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The Sands of Time

Doctor Who: The Virgin Missing Adventures #22
Steve Walker

I read this Missing Adventures novel partly because it is described on the jacket as a sequel to "The Pyramids of Mars", and partly because it features the Fifth Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa. It sounds pretty good from that description, but being set prior to "The Pyramids of Mars" it is really a prequel that doesn't feature any of the characters from that story which you might expect, apart from the service robots and Professor Marcus Scarman, who makes a cameo at the very end.

One of the best parts of this book is a shocking end-of-chapter cliffhanger involving Nyssa. A large, enjoyable portion of the novel then follows as the Doctor and Tegan try to save their friend - but the tension is eroded by the knowledge that somehow Nyssa will be back to her usual self again in time for Snakedance.

The benefit of having Nyssa sidelined for the bulk of the novel is the chance to replace her temporarily with a great new character - the butler Atkins. In that sense, Atkins is to this novel what Richard Mace was to "The Visitation". Being a restrained fellow with common sense and a love of adventure he is a good foil for Tegan, and together they follow the Doctor through several times, places and dangerous situations. Temporarily taken out of his role as servant, Atkins begins to grasp what other possibilties life might hold...

Because the Nyssa sub-plot takes up a lot of time, the "endgame" is revealed a bit too quickly right at the end, without enough build-up. However, things are resolved nicely, very much in the spirit of "The Pyramids of Mars".

Overall, a good read that may not meet all of your expectations but could exceed others!

Finn Clark

The Sands of Time is intricate and ingenious, with a time-travelling plot that doubles back on itself in many clever ways. It's an honest sequel to Pyramids of Mars, if anything erring in the direction of being too faithful. It's also something of a fan favourite, according to Shannon's Online Rankings the fourth best regarded Virgin MA. Unfortunately I found it uninvolving.

The problem is its characters. More specifically, there aren't any. Atkins tags along and occasionally amuses with his pathological Victorianisms, but he doesn't do anything. No one does. The Doctor and his friends spend three hundred pages bouncing from pillar to post, following the plot's paper trail without ever doing anything clever or confront the bad guys. The TARDIS works overtime, taking the Doctor to 1896, 1996, 1926, 2000 BC and probably more - but never to do more than study Egyptology, sympathise with the locals and mutter ominously. The Laws of Time have much to answer for.

Mind you, at least the Doctor knows what's happening, which is more than anyone else does. This book's humans are window-dressing. I liked the relationship between Henry Atkins and Susan Warne, but it's irrelevant to the plot and only pops up for a few pages. Lord Kenilworth is amiable, but hardly compelling. Sadan Rassul scours the world for seven thousand years, presumably in the hope of acquiring a personality. Tough luck, mate. Vanessa, Norris and Prior had potential, but they're walk-on roles at the arse end of a plot that has bigger things on its mind.

Nephthys doesn't help. She's an Osirian who's even scarier than Sutekh, so her return would mean the immediate end of the world. Hmmm. Spot the plot problem. Result: second-string villains who are being manipulated by a higher power which can't come onstage and take the limelight. Nephthys doesn't even get any dialogue, unlike Sutekh. Gabriel Woolf's sinister tones were one of the best things about Pyramids of Mars, but there's no equivalent here. The result is a story that's hollow.

There are mummies. At one point there's an action scene in the desert, but otherwise they feel underused. In fact, all the book's liveliest bits have their roots in scenes from the original TV story in 1975. We even get organ music towards the end for no obvious reason!

The regulars are okay, but no more. Justin Richards does a good job of capturing Peter Davison's performance but never gives a sense of the man beneath the mannerisms. Tegan is Tegan. No real depths, just the character we saw on television. Nyssa... well, let's just say that we saw more of her in Kinda. She's important to the plot, but not as a protagonist.

The historical period is strongly portrayed, with Atkins being a walking advertisement for Victorian stiff upper lips. The 1890s are Justin Richards's home from home, with Time Zero and The Burning both set in 1894, The Sands of Time in 1896 and The Banquo Legacy in 1898. One thing I've noticed from rereading all these Victorian-era Who novels is their wide-ranging geographical exploration. This novel goes to Egypt, All-Consuming Fire to India, Time Zero to Siberia, Eye of Heaven to the Easter Islands in the Pacific, Empire of Death to the afterlife and Imperial Moon to the moon! Maybe it's an unconscious reflection of the British empire? The Victorian age is antiquated enough to be historical but modern enough to let authors do almost anything one could in a modern novel.

The Egyptian research is impressive too.

As with Goth Opera and Blood Heat, this book was echoed by a Marvel comic strip - in this case The Curse of the Scarab (DWM 228-230), which was another 5th Doctor sequel to Pyramids of Mars. Oh, and there's an unfortunate namecheck on p167: Colonel Finklestone.

I sort of enjoyed this book. It's dry and hardly thrilling, but it's an accomplished brainteaser. Its ingenuity means that it holds up well to rereading, with the exception of the "oh no, Nephthys has beaten me" climax. Justin Richards had a reputation as a master plotter which this book supports... but personally I prefer to see plots based around characters.

Shaun Lyon

There's a sure way to hook me on a novel -- steep it in antiquity, give it an Egyptian flavor, and usually I'm sold. I'm a big fan of Egyptology and studies of that ancient culture; that was one of the reasons why one of my all-time favorites of the Tom Baker era was "Pyramids of Mars" (and why I love the film "Stargate," despite its obvious flaws). It was also why I was looking forward with baited breath to the new Missing Adventures novel "The Sands of Time". Once I bought it, that's when everything went downhill.

