The good news is, it's a darn sight better than the line's attempt to give us a story featuring the Fourth Doctor and Nyssa out of sequence.
I actually didn't mind this one but it's getting points docked for not living up to its potential. As much as I hate strip mining the past merely to hit nostalgia buttons, there's something to be said for the Past Doctor line's ability to give us unorthodox pairings of Doctors and friends in order to illustrate the changing attitudes and themes of the show's different eras over the years. Ian and Barbara would probably be mystified at the Tenth Doctor's constant sadness/manicness when there's a need to, you know, get things done, while Rose and the Third Doctor would be such a study in contrasts that it makes one even more distraught that Jon Pertwee is no longer with us. It reminds us that the show is about constant change and that change can be just as disconcerting for the people left behind as it is for us at times.
This one gives us Your Fan Favorite and Mine, Sarah Jane Smith, investigating incidents in then contemporary Hong Kong, running into Sylvester McCoy's Doctor, who is in full on "let's manipulate everyone in sight" mode and trying to figure out why he seems to be running a drug ring. This, needless to say, is a bit out of character from the Doctors she used to know. There's some allowance for being eccentric, but all out criminal activity seems to be a bit over the line. Meanwhile the Asian branch of UNIT appears to be involved, along with some other military type folks and, of course, roving drug gangs. It's a big recipe for a lot of confusion, which is apparently exactly what we get. But not the same kind of confusion the author probably planned.
There are several good arguments that can be made for the "What the heck?" scenario, where Sarah runs into the Doctor doing something that we and her know that he can't be possibly doing, then coming to the "maybe?" conclusion as she pieces together the evidence left in his wake before it's all revealed to be "just kidding!" We get a variation on that here, as Sarah faces mounting evidence that the Doctor is involved in something less than savory, which should lead us to question this motivations and aims, much like she is. The book feels it can sustain this theme because the Seventh Doctor is kind of a special case. More than any of the other Doctors, McCoy's was known for treating people like chess pieces and hurling them into battle without their actual consent to help achieve his goals, which often went a bit beyond what the other incarnations would attempt. Hints of this were shown on the TV series but the Virgin New Adventures went even further, casting the Seventh Doctor as a true alien presence at times, unpredictable and not so much one step ahead but one step to the side and even above in how he would outthink opponents and often willing to sacrifice pawns to get the job done, although he'd feel bad about it later. Not so much the end justifies the means as the means justifies the means.
Which means that Sarah could be running into a scenario where she's literally playing with fire, assuming that this Doctor is cute and cuddly like the others when he's really out for blood. Unfortunately the book tries to have it both ways, giving us the scenario of running the Triad while at the same time not putting any real doubts in our head that he's actually on the up and up and it's a complicated feint. The trick with the Seventh Doctor is that you could see him running the Triad, it's just that he would manipulate all the bad people into self-destructing at the end of it. Having Sarah never doubt him even before she meets him never lets us question the situation. For this to work, we have to doubt because we've seen this Doctor go to such lengths so we can't guarantee that anyone is safe from him.
It doesn't help that this Doctor is kept at arm's length for most of the story. At first I thought this was a good idea, and it is early. For this most secretive of Doctors, having him running the show while being unseen except through brief and unrevealing glimpses, forcing us to question what kind of game he's playing can give the book an eerie, off-kilter feel, where it might spin into another direction at any second. Highlight his alienness and all that. Except after a while it starts to feel like something of a crutch, especially when over a hundred pages have gone by and we haven't gotten a really good scene with the Doctor (and barely any with Sarah, but I'll get to that), a way for the author to have the Doctor do all kinds of mystifying things without having to explain any of them. Like magic. Except as the readers we have to see something explained other than waving one's metaphorical hands and saying "The Doctor makes illogical things happen because he's the Doctor and he's one step ahead." We're skeptics, we need to see the process. I have no problem with the Doctor being a puppet-master but I do need to see the strings.
So what is the book filled up with then? People. Lots and lots of people. Besides UNIT and the US government agents, it seems like half the population of Hong Kong features in the book. Besides getting a lot more about their love lives than I really cared to learn, we get these people who are all basically marked with the "I'm not going to make it out of this book alive" stamp spending pages chatting to each other about a plot to which they're as opaque as we are about. A lot of them seem interchangable as well, but I'll chalk some of that up to me being slightly Anglo-centric, where all the names blurred together (but then, it's not like there's a lot of natives of Hong Kong running around named "Carl"). The problem is that all the minutiae about their lives get in the way of the plot. Unfortunately if we get too much of the plot it ruins the effect the author is shooting for, where everyone is kept in the dark.
In the end, despite all the worries about this Doctor really playing with fire, his motivations and actions are along the lines of your typical Doctor, with none of the envelope pushing that the New Adventures often featured. While this Doctor snarls, he never really feels dangerous and so Sarah is quickly with an old friend. The hand of his manipulations is always evident and the off-key scenario we were once promised just turns into another situation with aliens. It's a lot of moving around for very little purpose in the end, all sound and fury, as the Bard says. It also doesn't help that the finale sports some severe lapses in logic (what the heck happens to Sarah? and at least one character appears to be doing two different things at the same time) and another "I've gone crazy extreme!" fakeout.
Not quite a team-up but nor is it a grand clashing of opposing viewpoints either, it hopes to be a lot edgier than it really is, but at the end there appears to be blood on no one's hands. It would be nice if a writer could bring back the spirit of those Seventh Doctor New Adventures in a Past Doctor tale (the closest we ever got was Virgin's "Cold Fusion" by Lance Parkin) but if anything this demonstrates the difference between forging ahead and looking back can mean, even when you're using the same basic set of ingredients.