Well, now I know I'm mad. I just wanted to make sure.
All this Who-rereading was bound to warp my brain eventually. Sooner or later Bulis's Twilight of the Gods would slither to the head of the queue, but yesterday that black day came. I glowered. I remembered how much pain it had given me before. Twilight of the Gods is probably the Bulis's least-loved book, a messy sludge-like story that collapses in upon itself like rotting blancmange. Then I shrugged and started reading. Imagine my astonishment when I quite enjoyed it.
Let's get the stinky stuff out of the way first. Everything bad you've heard about this book is true. The TARDIS crew land on Vortis and run around randomly for 300 pages in search of a plot. This book has many problems, but its biggest can be described in three deadly words: Two Alien Factions. The Rhumon have landed on Vortis and are fighting a half-hearted war among each other. The Imperials are religious slavers and the Republicans are slogan-spouting communists with dialogue like:
"The People's Army is not insensitive to loyalty and comradeship, but I must take you back to base first."
"Never! It's you who have defiled our dead. But by their blood we shall win this world for the Republic!"
These communists are morons by definition, so to even things up the Bulis makes the Imperials stupid too! These people are sun-worshippers. These are high-tech dudes with spaceships and ray guns, but they think their god lives in the sun. Give me strength.  They also have a machine which they believe measures someone's ideological soundness with a biological scan. The Doctor has fun with that one. Naturally (sigh) the two sides aren't as different as they like to think. Two opposing soldiers get locked in the same cell and learn to trust each other! Yes, I'm afraid so. It's even more predictable than it sounds.
 - there's an interesting irony later on, though. It turns out that godlike sun-dwelling entities really exist and are worshipped by the Menoptera too. That's slightly amusing, but even being proved correct in their religious beliefs doesn't stop the Imperials from looking stupid.
As in Shadowmind and The Sorceror's Apprentice, the Bulis's view of the military is unusual by Doctor Who's standards. They're nice! They're likeable and capable of intelligence. They even get upset when they accidentally kill people, even when those people aren't on their side. Okay, each faction has a fanatical hatemonger who's their High Priest and Chief Bigot (Nevon for the Republicans, Modeenus for the Imperials), but by and large this is a half-hearted conflict between armies of decent chaps. Laudable, yes. Dramatic, no.
Oh, and occasionally we get a page or two about the science experiment of Bris, Ilex and Twel. "Huh?" I hear you cry. My thoughts exactly.
So the story's bollocks. Hey, that's just the first 200 pages! The last third of the book wheels out big cosmic entities and sidelines even the tiny quantities of plot we'd had thus far. The 2nd Doctor tries to solve the situation with a short hop in the TARDIS, which is doubly crap: (a) because it's an unsatisfying cheat in any story, and (b) this is the Troughton era! Why does he think he'll be able to steer the TARDIS? The answer lies in technobabble. The Animus is namechecked as a Lovecraftian Old One (WHY? WHY?!?) and the Imperials' religious nutter tries to steer Vortis into the sun as an offering to his god. You know, as you do.
But despite all that, I still maintain that I enjoyed this book. Knowing in advance that its story could tranquilise a rhino, I simply ignored it. Two Alien Factions? I didn't even consider giving my mental energy to that side of things. Instead I focused on the background details: the ghosts, the characterisation of the Rhumon and how their pointless, pointless conflict affected the Menoptera. I quite liked the Rhumon, who at times almost seem to be struggling against the war. Even the Republicans' slogan-spouting dwindles as they see what's happening around them and get less dogmatic.
What's more, several themes are being addressed. All these problems didn't grow from militarism but from idealism. The Rhumon view of the Menoptera is reminiscent of Victorian England's view of foreigners, which is just part of the Bulis's examination of Victoria Waterfield's 19th-century perspective. It's predictable stuff, but I give points for effort. Since this book is set between The Web of Fear and Fury from the Deep, there's even foreshadowing of Victoria's departure.
Oh, and the TARDIS crew are okay. Nothing special, but not painful or anything.
Thought has gone into Vortis and its people. The Zarbi are described as having two of their six legs "hypertrophied", which is an interesting way of putting it. The Doctor wonders how beings the size and weight of Menoptera can fly, then learns the answer to his question. (It involves isocryte.) There are also Dune-esque names (e.g. Clan Marrakat, Vo Annolos, House of Hokossion), which may or may not be coincidence since Bill Strutton's suggested year for The Web Planet (20,000 AD) overlaps with the future era chosen by Frank Herbert for his Dune series.
