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The Indestructible Man

Doctor Who: The BBC Past Doctor Adventures #69
Aidan Brack

Marionette science fiction. I’ve never seen any mind, but I know that The Indestructible Man is a homage to the series of Gerry Anderson such as UFO, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. Not knowing the material Messingham is parodying could be a help - this felt like Doctor Who to me because I didn’t catch a lot of the references. Maybe it would have felt a little less real if I was aware of the backstory of Thunderbirds (though I did spot the Tracy/Sharon name change - very Birds of a Feather).

The novel is not really about the plot, though there is a very strong one running throughout it. Instead it is focusing on the friendship between the three central characters, seeking to break it up and then slowly push it back together, stronger than ever. One bit imparticular, the moment where Jamie recognises the Doctor and tells him why is just joyous and brought a tear to my eye (I’m a sentimental old cabbage, I am).

As I said there is a plot running through this though and whilst not as strong as the blurb implies, the actions of the characters are all informed by it. Earth had been invaded by the Myloki (humourous renamed in the Gallifrey One forums - the Mylittleponi), a race who annoyingly we learn nothing at all about despite their very alien promise, causing the collapse of the Earth economy. Earth’s defence force, PRISM, are forced to reinvent themselves after being exposed as interfering with the Sharon family’s efforts to save the Earth (though I’m not exactly sure how an expose can become best-selling in a period of hyper-inflation and devastation). We therefore encounter the Doctor as he is being held by the new underground organisation, SILOET (silhouette, - geddit?).

The most important aspect of the story though is that of the indestructible men - Matthews and Taylor. Both were made seemingly immortal by the Myloki during the invasion and can regenerate and heal after any injury. The Doctor it seems has been mistaken for another indestructible man, justifying SILOET’s interest in him. As a concept the indestructible men are interesting and a good hook into the story, though I quickly tired of the “historical accounts” by Neville Verdana interjected throughout the first half of the book.

The greatest asset of the story though is the way it captures Zoe and the Doctor. Whilst Jamie is truely broken for much of the narrative and therefore very little like the TV version that we know and love, the Doctor is mostly very well-drawn. Take for instance the scene where Bishop interogates him in front of the other high-ranking officers - the dialogue the Doctor is given sounds like Troughton could really be saying it. Zoe, being a very slimly-written character anyway on the screen, comes off even better with her thoughts on slavery and the reconstruction of the Earth sounding like the sort of thing the character might well be thinking. It also marks a change in her character - here she is determined not to be like Boffin (obvious Thunderbird’s Brain) because humanity is more important than science. This concern had been in her right from her first appearance in The Wheel in Space but Messingham draws an intriguing conflict in the character out in the course of the novel.

The Indestructible Man is a mature read which may surprise with its status as an extended series of homages. We see characters abused, enslaved and murdered. The maturity does not feel grafted on though, rather it is an intrinsic theme of the story: that of the contrast between friendship and hatred. As this theme emerged more and more towards the end of the novel I found myself increasingly hooked to the extent that I read it all in one sitting.

There are disappointments here - the cover is so dire it’s beyond words, we don’t feel quite attached enough about a character to care when he is murdered so whilst we can see it’s shocked one of the main characters, we do not feel the same way. This is a huge shame because if we had been given more time to grow attached to that character, the abruptness and pointlessness of the death may well have sunk in more.

The final disappointment is the treatment of the Myloki, who seem fascinatingly alien and yet at the same time we learn nothing about them other than the fact that they are alien. A real shame, in many ways, as good alien portrayals in the books are rare to come by.

In conclusion, The Indestructible Man is not exactly required Who reading but it has a real page-turning quality, is packed with interesting ideas and contains a really strong emotional centre. As an evocation of Season 6 it just about works and as a study of this crew’s friendship it is a huge success. Just try not to look at the front cover when you’re buying it though - that really is the worst blend of hand-drawn artwork, black and white and colour photos I’ve ever seen on a book. Black Sheep have a lot to answer for!

Joe Ford

I have to be honest; I am not the biggest fan of Gerry Anderson’s unique brand of science fiction. For the same reason I have trouble with cartoons (it took me five years to even watch one episode of the Simpsons), I like my television to be played by actors, no matter how inadequate they are. Having your entire cast as puppets is already a huge casualty in my eyes and this prejudice has probably blinded me from some quality programming (or not, those of you in the KNOW could probably answer that better than I). So it was with some trepidation that I approached The Indestructible Man, aside from SynthespiansTM the book I was least looking forward to this year. I mean come on…a Thunderbirds/Space: 1999/UFO crossover? Will the Doctor, Jaime and Zoe have be manoeuvred about with strings? Will Lady Penelope make an appearance? Will there be a huge island, which splits open to release stupid looking spaceships into the air?

