When people talk about the maturity of the Virgin book range I quite often draw a blank at to what they are getting at and then I pick up a book like Just War and GET IT. This is a raw and gripping novel, one that caught my attention early on and never let go. Considering it is the first novel written by Lance Parkin it is an even greater accomplishment.
Writing for a science-fiction series opens up many possibilities that would not perhaps be available in a ‘straight’ series. Despite the ability of Doctor Who to tell stories in any place or time there are still a number of locations/years that are focussed upon and returned to. World Was Two is one such period, mother of tales such as The War Games, Curse of Fenric, Timewyrm: Exodus, The Turing Test and Shadow in the Glass. You might think that the period has been over exploited but reading a book like Just War reveals the merits of looking at the many different facets to a terrifying War. The story splits itself into four, one plotline for each of the regulars and examines the conflict from different angles. The Doctor is a prisoner of War and afforded the luxury of being valued by the Nazi’s. Benny is trapped in Occupied Guernsey and tortured by the Nazi’s. Roz is working for the British, helping out in their scientific intelligence department. And Chris is the soldier at War, out on a mission to retrieve a Nazi scientist. By showing us each of these characters (all of them anachronisms) and how they are treated Parkin approaches the War with much more depth than previous attempts to understand the subject.
The book itself was less densely written than Parkin’s later books and as a result it is one of his most readable. And I mean readable in every sense of the word, I have had an eye infection this past week and Simon, who is appalling at reading from the printed page, managed to read half of this book out to me with very little difficulty. The language flows beautifully and eloquently without ever being too complicated. The trouble with books like The Infinity Doctors and Father Time is that Parkin has crafted every single line to strike the reader and as such I find myself concentrating on the delicious prose style as well as the plot. Just War focuses on plot and character first and prose second, I could not imagine a twelve year old having difficulty with this book, despite the horrific subject matter.
Bernice has been travelling with the Doctor for many, many books now and it is quite shocking to think there are still things to learn about this fascinating character. You can see each successive writer building her character further, to a point where it is obvious she has the personality to hold up her own series. It says something, then, to point out that Just War is still one of the best examinations of Ms Summerfield yet, even though her adventures have continued for another ten years since.
It is through Benny that we get to experience the true horror of the Nazi’s. Whilst her torture scenes are brutal the painful stripping of her character begins far before that. Benny experiences life under Occupation, being watched, picked on, threatened, abused, toyed with and stripped off liberty and personality in fear of a bullet in the brain. The tension in these early scenes is palpable, Benny practically bursting to be free of her cover story and the limitations it places on her. The scene where her cover is blown and she realises she has to shoot a German man she has been close to or threaten the security of her family is the first of several heartbreaking decisions she has to make.
Her interrogation scenes are possibly as frightening and as realistic as Doctor Who fiction has ever dared to go. She is stripped, beaten, starved, deprived of sleep, forced to listen to Nazi rhetoric and poisoned. Parkin captures her vulnerability perfectly and Benny’s whimpers and screams as she has her personality torn away, day by day, is almost impossible to bear. Even when she gets the chance to fight back we are always aware that the Nazi’s have stolen her spirit. And whilst I am not so keen on this ‘it was all the Doctor’s fault’ business, the scene where his guilt is exposed and Benny reveals her bruises to him is startlingly emotional.
There is one sequence in Just War which springs out as more powerful than all the others. Lance Parkin compares the evil of the Nazi’s to the Daleks far better than any other writer has attempted. He even manages to slip in the title for every Dalek story just in case nobody got the message. This is using continuity well and makes for a terrifying hallucinogenic sequence.
Roz’s plot is the next most interesting and not because she is treated to a ‘coloured woman in the past’ plot. It is touched upon, briefly and subtly and then dropped in favour of a far more engaging romance for the Adjudicator and Lieutenant George Reed. Whilst this might seem a little too close to her similar love interest in The Also People this is an entirely different sort of love interest, George convincingly managing to woo her by letting her be herself. Watching the tough as nails Roz soften in his company is far less slushy than it sounds and leads to some astonishingly racy and intimate passages. I really like Roz anyway, she’s got a fascinating history and thanks to her ballsy attitude is given a harder time than most companions from her writers and it is a relief to see Parkin treat her with sensitivity and intelligence. Her parting from George at the climax is very touching and she is given a very tempting offer to stay.
I have heard complaints about the Doctor’s portrayal in this book; in particular Finn Clark makes a good point when the novel hops from Benny being tortured to the Doctor doing something inexplicably magical. And yet Just War is far more restrained than many other books from this era of Doctor Who and the reader is afforded the chance to see why the Doctor doesn’t interfere with these big conflicts. His dialogue is very strong in places, especially as he discusses the atrocities without judging either side with Steinmann and forces Chris to see how naïve he is when talking about averting the war and exterminating the Nazi’s. The latter passages of the book might take the uncomfortable stance of blaming the Doctor for everything (which is par for the course in the NAs) but at least this time it was an accident. And it does show how easy it is to change the course of history with just one harmless comment. Scary stuff. The book asks tough questions about being a traveller in time and the responsibilities that come with it without it sounding like old hat.
