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Festival of Death, by Jonathan Morris

"Well," said Romana. "At some point in our future lives, we return to the G-Lock, to a point earlier in time. We then get... involved."
"As usual."
"Get accused of things we haven't done."
"As usual."
"And then save everyone from certain death."
"As usual."

Doctor Who spinoff novels are a mixed bag. They are either average, or complete rubbish. So when I say this is the best one, I need to make it clear that this is not the best of a bad lot - this book is actually good.

This was part of the BBC Books line of Past Doctor Adventures - stories featuring the characters from the original series, taking place between television stories. This line was created when the book rights reverted to the BBC from Virgin publishing in 1996 when the television movie was made. Virgin had been putting out lacklustre books in it's Missing Adventures series since 1994, a late companion to it's New Adventures line (an attempt to continue the TV series in print, but with more sex - and a lot more violence).

Now, lets be honest here: When people are being paid to write books based on a popular television series or film franchise, it's just fan fiction. The quality is not magically up to the standards of the original just because the brand logo is on the cover (possibly excepting the times they dig one of the scriptwriters out of cold storage to write a book). Doctor Who is already a huge, unwieldy mess and so it's probably prone to worse commercial fan fiction than anything else. Sequels and prequels to TV stories abound. Bad characterisation oozes from between the pages and drips onto the carpet of the shop as the potential reader holds the book between finger and thumb to read the blurb. Concepts that are left alone in the TV series are over-utilised to the point where it's laughable. For example, "time travel" is often a convenient science fiction way of saying "magic" in these books.

So imagine my surprise when I gingerly picked up this book to read the blurb and no hack-slime dripped out of the book. Even better, the blurb actually made me want to read it. The premise is that the fourth Doctor, the second Romana, and the second K-9, all arrive at a space station they've never visited before. It appears they've just saved everyone from some sort of zombie rampage, the end result of turning the afterlife into a tourist attraction. Everyone thanks the Doctor profusely. He's quite pleased, because usually he doesn't get to hang around and soak up the praise after saving the day. Then he finds out why everyone is so pleased to see him - The last time they saw him, he was dead.

The Doctor concludes that he might as well get it over with, and immediately goes back in time a few hours. Then he goes back further - and further. They each have to find their "first" meeting with the people they met on arrival, including the two-hundred year old computer. On top of this, the various extras inhabiting the story hint at their own adventures in the space station at the start of the book (i.e., the end of the story from their point of view), which leaves even more questions the reader will want answered. It all makes logical sense by the end, more or less, even if the main characters don't quite understand how it's possible.

It's quite well written. The dialogue feels right for the point in the series this novel is set and the mannerisms fit the characters - things often neglected in the spin-off media. Even K-9, a robot dog who comes across in print roughly as personable as a Dalek, is more of an actual character rather than a plot device. The side characters are handled well enough for a Doctor Who novel: The ones who are there as standard plot tools aren't boring, and the people who are there to help the protagonists along have back stories which actually make them sound like real people with personalities and flaws, instead of a host of author proxies like the other spin-off novels.

The bad thing about this book is the endemic problem with these spin-off novels as a whole - powerful evil entities from alternate dimensions outside time and space are apparently so common in the Doctor Who universe that people can't move without bumping into one. Every planet, space station, asteroid, and traffic island has one in residence, and the all want to take over the universe, kill everyone, and laugh evilly while it does so. While this cheery outlook of ranting genocide has always been a common one among the aliens in Doctor Who, it's probably time to give it a rest: We get it. Space is a nightmare filled with evil. At least here it's clearly ridiculous.

Perhaps the biggest crime is that the question of free will isn't discussed beyond a couple of lines between the main characters. It's established that even Time Lords can't avoid their future if they accidentally find out about it, yet they then spend time trying to make sure they don't interfere with their pasts when they cross their own tracks in the course of the story. Meanwhile, the pointlessly angry evil entity can mock up a nice, happy vision of what people expect the afterlife to be like from their memories, and gets a free pass to play silly buggers with causality. It's best not to think too hard about it by that point. This is a constant problem with the spin-off novels, which Festival of Death repeats - the interesting questions are only addressed with a bit of hand waving, because the author is too busy trying to cram in all the things they want to see in a Doctor Who story.

Ultimately, it's an entertaining book to read and has some convoluted time travel plotting which is fun to see untangled. Part of the fun is that it's clearly a Doctor Who story in reverse, and the standard plot device characters are clearly marked out as such. It's a deconstruction of Doctor Who. Of course, if you're not a fan of the show, the real question is: Is it a good book if you don't know anything about Doctor Who? Well, I've loaned my copy to a few people who've never seen the series, and they thought it was an entertaining read.

I suppose out of 248 books, one had to be good.

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