04 April 2014

BOOK: The Ripple Effect

Whereas some earlier additions to this series could be labelled intelligent for their characterisations, the same could be said of The Ripple Effect for its core concept. It is undeniably carefully planned, but this doesn't necessarily mean it worked perfectly. There's definitely a clever idea behind this, but the story layered over it seems to suffer as a result because it would be such a strong conceit in itself that its potential distracts the reader from the inferior subplots. It's a shame as they're actually pretty strong when considered in isolation.

The TARDIS has got caught in a Temporal Plexus, and now can't escape. Along with hundreds of other ships, the TARDIS is trapped. We catch up with the Doctor and Ace eight days into their stay in the Plexus, just as they begin to grow desperate. Ace especially is suffering at being cooped up for too long. The Doctor decides he has no choice but send the nearest star supernova. This outrush of energy is enough to blast the TARDIS free, and it then immediately lands on Skaro, where a Dalek instantly trundles into the ship of course.

It is soon revealed that the Daleks at least seem to be a force for good, which our heroes of course have trouble believing to begin with. They work in harmony with several alien races to educate them and conduct research. The primary supporting character in this is Tulana, a fifteen year old Markhan girl. She has utter faith in the Daleks' goodwill, as you would if you didn't know any different. The Doctor is still suspicious, however. He checks all the TARDIS' archives, and every available universal record, but can find no trace of the Daleks ever being malicious in any capacity. He and Ace are the only ones who remember what the Daleks are 'really' like. He even takes Tulana on a few short hops around Skaro to try and discover a secret base or something that will lead him to the Daleks' true intentions - to no avail.

The Doctor is about to depart to visit the Time Lords to find out what's really going on when the entirety of the High Council arrives in order to thank the Daleks for the surgery on the Lord President. This convinces him that the Universe has changed so that the bolt-sided bastards are actually working for the greater good. Even their softer voices betray this. And so, he decides to try and trace the ripples back to their origin to see where the pebble was dropped. There's lots of nice analogies to time and space and time-space as water here, my favourite being the likeness to a lake, with varying depths and fish. The origin, slightly predictably, is the Doctor's actions in the opening chapter.

So cataclysmic was the explosion that it shifted temporal and spatial plates so that Davros' do-badders now do good. This of course has to be undone, so the Doctor returns to the Plexus. He calculates that the pulse he sent into the sun will cause the two TARDISes to merge if it collides with the older model, thus aborting the timeline he and Ace have just visited. It transpires that this is correct, and visiting the space where Skaro should be, he finds only an imminent threat of destruction from a nearby Dalek cruiser; things are back to how they should be. 

There are of course several moral dilemmas posed in this story. Although the Doctor would love for the Daleks not to be a force for evil, he knows that things need to go back to the way they were. Even though a lot of pain will come from the Skarosians's hatred, a lot of good will come from it too. It's a dilemma that he's faced before, most notably in Genesis of the Daleks of course, and it's replayed pretty much beat-for-beat here. The only real difference is that Ace fights the Daleks' corner instead of another half of the Doctor's psyche. McShane has also formed a relatively close friendship with Tulana, and so is of course upset to learn that the entirety of the Markhan race will be wiped out should the Daleks revert to their evil ways. Ultimately, the Doctor does what he has to, but sooner than he might have anticipated. As this Universe was never supposed to have existed, cracks are already forming and stars are going out (thanks Russell!). The timelines are reset and all is as it should be.

Although Blackman's foreshadowing's pretty neat, some of it doesn't quite add up. In the first chapter, before the Doctor sends the sun supernova, Ace sees a second TARDIS. This is revealed later to be the one the pair return to the Plexus in following their stint on Skaro, in what I suppose was supposed to be a nice bit of 'timey-wimey' plotting (bloody hate that phrase - as Mr Middleton would say, overdoing the memey-wemey). This doesn't exactly compute though. If the second TARDIS was there from the start, why did the whole adventure even occur? If B returns to A to stop A from becoming B, then A would never become B surely. I think Blackman may've got too tied up in the clever-clever nature of the story to think it through completely coherently.

