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ReviewsReviews

Loving the Alien

Doctor Who: The BBC Past Doctor Adventures #60
Josh Owens

The other reviews of this book have done to death description of the plot in its entirety, so I won't be attempting that here. What I will be attempting is an analysis of the highs and lows of the book.

The book seems to be several books in one, with the stories of the Doctor, Rita, McBride, Ace, and many other incidental characters thrown in. At times this can become, unsurprisingly, a tad confusing. And from the point where Britain invades Britain, that is, the last seventy pages, the book becomes practically unintelligable, with the skipping around between different places completely throwing the casual reader. However, casual reader I am not, and so I persisted... and was rewarded with a lot of unanswered questions. The death of Ace, owing to a set of admittedly implausible events, is at least simply handled, and understandable in the context of the story. But when she comes back to life? Even after several re-reads, it is not clear exactly where she came from, or more importantly why. And the relationship between the two Aces is unclear. The reader must presume that an alternate universe was robbed of Ace in order for her to come in ours.

Although the book is intelligeable to those who have never heard of George Limb, it certainly isn't easy going. The book so lightly skips over George Limbs appearance that it is clear the reader is positively expected to have read the prequel, and has the capacity to make a reader that hasn't read it feel rather guilty. And while Rita's sections of the latter half of the book are excellent on their own, indeed one of the best parts of the novel, their context within the book is hazy and obscure. Elements of the alternate world, and their hatred of Americans, and liking for Russians, is fascinating, and could have been elaborated on more. It feels like someone pressed an accelerate button on the book's production from about half-way through, and that it was (badly) chopped to about half the length that it should have been.

There were, of course some good points. Notable amongst these is the first fifty or so pages, which is exactly the sort of mystifying opening reminiscent of the best first episodes of the TV series (preeminent amongst these, to my mind, is "Carnival of Monsters"). The Doctor's Gallifreyan maze game is also particularly charming, and the sequence involving the BRG headquaters and the maze has some fantastic dialogue for the Doctor. One can almost hear McCoy deliciously rolling out the syllables one by one.

If you are able to persist through the trying parts, you are aptly rewarded, though whether the last seventy pages are worth it is certainly a bone of contention. A book more notable for its parts than its whole.

Lawrence Conquest

So, the Tucker / Perry pair convene for what we are assured is their final ‘imaginary Season 27’ 7th Doctor and Ace book. It’s a ‘season’ that started very strongly with Illegal Alien, but then slumped into a series of professional but rather pedantic action thrillers. Possibly realising that something somewhere has gone wrong, Tucker & Perry drag the series back to the beginning by writing Loving the Alien as a direct sequel to Illegal Alien. Oh, they manage to slip in references to all their other books (all annoyingly highlighted to encourage the reader to run out and buy ‘em if they haven’t already), but all of them are superfluous to the plot. Even Prime Time, which first raised the cliffhanger of Ace’s future corpse is unnecessary, but with the return of all the main cast I would emphatically warn against anyone trying to read this book without having just read Illegal Alien first.

As with most sequels, there’s the law of diminishing returns. Once again we’re back to various people trying to get their hands on Cyber-technology - In Illegal Alien it was the British versus Nazi Germany, in Loving the Alien it looks to be America versus Communist Russia - until a breach between dimensions adds a further twist. It’s absolutely no surprise once this gateway to an alternate Earth is revealed how Ace is to be ‘saved’. Yes - it’s goodbye to Dorothy Gale (RIP) and hello to feisty new companion Dorothy McShane, which renders Relative Dementias earlier explanation for Ace’s conflicting surnames somewhat superfluous. Unfortunately the circumstances of Ace’s death are ridiculous - knowing she’s in a life or death situation, the Doctor is happy to let her wander off on her own, trusting entirely to a tracking bug to keep tags on her - would he really let Ace out of his sight if he knew she was due to be killed within 24 hours? Ace then has the most ridiculous Doctor Who romance since Leela and Andred, as she shacks up with - wait for it - James Dean (ouch, my sides are hurting) - and falls so madly in love she gets a tattoo of their undying love after spending barely one day with him!

