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on 23 February 2003
'Blue Box', a Doctor Who novel by veteran author Kate Orman, begins and ends with a myth, or fairy tale, about a princess and a white bull. In a novel which is grounded in the reality of early-eighties computer hacking, this is a flash of something fantastical, something working on a different level completely. But it is only a flash - Orman doesn't allow these brief book-ending tellings and retellings of the tale of the bull and the princess to spread into the main narrative. And this narrative is focused on the story of the Doctor's hunt for the missing parts of an alien artefact and the attempts of an ace hacker to possess, and understand, these parts herself. The Doctor doesn't want human civilisation to be exposed to this alien technology, and so from this, the conflict evolves. Orman is good at drawing out the characters involved in the intricate online battles across America in the chase for the alien 'things': there is the Doctor, mysterious man from nowhere; Sarah Swan, ace hacker who has made an art of holding a grudge; Bob, the young computer whiz who finds himself involved in wild adventures with the Doctor and Peri. The secondary characters come to life, dialogue and motivation and personality all skilfully evoked. Equally, the descriptions of the old, now out-of-date technology are cleverly written, capturing the sense of progress at the time, while also, perhaps, gentle laughing at the excitement caused by this sense. (Or it may just be that some readers can't help but chuckle a little, no matter how earnest Orman is in her loving recreation of stone-age era hacking and cracking). This is a good book - it is better than many Doctor Who novels, for various reasons that would be apparent to any reader.
But for some reason 'Blue Box' falls flat, with the Doctor a particular problem. There are several possible reasons. One is the absence (perhaps intentional) of a tangible threat, a reason for all the anxiety and tension, a motivation for all the running around. At no point does Earth feel threatened, and Orman doesn't seem compelled to introduce a threat. 'Blue Box' entertains the reader, but doesn't really grip them in the way this sort of thriller normally would. In some respects, 'Blue Box' is marvellous. The narrative voice feels well developed, and is refreshing. Peri, the Doctor's companion, is written with such care and complexity that it puts all of Nicola Bryant's (the actress who first played Peri in the Doctor Who TV series) screen time into shadow. Sarah Swan, is a living, breathing person, like everyone else, rather than just another 'bad girl': her angry rages are some of the most real, exciting aspects of 'Blue Box', because the reader almost fears she'll lash out between the lines. But I never worried about what would happen if the Doctor failed. Doctor Who is about winning, succeeding, pulling through, against all odds; about good defeating bad, about saving lives, not losing them. When the Doctor wins, we cheer, and when we read about the Doctor, we want to know how he is going about winning. And it is on this level that 'Blue Box' fell flat. The Doctor is distant, detached, and this is either a symptom or a cause of the problem. Going about his business saving the world, telling people of the terrible potential for disaster contained in the artefact, the reader often feels like asking: "what are you saving the reader from?" or "what is this terrible potential for disaster?" Like Peri, I felt locked out of the Doctor's mind, and so locked out of the tension and anxiety experienced by Bob, the Doctor, Peri, and Swan.
Orman's latest novel is by no means a bad book. In fact, it is a very good book in many respects: the quality of writing (her descriptions of the US landscape are fascinating), characters (a small cast, but one of the best to grace a Doctor Who novel), and action (the hacking scenes are masterfully choreographed). There have been few foes as intriguing as Sarah Swan, and few moments as funny as the big revelation that the narrator, Chick, is in fact... Well, I won't spoil it. But for this reviewer, it never fully came to life.
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on 2 July 2004
Kate Orman is one of the premiere Doctor Who writers today, along with Lance Parkin. When I pick up a book with her name on it, especially a Doctor Who book, I know it's going to be special. She can adapt her style to whatever story she wants to tell. However, she's always written for the "new" Doctor, never a Past Doctor. So when I heard that she was writing a Sixth Doctor book, I was intrigued. When I was finally able to get it, I snapped it up. Blue Box demonstrates once again that Orman has a way with characterization that makes the author-wannabe in me cry. She's captured the regulars almost to a T. The problem is that the book...well, it's a bit dull, actually.
