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A Device of Death

Doctor Who: The Virgin Missing Adventures #31
Finn Clark

Completely worthless. It's far from being the world's worst book; I wouldn't even exactly call it bad. However it's more of that bulk schedule filler that illustrates why Bulis, Baxendale etc. are the enemies of sentience. It's a poster child for "unmemorable". I knew I'd read A Device of Death before, but I couldn't recall a thing about it. The hours I'd given to it had been erased from my life. The only evidence I had was its physical presence on my bookshelves.

Rereading it, I found the pages passing easily enough. Nothing stands out, for good or bad. The characters are Bulis-level, performing their plot functions without ever breathing, thinking or showing any other signs of life. The Doctor isn't done badly, but he's soon submerged in the general blandness. Max the synthoid comes the nearest to having a personality; he's so Star Trek it hurts, but he's still kinda sweet with his "I am attempting to comprehend the illogical nature of humans" schtick. Was the Bulis writing itself into the book as a Mary-Sue? ["I begin... to understand... what humans call... pain," says Max on p178, presumably reflecting the Bulis's trauma on rereading the preceding 177 pages.]

There's a story problem with the TARDIS crew. They have amnesia. It's arguably unfair to beat a Virgin book with the 8DAs' ugly stick, but what the hell. Amnesia as a story device pulls our attention from what's going on and towards what's been forgotten... except that in this case, the amnesia is pointless and by drawing our attention towards the preceding TV stories the Bulis only emphasises how much story material it's lifted from Robot and Genesis of the Daleks. Time Lord framing scenes continue from Genesis as justification for a later deus ex machina. (There's a twenty-page stretch around p180 where the story threatens to become interesting, so the Bulis needed to do something about that.)

The story... oh, angels in heaven, the story. The 4th Doctor, Sarah and Harry get split up for more than half the book and dumped in random locations to do nothing significant as dull war is waged in the background. You're not sure who's fighting who and you don't care. Deepcity is inoffensive but forgettable. Sarah recycles her "captured by the enemy and used for forced labour" scenes from Genesis of the Daleks. Oh, and on p67 the Nethrass beat the Jand! Such thrills. Or is it the other way around?

Incidental characters get death scenes so bland and underwritten that they're almost comical. There's a genuine surprise on p189, but it's a cheat. There's a big deception, but it's only the kind of thing we all expected anyway. Despite a few clever moments, this book is largely an exercise in giving the TARDIS crew little to do as the plot unfolds predictably around them.

Page 259 seems to suggest that this is the Secret Origin Of The Movellans, but for all we know it could be the Secret Origin Of The Mechanoids. This isn't a terrible book, not compared with the nadirs of badness we've seen elsewhere in Who. It's written efficiently, with decent portrayals of the regulars - which is particularly impressive since even esteemed authors have stumbled when it comes to evoking the Hinchcliffe era. However do not, under any circumstances, even contemplate reading it. You'll never get those hours of your life back again.

Jill Sherwin

Well, it's not horrible . . .

In my review of Christopher Bulis' MA "Twilight Of The Gods" (has anyone else noticed CB's fondness for titling his works 'blank of blank'?), I compared the story to a warm blanket, comfortable if familiar. This one is closer to a wet blanket. It's not useless, just drippy.

Taking place between "Genesis Of The Daleks" and "Revenge Of The Cybermen" (more 'blank of blank' titles -- aack!), "Device" tells the story of the Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan thrown into a solar system at war with a neighboring race. Each side has accused the other of fighting dirty, using chemical weapons and the like to achieve temporary victories. Each side is involved in developing bigger and better weapons so the victories will become more than temporary. The Doctor and his companions are separated from page one (through a vague amnesia subplot that is appropriately quickly forgotten) and must find their way back through the various warzones to reach each other and find the TARDIS. Working with different factions of the warring races, our intrepid crew bring their respective puzzle pieces together to discover that this war is not all it seems to be. Nothing particularly mindbending or original there. Still one has hopes. . .

I must say that Bulis' characterization of Harry was great fun in the portion of the book that he 'starred' in. I've never enjoyed Harry so much, though he quite reminded me of a certain young Dr. Bashir.

Sarah Jane, however, was shoved off very pointlessly for the first half of the book. Bulis clearly did not have much use plotwise for her (not that the companions always had productive things to do in all episodes, but then why have her in this book at all?). Her supposed character development involved making friends with a robot who evolved morally during their adventures together. Bulis' intent seemed to be to preface Sarah Jane's comfort with and compassion for K9 when he joined the TARDIS crew. It still didn't justify her presence in this story. Though the writers for the show had a fondness for throwing the Sarah Jane character into unpleasant situations, I believe that it was partly because she was one of the few almost-self-sufficient companions in the Doctor's history. She was as tough as Leela in her own way. Still, she could have been left out of this story with little rewriting necessary and that's a shame. Sarah Jane Smith is nobody's filler material.

The Doctor was portrayed and voiced well enough that it wasn't too jarring to read. But it wasn't amazingly spot on, either.

At times the 'guest characters' are focused on annoyingly more than they should be. I don't want to read a book about them, I want to read one about the Doctor and his companions. At other times, the guest characters are so shallow they fade into one another without stirring any interest in distinguishing between them. And the few that could have been interesting have fifty pages or so of storyline and then disappear into the mists until the end of the book.

Ending is predictable and convenient, a bit pointless in fact. One minor character takes the action that saves the day, not the Doctor nor his companions who merely figure out what's going on, not really how to stop it. Another minor character takes the spotlight in a rather scary capacity at the end, offering to clean everything up and make peace, implying neither the author nor the characters learned anything from the experience. It reminded me increasingly of the original Trek episode "A Taste Of Armageddon" where war was handled politely and neatly and Kirk had to introduce the ugliness of the reality of war to force the warring factions to stop the killing. Only in "Device", everything is still pristine in the end. Nobody sees the blood and nobody learns the lesson. And frankly, for the Doctor to be surprised by the minor character's actions but not give a damn (he's described as "not unduly chagrined") is pathetic and not true to character. The Doctor is not dumb. Certainly he is not THIS dumb.

As with the extra-focus on guest characters and per my commentary in my review of Bulis' "Twilight", the author seems intent on conveying his agenda rather than just entertaining the audience with a good Doctor Who story. But what was the message here? People who run wars are tricky? Be careful what you're fighting for? Don't trust Psi-Corp? What? What was the point? The Doctor's ending 'explanation-to-the- companions-of- what-the-hell-happened' seemed derived out of nowhere. I couldn't figure out how what he said related in any way to what we saw happen in the story.

Nor did the titular "Device" seem to have much to do with anything. It was thrown in as almost an afterthought at the end of the book.

All in all, it's not horrible . . . but it's not much of anything that even a 'Device Of Plot' would have helped.