The main reason this sequel fails to get anywhere near as engrossing as Illegal Alien is it’s lack of focus - it’s a rambling tale of Cold War paranoia, Cyber-ised gorillas, giant ants, and alternate Earth duplicates. It just never seems to settle. The Doctor and McBride run from place to place, inevitably stumbling into action scenes, but rarely progressing the plot. The most successful piece of writing where we can actually focus on a characters development is the more linear adventures of Rita, a girl who stumbles into an alternate Earth by mistake - her bemused confusion over the strange country she finds herself in is 100% more disorientating and convincing than the similar situation in Domino Effect. The military characters are mostly cardboard cut-outs, being present only to add to the action scenes - worst of the bunch is General Crawhammer - who comes out with some of the worst cigar-chomping US army guff possible (“You know, back home where I come from we lynch Commies…but hey, that’s Alabama fer ya. Yup, I’m a God-fearin’ son o’ the South, and we don’t take no bullsheeet from no one.” I didn’t make that up - that’s honestly a line from the novel)

Loving the Alien is a passable, but ultimately unnecessary sequel - Illegal Alien is essential, this isn’t. Tucker and Perry have proved themselves more than capable of generating good action scenes, but little else. A disappointing end to an uneven run.

Finn Clark

I've often thought Mike Tucker and Robert Perry were underrated (except by DWM's polls). On their own pulpy terms I really liked Storm Harvest and Prime Time, while they wrote a short story for Virgin's Decalog 2 collection (Question Mark Pyjamas) that's nearly as brilliant as Steven Moffat's Continuity Errors. Admittedly their first two PDAs were bad, but not full-blown "we need to have a rant now" bad. Illegal Alien was a bit bleah and Matrix wallowed in all the worst NA cliches while also being a confusing alternate-universe unreality, but I've read worse.

Loving the Alien apparently concludes a six-book story arc comprising Paul Dale Smith's Heritage and the other four Perry/Tucker PDAs (plus their Short Trips stories 'Stop the Pigeon' and 'Ace of Hearts'), but to be honest it's mostly a sequel to Illegal Alien. I'll begin by listing the things I liked about it.

The book's last third is enjoyable if you unplug your brain, and there's a good line on page 216.

That was quick! Okay, let's get on with the rest of the review.

First up, it's another alternate universe story! What did we do to deserve this? Just when we're suffering deep hurting from the 8DAs' Alternate Universe arc, we reach for the PDAs and get more of the same! It's probably bad form to criticise books based on what's going on around them (see my recent reassessment of Unnatural History) but this is just bizarre. Loving the Alien's multiverse cosmology isn't even compatible with the current 8DAs' version! It's understandable though annoying that Perry & Tucker were allowed to contradict the likes of Blood Heat and Genocide... but Time Zero? One would normally expect some semblance of coherence in books being published alongside each other. (Personally I've decided that Loving the Alien's Doctor was lying throughout.)

Oh, but it gets better. This isn't just an alternate universe story - it's an *infinite* alternate universes story, based on the supposition that there's a universe for everything that could possibly happen to anyone, thus rendering our heroes' struggles insignificant. What's more, missing characters can be replaced by their parallel-Earth equivalents, though this presumably inflicts an unexplained disappearance on some other poor bastards. It's the SF equivalent of "I woke up and it was all a dream". What's more, since our universe is one of uncountable multitudes rather than being in any way important, there's no reason to regard what happens here (as opposed to elsewhere) as significant.

There are a thousand reasons to hate parallel universe stories, but Loving the Alien creates another! If your plot concerns big reality-bending notions, then any poor ordinary Joes will be kinda lost in it. More precisely, they're likely to spend two-thirds of the book running around with nothing to do and looking like losers. Like in here, for instance. You know you have a problem when your book IMPROVES for its alternate universe scenes. (I was actually mildly interested in learning about the place, since it falls into none of the usual stereotyped categories but has instead a more subtle, insidious wrongness.)

