I like Terrance Dicks' prose. I can't help it; I grew up reading Terrance Dicks novelisations. My Target collection and I were inseparable. I took those books to school; I took them on holiday with me; if I had been a member of the child slave trade, you can be sure that I would have brought a grubby copy of INFERNO down the salt mines with me.
Good heavens, I don't think I meant to say exactly all that. Yet, I must point out that I am predisposed towards liking Terrance Dicks books. It can't be helped; it's now hardwired into my brain. But it's not something I'm ashamed about, even now, as the world of original Doctor Who novels has moved beyond Uncle Terry's monthly churn-out. For every Terry failure, there's a wonderful Terry success. For every regurgitated ENDGAME, there's a fantastic TIMEWYRM: EXODUS. For every boring Benny chapter in BLOOD HARVEST, there's a fun Chicago chapter in, er, BLOOD HARVEST. Well, you get the idea. In any case, I found SHAKEDOWN to be very much in the style of previous Terrance Dicks books (which is what everyone said about every Terrance Dicks book, except, of course, for the first one). And what I mean by that is that it combines the fun and adventure of a solid, uncomplicated story with a breezy, entertaining style.
Well, before I get utterly carried away (quiet, you), I should at least make an attempt at describing this novel. It's a Sontaran/Rutan story. It separates the Doctor and companions in true Terry-style, and places them each in their own subplot. Chris and Roz are on the trail of a Rutan spy, tracking it from planet to planet, as it endeavors to stay one step ahead while on a secret mission of its own. Benny is dropped off on a university world, where her task is to study the history of the Sontaran/Rutan War. The Doctor's subplot involves him not being in the story very much, but don't mind about that because this is a Dicks novel and it moves too fast for anyone to notice or care about that.
As the introduction, back cover, inside pages, back page advertisement and photo inserts (including a wonderful shot right up Michael Wisher's nose -- thanks, lads) tell us, this is partially the novelisation of a direct-to-video story written by (who else?) Terrance Dicks. So, Terrance Dicks is novelizing a script by Terrance Dicks; did the 70s never end? Truthfully, the novelisation only takes up about sixty pages in the middle, and doesn't have a huge impact on the rest of the book (although a handful of characters do filter through). The sections before and after the novelisation are quite entertaining -- much more so than the novelisation itself.
Terrance Dicks has written so many adaptations of Doctor Who and related stories that I imagine that he must be able to do them in his sleep by now (and he probably does -- poor Mrs. Uncle Terry). But strangely enough, it's the novelisation portion of this book that drags the most. The middle sixty or so pages add absolutely nothing to the rest. Nothing, zilch, nada. It's padding, and it's not even interesting padding. The solution to the Sontaran's problem is blindingly obvious, yet they never solve it, because the story can't let them solve it. It's formulaic and boring; it utterly fails to fill me with the desire to see the original straight-to-video production. There are also two strange places where the middle section makes an oblique and Benny Adventures-like reference to the Doctor. Possibly this came from the original screenplay that had to sidestep various copyrights, but the jokes seem very much out of place inside what is now a genuine Doctor Who story.
It's always easy to tell when Dicks is getting bored by certain parts of the story. He seems to have enjoyed writing the Mega City portions (very similar to the Chicago sequences in BLOOD HARVEST). The Shakedown novelisation parts aren't given nearly the same amount of care, and, as a result, they tend to fall rather on the flat side. A few other portions are also breezed over, as if Dicks knew they were needed in order for the plot to advance, but simply couldn't be bothered fleshing them out. I can easily imagine the following occurring during a typical novel writing session: "Ah, yes, now for chapter seven. Hmmmmm, this part of the outline isn't going to be any fun to write. Really dull, in fact. Oh, I know. I'll just highlight these bits of the outline. Yeah, click on 'cut'. Now to open the novel document. Yes, I click on 'paste' now. Yes. Excellent. Well, that was an easy chapter to write. Now, what have I got cooked up in eight?"
The above paragraph may sound like a criticism, but it isn't. Terrance Dicks knows what makes a boring section, and (in SHAKEDOWN at least) he's quite skillful at happily skipping over the boring (but necessary) sections in order to get back to the fun and games. Hooray!
>From a technical standpoint, the book seems lazy and almost amateurish. There are pieces that are sloppy and not having been fully thought through. Benny disappears for just about a hundred pages (the book is only two hundred thirty three pages long) because Dicks can't figure out what to do with her. But, hey, it's a hell of a lot of fun, so who cares about those minor details? I wouldn't want to read a hundred of these books, but once in a while this sort of adventure is very appealing.
Terrance Dicks third New Adventure is a unique book in the range, being an expanded version of the independent spin-off video of the same name. This isn't such a simple matter as a Target novelisation however, as the unofficial nature of the Shakedown video has left Terrance somehow needing to insert the NA regulars of the Doctor, Benny, Chris and Roz into what appears to be a fairly closed narrative.
