After the cute content of his previous Doctor Who novel, Wetworld, Michalowski creates more winsome characters and situations for Shining Darkness, an adventure featuring the Doctor and his caustic companion Donna Noble. This time the twee action is provided not by oddball otters but by sentient machines – in particular a squeaky Tweekie with an animated cartoon face.
Fortunately, a solid plot and a perilous scavenger hunt help us to care about the Doctor and his friends. So too does narrator Debbie Chazen, an actress familiar to Who viewers as Foon Van Hoff in Voyage Of The Damned. Her regional accent resonates in human and robot characters alike, but she gets the inflections of David Tennant (the Doctor) and Catherine Tate (Donna) just right.
Chazen takes a down-to-earth approach to Michalowski’s romp, set in the far-off Andromeda galaxy. A small but determined cult seeks pieces of an artifact that will allow them to dominate robots. In a simple I-wish-I’d-thought-of-it conceit, Michalowski makes the cult anti-mechanical, raising all kinds of civil rights debates. The robots think, therefore they are, but the cult can’t bring itself to accept that machines are on the same wavelength as humans.
As the editor of gay magazine, Shout!, Mark Michalowski is no stranger to fighting for his rights. He uses the distinctly sci-fi slant of Shining Darkness to tackle xenophobia, with the Tenth Doctor as his mouthpiece. But it never feels like Michalowski is preaching, and the story bounds along until it reaches an explosive climax. Although none of the characters are particularly three-dimensional, they all have appealing, memorable quirks, from the three-legged lizardlike Mesanth to two squabbling junk droids called Chuck and Crusher.
Chazen gives them all distinct voices. Chuck and Crusher are given Yorkshire accents along with Boonie, a robot sympathizer who flies in the starship Sword of Justice. Chazen’s squeaky voices for the Jaftee, a primitive race, get old fast. Otherwise, her light style suits the author’s humorous tone. There are plenty of amusing Douglas Adamsesque concepts; for example, the Jaftee continually switch religions, in love with the sheer variety of beliefs in the universe. When Donna presents herself as The Ginger Goddess, they are ecstatic – until the next sacred idol comes along.
The ideas never get so silly that we lose interest in the plot, and the villains are dreadful enough to make us worry about the Doctor. It’s good to see Donna receive plenty of page time in ways that bring out her bossy character and her bourgeois upbringing. Despite its slimly developed characters and bog standard race-through-space structure, Shining Darkness is fun and touches on big issues too. As a result, the book translates well to the audio CD format.
Shining Darkness is out now.