'I'm glad Nyssa's not in there', the Doctor commented, nodding towards the walls and towers. 'She's safe, and I don't think she's in the mood for adventures.'
ASYLUM by Peter Darvill-Evans is a semi-historical alien adventure with a companion from the Doctor's future. Nyssa is along for the ride years after she'd left the TARDIS to do some intense Doctoring of her own. She meets up with the Fourth Doctor as he adventures alone prior to THE FACE OF EVIL. Nyssa has become a technographer. Her thesis has focused on the study of Franciscan friar and scientist Roger Bacon until recently when something happened to wipe history clean of Bacon's contributions. Tracking the anomaly to Nyssa's erased thesis, the Fourth Doctor meets his future companion for the first time and they rush off together to find Roger Bacon and fix the timestream.
The author's depiction of Francis Bacon suggests the man was an amazing character who nicely mirrors the Doctor himself. Like the Doctor, he is scientific, having joined the Franciscan brotherhood so that he can actively study his theories. Though forced into submission and secrecy by their Holy tenants, he manages to live the life he wishes regardless of rules. He has collected one of the largest private libraries in history, though it lies rotting, and has privately written the Pope against the law of the Brothers. Bacon has experimented in glasses and lenses, working on the telescope. His philosophy is that nothing should ever be accepted or believed without questioning, testing and empirical proof. He is a man living in a world he did not make and trying to pursue his own ambitions within its rigid restrictions. Like the Doctor, Bacon is capable of getting things done regardless of rules and of misleading his peers. Though history will not remember all his contributions, Bacon is saved and will at the very least be remembered.
Knight Richard of Hockley is, for me, the most enjoyable character of the book. Though literature is littered with humbled fighting men, Richard's innocence is refreshing. He is a man of honor but not of politics and he is happy to be given an official with Matilda's castle even if his failure to be appointed constable by the official sheriff annoys the burgesses of the town. Richard is a warrior with a romantic soul, a killer who dreams of love. When Richard first views Matilda's castle, he is irate with contempt to know the manor of a man had lost its dignity, becoming a pampered palace for ladylike decorations. Matilda had banished Mars in favor of Venus, and Richard too soon learns to submit to his romantic nature as his passion for Nyssa evolves him toward new understandings. He will endeavor to write a lover's lyric for her, encouraged as he is by the Lady Matilda to gain interests other than horses and warfare. Nyssa is his guiding passion and he has vowed his love with a Knight's promise, having no problem defending her with his life. Though very predictable and often a bit annoying in his endless quest to gain Nyssa's favor, his passion seems sincere and his story is the most endearing in the book. It's easy, at least for me, to feel for a guy who doesn't give up his romantic spirit while he's constantly being heartlessly rejected.
The villain of the book is, yes, you guessed it, a self-serving maladjusted pawn possessed by a demon. Long gone are the days of innovative and compelling villains. It seems every other Doctor Who book or audio is just a guessing game as to "which" new character is being controlled by "which" new alien, demon, force of magic, force of nature, Fearmonger, Scourge of whatever. The thing that this book does right is the epilogue in which we must learn how a man broken by such a possession is forced to live out his days after having been broken.
Surviving after being broken, in fact, provides a whole other story arc in this book. The most disappointing aspect of the novel was, to me, Nyssa. The author might have actually done better to have created a completely new character from scratch rather than include this brooding and self-pitying version of Davison's favorite companion. This Nyssa is much older than remembered. She has thought very little of her time with the Doctor for many years. She's been more concerned with her childhood on Traken and her adventures that took place after leaving the Doctor on Terminus. Initially, she'd conquered Lazar's Disease and spent a good amount of time traveling, administering the cure various places and, naturally, bed hopping. She became nurse, cutting open pustules as they appeared on men's limbs. She became a volunteer, airlifting food to a war torn area. Eventually, the harsh reality began to affect her. A child bought a pulse rifle trading food Nyssa had brought, soon to be shot in a skirmish. She began to realize how little a difference she actually contributed and when a warlord decimated a populace she was helping, she retreated into a hermit existence of research and self-pity.
