Sunday, 14 February 2010

Cz- Cz- Cz- Cz- Cz- Cz- Czech It Out - Short Trips: Destination Prague edited by Steven Savile

There was a small tragedy in Doctor Who fandom towards the end of last year. Big Finish lost its licence for Doctor Who short story collections early in the year, meaning there was no longer any printed Who fiction based on the old series in regular production. And at the end of December they sold off all remaning stock, meaning there was officially no 'old series' Doctor Who fiction in print. It was a low key fizzling out to nineteen years of existence in the written word that, for a while, was the only thing that kept Doctor Who going; an official ongoing narrative that seemed impossibly exciting to those of us who'd grown up on the Target books.

It hadn't been that for a long time of course, firstly the BBC took the licence back from Virgin without entirely seeming to understand what had made the books so exciting (and understaffing the range massively), then Big Finish happened along to steal some thunder and cause fandom to schism over why their respective media were better. Then the BBC Books range quietly ended in the wake of the success of the Russell T Davies driven revival; Telos lost their novella licence and suddenly the Short Trips range, almost unnoticed, became the last classic series books. By their nature they were never the ongoing narrative that the New Adventures and Eighth Doctor Adventures had been, they were in essence the eventual triumph of the Missing Adventures. They started off with stories familiar to fans, but as they went on began to introduce other voices into the mix, ones new to Doctor Who. That culminated in the likes of the How The Doctor Changed My Life collection, consisting entirely of first time authors.

Destination Prague falls squarely into the camp of introducing new and different voices. Of the authors here I only recognised three from their previous Doctor Who work, one from a then twelve year old short story, one from a short story in the same range two books prior to this and one from a new series novel that came out after this was published. So those voices certainly weren't tapped out, and the rest may have fresh things to say. Call me insane, but I quite like the thrill of reading new writers and seeing what they can come up with; that applies to both Doctor Who and my wider reading. And if I see a familiar name having a go at Doctor Who for the first time, it's an extra thrill - I heartily approved of seeing Mike W Barr's name given his involvement in one of my favourite graphic novels of the mid 80s, Camelot 3000.

I'm still not certain that the overarching theme was a good idea. Prague's a beautiful city, albeit ones I've got bad memories of as I was miserably ill during my one trip there. Being confined to a hotel room with only the Simpsons in Czech to alleviate the misery isn't my idea of fun, particularly when I wasn't in a fit state to concentrate on my book. Plus it's diffcult to understand why we've never seen the Doctor reminisce about Prague before when it's apparently been such a big part of his lives. As a theme though, setting the stories in and around a foreign city is a sound idea, particularly when it comes with a rich history such as Prague's. The trouble there though is that you've a bunch of British, American and Australian authors who often seem to be relying on research rather than experience, not really capturing the essence of the city but playing around with the things that made the city famous instead. Familiar places and names recur - the likes of Rabbi Loew, Tyco Brache and Kafka, and the Astronomical Clock seems to get visited by every Doctor a couple of times over. And the second part of the theme, Prague's future, is difficult to extrapolate without knowing the city intimately. The stories sometimes become slightly SF generic, there's often nothing to stop this being almost any city in the world. And this being about Prague's future is slightly limiting on authors; it cleaves rigidly to the perception of Doctor Who as an SF show when really it can be much, much broader than that. That might be a difference in how the show's perceived by UK fans and how the rest of the world (including the broader UK population)sees the show though.

My favourite stories here do manage to avoid teling straight SF stories though. Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis succesfully use their story, War in a Time of Peace, to obliquely look at today. Stephen Dedman's Nanomorphosis ponders Kafka's literary concepts becoming reality and Todd McCaffrey's The Dragons of Prague is splendidly absurd, though the demouement is a little sudden and the prose itself is a little crude in places. Both manage a fine job of capturing Tom Baker's Doctor though, something that's eluded a hell of a lot of other Who writers. Actually, I found the second half of the collection very strong, the last seven stories all successful in telling different types of story - James Swallow's tale has a lovely elegaic atmosphere, Kevin Killiany's Men of the Earth has cockroaches and zombies - double points there! - and Fable Fusion uses what I assume is genuine Czech folklore as a starting point. I'm not entirely sure I'd have chosen opener Midnight at the Cafe of the Black Madonna as the representation for the Best of Short Trips collection, it seemes solid rather than inspired.

Strangely though, when I came to look back at the stories to write the review I found myself thinking more fondly of the first half of the book, even if the stories hadn't stood out to me at the time. The credits at the back of the book indicate the autors have extensive professional experience elsewhere, and it shows in the quality of the stories. There's nothing poor here, only the odd moment where the dialogue seems a little odd for certain Doctors, and the lack of Doctor Who experience doesn't show in retreading ideas but rather in minor details jarring with previously told tales. Not that such things bother me overly, I'm of the Robert Holmes school that thinks a good story takes priority over continuity details. If I'm going to level a charge, I'd say that I was never quite sure if there was a consistent timeline worked out for Prague's future - it may be a consequence of having the tales range over a vast timescale from 2012 to 848,988 though. And there weren't really any little details carried over from story to story that gave the collection a cohesive feel, the odd reference to other exploits in the collection slipped in might have made all the difference. And while it's obviously a choice on the part of editor Steven Savile, I wouldn't have minded a story or two set firmly in Prague's history, something to give readers a taste of the city's history and fully exploit the setting, rather than a second hand flavour. I suppose it stops writiers lazily homing in on obvious targets though, so I'm all for that. The book often feels like Savile's pushed his writers rather than settling for 'this'll do' at any point.

This ended up feeling like one of the stronger collections then, expereinced short story writers not falling prey to a trap Big Finish collections seem prone to, but understanding that a good short story isn't simply a cut down adventure (it can be, but that's rare). Well worth tracking down via the likes of Amazon Marketplace or eBay.

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