Robert Perry’s name may be missing from the cover, but inside it’s business as usual for Mike Tuckers 7th Doctor and Ace tale. The story takes place a long time after both Storm Harvest and The Genocide Machine, but is still a recognisable continuation of Tucker and Perry’s ‘what if’ season, with a slew of back-referencing to previous adventures. For the fourth book in a row Tucker presents his story as an ersatz unmade TV serial rather than an original novel, (here a more traditional 3-parter, complete with trailer, pre-title sequence and commercial breaks - maybe Who moved to ITV for Season 27?), but at least the form is more justified here with a story set in television-land itself. While the obvious satirising of the BBC is fun (there’s a rating obsessed board of directors, a computer called Auntie, and such programmes as ‘Walking with Drashigs’ and ‘Ogron Hospital’) there’s a faint whiff of deja vu about events. Once again Tucker has managed to (unintentionally) re-use an old Virgin story, as this bears an uncanny resemblance to the basic set-up of Steve Lyons 6th Doctor MA Time of Your Life (not to mention Mojoworld for old X-men readers).
The idea of a TV company engineering an adventure to make a reality show on the Doctor and boost ratings is a good one, but unfortunately after the plot twists the underlying ‘real story’ is yet another ‘bad guy wants the secrets of the TARDIS’ tale. There’s some added complications with the addition of another set of aliens – the Fleshmiths – who are basically how the Cybermen would have turned out had Solon been their creator – and the Master – still the Cheetah virus infected Ainley version – but this material seems rather hurried and forced. Hints of a Tucker/Perry formula can be spotted – we have the plot hinging on a transformed individual who suffers an identity crisis and changes sides (as in Storm Harvest) and the bad guys end up defeating themselves up by trying to double-cross each other (as in Illegal Alien). It’s basic but reasonably fun stuff, but unfortunately the resolution is terribly ham-fisted, as it stoops to the lowest forms of cheap deception with a risible ‘Doctor explains everything’ finale.
Prime Time is a very fast paced book, and contains plenty of incident and plot, but it never rises to the heights of Illegal Alien. The Doctor himself probably puts it best in his summing up speech: ‘…your sordid little adventure has had spectacular sets, stunning effects, and the performances have been first class, but it lacked soul’.
'Doctor. How nice to see you, in the flesh as it were. Your television exploits have been quite amusing.'
Prime Time, an allegory that scrutinizes Doctor Who as a television show, is the latest BBC book Mike Tucker, this time without Robert Perry. When the Seventh Doctor and Ace arrive on the planet Blinni-Gaar, they find a population of zombified television junkies controlled by the powerful Channel 400 whose terrifying agenda has very little to do with entertainment. They are soon followed by cameras and become a living 'Truman Show'. How can even the Seventh Doctor plan an escape when his every move is monitored by thousands? Mike Tucker's talent as a visual stylist, which can be evidenced in his visual effects work for Doctor Who, Red Dwarf and other popular shows, makes him the perfect person to write this intriguing tale of media corruption. His keen eye for vivid detail and experience in television contributes to this allegorical tale of mystery.
Mike Tucker struggles fairly successfully to find a comic voice. Sometimes it works and sometimes it's overtly evident the author is deliberately attempting to mix the wit of a Roberts or Cornell with the referencing of a Russell, making references to Channel 400 shows like Walking With Drashigs and Ogron Hospital. When the Director General Lukos begins broadcasting the Time Lord's every move, he seeks to entitle the program 'Doctor When'. The culture of Binna-Gaar is drowning in silly Doctor Who puns, with eateries like a Draconian takeaway and an Argolin resteraunt. There are many pop culture references, like Max Headroom's Zik Zaks, if not necessarily by name, an the Doctor plays the spoons and engages in Alpha Centarian juggling and always felt at home in corridors. Prime Time often reads as a resume with Tucker continually alluding to his other works, referencing his audio adventure with the Daleks, The Genocide Machine, and his novel with Robert Perry, Storm Harvest. Corallee is referred to endlessly and even the Doctor and Master's last meeting in the Short Trips story Stop That Pigeon is mentioned. One wonders if this masterful sales promotion within the text proves that Mike Tucker is slowly turning into another Gary Russell.