No sooner do the Doctor and Peri land in Washington DC in 1981, then the Doctor just disappears. Peri searches for a while, and then goes to a hotel room to wait for him (thankfully, the Doctor has a seemingly infinite line of credit, something I'm very envious of). When the Doctor finally gets ahold of her, he asks her to track down Bob Salmon, a computer hacker who helped him out. Together with an intrepid computer reporter, the Doctor and friends are trying to track down pieces of a valuable artifact, an alien device that could spell the world's doom if it falls into the wrong hands, hands like those of Sarah Swan. Swan is the ultimate hacker, not caring about world domination, but instead craving the power that computers will have over everybody. To Swan, this will be the ultimate computer, and will allow her to do anything she wants. That's not something the Doctor can allow. Blue Box is the story of the history of computers and hacking, and what one woman almost did to bring it all under one thumb.
Techno-thrillers are all the rage right now, but most of them are on the cutting edge, with fancy gadgets and computer power that makes something the size of a fingernail be able to run the world's computers. Blue Box isn't like that, though. It's the dawn of the computer age and the Internet, when only 200 computers were on the Net. The Doctor and Salmon do their hacking on an Apple II, for goodness sake! Orman has all the lingo down pat, pointing out how bulky the computers are, how slow they were. One of the benefits of setting the book in the past is that you can have the characters make a lot of "predictions" and you get to choose how far off-base they are. Orman seems to have a blast with this, with Salmon talking about how one day people will be ordering pizza online, and how you can't have the general public on the Net or it will go completely down the tubes.
Orman's characterizations are wonderful, especially the Doctor and Peri's. Peri's having a crisis of conscience, wondering what her place with the Doctor really is. She's completely out of her element in this environment, not knowing anything about computers. It gets incredibly boring watching him hack away at the keyboard, and she jumps at any chance to actually do something. The book seems to take place right at the junction between the two television seasons that featured Peri, as they still bicker like a married couple but it's not as harsh as it was in their first season together. The second season seemed to have wiped most of it away, which was too abrupt a change. Here, they have their tiffs but you can see the underlying friendship beneath the whole thing.
There are two major problems with the book, though. The first is the dullness. There's only so much excitement to be had out of people talking to each other on computers, threatening each other on computers, and breaking into people's computers. Orman tries to put some action into it, and there is the usual exciting climax, but much of the book consists of somebody typing away at somebody else. This can be effecting in character studies or books about relationships, but in a Doctor Who book it just falls flat. Orman tries gamely with the characterizations, but I had to plow through the boring parts to get to the good ones.
One other major problem is something I have never seen from Orman before, and that's sloppiness. The book is told as if it's an expose by a journalist. Yet there are scenes that there is no way the narrator could have seen. Perhaps some of it is "fictionalized," but even if that's the case, there are some perspective changes that don't match the style. When Swan is cursing the reporter out in her mind on page 254, he keeps referring to himself in the third person. It was quite strange. Even worse then this, though, is the sloppiness as far as where people are in relation to the story. There's one sequence where the Doctor's supposed to be alone, and we know where Peri and Bob are (back at the reporter's apartment). Yet it then says "Behind the Doctor, Peri and Bob were wincing." While I can't place any other specific incidents of this, I did get that feeling a couple of other times as well. It's almost like she wasn't quite paying attention, or perhaps something changed and she forgot to go back and erase all of the tracks.
The characterizations are what bring this book up to the level that I'm putting it. If they weren't spot-on, this would easily be a 3-star book. Because of them, however, I'm bumping it up to four. It's still one of the weakest books I've seen from Orman, though. Here's hoping her next one will be up to her usual level.