Nyssa is celebrated often enough, the author presenting her as a vision of god-like beauty and sensuality. When the Doctor and Nyssa play act in the streets to gain the attention of Bacon, the crowds seemingly worship the beautiful Nyssa, exchanging lewd comments and overwhelmed by her sexuality. The Knight Richard can't imagine the Holy Mother of our Lord could possibly have appeared as sweet, and pure, and as perfectly formed as Nyssa. It's an overly chronic obsession the author seems to have for Nyssa.
Yet, when it comes for her to contribute something, she doesn't. The Knight who continually pines for her is pushed away coldly, despite repeated efforts. Nyssa ignores the Doctor's crusade, choosing rather to hide among the Gardens that remind her of Traken, dwelling on the loss of her world. She doesn't play the traditional role of the companion at all, insisting that this younger Doctor doesn't even know her. She believes he'd think she would faint at the sight of blood while she knows even Cybermen have died by her own hands. This Doctor would not understand that living is a minute by minute decision for her, not an instinct, and that more often than not she would prefer to be dead than to dwell in the angst of her own remorse. She has grown so cold that she'll casually dismiss deaths of friends and has taught herself to repress her own memories. When the plot calls Nyssa to action, she slinks away to mope. Quite a disappointment of and end to a companion who once shone so brightly.
The Doctor makes up for Nyssa's sulking and suicidal doldrums. While Nyssa was broken and callous, the Doctor was vibrantly full of energy and life. The Doctor speaks Latin, the language of learning, conversationally. He displays an heir of sophistication announcing that he is member of the contemplative house of the Prydonian order, explaining that he is one of their more peripatetic, mendicant members. He defends Bacon's scientific views on the Earth and its galaxy asking crowds of irate townsfolk if they've ever heard of Pythagoras. The Doctor and Bacon have much in common. The Doctor relies on observation and practical experience rather than depending on scripture, yet he never seems to upset the balance too much. He shows genuine compassion for Nyssa and offers a shocked sympathy to acknowledge that she happily welcomes her own potential death. He promises her that he's not in the habit of letting his companions die, but then, she knows something he doesn't regarding a starliner and some Cybermen.
Overall, it's an entertaining book. It's a bit shorter than most, with the author's own musings on history, writing and research making up for an otherwise lost page count. I can't say I was happy about Nyssa's role, what there was of it. And even the Knight Richard's passions often went overboard, but I mostly really felt for him. The Doctor was the anchor of the piece, the author's depiction of him waltzing as easily through the narrative as Tom Baker might have done. I rather enjoyed the historical setting, but wish we'd have seen more of Nyssa's future, an environment that seemed compelling but was left quickly and overwhelmed a bit by her incessant moping. I do recommend the book, but perhaps not with the excessive enthusiasm I had for other books that made me such a hot chat-room topic. Still, overall, I think it's the best original piece Darvill-Evans has written. And if you don't get caught up in Nyssa's attitude, it can be rather entertaining.
But what was the point of it? She had to die one day, and it might as well be now. She was so tired of struggling. She searched within herself, and she could find no whisper of a desire to fight.
Hate to say it but an Asylum is where we are all going to end up if we have to endure month after month of the Past Doctor range managing to make the TV series look more dynamic and interesting than the novels. If the Eighth Doctor range is floating happily on formula, then the PDA's are desperate for direction and innovation. The Eighth Doctor range at least has the opportunity to move progressively forward (even if it shows no sign of doing this) because it represents the challenge of redirecting the mythology to somewhere different. With PDA's the task to bring energy onboard is more difficult because the audience is instantly catapulted into the past. This should not make the challenge anymore difficult to accomplish. There are many different ways that innovative stories can be told within continuity - even if that means disregarding continuity from time to time. Unfortunately the PDA's seem to be played off as a poor second cousin that is there to satisfy a certain type of reader. This is interesting as that certain type of reader is also getting bucketloads of attention in the Eighth Doctor range. Such it is that the PDA's now seem to content to be nothing more than typical adventures told at best averagely, at worst with the sort of effort which should have meant they were never told in the first place. If ever there was a need to remind those producing original Who that the format provides a broad church then it is now.
