Going into GHOST SHIP, I had rather low expectations. I'd read a lot of reviews slagging off everything from the plot to the characterization of the Fourth Doctor. Its ranking on Shannon Patrick Sullivan's charts placed it near the very bottom, and, although I had never read anything from this author before, Keith Topping's reputation for fiction writing isn't exactly stellar. To my utter shock and amazement, I really enjoyed it anyway.
By far, the most ubiquitous criticism is that it's told in first-person narration from the point of view of the Fourth Doctor. And yet, at first glance, the character appears to be totally unlike any performance we'd ever seen Tom Baker give. He's nervous, unsure of himself, panicky, and awkward. At one point, he even runs off back to the TARDIS hell-bent on making a quick getaway. For the first ten or twenty pages, I didn't believe it in the slightest.
But further on from that, I began thinking. The book is set in the void between THE DEADLY ASSASSIN and THE FACE OF EVIL, where the Doctor spent some unknown amount of time wandering through space and time alone. Is it possible that his already dark character could have dipped deeper? I began pondering some other moments that we had already seen of the Fourth Doctor's life. The graying, brooding figure we saw in his final season (particularly in LOGOPOLIS). The almost callous man who Sarah admonishes in PYRAMIDS OF DEATH for not seeming human. Yes, I decided. Yes, I could buy this as a continuation of the character, pushed a tad bit farther than we'd seen before, and without the usual humor that balanced out this part of him. It made me think and reflect on a character whose main source of development ended decades ago, which isn't a simple trick.
Though to be fair to critics of this characterization, what I couldn't buy was the actual language that he used. First of all, it's difficult to imagine the Fourth Doctor actually sitting down to write something like his memoirs without getting fed up and wanting to save the universe or pop in on Da Vinci or something. But going further, I just can't see his prose being this flowery or this filled with clever similes and metaphors. Don't get me wrong; it's good, it just doesn't seem like the sort of thing that he would say.
As for the rest of the novella, well, it's basically a ghost story (no big shocker, given the title), and as a ghost story it relies almost exclusively on the author's ability to evoke an appropriately creepy tone. Of other reviews, I've noticed that those who loathed the book didn't see any plausible atmosphere created, while those that liked the book did see that. Place me in the second column then. I found the book quite chilling.
The plot is secondary to establishing the mood. We meet characters and see their conversations, more for the sake of developing them and their role in the ambiance than for any particular plot reasons. This can appear either as necessary scene setting or mindless padding, depending on your point of view. By the time we meet the bulk of the secondary characters, I was already absorbed in the flow of the story and accepted this in the manner in which I assume it was intended.
GHOST SHIP has too much going against it to be really popular. If you don't like the characterization of the Fourth Doctor, you'll hate the book. If you don't like the atmosphere Topping attempts to create, you'll hate the book. Personally, I thought it was very good indeed, but I realize I'm never going to be in the majority on this. I'd recommend giving it a try though, even if you do end up detesting it. It's short and it's well paced, so you won't be wasting too much time; I read it in one quick sitting and enjoyed it enormously.
“Ghost Ship is a brave attempt to try something different...” -- from the foreword by Hugh Lamb
The fourth offering from Telos serves as their second consecutive attempt to root Doctor Who in a new format, on this occasion the ghost story. I’d always enjoyed Keith Topping books before, regardless of objective judgements of their quality, so I was looking forward to Ghost Ship. Unfortunately, my positive expectations were crushed under the weight of one catastrophic, irreparable error. Yet before revealing that error, many things about the novella impressed me, so I’ll discuss them briefly.
This may seem as though I’m reaching for something good to say, but I delighted in the formatting of this novella. While the previous three were fairly genetic with regard to chapter headings and the like, Ghost Ship is filled with skulls, chapter headings and titles, and melodramatic quotes corresponding to each chapter. I’d condemn these formatting decisions in a scholarly text - or, for that matter, a BBC Doctor Who novel - but here they work perfectly, contributing to the atmosphere of the novella.
Furthermore, it should be said that, were this not a Doctor Who novella, Keith Topping would have constructed one hell of a ghost story. We have here a rationalist, a man caught in a time of personal crisis who can reside comfortably only in his ideology - and this ideology is shaken to its core by the apparent revelation and presence of ghosts aboard the Queen Mary. We’re given a glimpse into his political perspective, his sympathetic nature, and his scientific curiosity. We’re also given a creepy ship, full of whispers, creaking passages, and piercing screams. The role of the villain, though initially appearing trite and cliched, is skilfully (if not unexpectedly) subverted in the novella’s final lines.
