THE ROOM WITH NO DOORS is thankfully weightier than Kate Orman's previous solo outing, and is so much the stronger for it. ROOM is an atmospheric, thoughtful and enjoyable story which has only improved with age.
The story is set in Sixteenth Century Japan, where enigmatic samurai stalk the land on horseback, and feudal lords dream of defeating their rivals. Into this fascinating setting has landed a strange chunk of science fiction -- an alien pod with mysterious powers of healing and restoration. Naturally, this causes all kinds of chaos, and it turns out that the Doctor and Cwej aren't the only time travelers visiting this location.
The alien pod is, of course, mostly a big McGuffin, designed to give the local warlords something to scheme and stage huge battles over. Frankly, I preferred the pod when we weren't getting its scientific explanations and it was merely an excuse to make the plot move in a given direction. In fact, my favorite parts of the novel were the ones devoid of any science fiction elements at all (in other words, the sword-fights and archery were more interesting than the laser blasts), leading me to believe that I would have enjoyed the book even more if it had been done as a pure historical. It would certainly have knocked the spots off of SANCTUARY, the previous Doctor Who story with no sci-fi elements. For instance, take the opening sections of the book concerning the three samurai (two warriors, one of whom brings his son along to learn the ropes) on a mission, who stylishly go about their business being all cool and samurai-y. If the whole novel had been done in that manner, I would have absolutely adored it.
Not that I disliked the rest of the book. On the contrary, there's a lot to enjoy here. The Seventh Doctor's life is drawing to a close, his regeneration having aired on TV screens the previous year and his book series concluding in a matter of months. He can feel Paul McGann's wig approaching, and he worries about the unfinished business in his current life. Tying up some loose ends from this incarnation is handled quite well here. We see the Doctor's troubles reflected in his own meditations and in his relationships with the book's secondary characters.
Chris Cwej is also given a lot to fret over, finally coming to terms with the events of the previous few books. I wasn't reading these last few NAs in order the last time around; I ended up not having a complete collection, and read the ones I did have in a fairly random order. Now that I have finally read them all in the order they were meant to be experienced, I'm quite impressed with what they did with Chris during the end of the series.
The comic relief in this book comes in the form of the alien Kapteynians who are described as being giant space chickens. I found this funnier than I did the last time I read the novel, mostly because this time I was reading it while the Subservient Chicken was entering minute seven of its fifteen minutes of fame. I dare you to take one look at subservientchicken.com and tell me that the guy in the cheap chicken costume isn't exactly what the BBC would have produced had this been a television adventure.
As with many of Orman's novels, the secondary characters are delightfully memorable. Penelope, the time-traveling Victorian woman, comes across as a solid creation, interesting, but not overpowering. I think the temptation might have been to give her more of the spotlight, but she works a lot better as a one-woman Greek chorus, occasionally chiming in on the perils and ethics of time travel. The Zen monks are fun -- grinning a lot and saying counter-intuitive things, just as we expect them to. Kame, the ronin, is also a major source of entertainment. I wish he could have been brought along at the end of this adventure.
The only character who didn't quite work for me was Joel, and that's mostly because he was also in Orman's RETURN OF THE LIVING DAD. Not that there was anything wrong with him there. The problem I had was that he's supposed to be significant older in this book than he was then, yet I had to continually remind myself that he is no longer a kid. I could stomach the teenage angst'n'fanboy stuff when he actually was a teenager; it made sense in that context. But it seemed odd to see the exact same stuff coming out of a person who is now supposed to be older than Chris (thirteen years have passed from Joel's subjective point of view since RETURN, while Chris has only seen a couple of years go by). Maybe there was something about this character that I just didn't get.
I've seen a few posts in various on-line forums where the author claims that "very little about ROOM was deliberate". I certainly couldn't tell that from reading it. In fact, it came across to me as the opposite; it felt very deliberate and focused. The themes of isolation, punishment (self-inflicted as well as from outside sources) and redemption permeate throughout the whole book, and are revisited in a variety of ways. I enjoyed this book the first time I read it. I appreciated it much more this second time. And I fully expect that the third time I read it, my enjoyment will increase again.
While I have no way of knowing how long any of them had been in development, it certainly appears as though Kate Orman was writing far too many Doctor Who books in ‘96/97. This novel comes hard on the heels of Sleepy and Return of the Living Dad, with the co-authored So Vile A Sin and Vampire Science also dating from the same period. As this is the 4th book out of the last 12 New Adventures to bear Ormans name it’s perhaps not unexpected that it feels rather rough and weary around the edges.
Surprisingly all the good stuff in this novel is what would normally be considered the underlying material. The feeling of forthcoming doom for the 7th Doctor is excellently handled, and the novel concentrates on Chris’s reaction to the Doctors imminent demise, and his growing up and away from Roz’s death. For characterisation of the regulars this is as good as the New Adventures get, but unfortunately the actual storyline that this material is wedded to is utter pants.
It starts reasonably enough with a power struggle in ancient Japan over a mysterious alien artefact, but after about 100 pages the plot simply runs out. The story – such as it is – is just about kept moving by a bit character from Return of the Living Dad (who’d made such little impression I had to go back and find out who he was). Things start to go seriously wrong when we are introduced to the pathetic Kapteynian’s – an alien race that resembles giant black chickens with little human hands on the end of their wings. We are also told that they are ‘experts in interspecies communication’, but later it turns out they don’t even have their own translation device, and have to rely on other characters to communicate. For the rest of the novel the various characters simply run around in circles around this alien object until the, frankly disappointing, revelation as to what it actually is at the novels climax.
