ESCAPE VELOCITY by Colin Brake
What were they thinking?
We've been ho-humming our way through this fairly yawnful stuck on Earth arc, idly drumming our heels and tapping our fingers, waiting for the bit where the Doctor meets up with Fitz and things start getting interesting again. It's a big moment, one the Doctor's been waiting more than a hundred years for - and it seems as if it's taken at least that long for us as well. So what do they do? They give it to someone who can't write.
Now, we've got no objection to new writers: new blood in the line can only be a good thing. But is it totally unreasonable of us to expect that a new writer gets a break because they're good? Is this really the best the slushpile at BBC Books can yield?
First of all, there's Escape Velocity's writing itself. Brake is a masterly exponent of the "tell, don't show" principle: instead of letting us work out what's going on with characters by their actions, he laboriously explains everything to us. Viewpoint is all over the place - we're hopping from head to head like a telepath at a cocktail party. There are some sentences awesome in their ineptitude ("... and then died as the flames from the engines reached the bus which then exploded"). And if he said "He allowed himself a small smile" one more time, we were going to hunt him down and clamp a badger to his head.
The dreadful copyediting doesn't help, either, with annoying errors like it's for its and peaking for peeking. And our favourite howler: "In her head she added a query about his ability to conceive". As well you might, darling - if he managed that, he really would be an alien. This kind of stuff is unforgivable.
But it's not just the mechanics of the writing. Whyever did they commission two books in a row involving getting off Earth in a spaceship while aliens hover above? And could these be the boringest aliens of all time? The tone, too, is completely off: the last third of the book, in which Brake starts dutifully killing off the supporting cast, falls flat on its face after the earlier stuff suggests it's all a bit of a giggle. This isn't helped, of course, by the way he skims past even the important deaths with barely a backward glance.
Not only is Escape Velocity's plot seemingly assembled from a flatpack, it's awash in pure stupidity. Since when has a shop ever giftwrapped anything in plain brown paper? Isn't it a little unlikely that Tyler would fess up about the aliens the instant the Doctor, a complete stranger, brings them up? Why not just wreck the computers instead of arsing about with the silly hat? How come they suddenly had enough fuel to set a course for Mars? Wasn't that a remarkably convenient (and astonishingly cliched) tumour? Rich scientists? And on and on and on.
As for the characters, the leading cast come out of it best. The Doctor is adequate, although Brake's pulling of punches in what should have been big emotional moments like the reunion with Fitz is enraging. Brake's comparison of the Doctor with Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen was interesting, though - not because he's anything like him, but because it reminds us that we're certain Llewellyn-Bowen is a huge closet Who fan. He's constantly making Who references on his TV shows, and once you realise that, it all falls into place. Those outfits are inspired not by the 18th century but by a certain Doctor with a penchant for frills and velvet. We're on to you, Bowen, oh yes. But we digress.
Fitz is good - boy, are we glad to see him again - although his James Bond burlesque bits are an uneasy fit with the more serious stuff going on elsewhere. We like Anji, and we're sure we'll like her a lot more when half the stuff about her isn't simply cut and pasted in from the BBC guidelines. As for the rest of 'em, they're okay but underused (Christine and her daughter), unlikely (Dudoin) or colourless ciphers (everyone else). Note to author: it takes more to make an alien than sticking an apostrophe in its name.
There's a lot of continuity stuff in here, most of which is irritating. The frequent and pointless references to UNIT got right up our noses, for a start, as did the knowing allusions to SF. And making the Council a complete ripoff of the Minbaris was far too cheeky, although we don't think we're supposed to have noticed. As for Professor X, we know that's not Brake's fault, but gah! Can we drop it, please? It's not big and it's not clever.
It's not entirely bad, of course. As we've already said, Fitz and Anji are okay, and it's great to see the TARDIS again. We like the twist that the Doctor himself creates the mysterious St Louis'. And Brussels is well evoked, although Brake's just a little too keen on showing off the local colour. But oh, what a criminally wasted opportunity.