Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

March Books 26-31) The Leela spinoff novels

26) Match of the Day, by Chris Boucher
27) Last Man Running, by Chris Boucher
28) Corpse Marker, by Chris Boucher
29) Psi-Ence Fiction, by Chris Boucher
30) Drift, by Simon A. Forward
31) Eye of Heaven, by Jim Mortimore

It's interesting that the six Doctor Who spinoff novels featuring the Fourth Doctor and Leela are all from the more recent BBC series of Past Doctor Adventures rather than the earlier Virgin series of Missing Adventures; that all of them are set before K9's arrival in Who continuity; and that four of the six are by Leela's creator, Chris Boucher, who also wrote three of the five TV stories featuring her but not the metal dog. Obviously K9 is more successful with Romana or Sarah Jane (each of the Fourth Doctor's departing female companions having ended up with one).

The four Boucher novels include two rather less exciting tales which appear to have slipped out of Blake's Seven (for which Boucher was also script editor), and two rather good retakes of stories he wrote for Who. They all share an interesting pair of characteristics: Boucher writes Leela really well, and the Doctor really badly. Of course, like many an artist, he loves his own creations, and even slips a minor Blake's Seven character into one of the books. But he finds it difficult to allow Leela to change or be changed by the passage of events - Jim Mortimore manages this much better in Eye of Heaven, discussed further below - so while his books are an adequate to excellent nostagia romp, they are not really great literature.

The most recent of the books, Match of the Day, illustrates this well. In a society obsessed with fighting (reminiscent of The Game, which came out at about the same time) Leela becomes, believe it or not, a duelling champion, with the Doctor rather implausibly her agent. A few well-aimed digs at the cult of celebrity, and the effective portrayal of Leela, rather sink into a peculiar writing idiom (adopted only for some passages, but still very annoying), the very unevenly sketched world and society in which our heroes find themselves for this adventure, and a plot which barely hangs together.

Last Man Running, which was Boucher's first effort for the Past Doctor Adventures, is a little more successful, though the setting - Doctor and Leela bump into a survey team in a hostile environment - is very base-under-siege, and you can almost see the sets wobble. Leela herself gets some good lines and action, but then we discover that she is the ultimate warrior in a rather confusing conclusion. Apparently a lot of fans were disappointed when this came out, and I can see why.

Corpse Marker takes us to Kaldor City and the three surviving crew members from The Robots of Death, several years on, in a complex web of political intrigue and threat. Once again Leela gets some good bits, and for once Boucher's world-building is on form: Kaldor City feels pretty real, and there are a number of very visual moments. One of the characters actually has escaped from Blake's Seven, but I think I missed that particular episode. My caveats about Boucher's portrayal of the Doctor still apply, though.

Psi-Ence Fiction was the most difficult of these titles to track down, and is certainly the best of the four Boucher novels. It is something of a re-take of Image of the Fendahl, with research in contemporary Britain (2001 rather than 1978, of course) unlocking dangerous space-time anomalies and tapping into the plans of sinister entities. The setting this time round is a university campus, a familiar setting which liberates Boucher from trying too hard at world-building (as noted above, not his strongest point), as he can rely on smart-aleck students, infighting academics, and the local police trying to sort things out. Leela, as ever, excels; the biggest problem with the book is the resolution, where the Tardis itself plays an unexpected role, and the ending is a bit of a cop-out. But it was a good read.

If Match of the Day and Last Man Running are escaped episodes of Blake's 7, Drift, by Simon Forward, has escaped from the X-Files. Here we have a US special forces military operation in a snowbound New Hampshire village, which the Doctor and Leela get embroiled in. There are also two CIA agents (which is a mistake; they should be FBI) on the case with their own secret. There's some great characterisation of a dysfunctional family (though not really of the Doctor or Leela), and lots of people get killed, yet at the end of the book one feels that not an awful lot has happened. The cold snowbound setting is reminiscent of Kim Newman's Time and Relative, which was apparently published almost simultaneously.

I saved what is probably the best of these until last: Eye of Heaven, by Jim Mortimore, is a tale of Victorian adventure set in the South Pacific, specifically on and around Rapa Nui/Easter Island. The entire book is told in the first person, but by different narrators, Leela getting I guess about half of the chapters and most of the rest going to the English members of their expedition, though two are told from the Doctor's point of view - not hugely successfully, but I've seen worse. Leela's on-screen encounters with the England of bygone days were a delight, and the clash of cultures is equally fun here. The book's narrative structure, interweaving chapters from different sequences of the narrative, is a successful experiment. There are a couple of wobbly plot concepts - the Doctor's decision to sponsor the expedition, Leela's actual arrival on the island, the bit with the, er, aliens - but the ride is great value. It's a bit surprising that this was the very first Fourth Doctor / Leela novel to be published - the Virgin Missing Adventures never went to this time period - and a bit sad that none of the subsequent five is as good.

Leela could easily have ended up as a one-joke character (cf the Sixth Doctor's penguin-shaped companion, Frobisher; or indeed *snark* Jo Grant). That she didn't in the TV series is testimony not only to the writers but also to Louise Jameson, who overcame Tom Baker's hostility to give a memorable performance. But I suspect that sustaining her in print over the length of a new BBC novel is rather a tough task, which may explain why it has been attempted a) rarely and b) mainly by Chris Boucher, her creator. Still, when it works - as with Eye of Heaven, Psi-Ence Fiction and to an extent Corpse Marker - it works well.
Tags: bookblog 2008, doctor who, doctor who: 04, doctor who: spinoff fiction, writer: jim mortimore

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