Unfortunately, this is a Doctor Who story, and even more unfortunate is Topping’s choice to present the text in the Doctor’s first-person perspective. Attempts to capture the Doctor’s thought processes have proven universally unsuccessful, and the decision here to attempt this task with Tom Baker’s Doctor was unwise. I could almost conceive of a first-person story of the third or fifth Doctors, as their thoughts seem fairly evident, but the fourth Doctor is one of the most complex of those seen on television. Regardless of whether his trademark grinning insanity was just a result of Tom Baker growing bored with the role, it’s nearly impossible to provide a simple explanation for his behavior. To avoid this problem, Topping sets his story after the events of The Deadly Assassin, giving us the “brooding” fourth Doctor seen from time to time throughout Baker’s tenure.
Yet this isn’t that same brooding Doctor. This is a very self-conscious Doctor, unsure of his convictions, nervous in conversation, aware of his image in the eyes of others, etc. He becomes “hot with embarrassment.” He goes out of his way to notice a woman’s attractiveness. Furthermore, his mental comparisons are exclusively human - would the Doctor really describe something as Biblical? I understand that to have him draw an analogy with some piece of alien technobabble would come across as little more than authorial indulgence, but then isn’t that why nobody writes the Doctor in first-person? The brooding Tom is a jerk, snapping at his companions and occasionally throwing in his trademark grin. Tom Baker was *never* self-conscious nor embarrassed on screen except when shown up by Romana, one of his equals. I’m not sure what character Topping was writing, but it wasn’t the fourth Doctor.
Another complaint: whoever proofread this needs to do it again. “I looked back at the TARDIS, which, for once, appeared to be completely incongruous next to the newsagent’s shop in the main foyer.” (p. 21) Wait, so the TARDIS looked incongruous *for once*? It *always* looks incongruous! Maybe “ congruous” was the word they were going for - and there are other examples of this throughout the novella.
It’s a shame Topping made the first-person decision, because at heart this is a well-composed ghost story. Honestly I’d recommend it to people that had never heard of Doctor Who - but for Who fans, simply a wrong decision.
I've never been a fan of ghost stories. Haunted houses aren't my thing, and I was the one person who, when faced with the notion of having to sit through the live-action film "Casper: The Friendly Ghost," I sat in complete disinterest. (Okay, so it was a bad film anyway, but I digress...) Yet Doctor Who has really never done a true ghost story... mostly it's just sitting around waiting for some bug eyed monster to appear, and in times where they've come close, such as the anti-matter alien in "Planet of Evil," it's been rather obvious.
Yet I'm happy to say that I enjoyed this particular ghost story.
Let me be frank: "Ghost Ship" is Keith Topping's best work of fiction. There's a qualifier on that, however: it's a well-written, well-reasoned story, the writing is sometimes exceptional... however, I can't for the life of me figure out which Doctor it's supposed to be. There are many notes to suggest that it might be the Fourth Doctor, yet in no respect does it ever seem to be a Fourth Doctor as played by Tom Baker (if it's supposed to be, well, I'm confounded; the Fourth Doctor never sounds like that!) It theoretically COULD be the Eighth Doctor, but it would therefore be an Eighth Doctor grounded like the McGann Doctor - from the audios to the books to the TV movie itself - never quite was.
Still, that's hardly a reason to judge a book... it's the Doctor, certainly, just not a really specific one.
What might be more appropriate to discuss is the fact that the book is told from first-person. Rule number one of Doctor Who fiction: never get inside the Doctor's head. Rule number two: screw rule number one, nobody's written any rules that you necessarily need to follow. That's the beauty of Telos's novella series; they go where you would never presume to go inside 'official' continuity. Here, we get a fascinating look at the methods by which the Doctor deduces information, something that far too often we simply take for granted.
Telling you anything about the plot would wreck the surprise, so I won't go into that. Suffice to say that while it wasn't the most clever or most engaging ghost story one could imagine, it still managed to be interesting. What's more impressive is the ambience of the story, surrounded by quite good writing; there is a real sense of foreboding in the novel, and you can almost hear the wind passing through the corridors. There is truly a level of horror that I've not yet seen in a piece of Doctor Who fiction, exemplified by the end of chapter five and the discovery of a body, which made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
As I said, "Ghost Ship" is the best prose I've seen come from Keith Topping; it's extremely well written, the mood is extraordinarily creepy, and the story is entertaining. I just wish I knew exactly who it was in the driver's seat...
If Ghost Ship wasn't a ghost story, I'd probably be giving it the most almighty kicking. This book isn't particularly concerned with plot, characterisation, Whoishness or anything else that normally goes into a work of Who-related fiction. The Doctor (the Fourth Doctor!) is a passive character, his most memorable action being a failed attempt to bugger off in the TARDIS halfway through. It's not even a particularly successful ghost story, being mostly not atmospheric and certainly never scary. There's little sense of period, with the ship rarely feeling grounded in its historical period (the sixties) and instead feeling more Edwardian than anything else. The book's form is that of a Victorian ghost story, so I suppose it was always going to have a hard time feeling even remotely contemporary.
