Fear Itself

I'm back reviewing possibly unique and slightly special books with this one. Fear Itself is, assuming you've contracted 8th Doctor-style amnesia and need reminding, the first 8th Doctor PDA, apparently slotting in between the dire Earthworld and the worthy-but-dull Vanishing Point. And the way things are looking it might well be the last 8th Doctor PDA as well, as the BBC is displaying the sort of cavalier attitude to the classic series novels as it displayed to the classic series itself back in the late 80s and early 90s. Seemingly these days if it doesn't have Chris and Billie pulling "bloody hell, what's that?" faces on the cover they don't want to know (which in itself I find amusing, as it leads to stupidly dated marketing in a worryingly short amount of time - like the official Doctor Who 2006 calendar having Eccleston plastered all over it, and he's got nothing to do with Doctor Who as of the end of this year. At this rate I half-expect the first novels featuring the 10th Doctor to still have Eccleston grinning out at me from above the title). And since we're talking about covers, Fear Itself hardly has one of the all-time greats... a not-very-accurate model of DNA that looks as if it's escaping out of shot. Still, the fact that the shadow of the DNA utterly convinced some people that the Slitheen were in the novel was amusing, because they aren't (thank god). But I digress. I why shouldn't I? It's my review. I remember a time...

...Anyway, on to Fear Itself. It's a standalone novel, as indeed one would imagine it had to be - there's passing reference to the 8th Doctor's interminable amnesia, but that's all. The plot starts seemingly well underway, but Nick Wallace employs the slightly unusual device of telling the story from three different time frames and jumping about between them, so we get to see the same characters at various stages over the course of four years and how the events of the novel change them.

The basic plot goes - the Doctor, Fitz and Anji (I did mention that this was an 8th Doctor PDA, right?) are visiting the solar system in the late 22nd century. There's some odd goings-on involving ex-soldiers going bonkers for no good reason and, because one of them lamps Anji in a café on Mars, the Doctor decides to investigate, as you do. This scenario will be pretty familiar to long-term readers of the EDAs - it's very similar to Frontier Worlds and The Sleep of Reason, where the Doctor and his companions pretend to be people they're not so they can get into somewhere and investigate some nefarious goings-on. In this case, they pretend to be accountants. No, really. It's the perfect disguise for infiltrating a top-secret military research station in orbit around Jupiter, apparently (this is the first main time period the book covers).

Anji gets left on Mars to recover and pretends to be a finance historian-cum-reporter. Needless to say, she is then slightly annoyed when the station is apparently destroyed with all hands on board, including the Doctor and Fitz. She then sets about trying to find out what really happened to the station, along with a bunch of military wives whose husbands were also aboard it when it vanished. And, apparently, getting married, in one of the book's more forgettable subplots (this is the second main time period, though less time is spent covering this one than the other two).

After four years, she finds that the station survived but fell into Jupiter's atmosphere for reason or reasons unknown, and so she decides to stow away with a top-secret military mission to find out what happened (this, unsurprisingly, is the third main time period).

The three time periods are interwoven in a tight, relevant way (someone will discover something in one time period, so there is an immediate flashback to an earlier one to show what happened to cause it. Simple, but effective). The ending also isn't quite the letdown that the EDAs always seemed in danger of specialising in ("it was the aliens from outside of time trying to break into our reality all along!" being the most common one and, to my mind, a total cop-out - cf. The Sleep of Reason and Reckless Engineering for two examples I've read in the past year that spring immediately to mind), with a genuinely unpleasant and genuinely surprising twist towards the end, which I didn't see coming at all but in retrospect the evidence seems obvious and well constructed. The book has a few nice touches - the paranoia of the Earth military due to a historically recent invasion by far superior alien forces being a nice one in particular (it's never explicitly stated, but given the story's late 22nd century setting it's got to be the Dalek invasion of Earth that they're talking about). Characterisation is strong throughout, with the 8th Doctor being particularly well captured and distinct from the 9th Doctor's print portrayals - he's sharp, brilliantly clever, spontaneous and given great feats of improvisation, but otherworldly with it and innocent in a way the 9th Doctor isn't. This book also has some good material for Anji, something that was all too often sadly lacking when she was a current companion. However, I found her thread lost it a bit towards the end, where a very Star Trek-style reset switch was hit. Admittedly in a PDA it's a hard thing to avoid without causing continuity errors with existing stories, but I have the nagging feeling that it could have been handled better than giving it the "it wasn't all a dream, but it might as well have been" treatment. Fitz is Fitz - I was never really all that keen on Fitz, finding him a bit too bland and blokeish all too often, but he's very recognisable here, though as he's been around in the EDAs seemingly forever it would probably be quite hard to characterise him badly these days simply by extreme familiarity with him. Besides the TARDIS crew the book also benefits from an extremely strong supporting cast of characters, all of whom are brilliantly realised and very believable. The changes that occur for some of them over the four years that the book spans are handled extremely well.

After suffering the first three NDAs, this book was a real breath of fresh air, and a good reminder of how enjoyable well-written Doctor Who fiction can be. It's much longer and more involving than the NDAs as well, with a complex but rewarding plot that couldn't work in the NDA's smaller, briefer format. I do disagree with DWM's claims that this is perhaps the very finest EDA ever written because that's obviously Alien Bodies and nothing will ever convince me otherwise short of finding out that Lawrence Miles is just a pen name for John Peel or Gary Russell, but it is certainly a good one, and it does a very good job of showing up the first three NDAs for the weak TV tie-ins that they are. Wonderful though the new series might be, I can't help but think that there still is a place for Doctor Who stories like this one - stories that in every way are "too broad and too deep for the small screen."

8/10

Review by Valedictorian

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