Doctor Who: Instruments of Darkness Mass Market Paperback – 5 Nov 2001
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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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).
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 Russell's novels clearly show his love for Doctor Who, the television series. Unlike authors like Lawrence Miles or Paul Cornell, he isn't trying to push the envelope so much as recreate the feel of the show on the printed page. What makes his novels particularly enjoyable for me are his characters. He always seems to strive to make everyone an individual, with a distinctive past and personality. In many ways, this particular novel is a step forward in that area, with the characters much more prominent than the plot.
Like many of the televised sixth Doctor stories, the Doctor's involvement in the plot is pretty minimal for the first half or so. In this case, though, the fast-paced story development, cutting from scene to scene without becoming confusing, kept my interest up. Gary Russell has a fairly straightforward style compared to other Doctor Who authors, which makes for a refreshing change. He seems less interested in literary tricks and more interested in just telling his story.
His story, in this case, is a semi-sequel to two previous adventures, Scales of Injustice and Business Unusual, two of Russell's better books. Instruments of Darkness is less connected to the previous two in terms of plot, but almost all of the characters appeared in the earlier stories. Russell does explain who is who, and what their relationships are to one another, but reading the earlier stories is recommended, if possible.
Most interesting is his use of Evelyn Smythe, a character currently appearing in a series of original-to-CD Doctor Who audio plays produced by Gary Russell and Big Finish Productions. This is her first appearance in prose, and Russell takes the opportunity to flesh out her character's background quite a bit. He also develops her unique relationship with the Doctor without pinning things down to the point of controversy. She and the much-maligned Mel make a great team in this book, and I hope Russell has the opportunity to pen more novels with this particular cast.
The book's biggest drawback, unfortunately, is the conclusion. I didn't find the resolution particularly clear, and that always irritates me. On the other hand, the post-climax chapters seemed to set up yet another potential sequel without being too annoying, so I guess it all balances out.
I find Gary Russell's books to be comforting and relaxing, and this one was no different. Fans looking for groundbreaking Who fiction will be better off with this month's eighth Doctor release, The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. Those looking for the comfort of the familiar should find a great deal to enjoy in Instruments of Darkness.
Now, I'm sure some people like it. The author, presumably, and maybe even the author's mother. The editors of the line must have seen something publishable in the final product. Or maybe they counted on the blind passions of the legions of Sixth Doctor fans to consume the book in large quantities. But the end result is such a rote and joyless affair that it makes you wonder if the editors are even on the same page as the fans in terms of what to deliver, or they just assume that people will swallow up any old thing that has the logo for "Doctor Who" blazoned across it. Stranger things have happened.
The book, then. It starts out interestingly enough, giving us a series of vignettes featuring people that we'll mostly never see again (with at least one exception) meeting terrible ends or being greeted by a mysterious force. Which is not bad in itself, there's nothing wrong with giving us a little foreshadowing of the main conflict. Except that it goes on for nearly seventy pages before the Doctor even makes a decent appearance, by which point you may start to correctly wonder if this is even going anywhere.
There appears to be a mysterious extra-governmental force at work, the Magnate, one that seems to employ psychics (or at least those with standard psychic powers), to which a lot of time is devoted to their machinations, none of which seem to amount to all that much, as they mostly just stand around and talk, waiting for the plot to happen. In fact, that's what everyone does. The Doctor's needle seems to be constantly set on "petulant" and he's at his boorish worst here, flailing around with a puffed up attitude that winds up being so much sputtering bluster. Which might be okay if it was in service to the plot in some way, shape or form, but most of the time it just drags. The same problem occurs with his "banter" with Mel, which revisits all those old tropes about how she eats healthy all the time and tries to make him eat a healthy diet, which should add some local color but instead winds up falling mostly flat, existing simply because Its One of Those Things the Doctor and Mel Talk About.
There's a possibility that this could get interesting with the introduction of the Doctor's former companion Evelyn Smythe, a companion that we mostly saw in the Big Finish audio productions and proved to be quite popular. And its a nice change of pace having a middle aged competent companion who doesn't scream all the time and just gets stuff done. They run into her because the Doctor deliberately left her stranded in this tine period (the end of 1993) about five years back to do a mission for him, and then seemed to forget about her. Alas, most of her potential is wasted as we go over the well trodden ground of Mel realizing that the Doctor has had more than one companion and we spend way too much time on Evelyn and Mel swapping banter. Remember how during the new TV series when Sarah Jane Smith and Rose met, and traded stories about their times on the TARDIS, it was amusing and brief? Here it goes on for pages, then we spend far too much time on Evelyn's feelings about her ex-husband, her lack of inability to drive, and chocolate cake.
It would seem that all of this doesn't leave much room for the plot (I haven't even mentioned things like the identity of Magnate head John Doe, which no matter how much the book wants to convince me that this is an Important Thing, I can't bring myself to really care . . . as it turns out he's some minor character from a Third Doctor episode, I think) but there isn't much to make room for. Russell populates the book with characters from one of his previous novels, "Business Unusual", seeming to assume that we all read it yesterday (I read it almost five years ago, for the record) and from then on its a hodgepodge of psychic powers and alien influences and people with memory holes.
Yet, there's no sense of urgency to any of it. Everyone, even the villains, seem to be marking time (two reporters stuck with the alien who's ready to film his triumph being the most egregious example) pairing off or conflicting in ways that refuse to be interesting in such a steadfast way that you start to wonder if its deliberate. It doesn't get better when the resolution comes, as the final machinations of the plot don't make a whole heap of sense and like most of these BBC novels, it gets wrapped up far too quickly, as if Russell realized he was hitting the page count and had to work quickly to bring it under par. This isn't the first book that can be accused of having a rushed ending and it makes me wonder (you know, years after this line of novels ended where the speculation won't do any good) if fitting every story into a certain frame-size really served the stories the best. The Virgin New Adventures tended to vary in size, but much like the attitude that four parts is the perfect length for every "Who" story, there's not a lot of evidence to suggest that is, indeed, true.
A page turner in the automatic, "let's just get to the end of this so we can move onto other stuff" sense, its' not bad as much as extremely by the numbers, which winds up serving no one well, not the author, not the Sixth Doctor and definitely not us.