It pleases me to admit that I was wrong to judge before reading and Simon Messingham has written something very special, one of the best PDAs I have read in a while and probably my favourite Second Doctor book yet. This is an extremely well written story, one that manages to tear the Doctor and his companions apart and deal with the heartbreaking consequences.

Quite brilliantly Messingham uses his source material to subvert expectations, not giving the Gerry Anderson universe a hand job as I expected but exploring the idea that this goofy idea of hero worship (and lets face it Gerry Anderson was obsessed with creating mythic, heroic characters for people to look up to) as a bad thing. He constructs the book out of so many of Anderson’s series’ but takes a harsh look at the realities of their ideas. Would the world seriously be able to finance a Thunderbirds type operation? Or a Space 1999 style station? Would the ordinary people on the street really look up to such organisations or actually be terrified of them? How would these organisations really cope with an alien menace none of them understood? Would they stay so close to their ideals if the world was bruised enough for the people to turn against them? I very much enjoyed this pessimism; it is similar in style to The Crooked World, which cleverly turned its loopy cartoon universe into something much darker and riddled with human emotion. This story isn’t all shiny spaceships and expensive mansions; it harshly examines the state of the world abandoned by its heroes, the PRISM/SILOET organisation.

It takes a good author to build up an entire world in such small book but Messingham achieves the impossible by taking our planet and turning it into a utopia gone very, very wrong. By throwing Jaime and Zoe onto the streets of a cash starved London we get experience the nightmare that Earth has become through their innocent eyes. They really do go through hell here and when they are reunited with the Doctor finally, it is clear how much the devastated planet has affected them. In a land where a man can be shot in the face for no reason and a retirement home can be purged because they suspect an alien is hiding out there, where former prisoners are cop-erced into helping rebuild and the population of London are all slaves, this is not the Earth you or I recognise and its stark brutality is a direct result of these shining organisations that promised to protect its people. With its dark atmosphere these early sections are gripping to read.

Messingham cannot write a book without using some sort of interesting narrative device, of that I am now certain. Tomb of Valdemar was written by an unreliable author (especially at the end when the original died and someone who was listening to the story takes up the reigns!) and The Infinty Race jarringly lurched from one first person narrator to another and even included some third person sections just to distract you! The Indestructible Man is far easier to read than either of those, mostly written in third person with a running commentary on the political backdrop of the story interposed in the first half in the form of an infamous expose on The Indestructible Man and has effect on the world. I very much enjoyed this approach, Messingham has a lot of information to get across to the reader before unloading his twists later in the book and this hard hitting expose has just the right amount of spunk to get you really interested. It is great when you finally get to meet the author; in one of the books most emotional moments you understand why he wrote such a dangerous piece of writing.

Captain Grant Matthews cannot be killed. A product of the War with the Myloki, sinister invaders who pushed their way into our solar system and took over our people and turned them into homicidal maniacs. Matthews has since gone into hiding, his connections to the Myloki leave the people frightened of him and like it or not his invulnerability is about to start a sequence of events that sees the Earth threatened by the aliens again…

I have always admired how authors introduce the regular characters into their books, never being a fan of a standard materialisation but I have to admit Messingham has done a sterling job of wasting little time embroiling the Doctor, Jaime and Zoe into the story.

The second Doctor is supposedly difficult to capture in print but I have to question that theory because his last three or four books have portrayed him perfectly. This book pulls of a similar trick from Combat Rock, having the joyful second Doctor facing terrible events and dealing with his reactions. He nearly dies, faces the prospect of losing his friends, faces disfigured victims of a Myloki attack… and yet it was pure Troughton through and through. The way he huffs and puffs through the book trying to get people to pay attention to him was perfect. When he is interrogated he refuses to speak until he knows Jaime and Zoe are okay, falling asleep and snoring before his questioner. After spending time with battle hardened ex con Storm and hearing his terrifying creed to kill the world if it meant ridding it of Myloki, he glares at him sadly and says “You poor man…”. But most brilliant is his retort “I didn’t do a very good job of it did I? Getting shot right away!” when he is accused of being an infiltrator into SILOET. It makes perfect sense that in a world where goodness is scarce, the second Doctor manages to seek out what little there is.

