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The Menagerie

Doctor Who: The Virgin Missing Adventures #10
Finn Clark

The Menagerie is dreadful, but not in any of the usual ways. It doesn't have any single flaw that you can point at, but is simply a dull mess by someone who apparently wasn't yet ready to write a novel. Martin Day's subsequent books have been so much better than this that it's hardly fair to make comparisons. The plot here isn't terrible, but the execution makes it a chore to read. You struggle through 264 turgid pages and then immediately forget it all, just like Shadowmind or A Device of Death.

There are relative high points. The high-tech scenes are good. I liked Jenn Alforge and her mutant mice, but unfortunately she's only around for seven pages and after that we're stuck with knights, mages, castles, towers and halberd-carrying soldiers. In this world science is forbidden. This notion actually has potential and could have made for an intriguing setting, except that: (a) everything's so predictable, (b) it's immediately obvious how this world came into existence, so there's no mystery, and (c) there's no real attempt to explore this low-tech world anyway. Apart from the science-hating Knights of Kuabris and someone who claims the title of mage, it's just another scummy sub-medieval peasant world with nothing we haven't seen a million times before.

The precise connections between past and present are clever, particularly one revelation. Unfortunately the characters inhabiting this plot are cut-rate third-stringers with hardly half a brain between them. Zaitabor is supposedly the villain, but he's barely "henchman" material. In any other story he'd be the baddie's sadistic, thuggish sidekick, the stupid one who keeps goofing up and dies conveniently in episode three. Cosmae is a worthless excuse for a man and I yearned for his death. (Even Jamie gets irritated by his whining on p98.) No one's really a player in the story.

The Knights, Defrabax, the peasants... everyone just blunders through without much of a clue about anything. Basically they're all stupid.

Then there's the clumsy storytelling. Important plot elements are de-emphasised or thrown away, making it hard to keep track of events. The most important people in the book die offscreen halfway through. Then most obviously there's the problem that the book's climactic threat is a bunch of dumb monsters on the loose. Yup, that's it. I kept waiting for the real threat to show up.

There are specific plot problems. The homunculus is really stupid on p241, torn as it is between: (a) the death of one annoying git, and (b) the deaths of everyone, including that same git. Even the Doctor explains this a few pages later. Worse still is the massive cheat at the end. Various people are caught in an explosion. The (indestructible) baddies all die, the Doctor isn't even scratched and his two friends are pulled alive from the rubble in time to say some dying words. And the explanation? Check it out, from p256:

"'He and the Mecrim took the full force of the blast.' The Doctor pointed towards the largest pile of blackened stonework. 'I'll explain later.'"

That makes it look funny, but it's not meant to be. Also there are some more than usually clumsy continuity references, the worst being the one on p161. Are we really supposed to believe that an underground beastie on some backwater planet would know or care how a mining corporation got its name thousands of years ago?

For the most part the 2nd Doctor is merely poor, but he gets a few baffling moments. Apparently the Doctor and the Master are the same person (p58), while the Doctor can send out his mind to pick up telepathic images from different times and places across the planet (p61). One line he 'hears' was said many centuries earlier. Another oh-so-convenient superpower for the Doctor! What a load of bollocks. I haven't seen anything so daft since "soul-catching" in Devil Goblins from Neptune, co-written by... ah, yes.

As for the companions, Zoe is unlikeably pompous while Jamie is 100% finest cardboard. He gets plenty to do, though, including an entertaining scene with a hovercar.

I was interested to see that Martin Day does well by his female characters, though. There's plenty of sex, with Kaquaan being a working prostitute, but unlike many NAs it doesn't come across as yet another sad male fantasy. These scenes take a female perspective, with the men being the ones who end up looking pathetic. Come to think of it, the book's best characters are women. Kaquaan is practically the heroine while I liked Reisar and Raitak; my favourite scenes were those set in Diseada's freak show.

There's a motif of freaks (Diseada's show, the Menagerie, Defrabax's homunculus, etc.), though it doesn't go anywhere much. I liked Jenn Alforge's emails, which broke up the prose and gave me something to focus on. Um, I think that's everything I liked about this book.

Sadly, this novel is sub-standard in every way. Reading it is like wading through treacle with little to reward you, but Martin Day's subsequent work has improved on this beyond recognition and it would be unfair to regard The Menagerie as anything but atypical. I imagine most writers have perpetrated rubbish like this at some point, but most of us are lucky in that our early stumblings never left the darkest, most shameful recesses of our hard drives. The Menagerie is just such a learning experience, but unfortunately it got commissioned.