As the blurb for Amorality Tale indicates, the premise of David Bishop's latest Doctor Who novel recalls that of his earlier time-travel tale, Who Killed Kennedy. "It's history," the Doctor tells Sarah Jane Smith, "it's already happened and there's nothing we can do to prevent it." However, as Bishop is fully aware, this is fiction, and in fiction history can be changed in multifarious ways. One of the pleasures for the reader in Amorality Tale, just as with Who Killed Kennedy, is the unfolding of the fiction to reveal the truth behind what we know of as history. Bishop wastes little time establishing his game-plan: early in the novel Sarah Jane Smith discovers that smog killed thousands of people in London in four days during the December of 1952, and most importantly (for this is a Doctor Who novel) Sarah Jane Smith, while researching, finds a photo featuring East End mobsters and in the background another person: the Doctor. And so the game is set, the remainder of the novel describing the how the Doctor and Sarah establish themselves in the East End, waiting to find out what their role will be in the tragedy, and preparing to help in whatever way they can. Around this narrative we are introduced to a host of gangsters, and what seems, at first, to be the beginnings of a gang war. Things are not, however, as they seem.
The prose and structure of Amorality Tale is disconcertingly simple. At times it is irritatingly simplistic. What is frustrating is that Amorality Tale is not a simple novel: it explores interesting ideas, frequently shows itself to have a real empathy for little people and little tragedies, and walks a very well-trodden path with surprising flair. But the writing lets it down. Some of Sarah's conversations with the Doctor - confronting the ethical problems they, as time travellers, face - don't quite come off. Tommy becomes irritating in his use of macho verbal tics - not because they're macho but because they don't ring true. One reader has noted that the gangsters sound like University Graduates. Well, I don't know many Graduates who are that aggressive, but there is certainly a sense that these gangsters are very much a late 20th century interpretation of what 1950s criminals were like. Bishop wants to recreate the grit, I think, of the criminals in Get Carter, or perhaps the period quality of Brighton Rock. He has placed his story into a specific era because he wants to evoke the mood of the age. He doesn't achieve this. The functional and sparse prose - striving to be gritty and real - hasn't got the necessary texture of verisimilitude. The narrative voice wants to be deep and grim and sinister but instead feels a little shallow, lacking that hard to achieve starkness of reality. Because it lacks this spark many passages fail to come off the page, remaining stagnant, which is a shame because Bishop has written an entertaining romp.
The Doctor is possibly part of this problem. The frequent occurrence of Venusian martial arts is one reflection of how he has been reduced to the status of caricature, a status which jars with the novel's aspirations for a tone of reality and truth. The Doctor is intriguing (in a deep, three-dimensional sense) in flashes, but dangerously close to pastiche far too frequently. Lawrence Miles, in Interference, created a Third Doctor who was both of his era and of ours: there was pathos and tragedy in the sight of this garish, charming hero covered in scalding coffee and facing situations he was not able to comprehend. Miles represented him as he was, and then reiterated this representation in the new context, the new world, of the 1990s Doctor Who novel. Bishop doesn't attempt to reconcile the two worlds which crash together in Amorality Tale; we are simply given 'The Doctor' and his story, and 'The Gangsters' and theirs. We rarely see the Doctor working alongside the 'gritty' gangsters, and instead Sarah Jane Smith bears the culture bunker burden. We see how the two worlds clash through her, and Bishop avoids dealing (I mean really dealing) with the consequences and possibilities of the meeting of sonic screwdriver and iron bar. The best we get is a pair of flared nostrils from the Doctor when he is asked to work for Tommy and, earlier, a predictable set piece where The Doctor assaults, brutally, some knuckle-heads who try to get him to pay 'insurance' (his cover story in the East End is that of a 'Watchmender'). This isn't enough. There is nothing in Amorality Tale that has the power of the Doctor talking in the café in Remembrance of the Daleks; the worlds never feel like they really meet. Instead, it is cut-and-paste: take one Doctor, place him in an invasion narrative, and airbrush around this an East End setting. For an example of how the Doctor can be closely entwined with the setting we have the recent Asylum, a novel where another unusual pairing of Doctor and Companion (The Fourth and Nyssa) is used far more effectively in the chosen historical era.
