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Doctor Who: Instruments of Darkness Mass Market Paperback – 1 Nov 2001
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A man, in various guises, appears in different parts of the world. He holds meetings with agents who believe they are working for the French Secret Service, but in reality they are on the payroll of a criminal organization and are all psychometrically linked.
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The sixth Doctor's character is explored in more depth, than in some recent novels. He's as obstreporous as ever, but inclined to occasional reflection.
Likewise the author's treatment of Mel gives the reader some insight into the Doctor's friendship with her - she has more depth than the health-nazi often portrayed in the TV series, and makes a great foil for the Doctor.
Well-developed secondary chracters are essential to the credibility of a series with the Who staying power, and they work for this book.
Evelyn Smythe is feisty, on the wrong side of fifty and has a great backstory, so it's unfortunate that she has little more to do than bicker with the Doctor and go off on a research mission.
But its great to see female present and past travelling companions capable of more than running, screaming and spraining ankles.
Retired Air vice-Marshall Dickinson is likewise welldrawn, complex, and the reader can believe the old boy could walk out of the old folks' home and into the action. And there are lots more like him _ this book is richly peopled with credible people both for and against the Doctor.
Best of all is the complex plot.
It covers a lot of ground: from prehistoric California, to Auckland, New Zealand, 1990s UK and points between.
The villain(s) of the piece are a mysterious organisation called the Magnate, with ESP-gifted-or cursed humans - as well drawn as the Doctor and his friends - working for and against them. Watch out for Captain Gavalle and the amazonian Ms de Meanour.
But nothing is as it seems, especially in this complicated book, and everyone's initial assumptions are likely to be wrong, or at best half right.
At first sight, the alien plot is the well-worn "mind invasion to take over the world" story, but the true nature of the aliens behind all the trouble, and of Magnate, helps provide a great twist ending.
Buy this book, read it, then read it again.
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On the other hand, I can't think of too many things I liked about it, either. I don't know what I would say, for example, if I were asked to recommend it to others. I'm not a 6th Doctor fan by any means -- not on TV, not in print -- so this less over-the-top print version of the Colin Baker Doctor does not get me excited. I liked Mel as a companion, but this book's contribution to the post-TV companion canon -- Dr. Evelyn Smythe from the Big Finish audios -- was a letdown.
Evelyn takes up large portions of the text, without really adding much. She's introduced as a character not through her actions, but by long-winded speeches -- by speeches by the Doctor; by her duelling monologues with Mel (I hesitate to call them "conversations"); and, worst of all, through her own speeches. We keep hearing about how great she is. Fine. Go out and prove it. Do something heroic. Be less annoying.
When "Instruments of Darkness" isn't about Evelyn, or about Evelyn's relationship with the Doctor (she's introduced as a jilted former companion), or about what Mel thinks of Evelyn... there's a convoluted plot about alien beings (think Trelayne, if the Squire of Gothos had a less self-aware younger brother) perverting the course of human history. There are telepaths in France and Auton telepaths in England. There are a couple of well-drawn American reporters, but they're limited to about 12 pages of text (set in Micronesia, would you believe) and could be eliminated from the story without a hiccup. The end of the book is meant to be tragic, but it ends with the self-sacrifice of a zero-dimensional quaternary character, so... if you can figure it out, you can enjoy it. At least you'll be able to say, "I never saw that one coming!", and mean it.
"Instruments of Darkness" takes 70 Doctor-free pages to get going. The first original "Doctor Who" novels published in the early 1990s did well with this approach. Here, however, the space is used to introduce about 20 characters in short, violent, action/tragedy sequences. Coming at the end of the novel, such a montage could have provided kick. Coming at the beginning, however, it's a drag. Who are these people? Why do they then vanish for the next 150 pages?
So, let's recap. I've complained about the plot, I've complained about the characters. Now, let me switch gears and kvell about the villain. Remember that annoying habit the New Adventures had, of bringing back old TV companions, ruining their lives, turning them against the Doctor, and killing them off? Well, one of the human villains of this piece is a familiar figure. Not from the TV show, but, for once, it's a pleasure to bring back someone else just to ruin their lives. That's why I give the book extra points and that's why I owe Gary Russell a beer.
Gary spends a lot of time setting up all of the characters (there are a lot of them in this one). He also spends a lot of time telling what happened to these characters in the first two books, which got a bit annoying. I haven't read Business in awhile and like I said, I haven't read Scales. It was nice to get a little context on the characters, but unfortunately this comes in huge infodumps that just grated. Then, when you add Evelyn, it just makes it worse. Evelyn is a character from the Big Finish audios that Gary is the producer of. Now her character needs to be explained for the reader who doesn't listen to the audios.
What it all amounts to is a huge number of pages where nothing much happens. There's a lot of setting, and not much action. By "action," I don't mean explosions and chases and such, I mean that nothing happens at all. I'm all for characterization, but sometimes authors can take that too far. This is one of those times. It was almost page 200 (out of 284) before the Doctor really got involved in anything. That has been BBC Books' problem for quite awhile now, the ineffective Doctor. In this one, he is instrumental in the resolution, but it takes forever for him to get to that point.
I will say that the characterization of Mel and Evelyn is really good. I have heard one of the audios with her in it, and the character certainly matched. I could hear Maggie Stables playing this Evelyn. The Doctor isn't quite so good, but he is passable. This is a much more restrained Sixth Doctor then we got in the series, but that's a good thing. He has received a much better characterization in books and audios then he ever got on TV due to BBC politics.
Sadly, the rest of the characters don't get that benefit. Most of them are fairly one-note. There is one setting and two characters that are presented, and then they disappear until the end of the novel, coming out of nowhere. The European characters get a bit better, but they still suffer from being flat.
The ending brings this waste to an unsatisfying conclusion. It comes from nowhere, being hurriedly wrapped up after pages and pages of characterization. After so long being uninvolved, the Doctor suddenly has a good idea of what's happening without much to lead him there. Mel and Evelyn are sent off on an unbelievable mission that just is there to put them in danger. The setting and characters I referred to earlier all of a sudden appear, and a character makes the ultimate sacrifice. Unfortunately, we don't have anything invested in this sacrifice or the character, because we have so little exposure to it. It just happens this way to prevent the Doctor from having to make that sacrifice.
Unless you're a completist, I would recommend you avoid this book. It's a shame that Russell has fallen so much, because I used to really like his stuff (Business Unusual was fun, Legacy was really good). Now, he's 0 for his last 3 (Placebo Effect, the horrendous Divided Loyalties and now Instruments of Darkness).