[Book Review] Justin Richards' Apollo 23 (Doctor Who Novel, Eleventh Doctor)
'Houston - we have a problem.' An astronaut in full spacesuit appears out of thin air in a busy shopping centre. Maybe it's a publicity stunt. A photo shows an immaculately-dressed woman in her best shoes lying dead at the edge of a crater on the dark side of the moon—beside her beloved dog 'Poochie'. Maybe it's a hoax. But as the Doctor and Amy find out, these are just minor events in a sinister plan to take over every human being on earth. The plot centres on a secret military base on the moon—that's where Amy and the TARDIS are. The Doctor is back on Earth, and without the TARDIS there's no way he can get to the moon to save Amy and defeat the aliens. Or is there? The Doctor discovers one last great secret that could save humanity: Apollo 23.
from the BBC shop product description
The watch-word for many of the Russel T. Davies era Doctor Who novels (focusing on the Ninth and Tenth Doctors) was "adequate", I feel. They added in some new adventures, brought back a few established baddies, and filled in a need for those fans who wanted some more action and was ok with the fact that plot would not be advanced. No new companions, excepting those per-episode sorts, would be introduced. New creatures would get introduced, but none (that I know of) ever got brought into the show afterward. There has been at least one shout-out in-show to one of the books, and maybe a couple of hidden ones, but that's about it. They are not a separate universe: they are the same, and they are boxed in by the show itself. Filler. Bonus materials. The writing as a whole kind of echoes this: most of it satisfying the plot's needs, but not quite getting the rhythm and flow needed to fully engage the reader. And, so, Justin Richards' new Eleventh Doctor novel*—Apollo 23—which is actually written quite nicely and carries with it a good, strong momentum, was a welcome treat.
Sure, it follows the rules above. It introduces a new baddie, but one that will likely never cross over into the show. It has references back to the show, but nothing new in the way that some tie-in novels (including the Doctor Who novels from the 80s and 90s) might, where plot points are explained, plot holes filled, and behind-the-fourth-wall moments are exposed for the first time. It just floats somewhere in the early part of the thirty-first (or fifth, or first, depending on which numbering system you are using) season: inconsequential, but fun. Richards' prose is the first thing to bring up: this book was a quick and pleasurable read. There are a few "The Doctor is soooooooo awesome!" passages that are a bit juvenile feeling (juvenile in the sense that I can see teenage boys eating up heroic praise), but since this novel is presumably somewhere in the same ballpark as "Eleventh Hour" as far as providing a fresh start for the series, I'll allow it.
The plot is likewise strong but to the point. We start with a man on Earth dying because he went for a walk and asphyxiated in the open air. Then we get an astronaut appearing out of nowhere in a fast food joint, assumed to be a publicity stunt until people start noticing things like men-in-black escorting him off and moon-dust on his feet. Cut to a Texas military base and we find some military types looking at a woman and her dog dead on the moon. In the middle of this, the Doctor and Amy (Pond, from the current season), get involved and pop up to the moon to investigate and stumble upon America's best kept secret: what really happened after Apollo 17.
With this all happening three and half feet deep in military covert-ness, the plot could have became a series of mil-types attacking the Doctor with red-tape and annoying bravado. That plot has been done before, and considering the Doctor's continued outsider status, will be done again. Instead, though, Richards goes for a more idealistic plot structure where fellow scientists and frontiersmen take the Doctor at his word, sort of, and let the plot progress to the real bad-guy: the mind-infecting invasion force. As regularly occurs in the show, and other books, a great deal of tension is built up by the separation of Doctor and companion; though in this case the separation is more than just a few rooms across a mansion. Amy is not just stranded, she is stranded in the cusp of a movie somewhere between Alien and The Thing. While the Doctor gets to gallivant and impress terrestrial scientists, every second counts for Ms. Pond, off on a moon base where some or all of the supposed good guys are actually bad guys underneath. Perhaps the worst mistake Richards makes is to not tap into that juxtaposition even more. Doing so, I suppose, would have disrupted the baseline idealism (the novel is, after all, partially a love letter to the space program); but still, trapping your characters on the moon with rescue at least hours if not days off is practically begging for a little horror in the mix.
All in all, I found this to be a Good (+1.3) book and possibly even a Great (+1.8) Doctor Who book. Recommended, and it has inspired some fresh hope for me when it comes to reading the rest of the newly formatted* Eleventh Doctor novels. [Note: as a bonus (for me), Hunsville, AL (i.e. my stomping grounds) gets namechecked in the middle of the book in reference to the Saturn 5 that greets visitors coming down I-565.]
You can buy it on Amazon.com.
Si Vales, Valeo
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