Amorality Tale does have redeeming qualities. The Doctor, for all the unadventurous characterization, does come across very well as Jon Pertwee - his place within the setting isn't explored, he isn't recontextualized in a new genre through a contemporary lens, but he merrily sweeps through the narrative, fulfils his predestined role as Saviour-Of-Earth, detonates a Time-Bomb, and experiences great remorse for his use of the forbidden weapon. At one point Sarah Jane Smith notes to herself that the Doctor has been gloomy recently: it is an observation neither here nor there. The Third Doctor in Amorality Tale is the atypical version we all know (and - in some cases - love). This is all as it supposed to be, with all the right cogs and gears, in the great mechanism of Who Narrative. Then there is Sarah Jane Smith, the most full-blooded of the characters, and the one that we get most insight into. However, while she is written well in places Bishop fails to really use her effectively. After spending too much time in a nightie, by the end of the novel she is left to articulate, where appropriate, certain moral points: Surely people can't believe that this is God's punishment to sinners! How can someone so young die! Poor Brick, you might look like a hard-nut, but you're really tender and you have a big heart! There is good in the strangest places! While this is perhaps overstating how crudely the novel tackles moral questions, it is a reflection of one of the book's central problems: Bishop's concerns aren't integrated into the novel, and his really good ideas fail and falter because the prose that carries them strays into banality and farce (the alien, triumvirate, for example, showed superb flair, until raising their arms in unison and pointing at someone, they reminded me of the Robot Patriarchs from an episode of Futurama). Bishop is clever, attempting to juggle many balls, but at times they all fall to the floor, and it's hard not to giggle. Themes like religion and belief, goodness and evil, bubble a little, but don't come to the boil. The novel's ambitious title promises a lot (and suggests something quite profound), but doesn't fulfil its contract.
Nevertheless, for all of its flaws and inadequacies Amorality Tale is a tale told with just enough storytelling flair to keep you reading: we know what will happen, and we know we're not going to be shocked, but things aren't quite bad enough to make us put the book down and give up. Amorality Tale is a yarn: hokum in the old-fashioned way. Its attempts to be something more than that, even if not successful, ultimately make it quite likeable.
For much of its 280 odd pages Amorality Tale reads like a bad joke. Depicting a gritty 1950's era London gangland without falling into cliché is a tough proposition, and unfortunately David Bishop fails miserably. 'Ard nuts from the East End protecting their 'manor', alcoholic bent coppers, guns referred to as 'shooters', gangland bosses who are hard as nails but love their dear old mums, characters with names like Arthur 'Brick' Baldwin and Steve 'Madman' McManus; god help us - Alexi Sayle was presenting this fiction as satire twenty years ago, here its played straight, and instead of drama comes off like a bad pantomime.
The regulars fare little better - Sarah gets to empathise with the cardboard gangsters in a predictable "I may be a vicious sociopathic criminal but underneath it all I'm really a loveable guy" style subplot, while the Doctor indulges in more clichés with a brief display of Venusian aikido, followed by spending most of the next 200 pages holed up in the TARDIS constructing a gizmo to defeat the alien menace at the flick of a switch. As usual. In fact the Doctor here is such a lazy caricature he even resorts to wheeling out the rusty old "reverse the polarity" catch phrase posthumously (and erroneously) imposed on him by 80's fandom.
And the alien menace - the Xhinn - what of them? If the gangsters and the regulars are so predictable maybe there's some originality here? Unfortunately not - its more dreary aliens who want to invade earth. Yawn.
Add the total lack of any new ideas to the most basic style of prose seen in a Doctor Who book since Target stopped publishing junior novelisations, and we're left with a major disappointment. There is a brief attempt to rescue something from the ruins with an attempt to inject some grisly Romero-esque zombie stylings, but it's far too little, far too late.
For the life of me I cant understand why this was even commissioned. It cant be for the style which is akin to Terrance Dicks on a lazy day, and it cant be for the story, (any plot synopsis beginning "there's this bunch of aliens who want to invade the Earth" should be immediately binned); is the quality of proposals on the slush pile so poor the BBC feels the need to inflict workmanlike schedule fillers like this on us?
Ultimately Amorality Tale is the best advert I've yet seen for the redundancy of the PDA's - it adds nothing to the characters of the Doctor or Sarah, and seems content to merely wheel out another invasion-by-numbers plot to invoke familiarity in the reader. Without any invention in the plot or the telling, all we're left with is nostalgia, a dangerous substance that pushes Doctor Who books out of the realm of original fiction and into the realm of collectable spin-off merchandise. All I ask is that a Doctor Who novel be original and exciting - is that too much to ask?
Wahay! That was great!
