Not nearly as bad as its reputation. The Paradise of Death may be laughable, but I found The Ghosts of N-Space perfectly readable. I wouldn't call it *good*, but it's much like middle-of-the-road Terrance Dicks. Worse than Players, but better than Warmonger or The Eight Doctors. Admittedly that's not high praise and I can't say I'm eager to read more from either of these authors, but this book's reputation had led me to expect a catastrophe in paper covers. It's probably better than Deadly Reunion, for a start.
This doesn't explain its scraping-the-barrel 38.7% score on Shannon's Online Rankings, but I have a theory about that. The book fans hated it because it's basically rubbish. Let's not forget that something like the bottom 20% of all Doctor Who books have less to commend them than even the worst TV episodes. This kind of plodding nonsense keeps popping up, like moles in your best lawn, and year after year we wonder why we paid good money in the first place. The Ghosts of N-Space may not be the worst Who novel of all time, but that doesn't make it worth reading.
Such books are aimed at "trad fans", for lack of a better phrase... but I think even they hated this book, hence the 38.7% ranking. They'd have enjoyed its cosy familiarity and likeable regulars, but unfortunately Barry Letts chose to write about a load of old tosh. Astrology, comets overhead, a literal afterlife in the form of N-Space... even today, in the post-Magrs BBC Books generation, it feels peculiar. (The afterlife stuff in particular.) Back in 1995 I'm sure much of the audience flatly rejected it, especially coming as it does from the rationalist 3rd Doctor. Traditionalists were always likely to struggle with a book containing lines like: "Tonight is the night that the ancient astrology of the Egyptians tells him that he can become master of the world."
All that said, there's much to like in this book. It deftly juggles three timezones (1500, 1818 and 1973), each of which come alive in their own ways with their own characters. The story may be unbelievable but at least it's memorable, with its concepts and set pieces staying in the mind long after The Paradise of Death has gone the way of the dodo. The regulars are genuinely good, by which I mean the Doctor, Sarah and the Brigadier. (I'll come to Jeremy in a moment.) I particularly liked the Doctor's reaction to being compared with Santa Claus. The Brigadier's hitherto unrevealed Italian heritage feels ridiculous, but it's not as if we bought this book expecting Shakespeare. There's a sweet original character in Louisa. I liked all that.
Jeremy Fitzoliver is interesting. At times I felt I'd spotted "Jar-Jar Binks in Episode Two" syndrome, in which an author visibly gets defensive about a much-maligned character. There's an odd, slightly embarrassed feel about the section from p89 onwards, which pre-emptively tells us what will happen instead of trusting us to want to read the adventures of Jeremy. There's even a touch of bitterness in Jeremy himself on p60 and p73, which could be retconned as foreshadowing Instruments of Darkness.
However for every good point there's a dumb one to drag things backwards. Yet again Barry proves as careless with continuity as his spiritual mentor, Uncle Terry. There's an ugly clash with Timelash on p31 (and you know a book's in trouble when it comes off second in a contest like that). The name N-Space itself is odd from the executive producer of Season Eighteen. Jeremy gets a hint of romance that's hardly more convincing than Sarah's in The Paradise of Death... I mean, he's Jeremy! Come off it, Baz!
The Brigadier's "army" against Max Vilmio is absurd. The man's a billionaire! "If Max Vilmio brought in a helicopter, they were sunk," muses Lethbridge-Stewart on p149, overlooking the very real possibilities of nerve gas, commando units and 1000 battle-hardened mercenaries.
This book is nonsense, but lively and better than its reputation. I don't recommend it, but it would fit comfortably into the recent BBC Books line-up and even be better than many of them. Hell, there's another Barry Letts PDA scheduled for July 2005. Admittedly to enjoy this book you need a taste for camp and kitsch, but I've read worse. Arguably its biggest crime is to deal with the notion of an afterlife, and even that's been touched on since in Camera Obscura and Empire of Death (though I still don't like it). Solidly mediocre.
The Ghosts of N-Space was originally broadcast as a radio drama for the BBC featuring Jon Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney reprising their roles in a sequel to the previous years The Paradise Of Death in 1996. But this Missing Adventures 'novelisation' appeared a year before the drama was broadcast, and Letts uses the more flexible book format to expand on his radio script.
Sarah Jane is taking a holiday in Italy planning to write her bestseller, hampered by the presence of her friend Jeremy Fitzoliver (who made his debut in the Paradise of Death) when she thinks she's seen the Brigadier. The Brigadier is in Italy, visiting his distant relative Uncle Mario who is having problems with an American mobster who wants the old man out of his castello. But there are ghosts at work amongst the stones of the castello and soon the Doctor is called in and discovers that the boundaries between this world and an alternative dimension called N-Space, where dead spirits are trapped, are breaking down and as such the world is in danger because of this.
The Ghosts of N-Space has a lot of problems, and they're mainly down to the story. Firstly there is the incredible co-incidence that the Brigadier happens to be in the same part of Italy at the same time that Sarah Jane Smith is there, plus the fact that the Brigadier is there because he has some Italian ancestry doesn't ring true either. The fact that the dimension where the titular ghosts come from is named N-Space is problematical too, as it doesn't refer to the fact that Full Circle established that N-Space was the normal universe that the Doctor travelled in (as opposed to E-Space) but it refers to Null-Space. If Letts had chosen to reference N-Space as Null-Space this may have worked better rather than using the same terminology as something else in the Who Universe. With much of the book being set in Italy, this means that there are Italian characters who Letts chooses to write by having them say their words in English with a heavy Italian accent. This leads to dialogue like:
'He is acoming! I have espied him with my I-spy-glass from the top of the tower! He is acoming up the hill; like the Jack and Jill he is acoming!'
After a while this dialogue just becomes tiresome. Much like the plot of the book, which is so pedestrian it is unbelievable. Much of the story is just frankly uninteresting.
Characterisation wise, Letts does get something right. Sarah Jane Smith is probably the best example of this and the early scenes with her are actually quite promising. Her characterisation is spot on and Letts does give her a larger than usual slice of the action, and this is one of the books few saving graces. Letts' delves into her childhood and also portrays her in a believable way, and brings her journalistic instincts to the fore on several occasions. The Brigadier comes across as the pompous military man that he was on television. The third Doctor doesn't really act out of character here although the characterisation of him isn't really particularly special. Jeremy Fitzoliver, whose introduction in The Paradise Of Death elevated him to the level of semi regular companion, is still as annoying as ever, although at least with this being a book you can imagine without so much of the irritatingly wet voice he had in the audio version.
The Ghosts of N-Space is therefore a big disappointment. It's main problem is that the writing is poor and the story is very dull and uninteresting. Sarah Jane's characterisation is probably the best thing about the book. Definitely one to be missed. This may qualify as the worst piece of Doctor Who fiction since they began publishing original books.