You cannot know how long it has taken me to track down a copy of this damn book. Despite negative reviews on all fronts (well except perhaps David Darlington's in TV Zone) the completist in me was determined to see my Past Doctor collection intact. So imagine my surprise when I finally read the damn thing and found the whole experience rather enjoyable. It was a quick read to be sure (I read it in three hour long chunks) but the bulk of the story was fast paced, exciting and readable. There are a few faults to be sure but on the whole Illegal Alien continues the fine run of books that opened the PDA range.
The cover blows the possible shock of using the Cybermen instantly, which is a shame because the suspense is nicely built up and leads to a memorable end of part one. Knowing what is coming leaves the reader tapping their feet in impatience waiting for the good stuff!
I have never been a huge story of the Cybermen for various reasons; I truly believe that the writers did not even scratch the surface when it came to exploring their potential. All too often their creed of "You will be like us" was toned down because of the family audience and the rather terrifying idea of conversion, which frankly is the only scary thing about them, was rarely seen. What we usually got was robots with ray guns, which is as boring as it sounds.
Special effects wizards Mike Tucker and Robert Perry clearly enjoy exploring the Cybermen a little more whilst providing the reader with lots of images that remind them of their glories of the past. The Cybermats are involved but are much scarier than they ever were in Tomb of the Cybermen or The Wheel in Space (I shan't mention Revenge) with sharp teeth that strip men of their skin. We get Cybermen roaming around in sewer tunnels (The Invasion), huge storage areas full of converted Cybermen (Tomb, Attack of the Cybermen) and they are in the revised design of the Cybermen from Wheel in Space.
What I really appreciated was how the writers subverted the archetypal use of the Cybermen (i.e. invading planets, wiping out other species, etc) and took at look at the monsters from a new perspective, that of human beings wanting to use them to advance their aims. The British army want to use them to create impenetrable battle armour that will help them to win the war; the Nazis just want to use them as foot soldiers to fight for them. It is fascinating to see how each side want to abuse the Cyber technology that has fallen into their laps and inadvertently the Cybermen manage to be a genuine threat without doing anything at all! Just the potential of their interference in the Second World War is enough to frighten the Doctor.
The best moments in Illegal Alien come when the Cybermen turn nasty and attack. You almost get a sense that Tucker and Perry are really getting off on how spectacular they could have made the material on screen and it shines through in their writing. When the Cybermats swarm into Mama's bar and kill all the patrons and their coming to life at the books climax and going to War with the Nazis, the violence on display is both scary and riveting. I loved the scene where the Doctor performed the autopsy on the deranged Cyberleader... there was much detail about how he wrenched the head from its shoulders! The Cybermen are (or at least SHOULD) be the ultimate expression in body horror so the sight of a Cyberbaby, complete with spider legs and tail is memorably grotesque indeed. It is great that the metal meanies are finally being exploited as intergalactic grave robbers.
What disappoints (as usual) is the garbled explanation of their presence on Earth. It felt as though Tucker and Perry were so excited about getting down to the action set pieces they rushed any old excuse to bring the Cybermen to Earth. How long have the Cybermen been in wartime London? How did they get their conversion unit set up so quickly in Jersey? Why the hell where they here in the first place? The motivations of the Cybermen themselves are abandoned under the deluge of subplots that build up throughout the story. There is some guff about the deranged Cyberleader on a mission to find an area for sleeping Cybermen, which is revealed to be the sewers on the last page but fails to tell us why or what their plan is. Perry and Tucker obviously want to continue the story later but it leaves a gaping lack of logic in the centre of Illegal Alien.
The setting was nicely done though; wartime London is not exactly a difficult period to capture and the authors add some arresting descriptions of St Paul's amidst smoke from bombings and the Thames as a river of blood. The Doctor brilliantly conducts wartime songs with a stick of rhubarb in an underground shelter... the thought of McCoy larking about like that brought a smile to my face. One of the best moments in the book comes when the Doctor cleverly uses a Nazi raid to destroy a factory full of Cybermen.
One huge, unavoidable problem is the authors' writing style. I am rehashing an old argument because in my review of Loving the Alien (the direct sequel to this book) I pointed out that Mike Tucker and Robert Perry have very different styles, which is proven in Prime Time, Mike Tucker's solo book where his style is Target-like simplicity throughout whereas certain sections of Illegal Alien are densely written. You can see the two writers sharing the content and their prose does not mesh unlike other pairings such as Kate Orman and Jon Blum who manage to disguise their joint involvement with a consistent writing technique. I cannot for the life of me say who wrote what but there are definitely two voices here and the result is an awkward read.