I had expected Dicks to remedy this simply by inserting the Doctor and co into the existing story, and expanding it accordingly. In a somewhat more surprising move the original video story is presented in unaltered form as the novels centrepiece, but is now book ended by more recognisable New Adventure material. On the downside this means that the story threads featuring the series regulars is oddly frozen for 50 pages (the video material makes up less than a quarter of the page count), but as a plus we have an enormously expanded scope, with new characters and planets thrown into the mix. The linking between old and new material however is not always seamless - Dicks treats the established video story as set in stone, as such we still have the clumsy veiled references to the Doctor as "The Dentist"- despite his real title being fully known, and a certain Sontaran plainly killed in the video has to resort to a cop-out resurrection in order to be present for the novels climax. Still, I suppose at least keeping the Doctor firmly away from the Tiger Moth prevents any awkward tiptoeing around the fat that two of its crew suspiciously resemble Ace and Susan!
The most enjoyable of the new material takes place early on, and involves Chris and Roz on the hunt for a Rutan spy somewhere in the somewhat familiarly named Megacity. During there investigations they come into contact with an Ogron police force led by an Ogron of augmented intelligence named Garshak. The playing against type is hilarious stuff, (can you imagine an Ogron serving tea saying "Shall I be mother?"), and I believe Garshak reappears later in the series - I'll be looking out for him.
Benny's subplot on Sentarion is a little too kids sci-fi for my tastes, with a Dicksian lack of development of the planets culture beyond only the most basic visual points - Sentarion is supposedly a world of low gravity, which in effect equals loads of giant insects and flying cars, but no mention is ever made of how this low gravity effects Bernice. Sigh.
For all its juvenile literary qualities however, this is a pleasant enough romp from Uncle Terrance. There are a huge number of continuity references - but unlike a lot of Dicks work they are just references, rather than being the framework for the entire novel. For once this isn't a sequel to the one of Dicks earlier stories, and is all the better for it.
I did the smart thing... I read the book before I watched the video. That way, I wouldn't be as disappointed; I'm always disheartened when I do things the other way around.* * * * *
"Shakedown," the latest New Adventure, is another tome from the pen of Terrance Dicks. You remember Uncle Terrance... the so-called "Elder Statesman" of Doctor Who (it even says so on the back cover!) He's the one who wrote all those pedantic and dull Who novelizations for so many years, then turned around and hammered out the remarkable "Timewyrm Exodus" New Adventure. I wasn't all that impressed with "Blood Harvest" except for the Capone bits, though, but we still know he can write. Uncle Terrance has penned this latest book, a novelization of sorts of the teleplay he wrote for the video produced by Dreamwatch... which actually turns out (the novelization, I mean) to be about 40 pages somewhere in the middle.
The novel is, quite simply, a terrific read. The Doctor, Bernice, Chris and Roz (the latest companion set; where have you been?) are on the trail of a Rutan spy who's been masquerading as a Sontaran for many years (I won't tell you who, but it's a character who was revealed in "Lords of the Storm," this month's Missing Adventure). The spy has been doing rather nasty things all over the place like blowing some people up and killing others. The trail leads the Doctor to a space station, where a racing yacht has just left on its maiden voyage (see below). Meanwhile, Bernice is trapped on a library planet where the religious inhabitants have just accused her of heresy and plan to kill her if she leaves the temple; while Chris and Roz are on an industrial planet doing what they do best... asking a lot of questions and hoping nobody thinks about killing them.
Let's just get it out in the open: I couldn't put this book down. It wasn't the most interesting story, certainly not the most well written, but the fun started on page 1 and lasted until the end. I was pleasantly surprised by the way Dicks blended what I assumed at the time was the video production into the larger story, and how that story panned out. There was plenty of action, plenty of drama... and certainly, plenty of humor (especially when it comes to Roz Forrester, whose sense of humor is so dry it's almost appalling). I would recommend this book to anyone... not only does it feature those evil nasties the Sontarans, but it does so with style.
I was also very pleasantly surprised to discover just how much I enjoyed "Shakedown" the video. Produced by Dreamwatch, the publishers of that fanzine that used to be DWB (the one we always made fun of here in the U.S. because all they could seem to do was call each other horrible unspeakable names), it was billed as "The Return of the Sontarans," who we haven't seen since "The Invasion of Time" back in the days of the series. More importantly, it featured a terrific cast: "Blake's 7's" Jan Chappell and Brian Croucher (Cally and Travis) and "Doctor Who's" Sophie Aldred, Carole Anne Ford and Michael Wisher (Ace, Susan and the original Davros), the latter of whom this was his last performance. Chappell played Lisa Deranne, captain of the space yacht Tiger Moth, for which this was the maiden, "shakedown" cruise (hence the title). The others were the passengers and crew of the ship, which was on its way after the cruise to join in interstellar competition. Along the way, the ship is invaded by a Sontaran strike team, pursuing the fleeing Rutan spy (the one the Doctor is pursuing in the novel). By the time all is said and done, there are a lot of deaths, and everyone's been put through the ringer.
Looking very much like a high-quality Who production rather than a cheap fan-made video, I was quite impressed with "Shakedown". The music is eerie, reminiscent of the opening bars of "Aliens," and the special effects, as stated in the kudos on the video cover and in the book itself, rival those of "Red Dwarf". "Shakedown" is a marvelous little production, quite intriguing, and I'd recommend it to any fan of Doctor Who.