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Rags

Doctor Who: The BBC Past Doctor Adventures #40
Joe Ford

Wow.

A bloody, visceral, slaughterhouse of a novel and one that manages to be one of the best of the year by a long, long shot. It achieves everything I want from a book, it has a rock solid plot, some vivid characters, it made me think hard about the issues it was dealing with and most importantly of all it made my stomach turn time and time again and what more can you ask from a horror novel? Thanks to the beautiful, perfectly paced and chosen prose the violence and horror in this book transcends the usual ‘shrug it off’ affect from your average Doctor Who novel and well and truly frightened me. Scenes of endless murders sickened me to the gut and left me desperately searching for the next page such was the reaction it was having.

It is affecting in a way we fans are not used and this could be a reason why a huge number of you rejected it.

Lets face it Doctor Who was never about dealing with adult issues and yet here in a book that I would hold up as an example of the book series at its best is dismemberment, throwing up maggots, lesbian snogging, violence induced boners, throat slitting, rapes--its one giant mixing bowl full of the scummiest of ideas and it really works. Now I know I might seem like a hypocrite when I condem a book like Warlock because of its handling of similar themes (drug abuse, rape, bestiality--) but the reason Rags gets away with it is because it is all down to a supernatural force. All the nasty down to earth stuff that happens here is because of the influence of an evil alien, Warlock just dealt with humans being sick without reason and that is inexcusable. Yes, I know these things happen and it’s terrible but I don’t want to be reminded of them thank you very much. Rags enjoys throwing these things in your face but never forgets to remind us they are evil and being affected because of evil. That I can handle.

Besides I think it is about bloody time somebody wrote a third Doctor story that broke the mould. Verdigris was a fun attempt at doing so and funnily enough is another book that comes in for a lot of fan spite but Rags takes matters to such extremes it is the ultimate mould breaker for the era. And unlike Warmonger which was mould breaking in all the wrong ways (it felt totally and utterly wrong to see the Doctor and Peri so out of character) Rags enjoys a perfect evocation of the seventies just not any version we saw on Pertwee Who. There WERE class issues back then, there were punks and hippies and down and outs, there was dreadful violence and pain--it was about time somebody reminded us that the seventies was not all rosy coloured aliens and morals. Frankly I enjoyed this book from page one, I could see how it was giving us an unflinching look at events rather than the cotton wool insulated versions we are used to and it was nice for a writer to remain so unpretentious throughout.

Matt, my bestest friend, says he did not have any problems with the book but it wasn’t Doctor Who. We have this argument every time we speak. Can Doctor Who exist in a universe where mass slaughter can be glorified on such a scale? I honestly think that anybody who says Doctor Who has its limits is rather foolish (sorry Matt), they are censoring what is the only show with a limitless formula, which is one of Doctor Who’s greatest strengths. Should Doctor Who exist in a universe where Arc of Infinity survives? Well yes, unfortunately it can no matter how much I wish it weren’t it can even stoop to these depths. Rags is a horror story, something the show excels at and this is one of the best ever stabs at it in the Doctor Who universe. Whilst the story enjoys a higher than usual death count and disgusting concepts it is still an alien invasion story involving UNIT in which the frilly, dandyish Doctor saves the day. This is Doctor Who, just for a twisted audience for which I am proud to consider myself a member.

Why do we read horror books? To enjoy the deaths of innocent people? To see just how many takes on the word evil can be expanded upon? For the pure atmosphere of it? I don’t know about you but I read horror because I like to be scared, I enjoy how the a writer can make me afraid to be sitting in my own bed next to the man I love. It rarely happens, only a few horror books have really made me sweat beneath the sheets when I turn the lights out and Rags can be counted amongst their number. Horrible things happen in this book, far too much to count, I wanted to give Simon a taster of what it was like so flicked open to any page and read a few lines. The first was when the lead singer pukes maggots over the crowd and then snogs Sin, maggots crawling between her lips afterwards. The second was when the two policemen went home and killed their wives and kids. The third was the flashback to Kane’s childhood where the boys were shoving worms and slugs into his mouth. It makes me wince just to write it (and understandably Simon mentioned he would never, EVER be reading the book) and these are just three of hundreds of icky moments to savour.

