As sometimes happens with PDAs, ‘Imperial Moon’ is a case of good story, wrong era. Why the heck it was written for the Fifth Doctor/Turlough partnership (with a cameo from Kamelion) I cannot tell. The ‘Jules Verne’ tone of the tale, the moralizing on matters temporal, the frequent use of the ‘split up the cast and subject them to challenges and endless trekking around’ device all point to a First Season Hartnell adventure. Hell, there’s even a brain in a jar a la ‘Keys of Marinus’. In this context, ‘Imperial Moon’ would have been (perhaps) a way above-average tale. Instead, it’s simply OK.
If ‘Imperial Moon’ succeeds at anything (and there’s a considerable body of review comment that suggests it doesn’t), it’s in the book’s vivid recreation of the Jules Verne era of SF. Not the HG Wells one, I hasten to add. Lance Parkin’s ‘Dying Days’ owes much to Herbert from ‘Timelash,’ but ‘Imperial Moon’ is steeped in the improbable hardware, imperial subtexts, fantastic adventures and weird ‘pataphysics’ (to quote the slightly later French writer Alfred Jarry) that characterise Verne’s work.
The plot of ‘Imperial Moon’ concerns the startlingly bold conceit that the British Empire developed rocketry well enough to launch a moon shot in 1878. The three British rockets arrive on the moon to find a crater which has an artificial atmosphere, and is populated with the usual vicious flora and fauna. The Doctor and Turlough arrive after encountering a diary outlining the details of this temporal paradox, only to find themselves mentioned in it. (Kind of like the Siberian journal of ‘Time Zero,’ proving that in the multiverse, there’s nothing at all new under the suns).
The big problem I bumped into character-wise is the depiction of the Fifth Doctor. OK, there’s a significant (and fairly accurate) school of thought out there that Davison is harder to capture in print than even Troughton, and a considerable body of evidence to back up this theory. ‘Warmonger’ and ‘Divided Loyalties’ for example. However, it’s surely not impossible (viz Cornell’s ‘Goth Opera’ or even Trad Trevor’s ‘Fear of the Dark’). Instead, we get a ‘…said the Doctor’ kind of portrayal. It could be any Doctor, really, and the chance to capture something distinctive about the Fifth Doctor/Turlough relationship is a bit lost. And while it’s brave to mention Kamelion in passing I wish Bulis had deployed this intriguing character a bit more liberally in the text.
I can’t get it out of my head that this is a PDA plotline better suited to early-to-mid Hartnell, or even early Troughton (viz ‘The Underwater Menace’). I don’t know why, but ‘Imperial Moon’s’ tone is all wrong for a Davison PDA.
As a sort of homage to Jules Verne, ‘Imperial Moon’ is quite laudable. Otherwise, it’s notable as an object lesson in what happens when PDA writers pick the wrong context for their works. This could have been a ‘Ten Little Aliens’ for the early-to-mid-Hartnell era—a bold deepening and darkening of an under-explored part of the series’ history. Instead, it’s a slightly above-average, if a little bland, read.
At the opening of Imperial Moon by Christopher Bulis, Turlough is asking for Kamelion to copy himself, and realises that he is still wearing his old school uniform, a foreshadowing of the evolution of his character throughout the book. A diary the captain of a Victorian expedition to the moon is left in the time safe in the future for the Doctor to find in the present, and act upon it. The Doctor calls it 'a permitted temporal paradox,' and the two begin to read words the captain and about the characters they later will meet. Turlough, with his usual instinct of self-preservation, takes the diary with him on the journey, even with a note written in his own hand to himself from the future, saying that he does not want to know what will happen to him. Turlough is somewhat blinded by his own infatuation with an alien woman on the moon. These actions/emotions I found to be very much within the character of Turlough as I know it, and it was good to see him grow up a little by the end. The Doctor's immense responsibility in the book is to decide whether or not to let the timeline continue, to 'decide the fate of untold millions as yet unborn,' which not only makes Turlough think but the reader will as well.
I'm sure fans will be so used to the idea of how companions overcome the language barrier, that when Turlough encounters an alien woman and she must telepathically discover the language he is using, the reader will smell a rat, much like I did. It occurred to me that these Phiadorian women were not at all what they seemed if that was 'necessary,' and I found out later that I was right. This was disappointing to me that halfway through the book I realised a major plot point and it seemed to me that it would be obvious to any fan reading. Still, the incident is used as a clue toward the characters figuring out what was happening, so I can forgive...
The 'Planet of Women' is one of my most passionately felt science fiction cliché hatreds and I wanted to just kick Bulis when I realised that was what this story utilised. But I gladly changed my mind and found the premise to be executed very well in Bulis' book. The interplay between the chivalrous, product-of-their time Victorian men and the Phiadorian women spells their own downfall, much like Turlough's. Not surprisingly, it is the Doctor who points out that there are no men or children as they all walk through the Phiadorian camps. This seemed rather typical, in that the human men are so blinded by the beauty of the bronze-skinned women that they don't even realise that there are no men or children - only the characteristically asexual Doctor notices this. Turlough rescues a Phiadorian, Lytalia, and spends most of the time he knows her trying to impress her, then realises his mistake later on. A woman named Emily Boyes-Dennison is the photographer of the expedition, and her father is along for the journey as well. Turlough even points out how unrealistic that sounded - 'Come on, Doctor, who's writing this... H G Wells or Jules Verne? It's fiction . . . a space drive built by an eccentric scientist - with a beautiful daughter as an assistant.' The Doctor responds with "a wistful smile" and eventually says that even granddaughters have been known to help their scientist grandfathers - the Doctor is not at all chauvinist. And even the captain of the expedition grows somewhat feministic, unusually for his era. Emily refuses his proposal of marriage: 'But would you allow all women, some perhaps without the qualities you are kind enough to grant me, to have a vote, as it is given rather carelessly to so many men? Quality must be presumed from the start, Richard, or there can be nothing true and lasting. That is fundamental to any relationship between men and women, or between man and a woman.' Later, in his diary, the captain says that he told her he still did not agree with her ideas of equality but 'remained willing to be convinced otherwise by reason and example.' Even the Captain realises "words of love, soft and tender won't win his girl's heart" because she's much too intelligent for that.
