I'm a huge fan of Westerns. Last year I bought three Will Henry novels and was totally blown away. However the thing about 'em is that they're more than just their trappings. Horses and six-guns do not a Western make. They're pure drama - just the hero and his foes; no authority or legal machinery but what they make for themselves, not even any real civilisation as we would understand it. A Western's protagonists can depend on nothing but their own grit and courage. And that's without taking in the cinematic language of the Western - wide open spaces, solitary figures, confrontations at a distance rather than the close-up intensity of horror, etc. Learned discussions could be had about the Western's influence on shows as disparate as Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels or Buffy The Vampire Slayer. (Occasional Western-inspired moments appear in Whedon-helmed episodes, though of course he really showed his love for the genre in Firefly.)
Despite the cover (dear God, that cover!) The Colony of Lies is not a Western.
First of all, these colonists ain't frontiersmen. Life isn't tough for them because they're manly men carving their rugged way in the universe, but instead because it's against their principles to use technology. They have it; they just don't use it! Forget about Clint Eastwood. It's more like some crazy religious sect, like the Amish. I loved the line where we learned where Stewart Ransom lifted his ideas; somehow I knew it wasn't going to be Unforgiven or High Plains Drifter.
There's a nifty SF backstory that's obviously hiding a big secret or two. There are Sleepers! Will they wake up? Do bears shit in the woods? [NOTE: I scribbled that line within half a second of reading about the Sleepers, so please - no complaints that I've spoiled the story's "killer twist". These are plot developments that are visible from orbit.] Oh, and more Sleepers! In fact there are several SF ideas waiting to unfold, more than enough to keep the story bubbling. I can't fault that.
Unfortunately it's largely these revelations that drive the plot. The Colony of Lies is variously "colonists vs. rebels", "marines vs. aliens", an Eastenders episode, SF investigation and uncovering the past... hell, throw a brick and you'll hit a cliche. The only thing it's not is a Western! The first characters we meet on Axista Four are Billy Joe (a Rebellious Teenager whose thought processes will make you ache for his immediate, painful demise) and his homily-spouting old grandfather. The colony has rebels (the "Realists") who seem to be violent... yet Grandad is the local Sheriff! Yeah, right. Take the danger seriously, why don't you? [In fact he's tougher than he looks, but this much-needed bit of description doesn't crop up until p174.] Fortunately what with all the spaceships, space marines, technological investigations and info-dumps about the past, no character is required to do much that particularly affects anything. True grit? What's that?
But bless his cotton socks, Colin Brake never stops pushing his Western trappings. His book may be a totally bog-standard Who runaround, but that doesn't stop him hitting us over the head with its backdrop. It's almost sweet. There are horses and Colt revolvers. Grandad's name is Cartwright... sorry, Kartryte (heaven help us). There's even some deconstructionist genre referencing.
Oh, oh! I haven't mentioned the best bit! As a further hammer-blow to any possible Western atmosphere, The Colony of Lies has some *really* distracting Whoniverse history. I read Chapter Two utterly convinced that this was a Federation spaceship from the year 3409 and that this would be a novel set in three timezones (foundation in 2439, main action in 2539, after-the-fact investigation in 3409). I'd have enjoyed that, but nope. They're Space Marines from an Earth empire that's confusingly still called the "Earth Federation" (p97) (though I quite liked where this eventually went and for all I know it's a Frontier in Space reference or something). Oh, and Stewart Ransom has apparently built a New Atlantis in the Pacific.
However p102 really blew my mind. If Carter is telling the truth (a big if), then mankind has been at war with the Daleks for 75 years. Huh? What is this? How come Vicki only knew of Daleks from history books about the 22nd-century invasion? 2493 minus 2464 is approximately thirty years! And what about the detailed history of the Dalek wars (2540+) in Beige Planet Mars and other books? The Colony of Lies takes place in the previous year! Is this supposed to be a clue that Carter is a lying son of a bitch, or that Dalek history is ever-shifting, or that no one cares about keeping this kind of thing straight these days?
Despite all that I've said, however, there's a cosily Whoish feel to The Colony of Lies. There's no attempt at depth with the regulars' characterisation, but given what's been perpetrated elsewhere in Troughton novels that may be a good thing. They're all painted in broad brushstrokes (thick Jamie, etc.) and are fairly entertaining. By aiming at nothing more than amusing surface characterisation, the book is quite successful at achieving that. I particularly liked the regulars' first scene, which sets the tone quite well.