It may explain why the book starts off as a character drama with science fiction overtones and promptly ejects all the character stuff halfway through the third part for a dramatic conclusion full of sound and fury. A shame because some of the characters work nicely alongside the Doctor and Ace, particularly Cody McBride the US Private Dick and Mullen the sour faced English copper. There is some fun banter between the four of them and I can now see why they re-introduced the characters in Loving the Alien (having read the two books out of order I was quite pissed at the authors lack of explanation as to who the hell McBride and Mullen were in Loving the Alien!). Lazonby was one step away from a cliche as the tidy, nutcase army officer but something about his obsession with the "perfection" of the Cybermen made him quite compelling anyway.
Two characters who were spot on however is the Doctor and Ace who could have jumped from one of their TV serials as far as I was concerned! Their dialogue was so accurate I could hear McCoy and Aldred saying the lines and quite right too considering how much time Tucker and Perry must have spent with the pair of them. The Doctor remains compelling throughout, the real fun of his character here was watching him dealing with events without having planned them before he had even arrived... it was so nice to see the seventh Doctor relying on his wits rather than working with a safety net. There were a few moments where he was downright scary, especially when dealing with the sinister George Limb or trying to find Ace. His solution to use the Cybermen as his ally was ingenious and totally unexpected. Ace was mostly harmless, getting loads of action and tacky slang... she spends much of the book on the run and remains resourceful even if she doesn't actually achieve anything but get the Doctor involved. Still, the youthful and exuberant Ace is a million times more fun than that spiteful New Ace in the New Adventures so kudos to the writers for reminding us of her fun old days.
It's an odd book to review because is riddled with flaws and yet the finished result is actually a lot of fun to read. The plot is fast paced and attention grabbing and the Cybermen are used for horror effect better than ever before. If only the writers could keep track of their characters and provide some more answers we would be in better shape.
Plot holes and stunning set pieces... sounds like a JNT production to me!
Illegal Alien comes with the unfortunate baggage of being both the first 7th Doctor ‘missing adventure’ whilst following in the daunting footsteps of Virgins sixty book continuation of the television series. It soon becomes obvious that this completely ignores the New Adventures, and seems to be set immediately after Survival, with a very immature Ace still prone to shouting out ‘Wicked!’ at the drop of a hat. Once you can get your head round that idea though, there’s a lot of fun to be had here.
Put simply, this is one of the best outings the Cybermen have ever had, and this is possibly because they act as the catalyst rather than the driving force for the plot. Oh, there’s plenty of Cyber-action here, especially in the guns-a-blazing mayhem-filled finale, but essentially the Cybermen act in a supporting role to the various human factions trying to exploit them. (Oh, and on a continuity front the infamous ‘according to Illegal Alien Cybermats are made from squirrels’ derogatory comment should be qualified; it’s only one batch here made from this source, this novel shows the Cybermen converting any handy genetic material into their perfect master-race).
Fortunately all the various human characters are engaging and hold the novel comfortably. I was initially very sceptical about private investigator Cody McBride, as with his hard-bitten persona, trench coat, whiskey and fags, he appears to be a walking cardboard cutout private eye cliché, but amazingly he manages to step out of the cliché and provide a good partner for the Doctor. We are also blessed with a villain who’s motivations for once are believable, and a far cry from the frothing-at-the-mouth megalomaniacs we often get in Who fiction (I wont reveal the identity of said villain as it shifts and changes throughout the tale).
There are a few problems here but they are mostly minor quibbles. There are a few pages of obvious padding around the halfway mark, as the Doctor and Ace keep chasing each other’s tails, racing to and from the same locations without really advancing the plot. The transition to the Nazi occupied Channel Islands near the end is a welcome change of scenery for the novel, but while this may be Ace’s first encounter with Nazi’s it’s old news to us, and we’ve already done the Third Reich in the Channel Islands gig in Just War. This total disregard for what’s gone before is something of a Tucker and Perry trademark, and it’s a pity that they didn’t have an editor around to point out that they were re-treading old ground here. My only other gripe is the faintly ludicrous ending, where the Doctor decides to wipe out the enemy base simply by taking down the blackout paper during a blitz – no sooner has he done this than the Luftwaffe score a direct hit on this target. Without guided missiles that level of accuracy would be pretty impressive today, as for during the carpet-bombing of the Blitz it’s laughable. As the Doctor has already pretty much saved the day, and this is just mopping up of alien technology I’ll let it slip as a VERY convenient fluke. I guess we’ll have to chalk that one down to a lucky hit from the Germans…
When I first read this novel in 1997 I was annoyed at what seemed such a backward step for the 7th Doctor after all the development of the New Adventures, but time has been kind to Illegal Alien, and within the confines of the PDA format this is as enjoyable a follow-up to Survival as one could wish for. There are no great thoughts or deep issues being explored here, but for an exciting Doctor Who adventure that captures the flavour of the television serial without simply being a retread of familiar clichés, Illegal Alien rarely puts a foot wrong.
He's back, and it's about time!
Yes, merely months after the Virgin Doctor Who New Adventures signed out, the Seventh Doctor and Ace have returned once again in this brand new novel published by BBC Books.
