Most helpful critical review
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on 15 May 2014
It's Alastair Reynolds and it's Doctor Who. If you are a fan of both then you should buy this book. At least, that's what I thought...
The novel begins with a wonderfully nasty prologue and Reynolds fluid prose style engages immediately. There's a brilliant death in chapter one that could have been lifted straight out of a Terrance Dicks or Malcolm Hulke novelisation (Who fans will know what I'm talking about here), and chapter two opens with the best description of a North Sea oil platform I think I've ever read. Here Reynolds is in fine form, writing Doctor Who using all the skills he brings to bear in his own sci-fi novels with no compromise. Brilliant!
As it progresses through its early stages, the story continues to wonderfully evoke the style and flavour of the 3rd Doctor UNIT era: The mystery of the oil rigs develops and the cast of regular characters is joined by some fully-rounded, yet still typically 3rd Doctor-ish types, including: 'recalcitrant rig boss', 'crazy wild-eyed survivor of alien attack', 'sinister Men from the Ministry', 'doomed yokel', 'doomed policeman', and of course (unmistakeably Roger Delgado's) The Master. (It's no surprise he's involved since he's mentioned in the blurb.)
There are so many things to like about this novel: the aliens are deliciously nasty and very well-realised (I would expect nothing less), the regular characters are true to their 1970s TV likenesses (likewise) and, like the best of the novelisations of that era, they are given depth and room to breathe - particularly Jo Grant. Reynolds' own characters are just as solid and 'real' but to be honest, from a renowned sci-fi novelist of Reynold's calibre, I would expect this to be so. The set-pieces are exciting to read and beautifully cinematic - easy to imagine this as the 3rd Doctor movie that never was. During the sequences onboard the big dumb object in orbit around the alien planet, as well as on the planet itself, we are in standard Alastair Reynolds territory. The derelict ship is dark and vast whilst the planet below it is a beautiful world, very well-realised.
In fact the whole thing seems to have been treated with some real respect and love for 1970s Doctor Who. In his acknowledgements at the back of the book Reynolds seems genuinely bowled over by the fact he got to write a Doctor Who novel! And why not? Despite all his successes in the field, this seems to have been a project he was delighted to be involved with. Clearly, Jon Pertwee's era of Doctor Who was a big influence for Reynolds, and it's wonderful of him to acknowledge it in such a public way.
The problem is.... the problem is that once the initial glow of nostalgia had faded, I stopped enjoying the novel. All that remained when that had gone was a pretty dull story. I felt underwhelmed probably from about two-thirds of the way in. What was really problemmatic I guess was the fact I didn't really buy into the key plot event regarding the Master. Given that the plot was by now being driven by this turn in the story, if I didn't buy it then I was always going have issues. Another problem concerns the fact that 21st Century Doctor Who on TV has a tendency towards circular plots that involve all-sorts of (ahem) 'Timey-Wimey stuff'. Here I got the feeling here that Reynolds was attempting to tie into that without losing the credibility of the 3rd Doctor's world he'd so beautifully evoked in the first half of the story. This is fine in principle, and I sort of trusted him to deliver a cracking climax on the back of his set-up. The problem was that I don't think he did deliver. In fact the climactic denouement was a real let-down. The big surprises at the end were not surprising at all, although to be honest - because of the whole Master thing - I just didn't care by then. He'd lost me. Also - while I'm on the subject - wasn't the Master in prison on TV in 'The Sea Devils'? In a much less hi-tech installation than this one?
In fact, as the remaining page-count diminished and the end of the novel approached, I increasingly felt as though I'd both read and seen better than this many times before, both in Doctor Who and even in Reynolds' own work. Not only that but I got the feeling that Reynolds was coming perilously close to cheating at the end of the novel, using his timey-wimey shenannigans to short-circuit his plot the way that JJ Abrams did in his first Star Trek movie (in which future Spock gives the Enterprise heroes every bit of future magic they need to defeat the bad guy and save the Earth).
"Harvest of Time" is not quite that bad. I think Reynolds just about gets away with not cheating here, but I think I'm also being somewhat forgiving because I'm such a nerdy fan. I guess my feeling is that the way the plot plays out in this novel is just 'ordinary'. The story ticks the boxes, it's all OK, but given the 'Sensawunder' most of Reynolds novels usually play around with, and given that at the start of the novel that same sense of wonder is right here on the first page, it all just gets a bit 'meh' towards the end. A bit 'by the numbers'. (Notice I'm using learned terminology here!) A bit ... dull.
It's a personal opinion, and others may well disagree because there is still so much to like (hence the 'Mixed Feelings'), but in the end a kind of 'so-what?' apathy fell over me as the thing dragged on.
In conclusion then, my feeling is that despite some brilliant Alastair Reynolds flourishes, some depth of character and a beautifully evoked period together with a sense of scale that the TV Doctor Who of the early 70s never had, it was ultimately a disappointment. It's not a bad novel, there is lots to like about it, but I felt that it could and should have been a better novel.