Home : Archive : TSV 41-50 : TSV 42 : Review

Theatre of War

By Justin Richards

Book review by Phillip J. Gray

The idea of writing a Doctor Who novel as a tribute to Hamlet struck me as a horribly pretentious, self indulgent thing to do. Justin Richards, you have sadly convinced me I was right. When I want to read Janet Frame or Iris Murdoch, I will read their books, both of whom I enjoy greatly. When I want to read Doctor Who, I expect at least something conceived as Doctor Who. Theatre of War is not in itself a bad book, but it is a very poor example of something which professes to be a Doctor Who novel.

If I was very cruel, I would spend a lot of time deconstructing Theatre of War to show how poorly written I think much of it is, but for reasons of time, space and effort I shall simply distract you, dear reader, with some devastating superficial comments on Mr. Richards' roman. My reading of the first Act is that it was written completely outside (or only marginally inside) the Doctor Who genre. We spend fifty pages wading through a turgid narrative of some archaeologists landing on the planet Menaxus and beginning an archaeological dig. Included among them is one Professor Bernice Summerfield. She is not really out of character, but the rest of the characters are so indistinguishable I had to keep turning back to their introductory sections to remind myself who they were. This does not have to be a fault of balancing many characters; Gary Russell does it extremely well in Legacy. On page 49 Richards panics because this is supposed to be a Doctor Who book, so we have a pointless little episode with the Doctor and Ace sitting watching multiple sunsets, just to remind the reader that yes, the Doctor is in this book after all.

Benny seems to display almost no credibility as an archaeologist, especially one who is supposed to have academic publications to her credit. No comments as to publication dates, I think that's been done enough already. Although not an archaeologist myself, I am vain enough to profess to know something about history and the nature of sources and I was appalled by the expedition's cavalier attitude towards their major source. This reduces the credibility of the archaeologists severely, which is a pity because Richards has spent about fifty pages trying to persuade us that these people are professionals and from a culture that values theatre and, by implication, the excavation of theatrical sites above almost anything else.

Lest the dear reader should think that my critique of Theatre of War is completely devastating, I must confess that there are some sections I like. Benny's sojourns at the Braxiatel Collection are amusing and her character shines there, unlike her treatment on Menaxus. No wonder the Doctor packed her off at the first opportunity - he'd obviously read the previous sixty or seventy pages! Fortunately, once the action moves off to the planet Heletia, the book improves greatly. Obviously the plot was no longer being 'dragged down' by the intelligent mud. Once we have jettisoned most of the featureless and pointless characters, those who remain are actually quite interesting: Lannic, Klasvik and especially the Exec and Marlock.

The political intrigue appealed to me much more than the archaeological sequences. Ace's little escapades with robots were diverting enough; something to do while Benny and the Doctor are caught up in the 'real' plot and as all the New Adventures authors nowadays regard Ace as a redundant character she is relegated to a sideline role. Richards' conclusion, with the references to concentration camps, would be an anti-climax if its piecemeal treatment wasn't so tasteless.

The division of Theatre of War into acts and source documents is interesting in a vague sort of way but does not seem to correspond tightly with the nature of the plot. This seems to be stretched interminably in Act One and compressed in Act Three, although I might be being generous in my attribution of enough plot to the book. In fact, Theatre of War improves considerably, but my reading is still that it was hurriedly altered to become a New Adventure. The much-vaunted theatrical references actually came across as rather pointless; perhaps as something to spot idly while watching the plot meander by. Perhaps the book will improve with a second reading. While I hope this will turn out to be true, Theatre of War is not a New Adventure I will be rereading in a hurry.

No, I didn't understand the Alpha Centauri joke on page 191. Could someone please explain it to me?

This item appeared in TSV 42 (January 1995).

Index nodes: Theatre of War