And yet... I love ghost stories. Above all, they're mood pieces. Forget characterisation and hang the plot. Despite everything, I did find things to like in Ghost Ship.
The book's biggest problem is its portrayal of the Doctor, which is the worst I've seen anywhere, ever. Forget the usual complaint of "I couldn't imagine Tom Baker saying these lines". I couldn't imagine Tom Baker being physically capable even of *thinking* this, or of getting halfway through it before wandering off to play with his yo-yo. I suppose you might say that there's a plot reason for him acting peculiarly, except that he's like that at the start of the story even before the TARDIS lands. For an example of what I mean, look at page 66. After committing a minor social faux-pas, the Doctor "hastily gave [a human female] a hot and embarrassed denial". Huh? Tom Baker? Naaah. Blithe unconcern and an inappropriately gleeful facial expression, more like. +
Here's an experiment... imagine Tom saying, "I'm so terribly sorry," after he's been tactless to someone. Now study the little Tom in your head. He's grinning, isn't he? Or perhaps throwing the line away as he gets on with something else and ignores the apologee. Now try to imagine him delivering the line in a "hot and embarrassed" fashion. I don't know about you, but I can't.
And it's all like that! Soon I could only survive by going into denial about the fact that this lonely, introspective bundle of nerves was theoretically the Fourth Doctor. Ironically I might have bought it this been another incarnation... any other. Tom's Doctor was so utterly unselfconscious, but the others had just a little more self-awareness and could, perhaps, have written the reflective prose we see here. But as it was, I had to cut myself free from Doctor Who. Thus the gratuitous continuity references irritated me beyond all reason, more even than such nonsense normally does. Consider this. Ghost Ship is a Doctor Who book set in 1963, yet so far are we from anything recognisably Whoish that this seems like an irrelevance.
Using the Fourth Doctor did help in one sense, though. When Keith Topping makes a boo-boo by using the wrong word (p16: "dematerialising", p21: "incongruous") or giving us a distractingly clunky simile, one can imagine Tom's Doctor being absent-minded enough to do this.
The book's structure - I refuse to use the word "plot" - is brain-wrenchingly peculiar. Characters are introduced for a three-page monologue on socialism before disappearing, never to return. In fact, I'm now wondering if the book's debates are more important than the characters. With the exception of Simpkins (whose function is to be a terrified victim and vehicle of exposition) each major character is used for a long discussion of something abstruse. There's a debate on socialism, another about English poets and a third which compares science and religion. I can't help seeing this as significant, given that this is an elegaic book which specialises in disorientating and confusing the reader. It's not thrilling or scary, but it does eventually succeed in evoking a sort of abstract spookiness.
You see, somewhere around page 80 (of 104) I did eventually find myself reacting to the book. I'd been perplexed about what was going on, bombarded by meaningless events and made to think about the oddest assortment of ideas... and at last I was intrigued.
This book should theoretically have been dreadful. Someone who certainly isn't Tom Baker's Doctor lands on a ship that's floating somewhere and wanders around in a nervous state, having intellectual discussions and jumping at his own shadow. I'm still wondering whether it's only my love of ghost stories which has led me to see any redeeming features at all. On reflection, I don't think it's much cop. However, almost despite myself, I eventually found it eccentrically spooky.
Let's get this clear - I really wanted to like this book.
I've read two of the previous three Telos novellas, namely 'Time and Relative' (an atmospheric and engaging story, I thought) and 'NightDreamers' (a tragedy of huge proportions in almost every way, I believe). That's so you know where I stand. Take this review in context of those two. No specific spoilers follow.
'Ghost Ship' attempts the difficult - a first person account from the Doctor's point of view. A courageous thing to try and all respect to Keith Topping for taking it on. It's certainly something that the NA's seem to shy away from.
I started this book without knowing which Doctor was the focus. When that's possible it's a nice way of seeing if an author has captured the Doctor they were aiming for. It was clear that this was Tom Baker's Doctor only when the all-too-obvious motif of jelly-babies had reared its gelatinous head early on. There would be no other way of telling. Whoever this character is it's not the Doctor.
It is a clear character, though. At times engaging. At times wincingly unfunny. At all times reflective and full of self-criticism.
At no time is it the Doctor. Any Doctor.
It is perhaps closest to Paul McGann's Big Finish interpretation but that's the nearest round hole this square peg fits in to.
'You have another explanation?' I was keenly aware of just how ridiculous this query sounded. Rationalism, a good and treasured friend to me over many years, waved a little white flag of surrender and then wearily crawled off in search of a bed for the night.
