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Doctor Who: Last Resort Paperback – 2 Jun 2003
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An adventure featuring the Eighth Doctor with Fitz and Anji. The heroes are used to finding themselves in different times, eras long before or long after the ones into which they were born. But when these eras come equipped with Hilton hotels and luxury theme parks, it's a different matter. In the 1950s, the Good Time Travel Company has discovered time travel in a big way - it's now time tourism, in fact - and they're not about to let go of their profits easily, no matter what some Doctor guy ssays about the fragility of the time/space continuum. But the ensuing paradoxes mean that chaos is swiftly encroaching on the happy day trips to Roman orgies. Something has to be done, before it engulfs the whole of time!
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The book's written, however, in a way that makes it almost incomprehensible. For the most part, I had little idea what was happening. The chapters do not take place in any linear order, and there are multiple versions of each event and character as the timelines begin to unravel and overlap. Whilst this is another great idea, the execution of it here results in little more than chaos. The book is very well written, and each of the individual chapters is reasonably enjoyable, but how they're meant to make up a coherent whole I have no idea. As someone else who read the book commented, the majority of the book could be replaced with 'And then some stuff happened' and the plot would progress just as clearly.
I've heard of one reader producing a flow-chart from the events here in an effort to work out exactly what happens - but if a book takes that much effort to understand, then how can it ever be classed as enjoyable? I'm all for challenging books, and my favourites in the range are usually those that challenge and innovate, but this is just a muddle.
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This book does pull off one neat trick . . . it manages to completely fail in conveying any kind of coherent plot but never makes me angry in the process. There have been other books where I've had a far better grasp of what was going on and come away completely appalled, wondering how such an abomination of literature can exist. Here that never happened. I came away aware that it was only a novel because it was bound printed matter in the shape of one, but it never engendered in me the complete and utter sense of despair that the worst of the worst can cause. I wanted it over and it was, but I don't feel anything firm one way or another about it. Odd.
It's a shame because the characterizations and the concept of the novel itself were actually well done. Especially the concept. In the wake of the ongoing Night of a Trillion Zillion Parallel Universes, we come upon a situation where a corporate called Good Times, Inc has essentially turned history into a big theme park, turning the most important eras of Earth's history into the equivalent of cheesy roadside attractions and charging so that people can go back and see the Wild West, but one that has local Indians and cowboys forced to act as sanitized family-friend versions of themselves. Oh, and each time someone goes back it splits off into another parallel universe. Something may have gone awry.
There's so much rich material with this concept that it's amazing the editor let the book go as far afield as it does. The opening scenes, showing Egypt essentially turned into the Magical World of Pharaohs, is brilliant, conveying both the humiliation and absurdity inherent in the idea, as well as the cluelessness of the tourists who believe they're getting some kind of authentic experience. It's a ripe vehicle for a satire of theme parks and the idea that people who want to experience "real" history, just without all the unpleasant parts, and puts the Doctor up against a well-organized corporation that is willing to break time (or take advantage of breaking time) in the name of profit, not realizing the true damage they're causing. We could get a careening ride through all the messed up areas of history while delving further into the nature of time, giving us one of those dense complex plots and scenarios that the New Adventures of Yore used to give us, only with a Doctor who's more reactionary than chess master. With so much at stake, all the materials are there.
It's hard to say where the missed opportunities are, only that they exist. The beginning is promising enough, showing the Doctor, Fitz and Anji in mid-investigation and playing to one of the strengths of this team, the fact that we now have a TARDIS crew experienced enough (even Anji) to be proactive and act on their own. But it's not too long before it all goes out the window and we're stuck in a series of increasingly convoluted scenarios featuring multiple versions of everyone all intersecting at different times because time has become that fragmented. Sabbath shows up and for the first time in a few books is actually written as intelligent and menacing even if it's still not clear what he's after except for annoying the Doctor, but it does give them someone else to play off of. Which is good, because the supporting cast generally isn't up to the job. Young time traveler Jack is somewhat colorless when he's not dying in repeated timelines and everyone else is essentially nonexistent. All the babbly talk about time travel and discontinuities only muddies the plot and takes it further away from the initial premise, which was supposedly to fight a corporation that is doing serious damage. Good Times itself seems to fade into the background and after a while it's not clear who the Doctor is even supposed to be battling. And without the strong personality of a central villain to hold this together, you need to rely on the scenario or have a crackerjack of a plot, neither of which are on display here.
It's frustrating because every time we get close to the book dragging us into fun and strange territory (a glimpse into early hominids being forced to till fields in pre-history) we're dragged back into more talk about things that don't make any sense, even in the context of the book. At one point it seems that we might delve further into the TARDIS and what secrets lie deep inside of it, but even that falls by the wayside. What's missing is any sense of mystery, where matters aren't quite as we understand them or even as the Doctor understands them. Instead we get a plot masquerading as complex without being able to pull off the gymnastic depth required for such an affair. Which means you're left with a rather nonsensical time travel plot and little else. The Doctor even seems absent from his own book, only appearing to order people around in service of a plan we barely grasp, or argue with Sabbath. Choosing to focus on the abstract only emphasizes how empty the plot feels.
