Any long term Doctor Who fans must hold a lot of affection for Barry Letts, who during the ‘70’s produced some classic Who and is still an enthusiastic ambassador for the show. Unfortunately however it is undeniable that, as with the other members of the ‘old guard’ still active in writing novels such as Terrance Dicks and Chris Boucher, all his best work is a long time in the past, and getting further away every year. Post-cancellation of the original TV series Letts does not have an impressive CV: his two radio stories – The Paradise of Death and The Ghost of N-Space – are considered fairly inept, and really only worthwhile for hearing Jon Pertwee in the role one last time, while his third of the anniversary novel Deadly Reunion was boring, turgid stuff. The good news is that Island of Death is an improvement on Letts last literary outing, but the bad news is this is still some considerable way short of being a good novel.
Lets get the bad stuff out of the way first – the basic story of Island of Death is so generic you instantly feel as though you’ve already read or seen a dozen variations on the tale – a mysterious corpse turns up on Hampstead Heath, leading to the uncovering of a new age cult unwittingly acting as the conduit for an invasion of Earth by the parasitic Skang. Been there, done that, bought the T-Shirt. Several times in fact. A slight difference this time round is that the cultists are converging on a remote island to summon their alien chums, and with the TARDIS playing up the 3rd Doctor, Sarah Jane and the Brigadier have to get there by – you guessed it – a long sea voyage.
As with Letts section of Deadly Reunion this novel just grinds to a halt once the TARDIS-team take to the seas, as we have to endure an interminable 100-pages of go-slow plotting. Letts introduces dozens of naval characters, most of whom are distinguishable only by name, and while his navel experience may make this material realistic it sure is dull – should Letts ever produce another novel for gods sake someone keep him out of the water!
Once the regulars finally land on the island (‘…of death’) Letts produces a reasonably enjoyable finale, and while the Skang are in many ways both generic and implausible (one minute they are light enough to fly, but can be killed by pushing them off cliffs) the nature of their hypnotic powers, where perception literally becomes reality is interesting, especially as Letts can tie this material in with both the spiritual beliefs of the cultists and the Doctor’s own philosophical musings. The fact that their death brings ecstasy also leads to a surprisingly sexual death scene, as one of the female cultists is penetrated by an alien proboscis at the finale – it’s a neat bit of odd body horror, and it’s a pity the novel is otherwise so devoid of scenes of alien mayhem.
One of the most maligned aspects of Letts two Pertwee radio plays was the new companion Jeremy – a creature so wet and annoying that Adric seemed perfectly reasonable in comparison. Bravely Letts has determined to keep to his own new continuity of the 3rd Doctors era, and as such Jeremy makes a return appearance here. The surprise is that he actually works very well here, now Letts seems to have cottoned on to how much everyone hates the character, and he has a lot of fun heaping untold misery on the boy, which is hilarious.
One thing Letts seems to have learned from Terrance Dicks contributions to Deadly Reunion is the importance of humour, and thankfully some elements of comedy stop Island of Death from becoming terminally boring. It goes without saying that Letts handles the regulars well (even if the Brig seems to be an alcoholic) but his scenes with the 3rd Doctor communicating with aquatic lifeforms are laugh out loud funny.
Island of Death has a generic storyline, has awful lifeless supporting characters, and has an interminable naval journey that it’s difficult to summon up the willpower to read through, but it also has some warm moments from the series regulars, and a few interesting angles on the alien Skang. The biggest problem is there simply isn’t enough story to fill a 280-page book - cut down into the new 9th Doctor format this might well have tightened up into something with more dramatic oomph than following a bunch of cultists around for 200 pages. No one likes to put the boot into an 80-year old man, and I’ve no doubt that if this was written by a newcomer I’d be even more vitriolic in my questioning of why BBC Books would commission such drivel – but, taken with a charitable disposition, Island of Death has it’s pleasant moments, and can be reasonably enjoyable as a 3rd Doctor romp if one pitches ones expectations low – just don’t expect any classic of literature.
Good old Barry Letts. For far too long now we have been inundated with seriously dull titles for our Doctor Who stories. Look at the TV series this year. Rose. How exciting. The Long Game. Yawn. Bad Wolf. Stop it, I might pee myself with anticipation. What about the books… The Gallifrey Chronicles (if there was ever a book to have a less inspiring title you let me know). Match of the Day (ooh, a book about footie!). Winner Takes All (who cares?). Even Big Finish have been lacking. Three’s a Crowd, Catch-1782, The Game…I shan’t try and be witty with these titles as it would be a waste of talent (ooh ego). What has happened to the good old campy Doctor Who titles? Terror of the Zygons! The Ice Warriors! The Android Invasion! Thank God we still have old hacks like Barry Letts on board and this time he has thought up a real humdinger…Island of Death! Who wouldn’t want to read a book with that title? Island of Death, man! Even if it was by the same writer who gave us The Ghosts of N-Space you wouldn’t care…Island of Death as an appetite whetter just rocks!