One of the great mysteries known to modern man is how it is Peter Darvill-Evans (one time supremo of Virgin NA's) can take Who and turn it on its head when directing other authors but is woefully unable himself to get anything down on page innovative or worth reading himself. One more for the cliché brigade about what good editors can and cannot do. Asylum is constructed to be a Name of the Rose murder mystery with a nod to science fiction and continuity. In itself this is not a bad premise to start from. There is nothing inherently wrong with cocking a wink to Umberto Eco or Caedfael. Indeed, had the intrigue been close and cloistered - a quaint, well told historical piece then it is likely that Darvill-Evans would have pulled off an interesting diversion.
Unfortunately Darvill-Evans seems incapable of touching anything without first touching continuity. In this instance it is Nyssa who gets dragged around medieval Oxford for the purpose of adding something significant to the timeline. Bad enough that this Nyssa pre-dates her first meeting with the Doctor so that the timelord is forced to forget a meeting so that he can meet her again blissfully unaware on Traken (more amnesia it seems). Worse that she spends the entire novel staring at her navel contemplating her place in the universe only to open her breast to Brother Thomas ready to die at his hand because nothing can ever remain peaceful and serene. Nyssa might have been a light in the head for a scientist on television but here she is whittled down to a role that would have been better served given to an entirely fresh incidental character if only to make the whole sub-plot marginally less embarrassing.
The science fiction element in Asylum is neither fresh nor developed - content only to tagged on as a beginning and an end. The idea that a race, contemplating the disaster that was The Great Plague, would, with all their technological advancement, swallow hook, line and stinker the idea that Roger Bacon (local scientific genius and fruitcake) could conjure for them the Elixir of Life falls flat in the mud. The aliens (who?) are only introduced to give a justification for a murder mystery and the Doctor's involvement in the piece argue no cohesive place for themselves in the book.
What else do we have? A couple of homosexual monks, a love lorn Knight who deserves to get his guts ripped out all over the top floor of Oxford Castle if he is going to behave like a regular Duke Orsino every second page, and a cameo Rabbi who is there to bring a little social context where none was really necessary in the first place given the type of story Darvill-Evans presumably is trying to tell (though this, in itself, is difficult to pin down). The Franciscans fair slightly better as they remain closer to fictional type but, sadly, not one character manages to lift itself beyond the two-dimensional. This includes the Doctor who is the closest example of generic Doctor seen in many a moon and Roger Bacon who is defined more by Darvill-Evans research into his work rather than as a character in his own right
What, perhaps, makes the book more frustrating is that it sets itself up well with historical detail and with supposition around Bacon. If there is one thing that Darvill-Evans can be relied upon achieving it is a sense of place wrapped in pages of description. Indeed, one gets the sense that Darvill-Evans is somewhat protective of his research if the acknowledgement section is anything to go by. As a means of padding out word count his essay at the back of the book is mildly entertaining but also self-conscious and somewhat pompous. It sits there daring anyone to challenge his historical context, which misses the point, as there is more than enough in the story to challenge without having to resort to seminars.
Another signpost for a Darvill-Evans book is his propensity to hint at sex throughout. Whether this is flagellation, homosexuality, the dichotomy between romantic love and social status or the pricks tease that is Lady Matilda. This is not to say that sex does not have a place in written Who just that Darvill-Evans adds them in whilst skirting around any justification for their inclusion. Two monks get on well so they must be homosexual - move on.
Darvill-Evans does not get the balance right. He focuses on Nyssa and Richard, flowery castles and Brother Thomas and misses the opportunity to delve into social politics, sexual downfalls and a chamber piece murder mystery (though the latter would probably have done). Not that one should advocate this getting in the way of a cracking good adventure, but a cracking good adventure Asylum is not.
Another PDA, another month passed without anyone accepting the challenge to redefine (or at least tweak) what the range is all about. As with the EDA's this is either going to ensure profit margins for a very long time to come or have a large minority switch off and go and do something more interesting instead. They did it with the TV series; they can do it with the novels. Is it really the contention that the only place Who can occupy in the twenty first century is one which looks back at itself with a big smiley grin neither engaging new readers or satisfying some of the old?
And what was Home all about?
In brief: Quite charming. It's detailed without being overdone and the Doctor-Companion pairing really raises it above the ordinary.