There are many swipes at the BBC and television production. Censorship jokes with footnotes, a continuity announcer, writers who never get it perfect, playing out what the audience has grown to expect. Lukos' people hate the 'U' word. Unions! Prime Time tries to send a similar message to Vengeance on Varos, but does so in a less somber way. The book finds its pulse within the McCoy era of the BBC show, the last days of the television series, a time when corporate thinking ended an era of Epic scale entertainment. Prime Time looks back to stories like Paradise Towers, Dragonfire and The Happiness Patrol for it's tone and style. The book often felt more suited for Season 23 and feels more like a Mel adventure than an Ace one. Indeed, the book actually mentions that Mel should be accompanying this incarnation of the Doctor.
The novel is littered with legions of villains. There's the Master, the Doctor's traditional foe, Vogol Lukos, the head of Channel 400, Rennie Trasker, part journalist and part assassin, Barrock, a Zzinbriizi hunter, Roderick Saarl, a puppet-like Television host (they're always evil, right?) and others. Most of the action is driven by the puppet-master Lukos, who does for John Nation Turner what the character of Doctor Evil in Austin Powers did for Lorne Michaels, making him a larger than life villain reveling in his obsessions. Lukos expects to capitalize upon the Doctor's adventures and plans to steal the Tardis to transport his transmissions to all corners of space and time. He provides a nice counter balance for the Doctor, Lukos so obviously attempting to govern events as the Doctor so subtly beats him at his own game. Lukos plots so maniacally that he actually overshadows the menace of the Master, who in this book is a broken man, attached to a Fleshsmith machine by thousands of pins. He was dying, his Feline virus destroying his Trakenite body making him barely a Time Lord. He came to the Fleshsmiths for renewal and, in typical Anthony Ainley fashion, bumbled the deal, falling victim to his own plans. The Master was trapped by the Fleshsmiths while a Zzinbriizi jackal impersonated him. He and the Doctor discuss their options telepathically to avoid the cameras.
The best aspect of this novel was the introduction of the wonderfully creepy enemy, the Fleshsmiths. They are hideous in appearance, their faces scarred with pitted, raw tissue, surgical pins holding their scalps, tubes portruding from flesh, most having a single camera compound eye. Alright, so they look exactly like the Borg from Star Trek.
The Fleshsmiths were once a pure and beautiful race of fine artists. Natural disaster laid waste to their world, turning soil to ash and leaving the people sterile. To survive, they began incorporating the body parts of the dead to prolong the lives of the living.. Mirroring the Flesh-Technology fromParallel 59, the Fleshsmiths manipulate living organic tissue as a building material. They have encoded a destructive enzyme into the Channel 400 broadcasts that will break down flesh into a transmittable form. They await the ratings boom where nearly everyone alive is watching the Doctor. At this time, they plan to trigger the enzyme thus breaking down each viewer to his or her constituent atoms and beaming them to the Fleshsmiths to be used as parts. Perpetual life comes from spare parts of living flesh.
The fates of characters are also quite intriguingly handled. Greg Ashby, a freelance reporter who befriends Ace, becomes the living sculpture of his own inner pain, spurned as he was by love. His end is melodramatic and provides a call to action. The Doctor, of course, has plotted his way through the entire affair and it comes to no surprise that the end is quickly resolved, in an expected albeit an interesting way. The one thing the Doctor did not plan on was the fate of his companion. Whether or not this will disrupt Virgin New Adventures continuity remains to be seen. Hmmm? Roberts, Cornell, Russell and perhaps even a bit of the bold thinking and revamping of a Lawrence Miles. Mike Tucker is trying on many hats in this one.
Prime Time is a good, fun read. Its surprise regarding Ace may have later repercussions. Its best asset is that it introduces the Fleshsmiths, monsters I hope to see more of in the future. The other main villains oft seem 'zany' and 'silly' but appropriately so as the book reads less like a BBC Book and more like one of the Targets. Tucker generates vivid visuals and carries the reader on a rollercoaster ride. The Virgin books took Doctor Who into the world of the adult and the abstract. Mike Tucker's Seventh Doctor is centered in a more innocent time, an era of a children's show. He mixes childish jokes with pop referencing and generates a book with a strong message candy coated in a fun and entertaining romp. If Interference was Schindler's List then Prime Time is Indiana Jones, and there certainly is a welcome place for that.