For quite a while, I thought this book was going to be a big let-down for me. The reason is simple and probably unique to very odd people (like myself). It's Terrance Dicks. I've read or reread all his Who-related books to date over the past few months, and one of his favourite tropes is gangsters. Blood Harvest. Mean Streets. There you'll find 'em, crooks and thugs... but with a heart of gold, every last one of them. Yeah, right. If Uncle Terry's books weren't so relentlessly shallow and bouncy on every level, it would almost be offensive.
Amorality Tale gave me Terrance Dicks flashbacks. Gangsters in an early 20th century historical setting. Short sentences and big print. This is a simple, direct book that goes quickly from scene to scene without worrying overmuch about flowery prose. The gangsters seemed more violent than I was accustomed to from Terrance, but otherwise I couldn't find much to grab my attention.
Oh, and in future books could the Third Doctor use "Venusian Aikido"? Not "Venusian Aiki-Do". Perhaps I'm biased because I used to do aikido myself, but boy was that annoying.
Then came the "far more terrifying threat" referred to on the back cover, with a bog-standard name and a bog-standard (and occasionally stupid) modus operandi. If anything, my expectations sank. It was all workmanlike enough, but there was no spark to keep me going. It was a little like a Hartnell historical, not the original TV stories but the rather grim, humourless versions churned out more recently by the books (e.g. Bunker Soldiers).
But then the chaos started and I started having fun.
Amorality Tale gives us some truly evil bastards, then sends them to war. I thought they were great! David Bishop doesn't do a Dicks and turn them into good guys. This is like a Martin Scorsese film, but set in fifties London and starring Doctor Who. It's violent, brutal and extremely effective. They also make good foils for the Doctor and Sarah, who come out of this extremely well. (The latter was an especially pleasant surprise, since without Liz Sladen the books' Sarah Jane has often struggled to achieve even two dimensions.)
There's real pain. You care about these people and their suffering. The historical period is well evoked, despite the simplicity of the prose. I've seen complaints that the violence is extreme... here and there I suppose it is, but personally I'd have felt slightly offended if it wasn't. To write about these people without showing us what they do would be to sugar-coat them and turn them into Terrance Dicks comedy characters. What's more, it's a compliment to David Bishop's writing that he wrung that reaction from us hardened Doctor Who readers. We've read enough wannabe Hinchcliffe horror stories to become rather blase about gruesome gore and severed body parts (Kursaal, Deep Blue, etc.).
Even the most thuggish of characters get quiet moments that bring them alive. This isn't a particularly sophisticated book, but it's a well-crafted one that speaks from the heart. Traditional, but in a good way.
Hodge could not understand what was happening, could not believe the evidence of his own senses. It was like some nightmare made real. As a boy, he enjoyed novels by writers like H. G. Wells, fantastic tales of Martian invaders who attacked places like Leatherhead. He had even looked for Leatherhead in his atlas of the world, where so many countries were shown as pink - part of the mighty British Empire. It was his father that pointed out that Leatherhead was near London.
'That just proves those books you read are rubbish. As if creatures from another planet would attack London! What nonsense!' his father said.
In AMORALITY TALE, the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith engage in a time travelling historical adventure, not unlike David McIntee's THE WAGES OF SIN, a tale of the Russian Revolution. David Bishop has successfully pitted the established history of Doctor Who against the history of our real world events in his previous novel, WHO KILLED KENNEDY, a masterpiece of innovation and, in this reviewer's opinion, possibly the most necessary to read of all the Third Doctor era related books. I challenge anyone who dares call themself a fan of Pertwee's era to read WHO KILLED KENNEDY because I don't know if you can truthfully be considered a completist Pertwee fan without reading it.
Lightning rarely strikes twice, and AMORALITY TALE has a difficult time living up to the brilliance of WHO KILLED KENNEDY or Bishop's famous novelization of Douglas Adams' THE PIRATE PLANET. Bishop once again attempts to meld the history of Doctor Who's Third Doctor era with the histoical events of our reality. Factually, a smog killed thousands of people in London over the course of four days during December of 1952. Bishop launches his newest Doctor Who adventure upon this historic event, again bridging the gap between real and fictional, firmly grounding the Third Doctor in the real world.
The Third Doctor, having been dealt a heavy blow by recent events in INVASION OF THE DINOSAURS and THE MONSTER OF PALADON, seems more humbled, tired perhaps, and the readers can readily note his stern frustration with the knowledge of his infallibility. He must take a step back and let the fog of history kill thousands, unable to prevent it, secure in the rationale that this is the way it happened and must be done. His conflict, nonetheless, makes for some truly remarkable characterization on the part of the author. He's still got that streak of pomposity one expects from Pertwee, but he's more critical of his own limits. The character actually degenerates when we get to see him take down gangsters with venusian akido and reverse the polarity and so forth. The old standards seem tired and cliched, marking a failing to an otherwise dynamic characterization.