At first I thought the book was just going to be death, death, death, Beltempest style with no rhyme or reason but about two thirds through I could so a damn solid plot emerging from all the set pieces. Whilst the book remains predictable in terms of when the violence will erupt, during the “SCUM SCUM SCUM” rock concerts, the nature of the deaths become more frightening and elaborate as the book ploughs towards its conclusion. I loved it when the regular characters (Jo, the Brig) started succumbing to the violence and when the class riot was at its all time most strained I was biting my nails waiting for it all to erupt. But weaving throughout this tale of class-hate and possession is a rather disturbing tale of fate for poor Kane and reporter Charmagne, two who are linked to the evil Ragman and pulled towards the grand finale to take their place but not before learning just how they are the Ragman’s kin.

It works especially well with Kane, possibly the most sympathetic character of the lot despite the fact that he is just horrible, pissing on graves, disturbing theatre performances, spitting on vicars--he is so likable because you can see a good man trying to get out. It is a soulless thought when everybody has given up on you and left you to rot and his discovery of his ancestry to the evil that is tearing up the countryside leaves you despairing for the man who could sink no lower. His ‘death’ at the climax comes a blessed relief.

The writing is astonishing, the locations lift from the page and transform into reality around you. I was sitting in a warm bath but was effortlessly transported to the windy, desolate moors of Dartmoor, cloudy, muggy, violence like an electric current in the air. He easily tops Jim Mortimore’s breathtaking talent for capturing a scene, each moment has significance, each death has resonance, each character comes alive with fears and insecurities-- Blood spills from every page, as human beings are torn apart in the most horrendous fashions you can feel their pain in their last moments of excruciating agony. You think I joke but never before has human misery and suffering taken on such presence, a force of its own. That’s real horror folks, the sort that poisons your stomach and soils your pants--

So of course you would naturally dump the fluffy third Doctor and dippy Jo into this scenario. This is one of the main reasons this books works so well because both characters are taken down such terrible paths we get to see them at their all time weakest and it proves a lot more gripping than seeing them at their best. Never before has the third Doctor seemed so utterly redundant, he is still the arrogant dandy but now people spit in his face, rough him up, ignore his warnings--he is somewhat pathetic and never more so than when he is trapped in the cattle truck. Forced through a landscape of loathsome images the Doctor’s heroic identity is stripped down layer by layer, to the point where he even doubts whether he is who he is, that his adventures where all just the dreams of a wishful dream. We see him huddled inside a police box, clutching his knees silently, a powerful image of the once proud Time Lord. It makes his recovery at the end and his spiteful condemnation of the Ragman all the more impressive. “You are scum,” he says and you just imagine the intensity Pertwee would have brought to it.

But what about Jo? Phew! What a change. From dizzy, clutzy hang on to insecure, bisexual dope head--it is Mick Lewis’ treatment of Jo that I think had fans in such uproar. What people seem to forget is she is under the Ragman’s influence although I would like the believe that these feeling are real, her sickness of the Doctor’s patronising, of the Brigadier’s embarrassing authority kick, of Mike Yates’ mummy’s boy image, all repressed under her respect for their positions and abilities. When you see some of the stuff she gets up to, threatening to blow Mike’s cover, calling the Doctor a bastard, getting off with women--it is shocking stuff and great fun to read. Maybe she should be a little more assertive and wild; she’s a real laugh this way. Barry Letts would have a heart attack.

I only read it in short chunks; such was the power of the prose and the intensity of the book that I wanted to savour each chapter. If only all Doctor Who books could be this well written and shocking, maybe we would still be getting one PDA a month that way.

Is it superior to Combat Rock? Lewis’ other horror extravaganza, yes in all honesty it is, it has a stronger plot and better characters. Rags is a perfect example of what you can achieve if you destroy the boundaries that say Doctor Who can only be--.its like rolling around in mud completely naked, a totally filthy experience. And I loved it.

Edward Funnell

Given the pedestrian and somewhat lazy nature of many recent PDAs rooted firmly in old mythology and familiar styles of adventure it is unsurprising that when a novel like Rags comes along it takes the reader some time to adjust to its charm and skill in storytelling. Punk horror it may firmly be, but so firmly is it at the top end of that particular genre that one can be forgiven for thinking it is Doctor Who at all. Doubtless that will be the plaintive cry from the large swathe of fans that like nothing better than to skinny dip in nostalgia blues. For others it will keep fresh hope alive that Who is a format that can be tinkered and tangled without any fear of jeopardising the core concept.

