Again with the fish-people as villains? I'm starting to think that someone at BBC Publishing had a bit of a fetish.
This time the fish-people are actually recurring villains, with the Selachians having starred in the last Steven Lyons Who novel "The Murder Game". I vaguely remember them from that novel but don't quite remember what happened there, so either I read it a long time ago or it just wasn't that memorable. Anyway, we're not reviewing that book, we're reviewing this one, so let's stay relevant.
The Second Doctor and stalwart companions Jamie and Zoe are dropped into the middle of the final stages of a war between the humans and the Selachians, one that really isn't going to end well for anyone. As usual, everyone is separated from the TARDIS and then separated from each other, at which points things swiftly go downhill. To make matters worse, they're smack-dab in the center of a historical event where the planet is going to get a giant bomb dropped on it to end the war, an event the Doctor won't be able to stop . . . but if he doesn't, his friends may die.
Lyons gets credit for tackling a subject that the series rarely met head-on, which was historical events that didn't belong to Earth's past history . . . something the new series explores only occasionally, as evidenced by the recent TV special "The Waters of Mars", which also had the Doctor in the middle of something that had to end poorly for history to proceed properly. The Doctor knows the bomb has to go off and the fates of everyone involved, and does his level best to keep his friends out of the crossfire, but every attempt he makes only gets him closer to totally sending history off-track.
In this vein the book succeeds, where it seems to fall flat is when it delves into the tired trope of two enemies seeing the other from a different point of view. He shifts between making the Selachians seem like the oppressed and victims, and having them wantonly shooting people in the stomach and brutalizing prisoners. As gentle as they started out as, and as horrible as the things they did to themselves in the name of war were, they clearly have no desire to stop any of it. But we get moment after moment of the story telling us that the humans are just as bad in some ways, which I'd be more okay with if it said something new on the topic, instead of taking us through the same cliched scenes we've seen before.
But the scenes where the Doctor is attempting to handle a situation that is quickly spiralling out of control and steer it toward genocide are quite close to making it worth the price of admission. Even if the characters wind up being types more or less, the dilemma is interesting enough to keep the story moving and Lyons adds enough action to make up for some of the thinness. Zoe and Jamie do well enough, with Jamie relegated to junior soldier role and Zoe spending most of the story out of her element, to oddly good effect.
That said, the endless amounts of ways that the Selachians and humans come up with ways to kill each other are quite creative, and Lyons is able to convey enough of a sense of "What the heck did we get ourselves into?" into the proceedings to give it a certain amount of grit, with the Doctor showing actual regret that he even got involved in this mess. It's examination of pre-destination and the nature of time, while not deep, shows some level and thought and frankly, the last line in the story is not only one of the more perfect for the series, but one of the best for that Doctor. Not wonderful, but surprisingly better than it could have been.