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Dying in the Sun

Doctor Who: The BBC Past Doctor Adventures #47
Trey Korte

Loved it.

Really I did.

"Dying in the Sun" is what the PDA's should usually be. Unless you are *really* good at capturing a specific error as it was on TV (Jonathan Morris, Gareth Roberts, Mark Gatiss), this is the way to do it.

Dying in the Sun is NOTHING like anything seen on TV, however it remains unquestioningly a Second Dr/Ben/Polly story because Jon gets the characters right. He definitely passed the "Could I envision Pat, Anneke, and Michael in the roles, saying the lines" test. Definitely one for the too broad/too deep.

The actual story was pretty basic involving aliens and films (nothing the cover doesn't give away).

However, it's surprisingly rich in themes. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Mick Lewis's "Rags" in its examination of celebrity and crowd mentality.

Jon Miller is fascinated by pop culture and the cult of celebrity. (His bio lists listening to pop music as one of his favorite activities) Why do celebrities have influence? Why do people like Robbie Williams or Madonna or Julia Roberts have more power and control over the masses than the people running our various countries? Jon is going to be quite upset in that he is very much a traditionalist in that he takes issues and concerns of the public consciousness and "Who-izes" them into a sci-fi concept. By telling an engaging story about aliens in the Golden Age of Hollywood, he also makes us examine our own culture and society. Like "Rags", the plot of "Dying in the Sun" could easily take place in today's society.

It's an interesting comparison contrast. "Rags" was dark, gruesome, horrific, and depressing. "Dying in the Sun" is more light, comic, and uplifting. Yet each of them are making the same point and telling, essentially the same sort of story: How an alien presence manipulates the entertainment media to gain a following. of course, the difference also lies in the motives of the aliens themselves.

I don't know if Jon was inspired by "The Talented Mr. Ripley" but the line that stuck out from that film (mainly cuz it was always in the trailer) was "I'd much rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody."

That line very much sums up the themes of Dying in the Sun. At times I was also reminded of Living Colour's song "Cult of Personality", George Lucas's method of directing The Phantom Menace, along with the hype of that movie, the Church of Scientology, and many other things. HOwever, Miller never hits the reader over the head with the hammer and says "Look, this is what I'm writing about"..he's too involved with telling the story.

I do have a few criticisms. The beginning of the book successully adapts a film noir feel in terms of style and dialogue. However, this is not held constant. The second half of the book doesn't feel noir-ish in the least. I would have liked that to have remained throughout.

Also, I don't feel the setting was used that well. I said earlier that this story could have taken place today. I had a hard time remembering this was 1947. Apart from the Communism references, I couldn't tell. Maybe some more mentions of stars from that time period, or films that would have been showing. Given that it was set in Hollywood, maybe namechecking some of the clothing designers and outfits the characters were wearing. Did Polly deck herself in 1940's garb? Did Ben? Little details like that would have really cemented the 1947 setting.

People have said that Dying in the Sun relegates the Doctor to a passive role. I don't buy that at all. He's running around, playing the fool, just as Troughton did, but it's because he's working overtime to disarm the enemy. No, Polly isn't used as often as she could be (although when she is, it's good).

Overall, Dying in the Sun, is probably the second best PDA of 2001 (Sorry Jon, I still like Bunker Soldiers better) but I hope it sets a trend for the PDAs next year.

Lawrence Conquest

Good Evening, and welcome to Film 66. First up this week is Dying In The Sun, the latest blockbuster from the pen of screenwriter Jon De Burgh Miller. I caught up with Patrick Troughton, the star of the film, at the grand premier last night, and he had this to say about the movie:
     "Well, it's set in Hollywood in the late 40's, and it's about a dangerous movie that's taking the film industry by storm - a movie which may not be entirely terrestrial in origin. There's gunfights, cultists, aliens, mind control, oh...and me - so it should be fun for all the family!"
     And in the film you reprise your television role of the time-travelling Dr Who, I wondered what you thought of the previous films?
     "Peter Cushing? No - I don't like him. Anyway, we're back filming for the series next week and the scripts look fantastic. There's one set in Atlantis which I'm sure people will be talking about for years to come!"

