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Atom Bomb Blues

Doctor Who: The BBC Past Doctor Adventures #76
Finn Clark

It's lightweight bollocks, really. 'Twould be inconsequential under any byline, but it's particularly disappointing from the author of the War trilogy. Andrew Cartmel's previous novels were thoughtful, complicated and thematically rich, but this comes across as a just another runaround.

Oddly however I have sympathy for Andrew Cartmel. Admittedly no one forced him to come up with this story, but equally no one forced BBC Books to commission it. Let me quote the back cover blurb... "Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1945. The Second World War is coming to its bloody conclusion, and in the American desert the race is on to build an atomic bomb. The fate of the world is at stake in more ways than one. Someone, or something, is trying to alter the course of history at this most delicate point. And destroy the human race. Posing as a nuclear scientist with Ace as his research assistant, the Doctor plays detective among the Manhattan Project scientists, while desperately trying to avoid falling under suspicion himself."

Where do I start? Firstly Los Alamos is boring. Atom Bomb Blues has strong similarities with Cartmel's War trilogy, but its setting lets it down. 1945 New Mexico never provides any suspense or danger. I've said before that there are stories you can't tell with the NAs' Dark Doctor and the main kind is this kind of low-key historical. Hell, this problem even dragged down Lance Parkin's Just War. The 7th Doctor at the height of his powers here so completely outclasses everyone else around him that he smothers the drama. Problems that could have troubled Hartnell are hardly worth consideration here. The War trilogy's edgy near-future setting was a huge factor in its success and it's rather sad how much Atom Bomb Blues suffers in comparison.

Secondly, there's all that history-changing bollocks. The book's mere presence in a line of alternate universes bled the drama out of that from the beginning, but it got a thousand times worse when alternate universes reared their ugly heads here too. I don't understand. Were BBC Books on a suicide mission? (Obviously the answer's yes, but we're approaching the point where one almost wonders if it was deliberate.) It's horrendous. Apart from anything else I didn't believe for a moment that the bad guys' plan would work. So they're going to destroy an entire universe... gee, isn't that just what the Doctor himself has done repeatedly in the novels since 1993, isn't it? Assuming that this will work (not a watertight assumption), then apparently there's to be some kind of ripple effect that will make a specific change to history throughout the rest of the multiverse. Admittedly even the Doctor has doubts about the efficacy of this scheme, but I was snorting in disbelief from the beginning.

Even the internal logic is weird. Why should everyone in 1945 New Mexico have a counterpart of the same age from a 21st century alternate universe?

I suppose there's the theoretical possibility that some people might find all that nuclear bomb stuff chilling. "But the world didn't blow up in 1945, did it?" could theoretically have been sinister, but there's a problem with it even without the "I don't care" factor of alternate universes. Are we supposed to be happy or sad that Hiroshima and Nagasaki got nuked? Ace clearly thinks it's a bad thing, since she "had seen a documentary on Hiroshima once at school and she hadn't been able to eat kebabs for nearly a year afterwards." Yes, well. Ahem. Personally I feel that Japan with its wartime atrocities was asking for it. Lots of people died, the war ended and everything returned to normal. Now ain't that a shame? I'd say that if you can't get an emotional reaction with this material from someone who's actually living in Japan (me), it's probably safe to say that you're not having the impact you think you are.

The problems don't end there. This is another "manipulative 7th Doctor" story, but filtered through the later BBC Books' Doctor-centric obsession. Cartmel's War trilogy kept the Doctor mostly out of sight and thus made him seem more powerful, but here he's bloody everywhere. Doctor, Doctor, Doctor. We hardly see the effect he has on anyone, because we're always gawping at him. This is doubly unfortunate since the Doctor and Ace get nothing interesting to do. This book is about a manipulative Dark Doctor up against no one worth manipulating, partnered with Ace the explosives-loving hooligan on her best behaviour. They're undercover. They're bland. Even the oft-abused Perry-Tucker PDAs had better story roles for these characters.

The historical period feels thin and not particularly interesting. I don't care about paranoid Americans. Even Cartmel's own The Good Soldiers (DWM 175-178) wrung more atmosphere from a similar setting. There's some ill-directed misogynism and some vaguely amusing characters, but the villains in particular are fun and no more. They're not menacing, scary or even noticeably competent. I was happy to read about them, but I wouldn't have been surprised to find a twist where Cartmel unveiled the book's real bad guys.

There's something strange on p214, though. A Japanese person with green eyes?

At its best, this book is merely diverting. Essentially it's what you'd expect from an alliance of Andrew Cartmel and the dying days of BBC Books. The former contributes a McCoy-and-Ace book structured like his NAs rather than a conventional adventure, while the publisher waves a hand vaguely in the air without encouraging the author to do anything too challenging. It's as if they've been listening to the wrong fan complaints. The Cole era got bashed for continuity and sidelining the Doctor, so the Richards era has prioritised that while not having a problem with alternate universes. In an odd way these days I'm actually more forgiving of Steve Cole, who was incompetent instead of deliberately choosing to publish stuff like this.