"Zzinbriizi, Zzinbriizi, Zzinbriizi Zin.. I'm on my way"
Absurdly, when first introduced to the wolverine pack that slash and tear their way through incidental characters in Prime Time one has to unsuccessfully fight back the urge for whimsy. Think about. Zzinbriizi. Zambezi. Add a dash of music and you certainly are on your way. Whether this is on your way to grab a razor to slit your wrists or to grab a pen to fill in a perfect ten in the DWM PDA awards for 2000 depends on where you stand in the satisfaction stakes. Prime Time is to Doctor Who what Barbara Cartland is to romance. If you are looking for character complexity, imagination and emotion then do not look here. If on the other hand, you believe in something generic before bedtime then, doubtless, this will have your vote. For Prime Time, despite its pretensions, is another paint by numbers Doctor Who run-around that surprises only in its capacity to be increasingly absurd - and, yes, stupid - with the turn of each page.
Prime Time bounces along where other novels give pause for consideration. The concept of a society introduced to the hypnotic quality of television thereby subsuming all requirement to do anything else is not groundbreaking. Nor, in its blatant emulation of Vengeance on Varos, is it intended to be. It may be amusing to the author to throw in knock-on-the-head references to the BBC but as intended satire it falls alarmingly flat. Whereas Varos actively examines the implications of media control, Prime Time dispenses with any rationale by making the concept nothing more than a backdrop (a venue, if you like) for Doctor When (sic) to have another exciting adventure which, unlike much of the real television series, pulls in the ratings. It is ironic that, in many ways, for the intended audience this type of nonsense will indeed get good audience reactions. It is also entirely unintentional.
It does not take long to stumble across a whole host of megalomaniacs each with their own agenda. Lukos' future programming plans are played off against the Fleshsmith constructed ethical battle against the unstoppable force of nature. We also treated to the repeat fee megalomaniac whose appearance and predictable double cross et al has probably induced untold amount of pleasure in some quiet backwater of traditional fandom. The problem with megalomania, of course, is that the writer is rarely allowed to enforce any credible rationale around cause and effect. It is either survival or insanity. It is rarely anything else - least so here.
Prime Time is seemingly obsessed with the television relationship of the Seventh Doctor and Ace. The tediously developed relationship between the two goes no further than Ace's ability to breakdown at one whiff of a mention of her mother, or the Doctor's reaction to point and counterpoint. The writer also distances himself from the Virgin NA's by over stressing the lack of control the Doctor has over events. By the same degree, Tucker (and Perry's) enforced "Season 27" continuity crops up whenever there is a chance to mention the events in Coralee. Is this a subliminal way of convincing the reader that, indeed, each of the Season 27 stories were actually on TV and that Lukos was played by Bruce Forsyth?
Ah, tradition. If one needs to see what crimes are committed in your name there is no need to look further. If you are going to back reference old foes then please diversify. It seems that the whole history of Who can be narrowed down to a few cod references to Daleks and Cybermen. It is very difficult to maintain consciousness each time one of the two pops up to compare and contrast the latest threat that befalls our intrepid travellers.
Prime Time might have been more forgivable if some of the incidental characters had a chance of leaping off the page. It is not to be. The sub plot of Ashby and Trasker completely misses an impact, for example. Ashby starts off well, but then gets whittled down to a love-lorn Frankenstein. Trasker,on the other hand, is a bitch who eventually ends up having a heart. No. No. No. Barrock, in Tucker's description of him, summons up the picture of a sentient Fifi. Who cares that these hunting animals are given an evolutionary leap consistent with inserting a brain? Only fleetingly is it mentioned that they are hunted for sport on their homeworld and that this might be some form of grafted natural justice. Gatti is the all but obligatory quasi-Ace who can rock climb which helps in the gaining access to impossibly tall TV stations so that's OK. Oh, and she doesn't like television because she is a rebel. And Ace is a rebel. So they get on. Cool
However, just when it was possible to be charitable and pass Prime Time as a light fluffy diversion there is the end of the book. It is here that Prime Time proves itself capable of absolute derision. If your image of the Doctor is one of "super hero" then the speed he manages to flit around and put things to right (after being remarkably bewildered throughout) might even stretch your credibility beyond optimistic imagination. As if to prove that Tucker had really given up the ghost by the end, he has the Doctor explain it all in a couple of pages to his friends once it is all over. ' Then I did this really whizzy thing, by using this really whizzy thing I just happened to conjure up in the midst of chaos'. Yadda. Yadda.
It is nice to see a few divertingly mild expletives cautiously working their way into the text. You want bloody killing then won't you get a kick out of this. However, if Room 101 meant that one had to read Prime Time for all eternity then it over extends the nightmare as reading Prime Time once is much more than enough.