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What's an evil force like you doing in a place like this?
on 8 January 2004
Fear of the Dark is a Dr. Who novel by Trevor Baxendale. It's his fourth Dr. Who novel, and the first one to involve a different Doctor than the eighth. Baxendale does an excellent job with this one, creating his very own Who horror novel with some chills and a tight cast of characters. It's only marred by an ending that seems to take forever and some wooden characterization.
Baxendale is known for his traditional Who stories, and this one is no different. One can imagine the dank cave sets, perhaps wobbling a little bit as they were wont to do on the television show. It has a limited cast, and even fewer actual speaking parts. The only thing that couldn't be done is some of the special effects, and even those may have been able to be faked. Yes, this is televised Who on a book budget. And you know what? I loved it.
One of the things the television series often had going for it was atmosphere. Fear of the Dark has this in spades. It's spooky and it's (yes, this word will keep coming up again) dark. The dank mood of the caves just wafts off the page, and when one of the characters is completely cut off and alone in the dark (there it is again!), I could feel my own gut clench a little bit. Even when the characters are in bright lights, the book still feels a bit dimmed. Baxendale does a very effective job in conveying this, and the mood is perfect for what Baxendale is trying to show us. It's positively chilling when the Dark is siphoning away any visible light, and we watch as even open flames slowly dim until they are just embers, and then finally even these go out.
Often, when books go for an atmospheric effect, they do so at the expense of the characters. Baxendale is bitten by this bug, unfortunately. Then again, he could be going for the horror movie effect, where the cast is limited and nobody outside the inner circle is given any characterization whatsoever. While this may be true, it doesn't really work in a book. Some of Stoker's men have a few lines, a brief bit of characterization, and then they're gone. Cannon fodder is the term, I believe. It gets worse when the ship arrives and Baxendale adds even more faceless people to go with the two new full characters. In fact, we don't even know what happens to some of the crew, though it's obvious by implication. They just disappear and are never referred to again.
There are a few exceptions to this, though. Stoker is definitely the best of the bunch, alternately suspicious of the Doctor and then relying on him when it's clear he has a better grip of what's going on then she does. We learn a lot about her in the course of events, and I really enjoyed reading about her. Less well-done, though still effectively, are Lawrence, Bunny, and Cadwell. Cadwell has his own agenda but he seems a bit too stereotypical at times. Bunny is given lots of background, but it is sort of stereotypical as well. He has left his family for one final mission with Stoker, and he constantly misses his daughter (though no mention is made of him missing his wife, which is interesting). Lawrence actually is given more then the stereotypical tough-guy captain role, especially his interplay with Stoker.
However, it's the regular characters where Baxendale shines. The Fifth Doctor, so hard to get right in print (especially when compared to Peter Davison's performance of him on the show), is excellent. He's kind and considerate of his friends but just slightly tetchy. He's irritable at times, especially when things are starting to go wrong. Basically, he's so in-character here that it becomes obvious when something is happening to him and he starts doing weird things. With anybody else, the characterization would be so off that we would believe it's just the author messing up. Here, it's obvious what's going on and a little bit scary.
Tegan and Nyssa are excellent as well. Nyssa is innocent yet quietly competent. Tegan is a mouth on legs, but you can tell that she genuinely cares about people, especially her friends. She is willing to die for her friends if need be, and while she does feel fear, she is willing to do what it takes to save them. The novel takes place right after the television episode "Arc of Infinity," where she has met up with the TARDIS crew after being abandoned by them at Heathrow Airport 6 months before. Thus, the book delves deeply into her psyche as she determines what her place is within both the crew itself as well as life in general. She wants to do something with her life, and as scary as traveling with the Doctor can be sometimes, she hasn't felt alive like that since she was stuck back on Earth. She wants to help people, and she will always get the opportunity to do that when the Doctor is around. I loved her character in this book.
I haven't said a lot about the plot of the book, but that's mainly because it is stereotypical of the genre. A small group of people are terrorized by a malevolent force and must defeat it to survive. The ending confrontation drags on a bit too long and I started to get bored, but otherwise the book was one that I couldn't put down. Sure, the plot is a stereotype, but when it's done well, I don't care. This book grabbed me, and while it almost let me go at the end, it was definitely worth the read.