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Shadowmind

Doctor Who: The Virgin New Adventures #16
Finn Clark

You know, that wasn't so bad. I was pleasantly surprised. Admittedly it's so far from being actually good that NASA could use it for a deep space observatory, but I was expecting worse. As a novel, Shadowmind is like a battle between two forces of evil that annihilate each other to leave infinite void.

On the one hand, you have the author: Christopher Bulis. On the other, this is a 1993 NA commissioned by Peter Darvill-Evans. I wouldn't want to imply that all the 1993 books sucked, but they had a definite suckage tendency and Shadowmind has everything that dragged down its contemporaries. Soldiers. More soldiers. Space battles. New Ace, blowing things up and having casual sex. A military-based plot that gives the TARDIS crew nothing to do. In outline this must have looked like Deceit II: This Time It's Even More Violent, but Virgin had reckoned without the King of Bland.

Y'see, this is a 1993 Virgin NA with absolutely no angst or gritty machismo. The military are fairly relaxed dudes. They're pretty boring, but they do their jobs and don't get in the way. No one has much of a personality, but the plot doesn't call for it. This may be the most un-gripping, unmemorable book ever published under the Doctor Who imprint, but at least it's not painful like Deceit or The Pit.

There are even good points. I liked the aliens (Umbra and the Shenn), which were fun. There are a few nice touches with the TARDIS crew. The writing certainly isn't good, but for my money it's the only Bulis book which shows signs of being perpetrated by a human being. More effort went into this debut novel than the norm of Default Bulis Mode. At times I could believe in its TARDIS crew, for instance.

Let's not get carried away, though. All this Shadowmind praise starts from the basic standpoint of "this book eats brain cells". It has good points, but so does catching syphilis. I bet even the Bulis itself couldn't remember what happened in it after it finished writing. The plot is a huge problem, starting out with 35 pages of non-action (it's Ace's birthday!) before segueing into Invasion of the Body Snatchers and then degenerating into a book-length military campaign. Yup, the army save the day. The TARDIS crew are military consultants, no more. There's planning, strategy, battles against a faceless enemy and... sorry, went to sleep for a moment there. There's a dramatic bit at the end, but I couldn't recommend ploughing through its 244 pages just for that.

Some books actively repel you. This is more of a stealth book, sending hypnotic signals... "put me down, do something more interesting". It took me forever to get around to finishing it.

This book is better than I'd expected, but on reflection I'm not sure that I wouldn't have preferred to read something actively bad. Its most distinctive features are: (a) horrible proofreading, (b) deformed people on the cover. Is that meant to be Bernice Summerfield? I don't see the point of all the Shakespearean names from As You Like It and Midsummer Night's Dream, as cited by the text on p159. Oh, and anyone looking for a cruel anti-Bulis quote could do worse than the one on p163:

"What the Captain was asking for was that most challenging of intellectual feats: original thought."

Simon Catlow

It's Ace's birthday and she's determined to have a good time. The Doctor takes her and Bernice to the planet Tairngire and it's capital city New Byzantium. Although the visit starts out pleasant enough for Ace, it soon turns sour when she sees two people murder another and the victim turns out to be not exactly human. Soon the Doctor is helping the local authorities investigate the victim who was a replicant of one of the citizens of Tairngire. The Doctor soon realises that the real danger comes from where the replicants come from, and all signs point to the planet of Arden.

Christopher Bulis has become one of the most prolific authors for the Doctor Who range for both the BBC and the Virgin ranges, and is the only author to have written for each of the eight Doctors. Therefore his first novel Shadowmind is something of a disappointment because of the fact that it doesn't really work well. There is a clear structure to the story with the action taking place first on Tairngire, then moving to the starship Broadsword, and finally to the planet of Arden but the problem with the plot is that it proves to be uninteresting.

It's starts off quite well with Benny and Ace being affected by a malfunction in the TARDIS telepathic circuits and Benny ending up seeing an elderly man in a frock coat with the Doctor's eyes where the Doctor stands and Ace having her birthday. There are some nice touches to these early sections too with an explanation of how the Doctor can get accepted so easily being his unlimited credit from the First Galactic Bank. The story of people being replaced by identical replicants is nothing new but Bulis does make this part of the story interesting with a potential replicant amongst the authorities of the planet knowing every move that they discuss to deal with the situation.

There is quite a lot of action scenes in this novel and that is Ace's area of expertise. Ace armed with her latest experiment in explosives neo-nitro explosive sweets, this book focuses on her above the other characters. Bulis characterises her well, and even despite the fact that it is the battle-hardened Ace that features, he still manages to make her likeable in a way that some of the other authors of New Adventures contemporary to this one failed to do so. The actual action scenes are handled reasonably well and Bulis does inject some excitement into these and especially the scenes involving the Broadsword starship battles.

Unfortunately, Bulis hasn't really captured the essence of the Seventh Doctor here. Although he is one step ahead of everyone, as he always appears to be in this run of the series, he just doesn't feel right and this effects the novel's success. Benny is relegated to being the comic character and doesn't really do anything throughout the novel which is a big disappointment. But Bulis' own characters are good on the whole, if they are slightly forgettable.

The essential problem with Shadowmind is that when the villains of the story, the Shenn, are revealed, they are totally unmemorable and with the lack of conviction needed they become ineffective. Then when the age old horror that a lot of the early New Adventures relied on appears, it all becomes very predictable.

Christopher Bulis is an author who I have found either produces either extraordinarily good books, such as The Sorcerer's Apprentice, The Eye Of The Giant, or City At World's End, or books which are extraordinarily bad, such as Twilight of The Gods and the Ultimate Treasure. Shadowmind is therefore a bit of an oddity. It's not really that good but it does have some redeeming qualities as it has good ideas which are poorly executed. The writing is consistently good but the book seems to come apart in the last hundred and fifty pages or so. Shadowmind is relatively entertaining, but it's plot problems ultimately cause it's downfall.