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Tragedy Day

Doctor Who: The Virgin New Adventures #24
Finn Clark

That was a nose-dive and a half! I had a ball reading Tragedy Day's first 200 pages, but then out of nowhere it turned crappy and stayed that way.

Gareth Roberts isn't really a plot-based writer. None of his NAs shone in that regard, Zamper being slow and boring while The Highest Science had that "ants in a jar" plot. What's more, I'd say he's struggled in a more plot-dependent medium (the comic strips), as can be seen in the pages of DWM. The Lunar Strangers, Plastic Millennium, The Seventh Segment, Operation Proteus, Target Practice, The Last Word and The Nightmare Game are all forgettable, apart from the talking cows, though The Nightmare Game had its moments.

Bringing this ramble back on-topic, Tragedy Day's last 75 pages are dire. It's not the carnage. I don't mind death and destruction, since at least it's usually good for a laugh. No, it's the way in which the plot disintegrates instead of reaching a climax, with the book's funniest character (Ernie "Eight-Legs" McCartney) being written out in a Sawardian afterthought and the bad guy having a "what the hell?" change of heart that did nothing for me whatsoever. The little creep's so thoroughly unlikeable that I just didn't care. There's a plot twist so obvious that it's visible from orbit, plus twenty pages of tacked-on nonsense with the Friars of Pangloss and nothing much worth reading about in any way.

However despite all that, I greatly enjoyed this book and would cautiously recommend it.

Tragedy Day's plot doesn't *matter*. It's merely an excuse to wheel out some comedy characters and satire of the way we live. (It's not even veiled satire, since the book states that Olleril is a cultural echo of Earth in the 20th century.) At most a few names change. We have two recent Big Wars, hippies left over from "decade six", a boy band called Fancy That and some android celebrities of such vanity, stupidity and self-absorbed goldfish memories that you'd imagine they're on day release from their Special School. I must also mention Olleril's parliament and police, which are monstrosities of entertaining wrongness.

Sometimes the parody also gets specific. A bigoted, moronic tabloid hack is called Jeff Shrub, obviously no relation whatsoever to the real-life Sun columnist Gary Bushell. Also the all-important "all-zones access wafer" which lets you out of the slum zones... is a London Underground travelcard.

Then there are the comedy characters. Ernie "Eight-Legs" McCartney is a hoot, but the mother-son double act of Forgwyn and Meredith Morgan is also good for a giggle. I laughed at the Celebroids too, but best of all were the early appearances of Crispin: Boy Genius. You can tell Gareth had a ball writing him. For much of the book I was simply having fun watching these 'orrible people scurry like insects who've just had their rock removed.

I had a laugh with those first 200 pages, but they're not perfect. Sometimes they get a bit political, which doesn't work very well. Gareth's much better at just taking the piss. A more fundamental problem is the NA line-up of the 7th Doctor, Benny and New Ace, which clearly doesn't inspire Gareth as did the Seasons 2 and 17 regulars in his Virgin MAs. They get the odd comedy moment, but in an odd sense these characters are too thin for him to get his teeth into. Gareth's most enjoyable character work tended to come from writing barely-disguised parody turned up to eleven, such as with his 6th Doctor and Mel from Decalog 3, but he couldn't really do that here. (Several years later he got to write an out-and-out pisstake of New Ace in The Last Word for DWM 305 - which read like Gareth finally letting rip with what he really thought.)

Tragedy Day probably isn't the book Gareth meant to write. It sprawls, tries to do too much and diffuses its focus. The satire doesn't go anywhere and it's eventually undercut by the carnage of the last 75 pages. It's not an out-and-out comedy and it's not much shakes as straight drama, but there's more than enough jolly fun in its pages to make it worth a look. Just remember to skim-read the ending, or possibly even tear out those pages and put them in the compost heap. The preceding stuff is fun. If nothing else, you'll be treated to Gareth's cynical opinion of celebrity fundraisers...

Andrew McCaffrey

Sweet Jebus, I thought I was never going to be able to finish this book. Virtually nothing about this appealed to me in any sort of way whatsoever. For something that seemed like an attempt at a light, frothy and throwaway romp, I found it to be an extremely tiring, turgid and monotonous read. The only thing that the book gets right about the Doctor is the picture on the cover (even that turns out to be a cheat), and neither Ace nor Benny manage to rise out of the depths of one-dimensionality that the rest of the characters are trapped in. The humor is just flat and the parodies are entirely forgettable.

TRAGEDY DAY attempted to be a satire of a handful of different things. Unfortunately, it seemed to be blurring the line between being a satire of something awful and just plain being awful. For example, at the very beginning the TARDIS crew is split off into different subplots. This is, of course, almost a standard feature in Doctor Who stories. But Roberts doesn't even bother giving them any real motivation for splitting up. Ace just suddenly decides that she wants to walk away from the Doctor and Benny for absolutely no reason. I genuinely couldn't tell if Roberts was attempting to poke fun at this convention in storytelling, or just honestly and unknowingly fell into it -- being unable or unwilling to come up with a realistic set of motivations. I actually spent several minutes trying to guess whether this was deliberate or accidental, and I just couldn't figure it out. I eventually decided that whatever it was, it wasn't a success at whatever it was trying to convey. If it was a joke, it fell flat; if it was a real plot point, then it was just unbelievably poorly executed.

And this sort of thing is representative of quite a lot of my reaction to the book. The plot is stunningly silly, and I was rolling my eyes at it rather than giggling along with it. The way the villain is defeated is shockingly uninspired, and although I won't spoil it, I will say that when you're forced to borrow plot points from TIMELASH, it's time to abandon that line of thought and try again after a good night's rest. (To be fair to the author, knowing a little about how NA deadlines could sometimes be bumped up to accommodate changes in the schedule, it's entirely possible that there simply wasn't a "next morning" in which to think up something better. But even so, the result here is tremendously poor.)

There were one or two bright spots mixed in. The satire is mostly blunt and ineffectual, but there were one or two moments were it suddenly discovered a razor sharp point. And there was a hilarious character, Ernie the hired assassin, who just happens to be a giant spider, dressed like something out of a Western and speaking like Brian Blessed with a fake working-class accent. Naturally, this wonderful and amusing character is given very little screen-time and is removed from the story far before the end. Shame. This character could have at least made the book slightly more palatable, and I shed real tears when he exited the narrative.

Simply put, I couldn't wait to finish TRAGEDY DAY and move on to something else. I just don't get this apparent style of "humor". To me, comedy comes from more than simply repeating bad things that other stories have done. Unfortunately, this book does nothing more than that. When Ernie McCartney leaves the story, there's no more reason to read.