Home : Archive : TSV 31-40 : TSV 34 : Review

The Highest Science

by Gareth Roberts

Book review by David Ronayne

This was a good book mainly because it didn't attempt to be anything else. After all the previous New Adventures trying to be the definitive novel in the series, Gareth Roberts' apparently (note the 'apparently') straightforward tale is refreshingly devoid of any stunning revelations about the Doctor's past or his companions' personal trauma. As is quite often pointed out during the story, even the Doctor isn't exactly sure what's going on this time, and there is very little of the brooding darkness that has surrounded the character recently. Bernice comes off very well, especially after the appalling treatment her character received in Transit. She appears as a more rounded, mature individual, providing a stable foil to the Doctor. There is a genuine friendship and rapport between these two, devoid of the manipulation that went on with Ace and as the Doctor pleasantly points out to her, 'I'm not your mother.' The Doctor is finally someone you can trust again.

The other characters are well crafted from the minor bit characters like Bernice's verbal sparring partner, the unfortunately-named Kendrick Funass, to the major ones, such as the villainous Sheldukher, who despite initially being portrayed as clearly a very sick psychopath, develops into a more subtle, refined (and as a result ultimately more dangerous), homicidal killer.

The Chelonians are also well developed. Despite initially seeming like stand-ins for the Sontarans or the Ice Warriors, they develop their own personalities past the cold-blooded (a term even more significant since they're reptiles), militaristic killing machines stereotype to almost believable characters, with their own internal power struggles and beliefs. I have only two gripes about these creatures. The first is that they are under-used; apart from a lucky few they are a faceless mass of warriors, perhaps lacking in the honour or resolve that made the Ice Warriors and Sontarans. Their alien background remains largely unexplored - a pity, as Roberts seems to have a flair for pseudo histories and asides, and extracts from their past could have made a pleasant interlude. The second gripe is with a rather contrived scene involving the Chelonian General and his Second although this is excusable due to the coincidental nature of the story, and as it sets up one of the funniest one-liners in the book.

In fact that is probably one of the greatest advantages of the novel - it's funny. It has a sense of humour that has been missing from many of the New Adventures books (with the exception of Paul Cornell's 'fruit fly' dialogue). Not only is there a joke referring to the series itself (or possibly Professor X?), but I'm sure I spotted a couple of swipes at other shows (although this could just be another outrageous coincidence). Roberts' writing can best be described as reminiscent of the mid to late Tom Baker seasons, or Douglas Adams on suppressants - funny, but without the maniacal edge that engulfs the story. Strangely enough the ending is also vaguely reminiscent of Adams, although much more tangible and conclusive.

The resolution of the conflict between the Chelonians and their adversaries did seem a bit of a cop-out, and ultimately we learn very little about the legend of Sakkrat, or the secret of the Highest Science so greatly feared by Gustaf Urnst, although this is part of a very clever plot twist before the end.

This adventure is fairly run-of-the-mill; there is almost no sex, and the violence is fairly minimal compared with other recent stories. But as I said before, it provides a nice interlude after the previous doom and gloom adventures. It's a fun book, and if you're after a slightly more traditional story with some of the whimsy of the television series, or a bit of light reading after some of the 'heavier' stories of the range, I thoroughly recommend it.

Book review by Paul Rigby

This is a really good book.

It's difficult to put one's finger on exactly what makes this book such a pleasure to read; really it's a blend of several features.

The plot itself is for once very straight-forward and simple, with few real twists, except at the end where it, like most books, has its fair share of surprises. This is by no means detrimental, in fact in the case of The Highest Science this is refreshingly one of its strengths.

The Doctor's mind slowly reassembled its awareness of itself. 'How can one's unconscious be knocked unconscious?' he wondered curiously... he could only hope that his Chelonian captors weren't engaged in fiendish torture or hadn't cut off his legs or anything. After all, it would take ages to grow another pair.

This book has an incredible wit and sense of humour. From Bernice's sarcasm, through the Doctor's nonchalance, to the Chelonians' amazing culture and mannerisms a sense of humour prevails. This is what I call 'subtle' humour, guaranteed to have you chuckling here, and in downright hysterics there - a humour which superbly complements the plot.

The Doctor is very well written, very 'TV-ish', mostly taking the role of an observer of events. He usually knows what's happening, but not because he has planned it, but because he has a greater knowledge. Bernice, overcoming a personality-suppressing pink fizzy drink (I'm sure there's a social comment there), is back to her old self. The repartee between her and the Doctor should not be missed.

The Chelonians (lizard-like warriors, as depicted on the cover), are a joy to read. They actually remind me of the Brigadier in places in respect to their attitude towards 'aliens'. They are a fascinating species and hopefully will return to the printed page sometime in the future.

If you're looking for a New Adventure to start with, this is it.

This is a really good book.

Book review by Chris Girdler

Transit is hardly a difficult act to follow, but The Highest Science is a worthy read. Despite a plodding start and an uninspired location (do quarries count as 'unexplored realms of space and time'?), Gareth Roberts brings together various sub-plots in an innovative fashion. He is a comedy writer and the strong science fiction storyline is littered with light-hearted relief. Bernice's dealings with sexual harassment and the intergalactic adventures of Captain Millennium are good examples.

That is not to say that The Highest Science is a breezy affair. Although it doesn't move at break-neck speed, it is a relatively stark novel compared with Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark or Timewyrm: Revelation. Whereas previous novels have touched on sex, this one deals with drugs and rock 'n' roll.

The Chelonians were interesting characters, at first seeming invincible but as things got beyond their control they began to turn on each other. My favourite parts were the sections that focused on the uneasy alliance between Sheldukher and his crew. Rosheen was a particularly strong character. The eight-twelves, on the other hand, were rather two-dimensional characters, excluding the amusing Witcher, who added little to the plot. The Cell at first seemed a rather clichéd 'suicidal slave' but did contribute to the unique twist at the end.

Gareth Roberts writes wonderfully for the Seventh Doctor. There is no 'I know something you don't' smugness (Season 26), weariness (Nightshade), or indifference (Transit). The Doctor is clever, intelligent, funny, and is given some great dialogue - just how he should be.

Likewise, Bernice is well written, fitting the place of new companion like a glove. She is a good replacement for Ace (now a rather jaded, over-used character), and contributes a good deal to the story without overtaking it, despite being 'out of it' due to her addiction to the contents of the mysterious pink cans.

Cover-wise, the portrait of the Seventh Doctor isn't quite the real McCoy, but Peter Elson has a great strength when it comes to composition. He also has a textured 'painterly' style which makes a nice change from Alister Pearson's clear-cut detailed 'heads in space' book covers.

Like most New Adventures novels, the ending was a slight disappointment; the Doctor's 'I may think up a way around the problem one day' comment being a cop-out to say the least. This does not detract from the fact that this is a well-written consistent and at times unpredictable novel. Not exceptional, but well worth getting.

This item appeared in TSV 34 (July 1993).

Index nodes: The Highest Science