A disappointment of this story is that the Daleks really are a force for good. Cunning Daleks are highly enjoyable, and good Daleks can only sustain so much momentum, which seems to run out about halfway through The Ripple Effect, when the Doctor is still gurning in anger at them. I would have loved for the Doctor to have discovered a secret base behind a mountain range or something - perhaps even that same city from The Daleks, only at an earlier point in time of course. What Blackman goes for isn't bad necessarily, just a little underwhelming when you consider the possibilities. First and foremost this is a parallel world story, only the Doctor has created it. The Daleks are merely window-dressing to try and keep you interested. With all the Daleks-not-being-Daleks ness of recent years, I'm longing desperately for a story where they're just out-and-out evil bastards. That's something Russell T Davies excelled at, undeniably. Victory of the Daleks was good enough a script and concept, but then Asylum was more concerned with the Ponds' relationship, Day and Time of the Doctor featured them, but more out of necessity and reputation than for any specific purpose. In the latter, especially, all they did was sit and boom at the Doctor really. They served no great plot function beyond being the Doctor's ultimate enemy. It's a shame that we didn't just get an onslaught here, as it could have yielded some great confrontations between the Seventh Doctor and the Daleks.

Those are my main thoughts about this story, really. Unlike Something Borrowed where the Rani was integral to, and indeed caused, the plot, here the Daleks are just to spur the story on and alert the Doctor something's wrong in a shorter pagecount. This seems to take place over a great amount of time too, and Ace's characterisation was inconsistent. Initially, she complains of being cooped up in the TARDIS for too long, but later on is happy to sit in the control room for hours on end waiting for the Doctor to say or do something. Her friendship with Tulana develops over the course of literally one scene, which makes it a bit hard to believe her supposed pain when the timelines are corrected for this one individual. She also acts out of character for Series 25 and 26, which this is set between. Overall, I think Blackman treated her as a standard companion rather than as Ace.

The Doctor was fairly reliably handled, but could also have been improved. Simultaneous to reading this, I've been listening to John Dorney's The Assassination Games and his handle on the character is just so superior to Blackman's - another consequence of getting 'celebrity' writers involved in the project rather than those more talented authors (at least in this field). His loathing of the Daleks is consistent throughout, even when he sees they're trying to help, he still growls at them in anger. He's a very grumpy little man, and barely seems to smile at all. I know many might think this is faithful, but if you know McCoy's Doctor, you'll see that his Doctor is one of the most subtly jovial. He also doesn't feel right. I know for a review that's extremely inarticulate, but at no point do I get that buzz I feel when I listen to or watch the real McCoy. And it's not just because it's a book either, I have felt that way with previous books. 

Overall, a relatively unsatisfying experience. None of the elements come together coherently and Blackman's use of time is so troubling that it fails to engage the reader to any sort of threat at any point. I also believe it was a mistake to make it as far-reaching, what with cross-checking universal databases and the Time Lords rocking up. It would be much more impactful as a base-under-seige with the Daleks plotting against the Doctor or something - could they have created the Plexus to ensnare him for example? I'm not asking for a rerun of The Power of the Daleks, but something with a little more depth and originality than is on show here would be welcome. It feels like Blackman has decided to combine three of the most popular stories of all time - Genesis, Power and Turn Left - whilst taking a couple of ideas from each. I realise it can be tricky to be original when the Doctor Who canon is so vast, but the majority of those commissioned to create spin-off media nowadays manage. I'm sorry, I just don't think this was the one for me. A story featuring Hex Schofield would have been brilliant, I think. Not only because I love the character, or to canonise Big Finish or whatever, but to give him more exposure and screentime. Plus he's just as deserving of a place in these books as either of the two temporary companions we'll encounter in the next two stories.

In a Nutshell: Too clever for its own good and ends up spoiling aspects of what could be several enjoyable stories.

You can buy The Ripple Effect as an eBook here, or as part of the 11 Doctors, 11 Stories collection here.

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