THE DYING DAYS: eagerly anticipated before its release; desperately searched for as a rarity since then. How does it stand up today? This is the third time that I've read this novel, and to be honest it's lost a little something for me on each reread. Which isn't as bad as it seems, since I thought it was absolutely brilliant the first time.
I've seen this novel hailed as a penetratingly thoughtful meta-textual discussion on Doctor Who, both as it existed on TV, as it continued in the Virgin novels, and then as the book license was snatched away back to the BBC. I'm wondering if I missed something somewhere. Yes, I saw the jokes, but I didn't think of them as anything more than a handful of throwaway jokes. Though as jokes go, these are quite good. Hilarious, in fact. I don't think Parkin gets enough credit for his humor, to be honest. I've laughed much more at some of his witty sentences than from whole pages of some "comedy" Doctor Who writers.
However, one of the jokey things I felt backfired somewhat was Parkin's clever trick of only having three invading Ice Warriors ever seen in any one given scene. Apparently this was a response to a statement made by Philip Segal (producer of the Paul McGann Doctor Who TV-movie) saying that they couldn't have had the plot of the film include an alien invasion because creating hundreds of prosthetic costumes would have been too expensive. Parkin wanted to prove that assertion false by writing an action-packed adventure where, in long-standing Doctor Who tradition, we only see three or four costumed actors at a time. (Apologies to either of the two gentlemen if I'm paraphrasing them inaccurately.) He sort of gets away with it, yet I felt he was placing too much of a limitation on himself, with no clear benefit other than successfully winning an argument. The supposedly huge invasion of Earth just doesn't feel in any way epic. He proved that this sort of thing can be done, but, in a novel, should it?
The characters are a lot of fun, if not terribly deep (partially a reflection of the novel as a whole). The most interesting thing about the story is not the alien invasion (done a thousand times before), but the takeover of the British government by rogue forces working from within. Parkin's well-known shtick of having Ian Richardson "playing" a character in his novels leads to inevitable (and very welcome) comparisons to HOUSE OF CARDS, the mini-series in which Ian Richardson's character backstabs, lies and cheats his way into 10 Downing Street. Here in THE DYING DAYS, a character not totally dissimilar in description to Ian Richardson, backstabs, lies and cheats his way into 10 Downing Street with the help of some invading Ice Warriors. A fun spin to put on both the otherwise tired invasion plot and the political intrigue plot.
The other characters seem a bit shallow in comparison (I wonder how much of Greyhaven's superb characterization was due to me having seen HOUSE OF CARDS, and simply overlaying some of that character onto this one), and there's an unfortunate instance of the cliched "underling who stays loyal to his higher masters" bit. That said, the Doctor Who regulars themselves are great. Benny has never been better, and Parkin sets a high standard for writing the Eighth Doctor that has rarely been matched. And while Paul Cornell is the novel author who seems the fondest of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Parkin's ability to give the old soldier dignity, great lines and serious gravitas blows many of Cornell's attempts out of the water.
All right, perhaps I've been a bit hard on the book in this review up until now. So at this point I'm going to really turn on the praise. What a fun, rollicking, entertaining romp this is! It's exciting, and filled with thrills and spills. And coming from the pen of Lance Parkin (or keyboard or quill, or whatever it is he uses to write), it maintains his high quality of prose. The actually writing itself is very good. Little thoughts and tidbits are scattered throughout, making the book never dull. The NAs had a reputation of attempting to go a bit deeper than the series went, and since this was the first bona fide "alien invasion of contemporary Earth" story that the series did, Parkin goes in a little more for describing how exactly the population and the world would reaction to a literal invasion of Britain. The results are entertaining, exhilarating and often amusing. Oh, and the pacing is so gripping that I couldn't imagine even someone who disliked the book finding it boring.
Lance Parkin is, of course, also writing the (forthcoming) final EDA, which is oddly appropriate given that he wrote the final Doctor-led New Adventure, which was also the first original Eighth Doctor novel. I'm expecting very different things. While he presumably will be subtly tying up some of the continuing EDA plot-strands, here the only thing he had to do was move Benny from point A to point B, so that she continue as leading lady of the New Adventures. Whether having fewer or greater numbers of restrictions/demands will affect the quality remains to be seen. THE DYING DAYS perhaps lacks the drive of Parkin's previous NA, JUST WAR, but I can forgive, given that it's not trying to be an intensely emotional drama but rather a rompy action-adventure. Like the New Adventures themselves, it may have had a few rough spots, but overall it's a good ride. It's books like THE DYING DAYS that serve to remind me of how much I miss this novel series.
