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The Dimension Riders

Doctor Who: The Virgin New Adventures #20
Finn Clark

Daniel Blythe is an underrated author who writes with intelligence and subtlety. Unfortunately his debut novel is probably a large part of why this fact is less widely recognised than it should be, since on one basic level this book is bollocks.

I have a lot of time for The Dimension Riders, but it's groaning under the weight of a technobabble plot. What's happening? Buggered if I know. Time is weird, there's a fuzzy temporal menace... that's right, even in Virgin's day an alternate universe arc could screw up books! Admittedly this particular plot would have always been bafflegab, but its ending is visibly damaged by the arc. Instead of a straightforward time-eating baddie (the Garvond), we get a pointless layer of complication in which the Garvond was mysteriously created and then uncreated by the Doctor at some point in his past, but this destruction was unhappened by the villain from No Future for this one-off adventure... What the hell is this? Who thought this was a good idea?

There's interesting symmetry. Both plot threads (1993 and 2381) start with a big catastrophe, then jump backwards a week and wait for it to unfold.

Probably. If time behaves as it should. I don't think this parallel has any plot significance, though; it's just narrative structure.

The continuity's a bit of a dog's breakfast. There's more fanwank than in Infinite Requiem and unfortunately it feels like it. Avert your eyes from p110, gentle reader, and there's more of the same elsewhere. On p25, Daniel Blythe seems to think that the 24th century is "just before Benny's time and just after the Cyberwars". Huh? The first is demonstrably wrong (though 'twas a common error in the early NAs) and the latter is just one of many references that have ended up pushing Tomb of the Cybermen six hundred years further into the future. (For further Cyberwars references, see p91 and p94.)

Oh, and this book also kills Anji. (Presumably it's not our Anji, but I'd suggest bookmarking p143 in case some evil-minded author timescoops Anji Kapoor to the 24th century.)

But despite all this, despite the ending and the plot, I enjoyed this book.

The reason is simple: the writing. You know that cliche of the novels in which authors suddenly give us a page and a half of the mental processes of some insignificant character we've never met, also known as the Circling Vultures, the Mark of Death, the Black Spot and the Fatal Countdown? This book is so well written that this obligatory page-and-a-half so sucked me in that I was shocked when Mr Cannon Fodder bought the farm. The characters come across well, even though they're trapped in a technobabble plot and have little to do but run in circles and get itchy feet. The Doctor and Benny are good as usual, but even New Ace is treated sympathetically.

What's more, this novel has my all-time favourite scene in any Virgin NA. See p140. It's merely a three-page hesitation in which a barmaid comes on to the Doctor and he gently turns her down, but for some reason it's always got to me. I can't think of many Who authors who'd have done that scene this well... it's warm and intelligent, but also understated enough to feel delicate instead of obvious. I've had that page bookmarked for years.

Perhaps the Oxford setting helped me, since I live near Oxford and visit it regularly. (The same factor probably helped Asylum for me.) However I think that city is portrayed well enough to seem authentic to Oxfordians and normal people alike. That's good too.

Many authors peak with their debut book and fall back thereafter instead of advancing. That definitely wasn't the case with Daniel Blythe, who improved hugely with Infinite Requiem. Plotwise this book is a cross between Anachrophobia and Vanderdeken's Children, but don't even think about the plot. On the level of its writing, this is an intelligent, well-crafted novel. Despite all my criticisms above, I'd recommend it.

Simon Catlow

The second novel in the Alternate Universe Cycle sees the individual who made things difficult for the Doctor on the alternate world in Birthright has altered things again. This time an ancient enemy of the Time Lords has been freed and is preparing to wreak havoc on the universe and with the assistance of the Time Soldiers, two nexus points have been established. One in Oxford 1993 and the other in the future on a desolated space station.

The Doctor has arrived in Oxford with Ace and Benny and Benny is enjoying meeting Professor James Raffetty - the newly and controversially appointed head of Extraterrestrial Studies. The Doctor as usual suspects that something is wrong and leaves Benny in Oxford and takes Ace to the space station. Upon their arrival they find skeletons of dead bodies, that have been withered by time. The Doctor soon makes a shocking discovery about how the bodies came to be in the state that they are, but the Doctor and Ace are not the only ones on the Space Station. A team from the Earth ship Icarus are on board investigating what has happened and upon the discovery of the Doctor and Ace, it seems that they think they are responsible. Back in Oxford, it soon becomes apparent that there is more going on than meets the eye to Benny and with a strange woman and the President of one of the University's Colleges behaving oddly.

The Dimension Riders is an interesting book, even if it is not a particularly memorable one. The idea behind the plot is relatively simplistic. An ancient evil returns and needs the focus point brought to a particular moment in time to come into being and ravage the galaxy. Setting one part of the novel in Oxford amongst the Universities gives these sections a touch of Shada, and introduces Professor Summerfield to the bicycle (which she would get more familiar with when she went to Dellah in the later Doctorless New Adventures). The other main setting of the novel is the space station where much of the action takes place. There's nothing essentially wrong with the parts set there, but there is a feeling of seeing nothing particularly new with it.

The villains of the book come in several forms. The android Amanda, is in the control of a rogue Time Lord named The President (but not the actual Time Lord President) who thinks that he's plotting a trap for the Doctor - the most infamous of all the rogue Time Lords. The identity of the President as a Time Lord is rather given away by the beginning of the book which features a dramatis personae and promptly gives away the fact that he is a Time Lord, so at the moment of surprise where he asks Amanda where his TARDIS is, rather than being the scene stealer it is, it comes across as a disappointment. The dimension riders of the title are the Time Soldiers, beings who have the ability to travel through dimensions at will and who are responsible for the desolation of the space station. They are the followers of the Garvond, the ancient entity that the Time Lords imprisoned in the Matrix which the individual responsible for this arc has ensured has never happened. The idea of the Time Soldiers and the Garvond are interesting and Blythe brings out the menacing quality of the Time Soldiers as they casually kill most of the Icarus' crew on their way to ensuring it's capture.

The characterisation of the Doctor is more akin to the way that Sylvester McCoy played him on screen in his later days as the Doctor ,as there is the darker moments that the New Adventures preferred, but there is scenes of the humour that was part of the on screen persona of the Seventh Doctor, such as the scene where the Doctor states that he doesn't care much for people who don't like almond slices. The Doctor is a little frustrated at times in this novel that the TARDIS no longer seems to trust him anymore. This is due to the fact that in the previous novel 'Bloodheat' the TARDIS was destroyed and the Doctor took the TARDIS of that universe's Doctor who had been killed by the Silurians in Derbyshire. Ace is well characterised and although this is the tougher portrayal of Ace, she comes across better here than she does of some of the other novels at this time. Benny is well written, although she hardly seems to feature very much here, which is a pity.

Overall the Dimension Riders is a competent book. The ideas and concepts of the novel with the return of an ancient enemy of the Time Lords are good and ensure that this book is an interesting read. Blythe's style of writing is easy enough to follow and maintains a solid quality throughout. His Time Lord villain is not one hundred percent successful, but he is a good character if not a particularly memorable one. The Time Soldiers are the best part of the book, and it's a shame that they have not appeared again in any subsequent books. The main problem with the Dimension Riders is that it is easily forgettable and doesn't really make any lasting impression. It's a entertaining book, but it's not really as good as it could have been.