All joking aside, is Dying In The Sun worth the entrance price?

Things start badly when a multi-millionaire film producer friend of the Doctors is found murdered. True to Who convention, the Doctor is immediately the prime suspect for the murder; just as predictably he manages to eventually gain the trust of the cops, and ends up helping in the investigation. Whilst these hackneyed devices are often a necessary evil in order to inveigle the Doctor into the plot, is one as unoriginal as this really the only one available? In the laziness stakes, the 'suspected of murder' ploy is up there with '3rd Doctor receives a call from the Brigadier to investigate mysterious goings on' - surely a little originality would have been preferable?

The plot takes its cinematic bent as the mystery points towards the film of the novels title, which appears to the Doctor to contain special effects that could not possibly be accomplished with the technology of the 1940's. At first it looks as though this is simply going to be an update of 'Pickman's Model', with the real life alien monstrosity of Lovecrafts famous short story modernised from still photography to the flickering imitation of life that is motion picture. However, rather than just employing alien creatures on a film set to film the un-filmable, it soon becomes clear that these aliens inhabit the film itself. Tragically these alien sons of celluloid are lumbered with the indignity of being referred to as the Selyoids, ("its kind of a joke" states De Sande, the villain of the piece. Pity it's the unfunny kind.) Through the power of the film the Selyoids intend to effectively brainwash humanity and make them willing slaves. Ultimately its revealed that these malignant midicloriants have arrived on Earth following a disaster on their home world - yes, the trusty old alien invasion plot-line is wheeled out of retirement once more. This idea is so well worn even Oxfam wouldn't want it, and it's a real pity that at the core of this book is such a stale Who convention.

Where the novel scores better is in its treatment of the Hollywood dream factory, and the shallowness of those blinded by the worthless glitter of fame. The cult of celebrity is as prevalent today as it was in the 40's, witness the endless parade of vacuous non-entities on any of the 'search for a star' style programmes that currently dominate the television schedules - people who's only desire in life is to be famous, and will sacrifice anything to get it. That there are millions of people out there who are literally willing to sell their souls for five minutes of screen time is a much more worrying scenario than alien mind control, and it's a shame the novel doesn't spend more time on it. The books most successful scenes occur at the premier of the film itself, with its keen observations on how celebrities are treated as a separate species to the rest of humanity. (Indeed, as I write this review the headlines of every paper in Britain is about a woman who - shock, horror, - is going to have a baby. Only the fact that this woman belongs to the exotic alien species of celebrity can justify people wanting to pay for this 'news'. My friends, the aliens are already amongst us - by their glamour shall ye know them!)

A number of writers have found the character of the 2nd Doctor difficult to pin down, but Millers take is spot on. Every line of dialogue sounds as though its been read by Patrick Troughton, unfortunately on a few occasions this might literally be true, as a few lines are virtually lifted from broadcast stories, (I challenge anyone to read the Doctors "evil must be fought" speech here without recalling the similar line of The Moonbase - a story which, chronologically speaking, hasn't even occurred yet!). Polly, whilst not being as instantly recognisable as her TV counterpart, is convincing in the role of celebrity seeking Hollywood wannabe. Ben however, is a disaster - while the characterisation is fine, he simply doesn't do anything! Miller has stated that this novel originally started life as a 7th Doctor and Ace adventure, and while the re-write has given Polly a starring role, Ben is simply redundant in plot terms, acting merely as a sounding board for the Doctor. Had he 'done a Nyssa', and spent the entire adventure asleep in the TARDIS, his absence would not have been noticed. A wasted opportunity.

The other characters are mostly one-dimensional, with clumsy back-stories thrust upon the reader only when the plot necessitates them. This total lack of foreshadowing makes the characters appear artificial, almost as though the author hadn't fully developed them beforehand. A good point is De Sandes sudden mini-flashback when explaining how he first made contact with the Selyoids - had this been the novels prologue it would have planted the seeds for the story that follows - played as a sudden reveal it comes across as tacked-on and false.

