Barry Letts' "Who" credentials are pretty much assured in whatever odd dimensionally transcendent hall of fame exists for such things. Before John Nathan-Turner came on he was the longest serving producer and the one pretty much responsible for the Third Doctor's "UNIT Family" years, where the show had a fairly regular cozy supporting cast and lots of earthbound adventures. Not only was he a producer but he also directed several episodes and was responsible for the casting of Tom Baker, another act that had some small importance to the show's future.
I just wanted to put all that out there because one not-great novel effort isn't enough to take away from his legacy, but this is a novel that has more than a few flaws. The last time Letts tried to give us a novel in the Past Doctor range, he had good ol' Terrance on board to help out and even then it was no great shakes. This one is his show all the way, and it makes you wonder how much of the problems of that earlier novel were his fault and how much was unfairly blamed on his co-author.
Of course we're dealing with the Third Doctor, although with Sarah Jane Smith this time out. Bodies are being found with all the meaty juicy insides sucked out of them and coincidentally a cult has just sprung up with a delicious juice that makes you feel like you're one with everyone else. Like every cult in every story everywhere, they're innocent on the face of it and of course oddly creepy, so our heroes do the obvious thing and suspect the cult. Fortunately, they're right. At least some things always stay the same. Soon enough the cult has booked, leaving behind an ex-member who wants to get back and the Doctor and Sarah Jane, with the Brigadier in tow, are off to a mysterious island to prove that the creepy cult are really just illegal squatters and get them evicted through due process. Or maybe something involving aliens.
Not only are the bare bones of the story not that compelling, but it seems like there's no attempt made even to trick this up for us so we find some appealing angle to it. Instead, we're supposed to bask in the glory of the Third Doctor era, brought to us by the man who probably has that era implanted in his DNA, and be content to coast on those vibes. But the story is so straightforward you're guessing events before the Doctor even does and frankly, he's supposed to be smarter than me.
The prose style is . . . interesting, to say the least. Sarah Jane gets most of the viewpoint duties and Letts often writes her in a near stream-of-consciousness style, like she suffers from a kind of attention deficit disorder, flitting from one topic to the next in her head without much rhyme or reason. Old boyfriends, the Doctor, aliens, her hair, it all kind of jumbles together and after a while gives the impression that Letts is writing it in a stream of consciousness fashion, putting every idea down on the page as it occurs to him. That can account for the rambling and somewhat digressive nature of the early plotting. After our heroes realize they need to an island, but not having enough story to have them just sail to the island and find out its horrible secrets, we have to fiddle about on the boat for what feels like an endless series of pages. There we experience the absurdity of one person trying to kill Sarah Jane in what verges on a "Perils of Pauline" style series of events, and nobody seems to suspect the one cult member on board, even though the crew seems to number about four people, and everyone else is the Doctor and Brigadier. Even after someone dies because of it, it's still full speed ahead.
Things don't improve much when we get to the island, as everyone alternates between having a grand old time and sometimes remembering that a plot exists that still has to be resolved. Fortunately no surprises really lurk there either and after we stretch things out to the absolute last minute, the Doctor comes up with a solution from a throwaway idea he had a hundred pages before. Then everyone goes home. The end.
It's not that the book is bad, it just feels overly earnest and amateurish, like very sincere fan-fiction from someone with professional experience. Between the by-the-numbers plot, the shallow attempts at characterization (when the book isn't coasting on pure muscle memory) and the complete lack of a memorable villain (there's one creepy death scene that verges on being over the top and just misses) there's not much else you can do except flip pages until the book is over, especially if you're like me and feel duty-bound to finish a book after starting it. Right toward the end there's an attempt made to consider other points of view, where the Doctor notes that aliens simply living out their life cycle doesn't make them necessarily evil, but it comes and goes too quickly and before long the aliens are back to acting like weird human beings.
I hate to speak ill of the deceased, especially one responsible for so many memorable moments in the original show. But this is not top-class work. The book isn't bad enough to make you angry but it is weak enough to make you wonder if it would have been published if not for the name on the cover. The cover itself should have warned us, as the central image of the blank faced man on the island is strange enough, until you see the random elements like skulls and boats and mountains all thrown together seemingly without rhyme or reason. The book isn't quite that slapdash but it winds up reflecting the cover more than it properly should.