Doctor Who: The Face Eater Mass Market Paperback – 4 Jan 1999
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Horror has always been an important part of the Doctor Who mix. The show was never purely a science fiction series, which was its great strength. When writers remember this the novels are all the richer. In The Face-Eater the Doctor encounters three races: humans who have colonised an apparently "available" planet; the Proximans, rodent-like natives of said planet who are mysteriously dying out; and another, more powerful resident, the nameless "face-eater" whose description is disconcertingly the same in both Proximan and English. This latter being is the cause of all the fuss and is a classic monster straight from the pages of a Ramsey Campbell novel. Horrible, powerful, ruthless and devious, it lurks in the background and is only revealed at the appropriate moments. Simon Messingham makes the most of this, and the book contains some excellent moments of tension and excitement which helps to keep the whole thing rolling along.
The Face-Eater is a great read and takes the Doctor back into the territory of body-horror which made TV stories like "The Ark in Space" so effective. When you can never be sure who is human and who is simply masquerading as human, then the tension can be wound as tight as you like.
Two words about the cover: absolutely excellent. The BBC range keeps going from strength to strength and manages to maintain a series of connected-and-yet-discrete titles which do not alienate a casual reader by being too insular and ham-strung by internal continuity and yet contain enough to keep those who have read all of them entertained. --David J Howe
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For a Doctor Who novel, The Face Eater starts by being incredibly Doctor-lite, with him not showing up until around the 40 page mark. Whilst this could be deemed as a bad thing, Messingham has created an exciting premise with an interesting set of characters. We are introduced to Ben Fuller, a cop on Proxima II, the very first colony World of Earth. Fuller is trying to catch a murderer, Leary, but soon starts to question whether he actually is the killer after experiencing some unexplained behaviour. Meanwhile a workman, tries to get it looked into by the colony leader, Helen Percival, but she doesn't want to know.
The Doctor and Sam arrive, posing as investigators from Earth, and instantly earn Percival's distrust. Sam tags along with Fuller to investigate the deaths whilst the Doctor teams up with a scientist who has been protecting Leary to see what is causing the native Proximans numbers to be dwindling. They both soon discover that the killer(s) are a shape shifting alien race called the Face Eaters who are infiltrating the humans lives by posing as members of the colony.
I enjoyed the story tremendously, although a lot of it doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. The Doctor and Sam do take a back seat for a lot of it, but Messingham's characters shine through. The only downside was the ending which was a slight letdown in the fact that nothing is really resolved.Read more ›
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The plot skips along quickly and isn't overly complicated while not being totally straightforward either. This is actually used to great effect by Simon Messingham. When the action slows down, interesting character development takes place as well as some fascinating reflections on the setting. In case you didn't know, this book is set on the planet that is the home to the first Earth colony outside the solar system. There are some excellent passages concerning how isolated these people are, how much they sacrificed to come this far and just what exactly is at stake in this situation.
The Doctor is relegated to the sidelines through most of the story, though for the small amount of time that he is present he has some appropriate lines and great scenes. There are some good moments for him here, the best being when he is tied to a chair and literally spends hours trying to convince his captor that he isn't a shape-shifter. The premise is simple enough, but the scene is wonderfully written and shows that Messingham really has the hang of this Doctor in a way that very few other EDA authors have demonstrated.
Sam, on the other hand, for the first portion of the book, is at her most annoying - worse than she's ever been. She whines, she moans and she complains. She's mean and she's witlessly sarcastic to people who she has no reason to be mean and witlessly sarcastic to. In short, it's everything we've come to know and loathe about her since she joined the Doctor. Fortunately, she tones it down in the middle and end of the book so that she actually becomes somewhat tolerable. I suspect that Messingham wanted to make her over-the-top in her assertiveness to compensate for the events of the previous book but was forced by reason of her love interest in this story to mellow her out a little. It would be far beyond the realms of possibility to believe that anyone could gain an admirer if he or she was continually carrying on in the manner Sam was at the start of this book.
Fortunately, what saves the opening of the book from being a complete Sam-infested failure is the great mystery that Messingham has set up. There's a suspected psychopath on the loose and people are mysteriously being killed. They're all fairly standard Doctor Who elements, but the execution is so superb that it all feels very fresh and new.
One of the highlights for me was watching the commander of the colony going slowly insane as the story progresses. From the very start she's nervous and unsure of her command. There is a conspiracy, she is convinced, that is intent on usurping her authority and destroying the civilization that she has worked so hard to build. Her paranoia gains more control of her mind and eventually she is reduced to setting up trip wires around her office with pieces of string tied around containers of pens in an attempt to find a fictitious intruder (who she imagines is a disgruntled worker out to sabotage her colony and can be identified by wearing, appropriately, a red arm band). The slow progression from slightly neurotic leader to full-blown lunatic is well handled and intriguing. Excellent, well-written stuff.
This is definitely a good book and comes highly recommended despite the painful Sam moments at the beginning. It's not earth-shattering or groundbreaking, but it accomplishes what it set out to do and that is to tell a wildly entertaining story.
Yet. None of this is particularly new or original, and somehow the author manages to keep it all hanging together through deft plotting and a little slight of hand. We get the usual stnadard setup . . . the Colony in Crisis. On the Proxima colony, one of the first of its kind, someone is killing off the colonists. Or, we think its someone, one of their own having gone mad and picking off people one by one for reasons that nobody can fathom. And not just stabbing them . . . but DISSOLVING THEIR FACES. Ooh. Local law enforcement is trying to figure it out, the head of the colony is slowly going mad as control slips away and hey, while we're here why not throw in some working class tensions? Why not have a blue box carrying an eccentric man and his overeager companion show up to complicate matters further?
Roll credits. As you might expect, the story starts to veer toward the all too common cause of the colony really being menaced by Alien Forces Beyond All Understanding and it all comes very close to being cliche. But it doesn't and I really can't explain how. Once I figured out the basic premise, I fully expected to be bored, and I wasn't. It may be the subtle touches, while we've seen the colony leader going nuts before, she takes it to a whole new level here, setting traps and tripwires in her office for people. The author pulls off a fairly decent switcharoo part way through that actually did catch me by surprise. He manages to make the aliens both cute and alien at the same time. He gives us characters that are painted in little strokes so we get a sense of their history without being subjected to a lot of exposition. The colony feels like a real place, even if it never feels totally like an alien world. Its got several creepy moments and even a few where he lulls us into thinking we know how this is going to go before yanking it into a different direction.
Don't get me wrong, its not perfect. For a book called "The Face-Eater", it's not very graphic at all, for its part "Janus Conjunction" was far worse in that respect, and while it was probably wise to not make that the focus of the book, you do wind up expecting something a bit more horrific. It does resemble an actual "Who" episode more in that sense, by keeping the violence and blood sort of off to the side. There's a bit of an Idiot Plot going on at several points (why does everyone keep going back to the place where the bodies are found, when all that does is make more bodies appear?). After several books in a row where Sam isn't that annoying, she abruptly switches back to very annoying again, in all her more righteous than thou glory, and just injecting herself needlessly into every situation. She recovers a bit by the backhalf, making you wonder if the author intended that to be the case, or he just realized how he was writing her early on. There's also several hints of romance with her that aren't really followed through on, although the Doctor comments on this in one sparkling bit of dialogue: "She likes rugged men with difficult histories. You'll get on like a house on fire."
But I give the author credit for taking a lot of stuff we've seen before and keeping the plot moving quickly enough so that we don't realize how second-nature this all should feel. Is it a classic? Nope? Was it a more entertaining way to spend a few hours than I had hoped for? As it turns out, it was, and sometimes that's all you're looking for.