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Doctor Who Novellas: Shell Shock

by Simon A Forward

(Telos Publishing, £25.00, 105 pages, deluxe, signed, limited edition hardback, also available in standard edition priced £10.00, published 29 May 2003.)

This is a good piece, and if all Doctor Who fiction were of this quality the world would be a better place.

The Sixth Doctor and his companion Peri Brown arrive on a deserted warship on an unspecified planet which might be Earth. They get separated when the ship sinks, and the Doctor finds himself playing the role of mentor to a small group of cyborg crabs and their human friend Ranger, survivors of a vaguely (but sufficiently) described horrible war, now marooned on a beach where the mysterious monster Meathook is picking them off one by one. Peri meantime spends most of the book disembodied and trying to regain contact with the Doctor.

The plot jumps between viewpoints and back and forth along its own timeline, and for Scrounger the crab, one of the viewpoint characters, we switch to the present tense. This mimicks the effects of Ranger's shell shock, as a result of which he looks "at the world as through a splintered lens". It's a difficult trick to pull off but it's done effectively. The insane Ranger and non-human Scrounger make effective viewpoint characters.

We gradually build up a picture of Ranger's motivations and his real relationship with the crabs, Meathook, and the disembodied intelligence which takes Peri under its wing. Scrounger is an engaging cyborg whose story ends on a note of triumph. Peri's character also is given some added depth (controversial in fan circles, I understand) which makes her relationship with the Doctor more convincing. I half-recognised elements from China Miéville, Iain M. Banks, and Brian Aldiss, but the combination here is original.

There are a couple of weak points. Because this is Doctor Who fiction, it is a given that for continuity's sake the Doctor and Peri will have survived in more or less one piece at the end, so rather than sympathise with their plight at any stage we tend to wonder how the author will extract them from it. Of course the author can and does compensate by introducing interesting and sympathetic secondary characters such as Ranger and Scrounger who we know are much more expendable.

Also the Doctor of Shell Shock is not very reminiscent of the character played by Colin Baker, forced as he is to be mentor, counsellor and comforter to Ranger and the crabs rather than an unstable zany extrovert. If the point of Doctor Who fiction is to develop the relations between established characters, and explore the nature of the Doctor, then this story cannot be rated a success. On the other hand, if the idea of Doctor Who fiction is to write good sf which has the Doctor and companions as the main characters, then Simon A. Forward can congratulate himself on a job well done.

As with all Telos productions, the book is nicely packaged. There is an introduction by Guy N. Smith, author of horror novels about crabs (which is a bit misleading because the story turns out to be more sf than horror) and the deluxe edition includes a frontispiece by Bob Covington and the autographs of Messrs Covington, Smith and Forward. I still think £10 for a hardback novella (let alone £25 for the deluxe edition) is a bit steep, but these days Telos are far from the only offenders on that point and presumably it's what the market will bear; I guess that waiting for the paperback is not an option in this case.

Review by Nicholas Whyte.

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