With a title like The King of Terror one might have thought that here was an opportunity for PDA's to dip into the predictions surrounding Nostradamus. Anticipation of a visionary end to the world is quickly dissipated. The King of Terror barely nods to its source (and very unreliably at that). In many ways Topping's novel is Hollywood fodder - which makes it more appropriate that an alien spaceship is zapping the famous sign on the cover. If The King of Terror were a screenplay than you can visualise all the high jinks that occur. The locations, the cast and crew all dramatising alien life forms ending our world. You can also imagine the producer signing off the mid-range budget - 'So it's kinda 'The Arrival' mixed with 'Independence Day'. OK. $40 million from the Studio'. In many ways The King of Terror misses its beat by a good few months. The audience has had its paranoia hyped by the prospect of an Extinction Level Event and now that they realise that all the predictions were the ramblings of a mad man, they haven woken up and smelt the coffee. So it is that The King of Terror instantly dilutes its dramatic impact by being so close to a non-event.
What is in The King of Terror's favour is that it is adult in tone. The world is suitably nasty populated with sex, violence and terrorism - still good for the budget, then. However, as the film continues the familiarisation of cinematic event makes it difficult to push out much enthusiasm for the project. Turlough is wonderfully sexually molested, tortured and vindicated, but does this add much to the overall plot? There is a couple of well-written action sequences in Death Valley, but do they actually expand anything? Paynter and Tegan fall into a love hate reliance that adds the (sexist) romantic interest, but what is it all for? One suspects that in fact they are nothing more than distractions - set pieces added or expanded for precious little reason. For example, Turlough is identified as alien (or at least suspected alien) pretty early on, but for some reason no-one bothers to extract his DNA - preferring torture and test. On screen it is all very entertaining, but what is it for?
The main thrust of the story involves two aliens choosing a fighting ground - intrigue and subterfuge. So it is that one spends 273 pages bouncing from one ploy, counterpoint and play. The 'good guys' know exactly who the 'bad guys' are but wait until they have all information in before going in to do what they should have done in the first place. Attack the alien headquarters and get it over with. The Doctor -who has very little to do in this other than to work out that two alien forces are on their way to sort out their personal squabble over Hollywood air space - spends a painfully long time working it all out. The CIA is involved. Or not. They know stuff. But until they understand the full extent they do not share this information. Then they do. They very small pieces fall into place. Aren't secret organisations so predictable? Surely The Doctor would have got there sooner unaided.
Then we have The Sons of Nostradamus - who are amusing in their own cack-handed way. Newton, with his cuffing and clouting, is a suitably ineffective leader. And, to be fair to Topping, it is with character that The King of Terror guarantees that it will probably get the audience in the cinema and recoup its costs. Most are well drafted and motivated within the limitation of the plot. Barrington and Paynter are, in particular, beautifully done - the immediate and senseless waste of Barrington being drawn out of their existing relationship. Perhaps the only spot where Topping hits two-dimensional is with the alien protagonists who are standard draw outs of type. Still, the characters pull the reader through the inevitable. Even here, however, this drags down the pace - which is somewhat exposed and prosaic.
When the characters finally getting around to positioning themselves for the denouement the book wraps up nicely. It is a bit difficult to accept the means of keeping the battle away from the planet surface and it is doubtful that locals would react in such a fatalist way to the fireworks above them, but this is Hollywood, after all, and everyone reacts 'big'.
So, The King of Terror - release date terrible - shoots the scheduler. Nice characters. Too many set pieces. Hackneyed plot. Still, they'll probably be able to get some B-class movie star to do the sequel so that's OK.
The King of Terror by Keith Topping is definitely in homage to fans ... fans of UNIT, of the Fifth Doctor, and of rock n roll. An opportunity for a pop culture reference is never missed, whether it is the mention of Def Leppard, The Simpsons, or the X-Files. The fine line between the admiration of youth of the rock star idol (as represented in David Milligan) and the obsessive fandom of The Sons of Nostradamus, is made obvious. The Doctor calls Tegan the soul of the TARDIS and tells her to have a brave heart; the Brigadier must call the loved ones and tell of the soldier's death, and is asked by the Doctor if he ever wishes that he hadn't started something. After a shouting match with a UNIT soldier named Paynter, Tegan finds herself kissing him. All this is against the backdrop of Hollywood, and "the midwestern boy on his own," of sorts, the naive Vislor Turlough.
The UNIT soldiers are definitely well characterised. I particularly liked the good-natured jibe at Terrance Dicks with Paynter noting, "Not being able to pronounce your 'Rs' is a bit of a drawback for a commanding officer." His colleague Barrington responds with "It's not every day you get an order to 'Westwain the Waston wawwior wobot'!" UNIT is obviously near and dear to the author's heart, The admiration of the Fifth Doctor is more than evident with the inclusion of Dicks' "mission statement" and with the Doctor's infinite patience with his companions. It would not surprise me if Mr Topping was recalling his experiences from the Convergence convention in Minnesota, and meeting Mr Neil Gaiman, while writing Milligan's chance meeting with his rock star idol, Johnny Chester. "Milligan shrugged. 'They say never meet your heroes...'" And later, "There was a quiet despondency in Milligan's voice. The sound of shattered teenage dreams. 'I didn't want him to be "down to earth,"' he noted sadly. 'I wanted him to be like a god.'" Turlough, however, is imprisoned and tortured throughout the book. It is "a passion that kills" him - nearly. He instead ends up killing his captor, in a somewhat gruesome display of revenge, he chokes her and hits her until there is blood splashed all over him, telling her, "Die, you bitch, die." It was a powerful scene and very well written, and provides for an interesting way in which he is found by his companions - by getting arrested.
The Sons of Nostradamus are ... how shall I term them ... Fanboys with Firearms. Which, trust me, even makes me shudder to think about. "With pseudonyms like 'Trilogy,' 'Canon,' and 'Ret-Con,' they threatened no one of any consequence. That was until Newton got amongst them and organised them. And gave them a cause (however vague). Suddenly, they were a bunch of laughable clowns no longer. Now, they were the Sons of Nostradamus. And they were dangerous." There's an antithesis between these obviously disturbed "fans" and the fan that is writing, and (hopefully) the fan that is reading. It seemed a gentle warning to those "fans" who will not truly think for themselves, especially those online... who nay-say everything for no reason and generally try to cause unruly stirs without provocation or structured argument. In the extreme, of course, they end up killing seventy people with one bomb - a use of obvious hyperbole.
As a story it isn't half bad; the ending I found a bit of a non-event but what the reader goes through to get to that ending should make up for it. The characterisation is well done and seeing both Tegan and Turlough grow up a little through the events that they are taken through is worth the effort. When the continuity and pop culture references aren't bombarding the reader, The King of Terror is by a fan for the fans, and is entertaining, (both as a UNIT and as a Fifth Doctor romp) through the Hollywood Nights and the Hollywood hills ...