Monday, December 7, 2015

First Frontier

Okay, first of all what is going on with Ace's anatomy on this cover. What editorial board saw this and gave the illustration its approval? She has almost a metre between her chest and her hips! It's almost grotesque.

After enjoying two New Adventures, in predictable pattern, I splatter against a concrete wall of dullness and inept prose. I don't remember much of David A. McIntee's first entry in the series, White Darkness, other than it wasn't awful. The clever premise, the link between Lovecraft's Old Ones and voodoo, was wasted on endless descriptions of explosions (according to my review. Thank heavens I write these things; how else would I remember?). Starting First Frontier, I had trepidations; I'm not particularly interested in the Cold War nor do I care about Area 51 or the US's secret UFO history. Just not my cup of tea. I also had some misgivings as McIntee's own introduction praises his research, which sounds as obnoxious as you can imagine. Speaking of obnoxious, he even refers to the "major plot twist"... in the introduction! McIntee's presence in the book makes itself known, not just in the introduction, but in his annoying dropping of historical details—constantly. Details that are meant to increase verisimilitude but slow the book down to a crawl. Other reviewers spoke of Strange England as a dire slog, but that phrase needs to be applied to First Frontier. Reading this was exhausting.

Firstly, let's talk about the plot and how overcomplicated it is. McIntee isn't satisfied with comparing and contrasting the "Commies as aliens" hysteria trope with classic Doctor Who "the aliens are among us!" hysteria trope. No, he has to add (spoiler for a 20 year old book) the Master into the mix and endless supporting characters. Endless. There isn't a soldier in this book that isn't named. McIntee even includes not one, but two military bases for you to keep track of, along with three different subspecies of the alien enemy. There's generals and lieutenants and majors and endless soldiers both in the setting of New Mexico and in Washington, DC—where the action goes for almost no reason other than to waste my time.

The plot, I guess, is about a species of alien, the Tzun, who arranges a deal with the Master. In DW continuity, we last saw him stuck on a planet, his DNA corrupted by cheetah people (don't ask, it's DW). The Tzun promise to a) repair the Master's DNA so he can regenerate and b) give him a method of escaping Earth. In return, the Master promises to help the Tzun... do something with nuclear bombs so the Tzun can look heroic and then envelope the Earth into their confederacy or what have you. It's not very clear and it's not helped by McIntee's insistence on introducing a plot element every other page.

The Doctor, Ace, and Benny arrive in this town and get mixed into things in the usual style. McIntee did manage to charm me with a bit of Bill and Ted style cleverness: the Doctor arrives at a house for rent and then announces that he'll pop into the past by a few days and rent it, so when they arrive, they can just let themselves in. He flips up the welcome mat and there's a key and a letter welcoming them to their new place. Definitely clever and charming, but where was this sense of fun throughout the rest of the book?

Every sequence is bogged down by this insistence on showing off McIntee's research. When Ace and Benny commandeer a plane, McIntee explains in minute detail where the door is:
They raced across the baking tarma and up the three-stepped door set into the lower port side just behind the cockpit. Throwing a quick glance through the aft bulkhead to check that there was no one in the cargo bay, Ace pulled herself up into the cockpit.
Ugh who cares where the door is set? Who cares how many stairs there are? Imagine this type of clunky writing but for 300 pages.

That bit is also a good example of McIntee's obsession with opening modifiers: "Throwing a quick glance through the aft bulkhead to check that there was no one in the cargo bay, Ace...." He starts so many sentences with this to the point of exhaustion. Let me give some examples from the first 30 pages:
"Fanning himself gently with his hat, he..."
"With the exception of the three equidistant hemisphere sited around the circular exhaust on the lowermost surface, the disc..."
"Taking a calm breath, Agar..."
"One of the minuscule vehicles crawling through the complex network of roads at the heart of the Proving Grounds was a jeep..."
"Caked in dust, [the jeep]..." (yes it was the next sentence)
"Gently twisting the question-mark-handled umbrella he was using as a a parasol, the Doctor strode..."
"Without lowering the binoculars he had trained on the launch pad, Colonel Finney..."

That is probably sufficient. Now, imagine the clunky insertion of historical details with awkward and monotonous phrasing, and you have a book that I found almost intolerable. I struggled with all of my might to make it through this one and I'm glad I did, because there was some positive things to mention. However, it took honestly 200 pages before the book livened up even in the slightest.

I did enjoy the Master's return, even if that twist was obvious and spoiled for me. I enjoyed McIntee's ability to describe human action clearly. He struggles with inanimate objects, fetishizing the details and lingering over them with a leering gaze, but with human motion, he appears uninterested, providing the descriptions with minimal fuss and therefore clarity. I did also enjoy the characterization of Ace; I thought McIntee's Ace was a solid mix of the classic television Ace and this new "hardcore" Ace of the New Adventures.

Finally, and this for me was the superior element of the novel, I thought McIntee's Tzun species was positively excellent, especially near the end. As the Tzun are evolved through the course of the novel, McIntee subtly (a word I don't often associated with his writing) develops the theme that the "aliens are actually us" and that the actual aliens are just misunderstood. Normally, this is a trite observation, but McIntee's subtle comparison between the Tzun, the Doctor, and the Master against the UFO/Commie hysteria is quite compelling. The leader of the Tzun speaks with that same Klingon honour nonsense formal speak, but McIntee gives the leader more motivation than simple honour; rather, the leader subscribes to ideas of utilitarianism, that he seeks the greatest benefit to the greatest number. In this way, he seeks to include Earth in his civilization both to benefit his own society and Earth's, by uplifting them. The nuance with which McIntee gives the Tzun is quite refreshing compared with the usual "aliens!" hysteria. Though, it should be noted, that this concept isn't new to Doctor Who; many stories from the classic era confuse the concept of aliens to make political points. McIntee just executed this idea competently.

On the whole, this was a slog. My tastes do not run towards DW's more historical adventures in the first place and when they're accomplished so clumsily, my patience quickly runs out. However, First Frontier wasn't a complete disaster. But it certainly wasn't any good.

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