Both Jaime and Zoe get to grow up significantly in this book. Torn apart from the Doctor they are forced to survive on Earth without him, Zoe putting her brain to good use and Jaime his muscle. Whilst Jaime’s psychosis was terrifying, especially his refusal to admit the Doctor was alive and trying to kill what he thinks is a replica, I found Zoe’s characterisation even more satisfying. It is when she confronts Bishop, the man who killed the man she was becoming involved with, declaring him evil and shooting daggers despite his hands around her throat that I realised how far the usually calm Zoe had been pushed. She then meets a familiar scientific type and is ashamed to admit their similarities, hiding away in a stuffy room with numbers for friends. She realises how much the Doctor has given her and never wants to go back to being so isolated again. The dialogue for both companions was excellent, very true to character and I appreciated this adult look at their lives.

I was disappointed we didn’t learn more about the Myloki, when the book was over the gaping lack of information about this intriguing species was my one regret. This was another Embrace the Darkness style story where the aliens aren’t really evil, just misunderstood. When the Doctor reveals why they are really attacking the planet, it is a very good shock. The book is far more concerned with the human side of the conflict and how we mere mortal crawl about on the planet making things even worse, making stupid decisions to fight what we don’t understand.

This is so much better than the average The Infinity Race, sporting much meatier characterisation and world building and featuring a much stronger take on the regulars. What’s more the pace is excellent, my interest never letting up until the last page. To be frank I am shocked at how good it is, I was expecting a camp disaster and what I got was a gripping thriller.

But whatever you do don’t trust that blurb…the cheeky beggars!

Finn Clark

In some ways, commendable. On one level this is a great improvement on Messingham's last book, The Infinity Race, if only because this time the author's putting his back into it. This is a serious, not to say grim, look at a society that's still traumatised and brutalised from a recent war.

Unfortunately I'd sooner reread The Infinity Race.

My biggest objection is so subjectively fannish that you'll probably think I'm nuts. We've seen plenty of un-Whoish novels, but for me this crossed a line. Make Jo Grant a drug addict, shoot Dodo through the head... okay, fair enough. I won't love you for it, but I'll keep reading. But for me the Troughton era is special, a time of innocent mischief and pure joy. The Doctor and his friends have often tended to be childlike (e.g. Tom Baker and Liz Sladen), but we've seen a mature Sarah Jane too. However the 2nd Doctor and his friends *were* children, romping through the universe like Peter Pan on an awfully big adventure. Torturing them psychologically and dragging them through the mud... to me it felt wrong. I rejected it.

Admittedly Messingham's breaking them up so he can put them back together, their friendship renewed, but I have problems with the corresponding theme of making them grow up in the process. I feel like I've read 200 pages of child abuse. All that pain has a dramatic payoff, yes, but for me the payoff wasn't enough for what went before it.

(Under Hartnell on the other hand, this could have been fantastic. Maturity, grit and psychological intensity go perfectly with the Hartnell era and its regulars, which for depth could almost rival the NAs.)

My other problem is simpler... the book's dull! The one and only interesting character doesn't appear until p175. Messingham has created plenty of unbelievable bastards in the past (Zeta Major, Tomb of Valdemar) and they've always been compelling, but here he's created a world of *miserable* bastards. I didn't care about any of them. Oh, oh, the Myloki defeated us and we're so fucked up! Whine whine bloody whine. Everything's so pointless and depressing that my ability to care sloped off for a drink after about ten pages. Even the psychological torture of Jamie and Zoe doesn't have the surprise factor that it should, since the monotonous grimness flattens everything out and lends an air of predictability.

The plot's deadlocked. No one has anything to do! The Myloki are unstoppable bad guys and we're so worried that they might return... gee, thrilling. Even if they did return, the Myloki are so unknowably alien that there's nothing Earth could do about it anyway. The enemy aren't a foe so much as a force of nature and they're absent for most of the book anyway. There's no conflict. The characters just wander around being unpleasant to each other... well, for the first 175 pages, anyway. A badass shows up at that point, but don't expect him to make much difference to anything. This ain't that kind of book.

This book's 21st century setting should theoretically add to the Troughton-ness, since so many stories of that era were set around then (The Moonbase, The Enemy of the World, The Wheel in Space, The Seeds of Death and more, if you believe fan historians). It doesn't. This book stinks of Lance Parkin's History of the Universe, wearing its continuity like a hair shirt. Alien Bodies used this era in a playfully creative way, but there's nothing playful about this book whatsoever. The word I'd use is "clumping".

