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Evolution

Doctor Who: The Virgin Missing Adventures #2
Andrew McCaffrey

John Peel seems to do better as a writer when he's fleshing out other people's ideas rather than attempting to birth something original. I recall his Dalek novelisations as being quite good. In TIMEWYRM: GENESIS the storyline and characterizations are moderate to poor, but the depiction of Mesopotamia and the Timewyrm creature (I assume the Timewyrm was an editorial dictate rather than a John Peel creation) are successes. His Dalek-based Eighth Doctor Adventures are wholly original novels featuring an underdeveloped, embryonic Doctor encumbered with a one-dimensional companion and storylines of John Peel's own creation. They are, of course, utter disasters of fiction.

So, how does EVOLUTION stack up? The team of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah is previously well established, so one can hope that regurgitating enough old dialog to paint a reasonably accurate portrayal is within Peel's abilities. The novel uses the historical figures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling as secondary characters. Naturally, they aren't innovations, so that's encouraging.

I was prepared to cut EVOLUTION a lot of slack. Since I wasn't in the mood for anything dense or heavy, I figured a John Peel action-adventure might be just what I was seeking. For a time, I was correct. Despite the book's many obvious flaws, I willingly gave it the benefit of the doubt. But, at the end of the day, there's only so much slack one can cut, and before I reached the conclusion my limit was reached. I crossed the boundary about thirty pages before Doyle blurts out, "This is all getting far too preposterous for me." By the time I got there, I felt his pain.

Getting down to basics, the characterization of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah is actually quite strong when the two of them are bantering together. Peel has clearly spent some time studying how Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen performed off each other. But problems occur when the two characters are separated. Who are these people? His Fourth Doctor and Sarah are reasonably apt at throwing tame insults at the other, but when did they start threatening their adversaries (and innocent bystanders) with all manner of physical abuse? It continues a trend I've noticed in other Peel novels. He seems to equate strong and/or forceful characteristics with physical brutality. Strong people push weak people around. Therefore, the Fourth Doctor isn't just a masterful detective and righter of wrongs; he states on numerous occasions that he "takes great delight" in beating up villains. Sarah Jane Smith isn't just a strong-willed person who speaks her mind; she demonstrates these attributes by threatening to scratch out someone's eyes. It's disconcerting to say the least.

I think one of the bigger flaws is that there is little of substance behind the book's actions. The author borrows a lot of the style of early science fiction and detective stories, but it seems like a cheap facade on a structure with no real foundation. WAR OF THE WORLDS, to take an example, contains a surface of science fiction action-adventure. Yet on another level it also has much to say on the subject of British colonialism. The original Sherlock Holmes stories demonstrated the power of logic and reason. Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN warned Mankind not to meddle in God's domain. You can argue the merits of these messages, but the important thing to note is that there were underlying themes holding the action together. Just what on Earth is EVOLUTION saying? It has a plot concerning genetic manipulation and the alternation of natural evolution. But what is it saying about these issues? Nothing that I can see. What is gained by having the Doctor perform a Sherlock Holmes impersonation in front of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Apart from working in a bunch of Sherlock Holmes in-jokes, nothing. Why is a young Rudyard Kipling even in this novel? Any annoying teenager could be substituted with no real alterations.

Although this novel feels like a cobbled together bunch of disparate pieces placed together in hopes that the reader will find at least something to latch on to, you could almost accept it as pure mindless adventure, if only it wasn't quite so clumsy. It's full of annoying little things like Sarah spending valuable time trying to figure out who the book's villain is when the answer is obvious. Hint to Sarah: it's the only other character that it could possibly be! This is not a novel with multiple possible bad guys, where the protagonist must choose between suspects by careful application of logic and reason. This is a novel where there simply aren't enough characters around to attract suspicion. It's like if Hercule Poirot were trapped on the Orient Express with only one other passenger and still taking three hundred pages to figure out whodunit.

There are just too many instances of people doing things solely to drive the plot forward. It holds together competently on a quick read through, but flipping back I noticed plot threads I assumed would have been tied up by the end still were left dangling. Moral complexity and character exploration are not the book's strong features. Sarah takes a few paragraphs battling with the fiercely complex question of "Is Breckinridge a good guy... or a bad guy?" You'd imagine that she went to the Maxwell Smart School of Ethical Theory. One could read this as an undemanding book for children if it weren't for the bizarre (and unneeded) references to child molestation.

On page 62, one character laughingly states: "Well, every good story starts with 'Once upon a time...'". I couldn't help but flip back to the beginning to see if EVOLUTION begins with that phrase. As I'm sure you've guessed, it doesn't. I've written mostly concerning the novel's flaws, but it's worth pointing out that I reasonably enjoyed reading much of it. But at a point, I simply couldn't ignore the problems anymore. Good pacing and reasonably entertaining action can't make up for a bookful of flaws.

