That's more like it! Killing Ground builds on Time of Your Life's examination of the 6th Doctor while also being the most in-depth study of the Cybermen in the novels to date. It's bleak, joyless and perhaps Steve Lyons's best novel not to feature the Land of Fiction or cartoon characters.
As a Cyberman story, it rocks. It captures their essence, making them implacable and genuinely scary instead of just metal goons. I adored the children's Cyber-book pastiches on p200. There's much discussion of what it means to undergo conversion, with both the horror and the dark attraction being given plenty of screen time... so much so that at times the novel nearly becomes a philosophy essay. The all-important question "how does it feel?" actually becomes a chapter title, but it's made plain that anyone in a position to answer the question would no longer even understand it. The book's most impressive sequence (and worth the price of admission alone) is the step-by-step Cyberconversion, which for beats anything the TV series ever did with the Cybermen twenty times over.
Of course, this being a Steve Lyons book, there's a definite awareness of the shortcomings of TV production. It stars Revenge-model Cybermen, so we get scenes like the 6th Doctor advising the Cyberleader not to stand with his hands on his hips (as Christopher Robbie did in 1975). There's also no attempt to make the Cybermen glossier and Borg-like. These are BBC TV monsters, complete with rubber suits and zips. However, almost uniquely in the books, these in-jokes don't undercut the drama. Instead they're used for characterisation, providing an insight into the logic of monsters that want to intimidate humans and perpetuate the Cyber-race. It's a delicate balance and it could easily have tipped over into self-parody... but it never does. Kudos for that.
That's a big chunk of Killing Ground. Another chunk is its examination of the 6th Doctor, which doesn't go to the extremes of Time of Your Life but is still pretty hard-hitting. This is a childish, petty, sometimes unlikeable Doctor whose blackest moments make Head Games look light-hearted. At one point he effectively considers suicide. Whatever else you might say about Steve Lyons, he's uncompromising. The Doctor spends nearly 100 pages locked in a cell, which felt to me like a deliberate comment on the Saward universe and the 6th Doctor's place in it. I'm in awe. It takes guts for an author to recreate the crap along with the good stuff, and locking away your hero for nearly half the book is definitely flirting with crappiness. Yet somehow Killing Ground gets away with it. As part of its character study of the 6th Doctor, it works.
Grant Markham is fairly rubbish as a companion (which even the text acknowledges at one point), but being brought to his home of childhood nightmares means he gets plenty of good material. There's genuine uncertainty about whether or not he'll survive, being a temporary companion in an era where even the real companions weren't necessarily safe. It's a shame that Steve Lyons never got to extend this era for BBC Books, since I'd have been fascinated to see where he took it next. (Though I don't know if he'd want to, since so far he seems to be working to a fixed pattern of two books per Doctor... so far he's written two McCoy NAs, two Colin Baker MAs and two BBC Books for each of Hartnell, Troughton and McGann.)
There's plenty of meat on the book's themes, with the Agorans trying to outdo the Cybermen at their own game and two ArcHivists (from David Banks's non-fiction Cyberman book) bringing their own agendas to bear. All kinds of questions are explored in detail.
The book's rooted squarely in its era, but not with continuity references. It's contemporaneous with Time of Your Life (2191). The Cybermen took over Agora while Earth was being invaded by Daleks ("back in the fifties"), which is why no one's investigated since. Finally the Cybermen pilot a Selachian warcraft, created by Steve Lyons in such detail that he brought back the Selachians twice for Troughton PDAs set in this era: The Murder Game (2136) and The Final Sanction (2204). Continuity-wise the only problem is the ugly chunk of Cyberhistory on p32, lifted from David Banks's Cybertheories but since superceded. It dates both Revenge and Tomb about six centuries too early, but that's just tough. Presumably either the ArcHivists or specifically Jolarr were misinformed.
In an odd way this doesn't feel like a Season 22 or 23 story. It's not glossy enough. Agora is a low-budget world of drab corridors and only a handful of characters, almost playing in the imagination like a black-and-white story. However its characters are strong and its story is brave and uncompromising. I'm not the world's greatest fan of Time of Your Life, but that and Killing Ground are easily the most interesting Colin Baker books published to date. Too many MAs and PDAs are inconsequential one-read throwaways, but this will reward return visits. An impressive piece of work.
Okay, good, a Cyberman story. I like the Cybermen. I don't like the Sixth Doctor, and that's who this Missing Adventure is about. This story takes place in that twilight zone between "Trial of a Timelord: The Ultimate Foe" and "Time and the Rani" Frankly, that's a lot of ground to cover; some people figure that over a century passed between the Doctor's trial and when he regenerated due to the Rani's machinations.
But anyway, I never thought the Sixth Doctor was that good. His dress sense was even worse than normal, which is saying something. He was far too aggressive and sarcastic, and generally not a helluva lot of fun to watch. Frankly, the Rani did us a favor.
After the trial was over, the Doctor had met a young man named Grant Markham on a future Earth colony. Eventually, Grant came with the Doctor, not out of any desire to stay with but because he wanted to leave a rather miserable place. The Doctor, of course, didn't really care either way.
This story begins when the Doctor takes Grant to the planet Agora, another Earth colony where Grant was born. In short order the Doctor is captured by the Cybermen and locked in an escape-proof cell. Grant manages to get away without being seen and promptly gets taken in with the local resistance, who conceive a daring plan to defeat the Cybermen: make some Cybermen of their own!
Meanwhile, in the far future, ArcHivists [sic] Hegelia and Jolarr prepare to travel back in time to the planet Agora, the scene of one of the greatest battles in history. Jolarr, a recent graduate and scholar of history, merely wants to observe an important event. Hegelia, however, has something else in mind...
I must say, this book was better than I suspected at first. From a relatively slow start, the story accelerates as the pseudo-Cyberman started giving their fellow humans orders and threatens the Doctor if he does not help them "upgrade" Grant and Jolarr serve primarily as the readers' eyes as eyewitness to a contest of wills and to a terrible battle where the cost is greater than any victory can achieve. Some moments of genuine tension about as Grant is shot and left for dead; after all, we don't know how he will end up, will we?