Sunday, October 9, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Doctor Who: Shining Darkness'

The Book: Doctor Who: Shining Darkness

The Author: Mark Michalowski

How I Found It: Before making the decision to buy a Doctor Who novel, I usually check Amazon and Goodreads reviews by avid Whovians who can comment on characterization (which I care about more than plot when it comes to tie-ins, because if it doesn't sound like the characters I know and love, I'm not going to buy into it). This one had strong reviews.

The Review: The Doctor has taken Donna to an art gallery millions of light years away. If only he'd picked a better day. He's intrigued by a piece of art that gives odd readings when he scans it with the sonic screwdriver. Unfortunately, a group of art thieves is also intrigued--and Donna ends accidentally teleported with them as they steal the piece of art.

The art thieves are robot envoys of the Cult of Shining Darkness. The Cult are "organic supremacists"--they believe in the superiority of organic beings over robots, or "mechanicals," and the only robots they allow to work with them are ones with almost no sentience. They refuse to believe that robots can feel emotion or pain, that anything they do is a mimickry of humanity. And they would really like it if Donna could think as they do.

Meanwhile, the Doctor, in his desperate search for Donna, finds himself captured as well. The crew of The Sword of Justice is very interested in what the Cultists want with that piece of art, and if the piece the Cultists stole could be but one part of a whole. If the Doctor wants to find Donna, if he wants to learn what the Cult is up to, he's going to have to go along with the crew's pursuit.

I knew I was going to like this book from the opening scene. The Doctor and Donna, when I watched Series 4, quickly became my favorite TV friendship. They had such a fun dynamic (although it could certainly become a serious one at times), and Michalowski got that down with this exchange alone:
'Two and a half billion light years,’ said Donna Noble, her eyebrows raised and a gentle smile tugging at the corner of her mouth, ‘and you’ve brought me to an art gallery?’

‘Two and a half
million light years,’ corrected the Doctor, pulling Donna out of the path of something that resembled an upright anteater, studded with drawing pins, trundling down the street, ‘and it’s not just an art gallery.’ He sounded almost hurt.

‘If you’re going to tell me it’s “not just an art gallery” because it’s got a shop that sells fridge magnets…’

‘It might,’ replied the Doctor, glancing away guiltily and tugging at his earlobe. (8)
Everything about that one exchange struck me as the Doctor and Donna. The Doctor's sounding hurt at Donna slighting the art gallery, and that guilty, almost childish glance away at the end--that's him. Donna's mock-threatening tone and her indignation that of all the places they could go, the Doctor chooses a lowly art gallery--that's her. I knew right then that the author had their dynamic down, and it's really a shame that the Doctor and Donna spend almost the entirety of the book separated. Still, even if they're separated, their friendship is palpable. At one point, the Doctor talks about the Cultists stealing a valuable treasure, and when a museum worker remarks that what was stolen was hardly valuable, the Doctor glares at him and says, "I was talking about Donna." (15) It was little things like that that made me feel like Michalowski really got it.

As I said above, I read these books for the characters, not the plot. The plot has never been why I watch the show; I watch the show to see how everyday people react to (a) this brilliant alien they find themselves traveling with and (b) the absolutely ridiculous shenanigans said brilliant alien gets them into. But I was surprised at how much I liked the plot here, and the message it sent. Sometimes the didacticism was a bit over the top, but the book actually had a very touching message about racism and discrimination. Characters such as Mother, the Sword of Justice's helper robot, had depth and backstory. Mother was perhaps the most integral character in the story, the one who imparts said lesson and who the Doctor and Donna both learn from. This exchange with Donna was surprisingly profound:
[Donna] shook her head again. 'It's only natural to see something that doesn't look human and doesn't act human and to assume it doesn't think human, isn't it?'

> IT IS UNDERSTANDABLE, agreed Mother.

There was a long silence.

'It doesn't make it right, though.' Donna said quietly. 'Does it?'


Donna gave a bitter little laugh. At herself. (109)
Given that Doctor Who is a show aimed at family viewing, or at least was before this current series got into more adult territory, the message was subtle enough that kids wouldn't feel preached to, but obvious enough that parents who might read this with their children could use it as a talking point. I like those sneaky bits of education for the kiddies in the tie-ins, and to be honest, this exchange made me think, and I'm twenty!

The novel's message aside, this book was just funny at certain points. Michalowski had a good handle on balancing the humor with the dramatic bits. One review I read compared the book's humorous parts to Douglas Adams, and I can agree with that. The Cult hides another piece of the puzzle with a civilization that changes what they worship like they change their underwear, just for fun. When you've got a character whose subtitle is the High Priest of What We Believe Today, and the culture is currently worshiping an apocalyptic chicken--well, yeah, there's a bit of satire there. It wasn't offensive, though, and seemed more a gentle mockery of people too willing to believe anything rather than of religion itself. (There's even a perpetually bickering gay robot couple. It was kind of awesome.)

Even if the plot separates the Doctor and Donna, it was still fun to see their efforts at helping (or being forced to help) their respective captors. Donna learns a bit about robots and has to rethink her opinions about sentience and how she views nonhuman lifeforms, and she ends up being an instrumental part of facing the Jaftee, they of the ever-changing religion, in one of the best, most hilarious scenes. The Doctor's interactions with Mother give him a new respect for robots, and he gets to try his damnedest to stop another war. He has a beautifully in-character speech that ends on ‘Bad business, war. No one comes out of it unscathed.’ He paused. ‘Believe me.’ (128)

My biggest complaint was how the plot kept the Doctor and Donna separated, but Michalowski had just as good a handle on the Doctor and Donna separately as he did on the few scenes the reader sees them together. There's a subtle but profound message about racism, as well as some fun humor. As Doctor Who stories go, I found this to be a really entertaining one. Recommended to all fans!

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