Finn Clark

I used to think this was John Peel's best book. Unfortunately it's an irritating load of old cobblers... but it may be Peel's best book anyway. To say for sure I'd have to reread Timewyrm: Genesys and right now I'm not feeling that brave.

There are good points here, but also enough bad ones to put it on a par with having itching powder poured down your neck. It's juvenile and smutty, immediately dressing Sarah in a revealing swimsuit and thereafter wasting no opportunity to snigger and nudge you in the ribs. It uses continuity like a bludgeon. Its characterisation of the 4th Doctor and Sarah is bad enough to make you swear at the pages. And believe it or not, it's almost as fanwanky as his two Dalek 8DAs.

Okay, it's not Who-related fanwank... well, except for showing us how the Doctor acquired his Talons of Weng-Chiang costume. Thank goodness for John Peel, eh? I'd been lying awake at nights for years worrying about that. No, the real fanwank involves Arthur Conan Doyle, who must have written some of the world's best-loved adventure stories because he was inspired by appearing in a John Peel potboiler. As a character, Conan Doyle himself is okay. The annoying bit is seeing an already poor 4th Doctor doing limp turns as Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger for the sake of Conan Doyle fanwank. Peel even swipes the great detective's most famous lines for the Doctor's dialogue.

A hasty footnote on p260 acknowledges All-Consuming Fire, which three months previously had cut-and-pasted Sherlock Holmes into the Whoniverse, but you can almost hear John Peel's teeth grinding. (He also overlooks the fact that Challenger is as real in Andy Lane's novel as Holmes.) However despite all this, the Doctor still manages to seem better characterised than Sarah Jane Smith. That's right, even when saying of a bad guy, "I'll take delight in beating the replies out of him." [That's on p134, in case you don't believe that even John Peel could write dialogue for the Doctor as bad as that.]

The incidental characters are better than in Peel's 8DAs, which isn't difficult. The villains are strong; I particularly liked Ross and Abercrombie. However the portrayal of Victorian England is heavy-handed and Rudyard Kipling and his chums are insufferable. Okay, they're meant to irritate. That they do. However I suspect our annoyance levels were meant to be approximately "ho ho what silly boys", not "this book is inducing a brain haemorrhage". If someone ever builds a time machine just to travel back to the 19th century and murder Rudyard Kipling before he became famous, we'll know it was because they read this book.

The underlying story is quite good. I was charmed by the mermaids and the villain's evil plan is interesting. However all these good points kept getting undermined by literary needles under my fingernails... hey, it's the Hound of the Baskervilles! On p120 the Doctor finds the bad guy's booby-trapped trunk and doesn't even try to peep inside! Does the phrase "insatiable curiosity" ring any bells? AAAGGH!

On one level, this is a perfectly decent story of genetic manipulation and scary monsters in 1880. I like historicals and this one makes a fair attempt at capturing the period. I even enjoyed quite a lot of it... but reading the rest was like the death of a thousand cuts. It's a million times better than War of the Daleks, though.

Lawrence Conquest

John Peel has a poor reputation amongst Doctor Who readers. Hs initial New Adventure was quickly overshadowed by both Terrance Dicks and Paul Cornell and his two Eighth Doctor Dalek novels are so steeped in messy continuity revisionism that they are frequently cited as amongst the worst Who books ever written. It comes as something of a surprise therefore to discover that on re-reading this early Missing Adventure that Evolution is actually a pretty good read.

As with a lot of Hinchliffe era adventures, Evolution wears its influence on its sleeve – in this instance the genetic tampering of Doctor Moreau. The novel looks to be in danger of being over-stuffed by the inclusion of both Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but for the most part these characters don’t bog the storyline down too much. The idea of the Doctor (complete with his Talons deerstalker outfit) being the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes is obvious but neat, but unfortunately this is one aspect that Peel lays on unnecessarily thickly, with such clumsy dialogue as “Elementary, my dear Doyle”, “The game’s afoot”, and worst “An unearthly hound, eh? Sounds like the perfect idea for a story”, flashes what should have been a subtle undercurrent in neon spotlights.

The Doctor is at his most mercurial here, veering from brooding to manic humour at the blink of an eye, but a couple of overly violent proclamations aside both the Doctor and Sarah are vividly and convincingly drawn. The supporting characters are also distinctive and likable, with a nice twist to throw the scent off the real enemy, but the villains do have that melodramatic James Bond-ian habit of capturing the heroes, tying them up, then explaining away the entire plot before they attempt (and of course fail) to kill them.

