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System Shock

Doctor Who: The Virgin Missing Adventures #11
Finn Clark

This was only Justin Richards's second Who novel (after Theatre of War) and I think it shows in the characterisation. Something's slightly off. There's some good material here, especially with the women - e.g. Eleanor Jenkins or the Duchess of Glastonbury - but it felt a little bolted on.

This isn't a character-driven novel, but instead a macho techno-thriller (there's a character called Gibson) with hostages, gunfights and lots of slightly quaint jargon. Did we really once say "Information Superhighway"?

On that level, it's fine. There's plenty of ingenuity (I liked the Voracians' origins) and the characterisation level only really hurts the book when it comes to the Doctor. He gets a few funny moments, but Tom Baker he ain't. Ah well. Many authors have struggled with that particular challenge and we've seen far worse.

The book's real entertainment value comes with its bad guys. The Voracians are evil management consultants, clearly inspired by the real-life work experiences of its author. This is Doctor Who's equivalent of The Office.

These people call a hat a "cranial accessory" and their jargon-laden dialogue provides the book's comedy highlights. (I particularly enjoyed seeing the Voracians handle a hostage situation.) Admittedly Lawrence Miles made a similar joke in Interference with the Remote, but it's good enough to stand repetition. And of course dear old Harry Sullivan can't understand one word of this management-babble.

And there's more! Endless meaningless meetings, lethal office equipment... you can tell Justin was getting something out of his system with this novel. It's like Spearhead from Space but with electronics instead of plastic. The moral of the story: don't trust that photocopier! (Or mobile phone, or fax machine...) "I, Who" also claims that the Voracian leader Stabfield's body language is similar to that of Bill Gates, but on that I couldn't possibly comment.

Much fun can be had by putting System Shock in the context of the other books. Page 229 is good for a cheap laugh... no, Harry, they're *not* likely to disbelieve your alien revelations. Not when the Ice Warriors invaded Britain last year in The Dying Days, caused worldwide panic and crowned their leader King of England. Harry isn't in his late forties (p61) but his fifties, according to Harry Sullivan's War. Oh, and weren't there lots of evil high-tech companies around now? As well as I2 (System Shock), we have Ashley Chapel Logistics (Millennial Rites), Silver Bullet Solutions (Millennial Shock), InterCom (King of Terror), the Butler Institute (Cat's Cradle: Warhead)...

Random observation: a few authors like setting their books in a common era (e.g. Steve Lyons) but Justin Richards has taken this to unprecedented levels. So far he has three favourite periods:

1st - contemporary (1996-2001)... The Sands of Time, System Shock, Option Lock, Millennium Shock, Grave Matter, The Shadow in the Glass, Time Zero.

2nd - Benny-contemporary, i.e. the 26th century... Demontage, Dragon's Wrath, The Medusa Effect, Tears of the Oracle, The Joy Device, The Doomsday Manuscript.

3rd - for no obvious reason, the 1890s... The Burning and Time Zero are both set in 1894, The Sands of Time in 1896 and The Banquo Legacy in 1898.

The cover's ugly, and I must have missed the scene where Sarah gains a couple of cup sizes. (Amazingly, an earlier version of the cover was even worse! It showed Sarah as an apron-wearing waitress, apparently looking like something out of 'Allo 'Allo.) System Shock isn't a great book, but it's a solidly acceptable one that will probably resonate with office slaves everywhere. One of the more action-based Who novels to date, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Simon Catlow

If you've never read Justin Richard's second Doctor Who novel "System Shock", you're missing out on one of the best novels featuring past Doctors ever published.

In 1998, I2 is a company who are about to launch a new revolutionary type of technology that will enable the global information superhighway to come on line. It's OffNet technology has become dominant within the world of electronics with an OffNet chip being found in everything digital from computers, digital televisions through to electric cars. Even the military is using OffNet technology to co-ordinate terrorist takedown missions.

The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith arrive in London at this time. Their drinks at a local pub are interrupted by a commotion caused by a man proceeding to reek havoc on the patrons order to escape from a woman pursing him. The Doctor discovers that the man has given him an unmarked CD ROM with a piece of paper with the word Hubway written on it. Upon leaving the pub, the Doctor and Sarah find the man dead. Murdered. The mysterious pursuing woman returns to the pub - searching for the CD ROM now in the Doctor's possession. The Doctor follows her and the trail leads right to the I2 building. Before they can enter the building, two armed men appear and demand that the Doctor and Sarah accompany them. The book then follows the Doctors attempts to work out what the CD ROM is and what I2 are up to.