One either loves or hates Jon Pertwee's tenure on the back of the UNIT family. More than any time in the show's history, the early seventies were a time of family and familiarity. Despite latter attempts to move down more alien paths, the root of Pertwee is in Earth and invasion (either insidious or blatant). For those who argue that Rags pushes Pertwee into unfamiliar post-watershed territory it is worth remembering that in terms of setting and 'family' Rags maintains the elements which many find quintessential. The actual plot is very much the type of thing that could have been 'hip' enough to have the production team requesting an episode outline had it landed in their in-tray. The ragman takes advantage of social unrest and class war to bring destruction to the world whilst politicians and activists dodge around in the background unsuccessfully attempting to use events for their own purposes and inevitably coming a cropper for their pains. The Doctor, Jo and UNIT are dispatched to investigate. Jo gets hooked on the Magical Mayhem Tour. UNIT ends up staying outside the influential barrier to all intents blustering about until they get to release some pent up frustration. The Doctor, well, investigates, slaps his head for being so stupid and allowing events to go too far and makes an effort to stop the rot before events lead to - well, it is not a very intuitive gap to fill.

So Rags is not an imaginative outing - if anything it is more true to type that one would at first suppose. Where Rags differs is that is punk horror Who done well which is unusual enough in itself to keep comfort at the door. It disregards the rather whimsical notion of hiding scared behind the sofa but not so scared that you cannot tune into the Generation Game and forget all about it. It treats violence death and influence not as cod but as real often grisly, sometimes repulsive, realities that are set in motion. Not childish schlock but true events that are unavoidable and so all the more terrifying for it.

Is this adult Who? If adult Who is realistic storytelling then it must be. Adult Who, however, is not just about memorable misadventure. It is also about characterisation, form and style. In that sense, though different in genre, Rags has one recent rival in The Turing Test. Each character in Rags has a defined purpose and a life that far exceeds simple introduction. Nick, Sin, Jimmy and Jo become eyes and ears of the movement that slowly winds its way to its final destination. They are violent, unforgiving, disaffected and quite ugly. Willis and Pole are splendid political metaphors that underpin the reason for the influence of the Ragman on its small corner of youth culture. The Ragman himself is quite possibly the most sinister creation to come out of the Who novels simply because there is no question mark surrounding his back history. As with all effective 'villains' he exists for simple mindless anarchy and finds in the smartly evocative period the means with which to exercise revenge. This revenge is contained in a back history that is skilfully deployed around the purpose of the tangential Kane.

It is possible to argue that not a lot happens in Rags. One moves from one concert to another while interested parties work out, ineffectively, exactly what they are going to do to contain (or manipulate) a culture and the threat of anarchy. In the meantime a lot of people die. Again, not quite the point. Rarely in Who does one come across a novel where the menace, threat and adventure builds from one small event to a climax evoking power while appearing to do very little at all. The influence of Rags hinges on this slow preamble - words physically move on the page stretching for the next revelation or next inflammation. The author does rely on twist or counterpoint to engage the readers interest he holds the reader rapt simply by catching them and not letting them go. In a sense one feels part of the Magical Mayhem Tour and comes away just as fazed as those that survive it. One might call that lazy plotting. One might also call it the skill of a writer who is writing for his creation rather than a readership. Rags may be a slow read but the blame for this can be laid, with praise, at Lewis' door as there is very little in the Rags word count that is wasted. So much is relevant; so much pinpoints an emotion or a setting that one really has to take the time to enjoy it.

So, the Brigadier does not have much to do. The Doctor is a little more dissembling than normal. Rags, however, shines by being a novel true to its genre and true to itself. It makes no apologies and nor should it have to. Rags is that little gem in the field of mediocrity - a little bit of chaos in a range surrounded by pop.

Chad Knueppe

Another bobby was down on his knees begging for mercy. His helmet was almost reverently taken from his head, positioned under his chin, and filled with the blood from his own slashed throat by a hippie with a Charles Manson T-shirt and a rusty machete. The last survivor actually had his left leg on the stile and was just about to catapult himself over to the path that led alongside the school when he was seized and dismembered like a human sized fly, his legs and arms popped from their sockets and sent twirling away into the depths of the maddened crowd. Schoolchildren herded around the corpse, supervising the limb-pulling with relish as their deepest body-in-pieces fantasies were enacted by the enraged crowd.

RAGS by Nick Lewis, above anything else, is a horror story. Doctor Who has always succeeded in the realm of true horror. From Gothic to the completely hideous, Doctor Who has lent itself to the genre quite effectively. The Daemons, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Horror of Fang Rock, The Taint, The Banquo Legacy are all fine examples.