Unfortunately the book isn’t perfect (although it comes pretty close at times) because Parkin is also lumbered with Chris Cwej who is by far the weakest book companion of them all. Sam Jones might be arrogant and stupid but she was never as brainless and naïve as this plonker. He really does come out with some daft ideas here and his only genuine characteristic is that he loves big machines. Just compare his scenes with Roz, hers are full of character background, feelings on the current situation and character growth and his are about big motors and you can see the difference in their effectiveness. When he does try and break free of his cuddly giant mould he comes as across as stupid and adolescent (which I suppose was the idea but its still annoying!). Still at least he isn’t chasing skirt in this book so that is a bonus. I kept wondering when the book would return to Benny and the real drama rather than concentrating on this wally.
Just War shows how the NAs can deal with adult themes without tipping over into obscenity. So much of the horror here is psychological and it is far more frightening than any amount of rancid violence. The dialogue alone is enough to send chills down the spine, as you listen to Nazi’s justifying and glorifying their creed. Parkin wants you to understand the horror of what these people represent but he doesn’t do it by filling graves full of innocent victims or showing tanks grinding their teeth over the battlefield, he merely explains what these people were about. The scene where Steinmann tells Benny she cannot be from the future because if she was she would be a Nazi is one of several chilling examples.
A thoughtful book to savour. I wouldn’t want every Doctor Who book to be this uncomfortable to read because it would suck all the fun out of the universe but as a historical diversion and a gripping chapter in Benny’s life it is an experiment that pays of handsomely.
A top five NA, without a doubt.
I have a slight problem with Lance Parkin's books. They're lightweight. Even when he's trying to be serious (The Infinity Doctors, Father Time), he's at risk of dribbling away into bland nonsense that might have been exciting when we were ten. At his worst (Trading Futures, The Dying Days), his light touch produces such a gossamer-thin excuse for a book that it tumbles away on the breeze without impinging on the world in any way whatsoever. Okay, I'm in a minority on this. Lance is a popular author and people seem to love his books, or at least generally like them more than I do.
These lightweight tendencies are only emphasised by comparisons with Lance's debut NA, which in contrast takes its story matter very seriously indeed. Just War looks realistically at World War Two, in deliberate contrast with Terrance Dicks's jollier Timewyrm: Exodus, and anyone's work might tend to look lightweight compared with that.
However rereading Just War, I was disconcerted to find those lightweight tendencies creeping in. This is a strong book, don't get me wrong, but its tone is inconsistent. After a powerful chapter with Benny or Roz, suddenly we find the Doctor clowning around or telling the eyepatch joke. Lance emphasises his alienness by making him do impossible things, which to me felt wrong. Such moments can be fun... when they're there for a *reason*. However here they undermine the real-world setting of Nazi occupation and turn the Doctor into a cartoon character who's obviously too powerful for the story around him. This book would have worked far better as a Hartnell historical, since that Doctor wouldn't have pissed around with vanishing shadows and the like. Hartnell's presence enhanced stories instead of detracting from them.
Then there's a third tone the book takes, which is didactic. This book is full of speeches, dirty great whacking ones. In a stage play, these would be two-minute hiatuses where the action stops dead and the actor delivers his material straight out to the house. Normally this would be buttock-clenchingly painful... but here it works. The issues being addressed are so huge that the speeches fly past. I really enjoyed them, actually. One nifty habit o' Lance's is to give his mega-speeches to the Nazis, letting them explain their warped worldview and creating real debate. It's genuinely thought-provoking and one of my favourite aspects of the book, though such speechifying wouldn't have worked in an ordinary novel.
I also liked the comparisons of real-world Nazis with similar bits of the Whoniverse. Obviously there are the Daleks, but parallels are also drawn between Hitler's philosophies and Roz's instinctive racism and purebred Xhosa heritage. That's good stuff. I liked all that.
I've been critical of this book's Doctor, but I'm full of praise for its Benny and Roz. Their plot strands are thoughtful, rich and convincing, really giving a taste of wartime life in Britain and the Channel Islands. I was particularly impressed that Roz's story didn't end in the expected convenient revelation, but was instead allowed to play out properly. When the women are onstage, this is a thoroughly impressive book and everything people say it is. Benny's reactions are particularly important to ground the story, since Chris and Roz are from so far in the future that they might as well be aliens, while the Doctor is basically off with the fairies. Had Benny's chapters been weak, the book would have belly-flopped... but they're always strong. That makes a huge difference.
There are little touches for you to notice, the literary equivalent of easter eggs on a DVD. Look at the references to Troxos 4 on p40 and p126, for instance. It looks as if something happened on Troxos 4 similar to what happened here to cause all the trouble in the first place, and the Doctor was sorting that out too. That tickled me, though I'm not wild about the implications. (I'm tying myself in knots trying to avoid spoilers, but I'll simply say that I like Season 24 and leave it at that.)
