A couple years back I was chatting with a friend and in the course of that conversation (for reasons that are sadly lost to memory) one of us wound up mentioning the London Particular, specifically the massive one that wound up killing thousands of people. I remember commenting how amusing I found it that only the British would name an event so horrific something so mundane, and being amazed that something as unglamorous as smog would wind up murdering tons of people. The idea that such a confluence of habits and pollution would combine to create a literal killing wind (albeit a slow one) is fascinating to me and probably worth exploring in novel form, if someone hasn't done it already.
Alas, if you wanted to see someone take that event and insert a bunch of aliens and gangsters, then look no further.
The book is harmless enough on its face, but the more I read it I found myself being increasingly disquieted. The Great Smog of 1952 was a serious event that more importantly was a man-made event, caused by everyone burning lots of low-grade coal at the exact wrong time, when the weather caused it all to hang over the city and mess with anyone who had the slightest problem breathing. Even the conservative estimate of deaths is about four thousand, a huge number from basically dirty smoke, and acknowledging people's part in that event while exploring our inability to foresee the consequences of all that coal burning is a worthy topic even for "Doctor Who" to explore, with its occasional forays into environmental concerns (especially with the Third Doctor, the man who once told us about the planet screaming out its rage). In a way its scarier than any alien invasion because we did it to ourselves and what's scarier is we didn't even realize we were doing it until well after it was too late and the bodies had already stacked up. There's a horror to it in its mundanity.
Thus, taking a serious, real event and saying "It was aliens!" really puts a bad taste in my mouth. In a way it belittles our own part in the cause by sidestepping it for the sake of entertainment, dumbing it down and giving us not only a simplistic explanation, but a ridiculous one. It attempts to co-opt the drama of it by piggybacking the alien stuff to a real event but then strips the real event of all its power, which to me completely misses the point. I know it's only silly stupid "Doctor Who" and the kids just want to see cool aliens but imagine it taking something like the Exxon Valdez oil spill and pinning it on wacky aliens, in a way that absolves the people and decisions involved from any consequences. Yeah, its only entertainment but at what point does the entertainment have a responsibility to at least pay some lip service to reality, especially if the novel is deriving some of its power, even indirectly, from a real historical event.
I don't know, maybe I think about this stuff too much. Maybe I wouldn't have to think about this stuff if the book was better. In a miracle of contrivance, the Doctor and Sarah Jane wind up in 1952 basically because Sarah sees a picture of the Doctor shaking hands with a local gangster and thinks he has to be there so that the picture can happen. Apparently wanting to just get it out of the way, the Doctor says "sure" and suddenly they're in London a few days before the smog hits. Meanwhile, we're treated to a vast array of characters, starting with said local gangster Tommy Ramsey and his crew of thugs, who spend the first hundred pages indulging in cliches (he's tough but nice to his mom! his enforcer is huge but gentle with birds! somebody likes fire! there's a crooked cop on the take!) while getting ready to war with a gang of young toughs who want to take over. Meanwhile Sarah Jane tries to get a job with Tommy for reasons that seem vague (he beats people for kicks so let's get close to him) while the Doctor putzes around waiting for the plot to happen. Oh, and there's a priest feeding people delicious bread but that's probably not relevant.
It's quite possible that the author was deciding on taking the route spearheaded by Connie Willis' great "Doomsday Book" which has a time travel stranded in Europe just long enough before the Black Plague hits that we get to know everyone in tender detail before the disease starts to slaughter everyone in sight (except the time traveler, who was immunized). That book was a slow motion slaughterhouse, featuring people we had spent the book getting to know as old friends dying horribly while we watch helplessly. It brought across the horror of the disease to the level of the personal and allowed us to extrapolate it to the whole continent. Not quite the case here, as we're treated to hordes of people who are given names and vague personalities in the vain hope we form some attachment to them before they're killed. It still would have been an interesting tactic to take.
Except around page one hundred that all goes out the window as the aliens show up.
Prior to that there aren't really any hints that aliens are even involved except that the cover says "Doctor Who", but instead of kicking it up to another level they just make things even more ridiculous because they are simply generic aliens, conquering earth simply because This is What They Do and giving the Doctor someone to rail against. The aliens speak in a three part voice, vaporize people (except when the plot can't let them die and thus they just get teleported) and mind control the police force all so they can . . . what? It's not clear how messing with a small section of London is going to help them take over the planet (why not just feed everyone the fantastic bread and skip the gassing and slaughtering?) and they have precious little personality beyond "destroy!" and "we will subjugate you!" so we're basically treated to a litany of horror as ordinary townspeople are taken away and subjected to horrible fates (the aforementioned gassing, crushed to death, etc) but with the stakes unclear and the people ciphers, its difficult to care. Meanwhile, the gangsters have all banded together because, hey, this is their town and if anyone is going to terrorize the populace, it's them.
People run, people shoot, people die, people cough as the fog gets thicker and none of it gets any better, in fact it only seems to get more generic as time goes on. In a last move of desperation, the book drags in zombies instead and then becomes like every other zombie movie you've ever seen, except British and foggy and with gangsters. But it doesn't help. Even worse, the book is a mixed bag ethically, bending over backwards to try to convince us that brutal gangsters are people too (Tommy Ramsey, after coldbloodedly shooting a man in the face, has the gall to tell the Doctor "You're not so different than me" because he's trying to kill the aliens murdering the entire population) and gain us some sympathy. I understand that certain concerns can be set aside in extreme situations and I'm not going to get hung up on the past of someone who is currently saving my life but there are moments when its like people didn't live through the early pages of the book where the gangsters are terrorizing everyone for the sheer sake of power. Later trying to convert this to "We're keeping our end of town safe" as a justification for their heroics while ignoring the fact we witness them wantonly beating and shooting people for kicks (Tommy's first act in the novel is to tie up someone and shove him out of a moving car, while other scenes are concerned with protection rackets, including destroying someone's shop) when we first meet them is a bit two-faced of the book, trying to have its entertainment cake while scraping off the moral icing, to totally mangle a metaphor. Like, they're helping us now, so that makes everything else okay because they're not bad people deep down inside. It reaches its nadir when Sarah Jane muses that in another time her and Tommy might be attracted to one another, as if the reason Tommy acts like a brutal thug is because of his era and environment, not because he's a monster given a little too much power.
I'd be okay with some of this if the book made some kind of attempt to acknowledge these contradictions, or at least try to resolve these people as complicated characters, trapped by the times or circumstance or peer pressure. But there's nothing, everyone acts bad until the plot requires them to stop acting bad, then its all "for Queen and country!", while the book keeps chugging along until the aliens are dealt with. In the meantime little kids are killed simply for pathos and to gain our sympathy, Sarah Jane gets one moment of feeling bad about history being so cruel (why even come then, its not like she didn't know that thousands were going to die, its a known event and its not like she's in the picture to begin with . . . it's like traveling to the Battle of Verdun and being surprised that everyone around you is dying in clumps) before everything is back to normal. They don't even travel ahead to make sure the aliens stay dead, despite knowing they might reemerge in fifty years. Maybe we'll have a sequel. Great.
It's rare that a book fails for me on this many levels, it barely works as SF, it barely serves as history and it's not even that exciting as action-adventure. Even the Doctor is hardly distinctive, just a checklist of tics that the author goes through so we know it's the Third Doctor (Venusian karate, neutron flow and the Brigadier all get name checked, just so we're clear). Just when the Eighth Doctor line is starting to pick up, we get this. *sigh* Listen, I normally mark every review as five-stars out of both habit and laziness and there are few times when I actively consider breaking that habit. It takes a lot. This is one of those times. Be warned.