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Not-So-New Adventures


By Paul Scoones

A column taking a fresh look at some of the older New Adventures novels

Virgin Publishing's Doctor Who Guidelines for Prospective Authors (January 1995) describes Transit as "the most controversial New Adventure; an example of how far the novel medium can take Doctor Who" I used to think it took the medium too far. I thought it was badly written and incoherent. Just recently I re-read Transit for the first time in three years, and was surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In the days before the New Adventures there were the Target novelisations, To my mind the absolute pinnacle of these was Remembrance of the Daleks. Ben Aaronovitch produced a highly polished narrative full of innovative concepts, many of which have become firmly rooted in continuity (Ka Faraq Gatri and Ace's friend Manisha among them).

I waited impatiently for a year from the time that I learned that Aaronovitch was writing a New Adventure until Transit arrived in my hands. I was expecting something along the same lines as the Remembrance novelisation, and the novel was nothing like it. Looking back on my review, published in TSV 32, I am reminded of my feelings on the subject: "I found the book exceedingly difficult to read, mainly because it did not hold my attention for more than a few pages at a time." The book was shelved and not looked at again.

Kate Orman was responsible for sowing the first seeds of doubt in my mind. She was one of the first people whose opinions I respected who openly admitted to liking Transit. During her tenure as editor of Data Extract, the newsletter contained numerous in-jokes relating to aspects of this particular novel. Ben Aaronovitch had created Kadiatu as a potential 'guest companion' in Transit, and Kate was the first and to date only author to pick up and utilise the character, no less than 25 books later. Set Piece can be read as a sequel to Transit, not just because of the inclusion of Kadiatu but also in terms of its shared themes. I hadn't taken notice of the numerous butterfly wings references in Transit, but they're there - check out page 62 for example.

Then came The Also People, Ben Aaronovitch's second New Adventure novel and due to my dislike of Transit I had very low expectations. Instead it turned out to be one of my all-time favourite New Adventures novels. Once again, Kadiatu returns as Aaronovitch seamlessly picks up the ends of this character's plot thread from Set Piece. By now I was no longer certain of earlier my views - had I misjudged Transit so badly?

Finally, there was Broadsword, an Australian fanzine specialising in New and Missing Adventures appreciation. The December 1995 issue was devoted to Transit, and contained impassioned arguments for and against the novel. I knew now that I should give the book another chance.

Having read Transit afresh, my opinion of the novel has most definitely changed. I actually enjoyed it. I'm not just jumping on the bandwagon of revisionist popular opinion here - I went into the book with an open mind, not looking to like or dislike it. So why the change?

I think for its time, as only the tenth New Adventure, Transit may have been too radical a departure from the Doctor Who that many people, myself included, wanted to read. Since that time, another thirty five or so books have taken the series in many different directions in terms of plot, style and innovations. Sky Pirates! would have been panned by most readers if it had placed as early in the series as Transit was.

Transit is not the easiest of books to read. It demands concentration and attention to detail, but the effort is amply rewarded. Aaronovitch's narrative style contains little in the way of explanation which isn't provided via the thoughts or words from his characters. The world of Transit is a bleak, sleazy, Blade Runner-esque depressing vision of Earth's future, and the people who inhabit it are far removed from the everyday life that we can relate to.

Unlike the 'show and tell' prose style adopted by the novelisations and most of the New Adventures, the reader must work at understanding what is going on. Transit has a style not unlike William Gibson's cyberpunk novels, loaded with bizarre terminology, phrases and customs. The glossary at the back is an indicator that even the author had an idea that the reader was going to find it hard going.

It has often been stated that one of the primary functions of a Doctor Who companion is to provide an identifiable reference point for the viewer or reader. We understand just how much somewhere visited by the TARDIS differs from our own because the companion - usually and quite deliberately a young person from our own time - is there to make the comparison. This is why, when Virgin introduced their new regular companion Bernice Summerfield, a native of the 26th century, one of her areas of expertise was twentieth century Earth, so the audience identification factor was not lost. Part of the problem therefore in Transit is that Bernice plays a minimal role in the adventure and the identification factor cannot operate, and the Doctor, rather than passing moral judgement on the state of Transit's society (as his third self might have done), instead immerses himself in the culture and accepts it for what it is.