This book has a stellar reputation, regularly coming near the top of polls and Head-to-Head competitions. I've criticised it here, but its flaws are subtle and its virtues are impressive. Even with everything I've said, it's one of the stronger Who novels out there - even before you take into account the fact that it's a debut novel. Recommended.
Doctor Who had, of course, already produced stories set during WWII, but JUST WAR would prove to be something different. While Nazis had appeared in TIMEWYRM: EXODUS, they were cartoonish, and one could easily imagine each and every one of them being played by Bernie Kopell (ah, split screening technology). But JUST WAR takes its central premise seriously, and the payoff is incredible. Doctor Who has dealt with similar themes before (usually in allegory), but rarely so effectively, and never in such stark terms.
World War II is raging through Europe. The Nazis are making enormous technical advances. Germany occupies British soil. But the back cover informs us that this is not a parallel universe story, nor is there any indication of alien interference. (In fact, JUST WAR would appear to be a rare example of a purely historical story in the New Adventures.) The Doctor and company must deal with the menace on its own terms. As is typical in the books of this era, each of the regulars has his/her own part in the Doctor's grand scheme to play. The mission here is comparatively easy: find out what is going on.
Although the plot is very cleverly constructed, whenever I think back upon the story, I think of it as more of a collection of excellent set pieces held together by an adequate storyline (more on this later). Many of those set pieces involve characters giving lengthy speeches about Nazism, racial purity, or warfare. These speeches, while stagy in execution, are genuinely chilling.
I mentioned the plot as being adequate, and I should elaborate on that. The storyline does feels a little awkward at times. But I hasten to add that overall it contains a lot of surprises and some genuinely effective material. Any minor problems certain don't harm the book, but it does give it the feel of a book more reliant on themes and characters than on plot and events. And there's nothing wrong with that.
JUST WAR is notable by both what it says, and by what it leaves unsaid. Despite the long passages dealing with such topics, the words "Dalek" and "Hitler" never appear, and the book is stronger for its subtleties. I wish I could say the same for the passages dealing with the racism faced by Roz in 1940s Britain. Yes, such attitudes are realistic for that time and place, but they feel slightly overdone. A very similar thing was executed better in Paul Leonard's TOY SOLDIERS, and JUST WAR just feels like it's rehashing the same ground without bringing anything new to the table. Fortunately, for every example of that, there is something shockingly effective to counter it. The scene of Roz contemplating her own cultural heritage is that kind of sequence that propels the book towards its lofty reputation.
JUST WAR was Lance Parkin's first New Adventure, but you wouldn't know that from the maturity of his writing and the confident way he handles the regular characters. I would happily hold up JUST WAR as example of what Doctor Who does best. It deals with serious themes, while putting a human face on horrific suffering. It also never comes across as being unbearably grim despite the topics that Parkin is dealing with.
Veteran DWM readers might recall a review of the 1985 Target novelisation by the late Ian Marter of the Troughton story The Invasion (from Issue 94 or thereabouts). In this review, the original story was slated as an "overlong romp," and the novelisation
And so, 7 years after publication, my New Adventures trek takes me to Lance Parkin's debut novel. According to most polls Parkin seems to be the most popular author currently writing for the range, and Just War is often held up as an example of one of the best of the New Adventures. It's a fast and enjoyable read, but I fail to see how this could be anyone's favourite - its just too basic a story.
Arch-traditionalist Parkin seems to be the new Terrence Dicks - his writing here is energetic and action-driven, but lacking in any real depth of character or story. The characters are just one shade away from being archetypes, and are often introduced entirely devoid of background - coupled with the fast pacing this often gives the feel of the book being a novelisation of a film or television story than a novel in its own right.
The story itself is a fairly enjoyable Nazi run-around, and thankfully one devoid of aliens behind the scenes. Some of the plotting is questionable - Benny spends most of the novel undergoing torture, but the reasoning behind this isn't clear, as it has little impact on moving the story forward. Maybe it's just to try and show that neither the Doctor or his companions are superhumans waltzing through danger - but surely we've had the 'companion suffering as a result of the Doctors interference' a few dozen times already? This lengthy subplot suffers further from having the absolute worst resolution ever, (short of escape by air vent), by having Benny ask for cutlery then making her escape using a knife. Come on - even Nazi's wouldn't so gullible as to give a prisoner a knife!
Just War also fails to offer any deeper messages beyond the most predictable and cliché - 'War is hell' being the obvious one, but Lance even condescends to roll out the old 'Daleks as Nazi's' analogy. Yawn.
So, don't expect anything deep or meaningful - but nevertheless Just War is a good solid page-turner that will keep you hooked until the end. But rather than hold it up as an example of the best that the range can produce, I'd say Just War represents the minimum standard expected from any original Who novel.
Oh, and there also an hilarious typo on page 198, when Chris turns into Christ. Which is nice.