This paragraph sums up the feel of the book. It tries to be insightful and succeeds - it just isn't the Doctor. It tries to be funny and occasionally succeeds - it just isn't the Doctor's sense of humour, and less so the fourth Doctor's. It tries to be reflectively human and succeeds - but that just isn't the Doctor either.
At one point the Doctor thinks to himself:
"To indulge in such forced introspection is most unlike me."
At times you feel yourself being drawn into this intelligent character, an intriguing person with a sharp and analytical mind and a poor sense of self-aware humour. Then you remember who it's meant to be. And you remember that it isn't him.
The plot skims its light-weight way through cliché and sign-posted revelations. The ending, from page 70 or so onwards, picks up pace and has the start of an interesting conflict between the Doctor and the antagonist. It concludes in the most anti-climatic way possible, as does the novella itself. The very ending feels amazingly rushed and the author does himself no justice in wrapping the story up. I felt sure there was a chapter missing at the end, such was the abruptness and lack of climax.
The prose, though, is the thing which makes all of this difficult to take. Clearly this is a choice by Keith Topping, to make it as formal and as florid as it is, perhaps to evoke the 50's era he writes about. However the choice leaves a lot to be desired:
"For hindsight is a luxury of those who never have the need for the velvet embrace of adventure."
"A repulsion from the hard-headed scientist within me rose to a shouting crescendo of outraged disbelief."
"Whilst normally I would have allowed nothing to distract me when rushing to the aid of what my mind had decided was clearly a damsel in distress, such was my state of inertia that, for once, I temporarily hesitated and held back, waiting for something to happen."
Does any of this sound like the Doctor? The novella is littered with literary clichés ('A sense of impending dread', 'I was trapped in amber' or 'Every instinct within me told me not to go to the cabin', to quote but three) and while the story marches on the writing infringes at every step.
The Doctor in 'Ghost Ship' is just a human who runs away at danger, feels immensely lonely every other page, and cries when things go wrong. There is nothing alien or different about him. He even lets a character die at the end without trying to intervene - doing exactly what he has already accused the antagonist of only a few pages earlier.
Maybe it's just me, but as a fan of this character I regular suspend my critical levels, read books about his adventures which I would never normally force my way through, just because it's Doctor Who. We let the standards drop and accept them because it's our character and we don't get a lot of options. Sometimes I wonder if that's the right choice.
Like I said, I really wanted to like this novella and I'm genuinely sorry that I didn't. I've whiled-away several happy hours with Keith Topping's books in the past (notably 'The Hollow Men' written with Martin Day). I truly hope people out there enjoy 'Ghost Ship' and that I've missed something vital and erudite about the prose, the character or the story. Let me know if I have, please, and I'll happily re-evaluate. I want to be wrong!
However, until then, I'll be left with a feeling that the Doctor I know was completely missing from this adventure. And, for a first-person narrative, that's a hole which can't be filled.
Before reading the book, my expectations of Ghost Ship had fluctuated wildly. The teaser press release put out by Telos some months ago made the book sound dreamily wondrous, a heady mixture of shadowy corridors, creeping foreboding and heartwarming Victoriana. The reviews posted here led me to be much more wary. Pleased to say that I, for one, DID enjoy Ghost Ship and never doubted for a second which Doctor was being portrayed.
The success of the Telos novellas so far has been the "filling out" of Doctor Who's main characters to present much more rounded, three-dimensional personas. After Time and Relative's superb depiction of Susan as a scared, ennui-ridden alien struggling hard to adjust to English life, Ghost Ship puts flesh on the bones of Tom Baker's Doctor with equal aplomb.
Alright, so this ISN'T the TV Doctor of manic smiles, overbearing energy and indifferent arrogance. Ghost Ship presents a post-Deadly Assassin Doctor... alone, lonely, and questioning his own existance. But this is not too far from elements of the Fourth Doctor that Tom protrayed just as successfully as his loveable eccentric persona. Have we forgotten Tom gloomily telling Sarah Jane Smith "I walk in eternity...", or pacing the Cloister Room in a fit of melancholy in Logopolis?
In presenting this "other" Fourth Doctor raw and exposed rather than occasionally bubbling to the surface, I think Keith Topping does a fine job. The characterisation is consistent and intriguing, we hear of the Doctor's thought processes, fears and dreams - and the fascinating memories his experiences trigger, of which watching strange lights over the Seine with Baudelaire is the most striking of many.
Ironically, it's the ghost story itself which is less successful for me... it's a little too predictable and a little too conveniently wrapped up for my liking. But for atmosphere, characterisation and that precious extra insight into an established character that Telos is making its trademark, this is a fine achievement.