That squishing sound you hear is the noise my brain makes as it tries to escape through my left nostril. Let's move on.

I liked the opening chapter. That's good stuff, a bit like Ambassadors of Death or Quatermass, though it's annoying that the hat is tipped by naming a character Colonel Kneale. Unfortunately things go downhill thereafter. Characters return from Illegal Alien, none of whom are really worth our time. Cody McBride continues to remind me of Terrance Dicks's Dekker (see Players and Blood Harvest) while being less fun to read about, though in fairness his relationship with Mullen did end up going somewhere nice. (Mind you I didn't remember Mullen at all, despite rereading Illegal Alien only last year.)

Of the original characters... Rita is dull. Collins is dull. Crawhammer's dull. The commie-obsessed Americans come across as actively stupid. No one looks likely to make any real impact on the plot, so no one grab your attention. Rita comes nearest, being the viewpoint character of that aforementioned good Chapter One and later on seeing some weird stuff, but she's basically damsel-in-distress material.

But what about the regulars? Mike Tucker & Robert Perry always gave us lively TV-era pastiches of Sylvester and Sophie, didn't they? Here I thought their portrayals were faithful - but not in a good way. Ace has always tended to be a bit thick and here she's as annoying as she's ever been. She takes the hump at the Doctor (again) and flounces off in a huff (again). This may be an accurate portrayal of the character, but it left me actively wanting her dead. I'm imagining their life aboard the TARDIS... "Professor, you cooked me three slices of toast instead of two! How could you do that? I'll never trust you again! Land somewhere so I can drop out of the plot for half the book and have sex with someone I've only just met!"

However the 7th Doctor's pretty good and it's far more his book than Ace's. He's not "Gareth Roberts writing Season Seventeen Tom Baker" good, but he does everything that's asked of him and has some emotional moments courtesy of that teaser left dangling at the end of Prime Time. I'm a bit disappointed that they didn't tie that into Ground Zero, mind you. (One wonders whether the Doctor couldn't have short-circuited the plot by telling Ace everything and suggesting that she not get a tattoo, etc., but the book has a theme of fate and destiny which suggests it may not have been that simple.)

Did I mention that this is an alternate universe story? I'll probably be bringing that up once or twice.

However things pick up for the book's last third. Stuff happens, often silly but still giving our characters opportunities to make a difference. I liked the goofy B-movie monsters. The villain comes onstage and for the first time we actually have an interesting character to read about. There's a huge info-dump where he tells the Doctor his evil plan... and yet that plan is so huge and insane that this exposition is the book's most entertaining sequence. Most of Loving the Alien didn't connect with me emotionally, but this last third builds momentum by continually topping itself with more action sequences and surreal plot twists. This is the kind of thing that I enjoyed in Storm Harvest and Prime Time. It's not deep or meaningful, but it's good straightforward fun and I happen to think Perry & Tucker are rather good at it. Offhand I can't think of any Who authors better suited for this kind of breathless pulp adventure.

Vasser Dust seemed unnecessary to me, though. It seems odd that we've never seen it before and the plot could have got by quite happily without it.

Oh, and did I forget to say that this is an alternate universe story?

[Though in fairness it's less so than you'd think from my banging on about it, since the authors sensibly keep such nonsense offstage for quite a while. There's also a theme of fate and destiny, which seems a weird mix with alternate universes but at least rings the changes on what we're used to.]

The fifties-ness was a bit disappointing. The book's full of imagery from that decade's cinema - sci-fi B-movies, a certain actor, etc. which is quite interesting - but I didn't feel that the historical period was strongly evoked. Illegal Alien captured its wartime era better than Loving the Alien captures 1959... which I felt was a particular shame since the fifties are relatively unexplored territory for Doctor Who. We've seen WWII ad nauseum and plenty from 1963 onwards, but from the fifties I can only think of Delta and the Bannermen, First Frontier and Bad Therapy (?). Or is Endgame set in the fifties too?

