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September 27, 2008

"I like to think of it as the universe making sure I'm in the right place at the right time. It has a habit of doing that."

Considering he has a ship which can travel anywhere in existence at any time (give or take a timelock or two), never mind his fondness for Earth, the Doctor takes very few trips outside of the Milky Way.  So it’s also ways a novelty when he pitches up in the Isop Galaxy or Andromeda as in Mark Michalowski’s Shining Darkness.  It’s a bit like those episodes of Eastenders which venture outside the comfort zone of Walford, though in Doctor Who’s case it offers the writer even more scope to create a world, since the usual laws of society or physics needn’t necessarily apply.  Except, as Michalowski’s book demonstrates, more often than not, it’s problems are all too often like our own, which is as it should be probably otherwise what’s the point?

Wanting to show Donna a part of the universe even he’s not too aware of, The Doctor takes her for a visit to an Andromedran art gallery, but there’s not much time to decide if the work on offer beats this year’s Turner prize before they’ve each been misappropriated to the starships of two sides of a cat and mouse chase across the galaxy.  The companion’s captors, The Cult of Shining Darkness, that galaxy’s equivalent of white supremacists are attempting to collect sections of some device to help in their fight against the mechanicals who as far as they're concerned are stealing their part of the universe from the 'organics'.  Hot on their heals, the time lord hitches with the small band of fighters tasked with stopping them.  It’s not the most complex of stories; both parties appear at various locations such as junk yards, fight over a thing then move on to the next one, battling to get the upper hand (cf, The Infinite Quest).

What makes it interesting and indeed a pleasure to read is Mark Michalowski.  I’ve been very pleased with his comic strips in both DWM and DWA and enjoyed the cute overload that was his previous book in this range, Wetworld, and Shining Darkness offers a definite development in style, as the author very closely pastiches the kind of idiom of deviation and derivation usually perpetrated by Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, with moments in which the story takes a break whilst he offers some background to events outside of the character’s point of view all the better to increase the humour quotient and where all the Doctor and Donna can do is look on whilst the petty differences which permeate our society are extrapolated onto, for example, a couple of robotic assassins.

Which means that a story which in other hands would be a fairly fun if predictable romp is at times laugh out loud funny.  Some of this is self referential – there are tips of the hat to (deep breath) the spiritually similar unfairly-maligned-still Graham Williams-produced trad era as well as early parts of the new series.  Much of the time it’s just that the author is trying and succeeding in being clever and assuming that his audience is looking for something with more depth than many of these books offer.  There’s an amazingly gutsy passage which I’ll not spoil for you which plunges headlong into the debate about the viability of organised religion as well as pointing out elsewhere that in fact everyone is ultimately racist and there’s not very much you can do about it.

Some might find the treatment of that last point to be a bit heavy handed – and in the middle of the book to an extent the Doctor turns into a kind of timelord Louis Theroux coming to terms with the bizarre value system of the cult and how they can't understand why man and machine would want to live in perfect harmony.  The supporting characters too are fairly functional with the cult pinioned on a familiar Pertwee villian trope of the bureaucrat with shaky beliefs and standards relying on someone who has both and neither being chased by Lost In Space’s Will Robinson and Robot (though the latter undoubtedly has a drier-wit).  But Mark's overall wit and portrayal of the Doctor and Donna keep you reading as he perfectly captures their performances, particularly Catherine Tate, modulating the shrillness with the smarts, and demonstrating that when the history of this era of the show is written down, she’ll be considered one of the best companions, the Ginger Goddess indeed.  And you’ll have to read it to find out what that means.  Delightful.

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