At the time of writing, it’s been three weeks since the Eleventh Doctor – still reeling from the cataclysmic events that brought an end to Ten’s tenure – crash landed in the middle of Amelia Pond’s back garden and went skipping about the tot’s timeline only to pick her up, fourteen years later, for a trip in the TARDIS.
Three weeks, and the writing team are still getting to know the new Doctor, and still keeping their cards close to their collective chests when it comes to his new companion. An interesting position for the spin-off writers, then, effectively flying blind when it comes to characterisation in the first of the BBC Books range to tackle Matt Smith’s take on the Time Lord.
As Creative Director of the Doctor Who range and an experienced writer in his own right, Justin Richards is perhaps the best man for the job when tackling this tough challenge. And in Apollo 23, he certainly makes a valiant attempt at it.
After a particularly eerie opening , which throws the first body onto a rather large pile, the book begins properly with the TARDIS landing on Earth, and Amy sweeping the Doctor into a contemporary shopping centre for a spot of Italian. Incongruous enough, but it’s not long before an astronaut (an American astronaut) shows up, trailing footprints of moon dust behind him.
Following the mystery leads the Doctor to an American space base on the dark side of the moon, where, it turns out, some of the world’s most dangerous criminals are being held and experimented on. And, with the only route back to Earth sabotaged and an alien invasion underway, no one can be trusted…
Richards’ writing sings when it skips along, rapid fire, and, as gag-men go, he’s one of the best the Who range has ever had. Early scenes with the Doctor and Amy on Earth – the TARDIS being ticketed, for instance – are particularly good for a giggle. A later instance of an Earth-bound Doctor communicating with Amy, who’s stuck on the dark side of the moon, over a radio with a long delay is worthy of the show itself.
Action scenes don’t translate quite as well, and there are long passages of Amy being pursued by soldiers and the Doctor running up and down space base corridors, which might have been better served in a sentence or two.
Richards does equally as well in capturing the Doctor’s voice. There are instances of Tennant’s Ten bubbling under the surface. A panicked “Think, think, think!”, for instance, when things reach fever point, but otherwise Eleven is all there, on the page. Richards’ own characters are clearly marked, too, although they sometimes run the risk of being drowned out in such a large cast.
It’s a tricky plot, balancing a number of incongruous elements, handled with a deftness of touch which a younger, less experienced writer might not have managed. However, with a body-snatching alien invasion taking place on an embryonic space base, not to mention the revelation of just what the aliens are up to, the plot bears a striking resemblance to last year’s Waters Of Mars, even going so far as to recycle the Doctor taking a slow motion stroll across the moon’s surface in his red spacesuit.
And sometimes, it’s this similarity which shows up the flaws in the narrative, flaws which might have been easier to hide under a few well-acted, well-directed scenes in a television show.
Doctor Who: Apollo 23 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.