The Deviant Strain

Ah, another book review, another batch of NDAs, another Justin Richards novel. I see he's also down for the first batch of 10th Doctor novels, which worries me slightly. Not that I dislike Justin Richards. On the contrary, I want to like his books. In my humble opinion The Burning is, along with the marvellous Unnatural History and the mere-superlatives-simply-aren't-enough Alien Bodies, one of the three finest EDAs the BBC ever published, and a strong contender for inclusion in the Top Ten Doctor Who Novels Of All Time. It's just that he seems to have somewhat lost his way since then. His first NDA, The Clockwise Man, was perhaps best described as a disappointment. But is The Deviant Strain any better? Yes, actually. But then that's not saying an awful lot. I fear he's spreading himself a bit thin. Quality rather than quantity, and all that. But anyway.

The story is set in early 21st century Russia, in a coastal town that used to be a military port back in the Soviet heyday but is now a rotting (oh, how Richards loves that word in this book!) fishing village where old submarines go to die. A military squadron under the leadership of a chap called Colonel Levin has just been called in to investigate some odd goings-on of the mysterious-energy-spikes-bright-lights-and-random-disappearances variety, and lo and behold no sooner have they arrived than the Doctor, Rose and Jack show up, investigating an alien distress signal. There then evolves a tale involving crashed alien spaceships, bonkers village natives striving for immortality in finest Anthony Ainley tradition by stealing "life force" from other people, nasty blobby things going on the rampage, and lots of running about in the snow at night that reminded me an awful lot of Goldeneye on the N64 for some reason.

After the poor showing he gave the Doctor and Rose in his first NDA, Richards redeems himself somewhat here. The 9th Doctor in particular comes across well, with a nice mix of unassuming authority, gentle humour and quiet determination. His actions, thoughts and feelings are never overstated, and in many ways he is presented very simply and straightforwardly to the reader who can then let their familiarity with Christopher Eccleston's portrayal fill in the gaps... it's a system that works very well given the NDA's briefer format, avoiding the overly-characterised quipping and grinning erratic buffoon of Winner Takes All and proving that where the 9th Doctor is concerned less is definitely more. Rose has a nice proactive streak that Richards makes good use of - she wants to help, she wants to get to the bottom of things, she wants to save people, though all without being holier-than-thou like Sam in the early EDAs - though it will be interesting to see if this novel's revelation that Rose can drive a car is something that the series itself will contradict. No, the big problem of characterisation here - aside from some instantly bland and forgettable main villains - is Captain Jack Harkness. At times Richards succeeds in capturing the flippant humour and hyperactive charm of John Barrowman's TV portrayal, most notably in Jack's first scene in the TARDIS and one later when the Doctor, Rose and Jack are assembled on the alien ship as the Doctor explains the plot to everyone, but the rest of the time Jack is written as some generic military type with a frankly unbearable (and uncharacteristic) sense of moral righteousness. There were hints of this in his "there's an army... about to invade this station" speech in The Parting of the Ways, but here it's full on for most of the book, and frankly it jars - not to mention leading to a sickly-sweet overly saccharine final paragraph. He also suffers from "Peri syndrome", that is, someone with an American accent being forced to speak very un-American dialogue - calling someone a "clever-clogs" in particular stands out as something I could never imagine Jack saying. The Doctor yes, Rose maybe, Jack no. And not once does he so much as flirt with anyone!

Justin Richards's technique of using awful overemphasis and repeated highlighting of "minor" details that turn out to be important from The Clockwise Man returns here, too, leaving the reader with little doubt who the bad guys seeking immortality are before their supposedly shock unmasking. Could it be Sofia Barinska, whom Richards describes more than once as having a face that looks like some grotesque grinning skull when it's illuminated in a certain way? Or could it be Klebanov, who everyone keeps saying is older than he looks? Yep, you guessed it, it's both of them. There's also some wacky non-science to top the whole thing off - as a biologist in a former life I was amused to keep reading about "binding energy" and "life force" (one term seems to change into the other partway through the book with little explanation - and scientifically speaking there is no such thing, of course) being responsible for keeping skin unwrinkled, bones solid, and people young forever, but apparently it isn't necessary for keeping your hair in good condition.

It's not all bad though. The Russian setting is used well and there's a palpable sense of isolation and desolation. The supporting cast - bar the villains who are remarkably one-dimensional considering - are all fairly well-written. The story moves swiftly; something's always happening and the characters (and hence the reader) are given little time to stand around idle waiting for the next plot point to heave into view. However, there just isn't much substance to the story - the monsters are forgettable, the plot is forgettable, the characters are forgettable, to the extent whereby only the day after finishing it I had to go back and look up all their names for this review. The monsters (actually remote energy collectors for the alien ship) are very poorly described, being silent big blue blobby glowy things with lots of tentacles that, as monsters in Doctor Who are contractually obliged to do, they flail a great deal but never actually hit anyone important with. The ending is another one of those "there was a big bang and suddenly it was all over" moments that seems to be in danger of becoming an NDA staple; this book pushes it to extremes by not having the main villain die until the fourth-to-last page, and if that's not a rushed ending then frankly I don't know what is. And I still have no idea what the title actually has to do with the book, aside from it being crowbarred into a line of the Doctor's dialogue simply because it sounds good, a la The Armageddon Factor.

The Deviant Strain. Silly title, but not a bad book. Sadly, it's not a great book either. It's better than The Clockwise Man and it's a pleasant enough way to pass a bus journey or two, but Justin Richards is clearly capable of so much more, and could have easily written the first NDA that finally surpassed the TV stories in breadth and scope instead of writing a story that would work well in the shallower and briefer medium of the TV show but struggles to fill a novel. However, it would seem that while the TV series is in full swing we're to be cursed with decidedly and deliberately average books that strive officiously to not rock the boat in any way. Nevertheless, I'd rather this and The Clockwise Man prove to be the blip in an otherwise enviable record, rather than The Burning proving to be the blip in an otherwise unenviable one. Come on, Justin; you've improved since last time, but you can still do better than this.


Review by Valedictorian


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