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The Highest Science

Doctor Who: The Virgin New Adventures #11
Eddy Wolverson

“The Highest Science” is a really mixed bag. Gareth Roberts’ novel is written with much style and wit, and has to get extra points for giving Benny her first adventure in the TARDIS as herself! However, although the book is much easier to read than its predecessor “Transit,” it’s plot is not anywhere near as good – something that comes as a massive disappointment considering that the book starts so promisingly.

Sheldukher, one of the two main ‘threats’ in the story is as dull as villain as one could ever read about. He’s evil; horrible; sick – absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever, no apparent reason for his obscene behaviour, nothing to sympathise with. The Chelonians are slightly more interesting, a race of 57th century reptilians with a very confused sense of gender, hell-bent on wiping out humanity as they see humans as ‘parasites.’ However, I found the most interesting ‘character’ (if that is indeed the correct word) in the book to be The Cell, a free-floating genetically enhanced brain forced to live in never-ending agony, kept alive by Sheldukher to aid him in his quest for ‘The Highest Science.’ Unfortunately, what exactly ‘The Highest Science’ is supposed to be is vague at best, and rather than engender intrigue the lack of information about it makes the story often seem quite pointless. Of course, the reason for the Doctor’s presence, the ‘Fortean Flicker’ that he is tracking, means that everything is hanging by the most delicate thread of coincidence anyway, and thus it comes as little surprise when ‘The Highest Science’ turns out to be nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by Earth authorities to finally trap Sheldukher!

Gareth Roberts’ first New Adventure certainly has much going on in it, and were it not for some shallow characters and a massively anti-climactic (and frankly annoying) ending “The Highest Science” would certainly rank much higher in my estimations.

Finn Clark

Gareth Roberts is best-known for his MAs, three in Season Seventeen and one in Season Two, and rightly so. Those books are joyful romps that have always made me laugh (though their popularity among fandom seems to have diminished over the years), but his NAs are strange half-breeds: neither fish nor fowl. At times they're very dark, with political cynicism and a Mortimore-esque body count, but somehow they're also trying to bubble with Gareth's gift for comedy. The result is often an uneven tone that serves neither the darkness and the gags.

I think Gareth's NAs got worse as they went on. Zamper is dull. Tragedy Day is great fun for the first 200 pages, then falls apart so spectacularly that it becomes barely readable. Even The Highest Science isn't without its problems, but despite a "two bees in a jar" plot I thought it was entertaining and a genuinely strong book.

First and foremost, it made me laugh! This book isn't an out-and-out comedy, but it has a consistently ironic tone and some killer gags. I defy anyone to read Mr Peploe's story on p13 without chuckling, while p61 has my all-time favourite comedy scene in an NA. ("The Doctor decided it was almost like real life, in a glamorized sort of way.") There are British cultural references, but somehow Gareth Roberts manages to make you laugh instead of swear when he parodies a line from a classic movie. It's like the pisstake chapter titles in Donald Cotton's Target novelisations, inspiring Virgin authors to try to do the same but with somewhat tragic effect. Donald Cotton is funny and his imitators weren't. Simple as that. So is Gareth Roberts.

The book's characters are a curate's egg, but overall it's pretty good. I'm not normally a fan of the Chelonians, but they're great here. Admittedly they have the IQ of over-boiled cabbage, but their interactions with the Doctor are a hoot and I was charmed by the one who wanted to be a florist.

I liked Sheldukher too, who miraculously manages to avoid being a Hannibal Lecter retread and is kinda fun to read about. His criminal associates even manage a little depth, with the Cell and Rosheen getting some genuine emotion. I cared about both o' those, despite the fact that neither of them should theoretically be a sympathetic character.

Unfortunately we also have the eight-twelves and the space-heads. The eight-twelves are likeable, but their sole plot purpose is to be victims.

They get nothing to do. What's worse, the resolution of their story undercuts an entertaining book with a depressing ending, which felt so inappropriate that I can't believe it didn't end up being retconned in Happy Endings. In fact, maybe it did and I missed it.

(NOTE: it did and I did. Happy Endings (pp3-6) opens with Romana tracing the Fortean Flicker, finding the eight-twelves trapped in the stasis field and rescuing them all. With thanks for the correction to John Seavey.)

Then we have the boring loser space-heads: Molassi, Sendei and Rodomonte. For a while I thought Rodomonte was the middle name of Chris Cwej, which would have been kinda cool. Continuity in futuristic names! Unfortunately I was wrong; I was thinking of Rodonante.

I have plot quibbles. How do the Chelonians know that the eight-twelves are called eight-twelves? The Fortean Flicker concept is largely wasted (compare with Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun), being almost more important for a retcon in Happy Endings! And have I grumbled enough yet about that unnecessary downer ending? Probably not. In some books it would be appropriate, but this is not such a book.