That said, RAGS is atypical horror. It's a horror story for the new Millenium. It's a horror built out of passion and anger and bitterness and contempt. RAGS represents the raging and screaming non-conformist in all of us. Punk Rock sensibility is the order of the day in a tale that tears at the emotional angst of a world in chaos.

RAGS, likewise, is atypical Doctor Who.

It's necessary for Doctor Who to push new limits, to revel in new ideas and new ways of telling stories. This is exactly the sort of thing Doctor Who needs to be doing to keep itself fresh with so many hundreds of stories already told.

But a question seems to arise as I attempt to review RAGS. "How far can one push things before the story fails to be Doctor Who?"

I've always encouraged innovation and I think the ongoing books should always attempt to do something fresh that hasn't been attempted before. From Faction Paradox to living TARDISes, new ideas should always be the main focus of the novelist's intent.

RAGS pushes boundaries like no other. I remember a time when the novel TRANSIT caused an uproar in breaking the bounds of the established into areas some accused of being too steeped in violence and vulgarity. RAGS makes TRANSIT tame; the difference between stealing candy and stealing souls. RAGS represents a new violence, one so shocking that the real horror is how much you're left in agreement with Mary Whitehouse's protests as you revel in it's twisted and crude visuals.

The violence is not macabre, not bug eyed monster evil. It's blood and guts, painful agony, and visuals one might see in a killing spree on CNN. It's horror comes from inner torment and hostility. Doctor Who has touched upon emotional and religious issues before. In RAGS, the violence of anger meets new levels as a character throws a Bible in a church, curses God and spits in the Holy water. This is anything except traditional Doctor Who.

I don't think there is necessarily anything wrong with excessive violence, crudity or wanton lust if it propels the story. I can say the same with regards to special effects or anything really. But when it distracts from the flow of the story I don't think it can be justified.

That said, I think the strange bit about RAGS is not that the violence distracts the reader from the Doctor Who-ness, but rather that the Doctor Who-ness distracts the reader from the violence. RAGS, initially, seems to fall under the jurisdiction of being a Doctor Who novel only because it cuts periodically to the Doctor driving around in Bessie. As the novel progresses, the reader realizes that the author does have an understanding of the Third Doctor's era but it soon digresses into an abrupt ending in a traditional "stop the monster" finale, seemingly out of nowhere.

A newer question arises. "How much can a novelist hold on to the umbrella of Doctor Who before it begins to impede upon the natural structure of the story?"

The novel's strengths dwell in its original characterizations and the moods it creates. And the moods it generates within the reader. You don't read this book. You feel it. It becomes you and you react to it. RAGS is brilliant in delivering an emotional punch. The scene in the novel in which Charmagne reflects upon playing hide and seek with her father provokes so many emotional responses in just a few pages. It's one of many examples of how satisfying this book can be in it's smaller set pieces.

But when it attempts to throw in the Doctor Who themes and characters, it seems to slow the pace to the point it almost unhinges the story. Though RAGS challenges the boundaries of what constitutes a Who book, it's characterization of the Third Doctor is probably one of the worst aspects of it. The Third Doctor was always the most outgoing and industrious of the Doctors, but in RAGS he's either on the sidelines or he's vanished for a good section of the novel. I don't feel that Jo Grant had always hated the Doctor for "constant humiliations" or that she'd ever consider him a "bastard" or a "supercilious old flop in a box", even if under an evil influence. In THE CURSE OF FENRIC, Ace was saved by her faith in the Doctor and I recall thinking that nobody has ever, to me, seemed to believe in the Doctor moreso than Jo Grant.

Though RAGS challenges the boundaries of what constitutes a Doctor Who book, it's characterization of the Third Doctor is probably one of the worst aspects of it. The Third Doctor was always the most outgoing and industrious of the Doctors, but in RAGS he's on the sidelines or he's vanished for a good section of the novel.At times, I wondered if the Doctor and UNIT were thrown in last minute to legitimate a publishing commission. RAGS is simply one of the most groundbreaking novels of the BBC range, but I'm not certain it works as a Doctor Who novel.

RAGS presents a challenge to the reader, or reviewer, in that it just falls short of brilliance because the Doctor Who bits do not seem to belong. RAGS succeeds in that it doesn't simply fall back on the established. It makes challenging strides into new uncharted territory, telling the sort of stories that they couldn't tell on television, rather than re-treading a simple pastiche of traditional tales. Nevertheless, it's strength lies so much in it's innovation that the Doctor Who aspects of it seem to be a hindrance to it's greater narrative.