What's worse is that when it was over, I barely noticed, as the climax passes and resolves almost invisibly. I knew the book was ending because I was near the end of the pages, but then suddenly I'm in an epilogue and not sure how I got there. It's as if the book itself couldn't handle any more and just truncated the plot to save itself. Unfortunately, none of the proceeding stuck, and its telling that I managed to finish the book in around two hours (half of that either on a train or waiting for a subway), not because it was a gripping page turner, but because I didn't have to process any of it beyond turning pages mechanically and reading words. If there's any book that I wish could be redone, it's probably this one, because the basic concept I feel could have been a worthwhile plot goldmine with a better focus or more definite point of view. But while I wonder what a Paul Cornell or Lawrence Miles would have made of this, I can only hope in some parallel universe one of those authors wrote this novel, and my parallel brethren are having a vastly different experience than I did. One can dream.
There's a strong beginning to the story. We actually have a plot that fits comfortably into the on-going story-arc; without the Time Lords to enforce the Laws Of Time, dangerous and destructive time travel is appearing. "Destructive", because of the havoc inadvertently unleashed upon the cosmos. Alternative universes are springing up with each instance of time travel (at least, that's what the book says, although unexplained exceptions are made). Any time traveler changing history is now responsible for the existence of two time-streams -- the first being his original time-stream (the unmolested chain of events that led to his time travel), the second being the altered, new time-stream (the new and improved version which may in fact be a paradox). The book's most successful moments involve the comedy potential of having all manner of modern-day icons turning up in human history.
The biggest problem with this book is that it's obvious by about page fifty that this state of affairs can't remain true and there's clearly going to be a reset of one sort or another before the book closes. "But", I hear some of you saying, "Surely what's important is the journey itself, not necessarily what we arrive at." And usually I would agree with that sentiment. But this journey itself is technobabble-laden nonsense. Most of it probably makes logical sense, but it's difficult to care about any of it. We're told that Sabbath's nonsensical plan to fix everything will work, but we aren't told why or given any information that would let us figure it out.
We're told that alternative universes are popping up every time someone (off-screen) makes a change to history. So, how often is this occurring? How many time-streams are created during the first, say, one hundred pages? Does each inconsistency point to a newer history? Are there new universes created without immediately noticeable effects? Are new universes being created with every chapter? Every scene? Every page? Every sentence? As far as I can tell, each of these could be true, but we aren't told why or given any information that would let us figure it out.
So, given that the majority of the book is simply extended padding, is there anything worth reading in the bulk of pages that makes up THE LAST RESORT? Sadly, no. In the past, Leonard has done a reasonably good job of presenting solid characterization. At times, he's done astonishingly well on this point. But not here. His characters simply cannot overcome the "plot" that they're mired in. The only exception is a bright spot in the character of Iyeeye. Leonard is playing to his strengths here. I found her thoughts while in her own environment to be engrossing. The problem is that the story is far too splintered for a deep character like this. She's stuck in something that is impossible to care about and unfortunately the effect is to dull any interest she may have brought.
One of the advantages to creating a whole bunch of identical duplicates is that it allows the author opportunity to kill off characters as many times as he likes without having to bother creating new ones. Oh boy. But yet, maybe seeing exactly how a beloved character may choose to sacrifice himself in one reality would give us further insight into the still-living character in another time-line. It's a nice idea... that only happens once (Anji's journal). The literally thousands of other deaths are just pointless. In the MST3k episode "Time Chasers", a movie which shares the same philosophy of time travel as this novel, one copy of our bespectacled, big-chinned, hockey-haired hero is blown away. "Don't worry, folks", mocks one of the robots wearily, "This movie's got a spare." Oh, you wouldn't believe the amount of times I thought of that line during THE LAST RESORT.
The plot eventually turns back on itself. Maybe. Something inexplicable that occurs near the beginning finally gets a time-travely explanation towards the end although I'm not convinced that the link-up actually matters. It would be more impressive if there was any reason to care by that point or any reason to believe that they were all part of the same universe or time-line or whatever. So something matches up. So what? It's been mere days since I read the book and I'm already struggling to remember why key plot points took place. This novel is the poster child for demonstrating that a convoluted plot is no replacement for a complex one. A complex plot is one in which multiple layers are carefully interweaved -- characterization, plot and tone all work together to enhance the author's chosen themes. A convoluted plot is one in which weird stuff happens just because the author says so. It may all make sense by the end, but it might not. And you might not even be able to tell anyway.
I have absolutely no problem with a storyline that requires me to give it a lot of thought. But I balk when that extra thinking leads only to the discovery of plot-holes, inconsistencies and sloppiness. This is not Paul Leonard's finest hour.