So, a little lumpy in construction, and with a plot that relies a great deal on unlikely happenstance (what are the chances that a person obsessed with evolution will be the one character to happen to have the means to tamper with it literally fall out of the stars into his lap?), Evolution is nevertheless a light and enjoyable 4th Doctor romp – nothing highly original, but the sort of Missing Adventure you feel a little sad they didn’t actually make as a TV story when you put the book down. Keep John Peel away from Dalek continuity and – shock, horror – he can actually produce a pleasant read…

Simon Catlow

After the Doctor invites Sarah to meet anyone from history that she wants to, her request to meet Rudyard Kipling doesn't go quite according to plan. Instead of meeting the respected writer Kipling, the TARDIS lands in Devon where Kipling is a fifteen year old schoolboy instead. But the place they arrive is in a crisis. Young children have been going missing, a veteran sailor has had his face ripped off while at sea, and a mysterious dog like creature stalks the surrounding moorlands.

John Peel's Evolution is a fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith Missing Adventure and takes place in between The Brain Of Morbius and The Seeds Of Doom. The plot of the novel sees the Doctor and Sarah Jane become involved in the business of a small coastal town in Devon where there are mysterious happenings. Someone has been experimenting with the creation of hybrid species and the Doctor sets out to find out who.

There are many problems with Evolution. Peel's style of writing is quite capable and this ensures that the book is readable, but the problem lies mainly with the plot of the novel. The Doctor and Sarah arrive, find out about the hound, investigate this for a while, discover the hounds true nature and then go and sort out the person who caused the hound. There is very little else to the plot. The inclusion of Kipling doesn't seem to really make any difference to the story, and having Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle in the story seems equally superfluous. Early on in the story, the Doctor changes his outfit to a cape coat and a deerstalker hat (as he wore in the Talons of Weng-Chiang) and the whole part of the story involving Doyle and the feral hound seem to be saying that the Doctor was the influence behind Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles story, but this seems totally at odds with the New Adventure All Consuming Fire by Andy Lane where the Seventh Doctor actually meets Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John H. Watson. The identity of who is actually behind the experiments is actually quite surprising and Peel does manage to keep this a secret until the point it is revealed by giving the reader several red herrings along the way.

The characters of the novel are not good. The Doctor is not quite right, as he comes across in the manner that he was portrayed during the Graham Williams production era rather than the darker Fourth Doctor of the early Philip Hinchcliffe years which is when this was set. He seems to spend a lot of time during the novel making jokes at the expense of the other characters which was not an integral part of the Doctor at the time this novel is set. Sarah Jane is better. She seems to be just in character which Peel has captured well. His own characters are not especially memorable. Most of them such as Sir Edward Fulbright, come over as being stereotypical and as a result it is difficult to care about any of them.

The biggest problem with Evolution is the fact that the plot is so thin, that by the time the books has finished there is a huge sense of disappointment because very little seemed to happen and most of what did happen wasn't particularly interesting in the first place. Evolution has some intriguing ideas, like the premise of the creation of half human, half mammal hybrids, but these are not explored properly enough to make this novel rewarding for the reading. The resolution to how this process was actually done is pushing credibility to the limits with the tool to facilitate this process literally falling out of the sky and being given to someone who wanted to do these type of experiments in the first place.

Evolution, despite the major problems it has, is a readable book. It's just not a very good book. The absence of an involving plot is the man cause of this, but the easily forgettable characters contribute significantly as well. The most memorable part of this book comes near the end. It's a couple of brilliant lines by the Doctor, but it does reveal the identity of the individual responsible for the book's experiments, but the very last sentence did sum up my feelings by the time I'd finished reading.

'Percival?' echoed the Doctor in mock horror. 'This whole insane scheme was dreamed up by a man named Percival? Oh, that's too dreadful for words.'

Ben Stephens

The back cover blurb, slightly abridged:

Sarah Jane wants to meet her fellow journalist Rudyard Kipling, and the Doctor sets the co-ordinates for England (um, India actually), Earth, in the Victorian Age. As usual, the TARDIS materializes (sic) in not quite the right place, and the time travellers find themselves pursued across Devon moorland by a huge feral hound (in fact the hound is pursued by them, but near enough).
Children have gone missing; at the local boarding school, the young Rudyard Kipling has set up search parties (no, only one). Lights have been seen beneath the waters of the bay, and fishermen (more plurals?) have been pulled from their boats (nope, never left the boat) and mutilated (killed). Graves have been robbed of their corpses. Something is going on (you don't say?), and Arthur Conan Doyle, the ship's doctor from a recently berthed arctic whaler, is determined to investigate.
The Doctor and Doyle join forces to uncover a macabre scheme to interfere with human evolution - and Sarah Jane faces a terrifying transmogrification (not her own, but technically I guess).