Unfortunately this is one of the ugliest written Doctor Who books ever. Barry Letts just cannot write prose to save his life and it doesn’t matter if his ideas are shatteringly original (which they are not) or the plot is ohmiGodElisabethSladenisgoingtobeinseasontwo exciting (which it isn’t), if the book doesn’t read well you have lost the battle. Island of Death is chock a block full of horrible, unreadable sentences that left me gagging at the sheer incomprehensibility of them. I was always distracted away from what was going on because I was trying so hard to understand exactly what I was being told. This was particularly hard during the sailing scenes where Letts goes off down memory lane and starts dissecting the ship from port to stern and explaining every little rivet along the way. The only people who will get anything from these scenes are sailors or those who are on a cruise so they can check that Letts knows what he is talking about. For the everyday layman (ie me) it is just dull old nautical facts.
The book also tries far too hard to give its characters personality and is full of internal exclamations. Just like this! And this! Godammit! Sarah is particularly guilty in this regard and the Brig even starts getting in on the action during the tenser moments. Golly blast! I could imagine them mentally thumping a table every time they had one of these thoughts, dagnammit!
And worse of all is how the characters keep remembering their pasts, like Mr Letts is trying to build up a picture of who these people are but cannot find any other way of doing so but have them recall what Granny told them once or comparing something to what Mama used to do or maybe just recalling their own illustrious career so far. At times the Brigadier reads like a list of military facts rather than a person and he doesn’t seem to be able to manage anything without his usual motley UNIT gang. It feels horribly forced, Letts is telling you these people have had past rather than revealing it through the plot.
I’m afraid the plot is hardly inspiring either. A demon-worshipping cult? Cor, that’s original, how long it take you to think up that one? It wouldn’t matter so much if perhaps the book bothered to examine the cult in any great depth but the entire first half of the book is taken up by an extremely protracted chase sequence (so just like the Pertwee era there then) and features the heroes of the book guessing about the whole ghastly set up. Besides any book, which threatens to get rid of Jeremy Fitzoliver, should be an open and shut case surely? He’s gone. Gobbled up by a demon-worshipping cult. Lets throw a party. The end.
What made this book almost bearable were the magical moments Letts scatters about every now and again that remind you that his head might still be in the game. I loved the funny business in the TARDIS early on, it reminded me of The War Games in all the best ways. And there was a fabulous scene with the Doctor and Sarah awaiting rescue looking up at the stars. Even Lethbridge-Stewart comes up trumps when he punches out one of the sailors. But these special moments do not crop up enough to take my mind away from the woeful mischaracterization and terrible dialogue.
I do appreciate that Sarah is treated as a working girl, so many writers forget that this is the ideal ‘on Earth’ companion because of her journalism background and Letts forcibly reminds us here that during her first year on the show she was still living a normal life, earning a wage and only helping out the Doctor part time. But some of the lines Letts gives Sarah are shockingly bad, as though she was some kind of cocky wide boy. Without Elisabeth Sladen on board to make his dialogue sound plausible (and lets face it she could make any dialogue sound okay, she even got through Revenge of the Cybermen unscathed…just!) Sarah reads like an amateurish, melodramatic flapper, one who is shoe horned into the role of the useless victim. Unforgivable.
The Doctor is even worse though, a far cry from the dignified gentlemen Pertwee used to play and this is an unfair interpretation of Letts’ own Doctor. The tension with the Brigadier had all but vanished come season eleven so why do they squabble throughout like a pair of naughty schoolboys? Why does the Doctor spout nothing but technobabble, sounding as though he has swallowed a textbook for half the novel? The third Doctor was always in control during his stories but he stands at the periphery of Island of Death and remains redundant until the climax. And I know Lethbridge-Stewart could be something of a buffoon at times but he was never as idiotically naïve as he is during stages of this book. When he is treated to a tour of a picturesque island he is utterly convinced that the Skang cult is all above board. If anything was going to convince they were up to know good it would be this kind of squeaky clean behaviour!
The sad truth is it doesn’t look as if Letts has changed his storytelling techniques at all in thirty odd years since he was the producer of the show. Terrance Dicks can get away with it because his writing is so energetic and his characterisation spot on but this type of clichéd rubbish was out of fashion in the seventies and I cannot imagine anyone enjoying the simplistic and deathly slow plot of Island of Death in 2005. If Justin Richards was trying to kill of the PDAs this would be the way to go, with Gary Russell up next months I can only imagine things will keep going downhill (although I live in hope that Gary Russell has one truly fabulous Doctor Who novel in him). It also looks as if Letts has not read up on any of the criticisms on his previous work because he is making the same mistakes that he did with Virgin.
If you are going to work with these kinds of stereotypes you have to do something fun with them. Or take the piss out of them. But Island of Death is a deadly serious novel and that is the final nail in the coffin. There are very few flashes of humour and the whole thing reads like a strained lecture. Remember kiddies don’t go joining any Demon worshipping cults now!
Action must be taken. Being generous this book would scrape a barely acceptable and I’m afraid in this day and age (where there is so much more Doctor Who merchandise available) that just isn’t good enough.