Bernice's temporary 'replacement' as the companion is Kadiatu, and although in the first few pages it is established that she is not happy with the environment in which she lives, it remains her only frame of reference. Kadiatu is a fascinatingly complex character whose relationship with the Doctor is an uneasy alliance born of necessity. Her time travel research and her links with the Doctor's past are intriguing, and her seemingly psychic awareness of ancient Gallifreyan history is positively spooky. A greater understanding of her behaviour in The Also People - particularly why she dances alone on the beach - can be gained from Transit.

The name Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart first appeared in Aaronovitch's Remembrance novelisation as the author of a history of UNIT. The Kadiatu of Transit is named after her. They are both descendants from the son the Brigadier had with the daughter of an African chief (the Brigadier is either Kadiatu's great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather; the novel contradicts itself). The concept of Brigadier fathering an illegitimate child in his younger days was at first too at odds with the character for many readers, but since Barry Letts has now given the man Italian ancestry (thus making Kadiatu part-Italian), who's to say that Aaronovitch shouldn't have rewritten the Brigadier's background?

At this stage Bernice was all too new to the series for Aaronovitch to have had much opportunity to get to grips with her character before his book had to be completed (her introductory story, Love and War, comes immediately before Transit). Benny is therefore removed from the action early in the piece and thereafter is for the most part possessed by an alien. It has become apparent on my re-reading however that Aaronovitch did have a better understanding of Bernice's character than I'd previously given him credit for. The flashbacks to her childhood providing insights into her emotional make-up and the traumas that she suffered as a child are entirely consistent with the Bernice that we have come to know so well.

The novel has been criticised for excesses of sex and swearing, but far from being excessive these are essential ingredients with which to portray the moral degradation and gritty reality of society. There's an amusing moment in which the Doctor intently studies a hologram graphically advertising sex "as if the writhing figure was an anthropological exhibit." The sleazy sexual references are nicely counterpointed by Kadiatu and Blondie's playful lovemaking. The word 'fuck' crops up frequently and although again it usually doesn't seem out of place (it somehow looks wrong to have Bernice using the word though), the point I made in my original review that Aaronovitch would have done well to have created a future equivalent for this word, just as he did for so many others, still stands. Less than a year later, the BBC instructed Virgin publishing to excise all use of the word 'fuck' from forthcoming Doctor Who novels.

Virgin were originally reluctant to publish returning monster novels, and although such books did start to appear beginning with Iceberg, Transit came out months earlier. The Ice Warriors have a strong presence in the thoughts of the war veterans and there is even has a sequence in which the Doctor goes to Mars and explores an Ice Warrior nest, but the popular monsters never actually appear. At the time this was very frustrating, but retrospectively I feel that to include the Martians in an already-crowded plot would have detracted from the story.

It is often said of Ghost Light that in order to fully understand and appreciate the story it is necessary to view it two or three times. The same is true for Transit. It is the sort of book which at first may appear confusing, but the more the reader persists, the more rewarding the experience. The sections that at first I found most impenetrable of all - featuring the Sol Transit System itself and the repair crew of Lambada, Dogface, Blondie and Old Sam - made sense when given a second read.

Unlike The Also People, Transit is not faultless, and anyone who reads these books in reverse order will undoubtedly be disappointed to some extent if they expect the same standard of perfection from Aaronovitch's earlier novel. The weakest point is undoubtedly the climax. The exact nature and origin of the Doctor's adversary is never clearly explained, and the surreal nature of the final confrontation seems very much at odds with the gritty hard realism of the rest of the book. The best bits include the Doctor's periods of self-doubt, the trip to the Doctor's house, the Angel Francine, the combat suits, and the operatic dramatisation of the Doctor's years on Earth - Il Dottere Va in Viaggio by Marconi Paletti (spot the in-joke).

Transit is a challenging yet powerfully rewarding novel which with the publication of books such as Set Piece, The Also People, and also no doubt the forthcoming So Vile A Sin, has taken on a renewed and important significance in the New Adventures canon.

This item appeared in TSV 47 (April 1996).

Index nodes: Transit