Friday, August 8, 2014

Doctor Who: The Crawling Terror by Mike Tucker

Title: Doctor Who: The Crawling Terror
Author: Mike Tucker
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.

p27 "Her and her Doctor..." should really be "She and her Doctor..."
p66 "...that your were some of them..." should be "...that you were some of them..."
p69 "...that the Germans..." should be "...than the Germans..."

I never got into the habit of reading Doctor Who novels because the medium is such a visual one so closely tied to TV that it feels wrong, somehow, to read the stories, but I'm excited about the impending new season with a new doctor, and I did actually review a novel some time ago titled Shada. I made an exception for that one because it was written by Douglas Adams, and because it was canonical - based on an un-transmitted TV show script written by Adams himself. Some of that script was even filmed, but it was never finished. Part of it (well, two brief scenes) was shown as an integral part of the 20th anniversary special titled, The Five Doctors transmitted in November 1983.

When I saw two novels available for review with the new doctor on the cover, I decided to take a chance - and hope the novels were not older ones which had simply had a new cover slapped on them. When you think about it, it ultimately doesn't matter given the history of the show, with its ever-mutable doctor, but The Doctor, when it comes to novels, is really defined by his companion, so if Clara is in it, for example, you know that The Doctor can only be the Matt Smith or the Peter Capaldi Incarnation (so far) so until I read it, I feared that this novel could be about either one despite the cover. However, and blessedly, Mike Tucker removes all speculation in chapter one, revealing this novel to indeed be about the newest doctor.

There's a prologue to this novel. I do not read prologues and I never miss them. In my opinion, it's an amateur conceit. To me, if it's worth relating, it's worth putting right there in chapter one. On the positive side, this novel isn't told in first person PoV, which was a pleasant discovery. I find that 1PoV rarely works well and is uncomfortably restricting to the author. It fails dismally in Doctor Who novels because it destroys the immediacy which the viewers demand, and which the show delivers so generously.

This novel, I'm happy to report, begins exactly like a TV episode - The Doctor and Clara appearing out of the TARDIS who has delivered them, in her infinite wisdom, to yet another hot-spot. This time it's in the Wiltshire countryside in England, where inexplicably large insects and arthropods reminiscent (somewhat!) of those which actually lived on Earth during the Carboniferous period, have begun appearing in the little, and aptly-named village of Ringstone.

I have a theory that the reason Steven Moffat picked an older actor to replace Matt Smith is his love for the entire series, not just the modern reinvention, and that Capaldi, in some ways, harks back to the time of the first Doctor, William Hartnell (it also seems to have something in common with the incarnation of the sixth doctor). I may be wrong about that, but I think one of the reasons I liked this novel was because it also, in a small way, harks back to that time, in particular the episode titled The Web Planet.

It's not long before a dead body shows up wrapped in a cocoon of spider silk, and the police and even the army, become involved - not that that seems to help much! It all seems to lead back to an experimental science lab which has opened for business in the area....

I have to say that I had some practical issues with the enlarged invertebrates. You can't simply enlarge an invertebrate without paying the hefty price which physics demands. The laws of nature are not like the pirate code (which is more like guidelines, really). The laws of physics are much more akin to solid prison walls which effectively trap convicts in cells. Organisms were able to grow so large in the Carboniferous because there was extra oxygen in the air, and even so, they did not grow to ridiculous proportions. Most of them maxed-out at a couple of feet or less. There was a centipede which grew to seven feet, but that was restricted to the ground and had a very flat body which didn't pose problems for oxygenation.

If you're going to propose a beetle the size of a small delivery van, you run into all sorts of difficulties. First it's really hard to passively oxygenate something that massive with internal passages so far removed from the surface, and secondly, there's the problem of supporting that massive weight on such spindly legs. It doesn't work, not even with a spider's hydraulic legs. There's a real limit on how large invertebrates can grow and still be able to breathe and move. That said, these organisms were artificially created, so we can allow some leeway for that, but even so, they were still highly-improbably sized in my amateur opinion!

One thing which bothers me about stories like this is the laser-like focus of the mutant beast upon hunting humans! Humans are not the natural prey of invertebrates. Yes, we get stung by wasps and bitten by spiders, but they're not hunting us when they do that. They're defending something. Yes, mosquitoes do hunt us, but aside from that, invertebrates, even giant ones, wouldn't zero in on humans and ignore their natural prey - especially if that prey was the same size as them.

The Primeval TV series that came out of Britain did this, too. Every week, almost without fail, some voracious antique animal came after the investigators and it got a bit tedious. As it happens, vertebrates are largely unaware of humans and don't think of us as prey. Indeed, they really don't think in any real sense at all. They're more like robots, or a computer program that, rather like the hologram of Dr Alfred Lanning in the movie I, Robot which has fixed responses to an assortment of inputs. They don't become 'enraged' or 'frustrated'!

Again, since the ones in this novel are genetically engineered, we can allow some leeway, but there's a limit to how much anthropomorphization of insects a person can accept, especially when they shriek!! And contrary to popular opinion, the bombardier beetle doesn't shoot acid from its butt. Nor does it shoot the components: hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinones. These two are mixed prior to eruption, and the hydrogen peroxide breaks down, providing the oxygen which heats up the fluid, resulting in a literally boiling, irritating liquid. It's definitely something you wouldn't want in your eyes, but while the fluid would be acrid, it's not a highly corrosive acid and it wouldn't burn through a helicopter (although it might short-out electrics).

Again, do we allow leeway for the fact that these invertebrates are artificially engineered? You can, but there comes a point along this leeway after which you must ask yourself, how much more of this am I going to permit before I give up in disgust?" I guess that point is right after you stop having fun?!

But those concerns aside, I did enjoy this novel. It felt like an episode of the show. It was inventive, and interesting, with realistic characters doing realistic things. There was a mad scientist, and there were Nazi schemes, and dangerous insects, and time travel, and aliens. In the final analysis, what's not to like about a story with all that?! I recommend this novel. The Doctor orders it to be taken with a pinch of salt, but nonetheless to be taken!

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