Overall, I didn't like this book. Most of it was a struggle, though I started enjoying myself towards the end. What's more, I'm starting to think that the 7th Doctor and Ace may have been mined out. They got done to death in the Virgin NAs and now we're churning over the same ground under BBC Books. Next month's Colony of Lies will be the tenth 7th Doctor and Ace PDA, making it the equivalent of Deceit from Virgin's run and a third of the way to Set Piece. Give us McCoy and Mel novels! (Or even McCoy and Frobisher... they didn't travel together long, but we saw them together in A Cold Day in Hell (DWM 130-133) and it's a perfectly legitimate combination.)

Chad Knueppe

‘Did you know there are laws of time?’ the Doctor asked.
‘Yeah?’ McBride could barely follow all this.
‘And I broke them. I came here with prior knowledge of future events, intending to change things, and in doing so I’ve helped make them happen. Time won’t be tricked, Cody.’


THE BRITISH ARE COMING…

The first time we saw private detective Cody McBride he was content just to drink away his problems while London burned around him during the Blitz. His involvement with Ace brought him into a more pro-active state, and when we last saw him he had found several hundred Cyber cocoons just after the Doctor and Ace had departed. Now, it’s nearly two decades later, and things have progressed. McBride once again finds himself working to save Ace, insecure about how his former fling will consider him in his much older version when she hasn’t aged. His protective instinct towards Ace, despite his new relationship to her, and his loyalty to a crippled friend completes his character arc, leaving this dysfunctional Duggan clone to be his own man, one of Doctor Who’s true heroes.

Meanwhile, on the bad guy tip, a not so dead George Limb, previously the mastermind behind the cyber-operation in Illegal Alien, has been taking his plans of eugenics forward. Previously, he had given cyber technology to both the Allies and the Nazis, hoping to play out the old Smersh technique of causing one’s enemies to destroy each other, and in doing so prompt a technological advance. Now, Limb has been experimenting with Apes, creating cyber-apes of massive strength, each under his control. He has attained the ability to time travel, though he can’t go before he discovered the cyber-time travel technology and he can’t go beyond 1962. His newest mission is to bring about a new kind of war to further his goals, and our reality has opened itself up to invasion from ourselves.

Tucker and Perry’s action driven prose style seeks to be like a big budget blockbuster feature film, always compelling and full of quick twists. Their style of writing is tediously interchangeable with the books by Cole and Richards, but fans of both will be pleased. A lot of borrowed aspects are present, the Cyber-apes are reminiscent of Lawrence Miles, and the appearance of James Dean can’t stop the reader from considering the use of Noel Coward by Paul Magrs. It’s standard fair in many respects for Doctor Who to be self-referencial and repetitive in style and content, but avid book readers will find much to enjoy.

Though this is definitely a book pointedly marketed towards fans of the Seventh Doctor specifically, Loving the Alien lacks the wit and wisdom of the astute Virgin era, which in its propensity reigns as the definitive Seventh Doctor era. Tucker and Perry take us back, instead, to the Cartmel era of televised Seventh Doctor, and in this they capture the essence to perfection. In this period, Ace still firmly trusts and believes in the Doctor, and still says things like "Wicked". This book seems to fit before the Big Finish "McShane" arc, and thankfully, the whole "Dorothy Gale" nonsense seems to have been retired, excepting for some humorous in-joking, establishing that the authors themselves have a sense of humor about their mistake.