So - back to my initial question: is Dying In The Sun a worthwhile read? Well, I'm afraid the answer is yes - and no. Although I have mostly been highlighting faults, it must be noted that there was nothing in this novel that really plumbed the depths for me - unfortunately by the same token there was nothing of outstanding quality either. If you simply want a credible Second Doctor story this will ably fill a space in your heart. If you're looking for a story that fires the imagination though, this isn't it. I'm sad to say I have to be damning with faint praise here as, like the Hollywood blockbusters it plays with, Dying In The Sun is an interesting spectacle while it lasts, but is all too easily forgotten once the curtain closes and you head for home.

Andrew McCaffrey

I quite enjoyed the beginning of DYING IN THE SUN. The story opens with a mock pulp style consistent with the 1940's period in which the book was set. It eventually moves on from this into a more straightforward Science Fiction tale that isn't quite as gripping. The book does quite a lot of things well, but unfortunately it does almost an equal number of things poorly. While I did leave the book feeling positive, there were several points along the way that made enjoyment feel like an uphill battle, as if the narrative was occasionally insisting that I dislike it. It didn't totally succeed, but I can't shake the feeling that the book could have been much more interesting than it was.

The dime novel feel to the beginning of the story was quite effective at evoking the setting and capturing the mood of the genre it was mimicking. It's not the most original pulp style ever seen in a novel, as it mostly follows the conventions of that genre rather than subverting them or offering up anything new. Still it makes for a fair enjoyable read, if one likes that sort of writing, and I found it to be quite entertaining. The crew of the Second Doctor, Ben and Polly seemed to fit right into this type of storytelling, and putting that team into this setting was a risk that mostly succeeded. Upon reflection, I think I would have preferred to see the entire book written in this style rather than having it phased out halfway through.

The replacement to the pulp is a portion of the story that would feel right at home on The Twilight Zone. These sections are fairly successful as well, though I found them less engaging than the opening passages. The eventual menace is an interesting idea, though it lacks a certain something in execution. Maybe it's because we never get an adequate explanation of what the eventual goal of the aliens is. Perhaps the lack of explanations about the nature of the creatures is what leads to the unsatisfying ending. Whatever the reason, there simply wasn't enough "oomph" to the aliens. And this is a problem mainly because the human spokesman for the villains isn't all that interesting either. It seems frustrating to see a baddie fall back on the same motivations and plot devices that we've seen before. There were glimmers of potential, but very little of that manifested itself in the adversaries.

The Doctor and his companions are portrayed adequately, but not excellently. Jon De Burgh Miller gets much of Troughton's Doctor correct, though there are several passages that seemed quite out of character. Still, the Second Doctor is notoriously difficult to capture in print, and the depiction here is better than others have attempted. I'm much more familiar with Ben and Polly through their outings in the old Target novelisations than in their televised episodes, and their characterization here certainly seemed consistent with my memories of those books. It's only a pity that Ben has so little to do, with most of the attention focused on Polly. Fortunately, Polly more than carries the slack. There were a few places where her motivation seemed a little over the top, but for the most part she was a believable and noteworthy character.

Ultimately, I think the story could have done quite well with some tighter editing, or another draft. I found myself enjoying the story, but slight and avoidable oversights kept jumping out to annoy me. No major mistakes caused me to hurl the book across the room; rather there was an accumulation effect as all the small individual cuts took their toll. Small oddities in the narrative, "revelations" that came out of nowhere, and coincidences just slightly too big to be believable all added up.

While DYING IN THE SUN has a couple of flaws that annoyed me, I managed to enjoy enough of the story not to be too bothered by them. There are portions that just appear to be sloppy, but the narrative moves fast enough for these not to be a big problem. There are a few missed opportunities, but overall it's relatively enjoyable and works fairly well as a simple, undemanding story. I did find quite a lot to like, and it's a fairly fun tale, but I couldn't quite describe it as anything more than average.