Justin Richards' "System Shock" is one of the best of Virgin's "The Missing Adventures" and features the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith. It also features the return of Harry Sullivan. This is one of the books most interesting features as it reunites Harry with the Doctor and Sarah Jane some twenty years after events of "Terror Of The Zygons" for him, but only just over a month for Sarah Jane and the Doctor. Harry's return is welcome, and although Harry has managed to become an Assistant Chief of Staff for MI5, he's still the same old redoubtable Harry of old. It leads to some amusing scenes of him still calling Sarah Jane "old girl" even though his now twenty odd years older than her.

The novel begins with the mystery of the CD ROM that has fallen into the Doctor's possession and just what exactly I2 are up to. The murdered man was actually an MI5 agent whom they had placed into I2 as they believed they were involved with terrorists. The truth is more sinister as a man died to get the CD ROM out of I2. With MI5's involvement the novels proceeds to be an action packed thriller with a couple of SAS sieges, kidnappings, car bombings and Sarah Jane going undercover at I2. This in particular is an excellent part of the novel as it allows Sarah's journalistic instincts to come to the fore, but they have to battle her lack of technical knowledge. After all she is from 1980 and has little experience with modern technology and her inability to even operate the I2 telephone highlights the significant technological advances made in the intervening time.

The majority of employees at I2 all have a strange aversion to eating and drinking mainly due to the fact that they are Voracians - a race of robotic creatures who have had organic implements integrated into themselves. The leader of the Voracians is Lionel Stabfield. He appeared out of nowhere with this new technology and became the fifth richest man in the world very quickly with his I2 software empire. He is obsessed with performance and uses the type of language that reminds me of "Yes Minister's" Sir Humphrey Appleby. At one point he says to describe the fact that the Voracian project is on target 'the strategic outlook for the company is buoyant, and we're maintaining our win-win grip on the marketplace.' It is precisely this character trait that leads to one of the best moments in the book where Stabfield and the Voracians take control of the Hubway building where the European link to the Superhighway is based. Stabfield announces to the assembled entourage that they are being taken hostage via a slide show presentation which goes on to state the reasons behind the guests capture as being a demonstration of strength, resolve, control and the elimination of any threats to them. One of the other Voracians draws up a proposal of how to remove Stabfield entitled Vortacyll Project - Plan versus Actual analysis and assessment. The whole race of Voracians and their Vortacyll program are a wonderful invention and I'm glad that they returned in "Millennium Shock" but their appearance in "System Shock" is better.

The Doctor is portrayed perfectly - you can really imagine Tom Baker saying every line and doing every action. One of the books most enduring images is the Doctor convincing the Vortacyll entity of the superiority of organic life over digital life. Sarah and Harry are also both well written and true to form. Possibly the best scene for sheer absurdity is where one of the MI5 characters who has been injured is in hospital browsing through the interactive television channel listings and comes across a channel called Harry Sullivan - the Films of his Choice - which is in fact the video feed from Hubway's security cameras which the Doctor has linked into the television systems.

System Shock has an excellent plot revolving around the unconventional take-over bid by the Voracians using technology to achieve their aims. It shares some similarities with my other favourite Missing Adventure "Millennial Rites" in that computer technology is the method used to achieve the protagonists goal. The regular characters are in superb form and the alien villains are credible and create a new spin on the familiar taking over Earth theme. It is also very well written, as I've come to expect from Justin Richards' books. It's also notable that "System Shock" and "Millennial Rites" have connections in that Ashley Chapel, the central villain of Craig Hinton's novel is mentioned as being one of I2's main rivals and the loose ends of "System Shock" are tied up in "Millennial Rites" (namely what happened to the I2 technology). Although some of the ideas in the novel such as digital doors, cars and interactive television have failed to materialise some two years after the books is set, technology is ever advancing and the potential dangers that the technology could have which are highlighted here, are as unsettling now as it was in 1995. Essentially "System Shock" is a damn fine story which is well told. It isn't particularly much like the stories that it is set in between - "The Seeds Of Doom" & "The Masque Of Mandragora" - but it's just so good that this doesn't really matter. Out of all the Missing Adventures published by Virgin, this stands out above all (except Millennial Rites which is it's equal) as being the best that they published.