"One of the joys of the television series was the deft way in which the Doctor and his companions could arrive in a plot-in-progress and become part of the action in a seamless way. Tara does this, in a clever non-expository way, setting the tone for what is to come." -- from the foreword by Stephen Laws
"Tara Samms" is widely accepted as the pseudonym of prolific Doctor Who novelist Stephen Cole, a name adopted by the author for the composition of mood pieces, such as the excellent "Monsters" from the BBC Short Trips anthologies. The novels published under Cole's name, meanwhile, have functioned as gritty, plot-heavy works. It is unsurprising, then, that a Cole novella, being a halfway point between a short story and novel, operates as a combination of the two styles; the combination, however, does not work as well as one would hope.
Stephen Laws' foreword, as with many others in the Telos range, discusses the author's own memories of Doctor Who. Laws, however, forgets to correlate these with the primary text, and after talking about how Doctor Who was better than most '60s television he bolts on two paragraphs about Tara Samms' presentation of the story. Regardless, it's enjoyable to see respected authors speaking highly of Doctor Who, so I can't be too harsh.
As I detailed above, Cole operates with two different styles depending upon the author credit, and it is as such that I feel this novella would have been better credited to both Cole and Samms. The action is split between a fairly standard base-under-siege plot and a limited-perspective dreamscape, and the two styles come through in each section, Cole's "standard" dictating the first and Samms's dictating the latter.
The "Cole sections" are elegant and of a higher standard than his usual fare, the characters coming across in particularly impressive fashion. It is admittedly difficult to care for these characters, as the novella is incredibly bleak and the characters suffer in differing ways, but it's difficult to argue that these characters are poorly-portrayed. The sequence on p. 65-67 featuring Mosely alone in his office is particularly powerful and features a strong last line. The character interactions are similarly believable, giving the strong impression that these characters have indeed been suffering together for quite some time.
Yet the Doctor shines above the rest as the strongest character of the novella. The author has elected to explore an adventure of the Doctor's prior to his arrival on Earth, and even opts to provide an origin story of the title of Doctor. This is every inch a pre-AUC Hartnell: he's irascible, detached, and generally uncaring, concerned only with finding Susan so that they may escape danger. He talks down to everyone involved, clearly considering himself superior, and reacts to the novella's central revelation not with horror but merely with scientific interest. Disturbing, misguided human actions are, to him, merely expected as the byproduct of inferior minds.
Unfortunately, the Doctor softens to the humans incredibly quickly in the final scene. He's spent the entire novella looking down his nose at them, and at a simple prompt from Susan suddenly acknowledges that he marvels at their capacity for achievement. That entire scene (p. 132-33) was frankly unnecessary, hitting the reader over the head in case any subtleties had escaped. It would have been perfectly reasonable to see the Doctor, in later stories, naturally returning to the title of "Doctor," but the author insists on pointing this out to us by having Susan ask him if he likes having a name. This was somewhat jarring and seemed somewhat fannish.
If the "Cole sections" of the novella are strong but flawed, the "Samms sections" are, however, excellent. Alternating chapters with the more typical action, these chapters serve as small, surrealistic mood pieces, switching perspectives at will and introducing new characters. The images here - rotting flesh, faces melting off, subliminal "second mouths" - are deeply disturbing, creating a truly alien sense for the reader. The prose in these sections is absolutely first rate, drawing the reader in and refusing to let go.
Susan spends her time in these sections, detached from the main action of the plot, and as such isn't served particularly well. Yet it is rather disturbing to see the horrible things described above happening to Susan, underscoring the fact that she witnessed much, much more than we can imagine before arriving on Earth for the first time. Of note is the description of Susan as having long hair - I can't picture it, but the small things render a work distinctive, and this is no different.
Thematically the novella is a bit of a mess, as Cole attempts to deal with four or five different issues simultaneously in only 120 pages. You get the sensation that fetal genetic manipulation is bad, and that war is hell, and that people tend to go nuts after long periods of confinement, but it's hard to say whether or not this novella falls under "thematically rich" or merely "cluttered." I'd lean towards the latter, though I don't fault Cole for the effort.
One thing is made perfectly clear by Frayed: the Tara Samms pseudonym and corresponding style function only within the confines of a short story. In a novella, where a more defined plot must be fleshed out, Cole reverts to his more standard methods and loses some of the effectiveness retained in his classic short stories. Despite this, Frayed is a very strong offering, just very cluttered as well. I can't help but think that this novella would have been even more effective as a short story containing only the dreamscape sections - but then that might be why I'm not a writer.
Okay, first things first. Tara Samms is Stephen Cole. She's one of several pseudonyms from the BBC Short Trips collections. If you don't believe me, unscramble the letters of the last three words of the "About The Author" mini-bio on Frayed p137. I wasn't aware that it was even a secret any more. The only reason I can imagine for resurrecting a dead pseudonym like this is that the Tara Samms short stories were well received while as a novelist and editor Steve Cole has often been a bit crap.
Unfortunately Frayed is a bit crap too, and in a very Cole-ish way. It doesn't even *feel* like a Tara Samms story (much as Stephen King's recent Stephen Bachman book didn't feel like a Bachman book either). The Tara Samms pretence is just... annoying. There's good stuff in this book, but unfortunately it's dragged down by silly misjudgements and a one-note cast that's been cut-and-pasted from Parallel 59.