Peter Darvill-Evans once again confounds my expectations. Independence Day showed every sign of major suckage potential, yet mysteriously failed to be the disaster it should have been. Asylum didn't have quite as bad an expectation, but it's easily as much of an improvement on Independence day as that book was on Deceit. At this rate, I predict that we'll have a new Simon Messingham in about seven or eight books' time.
Asylum really shouldn't work as well as it does. There's a murder mystery which is entertaining enough, but the identity of the murderer is so obvious that you'd think the shocking twist is going to be that he didn't do it after all. The Doctor isn't really on. Nyssa spends almost the entire novel sitting in a garden, which should be absolutely unforgivable, but for some reason isn't.
There are two ways in which this book really shines and they're enough to make up for its more obvious faults. The first is in the details of thirteenth century Oxford. I've never been to Oxford and certainly not in the thirteenth century, but I found this a delight. There's lots of description, which can be both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing, because it really tries (and succeeds) to evoke the period in which it's set, yet the curse of grounding the story to a halt for yet more details of who worked where and ate what isn't really an issue here, since a) the pace is fairly stately to begin with and b) the aforementioned mystery isn't strong enough to hold the book up on its own.
The second way in which the book excels is its odd pairing of a pre-Traken fourth Doctor and a post-Terminus Nyssa. Which is weird, because they don't actually spend that much time together in the novel. The first immediate bonus is that continuity is kept to an absolute minimum, because these character's simply can't say anything to each other about their pasts or futures. The allows the book to get on with telling its own story, which I really appreciate.
Others have suggested that this pairing is inappropriate and the story would have worked with Nyssa and (say) the sixth Doctor, but I can't agree. I think it's vitally important we have the Doctor-Companion pair we get (see below). How often can one say that about any PDA?
The Doctor is... okay. He's a little generic, but I suspect that might even be deliberate. I honestly couldn't place this fourth Doctor and that really adds to the unsettling feeling the book has already imposed with this odd TARDIS crew. He's fairly blase about leaving Nyssa to her own devices, which is one reason the fourth Doctor is important here. That's a little disturbing, but certainly within character. With Nyssa out of the action, the Doctor gets a lot to do, solving the mystery and not even bothering to pretend to be a monk, which is quite amusing. I don't have any real complaints in this regard - it was never his book anyway.
It's with Nyssa that the book really shines. We get actual character exploration... and in a PDA, no less! I do believe this might be a first. This older Nyssa is a great character, mixing world weariness and fears for her safety in a dangerous universe with much of the innocence that defined the character on TV. It doesn't matter at all that she spends most of the novel sitting in gardens and reflecting - because we're getting to see what makes her tick and how her travels with the Doctor have changed her for better and worse.
This really comes together at the end, when she tells the Doctor he'll have to take extra care not to get her killed and he says "I don't make a habit of letting my companions die." This is utterly crucial to the book's central theme. So much so that you simply couldn't have a post-Earthshock Doctor here (the later Doctors have left companions to fend for themselves true, but not out of sheer optimistic belief that everything would be all right, as the fourth Doctor has here). Only a companion who had experienced the loss of another could work as well and Tegan just wouldn't react in the same way (and no, you don't get the same effect or latitude for Doctor shuffling if you tried to use Steven). Even an earlier Doctor wouldn't have worked here, since Nyssa absolutely needs to know exactly who she's dealing with. That makes this an utterly unavoidable Doctor-Companion pairing. I'm officially impressed.
Asylum's length is also just right. The story ends exactly where it should and sensibly stops right there, rather than trying to pad itself out for another 50 pages. This is long overdue in these sorts of books (see Tempest for an example of a murder-mystery novella with a reasonably decent story that adds 100 pages of padding to keep the page count up).
I would have been happy enough with a 226 page book, but the author throws in a 22 page essay at the end. That's right, 22 pages. When I first picked up Asylum, I thought this was either a joke, or a desperate attempt to pad out the pages to the BBC's exacting standard. While I was reading the book, I thought the appendix would be redundant, given the satisfying amount of detail already presented. However, not only does it dovetail nicely with the book, but it really shows just how much research Darvill-Evans has done... and it's quite clear that he's been content to keep most of it for the essay, despite the level of detail within the story. I never felt that the author was including research for its own sake in the story, so he gets to do it in the appendix.
