THE BURNING by Justin Richards

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A big deal, this one, yes? Less a book, in fact, than a declaration of intent. Justin Richards starts his stint in the editor's chair by crossing out everything that's gone before and taking the Eighth Doctor back to zero.

We were dying to see what kind of a fist Richards made of it all. While we loved a lot of the arc stuff that went before, we've been lukewarm about the Eighth Doctor from the TV movie on. A rubbish script and a lack of screen time left sod all for the EDA writers to work with, and it's been all too clear that they've struggled in the attempt to establish just who the bloody hell he is. Some authors have managed it better than others, but to us he's never been the living, breathing character the other Doctors are.

So we weren't entirely averse to the idea of starting again, hopefully leaving behind in the process the adorably innocent hug-dispensing persona that's so frequently got up our noses. While we weren't too keen on a run of Earth stories (with the entire universe to play with it seems like a failure of the imagination to us to keep yoyoing back to the same old planet), a change is as good as a rest, they say - and we could certainly do with a rest from Dr Pixie.

So how did he do? Well... modified rapture. The Burning isn't terrible: in fact, although Richards needs a crash course in viewpoint, in terms of competent writing it stands out head and shoulders above his other efforts. And the first half, at least, passes the ever-elusive readability test: we were intrigued, we were drawn in, we were entertained, and we don't ask more of an EDA than that. Richards sets up an interesting situation and peoples it with absorbing characters, and while he never quite succeeds at conveying a sense of the period, the setting's good enough to pass.

But after a promising first half, The Burning all comes apart in Richards's hands. He can't quite decide where he's going thematically, mixing in unemployment and the threat of machines with chunks of tedious comparative theology and the good old science vs. religion debate. The monster is dullness on legs, complete with oh-so-boring zombie-like possession, and the human villain's potential sputters out into nothing. After going to some trouble to create interesting secondary characters, Richards sets about systematically wiping them off the board, wasting them in more ways than one. And to cap it all off, there's a heavily signalled and utterly predictable set-piece ending, followed by a where-did-that-come-from resurrection which breaks all the rules Richards himself has set up.

And it's not quite as continuity-free as all that, either. Richards can't resist teasing his audience: he misleadingly presents several characters as potential Doctors before having the real Doctor slink in almost unnoticed. We're probably supposed to marvel at his cleverness, but instead we found this a fantastically annoying device which yanked us right out of the book. And there are other knowing back references ("I am foreman"), which again break the literary equivalent of the fourth wall - and worse, are just plain fanwanky.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what about the new Doctor? Thus far, we're not impressed. Disappointingly, as with all the other EDAs we never got a cohesive impression of his character. Now, we know he doesn't know who he is, either, but that's not good enough. Basically, this Doctor has no personality of his own: he's just the other seven mooshed together. As for his alienness, we don't think that's been significantly enhanced, unless that's what a totally inconsistent personality is supposed to represent.

There's no doubt, though, that this Doctor has changed. We can tell this from the things he does - and the things he doesn't do. He's less concerned about killing than he used to be, and he's a lot less fussed about the fate of his companions. The trouble is, though, that none of this is really believable. Amnesia might take away memory, but it doesn't change someone's fundamental character, and we just don't see any reason to believe that traits that have been with the Doctor throughout his many and varied regenerations have suddenly deserted him now. While we've got no objection to the Doctor being changed in this way, it'd be nice if it were actually credible.

It started well. But with a too-trad plot, characters killed off too early and a disappointing Doctor, it just never engaged us emotionally. Discouraging.

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