Like Time and Relative, Frayed is a pre-Unearthly Child adventure for the 1st Doctor and Susan, but unfortunately it doesn't wear this mantle lightly. There's a character called Webber whose final act, inspired by his adventure with the Doctor, is to start writing. [If you don't remember Cecil Edwin Webber, 1963 BBC staff writer who helped to create Doctor Who, reread the First Doctor Handbook.] Laugh? I nearly hunted the author down and killed him. There's also some nonsense about naming to Doctor and Susan... Susan's is handled quite well, but the "doctor" stuff [e.g. p30] is toe-curling. There's also some overly cute dialogue about "you humans" etc. which the text doesn't handle with a sufficiently light touch. Steve Cole isn't nearly a good enough writer to survive this kind of self-mutilation... I've recently decided he's a bit like Terry Nation, but less good.
If you read a few of Terrance Dicks's Dalek novelisations (Invasion of Earth, Planet, Genesis, Destiny...), you'll find their stories are all the same. The similarities between Planet and Genesis are particularly striking. Both scripts are deeply macho, completely humourless, a bit too long and preoccupied with moral issues. Genesis has Davros and better ideas, but the most significant difference between them is their production team. Genesis was produced by Hinchcliffe and Holmes, while Planet was produced by Terry and Baz. If you treat a Terry Nation script as life-or-death drama and play it for all it's worth, it'll sing. At any other intensity level, it flops like a dead mackerel. Steve Cole is a similar type of writer, usually turning out Saward-like runarounds with unimaginative plotting and overly macho characters. It's straight down the middle stuff, at best aiming for a sort of gritty intensity. Undercutting this with in-jokes is the worst thing Cole could possibly do.
The cast of Frayed is boring. There's no charm, wit or likeability in the whole bunch. When A kills B, this undeniably dramatic moment is let down by the fact that I didn't like either of them and couldn't even tell them apart. Children are being badly treated, but one gets no sense of lost innocence since everything's so bleak and dull from page one. [I also realised that one of my problems with the Telos novellas is that they've all taken themselves so seriously. No one's dared to crack a joke or take the piss. Fair enough, they've often been trying to create literature, but wit and a light touch was an intrinsic element of the spirit of Doctor Who.]
Frayed is a pretty unpleasant reading experience, but often deliberately. (That was a compliment, by the way.) The stuff between Jill and Olmec is simply creepy, while there's also some of the most horrific dream imagery I can remember in a Doctor Who book. Plenty of writers have gone for the gross-out, but Frayed comfortably out-icks them all. That's nasty. I liked that!
However there is one good thing about Frayed - its portrayal of the Doctor. This isn't the first time Steve Cole has written Hartnell and I've liked what he's done with the character both times. (You can even see the differences between his two Hartnells, Frayed's Doctor being specifically a pre-Unearthly Child version while Ten Little Aliens gave us a dying old man shortly before The Tenth Planet.) This Doctor is great! He's a complete bastard who doesn't care about anything but finding his granddaughter and getting away from here, but he's also arrogant enough to regard solving these people's problems as an intellectual challenge to keep him amused in the meantime. I loved the bit on p69. A strong protagonist can rescue even the most lifeless book and I must admit to enjoying much of Frayed when the Doctor was onstage.
Susan isn't in it much. She's missing for most of the book, which is a good thing since the Doctor blatantly means to bugger off as soon as he finds her. What little we get of her is okay.
Towards the end the story gets interesting. All kinds of issues are bubbling away here, some of them pretty disturbing. Steve Cole is trying to say things about eugenics, genetic manipulation, criminals and more. Frayed has a story that's well worth telling, but unfortunately it's a few drafts (and a few interesting characters) away from doing that story justice. Having read Steve Cole's work for various different book lines, I've decided he's a writer who particularly needs a strong editor. I've liked best his work with Justin Richards, while his Cole-era stuff was kinda bleah and his Big Finish novel was unspeakable. There's a lot of good in Frayed and it picks up towards the end, but file it under "missed potential".
Tara Samms has built up a very distinctive voice over a number of short stories – emotional, offbeat, usually bleak, and often excellent. Sadly this attempt to extend this voice to novella length is only semi-successful.
Frayed is divided into two distinct strands; an alien assault on an isolated clinic for children with the genetic make-up that points towards a likelihood of future crime, and the mental dreamscape of one of these children undergoing treatment. Both share the same strengths and weaknesses.
As far as imagery goes, whether it’s the patchwork alien Fox’s assault or Jill’s macabre dreamscape, Frayed is virtually flawless. This is stylish writing with some incredibly evocative scenes. Story wise however it’s a bit hit and miss. While well written the Foxes attack on the Refuge is just more generic ‘base under siege’ material that wouldn’t have looked out of place during Troughton’s time. It also begs several questions: why is the clinic so isolated as to have an entire world to itself? How could this ever be economically viable? Where exactly did the Foxes come from, and how much of a coincidence is it that a race in need of genetic assistance should happen upon the Refuge? I also disliked some of the plotting in the dreamscape sections when such impenetrable imagery as the maggot-ridden baby is clumsily explained away in an infodump denouement, while the overtly ‘happy’ ending of aliens and humans working together is a bit too saccharine for my tastes.
Character-wise the novella is excellent, with the surprising exception of the Doctor and Susan, who never feel like their TV counterparts. While I can forgive this somewhat due to this being set before An Unearthly Child, I was less enamoured of the Doctor and Susan gaining their names via the events in this story – not only does this feel unnecessary but it also contradicts numerous flashbacks from the novel range.
So, it’s a case of good but not great. All in all I’d still recommend Frayed for it’s evocative imagery, though unfortunately it reads for the most part as if Tara Samms weirdness has been bolted on top of a fairly bog-standard Stephen Cole storyline. Nice style, just a shame about the story.