The first thing that struck me was the author of the book, Justin Richards, which hadn't caught me before I bought it. The last Missing Adventures book of his that I read, "System Shock," I detested -- not because of the story, which normally would have been excellent, but the execution. Specifically, I didn't care for "System's" pages and pages of exposition without so much as a line of dialogue in half a chapter's span. I don't like a paragraph of "what happened on Friday" and then moving on to another, whole scenes of dialogue reduced to "The Doctor and Mr. Jones spoke about it and the Doctor learned X, Y and Z." That's not good writing; you should never sacrifice your characters for your plot.

I was very much afraid that Richards would pull the same thing in "Sands of Time". I was pleasantly surprised to find that he hadn't, but once things got going I realized I was in for a new problem: contrivance. Plotlines that take thirty separate pieces to put together before they tell a single strand of action are as fragile as the strand that holds them together; it takes a Great Talent to achieve it. Agatha Christie is a perfect example of a writer with flawless execution; for example, in her excellent "Ten Little Indians," Christie put ten people on an island, picked them off one by one, and the killer turned out to be someone already presumed dead. Not one to rest on coincidence, Christie then explained how the culprit had lived, what their motivations were, and how each and every person was killed from the shadows by showing us the pieces of the puzzle that were very much in front of us the first time around. I've only seen this same sort of detail achieved once on television: for all of its flaws, "Babylon 5" is a masterpiece of the maze of plotlines; this was most evident in the "War Without End" two-parter, as we discovered Jeff Sinclair was destined to become the great Minbari leader Valen a thousand years ago, and the producers showed us hints which were always there, we just never picked up on them. Delenn's transformation happened exactly the same way.

Only one Missing Adventures novelist so far (at least the ones I've read; there are a couple I haven't, even though I own everything in Virgin's book series) has pulled off the contrived plot with ease: Craig Hinton in his outstanding "Crystal Bucephalus". (I've had some verbal sparring with fellow Meddler Jill Sherwin, who reviews David McIntee's "Shadow of Weng-Chiang" elsewhere in this issue; Jill read "Bucephalus" before I did and didn't care for the Doctor spending a great portion of the book away. We both agreed, however, that it was a good novel.) Hinton was able to tie in several strands that seemed to be completely unrelated and ended up with perhaps the single greatest example of technobabble that worked in every form of literature I've ever read. It was all nonsense, but it was literal nonsense, and it worked. (To give you an example of technobabble that does not work, tune into any episode of "Star Trek: Voyager".)

Now that I've pontificated half of this review away, let me get back to my argument: Richards' contrived plotline didn't work. We end up seeing the 3/4's point of the story first, as the Doctor arrives with Nyssa and Tegan in London and everyone already seem to know him. Nyssa's immediately kidnapped and spends the rest of the novel locked in a sarcophagus; this is the kind of thing that John Nathan-Turner did with his companions in early Davison episodes because stories were already written with two instead of three companions, hence Nyssa's spending most of "Kinda" asleep. This time, around, it was for the sake of motivation on the Doctor and Tegan's part, as they then travel back in time to Egypt, then forward in time, all to unlock a mystery surrounding an ancient evil.

That ancient evil, it turns out, is related to "Pyramids of Mars," which this book is noted as a sequel but in actuality only shares a theme with, that of the Osirans. (The most recent New Adventure, "GodEngine," also uses the "Pyramids" themes, albeit on Mars rather than Earth.) Sutekh is gone, of course; Tom Baker destroyed him. That, however, doesn't mean that his sister/wife Nephthys is dead... she was supposedly the more evil of the two, and now, her servant on Earth, Sadam Rassul, has devised a method for freeing Nephthys from her deep sleep by using Nyssa. Of course, that's when things go a little crazy; it turns out the plan needs two women, Nyssa and another girl, and somehow, a prologue chapter involving George and Ann Talbot-Cranleigh from "Black Orchid" all ties into it.

By this point, I was ready to put the book down. The ending wasn't really much of a payoff either; the whole point of Ann Talbot was really no more than a clever way of getting out of a storyline without suffering many consequences. Nyssa is now two-thousand years older than everyone else around here (she doesn't look a day over 845!), and Tegan is so manipulated by the Doctor in this story that I half expected a chapter late in the book with the Davison Doctor talking to the McCoy Doctor about some sort of master plan. (The Doctor-as-manipulator is a theme very much a part of the New Adventures, as the McCoy Doctor has become Time's Champion.)

The supporting cast is quite a jumble as well, mostly because, other than a butler named Atkins who stays with the Doctor and Tegan, there are very few that make any sort of lasting impression. Vanessa, a girl who becomes linked with Nyssa's fate toward the end of the book, is little more than a faceless name who we really don't care about in time when she falls victim to Nephthys' evil. The others are rather lackluster.

I enjoyed some of the sequences in Egypt, but I was put off a little by the intricate descriptions of the hieroglyphs, as if they were anything other than red herrings. Likewise, I was also a little irritated when Richards had the Doctor and Tegan spend the night in the Savoy, followed by breakfast; the Davison Doctor, known to many who know me as my all-time favorite, was always a man of action who would spend his time getting into trouble rather than sitting a night out. Given the fact that Nyssa, a companion I have always believed he felt especially close to (given her scientific mind and intense compassion for those less fortunate than herself), is on the precipice of oblivion, I'd think that Davison's Doctor would have jumped into the situation and been up to his neck in danger before the first crumpet cooled at brunch. Tegan, more inclined to protest the Doctor's lack of action than assisting him in rescuing a woman who has obviously become one of her dearest friends of all, is wildly out of character in this novel as well.

It took me nearly two weeks to get through "Sands of Time." I am quite satisfied with the story itself, but the execution could have been handled much better. I am certainly no fan of this author.