Illegal Alien offers a monster mystery in war torn London. Private Detective Cody McBride has found a metallic sphere that crashed to Earth during a Nazi bombing of London during World War Two. Elsewhere, a mysterious Lurker is on a murdering rampage leaving a trail of corpses that rivals Jack The Ripper. Soon, we discover that the Cybermen have traveled to London during the Blitz. The Lurker is revealed to be a malfunctioned Cyber Leader hurt in the bombings. The Doctor and company uncover a Nazi plot to utilize Cyber-technology and create super human soldiers.
Those of you familiar with my article in the August issue of the Intergalactic Enquirer know of my admiration of the Seventh incarnation of our favorite Time Lord. Calling himself "Time's Champion", he was a decisive aggressor who manipulated circumstance to attain his own desired results. He looked at reality as some sort of surreal chess game using other characters as pawns to his own ends.
This new book returns us to his earlier days, seemingly just after his televised adventures, and it shows. The portrayal of the Doctor is vividly accurate as regards Sylvester McCoy's interpretation, but there is little of the layered and complex character that evolved in the New Adventures. Those pure enough to acknowledge the Virgin books as cannon can imagine this adventure as taking place some time after the events of the Timewyrm and Cat's Cradle series. There is no mention of Ace's cat persona from Survival and I picture Illegal Alien as happening just before Love And War.
The novel is structured like the television show as well. Separate sections all opening with McBride's remarks break up the story much like the episodes did. The novel in fact reads like a Target Adaptation, written simply and straight forward. It is very hard to get into this book initially as it jumps back and forth between McBride's office, mama's bar, and so forth. Nothing of consequence occurs until later in the novel, and the Doctor and Ace are separated for the entire tale.
The story itself attempts to be a detective noir novel set in the midst of World War Two. It works for Doctor Who in the sense that it merely copies various aspects we've already seen. At times, I'm reminded of The Talons of Weng-Chiang with the Doctor as Detective, hoping to get a jump on the others to solve the crimes his way. Ace in the sewers reminds me of Leela in Weng-Chiang. Just the fact there are Cybermen in sewers is an overly redundant scenario. So much of this book is rehash of more recent tales, like Attack of The Cybermen and Silver Nemesis, especially with Nazis taking advantage of Cyber-technology and humans being monstrously cyber-ized.
There is nothing new in this book. War of The Daleks was rehash, but it was brilliantly executed and made no excuses. It did not hide anything and gave us a honest story regardless of the past. In fact, the past Dalek episodes that were similar to it actually caused it's forward momentum. Illegal Alien, on the contrary, makes the reader stop and say "Ah, yes, they stole that from such-and-such an episode!"
There are so many characters here. Many are quite interesting, but they are killed off too meaninglessly, like Sharkey, or they change face too unrealistically, like George Limb. I liked George Limb as the Frankenstein or Prometheus old scientist who rambled in his commentary and brought the Lurker into his own home for study. When he is revealed as a Nazi pawn assisting Wall, I felt pangs as the cliche melted away my sense of whom I thought the character to be.
There are too many overlapping stereotypes. Inspectors, scientists and Nazi agents all come across as the same "Bad Guy" types established merely to affront the Doctor. McBride and Mullen are intriguing but do nothing out of the ordinary for such types of characters. Ace and McBride are great together, with McBride worried about the Doctor's vengeance if she is harmed. But she is lost away and alone for almost the entire novel. Whenever I read Wall's scenes I picture DeFlores from Silver Nemesis. Hartmann has to be a joke the authors made after watching two many old War movies mixed with Hogan's Heroes. He has no motivation except for being a typically bad Nazi. How ordinary for such a tale! So what's the point?
The redeemable thing in the novel is that the author employed original Cybermen from the Hartnell and Troughton eras. I was intrigued at the vicious nature of the Cybermats. This was obviously done in an attempt to generate a "back to basics" monster threat. These Cybermen speak little and hide in shadows which makes them monsters but adds little for fans used to thinking Cybermen present in other Seventh Doctor tales like Silver Nemesis and Iceberg. They were more a challenge than mechanical beasts displayed peripherally.
The focus of the story is the ability for humans to be turned into Cybermen. This would be much more foreboding if the authors showed us more Cybermen rather than just talk about them the whole time. There is sadly very minimal interaction between the characters and the Cybermen and the plot is driven by these crazy Nazi and Detective parodies.
I love the Seventh Doctor and Ace and enjoyed this simple story a bit. But there is not much content here for the casual reader. The story entertains, but we've seen it all a thousand times before. For serious fans of these characters, the fan made video Timerift has a script ten times better Jon Blum. Illegal Alien is nice, I suppose, once you get past the slow and shifting beginnings. But it in no way measures up to adventures like The Curse Of Fenric, Nightshade or Love And War. I recommend nearly ANY of the discontinued Virgin books over this one.