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Clever and yet disappointing
on 28 December 2008
Lawrence Miles is a very clever writer, an author with more brains and originality than most so-called Doctor Who writers and he has frequently shown this in books such as 'Interference' and 'The Adventuress of Henrietta Street'. It's his big ideas that shine out best. He is a good writer, a reasonable storyteller, but it's his invention, wit and conceptual thinking that make his books such good and thought-provoking reading. Sometimes, however, other elements suffer because they can't match up with the strength of his ideas and the boldness of his concepts.
It's these strengths and weaknesses that are both apparent in 'Down', a Bernice Summerfield New Adventure that lacks The Doctor (for legal reasons) but still makes frequent (though usually obscure) references to the Whoniverse (great if you spot them but they're not essential to understanding the plot).
It's a real mixed bag of a novel, full of Douglas Adams/Robert Rankin style humour rather ill-advisedly mixed with dark reflections on the nature of personal narratives, archetypes and the universe. These two extremes work reasonably well in isolation but when they clash (and they frequently do) the whole thing just feels uncomfortable, perhaps reflecting the post-modern take on traditional old-school science fiction romps that Miles is clearly going for. Miles would later do something similar within the Doctor Who two-parter 'Interference' but in my opinion would do so much more successfully than here. In 'Down' this approach feels a little clumsy, like a first draft at the style but with too many incongruencies and brutal edges.
It certainly has its moments and contains more ideas within a few chapters than most Doctor Who spin-offs do in their entirety. But weighty ideas and gags at the expense of dodgy sci-fi films about hollow earths and dinosaurs do not make for great stories in themselves. There's a neat twist towards the end of the narrative but the conclusion of the book feels bolted on, as if Miles didn't know how to end things, and indeed I can see why because his own mixed-up tone would be likely to make any ending seem less than entirely satisfying.
And don't get me started on Bernice Summerfield, a character who I usually relish. Miles has gone on record as saying that he doesn't really like her at all (or rather what other writers do with her) and it rather shows in his own interpretation. She's no replacement for the Doctor and although she was never intended to be the absence of a Doctor-like character in this novel means that all too often the story just meanders from one event to another, waiting for someone to do something. If this is Miles' point then he makes it very well but it's nothing to feel smug about - a Doctor-less Doctor Who story just feels like one with a Doctor-shaped hole in it. As this is the first Bernice Summerfield solo adventure I've read I would hope that others make more satisfying use of her. I'd much rather that more was made of her strengths (try imagining Emma Thompson playing Indiana Jones but where the adventures take place in space) rather than emphasising her character flaws (that she likes to re-write elements of her past - a point that is hammered home here) and what she's not (she is not a Doctor-like character but shouldn't have to be).
So overall 'Down' is a disappointment but it still has enough funny jokes and numerous big and genuinely clever ideas to make it worth buying and reading. Just make sure you know what you're getting - neither Bernice Summerfield nor Lawrence Miles at their best.