And what a well-written appendix it is too. I mean, when you think of Deceit, you think of a story involving dubious lesbians, gratuitous violence and the reinvention of Ace without any sort of plan as to where she was going. (Or maybe that's just me.) But there's that brilliant essay in the back, where Darvill-Evans outlines his Manifesto for the New Adventures, complete with compelling reasons why there shouldn't be any Missing Adventures. And, sad to say, Asylum is the exception that proves his rule, showing just how much most PDAs can't get away with.
I quite liked Asylum, but I loved that essay. Peter Darvill-Evans shouldn't be writing novels, he should be publishing book-length essays instead. The level of detail is fascinating and the tangents are amusing and informative (and the history of both my first name and surname is included for free!). This is fantastic stuff, written like a dream and the author's bombastic style really coming to the fore. Peter Darvill-Evans just might be our version of Harlan Ellison. Who'd have thunk it?
What's more, there's the whole language issue with the TARDIS translation circuits. Not only do the Doctor and Nyssa default to different languages, they can switch at will. I read this in the book and I rolled my eyes in disbelief. And yet, in the essay at the back, there's a wonderful justification for this, without even trying, that makes everything all right. I really appreciate the thought that has gone into this book.
My one major complaint is that the murder mystery is a little too obvious. It's not as bad as it could be, but I think the plot could have been greatly improved with another level of thinking. We already know that the aliens have placed someone near to Roger Bacon, so it's not too tough to figure out the likely candidate. I think that if he *weren't* the murderer and someone else was for more earthly reasons, the book could have worked a lot better. Saying that the alien developed a taste for killing doesn't really cut it. The other alternative would be to swing everything around and have Oswald's revelation be delayed so that it ties up the murder mystery with a second suspicious figure. This could have really turned a good book into a great one and it's such a shame that the book's one failing is the one that's so much on the surface.
I also really liked the aliens, especially because we got so little about them (not even the names of their race). Like a good Justin Richards book, the first prologue should be reread immediately after the epilogue for maximum effect.
Overall, I really liked Asylum. It's thoughtful, detailed without being overdone and has some really interesting character exploration. The slightly-too-obvious murder mystery lets it down a bit, but only a bit. The setting is fabulous and the themes really work in conjunction with the unusual Doctor-Companion pairing. Plus, it's got the essay at the back for added bonus. Recommended.
Peter Darvill-Evans has done a lot of research into 13th century Oxford. It shows throughout this book. It makes Oxford an interesting place, and somewhere you'd love to visit (or, in this case, study). He's got the latent, and sometimes overt, anti-semitism down, the politics between the church and the government, and lots of other historical detail.
Shame about the story, though. If this had been a history book, it would have been great. However, this is supposed to be an exciting Dr. Who adventure, and it falls a bit flat when it tries to fulfill that purpose. There is little mystery in the Name of the Rose style plot. The Doctor is generic, with even few of the mannerisms of the Fourth Doctor. That's surprising, because usually authors' generic Doctors have *only* the cliched mannerisms of the Doctor they're trying to portray.
The worst part about this book, though, is Nyssa. There is little point in having her meet the Doctor before he has officially met her in his timeline. Not much is made of that at all. There is no special relationship between the Doctor and her which would require this odd bending of the timestreams, and nothing comes out of it. It is nothing but an excuse to do a character study on Nyssa. Why couldn't Darvill-Evans have had the Sixth Doctor meet her? It would have had the same effect on the narrative. And raise your hand if you buy the "I'll remember to forget you" hand-wave to "explain" why the Doctor doesn't just say "Why hello, Nyssa, haven't seen you since the 13th century" when he lands on Traken.
The pathetic introduction of Nyssa is also disappointing. Darvill-Evans must have been reading some of the talk on the Net about how some fans fantasize about her. That's the only excuse I can think of for Nyssa's opening scene, where the author really emphasizes that Nyssa is naked throughout it, or swimming.