Turlough learns a little bit of temporal responsibility, as the Doctor knows that he took the diary with him to find out his own future, sternly reprimanding him for it. He learns that he shouldn't try to find out his own future and shouldn't try to get where he wants to go with "worn out phrases and longing gazes..."
Christopher Bulis manages to tell a lightly feministic story with a 'Planet of Women' story line with only minor disappointment to the reader.
In brief: I think there must be something wrong with me... I liked Imperial Moon.
I must confess, I don't know what all the fuss is about. Imperial Moon is languishing somewhere near the bottom of the online rankings, it's received comical trashings on radw and been dismissed as nonsense even by those who haven't read it. Consequently, I put this off for as long as I could, which might explain my favourable reaction.
There's absolutely nothing here that we haven't seen from Chris Bulis before. It's true that City at World's End was a step above Bulis's usual output and that Vanderdeken's Children, in being business as usual for Bulis, managed to come across quite well in the midst of the generally poor EDAs preceding it. Imperial Moon is regular Bulis fare and it's about as inoffensive as it ever was. Actually, if you compare it to plodders like Eye of the Giant or rubbish like The Ultimate Treasure, it comes out rather favourably.
The plot here is quite clever, actually. There's some clever use of DW fundamentals and a grand total of three continuity references throughout the book (Turlough wondering why he still wore his Brendan school uniform on page 5, a reference to Leela and Tegan on page 135 and the translation properties of the TARDIS on page 254 et al). The use of the translation circuits to provide the key to solving the mystery is inspired, IMO. The Phiadorans are great and the twist really took me by surprise. There's a surprising amount of subtlety going on, which pleased me no end. Bulis might not rise to the heights that other authors manage, but nor does he sink to the lows that others so often do.
Okay, it's true that the diary from the future is a pretty lame plot device... except that it's barely used. Instead it just adds flavour to the seagoing imperial nature of the tale, with Turlough getting to read the exciting adventures at sea -- erm, in space -- while they happen instead of framing the novel as a retrospective. It's goofy, but I liked it. The cod Victorian prose [term copyright Finn Clark] is a) not nearly as terrible as it could have been and b) extremely short. The Vrall aren't terribly interesting as monsters, but we don't actually see them in action much. Their nature is nicely justified, though.
Bulis also has more of a handle on the fifth Doctor than he did in The Ultimate Treasure (that is, he actually has some idea at all). What's more, this book slots in perfectly as a season 21 adventure. TUT was light and fluffy fun in the midst of the descent of the fifth Doctor into more and more unworkable and violent solutions. Here we have a novel whose ending fits in so perfectly it hurts. The Doctor has several solutions in mind, any of which might work, but by the end he's simply out of options, just like he so often was throughout the season.
Turlough also comes across well for the first time that I can recall. The author hasn't taken the easy way out and made him a quivering coward. He's got plenty to do and his POV rings quite true. The cowardly moments are there, but restrained, which is how it should be. I also really like the way Kamelion was used. I don't see any of the deus ex machina that other reviewers have complained about; his few appearances make a lot of sense to me.
It's true that the other characters don't have too much to offer, but they never do in Bulis novels and here they're meant to be stereotypes all along, so that doesn't bother me in the slightest. The one character that does stand out is the Warden, who I really liked. A shame he wasn't in it a bit more, but he really struck a chord with me. There's even an attempt at a socially aware theme by the end that somehow manages not to self-destruct. I'm quite surprised, because that's just the sort of thing that should have gone horribly wrong in Bulis's hands, but miraculously doesn't.
I did spot a weird inconsistency, though. On page 5 we're told that "Turlough only had a blank space where his past should be." I was a bit surprised at this, as I don't recall anyone ever suggesting that Turlough didn't know where he was from (I thought he just wasn't telling and he seems to figure it out well enough by Planet of Fire). However, on page 133 Turlough muses "Maybe he should tell her where and when he was really from, so she would understand he was different from the rest." It's possible that Bulis was thinking "from 1983" rather than "from Trion", but this is still odd. What's more, losing the original line would have made no difference at all to the book.
I also really like the way things weren't reset or retconned away (as all that business with the time cabinet and the diary initially suggested). In fact, I think one of the reasons I enjoyed Imperial Moon so much is for its strong ending. When so many Who books crash and burn on cue once the 4/5 mark is reached, it's refreshing to see one which actually manages to improve.
In summary, Imperial Moon is harmless fun. It's got a couple of great ideas (Victorian rockets!) and tightly plotted reasons for everything happening (eg the reason Professor Boyes-Denison comes up with the impeller device in the first place). Its bad points aren't offensive and its lack of continuity is very refreshing. It's a Bulis-by-numbers book, to be sure, but it's a good example of such a book.