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Doctor Who: The Taint Mass Market Paperback – 1 Feb 1999
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Michael Collier's previous book The Longest Day featured some good characters (especially the inspired Nashaad) and an interesting alien in the Kusk. With The Taint all we get is very confused indeed as a group of inadequately described loonies take over the asylum. It's very difficult to keep track of who is who early on and so at the end knowing who lived or died is impossible.
The idea of alien mind parasites is good if unoriginal, and the two robotic guardian-types are neat but their function in the novel is unclear. The new companion character Fitz remains something of an enigma although he does have some fine moments and some appealing defining characteristics.
There are some interesting concepts in The Taint, but unfortunately the writing never manages to rise above the level of competent and the plot gets a little submerged under a surfeit of characters. It's a pity, especially after the excellence of The Janus Conjunction, Vanderdeken's Children and The Face-Eater. Overall, a disappointing novel. --David J Howe
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The novel kicks off by introducing us to Muriel Kreiner who is having weird dreams involving a cave and is being looked after by Professor Roley. We are also introduced to her son Fitz, who is working for Mr Roley, but has dreams of far more. The Doctor and Sam then arrive and get caught up with another of Roley's patients and meet Roley and Fitz. It soon becomes clear that Roley is treating numerous patients for the same reason, odd dreams of caves and a fear of the devil. Rather unsurprisingly it turns out the patients are all hosts for an alien leech trying to fight another enemy called the Beast. From this point on the novel gets a little bit silly with not a lot of what happens being explained satisfactorily which detriments the novel greatly.
Parts of The Taint are brilliantly done, the 1963 setting, the early days in Roley's home and the issue of mental health but it does descend into something not quite right at around the halfway mark. Luckily the introduction of new companion Fitz saves the novel.
Fitz is instantly entertaining and a far cry from the goodie goodie Sam. He possesses a boyish charm and a likeability despite being socially awkward thanks to his mum's mental state. He works well with Sam, with a mutual attraction between them, but also works well with the Doctor which is good seeing as he lasts until the end of Eighths tenure. I also like the comedy aspect Fitz brings to proceedings.
The TARDIS crew needed shaking up as Sam just doesn't work as a companion. Companions are meant to be the readers eyes/ears and we need to relate to them, however she just irritates and alienates readers more often than not. The Scarlett Empress added Iris Wildthyme to the mix temporarily and instantly Sam was bearable, I was hoping it would be the same with Fitz which it is, with Sam seemingly caring more about her feelings for Fitz rather than finding something to campaign against.
The Doctor is done very well, Collier's portrayal in Longest Day was one of the saving graces of that novel and he's carried it on here. All the compassion, and the boyish charms are there, along with a fierce intelligence and world weary demeanour. It's also good to see him fallible.
The Taint features quite a large number of supporting characters which Collier tries to build up a backstory on which untimely fails. It worked for Lawrence Miles in Alien Bodies but here it felt forced. I also felt the alien menace was a fairly good concept, but one executed poorly. A lot of the technobabble behind it made little to no sense, and at times I still didn't fully understand why something was happening and just went with it.
The Taint is a fairly atmospheric novel which deals with the difficult subject of mental health well. It could have been as depressing as Longest Day, but the introduction of Fitz to the TARDIS crew makes for some light hearted moments, which are a welcome break from the dark storyline. Whilst not as polished, nor as entertaining as other novels in the range, it does the job of introducing Fitz well and presents a fairly decent story to go with it. I'd call it a must read for fans of the series for the introduction of Fitz alone.
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It should be no surprise to anyone that this story introduces a new companion to the Doctor's traveling crew. Throughout the entire book Fitz Kreiner is a breath of fresh air, not only for a relatively lackluster story, but also for a book series that was in danger of stalling on account of its two fairly unappealing central characters. He seems real and human in a way that the alien Doctor can't be and the no-dimensional Sam isn't.
The storyline is not terribly complicated. There's a spooky, old house inhabited by several mental patients who all believe that they are being possessed by the devil. There's a meddling psychiatrist who wishes to discover the common characteristic that binds them all together. Into this mix lands the Doctor who, of course, manages to get himself entangled in the situation almost immediately and discovers that the patients aren't actually being controlled by Satan (though we never really expected that they would be), but are in fact an off-shoot of an alien engaged in a war against a long-forgotten enemy. The story isn't terribly bad, nor is it overly engaging. In a similarity to ALIEN BODIES, each of the patients have part of their past story told in their own separate flashback chapter. These sections are by far the most interesting portions of the story. We are shown how their disability has affected them throughout their existence. It's very appealing writing and it's miles better than rest of the stuff in between. Unfortunately, very little of this wonderful character development makes its way back from the flashbacks into the main portion of the story. The individuals of the flashbacks are people with fears, insecurities, pains and stories. The patients of the main story are bland, faceless and easy for the reader to confuse.