I also liked the episodic structure, complete with cliffhangers and start-of-episode recaps. It's not a sophisticated gimmick, but it suits the book.
The Colony of Lies is perfectly readable and never hits the lows we saw in Escape Velocity. "Inoffensive" is a good word for it. Its plot is awful, meandering ineffectually between various undynamic groups of losers and relying on sci-fi backstory revelations instead of drama, but at least it's ingenious and makes sense. The soapy bits ("I loved him!" etc.) actually provide some nice moments. The ending is unintentionally amusing, too. The colonists realise they've all been a bit silly. Hey, we could have told you that!
Sadly it's the second-best BBC Book of the year so far. (I say "sadly" because it's the kind of forgettable bulk filler that pads out the lesser end of a normal year's releases and I'm having trouble remembering its details even now. In a couple of months I'll hardly be aware that it ever existed.) I kinda enjoyed it but I really hope BBC Books aren't *aiming* for this level in these conservative post-cutback times. If they are, then next year the flipping DWM comic strip will probably have a higher profile than the books.
And it's not a Western! If that's what you want, try Heritage or Interference.
I’m always a sucker for giving authors another chance. Escape Velocity went down like a lead balloon, by not only managing to fumble the end of the ‘Earth arc’ but by also being a dreadfully derivative potboiler in its own right. The good news is that The Colony of Lies is a better book. The bad news is it’s still not very good.
From the back cover blurb the story appears to be a retread of Frontios – isolated colonists on an alien planet, squabbling over the resources left in their crashed spaceship, while beneath the ground a hostile alien race stirs… While these similarities are true up to a point, there is a great deal more to this book, but unfortunately all the other ideas in the novel are just as reminiscent of other old Who or science fiction ideas. There’s an invisible spaceship – like Shada. There are chest-hugging aliens who put their hosts into a deep sleep – shades of Alien. There’s that old space opera staple of Space Marines. There’s a climax that revolves around our heroes flying up to a mother ship in order to put an army of robots out of action – that’ll be The Phantom Menace then. Oh, and most blatantly, there’s the struggle for control of the planet between Johnny-come-lately humanity, and it’s original inhabitants, with the Doctor preaching reconciliation while the military press for all out destruction – yep – it’s Doctor Who and the Silurians again. In fact, if I were to sum up The Colony of Lies plot at it’s most basic – I’d say think Doctor Who and the Silurians, only set on an alien world instead of Wenley Moor, with Space Marines instead of UNIT, and with the reptile-men Silurians replaced with the dog-men Tyrenians.
Ah yes, the Tyrenians. The main ‘threat’ for the majority of this novel, unfortunately this canine bunch comes from the standard lazy generic template used by a number of authors when creating alien races. It’s easy to create a one-dimensional Doctor Who alien in 2 easy steps – here’s how:
1: Biology – pick an animal, and anthropomorphise it; we’ve had cat-men, shark-men, lizard-men, rhino-men, tortoise-men, etc, etc – why not dog-men?
2:Culture – hmmm, how about a generic race of warlike aliens, shot through with, surprise surprise, a warriors code of honour? Yawn.
In fairness Brake does try to provide some reasoning on this with a final spin on the Tyrenians, but just when you think the novel’s about to climb out of cliché hole it slips straight into another cheesy standard by wheeling out the old HEROIC SACRIFICE finale. If you’re anything like me when you get to this point you’ll be mouthing along the familiar words – “No Doctor, you save yourself – I must redeem myself by pressing the self-destruct button and blowing myself up! Etc etc “. Just how many times are authors going to wheel out this cornball cliché before they realise it’s dead in the water? The last time this trick had any emotional impact was probably The Ark in Space – and that was in 1975. It’s been so overused anyone could write it in their sleep by now. Some originality please?
The back cover blurb is also rather misleading as it seems to give the impression that this is a ‘2 Doctor’ adventure, with the 7th Doctor and Ace given equal billing. In fact the 7th Doctor appears in nothing more than a top and tail framing device of approximately 10 pages – hardly worth shouting about.
So, I’ve been moaning a lot about The Colony of Lies – is it really that awful? No – it’s just lazy and derivative, with bog-standard prose all but devoid of style. It’s certainly not alone in the Who range in that respect, and much like your average Christopher Bulis novel this simply screams ‘mediocre’ throughout. Going by the ‘About the Author’ section, Colin Brake has had plenty of scriptwriting experience, and maybe this is where his real talent lies (Big Finish perhaps?), but as a novelist I’m afraid he just isn’t doing anything for me.