And so, in the end, we have the last gasp of Virgin’s Doctor Who New Adventures, and a taste of what could have been had the BBC not clawed back the license.
The New Adventures claim to fame (or, to it’s detractors - infamy), was it’s willingness to push the envelope on Doctor Who’s format to take us to places we’ve never been before – it therefore comes as something of a surprise, and an anti-climax – that the series should end with such a traditional and formulaic romp as The Dying Days. Strip away the sense of occasion that comes with this being both the last in a series of 61 novels, and the first and last Eighth Doctor book from Virgin, and you are left with a fairly enjoyable but ultimately bog-standard ‘aliens invade Earth’ story. Sure – it’s written as a big-budget cinematic extravaganza, but when you get right down to it it’s just a Hollywood remake of yesteryears Who. Its interesting to note that this was obviously something that the authors felt needed to be done at this fragile period of the shows history – take the Eighth Doctor, free him of all the twisted continuity and American aesthetics of Seagal’s TV Movie, and remove any possible doubt that this was the REAL Eighth Doctor by placing the character amongst the comfy confines of familiar UK TV series mythology. BBC Books would do exactly the same thing by running the Eighth Doctor alongside such familiar faces as Zygons, Vampires, Jo Grant, Jago and Litefoot, Daleks and his 7 past selves – here the Doctor gets comfy with Benny, Ice Warriors, UNIT, Lethbridge-Stewart, Brigadier Bambera (shame) and Bessie.
The Doctor here is certainly redolent of McGann's brief televisual portrayal, with pick-pocketing, namedropping his Time Lord credentials, alluding to his human heritage, manic bursts of action, and a propensity to yell “I…AM…THE…DOCTOR!” at the top of his voice. As a bonus over the BBC books he never utters “Benny, Benny, Benny, Benny, Benny”. He works well with Bernice, and it’s a little odd that Big Finish hasn’t seen fit to re-unite these two in the audio medium.
The story itself is pretty light and fluffy nonsense, with a few excellent moments, (the Doctor’s freefall finale; an Ice Warrior assault on the house on Allen Road), some awful, (UNIT hiding an army resistance force in the local woods; pointless internet geeks mugging the obvious fan in-jokes), and the downright bizarre, (hang-gliding Ice Warriors; an Ice Warrior coronation so one can become the King of England). The plot depends a great deal on fortuitous happenstance (a helicopter bearing the clued-up sole survivor of a previous Mars expedition just happens to crash at the EXACT moment an invasion of Earth is planned years later), and bad guys sudden shifts of allegiance to the Doctor side every time it looks as like curtains for our hero. The villains – both human and Martian – are prone to awfully hammy melodramatic dialogue – but this is a Hollywood remake of Who remember? Parkin also seems to be trying to set a continuity reference at points, with in-jokes about Lalla Ward, Who Killed Kennedy, John Smith and the Common Men, Professor Quatermass – even the bloody Bandrils get a mention!
I don’t want to give the impression that The Dying Days is an awful book – it’s just a very average one. A few exciting set-pieces, a decent Doctor, and a nice set-up for Benny’s New Adventures, but it’s telling that the moment that affected me most was when the Eighth Doctor handed Benny the Seventh Doctor’s old unwanted umbrella. Damn, I still miss that little guy.
"I am the Doctor, Bernice. Your friend."
This is how the last Virgin Books adventure with the Doctor -- the only Virgin story with the Eighth Doctor -- begins, when Professor Bernice Summerfield finds that the little man in the straw boater and the question mark umbrella is gone and is never coming back. But life, in the Doctor's world as in ours, goes on.
It's 1997, "the dying days of the twentieth century," as Benny puts it. British astronauts are about to walk across the face of Mars for the first time in twenty years, and the Doctor and Benny wangle an invitation to the Ministry of Science for an all-star gala event. Here we have cameo appearances by Gillian Anderson and Richard Dawkins (a gold-plated police box if you can name the connection with this scientist and former Wired Cover Boy to Doctor Who). Benny is mistaken for Emma Thompson. A very nice party, all around, spoiled only by the long-distance video presentation of the astronauts' death.