There's an unusual attitude to death. It's casual but ironic, like Jim Mortimore on a giggle fit. Sometimes it made me laugh. Sometimes it felt sad. And sometimes it felt gratuitous, as if Gareth had decided to kill the cast one by one and was knocking them off at random whenever possible.

I called this a "two bees in a jar" plot, so I should probably define terms. Simply put, this book has no villain. Presumably there's an entity who's dragged all these unrelated people through time to the planet Sakkrat... or is there? Nope, what you see is what you get. Admittedly the Chelonians and Sheldukher aren't nice guys, but they're not the *villains*. They're as clueless as anyone else. They simply have a worse attitude about it.

Notwithstanding the Highest Science which Sheldukher came looking for, in practice this novel is 250 pages of random antagonists running around Sakkrat blindly trying to kill each other. It's like watching bees fight in a jar. It's entertaining in a sadistic sort of way, but you can't say it's going anywhere.

Despite such quibbles, though, I still think this is Gareth Roberts's best NA. It's as entertaining as the best bits of Tragedy Day while largely avoiding the lowpoints of his other NAs. It suffers from that uneven tone I was talking about, but to a lesser extent than plenty of Gareth's other books. Truly funny Doctor Who books are rare enough to be special - and for my money this is one of them.

Finn Clark

Gareth Roberts is best-known for his MAs, three in Season Seventeen and one in Season Two, and rightly so. Those books are joyful romps that have always made me laugh (though their popularity among fandom seems to have diminished over the years), but his NAs are strange half-breeds: neither fish nor fowl. At times they're very dark, with political cynicism and a Mortimore-esque body count, but somehow they're also trying to bubble with Gareth's gift for comedy. The result is often an uneven tone that serves neither the darkness and the gags.

I think Gareth's NAs got worse as they went on. Zamper is dull. Tragedy Day is great fun for the first 200 pages, then falls apart so spectacularly that it becomes barely readable. Even The Highest Science isn't without its problems, but despite a "two bees in a jar" plot I thought it was entertaining and a genuinely strong book.

First and foremost, it made me laugh! This book isn't an out-and-out comedy, but it has a consistently ironic tone and some killer gags. I defy anyone to read Mr Peploe's story on p13 without chuckling, while p61 has my all-time favourite comedy scene in an NA. ("The Doctor decided it was almost like real life, in a glamorized sort of way.") There are British cultural references, but somehow Gareth Roberts manages to make you laugh instead of swear when he parodies a line from a classic movie. It's like the pisstake chapter titles in Donald Cotton's Target novelisations, inspiring Virgin authors to try to do the same but with somewhat tragic effect. Donald Cotton is funny and his imitators weren't. Simple as that.

So is Gareth Roberts.

The book's characters are a curate's egg, but overall it's pretty good. I'm not normally a fan of the Chelonians, but they're great here. Admittedly they have the IQ of over-boiled cabbage, but their interactions with the Doctor are a hoot and I was charmed by the one who wanted to be a florist.

I liked Sheldukher too, who miraculously manages to avoid being a Hannibal Lecter retread and is kinda fun to read about. His criminal associates even manage a little depth, with the Cell and Rosheen getting some genuine emotion. I cared about both o' those, despite the fact that neither of them should theoretically be a sympathetic character.

Unfortunately we also have the eight-twelves and the space-heads. The eight-twelves are likeable, but their sole plot purpose is to be victims.

They get nothing to do. What's worse, the resolution of their story undercuts an entertaining book with a depressing ending, which felt so inappropriate that I can't believe it didn't end up being retconned in Happy Endings. In fact, maybe it did and I missed it. Then we have the boring loser space-heads: Molassi, Sendei and Rodomonte. For a while I thought Rodomonte was the middle name of Chris Cwej, which would have been kinda cool. Continuity in futuristic names! Unfortunately I was wrong; I was thinking of Rodonante.

I have plot quibbles. How do the Chelonians know that the eight-twelves are called eight-twelves? The Fortean Flicker concept is largely wasted (compare with Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun), being almost more important for a retcon in Happy Endings! And have I grumbled enough yet about that unnecessary downer ending? Probably not. In some books it would be appropriate, but this is not such a book.

There's an unusual attitude to death. It's casual but ironic, like Jim Mortimore on a giggle fit. Sometimes it made me laugh. Sometimes it felt sad. And sometimes it felt gratuitous, as if Gareth had decided to kill the cast one by one and was knocking them off at random whenever possible.

I called this a "two bees in a jar" plot, so I should probably define terms.

Simply put, this book has no villain. Presumably there's an entity who's dragged all these unrelated people through time to the planet Sakkrat... or is there? Nope, what you see is what you get. Admittedly the Chelonians and Sheldukher aren't nice guys, but they're not the *villains*. They're as clueless as anyone else. They simply have a worse attitude about it.

Notwithstanding the Highest Science which Sheldukher came looking for, in practice this novel is 250 pages of random antagonists running around Sakkrat blindly trying to kill each other. It's like watching bees fight in a jar. It's entertaining in a sadistic sort of way, but you can't say it's going anywhere.