This book isn't worthless. I quite liked some of its characters, thin though they are. It's also not as far removed from the rest of Cartmel's work as it looks, once you've allowed for the problems inherent in the plot and setting. However its author is capable of much better.

Lawrence Conquest

The preceding BBC Past Doctor novel – The Time Travellers – was a story about a scientific experiment resulting in a number of characters travelling backwards in time to another branch of the multiverse. Atom Bomb Blues on the other hand is a story about…wait for it…a scientific experiment resulting in a number of characters travelling backwards in time to another branch of the multiverse. OK, so I’m being slightly facetious here, as beyond the identical premises each of these novels travels in very different directions, but still one has to despair at the commissioning process that leads to both these books being published on the same day. What ever happened to a bit of variety? Oh well…

Andrew Cartmel has of course what one might term ‘previous form’ with the 7th Doctor – not only as script editor on television but also with a trilogy of novels written for Virgins old New Adventures line. As typical for the period, Cartmel’s New Adventures were reasonably experimental, being more adult stories that often featured the regular characters only on the periphery of the action. A full 10 years after his last full-length Doctor Who novel and Cartmel returns to the same characters, but with a very different style. Atom Bomb Blues fits very smoothly into the style of the more unadventurous straightforward Past Doctor novel, and the 7th Doctor and Ace are right at the centre of proceedings – in fact, virtually every single scene seems to be written around them. As such Cartmel obviously has less room for his original supporting characters, so he wisely keeps the cast small, though even with this some of them are so broad as to be bordering on cliché: witness the typically stuffy army man Major Butcher, who acts like the Brigadier with a stick up his backside, and psychologist Henbest, who is forever doing stock psychological profiles of the rest of the staff. Strangest of all is the larger than life character of ‘Cosmic’ Ray, whose constant stream of beatnik dialogue (every sentence complete with either ‘baby’, ‘man’, ‘cool’, or ‘daddy-O’) is so relentlessly awful that I spent the whole novel convinced he was an alien in disguise who’d mastered English by studying the Fonz from Happy Days, but alas, he’s human, so I don’t know what to make of him daddy-O. Dig it?

As for the Doctor and Ace, they are generally consistent with the characters we’ve known all this time – as you’d expect – though Ace does seem to be very naïve (if not outright stupid) despite the ‘years’ she’s supposedly spent with the Doctor. How can she not know the expression ‘Uncle Sam’? And how can she claim that she ‘always wanted to be in the FBI’ yet doesn’t recognise the terms ‘Fed’ or ‘G-Man’? She also provides what must be the most tasteless and crass comment I’ve ever read in any Doctor Who book with “…they were getting ready to build a bomb that would be used to incinerate thousands of Japanese men, women, children and babies. Ace had seen a documentary about Hiroshima once at school and she hadn’t been able to eat kebabs for nearly a year afterwards.” which, amazingly, gets repeated twice in the novel!

As for the plot – well, it’s one of those storylines that is only enjoyable when you don’t quite know what is going on. The first half of the novel, with the Doctor and Ace going undercover to investigate mysterious goings on surrounding the first testing of the nuclear bomb, is generally readable and enjoyable stuff. Unfortunately Cartmel seems to lose the plot in the second half – quite literally. First we have a bizarre interlude where we meet a gang of Indians and an extraterrestrial – it’s a colourful encounter but ultimately it doesn’t further the plot one bit, and in retrospect it looks as though it’s padding crowbarred into an under-running book. Finally the bad guys plan is ultimately revealed as utter rubbish: destroying the universe so that the Japanese can triumph in every other Earth in the multiverse. It’s riddled with holes. How - exactly - are they going to use the destruction of the universe to ensure this historical effect on the rest of the multiverse? Cartmel never tells us, and even the Doctor seems dubious. How come they are all from a timeline 100 odd years further on, yet have handy same-age duplicates in this universe? And why are they convinced that –as this is an alternate universe running to a different timescale – events here exactly follow the timescale in their own universe? It’s very shoddy, badly thought through stuff, and ultimately ensures the book ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

And so ends possibly not only Atom Bomb Blues, but the BBC’s 8-year old Past Doctor Adventure line as well, with currently no new novels commissioned and the future of the range in some doubt. In some ways Atom Bomb Blues is an appropriate final book – it’s readable, and it provides a pleasant fix for those missing an old era of the television programme, but it’s also a fairly mediocre novel when held up against most non-Who science fiction, as has sadly been true of much of the range, certainly within the past year. There have been some fun journeys along the way, but if this 76th PDA is to be the last I don’t think I’ll be shedding too many tears. Bye for now.