RAGS would be the perfect novel if the Doctor Who characters, situations and themes were exorcised from its pages.

RAGS, however you define it, is sure to generate much discussion and controversy. It's hard to classify and is a piece of art that will undoubtedly have the traditionalists screaming as they throw the book across the room. RAGS is about dark passions and emotional reactions, and it succeeds in this manner. I'm not sure how effectively it delivers as "a Doctor Who" novel, but that's going to have to depend on the individual.

RAGS, if nothing else, is unique.

Robert Smith?

In brief: Woah! Where the hell did this come from?

Spoilers follow

I don't think it's actually possible to like this book... or if you did, you'd be greatly missing the point. The words "bloody", "visceral" and "violent" have been thrown around with great abandon in reference to Mick's first Doctor Who novel, but for once the hype is quite, quite accurate. This is a deeply unlikable book, make no mistake.

But thoroughly refreshing! Rags makes a point about the Doctor Who novels that's hard to miss. While reading this novel, I was simultaneously fighting the urge to hack my own limbs off for the fun of it and swelling with pride to think that the Doctor Who format is so amazing versatile that it can support something like this. Everything we've always claimed is true - Doctor Who really is only limited by the imaginations of those writing for it. That the series can have the scope to support books like this should put a lot of authors to shame.

Okay, bad example.

If anything, Rags feels a little hampered by being an actual Doctor Who novel. I mean, it's got continuity references and everything, which just seems impossibly mundane when compared to the events portrayed within. And the Brigadier's plan to put a super-secret inside man within the anarchists to keep an eye on Jo Grant and report back to him... is sadly spoiled when he sends Mike Yates in a bad moustache. This so ridiculous that you just know the Brigadier must have a second agent on the inside - except that he doesn't and this really was the plan. I don't know if this is some sort of post-modern comment on the efficiency of the UNIT family, but it's just laughable. (And Verdigris got there first, with far more effective results)

The Doctor is surprisingly well portrayed, but he has to spend the last third of the novel gurning away inside the CSO cattle truck as the extradimensional battle wages on. He's sidelined so ridiculously that the novel inadvertently inverts its own point - by removing the Doctor from the action so deliberately, the novel sends as clear a message as I can think of that the Doctor would otherwise be able to deal with the problem (and he does as soon as he gets out). That makes this far more of a Doctor Who novel than I suspect was intended and I'm not sure the book is the richer for it.

Rather than having the novel distract the Doctor with pretty colours and shiny objects in the technobabble truck, I'd have preferred to see the actual collision of the DW universe with real-world violence that the author seems to be aiming for. Still, I suppose Mick shouldn't feel too bad - Lawrence Miles had the same aim and the same non-solution in Interference, so he's in good company.

Rags has a bigger problem, though and that's the music. Mick Lewis has a great line in visceral violence, but he can't seem to convey the idea of music on the page terribly well. We're treated to endless scenes that tail off with "And the band played on..." without evoking much in the way of what they were actually playing. This isn't an impossible task either - Kate Orman manages it far better in The Year of Intelligent Tigers. Rags is very good at showing us people's reactions to the music, but not so hot at using the music itself to get a similar reaction from the audience. That might be intentional, but it still makes for rather boring reading. And boring definitely isn't somewhere Rags wants to go, I'm sure.

Aside from that, though, it's tough-as-nails, backs-to-the-wall stuff all the way. I think this must break some of the records for swearing in Doctor Who, but after a while I stopped keeping count and just went with the flow. (Just call me Jo Grant ) The first attack is by far the most effective, which might be because it's more surprising that way, but the rest of the violence can't quite measure up to the power of that first reaction. On the other hand, it also makes the cover really spooky. Powerful stuff.

Overall, Rags is a hell of a rollercoaster ride. It's not actually enjoyable in any sense, but there's plenty of worthy points the novel makes and I really appreciate the diversity to the line that it brings. It's a perfect evocation of the seventies, for a generation on the cusp of finally abandoning nostalgia for that decade. This couldn't be anything other than a third Doctor and Jo PDA, despite my earlier complaints and you can't say that about many of these books. I won't recommend it, as I don't want the lawsuits for the ensuing damage... ah, but what the hell. Anarchy rules, man. Read this - if you dare.