So – a bit of an oddity here. There’s some brilliant stuff for the Doctor and Chris, and this novel successfully ‘de-angst’s’ the main characters, but you have to wade through a very mediocre adventure to get it. It’s a hiccup rather than a full-fledged failure, but with only two 7th Doctor stories to go I had expected something a little more inspired than this…
It's the beginning of the end for the Seventh Doctor. We know it, and so does he. Those who read the New Adventures are most likely aware (and if you're not, where have you been?) that Virgin is wrapping up their Seventh Doctor stories in preparation for losing their Doctor Who license in May. So, forearmed with this knowledge, it fell to the responsibility of Kate Orman to make certain that things started to be wrapped up in this, the penultimate Seventh Doctor story.
I've reviewed many an Orman novel before, and the results have been mixed. Some, like the popular "Left Handed Hummingbird" or "Set Piece," I have found to have good points and bad. Others, such as "Return of the Living Dad" I've found to be brilliant, well-written, well-crafted tales that exemplified the best and brightest points of the Doctor Who universe. Then there are those such as her newest, "The Room With No Doors" that leave me scratching my head. In all my time reading Doctor Who books I've never ended a novel, waited a few days, and still not known how I felt about it. Until now.
There is a trace of story here, but it's more of a bother to deal with it because it's not as important as the themes of the story. Basically, the Doctor and Chris arrive in feudal Japan and have to deal with a device that has fallen to Earth. It belongs to a group of enslaved aliens who have been subjugated by a Ming the Merciless-type, only she's a woman and she's more bloodthirsty. The device has basically become the prize of two warring factions of Japanese soldiers, who have their own plots and schemes in store for each other.
But the majority of the book is a ponderance of various themes that have been created and passed on through the years since the New Adventures first began. As Time's Champion, we've watched the Doctor grow from his rather silly beginnings to his great tragedy, his heartaches and headaches as he dealt with companions who didn't trust him (and rightfully so; he's used Ace, Bernice, Chris and Roz each on more than one occasion). Now, the Doctor has come full circle; his lighthearted sense of adventure is slowly returning, just in time to become the quixotic Time Lord reading "The Time Machine" at the opening of the Doctor Who movie, which takes place two adventures after this one. (Yes, a bit of forewarning... the next book, "Lungbarrow," which I've also read, leads directly into the movie.)
As it stands, the Doctor is a tricky old man. His mind doesn't work in quite the same capacity as ours, nor does his persona. We've seen glimpses in previous books such as "Head Games" that the Seventh Doctor purposely caused his past self, whom he figured was on course to turn into the Valeyard, to regenerate into its current form. One begins to wonder how this could possibly happen, as they are for all intents and purposes the same being, but "Room" goes one step further and postulates that his six prior selves have actually ganged up on him and prepared a corner of his mind to imprison him for his flagrant violation of time's fragile tenets. Okay, one could argue that he's really only feeling guilty about what he's done, yet there's this Room with no doors that keeps popping up in Chris' mind, as well as a few others. The Room is the virtual prison, but Chris is feeling it because the urges deep within the Doctor's psyche are so strong.
If this makes no sense to you, it's not surprising; this is the plus side of the novel, that Kate Orman has managed to convey upon the reader such a tapestry of the surreal and unreal. And it's the best part of the book, going back and forth between Chris Cwej's dreams (which is explained later in the book) and the rest of the action in Japan, which to be perfectly honest with you I found to be rather simplistic running around and outsmarting the bad guys.
However, those bad guys aren't necessarily important parts of the story. Nor is Penelope, a time traveler from the 1800's who can't seem to fathom (or at least, accept the fact) that the Doctor may have more knowledge than she does about time. Truth is eventually revealed and Penelope realizes that she didn't exactly get here on her own steam, and that's when some of the disparate strands of the book start to tie themselves together, as the Doctor deals with his enemy and the Japanese warriors that stand between him and safety.
Oh, there's another facet of the book... Chris and the Doctor spend a good amount of time with Joel Mintz, that time traveling interloper from "Return of the Living Dad". He's more of an afterthought in some parts, even though he's responsible for a good deal of what's going on. One of the things I did not like about "Living Dad" -- even though I've admitted previously and I'll do so again that I loved the book to pieces -- was the attempt by Ms. Orman to gell continuity with real life, so Joel spends this episode walking around with a Powerbook, thinking about "Professor X" (a British SF series which started in 1963, perhaps?) I found his appearance in this novel to be, basically, a waste.
I've written a lot of reviews, and I don't think I've ever written one that's so, shall we say, fuzzy in its description of detail. There are large parts of the book I don't remember; much of what happens in Japan I've forgotten completely. I was, frankly, so overwhelmed by the saga of the Doctor's involvement in his own psyche that I lost myself. As I said before, it's difficult to review something when you don't know what sort of stand you're going to take on the book. I've read a few off-the-wall, mind-bending Who novels ("Falls the Shadow" stands out as a particularly mental one) and this ranks right up there. Kate Orman always writes so well, and always says some important things... I just think that sometimes, her books tend to sacrifice plot for thematic achievement, and that's not necessarily a good thing.