Friday, 21 October 2011

Ice Ice Baby - Doctor Who: The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett

I confess to having a soft spot for Dan Abnett's writing.  Back in the dim and distant days of yore, when the show was being treated as an anachronism by a BBC management predisposed to try to quietly strangle it to death rather than rectify glaring production deficiencies, Abnett wrote a few DWM comic strips.  It was at a time when the comic strip was at a low ebb, when good stories were so thin on the ground that getting a single frame image of all seven Doctors was enough to win seemingly wild acclaim for one story.  Of course, I might have been suffering from post-Frobisher depression, but then I really didn't like Lee Sullivan's artwork at all, a problem when he was the main artist on the strip.  My kind disposition toward Abnett's work might have been due to his debut on the strip, Echoes of the Mogor, being drawn by John Ridgway, a reminder of what was arguably the strip's high water mark, the Sixth Doctor era.  Abnett's main contribution was the only story of the Seventh Doctor's comic strip that remotely approached the ambition of The Tides of Time or Voyager, The Mark of Mandragora.  Even then it depended partly on derivative thrills, but it was at least trying.

I haven't really followed Abnett's career outside of the strip (and the odd Torchwood novel) since - apparently he's quietly become a New York Times bestseller since, so he's certainly done well for himself.  Well enough that his first Doctor Who novel is the second of BBC Books' prestige hardbacks, following on from Michael Moorcock's The Coming of the Terraphiles.  It's a slight eyebrow raiser - for all Abnett's New York Times bestseller status he's not as respected a name as Moorcock (or even Alastair Reynolds or Stephen Baxter who're penning subsequent volumes in the series).  Nor does it demand extra space for the story to be told, as Terraphiles did - it's not a great deal longer than the standard NSA and could probably easily have fitted that length by having a set piece or two cut.  It does allow for some fine design work on the cover by Lee Binding though, an action pose by two Ice Warriors apparently viewed between close up snowflakes.  There's some thought gone into this, using the cover to feed  into the wintry atmosphere Abnett's trying to evoke with his story.  It helped, particularly given I started to read this on an unseasonably warm October day when it's clearly designed to be unwrapped and read on a freezing cold Christmas Day.

But beyond expectations the presentation might encourage, what do we get?  It's a perfectly competent story, the Doctor and companions in constant motion as they try to find out what the Ice Warriors are up to and why they're trying to wipe out the Morphans.  It's a decent translation of the style and pace of a TV episode to the page, right down to his spot on portrayal of the TV regulars, and it comes with a beautifully executed twist as to the nature of the planet.  Creditably too, he doesn't build up the appearance of the Ice Warriors as a big revelatory movement, instead playing with the expectations of the audience who know them (and those who don't know them but expect a Big Evil Monster).  They're well-worn tricks, and their deployment is well-timed by the author but again, it doesn't try and tell a different type of story or aim for an epic scale.  We don't get any big revelations about the Ice Warriors, although there's clearly great thought gone into their use here. 

So - it's not particularly innovative, the guest characters are pretty much cardboard, there's a decent but not mindblowing use of an old enemy.  I can't help but feel this would've made a decent, but forgettable typical NSA, but the expectations of something above and beyond a normal Who novel mean it seems overpromoted, blown up to a status it can never quite live up to.  It's perfectly acceptable, perfectly enjoyable if half forgotten the second you put it down.  But it's not the book the prestige format demands.

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