Meanwhile, the last astronaut to reach Mars, Alexander Cristian, has escaped from maximum-security custody for the murder of his crewmates, which he did not commit but did witness. Only he knows that the Mars missions are doomed to failure and that the Earth is soon to be invaded by the Ice Warriors. Naturally, the only person Cristian can turn to is retired Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart.
Unfortunately, the invasion is already underway, and for the first time in human history, aliens establish a foothold on the Earth and there's no way to cover it up.
The Ice Lord Xznaal has decided that since only British astronauts had "invaded" his clan's domain twenty years, that only the United Kingdom would be forced to pay the price. First, though, Xznaal's ally Lord Greyhaven of the Science Ministry has to stage a coup by killing the Prime Minister and undercutting the legitimate military forces, including UNIT.
However, Xznaal and Greyhaven have failed to contend with one obstacle -- a time-traveling archeologist who knows a lot more about Martian Ice Warriors than anybody of that time period.
Oh, the Doctor? He's killed off halfway through the book. Well, sort of .
That's probably the most irritating thing about this book. I thought this was going to be a book primarily about the Eighth Doctor after his adventure in San Francisco on New Millenium Eve. Instead, he's missing-presumed-dead for nearly half the book and we are left with watching the Brigadier and Bernice try to lead a ragtag fugitive force of UNIT troops, journalists, ex-astronauts and UFO freaks against the Ice Warrior spacecraft. Luckily, there is only one, being sort of a cut-rate invasion (sounds like Doctor Who, all right.)
To be fair, Lance Parkin's story is good, although various people in Net Who circles are debating its canonicity (please, we get enough of that with the Trek people). I personally didn't find the story completely out of context, and what the hell, it's Who, a watchword for discontinuity if I ever heard one. The parts where the Doctor is around make it a worthwhile read. This is why I like the "FOX Telemovie with the Pertwee Logo" -- this guy is the Doctor, as much as Sylvester McCoy or Tom Baker ever was (yes, I'm prejudiced, go soak your head!), but as different from Sylvester as he was from his predecessors. Number Eight is more carefree, more independent, and definitely fun to read about.
I must say one thing about the ending scene: I knew all that kissing stuff was going to be trouble. Don't say I didn't warn you.
'The Martians are here,' Eve insisted, 'But nothing else has changed. The Archers is still on twice a day, the milkman still brings you bottles of milk, the BBC is still funded by the licence fee. People are quite capable of turning Britain into Bosnia without any help from aliens.'
For all its faults, and there are a couple, "The Dying Days" is a flipping good book. Tightwad hermits like me who live 150 kilometres away from the nearest bookshop, and who have finally got around to reading it on the BBC Doctor Who website, might be surprised at exactly how much fun "Dying Days" is. After ploughing through the (admittedly brilliant) post-Gallifreyan angst of "The Burning," "Henrietta Street," Parkin's own "Father Time" and so on, maybe I'm ready for some undemanding but beautifully-executed frippery. It's like reading Jack Vance after ploughing through Heidegger's "Being and Time".
Maybe I'm getting a bit nostalgic for the good old days of the Virgin NAs, which contained some of the best "Who" ever written. "The Dying Days" is a fitting conclusion to the Virgin series, and a poignant pointer to what could have been an outstanding late '90s version of the TV show. I can't help thinking of it in visual terms...this is a book that starts the movieola running in your head, as all good "Doctor Who" should. It's the kind of book that you can't help casting. (Ian McDiarmid as Greyhaven, anyone? What about Rachel Griffiths as Bernice Summerfield? Action by HAVOC?)
Plot-wise, "Dying Days" is avowedly conventional. It's the standard alien invasion scenario, done with the attention to local detail (some would say benign parochialism) which typifies "Doctor Who". The Martians have landed, for cucumber sandwiches on the lawn at Buckingham palace. As ever, the Doctor and UNIT are there to set the world to rights. That's the initial premise...fill in the details yourself by reading the book at the BBC website. Go on, try it. Your eyes will love you for the rest of your life.