Sarah Jane, in contrast, has rarely been seen as more solid and dynamic a character. Always a fan favorite, Sarah shines here as the catalyst of events. When she finds a photo of the Doctor with the 1950s mob boss Tommy Ramsey, she and the Doctor travel back to that era to investigate. The Doctor takes up the disguise of a clock salesman, his business being "time". Sarah, however, takes a more proactive role that fits with the spirit of her journalistic initiative. She immerses herself in the culture of gangster life by joining the underworld as a barmaid in Ramsey's illegal gambling club on the East End of London. True to form, Sarah remains herself and will not become the sexual puppet for gangsters. She stands strong against their violence and her active feminism, which seemed a bit overly 'Ann Romano' during the series run and perhaps out dated on video viewing, is giving a new spark against 1950s style sexism. She seems more genuine here and less like pompous upper class white men were writing her take on female equality. Her interaction with the mother of Tommy Ramsey is unforgettable.
The language and prose of this novel are, at times, simplistic, appealing to the Target audience than to the more cultured readership of the Virgin and BBC ranges, allowing fans of Big Finish exclusively to cross over and attempt reading a proper novel. The book is easy to read because it's sentence structure is basic and straight forward, but it does fail sometimes as characters do often lose their own proper voice. The problem is that, in trying to be grim and biting as a film with the sensibilities of contemporary gangster films like Snatch, Bishops often loses the reality of 1950s era gangsters, the result ending in forced dialect and non-believable actions, the grim villains degenerated into Dick Tracy baddies. Do we really believe people with names like "Mad Dog" are killers by career but have cuddly interiors? The gangsters often seem less than three dimensional, but Sarah, though clad more often than not in a loose nightie attire, acts as the foundation of the book, bringing up questions of morality, being a beacon for our reality. The Doctor's tale seems to drift away into a separate tale altogether from much of the main gangster action, but Sarah holds everything together, even when the book tends to lapse into a shallow comic strip version of gang life.
The Xhinn are much feared energy species that could transform from creatures of darkness to creatures of light. Their function was to colonize planets and either subjugate or exterminate the native species. Once the planet has been colonized, the Xhinn strip all the natural resources to fuel their plunder and destruction of other worlds, in an unending cycle of death. They traveled the universe for millennia in crafts like shadows, in a complex pattern of spirals unseen to the human eye. The Doctor had never met one but always feared meeting them. The Xhinn attack Earth as a trinity, three voices with one mind, indivisible and whole, using a good man as a pawn to capture more people into their will. They used a religious man who had been questioning their faith to attract slaves. Their form and function would no doubt seem creative and innovative to mainstream sci fi fans, but Doctor Who fans have seen their type many times previous. Perhaps I'm being unfair, but it often seems that 80 percent of Big Finish audios contain these types of alien menaces. Anyone who has heard of the Wirrn or the Nimon or any number of Doctor Who virus-like species will find this alien menace appallingly redundant.
AMORALITY TALE is standard fair for the hardcore fans, and it loses itself when it indulges too much in gangster details that often don't work to the desired intent. The Doctor has an interesting role in that he's caught in an ethical dillemma, but he's under used and often falls into stereotypical behavior. Sarah is mostly used to good effect and comes across as the foundation of the book. Fans who can justify rubber dinosaurs and flimsy wired spiders of Season Eleven will easily overlook many of the books failings, but AMORALITY TALE falls flat if compared to the giant accomplishment that was the author's WHO KILLED KENNEDY.
On its own merits, the book is an easy read and it certainly does entertain, but under the surface much of AMORALITY TALE is cliché, stock and unoriginal. Admittedly, 'unoriginal' actually worked in the favor of LAST OF THE GADERENE by Mark Gatiss, a novel so much like an original episode that many fans felt there was little point in writing it, though it was unexpectedly well liked by all who read it. AMORAILTY TALE captures Sarah well, but the Doctor is peripheral and UNIT is absent, so the 'unoriginal' comes from all the new bits, and that's not enough to sustain an original narrative. Still, fans of the Third Doctor may find much to enjoy in AMORALITY TALE, and Sarah Jane does have a starring role. Fans of Pertwee historicals like THE WAGES OF SIN ought to like this book, which oft seems more like an episode of Young Indiana Jones than Doctor Who. It's a quick read and its nice to have David Bishop back, but his novels WHO KILLED KENNEDY and THE PIRATE PLANET are much preferred to this one.