Even I have to admit that picking a blurb apart for inaccuracies is pedantic in the extreme, but I think the carelessness displayed here is symptomatic of the entire book. Only Mr Peel could tell us for sure, but I'm guessing he knocked this baby over in a couple of weeks for the boys at Virgin. Evolution is riddled with problems of both plot and character that suggests a rush job. In its defense, the setting is in keeping with period in question (the Hinchcliffe Era) as is the gratuitous violence and the semi-mythical monsters. That's about the nicest thing that can be said really. The setting itself is borrowed from the Talons of Weng Chiang (as is the Doctor's costume) and the rest of the story seems depressingly familiar as well. We have people being transformed into animal hybrids (Vengeance on Varos / Mindwarp), and famous authors being given ideas for their books (Timelash). It's a pity someone couldn't give Mr Peel some ideas for his. This is coupled with the Doctor showing unnaturally violent tendancies (did the author know which Baker he was writing for, I wonder?).

The Fourth Doctor's character is admittedly not the easiest to capture on the page, but Tom really got up on the wrong side of the bed for this adventure. He is short tempered and foul to almost everyone, and when he's not doing a Sherlock Holmes impression (for the benefit of Mr Doyle, no doubt) he tries his hand to a bit of last-action-heroing, telling his companions not to be afraid to use their guns and threatening whom he pleases with acts of violence against their person. I can't imagine what Mr Peel was thinking when he had the Doctor say: "I shall personally take great pleasure in breaking every bone in your body - commencing with those in your inner ears." Sarah is a little closer to her TV persona, but not in any way that endears her to the reader. Perhaps feeling that characterisation was not his strong point, the author doesn't bother giving any to the other dozen faceless names that inhabit the story. The two villains of the piece come off especially poorly, and not just because they're only in about ten pages each. Both inspired (I use the term generously) by James Bond villains, neither the mad scientist nor the would-be media baron have any but the barest of reasons for doing whatever it is they are doing.

The plot is likewise poorly thought out. A rich industrialist and a doctor team up to turn children into monsters so that they can...um...roam freely through the bogs of Devon and tend an underwater garden (no, really!). At some point, they also build a giant glowing wheel in the lake which seems to be for the sole purpose of drawing attention to itself. An agent of the Queen is sent to stop them and turns out to be the doctor's own brother. Small world aye? The agent meets up with another old friend by chance and stays with him at his father-in-law's home so that he can prowl the grounds conspicuously and poison his mate's fiancee. As it turns out, picking the least likely place to look for his brother didn't pay off anyway. Doyle becomes involved when his captain is diverted to give the villains some genetic material, which is much needed despite the fact that they have somehow had access to tons of the stuff for over a year anyway. The biggest travesty of plotting however is the criminal under-use of the Doctor himself, who contributes nothing to the plot aside from the occasional observation as he runs from one scene of the book to another, trying but failing to keep up with the pace of the author. He isn't even responsible for the downfall of the bad guys. One of them kills himself and the other is finished off by the mer-children, with whom the Doctor has had absolutely no contact. He doesn't even get to save Sarah from the basement in which she is tied up and has everything explained to her, including the life story of her captor.

The author's style is similar to his earlier work for Target and one gets the distinct feeling that his forte lies more in the simple re-telling of other people's Doctor Who stories (which is largely what this novel amounts to anyway). Unsurprisingly, Virgin did not request his unique talents again (and the BBC had no excuse giving him two Dalek stories). If my criticism seems unduly harsh, it is only because this book was unduly bad. Mr Peel was given an opportunity none had been given before: to take a beloved era of Doctor Who and tell an original story, whilst fleshing out the characters and making the plot a little more robust than what could have been accomplished on screen. Instead we were treated to the story of the unnatural and unlikely properties of what fell out of an alien's medicine cabinet! What amazing stuff this ointment is, by the way. Self replicating and equally good for both healing and horribly mutilating. Works on animals, humans and aliens (but not Time Lords). And seemingly inconsistent with what it needs to accomplish its job. On the first go, it only takes a mouthful of dog spit to make a boy more dog than man (though quite why a small boy combines with a small dog to make a gigantic beast is anyone's guess). Soon after, entire organs are required to make the slightest adjustments. I'm afraid I could go on for pages and pages with everything that is wrong with this book, but I feel now like I'm just rambling and writing barely thought out rubbish. Oh well. I bet Mr Peel knows the feeling.