Disclaimer: I've always loved the Target novelisation of Doctor Who and the Zarbi. I even like the original Hartnell episodes, which are trippy fun if you don't watch them all at once. This reread has convinced me that Twilight of the Gods is underrated - but since it zombified me in 1996, I shudder to think how it must have affected Web Planet haters. This is a justly disliked book which I wouldn't dream of recommending. It's better than you remember, but that's not saying much. However if you can overlook its Two Alien Factions and its third act of random cosmic entities, this book has passable characters and decent themes.
Searching for the proper adjectives to discuss Christopher Bulis' "Twilight Of The Gods", one discovers the same descriptive terms one could use for a favorite blanket: warm, familiar, nice, comfortable. It's far easier for a reviewer to either hate a book or love it than to merely enjoy it. Not that 'merely' enjoying a book is a bad thing. It's just nice. Actually, considering how fine a line Bulis walks between comfortable familiarity and stereotype, it's surprising this book is as pleasant as it is.
Part sequel to the Hartnell episode "The Web Planet", part rewrite with a bigger budget, I approached this book cautiously as I had never seen the episode. However, a book should stand on its own as a separate adventure, so the question was, approach it blind? Not me, I'm far too stubborn. So before I read Twilight, I pulled out a handy-dandy reference book to read a synopsis of not only the Hartnell episode, but to read about an episode or two preceding this book's setting. I admit this helped ground me. Twilight is set in the Troughton, Jamie, and Victoria era. Therefore, having met Frazier Hines and Debbie Watling at earlier Gallifrey conventions, I had some preconceived notions of what they would be given to do in the book: Jamie would fight. Victoria would scream. A lot. I wasn't disappointed.
I was actually impressed. Unlike too many episodes and MA/NAs, the companions were not shoved off into a superfluous subplot, but were instead actively participating throughout the book. I felt their 'onscreen' time was generous and well-balanced with the Doctor's more intrinsic action.
The story concerns a return to the former web planet Vortis. When last our Doctor left Vortis, the ant-like Zarbi had returned to their peaceful ways guided by the butterfly-like Menoptera and the menace of the spider/web-like Animus had been eradicated. Or had it?
When the Doctor arrives on Vortis he finds two warring humanoid factions fighting over territory, beliefs, and who can convert more natives to slavery/their way of belief. Only someone keeps stealing the bodies of both of their dead...
Putting a very American slant on the political situation in the book (unintended by the author, I'm sure), the scenes between the warring Rhumon factions over the Menoptera, the grub-like Optera, and the Zarbi, reminded me strongly of the French and English warring over North American territory while the 'noble savages' stood by bravely taking the abuse of the invaders. If that sounds a little cliched, so unfortunately can the book. The Menoptera are almost too noble. The contrast between the commander and the religious leader of one faction obviously mirrors the commander and 'morale officer' of the other. We are shown the parallels immediately and it's hard to shake the author's seeming admonition to the reader and the characters: look, you foolish people, we're all really alike! SEE? It's like being gently bludgeoned with the obvious. Not that it's a lesson that most of this planet has gotten yet, but does the presumed fannish audience for this book need to be fed this again? In such a familiar fashion?
Reading this book is a comfy read, and it was nice to see Victoria have a little gumption and Jamie was granted some authority and ingenuity, getting out of the dumb hunk role. The Doctor gets to say "Dearie me" and play on a recorder-like reed instrument. Somebody besides Jamie got to talk about "the size of that thing!"
Another thumbs up to keeping a relatively sixties tone throughout: the weapons and situations (even when a little silly) fit in nicely with the tone of the era. Disclaimer on the last: they fit in to the best of my mild familiarity with the Troughton years. A diehard Troughton fan might take issue with the Doctor's dialogue. For example, did Troughton tend to pontificate? Bulis grants the Doctor a long speech toward the end of the book that would seem to better suit Captain Picard of TNG than the Doctor. Kudos, however, for making an extremely advanced being come across humorously as a Turlough-type naughty schoolboy.
Bottom line is, it's a familiar tale with a predictable ending but none the less entertaining for knowing what to expect. It's a cozy read if you're not looking for a new take on the Doctor's adventures. As Bulis himself writes into Jamie's thoughts, "Fortunately, early on in his travels, he had evolved a simple solution: stay with the Doctor and let him worry about the hows and whys." Is this a travel worth joining? I trust Jamie's advice. Even though familiar, this Doctor won't steer you wrong.