Although I've spent most of the space here complaining about the books faults, I will be looking forward to Collier's next book. There aren't any major flaws present and it is a definite improvement over his previous work. If his next offering is as improved, then it should certainly be worth reading.
Fitz is introduced here as the son of one of the patients, and he also gets to play a role in the proceedings before becoming a long-term companion for the Eighth Doctor in the rest of these books. His introduction here is not too great, though he does try his best to stand out from the rest of the crowd, and he does succeed in making some head-way. He will become even more memorable in the future.
Okay, I think we're all in agreement that "The Eight Doctors", which introduced Sam, was a bit of a mess. If you're still reading the series by this point you've either forgiven them for that transgression or just never read the book in the first place. But it did give us Samantha "Don't call me Samantha" Jones, in all her thinly sketched glory and the writers for the line have been trying to make some sense of her ever since. Some have done better than others, although in all fairness to the ones who botched it, they weren't given much to work with in the first place. She was more an idea for a character than a character herself, a real shame since the Doctor's companions from Virgin's New Adventures (Bernice Summerfield, Roz and Chris) were all memorable in their own right. After doing such a good job making those people work, the disappointment of Sam turning out to be so darn annoying was galling.
So here, they try to rectify that goof by giving us a new companion in the form of Fitz, a swingin' lad from the sixties who's a bit on the selfish side (but with room to grow into being a hero), somewhat resourceful and able to bluff in an impressively swaggering fashion. From the start he's marked as companion material, mostly because he feels like the only person in the book who isn't wearing a shirt that says, "I'm Doomed".
But what dooms them, you ask? Landing in the aforementioned 1960s England, the Doctor and Sam run across a doctor performing psychoanalytical experiments on a group of mentally ill patients who don't know each other but appear to be suffering from the same shared memories and nightmares, all of which are centering around a cave. A cave that the Doctor knows.
This is one of those books where I wish they'd just dispatch with the apparent mandate that an alien menace has to be behind whatever weirdness is occuring. Because the early scenes when its clear that Something Weird is going on, scattered hints of memory, strange reactions, an ever-growing atmosphere of dread. It's not Gothic and its certainly not Lovecraftian but it gets the job done and everyone goes through their paces well. Fitz and Sam have a nice repartee going, the Doctor is sort of playing detective, the novel isn't shying away from the cost of trying to live with a mental illness or the debate about their rights in society, it all starts to shape up rather nicely.
Oh, but then we have to go into science-fiction again. When the explanation does come, as we know it must, it involves aliens and long-forgotten alien experiments/doomsday weapon and robots and what was once creepy and skewed now becomes Just Another Doctor Who Episode, where the resolution depends more on the Doctor rigging up something technobabblish and it all feels rather drab and rote. It doesn't help that the actual explanation for all the hoopla feels a little overcomplicated.
So the ending and the climax fall a little flat. Oh well. The book does have other points to recommend it. As others have pointed out, the little vignettes with the patients are revealing and stand out from the rest of the book even if little of the background detail is relevant to the plot itself (in the novel at large, the patients don't progress much beyond "they're crazy" and basic characterizations). The early setup around the house as the mystery builds is effective. And the characterizations of the main cast are decent, Sam especially. She's still no Bernice Summerfield but she's had a streak for a while of not being annoying so it seems that the writers are getting a handle on her. Of course, they're also still beating the crap out of her way too much (this is like the third time she's suffered greatly and/or come near death in recent memory) but all things in time.
Fitz meanwhile acquits himself well on his first outing. His dialogue is snappy and he plays off Sam well. It remains to be seen what the other writers do with him but here he definitely has potential. Granted there appears to be no earthly reason for him to come along with the TARDIS crew other than "the plot requires it" but if I didn't want to see plot contrivances, I'd go read something else. And its not like there haven't been worse reasons (yeah, I'm looking at you, Dodo Chaplet). It would be nice to see the dynamic change up slightly and after having to sit through Sam's mooning over the Doctor, having someone aboard who doesn't have a crush on the Doctor would be a change of pace.
What we have in the end then is an okay story that introduces a new companion. If you skip it you won't be treated to "Fitz's Origin Story" so if that bothers you, then by all means dive in. Otherwise its all rather standard.