Things pick up in the second half, comparatively speaking, but then fall apart for the climax. What the hell is that ending? I mean, really. Admittedly mankind could never defeat the Myloki in any conventional way, but that's just not dramatic. The 2nd Doctor gets some good moments but some flat chapters, while Jamie and Zoe are explored in some depth but not in a way I wanted to read about. It's a better portrayal of a Troughton-era TARDIS crew than many we've seen, but for me no one's yet nailed the era in anything longer than a short story.

Oh, and apparently there are Gerry Anderson references. Simon Messingham can thank his lucky stars I know nothing about those, or I might have hated this book even more than I do already. I didn't mind the second half of The Indestructible Man, but its first half was just boring and unpleasant. However ironically had it starred Hartnell, I might have really liked it.

Lawrence Conquest

I must admit, The Indestructible Man didn’t exactly look promising: a dire cover with an unfathomable blurb is bad enough, but coupled with the fact that Messingham’s last novel was the entirely unloved mess of The Infinity Race, and I was expecting a stinker. Another factor causing me some concern was the fact that this book is apparently a homage to Gerry Anderson’s various television shows – and I have never seen a single one. This may in fact be to my advantage – readers familiar with the likes of Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet, UFO et al may well be distracted by Messingham’s weaving together of influences and winking-at-the-reader name changes - even never having seen an episode of Thunderbirds I cringed when I spotted the fact that Tracy Island had been changed into – wait for it – Sharon Island, (can you see what they did there folks?). If this level of knowing game playing is replicated throughout the novel then being familiar with Messingham’s source material may well be a distinct disadvantage, and colour this book as a little more than an exercise in cross-genre fan-wank. I have no way of knowing how much of The Indestructible Man really is Messingham’s own work, and how much is patchwork stitching together of Anderson’s material, but taken as a novel in it’s own right this is a surprisingly successful piece of serious science fiction.

On the surface The Indestructible Man seems to deal with that most clichéd of Doctor Who genres – aliens invading the Earth – but what makes this novel so successful is it’s truly epic scale. The action ranges all over the Earth – including a dystopian London where the powers that be secretly operate under the cover of Television Centre; an underwater prison; an airborne military instillation; Barbados; Tracy Island – even the Moon. The story also spans a hell of a long time for a ‘missing Doctor adventure’, not only does the backstory of the original Myloki invasion play an important role, but the Doctor and his companions end up spending literally months wrapped up in this adventure. From the point of view of slotting this ‘missing’ story into the established TV continuity of the 2nd Doctor, Jamie and Zoe this is a nightmare (Zoe gaining and losing a husband between stories?), but if you can put such fannish obsessions aside the large timeframe makes for some interesting situations – Jamie and Zoe are certainly put through the wringer here. Even the alien Myloki feel suitably epic – during the course of the entire novel we never really see one in the flesh, or even hear one speak – their aims and motives in creating an indestructible man and possessing humans are a complete mystery, with the Doctor forced to make educated guesses as to what their intentions actually are. The only disappointing aspect is that we seem to be having a run of ‘creatures from an alien dimension breaking into our universe’ in the BBC Books, but with the ‘less is more’ approach the Myloki certainly come across as the most alien and mysterious of the recent bunch, bringing to mind the similarly wilfully obscure Enemy from Lawrence Miles work, while their cancerous fungal infections of Earth are highly reminiscent of Ian McDonald’s Chaga novels.

Considering its children’s TV sources, The Indestructible Man is a surprisingly adult and sombre novel (mid you, I suppose you could aim the same ‘kiddies books’ accusations at the Doctor Who range), with the fate of the titular character given a real air of tragedy, and the climax is a beautifully understated and moving moment. It’s not all perfect however, as Messingham’s relentless magpie swiping of Gerry Anderson tropes leads to the odd jarring moment, with such silliness as a retro 60’s-style future where computers are all reels of spinning tape, and everyone wears lycra. Why is the military installation of Skyhome ridiculously situated in mid-air, instead of sensibly in orbit around the planet? Why does Zoe have to wear a stupid purple wig? Why are all the Skyhome pilots women? I can only assume all this material has been lifted from Anderson, but it jars due to making no logical sense and straining credibility – it’s a pity Messingham couldn’t have been more selective in his choice of material to use.

Still, despite the odd lapses into nonsense, The Indestructible Man is a good solid science fiction story, and quite probably the best novel Messingham written for the Who range. Anderson fans may find it an overdose of continuity references, but for the uninitiated just let the references wash over you and enjoy a damn good read.