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Shell Shock

Telos Novella #8
Greg Bobak

My journeys through the first eight Doctor Who offerings from Telos Publishing have revealed one linking trend above all: each novella has aspired above the "typical" Doctor Who standard, with even the most bog-standard runaround of the bunch (Nightdreamers) attempting something greater. That it failed is irrelevant; it is wonderfully refreshing to see a series of Doctor Who fiction dedicated to blowing up that nonsensical old cliché that only certain types of story qualify as "real" Who. Simon A. Forward's "Shell Shock" is the next novella to follow this trend, and follow it well.

That being said, many of these forewords make me scratch my head. After two gorgeous offerings from Ashley and Gallagher, here we're presented with Guy N. Smith rambling on about having a police box in the yard and being afraid of crabs. Granted, this isn't at the level of Katy Manning telling us about her exciting move between houses, but couldn't someone have hit Smith over the head and yelled "Read it again?"

Shell Shock has one of the best titles in the long history of Doctor Who. It works on more levels than I can count - I think of new ones every time I see the cover. This isn't apparent until you've read the novella, of course, so what of the contents?

Curiously for a Doctor Who story, this novella takes place entirely within the aftermath of a terrible conflict. While stories like Genesis of the Daleks have dealt with the concluding stages of a war before, here we see a situation predicated entirely upon consequences. Even the involvement of the Doctor and Peri is seen only as a consequence - they've wandered into the situation and become involved, but the reader only sees them after the Doctor's washed ashore and Peri's in the water. This makes the grim nature of the tale a necessity: post-apocalyptic tales rarely have bright, shining moments.

The stars of this tale are the crabs - more specifically, mechanically-enhanced crabs that had been put to use in the recent war - and Forward relates their experience from the perspective of Scrounger, so named for his skills and behavior. The crab-perspectives are the best part of the novella, with their simpler natures and personalities conveyed brilliantly. We feel Scrounger's trust in the Doctor just as strongly as we feel his fear in the presence of Meathook.

Ranger's portrayal is equally strong. His psychological disorder is heart wrenching to witness, yet utterly believable, and as he degenerates further throughout the novella the hopelessness of his situation becomes increasingly clear. The revelation of his late-night dining habits is the most shocking of the story - by limiting the perspective of the story to those who believe Meathook is responsible for the deaths, Forward creates a shield for Ranger that is impossible to penetrate until such time as the Doctor makes his terrifying discovery.

For his part, the Doctor is portrayed as the gentler sixth Doctor seen in the Trial season and later in Big Finish. Certainly he is tempted to explode into righteous demagoguery, but he realizes his situation and the delicate sensibilities of those around him - especially Ranger - and suppresses these impulses well. His interactions with the crabs underscore the beauty of the character of the Doctor in general - it's easy to forget he's talking to crabs, and the image of the sixth Doctor separating two bickering crabs like children is one of those uniquely Doctorish moments unlikely to turn up in other series fiction. The frequent attempts to clean the coat mark another nice touch.

Peri fares well, though perhaps not as well as the Doctor, if only because of the revelations concerning her past. Though I concede that one can certainly read such things into Planet of Fire, I question the necessity of this revelation - did Peri really need this thrown into her background? Yet I salute the author for the style in which this is revealed: it's one in a series of memories, just as it should be, and the text that follows does not degenerate into a Peri angst-fest. Though I question the decision, it's certainly saved by its presentation. And now that I see on an OG forum thread that the Peri decision was editorially-prompted, I withdraw the remainder of my criticism from the author.

I'm not exactly sure what the Memory is or how it works, and I've read through the pertinent sections twice now - but I'll also concede that Forward can probably get his mind around larger concepts than I. I saw the seeds of this in his BF audio The Sandman - and I can't help but admire an author who expects his actors to say the word Srushkubr.

None of this would hang together without appropriate prose, of course, and the ability of the author to vary prose styles so extensively is quite impressive. It's interesting to examine the relative quality of the styles, especially when you consider the weakest prose is probably that which is most "typical" - the third person omniscient sections. This is not to call the prose weak, of course, but it strikes me as odd that the limited-crab perspectives come off the best when, one would suppose, they'd be the hardest to write.

Overall, this is another winner from Telos. I haven't discussed much of the plot, but I don't feel as if I have to - this certainly struck me as an atmosphere piece, examining consequences and their effects on characters and situations. Sure, the Doctor saves the day, but to dwell on that would seem to be to miss the point of an excellent novella.

And the coda - especially the final line - makes up possibly the best two pages thus far in the range.

An excellent offering all around.

Lawrence Conquest

Not too surprisingly given the title, there’s plenty of crab (alright - alien crab-like ) action in Shell Shock, but the title is also highly apposite in thematic terms, with the story itself revolving around the uncovering of its casts hidden secrets. These characters can be split into two main camps - the island stranded survivors of a nameless conflict, and one Perpugillium Brown.

Of the survivors, by far the most interesting are the ‘crabs’ themselves, and despite the novel unfolding predominantly through the eyes of one called Scrounger, it’s a pleasant surprise that this is one set of alien creatures that cant converse with the Doctor and co. As to what these creatures are, and what their relationship is to the sole humanoid inhabitant of the island, it’s a bit hit and miss. The main idea, while decent enough, is weakened by its soap-opera stylings, and the melodrama tipped it over into comedy for me. On the other hand though, this sets up a deliciously nasty post-Doctor finale which ensures the book ends on a high.