Almost unreadably poor.
You know, I just noticed something. Take a look at the 2005 PDAs' author line-up. We'll exclude the 8DA authors (Steve Cole, Justin Richards, Nick Wallace) and just focus on that poor neglected second cousin of the books line. From the start of the year...
Admittedly then there's light at the end of the tunnel with Simon Guerrier and Andrew Cartmel, but that's not until frickin' November. Is this some kind of joke? And they wondered why people had stopped reading the PDAs! In fact Island of Death isn't so bad, but I mean that in a "I was also generous to The Ghosts of N-Space" way. Frankly half the damage was done when people saw the author line-up.
Credit where credit's due, if only by default this may be Barry Letts's best plot. It's not weighed down by supernatural bollocks like Ghosts of N-Space or Deadly Reunion, while unlike Paradise of Death it's of publishable standard. (Yes, this means I'm saying Ghosts of N-Space is of publishable standard. If you think I'm being unwontedly generous, you haven't read Paradise of Death lately.)
On the downside, that plot is shockingly dull. If I were a schoolmaster grading an essay, I'd be comparing it to the kind of offering that manages little more than getting its words out one after another without spelling mistakes. Our heroes barely interact with their foes, to the point where at the climax I was afraid that the villains would defeat themselves without any intervention from the Doctor at all. In the end it's not quite that bad, but it's bloody close. The Doctor waves some far-too-convenient technobabble and that's it. The end. His developing relationship with the villains' matriarch? Never went anywhere. The Brigadier and his men? They get to watch.
There's one good thing about this book, but it's the same thing I liked about Barry's bit of Deadly Reunion. Being about fifty years older than almost everyone else currently writing Doctor Who, Barry's authentically of the Brigadier's generation. (Even Terrance Dicks is younger.) He knows about National Service, serving in the Navy and so on. When he writes about it, you believe him. In Deadly Reunion he showed us the Greek islands, while here we get a quick flash of India. Frankly it saves the book. After eighty-odd pages of crap I was practically comatose, but then the TARDIS crew took to the seas on HMS Hallaton and the book came alive. Unfortunately my interest subsided when they reached their destination... truly, in Island of Death it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
It doesn't often happen, but for once I get the impression that an author has been reading his reviews. That's admirable, but I'm slightly startled by how blatantly Barry's recycled the best aspect of his previous work. Pulling exactly the same trick twice... okay, I'll let you off this time. No more, please.
Other things suggest conscious self-correction. I applaud the lack of supernatural tosh, though it would have helped if the sci-fi elements we get instead were even slightly interesting. Unfortunately there's also Jeremy, who's the book's worst failing. Frankly it's rather embarrassing. After happily introducing the character in Paradise of Death and perhaps hoping that we'd love him, Barry has clearly come around to the majority opinion that Jeremy Fitzoliver is a waste of printers' ink. In this book he's not even a bad joke. He's a paper-thin mama's boy, not even written with enough enthusiasm to be worth hating. So why's he here? He has a plot role, yes, but of all people shouldn't the character's original creator show some interest in the poor guy? Arguably it works quite well as foreshadowing for a certain Gary Russell novel, but that's no excuse. It doesn't help that even when written properly, Jeremy was the most tired stereotype in English-language fiction.
Surprisingly the other regulars aren't much better. The Brigadier comes off best, getting a couple of good moments. The Doctor's okay, but he needs to dazzle to justify the existence of nonsense like this. I was disappointed. Barry's done better. However Sarah-Jane is just flat-out wrong, a giggly idiot who'd have worked better if search-and-replaced into Jo Grant. Worse yet, her point-of-view chapters carry much of the book and anyone who doesn't like Barry's version of her is in for a long slog.
There are Signals From Fred.
p101 [the Brigadier] - "He heard himself clearing his throat in a sort of 'Harrumph!' Good God! He was turning into a real Colonel Blimp!"
p258 [Sarah] - "(and she didn't give a toss if that was a cliche)."
Authors should listen to their word processors. They might also want to give more thought to battle tactics. In Paradise of Death, the Brigadier mysteriously took Jeremy into battle because... well, because he was the companion and Barry hadn't considered that he wouldn't. In Island of Death, exactly the same happens with Sarah except that in addition she's been given one of five vital pieces of equipment that should rightly have gone to a man with a gun.
Silly observation... does Barry Letts read Victor Mollo? If Mr Papadopoulos (p56) was mayhap christened Themistocles, does that mean we can expect to meet the Hideous Hog and Rueful Rabbit?
Overall, this is the kind of mediocrity that these days I tend to end up half-heartedly praising. Island of Death reaches a certain level of competence, but it's less entertaining than Paradise of Death and less interesting and memorable than The Ghosts of N-Space. Shockingly though, it may well end up being the best of the four PDAs I mentioned at the start of this review (Boucher, Letts, Russell, Dicks). Given the author's name, it mostly meets and perhaps slightly exceeds expectations.