This is a Doctor evolving, the absolute turn between a remorseful beaten Doctor and the Time’s Champion this incarnation would be celebrated to be. ‘Every point in space/time has endless variations. It’s an infinitely branching tree, filling the vortex. These are not mere potential realities, they are actualities. They exist. And more are created every time consciousness interacts with the physical world. An infinite rate of expansion.’ Not only do the authors capture the message of the Seventh Doctor’s impassioned and forceful agenda, they likewise completely nail the intensity of Sylvester McCoy’s own voice, mirroring his portrayal completely. ‘You know nothing of the future, nothing of the horrors that wait for you along this path. However well intentioned this augmentation is, however elegant it might seem here and now, the price will be eventually too high. And that’s not all - already your presence is starting to affect the barriers of creation. You’ve felt the tremors. That is only the beginning. Soon, all of space and time will start to collapse.’ When Cody McBride reflects upon the morality that he as a child would torture ants, the Doctor simply whispers, ‘I’ve destroyed planets,’ a simple moment that strikes our souls as a window into the Doctor’s mind. It’s one of the most powerful and provocative calm moments in all of Doctor Who’s long tenure.

In keeping with the style of Cole and Richards, this novel captures a Clancy-esque feel, not so much militarily but more so in terms of action. It’s a thriller that reminds the reader of the works to Tony Scott, John Wu and many of the Stephen J. Cannell television shows of the eighties. Although the book concludes the arc established with Matrix, Storm Harvest, Prime Time and Heritage, it acts as a deliberately direct sequel to Illegal Alien, the Tucker and Perry book which started this entire storyline. Illegal Alien is in fact so integral to the plot of Loving the Alien that is quite possibly a necessary and essential prerequisite to reading the new book.

Though it harkens back to Cartmel era Seventh Doctor in function, it’s plot structure seems a direct homage to Philip K. Dick’s classic Man In High Castle, and more specifically Dick’s proposed but unwritten sequel in which two alternate Earths, each taking separate paths subsequent to World War Two, would come into conflict with each other. Turtledove fans will love this sort of alternate reality stuff, and Tucker and Perry have masterfully woven this genre of science fiction into the fabric of the Doctor Who universe.

Loving the Alien is also a nice twist on the whole Cyberman agenda. While Illegal Alien provided a refreshing take on what could be deemed on seemingly otherwise stereotypical Seventh Doctor fair, specifically Cybermen and Nazis, this new book uses Cybermen only peripherally to provoke insight on the human condition. This book also relates to many issues present in the Big Finish audio masterpiece Spare Parts, with the augmentation of Brits and primates as a mirror of events on Mondas, but in a more home hitting manner. The Doctor finds himself opposing an enemy to whom he is worth more dissected that interrogated. The anti-American prejudice present in this novel plays into this whole Nazi-esque perfect race ideology amazingly, prompting echoes of the whole anti-mutant agenda in the X-Men, and completely drives the idea of manipulating humanity into something different into our hearts, building some heartfelt introspective regret and fear.

In the previous novel, Prime Time, the Doctor discovered Ace’s corpse. In Loving the Alien, he takes her to the place of her death to prevent her passing. Remember how the Doctor wouldn’t go back in time to save Adric? There’s a reason. This novel reflects on something more powerful than Time itself. Destiny. The Doctor says ‘You can try to break free from the clutches of time, but in the end there is no escape. Whatever you do, however many alternatives you create, the end will always be the same. Destiny.’ This provides an interesting interpretation of the moral of "The Aztecs". For a Doctor Who book this is quite profound, though it’s handled a little confusingly. Does Ace really die? What can I say. He found the body, didn’t he? Then how is he travelling with Ace throughout the Virgin adventures. Sadly, this much anticipated resolution is handled casually and confusingly, and comes across as almost an aside, not really working itself out until the book’s epilogue. A disappointment? Maybe. But it seems that this can be overlooked as the rest of the novel sparks such a fulfilling adventure piece. And when it’s all over, Doctor Who graduates into new boundaries, and it’s time to reread your Virgin New Adventures.

The Doctor took another sip of wine. ‘There are realities out there where the skies are water, the trees made of air and the people speak in rhyme, realities where…’

‘Oi!’ Ace lumbered over and tapped the Doctor on the knee. ‘What have I told you about getting all poetic?’