Placebo Effect is Doctor Who on a massive scale. There's no way you could do this on even the new series budget. Revolving around a terraformed planetoid called Micawber's World, which is about to hold the 3999 Intergalactic Olympics, security is tight and underhand dealings are afoot.
The inclusion of so many major and extraneous characters both helps and hinders the novel. On the one hand, with so many different sets of motivations, it's difficult to predict an outcome and work out who's on which side; on the other hand, many of them are extremely two dimensional and you'd probably lose track of who's who if you read the novel over a week or so. (I did it in three days and that was just about ok.)
Another issue I have is that the cover and blurb spoil the plot somewhat. Oh look, the Wirrn are back. Did they have to tell us that? But wait, there's more, the Foamasi are back too. There are even cameos by Meeps, so if you're afraid of fanwank then you should probably stay away from this, and indeed all Gary Russell books. I'm not averse to fanwank if it's used to further the plot rather than simply to titillate, and it works quite well here. The Wirrn are excellent bad guys that are underused in the TV series, while the Foamasi live up to their Mafiosa anagram and provide plenty of double dealing intrigue (indeed it's partly their inclusion that makes it difficult to determine what's really going on.)
The Doctor's at the centre of the story, trying to fathom the origin of the drug that's about to sweep the games. Meanwhile, Sam is making friends with a religious cultist whose faith in his leader is shaken later on in the novel. To portray the Doctor and Sam, Russell has drawn on their previous experiences in the EDAs, and as a result they're fairly well represented in terms of dialogue (although the Doctor occasionally says something out of character.)
Sound quite good? Well, it's let down by a few unfortunate and obvious mistakes. The first being that the opening of the novel featuring Sergeant Dallion is an even more blatant rip-off of the caving scene in Earthshock than the one in Kursaal. It's even got motion detectors and a screen with white dots on.
Then there's the discussion between Sam and Lukas/Kyle about religion and its effect on the people that follow it. It starts off well enough, and the arguments are convincing for both sides, but it drags on so long you could be forgiven for thinking you're reading a theology textbook. If you haven't fallen asleep, that is. Couple this with (the only) scene in which Sam behaves completely out of her more 'grown up' character - getting annoyed at Kyle for saying that 'all Meeps look alike' - plus the liberal waffle that creeps in now again, and you begin to see how a decent novel is spoilt by over-indulgence in the author's own moral and political viewpoint.
We learn that the in the Doctor's year out in between the Eight Doctors and Vampire Science, he picked up two new companions. Stacy (human) and Ssard (Ice Warrior) are getting hitched on Micawber's World, and we're allowed a brief insight into their possible interplay with Sam. Once their wedding's over, they leave the planet, as though Russell decided he couldn't make anything of them. Well hang on, these are two of the Doctor's ex-companions that we know nothing about, why introduce them and then send them packing? My reckoning would be that Russell realised he had ten zillion characters already and couldn't give Stacy and Ssard the depth they would need in addition to creating a decent plot.
Finally, it's 'Wirrn', not 'Wirrrn', as Russell spells it. It sounds pedantic, but if you're going to do fanwank, then you have to be prepared for the fans to moan if you get things wrong.
8 for the plot and characters, 4 for the annoying stuff that somehow passed editing. On average:
Review by Tom Hey