Although it takes some welcome liberties with "continuity," one of the main selling points of this book is its lucid use of the trappings of the show's past, and also with late '90s popular culture. (Bernard Quatermass with Patrick Moore? If only he'd met Kit Pedler). It's an interesting thought that "The Dying Days" gives a glimpse of a possible TV "Doctor Who" serial, in which the series took on a late 'nineties flavour...with a touch of Season 7. Jon Pertwee's first season as the Doctor is held by many discerning viewers as the most grown-up in the series' history (so grown up, in fact, that the "X Files" was using similar plot elements 30 years later). "Dying Days" returns to this renaissance in the show's history. The allusions to "Ambassadors of Death" abound, but they don't cramp the storytelling. "Mars Probe 7" is a lot easier for the casual reader to comprehend than the TV movie's "Eye of Harmony" must have been.
An unsung (or at least under-rated) influence on this era was Gerry Anderson's series "UFO" (featuring George Sewell of "Remembrance of the Daleks" fame). Starring actors only slightly less wooden than the Tracy family in Anderson's "Thunderbirds" show, "UFO" featured unseen (and therefore implicitly enigmatic) aliens equipped with bizarre hardware, an outnumbered and outgunned set of good guys, and the usual government conspiracies and military overtones. While I don't remember too much else about this show, I still recall its authentically eerie atmosphere, as if the near-total absence of naturalism in the acting reinforced the weirdness of the plot (the same Brechtian effect employed by Stanley Kubrick in the first half of "2001"). Not that "Dying Days" has anything directly in common with "2001"-this is strictly "Mars Attacks" territory.
A comparison of "Dying Days" and the 1996 TV movie is an interesting exercise. When Target embarked on their series of "Who" novelisations in the early '70s, they drew on the pool of seasoned and talented writers for the series. So Malcolm Hulke, Terrance Dicks, Gerry Davis, Brian Hayles and co. brought their immense talents to kickstarting the new-fangled print version of "Doctor Who". The Target series lasted 20 years, and arguably gave resonance to the idea of continuing the series in novel form in the early '90s. Phil Segal in 1996 could have drawn on an equally talented (if not more so) group of writers...imagine the TV movie as Paul Cornell, or Kate Orman, or Lance Parkin. It's just a thought, but what a thought.
Technically, Parkin's work is excellent. Not outstanding in a verbose, improvisatory, head-expanding Lawrence Miles kind of way (well and good, as the only person who can write well in the Miles-style is Lawrence Himself), but Parkin writes accessible, fast-moving, visual books which still hold interest and gain depth when you re-read them. It's no surprise that he has recently attempted to write an 8DA in the manner of a James Bond thriller. "Dying Days" has the glossy, skewed-camera feel of late '60s shows like "The Avengers" and "Adam Adamant Lives." Bernice makes an excellent Emma Peel to the Eighth Doctor's John Steed, by the way, and "Dying Days" is as much a fitting valedictory tale for the talented Professor Summerfield as for the Virgin NAs.
If there is a gripe about this book, it's that the Doctor is not as involved in the action as he ought to be. Character-wise he comes over well, not as the indeterminate cipher of the early 8DAs, but as a Romantic (in the artistic sense) wanderer, light years removed from his insidious previous self. The point has been made elsewhere that he's still a Frank Herbert Face Dancer at times; shifting from Troughton to Baker via Pertwee and back again. (Although this features in most 8DAs from the period, so the fault is not exclusively Parkin's).
The Virgin NAs were "Doctor Who" in the 'nineties. While it's a shame the series had to end, it provided me (and many others) with a version of "Doctor Who" in which sheer imagination and honest writing talent at last outweighed BBC corporate resourcing and industrial relations compromises as the impetus behind the franchise. In retrospect, the Virgin NAs were a definite high point in the continuing story of "Doctor Who". After a muted, conventional start with "Timewyrm: Genesys," and other novels by well-established Who writers, the series gambled on the introduction of a deeper, darker tone to the series in "Timewyrm: Revelation". While "Dying Days" doesn't quite match up to the epoch-making standard set by the former, it's still a book that I enjoyed immensely. And a final thought: if a "Dying Days" script (or something similar in style and substance) had been the basis of the TV movie instead of the so-so "Enemy Within" scenario, we might still be watching new episodes on TV.
"The Dying Days" might have been published five years ago, but it's one of my top "Doctor Who" books of the year.