As for Peri, while she undergoes some rather intense traumatic treatment, the inherent ‘we all know she’s going to survive’ factor robs most of it of any real impact. I’d have been far more affected had we had a post-Trial 6th Doctor travelling with a completely new companion, perhaps a companion who could have remained behind in their new state at the stories close.

While not flawless, the prose is a definite improvement on Drift, with only a little heavy-handedness here and there. The relentlessly grim tone occasionally backfires by edging into melodrama, but all in all this is enjoyable stuff and worth checking out. It’s not Telos’s best novella, but it’s a good solid effort.

Finn Clark

I've been ambivalent about Telos novellas in the past, probably in large part because they've mostly been adventures. Exciting adventures are the lifeblood of Doctor Who - but I don't think they're well suited for the Telos novellas, which always gave me the impression of aiming for something more literary. Mysterious murders, sinister villains, evil plots to destroy the universe... such Flash Gordon nonsense can be a lot of fun, but it's hardly highbrow. A full-length novel has enough room for such things, but clutter up a novella with 'em and you'll tend to squeeze out the more interesting stuff.

Shell Shock isn't a spectacular piece of writing, but I give it much credit for feeling neither like a jumped-up Short Trips story nor a cut-down BBC Book. It's a novella to its fingertips, more like a John Wyndham story than anything else I can think of offhand. That's high praise, by the way. To be honest its faults and virtues (quiet atmosphere, gentle charm, not much meat to it) are much like those of Simon A. Forward's Tom-and-Leela PDA, Drift, but they gel far better in the novella format. Drift was nice but inconsequential. With Shell Shock, that's practically the whole point.

The setting works. We don't see an entire planet, but one small beach and the sea. I could visualise that! It's simple and good. The characters are nice too... the crabs are excellent, especially Scrounger, and Ranger is quite effective. He's hard to get a handle on, almost as if you're seeing the selected highlights with his key scenes cut out, but the result is an enigmatic character who keeps you wondering up to his big revelation at the end. (The scrambled time scheme adds another layer to this.) Despite what I said above, adventure elements creep in... however Shell Shock never feels like an adventure, but rather One Man And His Crab with odd glimpses of an adventure that unfolded elsewhere some time ago.

There's no villain. I think that's important. There's Meathook, yes, but I don't think we ever even learn what Meathook is. From our point of view, it hardly matters. It could just as easily have been storms or hungry fish whittling down our heroes, the crabs, instead.

The regulars are interesting. The 6th Doctor gets precious little bluster, instead getting to interact with crabs in a manner that rather charmed me. As for Peri... well, we've all heard by now about Shell Shock's treatment of her. Apparently it was a popular online theory back in the nineties, as demonstrated (perhaps) in certain scenes in Planet of Fire or the dysfunctional Season 22 Doctor-Peri relationship. I can't say I was familiar with this, but I accepted it. Had it been grafted on to any other companion I'd have probably gone through the roof, but Shell Shock makes a reasonable case for it to fit the Peri we know.

Telos's semi-detached position vis-a-vis mainstream continuity probably helped, though. These revelations, not to mention a certain How Will They Get Out Of That plot development, felt less shocking & intrusive and one could simply keep reading.

However I would like to suggest that Peri is fast becoming another Ace. Both were almost-realistic TV companions (for the "almost", see Peri's accent or Ace's sanitised expletives) who appeared in almost all of one Doctor's TV stories... but are in large part defined by their non-TV adventures. Both got lengthy runs in DWM's comic strip with a non-TV companion (Benny or Frobisher). Both famously "died". Neither got a proper on-screen departure. Ace's story has been complicated by the Virgin NAs, the BBC Perry-Tucker PDAs, DWM's comics (both NA-compatible and Gillatt-era), assorted audio stories and even the Target novelisations (e.g. Curse of Fenric). Peri has appeared in fewer books, but she's well up there in the revisionism stakes. We've had Bad Therapy, the Peri-&-Frobisher comic strips (complicated by Mission Impractical), Philip Martin's Mindwarp novelisation, Colin Baker's mind-expanding Age of Chaos (starring Peri's Krontep granddaughter!) and now Shell Shock. Give the girl a break!

Shell Shock isn't perfect. In particular I didn't quite follow who was on who's side, who's really the enemy and whether a certain whatsit was one side's Frankenstein experiment gone wrong or the enemy up to no good. But as I said, it doesn't matter. This isn't an adventure, but more of a footnote to someone else's adventure. I don't *need* to know whether the enemy are still out there or not. Shell Shock is well served by dropping the usual well-worn adventure formulae. Instead it's a study of its people and its setting... and some high-tech crabs, of course.

I enjoyed Guy N. Smith's foreword, but please, I beg you, don't let it lure you into reading his horror novels. Believe me: not good. However his foreword suggests a decent guy who'd be good for an interesting chat or two down the pub.

Overall, Shell Shock is a pleasant book that's chiefly remarkable for practically inventing the Doctor Who novella. Its writing isn't noticeably better than that in, say, Wonderland or Rip Tide, but it's much more what I think Telos should be doing with Doctor Who. More like this, please. I guess not everyone will love the Peri stuff - but you gotta love those crabs.