Despite such quibbles, though, I still think this is Gareth Roberts's best NA. It's as entertaining as the best bits of Tragedy Day while largely avoiding the lowpoints of his other NAs. It suffers from that uneven tone I was talking about, but to a lesser extent than plenty of Gareth's other books. Truly funny Doctor Who books are rare enough to be special - and for my money this is one of them.

Shane Welch

An intriguing plot - assorted groups of humans and Chelonians get transported, seemingly at random to an alien planet (Sakkrat?), in a future time. The Doctor, and his (relatively new) companion Bernice Summerfield arrive on the same planet, attempting to discover the source of time disturbances (Fortean Flickers). At the same time, another group of humans arrive in a space ship, searching for the fabled 'Highest Science'.

The Chelonians are probably Virgin's greatest creation (apart from Benny of course). They work extremely well as an alien race. The author gives us an excellent insight into their culture, their thoughts. 'Flower Arranging' or 'War'? - Gareth Roberts actually manages to bring such a career choice off with his portrayal of the Chelonians. "Chelonians don't kill Chelonians!" Yeah, sure, and Minbari never lie and Klingons are honourable!

The Doctor is portrayed as a clownish character, reminescent of Sylvester's first season. As he is being crushed to death, he states, 'This is ridiculous, I'm the only one wearing a tie', and after being dropped from a height, and landing on his feet he claims 'I had to land on my feet as I wasn't wearing a crash helmet'.

Bernice seems more a cross between the Bernice to come and the Ace of old. Ace's violent tendencies were sometimes prevalent. Generally a good portrayal though, laying a solid foundation for the more rounded character to come.

Has the loose end ever been tied up? The 8-12s and Chelonians were left stuck in a time bubble. OK, maybe the Doctor doesn't always have the answers, but it did diminish the impact of the book somewhat to leave them stuck like that.

A highly enjoyable book.

Gary Rothkopf

Well, for a change, I've decided to review one of the NA's. I've only read a few of them, of which nearly all were either boring or just plain crap ("Transit", anyone?) However, I've recently read an NA that comes very close to being true Doctor Who, in my opinion. That book is "The Highest Science".

In "The Highest Science", a Fortean Flicker, a type of phenomena involving coincidences, brings three groups of people to the legendary world of Sakkrat. These groups include a Chelonian batallion, a subway train full of people from England 1993, and some young people visiting a concert in the year 2112, all of which are quite random to say the least. Also approaching Sakkrat is the dangerous criminal Sheldukher, alongside a free-floating brain called the Cell, and the criminal's unwilling crew. They happen to be in search of the Highest Science, a legendary technology of great power. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Bernice end up visiting Sakkrat (in reality, a planet called Hogsumm fabricated to be Sakkrat to deceive Sheldukher) in order to solve the problem of the Fortean flicker, and end up getting caught in the survival of the three separate groups, and in the quest to find the legendary Highest Science.

Now, the Highest Science isn't a great work of literature. Far from it. Great works of literature tend to be stuffy and dry, full of symbolism, and very tedious. "The Highest Science" is the opposite. It's a fast-paced book chock full of humor and rather good characterization. What's more, the Doctor was actually in more than a third of the book or so.

As I said before, characterization in this novel is above par compared to the other NA's I've read. The Doctor seems more like that of the twenty-fifth season, where McCoy's clownish aspect started to meet his darker Time's Champion mode. He spouts out many a silly saying and does some things only McCoy's earlier portrayal would have done, while maintaining his aloof, mysterious sides in some parts. To me, this is the Seventh Doctor at his best, and is how he should have been portrayed in the rest of the NA's.

Another delightful aspect of this novel is that Ace, who was an excellent companion on TV, yet boring in the novels, is no longer here. Instead, Bernice is by herself with the Doctor. This is a good thing, as Bernice, an excellent character, isn't overshadowed by any other companions like many later books tend to. This is how the books should have continued, sans Ace.

The best part of the book is al the humor thrownin, as well as the turtle-like Chelonians. Despite being classified as your typical "conquer and destroy" aliens, they actually have an interesting culture for a race of warriors. What's really funny is all the jokes about this race of brutal, violent race becoming renowned as the galaxy's finest florists!

Oh, I forgot to mention the teens, Sheldukher, and the train people. The first one didn't work for me at all, Sheldukher came off as creepy but not too dangerous, and the people on the train were sort of thrown aside for the most part. However, this is not a major poroblem, as the Doctor, Bernice, and the Chelonians make the book great.

Gareth Roberts has created a wonderful novel, full of the humor the NA's desperately needed. Great twist on traditional quest plot, great race of aliens, and the characterization's wonderful. Mr.Roberts should write for the BBC lines, he's defintely welcome by me. Excellent first novel. I give 'The Highest Science" a 9/10. Great stuff.