Then, when she gets to 13th Century England, she doesn't do anything! She sits in isolation, trying hard to remove herself from the world, until forced to do something at the end (how convenient). It may have made an interesting character study if: 1) it hadn't been written so tediously; and 2) it hadn't been meshed very badly with a murder mystery plot. In capable hands, the character study may even have been captivating. That being said, my image of Nyssa says to me that she would never reach this point of despondency to begin with. She is a strong character, who volunteered to stay among the futuristic version of lepers to help them find a cure for the disease, even though she may catch the disease as well. I can see her needing a break, especially after all of the stuff that Darvill-Evans describes that she's gone through. What I can't see is her attempted total withdrawal from everything. It just doesn't suit her.
The shortness of the book only demonstrates more that something more needed to be done. There's so much lavish description of Oxford showing off the author's research, that it's obvious if he'd taken any of that out, the book would have been too short for publication. In short, read it if you have any historical interest in England or in Oxford specifically with only a mild interest in Doctor Who. If you're a fan of the 4th Doctor or Nyssa, stay away. No matter what the cover says, you won't find them in here.
It is natural in any ongoing series that authors will constantly strive to build their novels around more and more unusual, innovative, and exiting ideas: if they don't the series will stagnate, become overly familiar, and eventually die out. It can be formulaic, but if it doesn't glitter and shine with the sheen or originality, readers will get bored. The problem is that no matter how innovative or original the premise, it has to be worked into a successful, entertaining novel. And it is at this point that many novels falter: for every cleverly executed 'Dying in the Sun' there is an admirable but flawed 'Amorality Tale'. 'Asylum' is the former. It is built around two intriguing ideas (the first, that there is a problem with the time-lines and a murder-mystery to be solved in thirteenth century Oxford; the second, that the Fourth Doctor has an adventure with Nyssa, before he has met her, but after she has met him) and Peter Darvill-Evans skilfully weaves these ideas into a full-blooded, rewarding, and thoughtful novel, which can deservedly be called one of the finest Doctor Who novels of the year.
'Asylum' is full of impressive set-pieces which raise it above the level of a simple romp through a historical setting, and which take the reader in unexpected directions. One good example is the scene where a knight approaches Nyssa with an offer to protect her, but additionally appears to have a more sinister, selfish desire. The reader does not know what the knight intends, and we experience Nyssa's confusion and panic: on the one hand medieval England is a haven for Nyssa, but on the other it contains the same cruelties and crimes she has witnessed in other places and other times. Does the knight mean her harm? Is this how knights behaved in medieval England? There are suggestions elsewhere in the novel of the bawdy and grim life lived by soldiers when they fought "on the front", and this suggestion contrasts starkly with the lush courtly life Nyssa finds herself living: Nyssa's idyllic world of beautiful gardens and exquisite fabrics is juxtaposed with the smell of beer and sweat given off by the knight and the blood-stained, battle-hardened knife he offers her, drawing out the complexities that lie within history. Beyond this, the Doctor's investigation of the monastic murder mystery is also superbly handled: Darvill-Evans uses medieval situations to bring out the many eccentric colours of the incarnation's character, and the alien-Doctor provides an unusual perspective on life in the thirteenth century.
It may be, for some, a disappointment that Nyssa and the Doctor are not together in the novel for longer, but it is also necessary. Nyssa, as we see her, is world-weary: she has travelled the universe, and wants to settle down in what she initially sees as the perfect retreat. She has been given another chance by the Doctor, but the choice she must make is not one that the errant, always-moving Time Lord would necessarily understand, especially when he knows nothing of what she has been through (will go through), in his future, with him. The novel requires that she be on her own. Nevertheless, while the Doctor is separated from Nyssa for much of the narrative, he is still, in essence, the friend she knew, and his presence is felt. The anachronistic relationship of a ghost from the past and a ghost from the future is familiar and unusual in equal doses: welcoming and reassuring but at the same time slightly odd and off-balance. The set-up allows 'Asylum' to render an experienced Nyssa in detail and depth without the need for the Doctor to comment or intrude as witness to those experiences. Instead, the Doctor can act objectively, in a way, unaware of what will happen, but able to give advice - able to be a friend. Nyssa's final conversation with the Doctor exemplifies Doctor Who at its best: there is sadness, and darkness, and hurt, but there is also hope for something better.
A great read, and an example of Doctor Who at its best.