation of the past, ever come across as real.
Gatiss also falls into the trap of having the Doctor away in his TARDIS on an alien voyage - albeit for a brief time. The Third Doctor only ever looked comfortable in a topical context. He very rarely succeeded in being convincing on an alien world, as much as you can say the Fourth Doctor only truly looked at home if he was somewhere other than Earth. So for the Doctor to have a banal, and almost irrelevant foray on Xanthos, is a mistake - however deliberate in celebration.
Yet, for all this, when Episode Six was wrapped up at the admittedly exciting end I did glow. Gaderene is a fly pass of nostalgia and, in context, it will not be equaled for some time. Then again, maybe one should not try.
In brief: Superb, in the very best Gareth Roberts tradition.
I must confess, I've never been particularly taken with Mark Gatiss's novels before. Nightshade was quite good, but as far as my taste was concerned, he's been in a slump ever since. Fortunately, with Last of the Gadarene he rises magnificently from the ashes of his previous work and proceeds to expertly transform himself into Terrance Dicks. (It's a sad day in fandom when I have to add that that's a compliment, by the way)
Last of the Gadarene is a superb book. Its mission statement is laid out clearly and precisely in the foreword and it goes on to fulfill that mission with consummate ease and professionalism. There's not a single word that isn't dripping with Saturday teatime goodness and wholesome fun. This book breezes by like a cool summer breeze.
The characters are wonderful, with the UNIT chaps spot on, Jo fulfilling the function she was always meant to fulfill and the returning villain delightfully appropriate and well-written. Special mention must go to the Doctor, however, who is non-stop enjoyable right from the beginning.
And what a beginning! It's tempting to wonder if the adventures on Metebelis III - sorry, Xanthos - is inserted just so the early part has something lively happening... except that it's so entertaining that it's one of the highlights of a wonderful novel. "The power was within you all the time." Bwahahaha! This is Jon Pertwee as we always knew and loved him, gleefully rubbing the back of his neck at every opportunity. This is easily the best Pertwee novel ever written, almost by default.
The other characters are quite good too, especially Wing Commander Whistler. The rest serve their functions well enough, but the team of Whistler and Noah is an oddly appropriate one.
Everything in this book slots into place perfectly. It reads like a Target novelisation in all the best ways. Even the chapter titles are a delight (although 'Fete worse than death' nearly caused me to go into analeptic shock).
In short, Last of the Gadarene is a quintessential Past Doctor Adventure, doing exactly the sort of TV-pastiche thing these books often try to do, yet rarely succeed at as well as this does. It's a fun book, comforting in its familiarity and worthy of a look. Recommended.