David Roy
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on 12 May 2013
Blue box is a past doctor adventure novel staring my favourite doctor the sixth doctor and one of my favourite companion's Peri Brown and written by veteran doctor who writer Kate Orman the story is interesting the doctor and Peri and a journalist named Chick Peters are going on a road trip of necessity to avoid and defeat the sinister Sarah Sawn who has found something alien that's the basic plot of the story but I am not overly fond of the novel for one thing the characterization seems a bit off the sixth doctor is portrayed as something of a computer hacker that doesn't ring true for this incarnation of the time lord and having seen all his TV stories quite a large chunk of his audio's and a few of his novels I don't think I have ever seen him be great with computers in fact in the novel business unusual he first meets Mel because he needs to find a computer programmer because the virus he's having trouble with is to simple for him but I don't know on the brighter side of things Peri is slightly better off In fact there's a scene in the novel with her in I really like but I wont spoil it for you but she still doesn't feel right and chick is an okay character the novel is really about him and there is an interesting twist about his character and swan is a great villain and terrifying in her own right but somehow I still don't like it its okay but the doctor and Peri just seem like character's with there names for the most part it's not bad I just get the feeling that Kate Orman didn't want to wright this as a doctor who novel she just could get it published as anything else and with a rewrite you could cut out the doctor and Peri and lose nothing the novel is not bad but it's not just not my cup of tea
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on 13 August 2008
Blue Box stands out instantly from most Doctor Who novels by having a strong voice. This suggests that Orman is actually a competent writer, whereas many Who novelists have little ability other than having watched an episode of the programme.

There is a likeable narrator, with an interesting back story. Unfortunately, this does create a weary joke that the narrator doesn't know who the Doctor really is, whereas of course the reader does.

Unfortunately, the plot is about computer hacking and is very boring. It does get exciting towards the end, when it stops focusing on computers and gets into a more science-fiction frame of mind.

In conclusion, this is hit and miss. It's written well, but it's just not very interesting.
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on 29 October 2004
A `Road movie' - a very boring `Road movie'.
The Doctor and companions attempt to hack a computer from one location, get caught, escape, move to a new location, attempt to hack a computer, get caught, escape, move to a new location, attempt to hack a computer, get caught, escape, move to a new location...... ad nauseum.
The whole book seemed to be stuck in `Doctor Who episode 3 land' - lots of padding and lots of runing up and down corridors. In fact this story felt like the characters were pointlessly running up and down corridors for the full 4 episodes. Bizarrely for a story which physically covered so much ground, Blue Box ultimately went no-where.
I can just picture the writer deciding that setting a novel in the early years of the internet would be a good idea, being unable to think of a plot, then going ahead and writing the book anyway.
From the outside Blue Box has all the mystery and allure of a fully-functional Tardis, but one peek inside reveals it's just a flat, hollow, BBC prop.
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on 26 May 2003
Most of the story is told in flashback and from the perspective of a reporter who is not in on the Doctor's secret. This gives the books an unusual slant as the Doctor and his team try to keep the more... unusual elements secret. Being set in the eighties, there is only a small and dedicated band of technical savvy users out there who can bend the computer systems to their will and access the computers attached to the ARPAnet, ancestor to today's Internet, reprogram the phone system to their requirements and pass messages through e-mail. The electronic web is an integral part of the team that is searching for the controlling device of an alien computer system. Thanks to the Doctor's attempts to keep things secret, an unusual sense of confusion percolates through the story making it a difficult book to follow. However, the look at eighties hackerdom was really good and in Sarah Swan, we get a really neat opponent out to get the mysterious device and wrest its secrets from it for her own benefit.
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VINE VOICEon 23 May 2003
Blue Box is a novel with its one idea thinly stretched over its 260 pages. It's the old 'Dr has to track stop alien technology falling into Earthliings hands' plot again, only written in a workmanlike style that's enough to send the reader to sleep. The plot seems to consist of the Doctor and friends running around America sending emails to each other, this rapidly becomes as tedious as the old 'running up and down corridors' routine from the TV series. The alien technology in question is fairly interesting, but little is done with the idea, and the presence of the non-threatening aliens themselves in the wings does little to create any tension. Only of possible interest to techno-geeks, this is just what Doctor Who doesn't need - another formulaic runaround...
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